Chester Ballot of Kotzebue, Alaska speaks on March 1, 1996 during the Communities of Memory public storytelling event held at the NANA Museum in Kotzebue, Alaska from February 29 to March 2, 1996. He talks about his experience in the military during the Vietnam War, working in communications, being afraid, and coping with the fear by drinking. He also talks about having difficulty when he returned home, and the importance of a support group and talking about things in order to heal.
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Education and attending electronics training in Los Angeles, California in 1962
Joining the U.S. Army, and serving in Germany doing communications work
Being sent to Vietnam
Being in a communications area targeted by bombs, and dealing with the shelling
Amenities available in the military in Vietnam
Internal racial conflicts within the military
Maintaining communications equipment
Coping with the fear in Vietnam by drinking
Returning home from Vietnam, having problems, and founding a support group to talk about experiences with other vets
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CHESTER BALLOT: My war stories are during the Vietnam conflict.
My name is Chester Ballot. I was born near Selawik, raised here in Kotzebue.
I went to high school in Mount Edgecumbe and graduated -- and graduated there in 1962.
I went on down to Los Angeles to go to school at the RCA Institutes and learn basic electronics.
While I was down in Los Angeles, I learned other things. That in America there was another war that was brewing within our country and that was the black man against the white man.
That didn’t bother me because I was only going to be in Los Angeles for a short while and it -- going back to Alaska it really wasn’t a -- it really wasn’t that prevalent at that time in Alaska.
The other thing I learned down in Los Angeles was the use of marijuana.
It was a growing trend then. The hippies were coming out and there were some protesters that was coming out also.
The songs by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and others that I really didn’t take all that back to Alaska with me. I went to work at Fairbanks and during that time, the war was escalating in Southeast Asia.
The war in America was escalating because we saw race riots through the television news stories almost on a daily basis.
My draft notice was coming. I had written a good excuse for the first -- the first draft notice but they -- they insisted on wanting me sometimes.
So on my twenty-first birthday I got another one. Then I finally decided in order to take advantage of the military, that I should join instead and take advantage of the educational opportunities within the military.
So with my background in electronics I joined the army.
I took my basic training in Fort Ord, California. Then they turned around and told me that since I had a good background in electronics that they would ship me directly over to West Germany into the 97th Signal Battalion.
I went over there and while I was over in Germany, I went on to other trainings that we -- my training was in the radio line of sight radio and telephone carrier and telegraph type.
We went on several field trips were we had to set up the communications for the outlying infantry groups the Air Force, etc.
And while I was over in Germany, I learned that even there within the military groups that there was a racial difference and it was always the blacks against the whites. Fortunately, it never affected my type of work.
I learned my equipment as well as I can, because that was one of the things that we were taught to do. Learn as much as you can.
In the meantime, the war in Vietnam was still escalating.
The television news says we were winning, however, they kept reporting our numbers killed in actions and missing in actions at a higher rate. The newspapers were giving daily activities of what was happening in Vietnam.
And it was scary, because you could actually see what you’re going to get into. You could see the fighting, the shooting.
You could see people getting shot. You can see body bags goin’ into helicopters and being brought out to some centralized location.
And you could also see these little -- not the little, but you can see the men who were the radio operators. Sometimes them being the first ones to get shot at.
So when my number was called and I was told that I was going over to Vietnam, I came home first and I told mom I was going over there.
Says not to worry, though. The type of work that I was doing was centralized, and I told her to write me a letter once in a while.
So when I got over into Vietnam it was during -- I think during the monsoon season and there was thunder and lightning happening all over the place, which scared me even more because I -- I really thought that was bombs going off and stuff like that, but it wasn’t.
I -- I was stationed in the Mekong Delta, the southwestern portion of Vietnam, and into the 52nd Signal Battalion.
One of the things that we had to do -- we had -- over in Germany we had to set up radios and telephones and telegraph stuff, but these were already set up in Vietnam and we --
I was stationed into the hub of the area where we had five different villages that we were signaling off to. And -- and in our hub area was also the -- the station where the helicopters are always there, and we had two antennas that stood up about seventy-five feet up into the air with our antennas pointed off in five different directions.
