Vet recounts public affairs, tactical missions in Vietnam

Veteran and former APG public affairs officer George Mercer shares his "Memories of 'Nam" with the APG News.

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – George Mercer might be described as “a laid back kind of guy.”

Mercer grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, and he’s not ashamed to say he flunked out of the University of Delaware with what he says was the lowest average on record. He was working in a chemical plant when he found out was going to be drafted in the summer of 1965.

Mercer said his brother Peter, who was an Army recruiting officer, urged him to join up for three years to receive his choice of duty station or school, or opt for the buddy system.

He went along with his recommendation, and requested journalism and broadcast training at DINFOS, the Department of Defense Information School.

Then Spc. 4 George Mercer, bottom right, poses with members of his first public affairs team in Vietnam in 1967. After leaving the Army, Mercer worked as a civilian at Aberdeen Proving Ground from 1982 to 2012. | Courtesy photo
Then Spc. 4 George Mercer, bottom right, poses with members of his first public affairs team in Vietnam in 1967. After leaving the Army, Mercer worked as a civilian at Aberdeen Proving Ground from 1982 to 2012. | Courtesy photo

“I talked to my mother and decided there was no way out of it so I enlisted,” he said. “My brother actually swore me in.”

Mercer went to Fort Jackson, South Carolina and then attended DINFOS at Fort Slocum, New York. The post, on an island in the Long Island Sound, closed in 1965 and Mercer said he was in the next to last class held there. He chose Fort Monroe, Virginia, the former home of the Continental Army Command, now known as the U.S. Army Forces Command – FORSCOM – which was closed after the 2005 base realignment and closure.

“It was great,” Mercer said of the post. “It had a museum and even had a moat.”

He was stationed there in the Public Information Office for more than a year, from September 1965 to December 1966, when someone from personnel came into his office one day and said, “guess who’s going to Vietnam.”

Mercer was on his way before Christmas. His orders read Fort Benjamin Harrison and he joined 12 teams that were given refresher training in military journalism.

“Someone in the Army had decided it needed PAO (public affairs officer) teams on the ground in Vietnam,” Mercer said.

He flew out to Oakland, California and boarded a World War II-era troop ship. Mercer said the first night almost everyone was seasick.

“I couldn’t stand the stench so I went up on deck, strapped myself to a pole and looked at the stars all night,” he said.

Half the passengers disembarked at Subic Bay, Philippines, he said, and the rest went on to Vung Tau, Vietnam

“Just getting there was bizarre. We had two officers, two enlisted and a vacancy on our team. We carried our own equipment, tables, typewriters, etc., and actually climbed down ropes over the side of the ship.”

Eventually, his team boarded a chinook bound for the headquarters of the first Infantry Division.

“They had no idea we were coming,” Mercer said. “After a week we were told to go to the division headquarters to get assignment orders.

It was his first outing on the Vietnam roads he had heard so much about.

George Mercer is pictured during his first tour in Vietnam. While in the Army, Mercer was a public affairs specialist. | Courtesy photo
George Mercer is pictured during his first tour in Vietnam. While in the Army, Mercer was a public affairs specialist. | Courtesy photo

“We drove the orange route in a three-quarter-ton truck, and I was scared to death,” Mercer said.

The team was eventually assigned to the 44th Public Information Detachment with the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division.

“There were mostly writers, broadcasters and photographers,” Mercer said, all with the goal of bringing the war to the living rooms of America in the most positive light.

“A new program in the spring of 1967 was being built around the idea of winning the hearts and minds of the public,” Mercer said. “It was a good idea, but nobody knew how to do it, so it was kind of hit and miss.”

While public affairs was their primary mission, they also went out on combat ‘search and destroy’ or ‘search and seal’ type missions.

“We put out a brigade newspaper, contributed to the division newspaper and went out to report on what Soldiers were doing,” he said.

The team picked up its fifth member, a former infantryman who always carried a fragmentation grenade in his shirt pocket.

“Naturally we called him “Frag.” Mercer said. “It was understood. Anybody who’d been out there often took extra precautions.”

