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Interview with William Washington [9 March 2003]

Timothy Sallach:

Hi. My name is Tim Sallach. I'm going to be interviewing First Sargent Bill Washington. I want to thank you first in advance for sharing your military experience with me. You're aware that we're making an audio recording of this conversation?

William Washington:

Yes, I am.

Timothy Sallach:

Today's date is 9 March 2003, and we're conducting this interview at Zion Lutheran Church in El Paso, Texas. When and where were you born?

William Washington:

I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, Johns Hopkins Hospital, June the 3rd, 1940.

Timothy Sallach:

What school did you attend?

William Washington:

Attended public school there in Baltimore. Most of our public schools were not named schools but schools that had numbers, and I went to PS106, PS127 until I went to high school, which was a pretty interesting thing. I went to high school 1956. I was in the first integrated high school class in Maryland. My high school was Southern High School on Federal Hill in Maryland. And I lived in South Baltimore at the foot of Hamburg Street Bridge, so we would walk, the group of blacks that lived in my neighborhood, we would walk from the foot of Hamburg Street Bridge to Charles Street, which was the beginning of the white neighborhood in which the -- the -- the -- the law officials picked us up and took us the last four or five blocks over to the school.

Timothy Sallach:

Wow. What were your reasons for joining the military?

William Washington:

My primary reason for joining the military, when I graduated from high school, job opportunities were not very good. One of the things I did not want to do is I didn't want to go to work for Bethlehem Steel or Crown Cork Seal, one of those type of cottage industries that we had in Maryland. So I -- and I didn't want to get into trouble, right, so I decided, well, I'll join the Army, I'll do my three years, learn some type of profession, and then I would go back home.

Timothy Sallach:

So you __+

William Washington:

No, in fact, most of the kids in my high school class when we graduated, and out of the boys, about 50 percent of us came in the service. About 50 percent of those of us that did come in the service were what we called at that time RA, and my RA number was 13667690. And the rest of them were what was called at that time draftees for -- for US.

Timothy Sallach:

What was the country like when you enlisted or entered the military?

William Washington:

Well, when, as I told you before, 1956, we went through that integrated type of atmosphere. The country had started to get a little better by '59, by the time I came in, but we were slowly increasing into a kind of black awareness type of situation. So as everyone knows, through the early '60s, we went through that black type experience.

Timothy Sallach:

Where did you go for basic training?

William Washington:

My basic training was at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. And there's an interesting story about that, too. Where the baseball park in Baltimore now is called Camden Yards, that used to be the train station, so from where I was inducted, Fort Holabird, Maryland, they took us to Camden Station, we got on the train, and from there we rode the train there to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where I took basic.

Timothy Sallach:

And was that difficult for you, basic training?

William Washington:

No. I don't think so. I, in my younger years, I was always an athlete. I was an -- I was an all-state basketball and football player when I was in high school, so the physical requirements of basic training were not that difficult for me. The mental capabilities were not that difficult. Even though I was more street-wise than I thought formally educated, my GT score at that time was 125 or 130, somewhere in that range, right, so I was pretty astute as to how to catch on. I think the thing that bothered me more than anything else was the initial discipline of the Army, right. And again, thinking about the racial sides of things, you went from kind of being a street-wise smart kid to now you were having NCOs and officers, particularly white NCOs and officers now who were telling you what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.

Timothy Sallach:

Well, when you -- I wanted to ask you where did you go for AIT?

William Washington:

Well, I was one of those, in one of those groups that did not have a formal AIT. My enlistment contract was for air defense. My AIT would have generally been conducted at Fort Bliss, Texas; however, my first assignment was Fort Lewis in Seattle, Washington. So I had what was called at the time OJT instead of AIT.

Timothy Sallach:

So what did your OJT consist of?

William Washington:

My -- it consisted of me, my OJT, on the job training, consisted of me learning all of the duties of the crewmen for an air defense system from established crewmen who were already on site, and learning by example.

