A Minnesota PBS Initiative

6 Vietnam Poems

Guard Duty

I was not a combat soldier,
So, I was relatively safe, unless
Our helicopter was shot at, unless
Our jeep hit a land mine, unless
Our base camp was rocketed, unless
The enemy breached the perimeter.
We were, after all, in a war zone.

I would sit out on guard duty,
M-60, which I had never fired, to my right,
30 Claymore detonators to my front,
Wondering what I would do,
If the enemy came at me.

I wouldn’t have believed 
They could penetrate the maze of wire and explosives
But in training we saw them do it.
Considering that, I didn’t seem like much of an obstacle.

In the distance Cobra gunships were attacking,
Far enough away that I couldn’t hear them.
Pink and white tracers danced in swirling arcs.

Rockets, like reverse roman candles,
Streaked from air to ground.
Below them the earth glowed red.
It had a silent beauty,
Unless you realized that ten miles away
A village was being shredded to bits
By the horrific force of 
Exploding metal and flaming heat.

I stared at the sky.
It was not a Minnesota sky.

A guard station on top of a hill, made from corrugated metal and sandbags.


Like a chaotic Paris with chipped paint.
The staccato chatter of motorbikes
And Tuk Tuks overflowing with riders.
Wide avenues and intersections
With no order,
Stoic drivers dodging one another. 

Street markets with fresh food
As far as the eye can see.
Feathery cages of ducks and chickens,
Heaps of melons
In a surprising variety of shapes and colors

Neighborhoods fashioned from 
Sheets of black market pop cans.
A Coca Cola house here.
A Dr. Pepper house there. 

Too much of everything.
People flooding the city from the north.
Apartments overflowing,
Streets overflowing,
Cars overflowing.
No one is smiling.
Everything is happening too fast,
As if time is running out.

A street marketplace.
A city street with lots of Vietnamese people on motorbikes.
A city street with a building, laundry hanging on a line outside.
A street marketplace.

Nui Ba Din

The Black Virgin mountain,
Just east of Tay Ninh.
U. S. communications station at its summit.
U. S. fire support camps surrounding its base.
Viet Cong controlling the middle of the mountain.
In the night, they came off the mountain to wreak havoc. 

The next day we would bomb Nui Ba Din
Into a cloud of smoke.
The Viet Cong used escape tunnels
Into the safety of the mountain;
That night they resurfaced to create chaos. 

Nui Ba Din mirrored the war.
We had better electronic communication.
We had more fire power.
They were on their home field.

They had more patience and resolve.
We had the top and bottom of the mountain,
But they had the middle,
And we were powerless to move them.

Landscape photo of fields and a mountain.

Home Far Away From Home

1) We lived in a corrugated metal hootch
Surrounded by sandbags. 
Once a month we sprayed the wooden floor
With diesel fuel to kill the cockroaches.
The only color in the place was Soon’s easy chair.
He’d ordered it from Sears.
Only the mail clerk could get away with that. 

2) There were nine of us.
Four on each side,
And Soon in the lean-to.
He slept in a hammock.
We all had our own taste in music.
We had all purchased stereo systems at the PX.
Balance was an issue. 

3) Our shower shack was out back.
It had six spigots.
Two of them worked.
One night the huge water tank collapsed,
Crushing the shower shack.
MacMurray had showered ten minutes before. 
Danger came from unexpected places.

4) We were all clerks of various sorts.
Howells was the Colonel’s aide.
The “b” on Howell’s typewriter didn’t work.
Howell’s vocabulary grew in Vietnam.
None of his words had “b” in them.
It don’t mean nothing.

5) It was our favorite phrase.
We used it for everything.
They ran out of beer at the EM club.
It don’t mean nothing.
Someone threw a grenade 
Under the Sergeant Major’s hootch.
It don’t mean nothing.

6) We were just on the edge of the war.
We daily viewed it in our hospital’s beds,
In the eyes of our men returned from the field.
A year earlier, Cu Chi had been under attack.
Four years later it was under Communist control.
After we left they discovered the Cu Chi tunnels.
Turns out the enemy was underneath us all along. 

7) I was the last to arrive;
So, over the next year,
They all left me.
Howells, Helmey, Olds, Soon.
It was hard.
We had become brothers.
I don’t know what has become of them.
I can see their faces.
We were very, very close;
And then they were very, very gone.
That was Vietnam.
It don’t mean nothing.

Three shirtless soldiers outside temporary living quarters.
An encampment with sandbags lines up along the exterior walls of the buildings.


A thumping helicopter blade,
The pulsing heart of Vietnam.
One flying over yet today,
Brings me to Southeast Asia’s realm 

A swirl of dust, then we arise
I shared the door gunner’s abode.
Snaking above the jungle’s hat,
First gazing straight into the sky,
Then quickly downward at the road
We avoid enemy attack.

Sometimes the choppers saving life.
Sometimes the choppers bringing death.
Some bearing cross of red and white.
Some baring hideous shark’s teeth.

For grunts out in the wild boonies,
Engaged in life or death assault,
The sound of choppers brought relief.
At times engaging enemies,
Or bringing medical support
A welcome boost, to ease their grief.

A helicopter close to the ground, taking off.
An arial view of a base of some sort.
A helicopter with a painted grimacing mouth on its nose.

November 3, 1970
The Day I Came Home From Vietnam

I turned back for one last look
As I boarded the plane.
It was a place I was sure 
I would never see again.
Thankfully, I was wrong;
But at the time
I was just so happy to be 
Leaving alive. 

I expected a rowdy flight home.
At liftoff a rousing cheer
Catapulted us upward.
G.I.s laughed and pinned
Their Purple Hearts to the
Uniforms of smiling flight attendants.
After a few moments of backslapping
The plane went silent.

I looked back at those behind me,
Quiet faces, some tearstained faces.
After a gasp of exuberance,
They had quickly drawn
Back into themselves.
I couldn’t tell if they were
Looking backward or forward,
But they had quietly drifted somewhere.

We re-crossed the International Date Line,
Regaining those hours we had lost.
For me, a bonus.
More life to spend with loved ones.
For others, those extra hours
Would extend the pain of remembrance
And the frustration of readjustment.

For some, this was indeed a freedom bird;
But many were being carried 
To a new kind of prison.

A Pan Am airplane on an air strip.

Biographical Details

Primary Location During Vietnam: Cu Chi, Vietnam Vietnam location marker

Story Subject: Military Service

Military Branch: U.S. Army

Dates of Service: 1969 - 1970

Unit: 588th Engineers, 65th Engineering Brigade, 25th Infantry Div.

Specialty: Chaplain's Assistant

This story is part of the Spotlight on Poetry collection.

Story Themes: 1969, 1970, 25th Infantry Division, 588th Engineers, 65th Engineering Brigade, Army, Art, Brotherhood, Chopper, Coming Home, Cu Chi, Eden Prairie, Helicopter, Homesickness, James Olson, Jim Olson, Poetry, Read, Relationships, Terrain

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