While serving in Vietnam, Phil Paylor saw first-hand a dramatic change in the course of the war.
A 1966 graduate of Tunkhannock High School, Paylor served in the U.S. Army, Ninth Infantry Division, from 1968 to 1969.
“I was drafted. That made it real easy for them,” he explained.
He did his basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., then received combat infantry training at Fort Polk, La.
As a member of the Ninth Infantry, Paylor was in constant combat on the front lines.
“We saw more action and more fire fights than any other division in South Vietnam,” he said.
It was a busy time for Paylor. Technically, he and the others served four to five days in the field, then were suppose to break for three days to rest and recuperate. In reality, members of the Ninth Division were constantly fighting, with very few breaks.
“Because there was so much combat. So much going on. We were constantly in battle all the time. I was scared to death most of the time I was there.”
But as intense as things were, it all paled before what started on Jan. 30, 1968.
That was the day the Tet Offensive began, when the combined forces of the North Vietnam regular army and the Viet Cong began an organized offensive against U.S. and South Vietnam forces.
“We didn’t receive much help from the South Vietnam army,” Paylor recalled. “They knew what was happening, and mostly stayed in the bunkers.”
Although the initial offensive lasted about a week, the fiercest fighting occurred during the first three days.
“They were shelling us and bombing us for 24 hours a day,” Paylor explained. “It never stopped. It was the time Paylor was most scared over there.”
Miraculously, Paylor came out of the conflict without being wounded.
“God took care of me,” he said. “He’s the reason I’m here. I saw many of my friends die. As a young man in my teens, it took a toll on me, watching my friends die.”
The intense daily pressure became a way of life for them, he said.
“You learned to sleep with the bugs and the scorpions and the snakes,” Paylor explained. “You slept in the rice paddies. You slept in the water all the time.”
But the situation eventually took a heavy toll on Paylor.
“As you watched more of your friends die, you grew more and more lonely,” he explained. “Your family wasn’t around, so at least you knew you had your friends for support. But as they were killed off, you started wondering if you were going to be the next one. It was a terrible, terrible strain to put a young person through.”
Although the U.S. forces were eventually able to beat back the North Vietnamese, it was a classic example of ‘winning the battle, but losing the war.’
“They didn’t whip us, but it sure felt like it,” Paylor said. “They kept hitting us and there was no place for us to go.”
Before Jan. 30, he added, they usually fought the Viet Cong guerillas in South Vietnam. Afterward, they primarily fought the North Vietnam army in both countries.
Following the Tet Offensive American sentiment slowly turned against the war.
In 1969, President Richard Nixon began ordering the withdrawal of all U.S. forces.
“I think that was the best thing he ever did,” Paylor said.
Although he returned home in 1970, Paylor continued to suffer after effects from his wartime experiences. Even today, he still has considerable trouble sleeping at night because of all the night patrols he participated in while in the field.
“When I hear a car backfire, I jump, because I think I’m being shot at,” Paylor said.
Paylor is on disability for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, but has been able to deal with the situation, thanks to seven years of therapy provided by a psychiatrist through the Veterans Administration.
The best thing that came out of his war experience, Paylor said, was it made him appreciate the lifestyle enjoyed by U.S. citizens.
“Everything here is open, and the people enjoy wonderful freedoms. In Vietnam, everyone pretty much lives a ‘secret lifestyle,’ and there is no place to get help,” he said.
“Most people over here would not be able to survive in Vietnam,” he explained. “Because it’s such a different lifestyle. It really made me appreciate our lifestyle, because they have nothing like it over there.”