In September 1966, Wayne Conner received his draft notice in the mail and was off to nearby Fort Campbell for basic training. He had just graduated from high school that May.
Although Conner fully expected to be heading to Vietnam like many of the men with whom he trained, when he graduated from basic training in December, he was sent to Fort Sill, Okla., assigned to the 30th Infantry Division. While there, he learned to wield two and a half to five-ton trucks.
The dream job lasted about nine months when orders came sending him to Vietnam.
“I left for Vietnam on the 16th of August, 1967,” he wrote in a journal. “It was my 21st birthday.”
It took two days to travel halfway around the world to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam, and another couple of days before he knew where he would be assigned. He recalled his senses being bombarded as he left the plane. The heaviness of the air, the unrelenting heat, the smells — unlike any he had ever experienced — the mosquitoes, the rain and the constant sounds of artillery fire.
PFC Conner was assigned to the 69th Signal Battalion,1st Signal Brigade at Camp Gaylor, between the gates of Saigon and the gates to Tan Son Nhut Air base. Their mission was to protect the air base.
He quickly discovered the typing class he took in high school would pay off when a call went out for someone with typing skills and his hand was the only one that went up. Conner ended up in the motor pool in charge of ordering supply parts for the vehicles and driving the officer in charge.
Conner’s luck continued when he was assigned to bunk with seasoned soldiers who taught him the lay of the land and again later when he was reassigned to a hooch with air conditioning.
Conner knew the Vietnam he was experiencing was not the same Vietnam most soldiers knew, but that changed on Jan. 30, 1968 — Chinese New Year — they called it Tet.
At 3 a.m., Conner was thrust into a new role as one of 29 men who made up Task Force 35 and were sent out to protect the west parameter of Tan Son Nhut where Vietnam troops were attempting to breech and eventually take over the air base.
“We were sent out to stop the invaders and to protect the base,” Conner said.
The band of 29 clerks, typists, truck drivers and signalmen, who had not experienced a battle but were well-trained soldiers, dug in and held off the Viet Cong until the 25th Infantry arrived at daybreak. That was when they all realized the magnitude of what had been accomplished. During the three-hour battle more than 375 of the almost 1,000 Viet Cong attackers were killed. Two Americans were killed and three wounded. The battle became known as the Tet Offensive.
“We didn’t know how many VC were out there until the 25th Infantry arrived at daybreak,” Conner said. “We stopped them.”
After that, life at Camp Gaylor changed as rocket and mortar fire increased around Saigon and the base, and everyone was on heightened alert, he added.
“We were attacked one night and one of the Viet Cong killed was a barber of ours — he had just cut my hair a couple days before,” Conner said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Tet.”
All 29 men received the Bronze Star with a V and the entire unit received the Presidential Citation award, Conner said.