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Interview with Hector Ponton [09/09/2003]

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Mr. Ponton, could you please state for the record what war you served in and the branch you served in?

Hector Ponton:

The United States Army, uh, officially, the Vietnam War, in that that is the one where, uh, I appeared on site-twice, as a matter of fact, and, uh, but then, uh, I was already in the National Guard during the Korean War in 1952, and, uh, in the military in Europe during all of the Cold War, and some service in Central and South America during our travails down there, so, uh, I claim Vietnam only-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

[Laughs] Okay.

Hector Ponton:

- but, uh, but I was in the periphery of the other ones that I just mentioned.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. Uh, lets go back to the beginning. Uh, were you drafted, uh, when you went into the National Guard initially, or did you enlist?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, the genesis of my military experience, um, goes back to, uh, my hometown in, in Puerto Rico. Um, the summer of 1952. I was then a fifteen-year-old youngster, the gang in the neighborhood, uh, were getting ready to, uh, to go various and sundry places that summer, and a number of them were going to, uh, summer camp with the National Guard. I had no idea what the National Guard was, but I wanted to go to summer camp with them, and I inquired about, uh, how do I get to go to summer camp, and they said, "Well, go by the, uh, National Guard Armory on Sunday, and, uh, sign up!' And, uh, I don't know how much time you want me to have in answering this question, but, uh, needless to say, uh, fifteen years old is a, is a bit young to join the National Guard; as a matter of fact, it ends up being a fraudulent enlistment, if, if you do so, because the requirement was that you be at least seventeen, although, if you were sixteen, you could enlist with parental consent, your parents had to sign off on the, uh, paperwork, and it was okay then. I was-this is May of'52- I am fifteen then, in July I will turn sixteen, and through, uh, whatever administrative, uh, machinations, uh, [laughs] the, uh, warrant officer in charge of, uh, of enlistments at the National Guard managed to, uh, to, uh, follow, in that I would be sixteen in July, I ended up becoming a member of the National Guard and went to summer camp that summer. And, uh, and so, uh, in a way, if s a voluntary thing, uh, albeit, uh, innocent, uh, it was in fact a fraudulent enlistment.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Did you enjoy that summer?

Hector Ponton:

Ah, yes, very much indeed. Uh, I, I loved it, uh, it didn't take very long after, after that first experience in, in my National Guard career that, uh, that I realized the, the military was something that I wanted to, uh, to strive for, um, and, uh, and from there, uh, eventually ROTC in, at, at the university, uh, in commissioning and, and to active duty for, for a number of years.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. Did you ever have to reenlist, since it was a fraudulent enlistment to begin with?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, no, as a matter of fact, um, in the, in the National Guard you enlisted, and, and there was no need to reenlist. However, um, I served, uh, four years in the National Guard, then, uh, in 1950,'54, went to, uh, to college at the University of Puerto Rico. At the time, uh, ROTC was mandatory, and so your first two years of ROTC-the Reserve Officer Training, uh, Corps-uh, were, were mandatory, and, uh, you could remain in the National Guard, but then when you went into the senior division of ROTC- which happened in 19, um, um, 56-uh, you had to leave ROTC and they, uh, leave the National Guard; they would put you then, uh, in the Reserves, inactive Reserves, uh, until you were commissioned, uh, upon graduation in 1958, which was my case.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay, then in 1958, uh, when you were commissioned, where did you end up?

Hector Ponton:

Okay, in 1958, uh, I was offered a Regular Army Commission, although the Reserve Officer Training Corps is to train reserve officers, it so happens that, uh, the, uh, top of the class, in my case at that time, the first three cadets in the class were offered Regular Army Commissions, which means that, uh, that you could then enlist and, and go directly into service in the Regular Army, and then there was no need to reenlist after that, because Regular Army was, in essence, uh, foreseen to be a thirty-year career, and such was the case in, in my personal experience.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. Where were you first stationed at?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, graduated in'58, commissioned, uh, August of'58, and, uh, the first assignment is usually your service school. I was commissioned in the Infantry. And so the Army Infantry School is located at Fort Benning, Georgia, uh, referred to in, uh, in Infantry circles as "Fort Benning, the, uh, Infantry School for Boys!' [Chuckles] And that's where all second lieutenants of Infantry go to get their basic Infantry officers', um, orientation, which lasts, uh, close to six months. And then, further, further on past that, your Airborne and Ranger training-uh, parachute infantry and, and Ranger training.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

This the first time you were in Georgia?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, no, as a matter of fact, I had been in Georgia the previous summer, in 1957, as a, as an ROTC cadet, because that's where the cadets from the University of Puerto Rico went to for their, um, uh, summer training. Um, and that had been my first time in, in Georgia, but not just my first time in Georgia, my first time away from the island in Puerto Rico.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Was that a shock to you?

Hector Ponton:

No, not at all. Um, uh, remember, these, [laughs] these are the days of the propeller-driven airplanes, uh, so it was a long flight from, uh, from San Juan to, uh, I don't, I don't remember what route we followed, exactly, I, I assume that, uh, that a four- engine propeller airplane, um, would make it from, from San Juan direct to, uh, to Fort Benning, Georgia, but, uh, but once I arrived in, in Georgia in the summertime, um, the 14 weather was, uh, not, uh, not all that different, uh, from, uh, from what I had left in Puerto Rico, um, although the weather became a problem when I first went to, uh, Germany, uh, that winter. [Both laugh]

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. So then, you went through six months of, of officer training, basically-

Hector Ponton:

Basic, yes.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

-- and then, after your six months, where did you go?

Hector Ponton:

My first assignment was in, uh, Germany, uh, with the 3rd Armor Rifle Battalion of the, uh, 51st Infantry, a unit assigned to, uh, 5th Corps in, uh, in Army, uh, Headquarters in, uh, in the, uh, European Theater, in Germany.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Uh.

Hector Ponton:

And we were stationed, uh, in Butzbach, a little town just north of Frankfort.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. And you said that you had some, some issues with the German weather that winter?

Hector Ponton:

Um, I arrived there actually in January. Uh, it was my first, uh, exposure to, uh, to cold weather, uh, so if you're asking about, uh, about being a little out of place and, uh, and somewhat of a shock, uh, such was the case. However, uh, I hasten to say that, uh, uh, the Army clothing and equipment, uh, is more than adequate to allow, uh, to allow a soldier, um, however inexperienced he might be in, in cold weather situations to, uh, survive and operate perfectly well. Uh, and it didn't take me, uh, very long to get, uh, acclimated to the point that, not much later on, I was already going to, uh, ski school, and learning to ski, and which became a sport I, uh, I participated in for, uh, pretty much the next thirty years.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

You, you acclimated well, then.

Hector Ponton:

Yes, yes.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

What were your duties in Germany?

Hector Ponton:

I was, um, initially an Infantry, uh, platoon leader, Mechanized, or Armored Infantry as we call it at the time; today it's called Mechanized Infantry. Uh, which means that, uh, that we, uh, traveled in armored personnel carriers. Once you dismounted the personnel carrier, you were what, uh, we referred to as a “straight-leg Infantryman" But our movement for, uh, uh, the medium and long distances would be, uh, mechanized, aboard a, an armored Infantry vehicle.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. How long were you in Germany?

