The answer for why Jerry C. Bowman joined the Army after graduating East High School can be stated in three words: “I was poor.”
The fourth oldest of eight children raised by their mother in public housing off Jefferson Avenue, Bowman said that he needed to move on and make his own way in life.
So he took his older brother Carl’s advice and enlisted in the military. Carl spoke from experience. He had served in the Army in Germany from 1958 to 1962, including the Berlin Crisis of 1961.
"He was in West Berlin by the wall. Our cannons were pointed at the Russian cannons,” Bowman said. “It had been on television every day, and we knew our brother was there.”
Carl told him enlisting offered another benefit.
“I would avoid being drafted and having to go to Vietnam in the infantry.”
If only it had worked out that way.
“Enlisting was the biggest mistake of my life. I tried not to go to Vietnam. I was stationed at Fort Dix for a year and then sent straight to Vietnam.”
When he landed on Oct. 3, 1967, at an airstrip in Bien Hoa, he and the other new arrivals had to run for cover.
“The airstrip was being peppered with mortars. The airplane kept running. We got out and the guys that were leaving got right on.”
Jerry C. Bowman, 69
Hometown and residence: Buffalo
War zone: Vietnam
Years of service: 1966-69
Most prominent honors: Army Commendation Medal, Air Medal
Specialty: Psychological warfare
Bowman says he wasn’t overly frightened at the time. He figured the shelling was part of Army training “for acclimation for what we would be going through.”
He later learned that it was indeed enemy fire.
"I was a little scared and realized we could have gotten killed,” he said.
He and a handful of the other new arrivals were assigned to the 4th Psychological Warfare Battalion, also known as “psyops.” That military specialty might conjure up images of sweating out secrets from an enemy prisoner tied to a chair in a secure concrete bunker with a lone lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. But that was hardly the case.
“First we got a security clearance in Saigon, then we were sent to different infantry units. I was with the 3rd of the 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne, and they called themselves the ‘Third Herd.’ ”
His first battle was at Dak To in the Central Highlands.
“It was triple canopy jungle and hills and it was infested by the North Vietnamese army regulars.”
The battle got off to a bad start.
“As soon as we got there, we were surrounded and we dug in. They didn’t attack because they didn’t want us calling in helicopters.”
Discovering enemy lines were porous, a commander ordered Bowman and his interpreter to make their way to a village of Montagnards, a French word describing Vietnam’s mountain people who were American allies.
“We set up our speakers on a hill and started playing tapes to the North Vietnamese. I asked my interpreter what we were saying in Vietnamese, and he told me a mother was telling a North Vietnamese soldier a baby crying on the tape was not his. It was a psychological game. She was basically telling the soldier that she had cheated on him while he was away at war.”
The mind game backfired.
“It upset them and they started mortaring the village and shooting rockets at us. It was like the Fourth of July. We had really p-----d them off.”
Bowman tried to calm the situation.
“I had two other tapes with me, one was the Mamas & the Papas and the other was the Four Tops from Motown. I started playing them and it was echoing all over the place. I guess the echoing kind of confused them and they stopped shooting, but we weren’t out of the woods yet.”
He lived with the villagers for about a month.
“They had never seen a black guy before, at least one as dark as me. The one villager told me that if I died, he would eat part of my liver. That meant I’d live on through him. I thought, 'What the hell are you talking about?' But they cared for us.
"They were probably the kindest people I ever met in my life.”
In time, a unit from the South Korean army, traveling in three helicopters, freed the surrounded troops.
“Two of the helicopters dumped high octane JP-4 fuel where the enemy was and the other helicopter shot it up with M60 machine guns and it started a brush fire right in their faces and we split. Our whole battalion got out.”
The unit headed for the coast, and Bowman was reassigned to Advisory Team 28.
“I hadn’t been with the unit a week when the Tet Offensive broke out,” he said of the highly coordinated enemy attack. “We learned that they had bogged down infantry units like the one I’d been with in order to prepare for the Tet Offensive.”
The enemy attacked from all sides.
“They were even coming in on 'junks' from the South China Sea. I became an 81-millimeter mortar man that first night. I’d never touched one in my life until then, and we wore out the firing pin.”
Tet dragged on for months, and Bowman continued his psyops, though he came to realize it was part of a losing strategy.
“We were fighting a liberation movement. They were fighting for the unification of their country. They wanted to liberate themselves from outsiders coming in. They had thrown out the French. I had Vietnamese asking me, ‘Why are you here?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. They sent me.’ ”
A journalist from a French magazine asked him a similar question, why was he fighting?
"For a seat on the plane to get me out of here," Bowman responded. "I was being flippant, but I meant it. Vietnam was a poor boys war. Most of the guys who were there were not of means.”
He survived his war duty and returned to the United States after serving “11 months and 27 days.”
Bowman’s last seven months stateside, he served as a drill sergeant at Fort Lewis, Wash. When he returned to Buffalo, he attended the University at Buffalo and as an upperclassman started the Third World Veterans Alliance.
UB’s administration frowned on him and the organization, he said, as this was a time when there was widespread unrest on college campuses throughout the country because of the unpopular war.
“I was told by the president of UB that I should 'get out. This is my campus.’ He wasn’t rowdy, he just said leave.”
Although almost finished at UB, Bowman acquiesced, explaining that he had realized university life was not for him.
“I became a working guy. I worked at an inner city drop-in center, then I went to work for the original Night People drop-in center on Chippewa Street. From there I went to 291 Elm, the alcohol rehab center.”
Divorced twice and the father of two daughters, Bowman said his career progressed and he was hired as one of the first counselors at the Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center. He also specialized in running programs to assist the homeless. His final job before retirement lasted a decade with the state Department of Labor, again assisting veterans.
Throughout his life, he says he has carried the memories of war, though not to the point of fixation.
“But you see something, smell something, hear something and you think about the war. That’s why you have a lot of Vietnam vets who don’t like rice. They were slopping through the rice paddies and remember how nasty it was.”
These days, his sympathies go out to the veterans returning from the war on terror.
“I wish we were closer to them. There’s a chasm between them and Vietnam vets, but I’m glad that they are getting respect,” Bowman said. “When we came home, we were spit on and called baby killers.”
Those hostile memories have contributed to his war-related post-traumatic stress, he said.
But Bowman says he has found a way to cope:
“I stay busy. I retired six years ago, but I still volunteer helping veterans.”