Vietnam veterans discuss their service

Published 9:19 am Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Southampton Historical Society hosted a panel discussion featuring local Vietnam veterans to thank them for their service on Sunday at the administration building in Courtland.

Members of the historical society gathered to listen to the veterans recount their experiences of Vietnam. The six speakers were Dr. Doug Boyce, the Rev. John Watson, Charlie Williams, Holt Livesay, Rick Richards and Ash Cutchin.

Dr. Boyce gave a short summary of his activities as a member of the U.S. Army, stationed at a fire support base in Vietnam.

“We were in the middle of a free-fire zone,” he said. “Anybody we encountered, if we couldn’t establish radio contact, we were to assume were the enemy and fire upon them.”

Boyce said that he mostly completed search and destroy missions, in which he and his squad looked for signs of basecamps and infrastructure that the North Vietnamese had developed in their assigned region of the country and then destroyed whatever they found.

“I had some very significant exposure to Agent Orange while I was over there,” he said, referencing the pesticide used by the army to defoliate Vietnam’s jungles. “I don’t know that my Parkinson’s is from that, but it’s one of many diseases that the government has acknowledged results from exposure.”

The Rev. John Watson of South Quay Baptist Church spoke of his deployment briefly.

“My biggest issue when I got there was that the day I was supposed to be qualified for my rifle, the bridge washed out to the firing range, so I couldn’t go and shoot,” he said. “So when I got to Vietnam and was handed my rifle that I was going to live with for my deployment, I was told to go and clean it. I hadn’t seen a rifle since basic training, so I had no idea how to even break it down.”

“The thing that bothered me most,” Watson continued, “was that any time there was a skirmish within a few miles of the base, they would bring the bodies, not only of the enemy, but also American personnel, and they’d lay the bodies on pallets. You might see as many as 60 or 70 bodies lying there. That gives me nightmares just thinking about it.”

Charlie Williams, a florist in Courtland, also addressed the topic of nightmares.

“One time we were in downtown Saigon, and me and my buddies got chased around,” he said. “We heard one of the grenades hit the sidewalk and three of us kept running and the one who ducked for cover, it messed his leg all up. For years, I didn’t talk about it, but recently I’ve reached out to mental health professionals and it has helped a lot.”

Other members of the panel recalled stories of their most exciting missions.

Holt Livesay was a member of the Navy who flew off aircraft carriers.

“I was so much happier to be there than on the ground,” Livesay said. “When I got back to the carrier, I felt pretty secure until the next time we had to go out.”

Livesay did road reconnaissance, in which he flew around the roads of North Vietnam at night and dropped flares to see if any he could find and bomb any vehicles that might be on the road.

“One night we were flying at about 2 o’clock in the morning and everything was just as quiet and peaceful and blacked out,” Livesay said. “We dropped a flare over this pretty little bridge, and we circled back looking and did the dumb thing and got under the flare so that the enemy could see us and we took fire. I was so annoyed [with myself]. Those SOBs were waiting for someone to be dumb enough to fly by and be seen and here we were.”

Panelist Rick Richards, a search and rescue officer, reflected on both the negative and positive aspects of the war.

“While my wife was giving birth, I was out helping to kill people, other kids’ dads,” said Richards. “That hung with me for quite a while. But I shook it off because after a while I had friends and shipmates who were killed, and the more that happened, the more hardened I got.”

He described one incident in which he made contact with the daughter of one of the men he attempted to rescue.

Finally, Ash Cutchin spoke, giving detailed accounts of many of his missions in the Air Force and insight into the political climate of the 1960s and 70’s.

Cutchin also spoke a second time at the 15th annual Veterans Recognition Program on July 4, at 10 a.m. in Sedley Baptist Church.

There was patriotic music, light refreshments, and a group photo of all veterans and active-duty military present.