Hector Ponton:

I was in Germany, uh, two plus years. Um, and my first assignment, as I said, was as an Infantry, uh, platoon leader, uh, but halfway through the tour, I graduated from that to, uh, being a scout platoon leader. Uh, and, uh, you went from a rifle company to the headquarters company. The headquarters company, um, housed, uh, three what were called line platoons, a, uh, reconnaissance platoon, a scout platoon, a heavy mortar platoon, and, uh, and a, uh, recoilers rifle, uh, platoon. The scout platoon consisted of, uh, fourteen quarter-ton vehicles, jeeps, which mounted, uh, .50 caliber machine guns, and broken down into three sections, of four vehicles each, uh, makes twelve, uh, and one for the platoon leader and one for the, for the platoon sergeant. And your mission as a scout, element is to, uh, to reconnoiter routes and, uh, the tactical situation, the head of the main body of, uh, of the, uh, of the unit that you are with, in my case, an Infantry battalion.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. Um, after Germany, where did you go?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, from Germany, uh, I was transferred to Fort Lewis in Washington, where I joined the, uh, 4th Infantry Division. Uh, there was a change in nomenclature at the time, and Infantry battalions, uh, became, uh, battle groups, uh, divisions no longer had, uh, battalions, but battle groups, called the Pentomic Concept, uh, in that, in that, uh, uh, that was the Atomic Era, and, uh, and things as pertains to nomenclature would accommodate that type of, uh, of name, and so, um, the, uh, the, uh, battle group had five units, five companies in it, plus a combat support company. I ended up in the combat support company of the battle group as a company executive officer.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

What were your duties?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, the duties of an executive officer in a, uh, in a company-sized unit are primarily administrative. Uh, uh, to include the logistics, to include the, uh, mess facilities, the dining facilities, to include, uh, the, uh, the, uh, uh, motor pool, uh, to include the supply, uh, function, uh, and the other administrative, uh, uh, duties that relate to the operations of a, of a company-sized unit.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay.

Hector Ponton:

Call, the, the executive officer is called the second-in-command, although, uh, your duties are not so much command as they are administrative and logistical in nature.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. How long were you in Washington?

Hector Ponton:

Um, two years. Um, it so happened that, uh, the, uh, Berlin Crisis occurred during the time I was assigned to, uh, to the, uh, to the battle group-by the way, it was the, uh, 2nd Battle Group of the 39th, uh. Infantry, uh, with the 4th Infantry Division, and, uh, we had the Cuban Missile Crisis at the time. Um, and I remember that, uh, the, uh, the, um, division ended up aborting, uh, Navy vessels, transport, attack transports out of Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, proceeding south on the, uh, west coast. At the time, although we didn't know anything about it, um, we were to go, if, if an invasion of, of Cuba had taken place, we were to go through the Panama Canal into the, uh, uh, Caribbean Sea, and, and be prepared to participate in an invasion of Cuba. As it turned out, of course, uh, uh, you know that, uh, that the invasion did not occur, the Missile Crisis came close to exploding into a major conflagration, but, uh, the Russians decided to turn their ships back, and, uh, and so, we did the same; we did not go into the Panama Canal, we headed back to Washington, D.C., and I ended up back at Fort Lewis in Washington. Although, uh, almost immediately after that-and I think it was part of, uh, of that, uh, of that same, uh, hot period in the Cold War-the Berlin Wall, uh, problem arose, in, in Germany, and, uh, and the, uh, my battle group again ended up being flown to, uh, to Germany, uh, and we ended up in, uh, in, uh, Wildflecken in Germany, which is a, uh, a base close to the, at the time, East-West German border, and from there, eventually, uh, we went into, uh, into Berlin proper, at the time that, uh, that the Berlin Wall was being built by the East Germans and, uh, and there was a force needed to be placed in between the East and West Germans, to make sure that the, uh, that the confrontation did not, uh, did not touch the, uh, the flash point. And so, uh, and so I was in Berlin-and we used to say at the time that we were herp-, helping the East Berliners build the wall, because, uh, what we were in essence doing was making sure the West Berliners did not attempt to, uh, to block that and, and bring things to a head, so.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

So you were just kind of - glorified guard duty in some way?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, yes, patrolling-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Patrolling.

Hector Ponton:

- and, uh, and, uh, of cour- our presence there constituted a, an assurance to the West Berliners and, uh, and to the East Berliners that, that we prepared, we were prepared to take whatever action was required to make sure that things didn't, uh, get out of hand.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Did you run across any, uh, East Germans attempting to get out-

Hector Ponton:

Uh, no.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

- before the wall went up?

Hector Ponton:

No, no, I did not experience that personally. Um, I was, uh, close to the, uh, to the "Checkpoint Charlie," the famous Checkpoint Charlie a couple of times. But the organic unit, the, uh, the, the regiment that was stationed in Berlin proper was the one that, uh, that had those particular duties. The out-of-town troops, like we were, uh, were relegated to a second, to a second echelon in the scheme of things there.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. How long were you in Germany then?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, that deployment was for about six months.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Then you went back to Washington?

Hector Ponton:

Then we returned back to, uh, Fort Lewis in Washington.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. Where did you go after Washington?

Hector Ponton:

From, uh, Fort Lewis, Washington, um, we are now in 1962.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Uh-huh. [Indicates affirmative]

Hector Ponton:

Um, we are in Vietnam, the advisory, uh, uh, part of the, uh, of the Vietnam War is ongoing. There are some fifteen hundred U.S. Army advisors in Vietnam. So, by then, Fm a, Pm a Captain-I had been promoted to Captain-and went, was sent to, uh, Fort Bragg, North Carolina for, uh, a Military Assistance Training Advisory course, which would qualify, uh, those attending to go to Vietnam and assist the Vietnamese Army in training and equipment and operations, uh, in their, at the time, the beginnings of, of the Vietnam, uh, uh, confrontation.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

And how long was that course?

Hector Ponton:

That course, I can't remember exactly now, something along the lines of three, four months, uh-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay.

Hector Ponton:

- and, uh, we, we had language courses in Vietnamese, um, we had, uh, uh. History of Vietnam, uh, uh, customs, traditions, uh, the, uh, geopolitics of, uh, of the problem, uh, uh, the experiences the French had had, uh, in the place during the French Indochina War, uh, uh, the, uh, Vietnam-, Vietnamese Army itself, uh, what we were trying to do, uh, uh, the equipment, the training, the, uh, reorganization that we were participating in, so that when you arrived in country, in my case, I ended up assigned to a Vietnamese Infantry battalion, uh, as the, uh, U.S. Army advisor to the Vietnamese, and as such, we, we participated with them, uh, not just in training, but in operations, going to the field with them and participating in whatever, uh, uh, combat and, uh, other activities they were involved in.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

So, after North Carolina, you were pretty much shipped right directly to Vietnam?

Hector Ponton:

Ah, yes, yes.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

That would have been end of'62, beginning of'63?

Hector Ponton:

Correct.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

About then?

Hector Ponton:

Correct.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. Uh, and you said that you were, you were attached to a battalion?

Hector Ponton:

I was, I was the, uh, U.S. Army advisor to a Vietnamese Infantry battalion.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. And-

Hector Ponton:

Of the 9th Vietnamese Infantry Division.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. And, uh-

Hector Ponton:

3rd Battalion of the 13th Regiment of the 9th Vietnamese Infantry Division.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. And what, uh, what were your duties specifically with those, or with that battalion?

Hector Ponton:

Um, you were with the, uh, Vietnamese battalion commander in his headquarters element, you provided whatever advice and assistance, uh, you were called upon to provide. Particularly, uh, you were, uh, you were most, uh, used in things that had to do with providing a, a conduit to, uh, to the U.S. support and capabilities, whether they be air support, logistical support, uh, training support, and operations and, uh, and maintenance, uh, uh, capabilities. After all, though, we were using our equipment, we were supposed to know our equipment, and, uh, and we served in whatever capacity the, uh, Vietnamese unit commander, uh, wanted to, uh, wanted to, uh, require that, that we participate in. And, uh, it varied depending on the situation, and, uh, depending on, uh, particularly on, on what personal relationship you had with that battalion commander.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Uh, when you first got over there and, and, how did you view the situation, uh, in Vietnam?