Timothy Sallach:

So your specific job was?

William Washington:

My specific job -- well, one of things that happened with a Nike Hercules crew, and that was my system, is there were four different crewmen. You had crewmen who had to physically prepare the missile. The missile was rolled on racks, so you had two people who had to actually push the missile. And one of the crewmen's job was to do the squib or electrical checks of the system in order to set the system up. My job initially was to learn each of those crew positions, because what we did as far as manning was concerned, which was a once-a-month-for-a-week type of position, you were always at the site, and you had to do it on a rotation basis.

Timothy Sallach:

Okay. Now, did you live on or off post quarters?

William Washington:

When I first came into the Army, I lived on post in a regular barracks type of situation, and I did that until my first enlistment -- reenlistment which was three years later, at which time I got married, and my wife and I moved in post housing.

Timothy Sallach:

Where was that, at Fort Lewis, or no?

William Washington:

That was on Bainbridge Island in Washington state.

Timothy Sallach:

What was that like?

William Washington:

Pretty nice. It was a -- having been raised in a ghetto environment where there was 20 houses on one side of the street and 20 houses on the other, I got to a community to where there were individual houses. For (Friday) we could walk to the beach, dig your own clams, and catch your own salmon or whatever, so it was a -- it was a different but a very pleasant change.

Timothy Sallach:

So where did you go after that?

William Washington:

From there my first overseas assignment was Thule, Greenland, and I went to Thule, Greenland in '62/'63. I moved my wife from Bainbridge Island to Seattle, Washington. In fact, my wife is from Seattle, Washington, so that was pretty easy. But she moved in. We moved her into her own home. My son was born just prior to me being deployed to Thule, Greenland, and that's where they stayed until I came back 13 months later.

Timothy Sallach:

Then after that, where did you go?

William Washington:

After then, we came back, we stayed a while, then we did a first tour to Germany. We went to Germany for three years. We were in a place called Budigan, which brings up another thing. As I told you before, I was an air defender to start with. My first overseas assignment to Germany, I became a field artillery, which was totally, totally different, but the atmosphere was pretty good. My wife and family adapted to Germany.

Timothy Sallach:

So what did you do on the field artillery? Were they self-propelled, or were they --

William Washington:

Yes, I was in an 8-inch howitzer self-propelled unit.

Timothy Sallach:

What was your job actually?

William Washington:

My actual job was a, initially was an air defense crewman, and what we did was we cut the pallet charge and ran the rams in.

Timothy Sallach:

Oh, okay.

William Washington:

As I progressed through my thing, I became battalion ammunition officer.

Timothy Sallach:

What was your rank?

William Washington:

I was an E-6. And at that time, we had 20 ammunition trucks that belonged to the whole battalion. The basic load of ammo for -- was strapped on, and my primary job was to make sure that we had the best basic load ammo we could have and rotated it so that we always had fresh ammo.

Timothy Sallach:

So did you get a __+ yourself, or no?

William Washington:

Yes, __+ all of those places that have artillery range places that we deployed to.

Timothy Sallach:

What units were you in; do you remember?

William Washington:

I don't remember what my unit designation was at that time. However, we were the only 8-inch howitzer battalion around Budigan and __+

Timothy Sallach:

Okay. After Germany, where did you go?

William Washington:

After Germany, I came back to the United States. I went back to the Washington community again. This time I was stationed on a Nike Hercules site in Kingston, Washington, and I did three years there. During this period of time, we were getting close to 1966, and my assignment after -- after then, I was a section chief and platoon sergeant during that time. I got selected for classified assignment, and that brought me to Fort Bliss to where I trained with a unit to go to Vietnam.

Timothy Sallach:

So you were an SFC, sergeant first class?

William Washington:

I was still a staff sergeant at that time.

Timothy Sallach:

Oh, you were still a staff sergeant?

William Washington:

Right.

Timothy Sallach:

But you were still a platoon sergeant?

