Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Joe Altimari, April 19, 2022

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:00 - Introduction and upbringing

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Partial Transcript: All right, there we go. So the camera can still see you, but at least you don't have to look at yourself while you're doing, that makes it a little bit easier

Segment Synopsis: Joe Altimari discusses his upbringing in Northeast Philly, and his attendance at Father Judge High School. Altimari describes the neighborhood he grew up in and his school’s relationship with the Vietnam War. Altimari shares how he learned about Vietnam from friends and classmates who served as well as what he learned from the nightly news. He also describes his feelings towards the twenty-seven students Father Judge lost to the war and the efforts community members took to remember them.

Keywords: Father Judge High School (Philadelphia); Northeast Philadelphia; Remembering the 27 Crusaders; United States Armed Forces Institute (USAFI)

Subjects: Philadelphia (Pa.); Veterans; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

GPS: Father Judge High School, Joe Altimari's alma mater.
Map Coordinates: 40.04848221785215, -75.0235825248427
00:11:04 - Joining the army and basic training

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Partial Transcript: So you entered the army in 1968

Segment Synopsis: Altimari decided to enlist in the United States Army in October of 1968. Due to his low draft number, Altimari enlisted with the hope he would not end up in the jungles of Vietnam, and following his enlistment, he spent 8 weeks at Fort Bragg, North Carolina for basic training. Altimari recalls his experience in basic training, reflecting on what he learned, the friends he made, and the hijinx that comes with nineteen-year old boys living in the same place.

Keywords: Article 15 of Uniform Code of Military Justice - minor offenses

Subjects: Basic training; Fort Bragg (N.C.); United States. Army.; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

GPS: Fort Bragg, North Carolina
Map Coordinates: 35.14714204083229, -79.00119543113509
00:17:50 - Draftees, reservists, and volunteers

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Partial Transcript: So when you were in basic training was a lot of the guys that you were with, were they mostly enlisted guys or were they mostly drafted

Segment Synopsis: Altimari describes the groups undertaking basic training present at Fort Bragg with him, including draftees, Army Reservists, and volunteers enlistees such as himself. He reflects on how all these men of different races, classes, and backgrounds interacted with each other.

Keywords: Draftees; Race; Reservists

Subjects: Basic training; Black people; Draft; Fort Bragg (Calif.); Race relations.; Volunteers

00:21:45 - Aviation training

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Partial Transcript: So, once you finished basic, they sent you down to Georgia at Fort Gordon

Segment Synopsis: Altimari served on helicopter crews while in the Vietnam War. After the completion of basic training, Altimari traveled to Fort Gordon, Georgia. Here, he learned about the mechanics of the Chinook helicopters he eventually flew in Vietnam. He recalls how the different systems worked and shares his frustrations dealing with the helicopters.

Keywords: Communications radio repair

Subjects: Avionics; Chinook (Military transport helicopter); Fort Gordon (Ga.); Helicopters; Radio

GPS: Fort Gordon, GA
Map Coordinates: 33.43124, -82.12617
00:23:04 - The Americal

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Partial Transcript: I just knew we got orders to go to Vietnam. My orders were basically, I guess, general orders that we were going to go to the Americal division, which was up in I Corp.

Segment Synopsis: Altiamri discusses serving in the 132nd Americal division while in Vietnam. He describes the history of the Americal dating back to the second World War. Altimari describes the Americal’s involvement in Vietnam including notable individuals and the infamous My Lai massacre. Altimari reflects on his experience describing himself and other soldiers in I Corp as “cowboys” with minimal supervision.

Keywords: 132nd Assault Support Helicopter Company; Americal; Chinook helicopter; I Corp Area

Subjects: Chinook (Military transport helicopter); Chu Lai; My Lai Massacre, Vietnam, 1968.; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975; World War II

GPS: Chu Lai, Vietnam. Now an airport but served as an American airbase in the Vietnam War.
Map Coordinates: 15.462336255903338, 108.6997905321204
GPS: Da Nang, Vietnam was located up in the I Corp section of Vietnam.
Map Coordinates: 16.050677728330687, 108.20178653842538
00:35:39 - Arrival in Vietnam

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Partial Transcript: When you first got to Vietnam they put you in the wrong spot and made you leave.

Segment Synopsis: Altimari says that after graduation from basic training, he received his orders to go to Vietnam. He says he left the United States on June 7, 1969 and arrived in Vietnam several days later. He describes his journey on a commercial airliner to get to Vietnam. Altimari reflects on his first several days in the country.

Keywords: Cam Ranh Bay; Chu Lai; Landing Zone West; Mt. McKinnely, Alaska; Rocket attacks

Subjects: Cam Ranh (Vietnam); Chu Lai; Fort Dix (N.J.); Mortars; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

GPS: Fort Dix, New Jersey
Map Coordinates: 40.046399018024495, -74.58456987065233
GPS: Mt. McKinley, Alaska
Map Coordinates: 63.07000314794361, -151.00707010970183
GPS: Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam
Map Coordinates: 11.897611174831571, 109.16940862998756
GPS: Chu Lai, Vietnam
Map Coordinates: 15.462336255903338, 108.6997905321204
00:41:36 - Helicopters

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Partial Transcript: It was hot, it smelled, and there was a lot of confusion, a whole lot of confusion. Nobody seemed to have an answer for it

Segment Synopsis: Altimari served as a door gunner on a Chinook helicopter while on deployment. When he was not in a combat situation he worked with a number of crews to repair, and fly Chinook Helicopters. He describes the maintenance process for the helicopters as well as the men he served closely with. Altimari recounts some of the comedic moments he experienced while working with the Chinooks including practical jokes and the politically incorrect nose art painted on the front of the helicopters.

