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Interview with Don Gover, May 1, 2008 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Don Gover, May 1, 2008
May 1, 2008
Interview with retired chaplain Don Gover.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Gover, Donald W. Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  5/1/2008 Series:  Military Chaplains Length  60 minutes


Zarbock: Good afternoon. My name is Paul Zarbock, I'm a staff person with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington's Randall Library. This is an interview with the Military Chaplains Oral History Project sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and the FedEx Corporation. Today is the 1st of May in the year 2008, and we're in Kansas City, Missouri. Good afternoon, sir.

Gover: Good afternoon.

Zarbock: And what is your name?

Gover: My name is Donald W. Gover, I live in Fort Worth, Texas, retired there from the chaplaincy. And back in my home town, from where I started.

Zarbock: When you say you're retired from the chaplaincy, what was your rank, sir?

Gover: My rank was full colonel, the chaplaincy calls it 06, or the military calls it 06. Because the lieutenant colonel and the colonel really are both called colonel, so my rank when I terminated my service was full colonel.

Zarbock: Chaplain, what individual or series of individuals or event or series of events led you into the ministry as your occupational category?

Gover: You could have asked me a lot of questions that are more difficult and I probably could have answered them. When I graduated from high school in 1954 in Fort Worth, Northside High School, I was planning to be an architect. And all my life I had been taken to church by mom and gone to church. And at that time most of my friends were in the local church, River Oaks Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. And after I graduated, I kiddingly say that one of my friends who became an architect told me that I was too stupid to be an architect, but I tell him that's not true. I could have done it. But there's something almost unexplainable about a series of events that I don't know that the lay person or someone else would appreciate. I had been active in church as a young person, in the youth groups, but not any more active than anyone else. And I just, one night, I was lying in bed and I was going to start college in the fall, I had already enrolled and outlined my course of study at a junior college in Arlington, Texas, and a scripture that I had heard came to me that said, you are not your own, you're bought with a price. It wasn't audible, of course, it was something from my past. And I'm not sure what it was that-- in two weeks time I went to church and then, no one else knew of this, my family, my mother, my father, my friends, my brothers, I just stepped out and walked down and took the pastor's hand and said I believe that I should surrender, as we would call it in our church, to the gospel ministry. And I've never looked back. It's just the strangest thing to me. And anyone watching this might say, well, that's really stupid. But it wasn't to me. I had lived a normal life, not any wilder, not any tamer, than any other high school football player and athlete, and I just-- I did it. I have a story about it from three of my friends that I told once, and it went like this. Three of my friends were together and they were talking about their mistakes they'd made in high school and I said, well, in theological language that would have meant sin, but they called it mistakes. And they called me and said I had to go in the ministries to atone for what they had done. And I said, well, why don't you go into the ministry? And my good friend, Warren Bolling [ph?] was speaking, and he said, no, I'm going to be a rich dentist, and that's what he became. And the other one, I said, well, what about Freddie, my other friend. And he said, no, he was an all-state end at Northside High School in '54, he was going to Texas A&M to be a football hero, and then it went like that for a while. And I said, I'm not going to do it, I'm going to be an architect. And my friend said, I can tell you something that will convince you to be a minister. And I said, no, you can't. And he said, I can, just listen. He said, listen carefully. Being a minister beats working for a living. And I said, well, I think that sounds pretty good. So I started from there. That's my story I told my high school group at our 50th reunion.

Zarbock: Chaplain, what did your parents say when you definitively committed yourself?

Gover: Not a lot. My mother is a very devout Christian lady, my father, both of them were baptized members of our church and I don't think they seemed surprised for some reason. And I don't understand that. Both of them are gone now, and you know, I never thought to ask them, what do you think about this? But neither one of them seemed surprised that I would do this, and I wonder why. Neither of my brothers, great, great, brothers who are Christians and active attendants in the church still today, neither one of them seemed surprised and I don't understand that myself. But it's all right.

Zarbock: What attracted you to the military? Are you from a military background or family?

Gover: Well, my father did a very interesting thing. During World War II, he had two children and at the age of 31, he joined the navy. He didn't have to. He was so old, they called him Pops. And he was promoted after six weeks or so because of the big build up in World War II and he was in San Diego in the navy in World War II and was being shipped overseas toward the end of the war. And the word came out that-- by then my youngest brother had been born and any service person with three children would be discharged. And so he was; the war in Germany was over, and he came home. I don't think that had much to do with it though. I got married in 1961 to a wonderful, wonderful girl. I was 25 and she was just 19, and I tell people that I think that I could only fool a younger person, a younger girl; I don't know if I could fool one my own age. But we've been married 47 years now.

Zarbock: So you're getting the swing of it by now?

