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My War – Clarinetist John Samuel Tieman

By John Tieman
5/27/2010 • Arts and Culture, Vietnam First Person, Vietnam War

"One time, the band played a welcoming ceremony for these grunts - and I mean they walked right out of the bush and into "Stars and Stripes Forever." (Photo: Sheila M. Kennedy)
"One time, the band played a welcoming ceremony for these grunts - and I mean they walked right out of the bush and into "Stars and Stripes Forever." (Photo: Sheila M. Kennedy)
John Samuel Tieman
Clarinetist, Specialist 4
June-December 1970

02J20, CLARINET was my Military Occupational Specialty. As an artist, I served my country. Beyond that, I did nothing either heroic or noteworthy. In truth, I’m a far better veteran than I ever was a soldier. And that’s how you know I’m really a war veteran. That I’m not a wanna-be. Nobody ever lies about being an Army clarinetist. They lie about being a scuba-diving Green Beret ninja, who flew a B-52 before joining the SAS Foreign Legion Marines.

I volunteered on February 17, 1969, and after Basic at Fort Polk, La., I was stationed at Fort Wolters in Texas with the 328th Army Band. I was a parade soldier, a specialist 4, who also loved playing first-chair clarinet in a 30-piece orchestra.

Being stationed in the States wasn’t bad. Frankly, we were the envy of many—such as the time we played this gig at the Fort Worth Home For Unwed Mothers. Nothing happened—not that we let the guys back at the base think otherwise. Of such are legends born.

By 1970, with less than a year to serve, I never thought I’d go to Vietnam. Then came the Cambodian invasion. For 174 days, 1 hour and 22 minutes, I was stationed at the 4th Infantry Division’s base camp, Camp Radcliff, at An Khe in the Central Highlands, in the Division Band. In those 174 days, we saw more than 100 rocket and sapper attacks. Some nights, Charlie would lob a rocket in just to keep us awake. One night, sappers blew up 17 helicopters.

The band members’ central functions were as artist and guard. During a Red Alert, we served as guards for the headquarters company. At other times, we functioned as perimeter guards, generally assigned to either a tower or a foxhole.

Our gigs could range from the prosaic to the exotic. Our band covered the entire II Corps Tactical Zone, and we got around.

A typical day started shortly after dawn. We might do a “police call” or a “sweep” to try to flush out sappers who were still hiding in camp after the previous night’s attack. The band would usually play a job during the day, an awards ceremony for example. If we performed outside of camp, we might take a Chinook to someplace like Nha Trang. Or we might join a convoy going east through the An Khe Pass or west through the Mang Yang Pass.

I hated the Mang Yang Pass. I hated how steep the sides were, how narrow the road was. When we entered, we had to pass “The Frenchmen’s Graveyard,” the last resting place of Groupement Mobile No. 100. It was wiped out in June 1954, right where we were driving in June of 1970.

In the evening, we might pull guard duty. On average, I stood duty every third night, but toward the end of my tour, it was every other night. Any soldier who has pulled guard duty in a combat zone can tell you how it ranges from the boredom of staring at the field in front of you, to the shock of hearing an explosion behind you. Some of my most vivid memories are of guard duty. An explosion over my shoulder. The Red Alert siren. Knowing a sapper must be right there somewhere, but having no idea where.

Like other soldiers, our band members found themselves assigned to all manner of general duty, from filling sandbags to painting artillery shells, from cleaning rifles to repairing the hooch.

But, aside from these combat duties, our primary purpose was to provide music. From the ancient Romans to Army bands deployed to Iraq, music has been used to signal, to encourage, to entertain and to comfort.

Between gigs, Tieman stood guard at Camp Radcliff. (Courtesy John Tieman)
Between gigs, Tieman stood guard at Camp Radcliff. (Courtesy John Tieman)
Our gigs could range from the prosaic to the exotic. Our band covered the entire II Corps Tactical Zone, and we got around.

On the prosaic side, we played change-of-command ceremonies. Most of these I’ve long forgotten. But a few I remember, like the time we played for a firebase so small that we had to set up in the surrounding minefield. I still remember that little red flag by my left front. That and someone pointing to a clump of trees and mentioning the Viet Cong “sniper last night.” Forty years later, I can close my eyes and still see that clump of jungle.

