After graduating from St. Joseph’s Nursing School in Atlanta, Newton County native Delores Haney did her pediatric rotation at the Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati. There she met a young man from Xavier College who was paying educational expenses by working as a bartender.
Sparks flew; Cupid’s arrow hit true, and they wed before her husband John Patrick Higgins left for Vietnam. The couple will celebrate their 48th anniversary this year.
Higgins chose the Air Force.
"I took my tests for OCS (Officer Candidate School) and passed with flying colors," he said. "Then I waited for an appointment that never came."
With an impatient draft board needing warm bodies, Higgins signed up for OCS with the U.S. Army. He would train in the most lethal form of land-based armament, referred to as "the God of War" — artillery.
Basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. Higgins said, "Let me illustrate Leonard Wood for you: rocks and trees, sleet, snow, cold and rain." His artillery training came at Fort Sill, Okla.
"Interestingly, one of our tactical officers at Fort Sill was Tommy Clack," Higgins said. "He helped train and oversee the results."
Well-known in Rockdale and Newton counties, Capt. Tommy Clack served two tours in Vietnam and is currently executive director for the Walk of Heroes Veterans Memorial Park in Rockdale County.
After artillery school, Higgins remained at Fort Sill to train the "cannon cockers’’ (enlisted artillerymen).
His next assignment assured a trip to Vietnam: jungle warfare school in the Panama Canal Zone.
"The toughest two weeks I spent in the U.S. Army," he said of the training.
Higgins arrives at Bien Hoa, Vietnam. He’s sent to the 25th Infantry Division in Cu Chi, north of Saigon.
"Hard to believe, but at Cu Chi was the first time I fired an M-16," he said.
Assigned as forward observer (FO) on a Pup Charlie (personnel carrier), he said, "We always rode on top of a Pup Charlie. Better chances of surviving land mines."
Higgins learned the politics of the Vietnam War his first night at Cu Chi.
"We received mortar fire from a nearby village, but we couldn’t shoot back because it was a ‘friendly’ village.’’
It would not be the last time politics entered the fray during his tour.
Of another operation, Higgins said, "We moved up to the Angel’s Wing (named for its perceived shape on a map) on the Cambodian border. I could see truck convoys and lights on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, yet we were told not to fire. They could fire at us, but we could not fire back. When they fired rockets, we could fire back. Then we hit them with everything, including the kitchen sink."
Other duties included road sweeps for mines on heavily traveled Route 1 and activity in the Boi Loi Woods.
"We saw a lot of action in the Boi Loi Woods. Ambushes were common," Higgins said. "I haven’t talked about it much, all the death, the wounded, the destruction. We started out with about 140 guys; soon we were down to 88."
At one point, Higgins commanded five batteries of six guns per battery.
"I fired 8-inchers, 175mm, 155mm, and 105mm at the enemy. The Army doesn’t charge without an artillery barrage leading the way."
Higgins respected the flyboys.
"The F-4 Phantoms were lifesavers more than once. I often called in air strikes and directed forward air control jockeys. We loved Puff the Magic Dragon (a C-47, nicknamed ‘Spooky,’ armed with three 7.62mm mini-guns and illumination capability). Puff could stay airborne for hours and stay on station. It was a devastating gun platform."
After six months of combat as an FO, Higgins served his remaining tour of duty as a fire control officer.
May 1, 1970:
President Richard Nixon announced the Cambodian Incursion. American and Allied boys were surging across the Cambodian border into VC and NVA sanctuaries.
"We took three tubes (105mm howitzers) into Cambodia," Higgins said. "We covered advancing troops or whatever was necessary, but my time in ’Nam was almost up. I did get pulled back, but we had to travel in an unescorted Army truck along a hastily built road that had been plowed for the incursion. Needless to say, I kept my M-16 handy."
Back at Cu Chi with 10 days left "in-country," Higgins was abruptly sent to a three-tube fire support base via chopper.
"When I got there, the officer in charge asked me, ‘Why on earth are you here?’ I didn’t have a good answer."
With only three days left in Vietnam, Higgins radioed for a replacement.
"A major cussed me out," he said. "A colonel overheard the verbal abuse and ordered the major to pull me out immediately, so that’s how I managed to get out of Vietnam."
Reflecting on the war, Higgins said, "I saw men shell-shocked, frozen with fear, but I never condemned those men. War is hell. I did OK until I came home. I developed a temper, especially when I watched the national news. It was all lies, horrible coverage of what we were actually accomplishing in Vietnam. My wife made me stop watching the news — probably a good thing."
When he was seeking employment in 1970, an employment agency commented on his resume reflecting service in Vietnam: "It will be difficult for us to find you a job."
"I had a friend at Lithonia Lighting," Higgins said. "I went for an interview and eventually ended up talking to the plant manager, a U.S. Marine."
John Higgins retired from Lithonia Lighting after 39 years of service.
Closing remarks: "Yeah, I’d like to say something about Jane Fonda, but you couldn’t print it."
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.