Vietnam oral history interview
Date: May 14, 2010
Veteran: Charles James Lonsdale
1st Lieutenant, United States Army, Platoon Leader “C” Company 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, Company Commander “E” Company 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizers: Francis Parisi, Alex Frey
Charles J. Lonsdale was born in Spring Lake, New Jersey, in March, 1943. He was raised in Spring Lake by his parents, whom he considered wealthy for the time. Lonsdale lived at home until he attended a small college located in the heart of Arkansas, where he received a degree in business and economics. He told the interviewer that after graduation he had an ambition to be a United States Navy pilot and entered a program to achieve this goal, but that his dreams of flying came up short when the United States Army drafted him, an act that took precedence over his inactive Navy status. Lonsdale had passed a test for Navy flight school, but was honorably discharged so he could report for duty to the US Army after being drafted. He told the interviewer that he was disappointed at being drafted because he was passionate about becoming a Navy pilot and seeing the world, and he felt a sense of security in the type of Navy flight school he was entering, and he knew that in the Army he was likely to see fierce combat and endure harsh living conditions.
Lonsdale remembered that he had an epiphany shortly after being drafted, causing him to change the trajectory of his life. On arrival at Fort Dix, New Jersey in June, 1967 for basic training, he considered himself an “average guy” but changed that opinion shortly after arrival, when he heard the Sergeant E-7 in charge of his platoon mispronouncing words and began to worry that the sergeant was illiterate. This incident motivated him to apply to Officer Candidate School (OCS), because he wanted more control over his own military destiny and did not want to serve as an enlisted man and be led into battle by an uneducated commander.
Following his decision to pursue an officer’s commission, Lonsdale was accepted by and attended the infantry officer candidate school (OCS) at Fort Benning, Georgia. He recalled OCS as an intense and difficult period of training, after which he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and qualified to lead small infantry units. OCS training was designed to place the candidates under extreme mental stress, in order to produce officers who were quick thinking and decisive battlefield leaders. Lonsdale remembered OCS as “tougher than Vietnam because during the war, there were no mental games.”
Following OCS, Lieutenant Lonsdale reported to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he received advanced training in military organizational skills, weapons use, and intensive small unit tactical training. While at Fort Sill, Lonsdale received orders for Vietnam, but he was first assigned to Panama for a jungle warfare course. In Panama, he was trained in escape and evasion skills. He recalled that he was in very good health at the time and had never been ill prior to serving in Vietnam.
After Panama, Lonsdale returned home on leave for a few weeks and prepared to go to Vietnam, spending time with his family and purchasing gear in an Army/Navy store. In May, 1968, he took a commercial flight to California, where he awaited a charter 707 jet plane to fly him to Saigon, the then capital of South Vietnam. Lonsdale recalls that the flight was extremely stressful. Once the pilot announced that the plane was flying over Vietnamese airspace, silence descended over the several hundred soldiers on the plane. He remembers the landing as the worst he had ever experienced, since the plane had to dive down towards a runway that was clearly too short to accommodate for the 707. On landing, the passengers were told to vacate the plane as fast as possible, so that soldiers returning home could board and it could take off again.
After Lonsdale disembarked from the plane, he boarded a bus to take him to the 90th Replacement Company headquarters. While riding the bus, Lonsdale observed visible scars of a battle that had been fought along the route, in the form of bullet holes from .50 caliber rounds in the concrete walls along the side of the road. He felt vulnerable, since he and all the other soldiers on the bus were unarmed, with no way of defending themselves. Shortly after arriving at the 90th’s camp outside Saigon, he received his assignment for duty with the 1st Infantry Division, which was deployed in the area west of Saigon. His specific assignment was as a platoon leader in the 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment’s “C” Company.
As a platoon leader, Lonsdale spent most of his time leading his platoon, usually around 25 men strong, on night ambush raids. The platoon would leave a base camp or fire base by helicopter, land at a predetermined spot and then deploy along the side of a road or path and wait for enemy troops to walk by, at which time they would open fire in hopes of killing, wounding or capturing them. Lonsdale recalled that he gained the ability to smell the enemy coming, most likely as a result of their diet of rice and nuoc mam -- fermented fish sauce.
Lonsdale noted that the helicopter was a key element in the counterinsurgency war in Vietnam. Helicopters dropped Lonsdale and his men off at specific points and then, when their mission was over, picked them up to return to base. He also recalled incidents when a helicopter was used as “bait,” hovering over the jungle waiting for the Vietcong to open fire, after which Lonsdale’s platoon was dropped into the area to attack them. Unfortunately, the Americans usually had no idea as to the number of enemy soldiers awaiting them on the ground, a source of extreme anxiety for Lonsdale and his men. Another downside of helicopter operations in Vietnam, according to Lonsdale, was that they contributed to the inflated “body count” reports recorded throughout the conflict. After his platoon killed enemy soldiers, Lonsdale recalled, he would hear a helicopter come by and shoot the corpses yet again. Both parties would then report killing the same people, doubling the day’s “body count.”
Although Lonsdale served in Vietnam honorably and was awarded medals and decorations for his service, including a Bronze Star with “V” device for valor for an action near Thu Duc, he remembers the time he spent in Vietnam as very “troublesome” and recalls that it was, overall, a depressing experience for him. He strongly believes that the combat pay American soldiers received was, in retrospect, disgraceful. He computed it at fourteen cents per hour, or less than three dollars a day. Lonsdale analogizes himself and other soldiers who served in the war as “semi-slaves,” especially draftees, who were compelled to either serve or face jail sentences. At the time, Lonsdale’s main goal was surviving the war, but on reflection, he remains completely dissatisfied with the compensation offered by the military, then and now, for the obligatory service of the soldiers and veterans who fought in the conflict.
Though Lonsdale believes luck played a significant role in his surviving his tour of duty in Vietnam without being killed or injured, he also believes the fact that he never made any major mistakes in combat situations was a significant contributing factor. He told the interviewer: “If you never make any major mistakes, then you never get yourself or anyone you are responsible for hurt. As a platoon leader, if you make a mistake, it can result in one of your men getting injured or killed”. Getting men killed or injured through error caused the rest of the men to lose confidence in their commander’s ability, which, in turn, could prove disastrous to both him and them while under enemy fire.
By the time Lieutenant Lonsdale left Vietnam in May, 1969, the war was beginning to wind down. Although glad to go, he felt somewhat guilty for leaving, because he had acquired a year of experience and felt responsible for assisting men with less experience. He attributes eventual US failure in Vietnam to the fact that the Americans were “not mean enough, bad enough, and tough enough for a successful military operation in Vietnam”. Once back on American soil, he was annoyed with the growing public disapproval of a war in which he had risked his life, and he was hurt by the lack of support extended by civilians to soldiers who had fought in their name. In summation, he declared: “Once I left Vietnam, I never looked back”.
Charles J. Lonsdale was awarded with the Bronze Star for Valor, a Bronze Star for Meritorious Service, an Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters, an Army Commendation Medal, and the New Jersey Distinguished Service Medal.