Copyright (c) 1980, 1987, The Vietnam War Library


Dusk was turning into night when Robert and I crossed the road leading back onto the main compound. As we approached the outer hootches the outside light poles around campus flashed on. Consisting of a 25 watt light bulb strung atop a 10 foot 2-by-4, a dozen of these light poles were spread around the campus area. Although they didn't provide enough illumination to do anything that required good lighting, they were bright enough to keep everyone from bumping into each other. Robert informed me the outside light poles were quickly turned off during Charlie's night-time rocket attacks. There had been occasions when snipers hiding in the trees would take aim at the light posts and fire when they saw it eclipsed by a walking shadow. No one yet had been hit by a sniper, but the number of bullet holes dotting several of the posts indicated Charlie was as good a shot as some of our own Recon Rangers who specialized in that profession.

Pointing to the 2nd hootch from the back road, Robert asked me to walk over to meet some of the comcenter specialists just returning from the day shift. Stopping just long enough for everyone to disembark, the deuce-and-a-half truck that transported the crew to and from the comcenter then screeched off. It would remain at the comcenter until morning. In case of emergency the truck was the only transportation the comcenter crew had to get back.

Pausing to look around the campus, the entire area stretching from the road to the Orderly room was a bee-hive of activity. People were everywhere.

"More than 3/4's of the guys are here on campus at night," Robert informed me, "because it takes only a 4th of the day staff to run it at night.

Noticing most of the men leisurely walking around in cut-off fatigues, T-shirts, or towels around their waists, I asked Robert about campus dress regulations.

"That's one of the nice things about being over here." He told smiled. "With the war going on we don't have to deal with a lot of stateside bull----."

"The CO must be an okay dude then."

"He's alright. He usually lets everybody do whatever they want as long as they get their work done. It's too bad we're going to be losing him and Top soon. Top's retiring and the CO's transferring to another unit."

Looking around the crowd, I noticed several black technicians wearing black silk pajamas. I asked Robert about it.

"Now that's one thing the CO ain't too happy about."

"I can see why. They look like VC sympathizers or something."

"They're not really. That's just their way of making a statement. Most of them are pissed-off at anything and everything. You'll probably be joining them in a few days."

"No," I shook my head, "I wouldn't make that kind of statement. What are they pissed-off about?"

"It changes from week to week. Last week it was not being able to buy Afro combs at the PX. This week it's the guard roster. Most of them have had to pull a lot of guard duty lately. The campus has its own old boys club here. To get in you've got to be part of their Hitler youth squad."

"Which is?"

"White, redneck, and chicken----. The guard roster is supposed to rotate around everybody on campus, rank not excluded. But the CO lets one of his clerks named Heinemann write the roster and he exempts all of his friends."

"Doesn't anybody complain?"

"Complain to who? The CO is the final word and he won't do ---- about it. He's afraid if he protects one of the brothers he'll get flack from the white dudes."

"What's he afraid of. He's the CO, he can do anything he wants."

"The last time he jumped on a redneck for hassling a brother the gringos in the Orderly Room complained to some of their friends at Battalion that the CO was acting weird. The dudes at Battalion passed it on to their friends at Brigade. Next thing you know the General shows up to investigate rumors that everybody's morale down here was piss-poor and work wasn't getting done."

"Did the CO get chewed out?"

"A General doesn't have to chew you out to make a point. Just having him make an unscheduled stop is enough to know he's pissed."

"Is that why the CO's transferring."

"I wouldn't be surprised."

"Maybe things'll change when the new CO get's here."

"Yeah, maybe the VC'll give themselves up tomorrow morning and the war'll be over by tea time."

During my 12 months in Co A44 both the CO and 1st Sergeant positions changed 3 times. The current CO was liked and respected. It would be just the opposite with the next CO.

Because they worked close to CO's, most enlisted men working in Army Orderly Rooms placed themselves above the other enlisted men in their company. Their positions working in the center of company operations were usually rewarded with faster promotions, access to personnel files, awarding themselves decorations, and not having disciplinary action documented if they got into trouble. The morale problem that originated with relations between the enlisted men and the Orderly Room crew in Co A44 was due to the CO siding with his staff rather than the majority of the men. This was common with CO's because they needed the support of their staff to get paper work done.

Walking toward Robert's hootch several microwave techs were passing a joint and talking about Charlie's hit. Surprised at their openness, I asked Robert about it.

"Aren't those guys worried about getting caught?"

"Hell no, everybody smokes here. That is if they're not on something heavier like speed, coke, heroin, hash. You name it, it's here."

"Isn't there anything else to do?"

"Some of the guys go to the ville. Some write home. Some play basketball until the movie starts. Some...."

"Is there a movie every night?" I broke in.

"There's supposed to be but usually we only get one whenever Dormally feels like driving to Long Bihn to pick it up."

"What's playing tonight?"

"Che", I think. Something about the Cuban revolution."

"I know that movie. It's real good."

Shaking his head, he wasn't interested. "To me, good is comedy. The last thing I want to see over here is a movie about somebody elses war."

"What's a good movie to you?"

"MASH". I've read a hundred revues about it but it's impossible to see over here. The Army banned it."

"How can the Army ban a movie. It's free speech?"

"----, the Army bans movies all the time! Last week Dormally picked up "Mr. Roberts". The Army banned that one in 1951. They said the language was too tough for GI's. Everybody knew that was bull----. The real reason was because the enlisted men in the movie hated their CO."

"What does the Army have against MASH?"

"The DOA says it doesn't like a couple of the lines in the movie. There's an operating room scene where 2 doctors are operating on different patients. One doctor asks the other doctor if he's operating on an officer or an enlisted man. The 2nd doctor tells him enlisted. The 1st doctor tells him to use bigger stitches.

"I don't get it."

"The Army said the scene implied enlisted men got unequal treatment. They said it suggested Army doctors didn't care that bigger stitches left uglier scars."

"I can agree with that! I wouldn't want some quack ----ing me up with a lot of weird looking stitches."

"But that wasn't the point," he corrected me. "What the doctor really meant was that the bigger the stitches the longer it would take for a wound to heal. Sewing up guys with wide stitches was his way of trying to keep them from going back into combat sooner."

"That's different!"

"------- A! The studio is getting a lot of publicity and a lot of letters and petitions from GI's who want them to get the Army to release MASH."

As we opened the door to Robert's hootch a thick cloud of marijuana smoke rushed out and enveloped me. I staggered back.

"This place smells like a joint factory! Some of your friends must be heavy into weed."

"Yeah," he laughed. "They are. Some of the off-duty guys start putting up contact right before the day shift gets here so by the time they walk into the hootch they start getting high."

"What's contact?"

He laughed. "You've seen cigarettes burn haven't you?"


"Contact is the smoke that drifts up in the air."

"How about the guys who don't smoke, does anybody complain?"

"No. The smoke's got a practical benefit too. Contact acts like a mosquito repellent. We've got some horsefly-sized mosquitoes that come down on you like dive-bombers. They eat Army-issue repellent for breakfast. The only thing they hate is smoke. They don't come in when the weed lamp is lit."

"But what if you don't want to get loaded? How do you know when a hootch is fired-up with contact or not?"

"Easy. Look at the 3 hootches across the sidewalk."

I turned around. "Okay, I see them. So what?"

"Some are lit up and some are dark. That's how you can tell. If the lights are off, or all you see are lamps and candles burning, you know everybody in there is smoking."

Turning back around, I saw what he meant. The main, overhead fluorescent tubes inside his hootch were off. Small lamps hanging from the ceiling and Christmas tree bulbs lining the walls lit-up the hootch with just about every color imaginable.

"So none of the hootches are the same?" I asked.

"They're all different inside. It all depends on the guys who live there. We've got to create our own diversions here. It's either that or die of boredom."

Walking into his hootch, the cots from the 1st cubicle on both sides had been taken out and replaced with folding chairs. Several standing ashtrays were positioned next to them. An old model nineteen-inch TV sat on a small wooden table in a corner.

"This is our living room," he smiled. "Kind of looks like home, doesn't it?"

"It looks more like a Greyhound bus depot. Some of this furniture went out in the 50's."

"So this is where all our antiques went." he laughed. "I was wondering what happened to them."

Before I could reply, a comspec walking toward us from the back of the hootch added his 2 cents.

"Yeah, along with our ancient war strategy, we sent all our 50's furniture to Vietnam. But what the ----! Everything is cosmic!"

