Today continues The Times and Democrat's print and online series, “Vietnam: They Served With Honor.” The stories based on interviews with local veterans of the Vietnam War appears on Sundays and Wednesdays through Nov. 11, Veterans Day. For more photos and video, and earlier stories in the series, visit TheTandD.com.

Bowman resident Phil Herzog is flying over South Vietnam in a C7 aircraft. Suddenly, the plane takes enemy fire. He feels the bullet pierce his right hip.

"We always used to sit on our flak vests on the airplane," he says. "We would always make jokes about why sit on your flak jacket. Now I know."

Noted Herzog, "The bullets would come from the ground up and go through the bottom of the aircraft. Mine barely missed the flak jacket. It got me here on the right side of the hip and drew blood.

"The captain of the aircraft said, 'You drew blood, and we need to get the paperwork for a Purple Heart."

The wound was the only one the 28-year-old United States Air Force E8 senior first sergeant sustained during the war, but the conflict left scars that run deeper than a flesh wound.

Herzog, 78, arrived in Vietnam in June 1964 after first being stationed at Sampson Air Force Base in Geneva, New York in 1955.

"I volunteered to go over there," he said, noting he has always been a supporter of the U.S military. "I said, 'I will go, boss. Send me!'"

Herzog would end up in Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam, where he would be stationed at the command post. He would also serve as a loadmaster on the C7, where he would be responsible for directing aircraft to different locations for pick-up and drop-off of soldiers and supplies. 

Another near-death encounter for Herzog would come again in Cam Rahn Bay.

"I was standing outside the command post, and the guard was just shooting the breeze when all of a sudden we started getting incoming, and shrapnel had hit right on the wall next to me," Herzog said. "We dove and took cover. We thought we were in a safe place, but not in Cam Rahn Bay."

He said he was called on to shoot at the enemy many times.

"I don't know if I ever killed anybody, but I shot out of the airplane a lot," Herzog said. "I used to lay down on the back ramp and have the ramp down a little bit and shot down at them."

Herzog said one of his first missions in Vietnam was at a remote airfield.

"They brought out a body bag and put it on the back of my airplane," he said. "I grabbed it and started pulling it forward. I looked at it ... it had a guy's name on it. I could not remember his name, but it said 'Columbus, Ohio.' My ex-wife and my son were there. I said to myself, 'That could be me.'"

Despite the horrors and hardships of war, Herzog said there were some enjoyable times as well.

"We used to bring along our Donut Dollies, or the Red Cross gals," Herzog said, noting the Donut Dollies would wave at all the soldiers. "They would be wearing short skirts and low-cut blouses. That would make their day. It was fun to watch how they reacted."

The Donut Dollies would also serve as Santa's helpers during the Christmas season, passing out Christmas gifts to the soldiers.

The Vietnam War was not the only one the 30-year military veteran experienced. In 1976, Herzog went to the Congo under sanction of the International Red Cross to help during the ongoing civil war in that country. The mission was to rescue American and British citizens from an uprising of the Congolese.

Herzog said he witnessed the Congolese rape Catholic nuns and throw Catholic priests off cliffs into crocodile pits.

"The one I will always remember was this Mother Superior," Herzog said. "She did not want to go. She wanted to stay with her people."

After seeing her determination to stay, Herzog said he punched the nun, knocking her out, and took her to safety.

In the Arab-Israeli Six Day War in June 1967, Herzog was detained in a Saudi Arabian prison by the Jordanians for three days.

"It was three days I will never forget," he said, noting, however, that he was never beaten or interrogated during the detention. He said he and the other captives were given food and water. Herzog said he and about 30 other soldiers were taken to the prison where they were kept under heavy guard.

"We went to Jordan to assist the American pilots to teach the Jordanians how to fly F-104s," Herzog said. "That is when we got word to be prepared. This Jordanian commander came up and had a gun aimed at us and told us that we were not welcome there and to get on an airplane and get the hell out of there."

Shortly before leaving Vietnam in July 1965, Herzog received the Purple Heart for the wound to his right hip. He said he was transported "on a lush commercial airline" back to the States and to McChord Air Force Base in Seattle, Washington.

"When we got off the base, we did see people waving banners to get out of Vietnam," Herzog said. "My dad was telling me there was a lot of hell being raised in the West Coast about the military and what we were doing there."

But, Herzog already knew what it was like back home.

"I would get mail and newspapers with all that in it," he said. "We were aware of what they were saying about us in the U.S."

How did the protests make him feel?

"They were not there," he said. "They don't know."

Looking back over his experience, Herzog said the Vietnam War was one the United States should never have fought. He said he believes the war was rife with political corruption.

"It was a bad war," Herzog said. "I don't think we should have been there -- not after all I have seen, with what we did and with all the bombings ... the way we treated the Vietnamese and the way they treated us. If I had to do it all over again, I would not go. But at the time, I felt the obligation to go."

To this day, Herzog says when he sees a Vietnamese person, he wonders if they are the enemy he fought decades ago.

"You wonder," he said. "Did I shoot anybody? I don't know. I guess I will never know. I think about it once in awhile."

"I think about what did I do and how did I do it. Did I do the right thing?," Herzog added. "I think I was doing the right thing at the time."

He said he does not suffer from any ill effects of the war and has come to grips with his role as part of the United States Air Force.

"I can rest easy about what I have done," Herzog said. "I was doing my job."

Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD

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Gene Zaleski is a reporter/staff writer with The Times and Democrat.

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