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Interview with Ronald Winter [2/5/????]

James Motyka:

Hi. I'm Jim Motyka and we're here at Lyman Memorial High School on Wednesday, February 5, and we're here with Mr. Ron Winter, interviewing him about his service in Vietnam. Welcome, Mr. Winter.

Ronald Winter:

Thank you.

James Motyka:

I have a few questions for you to start off. First of all, what -- what branch of the service were you in?

Ronald Winter:

I was a Marine.

James Motyka:

And you fought in the...

Ronald Winter:

Vietnam War.

James Motyka:

Vietnam War. And what was your highest rank that you did achieve?

Ronald Winter:

The highest rank I had in the Marines was sergeant. Most of the time I was in Vietnam I was a corporal.

James Motyka:

Okay. Were you drafted or did you enlist?

Ronald Winter:

No. Actually I was going to college on a scholarship and I finished the first semester of -- the first semester of my freshman year and Vietnam was starting to heat up and they had already made the major landings there and I was just looking around college and realized I really didn't know why I was there or where I was going and I left college after that first semester and joined the Marines.

James Motyka:

Why did you pick -- pick that branch of service?

Ronald Winter:

In the town and the community I came from the Marines were looked up to as -- as the premiere elite service and I figured if I was going to go, I wanted to be part of the best.

James Motyka:

Okay. So what was your boot camp experience like?

Ronald Winter:

Boot camp experience is -- is probably the most shocking thing a young person will ever encounter going from civilian world to -- to the military. I had an impression when I went that because people sent us off us saying good luck and, you know, do a good job, and this, that, and the other thing, met a lot of former Marines who gave us all kinds of advice. But nobody can really prepare you for the intensity of the shock when you get there. And you realize no one really cares who you are or what you did in the past and they're not all that happy you're there and they're not going to treat you that way. In an instance, literally an instance -- we never even got off the bus. I can tell you, I can still remember the drill instructor getting on the bus and it was like probably 1:00 o'clock in the morning at Parris Island, South Carolina in early January. A guy got on the bus with a Smoky the Bear hat and had a few nice words to the bus driver and when he turned, it was just this complete personality change, and he's screaming at us, "You have ten seconds to get off this bus." Well, there's maybe a hundred people on that bus and he's saying, "Anybody who's left on the bus after I countdown from ten is going to die," and you -- all of a sudden you realize he wasn't kidding [laughing]. So there's this scrambling to get off the bus and right outside the bus, there's more of the same and everyone is screaming at you. And there's these yellow footprints on the -- on the road and he's screaming at you to stand on those yellow footprints. And from that second on everything that happened was just mayhem and bedlam and -- and all seemed to be geared toward, you know, you could never do anything right and -- and he just -- you're just looking around like, oh, my God, you're like a rat in a maze or something, which way do I go? What do I do? As the weeks went by, you started to realize there was a purpose and what it all really was, was they -- they immediately stripped you of everything that you'd ever known and considered comfortable in civilian life because you were about to become a Marine. And it's an entirely different world with an entirely different set of standards and requirements. And they literally do, they take all of your clothes and you ship them home. They -- they shave off all of your hair, you shower down, and then they start right from the very -- the socks and underwear upwards, everything is new and different. And -- and when you finally emerge from boot camp, you're a totally different person. Some people see that as -- as a negative thing. And I think if you -- if you want to take it that way, you can. But in the reality of it, in the long run, if you see that you -- you encounter challenges and met and overcame them, then -- then it's not so negative. You learn to -- to thrive and even survive in that -- in that environment, but there were a lot of things about that environment you could take forward as a civilian later on.

James Motyka:

So how long were in boot camp?

Ronald Winter:

The total boot camp experience was 12 weeks and that included all of your -- your basic march and learning to -- to learn the uniforms, learning the commands, learning about the military, the rifle range, the physical fitness, and then infantry training.

James Motyka:

Do you think that prepared you for what you're about to encounter?

Ronald Winter:

Oh, yeah. There's a saying in the Marine Corps that every Marine is a rifleman first no matter what your job is. And the nature of the Marine Corps such that there's been instances over -- over its history where cooks and clerks who think they have no real combat duty suddenly find themselves -- you're always so close to the so-called front lines that there's always a possibility that people will be thrown into combat situations. So everyone had to take that basic infantry training no matter what their job was going to be and everyone had to qualify with a rifle and that most definitely came in handy later on.