Wearing a yellow bandanna around his neck, bright orange Bermuda shorts, a wad of soiled tape wound around one of the hinges on his eyeglasses, and carrying a crushed beer can, he looked more like a hippie from a Los Angeles Love-In than a communications specialist. The only thing that kept him in military character was a slide rule sticking out of a pocket.

"Who are you?" I asked, startled by his abrupt approach.

"Sir, the question should be, Whom are you? Because I, my good man, am not your everyday who. I am your everyday whom. I clocked 1.6 seconds today!"

"Sorry," I apologized. "Whom are you?"

"I am he whom was."


"I was here soon to be gone, I'd answer your question but I no longer belong."

Executing a perfect left-face, he turned toward Robert. Raising his hand to his eyebrow, he twisted his wrist giving Robert an upside-down salute. Executing another about-face he turned toward the door. Raising his feet in a goose-step, he marched out the hootch.

Dazed by his performance, I watched him stumble across the sidewalk.

"Who the hell was that un-masked man?" I smiled.

"Daryl. He's a riot."

"What's with his eyes? It looked like he couldn't get them to open all the way."

"Haven't you ever seen anyone on a speed-down before?"

"I've never even heard of a speed-down. What is it?"

"It's when you've been flying for almost a week on speed without sleep. When it catches up to you your eyes want to close even if you try to fight it. Any minute now Daryl's going to fall flat on his ----ing face."

"I hope whatever he does here isn't important."

"He's got a degree from MIT and a Top-Secret clearance. He's working on a closed-project, one of those eyes-only deals. He calls it a computer, I call it weird. Him and another guy are the 2 heaviest dudes on campus. They sometimes come across bizarre but everybody listens to them. They're never wrong."

"Who's the other dude?"

"A brother named Rome. His real name is Romulus but everyone calls him Rome. You know black mothers," he smiled. "They like to give their kids strange-sounding names."

"You're telling me. I don't know ---- about horses but I got stuck with Phillip. Is Rome half-Italian?"

"No. He's got a some paleface in his genes but both his parents are black. You'll get to meet him later. He's just the opposite from Daryl. He's got no security clearance, his degree is from the ghetto, he talks slower, and he doesn't try to impress you. But those of us who know him, listen."

"What did Daryl mean about clocking 1.6?"

"He was talking about a little game we play when Charlie hits us. If we're laying on our cots at the time we grab the sides of our mattresses and roll over to the floor. He was saying it only took him 1.6 seconds to do a roll-out."

"Why the mattress?"

"It's thin but it might stop the piece of shrapnel headed for your brain."

"But how did he time himself if he was busy rolling out?"

"Somebody else timed him. We're used to getting hit."

"Where's your cot?"

"Down at the end," pointing his thumb to the rear of the hootch.

Passing several cubicles, Robert stopped at each one sticking his head in to say hello. Cluttered with small groups of men, some were laying on the cots, others were sitting on the floor. Some were talking about the war, some smoking, and some wearing headphones listening to music.

Robert informed me that cubicle activities ranged from dice games to poker games. There were beer parties where more beer got thrown around the hootch than drank, and "marijuana smoke-outs" where guys sat around for hours listening to John Coltrane while trying to impress each other with how much they knew about Karl Marx or the Reformation. From what I could hear as I passed by each cubicle there was no limit to the subjects covered. Some of the discussions were about genitalia lengths, Army takeover conspiracies, art appreciation, discharges, colored sheets, and jockey underwear. According to Robert, "When you leave a cubicle after listening to the ---- these guys talk, you walk out with a doctorate degree in B.S., Bull----!"

"This place reminds me of Blair House in Chicago." I told him.

"How so?"

"I used to bus tables there back in '67. Groups of regulars used to come in every night, cluster in circles, and stay for hours talking about the 6-day war in Egypt. They used to say the American army was ----ed-up because it couldn't kick ass the way the Jews did."

"Well the Jews had something going for them we didn't have."

"What's that?"

"Survival. We can live without winning this war. They couldn't."

When we arrived at Robert's cubicle, the last on the left, it was also filled with guys.

"Come on in," he invited, pulling aside the curtain of wooden beads covering the entrance. "I want you to meet some of Bien Hoa's Blair House regulars."

Stepping in I counted 10 bodies crammed in a space designed for 2. Everybody was holding a drink. A half-empty bottle of Chivas Regal and several opened cans of potato chips sat on a footlocker in the middle of the cubicle. I learned later that all food shipped to our PX's came in cans. This was to prevent premature spoilage in 'Nam's tropical climate.

"Doesn't look like there's any room left in here." I told Robert.

"There's always room for jello!" One of the occupants seated near my feet replied. Wearing a comedy arrow bent over his head, he must've been the comedian in the group.

"Don't mind Boyd, Coleman," someone else commented, "he thinks he's Steve Allen."

"How'd you know my name?" I asked, looking down at a dark-haired guy sitting on the floor.

"What's wrong? Is your name so special people can't know it or something?"

"No, it's not special. I just wondered how you knew it."

"We know everything."

"Yeah, we know all about you Coleman," another occupant declared.

"Who are these guys?" I asked Robert.

Giving me a wink, he raised his hands asking everyone to quiet down. "Cool it you guys," another GI yelled. "You've got the wrong man. This isn't Coleman. This is Major Johann Strelsky with the ASA."

Everyone in the cubicle howled.

Yelling over them, Robert raised his voice. ".....and he's traveling incogNegro as Leroy Johnson from Detroit. He's here to do a Congressional study on why brothers have pubic hair growing on their heads."

The laughter was too loud to let Robert finish. He whispered for me to play along with their teasing.

"Don't let anything said here piss you off. This is just their way of initiating you into the fold. They're just having fun and trying to find out what your toleration point is."

"What for?"

"That's the way things are here," he answered. "This is the 'Nam. Over here the envelope gets pushed to the max."

"That's cool, but in real life they know me, and I don't know any of them."

"Well let's even that out. That's Bill," pointing to the guy seated closest to us. "He likes to read everybody's Dream Sheet. But don't ask me how he gets ahold of them 'cause I don't know."

"Anybody ever just flat-out ask him?"

"Yeah, I did about a month ago. He quoted me the CIA line about the agency never confirming or denying anything."

Pointing to the second guy, "Jeff over there spies into medical records. He can tell you the last time you jacked-off."

When he said that I knew he was bull----ting me. I looked around the cubicle.

"C'mon, which one of you dickheads got ahold of my 201 file."

"We don't need your 201." Someone yelled out. "We can tell who and what you are by the way you talk."

"And how do I talk?"

"You talk like a newbie and your clothes are hilarious!" he laughed.

Looking down at myself I had to agree. All of them wore weathered fatigues. My brand new clothes made me look like a foreigner.

"What you gotta do homeboy," a black GI reading a copy of "The Weekly People" offered, "is get yourself a set of really old rags. That way you won't look so stupid." (1)

"That's Randy." Robert whispered in my ear. "He and Rome are bookends."

"Tut, tut," a guy in the corner opposite Bill interrupted. Raising his glass toward me, he stood up. Everyone stopped to listen.

"Fellow bozos, have you no respect for rank? This young newbie is a VIP. He's something rare. He enlisted. and on top of that, he volunteered for Vietnam."

Hearing that, everyone in the cubicle cheered and applauded.

Giving them a few moments to have their fun, Robert broke it up. "Hold on everybody, Cut the ---- short and be polite. Like Bill said, have respect for rank. This man got promoted today. He got to see our dirty little war."

Again everyone applauded.

"Was that the dude on the tower with you?" Randy asked.

"Yeah, this is him."

"Congratulations bro," he looked up at me, reaching out his hand. "The last dude Robert took up slipped and fell. Stupid son-of-a-bitch is laying on his back in Long Bihn Hospital with a severed vertebrae. Going home next week, I hear."

"Hey Robert, what the ---- does your friend do?" a GI in the corner shouted.

"I guess they don't know everything," I whispered.

"He's the new RTT jock." Robert yelled back.

"Oh yeah," he chuckled. "What's RTT stand for, Rat-a-Tat-Tat?"

Everyone laughed.

"No," I answered. "It stands for "Really Tough and Terrific"."

The laughter turned into howls.

"Don't get cocky," Robert looked at me. "They're not laughing with you, they're laughing at you.

Oh yeah," Boyd yelled out. "Ask him if he knows what CS stands for."

"That's easy," I answered. "Comcenter specialist."

