Tom Murphy is the chairman of the select board in Aquinnah, and sits on the town’s finance committee and planning board. He’s also the veterans service officer for Aquinnah, and involved in the veterans housing program planned for Oak Bluffs. He served in the Army during Vietnam.
I’m originally from Western Mass. I went to school in the Springfield area, and graduated from Saint Anselm College in 1968 at the same time that the Vietnam War was raging. My daughter asked recently, “What were the interviews like?” when we were graduating from college, and I said, “We didn’t have interviews. We had physicals.” Many of us in that graduating class were either getting drafted or signed up.
I got a draft notice, and I had a brother that was a captain in the Air Force, who advised me if I was going, I should go in as an officer. So I tried to go into the Air Force and the Navy, but both of them had already gotten their officers from ROTC, so the only options were the Army and the Marines. So I chose the Army, and I signed up to be an officer. I went through basic training, AIT at Fort Dix in New Jersey, and then they shipped me off to Fort Benning, Ga., for officer candidate school, which I graduated in July 1969.
When I was in the OCS, I had three choices. You could go in the infantry, the infantry, or the infantry. So I chose the infantry.
In those days, you had a two-year obligation after you were commissioned. One year of training — basic training, advanced infantry training, and officer candidate school — and then you had one year of stateside, so I was appointed as a training officer, and I actually became the adjutant to Gen. Oscar Davis, and I was his aide, which had a lot of privileges with it. And after that year, I went directly to Vietnam. I went to Vietnam in April of ’70, and came back the April of ’71, and I spent a year with an organization called MACV, which stood for Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. I was a training officer at a training facility, and I worked with a South Vietnamese infantry battalion for a year, and traveled throughout the central highland area of Vietnam.
We traveled with the South Vietnamese. We were basically the intermediaries between American support — whether that be medevacs or gunships or supplies. So I was really the conduit, and I was also an advisor. When we were out in the field, after a period of time I was advising the South Vietnamese on military tactics, and how to stay alive, actually.
I was the infantry advisor, so I was in combat for most of the year. We took a lot of casualties, and we would have various missions that we would go on. We would go on ambush missions at night, and it was a very difficult year for a variety of reasons. But … I lived with about 20 Americans in a little Vietnamese village. So it was difficult because we became very close to the people that we worked with and the people that we lived with, so when we lost someone, it was more difficult than if it was just strangers to us. It was very challenging. There were a lot of losses, but I don’t want to get into too much stuff.
When you get commissioned, they, I guess wisely, suggested you spend a year stateside learning how to become an officer and how to manage people before they put you into combat. When I left, we were advised that infantry lieutenants in Vietnam had a 2½-week life expectancy. It was a challenge. We lost a lot of people, a lot of good people. I lost a lot of friends. I’m still able to maintain a relationship with the few friends that I have left, and it’s been actually terrific.
I was the infantry advisor, and my counterpart was a Korean captain who was the artillery advisor. He and I became very close during our time in Vietnam. About five years ago, my son became connected to a lot of very successful people in South Korea, and told them about my relationship with Captain Shim; he said, If he’s still alive, we’ll find him. He did find him, and I wound up not only interacting with him on the internet, I went to Vietnam about five years ago, and I had a layover in Korea. We made arrangements to meet, and had our reunion after 50-some-odd years, and we had a wonderful reunion … He was a captain in artillery, became a colonel in artillery, and now he’s, I think, the poet laureate of South Korea. How about going from warfare to peacefulness?
[I served] just under three years. It was 10 months of training and then two years of service … one of the worst parts of Vietnam was coming home, which you wouldn’t think would be a bad part. When World War II veterans came back, they were in troop ships sent out, and they spent two or three weeks traveling, and when they got home, everybody greeted them warmly. We all heard stories about how people would buy you dinner. If you went into a bar, everybody would buy you a [drink].
