Ed Blanco was born in Manhattan in 1948 and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. At age 19, surrounded by young men in his community who were willingly entering the draft, it was only natural for Blanco to volunteer for service as well. Serving two years in the U.S. Army with the 101st Airborne, Blanco witnessed the bloody Tet Offensive and was later awarded the Purple Heart after a grenade injury. During his service, Blanco participated in the United States’ Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) initiative and had extensive contact with the Vietnamese people. In 1969, Blanco was honorably discharged from the army. Twenty years later, he returned to Phan Tiet, one of the first Americans servicemen to do so, on a “healing journey” to revisit some of the places where he served during the war.
Ed Blanco, interview by Soliman Aboutaam, Sumin Chen, James Kunz, Aisha Martino. July, 19 2017, The Vietnam War Oral History Project, New-York Historical Society, New York, New York.
This clip highlights Ed Blanco’s reasons for enlisting in the Vietnam War. He explains that going to war was about being active in his community because it was so common for people in his neighborhood, including his friends and family, to enlist. However, Blanco explains that opinions changed about the war back home due to the deaths of soldiers and the return of wounded men to his community.
Ed Blanco: At that point nobody from the neighborhood had come back in a body bag or had been wounded, so it wasn’t really felt yet, and a lot of the guys were in the service back then. Everybody — you know, because of the draft. So most of my friends were already in the service, and it was sort of a natural progression for the guys to go into the service, at least in my neighborhood. So she just thought it was kind of ordinary. So she wasn’t worried. My mother was worried. My mother had — her brother was in WWII. My father was in WWII, so she had a different perspective on this than my sister. But like I said, when I got back my sister was — it was confusing for my mother because she was — she had become politically active. She was like an anti-war protestor, and my mother would say to her, “But what about, you know, your brother? He’s over there, and you got to support the troops.” And she would say, “I am supporting the troops. I’m trying to get them home.” So you know, that’s the situation at home at the time.
This happened while I was already gone. She — you know. What happened was some of our friends started coming home wounded, and a very close friend was killed while I was there, so that just changed everything. We had a softball team called The Conquerors. We lived in Brooklyn Projects called Sumner Avenue Housing, and there was a softball field right behind my building, and we spent all our time there, and we had a team called the conquerors. So I was the youngest of the group. Most of them were a year or two older than me, so they started going into the service first. I was one of the last to go. But all The Conquerors, every guy on that softball team, went into the service, everything single one of them. Two were wounded and one was killed. So you know, that started to happen after — the casualties started to happen after I was already in.
I wanted to go to jump school to Airborne for two reasons. One reason was you get extra pay. You get $55 a month more, and that was a lot of money back then, $55 more a month for being in the Airborne unit. And the other reason was I wanted, like I said, I wanted to go to Vietnam, and I didn’t want to go with a regular infantry unit full of — I changed my mind about this, back then I called them reluctant draftees who were not — the spirit wasn’t there. So I was going to join the Marines, but then I realized I didn’t want to be in the service for four years. At the time, you needed to enlist for four years in the Marines, but I thought the Airborne divisions were just as good as the Marines. They had the spirit, and so I decided that’s what I would do and serve only two years. So I volunteered for the draft, two years, then I volunteered for Airborne.
In this part of the interview, Ed Blanco discusses specific moments of racism he experienced during his military training in South Carolina.
Ed Blanco: I remember one time we were going to get — there’s a few, but let me pick one that’s kind of maybe a little humorous, if you can call it humorous. I was hanging out with a lot of Puerto Ricans. I’m Puerto Rican. I was hanging out with some Puerto Rican guys, and they’re in all colors, you know. They were — they’re dark and light. Like me, I’m light. Some of them are darker. So we were hanging out, and we said, “Let’s stay in town. Instead of going back to the base let’s stay in town.” So I remember the conversation came up. We were real plain about it. “What about Jose? Jose’s dark.” We’re just talking about it. We’re in the South, and Jose was saying, “OK look, this is what we’ll do.” And it was like so natural it was amazing that — among ourselves we were all — they were from Puerto Rico in New York, Puerto Ricans, so it was among ourselves. And I remember Jose said — he said, “You and you,” he picked me and another light skinned Puerto Rican. He said, “You guys go to the front and you tell them we want a room. The rest of us will hide, and then when you get the room we’ll sneak in.” And that’s what we did. We sneak in, and it was — what do they call it? A breakfast, what is it?
Aisha Martino: A bed and breakfast?