Gover: I'm getting the swing of it-- that's not true, that's not true. My wife from time to time will say things that my mouth will just come open and I'll almost-- where-- I believe in Mars and Venus, I can tell you. But my wife will still astound me after 47 years, something she will say. But I went up and took a little church in South Dakota, in the Black Hills area, a long way from Texas, a small congregation, kind of a mission church. I remember very well, my salary was about $3,300 a year and later I had two children were born there, my first two children, and they provided a house and we had enough to get by, but barely. I was there four years and I think that-- you know, I had grown up very poor. My father was sick; my mother worked to just keep our house paid for, the mortgage and food on the table for a lot of my young life, and still was doing that. And so not having money wasn't something I was used to. I worked my way through four years of college and four years of seminary.

Zarbock: Where did you go to seminary?

Gover: At Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. And I graduated from Baylor University in Waco. And I paid my way all the way through that. Mother could not help me. But luckily then education was not so expensive. I worked all the time, I never had anything, I didn't have a car until I was 25, and we went up and took this little church and we were very happy there and stayed there for four years. The only thing about ministry when you're a young pastor is that old people love to beat up on you, and that wasn't a lot of fun. Some of the older congregants, you know, were always-- I don't know, when you're a real young pastor. But you know I was there four years, the Vietnam War was building. I developed a close friendship with a reserve component chaplain, army chaplain, Herb Cleveland [ph?], he was the Veterans Administration hospital chaplain at the Veterans' Administration at Fort Mead, South Dakota, which was just outside of Sturges, South Dakota, where I was a pastor. And he said, you know, you'd be a good fit for the army chaplaincy, and I said, I'm not so sure. I don't know, I didn't think about it. But it was kind of like the other thing, it just suddenly hit me. Another church had come to hear me preach to see about calling me to a larger church in Wyoming, and I had already made my commitment. The Vietnam War was brewing up heavier and heavier and they needed chaplains.

Zarbock: The year is now what?

Gover: This would have been in 1966. And I resigned the church in December of '66 and reported in for basic training as a chaplain at Fort Hamilton, New York, on the 9th of January, 1967.

Zarbock: What was your wife's attitude toward leaving the small town with predictable exchanges with people?

Gover: Very happily. My wife did not care for South Dakota. My wife does not like the cold. She opens the refrigerator and goes into shock. You know, it's just wild. And the town was a very small town of 8,000, very provincial, did not take in outsiders easily. And other things, you know, I tell people, there's times I got tired of watching little blue-haired ladies wrestle on the church floor over the color of the carpet and refereeing that, you know, at times. The innocuous crazy things that went on in a small church over nothing. I perceived correctly that the army chaplaincy wouldn't be like that, and I was right.

Zarbock: Wouldn't you miss those at four or four-fifteen in the afternoon sunsets, and the sun getting up about eight-thirty or nine-o'clock in the morning.

Gover: I missed a lot of things, but I'm the kind of person when I turn my back on something and turn it forward, I don't look back. I don't look back. I don't question-- it's jumping way ahead, but my wife and I wanted to retire in Williamsburg, Virginia, and we went up there and rented a house for five years looking for a lot to buy, going to build a house. My hobby was growing rare azaleas, which I loved, and reading, and I was interim pastor of three churches there. This is 35 years' later. And when I left, my goal was to buy three acres and landscape all of it with all of my plants, and when we decided we had to go back to Fort Worth to take care of the old folks-- my mother was elderly, my wife's father had Alzheimer's, my mother-in-law is still alive at 93; my mother died last year at 96 and four months. And my father died a long time ago when I was in Vietnam. And when you do the right thing, you can't look back at what you should have done. I gave away all my plants, over $20,000 worth, a lot of them to the College of William and Mary, so if anybody's ever up there around the Alumni House, all my rare azaleas are planted around that. And I started something else like that where I live now. And so I don't think that way. I don't think very much about regrets about what I miss or what I haven't done. I'm looking forward to what's in store, what might happen. And in the next number of years a lot happened.

Zarbock: This is an attitude which I admire, and really-- I'm kind of timid to say this-- but I believe I duplicate that. But was this attitude quite a help to you when you went to Vietnam?

Gover: Yes, it was.

Zarbock: Where did you live before you got to be a--

Gover: Well, I went from the parish in South Dakota, the first Baptist church of Sturges, South Dakota-- they should have named it the fifteenth Baptist Church in Sturges, South Dakota, but it was the only one we had there. But I went from there to Fort Carson, Colorado, and stayed there about 12 months. I went to through the basic course in New York first, the basic chaplain's course, and that was there months long, and in March of '67, gathered up the family and we went to Fort Carson, after a trip to Fort Worth to see our parents. And stayed there a little over a year and then I was on a plane to Vietnam, and that was the destiny of almost all of us in those days, and that's why I came in.

