Living or dying was not on Charles Feggans’ mind while in a Marine Corps camp during the Vietnam War, even with the constant threat of nightly rocket attacks launched by the enemy.
The Ewing resident had lost friends to these fatal attacks, some of which he morbidly calls “lucky shots,” after he witnessed the gruesome aftermath on a couple occasions where rockets somehow made it directly into a small opening of a camp bunker, killing comrades inside.
“When you first get there, you have a whole year, so you don’t even think about dying. Only when you’re down to your last 30 days, when you’re given a little calendar with the days on it,” Feggans says. “Every day that goes by, you cross it off, and as you get closer to the end you get more scared of getting there. You’d hate to die during those last few days.”
Feggans recounts his vivid memories from Vietnam with his comrades stationed in a Marine Corps camp cut off from the outside world in his second book, titled Unpleasant Pastures.
“I didn’t have a clue [about Vietnam] until I got there. As I started to go out on deployments around the camp, I learned that there were tigers, leopards and snakes—it’s a jungle,” says the 76-year-old Feggans. He was 25 when he set off for central Vietnam in 1967.
“If you ever go to a place like that, you live your whole life and never forget it. I may not remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I still remember a lot of things that happened to me while I was there,” Feggans says.
His experiences living with scores of other enlisted men for a little over a year in the camp, occasionally going out to survey the surrounding land for danger and sometimes venturing to the local villages inspired him to write his novel.
“I decided to write it because when people think of war stories, they think of everyone killing each other,” he said. “They never see what’s going on behind the scenes. There are camps with soldiers that are not really in the fighting force.”
Feggans would pass time in the camp with the other enlisted men playing cards, gambling, playing basketball and listening to records that some of the men received from home.
“They would be outdated by two to three months, but they’d be new to us because we didn’t hear anything,” he says.
The camp where he was stationed was located in Happy Valley, a place that was ironically named, because it was a notorious spot for enemy rockets and attacks.
His first impression after stepping off the plane into Vietnam’s sweltering temperatures was no less than intimidating, but simultaneously not shocking for him.
“The first thing I noticed besides the heat was these coffins that were lined up on the runway getting ready to be loaded into the plane,” he says. “I had been in the Marine Corps for six years before that, so I knew what it was like. Marines are the first to land, first to fight, first to die.”
Pastures captures the camp camaraderie and follows the story of protagonist Jeff Richards, a character based on Feggans’ experiences.
“There’s this brotherhood where everybody protects everybody,” he says. “Color has nothing to do with it. We do everything we can to help keep each other alive.”
The journey that led him to his unforgettable time in Vietnam began when a military recruiter visited Trenton High School during Feggans’ last two weeks before graduation.
After hearing about the different branches he could join, Feggans admired the prestige of the Marine Corps, admitting to being dazzled by their sharp uniform.
He was 19 when he volunteered for the Marines in 1962. He set off for training in Philadelphia, and wound up being assigned as a baker.
Joining the Marines is a decision that he believes initially disheartened his mother, whose home he grew up in Trenton. Feggans assumed the role as a family provider at 12 years old, when he began working after his stepfather left his mother and his eight other siblings.
“I tried to be a father to my brothers and sisters,” he says. “When I was in the Marines, I couldn’t pay her when she was left with eight kids.”
Before leaving for Vietnam, Feggans traveled on ships in the Marine Corps and was stationed in the Caribbean and Puerto Rico for the purpose of maintaining peace.
Although the Vietnam War had been going on for 12 years before he arrived there, Feggans says he was not worried when he had to leave for the mysterious country located on the other side of the world.
“I didn’t give it a thought because marines have that mentality where we’re doing something for our country. We give up our lives for it, and if we die, we do not die in vain,” he says.
Feggans was in charge of keeping the men under his rank in line at the dusty, dry and grassless camp where other marine soldiers passed through on a day to day basis.
“It was the type of camp where troops out in the field would take a shower, get a meal, then go out, and I would never see them again,” he said.
