This column kicks off an occasional series on the experiences of local men and women in the armed services. Rockdale is home to 9,100 veterans. Here is one veteran's story.
December 1964 - a young Georgia Tech student completes the four year R.O.T.C. program and earns his gold bars as a second lieutenant in the United States Army. After being commissioned, he is granted the privilege of choosing his field of endeavor and selects the Ordnance Corp as his military forte. He works a short three months for an economic consulting company in Atlanta, then reports to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in April of 1965 to attend the basic ordnance officer training school. From there he's ordered Fort Lee, Virginia for training as a technical supply officer. Next stop: Fort Lewis, Washington, for a six month stint in a maintenance company. Then in April of 1966 the orders come down: Second Lieutenant Sidney Nation packs his duffle bag and boards the Big Bird for Vietnam.
The commercial flight from San Francisco island-hops from Honolulu, Hawaii to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, then finally brakes to a halt 6,000 miles from the "real world" on the tarmac in Saigon, Vietnam.
Judge Nation admitted in our interview, "Things were pretty disorganized when I landed there. I wandered the tarmac for two hours before hitching my own ride on a C-123 to the base at Qui Nhon, about halfway up the coast between Saigon and North Vietnam." Not surprisingly, the young lieutenant discovered that Army organizational skills didn't improve upon landing at Qui Nhon. "The C-123 landed on a small dirt airstrip near a Vietnamese village but there wasn't anyone there to greet me," he said. "So I sat down in a rickety old shed for about six hours to get out of the smothering heat and wondered if the Army had somehow lost one of their officers. The sun was setting by the time a PFC drove up in a jeep and asked if I was Lieutenant Nation. After I informed him that he'd found the correct officer, the soldier said, 'Well, hop in the jeep, lieutenant, and let's git.''' Lieutenant Nation slept in a tent that night on a dirt floor. The next morning an officer awoke him. "Come with me, lieutenant," the officer said. "I've been ordered to give you your orientation." They had walked just a few feet when the officer abruptly stopped and pointed north. "That's north," he stated, then moved his finger to the right. "And that's east." As he continued moving his finger like a compass, he mumbled, "And that's south, and that's west. Now, you've been oriented."
Qui Nhon was nestled in the picturesque yet primitive Phu Tai Valley. Lieutenant Nation was assigned as technical supply officer for the 5th Maintenance Battalion. His unit responsibility included the maintenance of between 1,500 to 2,000 army trucks, plus the distribution of howitzer tubes, small arms, machine guns, Caterpillar tractors, jeeps, air-compressors, generators, and ironically, boats and outboard motors, and thousands of other war material the United States Army needed to engage in battle. They worked in large maintenance tents when possible, but mostly under field conditions where his men swapped-out diesel engines in damaged trucks in less than six hours. Tires were shot up with such regularity that a pool of 5,000 tires was needed for normal rotation.
When I asked Judge Nation his thoughts on Vietnam, he replied, "I wouldn't give anything for the experience, but I don't think I'd want to do it again." Like most veterans of overseas conflicts, Sidney Nation quickly discerned how much we Americans have to be grateful for, yet appreciated how the populace of other nations suffer and die in pursuit of their dissimilar causes. "We were located on Highway One which was the main coast road," he said. "About twenty five locals worked on our base doing anything that was needed. One elderly Vietnamese gentleman that fought along the side of the French at Dien Bien Phu worked on the base and did everything in the world to help us. After I was there for about six months he returned home after work, and that night the Viet Cong kidnapped the man, killed and decapitated him. I never saw him again." A picture of Lieutenant Nation and his loyal Vietnamese worker hangs in a place of prominence in the Judge's chamber.