Zarbock: How old were you when you went to Vietnam?

Gover: I was about 31 and a half, almost 32 when I went to Vietnam. I was a captain. Chaplains came in as a captain then and now they come in as a first lieutenant and stay that for maybe a year. But most of our chaplains are past 30 when they come into the service. Because you've got your seven years, at least, of college and seminary and you have at least two to three years of pastoral service you have to complete, and then they commission you. So most of our chaplains are at least around 30.

Zarbock: As long as the planet earth is capable of developing or manufacturing electricity, this audio/video interview will exist and people will listen to it. But phrases and conditions that you and I use are familiar to us, but won't be familiar very long. So what was it like to go to Vietnam and what were the issues? And what does a chaplain do?

Gover: Well, I was happy to go, because I thought-- I guess being an old athlete and many things in my life, I kind of liked where the action was. And I was offered a commission by the navy, but I said if I'm going into the service during war time, I'm not going to sit on a ship off the coast of Vietnam, I'm not going to do it. I'm going to be with our soldiers. And it was a very strange trip that took me to Vietnam, the flight itself. I flew from Dallas/Fort Worth, Love Field, at that time. Before the big DFW was there, Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. I hugged my wife and kissed her goodbye and I look back now and understand how young, and how little I understood about what this meant to her. She had two small children, 5 and 3, no, about 4 and 2, and being left behind and me going off in fact to a war. And I'm sure she could sense that after my training and my commitment that I was ready to go, and I have a feeling that the biggest burden borne by people in a war is by the families left at home. The wives, the children, the mothers and fathers. She didn't know when I was in danger; she knew I was assigned to an infantry battalion, which is the most dangerous job you can have. We had 14 chaplains killed in Vietnam, and she worried every day. And she was young. She was just about 25 during that time and two small children. Luckily she was in Fort Worth with my mother and her father and mother, very near to them, she had a lot of help and a lot of support, but I was gone. I remember my boy, who was 4 at the time, said to his mother, said, I told him, you're the man of the house, you know that, don't you? I was kind of smiling at him. He said, well, should I sleep with mommy now? I thought it was, you know, well, he's got to be in there to protect her or something. I never realized at that time nor when I went in '71 again, how hard it was on my family. I wasn't sensitive enough or old enough to evaluate the situation and look at it, but I got on the plane at Love Field and flew to San Francisco. Got on another plane, flew to Hawaii and then to Wake Island and then as we were coming in to refuel at Clark Airbase in the Philippines, the pilot came on the intercom and said all airfields in Vietnam are under general attack. The Tet offensive had started. And all across the country during the Tet offensive, that was in February, if I'm not mistaken, '68, there was a general attack, even on the U.S. Embassy, they took that for a while, in Saigon. And he said, you're going to be delayed at Clark for a few days. And we were there for four days. And they put us on an air force C-141 four days later and they flew at night into Ton Son Nhut airbase in Saigon. It was the steepest descent I ever went on, on an airplane, because there was artillery splashing all around the base back in the area, a lot of fighting still going on that night, and this was about four days later. And they dumped us off, somebody ran out and got one of these roll-up things to the plane. We got off, they threw our luggage out on the side of the plane, the plane taxied out and took off and went almost straight up. Nobody was there to meet us.

Zarbock: And it's night time.

Gover: Nighttime, yeah. And nobody had a weapon. There was a major, artillery major, who was senior and he got a couple of NCOs and they broke into a warehouse nearby, broke the lock off, and well, my luck had started. It was loaded with mattresses. So we laid down there, barricaded the door, because there were dead bodies still laying around the airfield, some Viet Cong had been killed. So we stayed there that night and the next day they came and got us with a bus and that's when I said, oh, my, I'm into something. I was assigned and in about four days I was up at Pleiku, central highlands, the base camp of the 4th Infantry Division and I was assigned to the 2nd brigade, 1st battalion, 22nd infantry. And so I was an infantry battalion chaplain. And I joined them at Kontom where they were fighting to take back the city of Kontom, where they had taken all of it in this offensive they had put on, and the only thing they hadn't gotten was the Macvee compound. Macvee is Military Assistance Command Vietnam. It is Americans that work with Vietnamese. They hadn't gotten it. They had fought for four days. And later, one of my good friends who was a chaplain, Martin, who was in that compound at the time-- we didn't know that-- but we fought our way through and we had a large battalion-plus and four artillery batteries and finally took the city back, and that took about four days.

Zarbock: During this fighting, what were your specific duties and obligations?

