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Vietnam vet quizzed enemy by day, strummed and sang by night

You may wonder how a burst appendix can play into a decision to join the military and serve in the Vietnam War.

It happened that way for Norm Murray. When he was 11 years old, his appendix was removed, and he was so impressed with the surgeon that he wanted to become a physician.

Years later, when he attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut, he realized the pre-med curriculum was extremely difficult, despite his having aced chemistry at Williamsville South High School.

"After the third semester, I decided to give myself an extended period to think about what I wanted to be doing. Very shortly after I left school, I enlisted for three years in the Army," Murray said.

And that's how he got from scalpel and textbook to Vietnam.

But there's another twist. He took his guitar along with him, hoping to entertain himself and his fellow soldiers.

And while he had struggled at the university, Murray's aptitude for foreign languages caught the Army's attention. So after completing intelligence training, he was sent to a year-long course to learn the Vietnamese language in El Paso, Texas.

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Norm Murray, 69

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Clarence Center

Branch: Army

Rank: Specialist 5

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service: May 1967 – January 1970

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal and South Vietnamese Army's Honor Medal

Specialty: interpreter/interrogator

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By day in Vietnam, he served as an interpreter and interrogator. By night, if it was quiet, he let loose with the universal language of music, strumming and singing, often atop the sand bags of rocket bunkers. He might have become known as "Rocket Man," but Elton John's song by that name was still years away from being released.

The bulk of Murray's day job involved working with a South Vietnamese Army unit translating documents captured from the enemy.

"Most of it was pretty darn boring. So much of it was lists of provisions, fifty 10- kilo bags of rice, or it could be lists of weapons or ammunition. You had to go through everything because there could be buried in it some discreet piece of information on the identity of a unit and its activities," Murray said.

And it was in one of those enemy journals, he says, that he struck gold.

"We came up with a set of numbers that was a poorly coded set of map coordinates in an area where our troops were getting repeated mortar fire from an unidentified location. With the artillery people, we were basically able to tell that those coordinates were the source of the mortar fire."

Howitzer shells were fired in that direction, and the enemy mortar fire ceased for a sustained period.

Murray's interrogations involved a decidedly humane approach.

"I'd spend a lot of time with them. I'd start out with the hard questions, like 'What unit are you in? What were you doing in this area of operations?' " he said. "Often they were unwilling to initially answer and so it would segue into personal questions about if they were married, did they have kids, where they were born."

That approach usually broke the silence,  Murray said, "though not always on the first day."

Vietnam War veteran Norm Murray is awarded the Bronze Star for his service, which included interrogating POWs and translating documents captured from the enemy in search of hidden clues that could help U.S. forces. (Photo courtesy of Murray family)

His most memorable interrogation involved a young North Vietnamese lieutenant.

"He had been injured and was in the hospital. After spending several days talking to him, he realized that he was getting good medical care, three square meals a day, and was not getting tortured as he had been told would happen if he were ever captured.

"He began to open up and essentially answered all the questions I was asking. He identified his unit, how many were in it, and what their part was in the larger operation.

"My whole job was to keep Americans from getting killed, and this interrogation gave us information on what North Vietnamese army units were planning in a particular area," Murray said of how he was able to "hopefully reduce" U.S. casualties.

When off duty, he broke out the guitar and played all the current rock and folk protest songs.

"My younger brother was at Woodstock in 1969 singing along with Country Joe & the Fish, 'I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin-To-Die' rag and most nights we would sing that same song. We would get louder and louder the more we drank," Murray said. "We sang loud and proud."

Though hardly a patriotic ditty, he said the officers never objected "so long as we weren't causing trouble."

On another matter of free speech, Murray said he was spared the hostility other Vietnam veterans endured on returning home.

"I'd helped start a church youth group in El Paso, and when I returned, the parents and young people welcomed me proudly," he said.

After earning degrees in history and business at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, N.M., he returned to the Buffalo area to work with his father.

"He had a one-man family business, U-C Coatings, which manufactured wood protection products. We went from less than $100,000 in sales to more than $10 million annually before I sold it in 2013," Murray said of his success.

But Murray never forgot Vietnam, and for years he assisted in helping resettle Vietnamese refugees. He also fell in love with a Vietnamese woman, who already was living in Buffalo, and in 1984 they married.   Norm and Thuy Murray have two grown  children and have resided in Clarence Center for 29 years.

And he has never forgotten his fellow war veterans. These days, Murray is deeply involved with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, raising money for a new Education Center at The Wall, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Murray has also expanded on his gift for foreign languages. Conversationally, he speaks six: Chinese, Spanish, French, Italian, German and, of course, Vietnamese.

And he is still strumming away on his guitar.

"Last May, I performed a benefit concert for the Education Center at The Wall at Sportsmen's Tavern in Black Rock," Murray said.

He says he hopes to do more fund-raisers for the Education Center. Anyone interested in making a donation or scheduling a performance can contact him by email at VNVet@nickelcitycowboy.com .

 

 

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