James Motyka:

So when you left boot camp, did you have a job assignment?

Ronald Winter:

Yeah. Actually when I went to the Marines, there were a lot of incentives there and I didn't want to just go and do a couple of years and come away from it with no -- no real skills or anything, so I signed for what they called their aviation guarantee. It required me to be in the Marines for four years. But what happened after boot camp was they sent me to Florida, to Jacksonville, Florida to the naval training center there, and I learned electronics there, specifically as they applied to aircraft.

James Motyka:

Okay. So -- and so from Parris Island you went to Florida?

Ronald Winter:

Yes.

James Motyka:

How long were you were there in Florida for?

Ronald Winter:

For six months.

James Motyka:

Six months. And then?

Ronald Winter:

From Florida I had my choice of -- of where I wanted to go and what kind of aircraft I wanted to be involved in. And I had made the decision probably halfway through my training in Florida that I wanted to be in helicopters. And the reason was and -- and maybe this was youthful indiscretion, but I didn't want to be really removed from the war if I was going to be in it, I wanted to be closer to it. Well, helicopters were the -- were the coming thing in the Vietnam War. So I asked to be assigned to a helicopter squadron and from there -- from Florida they assigned me to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, which has a helicopter base as part of its -- it's a huge complex, and there's a helicopter base called the New River Air Facility. Now it's the New River Air Station and it had helicopters there and that's where I was sent.

James Motyka:

At any time during that time did you really second guess yourself as to gees, I don't want to be here? What have I gotten myself into?

Ronald Winter:

I second guess myself about 12 hours into Parris Island when I finally had a moment to think and I was really second guessing myself there. We had gone from the drill instructors who -- who initially greet you, if you could call it that, and get you through this initial processing tool, the actual drill instructors who will take you through your training phase. And everyone was so incredibly mean, and they were all big and they were all tough as could be and -- and they -- it just seemed like you could never do anything right. And when you messed up, there was always someone who caught you doing it. And -- and they all would just descend on you like this horde and they'd be screaming at you and you had no right answers, you know. There was no way to ever -- and what I found out later on was well, they want to see how you're going to handle the stress. But, yeah, about 12 hours later after I think I had maybe one night's sleep or something and there was a second I go, Oh, my God. Why on earth did I -- I could be back in school right now. I can all of a sudden history and math didn't seem like such a bad thing, you know [laughing].

James Motyka:

So how long was it before you actually went overseas?

Ronald Winter:

Actually I was quite fortunate in that I was in the Marines for just over two years before I went overseas. I got my boot camp training, my infantry training, my basic electronics training, and then I spent another 18 months up at New River learning to be an electronics technician on CH46 helicopters. There was a tremendous amount of schooling there. They had another -- another training command where I'd say about once every two months I would go to a school that would last anywhere from two to four weeks on a specific either instruments or radio or navigation gear. And then we also were cross trained as I started learning more about how jet engines work, how -- how hydraulics work. I got trained in electrohydraulics. And basically by the time we were ready to go overseas, my entire unit was -- was -- was a good solid group of people who knew how that helicopter worked, what made -- what made it fly, and what to do if it wasn't doing something right.

James Motyka:

Roughly how many were in your unit?

Ronald Winter:

Approximately 275 to 300 people.

James Motyka:

And they ranged anywhere from pilots all the way down through --

Ronald Winter:

Right. You had the commanding officer was a -- was a lieutenant colonel and he was a pilot, your executives officer was a major, he was a pilot, and you went right down to private, you know, guys just coming in from -- usually once you got to that level in the Marine Corps by -- by the time you get assigned to a squadron like that, you might be PFC or lance corporal, which is on the low end of the enlisted ranks, E2, E3. Occasionally you'd find a private which meant it was somebody had gotten in trouble and lost their stripes somewhere along the way.

James Motyka:

So when did you finally get overseas, what year and day was that?

Ronald Winter:

They notified us in January of 1968 that we would be going in the summer of 1968. Then the Tet Offensive of 1968 erupted at the end of that month and our departure date was moved back to April, so we actually left North Carolina on the 20th of April 1968.

James Motyka:

When did you arrive in Vietnam?

