On the third floor of the Liberal Arts North Building, another voice of history rests in his office just outside the skyway. Dennis Bradford, a history professor at SFA, eagerly fought as a Marine in the Vietnam War.
Deployed in September 1969, he became intimately familiar with the helicopters that thumped throughout the bushes. During his tour, Bradford was mostly aboard an H-46 as a machine gunner for HMM-263 based at the Marble Mountain Air Facility three miles east of De Nang on the coast of South Vietnam. He and his fellow Marines did any number of assignments in Nam, from resupply missions, or “milk runs,” to inserting and recovering recon teams to and from the field.
“Often times there’d be five [recon] guys against one or 2,000 NVA,” Bradford said. “Not only were the guys on the ground lucky to get out alive, but we were lucky to get in and out to get them. When an aircraft comes into a zone, the enemy stops shooting at the men and starts shooting at the aircraft. You are the only game in town when you land.”
U.S. forces in Vietnam weren’t the first to showcase the helicopter in a major war. The Germans used helicopters in World War II, and the U.S. used them during the Korean War. However, Vietnam was the helicopter war, as they were used in every way possible and contributed heavily to the outcome of the war.
“The war had a sound,” Bradford said. “Here I am years later, and I can still recognize the sound of a Hughey or a 46 at a distance. It’s the kind of thing you never forget. That war could have been fought without the helicopter, but it shaped the war. Everything we did was made better by the helicopters.”
Pilots during the campaign, as Bradford recalls, were phenomenal. They did things with the helicopters that they weren’t designed for. The high mountains and “substantial hills” of Vietnam made for sadistic obstacles.
“Sometimes there was no place to land,” Bradford said. “The pilots were amazing. They did whatever they had to do. They could literally make the helicopter cling to the side of a mountain until they could get things on and off.”
The war instigated conflicts in the U.S. homeland as well. Thousands of young Americans protested ‘Nam, marking it as the most controversial war in America’s history. As a result of the civil unrest, the returning troops trudged through even more combat when they returned to their homes from battle. Not immune to the harsh civilian treatment, Bradford and his fellow Marines were met by protesters upon their arrival at Los Angeles International Airport.
“We were a little bitter at the way we were treated when we got back,” Bradford said. “There were people at LAX that were not very complimentary. They called us names and spit on some of us, not (on) me but some of my friends. For years Vietnam vets were shunned, our service was not recognized. It’s nice that people are including us now, but it doesn’t take away from the years of bitterness and hurt.”
Like many war veterans, Bradford withdrew into himself following his tour of duty. Friends he’d known for a lifetime were now outsiders. It was like being in a foreign country, he said. He gravitated to other veterans, others like himself.
“It’s my experience when you go and do something like that [war], you don’t speak the same language (as) the ones you love,” Bradford said. “You see the world through different eyes. The only people you feel comfortable with are the people who’ve been through what you’ve been through. It’s taken a long time to get away from that--a very long time.”
The years have passed, but the graphics, sounds and smells of the war have never lapsed in Bradford’s mind. He can wake up in the middle of the night back in Vietnam, fighting. He recalls certain scenes that play over and over.
“It’s a little weird for my wife,” he said.
Politics and foreign policy led to the Vietnam War, a fight against communism. A common belief in westernized democracy was, and partly still is, when one country falls into the red clasps of communism, the neighboring countries will follow--a domino effect. A commonly held consensus amongst the protesters was the notion that Vietnam was none of America’s business, thus the controversy. Bradford and the rest of military men and women had their own personal thoughts about the war but left the thinking to the civilians--they had a war to win.
“There were days when I and those around me wondered what the hell we were doing there,” Bradford said. “But we did what we were asked to do. We did it better than they [the enemy] did. I think we represented the country well. Whether or not the country was right in sending us, that’s not my job. I don’t know. I agree that communism was a bad thing; just like there are things in the world today that are bad things. I think when those bad things appear, you have the right to stand up against them. In that sense, Vietnam was right. Every Vietnam vet I know is proud of his or her service.”
Gunfire, explosions and helicopters were the sounds of Vietnam, but music was the driving force behind the war. On the American Forces Network, troopers could listen to all the fresh sounds of the ‘60s when they weren’t out fighting in the bush. Bradford remembers hearing sporting events, news broadcasts and bands like Chicago and The Beatles.
“During the day, on the network, there’d be portions of country music, rock and the news,” he said. “They tried to give us as much of home as they could.”
The second of a three-generation family of Marines, Bradford went to boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, Calif--just like his father before him and his son after him.
“The parade deck at San Diego has never been resurfaced,” Bradford said. “My father drilled on that deck, I drilled on that deck and my son drilled on that deck.”
Bradford’s Marine Corps career didn’t end when he returned home from Vietnam. The Corps stationed him in various places around the country and its territories. When his eight-year journey ended, he moved to Houston to settle down after spending time at San Jacinto College. Already certified, Bradford aspired to become a commercial air traffic controller. As fate would have it, the Federal Aviation Commission required more certification that would require him to relocate. Due to family ties in Houston, he couldn’t move away to pursue his dream. He rejoined the Marines for a brief two years until retiring for the last time.
Years later, Bradford came to SFA to apply for classes. With enough hours from the University of Houston, he was upgraded immediately to graduate school in 1997. Bradford eventually become a professor of history and has been lecturing ever since.
--The Pine Log wishes all veterans a Happy Veterans Day. Thank you for your service.