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David Shoemaker's Story
"Forget everything you learned in training. It’s a different world out here."
That was what David Shoemaker heard from a sergeant shortly before leaving for Vietnam in 1969. A native of Ashe County, David graduated from Beaver Creek High School in 1967. His father passed away in 1968. Three months later, David was drafted into the United States Army.
David’s military career began with basic training at Fort Bragg. From there he went to Fort Polk in Louisiana for infantry training, a place commonly known as ‘tiger land’ due to the harsh tests that the troops endured. It was then that David was selected to go to non-commissioned officer training in Fort Benning, and he realized that he had just been given a ticket to Vietnam.
Due to the high loss rate of squad leaders during the war, David’s training was a fast track program, and men who went through it were often called ‘shake and bakes.’ In just 12 weeks, David went from an E2 to an E5 Buck Sergeant, the highest rank he would hold during his military career. Following his officer training, David flew to Oakland, California, where he stayed for two weeks waiting to be processed. In Oakland, troops in waiting were kept in huge warehouses filled with rows and rows of bunk beds. For 19-year-old Shoemaker, it was a shock, and he heard many horror stories from troops returning from their duty.
After about two or three weeks, David was put on a plane to Vietnam. At this time the Tet offensive, a major series of surprise attacks by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, had occurred. David was first sent to Pleiku, where he acquired his gear and rifle before getting on board a helicopter that would fly him over to his barracks in Ankei, located in the mountains of the country. Upon his arrival, David became a squad leader in the 4th infantry unit.
Also known as the grunts and the ground pounders, David’s platoon would split off during the day and night to perform perimeter and ambush patrols. One of David’s main jobs was searching out hidden supply camps for the North Vietnamese army. Many villages in the mountains secretly provided food and supplies for enemy troops, and David’s team was tasked with burning down these camps and killing the animals, including water buffalo, pigs and chickens.
David’s team would also pull guard for artillery batteries, making sure no one could get inside the perimeter area. One threat that they had to be especially wary of was sappers, Vietnamese troops who wore nothing but a tight cloth, like a sumo wrestler, carrying a satchel charge. Against all odds they would sneak through the wire and outer defenses and once inside the perimeter they would lob the charges at whatever they could hit.
In addition, friendly fire wasn’t always uncommon. Squads would be tasked with traveling out a certain number of clicks from camp. Once in position, the base would start dropping bombs and troops who missed their clicks were at risk of being hit with their own bombs.
David was involved in several conflicts during his service, earning him a combat infantry badge. However, the most brutal of these encounters was during a battle in a creek bed. Leading up to the conflict, David’s company was set up in stages on the border of Cambodia, and U.S. troops were pushing the North Vietnamese army up towards the his platoon so they could engage. At one point, a platoon was out on patrol when they were pinned down at a creek bed. When they called for backup, David brought his squad to provide assistance, only to become pinned down as well. Several troops were lost in the fighting and around 30 in the whole company were wounded.
“You can’t explain scared, can’t explain what it was like when you were there,” said David. “There was a medic who was hunkered down with his M16 in an enemy’s foxhole and he was just gone. He would jump up and fire off a whole clip then jump back down in that hole shaking like crazy. It was so thick you could see muzzle flashes coming at you. We had to call in support from a gunship equipped with a mini-gun. It came in spitting out 3,000 rounds per minute. Everything was dropping.”
David earned a Purple Heart during his duty as well as a Bronze Star for attempting to help a wounded captain alongside three other men.
“We were going up the inside of the stream bed carrying the captain in a litter made of ponchos. At one point the guy in the back got shot and someone else had to be pulled in. It was like something out of the movies; bullets bouncing off of the rocks ‘bing bing bing.’ At one point I thought I had got shot in the foot and I was shouting, ‘I’m hit, I’m hit!’ There was smoke coming out of the boot and the bullet had gone straight through, tearing off the bottom and leaving just a small bit of material. When an officer saw it he said ‘You need some new boots don’t yah,’ and had a new pair flown in for me that evening.”
