It may not seem like a long haul to drive the relatively short distance from the American Army base in Fubai to outlying fire bases, but when roads are muddy and the enemy is everywhere, even a short drive can take all day.
Such was the case for Haywood County native Terry Browning, whose service during the American conflict in Vietnam sent him out on those roads day in and day out, delivering crucial ammunition to the artillerymen occupying those remote fire bases.
Before he even knew he would be destined to serve in Vietnam, Browning, now 71, was a member of Waynesville Township High School’s last class.
“I was here in Haywood all my life except the two years Uncle Sam took away,” he said.
In the Army Now
Although Browning was drafted, his employer, Wellco, managed to get him a brief deferral.
“When I got my draft notice, I was the only person in that plant trained on this one machine,” he said. “So I gave it to my supervisor and she took it to the plant manager. She got it to the board and got me deferred for 90 days so they could train someone else.”
“I thought, well they might just forget about me, but no,” he joked.
Browning went to basic training at Fort Bragg on March 13, 1968. Once finished, he went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for artillery school before being shipped out to Fort Carson, Colorado. Upon arrival, other soldiers gave Browning hope that he might not be sent into the war zone.
“They said, ‘you found a home. Nobody has ever left here going to Vietnam,’” Browning said. “So I came home and got married and took my wife back out there. This was in November, then January the first I got orders to Vietnam.”
Browning wasn’t thrilled to leave Colorado.
“I loved it,” he said. “It’s the closest to being around here I’ve ever been. If I had come back and not gotten out right away, and I ended up back at Ft. Carson, I probably would have stayed there.”
Browning and his wife drove back to North Carolina for 30 days of leave, then he boarded a flight to Oakland, where he reported for duty and was promptly shipped off to Vietnam.
“That’s when everything was fired up pretty good over there, so everybody was nervous about it,” he said.
Browning landed at Cam Ranh Bay, where he was immediately introduced to incoming fire.
“We was at a reception center type thing, and there was mortars and rockets coming in,” he said. “We didn’t have a weapon or anything right then, and we ended up spending four hours in a bunker that night with the mortars and rockets coming in.”
Browning immediately knew he had been thrust into something wholly unfamiliar.
“If you ran up on another soldier there you didn’t know, the first thing you ask is, ‘where are you from back in the world?’” he said. “Because everybody felt like it was another world.”
A long hauler
While many soldiers spent up to a couple weeks in Saigon or Cam Ranh Bay before shipping out to their duty station, Browning was out of there the next day. Although he was supposed to be a gunner, he ended up going in another direction when a Captain asked if anyone had experience driving a truck.
“I volunteered, and they sent me to First 83rd Artillery in Fubai,” he said.
Having grown up on a farm where he drove big trucks regularly, Browning was the perfect fit to drive the 5-ton trucks used to haul ammunition to fire bases in the field. But the job was tougher than it may sound. Roads were muddy and unkempt, and the slow pace and nature of his cargo made him a large, slow-moving target.
And the trucks weren’t exactly comfortable to drive. With no air conditioning and no radio, the only thing to keep Browning busy was conversation with whomever was riding shotgun and the constant threat of attack.
The days were made even tougher by the fact that Browning would aid in the loading and unloading of the ammunition. One round for the 8-inch gun weighed 206 pounds, while the 175 wasn’t much lighter. And Browning would generally work every day running loads of ammunition.
The trip out to the fire bases would take so long that he’d have to stay the night wherever he delivered ammo. While he slept on the ground beneath his truck for a while, he said he eventually found a better solution after a brief encounter with a python.
“I took two of the 5-ton trucks and backed them up just the right length, and I’d make me a hammock,” he said.
Despite making dangerous runs frequently, Browning said he only ever came under fire twice. The first time he said it was fairly brief because the Cobra helicopters provided quick air support and neutralized the enemy. However, the other time, things were a bit more dicey.
Browning was part of a large convoy going from Fubai to the A Shau Valley, which is perhaps best known as being the location of the Battle of Hamburger Hill. On one side of the valley were American artillery guns and, on the other side, the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
“We started in there with a whole convoy of trucks, and they hit the front truck with an RPG, and of course that stopped the convoy, and then everything else happened,” Browning said.
Browning recalled not long before that attack when a colonel was telling the men he drove with to never abandon their vehicles. But Browning said he got in trouble when he told his men to violate that order, a move that likely saved lives.
“I said, ‘boys, if you come under attack out there, you get the hell away from them trucks. Find you a low place or something and get down,’” he said. “Sure enough, it happened, but we never lost a man.”
But that doesn’t mean that other American soldiers from different units didn’t perish in the attack. Browning said the whole thing was hectic and scary, with bullets and shrapnel flying in every direction.
“All that was going on, and this guy stood up and grabbed his neck and hollered,” Browning said. “I tackled him from one side, and the medic tackled him from the other. We got him down on the ground, and it took both of us to pull his hand away from his neck, and it was a little piece of shrapnel.”
For his actions that day, among other things, Browning was awarded the Bronze Star.
It’s surprising how sometimes, even halfway around the world, a soldier could see a familiar face. That happened twice to Browning. First, he found out that another local boy, Salem Wyatt, was stationed right near him.
“My mother was sending me The Mountaineer, and I looked one day, and there was Salem’s picture. Captain Salem Wyatt, Car Company,” Browning said. “And that was only four miles from where I was at.”
