Vietnam-War Audio Correspondence

Object Spotlight
refer to caption

Open reel tape recorded by PFC Kowalczyk in Vietnam, March 1969.

Private First Class Frank Kowalczyk, audio correspondence full version, Vietnam, 1969

Vietnam War Audio Correspondence (NPM 2011.2020.1)
Recorded by:
Pfc. Frank A. Kowalczyk, U.S. Army, HQ 46th Engineers Battalion, 20th Brigade;
Long Binh Post, Vietnam;
March 1969

[Start of file: Kowalczyk-Vietnam-1969_NPM-2011_2020_1.wma]

Private First Class Frank A. Kowalczyk: -- it’s kind of like a lightweight, but I know you’ll like it. That’s in there, too. So Paulie has probably torn off fatigues all apart, taking all the stripes off from that. Well, he didn’t get very much.

I guess I already told you about me putting in a transfer for B Company. They’re stationed in Saigon. They got a hell of a lot of better than we do and that ain’t no lie, believe me. They tried to talk us out of not going but I just couldn’t do it. I prefer being out there than here any day of the week. This place here is -- just doesn’t get it. There's too much harassment, duty, everything like that, but I guess that’s how the whole Army is based on everything, duty.

So how’s dad doing? Is he still working pretty much? I guess he’s back on that seven-to-seven shift. That tape that you sent me, I could use it, but I got to cover it with some other tape because Jeremy over here states you have to have everything with their brown tape and that ain't worth the shit; I ain’t kidding.

I washed our floor today in here like a regular G.I. party soaked with soap and water and then scrubbed it with a broom. It turned out pretty good, distributed mothballs around, sprayed it. It seems like everything di di mau'ed out of here, which means it left. Di di mau in Vietnamese means go away.

So we've been on -- we had our alerts all week so far since Saturday. We didn't have nothing last night. When we got to bed, if they did, we didn’t hear it. We’re pretty tired when we got in. It’s now about 1:30 in the afternoon, so I figured I'd just sit down and instead of writing you a letter just make use of tape. It would be a hell lot of easier. You know how much I hate writing.

Yeah, tell Aunt Helen I received her letter yesterday. I also wrote two or three letters, too. I don’t know why she said she hasn’t received any, but I can’t understand why. I done wrote her two or three letters.

I told you about me receiving the state flag; I have it here. I still haven’t put it up; I will in a bit.

Has Joe still got my Dodge or did he trade that car off on me? Probably he’s got ideas trading it off to get himself a Pontiac. I know he always had his eye on that Firebird. Does he still got the crazy idea of going in, going in the Marine Corps or did he finally give that idea up? I told him before what would happen to him if he joined the Marine Corps and I happen come back again.

Well, nothing new here. We’re still getting up 5:00 in the morning for reveille and formation and police call now twice a day. That’s another thing, you just can’t realize you’re in a combat zone with all these duties, polished boots, starched fatigues, the whole bit. You wouldn’t believe you’re in a combat zone.

Saturday night, they really gave Charlie some hell out here. I wish I had a camera to take pictures that night and send them back to you and see how pretty that stuff looks. The Minigun definitely does bring some smoke out here. It’s one of the best things the Army has over here in Vietnam besides us fighting men over here.

One of our buddies from over here volunteered last night to go relieve another guy that was married out there in 62nd. All this did not happen on our perimeter; it happened about a mile to a mile-and-a-half from us or maybe a little more than that. It’s hard to determine. Anyway, it was far enough away. So we might go out there this afternoon and take them some cokes and that.

All I could say is nothing much has ever happened around here till that or something. It didn’t kill the monotonous around here. Of course, your knees sure shake quite a bit especially when all those artillery rounds go off and all that.

Today, me and my buddy over here, Bud Hill, are scrubbing the floor. We’re standing up and spilling some water and they turned loose with a big ass artillery round. If you want to see two guys jump, you should have seen us, it was pretty damn funny. And on top of it, we threw some full cans in the trash can and they started popping, and it did scare the hell out of us there, too. Once you come back from out there and you’ve been mixed up with a little action over there, you're pretty jumpy, and believe me, we're jumpy.

Well, they asked me if my machine gun worked, and I told them it was shooting and it was working, but I never had to use too much. I only shot off about 200 rounds. This other kid here, they had shot a whole bunch of stuff up. You name it, they were shooting it, but they were lucky nothing happened to them too seriously. They had some snipers out there but they managed to get them all. This one guy's rear end is pretty damn sore. The colonel knocked him down on it when the snipers were shooting at him. He’s still complaining his rear end hurts. He’s pretty lucky, though. He’s one of the guys I was telling you about. He’s the one whose sister I write to. He’s a pretty damn nice guy. Thinking about it, when I get back out of here is going to Wyoming and seeing him. He said it’s pretty nice if we all can get back together out there. I told him I’m planning on coming out there as soon as possible. I wish you can meet him, ma. I think you'd really like him. He’s a really nice guy.

