Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

Area News

July 4, 2012

Payne presented medals for Vietnam service

CROSSVILLE — Gerald Lee Payne grew up in a military family, traveling the world with his parents, Alice and Lt. Col. Gilbert Payne, retired, of the United States Air Force. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in Tuscon, AZ, in 1966 and was sent to Fort Bliss, TX, for basic training.

Fort Bliss is by the White Sands Training Range, and soldiers began their training in a desert environment though the ongoing war was in jungles of Vietnam. Payne recalls soldiers were required to keep windows open at least two inches at all time to allow for fresh air to circulate through the barracks and prevent disease. Morning clean-up often included sweeping up huge piles of sand that blew into their quarters during the night.

After graduating from boot camp, Payne was ordered to Fort Ord, CA, where he was stationed for Advanced Infantry Training. While waiting for a date for Officers Candidate School, he received an offer to go to jump school.

"It was the hardest training, but more than that, it was well worth it," Payne said. "It was so quiet and peaceful up there."

The school included three weeks of intense physical training and the thrill of jumping from airplanes. He recalls an incident where he jumped and landed on his right side with a perfect roll, but he felt a sharp pain in his right hip. He realized he'd forgotten to remove his wallet from his back pocket before the jump, a mistake he says he never repeated.

Payne knew he would be stationed in Vietnam. After graduation from jump school, he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. In June 1967, he arrived in Vietnam at Cam Rahn Bay and was stationed at the 101st base in Phan Rang. In 1967, only the 1st Brigade 101st was in the country and he was assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry.

"We were called the 'Westies Nomads of Vietnam,'" Payne said.

General Westmoreland had used this unit to move from province to province on short notice. The soldiers operated in the jungle for several months at a time, seeing only a supply helicopter every fifth day or so as needed. Every two to three months, they were extracted from the jungles and taken to a base camp for two to three days. These were great times, Payne recalls, with hot food, showers, haircuts, new clothes and mail from home.

These short respites offered the soldiers a few other comforts of home, including cold drinks and beer and movies shown on a plywood screen at the base in Chu Lai. Lizards would sometimes find their way into the picture, but an audience member would shoot it and wait for the next reptile to try their luck. Big trees were rolled out as seats and to use as cover from occasional sniper fire.

Payne and his unit were in Song Be on the Cambodian Border in February 1968, where the TET offensive began. He recalls red dust that coated everything and watching the "fireworks display" from the villages. Feb. 3, 1968, the unit was attacked.

"This attack was quite hairy at first, but only lasted a couple of hours," he said.

His actions during the battle, however, led to him being awarded the Bronze Star Medal with "V" attachment for valor.

Several days after the attack, the unit established a new combat base camp at Hue-Phubia. The 1st Brigade was joined by the United States Marine Corps in the Battle of Hue.

"A terrible sense of sorrow came over me as we entered the ancient town and witnessed all the destruction of such a beautiful city and university," Payne said.

The remainder of his time in Vietnam was spent at the base camp at Phu-Bai and in the Ausha Valley.

Payne returned to the United States in August 1969.

He said, "I will say that I did my job with honor and to the best of my ability. And I have a great respect for my enemy."

Payne was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and V Device, Purple Heart Medal, Army Commendation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with two Bronze Battle stars and one Silver Battle Star, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960s device, Rifle Marksman Badge, Parachutist Badge, Gallantry Cross Medal with Bronze Star attachment and four overseas bars.

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