"Ha-ha, you're wrong," he came back. "It stands for Cunt Spectator!"

"Yeah, and while you comspecs are busy looking at it, the RTT guys are busy screwin' it!" a voice behind me broke in.

Turning around, I noticed Jim Dormally laying in a cot in the cubicle opposite us, a copy of Playboy was spread open on his chest. I waved hello.

"---- you, Doormat." Bill yelled back. "Just 'cause the Army's gonna pay you assholes 10,000 bucks to re-enlist doesn't make you so hot!"

"Let's see what you say when you get back from your R and R in Australia, asshole!"

Bill's smile dropped.

"What d'you mean, Australia! I requested the Philippines! What'd you Orderly Room assholes do to ---- it up?"

"Wasn't us, Congkicker. It was MACV."

"But I'm going to the Philippines.....ain't I?"

"In your dreams, queerbait. All Flippo R and R's have been re-routed to Australia. Effective...." Looking at his wristwatch, Dormally checked the time. " 2.3-7 hours."

"What's going on?" I asked Robert.

He turned to Dormally. "C'mon Doormat. What's the deal, you screwing with Bill's mind, or what?"

"Fags!" Dormally smiled.

"Fags???" Robert asked.

"Yeah. Too many GI's are being met at the airport by Philippino guys dressed in drag. They look just like girls. GI's are getting to their hotel rooms and finding out the girl they brought with them is a dude."

"What???" Bill asked.

"And MACV thinks all the guys who sign up for the Flip Islands is going 'cause they want to kill a Flip gook."

"I don't want to kill anybody. I just want to screw a Philippino chick." Bill plead.

"Tell it to MACV, they make the rules around here, not us."

Bill sat down, his face agonized.

The guy next to him put his hand over Bill's shoulder.

"Don't worry, dude." he told him. "Screwin' Australians is okay. You turn a broad upside down and they all look the same."

"So why don't our guys just kick the fags out of their room?" I asked Dormally.

"You can say that. and I can say that. But some of the grunts going over there are shooting 'em. and President Marcos is having a hard time keeping his MP's from investigating fag deaths. He's putting pressure on General Abrams to chill us on killing his waste. Public pressure, you understand."

Holding up his hand asking for silence, Randy broke in, "You know, there are things going on outside this cubicle that not only deserve our observation, they deserve our contemplation. While you mother----ers are BS'ing, reality marches on."

"Yeah, and we can always count on you with your keen sense of perception to zoom in on the gutter reality of life." Robert commented.

"I know you're just trying to patronize me. But I'm not totally zoned out, you know. I'm reading a very significant and interesting article in 'The Weekly People' here. One even you might find interesting."

"Read it to us." Robert replied.

"This one is from their 'Weekly Events' column. It says, "The Naval Academy at Annapolis recently hosted an aged Japanese Admiral at it's recent graduation ceremony. The Admiral was brought to America to be presented with an honorary medal congratulating him for his contribution in the brilliant naval strategy he orchestrated in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor."

Pausing to look around the cubicle of sober faces staring at him, Randy stopped at Robert's.

"Do you know what that means?"

"Tell us," Robert answered, "You've got the floor."

"It means that almost 30 years after Pearl Harbor, the sons of men who probably weren't anywhere near Hawaii on December 7th, 1941 honored a man that helped turn the world into madness and chaos. Here, I'll read what it says, '....a chaotic spiral of falling dominoes that are still tumbling down 30 years later. and part of that chaos is being fought in V'nam today.'"

"That sounds logical." Robert conceded.

"Hold on, let me finish," Randy motioned. "Who will the graduates of West Point or Annapolis congratulate 30 years from now? General's Thieu or Ky? It may be true that only 2% of the GI's in V'nam are dying in-country, but scientific projections estimate that well over 60% more will die in less than 10 years after coming home. Another 30 to 35% will be left incapacitated due to psychological problems, prison, illness, or drug abuse. Of the million and-a-half men who have served in V'nam so far, barely 5% will complete full uninhibited lives relatively free of post-Vietnam anxiety. But what legacy does that 5% leave their grandchildren? That they died so an enemy general could get a medal from one of our own military academies? Will V'nam be reduced to a television sitcom, retrospectively minimized as a forgettable mistake, or end up as a brief paragraph in a military training manual?'"

Everyone in the cubicle stared silently as Randy slowly folded the newspaper and tossed it toward Robert.

Opening it up and looking at the words himself for a few moments, Robert broke the silence.

"I don't think the future has to read the way this article says it will. We could win this war or lose it. Either way, our kids will know the truth."

"And in the immortal words of Pontius Pilate, what is truth?" Randy asked.

"The truth is V'nam is a different kind of war. New military strategy is being established here, not carried out. Even if the only strategy we discover is never to fight another war like this, Thieu and Ky aren't going to be rewarded for doing something they didn't do. We're the ones setting the rules here. We're the ones who are going to get the medals.....even if they come 30 years from now."

It wasn't so much Robert's comments as it was his contradiction of the article that made everyone in the cubicle instantly applaud him with shouts of, "Right on!" and, "Well said!"

Smiling at their gesture of approval, Robert nodded thanks.

"I'm not ready to give up. and I'm not trying to stay alive over here so I can get wasted from some bull---- action back home. I'm in this life for the long haul. To me, this ----ing war is just going to be a momentary blip."

The group clapped even louder this time. Turning around, there were now another dozen men standing behind us. Everyone in the other cubicles had poured out to see what was going on.

"Who are you, the resident philosopher?" I whispered in Robert's ear.

"I'm the stabilizer," he whispered back. "Randy likes to arouse everybody's anger, I try to bring things back to reality."

"You know, Robert. You're not always going to be able to pacify people." Randy appeared agitated. "One day they're going to get so pissed-off the revolution will begin and sweep you and your kind under the rug."

"Well I hope they use a vacuum cleaner," Robert laughed. "I'd rather be sucked into something than swept away."

Again, everyone rooted for Robert.

Looking around the cubicle, Randy's expression reflected he was losing the debate. Before he could answer, another GI interrupted the argument. "That story is eye-opening. But you know, Rand, the comparison is inapplicable. We're different. Our generation won't let it's kids fall for today's bull---- tomorrow."

"Yeah," Randy replied "but you guys are missing the point. What the paper is saying is that time changes ideas. It's saying the things people find worth dying for today are not going to be worth dying for in the future. Our parents thought fighting in WWII was honorable. Some of their kids don't. Today, we're fighting for honorable reasons. But our kids may think V'nam was just a ----ing game."

"But that's not totally true." Robert broke in. "I'm sure the cadets who gave a medal to that Japanese Admiral knew it was better reading him the commendation in English rather than in Japanese. I'm sure they appreciate the fact that their fathers won the war."

"I think those guys at Annapolis just got too wrapped up in nostalgia. War is all they think about there." I commented.

"Well, I still say some of the guys who went down with the USS Arizona would turn over in their graves if they knew about it." Randy maintained.

"Then all we can do is try to keep on reminding people what this war is all about so that the facts don't get distorted with time."

"Yeah, but ain't you ever heard about the public having a short memory?"

"Then we won't let them forget. We'll be just like the Jews. They won't let anyone forget about the Nazi's. We won't let anyone forget about Vietnam."

"You know, you dudes can go round and round on this conversation for the rest of the night," Dormally interrupted. "It would probably be a lot easier to concentrate on getting out of here alive before you start thinking about who you're going to preach to 30 years from now. and the only way to do that is to go directly to the source of the problem, the White House. What we need to do is hijack us a Freedom Bird. Then when we get to the states we land on an Army base near the White House, steal a few tanks and roll them right up Nixon's lawn. The minute he sticks his head out of the door to pick up his newspaper and bottle of milk, we grab his ass and shove him down the barrel of a howitzer. Then we blow him to Kingdom Come."

"Yeah, that's cool," another GI added, "it'd be easy. The FBI and J. Edgar are pulling their hair out over them panty-waist college boys in the SDS. They'd have to pack up their spy kits and move to Havana if they saw a few hundred of us storming the White House."

"These guys really get serious about their daydreaming, don't they?" I whispered to Robert.

"You know," Dormally continued, "wars have never done ---- for the GI because the GI hasn't done ---- for himself. There hasn't been a war in history where the grunt stands up in the middle of a battle and says, Hold everything, this war bull---- has got to cease!