Ronald Winter:

I arrived in Vietnam approximately a month later and the reason for that is first off we flew all of our helicopters from North Carolina to California. That was a feat that had never been done before and has never been done since. We had 24 helicopters. We flew them all there in three days. It was a phenomenal undertaking. We did it, we accomplished it from -- we went to El Toro Air Base, which is just south of Los Angeles, and the following week we were loaded on to an aircraft carrier, and the aircraft carrier put out from San Diego on the 1st of May and we actually disembarked into Vietnam 17 days later.

James Motyka:

What were your first impressions of Vietnam when you -- when you got there?

Ronald Winter:

Well, it was kind of interesting because we flew in from the carrier in our own helicopters and they had stationed us as far north in Vietnam as you could go -- South Vietnam. We were a matter of -- we were within artillery range of the demilitarized zone, a little place called Quang Tri and we had no idea what to expect. And I can remember my flight in was probably somewhere around 11:00 o'clock in the morning. It was -- it was the beginning of the dry season and you could see a long, long way. We were on a coastal plane and I could see smoke in different places from battles that were going on, bombs that had erupted, and I remember sitting on a -- on a bullet bouncer. It was a protective piece of gear you usually wear on your chest and I sat on it because I didn't know who was going to shoot at us and where. I think we probably went in at 5,000 feet and much later I learned, or not much later, quickly learned that 5,000 feet was a pretty safe place to be. But at that point on that day from going off the ship into there, I was just sitting on that and everybody is looking and you're looking out the windows and you think, are they going to shoot at us, you know? And you just had no knowledge and just everything was very, very tense. And when we landed, we had this -- we had all of our equipment geared to unpack. Not just our personal things, but also everything that we needed to work on those helicopters and I can remember it was just stiflingly hot. I had never encountered heat like that. There were days in the -- in the future where I would look and there was a -- an outside air temperature indicator, which is a thermometer, on the -- on the windshield of the helicopter and it would be in the shade and it was in degree centigrade and it would be pegged over 50, which meant in Fahrenheit it was over 120 degrees.

James Motyka:

Right.

Ronald Winter:

We would walk up the outside of the helicopters to fix things up on the top and you would burn your hands on it. It was that bad. I had just never encountered a heat like that in my life and it just -- it just seemed to take all the energy, all the air right out of you, and it took a while to get used to it.

James Motyka:

So when you were there, your job assignment was actually what?

Ronald Winter:

I had -- I had three jobs. Number one, my job was what they call avionics and that's -- that's the same thing as in civilian aviation, which is to work on the electrical and the electronic parts of the helicopter. Back in North Carolina when we knew we were going, they had asked for volunteers to be machine gunners, and I volunteered for that. And they took us out on training ranges along the coast were there were targets down in the swamps and we had 50 caliber machine guns and we would practice learning how to shoot at these targets down there. So part of the time I would work on the helicopters, part of the time I would fly as a machine gunner, and part of the time because we were Marines, we had to provide our own security. So there were times when I would have to go out where the base ground was actually very small. I had a small runway. Propeller driven aircraft could land there. A jet landed there one time that had gotten shot up in North Vietnam and we were the closest air strip and he touch downed as close as he could to one end, and he -- he had his brakes on and he'd shoot out the back and he still went right on down the runway and right off and buried himself in the sand. It wasn't big, but we had to provide our own security for that. So there were days when I started at 6:00 in the morning and would go to the flight line and work all day, and then you'd go back at night and get notified that there had been reports of a lot of enemy activity in the area. So then you'd have to take your rifle and your helmet and go out into the perimeter and either sit in a foxhole or a fighting hole or a bunker for the rest of the night and then the other time was when I flew gunner.

James Motyka:

Okay. So obviously you saw quite a bit of combat while you were there?

Ronald Winter:

I flew 300 missions as a machine gunner and a mission meant that you had to go into a hot zone where fighting was taking place. More often than not some of the firing would come at you. There were missions we went on where for whatever reason you'd get in and get out and even though there were bullets all around, no one fired directly at you. But it still counted as a mission because you were in there when the fighting was going on.

James Motyka:

So what were -- what were -- explain some of your missions. What were some of the things you had to do?

