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November/December 2017

Fortunate Sons: American Indian Troops in Vietnam

“Every Native American tribe has different values
they hold above all others. Things like courage, honor, pride, and devotion to duty were common ones.
I believe these traits were reinforced by the military training I received. No matter how my life would have been if I had made other decisions, the path I was
on was a good and honorable one. I couldn’t have been more proud.”

—Gene Cully

Did traditional beliefs, tribal medicine, and rituals related to warfare help the approximately 82,000 Native American troops readjust after serving in Vietnam? Memoirs from a Native American perspective allow for a closer look at what life was like for three men who served in Vietnam in 1966-68:

Gene Cully, author of Warrior Forgotten: A Native American’s Perspective of Vietnam (2016), is from Oklahoma, his father a Seminole and his mother a Creek tribal member. In 1967 he served in Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment as an infantryman.

LeRoy TeCube, author of Year in Nam: A Native American Soldier’s Story (1999), is a Jicarilla Apache who served as an Army infantryman in 1968, assigned to the 11th Brigade of the Americal Division. He was stationed at Chu Lai.

Ron C. Wood, author of Vietnam: Remembrances of a Native American Soldier (2011), served eighteen months in Vietnam in the Army as a MACV advisory team radio operator from 1966-68 at Camp An Phu near the Cambodian border.

Their times in Vietnam coincided, though they never met.

Welcome To Vietnam

Cully’s story began in April 1967 when the pilot on his inbound charter flight announced that they were ninety miles from Vietnam and would be arriving at the Da Nang Airport. He described the flight as very quiet. “Everyone stayed to themselves and didn’t want to talk,” he wrote. “Many men had this peaceful look about them. Some, like the Marine next to me, were saying prayers.”

Although the average age of a Marine in Vietnam was nineteen, they were trained well and felt that they were ready to serve. “The more you sweat, the less you bleed” was an often-repeated motto. “We all worked hard to earn the right to be part of the military and to serve our country,” Cully wrote. “Even those guys who’d cried the first night in boot camp had become tough, proud Marines.”

Training continued in Vietnam. “All of our time wasn’t spent sitting around or sleeping or cleaning our rifles,” he wrote. “We received Marine Corps training on topics such as maps, compasses, calling for close air support, calling for artillery fire support, and, of course, sanitation and hygiene. We attended classes on map reading, medevac procedures, and the like. Reviewing all those lessons and thinking back on experiences in the bush, it was amazing to realize how far we’d come since our raw recruit days.”

Throughout, Cully questioned what it may have been like if he had not enlisted. “I wondered what I would’ve been doing if I’d stayed home,” he wrote. “Would I have been out of a job and looking for a new one without any money in my pocket? Could I have survived on minimum wages and continued to do the same old thing over and over? Just how far would I have been able to go in life if I hadn’t joined the Corps?”

As a young twenty-one-year-old, he had doubts: “I also wondered if I’d made the right decision. I guess I’d been searching for something but I didn’t know what. When I thought about it, I felt I made the right choice. Training was long and hard, but I learned a lot that would allow me to survive in combat. After that was done, I received a certificate to prove I was a full-fledged Marine Corps infantryman.”

Prior to arriving in Vietnam, Cully tried to prepare himself mentally for the year ahead. He came through the Da Nang Airbase, an area that was often targeted by the enemy. The windows of his transport bus were covered with metal screens to repel hand grenades.

TeCube, an Army infantryman in Vietnam, left from Travis Air ForceBase. “When the plane lifted off there was a heavy atmosphere of uncertainty and fear of the unknown,” he wrote. “Young soldiers on the plane were silent. Some tried to take a last look at the mainland.” He arrived via Honolulu and Clark Air Base in the Philippines, landing in Bien Hoa on January 17, 1968.

Wood, who spent eighteen months in Vietnam from 1966-68, arrived in Vietnam via Travis Air Force Base, refueling in Anchorage and Tokyo. Wood had grown up on two Indian reservations in Arizona: the Colorado River Indian Reservation in southwest Arizona and the Navajo Reservation, near Tuba City and Fort Defiance in northeast Arizona. He arrived in Vietnam on November 2, 1966.

