The Other Rumble in the Jungle


Picture of Donald Whaley (2007)

Nam Files Episode 1

Introductory episode detailing the complicated nature of the draft, training, and nuances of the war during the service of professor Donald Whaley.


Rihana Stevenson [00:00:01] Welcome to the first installment of the Nam Files. This podcast will use resources from Salisbury University's Nabb Research Center to give a close look at how the war not only shaped the world, but the people who experienced it firsthand. Each episode will focus on veterans who are either from the Eastern Shore region or who settled here in later years. In this first episode, I'm going to discuss one of the oral histories in the Nabb Research Center detailing the life and experiences of Donald Whaley. Whaley was a professor of American Studies here at Salisbury since 1975. His perspective of the Vietnam War allows a look into the education levels, training and interactions with soldiers and civilians in Vietnam. These oral histories allow everyone to hear straight from the veterans themselves what their lives and experiences were like in Vietnam and how it shaped them. During the course of my research, I hope to understand more of the personal aspect of these soldiers lives. Whaley's account gives insight into how education shaped his experience. Whaley was highly educated before he was drafted into the Army. Here's a statement from a 2018 interview about his drafting into the service.

Donald Whaley [00:01:04] Not very happy. I was an involuntary conscript, and if I could have gotten out of it, I would have. I tried.

Rihana Stevenson [00:01:15] In his recollection of his journey through the training process and his thoughts about being drafted, he jokes about not being able to dodge the draft as well as not necessarily wanting to. He knew we couldn't do much about the circumstances, he'd have gone to jail. So, he used one of his friend's experiences to aid in his own situation. Whaley had a friend who had been drafted slightly earlier than him. When learning that the Army offered jobs that didn't result in combat in Vietnam, Whaley wanted to get that same job. Wanting to have an intelligence job in Texas, Whaley detailed how he went through the process of selecting his military occupation and how his friend was the inspiration for this decision.

Donald Whaley [00:01:50] What I did is I went straight to the intelligence part because knowing J.L got intelligence training and went to Texas. I didn't know exactly what he did. So I went down the whole list and tried to find what I could. And I went in to the guy, I had guaranteed that I was going to Vietnam. But I did get lucky because I wasn't in combat. Actually ended up at a division headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division.

Rihana Stevenson [00:02:20] Whaley also expressed how his years in graduate school prepared him for his life in the military.

Donald Whaley [00:02:24] The job did fit my skills because it's exactly the same skills that historians use and that I have been trained for in graduate school. So exactly the same skill.

Rihana Stevenson [00:02:35] Oddly, a lot of people don't consider how education may come in handy for jobs within the military. People tend to think it's all guns and combat. Yet hearing Whaley state how he was able to use this historiography skills and education in the field was enlightening, especially since he had no idea what he was getting into. So, a lot of Whaley's training as an intelligence analyst revolved around his ability to handle tough terrain and situations that existed out there in the Vietnamese jungles...

Donald Whaley [00:03:00] But that was a place called Camp Evans that you got sent to the first week. And then you did In-Country training. And we did things like a walk course that had been set with a little booby traps to sort of understand how that worked and what we should be looking for. We did a practice helicopter assault and there were other things in country training for about a week and then went home to my side job.

Rihana Stevenson [00:03:27] Other than that, a lot of his work was to gain an understanding of what the enemy forces were doing while in the jungle. He analyzed interrogations and documents from enemies and just overall surveillance and understanding to aid the U.S. troops and their work combating communist forces in North Vietnam.

By 1971, several New York Times articles began to run reports on the state of the war and on the American military. Despite the number of men sent over to aid, there are still not enough to be able to help. Too many men drafted were pushed into the front lines with minimal training, and the draft became more of a necessity for relief of current soldiers than the insertion of trained personnel. An article by B. Drummond Jr. stated that most of their troops needed “at least six months of training”, and in other cases were “at least a year and a half from combat readiness”. A large part of the lack of training and discipline was because the average age of men drafted into the war was around 22 years old.

Whaley himself was only 23 when he was drafted in 1969. A lot of research went into verifying that average age. For listeners who are familiar with the average age being 18 or 19, that number is skewed. According to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., the calculations for 22 are based on the higher end of the draft age, which also included unmarried and childless men 35 and up. There weren't as many in that age range, but there were enough to bring the true average into 20s. A lot of statistics are based on casualties alone, but not necessarily drafting and deployment. So, there's a bit of uncertainty surrounding it.

Since the young draftees were dropped into circumstances they never would have been able to prepare for, they often did not know how to cope. The overwhelming lack of training and morale for men who otherwise had never experienced the rigors and stress that was war became evident. Many men resorted to drugs, most commonly marijuana, in order to escape from their new reality. Another perspective from the Folklife files in the Nabb center details how soldiers sometimes weren't aware they were being sold marijuana by Vietnamese citizens, oftentimes confusing joints for cigarettes. This only added to the issues that already existed within these battalions and caused even more danger.

