Walter Sampson, originally from Noorvik, 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. He talks about the training, being in battle, and being caught in a large ambush where many people died. He also talks about the hardship of losing a good friend, the emotional trauma of having to kill people, how the war changed him, and the importance of sharing your feelings as a way to heal.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Kotzebue Communities of Memory
Date of Interview: Mar 1, 1996
Narrator(s): Walter Sampson
Transcriber: Leslie McCartney
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Personal background, growing up, and education
Being drafted and inducted into the U.S. Army
Basic training, and being sent to Vietnam
Arriving in Vietnam, and being assigned to Charlie Company
Being out in the field, and working as a grenade launcher
Hardship of war and killing people
Operating a machine gun, and becoming a radio telephone operator (RTO)
Being on a night walk, and getting caught in an ambush
Receiving assistance to get out of ambush, and number of casualties
Reliance on the Bible
Losing a close friend in battle, and how it changed him
Working security detail, and eating local food
Learning discipline in the military
Returning home and dealing with feelings of guilt
Learning to talk about feelings as a way to heal
Alfred Wells expressing pride in service
Details of what happens in military training
Passing and failing training, and trying to get out of the military
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WALTER SAMPSON: My name is Walter Sampson. And I come from a large family. Alfred’s my uncle, Bob’s my father-in-law, and I’ve got some others relatives here as well, too.
I come from a small community fifty miles east of here, Noorvik. Five hundred people.
I grew up with -- with my grandmother. My grandmother died at the age of 88; I was just going to high school then. I went through the Noorvik High School, then I went to Kotzebue here to Kotzebue Friends High School for two years. Well, actually a year and half.
My second year, my sophomore year, mom was gettin' sick so I went home. I quit school and went home.
But I never regret one bit why I quit school and spent the last three months of my mother’s life with her.
After she passed on, I grew up with my -- my cousin. Then I went to high school down in Oregon. Those days we didn’t really have no high school in and around besides the one here in Kotzebue.
Either go to Mount Edgecumbe or Chemawa, so I went to Chemawa.
After graduating in 1968 from Chemawa High School, I went home with a thought that I was gonna go back to school, at least to a junior college in California.
And shortly after I got home from high school, I got a notice from my Selective Service Board in Nome. Then, my -- my number was -- two, so I didn’t really have no choice.
And the Selective Board -- Service Board asked when I was going to school, what time I was going to be in class. I didn’t have that information up front, so they said. "Well, sorry, you’re gonna have to go to Anchorage for a physical."
So I went to Anchorage for physical. Then not too long after I received a letter saying that I did pass my physical.
Then in September of ’68, I went to -- to Anchorage to get inducted into the -- the military.
Prior to me going into the service I had a brother that was in -- in the army. He was drafted, so he was in for three years.
So I got to talkin’ to him before I went in, and I said, "Well, I don’t really think I want to spend three years in the military." I said, "If I can find a way out, I’d like to spend the shortest time as I can in -- in the military."
And like I said, draft was heavy then. So he said, "Well, I’ve heard of folks in the military that had volunteered for the draft and went in for two."
And I said, "Hey, that’s what I’ve been looking for." So when I went into Anchorage for -- for induction, I volunteered for -- for the draft and went into the regular army for -- for two years.
I went through my basic in Fort Lewis, Washington, March -- well, actually September -- starting September through March. I took basic there and advanced individual training there, as well.
After my AIT, my orders were for Vietnam. And I -- I went home for -- for a short bit.
When I got home, it was nice and cool. Temperatures must be somewhere around minus forty-five, forty-six. Then I was home for -- for a couple of weeks.
After being home on a furlough for a couple of weeks, I reported back to Fort Lewis, Washington to process out, to go to Vietnam.
It took about four days to -- to get processed out of Fort Lewis and from Fort Lewis, Washington we -- going over to Vietnam.
We went to -- we flew back to Anchorage, my mind was back home but yet I had committed myself to the -- to the military.
