Rice Paddy Priest: A Short Reflection of a Military Chaplain in the Vietnam War

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by Father Carrol Thorne, C.P.

During the mid summer of 2001 I was having a morning cup of coffee with Father Carrol Thorne, C.P.  Presently serving as a civilian chaplain for the Department of Pastoral Care at the nation’s maximum security prison for military offenders convicted of serious crime, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he was on vacation and was visiting the Passionist residence here at Union City, New Jersey. While reflecting on the prison ministry, he made a passing comment in reference to his time as military chaplain in Vietnam. Immediately I interrupted his train of thought and asked him if he would write a personal reflection on his Vietnam experience for the Passionist Heritage Newsletter. The request came as a surprise. He was momentarily silent.

I proceeded to remind him that his ministry as a military chaplain in Vietnam was part of a Passionist legacy that dated back to World War I. St. Paul of the Cross Province and Holy Cross Province released priests to serve the armed forces. Many Passionist priests served as chaplains in World War II. Father Owen Monaghan, C.P. of Holy Cross Province was killed in action in the South Pacific on April 7, 1945. For a background on World War II chaplains one can read Donald F. Crosby, S.J. Battlefield Chaplains: Catholic Priests in World War II (University Press of Kansas, 1994). There is grace of perspective that comes with thirty years. Father Carrol Thorne’s ministerial reflections about Vietnam anchor a period of Passionist military chaplain history and United States, southeast Asian, social and Catholic history.

A Union City native, Father Thorne professed his Passionist vows on July 16, 1953 and was ordained a Passionist priest on April 28, 1960. First, I encourage readers to reflect on his thoughts so as to understand the emotion, experience and dedication of a military chaplain. Second, historical realities are important. For instance, read with sensitivity his use of military terminology in relating his experience and his ministry as a priest. Third, his comments are a reminder that the war had a different face in Vietnam than at home in the United States. Consequently, we should do our best to always combine both historical experiences when we discuss the Vietnam War. Knowledge of military and peace history go hand in hand. Fourth, it might be surprising for many to know that anyone who is a military chaplain is of service to the Archdiocese for the Military Services, U.S.A. Their office is in Washington, D.C. Patrick Cardinal Hayes of New York was the first military vicar in 1917. On September 8, 1957 the Military Vicariate of the United States was established. The Archdiocese was created on March 25, 1985. Finally, since September 11, 2001 we have been a nation at war. We wage war to seek peace and secure justice. Military chaplains continue to serve an important role which requires our understanding.  –editor

A “Flying Tigers” Corporation jet plane brought me and eighty-six other military replacements to Vietnam in April of 1972. As we waited our turn to land high above Ton Son Nhut airbase our aircraft circled a number of times just as the Thursday morning sun was rising. Ground control advised the flight crew that Viet Cong sappers with hand-held ground-to-air missiles had as usual been detected in the jungle surrounding Saigon (now Ho Chi Mini City). Standard operating procedure advised extreme caution while attempting to land. Some onboard returning to “the Nam” for a second tour assured us that we would not even see the rocket that would blow the plane apart should we be targeted. There was no reason to be uptight. Relax, enjoy the South East Asian sunrise now a golden blaze of shimmering brilliance, the best show in town.

We landed without incident, the first of a dozen arrivals that day. Our aircraft taxied over to a corrugated tin administration building, one of many, and rolled to a stop. Here we are in Tonkin, Indochina I recalled, the former French name for Vietnam. And here we were playing a part in a scene directly out of the long defunct comic strip “Terry and the Pirates.” The crew chief wrestled the fuselage door open and the hot, moist, early morning stink of Indochina rushed in. This was no comic strip.