I never did receive your other two packages you sent me; the ones with my dress greens, my clothes, and other stuff. They never got here. This other one beat it. Maybe they probably got lost or something like that, no big problem. I didn’t pay for the Army uniform, no way, just the taxes. That’s another thing I wanted to ask you, did you file my income tax? They state since you’re in the Army, you have six months prior of ETSing out of the Army to pay -- to file your income tax, so I guess I really have no sweat.

Have you received the one from Inland Construction yet? I want to know how much I made last year so if you get a chance, jot it down on a piece of paper and send it to me. I know it wasn’t much because I didn’t work very much but about a month, not very much money in one month.

So you’re not working no more; I bet you like that. Now you can stick around the house, fool around with your garden since spring is coming around the corner. You told me in your letter yesterday that your tulips were coming up. That’s pretty strange. It’s the middle of February, tulips coming up? I can’t believe it.

Three more days and it’s payday here for us. We’re planning on buying us a TV set with our money. We might be billed for the rest of the month. At least we'll have something to watch instead of listen to the tape recorder all the time, trying to wind around with a movie.

Right now, they're keeping us pretty busy with these alerts and all this stuff like that there. Other than that, we have no complaints.

You asked about the chow once before. Well, that’s another question. It is pretty bad. Sometimes you just waste your time going up there to eat. We did have hot water for a while in the shower, but now we don’t have that nomore either unless you go up during day when it’s pretty hot. Otherwise, at night, it’s all cold water, which you don’t mind, as long as you get cleaned. This place here is really dusty and filthy. I don’t care what -- how soon you take a shower, you come back, and you could wipe dirt right off you. It’s just the way it is. Nothing you could do about it.

And another thing, Vietnam isn’t like the way they use to stimulate it in the news. It’s not half as bad as that; it’s just bad. The Army makes a big story out of everything over here.

On this tape, it might be a little short because there ain’t much you can say around here to cover 1,800 feet of tape. But the thing I wanted to ask you, like this buddy of mine just came up with ideas; when you do make me a tape and send it back with all this talking on it, catch the weather or the news or something on television on it. It definitely would be strange to hear something like that way over here because you just don’t hear nothing that good back here.

So, how’s the weather been back there? Probably the snow and all that starting to melt. I wish we had a little snow over here. It sure will kill a lot of these bugs and make a lot of us feel a lot better. Of course, a lot of people here it doesn’t bother them, but at nights since you pull guard around here and it gets cold, you wish you had your field jacket out there because it gets cold. I know it’s going to be hard for me to get used to it when I get back in the world, but I ain’t going to complain once I get back, I’m going to take it. I'm going to ask Inland [Construction] when I get back to work to put me on an inside job for the winter because I don’t think I'll be able to hack that first winter out there. I’ll give it a try if he can't do nothing for me. The most I could do is just freeze to death out there.

I also have that cross that I was telling you about papa-san [sounds like] made for me. It’s really beautiful. I wish I could get it home to you in a way but I’m sort of leery sending it home. I’m afraid it may get damaged or something. I just -- you just couldn’t buy it. I think back in the world, it costs anywhere from $50 to maybe $60, if not more. It’s all carved out of wood. Even Jesus Christ is carved out of a hunk of 4x4. He has all the actual bruises, cuts, blood stains, the whole works on it. It’s really nice; you won’t be able to believe it until you see it.

My buddy Bud over here, he’s got one, too. The first one he got, I told papa-san to make it to me earlier and never did got around to it. He kept pestering papa-san and finally he give it to him. This one here, papa-san wanted boocoo money for, which means a whole lot of money. All I gave him was a carton of cigarettes so far. He don’t need much more. He’ll probably take those cigarettes out there and sell them for maybe 80 or 90 cents of pack. He’ll make a hell of a lot more money than what I paid for on what he can get.

All these people talk about around here -- they keep saying a lot of VC in Bien Hoa, Bien Hoa. Well, as far as we know, we haven’t had no trouble from Bien Hoa; it’s always been in the back of us or towards the barricade area in that. Of course Bien Hoa is only a few miles away from us like I told you this before. I don’t know about Saigon, what kind of trouble Saigon has had. We haven’t heard nothing about it. Maybe back in the world, they give a little news report on it in that.

Saigon isn’t very pretty as a lot of people say it is. I have been all over a lot of parts of Saigon and it’s not very nice. It reminds you of the slums back in Chicago; it’s all that reminds you of. The docks are kind of pretty in a way but that’s about it. The water isn’t too clear; it’s dirty. People run all over. That's another thing that’s going to be hard to get used to, is driving back home. Over here, you don’t drive still, you just go like a bat out of hell through all them places. And those people, regardless any age they’re on a motorcycle out here. And when you’re in one of these Army vehicles, you just don’t have time trying to stop for them. Luckily, we never hit anybody, but they tell you once you get in those towns like that, go -- just don’t drive too slow, drive fast enough to get the hell out of there if anything happens.

But I’ve never seen so many people and the crazy things they do. They'll just start out in front of you, walk right in front of you, do anything they please like they own everything here. Of course, it is their country, but still it doesn’t give them the right to walk in front of your vehicle like this, but they do it. I have pictures, of some of Saigon but not too many. I have pictures of the U.S. embassy. That is a pretty looking building from the outside. I never was inside up to see what it was like.