We spent a couple of hours in Anchorage refueling. After refueling, we left Anchorage headed for Japan. Yokota, Japan.
From Yokota we went to -- to Cam Ranh Bay, that’s in Vietnam.
The temperature difference that I really had to adjust to from that minus forty-five, minus forty-six, to a temperature of a hundred and twenty-five degrees was really a -- a change.
When they first opened the airplane at Cam Ranh Bay, I thought that I was going to suffocate or have an heat stroke. So first thing I told myself was don’t panic, you’ll be okay.
So I did that. And I took whatever I was trying to do or whatever I was told to do, I tried not to over exert myself and in -- in doin' those things I was supposed to do, because of the fact that I had to readjust from the cold temperature to -- to -- to a hot temperature.
I spent a few days there in Cam Ranh Bay being processed, as well as gettin’ some information on what was happening within Vietnam.
Also I processed out and was assigned to -- to a division from Cam Rahn Bay.
I was assigned to the Charlie Company, 3rd of the 1st 11th Infantry Brigade Amarical Division, which is up on the northwest side of Vietnam.
And I spent two weeks in Chu Lai going through what they call combat training. Basically what that is they’re trying to get you to a feel of what real bullets are and how bullets feel over -- coming over your head with explosions on a side. This was on a training course.
So that wasn’t really that hard to -- to go through because of the fact of the training that I went through on the state's side.
After two weeks in Chu Lai, I went to -- to my unit, which was Charlie Company, just south of Chu Lai called Đắk Tô.
And some of you probably will remember the area that William -- Lt. Calley did his -- his thing (former United States Army officer convicted by court-martial of murdering 22 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968). And that was the general area that my company had operated around. And that was the massacre that -- that occurred.
That March, I got to my unit after getting to Đắk Tô. About a day later, I -- after getting all my equipment and some documents signed, I went out to -- to the field to join my -- my company.
The strength of the company then ran between a hundred to a hundred and fifteen in my company.
And all through the course of the year, the eleven months, twenty-seven days and ten hours that I spent in Vietnam, I was the only Native in my -- my company.
So everybody call me Eskimo. I was the only Native. And they didn’t call me by my name, they call me "Hey, Eskimo." So I say yes.
After joining my -- my company, I went out -- I went out to the field and I started off as -- as what they call a grenadier.
It’s a little, sort of like a shot gun. It’s basically a grenade launcher. And I humped the grenade launcher for about a month.
The bullets themselves, the grenades are pretty big, so I didn’t really carry but maybe thirty.
And the first time my -- out in the field trying to pack a fifty, sixty pound bag in your back, and being new to the country, I went through a lot of water. At least through the course of the day, I must have drank at least seven -- seven to eight quarts a day just trying to keep myself going.
And on top of that, I had to take a lot of salt tabs to recoup the loss of -- of what I was losing from my body by sweating. And on top of that, I had to take what they called the big pill, which was the malaria pill.
And after joining my unit, I -- my first third day out in the field was -- was my first action, my first fire fight. I was scared.
At one point, I thought that was the end of -- of my life. When you start hearing bullets zinging over you, people screamin, hollerin’ for help, it -- it -- it’s scary.
Takin’ a human life is immoral.
CHESTER BALLOT: It was war. Yeah. We had to. You had your orders. You know.
RACHEL CRAIG: We’ve got lots more of these.
CHESTER BALLOT: Those were the orders.
WALTER SAMPSON: I’m sorry. It’s unethical, painful.
When you’ve been taught to -- to love people. When you’ve been taught to respect others and you get to that position, but by not by your choice, it’s -- it’s hard.
Bullets don’t discriminate. They don’t really care who was on the ground, whether it's white, colored, Native or others.
After being a grenadier for about a month, every sixty days we -- at least forty to sixty days, we'd go back into the rear where it’ sort of secure, to spend a little time to try to recoup from what you went through.
