|Vietnam Veteran Charles Payne/Photo by J. Lewter
Junior-level journalism major Charles Payne probably isn’t the only non-traditional student at Arkansas Tech who served in the Vietnam War, but he is the only vet who fought alongside world-famous musicians Johnny and June Cash.
Payne, who is originally from Belleville, AR, joined the U.S. Air Force in 1967. He served three tours in Vietnam that stretched from January of 1968 to January of 1971. It doesn’t bother Payne to talk about Vietnam, although he laments, “We did horrible things.” Details of Payne’s time spent abroad tend to blur together, but one day will stay forever crisp in his mind: the day Johnny and June Cash came to perform for the troops. “They were both wearing military green fatigues,” said Payne, explaining that this was “SOP” (Standard Operating Procedure) for visitors to the base. Anyone wearing civilian clothing marked their self as a target.
The base came under sapper attack by Viet Cong soldiers with assault rifles later that night. “It happened all the time,” said Payne, who mentioned that it was annoying. The attacks always came at night, so the American troops would run to bunkers scattered around the base and fire their weapons into the dark. “We never knew (if we hit anyone),” explained Payne.
That night, Johnny and June were rushed to the hospital bunker “because that was the safest place,” said Payne. That was also SOP for base visitors. Payne ran to a bunker close to the hospital to help fight off the attackers. “Then ten or fifteen minutes into (the fight), here comes Johnny with a M-16 he got from an injured [soldier] in the hospital,” said Payne. Payne had been alone in his bunker until Johnny showed up. “He didn’t feel right hiding while the rest of us were fighting,” said Payne. Then, about ten minutes later, “here comes June (with a M-16),” said Payne. Another injured soldier had been admitted to the hospital, so June borrowed his gun and ran to the bunker to join her husband and Sergeant Payne. He doesn’t remember everything Johnny and June said during the gun fight, but he does remember June asking, “Where is the safety on this damn thing?”
Payne, Johnny and June fired through the gun ports in the bunker for the duration of the attack, which lasted about thirty or forty-five minutes. Being the only soldier fighting with the high-profile singers “put the pressure on,” said Payne. Thankfully none of the trio was injured.
Since I rarely get the opportunity to interview Vietnam veterans, I asked Mr. Payne about a bumper sticker I once saw on an office door in the Nashville Capitol Building. It read “Jane Fonda: Commie. Traitor. Bitch.” Payne’s response was, “They were being nice.” He explained that Fonda had toured a POW camp in Vietnam where Americans were being held. While Fonda was apparently overseas protesting the war, she was photographed smiling and clapping with Vietnamese soldiers while sitting on an anti-aircraft gun. Payne seemed quite disgusted. He said he knew that some troops returning home from the war were spit on by protestors, although he did not experience anything like that. “I was from a small town. They were supportive,” he said.