Bien Hoa, that’s another beat-up place; nothing new about it neither. We’ve been to many places in these different places like Tan Son Nhut, Bien Hoa, Cholon, Tam Hai, Cholon, and all this different odd-and-end places like this here. These people here just live like animals, nothing for ‘em to live for, it looks like way they act. Kids running around with no clothes, dirty. But I have -- in many of these papa-sans' homes we’ve been to, none of them have yet had a mattress in them; they all sleep on wooden beds or floors. Buildings are all open. Anybody could walk in and do as they please.

In a way, it's hard. I don’t know why these people just don’t try and do something. They have one of the best carpenters, I think, in the world. They are really good and I can’t understand why they can’t build up their place better than what it is. I guess they're just -- their hopes and everything has just disgusted kind of this war in Vietnam. It’s like that paper clipping you sent us from that senator, whatever he was, that gave that report in Chicago American, the true facts he did state about the ARVNs. They will turn on you; 90 percent of the time, they will turn. I haven’t seen much of it, but I have heard of guys who have experienced it themselves, and I feel this is the truth. Something should be done about it.

The same thing like when we go on guard here, they know this is a combat zone and all this, but just asking you these questions and this -- you sit down, thinking and wondering if this is a beauty contest and a question-and-answer game you’re going to. It really doesn’t make much sense, but either does the Army make any sense.

You asked me if I was going to go on R&R so I can get you some souvenirs. Well, as far as I know, right now, I wasn’t planning on going on R&R. It really is a waste of money; $200, maybe $300 just to go for a matter of five to seven days. To me, I just want to stay here for the seven days and take all the harassment and that and save that little money I have coming in from the Army back home.

They told me I'll finally get promoted next month when I get to B Company. I sure hope it is soon; I really could use the money. I guess you’re really wondering what happened to me why I was taking that money out. Well, it was like this here. It was New Year’s Eve, we had a little bit of drink and everybody else was shooting their weapons, so I just decided I was going out there and shoot mine, too. Well, I was one of the ones that got caught doing it right outside the perimeter. Nothing would have happened to me from the CO but this officer, he says he was a real bastard, turned me in. He says he wouldn’t have done a thing because he was doing the same thing but you know how the Army is. There is always someone trying to kiss another one’s ass so he can get another stripe or another bar to put on his shoulders. It’s all this place is made out of.

Well, for amusement we've been having doing a little lately, the last three or four days before we went on alert was playing volleyball. It sure felt good to play it. I like it in a way; I ain’t too good at it but still it kills the monotonous. We have a pool table now, too. They're fixing up the day room. I had a few of my papa-sans in there working. They wanted me to go in there and work, and I told them no stripe, no work. So they never set on to me, and I had my papa-san go.

Our buddy over here, Bud, he’s U.S. too, he’ll have his full time in the Army when he gets out of here. He came to Vietnam after I did, and yet he’s beat be home by 23 days. Man, that is something else. He came and make Spec-5, and he’s got already about 10 months of Spec-4. That’s how bad this company is. And just about the whole company is Spec-5, but since we’re the lowest ranking guys, section that is, that we just can’t get promoted because we have no officers to back us. Nobody wants to back the utility section. It's just something that no one wants to handle with then you got to fight with these S3 and stuff and S4. It’s just one big fight with one another here, that’s all that goes on.

I guess you’re wondering what our little building looks like. Well, it don’t look too much nothing; it just got four sides on it, our weapons hanging on one wall. We have a little refrigerator, three beds on the back wall, three wooden cabinets where we keep all our clothes at, two fans hanging up from the ceiling and two little -- three little windows in the thing and a door and a screen door, just a little shack is all it is, made out of plywood and masonite. We got a little table in there.

Bud got kind of mad today, and he cleaned the hell out of it today. It looks real damn good. We cleaned the floor up. The other guy, he just didn’t feel like getting about doing it. He went on guard for the first time in five months, but he made one mistake to volunteer and to go out to 62nd last night where we were at the night before because now, they're probably going to put him on guard rest, and I know he's going to hate guard mount as much we do. I’ll have guard again the 27th. Every four days we're supposed to get it, but I don’t mind. I’m going to keep asking to go back out there; there's no harassment out there. Over here, on our perimeter, you got to worry about all these officers coming around all night long asking you silly questions and all that stuff like that. Out there, they don’t bother you at all. They treat you like a man out there, not like they do over here.

A buddy of mine was telling me that he was pinned down for three hours out there that night when he was out with the colonel. He said the colonel was just like another man; he’s just there with them. He said he like the man quite a bit.

Two men got killed, one from our company. I think I knew the one that got killed. The only reason he died is because no one came to get him. He laid in a bunker for two hours and the way it seems that I was told he bled to death there. It’s a shame that they won’t do things to help somebody over here until it’s too late. But that’s the way the Army is. They're never ready for nothing.

