- Ada, Oklahoma

August 15, 2013

Stonewall man recalls Vietnam experience

Eric Swanson Staff Writer

Stonewall —

Cecil Higdon kept silent about his time in Vietnam for almost 20 years.

The Stonewall man spent nearly two years in Vietnam as a heavy-equipment operator in the U.S. Army. He was discharged in the early 1970s, but he declined to discuss his military career with anyone because he didn’t want to be forced to defend his service.

“A lot of times, I’d just say, ‘Well, it’s just something I won’t talk about,’” Higdon said. “If it was another vet, we might talk a little bit but not a whole lot.”

That changed in the late 1980s when Americans’ attitudes toward Vietnam veterans began to change. After nearly two decades of silence, Higdon felt free to talk about his military career with other veterans.

Higdon said discussing his experiences eased his bitterness against the people who protested the Vietnam War.

“I didn’t really mind their protesting as much as their blaming us, like it was our idea to go. We were traitors for going,” Higdon said. “Well, I was raised up in a place like that, you didn’t question the government. Right or wrong, you went.”

Forty years ago today, the United States stopped bombing Cambodia as part of the war effort. The war continued for nearly two more years, ending when Saigon fell to North Vietnam in April 1975.


‘You did it 

without question’

Higdon grew up in the Roff area. He dropped out of high school because he thought he already knew everything. Six months after leaving high school, the 19-year-old man enlisted in the U.S. Army in December 1968.

Higdon’s father had served in World War II and the Korean War, and several of his uncles had served in Korea. So when he turned 19, Higdon decided to carry on the family tradition.

“There was no pressure,” he said. “I was just around it all my life. You just did it without question back then.”

The Army sent Higdon to Fort Polk, La., for basic training. He remained there for 16 weeks, then returned home for a weeklong break.

Higdon spent his break visiting relatives and friends around Ada before leaving for Oklahoma City, where he caught a flight to Fort Lewis, Wash. He spent five days at the military base, performing routine chores while he waited for his deployment to Vietnam.

During his stay at Fort Lewis, Higdon met a group of Green Berets — members of the Army’s special forces — who had already served in Vietnam and were planning to return.

Higdon said the Green Berets did their best to scare novices who had never seen combat, so he did not know what to expect when he arrived in Vietnam on May 12, 1969.

“The biggest shock was when I stepped off the airplane into all that heat,” he said. “My knees just buckled, and I almost fell. And some of the guys did pass out.”

Higdon and his fellow soldiers in the 577th Engineer Battalion boarded buses equipped with barred windows and grates, and they drove to an Army station for processing. They spent three days at the station before they were sent to the battalion’s base camp, which was located near a dam in the Central Highlands region.

The battalion’s main task was building part of a highway that stretched from Saigon to Pleiku, a town in the Central Highlands. The soldiers got up at dawn each day, checking the area and clearing away any land mines.

After the area was clear, the soldiers went to their assigned areas and started their work for the day.

As a heavy-equipment mechanic, Higdon specialized in changing vehicle engines and clutches. He also served as a truck driver, carrying supplies from one area to another.

After dinner, the soldiers filled sandbags for Army bunkers. The bunkers were built slightly below ground and covered with dirt and sandbags, which were intended to stop mortar and rockets from entering the bunkers.

The soldiers normally went to bed at about 11 p.m. and slept until dawn the next day. They worked from sunup until after dark seven days a week, unless  they had finished their assignments.

“Occasionally on Sunday, if we were really ahead of schedule or something, we’d go down there to the floodgates — they’d set up security — and we’d have a little swimming party and cookout down there,” Higdon said. “But I only remember doing one in the time I was there.”

He said the men spent their spare time playing card games, and the soldier on guard duty might try to take a short nap. There was little time for soldiers to reflect on what American soldiers were doing in Vietnam.


Seeing combat

Four months into his tour, Higdon and several other soldiers left the base camp one day and drove to another company in the same battalion. The group was supposed to remove any extra supplies from the company area before the next inspection.

The soldiers were not prepared for combat and did not have a radio with them. Seven soldiers in the back of one truck had finished their tour of duty and were heading back to the United States, and they were not wearing flak jackets.

The trucks rounded a curve and entered an open area, and Higdon saw another truck driven by a Vietnamese civilian blocking the road.