"I know if my son has to fight a war I'm not going to let him come to a cesspool like this one." Randy stated. "I'm going to work on him way ahead of time. I'll train him like my father trained me. My old man took me on a visit to the County Jail. That's all it took for me to learn jail was ----ed. I only wish he had a chance to take me to Korea with him. I sure as hell would not have enlisted and come here."

"I know what I'm going to do if I ever have a son," another GI stated. "I'm going to rent a bedpan and wheelchair and make him spend a whole day in it. He'll have to eat, sleep, ----, and piss in that wheelchair. I bet the 1st time he has to use the bedpan the last thing he'll risk when he gets old enough to enlist is getting his legs blown off in some ----in' war."

"That would do it, I think." Robert agreed.

"That sounds cool," another GI added. "I think I'd probably tie my kid's arms to his sides for a whole day. That'll teach the little ----er what it's like to get his arms shot off."

Nudging my arm, Robert flicked his thumb toward the front door motioning me to follow him. The conversation continued.

Walking out into the cool night air I opened my shirt. The soft breeze flowing through the campus blew across my chest chilling my perspiration.

"Geez! You forget how hot it is inside until you come back out." I told him.

"It would probably be a lot cooler in there if we could get our mama-sahn to clean the ----ing dust off the window screens."

"Mine seems pretty cooperative. Maybe I can get her to do them for you."

Laughing, he shook his head. "I don't know. Just because she likes black dudes doesn't mean she does windows."

Pointing across the road, he suggested we take a walk. "Let's cruise over to the park, I'll fill you in on the comcenter."

"If you're in a talking mood I'd like to hear about the RTT rig. I won't be working in the comcenter."

"Yeah, you will. Your name's already on the duty roster."

I stopped in my tracks. "What do you mean the comcenter? I'm RTT!"

"Hey dude," he stopped, holding his hands up. "I'm not the man in charge. The CO can make you work anywhere he wants."

Frustrated, I shook my head. "But that's bull----! Why the hell do they send people through all that training if they're going to turn around and make us work somebody elses job."

"There's always the infantry." He joked.

"Forget that!"

I changed the subject.

"How'd you guys arrange to get a park built in Vietnam?"

"It's not that big. The CO let an RTT NG named Ron Scarsdale work on it. We call it Scar's Park."

"What's the National Guard doing over here?"

"They've been here since '68. A bunch of them came over during TET. They're the ones who did most of the fighting in Bien Hoa. Ron and another dude named Gilbert are the only one's left. They extended their time here so they could discharge when they went home."

Several days later, I got an opportunity to meet Ron. The guys on campus called him Scars. Not that Scars was easier to say than Ron, but the word scar had a morbid ring to it. and Vietnam, after all, was morbid.

When I arrived Ron was only 2 months away from going home. As I got to know him I learned he was an antique. He took his RTT training 4 years ago in 1965 when most people, even the Pentagon, thought we'd clean up the mess over here in 6 months. One story had it that he saved an entire battalion by staying on his radio 43 straight hours orchestrating artillery strike cover until the last man was safely medi-evac'd (medical-evacuated) out. The battalion commander came to Bien Hoa to personally thank Ron and give him the Army Commendation Medal.

"Some of the worst fighting in V'nam went down right here on campus." he informed me. "Bien Hoa was getting hit around the clock for 3 solid weeks. Charlie was coming over the barbwire in waves. They'd have 1 dude flop on top of the wire and 20 more would run across his back."

"But why'd the Army bring in the National Guard?" I asked.

"Because most of the regular Army guys were working for NATO. The governments over there were protesting that they didn't want all the trained GI's to be shipped out so the NG's got activated to relieve the pressure on the guys here. You should've seen the docks when we landed. There were NG's all over the ----ing place. Guys were coming in from all over the States.

"The Generals promised us we could go back home as soon as we cleaned up the commie offensive. They didn't even make us shave our faces or cut our hair. They said the Army just wanted us to kick a little ass and that's what we did. We kicked Charlie's ass all the way back up to the DMZ. We chased him back across the border into Laos and Cambodia. We would've chased his ass into Russia if the ----ing Generals had let us. But can you believe it?" His voiced sounded frustrated. "Those shortsighted mother----ers told us, 'No thanks boys, you've done enough.' Everybody could tell those sorry bastards were scared ----less they might wind up like MacArthur. But MacArthur was right! and so was Westmoreland! We should have jumped on this burg like we did at Inchon. Instead of swatting flies trying to wipe out a tiny pocket of VC here and a pocket there, we should've put the North on the defensive from jump street. If we had pushed those little pajama-wearing monkeys back into China we could've secured the entire country in 2 months and then gotten the hell out."

"But would the ARVN's have been able to handle it?" I asked.

"They would have if Thieu had gotten himself a couple of those OO brigades like Stalin used in WWII."

"What was the 'OO'?"

"Those were the secret police dudes who followed behind the Russian infantry when they were attacking the Germans. They would kill the guys who got scared and tried to retreat or desert. That's what Thieu needed. His asshole troops didn't want to fight!"

Listening to Ron, and seeing the accomplishments the NG's had made all over Vietnam, I couldn't help but agree with him. Militarily, he was right. What the NG's achieved in Bien Hoa alone should have been enough to convince Washington to let them go right on kicking ass. Filling-in Charlie's tunnels and rooting-out his bunkers as they went along, they removed everything in sight that provided Charlie a hideout. The free-fire zone outside Bien Hoa's perimeter grew from a 100 yards to 3 miles.

The NG's excellent performance was helped by their semi-active duty status. In past wars men have always fought better and harder when they knew their combat duty would be brief. The NG's only assignment, "clean up the commie offensive", was to last only as long as it took them to do it. Comparing them with the guys in the Regular Army, it didn't matter to most regulars whether the war went faster or not. Both enlistees and draftees knew that win or lose they were here for at least a year.

When Robert and I arrived at Scar's Park I was more surprised than disappointed to discover the park, like everything else in V'nam it was more of an idea than a reality. Surrounded by a row of white bricks neatly planted around its edges, Scar's Park was a 6-by-6 foot patch of well-trimmed grass. Roped-off by a helicopter extraction cable slung around 4 rusted M-14 rifles, a hand-painted sign stuck in the middle asked visitors to "Please Keep Off The Grass".

"It's kind of small, don't you think?" I looked at Robert.

"Hey, it's better than not having it. Besides, if it was any larger Charlie would just start using it for rocket practice."

"What's the deal with that sign, are you guys serious?"

"Somebody put that up for comedy effect," he smiled. "It's kind of a reminder of home."

"Nobody can be that homesick." I smiled back.

Sitting down, I crossed my legs and ran my fingers across the top of the grass. The coolness of the blades running between my fingers did remind me of home.

"Feels good, doesn't it?" Robert smiled, running his hand across the top.

"Yeah, now I see what you mean. It does take you back."

"Only thing is," his face looking concerned. "It doesn't look wet in the morning. Did you know V'nam doesn't get dew."

"Bull----! Dew is universal. It falls everywhere."

"Not here. and I know because I've gotten up real early to check it out."

"Maybe not early enough," I looked up at him.

"Hey look," he shot back, pointing a finger 1st at me, then at the grass. "One day I got here at 3 in the morning just to prove I was right. I watched this ------- grass until the sun came up. I'm telling you V'nam does not get dew!"

I'd been in-country long enough to recognize that his emphatic tone was typical of guys who'd been here for a while. After a while everyone began to express themselves in emphatic terms. The war had a way of making veterans interpret everything, even the mildest challenges, as being more intense than they actually were. Conceding, I pulled back. "Okay dude, I believe you. No wonder this place is so abnormal."

"That's what I been trying to tell everybody around here. A country without dew is a country that's definitely abnormal."

Laughing, we both stretched out. I rolled on my back folding my arms behind my head. Robert leaned back on his elbows. Looking up, the orange-red sky was just beginning to grow black. Several of the brighter stars were beginning to shine through.

"I didn't piss you off a minute ago, did I?" I asked, apologizing.

"Only for a second," he glanced at me, dismissing my apology with a wave. "But no sweat. I don't hate you for it."

Turning toward him, I smiled at his abruptness. "Geez, I hope not, It'd take a lot more than grass to piss me off."

"For now maybe, but let's see how you think in 6 months."

I looked back at the stars. "----! 6 months from now I'm going to be so short the only thing bad enough to piss me off'll be having my balls shot off and finding out Supply ran out of replacements."

He laughed.

