In an instant, life in a Vietnam War Army camp came rushing back.
David Milhouse can see the tracer bullets at night, feel the oppressive heat and smell the diesel fumes from passing military Jeeps.
He can hear the machine gun fire in the distance, the artillery booming in the hills, helicopters whirring overhead.
The sensations don’t simply reside in Milhouse’s memory. The former Columbus resident has discovered a treasure trove from his life as a 23-year-old soldier.
Milhouse has taken the old letters, photographs, newspaper clippings and tape recordings from his service in Vietnam, compiling the records into a digital journal of his time overseas.
Fifty years after the fact, he has reopened a portal into his younger life, revealing details about himself and his military service that had faded with time.
“I decided to do this so that my children and grandchildren might be able to read or hear what I experienced 50 years ago,” he said. “I had probably forgotten 90 percent of my experiences until I started reading my letters and listening to my audio tapes.”
The letters, tapes and other materials had been packed up and stored away for decades. Not until Milhouse and his wife, Martha, moved from their home in Columbus to Franklin last year did he revisit the correspondences.
“He knew he had them, but hadn’t done anything with them,” Martha Milhouse said.
The letters are dated nearly every day.
Some entries are a page or more long, describing the process of moving troops off their ship and into the camp, or a long day at work. Others reflected the boredom of the long sea voyage — one-sentence notes that read, “Nothing new today.”
“Over time, it became more tapes than letters. The letters started getting really short. It was a lot easier to do tapes,” David Milhouse said.
Each one is a window into thoughts and actions of a young man situated in a strange, foreign war zone.
The correspondences often cover the mundane details of Army life.
On 11th Air Assault Division stationary, he wrote about detail work leveling out roads and digging foxholes. He described the letters he wrote for the chaplain, and the difficulty of finding thumbtacks or rubber bands in camp.
Sometimes, though, David Milhouse let his fears, his frustrations, his loneliness seep through. Many of the letters end with a countdown as to when his six months of service will be over.
“I wish I could take a short vacation from here. I’m getting frustrated with so many goings on around here. The last couple of days things have been disturbing me that shouldn’t have,” he wrote in a letter Oct. 31, 1965. “The novelty of this place is wearing off.”
In the audio recordings, David Milhouse’s voice comes rushing forward from 50 years in the past.
He can hear the noises of military camp — hammering on construction projects, announcements over the loudspeaker, fellow soldiers talking in the background.
David Milhouse started digitizing the tapes first, then moved on to scanning in and transcribing letters.
Painstakingly, he has gone through the entire archive and entered it into his computer.
Photographs and maps have been digitized as well. A whole collection of his recordings, that he created with the audio recorder his parents had purchased and mailed to him, can be pulled up instantly.
“We didn’t have Skype or anything like that, so the recorder was a big convenience,” Martha Milhouse said.
David Milhouse was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1964, after graduating from Indiana Central College, now known as University of Indianapolis.
His posting took him from Fort Knox in Kentucky to Fort Benning in Georgia. Originally trained as a supply clerk, but he was reassigned as a chaplain’s assistant. His father, Paul Milhouse, was a bishop with the Evangelical United Brethren Church, and he asked the base chaplain if David Milhouse could be his assistant.
He was assigned to the 11th Air Assault Division, a test division within the U.S. Army that focused on helicopter and aircraft assault.
In July of 1965, the Army promoted it to a regular division, renaming it the 1st Air Cavalry Division.
“That’s when we knew something was going on, and that we might be moving out,” David Milhouse said.
David and Martha Milhouse celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on July 25. Their original plan was to get married on Aug. 7, 1965, but when word came up that David Milhouse’s unit would be shipping out before then, they quickly moved up their plans.
Martha Milhouse and her family wrote the new dates on the sealed invitations, and the wedding went off in Columbus without a problem.
They were on their honeymoon in Illinois when President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he was sending the 1st Calvary to Vietnam.
“We decided to come home because all we were doing was listening to the news and everyone is saying they’re leaving soon,” Martha Milhouse said. “We didn’t know how soon ‘soon’ was.”
David Milhouse and the rest of the 1st Cavalry left from the port at Savannah, Georgia, on Aug. 17.
The division would spend 28 days at sea, passing through the Panama Canal and stopping at Honolulu, Hawaii, before steaming straight to Vietnam.
The letter from Sept. 14, 1964 describes arriving at Vietnam, receiving their food rations and ammunition — 140 rounds each. The soldiers were given a farewell dinner, and told that would be their last night for a hot shower for a long while.
“I wonder when I will get a hot shower again?” David Milhouse wrote.
The 1st Cavalry was stationed in the highlands of South Vietnam, near a town called An Khe. They were the first complete division to arrive in the war zone, so they essentially had to create an entire base from the scrubby mountainous terrain.
David Milhouse wrote that when they arrived, only a few trees had been cut down and areas marked off for their tents.
“There sure is going to be a lot of work out here to make it more livable, but I understand they have some good plans for the area,” he said in his letter from Sept. 17, 1965.
David Milhouse was a chaplain’s assistant, responsible for whatever the chaplain needed to conduct services at the base. Preparing hymnals, setting up chairs in the chapel tent, and preparing the field were some of his many jobs.