Let me tell you how bad it was. We got orders that we were going home, and we were delighted to have survived and delighted to be headed home. When we landed after a 12-, 14-hour flight … the plane taxied off to the side of the runway and shut down. And it was hot in California in April. The sun was baking our plane, and when they turned the plane off, the little air spurts above your seats were also turned off, so it was starting to get warm, and we waited five or 10 minutes, 15 or 20 minutes. Maybe close to 30 minutes. When we landed, everybody was jumping up and down and high-fiving and just very emotional we were back at home. But we started to get annoyed after 10, 15, 25 minutes sitting on the hot tarmac waiting for something to happen. I just figured that they were just waiting for the mayor of the city with the key to greet us as we arrived. What actually happened is, after some period of time, the doors finally opened, both the front doors and the back doors, and three MPs with drug-sniffing dogs walked up and down the aisles, sniffing our bodies and our crotches and everything, to check us for drugs. That was the greeting we received from the United States military upon our arrival, after spending a year in combat. It was humiliating for our government to do that to us, and it was humiliating not to have anyone greet us. It was humiliating to give us a piece of paper saying we were civilians and that we could only wear our uniforms for 24 hours, and thank you for your service.
It was a very difficult return from Vietnam for all of the soldiers. There is a certain anger that returning soldiers like myself will always contain within them against the government for having treated us so poorly. We understand now and we forgive, but we don’t forget.
The good news is, we survived and we did arrive home to our families. The other thing people don’t understand is when you’re going off to a war — I don’t care what war it is, and I don’t care what job you had; you could be in infantry or you could be a finance person working in an office — but war is so random, obviously, anybody can get killed at any time, anywhere, when you’re involved. When you’re at the airport saying goodbye to your mother and father, or your brother or your sister, or your wife and child, or your husband and children, you never know if you’re ever going to see them again. So it’s a very emotional moment, and a lot of people don’t understand that either. Anybody who’s been to a combat zone, they understand how difficult it is to say goodbye to your family. And we should all be grateful for the freedom veterans have provided for everybody.
At the time, the mindset in 1971 was that people were throwing tomatoes at Vietnam veterans that were returning. People didn’t acknowledge the service our people gave, and the first thing we wanted to do was hide the fact we were Vietnam veterans. People did not have the opportunity to transition. Going from combat to civilian life is a difficult challenge, and it takes time to re-enter into civilization. But we didn’t have that time, so there’s a lot of Vietnam veterans that got into trouble when they returned, and were emotionally distraught and had a lot of trauma, and never really were able to transition.
Years forward, in the other wars — Iraq, Afghanistan — when people came home — I lived out in Western Mass., and a lot of returning soldiers would [land in] Westover Air Force Base — we would go out at all times of day and night, hundreds of people would go there to greet them and to welcome them home, and all of the things that Vietnam veterans never received. We never received a welcome home. It was emotional for everybody. It still is.
The military has learned how important it is, and hopefully they’ve improved on that dramatically.
I’m hoping our veterans project in Oak Bluffs gets a lot of support from the press. We’re proposing to build 12 units, all efficiency, one-bedroom units on land Oak Bluffs has donated, gone off on RFP, and Island Housing Trust and the Cape and Islands veterans group have won the bid. We’re starting the fundraising process as we speak, and hopefully, as we get closer and closer to Veterans Day, I hope there will be more and more community awareness through the newspapers and other media to support this worthwhile organization.
A friend of mine who was fundraising for the hospital said it was an easy raise because a lot of people on the Island needed the hospital. Well, it should be an easy raise to raise the money for veterans housing, because every single person on this Island has enjoyed the freedom that veterans’ suffering has provided them.
I’m also going to tell you how proud I am to be the veterans service officer for Aquinnah. You probably may have never noticed, and I hope you have, but the town hall has a monument. On the left-hand side of the monument, it explains it’s given by the governor to the town of Gay Head, which during World War II provided more soldiers in proportion to its population than any other city or town in New England. That’s quite a bit of history that’s not well-known or well-remembered.
Interview by Eunki Seonwoo.