Then there was the exotic. Like the night we played at a party for the “Dragon Lady,” the wife of the province chief, a beautiful woman dressed in tailored, tiger-striped fatigues. She commanded an all-female unit. For that gig, we convoyed through the Mang Yang Pass to someplace near Pleiku. We played one song and spent the night in an old Foreign Legion barracks. The decadence of such gigs was never lost on us.

Our piano player, Pfc Dick Bittner, used to refer to these scenes as “cartoons.” One time we played a welcoming ceremony for these grunts walking into the base camp—and I mean they came right out of the bush and into “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Speaking of decadence, I’d be less than candid if I didn’t say that many of us comforted ourselves with drugs, alcohol and prostitutes. Such was life as an Army clarinetist at Camp Radcliff. Only years later did it strike me as paradoxical that I would go to a supply bunker and requisition a bandoleer and a box of reeds.

I got out of Vietnam, and the Army, on December 7, 1970. I was 20 years old. I rarely played music after coming home. A source of joy, a clarinet, had became a source for traumatic memory.


17 Responses to My War – Clarinetist John Samuel Tieman

  1. […] the original: My War – Clarinetist John Samuel Tieman » HistoryNet Post a […]

    • M Robertson says:

      Where is John Tieman now?

      • dnewbold says:

        John is in St. Louis, Missouri. He asked me to post his email address, which is

        Deb Newbold, Managing Editor, Vietnam magazine

    • Vic St Clair says:

      I was there too from May to Dec 70. I’m Vic St Clair and lived in the hootch that Cecil McGirt was the NCO. If you want to contact me, I’m on Facebook. Would love to have contact with any band members. By the way, in Dec I was reassigned to the 101st Abn Div Band at Phu Bai. I took War Dog with me and cared for him until apr 71.

  2. Jim Brannen says:

    I was assigned to DTOC (Div Tac Oper Center). An Khe. Ran teletype and phone system in the operation center at the 4th Inf Div when we moved there in about March/April 1970, from Pleiku. There were 22 helicopters blown up on the pad that night. Huey’s costs–$ 350,000 each. Cobra–$ 450,000 each. Chinook–1.5 million each. Later during the year, 3 sappers came out of the mountain, went into the clerks hootche, and threw a satchel charge, killing 2 clerks who were going home in the next day or 2. They killed the perimiter guard outside, who was in a chaise lounge chair covered up with his poncho, since it was drizzling rain that night. One sapper got blown up by his grenade or satchel charge outside the hootches. The others went back into the mountain. I went over to DTOC (the fenced off area by the generals nice house, with the stairway going into the ground). They had tunnel rats going to the mountain to try and find the VC. No luck. Gen Kendall, Burke, and Walker were around there. Mad. Some of Capt. Maxwell’s men (MP Capt) worked the case and CID. Only one old strand of wire at the bottom of the mountain. I left Nov 10, 1970 .

    • Jim Goodwin says:

      I was a clerk in the 4th admin for a short time at An Khe helping with the redeployment toward the end of 1970. I remember a sapper incident simular to what Jim Brannen described. A sapper had gone by our houch and blown up a copter. We shot at him in the trench that went under our steps of our front door. I remember he crawled out of the ditch and went into our latrine and it blew up. That would have been between Sept. and Dec. of 1970. I don’t remember any clerks getting killed. It did scare the hell out of me.

    • Stan Ernest says:

      Did you know Captain Maxwell? He was my CO. I was a member of the 4th MP Company from Jan-Dec 1970.Do you know his first name? I would like to contact him, but have been unsuccessful finding him. Any assistance would be much aprreciated.

  3. allan waddell says:


  4. M Robertson says:

    I met John in Dallas in the 70s when he and Ron Bodenstadt (sp?) lived with Brian Knight. I have been looking for him since his letter in 1978.

  5. Ron Rodriguez says:

    I was at HQ 4th Bn 60th Arty right down the road from the aviation company that night. We sent out 2 Quad 50 trucks to the green line for support and went on full alert. I had a friend that was a door gunner at that location even though I didn’t know he was there. We hadn’t seen each other since Vietnam training at Fort Riley Kansas in early 1969. I met him at Qui Nhon when he was there to pick up a new Helicopter and we started talking about the sappers and the soldiers killed.

    I remember Spooky and all the other Cobras they sent in from Pleiku to handle perimeter security around An Khe that night.