After my first month with a grenade launcher, I got stuck on a machine gun after a big fire fight we had. And the machine gun I was carrying, I carried that for only three days.
After carrying the machine gun for three days, they had asked to see if anybody would be willing to take the radio, to carry a radio. the individual in my squad -- in my platoon that was carrying the radio had gotten killed, so we didn’t have RTOs (radio telephone operator).
So I -- I volunteered to take the radio. Then for about eight and a half months I carried that radio on my back. Lot of it through -- lot a -- through a lot of action.
And at one point, we were on a -- a what we call a midnight walk, and you don’t really see that many of those in Vietnam.
The whole company, we’re trying to go from one point to -- to another location, and the only secure time to try to do it was at night.
And that’s walking on one -- one line, one right behind the other, trying walk quiet as you can to where your enemy won’t detect you.
And it took us pretty well most of the night to -- to try to walk at least two miles.
And through the course of the night, the company got separated. Some folks weren’t watching close enough and we got separated. And we stopped. We finally ended up resc -- gettin' -- or finding the rest of the company and get them caught up.
And about seven o’clock in the morning, well actually about six o’clock in the morning, we -- we stopped for -- for a short rest. And the plans were for us to, as day break, walk out from that area to go to a hilltop to -- to rest for the day, so we could get a little bit of sleep.
And about seven that morning, quarter to seven, we weren’t very far from where we needed to go and it was start gettin’ daylight out.
We got -- the company got up, we started walkin’ in a column of two. That’s two lines. To try to get to where we’re gonna go for a day’s rest.
And there was a hundred and five in my company then. We’re walkin’ on the base of the hill, right between the sugar canes, walkin’ in a column of two.
All of a sudden we -- after everybody got into the -- the sugar cane, somebody hollered "Dinks." And we knew right there and then when they opened up that we were on an ambush.
What had occurred was that we walked into a huge U-shape ambush where the enemy had crossfire on the whole company.
That was about 7:15 in the morning we got in contact. We had jets flying around above head -- above us. We had guns ships flying around above us. We had artillery waiting, but we were right in the ambush.
There’s no way the jets were gonna drop anything, because we were right in -- in where the trap, what you call the -- the enemy trap.
We couldn’t crawl out anyway, we -- we didn’t have no way out.
By about two o’clock in the afternoon, we finally started our --our way out, and our only way out was to call the tank company, what they called the APC carriers.
In through the fire fight, out of the hundred and five people that we had, everybody in the headquarters was killed all except for -- for one medic.
That’s the company commander, his radio telephone operator, the other squad boss and -- and the medic. That’s in the headquarters company.
When they finally told us that the APCs were coming in, we were told to -- to pop smoke. We popped smoke. Each move we tried to make, the enemy would open up. Each time you get up to try to do something, he’d take a pop at you.
Those folks that were moving around were the ones that were -- were being hit.
They said pop smoke, so we popped smoke. They said hug the ground, so we got close to the ground as you can -- close as you can get. That’s in a prone position.
Then they started firing right above our heads, sugar canes just falling down to try to cover us. They said crawl out towards where they're firing.
So we attempted to -- to drag our dead and crawl out towards the friendly fire that was givin’ us cover.
By the time we finally got out of -- out of the -- the ambush by two o’clock that afternoon, out of the one hundred and five people, there were twenty-four of us left. We had twelve people killed, and rest were wounded.
Each time we take a break, and it don’t really matter where -- where you’re at, even at the -- a landing pad, guys will carry their little New Testaments on their helmets or on their pockets, you’ll see the guys, don’t matter who, they’ll get their little Bible out, and that’s -- that’s all you’ll see is people reading their little Bibles before we go out.
Even during the breaks out in the -- out in the field, as soon as we stop, some of the guys will get their little Bibles out and read.
And we found -- After we got out that day, we found out after they worked out that area good with jets and artillery, we found that there was twelve, fourteen year old kids, maybe sixteen year old kids, chained to their machine guns to -- to the point where there was no way out for them. So the only thing that they can do was to fire and try to kill as many of us as they can.
