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Interview with William Arndt, Jr. [April 4, 2009]

Diana Arndt:

Hi, I'm Diana Arndt and this is Leah Heller, and we are interviewing my grandfather Dr. William Frederick Arndt. He served in the Vietnam War, in the U.S. navy. He was born March 4, 1933. His highest rank was a lieutenant commander. And we are interviewing him in Wake Forest, N.C., it is April 4, 2009.

Leah Heller:

Okay, so, Dr. Arndt. Were you drafted or did you enlist?

William Arndt, Jr.:

I enlisted.

Leah Heller:

Alright.

Diana Arndt:

You said you were commissioned. What exactly does that entail?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Commissioning is the process where by one achieves status as an officer in any of the military branches. As opposed to enlisted men don't get commissioned.

Leah Heller:

Right.

Diana Arndt:

Where were you living at the time you enlisted?

William Arndt, Jr.:

In Silver Spring, Maryland.

Leah Heller:

Why did you join? Was there any reason behind it?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Well uh-getting pretty well heated up in the Vietnam conflict at the time. I didn't like the job that I had at the time, which was teaching at Georgetown. And I just thought that it would be a better potential career move. So I joined up.

Leah Heller:

What did you teach at Georgetown?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Microbiology. In medical school.

Diana Arndt:

Did you have a family at the time?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Yes. Me and my wife and two children, and then...

Diana Arndt:

Why did you pick the branch that you served in?

William Arndt, Jr.:

It's a little hard to answer. I-I've always kind of favored the navy. I like ships, like boats. When I was a youngster, a good yield younger than I am now, I was in the junior blue jackets, so I knew something about naval procedure. And I had come to know a number of the people in naval bureau personal in the Washington office because I was at Georgetown. So put all that together and it just seemed like a good choice for me.

Diana Arndt:

What were your first days like when you enlisted?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Urn, um... they were pretty interesting. They, because, I was in a school with other doctors, they weren't really too hard on us from our standpoint. Although we did go through calisthenics and had to pass certain tests. Mostly what they wanted to do was to teach us how to be officers and follow the rules of the navy and learn about the universal code of military justice, which is the legal aspect of the navy, and all common everyday things. Like how to wear your uniform. So it was uh-an experience very different from what all of us had gone through learning how to be a doctor, but it was an interesting experience and it was, looking back on it, kind of fun.

Diana Arndt:

So it wasn't like boot camp?

William Arndt, Jr.:

No. Kind of a gentlemen's boot camp.

Leah Heller:

Boot camp's described as a little more harsh, from other stories I've heard.

Diana Arndt:

It's very interesting. Did you meet lots of people that you stayed friends with?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Yes. As a matter of fact I'm still corresponding on a regular basis through e- mail with to two members of my class.

Diana Arndt:

What teacher-Who were your teachers?

William Arndt, Jr.:

The teachers were all more senior officers in the navy. The school consisted of learning how to be a flight surgeon, so it was a lot of medical curriculum, and the specifics of that had to be taught by specialists. So it was ophthalmologists to teach us about eyes and ear, nose, and throat specialists to teach us about hearing and so on. But we also had some more junior officers and lieutenants and lieutenant commanders give us the non-medical aspects I mentioned before, how to be an officers type thing.

Leah Heller:

So you had to be really well rounded as a doctor? You had to know a little bit of everything, if not all of everything?

William Arndt, Jr.:

A flight surgeon's job is pretty much to take care of the pilot and his family. So it's uh-I guess like-most like being a family physician in civilian life.

Leah Heller:

Did you have more than one pilot you were supposed to be taking care of?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Yes. There were twenty four, twenty five pilots depending on which, in the squadron, to which I was assigned, and nearly all of them were married with families. And I-I was the family doctor to those guys.

Leah Heller:

And the family's lived at the base?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Yes. Not when we were over seas for Vietnam. This was on the shore side duty.

Diana Arndt:

How long did the training last?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Well that specific flight surgeon training lasted seven months

Leah Heller:

Wow...

William Arndt, Jr.:

It was assumed that we knew medicine, because you know, we all had our medical degrees ahead of time.

Diana Arndt:

Did you have like labs that you trained in learning about how to treat different injuries? How did you learn about that?

William Arndt, Jr.:

There were no labs, but it was all pretty much by lecture. We did have-a lot of us didn't have experience in trauma, acute trauma. And so they did have to teach us things like heat stroke, and different things that might happen that we might run into. But it was all with lectures, the packet work, it wasn't practical hands on.