Ronald Winter:

It would run from the mundane which was resupply. Maybe if there was a battle going or had been a battle going on, they'd be out of ammo or they'd be out of water food, they'd need food, so you'd take C rations to them. You'd take -- we had these slings that they would pack all these boxes of food or ammunition or canisters of water. They would put them in nets and then they would put them in sling underneath the helicopter and you'd take that to them. Sometimes you took the mail which was always a big deal. Then when -- when things were really hot, when people were getting wounded, there were medevac missions. You had to go in and get the wounded out. A lot of times those were really dangerous because you were taking people out and they were trying to keep you from taking people out and you were also bringing replacements back in. The same thing, you get a lot of shooting there. There were troop lifts when say they had identified an area or a concentration of the North Vietnamese troops and they wanted to attack and you would spend probably an entire morning taking flight after flight of infantry men and setting up zones and blocking forces. They -- those were usually very dangerous. And the most dangerous of all were recognizance missions, and the recon teams were anywhere from five or six guys up to 14 or 15 guys who would go out in the field and they would -- they would look for concentrations of enemy or troop movements and they would radio all of this information back in. Sometimes they would call in air strikes; sometimes they'd call in artillery strikes; and sometimes they'd get caught. Sometimes you would go out and drop them off and you'd find out that they were already surrounding. You had to turn right around and go back and get them and everyone knew you were coming. Sometimes they would get caught and you would have to go get them out under the most extreme emergency situations where they were being fired at. Those were very, very dangerous missions. There was a lot of shooting going on there.

James Motyka:

Did your unit receive any casualties while you were there?

Ronald Winter:

Yeah. We, let's see, we lost 20 guys killed and probably another hundred or so wounded.

James Motyka:

Based on just helicopters being shot down or just shooting from the ground to the -- to the helicopters?

Ronald Winter:

Shooting from the ground to the helicopter. Sometimes they were shot down and sometimes when you'd go into the zones, you know, a lot of fire would come your way. There were -- there were days, and a lot of them, where you would just see them start at the beginning of the helicopter and you could -- you could literally in your peripheral vision see the bullet holes coming through as they worked their way down the side. And my job there was to try and get an idea of where they were coming from and stop them from doing it.

James Motyka:

By shooting back?

Ronald Winter:

By shooting back, absolutely.

James Motyka:

So were you ever wounded there?

Ronald Winter:

No, no wounds. The very -- I think it was like the second, probably and it may have been the first day that I flew, we were on one of these troop insertions and they were opening up a new zone and I could see clearly in my mind -- it was 30-some-odd years ago -- but right down below me just after we landed the infantry guys ran off and were setting up a perimeter. And I think we were the second or third helicopter in and we lifted off and I'm looking down and we're over by the Laotian border, which is all jungle country, you know, occasional hills and little openings, and we found one of those openings to establish a zone. I'm looking down and I see garden and I'm thinking to myself, what on earth is a garden doing out here? And then all of sudden, well, it's a garden because it's feeding the people who were out here that we're trying to find and just then I saw this guy and as I saw him, he shot and the bullet came through the bottom of the helicopter and we had cargo rollers inside to move boxes of heavy stuff up from the inside. It hit one of those rollers, spun off, and ended up in the floor by my foot maybe an inch away. And as he was doing that, I saw him and brought my machine gun down on him and shot him. And that was my -- my introduction to it all. And it was, I remember the crew chief tapping me on the shoulder after we got away from the zone and looked and he pointed down and I looked down and I saw how close the bullet had come, and it -- it just was a matter of -- of geometry what angle it spun off at when it hit the cargo roller. Why it ended up there instead of in me, I don't know.

James Motyka:

So obviously you have shot other people --

Ronald Winter:

Yeah.

James Motyka:

-- over there? Any problems with that? I mean some people --

Ronald Winter:

Not in the classic sense. I think -- I think sometimes a lot of things about the problems of doing what you had to do were more overrated or more elaborated on. It's not like I never had a dream. It's not like you don't ever feel it, but a lot of it was anonymous. It's just you're looking out there and all of a sudden you're either seeing smoke or if you're lucky a little -- a little wink of flame to give you an idea. Or someone on the ground was telling you before you got there, look in this area as you come into the zone because that's where they're shooting in and as soon as you can bring your machine gun to bear on it, you could start putting fire to knock them down. I had a 50-caliber machine gun which is the largest weapon that an individual uses in the whole U.S. arsenal and it spoke with -- with tremendous authority. The bullets in it were armor-piercing tracer, but we also had explosive rounds, one every five would explode, and what that meant was if it hit you, it blew up. And if you hit someone in the hand, their arm was gone. It was -- it was -- it was a devastating piece of weaponry and I made a point, you know, of making sure they knew what was coming at them as quickly as I could. But a lot of times you would find out after you had gone through and done your shooting and then the infantry would get to that area and they'd say, well, there's so many bodies or whatever. There was one time where one of the guys I shot was brought onboard and that was a little difficult because he was much younger than I thought, and you know, of course, when you're getting ready this is -- this is just the nature of war, but when your people are trying to prepare you to go fight and go kill someone else, they try to give as -- as mean and horrible an image of that person as they can. And that's the only way you -- you're probably mentally prepared to do what you have to do. This guy he had -- he had a pack and he had personal effects in it and there were pictures of his home and his girlfriend and him and all of that. I said boy, that was a human being, and that was different, that was, and then you get an idea like what on earth? You know, here I was I think at 20, and I mean what's this kid doing here? And you don't think of it until later on, you're no more a kid than he was and he's no more a kid than you were.

James Motyka:

Right.

Ronald Winter:

And we were all pretty darn young back then and you just -- that kind of made me think I think more -- more in the years afterwards I thought about that like, boy, it's awful young guys who go out there and do the fighting.

James Motyka:

So obviously you said you flew 300 missions. You did some receive some awards. Could you show us what you got for --

Ronald Winter:

Sure.

James Motyka:

-- rewards?

Ronald Winter:

These are some of them here. My wife and daughter put together for me, so I could have it. The ones on the end are the air medals. I got 15 air medals. That -- that signified the 300 missions. The way the -- the way it worked was when you had flown into 20 hot zones and had fire, you know, engagements, you got one air medal. So ultimately I got 15 of them. The wings down here are probably my proudest medal. The three stars that are on the wings indicate your first three actual engagements with the enemy. You don't get those wings unless you've flown 20 missions and of those 20 missions you actually had to engage the enemy at least three times. That was -- that was a very proud day in my squadron when you got your wings pinned on you. That was -- that was pretty much saying you had arrived, you had made a milestone. Among the smaller ones here I have the Vietnamese service medal, that came from Vietnamese government. Next to that is the Vietnamese cross of gallantry. I was awarded that for -- for some operations involved working with the Vietnamese troops, both in the DMZ and then down a little bit further in -- in Vietnam. There's some pretty nasty areas. We had some bad battles that we're involved with on what they called joint operations. Next to that, the large one up here, this is what they call the Vietnamese campaign medal and I have a ribbon above it with some stars on it. That indicates different campaign periods that you participated in. To be honest with you over there at the time you didn't know you would end up in different campaign period, you know. You were still going and doing your job and they were still shooting at you and you were still shooting at them. But as it turned out I went through four different campaign periods while I was there. The red and yellowish one, that's the national defense medal. That's awarded for being in the service during the time that your country is involved in war. Down the lower left is my sharp shooter's badge indicated a level of proficiency with firearms and over on here is my dog tags. I've kept them since Parris Island.

James Motyka:

Very impressive. So how long were you in Vietnam? What was your actual length of time?

Ronald Winter:

Thirteen months. At the time the typical tour was -- was a year. The Marine Corps always has to outdo everybody else, so the Marine Corps made it 13 months for us.

James Motyka:

So how did you keep in contact with your family back home for those 13 months?

Ronald Winter:

Strictly by letter writing and that's why mail call was such a big deal. Today there's almost nowhere in the world you can go and not -- if you have a cell phone, you could be in voice contact.

James Motyka:

Right.

Ronald Winter:

We didn't have fax machines back then. There was one radio on our helicopters that they could go -- if they could up high enough and had enough range that they bounce it off of a relay down at Da Nang and Da Nang could relay it to Okinawa and Okinawa to Hawaii I guess, and Hawaii to back to the States. But that was a rare, rare occasion. That didn't happen a lot.

James Motyka:

So was mail call a weekly thing, a monthly thing?

Ronald Winter:

No. Mail call if you were at a fixed base and even though Quang Tri was small, we were still a fixed base. That was a daily thing for us and in our missions, we had somebody every day took mail out to the outpost every day. Now, whether the guys in the outpost actually had a mail call every day or not, I don't know. But whatever it was, whether it was daily or less, it was a big deal.

James Motyka:

Okay. How are -- how was your relationship with your fellow officers? And you know, you mentioned earlier about your unit. You're very proud of your unit.

