By Nathan Baker
Elizabethton’s Danny McGinnis says he was another unfocused young man when he graduated high school, searching like many of his generation for purpose in a world that was rapidly changing.
He was originally rejected for service in the Navy in 1965 and told no other branch of the military would accept him because he suffered from asthma; but a year later he was on a bus to Knoxville with 52 other young men from Carter County to report for duty for the U.S. Army.
After basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia, McGinnis enrolled in Officer Candidate School at Fort Knox, Ky., where he received training on tanks.
“But that’s not what I wanted to do,” McGinnis said of the tank training. “By that time, the Army had become extremely desperate, and they had started some programs to promote people faster than they normally would have been. So I went to drill sergeant school without being an actual sergeant.”
After completing the course, he was relieved to be assigned to a basic training unit at Fort Knox, where he believed he would spend the remainder of his tour.
But Uncle Sam had different plans.
“We had two cycles of new recruits come through, and then at the end of the second one, we were informed that the old wooden barracks where we were staying would be razed and new barracks would be built,” he said. “Every person on staff was given new assignments — either Vietnam or Germany. That’s how I ended up going to Vietnam.”
In June of 1967, McGinnis arrived at his base camp in Phu Loi, a sprawling Army airfield approximately 25 miles north of Saigon.
He was assigned to the crew of an armored personnel carrier in the First Squadron of the Fourth Cavalry under the First Infantry Division, and because of his training was given a leadership role.
The group of 16 men, four each in tracked M113 armored vehicles, spent most of its time in the field conducting search-and-destroy missions and night patrols in the dense jungle and abusive tropical climate.
“The conditions were just miserable; they were horrid,” McGinnis said. “Not only did you
have to put up with the stifling heat, but you had to put up with the rain. During monsoon season it rained almost hourly, you could just about set your watch by it.”
Stuffed inside the thick aluminum hull of the APC with the four men were weeks worth of provisions, their weapons and ammunition.
McGinnis sat on top in a turret, behind a .50-caliber Browning machine gun. To the font, the driver stuck his head from a recessed hatch from inside the vehicle, and on either side of the rear were two soldiers, one with a .30-caliber machine gun and the other with an M79 grenade launcher.
Inside each APC was ammunition for all the weaponry, two shoulder-fired rockets, 20 pounds of plastic explosives, claymore mines and a roll of concertina razor wire.
“We were well-armed, that wasn’t the problem,” McGinnis said. “The problem was determining who the enemy was. During the daytime, the guy or woman passing by you in a village waving at you might be the one at night who’s shooting or dropping mortars at you.”