Born in the old Porterdale Hospital, Doug Garner and his family moved to Conyers before settling into Covington. He attended Newton County High School before working at the Bibb Plant in Porterdale, but instead of waiting for the inevitable draft notice, Garner chose to enlist in the U.S. Army. The year was 1966. Garner was 18.
“After basic training at Fort Benning, I was taught field communications at Fort Leonardwood, Mo.,” Garner said. “I don’t understand why, since the entire communications class was sent to Schweinfurt, Germany, as ground-pounders with the mechanized 3rd Infantry Division.”
In Germany, Garner trained as an APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) driver. None of his unit was sent to Vietnam, and he said they all felt safe. After 16 months in Schweinfurt, Garner’s platoon sergeant walked into the barracks and told him to pack his duffle bag. When he asked why, Garner was told, “You’re going to Vietnam.”
After two weeks at home, Garner arrived via commercial airliner at Ben Hoa in early January 1968. Directed to Long Bien, he was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry Mobile Riverine Force and then flown to Dong Tam in the Mekong Delta. For the next 10 months, his home would be the USS Benewah, an old Navy LST converted into a self-propelled barracks ship on the My Tho River.
“The Benewah could hold a battalion of soldiers, feed 1,000 men per day and service the 100 or so Navy vessels in the area, like landing craft and Swift Boats,” Garner said.
When deemed crucial by military Intelligence, ground-pounders boarded landing crafts and sped through hostile waters with Swift Boats as their escorts. Enemy ambushes along riverbanks were common.
Garner said, “The Delta was flat as a pancake – rice paddies, canals and buffalo dung.
Not very much jungle and what jungle there was, belonged to Charlie (Viet Cong).”
Garner had been on the Benewah less than a month when the normally elusive communists attacked nationwide in conventional-style warfare for the first time, known worldwide as the Tet Offensive of 1968.
“In the Delta, the choppers would come in and perhaps take half of us to the next hot spot,” Garner said. “We called them Eagle Flights. But this time, the sky was full of choppers. The whole battalion was picked up. When we asked our destination, they told us, ‘Saigon, for a little urban combat.’”
Garner said urban combat was better than the Delta because he and his platoon could take shelter behind houses, walls and even hotels. In the Delta, there was only rice paddy levees and muddy water.
Dropped into the suburbs of Saigon, Garner’s platoon fought hotel to hotel, house to house.
“We’d shoot at Charlie out of windows like in the movies, but this was real war,” Garner said. “Bodies were everywhere. We lost some of our guys, but we demolished Charlie. He paid a terrible price for Tet.”
During four weeks of urban combat, Garner had one misfortune he’ll remember for the rest of his life.
“We came under fire and I jumped for cover, right into the middle of a cesspool,” Garner said. “There I was, waist high in crap. After the firefight, I had to stay that way, too, no time for showers. The guys avoided me like the plague.”
Returning to Dong Tam, Garner endured another eight months of perpetual combat, including infamous battles at Vung Tau and Can Tho.
Garner recalled his company going down-river to Can Tho in four boats and being hit as soon as they disembarked. He said they crawled behind a levee as his lieutenant raised up toss a grenade before being shot in the back.
“Our sergeant cradled the lieutenant’s head in his lap, but he took a round in the head and the soldier next to me was shot and killed,” Garner said. “I glanced to the rear and saw the tip of an AK-47 disappear into a spider hole. Our captain rushed up and opened the spider hole. He pumped his entire .45 caliber clip into the sniper.”
Garner hesitated. “You know, I lived and those three guys died. Why? I was closest to the sniper. I’ve reflected on that for 44 years.”
Garner’s company fought all night. Artillery, gunships and jet fighters laid down a devastating field of destruction, but the enemy fought on.
“One Cobra gunship hit us instead of Charlie,” Garner said. “Rounds embedded in the mud all around us so I popped a smoke grenade. Thank God the gunship pulled off before killing any of us.”
Vung Tau was another hotbed of enemy activity. Garner said his platoon would sometimes be on a boat for six hours at a time navigating rivers and tributaries.
As they approached Vung Tau, things were quiet for a few days before they were ordered into a nearby village to pick up men without valid ID.
“We rounded up 30 men,” Garner said. “All of them turned out to be high-ranking Viet Cong or North Vietnamese. It was crazy. During the day, the kids and villagers would come out and sell stuff, like Cokes and beer. The men we rounded up had done the same thing, trying to make a buck between battles.”
During the dry season, rice paddies dry up and crack like shattered glass. On one patrol, the Vietnamese scout in front of Garner tripped a booby trap hidden in one of these cracks.
The scout died. Garner took shrapnel in his arms and chest. A chopper evacuated Garner back to the Benewah.
He said the medical facility on board was terrific and he was patched up to before getting a few days off. Garner still carries a piece of shrapnel in his chest.
“My Company Commander put me in for a Purple Heart, but I never got it,” Garner said.
With the help of Tommy Clack, former field director in Conyers for the Georgia Department of Veteran Services, Doug Garner received his Purple Heart in 2011. He also received an Air Medal for more than 25 assault flights.
Garner normally carried an M-16, but often worked the ‘blooper’ position. The M-79 grenade launcher made a distinctive ‘bloop’ or ‘thump’ sound when fired, thus the nickname “Blooper” or “Thumper.”
“For some foolish reason, I was walking point with a blooper in a small patch of jungle,” Garner said. “I walked around a tiny hut smack dab into a VC with an AK-47 slung behind his neck. We both were bug-eyed. I shot the blooper at the guy. It wouldn’t have exploded that close, but I thought it might at least knock the man down or kill him from the impact. I missed. Without time to reload, I ran like hell back down the path expecting a bullet in my back. Well, I finally dove into a small indentation beside the jungle trail and glanced back. Shoot, the VC had hauled-ass, too, back up the path where he came from.”
Garner spent 10 months dodging rocket-propelled grenades, rigging Claymore mines on river banks, ambushing enemy sampans, carrying his weapon plus a Claymore and 300 rounds for the machine gunner, one 90mm round for the M67 recoilless rifle, 20 or more magazines for his M-16, 2 canteens and C-rations.
The soldiers carried no extra socks, the Delta was too saturated too worry about dry socks. Garner finished his tour of duty serving his final two months working security for Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base in Saigon. “That was a cushy assignment after Dong Tam,” Garner said.
The USS Benewah was the most decorated Navy ship during the Vietnam War.
Garner returned home and married his sweetheart Lajuana Payne of Decatur within two weeks. They’ve been honeymooning for 44 years.
“Lajuana has been my strength,” Garner said. “I suffer from depression and PTSD. Lajuana has always been there for me. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and free-lance writer. Contact Pete at email@example.com and visit his website ataveteransstory.us.