And we spent -- after that we spent at the fire base for about a week trying to get new people into -- to our unit, or to our company.
After that I made one big mistake, and that is I got to know a real close friend and a real close buddy. I made a real close buddy. And I was out in the field with him for -- for about six months.
After that time, he -- he wanted -- well, he was going to go on R and R for a week. And he was like a -- a brother to me. When I asked for something he gave me what I wanted. When he asked for something, I give it to him if I have it.
He was going on R and R, and I asked him to see if he need any money, he said no. Well, anyway, I -- I gave him -- some money for -- for his spending, because of the fact that I got that close to -- to him, and he was just like a brother to me.
After his R and R, he -- he came back, went back out to the unit. We were operating that one day, we got into another fire fight and he for -- for some reason he was ahead of me and right in front of my eyes he got killed (long pause).
After he got killed, that’s when I changed (long pause).
My whole life changed. I didn’t really care from there whether I go or not.
My mental mind changed to -- to the point where I had nothing in mind but revenge. It didn’t really matter to me anymore from that point. When I see something movin’, long as it’s movin’, I shoot to kill.
And that’s the -- the attitude that I -- I came to after the buddy of mine got killed. And the term that you'll often hear in military is -- is -- is you become an animal, you didn’t care.
You get to the point where you terrorize people. You terrorize children. You terrorize innocent people. And it just got to that point.
Then after my nine and half months out in the field, I spent two months -- one month in what they call the 3rd MAF, which was up at Da Nang pulling special security for -- for the brass -- the big brasses. And also pulled security at the 95th Evac Hospital. This was after I spent some time out in the field.
All through the course of the -- the field, I wasn’t lucky to eat hot meals, we ate nothing but sea rations. And I tell you, when you go to a vill, what we call a village, you -- sometimes we set up in a little village, then you’ll go to a Mama-San and say Mama-San, will actually order Mama-San to cook for you.
Say Mama-San, rice with chicken. And the chicken and the rice with hot greens, that’s what you call a hot meal. And in turn, some guys will give their -- their -- their food, their sea rations to them.
I think what really, from the military itself what I got out of was -- was discipline. You know, when you’re -- when you’re young your -- your mind is always working, you’re always looking for things to do.
After having gone through the military training and having gone to -- to a war zone, that completely changed my way of -- of doing things.
When I first got back in -- in country, coming back from -- from Vietnam, I spent my last five months in Fort Carson, Colorado. After I got out, I visited my buddy in Oregon. He was in Vietnam, same company, same unit.
We had our time together. This was the other buddy that I made after, but he wasn’t as close as the one that got killed.
And after that I -- I went home. And I finally started to realize after gettin’ out of military, all the things that I did in Vietnam, all the terrorizing that I did, all the burning that I did to -- to innocent people’s homes, all that guilt feeling that built up, starting to -- to come to me.
At home, I didn’t want to talk to -- to anyone. Through the course of -- of that time, after -- after -- after all that guilt feeling got built up in me, it got to the point where I was at least sleeping an hour, an hour and a half each night. Rest of the night was -- was thinking of what I did to innocent people in Vietnam.
Twice I thought my only way out from that condition was -- was commit -- committing suicide. Twice I thought of that. And I thought that was my -- my only way out, because of the fact that all the things that I did wrong to -- to innocent people, it got built up inside and it hurt.
That’s why I said taking innocent lives or taking human life is painful.
And I managed to -- to talk to -- well, actually Floyd, I have to credit Floyd for -- for being who he is. He’d come and visit and try to talk to me about what I did in Vietnam.
Or he’d start a conversation just by, just talkin’ about what was happening in town. Sometimes I’d be talkin’ to him, not really lookin’ at him, but just talkin’ to him.
And sometimes he’d quick -- quickly ask a question about Vietnam and through the course of the discussion I'd answer not knowing what that question was. Then afterwards I’d realize that he was askin’.