Another thing, have Aunt Helen write Ronnie and have him get me four packages of blousing rubbers thing, you know that we used to put around our leg to hold our pants bloused up. He’ll know what they are before he comes home from basic. We can’t get them over here, and they sure to hell beat it, sticking your pants in your boots. I think it will probably cost me maybe $4 or $5 for them, so would you please send them the money and then you can take it out -- the money that comes in the check from the Army here?

Next month should be last time they take any money out on me, I hope. I should have that 90-some dollars paid for by next month that they took out, and I’ll be able to get maybe $150, $160 a month put in there. If I get my Spec-4 pay, I’ll even get even more, so I should have a pretty good sum of money there when I get home from here. That’s why I don’t want to go on R&R so I’ll have money saved up when I get back to get that new car I was thinking of. I’ve seen the 1969 Chargers over here. I like the hell out of that. I might -- think I can get me one of them.

Also, you asked me, you said you want to learn how to drive. Well, that’s no big problem. I’ll teach you how to drive. Just the only thing I won’t teach you for a while after I get home until I get used to driving back in the city. I don’t want you to go around hot riding like we were doing over here. You're liable to get a million tickets. I know you could drive stick shift and that’s one of the cars I want to get again, a stick shift. I’m so used to driving them over here. And the one I had before, just like I never did care for automatic and that’s my last automatic I’ll ever get.

So dad still got this idea of getting a new car again, huh? Well, I hope he gets the one he likes this time. He’ll probably get another Rambler because he sure likes the Rambler products quite a bit, unless he wants to get a Plymouth or a Dodge. I really don’t know.

So how’s the kids doing? I hope all good. How’s Philip doing in school? Do you still give him a lot of hell or he's finally simmering down, getting himself some good grades for a change? He was doing pretty good there for a while when I was in California. I hope he’s doing just as good now. Unless he made the honor roll, you never did say if he did or didn’t. I hope he does do it and shows someone he’s not a dummy, at least he ain't. How are Paul and Billy doing in high school? Billy still the big Casanova or has Paulie taken over his place now? I know one of them sure has got a lot of girlfriends when I was over there.

I get mail every so often. Mail comes pretty slow over here now. The only one I’ve been getting mail from lately is you, Aunt Helen, and a letter now and then from Sonny. I got one from Maryann Novakovich – well, Rehm – she’s married now, and Auntie Annie’s daughter. I got one from her, too. I haven’t heard nothing from Aunt Katie yet.

My buddy over here is looking for his axles for his car; he only found one. He’s looking all over the instructions to see if there are supposed to be two or more some different type of deal. It looks like it’s going to be a pretty nice looking car when he’s done with it. He said he'll probably all -- he'll finish just the engine because that's all he ever built, it's just the engines.

He’s been married now three years and he spent all three years in the service just about. This will be a second wedding anniversary in the service for him. It’s a shame, though. He’s U.S. and he’s proud of it just like me. He’s got the same attitude about the Army, no different. He’s got a cute little wife, too. She is always sending him tapes, that’s all he -- always talks to, is through a tape. That’s what I’m going to start doing too, is talking to you through a tape. I know I don’t have that much to say but still it beats writing.

Well, you'll probably hear a bulldozer or something coming down the road here in the background. I guess that’s what it is. We got the door closed in here so to stay cool. I couldn’t think of anything else to be coming down here. Either a 10-ton tractor and trailer or something will be down here that makes a lot of noise, but other than that nothing much ever comes around here.

I have been learning my Vietnamese pretty good. It’s going to be something to get back home and try not to speak it. Like I already slipped up a few times in this tape, really saying boocoo and all the stuff like that there. It’s just like when you were trying to teach me how to speak Croatian in that. Well, I can’t count in Croatian, but I can count in Vietnamese pretty damn good. I can count up to 999 but I still can’t count to a thousand. I really don’t want to learn to count that far because I really don’t need to know more than what I do know. But it pays to know a little bit so you can talk to these people and get the work out of them and get yourself out of a lot of work. That’s what we do with them.

They like me and this other guy real good, so now and then, we give them a can of beer. They really appreciate it quite a bit. So, me and him, we’re planning before we leave here, if we do, is to throw a little party for these papa-sans we have working here, get them some -- get some steaks, trade some stuff off for some steaks and get some beer and some pop and that stuff and throw them a little party. Something they’ve never really seen before is to have good chow and stuff like that there. But they have a lot of respect for you in a way. They’ll do things for you which other people won’t.

We have this one who used to be a girl from this guy that went home. She’s 32 years old. She’ll do anything for us. She tailors my fatigues for me. The tailor shop, in order to tailor them costs you about a dollar a pair. She took eight pairs home for me and did them all for nothing. They treat you pretty good once you treat them pretty good. They just like anybody else remember when you do something to bother them.

