Cliff Leach Interview Summary
On November 7, 2018 I interviewed Cliff Leach, who was a member of the United States Navy in the Vietnam War. He was drafted and was on the USS Enterprise, which was a nuclear carrier, and made his way to Vietnam in 1967. Cliff was trained for 2-3 weeks before he went over to Vietnam, which was mainly survival training with a little bit of combat training. The Enterprise eventually blew up when three 500-pound bombs went off in the span of 15 seconds and totally destroyed the end of the ship which Cliff called "a pretty harrowing experience for me." The ship housed 5,500 people plus all the jets. Afterwards he was assigned to pick up the wounded, where he witnessed the carnage, including saving the pilots from burning inside their planes. He recounted a story from that day that when they went to pick up one of the guys who had been burning, the man's skin peeled off of his hands. Cliff said "That's something you'll never forget. The smell stays with you for a lifetime. That's why I can't stand barbecue to this day. It's just a stink that every now and then you just get it in your brain and that's what it is and it's terrible. Sometimes you'll have a nightmare and you can see that flesh on your skin come off and it's enough to curdle your stomach." 28 men died on the ship and over 400 were injured. Cliff was shot in the back by a sniper while in Vietnam and part of the shrapnel is still in his body today. He received a Purple Ribbon but never got his Purple Heart medal for it because he was told "you're not normal because you're not supposed to be here. You're above the 19th parallel and you're not supposed to be there, you're not supposed to tell anybody this even happened." He was sworn to secrecy from talking about anything for 10 years and if he didn't sign the contract he would be stuck in the Navy in quarantine. He finished his service in November 1970, three months earlier than scheduled due to Nixon being elected and pulling the United States out of Vietnam.
Cliff said he was treated "like crap" when he returned to the United States. He got to the airport and he talked with another marine who was waiting for his flight in Virginia. "Pretty soon, all these little protesters and their jack-of-all-trades jackasses were standing in line to make our day miserable. You know, I don't mind if you're against the war, I wasn't against the war, I thought we were doing the right thing over there as most of us did, we were defending our country, we were defending an ally, and that's what we were there for, and we didn't do a very good job of it, you know. Politics got involved in it and made it a mess." "They started throwing stuff at us and were spitting on us." Cliff and the marine then stood back-to-back and started swinging at the protesters. Two minutes later officers came over and were clubbing Cliff and the marine. The officers took the two into the backroom and suggested that the two get out of their uniform and put on civilian clothes. His flight back to Omaha landed early, still in his uniform, and there were more protesters and the same thing happened that had happened prior in Virginia. He went to a store and bought a pair of flip-flops, a pair of shorts, and a t-shirt. "I went in the can, ripped the uniform off, and I threw it in the trash. And I'm so sorry I did that." He said there were around 30 protesters in Virginia and 50 protesters in Omaha. He believes that 100% of the troops on-board the Enterprise were with the decision to go to Vietnam.
When I asked him what he thought about the VVAW marching on DC, he said he "couldn't have cared less. If that's what they felt like they had to do, then go right ahead and do it. I had no chip on my shoulder. I was proud of what I served and proud of what I did. Was I proud of what I had to do over in Vietnam? No, but you know what, it's the survival of the fittest over there, that's the way it is." He said the reason he took the uniform off and threw it in the trash wasn't embarrassment, "I guess I was more sad or afraid, I'm not sure which. I just didn't know what I was really capable of, I'd done some bad stuff and I just didn't know what button they could push that I wouldn't take something out on them, you know, you just get away from it. You know, you fight those battles all your life." Towards the end he stated that "War is hell." Cliff eventually was given a Purple Heart medal by the Ford's of Pender, Nebraska, the parents of a fallen soldier.