I didn’t want nothin.’ I didn’t want to talk about Vietnam. I didn’t want nothin’ to do with it, because of all that guilt feeling that I got built up in me.
Then several times that occurred, he’d come and visit and he’d talk about things locally and ask quickly about what I did in Vietnam, and each time I -- it start dawning to me, as I release -- as I release some of that, it started taking some tension off my -- my mind.
So when I recognized that, I started to talk a little bit about it. And as I go through that process, it’s just like releasing something that was about to blow up.
And today, I can freely talk about it. But I also get emotional about it. Knowin’ what I did. Not because of my own will, but because of how I was trained to do things and what that mission was.
And I -- as I eluded earlier, when you grow up or have grown up in an environment where love is, where your grandmother taught you love, to help others, to protect others and having to go to -- to a whole different scene, it’s tough.
That change that you have to make was hard, but I had to -- I had to go through it. And I’ve got more respect for my comrades that are where they are today.
And with that, I want to thank you. Questions.
ALFRED WELLS: We're proud of you guys. You know, they were taught to do -- what they just told us about, and we know it hurts. We know it hurts, but this -- this start to happen in Bible days long time ago. War. War.
And God even sends David to go to war and He never tell David to feel bad about it.
And, you know, these men were trained to do these things and I have no way -- I have read the Bi -- Bible maybe over twenty times, and I have no way of saying anything against these two young men. It was not there fault.
They did it for their country, and I know that God will bless them as long as they live. May God bless you.
WALTER SAMPSON: I again apologize for getting emotional, but I can't help it but to -- only way out to -- as -- as part of a healing process. And like I said I'm not afraid to -- to answer questions. I -- if somebody wants to ask feel free to ask.
RACHEL CRAIG: I have a queston. A lot of us have never been in military, we haven't the foggiest idea our -- our uncles and ours boys and so forth our sons go into it and so forth, but you talk about training.
And it went from September to March. During that time something must have happened, you must have been trained. Could you give us a little detail of what went down during that -- that six months? When you were being trained?
WALTER SAMPSON: When you're -- as you go through a military training, basically the -- the military's training is to -- to train you mentally to where you would not be able to -- to give into anyone.
In an event that you get captured by -- by the enemy, the first thing that the enemy will do is to interrogate you. Try to get some information from you. Anyway, any which way they can.
So the training that you get from the military is tough and hard. Mentally they train you by doing what they want you to do, not what I want to do but what they want me to do.
When they say, "I want the barracks shined." They mean shined. You can shine the floor to the point where you can look down and see the reflection of your -- your face on the floor, but sometimes that's not shiny enough for -- for some folks in the military.
So to -- in order for them to -- to make sure that they get what they want to -- to train us, they'll spill water, they'll dump beds, they'll dump your footlockers right on the floor to try to discourage you.
But you clean that back up. You repolish what needs to be repolished, then go through another inspection.
So basically what it is is trying to teach you mentally that that you -- your mission is not to submit to anyone. Your mission is to prove that you can be what you want to be in the military.
RACHEL CRAIG: Are there -- are there percentages of you that make it and percentages that do not or do they pass all of you?
WALTER SAMPSON: There's folks in through the training course that will fail. What we call re-cycles.
If they don't pass the -- the first training course, they go back and go through the same whole course.
If they can't -- if they're doin' it purposely, one place that they easily go to is to a stockade. The reason why I say that is some of the folks that go through military training will purposely try to hurt themselves to try to get out of military.
If they know that they did that purposely, those folks will be charged for destroying government property, so therefore they're sent into -- to a -- to a stockade.
An example is a kid in Vietnam didn't want to spend time in field, he was scared, didn't want to spend time in field. He thought that he was going to blow his trigger finger by putting it on top of a -- on a muzzle of the weapon, pull the trigger, and blow his finger off. Instead, that bullet blew the three middle fingers.