Cully described Da Nang Airbase, where approximately 150,000 Vietnamese lived within mortar range of the airfield: “There was a smell of the city that was hard to describe, but once you smelled it, the scent stayed with you.” TeCube was stationed at Chu Lai, one of the larger bases in South Vietnam. Wood’s orders placed him at An Phu in Chau Doc Province, approximately 110 miles west of Saigon along the Cambodian border.

“Same Same”

Once they arrived in Vietnam, all three soldiers identified with the Vietnamese people in various ways. Cully described watching villagers while guarding trucks near a river where the Marines went to replenish their water supply: “I was curious about how they lived, their customs, and their culture,” he wrote. “The Vietnamese were interesting and reminded me of my own culture. Their ceremonies and services were similar; they lived off of the land; and even their facial features, especially the ones with high cheekbones, seemed familiar. Halfway around the world, watching the rice paddies being plowed and planted, I found that things are very different and also somehow familiar.”

Cully over time kept hearing what he called a “ghost rooster.” The Vietnamese who lived in the mountains believed that everything—the forest, clouds, and animals in the rivers—had its own spirit, and he felt that the rooster was one of those spirits. Often the Vietnamese would wonder if the Native American soldiers were actually Vietnamese hired by the U.S. military. Civilians, especially the children, would point to their own skin, then his, and say: “You number one, same same.”

“I told them I was Indian but they didn’t know what the word meant,” Cully said.

Facing Combat

While on leave in Oklahoma City before shipping out, Cully’s dad gave him a pipe and a medicine man gave him a gift of a tobacco mixture to use in Vietnam. After a major battle, he attributed his survival as follows: “It was a miracle I wasn’t seriously wounded. It certainly could have happened with me running all over the field, disregarding my own life for the safety of others. Instinct and prayer got me through.”

He questioned his survival. “Why haven’t I been hit? I kept thinking that maybe the packet the medicine man had given me before going to Vietnam had actually worked. I used the tobacco the medicine man mixed for me as often as I could. I’d always been able to use it away from other Marines just like I’d been instructed. I never thought about it much; sometimes I smoked it, sometimes I didn’t. Could it be that the medicine kept me alive, or was the higher power of God watching over me? The belief I had in my training, my medicine, and my faith in God made me feel safe.”

TeCube, in January of 1968 while on leave in Dulce, New Mexico, prior to shipping out, had vivid nightmares about combat. He had been living with his aunt and uncle since his own mother died when he was a year old.

His surrogate parents brought a medicine man who instructed him: “You think you know in your mind what happened here tonight. Not totally. You’ll know when the time comes. It’ll happen when you are across the big water. When the time comes, don’t be afraid to admit that you are scared. Everyone is afraid of the unknown. Just don’t let your fears control you in a bad way. Be brave. Above all, believe in the power of prayer.”

Wood left for Vietnam on October 31, 1966, as an Army radio operator and served at a remote advisory team camp near the Cambodian border where he was never as strongly tested as Cully and TeCube were. “A valuable lesson I learned,” he wrote, “is my belief that life can offer us many challenges and many of these are beyond our control. The important thing that we can control is our attitude and this determines how we react to life’s challenges.”

Troops like Cully relied on cultural teachings to learn from more experienced Marines while in Vietnam. He compared this to listening to his Seminole-Creek family talk at supper in Oklahoma. “I totally focused on learning everything I could as fast as I could since my very survival was at stake,” he wrote. Listening and learning were as much a part of military training as the physical training.

Back in the World

Cully said he’s “gotten what I’d wanted: job skills, adventure, and a whole lot of new experiences. I was already doing a lot for someone my age, for any of the men in Vietnam. But we were Marines. We have been trained well and we knew our duty.”

TeCube attributes his unscathed return to his “Creator for being with [him] every step of the way.”

Wood looks at his two-year Army experience positively and not as years lost to war. “In closing, my military experience made me more appreciate being born an American,” he wrote. “Compared to many parts of the world, we Native Americans here in America are fortunate.”

Delphine Red Shirt, Ph.D., was the second woman to enter the U.S. Marine Corps with an MOS as Field Radio Operator, a combat position. Afterward, she pursued her education, received her doctorate from the University of Arizona at Tucson, and currently lectures on Native American Studies and Special Languages at Stanford University.





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