I didn't bring up the subject of not being assigned to work my MOS even though I was angry and depressed about it. But after a few weeks and a few hundred conversations like tonight with the guys in the hootch, and out here with Robert, I settled into the routine of Co A44. Life here, like every other Army agency in Vietnam, was routine. No matter what a man's job was he was limited to 6 activities in Vietnam. Working your job, sleeping, eating, getting laid, playing, and guard duty.

For the grunt, work was humping the bush. For the men in Co A44, work was communications. During time off they took trips to the "ville" for women, basked in the sun on the grass outside the hootches, or laid around on the cots getting loaded. During guard duty there was darkness, fear, and thought.

As for comspecs, like RTT men, I soon discovered there were also more of them in V'nam than were needed. When I arrived at the comcenter the next day there were so many comspecs working there they were literally tripping over each another.

The main Communications Center was located on the III CTZ ARVN compound. Approximately 10 miles from campus, there were only 2 ways of getting there by surface travel. One way was to leave the Army base through the main gate and travel directly through the metropolitan section of the city. Although this route was hazardous, it was the fastest and most direct. The other way was to leave by one of the "back doors" on the Army base, drive across the airbase, and enter III CTZ through the Green Beret compound. Although this route was obviously a great deal safer since at no time was the truck exposed to VC sniper fire coming from one of the shacks lining the main road of the city, it still held its own variety of inconveniences. The greatest of which were Air Force MP's. For no other reason than harassment, Army vehicles traveling through the air base were routinely stopped and "inspected" for "vehicle defects", "proper unit identification", or "authorized travel papers". and if a driver made the dumb mistake of objecting to being inspected, he and his passengers might be ordered off the truck, lined up against a wall, and required to endure a half-hour "dress code" inspection. Although numerous protests were filed with the airbase CG's office, they were consistently laughed off as insignificant teasing by MP's exhibiting an overzealous inter-service competitive spirit.

Entering the village from the 1st route, leaving the Army base from the main gate was, as I mentioned earlier, hazardous because of snipers. Although no one had been hit yet, there were occasions when a loud thud would strike the undercarriage or side of the truck. After stopping at the comcenter we'd discover it was hit by a bullet. As a precaution against being shot the collapsible wooden seats were lowered and we sat on the truck bed with our backs against the seats until we arrived in the village.

Even with the decayed and dismal surroundings of the town, driving through the barren, denuded 5-mile open zone between the Army base and the village was even less desirable. Blighted by Agent Orange, the CO's order not to walk on the poisoned ground, should the truck break down, was probably the only order everyone followed with complete compliance.

The few trees that stood between the Army base and the village were regularly skinned of their leaves. Used for fire kindling, roof patch, or food seasoning, trees leaves were almost as important in Bien Hoa as cow paddies were in rural India.

Entering the village, the roadside was always layered with strong smelling puddles filled with sludge from months of uncollected garbage, dead rats, and an occasional sleeping nomad who found the soaking roadside as comfortable a place to sleep as we found our narrow wire-spring cots.

American vehicles traveling down the main highway through the village always got the interest of the natives. ARVN's walking along the roadside would yell "---- you GI" or wave a finger at us. Bare-assed teenage girls would beckon to us from between shanty houses by bending over and raising their skirts. Parental approval of sexual activity at 13 in V'nam was common. Some mama-sahns, grooming their daughters for pleasure, became wealthy selling them. Prostitutes in their middle-20's found attracting GI's away from their teenage competitors strenuous and less rewarding.

In order to get one of our trucks to stop the natives would frequently create traffic jams by disabling a donkey cart in the middle of the road or set up a phony road crew pretending to be repairing a pothole. While we waited for the disturbance to be cleared the truck would be mobbed by a crowd of older V'namese begging for money. Part of their take would be shared with their friends who blocked the road.

A year prior to my arrival the village had been placed off-limits by the U.S. Army base Commanding General. I was told that past problems between Americans and anti-war natives had occasionally developed into violent clashes, some of which resulted in several GI's being killed and many more seriously wounded. One story said the CG was "still punishing the village" because the natives permitted "massive numbers of VC to infiltrate the civilian population during TET '68." Another story had it that Bien Hoa was a major hub of underworld activity with strong black-market ties to the VC. and still another story said violent racial conflicts between whites and blacks in the local brothels was the reason. That story claimed the V'namese learned about racial disparity in America and honored segregation to the point where some brothels even went broke if there weren't enough white or black GI's to patronize them. The base CG, hearing about this policy was said to have gotten pissed-off and ordered all GI's to "hold their peckers in their hands until they got back home."

But despite the CG's travel restrictions, the ville was still frequented by GI's whenever they got the opportunity. For off-duty Co A44 comspecs, not only was getting to the ville easy, because they traveled through the town every day, they even had a schedule for dropping them off and picking them up. Pausing briefly in front of brothels they knew well, several comspecs would jump off the truck on its way to the comcenter. Then, an hour or so later, on its way back to campus, the truck would stop again to pick them up.

Rarely did a GI miss the appointed time and location for pick-ups. To miss it would mean having to walk through the town at night alone. and to get caught by a group of VC or cowboys would mean, at the very least, a serious asskicking.

Cowboys were nomadic tribes of war-orphaned kids who roamed the streets of Vietnam's major cities and villages. Usually banded in tight-knit groups, the ages ranged from newborn to teenager. Supporting themselves in a variety of ways, smaller kids usually begged for handouts or stole from street vendors. Older females would solicit GI's or remain in their well-hidden tunnels or abandoned shacks taking care of infants. Older males usually divided into small groups, each one going out on a separate mission. One group organized protection rackets to shakedown small business owners. Others ambushed GI's or VC lured to secluded buildings by "working" females. Others attacked GI's sleeping on guard duty.

Bien Hoa's local government was known to be sympathetic to cowboys because of the deep psychological and physical scars caused by their being caught between the war. Some of the kids were said to have witnessed the deaths of their parents and families killed by VC or Americans. A cowboy caught disfiguring a GI was usually confined to an orphanage for a short time. He would either escape with the aid of his comrades who wouldn't rest until he'd been freed, or purchased if escape was impossible.

Because metropolitan Bien Hoa was declared VC free after TET '68, comspecs traveling through the city were prohibited from carrying weapons despite the fact that contact between VC and ARVN's was frequently reported. But fearing an M-16 might accidentally discharge hitting a civilian, the 1st Signal Brigade Commanding General, stating civilian safety took priority over a possible VC ambush, ruled that Brigade personnel were not allowed to carry weapons when traveling through the heavily-populated city on routine business. To compensate for being unarmed, comcenter drivers would fly through the open areas at 60-miles an hour, slowing down only slightly when entering the congested village.

On one occasion, a young black Supply specialist driving a2 and-a-half ton truck ran over a 6 year-old girl, crushing her under its 1-foot wide wheels. Refusing to stop because he thought he'd be mobbed by villagers, he panicked and fled back to the campus. Barricading himself behind the reinforced door of the Arms Room, it took almost 5 hours of patient coaxing to get him to unlock the door and give himself up.

No charges were filed against him despite testimony from local civilians who presented witnesses stating they observed the truck veer sharply toward the girl playing near the roadside. The witnesses were dismissed as being prejudiced against Americans. To his benefit the Army decided to accept the version given by a 2nd GI riding in the truck. He stated the truck wasn't exceeding the Army's regulation speed limit of 35 m.p.h. and that the girl "suddenly appeared out of nowhere". Later on, among friends, he admitted he made up the story because he felt it was more important to back up another American than let him get "sacrificed to the gooks."

As time went on most of the other men on campus began to share his view. Some even laid blame on the brigade commander stating his no weapons rule made it necessary for our vehicles to speed through the town in order to reduce the amount of time a sniper had to take aim.

III Ctz compound was divided into 2 sections, the largest of which was the ARVN compound where the comcenter was located. The smaller compound, about 2 miles from the main compound, was called the Allied Service Annex (ASAX). The ASAX was home for field-grade American and friendly forces liaison personnel from Australia, Korea, and NewFoundland who worked with ARVN III Ctz commanding General Do Cao Tri. Military observers from other allied countries, not involved in combat, were officially listed as "Not In Attendance". They were here under diplomatic status to get a 1st-hand look at new U.S. weapons being used under actual combat conditions. Also living on the compound were civilian intelligence personnel and contractors working for private company's such as Exxon and the Vinnell Corporation.

