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Vietnam Stories - Heyward O'Cain

Heyward Marshall “Bubba” O’Cain served as a cook in the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Infantry Division in 1968-1969 during the Vietnam War.

Helicopters were flying over the heads of the soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division’s landing zone.

“Every fifth shot was a tracer. It looked like one red line all the way down,” said Heyward Marshall “Bubba” O’Cain, a Specialist 5 at the time.

The soldiers called for other units to come in. Enemy combatants had gotten inside the wires marking his company's territory and began shooting mortar rounds at them.

Twenty-two soldiers were killed that night. O’Cain, an Orangeburg native, was not harmed during the attack.

He described a mortar as "hot metal."

“It flies out and rips you apart,” he said.

The soldiers captured one enemy combatant.

“They were going to interrogate him. The sergeant threw him down in front of me. I was supposed to guard him, but if he got up to run, move or attack me -- I had my M-16 on automatic,” O’Cain said.

O’Cain, now 68, was drafted at the tender age of 20 to serve in Vietnam for two years. He served as a cook in the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Infantry Division in 1968-1969.

“When I went to cook, I didn’t have any idea that 1st Cav was an infantry unit. But I was assigned to them, so it was a job. You had to -- everybody did their job,” he said.

“We didn’t have any electricity. We didn’t have any running water. (There weren't) any buildings,” O'Cain said.

“The nights were the bad part. They (the enemy) hit us at night a lot. At night, they’d try to crawl in under the wire. Then they’d shoot mortars in on us,” he said. “You watched out for your buddy’s back and he watched out for yours.”

While serving in Vietnam, O’Cain volunteered for numerous missions.

“I volunteered because it was a job. You didn’t think about the outcome. You just did your job,” he said. “It was kind of like I’d drop my frying pan and go to killing and go to fighting."

He recalled pulling several nights of guard duty.

“Pulling guard duty was an important job because everybody would be sleeping -- if you could,” O’Cain said. “You sit up there at night. It’d be dark. It wouldn’t be nothing but woods out there, but we had an infrared scope that we’d look through and see if we saw anybody trying to crawl in on our unit.”

If an enemy was spotted, a soldier would fire a flare into the air to warn everyone, he said.

O’Cain said his best memory was receiving letters from his family.

“The best thing was getting a letter from home because sometimes we’d move ‘round in the jungle so much, it took a while to find us," he said.

His mother sent him The Times and Democrat to read in his spare time in Vietnam.

“It would be 10 days to two weeks old before I got it. Everybody would read it,” O’Cain said.

He said he also read his fellow soldiers' local newspapers to learn more about their hometowns.

O'Cain had the opportunity to receive two Purple Hearts, but he said he declined them because he felt he hadn’t earned them.

“When you see boys getting their arms and legs blown off and you just have a minor cut -- you say, 'Well, I’m getting a Purple Heart and he’s got his arm blown off and I’m not hurt. I can still do my job.' I didn’t seem right,” he said.

He said he cut his thumb while cutting meat on the chow line. The enemy then shot in a mortar, O'Cain said.

“I cut my thumb all the way through the bone,” he said.

While on guard duty one night, O’Cain looked through his scope and saw three of the enemy. They fired a mortar into the area, he said.

“I popped a flare to warn everybody," O'Cain said, recalling the mortar looked as though it was coming directly at the bunker he was sitting on.

“I was trying to decide which side to roll off. I rolled off. The mortar hit on the opposite side. I broke two bones right down by my pelvis, but I could still do my job. They didn’t have to back me out. I didn’t have to be airlifted.”

After the war, O’Cain was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.

“Seems like 45 years later, I have a hard time sleeping still. I sleep in periods, like I’m still pulling guard duty,” he  said.

O’Cain has also been diagnosed with loss of short-term memory.

“I’m gonna say a word. All of a sudden I forget it. If I know a person, walk up to them, then all of sudden, I forget their names. I might forget a haircut appointment. I try to write everything down on my calendar,” he said.

“Over the years, they said I’ve kind of pressed everything so far back in my memory that I didn’t want to remember back then," he said. “Now I can talk about it. Before I never would talk about it. I guess the older I get, the things we had to do and what we did bother me more ... "

O’Cain dislikes malls, crowds or anything that resembles the sound of a helicopter.

When he was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War, O’Cain said he didn't want to go. But he said he felt it was his duty to do his part.

“At the time, I was so young I didn’t know what we were fighting for except it was a war,” he said.

Looking back today, O’Cain said he thinks the war was senseless.

“Now, with all the fellows that got killed over there, I don’t see any purpose in it at all. I don’t think it accomplished much," he said.

“When I buy something now, I always look at the label. If it says 'Made in USA,' I’ll buy it. Somebody gave me a gift -- a shirt. I looked at the label; it said 'Made in Vietnam,' and I never wore that shirt," O'Cain said. "It’s still hanging in the closet.”

He said he thinks some of today’s politicians think about themselves instead of what can benefit the country.

O'Cain said he had aspirations to go to an art school to become an artist.

“When I got home, it took me a while to get over it (the war),” he said. “I came out the jungle one day from killing to home the next day. It wasn’t no break in there.”

O'Cain added, “I don’t think people thought too much of the Vietnam veterans when the war was going on -- sometimes even now."

He said most people don't realize what servicemen went through in Vietnam.

"In the Viet Cong, there were men, women and children. They could be friendly in the daytime and try to kill you at night. You couldn’t tell the difference (between) them,” O'Cain said.

When he got back to California, his recruiting officer offered him the rank of E-6.

“He said, 'I’ll give you another rank and send you to Germany for three years,' " O’Cain said. “I said, 'You can put stars on my shoulder, I’m going home!' "

“I’d had enough of killing," he said. "It’s not like I was just a cook in a safe base camp that didn’t do nothing but cook. I was with the 1st Cav. They were the hot unit, so they went to the hot spots. Wherever they went, I was right along with them.”

O’Cain earned a Bronze Star during his service in the Vietnam War.

Today, he resides in Orangeburg with his basset hound, Abby.

Contact the writer: or 803-533-5516.


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