Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with William Lewis, January 10, 2019

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:00 - Background--Early life and education

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Partial Transcript: Okay, uh, it is January 10th.

Segment Synopsis: James Bartek introduces the interview and its narrator, William Lewis. Lewis is a veteran of the United States Army and served in the Vietnam War. Lewis talks about his background and early life, including being born in 1949 in a community on Duvall Station Road in Scott County, Kentucky. Lewis gives some background on his parents, who were sharecroppers, and two older siblings. He talks about the history of Duvall Station Road and about the tight-knit, colorblind, integrated community that it was during his childhood. He says that, growing up, he did not understand the concept of race. Lewis also discusses his education, beginning at White Sulfur Elementary before entering the Scott County school system in 1964. He talks more about integration, as well as the importance to him of his high school sports career at Scott County.

Keywords: "Thumb rides"; Duvall Station Road (Ky.); Great Crossing (Ky.); Great Crossing Elementary School; Integration; Race; Racial inequality; Train depots; White Sulfur Elementary School

Subjects: African Americans--Social conditions; Children of sharecroppers; Minorities--United States--Social conditions.; Minority farmers; Race relations; Scott County (Ky.); Sharecroppers

GPS: Duvall Station Road, Scott County (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 38.263519, -84.646148
00:14:33 - Entering the Army--Enlisting and basic training

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Partial Transcript: So, that, that was your plan, then, just go ahead and, and volunteer 'cause you knew you would probably be drafted?

Segment Synopsis: Lewis says that, after graduating in 1967, he planned on becoming a farmer, but decided he would rather volunteer for the Army than be drafted. He says he wanted to serve his country, which his brother and uncle in the Air Force supported. Lewis says that he and some friends decided to meet at the bus stop and go enlist, but he was the only one who showed up and followed through with it. He talks about telling his parents and both of them approving of his choice. Lewis discusses his basic training at Fort Knox, which he says he enjoyed for the competitive rivalry of it. He talks about reconnecting with one man from Louisville who went through basic with Lewis. He says that training with a real gun with live ammunition made what he was doing real to him. Lewis recalls how people with higher degrees of education were more likely than the less educated to be assigned to administrative roles than to combat. He says he scored well on the Army's aptitude testing and was a squad leader in basic training, so he was selected as a clerk typist. Lewis discusses his graduation from basic training, which his parents could not attend, and how they were able to communicate while he was away despite difficulties imposed by their class and financial standing. Lewis then goes on to talk about his advanced individual training (AIT), which was also done in Fort Knox. He talks about the Army's filing procedure and how critical it was to his career success.

Keywords: "Charlie 13, 4"; "Fabulous Five"; Advanced Individual Training (AIT); Clerk typists; Draftees; Drill sergeants; Georgetown College; Jungle warfare; Louisville (Ky.); Operations sergeants; Party telephone lines; Race; Scott County (Ky.); Squad leaders; The Army Functional Files System (TAFFS); Typewriters; University of Kentucky Wildcats

Subjects: African Americans--Social conditions; Basic training (Military education).; Fort Knox (Ky.); Military education--United States.; United States. Army; United States. Army--African American troops.; United States. Army--Recruiting, enlistment, etc.

GPS: Fort Knox (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 37.883181, -85.965283
00:40:45 - The Vietnam War--Arriving in country and being detailed

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Partial Transcript: Well so you, you, you get trained as a typist--(clears throat)--as part of your advanced training, and then once that's over, what happens at that point?

Segment Synopsis: Lewis talks about his first duty assignment in Vietnam. He talks about his emotional reaction to being sent overseas and the sense of adventure he felt. Lewis says that he was outranked by a clerk typist who was already at his station, so he was detailed out to the crew of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter as their door gunner. He did not like this assignment, but says he had to follow orders and tried to have fun with his new job. He talks about the responsibilities he had as a door gunner and talks about being shot down on one occasion. He also says that their Chinook transported Vietnamese POWs from time to time. Lewis says that despite their differences, he always viewed the Vietnamese as other human lives.