Before going to the comcenter the truck 1st stopped at the ASAX compound to permit the comspecs who dabbled in the black-market to load-up on booze and cigarettes at the U.S. PX to sell to the ARVN's living near the comcenter. Called "PX hounds" by the other comspecs, they were known to expire the limits of their monthly ration cards in less than 15 minutes. The ASAX PX was preferred over the Army Base PX because of its extensive variety and inventory of liquor and cigarettes. Having greater variety was a "privilege of rank."

After dropping us off at the comcenter, the truck would go back to the ASAX compound with the guys getting off duty. Because the campus mess hall started serving night chow an hour before the shift change, and the food was usually all gone by the time the truck got back, the day shift ate dinner at the cafe on the ASAX.

The cafe was run by American cooks but staffed by a female crew of V'namese dishwashers, kitchen aids, and hostesses. Clean and courteous, the girls were always anxious to see the comcenter crew arrive because we were their last customers and they could claim any food we didn't eat. The food would be taken home and eaten by their families or sold to their neighbors.

The gates leading off the main road onto the ARVN compound were protected by huge sandbagged bunkers manned by elite ARVN Special Forces troops cautiously monitoring every pedestrian and vehicle passing in front of their swivel-mounted M-60's. The comcenter truck normally entered the compound through Gate 3 unless it was closed for security reasons.

For maximum security, the comcenter was located 3 city-sized blocks behind Gate 3, almost dead-center on the compound. It was buffered from frontal attack by several dozen fully-staffed ARVN troop barracks, and rear attack by Camp "Snake" Hosking Green Beret compound. The only paved roads on the entire compound were located on Camp Hosking.

The comcenter's only open area lay off its left wall where a large open field served as the compound's chopper pad. Only seemingly vulnerable, the field was a false lure to any VC attempting to breach its hidden security. Dubbed "Dead Man's Playground" during TET '68, the 3-by-6 block long chopper field was said to have been littered with hundreds of VC bodies hoping to make the 4-minute run from the front wire to the comcenter before they were strafed to pieces by helicopter gunships dispatched from the airbase. "Those who weren't killed by the choppers were cut down by a row of submerged ARVN bunkers lining the row of trees along the 'back wall' of the field," according to Ron.

Sitting beside me on my 1st truck ride to the comcenter, he described the TET "suicide run" as, "like shooting fish in a barrel."

"The VC kept coming over the wire but the choppers and M-60's kept mowing them down. You'd think the stupid mother----ers would've learned after losing their 1st 100 guys. But they didn't. It was like they were sacrificing themselves for one of their stupid campaigns or something. Either that, or they were just too doped-up to know what the ---- they were doing. The only reason why they stopped charging was because there were too many dead bodies in their way."

Arriving at the comcenter I looked across the chopper field before hopping off the truck. I could almost visualize a sea of bodies covered with blood soaking through their black pajamas.

I would later learn it wasn't the comcenter the VC were attempting to capture, but the III CTZ Commanding General's headquarters located just across the road from the comcenter. Do Cao Tri was probably the VC's most hated ARVN commander.

The large, 50-by-80 foot comcenter was constructed from the same pre-fabricated warehouse structure used by the American military in V'nam for its other large office buildings and warehouses. Made of metal, these plug-and-fit modular warehouses were erected in a matter of hours. Stringing several together, end-to-end and side-by-side, they were used by the Air Force as Phantom hangars.

The comcenter's outer door was made of solid oak and plated with steel sheeting. Secured by 2 locks, the door was reinforced by an oak 2-by-4 held by 2 steel brackets. The vestibule inside the front door was approximately 6-by-8 feet and tiled. Painted in whitewash, the vestibule walls had to be re-painted weekly. Rude messages complaining about poor service, too many blacks working in the comcenter, and general comments about the weather, VD, and Jody, were scribbled on the wall.

Directly opposite the outer door was a small 1-by-2 foot window barred with half-inch iron plumbing pipe. 2 more doors were located on both sides of the vestibule. The window was used to pass messages to couriers arriving from their units. A message control officer was required to be at the window 24 hours a day. A fully-loaded M-16 was kept under the counter near the window in the event the outer door was blown open or an ARVN courier turned out to be a VC infiltrator. A door guard wearing a .45 automatic was assigned to monitor the door and remain in the vestibule until the courier departed.

In the history of the comcenter, only 1 VC incident had occurred, 2 years prior. The VC was discovered and given a dummy message. After leaving the comcenter he was shot in the back of the head by the door guard. The door guard was later chastised by MI officers who would have preferred the spy taken alive for questioning, or followed so the identity of other ARVN spies could be learned. During my time in the comcenter the only problems encountered at the window were irate couriers who felt waiting longer than 2 seconds for their messages was an inconvenience. The position of door guard and message control officer rotated nightly depending on who had the patience to deal with couriers.

The door to the right courier window led into a small office used by the comcenter's Officer-In-Charge (OIC). Because his workload was routine and light, the permanent OIC position was abandoned shortly before I arrived. The new, temporary OIC position, like the message control officer, rotated nightly.

A heavy metal door to the left of the courier window led directly into the central communications room. Controlled by an electronic switch, the inner door, like the outer door, could only be opened from the inside. and also like the outer door, it too was secured by 2 locks and an oak 2-by-4 held in steel brackets. A door control officer was assigned to monitor who and when personnel were allowed to enter. Inside, the comcenter was partitioned into 5 "work stations" and 2 "personal stations". The work stations consisted of the main communications room, a teletype repair station, a small message delivery area (on our side of the courier window), a crypto "vault", and a message repair area. The personal stations consisted of a 3-stool restroom located just behind the crypto vault and a small 6-by-6 foot area used as a break room.

Inside the break room was a small, brown vinyl couch, an endtable covered with a stack of year-old magazines piled in a heap, and a rusting, 20-cup coffeemaker that constantly brewed what the comspecs called "jump juice" because it was occasionally spiked with speed. On the wall over the coffee pot was a framed picture of Lieutenant William Calley taken from a page in TIME Magazine. Using a felt marker one of the few pro-war comspecs had written, "Right on Bill! We would have done the same thing!" The majority of comspecs were anti-war draftees.

Brightly lit, 10 double-tubed long fluorescent fixtures ran the length of the ceiling straight down the middle. Like the outer vestibule, the walls inside were shabbily whitewashed. Dotted every 5 feet or so with DOD industrial-safety posters that cautioned the dangers of overstepping the top rung of A-frame ladders and lifting heavy objects. Other posters warned the hazards of experimenting with dangerous drugs. On the white border of one poster titled "SPEED KILLS", one of the anti-war comspecs had captioned, "Yeah, but what a way to die!"

Amid the constant clatter of clicking teletypes, and the Saigon AFRTN radio station blaring from 4 speakers hung by wire in each corner near the ceiling, it was impossible to hear anyone talking from more than 6 feet away.

For transmitting and receiving urgent messages to high-priority commands, the comcenter operated 2 high-speed "Mode 5" units. Housed in mainframe cabinets that stood 6 1/2 feet high, messages came in so fast they were fed to 4 special printers that "spit-out" entire pages at once.

For "common", 60 word-per-minute, traffic, the comcenter operated 80 Western Union style teletypes. Sitting on 2 rows of waist-high plywood tables running 3/4's of the comcenter's length, every machine ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Incendiary canisters were placed behind each machine in case they needed to be destroyed in a hurry.

Aside from outright sabotage in later months, the teletypes fell apart regularly. The most common problem being motor-timing. In order for the teletypes to receive incoming messages ungarbled, or "5-by-5", their motors had to be in near-perfect synch with the speed of the messages being transmitted. Variations of 5/10's of a second, which could be "read" through the vibration of a tuning fork, could take a machine off-line at a crucial time when it was needed to receive an urgent message. But since most of the teletypes were held together with fishing tackle, gum, and prayers, equipment was taken off-line permanently only when nothing short of a major overhaul could get them on-line again.

To keep up with the constant equipment failure, 2 technicians were assigned to each 12-hour shift to keep as many running as possible. The teletype repair station was located at the rear of the central communications room. The shelves of the repair area were perpetually filled with partially dismantled teletypes being scavenged for spare parts to keep the operating units on-line. Of the hundreds of teletypes shipped to Vietnam, most were discards from stateside or European comcenters. A popular expression among Co A44's 6 teletype repair technicians was, "When a machine breaks down in NATO, it isn't thrown away, it's sent to Vietnam."