Leah Heller:

Did they-Did they ever prepare you, if like the plane were to crash what to do in that situation if there were survivors?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Absolutely. In matter of fact one of the things that we did was run through a survival and escape course, so that in the event that we happen to be in a plane that crashed we knew how to get away from the bad guys. And that did have a lab, that ended up we already to the course, but we ended up staying three days in the semi- jungle down there in Florida with nothing but a knife. We had to figure out how to feed ourselves and build a shelter and so forth.

Leah Heller:

What was that like? Living in the jungle for three days?

William Arndt, Jr.:

It's interesting. It's harder to find food then you might think. By the time the three days were up we were all pretty hungry. The one thing that we were successful capturing was a flying squirrel, and flying squirrels are only about six inches long, so how do you feed six guys with one flying squirrel? We ended up making a soup.

Diana Arndt:

Oh wow.

Leah Heller:

Hey, that works.

Leah Heller:

Did you ever encounter any scary animals or beasts in the jungle?

William Arndt, Jr.:

No.

Leah Heller:

Oh, okay okay. in C*l

William Arndt, Jr.:

No this is Florida jungle there really isn't much there. We were pretty-Florida has a fair number of coral snakes and that's a dangerous poisonous snake. We were briefed about those and we made sure we stayed away from them.

Diana Arndt:

Did your uniforms differ from other officers?

William Arndt, Jr.:

No.

Diana Arndt:

Not at all?

William Arndt, Jr.:

No. The standard feature is that for medical corps, instead of having a star on your sleeve you had an oak leaf on your sleeve. It was-the insignias that you wore. The uniforms were all the same. Same kinds of stripes and what not.

Leah Heller:

Were you ever involved in combat?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Yes. I had kind of an unusual collateral duty as a bombardier navigator in the airplanes that our squadron flew and I made a number of those missions, so I was directly involved in combat. We also were involved because the airbase itself got attacked maybe half a dozen times I was stationed there.

Diana Arndt:

The airbase in Vietnam?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Yes.

Diana Arndt:

How do you deal with that?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Urn... shoot first, ask questions later. No most of the attacks didn't actually involve human beings; they were rocket attacks from outside. And I was really busy taking care of casualties that got hit by rocket shrapnel.

Leah Heller:

How severe were the casualties usually?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Urn, this kind of stuff was really relatively minor. And fortunately we never had any casualties of people having been injured by having been shot in the airplane. Unfortunately we lost a number of airplanes while we were there, but they of course crashed and there were no survivors.

Diana Arndt:

So first you were with a squadron at an airbase-Where was your first airbase?

William Arndt, Jr.:

My first airbase was here in the United States at Cherry Point, North Carolina. I got assigned to a squadron, kind of a neat squadron called VMAAW242. Which stands for Marine All Weather Attack Squadron number 242 and our symbol was a bat. And they called us the Batmen. And gun ho bunch flew the A6 Intruder the entire squadron, me included, got shipped overseas to be stationed at DaNang in October of 1966.

Leah Heller:

What was it like adapting to Vietnam? What were the differences? Were there any really significant ones?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Well we lived in very different circumstances than the way we lived here. It was uncomfortable, but it was not terribly hard to take. There were six of us, lived together in one wooden hut. And the weather in Vietnam is such that the huts are never heated, but they're never cooled either. The top half of the hut was screening, it was a wooden building with a tin roof, and we each had our own little section with our foot lockers, a place to store our personal gear. And the six of us got together, there was, you know a lot of camaraderie among the group.

Diana Arndt:

What was the food like?

William Arndt, Jr.:

The food was actually pretty good. The food for us was all out of the mess, the Marine Corps kitchens, and except for the fact that when we were first there we all missed having milk. But after the third month they began shipping milk in and wow! Once we had milk we also had ice cream and that was great. But the food was really... I couldn't complain about it.

Leah Heller:

How did people in service entertain themselves?

William Arndt, Jr.:

In what way? I'm not sure I understand.

Leah Heller:

Like, if you had free time how would you spend it?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Oh! I thought you said how many people.

Leah Heller:

No no, sorry.