Keywords: Air crews; Chinook Companies; Chinook helicopter; Door gunners; Helicopter Nose Art

Subjects: Chinook (Military transport helicopter); Helicopters; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

00:54:21 - A “Normal” Day

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Partial Transcript: I kinda wanted to transition a little bit to talk about what life on base and everyday life was like.

Segment Synopsis: Altimari describes an average day in the life of an American soldier in Vietnam. He recalls details such as sleeping in little huts with up to ten other men, how the men received their news, and the task of bunker duty. Altimari remembers he did just enough to make sure he made it back home.

Keywords: Armed Forces Radio Vietnam (AFRV); Bunker duty; Woodstock Music and Art Fair (1969)

Subjects: Soldiers; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

01:00:29 - Interactions with the Vietnamese

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Partial Transcript: I don't know what the village was named. I honestly don't know

Segment Synopsis: Altimari recalls the village that neighbored the base at Chu Lai. He cannot remember if the village had a name but describes his interactions with the villagers, many of whom worked as day workers on base. Despite having minimal interactions with the Vietnamese people, he shares how he felt unequipped to deal with the population.

Keywords: Asymmetrical warfare

Subjects: Chu Lai; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975; Villages

01:04:21 - Defeat in Vietnam

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Partial Transcript: There's a saying "the generals are always fighting the last war"

Segment Synopsis: Altimari reflects on the factors which he believes led to the United States losing the Vietnam War. He pulls from history to compare the conflict in Vietnam with other American Wars. He examines the success of World War II and the Korean War along with what he describes as failures in Vietnam and Iraq. He concludes that a failure to understand a people’s culture has led to strategic defeats.

Keywords: Asymmetrical Warfare; Regime changes; WW2; WWII; World War 2; World War Two

Subjects: Iraq; Korean War, 1950-1953.; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975; World War II

01:10:12 - Downtime and combat in Vietnam

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Partial Transcript: So, I kind of wanted to go back just a little bit for what it was like in Vietnam. You, you said down in Saigon, guys could go out and go to bars. How did you guys pass the time

Segment Synopsis: Altimari describes his experience in Vietnam as 90% boredom and 10% insanity. He compares the long periods of downtime with the short, intense periods of combat. Altimari remembers that he was not a heroic solider searching for medals or accommodations. He describes how he simply did his job to the best of his ability to ensure that he and his friends made it home alive at the end of their tour.

Keywords: Hoochs; Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO); R&R (Rest and Recuperation); Reactionary Force; Tours of duty

Subjects: Combat; Medals; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

01:14:18 - Being a platoon sergeant

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Partial Transcript: Yeah. Ok. So I saw that you made E5 and became a platoon sergeant--

Segment Synopsis: Altimari says he became a platoon sergeant (E5) at 19 years old, where he was in charge of roughly fifty men at any given time. Altimari remembers the men who served in his platoon and describes his experience as a leader. He specifically speaks about the racial make-up of his platoon and how Black soldiers often requested to serve in his unit because he was from Philadelphia.

Keywords: "The Fog of War" (Documentary); Black soldiers; E5; Platoon Sergeants

Subjects: Philadelphia (Pa.); Soldiers, Black; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

01:21:26 - Medals

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Partial Transcript: I saw that you have a bronze star from Vietnam. How did you get it?

Segment Synopsis: Altimari describes the medals and recognitions he received in the war. He comments on how he never went chasing after medals, instead he did what was expected of him. He recalls one particular combat mission in which he received an Air Medal with the V device.

Keywords: Air Medal with the V Device (aerial act of heroism award)

Subjects: Bronze Star Medal (U.S.); Distinguished Flying Cross (Medal); Medals.; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

01:23:42 - Coming home

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Partial Transcript: So you were in Vietnam just under a year--

Segment Synopsis: Altimari says he technically finished his deployment early and returned home to the surprise of his parents. He describes his journey getting home and how he had very little time to digest his experiences. Altimari remembers the reception he received as a soldier returning home and compares his experience to others. He shares his frustrations with the reception and depiction of Vietnam veterans and what he’s done to make sure future vets do not receive the same treatment he did.

Keywords: Homecoming; Rambo; Treatment of Vietnam Veterans

Subjects: First blood (Motion picture); Veterans; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

01:32:22 - Reflections

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Partial Transcript: How did you make sense of your time in Vietnam? When you look back at it, what got you through that year

Segment Synopsis: Altimari concludes the interview with reflections on his service, the Vietnam War, and the state of veterans in the United States. He shares his philosophy on how he survived his deployment and his post-war years. He contrasts the Vietnam War with Operation Desert Storm and states what he believes could have been done differently.

Keywords: GI Bill; General McCaffery; General Norman Schwarzkopf; Operation Desert Storm

Subjects: Persian Gulf War, 1991.; Veterans; Vietnam; Vietnam War, 1961-1975