They like to call me mập which in Vietnamese means fat or heavy. Ever since one day mama-san, the one we have working for, she is a pretty old woman, small, she’s really tiny. These papa-sans were building a frame for a sign and had a hard time getting it with a hammer, and I just got at it and hit it a few times with the heel on my boot. The first thing mama-san said was boocoo mập, which means a lot of weight or fat. I got me a little bit of a gut here but now, since we haven’t been doing much drinking [indiscernible] and all that, I’m starting to lose it. Well, I'm going to try and lose it before I come home anyway. I don’t want anybody to be laughing at me with a big gut. They say you get skinny in Vietnam, that’s a big lie because I sure ain’t getting skinny by no long shot.

-- never did it before and get sent to it when they're too old or getting ready to settle down to get involved in it. Oh well, that’s life in the long run.

No, Stash -- I haven’t received Stasha’s letter yet. I guess I might, maybe tonight or tomorrow sometime. I sure hope to hear from him. It has been possibly maybe two weeks, two-and-a-half weeks since I last -- well, that was the last time I wrote to him and I haven’t heard from him since.

This week, so far, we haven’t had much time to do anything other than trying to catch some sleep if possible. With all these practice alerts and the real things now coming up, just impossible trying to sit down and write. And during Tết, there was no papa-sans here and mama-sans, so we had to do all the work ourselves, full KP, the whole bit. I didn’t care for it at all. I really hated it, especially when I had KP one day and guard the next day then a few days later had CQ running and again guard. This place here just picks on the same four guys.

My buddy over here, he had staff duty/runner one night; he had guard the next time. I’m telling you he was tired, he had no sleep that night and went out on guard and then we had alert the next day. He didn’t even get -- he got his half-day sleep just like I did. Usually, when he has guard, I have CQ/runner.

Finally, we had guard together because he volunteered to take another guy’s place because this guy was going home in three days and they sent him out doing guard which is very foolish. His lieutenant found out about it and he said, what’s that man doing out there in the first place? So he volunteered to take his place. I was a little bit mad at him for him going out there since he’s married and not single, but you can tell him nothing. He’s just like the rest of us, wants to get –- see a little bit of the action like anybody else does. You really can’t blame him.

Everybody wants to try it once to see what kind of a man they are and believe me, the first time you’re out there and something happens, you shake and you keep shaking after it because there's always -- the first time for everything there. This isn’t my first time as you already know. I have been in trouble with it, but still I shook enough when the stuff was happening out there, but I still didn’t do anything to let anyone else get hurt if it was possible to do it.

Right now in the background, you’ll probably hear a chopper flying over. They fly over here quite a bit. All day long, we have them coming over. That’s one of the best things we have over here in Vietnam, is the helicopter. Without it, I think Charlie would really put us in a bind, very bad bind.

I hope Joe never has to come over and put up with all this stuff over here. I hope he never has to go in the service period. But if he does, maybe he’ll be fortunate enough to stay in the States instead of doing all this stuff we’ve been doing over here.

Tell the kids as soon I get more stuff, I’ll send it to them. And as far as your souvenirs, I’ll give some guys a little money when they go in these different places for R&R to have me pick them up and I’ll send them home to you. I have a few friends now, I think they’re going to Tokyo, so maybe I’ll get a hold of them and have them pick something up. Other than that, I have no intentions of really leaving here to going out there, so I probably couldn’t get you nothing. I’ll try and get some different stuffs from Vietnam for you, though, but I know of one thing you will really like is this cross. I’ll have papa-san put his name on the back of it now but I’m going to have him put in there Vietnam, February 1969 when he made it. It will be something that no one would really believe was handmade. He carved it all by himself. It took him 20 days to do it and believe me, you wouldn’t believe it unless you see it. No one -- anybody else. That’s why I’m kind of leery sending it home through the mail. Maybe if I could find the right packing stuff for it, I might do it.

As far as the ring, like I was telling you before, I can’t send that through the mail. They won’t insure nothing over here to go home, so I might just hold on to it until I'm ready to come home. It’s sitting in my drawer right now and still in the same box I got it in, nothing different has happened to it, and it could stay there as far as I'm concerned about it.

Oh well, there’s not much more I can say for now. I guess I’ll just stop for a bit. Maybe later on tonight if I get a letter from you, I could finish the tape to say something on the letter. So I guess I’ll stop for now. Until later, bye.

Well, here it is, 5:30 at night. I fell a sleep for a bit. I ain't received no mail from none of you back home except from Sandy, Sonny, and Auntie Helen. I told you I wrote her a letter. She stated in her letter that she finally received one of mine. She says Ronnie is doing pretty good and should be coming home very shortly which is very nice. I remember her saying something Uncle Mike hurt his back before. So far, she had said nothing in this letter. He must be feeling pretty good. She also said Ronnie doesn’t mind basic too much or maybe they have changed it a bit since I've been there. I sure hope so. Well, no word if he’s ever going to come over here or not. She hasn’t stated anything in her letters about it. Maybe he won’t have to come. I sure hope he won’t have to come to this hole because this is exactly what it is.

Sandy told me that she might have a friend of hers or a cousin, whatever it was, built them a home in Cal City right off of Yates, must not be too far from us. That will be pretty nice to have them living in the same neighborhood as you do.