Hector Ponton:

Um, [clears throat] by then, of course, we had undergone a considerable amount of, uh, of training, which put us in a fairly, uh, uh, well-informed, uh, uh, degree of, of awareness of what was ongoing at the time, and we knew that, uh, North Vietnam, a Communist nation, was trying to take over South Vietnam, a, a democratic, uh, nation, uh, which was, uh, which was on our side of, of the fence during, uh, during that time, during the Cold War, and so, um, we were, uh, intent on, uh, on performing our, our, our assigned duties and responsibilities to the best, uh, uh, uh, to the best extent of our personal, uh, capabilities and, uh, motivation was, was no problem, and belief in the cause was total, and so, uh, besides it was an exciting, it was a, uh, a challenging- physically, mentally, um, uh-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Your, your first time in real combat, I guess?

Hector Ponton:

By then, by then, I had been in, in the military going on, uh, on six, seven years, and, uh, undergoing training and, uh, and motivation and all that, and so, and you're a young, as the term goes,"gung-ho"uh,'1iell bent for leather" type of fellow, and you want to see, uh, what, what the thing is all about, uh, and so, um, they were, they were exciting times. Um, you were fully alive at that time, or I was at that, at that point in time in my life. L. Beckingbaugh: How did you find the South Vietnamese troops?

Hector Ponton:

Um, it varied. Um, they were for one, uh, highly experienced, uh, they were physically very, very capable, they were very small in stature, uh, um, what we used to refer to as, as, uh, as "young kids in uniform," because their physical size is, uh, is small, uh, particularly the, the, um, their upper torso. Their arms, um, are not fully developed, as opposed to their legs, because their legs, they did a lot of walking, they did a lot of bicycling, they played a lot of soccer, and so their lower extremities were, were fully developed, and they were, uh, they could, they could walk for miles up and down mountains and through the swamps and, uh, and, uh, no problem at all. But, but their upper, upper body strength was, uh, was minimal, and, uh, I, I remember at the time we had problems with our weapons being a little too, uh, too heavy for them, uh; we used to have the, uh, M-l rifle, which was a, a, a pretty heavy, uh, pretty heavy rifle, very long, uh. I remember that, uh, that the stalk on the M-l rifle had to be shortened a couple of inches because otherwise, uh, it would've been, uh, past the, the, the point where they could properly hold it to fire and aim it. Uh, so they used mostly our carbine, which is a much shorter, uh, lighter weapon, uh, and, uh, the same thing with, uh, with machine guns, the same thing with mortars, uh, our radios, uh, uh, were heavy, uh. So in that sense, um, they were at a disadvantage, uh, this is, uh, before the transistor, [chuckles] and, and so, uh, communications equipment and weapons were heavy, and in that sense, uh, the Vietnamese soldiers had a little difficulty, although, uh, although they were, they had been at it, they had been, uh, in a guerilla war situation for a long, long time, um, previously with and or against the French, and, uh, and so this was a continuation of the struggle when, uh, by the time we got there.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

You often hear, um, people talking about, that, that they weren't, that the South Vietnamese weren't the best soldiers, they weren't very good, they weren't committed. Um, did you find any of that?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, not at my level. Uh, yes, uh, the conventional wisdom was that their leadership was, uh, was, uh, not very good, that the higher-ranking, uh, echelons of their establishment were, uh, bent on, uh, on graft and corruption. At my level, at the battalion level where we were, out in the, in the field, uh, close to, to where the, uh, rubber, uh, meets the road, as, as, as they say in Infantry circles as well, uh, no I, I couldn't say that I saw much of that.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. Do you remember your first time under fire?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, yes. Um, um, although, when you're in the old Army, when we used to, uh, participate in, uh, in known-distance, uh, firing ranges, that's when, when you were down range in a pit, uh, racing targets for the firing line to engage from two hundred yards away, uh, while lifting targets for the firing line, you were receiving the same, um, sort of impression as when you were under fire in the field, because, because you were hearing the, the bullets were hitting, uh, in your vicinity, and, and the bullets would hit first, and then you'd hear the report from the firing line. And so, in that sense, being under fire in that sense was not new to me, although, uh, although, uh, uh, you knew when you were manning a, a target, uh, uh display in a firing range in a known-distance firing range, that they were not firing to hit you, whereas you did not know so, uh, in, uh, in, in the Vietnam, uh, experience. Uh, and of course, ifs, uh, ifs been said that there's nothing more exhilarating than, than being shot at and missed. [Both laugh]

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Uh, were you shot at and missed often-

Hector Ponton:

Yes, yes.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

— in, in those days?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, fortunately, fortunately, in, in all my, in all my exposures, uh, in Vietnam, uh, both during my first tour with the Vietnamese, and later on during my second tour in Vietnam, when I was with, uh, with a U.S. Army unit, I, uh, in both Infantry battalions, uh, I, I, uh, I was not, uh, I was not, uh, wounded or, uh, or injured in, in any way.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Do you have any, very memorable experiences from those, those initial days, or those, that first time there?

Hector Ponton:

Yes. Um, in retrospect, uh, when, uh, when I look back at, uh, at the things I did then, and, uh, and the places I was and, uh, and the situations that, that evolved, uh, uh, it, it immediately, uh, you, you realize, as I said, in retrospect, that you could've bought the farm, you know, in, uh, in any of those times, and some of the things you did were not all that smart, and, uh, and that you were fortu-, fortunate, you were lucky. But, uh, but that was not what was really memorable to me about, uh, about my, uh, wartime experiences, uh. What was, uh, what was memorable, um, was the casualties, taking casualties, uh, and, and that happened more, uh, during my second tour, uh, when we were in a much more active period of combat, involved in our own, our own troops and our own tactics and our own operations, and, uh, and it was a little more difficult then.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

In this first tour, did you live with the, the Vietnamese, uh, soldiers that you were attached to?

Hector Ponton:

Yes. As a matter of fact, uh, for thirteen months, um, except for those times when, when I would leave the unit or the unit was pulled from the field and, and went back to a secure area, I would then leave the unit and go report to my, to my advisory headquarters. Uh, and that occurred about once every three months or so. The rest of the time, I was, uh, uh, there was a period of time there when I had a sergeant with me, uh, uh, who, uh, who then became ill, uh, gastrointestinal problems, um, and had to be, uh, had to be, uh, evacuated, and so I, I went back to being by myself with, uh, with the Vietnamese battalion. I lived with them, I ate with them, um, and, uh, and it was, uh, an interesting, uh, experience in terms of, uh, of, uh, having to, to make do with their diet, which was, uh, uh, not as, not as rich and as plentiful as, as we experienced when you were in the U.S. Army logistical, at the end of the U.S. Army logistical chain, um. We, uh, we existed primarily on rice, uh, because it is easy to carry and it is, it doesn't spoil, and it can be very quickly prepared. The rice is supplemented with, uh, Vietnamese ration, which, uh, consisted of, uh, of, uh, a, uh, sardine-type can, uh, a, uh, a sauce which wh-, you could equate to a soy sauce, uh, whatever greens you, uh, you managed to, uh, to find in the jungle-bamboo shoots, for example, were plentiful, and, uh, and we ate a lot of that, bananas, dried-up shrimp, um, um, which we carried, uh, in plastic bags. Whenever a battery for a radio, uh, was taken out of its plastic, uh, wrapping, that bag- which is about the size of a Ziploc bag nowadays, which did not exist at the time-uh, and, and, uh, and when we in a village, um, um, either dried-up fish or dried-up shrimp would be placed in those bags; it didn't spoil, you'd carry it with you, and then, in essence, you hydrated it, uh, by putting it in boiling water when you were out in the field, and so your, your steady diet was, uh, was, uh, the basic staple is rice, and that is plentiful, ifs all over the landscape, we would capture it from, uh, from, uh, from the Viet Cong, uh, camps that, that we ran into and, uh, and that was a basic way of re-supplying ourselves with enemy rice, uh, although the enemy rice was not as, as polished as, as, uh, as the one we used to get through the supply chain, which is mostly U.S. rice, as a matter of fact, probably from Louisiana [both laugh]. And, um, and as I said, whatever you were able to forage for yourself in, in the jungle, and there were fruits and vegetables, um, uh, plenty of 'em. Some that I had never seen-pineapples, uh-some that, uh, that I was familiar with, because, interesting enough, uh, uh, in the, in the, uh, warm weather areas of Vietnam, the, uh, flora and the fauna was not much different than, uh, than where I had grown up in, in Puerto Rico, although, although we didn't have that type of swamp in Puerto Rico and, uh, and, uh, some of the, some of the animals that they had in, in Vietnam, uh, did not, uh, did not exist in Puerto Rico, either, by, by which I mean, uh, tigers and other animals that, uh, the names of which I can't even remember because I only knew them in Vietnamese: conchon or something, uh.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. When you were on the, uh, living with the Vietnamese, what did you do for entertainment?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, it was, uh, it was minimal. Um, there would be times, uh, depending on, on where we were in a village where they might be able to show, um, a movie, um, very infrequently. Um, um, I read a lot. We, we, we were constantly supplied every time a, uh, a, uh, a re-supply helicopter came to our position wherever we might be. Uh, invariably, there would be a, a shoebox full of, uh, paperbacks, and I always carried, uh, three or four of them in, in my combat pack. And, and, uh, whenever I had the time — during the day, of course, because at night, you had no lights-um, uh, I, I read a lot, but, uh, we had, uh, uh, radios; we listened to, uh, to, uh, um, to the BBC a lot, um, and, uh, the, uh, the local, of course, the local radio stations-when you were close to big cities like, uh, Saigon and, uh, Quy Nhon and Da Nang and places like that, uh, you were able to, to receive the, the local radio stations. But, uh, that sort of, uh, music and/or, uh, and/or, uh, dialogue did not, uh, did not interest me, so I, I, I listened mostly to, uh, to, uh the news and, uh, BBC and, uh, and like that.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Were you staying in contact with your family?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, yes, um, infrequently. [Laughs] Again, these are the days of, uh, the uh, uh, uh, landlines-uh, telephones were not satellite, uh, satellite-based, there were no such things as cell phones. Uh, the most advanced we, we, uh, we ever, the most sophisticated we ever got, communications-wise, particularly with your families, uh, was when the, uh, day of the, uh, transistor, uh, cassette tape, uh, and, and, and it was just becoming very popular, and so, you would have a little, uh, transistorite cassette recorder and player, and you would record a tape, and you would put it in an envelope and mail it home, maybe two weeks later, it would get, uh, depending on where you were in Vietnam, maybe two weeks later, it would get back to your family, in my case, in, in Puerto Rico. And then, it would, uh, it would take that long for a, uh, for a tape to get back to me, uh, so maybe once a month, and, uh, you, you would get a, a tape exchange. Uh, and it was pretty much the same with, uh, with letters; this is the time when people still wrote letters, you see. Uh, and, uh, and that was the first thing that got in a helicopter whenever a helicopter touched a position; you had written a letter the day before or a week before, and when a helicopter came in, whether it be for a medical evacuation or to, on a re-supply mission, you had your, your letters ready to go, and, uh, in wartime, uh, uh, at least in Vietnam at that time, I don't know if that's the case in, uh, in the Middle East right now, but, uh, the, uh, soldier is exempted from having to use stamps, you see, and so you don't need stamps, you just, you, you mail, you wrote your letter, put it in an envelope, put the address on it, and, uh, and it made it through the mail, with the, with the origin being at the time, "A Combat Zone in Vietnam," you didn't need any stamps on it. But it, it would take, you know, two weeks to get back to where it was going.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Still take as long.

Hector Ponton:

Huh?

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Still take as long.

Hector Ponton:

[Laughs] Yeah.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Uh, how long did you do the, the advisory tour in Vietnam?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, one year.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

One year?

Hector Ponton:

One year, yes.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

And then you left Vietnam?

Hector Ponton:

I, uh, left Vietnam and, uh, and went, uh, back to Fort Benning, Georgia for my, what is called the, uh, the midlevel schooling, uh, your, your Advanced Infantry Officers course, the, uh, the, the captain's level, uh, course, which is, uh, close to a year, training, where again, uh, you go into more advanced, uh, staff and operating, uh, uh, procedures, training, organization, um, uh, training, logistics, communications, and the like. And that's a, a mid, uh, mid-career schooling at, uh, at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay, so you spent a year there?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, close to a year, I think it was nine months, uh-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

How old were you at this time?

Hector Ponton:

-six to nine months. Um, this is 19, uh, 63, Fm still in my late twenties, uh, late twenties.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay, when you came back to the U.S., did you have a different view of what was happening in Vietnam than you had when you were there?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, no, um, um-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Still the same gung-ho?

Hector Ponton:

Still, uh, still very much, uh, uh, a believer in the cause, I, I never faltered, uh, I never faltered in that department, uh. And interestingly enough, uh, I, I was never subjected to the antiwar experience in, uh, in the United States because I had, uh, uh, what was called, uh, "intertheater transfers?" I, uh-particularly during my second tour in Vietnam-I, uh, and that, there was Korea in between as well, because I served in Korea between my first Vietnam tour and my second Vietnam tour, uh, so which in essence, for the, for the career soldiers, for the professionals like me, you ended up either in the theater or back in the States for schooling, and then back overseas, uh, for, for another deployment, and, and in essence what I had-uh, and we can go into a little more detail later on-but, but I had Vietnam, I had stateside training, I had, uh, Korea, I had, uh, uh, stateside training, no, Korea, I had an in, an intertheater transfer from Korea without, without coming to the States, straight to Germany. And I spent another, my s-, my second, my second tour in, in Germany. And then, from Germany, back to the States for training, and back to Vietnam for the second time, so it was Vietnam, Korea, Germany, uh, Vietnam. And so, I guess I was overseas when all the antiwar, uh, uh, problems were, were, uh, extant in the United States, and I was never exposed to a, to the full force of, uh, of the antiwar activities in the United States.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. So after your training, uh, your, your midlevel training-

Hector Ponton:

Um-hm. [Indicates affirmative]

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

-then you went to Korea?

Hector Ponton:

I went to, uh, Fort Ord, uh, uh, in Washington, Fort Ord in California, um, as a Company Commander in a, uh, in a, uh, Infantry training, uh, unit, where we were in essence training soldiers for Vietnam, and I was by then a, a senior Captain, had been through my, uh, Advanced Infantry Officers, uh, Career clo-, class, and, and was given command of a, of a training company at, at Fort Ord.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. How long did you stay at Fort Ord?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, two years.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. And then you went to Korea?

Hector Ponton:

And then I went to, uh, no, from Fort Ord [shuffles papers]. Excuse me. [Interviewer laughs] I have a little, uh-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Cheat sheet.

Hector Ponton:

-timeline here. Yes, yes, from Fort Ord, went straight to Korea, and by now, this is 1966, um, where I ended up in the, uh, G-3 or Operations Section of the 7th Infantry Division.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. What were your duties there?