William Washington:

Right, right, but I had a platoon sergeant's job. In fact, even as an E-6, as I told you before, I was battalion ammunition officer.

Timothy Sallach:

Okay. What was it like in the country at that time, 1966?

William Washington:

The country was -- still had not really changed. In fact, there was a lot of racial unrest, especially in California. That's right during the time --

Timothy Sallach:

Right.

William Washington:

-- of the Watts riots and those types things. Even back on the East Coast, even Detroit.

Timothy Sallach:

__+ Detroit?

William Washington:

Detroit, right __.

Timothy Sallach:

__+ Milwaukee, all of them.

William Washington:

So we were still in that racial unrest kind of period.

Timothy Sallach:

And did you still find in the military, did you find racial unrest in the military?

William Washington:

I think the military -- and I think it's one of the reasons why I -- I eventually made the military a career, that even though I -- I -- I -- I witnessed a lot of racial strife in the military, it was still much -- a much better place to be than anyplace else. But I think the racial strife as far as the military was concerned was based solely on the fact that promotions denied and opportunities denied instead of -- instead of any physical presence for racial activity.

Timothy Sallach:

What was your next assignment after -- after Fort Bliss?

William Washington:

After Fort Bliss, I came here in August of '66. We trained through Christmas of '77, even though I went home, back to Washington state for Christmas. Came back to Fort Bliss, and in February or January or February of '67 was when we deployed to go to Vietnam.

Timothy Sallach:

And what was the deployment like to Vietnam?

William Washington:

After qualifying here with -- in the Duster and Quad 50 Battalion, the deployment was flown to Los Angeles, bussed to San Diego. We got on a ship, the whole battalion, the USS Gordon, and left there to go to Vietnam with one major stop in Okinawa, and which we picked up Marines to augment our force. Because 28 days to, boat trip to Vietnam. When we got to Vietnam, I think initially we were supposed to go into Da Nang. We got to Da Nang, and the fire power and the unrest was there. We could see them firing every night. So we did not deploy then. They took my unit south to a place called Quang Tri, let all of us off of the boat at that time, even though we had no equipment on the boat that we were on. We got off at Quang Tri, and then the Marines went back to Da Nang to be deployed.

Timothy Sallach:

So what did you do at Quang Tri?

William Washington:

Quang Tri was really just a stop-off point for me. I think I was there three weeks, maybe a month, in which we pulled a lot of perimeter defense for the activities that were there. And there was an infusion program during that time. There had been two battalions of Quad 50/Duster personnel trained before my battalion, which was the third of the 60th -- fourth of the 60th. But in order to make sure that all of the troops didn't finish up their tours all at the same time, this infusion program took new troops, infused them with older troops so that as you kept that type of mix going, there was always being an active __.

Timothy Sallach:

So that was pretty good, then?

William Washington:

That was a pretty good -- it was a pretty good program to ensure that you could always complete whatever your assigned missions were.

Timothy Sallach:

So what kind of missions did you have? Where did you go from Quang Tri or what did you do?

William Washington:

Our missions, as I say, we trained as air defenders.

Timothy Sallach:

Right.

William Washington:

We got to Vietnam, and we found out that there was no real airplanes for us to have to defend against. So what we -- what our primary duties were: Convoy escorts in which they interspersed twin 40s and quad 50s in with movements up and down the road; perimeter defenses in which we were deployed around airports and bridges and that type of, that type of stuff. We were also patrol perimeter, in which if we had to stop en route somewhere, these weapons were placed around the outside portion of the perimeter. And the reason for that was high volumes of firearms with 50 --

Timothy Sallach:

Oh, yeah __+

William Washington:

-- 50 caliber machine guns and 40 millimeter rounds for the duster units.

Timothy Sallach:

Did you go to the Ho Chi Minh trail, or --

William Washington:

No.

Timothy Sallach:

-- USA One or whatever?