Nothing too much has ever happened around here other than just what I have said. We’re waiting for our buddy to come in; he should be coming in about 6:00 or 6:30 at the latest. Chow wasn’t too good tonight. We had beef, mashed potatoes, and some other stuff, and juice, and some cherry pie. The beef was kind of tough as usual, so I didn’t eat too much of that. The mashed potatoes weren’t too bad. I thought I had to eat something.

Back over the hooch right now - another name for the house - Bud has finally got his car all put together. It looks pretty mean. It’s got a big engine in it. It’s all white. He don’t want to paint it; he is going to keep it as a white car. He’s going to keep a spare tire in the engines he said just for the hell of it. He said his trunk won’t open at the moment. I want him to say a few words back to you but he won’t talk. He’s trying to keep his voice real quiet as it is now. Maybe I’ll bring him back with me someday if he wants to come out over and visit me. I might get him around to doing it. I don’t know. He hasn’t cared too much for the city. He’s more or less a country boy than anything. I don’t blame him. In a way, the city is pretty crowded unlike the way he’s set up. It’s pretty nice that way.

His wife is a teacher which is pretty good, too. She doesn’t mind teaching but he said it’s quite a ways to travel to go back and forth to school. I don’t know exactly where she teaches at but I know it’s in Wyoming. That’s where he’s from, Wyoming. His sister is from Nebraska, Platte Center Nebraska. Maybe Martha might know where it’s at. It is spelled P-L-A-T-T-E C-E-N-T-E-R, Nebraska. I believe she'd know where because she is originally from Nebraska herself or her brothers. I don’t know how far it is from Omaha right offhand. I’d have to ask Bud where it’s farthest from. He says it’s 100 miles from Omaha-Nebraska so maybe Martha might have heard of the place. I really don’t know. Let me know if she did or didn’t.

Well, how’s everything tonight? I hope pretty good. I got just about all the tape used up now but it sure takes a lot of talking to get it all used up here. Well, I guess we’re just going to stick around the place tonight and don’t do much. I plan on going to bed a bit earlier tonight because 5:00 comes around off early. Bud over here, he’s got KP tomorrow morning and said I should have it probably the next day or the day after since I’ll probably have guard at 27th so I won’t have it that day. I’ll probably have it next day. Oh well, that’s the way the Army is around here, always duty, duty, duty.

Well, our place smells a lot cleaner now, and it looks a hell a lot nicer since we washed the floors down and put some mothballs in the corners there. His wife sent us some mothballs too, so we’re pretty well set up now. All we’re doing is waiting to leave this place, which I hope is very shortly.

I guess tomorrow I’ll try to get down to post office so I can mail that package and get it out of here as fast as possible before I leave and won’t have a chance to get to it. I plan on taking my tape recorder in tomorrow too and have it all cleaned up. It gets pretty dirty around here. This country is so damn dusty; I don’t know what the hell. You can go out of your mind if you lived here and tried to clean around here as bad as you do. Don’t pay because all you do is you can dust for five minutes, and five minutes later it's right back the same damn way, dirty.

I’ll be glad when I leave here in 214 more days and believe me it feels good to get it short. You see all these new recruits coming in, it’s the first thing you say to them, short, which is a term everybody over here in Vietnam uses one time or another. A lot of guys say to you they're short but they go back, they got months serving the States, so in the long run usually ours are shorter than them. One guy used to say to us he’s short but he’s got 17 months of doing the States, so he changed his mind. He’s from Illinois; he’s going to Fort Campbell, Kentucky after he leaves here. He’s a pretty nice kid, though. Of course, he made a mistake like a lot of these other guys do, go RA all the way. It doesn’t make much difference; you're still headed in Vietnam. So just face it, it used to be a two-year [indiscernible] you stand a better chance of staying out of here.

Our new CO, he’s Hawaiian. He’s name is Gustav Tashima [phonetic]. We call him Tashimoto; he ain’t worth much nothing; he’s really a gung-ho animal if you all ask us. We caught him one night wandering around back here. He didn’t know what the hell to do, but he had an M-14 on him with a flashlight on the other, and I had a carbine on the back of him. We didn’t know who it was at first, but that’s the safest way to be since we've been having a lot of trouble back here with fires. So they told us to just stop and you don’t belong down there and that’s just about we've been doing.

So far, there hasn't been any more trouble down here other than trouble we had in the beginning. Lately, nothing much has been going on. It’s been pretty quiet all around us, except for Saturday night and Sunday night. I don’t know what happened out there last night. We haven’t heard anything from this guy yet. He should be coming in very shortly. He’s from Missouri, Steele City, Missouri. He’s a pretty nice little guy at times. Usually, when he gets drunk, he gets a little bit out of hand but other than that, he’s all right. He is just like the rest of us, got to have our days.

Does Joe ever go to work in construction or is he still working for Paul? He probably is still working for Paul knowing him. I don’t know about him. I wish he'd get in there and be a machinist like he planned on doing. It would be a hell a lot better for him to make his money, have himself more security. I guess you can’t tell everybody what the hell to do, what to do after they get out of school. Of course, he would be a good machinist if he just take it up instead of playing around in these body shops and construction because he knows his work. I hate to see him put it to waste since the way they're asking for many machinists around here. So tell him I said for him to get out there and get a job. Because Tommy, Annie’s husband, remember, he says he’d get him a job anytime he’s ready for it, so he better get his ass in high gear and get over and see Tommy so he can get himself a job where it's inside instead of working outside for the winter and all that bad weather.