Even when the bullets weren’t flying life in the field was tough. Squads would be on patrol for weeks at a time. Water was an issue and often nasty to drink, requiring troops to purify it with pills. Leeches were a common annoyance as was tropical ulcer, more commonly known then as ‘jungle rot,’ a chronic ulcerative skin lesion caused by a polymicrobial infection, which could really turn bad due to the moisture. One case of jungle rot on his legs sent David back to camp until he was healed back up. When monsoon season hit, the rains would come down every day. David and his men would set up small tents made out of ponchos, but they were not enough to keep them dry.
In addition, troops never patrolled light. David would often have 90 pounds on his back, from food and gear to pickaxes and shovels, which would be used to build bunkers made out of dirt, sand and branches, or for clearing out landing zones for helicopters providing supplies.
Helicopters would drop in food and drink, but the supplies would often be dropped from too great a height, causing the canisters to burst open. The food consisted mainly of c-rations with everything coming in a can, including crackers, potted pork and ham and eggs. The best thing by far was the cocoa, which the troops could use to make hot chocolate. But how did they cook the food? Troops on the field would carry an explosive called C-4, which was used against enemy forces or to clear out land zones. However, just a pinch of it set on the ground could be set alight to create heat for cooking. But you could not stomp out this fire, because you would blow your leg off.
Once his patrols were done, David and his men would return to base, their single set of clothes so filthy it was like they were covered in grease. “I remember one time they were bringing us back to the base camp at Ankei. The first place they took us to was the mess hall. We all went in and everyone else left because we smelled so bad. We had free reign over the place.”
Easy days were few and far between, usually when David was back in the barracks on stand down for one to two weeks. Treated to a fresh set of clothes, sleeping in the bunk beds and having food at the mess hall, life was easier, but while it was a safer place, danger was never too far away. David would still have to pull guard from time to time with the constant thought that soon he would be sent back out in the field.
David only spent one year in Vietnam, leaving in Sept. of 1970. When he first joined, David had considered making the military a career, but his experience during the war persuaded him to reconsider. Following his time in duty, he was placed in the reserves for about a year but was never called back out. For him, it was like getting a monkey off of his back.
After returning home from service, David worked in several careers, including for a construction company, as a sales manager and working in a post office before his retirement. Despite the reprieve, life following his service was rough due to the stigma against the war. He was rejected from jobs and interviews. While on his way over to Vietnam, David saw several soldiers in Hawaii who had just finished their tours wearing civilian clothing instead of their uniforms. Thankfully, public opinion and respect for the troops that fought in the war has improved in the past few decades.
In addition, even after 50 years, David still has to deal with the scars of his service and PTSD.
“Coming home, I still have flashbacks, still see stuff, dreaming about being back over there and having to go back. I don’t like being in crowds, don’t like sitting with my back to the door. Gunshots, firecrackers, fireworks, even the backfire from trucks still bothers me to this day. Hearing a chopper in the sky gets under my skin. It’s been many decades for me and some stuff just gets embedded in your brain. You leave West Jefferson that young and you come back a changed man.”
For David the VA and psychiatrist visits have been vital in helping him throughout his life, as well as his marriage. During his psychologist visits, his wife would often come with him to help understand what he was going through.
“Most days are good. It’s all about keeping the balance. It’s like riding a roller coaster; you have lows and you have your anxiety highs. The one big thing that all the Vietnam veterans in combat say, you didn’t want to take orders from people, because the ones who told you what to do over there could get you killed. Authority was hard to deal with and is still a problem for me today.”
However, David has found one outlet in life that has proven to be his greatest therapy: his love for art and painting, an interest he’s had ever since he was a young boy in school when he took art lessons in West Jefferson. Today he paints a variety of styles including landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes. During the summer of 2019, he had an art exhibit on display at the Ashe County History Museum which took him three years to complete. The exhibit consists of several paintings, each one accompanied by a poem.
“It gives me something to focus on and allows me to open up. I’ve always liked creating things, seeing a small idea grow and evolve to its completion. I feel sorry for a lot of guys today who don’t have anything to do.”
Much has changed since the war in Vietnam and the removal of the draft. David’s life was sent on a short but life changing path that left a significant mark on his life that would define the man he became today. In his opinion it was an honor to serve; but for him and many other soldiers, their greatest thought during war wasn’t just on fighting for a cause, but for getting home safe and sound.
-- Interviewed by Troy Brooks