Ronald Winter:

Uh-huh.

James Motyka:

So you must have had an excellent relationship with them.

Ronald Winter:

We did. And we had a lot respect for each other for a number of reasons. Number one, we worked on helicopters and they flew them, but we flew in them with them. They had to trust us because they were up there assuming that when they got in and started up those engines, that that helicopter was going to work the way it's supposed to. We also got a kick out of a lot of our officers. When we go in on gun runs -- I mean it only takes one guy to fly a helicopter and there were so many of them who would carry side arms, all so willing to open up the pilot's window and go shooting down into the -- into the jungle. I've see them do it with shotguns and pistols. I mean they just, you know, like whatever I can do up here to help you out, let me know and the next thing they'd be banging their way out the window. We had -- I thought we had a very professional crew of officers. At the higher command levels we had the best -- my commanding officer after we left Vietnam and came back was named Marine aviator of the year for the year we'd been in Vietnam. And that was a highly unusual award for a helicopter pilot because that was an award that usually went to jet pilots, especially jet fighter pilots, who were up over the north fighting MiGs and trying to dodge all the missiles. So it's an indication of how good he was and the quality he expected from his unit that he got that award after we were finished. He not only got that award, but he was promoted to colonel and that was a big deal, that was a very big deal.

James Motyka:

Okay. So your -- your service ends and what was it like coming home? First of all, what was it like knowing that you or when did you find out that you were coming home and how was that feeling for you?

Ronald Winter:

I found out in February and the reason I found out in February was because I told them I wanted to extend and they told me that it was too late, that the orders had already been cut. I needed to tell them probably a month earlier. I was -- I believe we were doing the right thing in Vietnam by being there and I felt -- I felt that I was walking away and I didn't like that. So I told them I wanted to extend for six months and they said well, that's a good sentiment, but it's too late. You're going home. We're reassigning you. And as it turned out a couple of my friends who did extend only were there another two months or so because at that time President Nixon had gotten elected and announced he was going to do troop cutbacks and among the first to go were the Marines. In fact, I saw a guy in Norfolk, Virginia when I was still in the Marines who wasn't due to get out until a year later and he had extended in Vietnam, spent eight more weeks there, and then they discharged him. So basically I wasn't really ready to come home. I was ready to stay on as long as it took to get the job done.

James Motyka:

So you felt as if what you were doing over there was justified and worthwhile? A lot of Marines that we've talked to or a lot of Vietnam vets that we've talked to have differing opinions.

Ronald Winter:

Yeah.

James Motyka:

Your opinion on our accomplishments over there would be what then?

Ronald Winter:

I think that one of the things is a lot of -- a lot of people never got a chance to see the big picture. And one of the things that happened where we were in Vietnam was one of the most dangerous areas in the country in 1968. About a year later we were -- we were ultimately commanded by a general named Raymond Davis, who was a World War II medal of honor winner, and he had completely changed the tactics and strategies and by the middle of the spring of 1969, he would take media crews to the hilltops in the area and walk around unarmed and say, you know, "You're safer here than you are back in the major cities at home." We had done a tremendous amount of fighting. It wasn't until probably in the '80s that they found that we lost 58,000 people in Vietnam and that's an absolute tragedy. There's no two ways about it. At the same time, however, they lost between one and a half and two million troops. Now, their army when they started out was 600,000 strong, so they literally had their army wiped out three times over. The difference was I don't think there was a commitment in this country and the leaders in Vietnam could care less. The Communist leaders could have cared less how many more people it took. They were either going to get all wiped out or else they were going to get their way, and they just flat out didn't care. But the -- what we did do, and I've studied it extensively in the years since because I did want to know what did it all mean. We stood up for an ally and to me that's a major thing. If you tell a friend, you're going to stand up for a friend, you don't turn your back on them when the going gets a little nasty. We stood up for an ally. We kept that country from going Communist for 15 years longer than it would have otherwise, and I believed that that was the beginning of the bankruptcy of the Soviet Union because the U.S.S.R. was one of the major contributors to North Vietnam and it was 15 years later the U.S.S.R. went down and they went down as a bankrupt organization as a bankrupt group of countries. And I think it started right there. I think if we hadn't committed to them and if we hadn't stayed as long they did, if they could have just walked in and taking it when they wanted to, we'd probably still be dealing with -- with Russia as a -- as a superpower right now that we'd be having problems with.