I’m really running out of things to say over here because 900 feet is sure is a lot of talking, that’s 45 minutes worth and not a little bit more. I guess you're wondering how big these cockroaches get over here. Well, some of them we've seen been about two inches long, anywhere from a half inch or a little wider. They sure are ugly looking things. They got some weird looking bugs over here, some of the things you’d never believe we had back in the world but they sure got them over here. You name it, they got it over here.

Auntie Helen was teasing us about putting matchboxes on them and let them pull us around. It’s pretty funny, though, if you ask me. She always comes up with something funny like she says, don’t trust Charlie and stuff like that there. Well, anybody knows not to trust Charlie. Of course, we know, like anybody else know, there you are working on a post but first you got to prove that it is them. That’s one of the hardest thing to do, is trying to prove it around here because if you can’t catch them doing something suspicious, there ain’t no way you can prove he is a VC. You have the feeling but yet, that’s not enough to prove it.

The papa-sans we got working for us is hard to determine what they are. It seemed like they're all pretty straight. We had one papa-san, we gave him some old clothes and that when he left the gate, he came back the next day and said the VC got it and took it all away from him when he went outside the gate, so it’s hard to say what they’re saying. I can understand some Vietnamese but not too much of it. Old Bud says if I don’t watch myself get back in the world, they'd be using it quite a bit. I sure hope not. Of course, it won’t hurt to know a little bit about it. At least, no one can say you don’t know a foreign language.

They claim it's a very easy language to learn, but I doubt it very much. It’s not too easy because one word could be -- with different accents can mean three different things. It's the same thing like yay; yay means what in Vietnamese. You know what it means back home. It’s all different. They got things back home; in English it means one thing, and over here it means another thing. So it’s hard to determine anything around here with their language, especially when you hear them talking. I could even tell time in their language except for the half hours. I don’t know how to say like 4:30 or 3:30 or something like that. I just know how to say like 12:00, 1:00, 2:00, 3:00 and so on -- forth.

Oh well, the tape is getting a little bit shorter now so maybe I’ll be able to say goodbye in a little bit. I hope you enjoy this tape. I know it probably doesn’t sound like me which is nothing unusual around here, not to sound like yourself especially the tape recording never sound like. I hope you just make one back and send it to me. This one here I should be able to send home for nothing. I’m pretty sure that anything five inches and under goes back free because I was trying to send these big ones home, this 1,800-foot reels I have. They said no, I have to pay to send them, so I figured a whole [indiscernible] and buy some and just bring them back in the world with me, and me and Paul could make all kind of tapes.

Well, say hello to everybody back there. Julie and her little girl, say hello to, too. How about Carol down the block, did she ever get married yet? I haven’t heard anything from her. I wrote her a letter once, never heard a reply from her. I got a Christmas card from her, from her folks but other than that, I haven’t heard anything from her. I was just wondering how she was doing. She probably did get married to George unless they broke up again, could be more likely did happen but I hope not.

So Billy driving yet or is he still wandering around out there? I know Philip, he’s encouraging trying to do something around there, trying to get in a car. More or less likely for someone to take him someplace or he’s wondering around with somebody. I suppose he wants something from back here, too. Well, tell him there ain't much you can get out of here, maybe some stripes but none of them are colored. Very seldom you get a hold of any of them that are colored around here because they don’t wear them. It's usually just like the ones I sent home, black and green. That’s the natural colors over here in Vietnam, black and green.

Some of the countryside here looks pretty nice from a distance. When you get right up to it, it’s nothing but rice paddies. We went out to one place, it’s all there was, was rice paddies on one side, rubber plantations on the other, just open field and trees. Even the river ain’t clean at all. People bathe in it. I don’t know why they want to go and bathe in it for. It’s not worth it. It’s just as dirty, but they think it’s worth it.

Well, I guess I’m going to say goodbye for now; this tape is about to the end. So I hope all of you have enjoyed this tape very much, and I hope it made you make you feel 100 percent better hearing my voice since it’s been almost, well, it has been five months now since you last seen me or heard from me other than just writing. So I guess this will make you feel 100 percent better in a way.

Tell dad to take it easy and not to work too hard, and I’ll be seeing you all very shortly. Tell him we’re going to go out when I get back. We can go out and get drunk, one time me and him. And you ain’t going to have a word to say about it when I come back, unless you want to go along because me and him could do that and have a good talk about this funny war over here.

If you have any questions about what’s happening over here, I’ll try and tell you the best as possible. A lot of stuff, you know, you just don’t like to talk about or say things about because people just take it in the wrong sense of manner. There’s nothing really you could say about it other than just trying to say it in your own words. Like what happened that night, it was easier just to say it out on a tape than trying to write it because it will take a lot of writing paper in order to get it straight. But nothing really was too serious out here because they did handle it pretty well for what happened out there.