William Arndt, Jr.:

I think most of us spent the free time that we had writing home. A lot of us uh, recorded tapes and sent those, and listened to tapes in response from home. I had a unusual duty, that for me was entertaining and very rewarding. It was called Medical Civil Action Program, the Med. CAP. program, and myself and two of the other physicians that were in the dispensary was assigned, would go out usually one day a week, sometimes two days a week, into the Vietnam villages and take care of the Vietnamese. And as a result I saw a lot of medical diseases that most physicians never saw at all. If you recall, you asked me what I did at Georgetown with microbiology, and I was interested in infectious diseases, and there we saw diseases that you hear about, but you never-Tuberculosis, cholera, things like that, and actually when I got there it was in the middle of a plague epidemic: Bubonic plague. We were all immunized against plague and so I didn't have to worry about catching it, but I ran a dispensary out in the village to inject the streptomycin into the kids who were coming down with plague symptoms.

Diana Arndt:

How did the Vietnamese people feel towards you?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Actually, they were very happy with us, because we were giving them a real service. And the-I think all of us were a little skittish about going out, because we knew within any individual village there were a lot of the VC who live there. Being a VC in a Vietnam village is like being a democrat with a along with republicans, you know, nobody thought much about it, except that at night they'd put on the black pajamas and go out on their little missions. But they told us that if you go in and treat everybody the same and don't try and differentiate any of the bad guys, that they would treat us okay too. And we did. We took care of everybody and they took care of us.

Diana Arndt:

When you were treating casualties during the war were they just U.S. casualties or also on the other side?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Our casualties were all in the dispensary, and anything that was really severe we sent on over to the air force hospital, because they had a full staff of surgeons and so forth there. So I didn't really, aside from initial, uh, administration, and, triage, you'd call it, separating the, the ones that we want to keep from the ones that we had to send on, uh, I didn't really have a lot of experience with heavy casualties.

Leah Heller:

did people ever play pranks, like, on your officers while you were in training or being taught?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Hmm, while we were training?

Leah Heller:

Yeah

William Arndt, Jr.:

I don't think so, I think it was uh, it was all doctors in the class, and it was all senior doctors who were teaching us the special medicine that we needed to be flight surgeons, and it was a pretty serious undertaking, what wasn't medical was all equally serious of learning about the navy, and you, had uh, had to bring credit to the, to the uniform, so there wasn't really much time for pranks.

Diana Arndt:

What experiences do you remember the most?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Experiences? The one or several (chuckling)?

Diana Arndt:

Several.

William Arndt, Jr.:

I think, the Med. CAP. Missions were outstanding for me, because I, it was such professional enrichment for me, but on the other hand, its hard to forget seeing a service to air missile being fired at the plane you're in, which we saw, I saw a couple of times (chuckling), while we were on bombing missions while I was acting as a bombardier navigator.

Leah Heller:

In any of those moments did you ever think that "I'm gonna die"? Did you ever have a thought like that?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Yeah (chuckling), It has to be running through your mind, although, I think that, uh, at the age that we were, everybody who, who flies, and especially the pilots, all consider themselves indestructible, and, you know, their gonna live forever.

Diana Arndt:

What places were you suppose to be bombing?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Well, the targets were numerous, uh, because of the, the rather delicate nature of my being in, in a combatant role when I was really a non- combatant, they restricted our, the flights that I was on, to those that were below the DMC, we, I, we didn't go into North Vietnam. It was all to support groups in South Vietnam. And there were plenty of troops to support there, so it was no problem finding targets, but, uh, it just never really got to the north where things were really hostile.

Leah Heller:

What were some of the stories you'd heard from the north, the conditions up there, what were they like?

William Arndt, Jr.:

I can only tell you about the conditions for the air crews, because no one ever got on the ground.

Leah Heller:

Yeah

William Arndt, Jr.:

And you know the missions there were usually night, usually in bad weather, because of the unique ability of the, of the A6 to be able to identify targets with RADAR, and then zero in on those targets, drop bombs and get out, without ever really seeing the target, and, uh, it was really an amazing piece of machinery that, that did that. Uh, so, all that the guys could tell you is how much, how much uh, they were exposed to, uh, RADAR and how, how many times RADAR got locked on that they were afraid that a service to air missile was going to come in. The Vietnamese at that time, the North Vietnamese, didn't have any military capability in the air, so there were no air to air battles. It was really just going in and making sure you didn't get shot out of the sky with a SAM.

Leah Heller:

So they had absolutely just no technology that could be flown, just no airplanes at all?

William Arndt, Jr.:

They must have had something, but I know that during the course of the time that I was there, no one ever reported any air-to-air combat.

Leah Heller:

Okay.

Diana Arndt:

You said that there were several planes that got shot down, that there were no survivors; were these people that you knew?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Yes, yeah they were, and some very good friends.