Hector Ponton:

I was the Plans and Operations Officer of the Operations Section in the, uh, in the 7th Infantry Division, and Plans and Operations, uh, you, in essence are responsible for compiling, updating, and, at times, depending on, on, uh, on ty-, what type of operation, preparing the operation orders that specify how the division would perform the assigned missions of the division in Korea at the time. And of course you have carrying operations and you have envision operations and contingency operations and in essence we were manning the demarcation line between North and South Korea, prepared to go to war if, uh, if the North Koreans were to invade, and, and we were, uh, in basically a, a war footing there. Uh, by the way, the situation is still the same in Korea, uh-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Did-

Hector Ponton:

-fifty years later.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Even at that time, it felt like war could break out at any point, at any moment?

Hector Ponton:

We would, we would, yes, we would have skirmishes, uh, uh, shots were fired and people were wounded on both sides of the fence, uh, through all that time. Uh, and you were, uh, fully, fully loaded, uh, armed and equipped, uh, ready to go to war any minute, and the proximity is such that, uh, that, uh, that you were, uh, uh, there was no such a thing as wearing of civilian clothes after duty hours, you were on duty-we didn't have the phrase at the time, but you were on duty 24-7.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Did you feel more stress there than you did when you were in Vietnam?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, uh, the stress was different. Um, the stress at, uh, at the division level, in the Plans and Operations, uh, section of an Infantry division, the stress is more, uh, more, on a professional basis, more intellectual and, uh, operational than it is physical or, or, or apprehension or fear of any sorts. Many and varied, uh, uh, serious responsibilities concerning the employment of, uh, of, uh, personnel and equipment, and, uh, and you're doing, uh, uh, complicated, uh, uh, operational things and, uh, and you are professionally concerned, uh, that they go well because, uh, if s your professional reputation at stake. Uh, and in that sense, uh, in that sense if s, uh, if s a highly demanding, uh, existence, yes.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Uh, what were your, do you have any, uh, most memorable moments in, in Korea?

Hector Ponton:

Uh...

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Things that really stick out in your mind?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, um, the fact that, uh, there were so many similarities. Again, we are in the, uh, in the Far East, and, uh, uh, the culture in many ways, uh, in the Oriental, in the Oriental world is, uh, is very similar. Uh, a major difference between Korea and Vietnam had to do with the weather: Korea is a very, very cold place also. And, uh, and, fortunately, this time, I was at a Division Headquarters, and we operated out of either bunkers that had, uh, you're not out in the open, uh, and had, uh, electrical, uh, lighting and, uh, and heat, and you were not fully exposed to, uh, to the inclement weather. But, uh, but, uh, the, the, uh, the, the thing that stands out the most, I guess, is, uh, is the similarities that exist in, in Oriental societies, um, as pertains, um, standards of living, um, food, um, and, uh, the inscrutable Oriental personality, and the inscrutable, uh, Oriental, uh, per se.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay.

Hector Ponton:

And, and, and the fact that here we had a situation in Vietnam which was North Vietnam versus South Vietnam, and then we had a similar situation in Korea, North Korea versus South Korea, and in both instances, we were with the, with the southern elements, and, uh, and so in many ways, there were many similar things.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Did you have any, uh, contact with the South Korean Army?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, yes, yes. Um, there is a program-and I don't know if it still exists- um, which was called the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army. Uh, and that is, that there were Korean soldiers, uh, attached directly to our units, and, and you could find at all levels, from the squad on through the platoons and companies and the like, um, that the, the Korean soldier was, uh, integrated into the, uh, into the U.S. Army unit. Uh, and there were specially trained Korean soldiers, uh, they spoke English and, uh, and were able to, they were familiar with, uh, with our, with our tactics and our training, and, uh, and were able to, to participate, uh, uh, pretty effectively as an added-on to our, to our, uh, force structure. Um, and, uh, uh, I don't think that, uh, that we could've done it without an, uh, in that, by then, as we are today, we were spread out all over the world, uh, and with a major requirements both in, uh, in Europe and in Vietnam, and Korea at the time was, was relegated to secondary importance in the scheme of things. L. Beckenbaugh. Okay. And how long were you in Korea?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, a year. The tour in Korea was a year.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay, and then you said you went directly to Germany?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, went from Korea back to, uh, Germany, where I ended up with the, uh. Comptroller Division of the, uh, Army Headquarters in Europe. The, uh, Comptroller Division, uh, uh, my, uh, college degree was in Business Administration, Management, Accounting and Management, and so, one of my, uh, alternate specialties, was as a comptroller, uh, uh, officer, and I ended up assigned, uh, as an account, uh, a, a Training Account, uh, Supervisor in the, uh, in the Budget Division of the Comptroller's Office at Army Headquarters in, in Europe. And, uh, in essence, I, uh, I manage and, and answered for the expenditure, the justification and the expenditure of, uh, training moneys for all of, uh, of, uh, the 7th United States Army in Europe, millions and millions of dollars that were devoted to, uh, to, uh, training in, in the theater, and I had to justify, uh, that money through the, uh, through the appropriation, uh, procedures, and then I had to manage when those moneys were authorized and explain, uh, how they were being spent, and, uh, and, uh, where we were in the exe-, in the budget execution, uh, uh, faces to the, uh, to the 7th Army, uh, uh, Headquarters.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. How long were you in Germany?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, close to three years.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Three years.

Hector Ponton:

Um, I was a, I was a Major by then.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

That's been your longest stop so far.

Hector Ponton:

Uh, [both laugh] as a matter of fact, yes. Um, um, all of them spent at Army Headquarters, all of them at the, uh, at the Comptroller, uh, Budget Section of the, of the Comptroller, uh, operation in, in 7th Army Headquarters in Europe.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. And from there you went-

Hector Ponton:

[Clears throat] Um-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

- for more training or back to Vietnam?

Hector Ponton:

Back, no, back to, back to, uh, to the United States, uh, uh, this time for, uh, the Armed Forces Staff College, uh, curriculum, in Norfolk, Virginia. This is a six months, uh, uh, as the name would imply, um, course of instruction, uh, more advanced than the previous, uh, company level course, the captain's course, and here you are in essence, uh, trained and educated to perform at higher staff levels-in my case, uh, from there, um, uh, with an entering tour to Kor-, to Vietnam for a second time, I went to the, uh, Pentagon in Washington, D.C., uh, to work in the Army Staff at the Pentagon. But it is, at the Armed Forces Staff College, in Norfolk, where you, where you are so, uh, trained and qualified.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. And how long was that school?

Hector Ponton:

That school was about, uh, nine months, if I remember correctly, six to nine months, uh.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay.

Hector Ponton:

Yes.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

So then you're, then, from there you go to Vietnam and that's about 19-

Hector Ponton:

Um, I'm in-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

trying to add up my years ...

Hector Ponton:

Vietnam for my second year in 1970.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

1970.