Gover: My specific duties ended up being holding about one service a day with some element of my troops. We had troops fighting around the city area and so that was not conducive to having a service. But we had some up at the mountains above the city and I would fly on a helicopter up there, on the resupply birds, jump off and with my chaplain's kit and go in and tell them, the chaplain's here, and tell them, I want to have a service for you. The wonderful thing was that about 80 percent of the boys in any unit I went to in the years I was in Vietnam, sometimes 90 percent, couldn't be all of them, because some of them were on OP out, and guards in the jungle-- came to my services. They were Protestants and Catholics and just about everything, would come to the services. And I don't want to mention some old canard about no atheists in fox holes, but it meant something to them the way we did it. Sometimes we couldn't sing, noise discipline would be an issue. But we would sit in a big circle and I would read a scripture and we would maybe sing a song or two. They had little worship books that I brought with me and we would read a responsive reading maybe, and then I would ask someone to talk about their life here and how they saw God dealing with them here. And I tried to say the same thing over and over to them. Like the story of Jonah, you can't run far enough to be away from God. God is even here, even though you're halfway around the world and you're away from your church and you're away from your family. I tried to say to them that God has not forgotten you.

Zarbock: Chaplain, if you went up by helicopter to a series of remote outposts, whatever your weight is, your biological weight, that meant that that amount of ammunition or that amount of food or that amount of water or that amount of fuel could not be taken.

Gover: That's right.

Zarbock: So you're replacing materials of war. Materials of life.

Gover: Yes, what we call in the army, beans and bullets.

Zarbock: Was there ever any resentment?

Gover: No, never. Never. There was never that. My commander was just incredible. I've never had a commander in Vietnam that didn't support me completely. Like on an Easter, they would dedicate a helicopter to my services, to go to all my units, starting out early in the morning and finishing at night, so we'd have an Easter service there. The helicopter would be given to me. I went a lot of places, and sometimes I didn't have services. Sometimes the troops weren't conducive, in a conducive situation for me to go to have a service. Sometimes I went with them and then would stay with them three days, march through the jungles with them until the resupply birds came in and then I would leave and go to another unit. So I did a lot of humping of a ruck, it was hard on a man who considered himself old at that time compared to those 18, 19 year old kids. And we all carried about 50, 60 pounds. At least I didn't carry a weapon and all the ammunition. So. I have a great story. I was there a couple of months and Martin Luter King, Jr., was killed in the United States and if you remember 1968, the riots broke out and some of our cities burned and burned. And I talked to my-- I would go back and say about 28 percent of my soldiers were black. The national average population is still around 13.5 or 14 percent, but there were a lot more in Vietnam than there were in the population because they didn't have the talent to avoid the draft that some of the more sophisticated, well-off guys did in the country. And I would talk to them in the services about this. And I would talk to them personally. And people just don't understand, who have never been in a combat unit, what's called "the band of brothers". Black, white, Hispanic, they cannot understand it. There was never any kind of adverse conditions as a result of that, but in the United States cities are burning. I had two young lads from the city of Detroit, they could not have been any blacker if they'd been painted with coal. They were in Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, the 6th Infantry, my second tour. And when I'd go out with them on a mission, they'd come up to me smiling, always smiling, saying, we got you, chap, we got you. They would insist that one of them went in front of me and one of them went behind. Maybe there'd be 10 to 12 yards separating, but I was their preacher, I was their pastor. You know, to them they would call me chap, they would call me preach, and they'd say, we got you. And what they were doing, since they knew I didn't carry a weapon, they were protecting me. And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that both of them, or either one of them, would have given their life for me in a minute, in a heartbeat, and these were two black boys that, you know, both of them were buddies from Detroit, inner city. Probably been about as rough a guys as you could imagine, but they took me into their lives. And I've never forgotten that. What Stephen Ambrose's book's about, called Band of Brothers, people who have served in a unit like that understand it; others do not. What it means. We've learned a long time from war studies that soldiers don't fight for flag or mother or apple pie, they fight for each other and they fight because they don't want to be seen as a coward in front of their friends. But to protect each other. I remember once, I wasn't with the unit, but a point man, that's the man that's out in front of the patrol that's moving through the jungles, slowly, slowly, slowly-- he was ambushed, we were ambushed and he was hit by a machine gun that was dug in under a huge tree. And he was cut down and he was crying for help, help me, help me. Two young sergeants one after another went after him and both of them were killed. All three of them died, but it reminds me of a story sometime ago I read about something. That, you know, it wasn't important that I came back, but it was important that I go. And those two boys, young sergeants, buck sergeants, shake and bake sergeants, they came over to Vietnam as privates and in six or seven months they were sergeants, and they went out to try and help that friend; both of them were killed. Things like that happened because of the love that soldiers have for each other. I got over there and I started learning. The chaplain school cannot prepare you for what you're going to do, particularly in combat. I've always, I guess one of the things I attribute to my success in the chaplaincy, if I had any, was that when I don't know something, I go to the person that knows it and I say, teach me. And I learned all kinds of things in that military unit. One day I ran the resupply pad, under the watchful eye of a sergeant, that got all the supplies out to the troops. So I knew that piece. I knew how all the weapons operated because under certain circumstances, I would have fought. When I was in with a unit and we were in contact taking casualties, I always found my way to the wounded. I tried to help the medics. There's a phrase, "overrun". Well, if we had been in danger of being overrun and my wounded boys being killed, I would have picked up a weapon in a moment. I would have defended my wounded boys. Under the Geneva Convention you have the right to defend yourself or to defend wounded soldiers, I don't know if it says wounded soldier, but regardless of what the consequences were to me, I would have defended them with my life and with a weapon, and with my life. But I never carried a weapon. But I didn't need one. If you were out there with a company that was in that much trouble, there were weapons laying everywhere. I wouldn't have killed joyfully. I can say some things about that with the enemy, too. There were times when I was there when we went through the bodies and pockets of enemy dead and I would see notebooks and little billfolds and things that would come out of their pockets that would have maybe a picture of their sweetheart or their children; breaks your heart. Here's a dead soldier from North Vietnam, had little choice to come down there, marches down the Ho Chi Minh trail all the way from North Vietnam, carrying his equipment, being bombed by B-52s and he gets down there and is killed and very likely his family will never know what happened to him, never know where his body is. It breaks your heart to think about it.

