Derek Nelson of North Port, Fla. served 3 1/2 years in Vietnam. He first went there in 1967 as an 18-year-old member of the 9th Infantry Division located in the Macon Delta. During his second tour in 1969 he served with the 1st Logistics Command in Saigon. His last 18 months over there he was with the 1st Air Cavalry Division fighting “Charley” wherever they could find him in 14 different engagements.
Why would anyone agree to serve more than a single, one-year tour of duty in country during the Vietnam War?
“I had a full bird colonel ask me that the day I got my orders to leave Vietnam on June 26, 1971. I told him, ‘If I leave somebody else’s son is going to have to come over here and take my place. I figured I could keep them from getting shot.’
“Furthermore, I was familiar with the country. I could speak the language and I understood what was going on in the country,” the 64-year-old local resident explained almost 45 years later. “If I had, had my druthers I would have extended my last tour another six months and made it a full four years in country.
“I went in the Army in 1966 at 17 because my dad got tired of me racing stock cars. I started driving stock cars when I was 15,” he said. “After basic at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. I flew to Vietnam on my 18th birthday. I arrived in Saigon at the 90th Replacement Depot and ended up being sent to ‘Bear Cat’ in the Delta, the home of the 9th Infantry Division.
“When I arrived I helped put an NCR-500 Computer together. It was as big as two trailer trucks and took six people to operate. It would do about the same thing as anyone’s average computer today,” Nelson said. “The lieutenant in charge of the computer handed me a 1 1/2-inch-thick manual and told me to figure out how to run the system. ‘Once we get the computer up, I’m going to give you three individuals and you’re going to run it,’ the lieutenant told me.”
He and his associates worked on the computer about a month. They programmed in troop records, supply records and anything else that was needed. After that other people were assigned to take their place running the NCR-500.
Nelson became a gun-toter in the 9th Infantry Division’s front lines in the Delta.
“We’d go out and looked for ‘Charley.’ We got in some firefights with the enemy. We did whatever they told us to do,” he said.
“I remember I had some time off and I decided to go down and check out a petroleum tank farm south of us in the Delta. I decided one day to catch a ride down there. I took my M-14 (rifle) with me and checked it out. Then I decided to hike back to my base at ‘Bear Cat’ by myself.
“On the way back I heard this jet come in. Someone had called in an air strike on ‘Charley.’ I looked to my left and a half-mile away I watched the napalm drop on an enemy position,” he recalled.
“It was a 10 mile hike back to my base. When I got back I caught hell for being out there by myself. I was young and stupid. My company commander was about ready to take my stripe, but he let it slide.”
The most exciting thing that happened to Nelson during his first tour, Bob Hope’s Christmas Show came to “Bear Cat” in ’68. Raquel Welch was the main attraction for Nelson and his 9th Division buddies.
“We sat up front right by the stage and watched her do her thing. She was hot,” he said with a grin half a lifetime later. “Bob did his comic routine wearing a golfing shirt and swinging a golf club with the help of his sidekick Jerry Colonna.
“After the show a couple of us guys sitting up front were picked by an officer to be their escort back to their helicopter. It wasn’t much fun because I didn’t get to be in the Jeep with Raquel on the way back to the chopper. We watched her wave as they flew off.”
Tired of being out in the bushes, Nelson put in for a reassignment. He was sent to the 1st Logistics Command in Saigon.
“We took care of all the Army’s supplies. I became a security guard protecting the goods from being stolen and resold on the black market. Initially we patrolled security on the Saigon docks.”
He was reassigned to the Long Binh Army Depot, east of Saigon just in time for the Tet Offensive. It was during the countrywide enemy offensive during Tet Nelson and his fellow guards help protect the depot from the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army troops.
One of his jobs at Long Binh was spraying Agent Orange on the weeds around the parameter of the Army Depot. They’d mix up batches of Agent Orange, put the defoliant in a tank truck and spray it on the weeds.
“We were in our fatigue uniforms when we were spraying the stuff on the bushes. They told us not to get any of the Agent Orange on our clothes or our skin. But they also told us the stuff was safe to be around.”
Nelson is lucky. He apparently has had no adverse affects from working with Agent Orange during the war.
“I remember one morning I got up early to go over to the mess hall. I had my breakfast and sat there for a while with coffee and a smoke,” he said. “I left and half way back to my hooch I heard this incoming 122 mm enemy rocket. I yelled, ‘INCOMING!’ and jumped in a ditch.
“The rocket hit the mess hall where I just was an killed five people and injured 15 or 20 more. It would have gotten me if I would have stayed for another cup of coffee. God was on my side that day.”
At the end of his second tour in Vietnam, Nelson could have rotated out of the country and headed home, but he didn’t. Why?
“We heard about all this stuff with the Vietnam Protesters back in the States. They were spitting on people and all that stuff. I had no desire to return home. I might have killed someone if they had spit on me.”
In 1970 he requested another transfer and ended up with the 1st Air Cavalry.
“We’d fly into an area where the VC or NVA were active and try and take them out. Although we’d try and keep them from coming back into a certain area they always did,” he said.
“I spent a lot of time flying with a major in a little four-place observation helicopter. Any time he went up I’d try and fly with him.
“At the end of my three years in Vietnam I extended for another six months. I wanted to stay right where I was because I was having such a good time. The day I was about to go home someone asked all of us who were leaving the country, ‘Does anyone want to extend for six more months?’ I raised my hand.
“I was taken to see a colonel who reviewed all my papers then inquired: ‘Why do you want to extend another six months? You been here 3 1/2 years. What are you trying to prove?”
Nelson explained he could speak the language, he liked Vietnam and he was having a good time.
“‘Son, you’re out of here,’ the colonel said. He drove me to the waiting commercial airline and walked me up the steps. ‘You go ahead and have a seat up front in first class,’ he told me as he left.”
Nelson flew home by way of Japan, Alaska and New Jersey. He was bussed to Fort Dix, N.J. and took a final flight to the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport a few miles from where his parents were living in Englewood.
Ironically he never ran the gauntlet of Vietnam protesters waiting for new military arrivals flying in from ‘Nam at the San Francisco Airport. He missed all of that.
He was hardly home a month when he re-upped in the Army and was sent to Germany for three years. When he finally got out of the regular Army a second time he eventually owned his own roofing business in the Sarasota area.
Nelson got in the Army Reserve for the next 13 years as a member of Battery-D an artillery unit that met in Port Charlotte. His last hitch in the military was with a Tampa unit, the 317th MP Battalion.
He served a total of 31 years as a member of the Regular Army and Reserves. Nelson and his wife, Cheryl, live in North Port. They have one daughter, Amanda.
Name: Derek John Nelson
D.O.B: 13 Dec. 1949
Hometown: Milwaukee, Wis.
Currently: North Port, Fla.
Entered Service: 1966
Unit: 1st Air Cavalry Division
Commendations: Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal (2 Awards), Army Reserve Components Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Veterans Service Medal, Humanitarian Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Drivber and Mechani Bades with Driver-W Bar.
Battles/Campaigns: Vietnam War “Tet Offensive.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2014 and is republished with permission.
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