Correcting garbled messages was done in the message repair area. Located just off the central communications area, its floor was constantly littered with message fragments. On some occasions when long, 50-page messages needed repair, the pages overflowed onto the central room floor. To get around them, comspecs learned to master skillful hopping.

As a safety factor, to insure as much text as possible could be salvaged from garbled messages, a ticker-tape was punched-out by a small tapemaker attached to each teletype while it printed readable copy. The tiny paper dots punched-out of the tape fell into a small collection box under the unit.

Rolled-off on 8-inch round reels of 1-inch wide, pastel yellow paper, the holes made by the tapemaker partially resembled Morse code.

Because not all comspecs were cleared for all security levels, the last row of teletypes facing the left wall were used to send and receive higher classified messages. Un-cleared, or "restricted" comspecs were simply told not to enter that side of the room. To prevent them from seeing inside the crypto vault, where the comcenter's 2 dozen KL-7's were kept out of view, a double-walled curtain made out of Army blankets was strung across its doorway. Those cleared to enter had to pass through the 1st curtain into a small vestibule, insure the curtain closed properly behind him, then pass through the 2nd curtain into the vault. Even with the growing anti-war sentiment among the security-cleared comspecs over the next few months, the only security secret they kept from their restricted co-workers was the interior of the crypto vault. and even though the un-cleared comspecs heard the name "KL-7" mentioned hundreds of times during their tour, none ever got an opportunity to look behind the curtains to see what one actually looked like.

Originating from all over South V'nam the hundreds of messages passing through the Bien Hoa comcenter every day contained the details on almost every aspect of the war. From administrative messages to extremely urgent combat "Flashes". Administrative messages ranged from the Air Force runway repair orders to CIA combat analysis reports. Combat flashes ranged from the emergency medi-evac requests to "Do Not Delay" B-52 strike orders. Flash messages were preceded by a loud bell inside the teletype. This was needed to alert a possibly inattentive operator that an urgent message was coming in over his system. The sound of bells in a comcenter was equivalent to a B-52 scramble horn at NORAD. When the bells began to ring, all horseplay, all coffee breaks, all conversation stopped. Every other activity became second priority to handling a Flash.

Messages were transmitted and received over microwave beam and classified by their military importance. Routine was designated for messages with the lowest classification, followed by Priority, then Immediate, then, Flash.

Also classified by a security handling category, Unclassified applied to low-priority administrative communiques, then Classified, Secret, Top Secret, and Noforn (meaning Not For Foreign Eyes). Noforn applied to all foreign agencies, not just South Vietnamese.

No time limit was placed on the handling of Routine messages, however, as the urgency classification increased, the handling time of the messages decreased. Immediate messages had to be in the hands of the addressee within 30 minutes of its receipt by the comcenter. Flash messages had to be delivered in 5. On many occasions, when a Flash was 4 of 5 pages in length, and its addressee within walking distance, the 1st pages were being hand-delivered by a courier before the final pages had been received.

For most of the agencies, with liaison offices on General Tri's compound, this was no problem. However, for his own headquarters he issued a standing order that made Flash messages difficult to deliver, or at least difficult at 1st. Tri ordered that all messages brought to his office were not to be delivered by anyone lower than a Captain. But because none of the message handlers were Captains, a set of Captains bars were kept in his message box. The comspec on courier duty at the time would simply remove his own rank and pin the double-set of Captains bars to his collar before walking over to Tri's headquarters. For the duration of my tour Tri never questioned why there were so many American captains working at the comcenter, or, he knew all along we were scamming him and just accepted our conciliatory gesture in adherence to his orders.

I got an opportunity to meet General Tri about 12:30 one morning 4 months into my tour. That night, it just happened to be my turn to be courier duty, and the General's night to launch a surprise VC attack.

A dwarf even by V'namese standards, Do Cao Tri was South Vietnam's George Patton. Always in public with his maroon ARVN Special Forces beret, he was also rarely without his mirrored sunglasses. When watching him walk from the chopper pad to his underground command center, his hands continually fondled the identical pearl-handled 6-shooters bracing his sides. Said to have led just about every major battle his III CTZ troops made, he insisted that his division commanders always select combat objectives for their military value, rather than their political value.

Tri's spectacular exits and arrivals were surpassed only by the high-level dignitaries who came to talk strategy with him. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, Commanding General Creighton Abrams, Vice-President Ky, and President Thieu were occasional visitors. Standing outside his underground offices chatting with his much taller visitors, Tri looked more like a small child who'd been given unlimited power over the other kids on the block than a 3-star General. However, it was his brilliant combat record, not his important friends, that set him apart from his counterparts commanding Vietnam's other 3 Combat Tactical ones. Tri's numerous battle decorations even surpassed President Thieu's, a former 2-star General.

After descending the 2-story concrete staircase of his underground headquarters carrying a Flash message to an American liaison officer working in his command center, the outside steel door flew open in front of me as I reached out to grab it. Surprised, I immediately jumped backwards. Just as I did, 2 ARVN Majors stormed out. Stepping towards me, one placed his hand on my chest pushing me toward the wall. Taking another step back I froze, allowing him to look me over head to toe. ARVN intelligence officers were known to shoot 1st, torture second, then shoot again. It was in my best interest, being without a gun, to play wimp this round.

The meritorious ribbons lining the top of the Major's left shirt pocket indicated he had seen a number of major battles and done his part to win them. But watching his bloodshot eyes scan me led me to think he would have no trouble getting a job as an X-ray machine after the war. After giving me the once over he asked me why I was there. I was surprised at his perfect English.

Glancing 1st at the sealed envelope in my hand, I informed him I had a message for a Colonel Boxleiter "working with General Tri" and the message was "extremely urgent." Looking at my hand, he reached down to take the envelope. I pulled it back. Even though I respected his position as General Tri's bodyguard and recognized that his experience in combat probably gave him just cause to suspect everyone, even an American captain of being a possible assassin, the SECRET-NOFORN warning stamped on the envelope meant no V'namese was permitted to read it. No matter what his rank or authority.

Immediately, I shoved it inside my shirt. Watching me, he realized I was a courier and immediately took his hand off my chest. Turning around, he spoke several words in V'namese to the other Major silently standing near the stairs.

Pointing to the top of the stairs as he spoke, he motioned to the other Major to proceed up. Turning back to me, he smiled.

"I'm glad you didn't try to swallow that envelope, GI. Spies are the only people who swallow messages and we skin spies around here. You would've wasted a good message."

Walking toward the stairs, he raised his hand, waved, then ran up the stairs himself. Reaching the top, he pulled a whistle out of his shirt pocket and blew it 3 times. Almost instantly the sound of several dozen feet rumbled from the nearby barracks. Shouting a command in Vietnamese, the Major snapped his feet to attention. The crowd of men echoed by slamming their heels together. Immediately after, there was complete silence.

Turning back around, the Major looked down toward the bottom of the stairs and blew his whistle twice more. Suddenly the door flew open again. This time with so much force it crashed into the wall behind it. The next person to exit was a V'namese Colonel wearing perfectly starched creases down the front of his shirt. Carrying a leather brief case with 3 large silver stars painted on its flap, I could tell General Tri himself would be walking out any moment.

Glancing momentarily at me, the Colonel turned toward the stairs then quickly darted up. Following him, 2 more ARVN officers stepped out. Then, moments later, General Tri himself. Surrounded by a half-dozen ARVN officers grouped behind him, my 1st thought was how did a man so short not only rise to his high rank, but also command the worship of his men and the respect of many Americans. The only answer I could arrive at was the comments I had heard from some of the comspecs. "Tri was one bad mother----er!"

Carrying a short leather swagger stick, Tri was the only one in the group smiling. The officers behind him were either concerned about something or trying their best to appear that way. Noticing me as he stepped toward the staircase, Tri stopped and faced me. Looking up, he reached out his hand. Without hesitating, I extended mine. In a half-hearted hand shake he thanked me for coming to his country to "help fight the communists."

"We have a great mission to accomplish. and we appreciate all the American help we can get."

Then, before his last word was out, he turned towards the stairs and was off again, bounding up the steps 2 at a time.

Following the V'namese officers in his entourage, 2 American full-bird Colonels walked out. One of whom I recognized as Colonel Boxleiter. Pulling out the envelope I still had tucked inside my shirt, I thrust it toward him as he passed. Snapping it out of my hand, he shoved it in his pocket, threw me a half-salute, then ran up the stairs.