William Washington:

Ho Chi Minh trail was not one of the things that we did. From Quang Tri, I went to what was my primary next duty assignment was Dong Ha, up close to the northern boarder. And out of Dong Ha, we worked Kason, Wai (ph), Fumbi (ph). And there's several other little base camps that I don't really remember. Most of them were Third Marine Division encampments, so whenever the Third Marine Division went, they took us.

Timothy Sallach:

You were their security?

William Washington:

We were their --

Timothy Sallach:

Security forces?

William Washington:

-- security forces.

Timothy Sallach:

Security forces?

William Washington:

Right.

Timothy Sallach:

So you weren't there during Kason or the Tet offensive then __?

William Washington:

Yes. In fact, I was there for the siege of Kason, which was pretty good. I'd like to have a humorous story that I'd like to tell about that. C rations at the time, a whole can of C rations.

Timothy Sallach:

Right.

William Washington:

And no one liked ham and eggs or lima beans or any of those types things. So when we first got to Kason, we would just throw all of those things in a box. But during the siege, the siege took so long, and we didn't have resupply during that time, that before we were over with the siege, we had to go back and eat those ham and lima beans for breakfast and those type. So I think the siege really did not bother us as much as it did some of the fighting units there because we provided defense __ and most of things we done were normally at night. Now, during Tet 1968, I was in Fuba (ph) right outside of Wai (ph), so we saw quite a bit of road escort that -- during that period of time in getting people back and forth. And I think during that time was an awakening time for me, because up until that time I really thought that we were really doing the mission, we were really winning the war. And then __+ --

Timothy Sallach:

So what made you pick that? What made you pick that?

William Washington:

Because we -- they saw the nature of the war. We never really had a threat here and you saw the enemy. It was -- the country is really pretty. The country is pretty peaceful. You never really saw young men between the ages of 12 and 25 or something. It was normally really young kids and old women. So when you're looking at things like that, you're saying, well, they're sending all of their people off to war, and our body counts and everything seemed to have been very great during that time and said we are really winning. Another thing that happened during that time I think that changed my mind was when General Westmoreland was making a lot of reports about the overwhelming number of troops that we had and lower number of troops, especially North Vietnamese troops that were in South Vietnam and how there was no way that they would ever be able to mount a force that would beat us. But during Tet offensive, especially when I look at how Wai (ph) was devastated during that time and how we saw a lot of North Vietnamese regulars during that time convinced me that we aren't going to win this war and we aren't being told the truth about what's going on about this war. And if we -- if we are going to win the war, we're going to have to do things a lot different from how we're doing them now.

Timothy Sallach:

Did you ever hear Hackworth? Do you know anything about Hackworth, or?

William Washington:

Yes, I know Hackworth. On several occasions -- let me talk about Westmoreland first.

Timothy Sallach:

Okay.

William Washington:

On several occasions, Westmoreland would fly out to the field to view us, which to me was really a phenomenon, because he came out with hot-starched fatigues and the big four stars on his collar. You could see him. No one fired whenever the general was in the area. The general would leave. When the general would leave, we would get mortared almost every time. In fact, it got to the point where we would have preferred not to have any dignitaries and just deal with the status quo as opposed to having a dignitary. And also during that time, and I think I need to say this, too, __ holidays and those type of things were stalemates to where you stopped the war where you had --

Timothy Sallach:

Truce?

William Washington:

A truce that says we aren't going to fire from light this day to dark this day. And those truce were normally maintained. I think that's what made Wai and Tet '68 so devastating to us, because it's a holy holiday for them and we would not have expected for them to do anything, and then to be so overwhelmed at that time, that they had been mounting this type of force for a long time and took advantage of a special day in order to do that.

Timothy Sallach:

Right.

William Washington:

Yeah.

Timothy Sallach:

Wow! Okay. Now, so your mission mostly __+ so you did not have to do any search and destroy or anything, did you?

William Washington:

Yes, we did.

Timothy Sallach:

You did?