Browning jumped in a Jeep and made the short trip. He said they met and shook hands, and Wyatt was excited to see him. In fact, Wyatt offered him a chance to transfer and be a driver for the car company.
“I said, ‘Salem, look at me. Here I sit, no shirt, about two weeks growth of beard,’” Browning said, adding that he only wore a shirt in Vietnam when required by Navy chow halls. “My boots were brown, not black. I wouldn’t adjust. Not that quick.”
Every once in a while, when the supply truck was broke down or on another run, Browning would have to drive to Da Nang to pick up other goods. On one of those trips, Browning again ran into a Haywood County native, Tony Moore, with whom he’d graduated.
“When I went through the gate, I noticed these security guards, but I didn’t pay no attention to who it was,” Browning said. “I backed up to the dock and give them the paperwork, and they was loading the truck. Someone grabbed me by the arm and said, ‘you’re going to jail, boy. I turned around and it was him grinning at me.’”
The two spent a couple hours together catching up after they got the truck loaded, which Browning said was comforting in such a strange place.
Although not a person, Browning did encounter one more memory of home. As a side-lash machine operator, he worked on Wellco’s jungle boots, which were used by the Army in Vietnam.
“I picked up a pair over there one time and looked at them, and it had my stamp on it,” he said with a nostalgic laugh.
About halfway through his tour in Vietnam, on Aug. 3, 1969, Browning was met with news he’d been anxiously awaiting ever since finding out his wife was pregnant not long before he’d left the United States.
Browning was back in the A Shau Valley when a pilot he knew came up to him.
“He said, ‘you need to go back to basecamp. Your wife had a baby and you need to see if you can try and talk to her on the phone,’” Browning said.
Although he was happy to make it back and talk to his wife, he lamented the fact he missed the first six months of his daughters life.
“It was tough because you miss a lot when they’re six months old before you ever see them,” he said.
After a while, Browning made Sergeant, at which point he joined a team that included some other noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and a lieutenant. The group’s main mission was to handle logistics of the ammunition and supply loads.
“We handled where it’s going and how it gets there,” he said.
But the best job came when Browning only had about a month left in Vietnam.
“I volunteered to be the bartender for the NCO club,” he said. “I’d be off all day and I didn’t have to get out in that mess anymore.”
Mixing drinks for senior enlisted soldiers proved to be a pretty easy gig compared to traversing the rugged roads between Fubai and various fire bases, although he did have to deal with the occasional scrap.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of fights,” he said. “But every once in a while there was, especially if the Marines or Navy come in. You know how that is.”
But the job wasn’t without its own risk.
“We had two of the little Vietnamese girls in there as bar maids,” Browning said. “So when we closed up at night, we had to take them back down to the village, which is about a mile and a half away. Being there made me more nervous than anything else, driving down there after dark.”
Although Browning never encountered any tangible threats on those nighttime drives, he did recall one time that was particularly unnerving.
“One night that upset me more than anything else was when some daggone water buffalo walked out in the road and they wouldn’t get out of the way,” he said. “So here we are sitting and we’re a target.”
Back to the real world
In March of 1970, the time came for Browning to come home. He was sent to Fort Lewis, in Washington State, where he was processed out and discharged from the Army. When he came back, he again worked at Wellco for a year before taking a job at Dayco.
But before he could do anything, he had to get his teeth fixed.
“I done it myself,” he said. “We had to do our own maintenance on them trucks. I was trying to put the daggone universal joint in the truck on and we didn’t have many tools. Here you are with an 18-inch adjustable wrench trying to put those little 5/16 nuts on there, and that big wrench hit me right there in the mouth and knocked my two front teeth out.”
Like many others, Browning said it took some time to adjust once he returned to Haywood County as a veteran of one of America’s fiercest wars, and for a while he had trouble accepting that the everyday citizen would never understand his experiences.
“I had changed, and I realized it, and it seemed like people around me had changed,” he said.
Specifically, he talked about seeing how the Vietnamese lived during that time and how much it made him appreciate life in the United States.
“The people that’s never been to a foreign country like that don’t realize how them people live,” he said. “Their hooches, dirt floor, no running water. It’s like they’re 100 years behind us at least, and they live off of rice mostly, because that’s about all they can grow over there. If people could just see that, they would appreciate a whole lot more what they got here.”
“Some of the little kids, 5, 6 years old, and you’re going out through the boonies and there might be one or two little hooches out there,” he added. “Four or five kids along the road begging for something. We’d always try to throw something out to them, candy or whatever they could get ahold of.”
But Browning found his place among other veterans at the VFW, where he was recently made post commander. He recalled an altercation between a pair of veterans recently to highlight how he feels about those who served.
“I took one back and I said, ‘listen, this is a veteran that you’re talking to, and you’re cussin’ and cutting him down. He’s a veteran just like us. Do you realize these people walking up and down this road right here on Main Street, you can talk to them all day, and they still won’t understand what we’ve seen or done. You can’t make them see it. But that man does. He’s been there, so you need to respect that,’” Browning said.
The two men made amends.
While Browning said he wouldn’t be thrilled to relive his experiences in Vietnam, he does still sometimes reflect fondly upon certain moments.
“I liked to drive them trucks,” he said. “I really did … I saw a 5-ton somewhere over near Asheville not long ago, and I thought, man, I’d like to see if I could get up there and see if he’d let me drive it for a little bit.”