Judge Nation told me about his flight home after completing his one year tour of duty. "That's an amusing story," he said. "I took a C-130 and we flew down the coast toward Saigon. Vietnam has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but the problem for me......and this is not funny at all.....was the sixteen body bags stacked at the front of the plane near the pilots. As unpleasant as that was, the sight of those body bags made me even more grateful that I was homeward bound. We spent the night in Saigon and awoke at 3 O'Clock in the morning to board a commercial jet for the flight home. I tell ya," Judge Nation said, shaking his head. "The scary part was the take-off, knowing a rocket or something else could still end your life. But we made it. And we celebrated. We were going home! But as we boogied along about the time the sun came up, the pilot's voice cracked over the intercom, 'Uh, gentlemen, I need your attention. If you look out over the left wing you'll see two Mig fighters. We have been instructed to land in Red China. We inadvertently strayed into Chinese territory.'" Judge Nation grinned and said, "You can imagine how we felt after surviving a year in Vietnam but now had to face an unknown future in Red China." Shaking his head, Judge Nation continued, "After about ten seconds of absolute misery, the pilot came back on the intercom and said, 'Ha, ha, ha, I really got you boys on that one, didn't I?' That was his joke for the day," Judge Nation said. "But it wasn't funny at all until it was over."
"When we landed in San Francisco and were transported by bus to our next stop, I saw a sign advertising ' Lum's Hot Dogs, Steamed in Beer' and I thought, my God, I live in a country where you can buy a hot dog that's steamed in beer, yet I'd just left a country where people had to fight for food, and they'd probably kill for a hot dog. I have a lot of respect for the South Vietnamese; they were a kind and gentle people caught in a horrible war. That's what some Americans don't understand, they can't really appreciate what we have here, but I understood after Vietnam, as most of our veterans did."
Sidney Nation was assigned to participate as a counselor and/or prosecutor for a few court martial trials during his tour of Vietnam and decided in the fog of war that his civilian calling would be in the judicial system. "I applied for law school while in Nam," he said. "I was admitted to Georgia in the fall of 1967, so Nam sorta dictated what I did later in my life."
When I asked Judge Nation if he had anything else to add, he said, "Not really. I guess I could talk all day about things that happened, but....." When he hesitated I noticed the look in his eyes that veterans are known to exchange - the look when one stops being a judge and the other stops being a columnist so both men can start chewing the real military fat. "I can remember finding a bunch of 175mm gun tubes," he abruptly admitted. "Qui Nhon had a harbor, and the Navy boys would dump pallet after pallet of war material on the beach. My driver and I would drive down to the beach about once a week to see what the heck was there. The military can be real disjointed.......I guess that's the complimentary way to say it.....I'd take a piece of chalk with me and mark the pallets with my name - Lieutenant Nation - then send a couple of my troopers down to the beach the next day to fetch the marked pallets. I remember one day we're riding along the beach and the jeep started going, bloop, bloop, bloop, bloop, and I said, ' What in the hell is that?'....so we got out of the jeep and discovered 175mm gun tubes buried in the sand. I sent some of our soldiers down to the beach to dig'em up so we could use them. A lot of expensive war material disappeared from that beach, but we did our best. That's how we survived; that's what we had to do."
Judge Nation told me about his Cats, the mammoth breed. "I had eight Caterpillar tractors," he said. "The engineers would bring in a Cat all shot up, the engine wasted, or track blown-off; they'd leave me the junk and I'd give them a new Cat. Then without fail, the Army would show-up a day or two later for an inventory and want to know what I did with those eight new Cats, as if the new Cats were there for readiness inspections only. In a war zone, can you believe that? Well, that's the Army for you. You know; its little things like that that made it an interesting year."
In the cellular phone, digital, I-pod, Bill Gates, Prius, wide-screen world of today, it's hard to imagine that Lieutenant Nation kept his inventory of thousands upon thousands of military parts and expensive equipment on 3 inch by 5 inch index cards. He said, "I was there ten months before the army decided to computerize the base inventory. A C-5 landed at Qui Nhon one day with two trucks on board that pulled out what looked to be a trailer, but was actually a huge computer. It came with six or eight people to operate the darn thing, and since I was the only officer in our field of operations with a computer, all the big brass showed-up at strange times to take a look at this new contraption and ask all kinds of goofy questions about it. But the truth is; they couldn't have cared less about the computer. What they really wanted was to stay as long as possible in my office, the only air-conditioned facility for a 100 miles.