  6. Don "Oboeman" Dodson says:

    Great article, John! You captured what a lot of us REMF’s felt … we are not all cut out to be heroes, but were all “doing our bit” for democracy … or so we thought. John and I overlapped a while, I was actually an oboist with a clarinet MOS from September 1969-September 1970. My highest achievement for the non-war? Being adopted by War Dog when Zamber went home. WELCOME HOME EVERYBODY!

  7. Ed Tieman says:


    I was digging through some Civil War History and found a John F. Tieman and our history goes into Germany and was wondering if by some chance we are related. I do know that there were Tieman’s in England.

    I inserted his name and found you.

  8. John Procter says:

    What a lot of memories this brings up. I was in the band from 11/69-10/70. I remember Don \Oboeman\ Dodson and am still in touch with Dave Zamber. I was on perimeter guard in a tower the night the helicopters were blown up. I remembered the number as being smaller, maybe 13. I was there the night the clerks’ hooch was attacked. We were told that a number of clerks were killed. I was sent to look for the sappers at the base of the mountain and hoped I wouldn’t run into one. They were long gone. When Don Dodson headed home, I took over his job as \sierra bravo,\ emptying the latrines and burning the human waste. What a relief not to have to pull guard duty after taking on that job. Don was a master at it. Somehow he managed to secure Jet fuel, JP-4, in addition to diesel so that the fires would burn hotter. Thanks for the memories, guys. If any of you knew John Bernatz, he died of cancer a year ago.

  9. Richard Lancaster says:

    299th Engineers I was there that night too & the VA has denied my disability saying I never saw combat there. I remember the burned out & blown up choppers & all hell breaking loose not just that night but damn near every day & night there, rockets, mortars, sappers, I was a heavy equipment operator & remember having to call EOD at least 2 to 3 times a day to remove a round, rocket, mortar, or grenade from out from under my grader while I leveled the runway. The VA has cheated me out of my disability for over 38 years now claiming my MSO did not warrant combat exposure. If was is ever a time to remember it was August 1970 at Camp Radcliff can’t remember the day but will never forget the month. Do you remember when An Khe Pass was washed out & we had to put a Baily Bridge across it I was there at PS-4 & I have lost of pictures for it too. please take a look at my pics the VA sure has not seen them or I would not be having the problems I am having, I hope these pictures will help someone else with getting their disability, thanks for this post it has brought many good & not so many as well, glad you made it home safe, PS “WELCOME HOME” Brother. –

  10. Richard Lancaster says:

    Also you can see pic’s from the unit scrapbook from 1970 here =

  11. Donald Hobson says:

    Proctor, Dodson, Tieman, I remember all you guys, Bittner & Zamber, too…Gosnell, Munsey, Wild Bill Cover, and, of course, War Dog! I was an 02D20 Horn player, but ended up playing mostly bass drum, as we didn’t have any percussionists who could keep a good, Army regulation 120 bpm. I got to the 4th Div. Band, An Khe in March of 1970…left and ETSd the exact day as Ed Tieman–Dec. 7, 1970. I remember Bernatz very well. When I arrived he was only a PFC but was the de facto band director (we were between CWOs). He was a clarinetist. Let’s see…Proctor, seems like you played baritone? Dodson, I remember, had the quickest wit of about anyone I’d ever known…funny guy! You might remember I took over as barber after that \crazy\ McDermott? from Missouri. He left shortly after I arrived, and since ALL the ED (exempt from duty) jobs were taken (as Proctor references the \s*** burners\), I told First Sergeant Ford I could cut hair (an ED slot); so he appointed me the company barber. Practiced on Vietnamese kids for about three days of OJT and then opened my barber shop doors!

  12. Donald Hobson says:

    Oh, as for the Sapper attack, I was on bunker-guard duty that night…much scarier than being in one of the towers. And my recollection of the lost helicopters was 17, as well. Remember that shorty after, they reassigned the 3-Star Commanding General, and his incoming 2-Star replacement grenaded the tunnels in Hon Kong mountain for weeks to come. Solved the problem. I saw Bernatz about 10 years ago in Chicago; sorry to hear of his passing. Remember a few lifers: Staff Sergeants Ulmer (Alabama)–trumpet, maybe, and Hudson (might have been E7), another Horn player; also McGirt?, percussion. CWO Cover came over from the Big Red One with a handful of enlisted guys incl Big (was it) John?–trumpet and GREAT soul singer. Lots of memories. If anybody wants to run me down, I’ve written some memoirs.

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