Zarbock: Which raises the question, Chaplain, who's the chaplain to the chaplain?

Gover: Well--

Zarbock: Who helped you?

Gover: Really nobody. That's not the way it ought to be. I've been thinking for a while about writing an article and turning it over to a friend who's an army chaplain historian. And telling him that regimented chaplains who are majors and division chaplains who are lieutenant colonels ought to spend 90 percent of their time with the chaplains at the point of the spear. And they ought to spend that time with them, working with them, to help them, relieve them of some of that sorrow and pain that builds. Now, I never cried once in Vietnam, never. I felt like my boy was wounded and was dying and I was there with him, it was my task to comfort him, "we're going to get you out of here, we're going to help you, we're going to do everything we can for you," sometimes even when I knew he had only a few minutes to live. It was strange, some of them would call out for their mother, some would call for God. And I took that with me and I stuffed it back and back and back until after the 10th month, I couldn't stuff it anymore. I found myself when I had a soldier killed I would get a headache so bad that I could not stand it. I'd go to my good friend, Dr. Rumari [ph?], the Italian surgeon and I would just hold out my hand and he would throw me a bottle of pills. And he said, it says take one, take two. And I would take a couple and pull a poncho over my head and try to sleep eight or nine hours and generally when I woke up my headache would be gone until the next time. Luckily, that was only toward the end of the tour, but it affected me when I came back. I knew it because I would be at my desk somewhere and I would be just doing some work and I would start crying. I would cry; I would weep. And ... all these years later-- it was 40 years ago last month that I set foot in Vietnam the first time, I have never gotten over-- the faces of those boys have faded, but I have never gotten over that. Someone said, well, why haven't you in time gotten over it? And I said, well, what kind of person would I be if it didn't mean anything to me. I love those guys. There's another reason I love them. I was a poor guy, I was a poor kid who worked my way up. But I had advantages, I had advantages particularly that minorities, these kids, didn't have. I went to school and paid $100 tuition for my first two years of school, I had no help from anybody, but I had no hindrances. This was a time during segregation; black kids could not go to state schools in the state of Texas, they could not go even to the religious schools and I had no hindrances, but these kids did, still. And there they were, the poorest, the underclass, fighting for their country; it astounds me. It just astounds me. And I felt a sense of camaraderie with those kids. One of the funniest things happened, I can remember in Vietnam, I was in the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry, and I had some relatives in Oklahoma. Boy, they lived in the wilds of Oklahoma, they were ranchers and farmers and pretty poor folk. And I had a kid come up to me outside of Duc Co when I was having a service, by helicopter, there were no roads, the places we operated. He came up to me and he said, Chaplain Gover, Chaplain Gover? I said, yes. He said, I think I'm kin to you. I said, wow. And he was, he was one of my mother's aunt's grandsons from Oklahoma and his name was Myer. See, he thought, he was going to Vietnam and I was there, he would automatically see me and be in my battalion. Well, there were about 80 battalions in Vietnam. But here he was, he was a country kid and it's ironic, but the farm kids and the city ghetto kids made probably the best soldiers. They had had a hard life; they weren't some kind of dilettantes that flirted around with privilege, they already knew what pain and sacrifice was. And they were the ones that our country sent to defend us. And I think I love that about them as much as anything else, that they would do that and that they would let me be their chaplain. I had some things happen that astound me to this day. I had, in Easter 1968, I was holding a service southwest of Pleiku toward the Cambodian border and I was going to have a helicopter delegated to me that day by my commander, Colonel McBride. And I started out early to get a jump on it because I had many different positions to go to that day. You had your forward companies, you had your recon platoons, you had some smaller elements you wanted to get to. And I went out to the Charley Company, 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry, and I went into their perimeter that night, just before dark, and found a place to sleep and I was going to have a sunrise service the next morning. Unbeknownst to me, over past a little wooded area, they had built a little chapel with logs drawn up and a sandbag altar, for me, and took me out there the next morning. They were so proud of it and I sat up my altar on the sandbags and were going to have communion, serve the Lord's Supper to these soldiers and Chip Hunt, Captain Chip Hunt, was the company commander, and he-- I asked for volunteers to help us serve communion and in the army we try to meet the needs of the soldiers. If they were used to coming forward and receiving