Veteran's History Project: James L. McCaig


James L. McCaig

SGT, C Co, 3/39th Inf, 9th Infantry Division

Viet Nam



EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one of many American Veteran accounts published in The Sidney Sun-Telegraph. The writer, who is from Sidney, is conducting the interviews as part of the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project.

James McCaig was a Sidney resident in 1966, a 20-year old kid, really, working on a construction crew. The "Greetings..." letter from the Selective Service System advised him that he was to report for a military physical. After the physical examination at Denver then some aptitude testing to see what he was good at and where he might fit into the picture, he was sent to Fort Bliss, Texas.

Fort Bliss, among other things, is a training base for Air Defense Artillery (ADA). Jim was excited about being in the Air Defense specialty. The Army offered him a choice though. He could stay in ADA but they would need a three year commitment out of him...or, for only a two year draft promise, he could be in the infantry. A year in a person's life is important. He chose the infantry and was sent on to Fort Riley, Kansas.

Fort Riley is a large installation. At the time Jim was there, most of the buildings were old native sandstone and/or World War II vintage barracks. The barracks were two story buildings with small cadre rooms in the corners of each floor. The trainees slept in the bunks in open bays on each floor. When Jim was there, there was constant attention paid to the fact that these structures could burn to the ground in less than five minutes. Fire watches were usual. In the summer and fall, when training was in the hills near the base, the nettles proved to be quite a problem. Rifle ranges for the M-14 were quite a ways out as were the advanced weapon ranges-including grenade launcher sites. The distances to rifle ranges were covered by the ankle express (marching). The time of the year that he was there was just hot and humid and windy. Actually it helped prepare him and the others for their next place of duty.

Jim was at Fort Riley for over 16 weeks. He completed basic combat and advanced individual training so that he could go to war, essentially. His Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was 11B10. (Eleven Bravo, or Eleven Boob-Boom). He trained with the guys he would fight the enemy with, the third Battalion of the 39th Infantry. Training ended on the parade field and the men took the train to Oakland, Calif. and knew that their next destination would be Vietnam.

This battalion of men was sent to the area of the Mekong Delta via a Merchant Marine ship called the USN General Maurice Rose. The trip was twenty days long. "Whew!" After disembarking and reforming on land, they convoyed to Bear Cat Camp where they would fall in on (take over) the positions and equipment of their predecessors.

Charlie Company, 3/39th, they called themselves "Tazmanian Devils" was like most units of the infantry in Vietnam. They were to search for and destroy the enemy. Things went well the first couple of months "in country."

At the base camp, he kept in touch with home by letter writing. The unit had its own mess hall or they were issued C-rations when going out on missions. A Chinese singing group did entertain his company at one point and card games helped pass the time. At home his family received $105 per month subsistence pay.

He lived in a "hooch" in the company area. At first, it was fairly crude then the engineers and Sea Bees came in and built the housing up so it was much better.

In early March 1967, Jim's platoon was out on patrol and closing in on suspected hostiles. A fire fight ensued. Suddenly and without warning, their entire weapons squad was hit with an artillery barrage. All 11 men in the squad died. They had been hit by friendly fire. The radioman panicked and didn't know what to do. Jim grabbed the radio and called off the strike. Without saying the expletives, it was "CEASE FIRE! CEASE FIRE!" As it turned out, the calibration of the artillery piece was off just enough that the rounds hit our guys instead of another target.

Less than a month later, on the date of his first wedding anniversary, Jim's platoon was again on mission. They were trying to find and destroy an enemy machine gun nest. As they closed in, Jim felt a sting on the left side of his neck. He remained focused. He was carrying the M-79 grenade launcher and had the best weapon to take out the object. The man behind Jim told him he was bleeding. Jim felt for the area and brought back a bloody hand. He thought it had been a sniper bullet that struck him.

Jim stayed on target though. He crept forward to get a good enough look and fired the M-79, ending the problem. Jim was extracted out by helicopter to the base camp then on to Saigon for further eval and treatment.

After a short recovery period, Jim was RTD (returned to duty). He was promoted to specialist and squad leader. He had earned the Bronze Star w/V device (a V device means there is a V attached to the medal. It stands for Valor.) He also earned the Purple Heart. The Brigade Command Sergeant Major presented the Purple Heart while General William Westmoreland pinned the Bronze Star w/V device on Jim.

Soon, and for six months, he was re-assigned to Charlie Company, the 4th Battalion of the 47th River Raiders. This unit performed operations off landing ships or LSTs. The smaller ship would approach a certain area. As it neared the shore, the front of the ship would drop. The men hustled out and took up ready positions then went to work finding the enemy at spots along the river. There were more casualties in this assignment.

In time, Jim and his unit were able to re-deploy to the U.S. Their tour was over. They were treated to a TWA flight. At Oakland, when they got off the plane, there was no reception or welcome. They flew from Oakland to Denver. En route, the pilot came on the intercom and advised the passengers that there was a ground blizzard at Stapleton. It was about 21 degrees below zero. In Vietnam, it was 80 to 85 all the time.

Jim next was assigned to Fort Hood, Texas. He was a member of "Op-For." This is a training element that acts as "Opposing Forces," in getting other units ready to deploy. They were the ones being hunted in these exercises.

Jim got out of the Army when his time was up. He returned to his wife and Nebraska. He skipped from job to job, trying to find something that would work for him. After a few years of the lack of permanence in work, he contacted an Army recruiter in Scottsbluff. He re-enlisted in 1975. In that he had been out of the Army for a time, he had to re-go basic training and advanced individual training at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

He was a private again, but in time, and fairly quick time, he was promoted to sergeant. His unit deployed to Germany three times over the next nine years. He was a crew chief there with the Hawk missile launching system. They performed duty at several different locations. The Air Defense Artillery mission is to protect the force and selected geopolitical assets from aerial attack and missile attack. His tours in Germany were unaccompanied. His family remained in the U.S.

Finally, in 1984, Jim thought he had done enough in the U.S. Army. He ended his career at Fort Hood, Texas. He had over 13 years service. A military retirement kicks in after 20 years of service. The next year, he enlisted in the Nebraska National Guard in Sidney. At that time, it was a field artillery unit. He was in a gunner position and rotated into a meteorology position as well. He served with them until December 1992.

Jim earned the Combat Infantry Badge, the Bronze Star with V device, the Purple Heart, Viet Nam Service Medal, Armed Forces Medal, NDSM and GCM. Mostly because of his work with artillery units, his hearing is not what it once was. He is a disabled veteran and a member of the DAV. He is retired now.

Good job Sgt. Jim McCaig! Thank you for your service.


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