“In December of 1963, I was working about 20 miles the other side of Rawlins and anyone that’s been in Rawlins knows, it’s kind of the jump-off spot of the world,” said Ed Cox. “And I got my draft notice, and I thought it can’t be any worse than this!”
Cox, who had been working in road construction, took leave of his job and headed to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for basic training. With his prior construction experience, they assigned him to the engineer division. He next headed to Fort Belvore, Virginia, where he worked in the tool crib. The Vietnam War was still in its early years, and Cox said he knew very little about the war and had no idea even where Vietnam was.
“Then come along in ‘65 they loaded up all the equipment and put it on a rail in Virginia,” said Cox. “We knew we were going someplace because they gave us some tropical fatigues. And in the later part of August in ‘65 they loaded us on a plane. It was kind of comical because we had our M14 and a gas mask and two duffle bags. They flew us from Virginia to Oakland, California. We stopped in Las Vegas. Of course we had our rifle and gas mask and all that with us. It must have been quite a sight! We went to Oakland and loaded on the USS General W. A. Mann. After we left port, they told us we were going to Vietnam. And I knew nothing about Vietnam. And they said we would be in Cam Ranh Bay, which would be a peninsula about seven miles wide and 20 miles long. Well, that sounded like a tropical paradise. About 21 days later we arrived at Cam Ranh and we got off. And my first thought was ‘it’s hot’ and sandy and no trees!”
Getting to work
Cox and his fellow soldiers in the 87th Engineer Battalion set up camp on the beach. Afterward, each day, Cox would travel a mile from the camp to his duty station and run the rock crusher.
“The first project we had, they floated a pier over from South Carolina, around the Horn, and we made a ramp out there so the Navy could unload ships,” said Cox. “Cam Ranh Bay became the largest supply depot in the Far East in the Vietnam War.”
Because the peninsula was so sandy, travel in vehicles was difficult and the creation of roads became a critical endeavor. Cox began working the rock crusher 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
“The rock crusher was wore out and not negotiating crushing rock very good,” he said. “So they went to the shoreline and got into a coral bed. And they’d bring loads of coral up, and we’d run that through the crusher and it made a great road base.”
The monotonous days were broken up every other week when he rotated onto night guard duty, and just twice during his five-month tour of duty, with trips to Natrang. Once, on a return trip from Natrang, a bridge was blown up after his group of vehicles had passed over it. Word about the event reached camp before Cox and the others returned, and everyone wanted to hear the story. However, the group was unaware of the explosion and they were surprised to hear about it.
Because of Cam Ranh Bay’s isolated and relatively safe location, Cox knew little of the war that was expanding further in-country.
“We’d hear a little bit about things going wrong in Vietnam, but at the time I thought it was a pretty worthwhile thing,” he said. “You know, I thought they really had a purpose there because we were really building the country up. And then we get back home and … a lot of people had objections. So after a while I really began to wonder what it was really all about.”
“I still had a real positive thought that it was well worth it,” he continued. “It had a purpose. And then as years went on, I had more and more doubts. I don’t know whether that war was real necessary or not.”
Experience after Vietnam
Cox left Vietnam in January 1966. He returned to Wyoming and married his wife, Nancy, in 1968. They raised a son and a daughter and moved to Wheatland in 1972. Cox then worked at the Basin Electric Power Cooperative for the next 26 years.
His Vietnam experience came back to him in a unique way eight years ago when he and Nancy hosted a young Vietnamese exchange student in their home.
“She read all my articles and she did not say too much about it. She read everything in detail,” said Cox. “Then she went to Powell to college, and we went up and got her for Christmas. And she was telling me at that time about both her granddads who were killed in the war. I never did ask her what side they were on. … She wanted to know what I thought, if it was worthwhile or not. And I said, ‘I really don’t know if we should have been going over there or not,’ and she said, ‘Yes.’ She was very supportive (of it).”
‘The biggest enemy’
Cox recently reunited with his fellow soldiers from the 87th Engineer Battalion after seeing an advertisement in the VFW magazine about a reunion. He traveled to Fort Benning, Georgia in 2014 and to Washington, D.C. in Oct. 2015 to attend the reunions and reminisce.
One troubling, lingering aspect of the war has been apparent in these reunions in some former members of the battalion succumbing to cancer attributed to their exposure to Agent Orange.
“One of the biggest enemies of the Vietnam War was Agent Orange,” said Cox. “It knew no boundaries, and people are still suffering and dying every day because of being in Vietnam 50 years ago.”
“A lot of people lost their lives just to walk off from it,” he continued. “It was a political deal, I think. We should have been able to win it. But I don’t know. A lot of people got hurt. All the people they lost. What did they die for? … But I am glad I went. I am proud to be an American, and I don’t want to live anywhere else.”