communion, we did that; and at the same time we would be serving communion to the group of soldiers, like in the congregation, if they were used to that. We did both. And he punched me, and I said-- and I leaned over and he pointed to a soldier, he said, see that? I said, what about it? He said, his name's Goldberg. And I said wait a minute, I know you have one or two Jewish soldiers, is this one of your Jewish soldiers? And he said yes. And I said, to myself, he did not partake of Christian communion, but he was passing out Christian communion as a Jew, to this fellow soldiers, Catholics and Protestants. I don't know anything like that that could ever occur. We didn't have a lot of Jews in our units, we had some. We didn't have Jewish chaplains out there, so I would get my Jewish soldiers about every four or five months and I would send them to Da Nang or Nha Trang, somewhere, so they could have four or five days with their chaplain rabbi and then come back. I arranged for all of that for our Jewish soldiers. But here was a young trooper, Jewish soldier, serving Christian communion to his fellow soldiers. And things like that have blessed me. I'm a Christian, I happen to be a Baptist, from a Baptist background, but I've never forgotten things like that. The love. And I think of those two sergeants that gave their lives, and the scriptures say no greater love than a man than this, that he lays down his life for his friend. I saw that more than once and I-- when you come back, the mundaneness of life, back in the world at a desk, back doing the things that you do in a post-side chapel or-- that's why people don't understand, you laugh more when you're in the army or combat, and some cry more. I've held soldiers when they've cried, lost their best friends. I felt it was my job not to do so. And I didn't. But I will tell you this, I have cried many times since. That's a lot. That's jumping all over the block, and I just, everything in life after that didn't seem very important. Certainly not two little gray-haired ladies wresting over the color of the carpet of the church, didn't seem very important to me after this. And these soldiers would come. Catholic chaplains were scattered and hard to get out, I would get one out every time I could. I would grab hold of him, put him on a bird and say you're going with me and we're going to take care of our Catholic soldiers with a priest. But when he wasn't there, they would come to my service. I had another funny thing happen. My division chaplain, who I will not identify, didn't ever provide me with any support. He stayed around headquarters in Pleiku, and the New Testaments I gave the soldiers, I would get them from churches in the states, they would send them to me by bulk. I would get communion supplies from the churches in the states, they were glad to send them, they would send anything I needed. And I just, you know, didn't feel that they understood what was happening out there to that-- but I lost my train of thought. I'm 72 next month, I guess I'm allowed. But anyway, the kind of feeling you have serving with those boys out there on the front lines, just, it is beyond compare, that they love you and they want to protect you and that they want to take care of you and that they want to accept you as their pastor. What it was, was that the Catholic soldiers would come to my service, yes, I know what it was. I didn't get any support. One day I said, look, we need a little new tape recorder. I wanted them to participate and there was about 80 guys from Charley Company, and again Charley Company, 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry, we were going to do a service, we sang a song, read a scripture, talked, laughed a little, had some of them talk, and I said I'm going to pass around a helmet and I'd like you to put something in it and we would buy this tape recorder so we would have it for our services to play along when we sing, where we could. This was before some of the modern technology, so they weren't very small. I passed the helmet around and we got it and-- these guys have military piasters, the military piasters was called scrip; it wasn't authorized to have dollars in Vietnam, all your money had to be converted into script because it was a black market issue. Anyway, when I got the helmet back, the guys were kind of dispersing and there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars of piasters in there, and I said, wait a minute. Get back in here. I said, now, listen, we don't need this kind of money. I'm going to pass this helmet back around. Take out what you think is about half of what you put in. So we passed the helmet around; I'm probably one of the few ministers in the world that ever passed the plate backwards. And I said take out about half of it. And they did. And I said, you're not leaving until I count this. And we had to pass it around again. Take out some more. They didn't care. They had money, they had no place to spend it, they were out in the jungle, they didn't get to a PX or anything like that for months on, months on end. And they'd get their pay and stuff it in their pocket. I never forgot those soldiers, they laughed and laughed, the preacher was passing money out to us, it was their money. But that's the kinds of things that happened that you loved about those soldiers.

