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Life and Death in the Central Highlands

An American Sergeant in the Vietnam War, 1968-1970

James T. Gillam

Publication Year: 2010

In 1968 James T. Gillam was a poorly focused college student at Ohio University who was dismissed and then drafted into the Army. Unlike most African Americans who entered the Army then, he became a Sergeant and an instructor at the Fort McClellan Alabama School of Infantry. In September 1968 he joined the First Battalion, 22nd Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam. Within a month he transformed from an uncertain sergeant—who tried to avoid combat—to an aggressive soldier, killing his first enemy and planning and executing successful ambushes in the jungle. Gillam was a regular point man and occasional tunnel rat who fought below ground, an arena that few people knew about until after the war ended. By January 1970 he had earned a Combat Infantry Badge and been promoted to Staff Sergeant. Then Washington’s politics and military strategy took his battalion to the border of Cambodia. Search-and-destroy missions became longer and deadlier. From January to May his unit hunted and killed the enemy in a series of intense firefights, some of them in close combat. In those months Gillam was shot twice and struck by shrapnel twice. He became a savage, strangling a soldier in hand-to-hand combat inside a lightless tunnel. As his mid-summer date to return home approached, Gillam became fiercely determined to come home alive. The ultimate test of that determination came during the Cambodian invasion. On his last night in Cambodia, the enemy got inside the wire of the firebase, and the killing became close range and brutal. Gillam left the Army in June 1970, and within two weeks of his last encounter with death, he was once again a college student and destined to become a university professor. The nightmares and guilt about killing are gone, and so is the callous on his soul. Life and Death in the Central Highlands is a gripping, personal account of one soldier’s war in Vietnam.

Published by: University of North Texas Press

Series: North Texas Military Biography and Memoir Series

Half Title

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Title Page

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Corporal Edward H. Gillam

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p. iv-iv

This book is dedicated to his memory.


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

When Oliver Stone’s movie Platoon sent us scurrying for a foxhole in our local theaters, I invited a faculty friend, Professor Robert Driscoll, to walk point with me on this cinematic stroll into Stone’s Vietnam War. Bob had served in the Twenty-fifth Infantry Division and D in the III Corps area) as Stone. Both had been infantrymen. ...

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pp. xv-xx

This book is the product of all the pieces of the puzzle that I also an Associate Professor of Chinese history. This book is the four decades I have lived as a veteran with a story to tell. It is essentially a memoir dedicated to the men I served with in Vietnam and Cambodia. It is also a description of the stages by which ...

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Chapter 1. The Tet Offensive: Making Space for the Draft Class of 1968

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pp. 1-10

In every war, there are critical offensives and battles that redirect the course of the conflict. The Tet Mau Than, or Tet Offensive was a lot about Tet in January of 1991. At that time, I was back in was part of a delegation of Fulbright Scholars who were invited colonial Vietnamese history. An important part of that history is ...

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Chapter 2. Training the Draft Class of 1968

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pp. 11-37

In the winter and spring when the Tet Offensive unfolded, I was unarmed, and delirious from malaria and dysentery. A week later, a unit from the 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) found him and delivered him to the hospital ship USS Repose. It was February 1968 before had swallowed. At the time, I was in the Reserve Officers Train-...

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Chapter 3. Joining the Vietnam Class of 1969-70

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pp. 38-74

I started the process of joining the Vietnam Class of 1969–70 in Fort McClellan, Alabama, as an infantry instructor. There was a rest of us got a two-week leave. Then we boarded airplanes that a ghost for a year. I often thought about them in the same child-just keep telling myself, “Maybe something good will happen and ...

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Chapter 4. Operation Putnam Wildcat: November 1, 1969, to January 18, 1970

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pp. 75-112

In September 1969 when I heard of Ho Chi Minh’s death, I naively predicted that I would not go to Vietnam or, if I did go, I would be home for the holidays. Clearly, I had no understanding of the martyr effect on political movements or the barest appreciation of the strength of Vietnamese nationalism. So, I ended...

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Chapter 5. Operation Putnam Power: January 18 to February 7, 1970

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pp. 113-132

The 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry was the 2nd Brigade’s reaction force, so we got pulled in from the field in mid-January for a three-week assignment called Operation Putnam Power. We were picked up by choppers from a hastily cut landing zone and flown to LZ Stinger. We got a two-day stand down, during which we...

Photo page section

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pp. 133-144

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Chapter 6. Operations Hines and Putnam Paragon: February 16 to May 18, 1970

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pp. 145-194

From mid-January to the first week of February 1970, B Company was assigned to Operation Putnam Power. The objective was to find and destroy the NVA’s Base Area 226. As a unit, we failed. As an individual soldier, I saw and participated in the Vietnam...

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Chapter 7. Regional Politics, Diplomacy, and Military Preparations for Invasion: March 11 to May 18, 1970

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pp. 195-210

In the late winter and early spring of 1970, the Vietnam War intensified dramatically for the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Brigade. At the same time, complications in the political and diplomatic situation in Southeast Asia set the stage for the Cambodian invasion of 1970. Of course, they also raised the...

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Chapter 8. The Cambodian Invasion: May 7 to May 15, 1970

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pp. 211-227

The 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry lifted off from LZ Jackson Hole for Cambodia in the middle of the afternoon on May 7, 1970. Col. George Webb, the acting chief of staff for the II FORCEV, wrote a report on what we did there called, “The Commander’s...

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Chapter 9. Joining the Vietnam Veteran's Class of 1970

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pp. 228-254

It was midmorning on May 15 when the helicopters began to land at LZ Jood to withdraw the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry from Cambodia. Happily for the men of B Company, the usual policy of first men in, first men out of an LZ put second platoon...

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Chapter 10. Epilogue

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pp. 255-260

A week after I got home, Peg and Gene Mullen, the parents of Michael Mullen, came to my family’s home. I had trained with Mike at the NCO Academy and shared a room with him in the barracks at Fort McClellan in the summer before we went to...

Appendix. 2nd Platoon, B Company, First Battalion, 22nd Infantry: Where Are They Now?

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pp. 261-266


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pp. 267-282

Glossary of Terms

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pp. 283-286


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pp. 287-290


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pp. 291-295

E-ISBN-13: 9781574413342
Print-ISBN-13: 9781574412925

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 23 b&w illus., 7 maps
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: North Texas Military Biography and Memoir Series

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Subject Headings

  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Personal narratives, American.
  • Gillam, James T.
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Campaigns -- Vietnam -- Central Highlands.
  • Central Highlands (Vietnam) -- History.
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Regimental histories.
  • United States. Army. Infantry Regiment, 22nd. Battalion, 1st -- History.
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