By Andrea Arnold
21-year old Gene Runtz had just finished up his schooling, when the first draft lottery for the Vietnam War occurred. He watched the draft in mid-January with his new bride Susie in their Portland Oregan home, and was surprised to be called seventh out of 365. He reported to training in February.
While in training, he learned he would be a father. Daughter Sarah was born near the end of his advanced training, and he was granted two weeks leave to reacquaint himself with his little family before being deployed.
When he landed overseas, Runtz was assigned to the “Wolf Hounds Infantry.” They were sent out on patrol for up to two weeks, then returned to camp for four or five days to prepare to go out again. During the weeks on patrol, many men were ‘dusted off’ – injured to the point of being unable to continue their service for the required 13 months.
When assigned, he was given the choice of two positions within the platoon. The first was a position on the killer team. This team was made up of a pair of men who would go in after an ambush and look for survivors. “I don’t know how to say this nicely,” said Runtz. “They did not take prisoners, and they worked only with knives.” He knew that he could never perform such a task so he accepted the second position as a machine gun helper. These men fed the ammunition into the machine gun so the shooter could continue his job. The problem was that, positioned at the side of the gun, the helpers were exposed to the continuous and full impact of the sound caused by each shot, causing painful ringing. “There were ear plugs in training,” said Runtz. “Not in the field. We needed to be able to hear what was going on around us. I did this job for about a month and a half and the effects still cause issues to this day.”
Runtz moved to radio/telephone operator. He travelled with the lieutenant and communicated location and other important information. His background in forestry gave Runtz accurate mapping skills. As the forward observers, accuracy was important. This position also meant that, when under fire, he would not be shooting at the same time as all the others or he would be relaying information to the opposing side. When all was quiet, that is when he would fire.
When they moved, helicopters were often used. Eight guys at a time would be shuttled to a new location. Two guys had to ride on the outside. This was Runtz’s favorite spot. He was held in place by another man through the straps on his backpack. He and the man doing the same on the other side had the task of looking for smoke, or flashes, or other signs of trouble. Then they would shoot from the moving helicopter. “It was no more or less dangerous than the other seats in the helicopter,” he said. “But we were able to do something if we saw trouble.”
The biggest threat the platoons faced was that of boobie traps. “Full platoons were dusted off,” said Runtz. “They caused the most injuries.” The second biggest threat was friendly fire. They would circle a known threat and when the fire fights started it was hard to keep track of everyone. Often ammunition would travel through to the other side of the threat and strike one of their own men. They worked to avoid these situations. “We had to work as a team,” he said. “Everyone counted on the guy next to him. You were fighting to make sure you get out alive, and the other guys do too.”
While there were many unpleasant things about serving, Runtz has some pleasant memories as well. When they walked into villages, they had to determine if they were in friendly territory or not. One such village was held by the North Vietnamese. An old lady came out of her hut, walked up to Runtz, and spat in his face. “That’s when you know you’re in trouble,” said Runtz. The platoon translator called out that they didn’t mean any trouble. In fact, they were there to offer medical services. Soon, men and boys came out of hiding and made two lines. More serious medical needs were seen to by the medic, and Runtz, with limited medical training tended to the lessor needs. “Soon, that same old lady came back out,” said Runtz. “She started talking, and through the translator, apologized.” Then the lady called the other women and the remaining kids out.
Something that Runtz found interesting was the reversal of duties from what North American’s were accustomed to. “Often, in the middle of the day, you’d see the women out in the field,” he said. “The men, in hammocks in the village.”
Combat and action usually occurred at night, so during the day, soldiers would dig themselves fox holes, approximately 4 foot x 2 foot. This was big enough for two men, because usually they would be hanging out in pairs when the need to use the holes occurred. One day though, Runtz found himself sharing a fox hole with a water moccasin snake. He couldn’t fire his M16 without giving up his location so he used the butt of his gun and pinned the snake against the mud wall. His aim was a bit off though and he hit the snake in the neck so it lashed out. Runtz had to slowly manoeuver the butt up to the snakes head before he was able to safely extract it from the hole.
The biggest impression Runtz had of the local people was that although terrible things were happening all around, the people were mostly friendly. “I left with an immense respect for the people of South Vietnam,” he said.
Five months into his tour, he received a call on the radio. Each soldier had a number assigned to him, and in this message, his number was listed as the individual who was to be pulled out of combat and sent home due to a family emergency. Within two days, Runtz was on American soil. Shortly, Susie was admitted to the hospital with detached retinas in both eyes. The prognosis wasn’t good. She spent 19 days in the hospital, and Runtz spent that time caring for baby Sarah. He says this wasn’t a hard task, he enjoyed every minute of it.
The removal from combat to civilian life was sudden. Although he was grateful to be able to come home to support his family, it was too fast. In the following half a year, he remembers being badly startled by loud noises like a car backfiring. Also Susie has told him she woke up one night, and saw Runtz crawling across the floor. He reached up and carefully opened the door, and rolled into the next room.
“Just about everyone came back different,” he said. “I was lucky
to come home early.”