Keywords: "Deuce-and-a-half"; American Legion; Boeing CH-47 Chinooks; CH-47s; Clerk typists; Da Nang Air Base (Vietnam); Detail assignments; Door gunners; Grunts; Hydraulic fluid; M-14s; M-2s; M-60s; On-the-job training (OJT); Prisoners of war (POWs); Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFWs); Vietnamese; Đà Nẵng (Vietnam)

Subjects: Chinook (Military transport helicopter); United States. Army; Vietnam War, 1961-1975; Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Aerial operations, American; Vietnam War, 1961-1975--African Americans.

00:58:43 - The Vietnam War--Social life and race relations

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Partial Transcript: I went a lot of places armed, you know, if you will, on holidays. You know, the American holidays we would have relief time and we celebrate the holidays like we're Americans.

Segment Synopsis: Lewis talks about life in Vietnam apart from military duties, specifically what he and other soldiers did for fun. He says it took bravery to get outside of his comfort zone and explore the city of Da Nang, but that it also took bravery for the citizens of Da Nang to accept him. Lewis talks about the bond between fellow soldiers and how he tried to emphasize group unity. He says he did encounter some racial prejudice and provocative questions from soldiers who were usually from the South. Lewis also talks about how the Vietnamese were aware of racial prejudice towards black soldiers by white soldiers, and he says the Vietnamese learned to distrust white soldiers because of this. To portray a unified front, Lewis says he always made sure to be with a white soldier when he went out among the Vietnamese population.

Keywords: Da Nang (Vietnam); Martin Luther King Jr.; Racial separation; Racism; Saigon (Vietnam); Vietnamese; Đà Nẵng (Vietnam)

Subjects: African Americans--Social conditions; Discrimination in the military; Military leaves and furloughs; Race discrimination; Race relations; United States. Army; Vietnam War, 1961-1975; Vietnam War, 1961-1975--African Americans.

01:06:39 - The Vietnam War--Returning home and reentering civilian life

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Partial Transcript: You were over there for, uh, how long?

Segment Synopsis: Lewis talks about extending his service in Vietnam from twelve to eighteen months, since the Army offered to take six months off of his total enlistment period if he did. He took the opportunity, in part due to financial benefits his mom had taught him to value, and came home afterwards with a duffel bag full of various "junk", which his dad made him throw away. Lewis talks about how he regrets bringing the junk and souvenirs home, but says that at the time, he did not know how to get "clean" of Vietnam's "dirtiness". Lewis says that no one in the Army taught him how to come home to the civilian world and how differently one had to act compared to Vietnam. He also says that his decision to extend his stay in Vietnam meant that he was serving with completely different men for the last six months, which was isolating.

Keywords: "Junk"; Elk Horn Creek; Extended deployments; Racial tensions; Racism; Stamping Ground (Ky.)

Subjects: United States. Army; Veteran reintegration.; Vietnam War, 1961-1975; Vietnam War, 1961-1975--African Americans.

01:18:54 - Service after Vietnam--Thailand and drug use

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Partial Transcript: How long were you back home stateside -------(??) and w-where did you go after that?

Segment Synopsis: Lewis talks about his time in the Army after his tour in Vietnam was over. He says he could have left the military but chose to stay in after the Army offered him more pay in the form of mutual funds in 1970. Lewis was reassigned from being a clerk typist to being a motor vehicle dispatcher and was deployed to Bangkok. He talks about life in Bangkok, where he says he tried to live as a soldier while also being a friend to the people of Thailand. Lewis says the biggest key to a life transition like that is to find "home away from home", which he says he was able to do because of the love given to him by his parents and high school coaches. Lewis also says he dealt with boredom in Bangkok by using heroin. He says he is not sure how widespread heroin use was, because it was hard to tell with some men, but he felt a kind of camaraderie with other heroin users. Lewis emphasizes that it was not a significant problem for him and that he was not addicted, but had to go through rehab before he returned home as a part of Army procedure. He talks about seeing heroin as a learning experience and something he ought to do while he was in Bangkok, as it was known as something of a party town. Lewis also recalls alcohol abuse being common among soldiers, both in Vietnam and in Thailand. Unlike being shot down in Vietnam, Lewis says that the negative experience of drug use was one that he deserved repercussions from, but the Army helped him recover, which helped encourage him to pursue a career in the Army.