The helicopters and the communications antennas were the main targets of the North Vietnamese, and the Vietcong, who often shelled and mortared our camp almost on a weekly basis.
I’ve learned -- and they always do this at night time.
And as soon as we heard the whump or any type of explosions, there was a siren that went off, and the main thing that I did first was to dive under my mattress because that was the most covered areas.
We had sandbags all around our hooch where we stayed.
And then when the all clear was given I’d run over to our signals communications area and make sure that we had communications to all five of our outlying areas.
Vietnam was a place that -- and this was a strange war other than the different areas, because we had -- we had hot meals. One, we had had hot meals four times a day: breakfast, lunch, supper, and midnight.
We had television almost twenty-four hours a day, so as we could watch whatever the latest types of movies or programs were going on in the United States.
We had the military radio station that provided us, one, with the race riots in America, and two, an updated version of -- again, how many KIAs or missing in actions or -- and, or, who is fighting the worst in country.
And also we had internally, which was never talked about, our little race riots or race wars within the little base camp that we were at. And again, it was the blacks against the whites.
And I guess I was light enough they looked upon me as another white person.
That was the other scary part, because the conflict internally got to a point where we were almost -- we almost got into a battle between each other until somebody came and stopped and transferred all of the head persons to a different area.
When I was over in Vietnam I've never had to fire a rifle except on the rifle range. I was in a centralized location.
All I had to do was check my equipment, make sure it was working, because we supported communications from the infantry to the Air Force to the South Vietnamese army between the five different locations.
I’ve had to travel with my CO, mainly because I was very good at my job. I travel with the CO on pay days with a helicopter.
And while I -- while he was paying the troops, I was inside the communications center checking the equipment out.
While I didn’t have time to replace all the faulty things, I wrote the notes down, left it for whoever was in charge, then I called him back later on and asked him if he replaced all those stuff on lists that I prepared for him.
Which -- I always made sure our equipment works even on the far -- farthest end, which was about 30 miles away.
I was scared when I was over in Vietnam, mainly because they were shelling us, they were attacking us with mortar shells, and I was scared to the point that I drank a lot.
I drank to forget my sacredness, and I wanted to come home. And I drank because they were fighting in between there.
A mortar had landed about fifteen feet away. Fortunately, there were sand bags here, but I didn’t hear that mortar land there. It blew up the jeep.
I didn’t hear it because I was passed out. In the morning, when I found out --
And I was in country for six months, and I said enough was enough. I started working night shift because I could hear when the in-comings was happening.
Because they never attacked during the daytimes, and I could sleep during the daytimes. And I quit drinking.
I was still scared, but at least I was awake when I -- when they were attacking. I was in country for ten months, twenty-nine days, eight hours.
You ask any veteran how long they was over there, they’ll probably give you down to the hour of what time they left and they were glad to come home.
I came home, went back to see my family, I showed them I was alive. Still had most of my mental capacity. Went back to work.
And then something happened. I drank some more, maybe to forget.
But no one asked me, "What was it like over there?" My mom didn’t ask me, my friends didn’t ask me, so I didn’t tell ‘em.
It was up just recently after the war was over or after all the peace agreements were signed that -- I think when we started our VFW club up here that we started talking a little bit.
Nowadays, you can find out from any library, from any books, the story -- the war stories. And some of the public broadcasting stations in the Lower 48, and there’s more Vietnam veterans coming out, talking about their experiences and becoming better persons after because there was a lot of funny things that went on over there.
There was a lot of marijuana smoking over there.
Also found a support group over there. Harry Harvey was in the Air Force; he was stationed up in Saigon. He found me, he called me on a weekly basis.
Oliver Leavitt (from Barrow) was in the Air Force. He was in communications. He found me in the little place where I was at. He called me on -- every other week when he can.
I found another Eskimo from Nome at the very same camp that I was, so we hung around together. Every time we saw each other we were at the mess hall, we were wishing we had our own food there.
Craving for dried fish or dried paniqtaq, and seal oil and stuff like that. Knowing that we would get done, we would be here, we would be home pretty soon.
I’m really glad to be home again. That’s my war story.