Vietnam Oral History
Sergeant Dan Nowlin
To feed soldiers in the field during the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army sealed various unpalatable concoctions in olive-drab tin cans, informally called “C-Rations.” The most detested of these was the infamous “Ham and Lima Beans.” Grunts referred to them with a derisive nickname, which decorum prevents sharing in a public venue.
Sergeant Dan Nowlin, an Eastern Shoshone man who grew up on the Wind River Reservation, was one of the few troopers who actually liked Ham and Lima Beans. He ate as well as you could on C-Rations, as trading for the hated dish proved to be a lucrative venture. And he could avoid cans of Ham and Eggs, which he loathed in turn. It made a long, grim year a bit better.
Through the ranks
Once they got their hands on him, the U.S. Army didn’t waste any time shipping a young Nowlin overseas. He was sent to Vietnam immediately after graduating from Advanced Individual Training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Along the way, the only highlight of the trip was that he “got to see Hawaii … for about fifteen minutes!”
Once in Vietnam, he was assigned to Company A, 3-21 Infantry Battalion, 196th Light Infantry Brigade – operating in the Central Highlands. Nowlin had previously displayed leadership abilities in the United States, and he was rapidly promoted to sergeant and assigned as a squad leader.
As with most combat infantrymen, Nowlin lived in the field and only returned to base camps in the rear at the end of major operations, briefly, while they refitted. This was fine with him, he said.
“I was sort of glad … the (Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army) were dialed in with rockets, and I didn’t like to hear that whoomp of incoming,” he recalled.
In Vietnam, survival was often measured in inches. One dark evening, Sergeant Nowlin’s patrol unexpectedly encountered a friendly unit from the 4th Infantry Division, with both groups attempting to set up an ambush at the same location – a complete surprise to everybody involved. In the confusion, the friendly infantrymen opened fire on Nowlin’s unit.
Nowlin mused that “it was impressive how many rounds a U.S. platoon could put out.” Unfortunately, Nowlin happened to be on the receiving end that night. One of his soldiers had set his helmet on the ground, and Nowlin distinctly remembered, “A pair of tracers that came in at us hit his helmet right next to him, and put a hole right through it. I felt and heard the hiss of the tracer rounds.”
Two minutes later he began to shake, when he realized that there were five rounds between each of the tracers. Fortunately some of the soldiers, including his machine gunner and the trooper with the detonator for the devastating Claymore mines, recognized that the shadowy figures in the dark were friendlies and did not open fire. Sergeant Nowlin was worried when he heard the armored vehicles of the 4th Division rolling forward, but fortunately “the 4th didn’t call in tank fire on us.”
Such an incident was not uncommon, Nowlin said, because “the VC and NVA were very good at positioning themselves in between (U.S.) units, to get them to fire at each other.”
Nowlin was proud of his soldiers. “Even the draftees would go out of their way to help their fellow soldiers,” he recalled. “It wasn’t the U.S. they were fighting for, not Mom, not apple pie; it is the guy standing next to you … that is what kept you going.”
On the night of Sept. 2, 1967, Nowlin was leading a patrol through a VC-controlled village when they discovered a lantern hanging from a fence, illuminating the open ground that his soldiers had to traverse. The implications were obvious. He crawled within hand grenade range, exposed and vulnerable, and knocked out the lantern.
Further along their route, they encountered an exposed rice paddy. Nowlin volunteered to cross by himself and secure the far side so that the remainder of his patrol could cross safely. Illuminated by friendly light in the distance while they were in the open, his patrol came under heavy fire and was pinned down. Nowlin stood up to draw enemy fire, giving his men the chance to withdraw from their dangerous position.
It was a long night that reflected a long war, but Sergeant Nowlin had brought his soldiers through it without casualties. For his actions that evening, Sergeant Nowlin was awarded a Bronze Star with the coveted Valor device.
Putting a life back together
Nowlin had a rough time when he got home. He suffered from PTSD, a psychological condition not then understood, and for which the rudimentary treatment included being locked up. The trauma of war stuck with Nowlin, fading slowly and only with time. Nowlin still remembers Thanksgiving Day 1967, which he marked by loading the black rubber body bags containing the remains of four of his fellow soldiers into a helicopter.
He remembered trying to readjust to civilian life after his tour. “When I got home, my brother-in-law and I went and took a job placement test,” he said. “It turned out that I wasn’t fit for any job. I didn’t know you could flunk a job placement test, but I did!”
With the assistance of his sister, he eventually recovered and put his life back in order. Today Nowlin lives with his wife in Dubois, has four grandchildren, and serves as an Assistant Coroner for Fremont County.
He is immensely proud of his service, and still enjoys ham and lima beans. Just don’t ask him to eat a C-Ration can of Ham and Eggs!