Now that my extra sources are coming in, I have begun reading about life as a sky pilot in Vietnam. So far, I have looked into Rev. James D. Johnson, author of “Combat Chaplain: A Thirty-Year Vietnam Battle.”
The “Thirty-Year Vietnam Battle” designation is Johnson’s way of expressing his life-long trauma, as any vet from Vietnam could pat him on the shoulder with that.
What a story so far.
Rev. Johnson was assigned a year-stay in either Korea or Vietnam, his choice. He chose Vietnam. He writes about writing to his wife and giving a call when he can, asking about his daughter and young son. Johnson’s year stay in Vietnam covers June 28, 1967-1968.
Johnson had various roles outside of being a chaplain. I have yet to see if he fired a weapon he carried off and on; he makes note of how carrying an M16 & Colt .45 went against Geneva rules, yet mostly ignored by many other chaplains and army sects. (Sheesh, did ANYONE follow the Geneva Accords???)
He had many regular duties as a chaplain, such as giving a sermon. One account, close to August ’67, he accidentally fell in some muddy water before a sermon. To play it off and give his soldiers some levity, he started the sermon saying he was baptized.
Johnson also had some comparatively darker roles as a chaplain, such as giving honorary burials (not burials, but salutes with a killed soldier’s helmet over his M16). The front cover to the book features a photo of 10 M16’s and helmets during a salutary service, Johnson in front of them and his lot of men standing somberly.
Now, for Johnson’s role in combat. I read ahead into his diary entries during January and February of 1968, when the Tet Offensive started to break out. Quite a bit happened in reading just a few pages, even before Tet breaks out on Jan. 31.
January 1 yielded quite a fire fight. Johnson’s lot (Charlie Company) were stationed in a particular vicinity, when the company’s commander, Joe Van Cycle, wanted Johnson to go with him and a handful of men. Johnson opted out, saying he needed to be with the bigger group of soldiers. So, Van Cycle and his lot move out only 200 meters and get stuck in enemy fire. Joe and his radio operator call in artillery, and with each shell (8-inch guns, the biggest in stock), the men shouted “Happy New Year, Charlie!!”
There was another subsequent firefight a kilometer away with Echo Company, where a soldier got hit. After calling in the big guns again, Johnson tells the soldier he is going to be alright. This man had quite a bit to say about what he would do with his wife on R&R in Hawaii (if you know what I mean) before this fight and injury; this made Johnson think of his own wife and kids, which he did often.
Later, January 30 (very close to the manifested Tet Offensive outbreak), a soldier accidentally discharged his M16 at 4:00 in the morning by dropping it. Johnson was called in to calm and ease the soldier who dropped it because, sadly, the discharged bullet went through another’s head. The soldier said they did not know at first. The group’s sergeant angrily cussed him out due to possibly giving their position away. The sergeant told everyone to quietly sound off, save for the KIA.
On February 1 (into the thick of it by now), Johnson was sent to MyTho, a regular village where he assisted and ministered to an orphanage with a religious Vietnamese family, the Ha’s. By the time he and the 261st & 514th battalions reached MyTho, it was a mess. VC were using various buildings as outposts; the orphanage, on the subject, was caved in (no apparent deaths of children). One soldier was shooting M79 rounds at a VC position, bullets flying around everyone. He would quickly turn, shoot, and turn back as fast as possible. However, a particular VC timed his maneuver correctly, shooting him in the chest. Johnson and a medic carefully (and barely) moved the soldier to a safe spot and ordered artillery. The round accidentally struck very close to their position, causing some injuries, including a soldier’s broken foot. The next attack was met with a 400-meter increase, and, due to hitting the target on the dot, barraged the positions until the fire dissipated.
This is only a little bit of what I have read about him seeing soldiers through action. Both the M79 soldier shot in the chest and the soldier with the broken foot received on-the-go counseling – “You’re gonna be okay, you’re gonna be just fine. Medivac will be here soon and you’re home free,” in essence, and quite often, Johnson was lying to them to pull their will to live out. In fact, the soldier with the broken foot lost it to amputation; though it was not severe, it is unfortunate.
Lastly, to wrap up a lengthy disproval of Sky Pilot’s supposed anti-chaplain message, not every chaplain stayed behind. But, as I mentioned, I have yet to find material saying how often chaplains stayed behind and for what reasons.
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