Recently as Chief Judge of the Rockdale County Superior Court, Judge Nation threw the book at a young man that had doused lighter fluid on a police officer and threatened to ignite the officer. Judge Nation tossed the book at him for good reason. "I was in Pleiku or An Khe, I forget which town, but I saw a Buddhist monk sit down in the middle of the street and douse his clothes with gasoline, then set himself ablaze to protest the war. I believe the term is self-immolation. I could hear his screams, and I watched helplessly as the man rolled on the ground in horrible agony; it's something you never forget. And I don't want to witness anything like that again, especially in my own community."
Another duty Sidney Nation tackled in Nam was Mess Officer. He had to be sure his soldiers were properly fed, but one incident still mystifies him to this day. Lieutenant Nation and another officer were eating in the mess tent when they heard something go, click, click, click. A distraught soldier had aimed a .45 automatic at both men and was repeatedly squeezing the trigger. Thankfully, it never discharged, and another soldier wrestled the panic-stricken warrior to the ground and eventually disarmed him. The stress of war and the unknown can make men snap in combat, thing like that happened, and things like that are best forgotten.
The 1st Calvary based at An Khe stored tons and tons of booze in an area the size of a football field just outside the barbed wire at Qui Nhon. When the 1st Calvary got a hankering for alcohol their choppers would fly down from An Khe to their liquor dump, hook-up to a pallet of booze, then mosey back to An Khe. It was a hellava war. Barter was common. Tired of C-rations and cold food, the 1st Calvary traded booze for better food from Lieutenant Nation's mess hall.
One day his mess sergeant asked for a jeep and trailer. Sidney Nation asked, "Why do you need it?" The sergeant replied, "Don't ask." Lieutenant Nation didn't ask. The mess sergeant returned with a trailer load of booze; even the jeep was packed sky-high with cases of liquor. Lieutenant Nation asked, "What in the world did you trade for all this liquor?" The sergeant replied, "Don't ask." The lieutenant didn't ask.
The booze was used for barter....booze for lumber - booze for nails - booze for roofing....Lieutenant Nation and his men were soon folding up dirty ole' tents and moving into brand new hooches; one even resembled a cabana. Alas, all good things come to an end. When notified of an up-coming inspection by the brass, the liquor was buried in a deep trench and may still be there today.
"Funny what you remember," Judge Nation said. "As officer of the day my driver and I were driving around the ammo dump one night when once again the jeep went, bloop, bloop! We looked back to discover we'd run over a snake as fat as a telephone pole." I asked Judge Nation, "Was it a python?" Judge Nation replied, "I didn't go back to find out!" It wasn't the only time snakes showed their teeth, or fangs. The soldiers hooked-up a pump from an old washing machine to force water from a nearby well to a fifty five gallon drum above the shower and, voila!....running water. The floor of the shower was metal sheets normally used for make-shift runways. The metal is ribbed, a perfect home for slithering reptiles. Two men were bitten on the same day. Poisonous to boot, the men were hospitalized for three days.
Officers were told in Vietnam 'do not let your men "group-up" in the field.' A large cluster of GIs always made a tempting target for the Viet Cong. One day Lieutenant Sidney Nation saw 40 of his men gathered in front of a creek that ran below the base. He was shocked to discover the men were watching a nude Vietnamese woman bathe in the shallow water. Without hesitating, he ordered his soldiers to disperse - they grumbled, as soldiers do, but followed their orders - then Lieutenant Nation entered the creek and chased the woman away. One of the soldiers filmed the incident with a 35mm camera. The entire base saw the comedy replayed on Christmas day. An hour after he chased the woman from the creek two Viet Cong sappers were caught with satchel charges approximately a hundred yards from where the woman was bathing. She was nothing but bait. Forty American soldiers could have been killed or wounded had it not been for a young lieutenant following the proper procedures.
Judge Nation requested more than once during the interview that I not exaggerate his contribution to the American war effort in Vietnam. "I only did my duty," he stated humbly. "A lot of soldiers did so much more, some gave their all. I wasn't a combat officer; and I'm certainly no hero." I respectfully suggest that the families of those forty soldiers may disagree.
Over hill and over dale, Lieutenant.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and freelance writer. If you're on active duty, a veteran, or a member of the homefront and would like a story considered you can reach him at email@example.com