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The Vietnam War Experience: An Interview with Veteran William Maxwell Barner III

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William Burner III was drafted in 1966 as the United States was building up its forces in Vietnam. He was assigned to a howitzer battery group and deployed the following year. The howitzer batteries were giant guns placed on vehicles that would drive to areas close to combat zones to assist U.S. infantry. Burner served in the command track for his unit; he was responsible for receiving radio requests for artillery support from infantry in combat. He would then direct the 13 guns in his group to fire, on the basis of calculations accounting for several factors, such as elevation, weather, and distance. The following is a portion of an interview that he gave in 2012 to the Veterans History Project.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who was interviewed in this document?
  2. What role did this soldier play during the Vietnam War?

Vocabulary Text
Burner : As part of my responsibility, not all six howitzers fired the same fire mission because we’re in the middle of a 13-mile radius, and we’ve got problems everywhere. It was not uncommon for me to be computing six fire missions at one time, one howitzer firing in different directions and the rounds going over us, going out. So it was—wouldn’t be uncommon or unlikely that I would be computing, the two guys, six fire missions at one time. And you’ve got to remember what gun six is firing on and what gun one is firing on, and I could do that.
Interviewer: So how many days a week did you do this?
Burner :  We worked—our official shift was eight hours on and eight hours off, but I’ve noted in my combat action diary that sometimes I worked as many as 20 hours straight. We had a—we had a—once we started a fire mission, we finished it. If one of the troops—one of the infantry companies, when they were in trouble, I stuck with you. Because you don’t want one of these kids out here as a forward observer say, “Wait a minute, I was talking to him,” you know, so you stayed with them. You stayed with them until the action was over. . . .
Interviewer: I think you’ve expressed to me that you’re willing to send the original of your diary and the map and this other information in on this project as long as you know for sure that the original will be placed in the Library of Congress?
post-traumatic stress disorder(n): a disorder that is common in war veterans in which a person has difficulty recovering after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event Burner : Right. Right. Because I had—and this is a digression again, but I had never read the diary until January of ’09. I was an inpatient in the Waco hospital for post-traumatic stress disorder, and I read the diary for the first time in my life. And for the first time in my life I realized that if it had been my uncle’s diary from World War II, if it had been my grandfather or great grandfather from the Civil War, I’d say, you know, I’m real proud of this guy. This guy was really okay. So I don’t want someone to take my diary personally. I want America to have it because in the diary, which is a little—which is a lot more inclusive than the excerpts that I’ve pulled out for you, it’s very vivid and very graphic. And what I wrote [my wife] every day was how beautiful of a country we were in and we—and I never talked to her about what we did. I always talked to her about loving her and about the guys that I worked with and about the country and how beautiful it was. But the diary, I told the truth to. . . .
Interviewer: Did you have any near misses, either individually or in any part of your crew, or injuries that stick in your mind?
track: The command track was the center where Barner worked. The enemy knew that the howitzers were directed from this type of vehicle and thus would try to target it.

medevac(v): medical evacuation; to evacuate a casualty to a hospital through the air (generally via a helicopter during the Vietnam War)

fire clearance(n): permission to fire
Burner : Right. Yeah. On June the 13th, 1968, we were attacked with rockets, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars. And I noted in my diary that it was really just a registration process. All the enemy was doing was trying to find our track, and so they just fired enough rounds to what you—what is called registration. And we had—there were only six of us in fire direction control and a driver. There were only seven of us. And on June the 13th, three of the fire direction control in my group and a total of seven out of the entire battery were all medevaced, dusted out, taken out, so that didn’t—that left an—that, I remember. And then on June the 14th at about 2:00 in the morning, I’m out in the middle of all of this, and we’re just—I’m just taking a break. And I start to walk back to the command track, and the—our captain was walking toward me, and we said something. And he walked on past, and when he did, I could—I just happened to be able to see where the incoming rounds were coming from. And they started coming, and I could see where they were. And one of them landed where I was, and it blew off part of his rear end. And I went back in—now we’re not fully staffed. There’s supposed to be six of us. Now there is only three of us. And I go back in. I’ve got no supervision. I’ve got no one to tell me I can or can’t. I don’t call for ground, I don’t call for fire clearance. I go in. I compute the mission, maybe by myself, maybe with one or two other guys, I don’t know. But we eliminated the source, and that source happened to be in a village. And that’s when I have the picture that—where I show you that I made the decision to eliminate the enemy, but I also eliminated a village, and that troubled me . . . Until about two years ago and these guys sitting around me said, “But if you hadn’t, how many of us would have died?” And I don’t know that that’s a reason to justify killing everyone, but that’s what I did.
Interviewer: Did you ever see the village?
Burner : I don’t think so. But just—the next morning, just a few hours later when the sun came up, then there were—we had some infantry guys, they would quite often come in for a little rest. And they came over to where I was, and they said, “Thank you.” I remember that. They said, “Thank you.” “For what?” “We know what you did. You saved our lives.”

Comprehension Questions

  1. How many hours did Burner work during shifts?
  2. What mental illness was Burner diagnosed with?
  3. Where was the enemy located on June 14, 1968?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Why do you think that Burner chose not to tell his wife about his war experiences in his letters home? Is this understandable?
  2. Compare Burner ’s experience during the war and afterwards with a typical veteran from the Civil War. What are some similarities and differences?
  3. Do you think Burner was justified in bombarding the village he mentions in this section of the interview?

Interview with William Maxwell Barner, III, Vietnam War Veteran