Keywords: "Home away from home"; Addiction; Alcohol; Drugs; Heroin; Motor vehicle dispatchers; Mutual funds

Subjects: Bangkok (Thailand); Heroin abuse--United States.; United States. Army; United States. Army--African American troops.

GPS: Bangkok (Thailand)
Map Coordinates: 13.754558, 100.502080
01:32:42 - Service after Vietnam--Supply work and retirement

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Partial Transcript: So you decided to stay in and make a career out of this?

Segment Synopsis: Lewis talks about wanting to make a career out of the Army after they helped him rehabilitate and a Lexington recruiting office advocated on his behalf. He says he remained a clerk until he was promoted to sergeant, after which he became a supply worker responsible for dealing with inventories and record-keeping. He was also a recruiter in Jefferson County, Kentucky, from 2001 to 2005, during the Iraq War. He mentions still being in contact with one of his recruits, who is now a restaurant manager, of whom Lewis is particularly proud. Lewis says his time recruiting was the most professional job he had ever had, and all of his coworkers were E-6s and higher. During this time, Lewis used his G.I. Bill money to earn an associate's degree in Applied Sciences and Business Management from Lexington Technical Institute, now known as Bluegrass Community and Technical College. This gave him the ability to be promoted to Master Sergeant, but Lewis would have had to leave his supply role, which he did not want to do.

Keywords: All-volunteer army; Bluegrass Community and Technical College; Fayette County (Ky.); G.I. Bill; Iraq War; Jefferson County (Ky.); Lexington Technical Institute

Subjects: Supply chain, logistics and operations management; United States. Army; United States. Army--African American troops.; United States. Army--Recruiting, enlistment, etc.

01:44:24 - Concluding thoughts--Looking back on Vietnam and service in the Army

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Partial Transcript: You know we are at the, the kind of anniversary now, and there's just a lot of talk, a lot of historical talk you know fifty years later, what can we say about that conflict?

Segment Synopsis: Lewis says that he did not think about questioning the United States' role in Vietnam while he was serving because he saw it as a time to follow orders and because his service allowed for his personal growth. He mentions that he was not a good activist, and offers a story about his failed attempt at becoming a local preacher as proof. He also says that he got married during his short ecclesiastical career. Lewis says he gave his service his all and emphasizes that he never went absent without leave (AWOL). He talks about not considering himself a hero, in part because of things that are not in his record and because of his heroin use. Lewis remarks that without the experiences he had in the Army, he is not sure what his life would have become. He believes that if he were given the chance to do things over again, he would be alright with being drafted. Lewis says that he has not been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and does not have much interest in it. He feels that Vietnam veterans were not given the credit they deserved. Lewis talks about his experience of the anti-war movement and says that he did not engage with them partly out of his desire to quell divisions and maintain group unity. He talks about treating every day and every new experience as rehab, from his oral history interview to taking dance classes. He says that he does not like talking about the war itself as he finds it depressing to rehash the same negative events over and over. Lewis says that he lives every day with the "breath of life" and still gives credit for his success to his coaches at Scott County. Lewis and Bartek then sign off and end the interview.

Keywords: Absent without leave (AWOL); Heroin; Racial inequality; Thailand; The Wall; Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Subjects: Vietnam War, 1961-1975; Vietnam War, 1961-1975--African Americans.; Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Social aspects.