Six days before on Easter Sunday, 1972, Communist regular troops stormed across the Cambodian border at the Parrot’s Beak, a hook of Cambodian territory extending southwest into Vietnam. The eight-year-old war seemingly winding down was back in full swing big time! Viet Cong guerillas plus North Vietnamese Regular Army troops were driving toward Saigon, South Vietnam’s capital city. The Pentagon ordered and dispatched additional units to the war zone, ASAP (as soon as possible), along with additional combat support contingents, medical teams, mechanics, doctors, chaplains…, me. From Ft. Bragg, Fayetteville, North Carolina home of the 82nd Airborne Division, 3rd Brigade to the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), in five short days. My world turned upside down.

“Good Morning Vietnam,” the Armed Forces Radio Station slogan blared somewhere inside my head, It was a fine day to go to war. The bells and whistles soon vanished however, along with the adrenaline rush of our arrival. The living-room-television-clip-war we watched back “in the world” (USA) was suddenly very real. You could smell it! My suntan khaki uniform with captain-chaplain “brass” on the shirt collar wings was already sweaty and sticky as I dragged my canvas bomber bag down the access ladder wheeled and braced against the belly of our gleaming “Freedom Bird.” I stepped cautiously down on to the tarmac, soft and greasy in the early morning heat. Our shuffling line of “turtles” (replacements) single-filed into the Camp Alpha reception center. Where were the toilets, I wondered?

The sun shines virtually every day in Vietnam and the cloudless sky is unbelievably blue. The country itself is ranged in a lazy curve along the South China Sea, quite possibly a magnificent tropical paradise in a peaceful future – in April of 1972 that was not so. Vietnam had been victim to deadly force for over three decades. It was a tortured place of random destruction, burned out villages and cemeteries. The enemy was no one — the enemy was everyone. There were no battle lines. We were callously cautioned “they all look alike” — friend and foe, and it was true. Here in Saigon the hidden war was dirty, brutal and deadly. Contact mines attached to the frame of your jeep can blow you “all to hell in a heartbeat,” we were warned. Battery acid thrown in your face can scar and blind you at any street corner — your barber can cut your throat… There were the “Chou Hoi,” Vietnamese guerilla fighters who supposedly came over to the ARVN (South Vietnamese) side during the day and quietly filtered back to the communist, Viet Cong side after dark. Watch what you say! Many English speaking, educated Viets, men and women who work for the South Vietnamese government and for the military are Hanoi sympathizers — accept no dinner invitations at anyone’s home, ever! Curfew each evening is at 9:30 PM. Since there is no twilight in the tropics we were cautioned night just “falls.” Military police patrols will shoot to kill after curfew — no questions asked. They will collect your body in the morning. The newcomer’s briefing had lasted half an hour.

My assignment was given to me by the command chaplain who happened to be a Catholic priest. Command positions were alternated among Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish Chaplains (Colonels). I would be the Catholic Staff Chaplain at the Army Third Field Hospital with “availability duties” upcountry whenever the need arose. This meant I had a phonebooth size office with a desk at 3rd Field and access to helicopters and ground transport catch as catch can. Get where you are to go any way you can, I was advised. Plans and Operations Officers can assist you, senior non-commissioned officers (sergeants) can actually get you there… and back. Get to know the sergeants.

Evening of my first day, a Friday, found me with the Marine Air Wing at Bien Hoa, 30 “clicks” northwest of Saigon. I was handed TDY (temporary duty) orders to serve with these people (marines) until relieved. During the afternoon I received 3 sets of fatigue uniforms, a steel helmet, jungle boots, field Mass kit, and all the usual. I went “up country” to the marine unit all prepared for whatever came next. “Old Timers,” those in country six months or longer, advised me not to wear underwear. The daily drenching, 15 minute tropical rain showers will soak your fatigues, the hot sun will dry you within an hour from the skin out! Underwear will give you a rash.

In a war zone, it seems you are always prepared for the wrong thing. That second night with less than 18 hours in country I woke up terrified and sweaty. VC sappers were hitting the nearby airfield with mortar rounds. Several windows of my billet, all heavily taped to prevent flying glass, blew out, which means they blew in! No one was hurt. These nightly sorties were designed to ruin sleep and to keep us on edge, I was told. They did.

