For Placerville resident Henry Carr, going to Vietnam in 1966 was a pivotal choice. “I had a three-week leave before shipping out to Vietnam,” said Carr, 66. His girlfriend at the time had connections to the Ike and Tina Turner band and Carr got to know the band members during his leave. “Ike was related to an uncle of mine by marriage,” said Carr.
The night before he shipped out, he was told that someone on a bus wanted to see him. It was Ike Turner, looking for a replacement for one of his band members. “He asked me if I played any instruments and he already knew I could sing,” said Carr. “I told him I could play some and he told me to forget going to ‘Nam and go on tour with the band. I decided against it.”
On the plane the next day, while his fellow soldiers slept, Carr stayed awake, talking to the flight attendant. “None of us knew where we were going or what we would be doing. We flew past this big mountain as we came into the airport. Later, I found out the mountain was Nui Ba Den. I spent a lot of time at the bottom of that mountain.”
It was a much different environment for the 19-year-old than Omo Ranch where he grew up. “My dad got a job at the Wetzel-Oviatt Lumber Mill in 1952 and he commuted back to Richmond where we lived, every other weekend,” said Carr. ” In 1954, he moved my mother, my older brother and me up to Omo Ranch into this one-bedroom house with an outhouse.” After a year, the family found a three-bedroom house with a garage and indoor plumbing — a big improvement.
Carr and his brother attended Indian Diggings School, a first grade through eighth grade school. “There were only about 40 kids,” said Carr. He grew up hunting and fishing and playing Model A tag. “There were always a lot of old Model A’s around,” said Carr. ” I started driving out in the woods when I was about 10 and we would try to bump each other.”
Carr loved baseball and wanted to be a professional player. “There were only about five or six black kids out of 1,200 when I went to El Dorado High School, “said Carr who played baseball and basketball at EDHS.
There were “black-top” dances at the Omo Ranch in the parking lot near the store two or three times each summer. “People would come from miles around for those dances,” said Carr. He had a lot of friends in both El Dorado and Amador County, one of which got him into trouble, which resulted in a fine and probation in Amador County.
When his first draft notice arrived, being on probation kept him from being drafted, but the second draft notice, six months later, waived any problems with probation and Carr was inducted into the U.S. Army and sent to basic training at Fort Lewis, Wash. His Advanced Individual Training was at Ft. Polk, La. “We ran around in the swamps and got into trouble in Leasville,”said Carr. Then he was in Vietnam.
“We sat on the bus waiting for orders. We were supposed to be assigned to the 2nd (Battalion) and 14th (Infantry) straight leg, but just before we were to leave, 15 guys on the 2nd and 14th were killed and our assignment was changed to the 4th Battalion and 25th Infantry Headquarters Reconnaissance Platoon.” Carr’s unit was small, with only about 10 men.
“During the day, we swept the roads for mines and then we sat up in the rubber trees and secured the area for convoys,” said Carr. “At night, we went back to Tay Ninh City and got supplies and took them to camp at Nui Ba Den.”
Carr was an Armored Personnel Carrier driver and was soon given five APCs to oversee. “I was always the last track and the last track is the one they shoot at since there isn’t anyone behind them to shoot back,” said Carr. “I would drive slow, like an old lady and watch for the flash of the RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). When I saw a flash, I’d hit the gas and they missed me.”
We set up a camp in a rubber tree plantation. A little girl named Mai, who was about 8,would come into camp every day. I always sent her home with C rations and we became friends. One day, she didn’t show up,” said Carr. ” A week went by and she still didn’t come. Then a Vietnamese guy approached me and asked if I was Mai’s friend. He told me she had been shot and killed.”
The Vietnamese man was a relative of Mai’s and he invited Carr to dinner at his mother’s house. “He and I went for a 20-minute walk there and I saw at least 400 people all around. At the house, he questioned me, but I told him I just pointed at where the bullets were coming from and shot.”
Carr said he was served a feast of dog, water buffalo, rice and raw fish. “It was all good stuff.”
After dinner, Carr left to walk back to camp by himself. Although it was only midday, not a single person was visible. “I thought I was dead, but I made it back. It was the same place where those 15 guys from the 2nd and 14th had been killed. I always figured that guy had to be high up in the North Viet Army to keep them from killing me.”
Another time, Sacramento television personality, Stan Atkinson, came to Vietnam to report from inside the 25th Infantry. “We were told to do a sweep to clear the road before he came down it. I was on the outside flank and saw an opening in the bushes. There was a meadow on the other side and I saw camouflaged bunkers, which meant there were probably NVA there. I hopped back to the APC and didn’t say anything. They would have sent me in to clear them out in a firefight and I didn’t want to get shot on TV.”
Carr said about a third of the U.S. casualties he observed were from friendly fire. “People didn’t always program their weapons right and we were shooting so much at the enemy that sometimes the men hit our own ambushers.”
With a week and a half before his 10-month tour was over, Carr was worried. “Short-timers always got shot. When you got short, you got killed.”
But camp wasn’t much safer. “We were in the bunker in camp and left our rifles outside. Suddenly we could hear rockets shooting into the camp. We stayed put and after about 15 minutes, we stopped hearing them. I decided to go outside and get the rifles in case the NVA came into camp.” When Carr reached the door and opened it, a soldier behind him put a hand on the door to stop him. “A grenade hit the door, but I was saved by that hand.” For Carr, it was a surreal experience, as though the hand was huge and protected his whole body.
While in the country, Carr said he witnessed the burning of entire villages. “You’d see a whole village with no men, only women and children and you knew it meant the men were in the NVA. We’d have to clear all the people out and then they would light the whole village on fire.”
He served on Colin Powell’s track just before his tour was up. “It was stationary and had radios and communication equipment. My job was to get 5 gallons of gas every day to keep the generators running and to make sure the track was ready to move. Not getting shot at for two months was a good duty.” A week and a half after he was transferred to Colin Powell’s track, his old track hit a mine and was blown up.
While in Vietnam, Spc. 4 Henry Carr bumped into other troops from El Dorado County — Val Pease, who he’d gone to high school with, was stationed at the Tay Ninh airport. He also met up with another friend, Guy Henningsen.
He was wounded twice and put up for a Purple Heart both times, but he refused the medals. “I asked them if they gave Purple Hearts to the guys that died and they said yes,” said Carr. “That made no sense to me and I told them I didn’t want any part of a medal that was awarded to dead guys.”
Carr was exposed to Agent Orange in the rubber tree plantations. “They told us they were spraying, but I didn’t know what it was. When I came home, I had a tumor on my forehead. The doctors gave me a cream for it, but I came home and had my doctor remove it.”
The tumor returned years later and Carr’s second wife, a nurse, removed it. When it returned a third time, Carr removed it himself and opened it to find little orange things in it. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008, which was attributed to exposure to Agent Orange. He was cured of the prostate cancer, but was diagnosed in 2013 with another form of cancer, also attributed by military doctors as being from exposure to Agent Orange. He is currently fighting with the military for medical benefits.
“The U.S. does things for other countries, but they don’t take care of their own troops,” said Carr. He was wounded twice in Vietnam but refused the Purple Heart because it seemed that everyone around him who got the Purple Heart died immediately afterward.
“In the airport when we came home, people spit on us and called us ‘baby killers,’” said Carr. “I couldn’t believe it. It was ugly.”
Things have changed for U.S. troops now, said Carr. “But I should have gone on tour with Ike and Tina.”
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.