Vietnam veteran shares photos, experiences

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 7, 2011

By Shelley Smith
For 365 days, U.S. Army Lt. Hayden Simmerson slept with one eye open.
“Sleep deprivation was the biggest torture,” Simmerson said. “I probably slept two to three hours every night for a year.”
Simmerson waded through the rice paddies in the Gia Dinh Province in southern Vietnam during the day, and ambushed the Viet Cong at night in seven different spots.
A lieutenant for a group of three additional American soldiers and a company of 100 South Vietnam soldiers, he led a mobile advisory team — MAT 36 — which provided artillery, helicopter gunships, medivac to the Vietnamese and airstrikes.
Simmerson lived alongside the Vietnamese in the village, eating a diet of rice, fish, ducks, snakes, shrimp and crabs, totally immersing himself in the Vietnamese culture, making friends and memories that he will never forget.
“Do I have any regrets?,” he said. “None. We did what we needed to do.”
Simmerson shared his story and photos from Vietnam for the Rowan Public Library and Waterworks Visual Art Center’s collaborative project, “Through a Soldier’s Eyes: Remembering Vietnam.”
The project is open to all Vietnam veterans, and will become a permanent fixture at the library, as well as an August exhibit at Waterworks.
“I’m a lover of history,” Simmerson said Saturday at the library. “For posterity, I didn’t want us Vietnam veteran people to be forgotten. This is for everyone who did what we thought we were supposed to do.”
A graduate of Boyden High School, Simmerson went to college at North Carolina State University and earned a degree in chemical engineering.
But he was bored and decided to join the Army.
“I was looking for adventure, and I found it,” he said.
An honor graduate in officer candidate school, he was then assigned to Vietnam, but first went to Vietnamese language school in Ft. Bliss, Texas.
“I had Latin and Spanish at Boyden, but was never able to speak a word,” he said.
In Texas, Simmerson became fluent in Vietnamese after a strenuous 12-week course. His mother was a musician, and he credits her for being able to pick up on the different tones of the language, which won him over by his Vietnamese teachers.
“Speaking the Vietnamese language made my tour in Vietnam much more meaningful than the average G.I.,” he said.
In 1969, he was sent to southern Vietnam, where he lived on the northern edge of the Mekong River Delta, and was responsible for an area about the size of Rowan County.
During the day, helicopters took his company somewhere like China Grove, he said.
“We’d spend the day tromping through the swamps looking for the enemy, and we might walk back home, eat supper, replenish ammunition and supplies and then get out and gear up waiting for the enemy,” he said.
He took showers outside using a rain barrel, and had to kill a 12-foot king cobra that made its way into his tiny house one day. There was no electricity, and he was always wet from walking through the rice fields.
But he had friends, and he was able to communicate with them.
Once a month he was able to fly to Saigon to enjoy one night of amenities, which included reading Vietnamese newspapers and watching television.
He hitched rides up the Mekong River to other villages when he had time to himself, and was able to water ski after his MAT unit traded Viet Cong weapons for a slalom ski and rope with a unit from the U.S. Navy.
“My experience in Vietnam was certainly different than the average G.I.,” he said. “Guys were in much more dangerous places than I was. And some in much less dangerous places.”
And the war, he says, is very similar to what’s going on in the Middle East today.
General Vo Nguyen Giap, the commander of all enemy forces in Vietnam during the war, recently wrote his memoirs and said the U.S. had them beat, Simmerson said.
“He said why did we give up, why did we quit? They were ready to surrender several times, and we let them off the hook.
“But not we, not the G.I.s – the politicians let them off the hook,” Simmerson said.
“The Vietnam War was the first war ever where the military didn’t run the thing, the politicians did, and we lost it,” he said. “The Middle East and Iraq, I don’t feel there’s anything better over there.”
Simmerson compares the Vietnam War as “being in a boxing match with one arm tied behind you,” and says the same goes for the wars America is currently in.
But still, he said, things have changed since Vietnam, and soldiers are heros, unlike the soldiers who came home in the 1970s.
He passed up a career in the Army because of the Vietnam War.
“Being a soldier was not an honorable profession,” he said. “We were perceived as baby killers and mad guys.”
When he landed in San Fransisco, he was spat on, and had to move out of a graduate school dorm at Appalachian State University because the students said he wasn’t welcome.
“The military has done a turnaround,” he said. “Being in the military now is a very honorable profession.”
Although Simmerson was never injured, he has scars. But they’re scars that are not necessarily from bad memories, he said.
“I dream about Vietnam regularly,” he said. “But I don’t have the nightmares others do.”
He said he’ll never forget the sound of the Huey helicopters, “on the way to save your butt.”
Simmerson has overcome prostate cancer after being exposed to Agent Orange, which he sprayed every day around his company’s compound to keep the plants dead so the Viet Cong couldn’t sneak up on them.
“It would kill anything,” he said. “And it just so happened to be a carcinogen. Most everyone in Vietnam was exposed to it.”
He says he’ll always remember the smell of Vietnam — diesel fuel, garbage and sewage.
“The odor of the country just permeated your nose, your clothes,” he said. “And every once in a while I’ll smell something and say, ‘Oh gosh. Vietnam.’
“And of course, you’ll never forget the casualties that you suffered.”
Simmerson is visiting Vietnam next year, something he’s been wanting to do for a while, he said.
His plans are to fly to Saigon, and just as he did 42 years ago, he says he will hitch a ride to his old stomping grounds in the Gia Dinh Province.
He wasn’t able to keep in touch with any of his Vietnamese friends, but he’s hoping for reunion.
“I’m going to see if there’s anyone who still lives there,” he said. “A lot of the farms were abandoned, and I would expect rice production is back to normal.”