In many ways, I was totally ignorant about the Vietnam War. I had spent the decade of the 60s in the Philippines as an overseas missionary. Ten years in the heat and jungle, much like the terrain I was now experiencing here in Vietnam, but of course, no warfare. Our Passionist mission field at that time was in the extreme south of the Philippine Island chain. Much of the news of the day — of the war — never reached us. Without electricity (television would not come for a decade after I left the mission), with only sporadic newspaper and magazine availability we did what missionaries do day after day. I did not know much nor care much about embattled Vietnam just a few hundred kilometers across the China Sea to the east. It was another world.

Only after I left South East Asia and the burned-out war did I realize there was a Peace Movement and a virtual revolt in the United States by young collegians against the war. The immediacy of the daily conflict, the incoming wounded, even the rising incidence of drug use for which an entire floor of the 3rd Field Hospital was cordoned off to treat and eventually evacuate those addicted… these realities affected me. A Peace Movement 10,000 miles away somehow did not.

As a chaplain with widely scattered units to serve, I did not develop close friendships with any one group. The hospital staff constantly on duty met only at hurried mealtimes and in emergency situations. As on-call doctors, nurses, and medics we were ordered to firebases in fairly fire-free areas to bring in badly wounded and, of course the dead. Grim cargo helicopter crews would load us on board giant “Chinooks,” chaplains included, and we would fly out to our task. After completing the mission, perhaps, that evening we would be debriefed by the intelligence section of our medical unit. Information about the types of wounds, conditions of bodies, and lessons learned would be shared. These downbriefings invariably uncovered the crippling effects of drugs on certain forward unit engagements. However, never did I witness entire units rendered unable to perform because of wholesale use of hard drugs. Neither did I minister to large numbers of combat soldiers hindered by narcotics in their ability to fight, to defend themselves, to seek out the V.C. (By the time I arrived in the war zone the enemy had gone to the ground literally, and fought from tunnels and “manhole” type ambush pits.) At that stage of the war, in the “forward” areas especially, there was little down-time to lie around and immerse oneself in drugs. The patrolling was constant and enemy surprise attacks effective and vicious. Potheads and addicts there were, but they were soon weeded out and sent to unit detox centers.

The ruinous misinformation spread by the anti-war media and the college age segment of the U.S. population fed the rumors of universal drug use among the troops, common “fragging” of officers, disorder, and chaos could be devastating. Every unit had its misfit officers and soldiers, but exaggerated accounts of entire units drug-ridden and useless, led by helpless addicts did immense harm to morale. These reports were fabricated for the use of the anti-war parties, political and otherwise. I am aware that others in the war zone during this phase of the conflict might disagree with my assessment.

Without doubt soft drugs were everywhere. Hard drugs however were shunned by the far greater number of troops, American or Allied. Lowered morale never-the-less affected everyone during those dark, uncertain days of what was beginning to be called America’s first defeat. Our forces seemed to be backing away and that was demoralizing.

The South Vietnamese openly despised us as our plans to leave, withdraw, “abandon” them leaked out to the populace. America was whipped. U.S. forces were departing. Vietnam was to be left to the Communists. Too much half-truth on this subject has already been written. I merely scribble my strong disagreement with the why’s and wherefore’s of our withdrawal from Vietnam and leave it at that. A sad and ignoble chapter written largely by those in power who insisted on minute tactical control of a huge fighting force 10,000 miles away from the Washington D.C. war rooms was surely a recipe for defeat.

My weekly rounds took me to the “Corpus Christi” helicopter repair ship anchored in Vung Tau Bay. On Thursdays a non-Catholic chaplain, a rabbi, and I were flown some 80 kilometers south to the ship for services, religious assistance and ministrations. The rabbi came to minister to the ship’s commanding officer, an Army colonel who was Jewish! (Yes, this floating machine shop was under the command of an Army colonel.) Like so many other anomalies in Vietnam, the army had a “navy.”