Ed Blanco: Bed and breakfast, thank you. It was a bed and breakfast, and the woman, when I knocked with my friend, and I knocked, she said to me — she looked at us, and she said, “We can’t have any — you’re not having anybody else here, right?” And I said no. And she said, “We can’t have any colored here.” She said, “It’s not me, you understand. It’s my guest.” That’s what she said. And we said, “No, no, we’re not going to do that.” So she gave us the room, and then after a while we snuck the other guys in, and then in the morning we said screw it. We’re leaving now, so we all came down from the room, all colors, and we said hello to the people having breakfast, (laughter), and we left. That was funny. I actually saw things that were a little uglier than that. I saw once in a cafeteria this white guy was eating, and the black guy was coming alongside him, and we used to have name — tags, you know, of our names here, right, Rivera, Smith, Jones, so — and in fact, that’s how we referred to each other most of the time rather than the first names. So I was always Blanco, Blanco. So anyway, whatever the name was, Jones, but it happened right next to me. So the black guy said to the white guy, “Look, we have the same name. We have the same name.” And the white guy turned to him and said, “That just means your granddaddy was a slave on my granddaddy’s plantation.” Shit like that, that’s pretty, pretty nasty. And the black guy was like — he was trying to be friendly, you know, “Hey, we got the same name.” And he just walked away, and I thought that was pretty ugly. I thought that was pretty ugly. But yeah, I saw some of that, but on the whole a lot of guys got along, but there’s always an element of that, you know. But again, I’m telling you, I don’t know if everybody would agree with me, but I think — from my unit — but I think when we were over there we had to get along. We were in the same halls. I mean, I was called names too, but I just let that — it doesn’t bother me as much, you know. I had one guy — OK, so one guy said to me — when he found out I was Puerto Rican — his attitude changed towards me I thought. I thought. Even though we had been getting along, but that was — I don’t want to make it out like it was everybody. I really don’t because I got a lot of white friends in my unit that I get along with fine. We still go to reunions, and they’re cool guys. But there was always some of that, some element of racism.
In this excerpt, Ed Blanco explains his return home to civilian life. He also recounts how, during a mission in Vietnam, he developed a bond with Vietnamese villagers.
Ed Blanco: I called her up, and I told her I’m coming. I’m in California, and my flight arrives at such and such a time. And I said, “I don’t want to — ” she said she wanted to throw me a party. And I said no party. I don’t want a party. Give me a couple of days. Give me a couple of days, and then we can have a party. And so when I get — when my friends pick me up at the airport, and as we’re driving to — I lived in the Projects. We lived on the second floor. She had hung out, she had hung out a huge American flag from the second floor window. She was — one of her favorite movies was Gone with the Wind, and one of the songs in there, When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, she had the speakers out the window. She’s blowing — she’s playing that music. She had neighbors lined up, and everybody was greeting me like I was a returning war hero or something. So I had a nice homecoming, and because all my friends were in Vietnam, and all their families, and it wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t. It was good.
Soliman Aboutaam: You wrote that you returned to Vietnam twenty years –
EB: Yeah, 1989, right.
SA: And you were one of the first –
EB: That’s what they told me.
SA: Right, and why? Why did you want to come back…?
EB: I know, yeah, OK. This is — I’m going to not get into too much detail because it’s a difficult memory, but I keep talking about civilians. There were some civilians killed that day, and I got — I was in the house with the survivors, and because we were kind of pinned down in that house I was with them for all the — I don’t know, from 1:00 to 4:00, something like that. And I was just taking care of them. I was giving them water. I offered them my food. One of the women said she wanted the rice that was — they had been cooking. It was lunchtime, and they had a stove with rice in it, and she said she wanted rice. Give her the rice. I bandaged up the people that could still be — that were still alive, and it was a traumatic thing, you know. I say that word now. Back then it was just the war. But I thought about it so much and about them and what happened to them. OK, I got to tell you this part. So I was pinned down all day. We’re fighting, and finally they say we got to pull back. We got to pull back. We can’t break through. We’re just going to call in airstrikes and just flatten everything in front of us. We’re just going to call in airstrikes, artillery. We’re just going to hammer them. But we got to pull back because sometimes rounds fall short or the aircraft drops the bomb in the wrong place, so in order — for safety reasons we have to pull back a certain distance. But I said, “These people are here. They’re in the house. I got to get them out.” So I went to the lady, and I was trying to tell her we got to go. She didn’t understand what I was saying, but she was so scared. She just like, she didn’t want anything to do with me. She says no. She’s staying right there. So the sergeant says, “We got to go. We got to go.” I said alright, so we left. And then they bombed the area, but they didn’t bomb that house. That house survived, so when I came back to the house –later we came back through, we pushed through – they weren’t there. The survivors weren’t there. There were others that were, you know, had been killed. So I wondered what happened to her and her little boy that was with her, and I went back to find them, believe it or not. It’s crazy, and just to see what happened to them. I said — they were just with me. They were with me. I went back to find them. So I found out that the woman, her name was Sao Tri, the family was Sao Tri, I don’t really know exactly what her name was. The family was Sao Tri. It’s a long story how I found them too because it took a lot of research, and I was going down to Washington a lot to the archives, and finally I found a map, and we got coordinates, and I was able to find them. So the interpreter that I had, she told me — she talked to the people in the village, and she said the woman had died. The woman had died, and she said she didn’t know where the boy — the boy had lived, but they didn’t know where he was. And I videotaped that. I have that on videotape.