“All of a sudden, they started dropping mortars all the way around us, and I thought, ‘Oh, Lord, we’ve had it now,’” Higdon said.

Higdon’s driver approached the truck and started blowing his horn, trying to convince the other driver to move. At the same time, Higdon saw a Vietnamese soldier nearby.

Higdon started to shoot at the Vietnamese soldier, but the enemy returned fire. Higdon told his driver that they needed to leave the scene, then jumped out of his truck, walked to the front and tried to convince the Vietnamese civilian to move out of the way.

But the civilian wouldn’t move, so Higdon walked to the back of the truck and fired a few warning shots. Then he went back up to the front and put his gun next to the civilian’s ear.

The civilian finally moved his vehicle, and the Army trucks started to leave — but the last truck wasn’t moving.

Higdon got off his truck and ran to the back, where he discovered the driver of the rear truck was sitting still. Higdon asked the driver what was wrong, and the driver said, “Nothing.”

Higdon realized that some shrapnel had struck the driver, but he was not seriously hurt.

“More or less, I just went back there and got him focused back on what was going on,” Higdon said. “He had frozen is the only thing I can figure.”

The Army trucks finally left the scene and returned to the base camp. No one was hurt except for the driver in the rear truck.


Visiting Jimmy

Higdon had already signed up for a second tour, hoping his decision would save his younger brother, Jimmy Higdon, from serving in Vietnam.

Higdon’s brother was also in the Army, working at Fort Eustis, Va., but Jimmy apparently got bored with stateside duty and volunteered to serve in Vietnam.

Higdon said Army regulations barred brothers from serving in the same combat zone, and he was relying on those rules when he signed up for a second tour, but he didn’t realize Jimmy was already stationed overseas.

Sometime during Higdon’s first tour, his brother was hospitalized in Nha Trang with a hand injury. Higdon was in Cam Ranh Bay at the time — about 40 miles away — so he decided to visit his brother.

“I ran up there and spent some time with him, which was the last time I ever saw him alive,” Higdon said. “I was glad I got to do that. That was very memorable.”


Jimmy’s death

Higdon finished his first tour of duty and returned home for 30 days’ leave. He went back to Vietnam in the spring of 1970 and was assigned to the 540th Aviation Battalion, which specialized in helicopter recovery and repair.

The 540th was stationed in Qui Nhon, about 90 miles north of Higdon’s old base camp.

Higdon’s second tour was cut short when he learned that Jimmy had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Jimmy was 18.

Higdon said Jimmy had apparently heard some bad news and was determined to go home. He was carrying a rifle, and another soldier took it away from him.

“And then my brother, he reached out and grabbed it,” Higdon said. “And when he did . . . it caused the rifle to go off. He got hit with about three rounds.”

Higdon learned about Jimmy’s death seven or eight days later, when an Army chaplain told him what had happened. Higdon couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“You could have just hit me on top of the head and not bothered me as much as that did,” Higdon said.

Within an hour, a helicopter picked Higdon up and took him to Cam Ranh Bay, where he caught a flight to the United States.


Fort Sill

After Higdon’s emergency leave ended, he called the Pentagon to ask about returning to Vietnam. A Pentagon official told him he was not going back, and he should wait until the Army called him.

Several weeks later, the Army told Higdon he was going to Fort Lewis, Wash. He said he would rather be assigned to Fort Sill, which was closer to home.

“I’d have been much better off at Fort Lewis,” he said, chuckling. “I spent all my time driving back and forth home.”

Higdon spent the next two years at Fort Sill, where he served as a motor pool sergeant. He was discharged in May 1972, nearly four years after he enlisted.

Following his discharge, Higdon became a truck driver and went to college, where he earned a degree in history. He watched TV so he could keep up with the news from Vietnam, but he did not want to discuss his time there with anyone.

The war finally ended in April 1975, and Higdon’s first thought concerned the soldiers who would be coming home. But he kept silent about his military service, taking refuge inside his truck so he wouldn’t have to talk to people.

In the late 1980s, Higdon finally felt comfortable about discussing his experience with other people.

“It seems like sometimes when I talk about it, I feel so good for a while,”  he said, “and then life sets back in. But it made a difference, and it’s helped me overcome some of it.”