Hector Ponton:

Uh-hum. [Indicates affirmative] By then, uh, um, the U.S. is fully involved in Vietnam.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Uh-huh. [Indicates affirmative]

Hector Ponton:

Uh, we have, in essence, uh, taken to the field with our own organizations and, and divisions. We have, uh, I forget, uh, how many hundreds of thousands of troops we had in there at the time. My first tour, there were about three thousand U.S. Army advisors in Vietnam. Uh, during my second tour, as I said, it is, we are, we are there fully involved, and my tour then was with an airborne Infantry battalion, the Parachute Infantry Battalion of the 173rd Airborne Infantry.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

What were your duties?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, my duties were, initially, first six months, I was the Operations Officer for that battalion, and then, six months later, I became the Executive Officer for the battalion, second-in-command, again, uh, going from the operational side, where you are planning operations and conducting operations and controlling operations, whether there be airborne assaults, um, or, uh, patrolling, um, uh, to the administrative/logistical side, which is, uh, making sure that the, uh, battalions and the units in the field are being, uh, maintained, uh, logistically, administratively, and, uh, and uh, in the, uh, in the personnel side.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Now ifs been seven or eight years since you've been to Vietnam. Do you notice big changes, other than the fact that the U.S. has, has taken over-

Hector Ponton:

Um.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

- or is in-

Hector Ponton:

Uh, my, my involvement, uh, in, uh, in the, in the periphery of what's happening in Vietnam, uh, is more removed during my second tour than in the first tour. In the first tour, I am with a Vietnamese unit-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Uh-huh. [Indicates affirmative]

Hector Ponton:

- operating with the Vietnamese in their, in the proximity of their cities and villages, uh, fully immersed in, in, in what they're doing, uh at the local level, um, and then in my second tour, I am with a United States Army unit, out in the field, far removed from, uh, the majority of, of the times, from the, uh, large population centers, uh, very seldom, uh, leave our, our own firebases and our own encampments to, uh, to be with, uh, with the Vietnamese directly in their villages and, and towns, and so, uh, that, that is a major difference, and I am fully under the umbrella of the, uh, of the U.S. logistical, uh, uh, capabilities, and, uh, ifs a much more comfortable, uh, scheme of things, for example, uh, it is the, it is the dining facility, uh, the, the, uh, U.S. Army rations, uh, are, uh, much more palatable and, and plentiful and rich than, uh, than the Vietnamese rice and dried-up shrimp that I talked about earlier.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Do you have any contact with the South Vietnamese Army?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, some, on a, on a coordinating, uh, basis at the liaison, uh, officer level, uh, but not, uh, not with the Vietnamese troops as such, uh. I deal with, uh, with the, uh, with the commanders of units operating in, in our vicinity, as I dealt with, uh, with the. uh, interestingly enough, the Korean officers of a Korean Army division that was in Vietnam, uh, co-located in their own sector. By then, the, the, the Koreans were also involved in the Vietnam War on the South, on the South side, the side of the South Vietnamese, and it so happens that, contiguous to my, uh, own brigade, uh, once in the 3rd Airborne Brigade sector, was a Korean Army division sector, and so we had to maintain, uh, coordination/liaison with them. But it's again, as I indicated, at the, uh, liaison officer level, and not with the, with the troops as such.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. Uh, you were talking, so you didn't actually see combat, uh, the, the being fired at, uh, on your second tour?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, well, [interviewer laughs] uh, I was the Operations Officer the, uh, first six months. As the Operations Officer, uh, you were not as directly involved as I had been in my first tour, as close to the action as I had been in my first tour with the Vietnamese, uh, uh, battalion, uh, trekking around the jungle, uh, at two-and-a-half miles an hour, as, as, as the Infantry travels, two-and-a-half miles an hour, on, on foot. By then, this is the age of the helicopter, but I am put in some long hours in a helicopter hopping from one unit to the next, uh, again, subjected to, uh, to coming into, uh, into landing zones, uh, you never knew when they would be, uh, hot or cold, and you never knew when you would be engaged, you never knew when your helicopter was gonna fail, and, uh, and, uh, and, uh, even our firebases, uh, uh, although you are inside a protected perimeter with a berm and all manner of, uh, of firepower, uh, aimed at, uh, preventing enemy troops from coming within your, within your perimeter, you were still receiving, uh, mortar, rocket, artillery fire in, uh, in there, so, uh, it is not as direct an involvement in as, as clear an exposure to enemy fire, but you are still exposed, and, uh, and you were still taking casualties, uh, which I indicated earlier was my, uh, my most difficult thing to contend with, uh, in the sense that, uh, as the Administrative, uh, the Executive Officer of that, uh, uh, airborne battalion, um, one of my duties, was, for example, uh, having to deal with the casualties that we sustained, you know. Uh, uh, the first thing that, uh, I would do whenever we took any casualties-and they were evacuated to the Battalion Aid Station-I personally went to the Battalion Aid Station to, uh, to meet the helicopters as they came in, and, uh, and see the young men had sustained the casualties, uh, the wounds, the injuries, uh, uh, I, I should've, uh, I should've alerted you to the fact that, uh, at this point in time, I may get a little, uh, emotional and sentimental here, because, uh-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

You wouldn't be the only one.

Hector Ponton:

Huh? Really?

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

You wouldn't be the only one.

Hector Ponton:

Okay. [Clears throat] So, uh-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Are you seeing heavy casualties at this time?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, yes, at times, at times, uh, particularly, um, ambushes, when, when our troops, um, um were through the jungles and patrols and, uh, and would be exposed to, uh, ambushes, whether they be by, uh, mines, uh, or, uh, or direct enemy fire, or booby traps, uh, uh, and, uh, and, uh, those casualties initially would be evacuated to a Battalion Aid Station, uh, where, uh, uh, they were stabilized; we had a, uh, a, uh, surgeon, a, uh, medical doctor at the battalion level, with a Medical Aid Station that had, uh, the capability of stabilizing the, the individual before he was then evacuated by helicopter off the chain, uh, to, uh, um, more, uh, elaborate and sophisticated medical installations, eventually to the United States if the, if the injury so required. But, uh, but yes, that was, uh, that was hard, uh, hard to see the young.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

And thinking that that was just you ten years earlier.

Hector Ponton:

Um, I, I was never really, uh, never concerned for myself, uh, earlier it had, it had been exciting and, and challenging, but it was, it was difficult. By then, Fm a much more mature individual, uh, uh, older person, although I was still a bachelor, and, uh, and had no family responsibilities as such, to a wife and, and, uh, and children. Um, but by then I, uh, I, I am an older guy compared to the, to the young fellows that Fm seeing come through the, uh, through the evacuation, the military medical evacuation, uh, channels. And that was, that was, uh, that was difficult.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Um, and you were in Vietnam then for your second tour, was a year?

Hector Ponton:

A year. Another year.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay.

Hector Ponton:

All of it with the, with the, uh, with the, uh, 2nd Battalion of the 503rd, uh, Airborne Infantry of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. That brigade is in, uh, in Iraq right now. Uh, it was the brigade that parachuted, uh, uh, to the north there, uh, during the, uh, during the beginnings of the war. Good to see my, my shoulder patch there again.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Which did you prefer? You said, for six months, you did mainly operational, and then for six months you were Ex, uh, Ex O. Which did you prefer?

Hector Ponton:

The, the operational side. Um, um, I, uh, I was more, more at home with Operations than I was with Administration and Logistics, uh. I, I, I, I applied myself diligently to, uh, to both of them, but, uh, but there was more excitement and enjoyment in the operational side as there was the, in the administrative/logistical side. Although, I, I have to say that ifs equally important, you know, to the, to the final scheme of things. Uh, you can't fight if you don't have the beans and the bullets, you see.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Oh, certainly.

Hector Ponton:

Uh-hum. [Indicates affirmative]

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Uh, and from Vietnam you go back to the States?

Hector Ponton:

From, uh, from Vietnam, um, after my second tour, I am then assigned to, uh, the Pentagon, in Washington, D.C. Uh, you, you have to recall that I had been to, uh, the Armed Forces Staff College in-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Uh-hum. [Indicates affirmative]

Hector Ponton:

- uh, in Norfolk. And so, uh, I am by then qualified to, uh, go to the Pentagon and become a, uh, a, an Army Headquarters Staff Officer.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

What did you do there?

