Waco resident Jose A. Morales, was only 17 years old when he joined the U.S. Army.
“I’ve seen it all, done it all, I just can’t remember it all,” he said.
Though he makes light of it, it was serious business for a young man. In fact, he joined to get away from the wild crowd, as the lifestyle wasn’t for him.
In March 1960, Morales, a native of Brighton, Colorado, went to basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia, and advance training for infantryman at Fort Lewis in Washington. He remained at Fort Lewis for his first duty station for three years.
In January 1962, on the heels of the Berlin crisis, Morales was sent to West Berlin with the 4th Infantry, along with two airborne units, for six months. The wall had just been erected in mid-1961. “There was a lot of turmoil and tension,” he said, but they were instructed to stand by and be ready. “We were basically there in case something happened. We heard a lot of shooting at night, but we never got involved in combat operations.”
Morales returned to Fort Lewis and finished his three years. He left the military at that point, but three months later, he was back. He was stationed in Hawaii at Schofield Barracks and entered training as a helicopter gunner. Within a few months, he would make his first trip to Vietnam, one of several that would span a total of 48 months.
It was a volunteer program that required door gunners for UH 1-B “Huey” helicopters. He was stationed in Soc Trang in South Vietnam. Though originally there only in an advisory capacity – troops had not yet built up – there was more than advising going on. “We were defending our helicopters,” Morales said. Their job was to defend “slick ships.”
He was flying into a landing zone when the helicopter was hit, taking the engine out. Through auto-rotate, they made it safely to the ground. “We landed safely, but then you have to worry about what’s on the ground,” he said. The men were picked up safely and the bird was picked up by a big crane device called a grasshopper.
When he wasn’t flying helicopters, Morales served with the ground infantry, where he said the “terrain was more against you than the enemy,” he said, especially when it was pouring rain, and the men were knee-deep in mud, soaking wet and dirty.
Morales went again to Vietnam in 1965 with the 25th Division ground troops. In September 1966, coming back from patrol in the middle of the night, the men hit a Claymore mine, and Morales was injured by a piece of metal that went through the back of his leg and out the right front of his knee. He was hospitalized in the mainland and went from crutches to a cane before he came back to Vietnam.
Since Morales had only three months left in Vietnam, they sent him to Germany in 1967 with the 14th Armored Calvary Regiment where he patrolled the Czechoslovakian border. He then went back to Vietnam with the 4th Infantry Division to the Central Highland regions at Camp Enari. There, he volunteered for the long range reconnaissance patrol, some of his favorite duty.
Their job was not to fight, but to report troop movement and the like. “It’s risky, but it’s safe because you’re working with professionals,” he said. “You never know if someone is watching you go in.”
Probably his worst time in Vietnam was with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry (part of the 4th Infantry) near the Cambodian border at Landing Zone Incoming. There was a constant barrage of incoming fire and the zone was overrun with 500 North Vietnamese Soldiers. There was mass confusion, Morales said, with people fighting in hand-to-hand combat. Morales was injured when someone cut him with a knife. He also received superficial burns from a flamethrower, earning a second Purple Heart.
Morales would continue with the Army – including as a drill instructor and recruiter – for a total of 20 years and 24 days, retiring in March 1981 as a sergeant first class. For a time, he suffered from severe post traumatic stress disorder – he was hospitalized twice – from the many things he witnessed in Vietnam – including the death of a friend whose helicopter was blown completely apart.
Morales met his wife, Dorothy Lopez, while he was stationed at Fort Hood. They married in January 1974. She passed away in 2012. In 2017, Morales remarried to Jimmy Martinez. He has one son and two grandchildren.
Despite the trauma he experienced in Vietnam, Morales, 75, would do it again. “It was destined for me to do. I’d do it all again, suffering and all.”