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Veteran Spotlight

Henry J. Pieper May 1, 1947 Vietnam Era U.S. Army - Combat Engineers, Spec/5

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In August 1966, HJ Pieper was told by the post mistress in Polson, who was on the draft board, that his name was on the draft list. Because it looked like he would be drafted into the infantry — and he didn’t want to be — instead he enlisted and let the Army make a mechanic out of him.

Pieper went to basic training in Fort Polk, Louisiana, in August and it was hot. He was there about eight weeks plus “zero week,” which was for getting shots, a haircut, uniforms, etc. At first he tried to be a real man/real soldier, then he learned to laugh about a lot of things. He had been working at Plum Creek and stacking hay bales, so he was already in good shape. In fact, he gained weight on the greasy food. A standing joke was, “What flavor of grease is there today?”

After basic, Pieper went to Advanced Individual Training at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, for engineer and machine maintenance training. Following that, he was grouped as an “extra” or “holdover” and ended up at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, where there were about 200 enlisted men stationed. Pieper says the rest were all officers attending “‘War College’ - teaching colonels to be generals.”

For Pieper’s first assignment, he flew into Pleiku, Vietnam, then to Cam Ranh Bay, and then choppered (helicoptered) to Route 19, between those two sites. 

“Charlie (a name for the North Vietnamese) blew up the bridges one day and we rebuilt them the next day," Pieper said.

 He worked mostly as a mechanic but also filled in as an operator; farm boys know how to run things. He was in Vietnam 11 months, 29 days, and 6 hours.

Pieper was with Black Hawk Fire Base artillery and was always in the field. This was a friendly Republic of Vietnam base but he couldn’t talk to the guys there because of the language barrier. He was assigned to HQ platoon (headquarters) working on trucks and was also a fill-in driver. One time when he was filling in for the ration truck driver, the cook told him to put a spoon in his pocket before taking off. He found out that they had containers of ice cream, but it would melt in the jungle heat, so he put the spoon to good use. He also drove water trucks. He volunteered for everything.

When driving the new 10-ton, low-boy trucks for the combat engineering unit, he made sure to stay on the roads where “you don’t stop if you don’t have to.”  A Charlie trick was to dig a hole in the road around a curve and the truck would hit it and lose a front axle. His food was mostly field rations/C-rations — different flavors of stew. It got thinner if he had to eat in the rain. He remembers Hershey bars made so as to not melt in the heat. They must have been old because the chocolate had turned white-ish. The guys gave a lot of them to the Montagnard mountain kids.  

Pieper says the kids bothered him the most because conditions were terrible. They were hungry and ragged. One time he gave an orange to a boy begging along the road but an adult came and took it away from him. Another time he came across some kids on a bridge cooking something in C-ration cartons. They were cooking tarantulas – you have to get the hair off before they're edible. Once a group of Montagnard laborers were working very slowly, tearing down an old sandbag bunker, when a rat ran out. One guy caught it and put it in his pocket – they all worked fast after that looking for more rats.

Pieper was talking to some little boys one time, trying to explain snow to them. They said he was “beaucoup dinky dow” – very crazy. In the city, kids would shine one shoe and then he’d have to pay more to get the second shoe shined. Sometimes the kids would harass the troops until guys would pay them just to leave them alone. 

Once when Pieper was on guard, he got stung by a scorpion hiding in his clothing. He was choppered to a field hospital that was a series of Conexus (metal shipping containers) buried and covered with dirt — nice and cool. Stretchers were fastened all along the walls. He recovered but that was a painful experience. Christmas that year was R & R (rest and relaxation) in Taipei, Taiwan.

From Vietnam, Pieper went to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and was there from January until Aug. 29, 1969, when he got out. He could have extended and then got an early out but he’s glad he didn’t. Just shortly after he left, his company lost a lot of guys in the TET Offensive. When he came home, it was not popular to have been in Vietnam and he spent several years trying to forget it all. Pieper was listed with the Reserves for another three years, but never had to report.

Does Pieper have any wishes? Not really. He wouldn’t want to do it all over again, but he’s glad he did do it. He wouldn’t be a draft dodger. He’d recommend military service today. "It’s a good growing experience and you learn to stand on your own two feet," he said.

Thank you for your service, HJ.






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