William Washington:

In fact, there for a while, my unit, selected personnel in my unit, we actually walked patrols with Third Marine Division. My unit was one of those units who was authorized combat infantryman's badge through our participation of __+ but was not awarded the badge because that was not our --

Timothy Sallach:

Mission?

William Washington:

-- primary mission, which I think is another thing that soured my response as far as the war was concerned.

Timothy Sallach:

Right. Now, were you there when the Marines were rescued at Tet, or not?

William Washington:

We were -- we were there --

Timothy Sallach:

Or were you rescued?

William Washington:

-- (repelling), in fact, we rode up and down the road from there. However, when I left the country February, end of February, first part of March or first couple of days of March '68 from Fubi, the night that I left to go to Cam Ranh Bay to fly out of the country, we were shooting from the gate. So it's one of those kind of things where I never really saw the end results of Tet. It seemed that Tet went on from the start of Tet through the end of February when I came back to the United States.

Timothy Sallach:

Wow! So where did you go after you left Cam Ranh Bay?

William Washington:

Left Cam Ranh Bay. I flew back to McChord Air Force Base, Washington state, which was a truly unique experience because I came back, weapon, ammunition, fatigues, right. I was re-indoctrinated to the Army when I got back to McChord Air Force Base, which I turned in all of my combat gear and service and this stuff because you need new uniforms and everything. And my family still being in Seattle, Washington, I was only 20 or 30 miles away from home at that time, so I was actually released right back into the civilian community. However, during that time, Sea-Tac and those type of civilian air force were really not conducive to soldiers coming back from the war.

Timothy Sallach:

Well, so what was that like? What was that like? What was your reception coming back? Did you go again to Vietnam, or no?

William Washington:

No, that was my only one.

Timothy Sallach:

One tour?

William Washington:

One tour.

Timothy Sallach:

What was it like then coming back?

William Washington:

Coming back was not what I thought soldiers coming back from the war would receive. The attitude of the country during that time was that the people were more than half against the war by now, right. And we had organizations like the Harikrishnas who were in the airports who were -- who were calling soldiers baby killers and actually spitting on soldiers __+

Timothy Sallach:

Did you experience that, or no?

William Washington:

I did not personally experience it, though I was in groups that did experience it.

Timothy Sallach:

So where did you go after -- after that?

William Washington:

I came back from Vietnam. I had 45-day leave and went for immediate assignment back to Germany.

Timothy Sallach:

Wow!

William Washington:

Again I did not understand, you know, having been an air defender. This time I went back, my assignment was with a United States Army SASCOM team in which I was chief of a Nike Hercules battery with the Belgians in Germany.

Timothy Sallach:

Okay. After Germany, where did you go?

William Washington:

After Germany, I came to Fort Bliss. By now -- by now the time frame is 1977.

Timothy Sallach:

Your rank?

William Washington:

My rank now is E-7. We come back primarily because it was the wheat season in Germany, and my daughter being asthmatic, we came back to Fort Bliss because this was where --

Timothy Sallach:

__+

William Washington:

-- her asthmatic condition was in arrest. We bought a home and we settled in. I came back under the assumption that I would have 11 months to find a place to get my family secured and be ready for a worldwide assignment. However, during that time, I became involved in a program called ADAT (ph), which was a Soviet weapons type of system in which we were teaching weapons tactics of Soviet air defense, so -- and we were being deployed to different types of augmentations here in the states, so I never went back overseas. Six years later I retired.

Timothy Sallach:

I see. Now, you were a first sergeant. Tell me about the rest of your military career. As a first sergeant, who were you first sergeant for and how did you like that?

William Washington:

I was assigned to the Directorate of Combat Development when I came back from Germany as an E-7. I was back a couple of years and I made E-8. I was the first sergeant for headquarters -- headquarters __+ battalion, which was a pretty good assignment, but you have so many troops and so many officers, everybody that's here going to school. I really enjoyed -- I really enjoyed the assignment, but later I left that assignment and became the operations officer for the Soviet Air Defense Program that I told you about, and I enjoyed that immensely. And that was the job that I did until I retired.