But me, nothing really happened to me out there. I was one of the fortunate ones to be safe. A lot of them weren’t too safe. Like they said, it was better the way they killed a lot of VC and we only lost a few guys which was very good for once that the statistics were pretty good. They weren’t lying saying United States lost this many and the enemy lost that many. We didn’t lose too many so far, but the VC have lost quite a bit, especially when the Minigun comes in; he definitely puts a lot of hurt on there.

So I guess I’ll close this tape for now. God bless you and take care all. Love Frank.

[End of file & transcript]

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PFC Frank A. Kowalczyk with HQ 46th Engineers Battalion, 20th Brigade at Long Binh Post, Vietnam, 1969. Courtesy Frank A. Kowalczyk.

"Right now in the background, you'll probably hear a chopper flying over" said Private First Class Frank A. Kowalczyk in a 1969 letter to his mother. Back home in Calumet City, Illinois, Mary C. Kowalczyk could hear the beat of the helicopter's blades and the sound of her son's voice recorded on an audio tape mailed from his station at Long Binh Post, Vietnam.

Vietnam War audio correspondence

PFC Kowalczyk regularly exchanged correspondence in audio format with his family during his 11 months and 20 days in Vietnam. One letter was recorded in several sessions in March 1969. In this audio letter he spoke about his impressions of the army, the war, the country and its people; accounts of his buddies; inquiries about the family; reminiscences about home; and thoughts of his future.

Sometimes Kowalczyk preferred the tape for ease of self expression:  ". . . Like what happened that night, it was easier just to say it out on a tape than trying to write it because it will take a lot of writing paper in order to get it straight."  Sometimes it was a chore to fill up the tape: "I'm really running out of things to say over here because 900 feet is sure is a lot of talking, that's 45 minutes worth and not a little bit more. I guess you're wondering how big these cockroaches get over here. . . ." Throughout, there are reminders that the medium provides a connection to home that is not possible with just pen and paper: ". . . When you do make me a tape and send it back with all this talking on it, catch the weather or the news or something on television on it. It definitely would be strange to hear something like that way over here because you just don't hear nothing that good back here."

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Manual for Akai M-9 reel-to-reel recorder used by PFC Kowalczyk. Courtesy Frank A. Kowalczyk

Mailing the tape was as easy as sending a letter or postcard. Free postage privileges for military personnel in designated zones included sending personal recordings. Kowalczyk's familiarity with the free mail regulations showed as he told his mother, "I'm pretty sure that anything five inches and under goes back free . . ." Such personal tapes were also eligible for shipping under the "space available military" (SAM) transportation program, which used commercial airlines to expedite mail to and from military personnel overseas.

Making this audio letter was also relatively easy for Kowalczyk. He owned his own reel-to-reel recorder, bought from another soldier while in Vietnam. For service members without their own recorders, the USO and American Red Cross centers provided recording stations in Vietnam and the Pacific. The "Voices from Home" program, run by the American Red Cross with material support from the 3M Corporation, set up recording sessions in communities to offer families the chance to record an audio letter in time for holiday mailing. "Voices from Home" letters were recorded on 3M's open reel tape brand "Living Letters," which was designed for mailing with their own shipping packaging and labels.

A World War II predecessor to programs like "Voices from Home" were recording booths used by soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to create personal messages on mailable phonograph albums. By the late 1960s, recording equipment had become more affordable and even portable. Newspaper columnists touted these attributes when advising the public on what to mail to service men and women in Vietnam. Practicality was one argument. The emotional appeal was another.

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Mailbox-shaped display case gives three simple instructions—record, address, mail—for 3M's Living Letters recording tapes.
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Mailbox-shaped display case proclaims "The pencil and paper of the electronic age!" for 3M's Scotch Brand Living Letters tapes.

Audio letters had a uniquely endearing quality that allowed one to hear family and friends after days or months apart. One father writing in to the "Dear Abby" column in 1967 characterized the exchange of audio letters: "Hearing Tom's voice on those tapes was the next best thing to having him home. And he said the tapes we sent him boosted his morale like nothing else." A 1967 Washington Post article reported: "And for the growing number of men who have tape recorders, tapes from home are ideal gifts. As one veteran said, 'The men play their tapes so often that we all have them memorized.'" Like a written letter, one can to return to the words again and again.

Learn more

Listen to a 2½ minute excerpt from PFC Frank A. Kowalczyk's audio letter

Listen to phonograph records with messages from World War II military personnel


  • "Dear Abby." Los Angeles Times. 30 Oct 1967. Page C4.
  • "In Vietnam, Postmen Popular." Washington Post. 10 Nov 1967. Page C5.
  • United States Post Office Department. Annual Report of the Postmaster General for the Fiscal Year ended June 30 1967. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1967.
  • United States Post Office Department. Postal Manual. Section 127.15. Issue 1022. 1967.

By Lynn Heidelbaugh

Additional Imagery

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Sales material for 3M's Scotch Brand Living Letters recording tapes.
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Reverse side of sales material.