Zarbock: Chaplain, in conclusion, given the sweep of your life, from childhood, working your way through college, your military experience, your family, your current role and status, if you had but a very limited time to tell whomever what your belief system and credo is, what would you, Chaplain, say?

Gover: Very simple. The doctrinal creeds of our various Protestant churches concern me not at all. When I was in Vietnam, as a Christian pastor, I would counsel a Jew too, about his faith and his God, but I would say first of all, you're not alone. And I would talk to the soldiers about it. Back in the states, people are rebelling against what you're doing here, but you are not alone, God is here with you. God has not forgotten you. That would be the second thing. He's here, he has not forgotten you. He directs your path day by day. And fourthly, your task is to put your faith and trust in him, regardless of life or death, put your hands in the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ and then he will provide for you and if not in this world, in the next. I did that in various ways, over and over, I didn't talk about modes of baptism, I didn't talk about hermanetics or the technical things about how to interpret scriptures, or how many angels you could put on the head of a pin. I couldn't have cared less, I don't care less today. It affected me dramatically. I am Baptist by heritage, I am Christian and I dealt with those boys, even some who were not Christian, and it was the most rich experience of my life to be able to do that and to learn that so many things in life do not matter. Do not matter. Theologians get themselves wrapped up into all kinds of issues. I couldn't have cared less about them. I cared about my boys and for them to know that they were not forsaken.

Zarbock: Chaplain, it's an honor to know you.

Gover: Thank you. Thank you very much.

(tape change)

Zarbock: Two May, 2008. Military Chaplains Oral History Project, Paul Zarbock, interviewer, Chaplain Gover.

Gover: Don Gover.

Zarbock: Respondent. Go ahead, chaplain. I'd like to hear more about what-- about your reflections, observations, experiences.