Hector Ponton:

And I am assigned to the, uh, office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations in the, uh, Command and Control, uh, Division. And, uh, the Command and Control Division of the, of the operations side of the Army Staff is one that, in essence, um, uh, uh, maintains operational control, um, over the deployed forces of the United States Army throughout the world. And, uh, and Fm a very small, [laughs] very small, I am still a, a Major, although halfway through my tour of the Pentagon, I was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, but a Major at, uh, in the Pentagon is a, is a very low-ranking, uh, uh, military officer, and, uh, and, as, Fm a small, a small operator in the Army staff, um, Tm still required to, uh, make coffee, uh, [both laugh] in, uh, in our division-actually, we used to schedule ourselves into, uh, into making coffee in the morning once a week, uh, because you had a, a roomful of, I think we had about, uh, eight cubicles in a, in a room a little larger than, than this, um, um, um auditorium here. Um, and we had about eight cubicles in there for about eight, uh, young majors, and, uh, and uh, and we had a coffeepot going in the back of the room, and, and so, uh, we had civilian secretaries at the time, and, uh, civilian secretaries, uh, frowned upon, uh, the idea of, uh, of making coffee, and so we had to make our own coffee, and, uh, and, uh, um-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

How long did you spend at the Pentagon?

Hector Ponton:

Um, three years, uh, from, uh, 71 through, uh, 1974. Yes, I was going to say that I was, uh, in the Command and Control Division as, again, a Budget Officer. I was following the, the, uh, we were going into the computer business at the time, and we were installing a worldwide military command and control system which was, for the first time, based on, uh, on communications, uh, controlled primarily by computers-this is, uh, the, the, the beginnings of that kind of sophisticated technology, but I was on, in the numbers-crunching side of the operation. I, uh, with my budget experience, I, uh, I contributed to the, to the idea of identifying costs, justifying costs, defending, uh, uh, requests for budget appropriations, explaining them, um, uh, once they were authorized and approved, then, managing the expenditures, um on, uh, on an Army-wide basis, and of course, fm being fed information from the field for all that. But in the Operations, uh, Division of the Army staff in Washington, D.C, I, uh, I had responsibility for, for the budget side of the command and control system expenditures.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. And you did that 'til 1974?

Hector Ponton:

1974.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

And then, where did you go after'74?

Hector Ponton:

In 1974, I am assigned to, um, to, uh, uh. Fort Polk, Louisiana. Fm sent to Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

[Laughs] Okay.

Hector Ponton:

And Fm told by, uh, by my, uh, colleagues at the Pentagon-some of whom had, uh, been in Louisiana; I had never been to Louisiana before-that all ran-, all roads end at Fort Polk in Louisiana, [interviewer laughs] they used to say. And, uh, interestingly enough, when-this is 1974-uh, no what did I say? No.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

1974, I think.

Hector Ponton:

Yes, 1974. Um, I, I arrived in Leesville, Virginia, Leesville, Louisiana, and went looking for the local Sears store to, uh, I, I, I had an apartment, got an apartment in DeRidder, um, Fm going to live off post while assigned to, uh, Fort Polk, um, and, uh, Fm going to set up an apartment and, and go looking for Sears to buy the washer-dryers, and that kind of a thing, and they said, "Well, there are no Sears stores in Leesville. There is a Sears catalog store; what you do is, you go to the catalog store, you go through the catalogs, you order whatever, uh, items you need, and then, uh, when the next, um, wagon train comes through town, [interviewer laughs] the/11 deliver your, uh-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Your stuff.

Hector Ponton:

That's stretching it. But that's, that's in essence what, what I ended up doing. And so, my exposure to, coming from Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, to Leesville and DeRidder, Louisiana, was-you were talking about shock earlier-[interviewer laughs] yes, this is, this was a shock, particularly when, when, uh, DeRidder was dry, and, uh, and there were no bars to go to and, uh, and that kind of a thing.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

[Laughs] So what were your duties at Fort Polk?

Hector Ponton:

Um, I was, uh, initially Deputy Commander of, uh, Training Command. Fm a Lieutenant Colonel by then; I had been promoted while at the Pentagon.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Uh-hm. [Indicates affirmative]

Hector Ponton:

And I am second-in-command of the Training Command at, uh, at Fort Polk in Louisiana, uh, where I stayed about a year, and then, uh, when a battalion, uh, uh, became available, I was then, uh, given command of a, uh, of a battalion, an Advanced Infantry, uh. Training Battalion at, at Fort Polk.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. And how long did you stay at Fort Polk?

Hector Ponton:

I was at Fort Polk, uh, through 1976, two years. And, uh, and, uh, I was then selected to attend the, uh, the Army War College, which is the, uh, the senior, uh, Army service school, the, uh, the post-graduate, uh, level of, of the Army educational system, ifs, uh-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Is that at Leavenworth?

Hector Ponton:

— at, uh, no, Leavenworth is, uh, the equivalent of the Armed Forces Staff College that I had attended earlier.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Then you're going to, in Pennsylvania, Carlisle Barracks?

Hector Ponton:

The Army War College is Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, yes, uh, Carlisle Barracks, and is the Army equivalent of the Naval War College, which is at Rhode Island, uh, and, uh, and/or the, uh, the, uh, Air Force, the Air War College, which is at, uh, at, uh-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

In Alabama?

Hector Ponton:

- in Alabama, Maxwell, Alabama, and, uh, and/or the, uh, National, uh. War College, which is, uh, in Washington, D.C., um, um-

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

So you were there for?

Hector Ponton:

- and Fm at the Army War College, for one year.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

One year.

Hector Ponton:

One year. I, uh, I graduated, uh, in '7-, with the class of'77, um, and then transferred to, uh, Fort Bragg in North Carolina to attend the Institute for Military Assistance. Uh, this is a four months course-by then, I have been designated a Foreign Area Officer, as, as you know, uh, uh, I have a, uh, a, a Latin American, uh, background; I, uh, was born, grew up, went to school in Puerto Rico, a native speaker of, of Spanish, and, uh, uh, we are heavy in, uh, getting involved in, uh, in the, uh, Nicaraguan, uh, Contra problem, and, uh, and, uh, the Panamanian things, and, uh, and officers are being designated to get involved in, in that, uh, particular, uh, uh, theater, and so I go to the Institute for Military Assistance at Fort Bragg to undergo, uh, training as a, uh, Foreign Area Officer for service, uh, in, uh, in that theater, in Latin America. And, uh, I do that in, uh, for se-, four months in 1977, and, uh, and, uh, as an aside here, while, uh, while at, uh, at Fort Polk, I met a young lady from Lake Arthur, Louisiana, who was working in Lake Charles at the time. Um, and, uh, initially she captured me, although I, I took her away. We were married in, uh, in '78, and, uh, and, uh, uh, we just completed twenty-five years of, uh, blissful matrimony, [both laugh] uh, and we have a, uh, son, Antoine, who is a junior at ULM in Monroe today. Uh, but in 1978, Tm then assigned to, uh, San Jose, Costa Rica, uh, where, uh, where I am the, uh, chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation. In essence, uh, the, uh, the Army attache to, uh, to, uh, to the U.S. Embassy in, in San Jose, although it is called the Office of Defense Cooperation because Costa Rica officially does not have a military, does not have an army, their constitution prohibits them from having an army; they have a, a, uh, public security force, uh, which, uh, sort of, uh, unofficially performs those duties that normally you would see being performed by, by a bona fide military establishment in most other countries in the world.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. How long were you in Costa Rica?

Hector Ponton:

I was in Costa Rica from 78 through 1980, when I was transferred to, uh, uh, Bogota, Colombia, uh, where I was the, uh, chief of the Army Section, United States Army Section of the Military Group. Again, uh, Military Group assigned to the U.S. Embassy in, in Colombia, and there, Colombia has a full-fledged military, so we had a full-fledged bona fide, uh, mil group, uh, and, uh, we had representation also in that military group, uh, from the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

What were your duties there?