Whaley faced this danger directly. Here, he speaks about the rampant drug use and murders he witnessed and heard about within his company and others.

Donald Whaley [00:05:38] And what was happening is you had an army in disarray. You had people who did not want to be there but drug use, and there was a lot of it. I saw marijuana. I saw heroin. I saw LSD. You could walk over my company area and there were all these... there were all these vials. You were looking at fragging, killing of officers or noncommissioned officers by troops. While...we had two incidents of that that I knew about. One was in our own company and it was a guy who had been AWOL and he had come back and he was being held in detention. And somehow he got loose and got hold of a grenade and was sitting in a firing position with the pin pulled, calling for the company commander to come. Company Commander of course didn't, they sent the chaplain instead and the chaplain talked him out of it and got the grenade from him.

Rihana Stevenson [00:06:43] What Whaley mentions here is more of what people know from the war: the mental anguish that men dealt with while at their posts and how they dealt with it. It's heartbreaking to understand that these men often opted for death due to limited understanding of this type of stress. These men were sent to Vietnam for a job, there were limited resources in general and not nearly enough to aid every soldier who may have been unable to cope with being sent so far away from home.

Under such distressing circumstances, the resentment that some soldiers had from being drafted was exacerbated by drug use. In some instances, as Whaley mentioned, some even went so far as attacking their commanding officers. Such attacks led to Whaley's company losing access to firearms unless they were properly registered and “rented”, which probably increased fears of vulnerability. Overall, the fears of ambush or capture never seem to stop. Whaley’s recounting of another soldier who was very cautious about getting caught by enemies while venturing out during free time is an example of this fear.

Donald Whaley [00:07:38] And I remember there was a sergeant who was going to drive over to Fubai, which was a nearby base from us, and he was in a jeep, asked if anybody wanted to go. But he warned everybody: "if we get hit on the way, I've got a grenade here and I will pull the pin and kill myself." So you be aware if you're in the jeep with me, I'm going to do this. Nobody went with him.

Rihana Stevenson [00:08:03] Despite the ability to travel outside of the base for free time, as mentioned in that soundbite, Whaley didn't seem to have much interaction with Vietnamese citizens. Movies often show soldiers interacting with women or children while off duty or working alongside the nearby communities as a way to express unity with the southern Vietnamese troops. Yet, I suppose it makes sense there wasn't much association with Vietnamese citizens. There was a lot of ambiguity and dangers present. People didn't want to take chances not knowing who was “bad” or “good”, despite not interacting much with people outside of the base, Whaley did mention contact with family or friends, as many soldiers did during this time. When asked about him keeping in touch with family and friends, he details this:

Donald Whaley [00:08:46] Yeah, obviously, I stay in touch with my family. I wrote them. My girlfriend, she and I exchanged letters every day while I was there, and that was really important for me. I also had college friends who - they made a tape and sent to me of a party that they had and they were playing music and so forth. And they wanted me to hear and they all wanted to send me a message. So that came in and that was good. So, yeah, I stayed in touch that way.

Rihana Stevenson [00:09:20] Despite a draft lottery in 1969 causing more American men to join the war effort, Nixon's administration began to pull back the number of troops in Vietnam to a mere 69,000 from a staggering 549,000 that had been fighting since 1965. Whaley mentions how he was against the war from the moment it began, here’s audio detailing his perspective.

Donald Whaley [00:09:41] And I was against the war before I was drafted and, well, it deepened my sense that the war was bullshit, this was unnecessary. And, you know, this is basically I was drafted to protect Richard Nixon's political ass, is what it was.

Rihana Stevenson [00:10:03] A few years prior, Richard Nixon had run for president following Lyndon B. Johnson's resignation. Nixon's campaign was relying on his proposal to pull troops out of the conflict and bring them home, which was quintessential for his win in 1969. However, Whaley felt resentment for the whole thing, this wasn't an unpopular ideology among many of the men who were drafted.

A lot of the understanding we have about the Vietnam war, especially amongst my generation of 20-year-olds and slightly younger, understand the conflict from the Hippie side of it or the Anti side of it. Yet don’t really know the war from the perspective of the soldiers themselves. Pop culture creates this one-sided view of Vietnam sometimes, tales of soldiers who felt disenfranchised or a very general overview of the dangers and brutality that was dealt with out in those jungles.

I hope getting to learn about Donald Whaley has better developed your understanding of the Vietnam war. To access the full version of Donald Whaley’s interview and view a transcript, click on the link found below. Thank you for joining me for the first installment of the Nam Files. The next episode will feature an interview from Harry Basehart, another professor from SU whose experience shines even more light on the rigors of the American military during the Vietnam War.

Original Oral History

Nam Files Ep 1