James Motyka:

That's interesting. I never thought of it that way, that it seems like you started the ball rolling for the Soviet Union?

Ronald Winter:

I believe so.

James Motyka:

Really?

Ronald Winter:

I believe we did. I mean they had to be an awful lot of their national effort in to counteracting what we were doing there and ultimately Russia went bankrupt.

James Motyka:

So you come home. So how was -- what was your feelings on the reaction of people? What was the reaction of people to you when you came home?

Ronald Winter:

I got home at about midnight and my family picked me up at the airport and it was all very nice. Everyone was happy, but no one asked me about Vietnam ever. Not then, not now. Ever. The next night I remember, you know, I went home and sat around my parents' dining room table with family and friends went on for a little while and then finally went to bed. I had been in an airplane for about most of 24-hour period. I know I had seen the sun go down and come up and I'd crossed I don't know how many time zones and crossed International Date Line. I didn't know what day it was to be honest with you. I went out that night to a place that had always been a little nightspot up the road. They always had good food, they always had good bands. Went out to get a couple of beers and I was sitting down on a stool with my back to the wall and looking this way, talking to my sister, and a guy with long hair and -- and love beads and a peace sign snuck up and punched me in the face, sucker punched me. I couldn't believe that. That was -- that was my welcome home. And he got hammered for doing it, but I mean it was just -- it was just -- you've got a peace sign on you and you sucker punch me? You know, we were told when we got to Travis Air Force Base in California once you get -- when you finish getting home, don't make a point of wearing your uniform out in public. I mean that's, that's a horrible thing to tell American servicemen.

James Motyka:

Right.

Ronald Winter:

Don't wear your uniform in public. You'll be drawing attention to yourself of a kind you don't want. It wasn't a good homecoming. It wasn't fun, it wasn't nice. It made me wonder why I'd gone in the first place.

James Motyka:

So did it bother you that your family did not ask you questions about it? I mean --

Ronald Winter:

Yeah.

James Motyka:

-- you probably wanted to talk to someone about it?

Ronald Winter:

Ultimately I wrote -- I wrote the book "Masters of the Art" about what we had done there and part of the reason I did that was because I felt so much of what was being written about Vietnam and Vietnam veterans was so off the mark. A lot of it was written by people back here who had never gone over or people who had gone over and lived in nice conditions where they had a hotel and they could jump on a helicopter and go out and observe a battle. It reminded me of the stories of the Civil War where people used to go up on the hilltops and watch the battles and have picnics, you know. And then they'd come back and they'd write about it as if they somehow become experts. And I'd always had the feeling that unless you've been there in the battle from the beginning to the end and can't leave, unless you understand the concept of you're either going to win or you're going to be dead, then you don't have a real right to -- to write as an expert on these things. And I wanted to point out some of the things that had gone on in Vietnam, so there would be a historical record of it and part of it was for my family because they never asked me what'd you do. You know, what happened? What was it all about? They had some letters and Christmas cards and things that I had sent that I had read years later and there were all these little things I had mentioned. You know, "We were on perimeter last night and we got hit." And nobody ever said, what do you mean you got hit? What was that all about? What did you do? You've asked me more questions here today than my family ever has.

James Motyka:

Wow. So you wrote -- so this is your book, just so that people can see it, "Masters of the Art, a Marine's Memoir of Parris Island and Vietnam." So in it you basically talk about your experiences through Parris Island and in Vietnam. Now, most of us, myself included, and a lot of the kids and so forth, see pictures of Vietnam vets as longhaired guys in the green jackets sitting on a park bench somewhere or, you know, a bum somewhere, you know, those types of things. And that's really not true or that's a -- that's a minority of what's going on and you, you know, you were talking to me earlier you expressed your -- you don't particularly care for that. You wanted -- you wanted to say exactly that most of the Vietnam vets came over lived --

Ronald Winter:

Fairly normal lives --

James Motyka:

-- productive lives?

Ronald Winter:

-- afterwards.

James Motyka:

Yeah.