We assigned chaplains would signal our arrival by helicopter and church call was made. In separate areas aboard the ship, we celebrated masses, services, and met with those who requested our assistance. Afterwards we got a bite to eat and left.

The side doors on “Huey” helicopters in the war zone were removed to allow gunners access to their weapons during flight. On one occasion, after a visit to the “Corpus Christi” I was strapped in on the weapons bench next to the left port 30-cal. machine gunner. This perch would allow me to snap a few pictures of our departure, the ship below, etc. Signals were given and we lifted off. Three hundred feet above the Bay of Vung Tao the pilot obligingly laid the chopper over for me to get my pictures. My camera, a brand new Minolta 35mm balanced on my lap but not strapped around my neck suddenly tipped off as the helicopter maneuvered into the banking turn! The camera hit the slanting steel floor plates of the chopper. and dropped like a stone! Leaning forward against the harness I watched my treasure fall and then splash into the salty blue water of the bay 50 feet off the bow of the “Corpus Christi.” Fortunately, we had cleared the ship before my heavy camera dropped. I recall the chopper pilot and crew howling with laughter through the intercom system. “These things happen, Chaplain,” the crew chief shouted back. More laughter. No one laughed however, when we took a few silent rounds from the jungle below on our flight home. It was not uncommon for individual Viet Cong to fire their weapons at helicopters flying overhead at low altitude. Usually no real damage was done and none was done that day. Hitchhikers like chaplains or medics, however perched uncomfortably on their steel helmets for the duration of the firing for obvious reasons.

There were few light moments in that dark tortured period as I look back almost 30 years. Being a non-combatant, I did not fire a weapon although I carried a pistol for personal protection during the last weeks before the cease-fire, a practice strictly forbidden by international law. Wartime chaplains, however, do experience a great deal of the nasty underside of conflict. Better to be prepared.

The wounded and the dead continued to be delivered to Third Field Hospital and to the aid centers where my duty took me. The headless, long dead body of an ARVN (South Vietnamese soldier), rotting and stiff and stinking, brought to the area immediately behind my “office” for “blessings” one evening, I recall, as were the suddenly dead of the day. The wounded and burned were fewer in number those last months, but they were just as wretched. By December of 1973 our Allies in the war were transported to American medical aid stations along with our own casualties. Thai, Korean and Filipino they were brought in to our better equipped field hospitals. Christians, Buddhists, Animists, bloodied, shattered, terrified young troopers all alike. In their helplessness I anointed them all, prayed with them if possible squeezing myself carefully between the medical team members as they labored to save the life in blasted young bodies.

No one that I can recall spoke of peace marches with any warmth. The “Stars and Stripes” daily newspaper did occasionally carry accounts of rallies and peace gatherings back home. Uppermost in our minds was making it through our one year tour of duty. We longed to board the “Freedom Bird” and return to “the World,” the USA. Duty was important but so was survival. John Denver was singing “West Virginia,” (“Take me home country road”). . . and he sang to each one of us. A few weeks in sunny Vietnam had been sufficient to bleach the glory out of war. A year was a dangerous eternity. As your tour ran down to a final few days and nights it became difficult to sleep. Could the finale, the last act of this incredible adventure come together for me personally? There were the dozens of details required by regulations to authorize leaving Vietnam, to secure you a seat on the “Bird,” to clear your exit. Viet Cong sappers could easily knock your aircraft down with a missile. They were “out there” in their element, in the surrounding jungles. Our South Vietnamese allies in the alleys of a thousand villages and hamlets were angry and disappointed, frightened at the reality of departing U.S. forces. Dispirited, terrified, these folks could mess up your leave-taking as well. The fellow sweeping the sidewalk outside the barbed wire, the barber, the colonel’s Vietnamese secretary, the laborers unloading supplies beside our young soldiers, laughing, joking, were perhaps the “Chou Hoi” day-time-friendlies-night-time-“Cong” after all… They could alter your plans in a heartbeat. Remember the in-briefing a year ago? “They all look alike” soldier “They all look alike”…

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