For Huế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War In Vietnam, Mark Bowden interviewed more than 100 men and women from both sides of the fighting. Below are comments from three local American veterans of the battle of Huế. All three were interviewed for Bowden’s book.
Retired Trenton ironworker Carl Dileo, 69, was 18 when he was drafted in 1966. “I wanted to go to Vietnam, but for my own reason,” he said. “I didn’t have any political views either way. I wanted to go for the adventure.”
By the time he arrived at Huế in Feburary 1968, he was “already a seasoned infantryman, having fought for months in the jungle. But this was the first city we were fighting in. Usually, it was in the jungle, where you had to look for ambushes. Now I was fighting 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Dileo was shot in the head. “The bullet hit the top of my helmet, and it shattered into fragments,” he said. “Pieces got stuck in my skull, but they never reached the brain.” He was treated on the field and continued to fight.
Dileo looks back at the war with some melancholy. “It was such a waste of life on both sides, such a waste of youth.”
Brooklyn native Eddie Neas was eager to be a Marine. “I wanted to be a Marine for all my life,” he said. “I quit high school at 16, and on my birthday in 1966, I enlisted. I was 17, so I couldn’t go over there for another year.”
Neas, 68, who lives in Rahway in Union County, recently retired after running his own telecommunications company.
“To be honest, I wanted to know what it was like to shoot at someone and have someone shoot at you,” he said. “When you’re 18, you think you’ll never die. I had a rude awakening. … When you see someone shot, whether it’s your buddy or whether it’s the enemy, it’s a life-changing moment.”
Neas was shot in the back. “I spent three weeks in the hospital,” he says, “and then went right back.”
Neas went on a recent tour of Vietnam, including a visit to Huế in March as part of an educational trip sponsored by College of the Ozarks in Missouri.
“We were each teamed up with a student studying history,” he said. “It was incredible. I was overwhelmed to be back. … I stood on the spot where I had been shot, but it’s so different now. The whole city had been leveled [in 1968], and it has been totally rebuilt.”
D. “Bill” Ehrhart
Bucks County poet Bill Ehrhart, 68, recounts his experiences in Vietnam in several poems as well as his 1983 memoir, Vietnam Perkasie. Ehrhart, the son of a Protestant minister, joined the Marines at 17, and while he had no strong political reasons, he felt passionately that he ought to do his bit.
“I had been accepted to four colleges, but I signed up,” he said. “It seemed the right thing to do. My brothers were both in college, they were doing their thing, and I felt this was my own thing to do.”
When he told his parents, they were livid, not for any ideological reasons, but because of concern that he’d be hurt or lose his life. “I said to my mom, ‘Is this the way you raised me, to let other sons’ mothers go through this?’ ” he said.
Today, he is surprised at his sophisticated response. “Not bad for a 17-year-old,” Ehrhart said, laughing.
Ehrhart teaches literature at the Haverford School. He said his first return visit in 1985 changed his perspective on Vietnam. “I had seen a documentary about the war in 1983, and a man who was about my age talked about how beautiful Vietnam was, how vivid the colors were, how they seemed to vibrate,” he said. “And I realized all my memories of Vietnam were in black and white. I had never really been to Vietnam the country. I had only seen the war.”
It was a revelatory trip. “It was as if I got to see it like a real country, to see the real people. I was able to replace all those memories of the war with memories in color. [I saw] people living their lives with no one dropping bombs on them.”
He met a former North Vietnamese soldier. “I met him on the street one day, and I spent the night with his family. He had been to that very same battle [at Huế]. We may have been shooting at each other.”
Said Ehrhart, “I call that my trip of the heart.”