Former Sgt. Michael Hirsh of the Seminole Lakes subdivision, south of Punta Gorda, Fla. was in the first public information detachment of Army reporters since World War II who went to Vietnam.
“I was a Jewish kid from the north side of Chicago who chose not to get a college deferment. I felt my country was at war and I had an obligation to serve,” the 64-year-old local writer said. “Unlike (Vice President) Dick Cheney, who had other priorities, or (President) George W. Bush, who deliberately served in the National Guard that kept him out of combat, I went to war.”
After basic training, Hirsh climbed aboard the troop transport USS Nelson N. Walker and 28 days later, the ship dropped anchor in Vung Cau, on the south end of Vietnam. It was 1966.
“We were issued our M-14 rifles and ammunition as we went over the side of the ship,” he said. “We climbed down rope boarding ladders wearing our fatigues and our steel pots into waiting landing crafts below.
“They didn’t tell us anything about where we were going. We thought it was the D-Day Invasion of Normandy. We were scared as hell because everyone could remember the pictures of D-Day.
“Our landing craft ran up on the beach and the front flopped down. There were women on the beach in their bikinis and water skiers riding the waves. Nobody told us this was the in-country R and R facility,” Hirsh said 40 years later, with a chuckle.
Several days later Hirsh and his five-man public information team were sent to the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi, about 25 miles west of Saigon, along the main road to the Cambodian border.
“I was assigned to cover two infantry battalions: The 1st Battalion and the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Division known as the ‘Wolfhounds,'” he said. “I had my Leica, my 15-pound reel-to-reel tape recorder, my M-14 rife, my .38-caliber pistol and my steel pot.”
He was at the front only a day or two when he convinced the brigade PIO officer to allow him to cover a resupply mission by a flight of Huey helicopters to a base about three miles away from base camp. They were bringing C-rations and water to the troops in the field when he climbed aboard the chopper.
“We were above the base we were to resupply about 1,500 to 2,000 feet when I turned on the tape recorder. In my best Edward R. Murrow impersonation, I started to explain what we were doing:
“‘We’re dropping down into the landing zone. We can see the purple smoke on the ground. You can hear incoming shooting from the VC (Viet Cong) in the trees shooting at us,” Hirsh reported. “‘We just touched the ground and our guys are running out to get the food and water out of the ship. They’re putting bloody packs and rifles aboard our Huey and the copter begins to lift off once more.'”
His first radio broadcast was ultimately picked up and used by CBS Radio. It was broadcast around the world. It was his first big success.
Shortly after Hirsh’s initial combat mission he began going on ground operations with the men of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 25th Division. Things could get dicey in a hurry out in the bushes if his unit got in a firefight with the enemy at close quarters.
“Ultimately, I always felt guilty going out in the field with a unit because if it got really crappy and dangerous out there I could get on an empty helicopter and get out of there because I was an Army reporter,” he explained. “What always shocked me is, the guys I was out there to cover and the medics I stayed with always made a point of telling me to, ‘Get the hell out of here if things get too bad.’ They never felt angry at me for going.”
When Hirsh wasn’t out in the jungle with the men of the 25th Division, he was doing a radio show on Armed Forces Radio about the men of the 1st and 2nd Battalions. He also became the editor of “Ambush,” the division magazine.
“I was in Vietnam for about six weeks before I realized we didn’t belong there. We didn’t understand the people and we weren’t going to win the war,” he said. “From that point on I realized my mission was to stay alive and keep my buddies alive. You’re not fighting for a cause.
“I guarantee you, if you talk to the guys in Iraq and Afghanistan right now, there’s no ‘brass’ around and they’re honest, they’ll probably tell you: ‘We’re just fighting to stay alive and keep our buddies alive. We don’t want to screw up so we can get out of here in one piece.'”
When Hirsh was in Vietnam four decades ago, he said everyone over there knew their “Rotation Date.” They knew exactly when it was time to go home.
“We had ‘short-timer calendars’ and ‘short-timer sticks” we used for the countdown. With four months left on our deployment, we’d start counting. We’d say, ‘I’ve got 120 days and a wakeup!'”
When Hirsh was six weeks away from completing his year-long tour in Vietnam, he started freaking out.
“I went from doing crazy stuff because I felt an obligation to the guys in the field, to almost never leaving the information office at division headquarters because I was sure I was going to die,” he said. “The mess hall was about two blocks away, but I wouldn’t walk over there to get chow because there wasn’t a bunker to climb into every 20 feet.
“As far as I was concerned it was too much of a risk to try and make it to chow. I would only eat when someone would bring me some food back to the information office or I got a care package,” Hirsh said.
In mid-December, Hirsh’s Vietnam tour was over. He took a Huey out of the 25th Division headquarters at Cu Chi and flew down to Saigon where he climbed aboard a World Airways 707 jet for the ride back to the U.S.
“Shortly after we took off, the stewardesses announced: ‘If there is anything we can do to make your flight more comfortable don’t hesitate to ask.’ All 250 guys in that plane were all thinking the same thing, but we were nice and said nothing.
“Then the pilot came on the intercom and said, ‘We’re over the South China Sea and no longer over Vietnam.’ Everyone on board applauded,” he said.
So what was Sgt. Michael Hirsh’s assessment of Vietnam? What did it mean to him and other young men in his generation who served over there?
“There are nearly 59,000 names on the wall (in Washington, D.C.) that don’t need to be there. I know there are people who will disagree with me. They will say, ‘We kept the rest of Southeast Asia from going Communist.’
“I don’t believe that for a second,” he said.
The former Army scribe contends, “We don’t learn nothing from nobody. We’re in Iraq and Afghanistan and we’re doing it all over again just like Vietnam. We haven’t learned anything and the families of the American fighting men and women are going to pay the price.”
How to get help for PTSD
Mike Hirsh says the military and the Veteran’s Administration learned about post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam. He says thousands of servicemen returned from that war 40 years ago, but they didn’t realize they were suffering from PTSD.
“Today the VA knows what PTSD is and it knows how to deal with it if it has the money and the facilities,” Hirsh said. “The trouble is that the VA lacks the health support it needs to take proper care of veterans when they get home, in many cases.
“Let’s jump forward to 2007. The soldiers coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan are most likely to deny they need help for PTSD. They’re going to say everything is all right,” he explained.
“The soldier, marine, sailor, airman or coast guardsman coming back from the Middle East war may need more help than a couple of visits to a VA shrink. Go to the VA Web site and look up post-traumatic stress disorder. There is information there for wives, parents, kids or (other) family members to get help for their loved one. It’s important.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on July 1, 2007 and is republished with permission.
Click here to view the War Tales fan page on FaceBook.
Click here to search Veterans Records and to obtain information on retrieving lost commendations.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.