Wednesday, April 27, 2011

VGI's Door Gunner Distributor

The primary objective of Jeff Sharlet and fellow editors of Vietnam GI (VGI) was to get the paper into the hands of GIs in Vietnam, the guys fighting the war. In addition to the friendly antiwar unit mail clerks who would surreptitiously ‘distribute’ VGI to sympathetic troops in the Headquarters Company under the nose of the commanding officer (CO), Jeff relied on some 200 individual GIs scattered up and down South Vietnam who had volunteered as covert distributors. VGI would hear from the volunteers when they sent in the blank for a free subscription and offered to pass around extra copies as well.

One such volunteer distributor was Terry DeMott of the Americal Division. Arriving at the main base near Chu Lai in March ’68, he spent the first half of his tour on the ground in the 5th battalion, 46th infantry regiment of the division’s 198th brigade, but for the last half of his 12-month tour Terry transferred to the aviation wing of the 198th – serving as a door gunner in an observation chopper. Wounded near the end of his tour, he left Vietnam on a stretcher in February ’69, just days before his 12 months were up.

Door gunner in flight, © Mark Jury

From Terry’s perspective on the war, he and his buddies were being used as ‘bait’ to draw out and pinpoint the enemy for destruction by US military technology. As he saw it as an infantry grunt, his patrols were designed to draw fire from the VC so planes and artillery could open up on them. Even when he transferred to choppers, Terry and his buddies were still being dangled as bait, flying in formations of three up to Danang where Marine artillery was on alert at Red Beach. The mission was to fly around just west of Danang in order to draw and mark ground fire to which Marine batteries would then respond.

He remembered first coming upon a copy of VGI on his return from patrol to base camp at Landing Zone (LZ) Gator. Terry vaguely recalled just finding the paper in his squad tent, reading it front to back, and almost immediately filling out the subscription blank which he mailed to Chicago with a note offering to distribute VGI if additional copies were sent. His letter was read by Bob Brown*, one of the sub-editors who promptly wrote back, enclosing five copies of the latest issue. Bob added that the number of GIs in Nam circulating the paper had increased from 75 in July ’68 to 200 by September.

Terry carried the copies in his backpack on combat patrol, and, as he put it, “One night on a laager (night defensive position) and everybody in my squad had read them.” On return to base camp, the copies would then be passed to other squads. Once VGI made the rounds in Terry’s platoon, the papers would be handed over to other units. He was circumspect in his distribution efforts, but not too worried since they had a cool top sergeant and anyway, “everyone humping out there was against the war.”

In response to the question, Ok, but what if you did get caught distributing Vietnam GI, Terry replied: “Paranoia was a way of life out there. You were constantly worrying about your life so [getting caught distributing] seemed small potatoes. The worst they could do was pull me out of the field, send me someplace and court-martial me. And [then] I’d be safe anyway.”


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