In this clip, Ed Blanco discusses the grey areas of conflict, reflecting on issues of morality, violence, and his own time recuperating in the hospital from a grenade injury.
Ed Blanco: What did I learn? I learned something that, it’s an old expression, but it really hit home, that good people are not always good, and bad people are not always bad, that I could see a guy, and I think he’s a piece of shit, and I can see him do something courageous. And you know, so it’s complicated. That’s kind of what I learned. Things are complicated. They’re not black and white. That’s one lesson I learned. Also, I was also, I also made a distinction between physical courage and moral courage. That came clear to me. Somebody could be very brave in battle, and yet be, you know, corrupt in something else, steal. So there’s this dichotomy, this thing. I just accepted it. People are complicated…
That’s the other thing. People don’t know. You know, it’s dangerous out there not just because the enemy’s shooting at you. You can get killed by friendly fire. You can get killed by a grenade going off. We had some of that. I remember one time I was — we were in the mountains, and B Company was over on our right, and kaboom, I hear this explosion. Then I hear yelling and moaning. Somebody had accidentally detonated a phosphor grenade, and that throws out this burning stuff, you know. It burns you. One of the guys got burned real bad, and he died. Shortround got killed by friendly fire. There was another guy that got killed by a grenade that went off one time. We were surrounded by armaments and weapons, and we’re 19 and 20 years old, and things happen, you know. And then, oh, and in the hospital there was this guy who, he lost his leg, and he said — I met him at the hospital — and eight other guys that were with him were killed from short rounds, artillery rounds, that came in short and hit the American positions instead of the enemy positions. So it’s dangerous out there not just because of enemy fire but because of all these other things that could happen.
So I come back from the hospital. I’ve been in the ward for 40 days, and I don’t have a tan, and I don’t look gruffy. I got a brand new uniform on. So I go to see the captain to tell him I want to volunteer to work with the Vietnamese, and he says, “No, we’re looking for combat veterans.” I said, “Oh, don’t let this fool you. I just came back from the hospital.” Of course, you know, I looked like I was just got off the plane from the USA because I rested for 40 days. It was good. They wired my mouth shut, but I have this gap over here, so I would have the orderly bring me beer, and he would put it under the bed for me, and I would drink it through a straw. And I had a scissor. I had to carry scissors in case I needed to throw up, and I need to cut the wire. So one time the nurse, she came over, and she found the beers underneath my bed. She gave me — she laid into me. She says, “Don’t you know you could throw up, and then you could drown in your vomit. It’ll be coming out of your teeth,” I mean “out of the wires.” She scared the hell out of me, but I kept sneaking the beers.
In this clip, Blanco shares his insights gained from the Vietnam War on the ambiguity of human morality and the internal divisions within America on participation in the Vietnam War.
Ed Blanco: When I went I was aware of it. When I — the week before I went into the army there was a huge rally by the UN. Martin Luther King was there. He spoke. The police estimated there was a hundred-thousand — over a hundred-thousand people there. And they were burning draft cards. The young guys were burning draft cards. And there was a lot of that all over the country. I was aware of it, but I just — and I wasn’t angry about it then. I just thought they were wrong. I was a believer. I thought they were wrong, and so I didn’t go to the rally or anything. The only thing that bothered me about rallies later wasn’t so much the rallies themselves. I understood they had a point of view. I got it. I didn’t like when they flew the NVA flag. I didn’t like when Jane Fonda went to North Vietnam. I thought that was crossing the line. I thought that was aiding and abetting the enemy. I didn’t like that, so when they — that pissed me off. That pissed me off, but other than that — my sister was one of them. I mean, you know. Some of my friends were part of that, so I understood, but I thought that that part, flying NVA flags and for Jane Fonda to go to North Vietnam and sit at an anti-aircraft weapon that shoots down American planes, a lot of Vietnam veterans haven’t forgiven her for that, you know. But my views have changed, and I understand. We probably made a mistake, yeah, going to Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist before he was a communist. He wanted to reunite his country, and he wanted to kick out the foreigners that were us. I understand that. I understand that. But I think we went there thinking we were stopping communism. So you know, it wasn’t that we were going to rob them of their resources or anything. And 58,000 guys died and some women too died for that cause.