He added that he thought when it came to required actions and desired actions, the lines often blurred. This was brought to light in the loss of the team leader, his captain, who decided at the last minute one day to replace Mercer on a mission. Mercer said [his captain] was injured by a land mine that took off part of his head and was medevac’d out.

“One of the real problems Soldiers have is when you lose someone in combat, that person ceases to exist. It’s almost the same way with the injured. Every part of them is removed from the scene and boom, you move on. That opens up emotional problems.”

“Our officers wanted to go out and fight,” he said. “What we had was a leadership that understood if your troops don’t fight, you don’t get promoted.”

He added that he thought that much of went on around him was unnecessary.

“Throughout, we had leadership who thought in terms of World War II and Korea,” he said. “Personally, I really believe some missions were undertaken for no other reason than to get credit; to put notches in their belts. Now that may be unfair, but I’m convinced that attitude existed.”

He recalled one mission in which his captain ordered him along. They took a helicopter to a village area and “went in like gangbusters.”

“We jump into a swamp carrying rifles, cameras, and tables, and jump into a swamp up to our waists in muck,” he said. “Turns out the Viet Cong heard us coming and hardly anyone is there. So, I’m not convinced the Army had the best strategists over there.”

In another instance, after being flown out to participate in another mission, Mercer was told the mission was not occurring and to get back on the helicopter. When he did, he saw body bags.

Army veteran George Mercer befriends a Vietnamese child in 1967. Mercer served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968. | Courtesy photo
Army veteran George Mercer befriends a Vietnamese child in 1967. Mercer served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968. | Courtesy photo

“That hit me,” he said. “That put everything in a new perspective.”

In late 1967, Mercer’s team was divided up and he was left to serve as the 2nd Brigade Public Information Officer. He escorted civilian media and also wrote for the division newspaper and magazine. He was promoted to Spc. 5 and earned two Bronze Star medals during the Tet Offensive of 1968. His lieutenant was killed during an attack at Li Kay.

“That means out of the four of us, I was the only one not KIA or wounded,” Mercer said.

Mercer left the Army in 1968 and eventually gravitated to APG where jobs were being offered in the Ordnance Center and School. He started in 1981 as a temporary civilian deputy PIO which led to a permanent PAO position in 1982. He joined the TECOM PAO in 1988 and worked through the memorable period during the 1996 sex scandal.

“We had a really good staff. Our PAO folks represented the Army well,” he said. “I came into good teams and still had a good team when I left. People took their jobs seriously and didn’t have to be told what to do,” he said. “Between MWR, DPW, DES, Operations and the other directorates, it was a golden period because they were not only taking care of business but taking care of each other too. It was always a team.

Mercer retired as the public affairs officer for the APG Garrison in 2012. He said when people thank him for his service today he’s not sure what it means.

“I was born in 1944,” he said. “When I grew up, joining the Army was just what people did. It was no big deal. I just hoped for the best.

“I tried to be a good Soldiers; though I served much longer as a civilian. At some point I made a commitment to the community and I’m proud to say I worked with an awful lot of good people who made that same commitment.”

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Like any other war, Vietnam produced an array of veterans. When the conflict ended, some veterans opted to continue service in the military while others returned to civilian life. Some returned with life altering wounds – physical and psychological – while too many others, who never came home at all, remain among the Missing in Action.

On the surface, the veterans of the Vietnam War faced the same challenges as veterans of other wars, except for one glaring difference: they were vilified by American society like no other generation before or since.

Today, nearly 50 years after the war’s end, the veterans of Vietnam are in their 60s and 70s. The passage of time has cooled the tempest of indignation that shrouded their homecoming and an ambiance of repentant thanks thrives in its wake. Many still do what they can to serve this nation.

This article originally appeared in the “APG News” as part of an ongoing, multi-year series hailing the service members and civilians who served the nation during the war in Vietnam. Giving a voice to local Vietnam veterans, it is through their stories that we honor their service and sacrifice, and offer a long-overdue “Welcome Home.”

For more information about the series or the veterans featured, contact “APG News” Editor Amanda Rominiecki at amanda.r.rominiecki.civ@mail.mil.

Story by Yvonne Johnson, APG News