Vietnam War: Joel Ellis, Wolf Hound

By Deborah Carroll

Feature Writer

Joel Ellis, who lives in Turner with his wife Edith, was drafted in October of 1966. “We all knew where we were going,” he said.

His first child was born four months before he left for Vietnam, while he was training in Kansas. He was able to go home once, to meet his daughter and to spend one last weekend with Edith, camping in the rain and fog on Tumbledown Mountain.

Ellis was originally trained in high altitude, cold weather warfare – to fight the Russians in Siberia.

“After a year of that,” he said, “they turned around and sent me to the jungle.”

He arrived in Vietnam in October, 1967, and he was there for the Tet Offensive that began in January, 1968.

“I was assigned to a fantastic, hard core unit called the Wolf Hounds – 2nd battalion, 27th infantry, 25th division – a jungle unit.”

Their base camp at Cu Chi was on a narrow strip of land between Saigon and Cambodia, known as “The Parrot’s Beak.”

“The first three months in Vietnam was an extreme learning curve.”

Ellis described himself as “wide-eyed and bullet-proof” on arrival. “It’s a big adventure, until the people around you start dying.”

Ellis was an infantry heavy weapons specialist, trained on mortars. He was the chief computer for the big 4.2 inch mortars. He said, “They [the forward observers] would call in targets and I would chart what it would take to get the mortar to hit its target using a slide rule, called a ‘slipstick,’ a set of tables, a chart and a plotter.”

At one point, Ellis said, “we had lost so many forward observers that they asked me to do it – but I told them that I wanted to be made a sergeant first,” and they agreed.

“Most often our big operations were against very well armed, well trained and very aggressive North Vietnamese army regulars,” also referred to as “NVA,” rather than the guerilla-like Viet Cong.

“Trying to stop the NVA,” he said, “was like trying to stop an anthill [in that] they had an inexhaustible supply of soldiers who were willing to die.”

He experienced what he described as “very stiff fire fights. A lot of them would start off as a routine patrol. When you’re lying on the ground, with enemy soldiers passing not 10 feet away, all you can hear is your own heartbeat pounding in your ears [and you’re] praying that they can’t hear it — engagement would be suicide.”

Sometimes what appeared to be a small group would turn out to be 30 or 40 NVA soldiers, and “we would have to call in jets and artillery support to keep them off us. We took a lot of losses, but we inflicted a lot more,” he said.

Ellis described the Vietnam War as “a war of attrition.” Sadly, “it was completely acceptable to lose one or two for every 10, [and ultimately] people in America lost their stomach for it.”

On one occasion, a friend’s unit lost 40 of its 60 men in a matter of just three minutes in a place called Hoc Mon. Ellis had been there four or five times. “We always lost people there,” he said.

“I often wondered what it would feel like when you got hit – if you would a feel a sting, or nothing at all. My worst fear was getting hit and dying all alone. It happened a lot,” and he came close a few times.

Ellis carried a camera with him during his deployment. One day he was lying on the ground during combat and felt as if someone had tugged hard on his backpack. Looking around, he knew that he was alone. Later, upon removing his backpack, “I realized that I had taken a bullet through my back pack and that it had lodged in my camera.”

On another day, on another patrol, “A guy popped out of a hole and emptied an entire clip on us. He must have been new, because most of his shots went up in the air.”

One of his bullets hit Ellis. “The bullet hit my rifle and my finger at the same time and little pieces of shrapnel from the bullet and from my rifle went into my arm and my chest,” he said. He lost the tip of his finger and still wears the scars on his arm and his chest.

Though many men continued to wear boots, even though they were continually wet, Ellis wore a pair of “Ho Chi Minh sandals” that he had taken off the feet of a dead NVA soldier. He ultimately lost a toenail, but was able to avoid the problems that others were experiencing due to the sodden boots. He also wore a South Vietnamese Army uniform because of its camouflage.

According to Ellis, “During the last month or so you start to get overcautious and a lot of men stopped following their instincts. A lot of guys got hit during that time [because] they stopped doing the things they learned.”

Two and a half weeks before he was scheduled to go home, Ellis started getting “the short time jitters” and decided to take a week of “R&R” that he had put off.

“I literally hitchhiked to Saigon on a chopper,” said Ellis. He ultimately went to Hong Kong on a civilian flight that was nearly full of other military personnel from all branches. He returned to Vietnam with just six days left in his commitment and was told to report the following morning “in full gear.”

A captain, the company dentist whom Ellis had befriended, asked Ellis how his wisdom teeth were doing. That evening, Ellis had all four wisdom teeth removed and left the dentist’s chair with orders for light duty and four days of rest, which left him with just two days in Vietnam and just enough time to get ready to leave.

“I came home bruised and looking like a woodchuck, but I swear that guy saved my life,” said Ellis.

Ellis left Vietnam in late October, 1968, and spent the next four years in the reserves until he finished his six-year commitment. He was awarded a Bronze Star.

He described coming home as strange. “Every two weeks I go to the VA to talk with a counselor.”

To this day, he remains in a high state of alert all the time. “I’m much quicker to draw a line in the sand [and] I still have a hard time getting things done … it’s classic post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said.

“I also got cancer from the Agent Orange.” Ellis has had “two go-arounds, and it’s just a matter of time before my third.”

What impressed Ellis the most about the military was that even though 90 percent, if not more, were draftees, and people were from different backgrounds, ethnicities, philosophies, morals, political views … when put together in such an extreme situation everyone bonded.

“When push came to shove, in the middle of a firefight we all looked out for each other, and we never left a body even if we had to stay when we could have been pulled out by helicopter.” Ellis said, “I had some good people around me, and all of us took care of one another, and I was a damn good soldier.”


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