There were around 2,000 people within the camp that was protected by barbed wire and tall fences.
“We didn’t know what was going on outside the camp, and any news would be a month old. We didn’t see nothing, hear nothing, know nothing,” Feggans says. “There was no television, and only two or three lights in the tent that had around 20 guys. They allowed us to make a phone call only between midnight until 2 am.”
He wrote letters back home to find out what was happening outside of Vietnam, mostly to his mother.
Feggans and his comrades would work in 12-hour shifts, where he would typically be baking. Then, he had a 12-hour break.
When he was not baking, he was out surveying the area strapped with a loaded rifle, bulletproof vest and metal belt to hold the rounds for his weapon.
He faced the threat of animals and traps set by the enemy when he left the camp. He says that he had to be careful of traps, holes disguised by leaves that had sharp sticks at the bottom.
“When you’re out in the woods, there’s no McDonalds, no bathrooms. You don’t know what you are going to walk into,” he says. “You had to worry about Agent Orange, which they actually made here in New Jersey. They tried to convince us that it only killed vegetation.”
The deadly chemical was sprayed in the jungle to kill vegetation to see ground movement from the enemy. However, it contaminated the water, and was later found to be extremely harmful to humans.
“My friend from Morrisville died from Agent Orange. His organs shut down one at a time, and there was no cure,” Feggans said.
Occasionally, to take a break from the camp, soldiers would venture to the local Vietnamese villages and markets, where they would buy sodas and cheap goods.
Although they would communicate with the Vietnamese in the village, Feggans says the men wouldn’t speak to the Vietnamese who worked in their camp, performing duties such as doing the soldiers’ laundry.
“We were wary of them, because they had a tendency to give information to the enemy. You didn’t know who to trust,” Feggans says. “When there were rocket attacks, they would hit specific locations—sometimes the tents where the guys slept. When they’d go off, someone would scream ‘incoming,’ and you’d head towards the bunkers.”
Before Feggans returned home to New Jersey in 1968, he had to go through a process of reindoctrination back into society.
“While I was home, this car outside backfired. I rolled under the bed, because it reminded me of a rocket attack. Then, I realized I wasn’t in Vietnam anymore,” he says.
Following Vietnam, Feggans was stationed in Japan for four years. He retired from the Marine Corps after 10 years, and received a bachelor’s degree from Thomas Edison State University.
He worked in Trenton State prison as a baking instructor after getting his degree, which inspired his first novel, Trapped By Impulsion. The book is currently not available, but hopes to have a new printing our by the end of next year.
Then, he worked as a maintenance technician overseeing road construction where he had a lot of free time to write.
When it comes to writing, Feggans says: “It’s whatever comes to your imagination. If you write a storybook, you gotta be windows to each character, You may be working with six or seven characters and your mind has to be each one of them at a certain time in the book.”
He says he would wake up in the middle of the night and get ideas, which he would write down. Later, he would add to those thoughts for his books.
Feggans is now working on a third novel that he plans to release in December. This book, Miller Homes, is based on a set of government high-rise buildings in East Trenton, which are no longer standing.
The three main characters in the story are: Bertha, a lady who is trying to clean up the area from drug dealers and gangs; Breeze, a 14 year old teenager who looks up to a drug kingpin and wants to be like him; and Flash, a gang leader who has no fear and disrupts the lives of all who live in Miller Homes by robbing tenants, fighting with the drug dealers and pushing people around.
Currently, Feggans works for highway and traffic safety in charge of giving grants to 144 police departments in seven counties in New Jersey. He was recently remarried after his first wife died from cancer a little over six years ago.
“I’m trying to live life to the fullest,” he says.
He has three children and three grandchildren, one of whom he takes care of and lives with in his Ewing home.
“The times I’ve experienced during Vietnam make me grateful for where I’m at now,” he says. “I could still be in that country receiving the pressures I did when I was there.”