Diana Arndt:

How did that make you feel?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Well, like losing any friend, that, I mean, everybody knew that not everybody was going to be able to make it home, but when it really happens, especially the first one, the first flight I knew, I can remember it so well, I knew the two guys very well. One of them was, uh, a fellow who, like you Leah, was interested in, and you too Di, interested in music and had a very good voice and he was always kinda the male lead in the musical shows that they put on at Cherry Point, and, uh, had a lovely wife and I think four or five kids. And his, bombardier navigator was, a, a really sweet little guy, who was just newly married, didn't have any children, and, uh, when they, when we lost them, you know, we, we all felt it a lot.

Leah Heller:

Did the, the military obviously, I'm sorry, Air force, obviously sent out something telling them that their, the wives, their husband had died, were you ever able to talk to their wives about it?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Urn, I wasn't able to, because I was over seas, you know the, the wives were either remaining on base back in cherry Point, or many of the younger ones had gone home to live with their families at home. You know; go back to stay with Mom and Pop while their husband was over seas. So, the, I just never had any direct connection with them after the events.

Leah Heller:

How were you able to stay in touch with your family, like, any specific ways?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Uh, I wrote a letter nearly every day, and uh, Lorraine wrote back to me about every day, and then we also had tapes, little recording devices, we could send these little tapes in the mail.

Diana Arndt:

They were audio tapes?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Yeah, audio tapes.

Diana Arndt:

Did you hear from your sons as well?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Well, uh, not, not really, because they were little guys, you know. I mean I think Billy was.. .three and Teddy was one. You know, or four and two, and uh, the only thing I know is that, that uh, Grandma, my wife, used to show them my picture all the time. You know, to try and kind of keep me in their mind. So when, when I did come home, and, and so, so they were, "Oh cry Papa!"

Leah Heller:

What did you do, whenever you had leave, when you got home, what was the first thing you did?

William Arndt, Jr.:

When I got home?

Leah Heller:

Yeah.

Diana Arndt:

When, did you have leave? Like, when you were still in service?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Yeah, in between time, there were two periods called R and R. And I, uh took my first R and R in Hawaii, and Grandma, my wife, met me in Hawaii, and it was, I think a week, yeah, so, we probably had five or six days together. We stayed at the Inukai hotel right down Waikiki, and you know toured around Hawaii, which was very different in those days from Hawaii right now, and, uh, that gave us a wonderful opportunity, you know, to be together. And then, there was one other R and R, and I took it in Hawaii again, I'd had, because of being attached with the squadron, I'd had opportunities to get to places like Thailand, and Okinawa, and Japan, and the Philippines, uh, and I was tired of seeing oriental cities (chuckling) so I thought for the second R and R, which Grandma didn't come on I would go back to Hawaii. And, so there was two, two weeks of really, fun.

Diana Arndt:

Did the military pay for, like, your stay at the hotel, and...?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Yes.

Leah Heller:

But your activities, like if you decided to, say, go scuba diving in Hawaii or something, did they provide for that also or...?

William Arndt, Jr.:

No, when you say did they pay for it, they, they, there's a place in Hawaii called Fort Derussy, which is right on Waikiki that's, its actually owned by the army and anybody who is on active duty or retired can stay at Fort Derussy at very nominal or no cost. But that was, as you might imagine, always filled up, so we couldn't stay at Fort Derussy, but we, you know, by planning ahead of time we could, uh, just save enough money that it would pay the bill, and they had special rate for the service men at the hotel.

Diana Arndt:

You were paid while you were in the military?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Oh yeah.

Diana Arndt:

What, how much, a ballpark figure?

William Arndt, Jr.:

I was, uh, counting base pay, and professional pay, cause I was a doctor and hostile fire pay, which we got for being in Vietnam, and flight pay, the whole thing added up to about thirteen thousand dollars a year. Which still wasn't a lot of money, but it was pretty good for those days. And we're talking about back in the sixties.

Diana Arndt:

Why did your service end?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Uh, that was a, a decision after a lot of soul searching. I really enjoyed it I think you can probably tell that from the way I talk about it, and I had a lot of fun while I was there, but I specifically had realized that in the services no incentive to excel. You can't get a promotion earlier by being better, but if you try and be better and someone doesn't like it, then you get a bad fitness review, and you can be denied a promotion further down the line. So there was nothing but downside risk to stay in there, and I thought that I would probably do better in the, uh, commercial world.

Diana Arndt:

What did you do when you first got back from the war?

Leah Heller:

After your service was over.