Hector Ponton:

I was the chief of the Army Section, uh, in that middle group.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

What did you do?

Hector Ponton:

Um, uh, as the, uh, the chief of the Army Section, you, you provide direct contact with the, uh, Colombian Army, and you assist 'em, again in matters that have to do with, uh, training, equipment, and operations. You are, you are their conduit into the U.S. Army, uh, military, uh, logistical, uh, training, and operational, uh, uh, assistance.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay.

Hector Ponton:

And, and you're dealing directly with the, with the Colombian Army, uh, uh, staff at Headquarters, Colombian Army, and my office was co-located with the Colombian Army Headquarters, in, uh, at the C-A-N-which we used to call the tarf-which is the Centro Administrativo National, which translates, literally, as the National Administrative Center.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. And how long were you in Colombia?

Hector Ponton:

Um, for, uh, uh two years again, when we were transferred to Denver, Colorado, uh, with an Army Readiness Region. Um, uh, at the time, uh, the Army was divided into seven, the Army in the Continental United States had, uh, seven Readiness Regions. The one that I was assigned to was the 7th Army Readiness Region, with, uh, headquarters in Denver, Colorado under a, uh, two-star General, you had a, uh, a group of, uh, of, uh senior Army colonels; by then, I am a full Colonel. And, uh, and you have a, a, uh team of, of colonels-uh, Infantry, Artillery, Armor, Signal, Medical, Engineers, uh, Quartermaster, and other-Ordnance, Transportation, uh, I may miss one or two. [Interviewer laughs] But, uh, we are all responsible for the training and the, uh, and the, uh, uh, support of National Guard and Reserve Units of the United States Army, in our case, the, the 7th Army Readiness Region, in a ten-state area. So, from Denver, Colorado, we went to Kansas, Nebraska, uh, uh, North and South Dakota, Utah, uh, Colorado-we're in Colorado, from Denver-uh, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, and I don't know if I missed any there, uh, but ifs a ten-state area surrounding the headquarters in, in Denver, Colorado. And there, at that headquarters, of the Army Readiness Region 7, working with National Guard and Reserve Units in that stat-, ten-state area, I am the Infantry, uh, Coordinator, uh, for whatever Infantry units there are in that, uh, in that ten- state area, and we had a, an Infantry brigade in Kansas, and Infantry brigade in, uh, Nebraska, a Special Forces group in Utah, a, uh, a, uh, Reserve battalion in Denver, and, uh, uh, a couple of other units that I was responsible for that I can't think of right now, in, uh, in other places in the region.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Fm gonna backtrack you a minute. When you were in, uh, South, Costa Rica and Colombia, uh, were there any, anything exciting happen that you were involved with?

Hector Ponton:

Um.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Or was it pretty routine?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, [laughs] yes, there was, in, when, when I was in Costa Rica, uh, this is, uh, Somoza is the, uh, is the, uh, President of Nicaragua, um, there is an internal problem in Nicaragua where the, uh, the, uh, the, um, rebels, Nicaraguan rebels, Communist- inspired, are attempting to dethrone Somoza, Anastasio Somoza is a, uh, an ally of the U.S. As a matter of fact, uh, he's so far back in history now that, uh, that maybe it, it, uh, is worth mentioning. Anastasio Somoza is a, the President of Nicaragua, he is a West Point graduate, uh, uh, U.S. Military Academy graduate at West Point, pro-U.S., uh, we are attempting to help him in, uh, in his struggle, uh, against, uh, against the rebels in country. Um, Commandante Zero of the time and, uh, and, uh, I am in Costa Rica, next door to Nicaragua, um, the, uh, Costa Ricans are not all that friendly, uh, to Somoza, because they, uh, claim he is a dictator, that he has his people, uh, uh, under a very dictatorial, authoritative regime, uh, they are helping, however indirectly, the, the rebels, and, uh, and I am, uh, in the middle of, of this fray, and, uh, the one thing that occurred, uh, when the Somozan regime falls, he leaves, uh, uh, the country, uh, ends up eventually in, uh, in Bolivia, in South America, and the rebels are getting ready to go, uh, into the capital, Managua, um, and, uh, from Costa Rica, the, the U.S. State Department is trying to make sure that that transfer of command is not a bloodbath and is done, uh, in a, uh, in a controlled, civilized fashion, with minimizing, uh, uh, uh, uh, combat or, or casualties, or, or things of that nature, and so, um, Tm sent into Managua in a, in a C-7 aircraft, which is a, uh, twin engine jet, to pick up the commander of the rebel forces and the commander of the Nicaraguan Armed Forces and bring him to Costa Rica to, uh, where they can meet and agree to transfer power in a, in a, in a peaceful, organized, controlled fashion, and, and so, in essence, I arrive in the middle of, of what is a, a volcano about to explode, uh, in Managua, and, uh, the forces, the, the rebels are outside the airport, the, the, the plane lands at the airport, uh, the, the pilots don't even wanna turn the engines off, uh, all manner of, of, of, uh, of, uh, Nicaraguan soldiers are trying to get on the plane to get out of the country before the rebels come in, and, uh, they're being held back, and, uh, and it is a, uh, a very touchy, frightening, uh, situation there, uh. Eventually, we managed, uh, to leave, urn, by, uh, the pilot using a ruse, saying that he's just going to relocate the airplane to, uh, to a different place, and ends up, uh, starting to move, uh, we get word that the two people that we came to pick up are not going to, uh, show up; they do not agree to meet and be taken to Costa Rica to any such, uh, uh, coordination meeting, and so we have to leave empty-handed, and, uh, and leave without being overwhelmed by those that want to leave in the plane, and so it was touch and go, but we managed to make it out of the airport and back to Costa Rica without, without any major, uh, any major happenings. That, that was exciting enough, yes.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

[Laughs] Tm sure, fm sure. Uh, okay, so you're in Denver. How long do you stay in Denver.

Hector Ponton:

Uh, we're in Denver, urn, two years, urn, a little over, a little under two years, urn, because in, in 1983, I then transferred back to Washington, D.C., uh, this time, to be, uh, in the faculty of the Interamerican Defense College, in Washington, D.C. The Interamerican Defense College is an educational institution, again at the, uh, post- graduate level, under the aegis of the Organization of American States, and, uh, it is, uh, located, co-located at the same Army installation, Fort McNair, in Washington, D.C, with the, uh, National Defense University, the, the United States, uh, Department of Defense, National Defense University, and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, which is also located at Fort McNair. The Interamerican Defense College is, uh, hosted by the United States Government, and, uh, and is commanded, usually by a U.S. Admiral, Air Force, or Navy Flag officer, uh, and, uh, and it has a faculty that involves all the Latin American republics that, uh, that participate in the Organization of American States. The student body is, uh, students from all Latin American republics, um, actually all of them except for, uh, Cuba, send students, three, two, three, four, depending on the size of, of their armed forces, for a one-year course of study that, uh, that has to do with, uh, the, the geopolitics of, uh, of, uh, defense departments in the world, and, uh, the functions and the duties of the Organization of American States, and, uh, the four, uh, instructional departments have to do with, uh, uh, the political, the economic, the social, and the military aspects of, uh, of nation-building and nation existing. And I was, uh, in, in that faculty as the U.S. Army representative.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Okay. I've just been told that we need to quicken our pace here a little bit.

Hector Ponton:

Okay.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

We're running out of time.

Hector Ponton:

Very well.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Um-

Hector Ponton:

We're almost at the end, actually.

Lisa Beckenbaugh:

Well, let's, let's. How long did you stay in D.C.?

Hector Ponton:

Uh, from 1983 through 1988. That was my longest-[tape ends]

 
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