Ronald Winter:

I took advantage as I said earlier I had been in college when I left and went to the Marines. When I got back I went back to college and I got an associate's degree in electrical engineering and a bachelor's degree in English and that seems like a leap, but actually I was finding out more about myself as a person as time went by. I went to work in the media as a reporter. Got a number of journalism awards, including a Pulitzer nomination, and the media at that time was portraying all Vietnam vets was -- I can remember the phrase the walking time bombs, that somehow or another we were all supposed to be just waiting for that moment when something was going to go off in our heads and we were going to lay ways to the countryside. In the years afterwards in the '80s there was a book that came out. It was like an encyclopedia of facts on Vietnam and as it turned out, the average person that went to Vietnam was not drafted. They enlisted. The average person who came home from Vietnam went on to either higher education or training in a -- in their chosen field. Most Vietnam veterans had families, joined their communities, joined social organizations, were active in their churches, you know. Basically went back to lead a normal lives. And when I go to reunions some of which have as many as 2,000 people in them. The actual people who -- who lived the stereotype are very small and what we found out in years, probably started really rolling in the '80s, a lot of these people that the media portrayed as the longhaired person with the drug problem and the vacant stare. Turned out a lot them never were even in Vietnam or a lot of them were never even in the service. CBS news did a big thing back in the late '80s called trip-wire vets about these guys living out in the woods living like animals. One guy living in a -- in a hallowed out tree surrounding their positions with trip-wires like we had in Vietnam with booby traps on. It turned out not one person that they portrayed actually was who he said it was and only one of them had ever even been in Vietnam and they booted him out because he'd already -- he was already diagnosed with having psychological problems. At that time one of the things people don't understand the military grinds slow but exceedingly fine. You could move very fast through your training because they needed so many people there. But sooner or later you stopped and when you did, things would catch up to you. And that was the case with some of these people that they were found that -- that tests that had been given to them, the results were too many people were loaded with too much paperwork. But when it finally got there, there were a lot of these people who were just pulled out of the units and sent home and discharged as not being fit. And that was, I think, one of -- one of the crimes of the post Vietnam era from the media standpoint was that they -- they bought into this stereotype. And it was always so much easier to show somebody who looked like, you know, they had just been through God knows what and -- and life was never going to be anything for them again because they had been there because it fit what they wanted to. A lot of the editors I worked with were active in the antiwar movement when I was in Vietnam, and I guess people like myself were kind of a reminder to them that it might not have been all they thought it was. So they continue -- in fact, I can remember sitting in the newsroom one day when something came up about Vietnam veterans and it was all negative, and I finally just stopped and said, "You know, I served in Vietnam." And the place went dead quiet. "You?" "Well, yeah me." You know, I didn't fit the stereotype and -- and as it turned out -- and that was at "The Hartford Courant." As it turned out there were about 20 of us there and most of the Vietnam veterans didn't know the other guys were Vietnam veterans because we weren't -- it was wasn't a good career move to talk about it.

James Motyka:

Do you think it ever will be? I mean do you think the stereotype and the -- and the real true identity in the world will come out? Do you think it will change, this country will change?

Ronald Winter:

I think it already has changed to a huge degree. I think that when the wall was dedicated in Washington in '82. I think that when the -- when the hostages came home from Iran and people realized, you know, we gave them a parade, but never did anything for the Vietnam vets. Well, Vietnam vets had a parade in Washington in '82, but we put it on ourselves. But I think that began changing people's perceptions and people who want to know can find out. People who want to maintain a stereotype image, well, it probably has more to do with them than the people they're trying to -- to buttonhole. I think it has changed and I think projects like this are doing it. People are speaking out about their experiences and being asked to come out and talk and not be quiet about it and you see people come out and we can -- we can relay some horrors to you because we saw them. But did we deal with them? Yes. And are we still dealing with them? Yeah, yeah. And -- and I think this is the overall is that -- that time is a great healer and that is -- it has brought out the truth.

James Motyka:

Now, we've covered quite a few things here. Is there anything that you would like to add just as in closing as to what we've done or talked about here?

Ronald Winter:

I just think it's -- it's an important thing -- we're in a time when the nation is once again in peril. We're not sure what's going to be in the weeks and months ahead of us. I just think it's a good thing to -- to continue to recognize the sacrifices of the veterans and the people that are going out there and working and fighting for us now, even if they're just taking away from their homes and sent to another place in the United States, it's still a big sacrifice for them. I think if people can continue to communicate and to show their appreciation, I think that's the best think that can go -- that can happen for us.

James Motyka:

Great. Well, I thank you very much, Mr. Winter, for you coming in.

Ronald Winter:

Thank you.

James Motyka:

I appreciate you spending some time with us.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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