William Arndt, Jr.:

After it was over? Urn, I had decided that I wanted to get employment in the aerospace business because I was interested in aviation, and you may not know it but I think you know from the stories that I flew, I was pilot, and uh, as long as I was interested in air, kinds of things, the aerospace effort, and the idea of trying to go to the moon, was really fascinating to me, so when I knew I was going to get out, I got in touch with all of the, uh, aerospace companies I could think of Loki, and MacDonald Douglas, and Northrop, and so on, Grumman, uh, to see if they had any job openings, in research and development for something with my background. And there were a number of opportunities, the best of which MacDonald Douglas in California, so we elected to go to California.

Diana Arndt:

So that was your job...

William Arndt, Jr.:

So yeah, I mean immediately when I got home the first thing I did was to look for a job, and I interviewed and in the months I got that job we all moved out to California.

Diana Arndt:

So, do you stay in touch with friends from the, urn, military still?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Oh, absolutely, yeah, we, uh, saw my old squadron commander, who is really a a buddy, and was then, uh, we just visited with him when we were down in Florida in February. And he will probably be up here for a visit with us sometime next month.

Diana Arndt:

Do you attend reunions, with your squadron?

William Arndt, Jr.:

No No, I'm not the kind of person who ever really looks back. And I've never been to a reunion of any high school, college, never went back to visit, see my old neighborhood, (chuckling)

Leah Heller:

As far as you know, does the Navy and Air force, like, have reunions, or is it just not something that's done?William Arndt, Jr.:: Uh, Yeah, yeah they did, do, the squadron, actually it's the marines in particular, the marines are a real gun-ho bunch. And we used to say, lots and lots of spirit. Not much class, but lots of spirit, (chuckling) And, that's what the Navy guys did, and there was always some, uh, qood-natured, uh, bickering between the Navy and the Marine core. And eh, the Marine core, airway, has, a, reunion every year, either at Cherry Point or out at Marymount, California, and uh, specifically out in San Diego, California last year they had a reunion of the, uh, Intruder, the A-6 drivers, pilots. And they dedicated one of the A-6s that was in our squadron that's been restored, repainted and is on display.

Leah Heller:

Where is it on display? Dr Arndf Someplace out it, Oh no, well, yeah, this one was out in San Diego, and there is one on display in, uh, right on Route 17 down in Cherry Point.

Diana Arndt:

You enjoyed the experience?

William Arndt, Jr.:

Yeah. Yeah, over all, looking back, I have fond memories of having been in the military. Leah- This is kind of an, iffy sort of question, but a bunch of people view the Vietnam war as kind of to be a loss. Do you see it that way? Dr Arndt- Ye Yeah, I think it was because I think we gave up. Uh, I had strong political feelings about the war, there was not much we could do, the, all my squadron mates, they said, it was a lousy war but it's the only one we've got and that's what we're trained to do, so we've got to make the most of it. And the rules of engagement, eh, were very, very difficult, and, it, you got there and many many times people felt like, what am I here for? They're not going to let me do anything to try and win this darn war. So, uh, and, of course at the same time, we knew that there were a lot of people back home who were very much against the war and who were very much against anybody who fought in the war, and guys would come back and, you know, get spat on, by, by the flower children who just didn't agree with them. Now, I didn't make any policy (chuckling) neither did any of mv friends we just did what we were told when we were over there. And unfortunately we were told that we couldn't really fight to the ultimate that we could And I think everybody who was involved in combat there, unless they were CuD in combat, uh, against they're better judgment, uh, I think everybody felt that it, uh it was a winnable war, and had it not been for political constraints we, we, would have been, we would have prevailed. Uh, there was no question on my mind that at the time, we weren't fighting Vietnamese, we were fighting communism. And the goal of communism was, worldwide domination and if you don't stop it there, the next thing you know its going to be here. So I think that any of the wars that we fight, fight on other, territories, are really good for us in the long run.

Leah Heller:

So you view the Vietnam war as, instead of just a war against North Vietnam, as a war against, just communism. Dr Arndt- That was the reason that the war was being fought, and I'm sure that many of the people who, were fighting at the time didn't have any real stake in communism you that, that's kind of like there in the second Worid War we fought a lot of Germans who were not Nazis, they were just fighting us because they had to, that was their nationalistic belief. And I think it's the same thing here, Wars are all fundamentally political to begin with.

Diana Arndt:

Alright well, thank you so much for planning us into your day.

William Arndt, Jr.:

You've got enough?

Diana Arndt:

Yes.

Leah Heller:

We enjoyed the interview, thank you for letting us take your time.

William Arndt, Jr.:

You're welcome, it was a lot of fun.

 
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