As one of the few people on base with access to a Jeep, David Milhouse often drove highly ranked officers around the area.
The work could be hard, sweaty and dusty. Showers were rare, and soldiers had to learn to deal with the heat, snakes and bugs that infested the area.
“That was not my lifestyle. But I adapted to it,” he said.
From his friends and family, David Milhouse received canned food, cookies, candy and other goodies. On an Army base, that was a good as gold.
“I always wanted cookies. I’d pay for my haircuts with those sometimes,” he said.
Back in Indiana, Martha Milhouse waited anxiously for any word from her husband. The couple fell into a rhythm of separation.
“I kept busy with teaching, and looked forward to his letters and tapes. Then I was trying to write or tape every day,” she said.
As a chaplain’s assistant, David Milhouse was safely away from enemy fire most of the time. But even in the security of the camp, violence would find its way in.
About three weeks before he was scheduled to leave Vietnam, a Viet Cong mortar attack shredded their company area. Two soldiers assigned to the band were killed and several were wounded.
“We always heard artillery at night, so after awhile, it just becomes part of it,” David Milhouse said.
David Milhouse ended his service and boarded an airplane home to the U.S. on March 6, 1966. He returned to Columbus, where he worked as an accountant at Arvin for 33 years. He and Martha Milhouse, a teacher, moved to Franklin after selling their home.
The project has stretched for about a year, and is nearing completion. He has gone back over recordings and letters, improving the digitized quality of them to make them easier to call up on the computer.
The hope is to preserve them for their children and future generations, to provide a window into a vital part of David and Martha Milhouse’s early lives together.
“I’ll give it my kids, so they can see what it was like in 1965. Hopefully, they read it,” David Milhouse said.
Ryan Trares is a staff writer for the Daily Journal of Johnson County, a sister publication of The Republic.
17 Aug. 1965:
“Coming down the Savannah River, there were some spots along the banks where people were waiting for our boat to pass. They waved and the troops waved back. It was so quiet coming down the river. The troops were quiet and you couldn’t hear any noise from the ship. We could hear the people on the shore quite plainly. It was our last look at America for a while. Maybe that is why the troops were quiet. It’s really hard to believe the situation we are in. It’s more like a story or a movie.”
17 Sept. 1965:
“We are finally at our permanent site here in the highlands of S. Vietnam. We are near the town of An Khe. This place looks almost like any place back in the states. There are quite a few trees left standing around but not much undergrowth is left. It is hillier here than I thought it would be. There is one big hill right up behind us but troops from the 101st Division are on top instead of VC’s. They are protecting our area until our division gets set up…
I guess we are in a pretty secure area here with all of the troops and helicopters around. Last night we could hear artillery or mortar fire in the hills around us and I guess the night before some (Viet Cong) fired some machine guns in the area but there isn’t too much danger from them here and there isn’t too much we down here can do about it. It’s up to the troops protecting the area.”
19 Oct. 1965:
“At about 10:00 pm last night, just as I was about to go to bed, they came in and told me that I was on guard the rest of the night. So I got my equipment together and put on my clothes and poncho and reported to the Sgt of the Guard. I had to walk guard near the officers and Colonel’s tent. I challenged a couple of officers and made them identify themselves and give the password. I knew who they were but it was more of a formality we have to go through. I walked from 11:00 pm to 1:00 am and from 5:00 am to 6:30 am. Naturally it rained most of the time. I got to sleep in during the rest of the morning so things didn’t end up too bad.”
25 Nov. 1965:
“We had a real nice Thanksgiving meal today. Enclosed is our menu although our company didn’t follow it fully – no pumpkin pie, no fruitcake, no mincemeat pie, etc. It was good though and our cooks went to a lot of trouble making this meal a little better than all of the rest. I don’t think I told you but 2 or 3 times the past 2 weeks. Meals are improving.”
23 Jan. 1966:
“We had a practice alert a couple nights ago (I told you I though we would in my tape) and we did the same thing we did that day — stand out in the rain for about an hour, hour-and-a-half with our equipment on. Pretty crazy isn’t it? I haven’t heard from you in a couple of days. No mail came in at all yesterday…
Well, just 58 more days; one month and days. It was 22 months ago today when I came into the Army. It seems like a long time ago. Now I have less than 2 months.”
7 Feb. 1966:
“I’m listening to Radio Peking right now. She is telling about our ‘Operation Masher’ which took place over on the coast. The 1st Cavalry, Vietnamese and Korean troops were involved. She read sections from Time magazine — those sections have quotes from 1st Cavalry men describing some of the worst engagements of the operation. She made it sound like the 1st Cavalry was defeated over there…
She says the American people are rising up against Johnson and his war in Vietnam — the demonstrations prove this. I wonder if she believes all she says.”
6 March 1966:
“I went to see ‘The Brain’ but left after awhile because of lack of interest. I have guard tomorrow, but I’ll try to get something off to you. I’m going to make a tape (for) my parents and then go to bed. Well, I should be about in California when you get this. If I don’t have time to write tomorrow, this may be my last letter. 5 full days!”