Gover: The thing that hurt me the very most when I was in Vietnam 40 years ago, and we were taking large casualties after the Tet Offensive. One day, I lost a whole platoon, 21 boys. I arrived with my commander, and we were-- the other troops were pursuing the enemy, and we had a whole platoon dead. And they didn't shoot the wounded. They bayonetted them, because every bullet they had they had to carry down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam. And as I knelt beside those boys, I looked at their dog tags. None of them were Jewish. They were Catholic or Protestant. I said a Catholic prayer for the Catholic boys that-- I had my own prayer for the Protestant boys. But that wasn't what I always thought about. It wasn't what always hurt me so much, because I knew-- I knew that this dead boy, almost all of them, not married; 60 percent of our forces today are married in this time in Iraq and Afghanistan but all of them single. But I knew somewhere in California or Arizona, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, New York, Michigan, and all the places in between that there was a family, a mother and a dad, generally going about their business living life knowing they had a son in Vietnam. But you know, worried but not too concerned, I guess, in their daily activities. And I knelt here beside their son and knew something they did not know, that their son was dead. And I knew that within two days, a car, a government car, would pull up to their house or their apartment and that it would be a chaplain and an officer, usually a lieutenant or a captain. And they would get out and knock on the door and identify themselves and then ask who they were speaking to. I had some chaplains who performed that duty, and I would have rather been-- had a leg cut off than do it myself. But they generally would say almost the exact words. I think they were, "The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you that your son," and they would name him, "has been killed as a result of combat operations in the Republic of Vietnam." And back there when I'm kneeling with that boy, I-- I would-- my mind always went to that. It wasn't this; it was that. They're waiting two days. Their heart's going break. Two days, there will be a hole in their heart that will last the rest of their lives and in mine. I'm going to say something very strange now, and that is that I always have referred to these lads that died as "they boys." When I retired in 1994 as a full colonel I had this strange idea that when I left the service and took off the uniform I was leaving the boys. It makes no sense. It has-- it's totally irrational, but I felt like I was leaving the boys. And I began having periods of depression. I remember being in a church service three months after I retired with my wife, and we were singing a song in a church south of Atlanta, large church. And I just began crying. I-- weeping is the word, not crying, weeping. And I guess I just want to say the terrible cost of war to the families, a lot of them the underclass of America again, even today-- and my wife took my hand and arm and took me home and helped undress and put me in bed and laid down beside me. When I got out, the doctor asked me would I like to see the psychiatrist, and I said, "No, no. I can take this. I'm tougher than this." But over the years, I've never forgot those boys. Their faces are fading. I thought about them so many times. I thought about one boy and his faith. We were way south of Bambetuit [ph?], near the Cambodian border. A Special Forces camp had been attacked. There were only about one A-team of Special Forces. That's about eight or nine. And about 200 Montenyar [ph?] soldiers whose loyalty was totally to the United States-- we sent two battalions there. We did a combat assault, and the worst thing that can happen did happen, and that is we landed right on top of them, called a hot LZ. Soldiers jumped up from 10 feet away from the helicopters and started firing. And a soldier named Jim was shot three times before he even got off the helicopter, and those boys got off fast when they hit the ground. And they brought him back to where I and the battalion surgeon was. And they-- we'd set up for this, because we always expected this. I tried to be where the casualties would be brought into a central place. We had a stretcher there over sandbags so it could be up where the doctor and the medics could work, and he was unconscious. He was dying of shock. He'd lost so much blood internally. And the medics, when they do that, they don't undress them. They cut their uniforms off. They just take their scissors and their _________ and run them right up their legs up and pretty soon they folded them over and then they throw them on the floor. And they did cut downs on his ankles and his hands. I was at his head, this young soldier. And they pumped expander fluid in him as fast as they could to bring his blood pressure back up. And he just came alive like that, and he started patting his chest and patting it like that. And I didn't know what he meant; he couldn't talk. I assumed pretty soon that he had something in his pocket that he wanted, and I reached down and grabbed what was left of his jungle fatigues and felt in his pocket on the left side. And there was a New Testament I had given him. And he clasped it to his heart, and we thought we were going to save him. And we-- we got him as stable as we could, and we put blankets around him and put him on a helicopter and to fly to Bambetuit where there was a bigger facility. And then we took the rest of the casualties and started working on them. I-- the next day, I started doing what I always did, checking on the casualties. And I found out that on that flight he had died. And I thought about how that New Testament that I'd given him-- I would give them out to the soldiers by the hundreds. And I'd tell them when they get where you can't read them, too dirty, burn them. I'll give you another one. And it wasn't the magic talisman I think that he thought would keep him alive, but he-- it was his faith, his faith regardless. And I think that's where chaplains came in. I think that's where we tried to say to them, "Have faith. We don't know what's going to happen, but have faith." And in my mind's eye, I see that New Testament falling from his hand and out the door of the helicopter into the jungle floor somewhere between Bambetuit and that Special Forces camp, rotting. Maybe the plastic cover is left even now. I've never forgot that boy. I remember him as being-- he was precious, precious to somebody and to me. And I think there's other things that hurt our soldiers. I have read that soldiers in Iraq coming back that about three out of five are having emotional problems. At least we're doing a lot more now than we used to. We-- it's not just your basic get killed that hurts you. People don't understand that when you kill people up close you also carry that with you the rest of your life. You carry it with you, a pain and a sorrow that maybe is not conscious recognized. But infantry usually kill at close contact. The Air Force drops bombs. Who knows? Artillery shoots artillery, but infantryman, Marines, Army soldiers, sometimes they see the people they have just shot to pieces. And so that's another thing that some of them bring back with them. Passing through the airport-- I might have mentioned this, but I saw a young soldier going to Iraq. He looked like he was 14-years-old. He was an airborne trooper, proud, looked like just a kid. And I realize now at almost 72 that he would have looked younger, but I remember that was what my boys were like. I have told my wife when I die I want her to bury me in a national cemetery between Dallas and Fort Worth. It's-- it wasn't there during the Vietnam War. It's been built more recently. And so none of my boys would be buried there, but others from Afghanistan and Iraq, other people who have served over the years will be there. And I've always thought that whatever burdens I carry or whatever sadness that I had in my heart, when she lays me down there among that band of brothers, I'll find peace. I'll find peace. I would not anyone to think that I regret being an Army chaplain. The chance to serve and to be of use and a help to those boys is the greatest experience of my life. And as I might have said, if they call me tomorrow and say, "We want you to go to Iraq as a senior chaplain," I would pack my bag and go in a heartbeat. I suppose the last thing I would I say is how hard it is on the families of soldiers. I went to Vietnam willingly, ready, maybe to prove myself, who I was. And my wife never said anything, but she sensed that. I think at times it hurt her that I was willing to do that, because after that terrible year of 1968, 16 months later I went back again for another year and did it all over. But I would have not done anything in this life differently than that. Those young boys, almost all of them young boys, serving them was the most precious time of my life, regardless of the cost.

Zarbock: Thank you, chaplain. You know, not everybody who carries a rifle is courageous, but I've met many people on this project who never carried a rifle and were extremely courageous, and you're one of them.

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