Timothy Sallach:

Okay. What were your big influences? Did you have a mentor as a private or as a specialist or as a sergeant that you liked really much. Or when you became a master sergeant and a first sergeant, was there anybody that you could look back and say, well, this individual --

William Washington:

I don't think in my experience that I can look back and say I really had a mentor or I really had someone that I really wanted to pattern myself after. I think one of the things I did was I tried to take the best traits from everyone that I thought was doing a good job and emulate those traits and discard those traits that I saw out there that were not -- I think -- and the reason why I think I done that is because I really enjoyed my service in the Army. I really thought that I lived -- had done something that was in the just cause for my country. Over the years, though, there were -- there were still friends of mine that I associate with now that I have considered to be perfect examples for -- to have followed. And the gamut runs from colonels to __ general. One of the people I really admired was a general named Morgan who the first time they had these type of battles was captured, several warrant officers, several colonels that I've admired. But I think overall, colonels, platoon sergeants, first sergeants, and sergeant majors have been those kind of people who I hold mostly in high esteem.

Timothy Sallach:

And is there anything that you'd like to tell me about, anything else you'd like to talk about as far as -- what about Hackworth? You said you were going to get back to Hackworth. When you think of him, what do you think about -- he was -- what do you know about him?

William Washington:

Well, I think I, when I talk about Hackworth, Hackworth is not one of the people who I know a lot about or have a lot of experience about. Again, I told you about those examples of people who I really -- I think overall my military experience was one that I look back on and I really like. I think, though, that in those years since Vietnam I've become more pacifist than soldier. I've become more skeptical than accepting. And I believe the United States of America is the best place in the world to live. However, I don't believe everything that I'm told about every situation. I think it's one of those types of things that I've grown to that point to where don't tell me what it is that you want me to know; say what it is that you want to say and let me evaluate how I fit into that particular picture.

Timothy Sallach:

Well, what about today? What about today?

William Washington:

When I think about today and how we're on the brink of war today, I think about my Vietnam experiences, and I'm trained to figure in my own mind why we need to go to war. Do I believe that the country we want to go to war with is a bad country? Yes, I do. Do I think Saddam Hussein has weapons? Yes, I do. But, you know, I have a joke I tell my friends: I am more afraid of the El Paso Police Department than I am of Saddam Hussein.

Timothy Sallach:

That bad?

William Washington:

Yes, that bad.

Timothy Sallach:

That bad?

William Washington:

Because I am habitually stopped for license checks and those types of things, even though my car readily has --

Timothy Sallach:

Everything?

William Washington:

-- an __+ emblem, a first sergeant sticker on it. You know, I know that I probably contribute to it in some way myself, in that I have braided hair and those types of thing. But, you know, I don't think that profiling is one of the ways that we need to go about conducting business. And I think one of the things that our government is doing right now is we're not being told the whole truth about why we need to go to war. I'm not saying that we don't need to go to war. I'm saying we're not being told the whole truth. But we should be given all the information and allowed to make that decision. I'm not 100 percent sure that our president has the United States' sole interest as a consideration, because I don't really understand how with lack of proof of weapons of mass destruction and a delivery system that the United States of America is threatened by Saddam Hussein.

Timothy Sallach:

Anything else you want to tell us about?

William Washington:

No. My general consensus is, and I said this to you before we started the interview, I normally do not talk about my Vietnam experience. I am proud of it, but I don't want to be a revisionist and I don't want to live past history and I don't want to dwell on some of those things that I consider past social wrongs. But I find that just talking to you today in this discussion, it has helped me out, and I appreciate the fact that you've given me the opportunity in order to talk to you.

Timothy Sallach:

Well, Bill I -- we really appreciate the opportunity talking to you. And we're proud of you, and we thank you for sharing your military experience with us today.

William Washington:

Thank you.

 
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