The instant Tri reached the top of the stairs the Major blew his whistle again at the honor guard lined-up on the road. Shouting for them to come to attention, a hundred heels snapped together in salute to Tri. Casually leaning to one side, Tri slapped his swagger stick in the palm of his open hand. Looking down the row of men in front of him from one side to the other as if to make sure everyone's rifle was raised to the perfect angle, he snapped his heels together and raised his swagger stick to the brim of his cap and returned their salute. Immediately after he wheeled to his right then marched off toward the chopper pad.

Colonel Boxleiter was the last man to reach the top of the stairs. After he made his turn toward the chopper pad I ran up. Just as I made it to the top a fleet of 8 gunships were making their landing approach from the west. As the choppers neared the pad's landing marks they separated into 2 single-file columns, both landing simultaneously. Tri went directly to the 1st chopper in the 1st column. Jumping out to meet him, an ARVN lieutenant placed a foot stool on the ground by the chopper door. Reaching up to grab the handle, Tri put one foot on the stool then the other into the chopper. Pausing to look back at the row of choppers behind him, he jumped off the foot stool and ran back to the 3rd chopper. Grabbing the foot stool, the young lieutenant ran ahead of the General placing it at his feet just in time for Tri to step inside. Following him, the 1st 2 majors and Colonel Boxleiter jumped aboard. The other officers spread themselves out to the other choppers.

Tri was known to select his "flagship" only at the last moment. A strong religious and superstitious man who believed Generals should frequently vary their ways in order to keep the enemy from maintaining a schedule, Tri knew Charlie was always looking for vulnerable habits and patterns in both American and ARVN commanders to make an assassination attempt. 3 years later it would either be his failure to maintain his cautiousness, or sabotage within his command, that caused his death. Killed shortly before the war ended, the wreckage of Tri's chopper was so severe it was impossible to determine if it had been hit by ground fire or destroyed by a time bomb.

I would see General Tri only once more during my tour. It would be during my 7th month following a minor traffic accident. While driving the comcenter's deuce-and-a-half back from the garbage dump on the far side of the chopper field where our classified trash was burned, I temporarily lost control of the steering wheel and collided into one of the ceremonial columns "guarding" the entrance to the chopper pad. Made out of folded corrugated steel, the column buckled like cardboard when the truck glanced off it. The truck only suffered minor damage to its gas tank. The column buckled in half.

The ceremonial columns were believed by the ARVN's to "protect" all who passed between them by canceling-out the good and evil in their kharma. Being a strong believer in their "magic", General Tri ordered they be erected at each of his bases and blessed weekly by a local Buddhist monk, a Catholic priest, and an ARVN Honor Guard.

Upon hearing about the accident, Tri came out to personally inspect the damage. When seeing the column irreparably bent he became enraged. After ordering the V'namese guard on duty at the time immediately transferred to a combat unit, he requested permission from his American liaisons to punish the American driver. Being refused that request, he asked that the driver be transferred to an American combat unit. The very next day I received orders to "hide-out in Xuan Loc until Tri cooled off." Along with my 2-week exile I was given a disciplinary report for reckless driving. As additional punishment I was ordered to play basketball in one of the campuses empty warehouses between 5 and 6:30 every evening for a month after my return. My support from the CO and the 1st Sergeant, who recommended my "punishment", was one of the most unifying gestures the command had made toward a black in their command during my tour. Although some of the brothers on campus failed to appreciate it.

Shortly before the war ended several years later, I read that Tri's chopper had gone down in a flaming fireball. TIME Magazine reported the General and everyone on board were killed instantly. After reading the detailed account of the crash I realized I was probably lucky Tri's death didn't occur during the remainder of my time in-country. Had he met his death just after my collision with the ceremonial columns at his headquarters, his family may have interpreted it as an evil omen and put out a contract on me.

Although it's impossible to say if his premature death helped the North to overwhelm the South with any greater speed, General Tri's contribution to the war should have been rewarded with a much longer life than the corrupt ARVN commanders now living comfortably in exile. He was truly South Vietnam's George S. Patton.

Although at 1st the men working in the comcenter respected the urgency of their work the time would come when an anti-war attitude, supported by drugs, directly affected the speed and proficiency of the comcenter's operation. The caption written under the "SPEED KILLS" poster was only a small example of the frustration and anger beginning to build up on campus as each new draftee arrived to replace the early enlistees now going home. The fact that the poster wasn't removed by the CO indicated lax supervision and fading control. The caption not only signified drug use was growing more open, it was a defiant rejection of authority and a declaration by the comspecs that they would do whatever the wanted to do, whenever they wanted to do it. and they made so secret of the fact that they hated the comcenter, the Army, the war, Vietnam, and themselves for being here.

When I 1st arrived draftees got back at the Army by sabotaging equipment in small ways. KL-7 program pins were removed, which garbled messages. Tapemakers were allowed to jam-up by not emptying their collection boxes, which ruined the confirmation tapes. and because the teletypes were the most fragile they received the most abuse. By turning them off then on again before their motors stopped completely, their timing was upset. Other methods used were to insert a paper clip in the print head, ruining its pin alignment. Or pouring a drop of rubbing alcohol on a transistor, blowing its circuits. Alcohol was used because it evaporated quickly leaving no evidence.

Later on, after the saboteurs realized their equipment failures weren't bringing about an immediate change to their condition, and the repair techs began reporting that the breakdowns appeared intentional, sabotage became more sophisticated and subtle. But before it got to a point where incoming messages were intentionally ruined, distortion was tried. Airport runway repair reports being sent to the 20th Engineer Battalion were "amended" with exaggerative data making environmental damage seem more severe than it actually was. For example, a report stating Ton Son Nhut airbase was experiencing "soft shoulders" due to night dampness was rewritten to look like rain had completely washed away parts of the runway. Or, a report stating small potholes caused by tire friction was amended to read large craters were making landings hazardous. Air traffic controllers had to re-route heavy supply planes to other fields.

Even more serious alterations to messages such as supply, Pentagon status, and enemy troop-count reports were selectively and routinely changed on a daily basis.

On some occasions the alteration of the enemy troop-counts were increased and on others decreased. For example, if an (suspected) enemy count was estimated at 5,000 in the Bien Hoa province, the number was increased to 20,000 because our Center was located in Bien Hoa. It was thought that if the count was high more defensive troops would be assigned to Bien Hoa. Likewise, if a friend of a comspec was stationed in an area where a low enemy count was registered the number was adjusted upward to get more defensive troops sent to that area.

The same rationale was applied to other areas. If, for example, a report came in from Chu Lai estimating an area enemy count of 2,000, it would be reduced to 500. Because if Chu Lai appeared to require more defensive troops they might be pulled from the Bien Hoa area thereby reducing Co A44's protection.

On other occasions enemy counts were altered purely for the hell of it, depending on what mood the operator was in at the time the report was received. Of course, if the operator was "stoned" at the time, the counts might change radically.

Although some of the messages coming into the comcenter were duplicates that had already been received by their addressees by another source such as direct from the sender or via the RTT rig, a comspec could get around that by re-delivering it two, or even 3 times and change the originators date each time. The receiver, seeing a new date and time, would think the follow-up messages were updates correcting earlier copies. To make sure the receiver noted the new clocking, the comspec would rubber-stamp the message, "CONFIRMED COPY" or "CORRECTED COPY".

Reading the 1,000's of messages Bien Hoa received each week, everyone working in the comcenter knew of occasional victories spread widely between the many losses, and also the routine distortions that painted the good to seem better and the bad to seem acceptable.

1 example was the media stories coming over the AFRTN and stateside press of an incident that was reported to have been occurring at a certain moment in time, when in fact the incident had occurred several days prior and was since terminated when the press was told about it. Usually running 3 to 4 days behind, military status information was released to the public on a "delayed schedule" so that no surprise endings to current battles or "sensitive situations" could embarrass the military or the President.

By controlling the time factor, a situation could take its natural course, win or lose, and the military could "re-structure" the final results the way they wanted it to appear before informing the MACV press corps. Raw reports of explicit data would be sent to the Pentagon or White House then returned in highly abridged and carefully re-structured form.

Although much of the information laundered by the Pentagon and White House probably didn't have to be, there was a great deal that did. Unknown to most Americans, V'nam was more than just the war they read about in the papers everyday. Southeast Asia was, according to the RTT instructors at USASESS, the "free world's eastern base of operations." It hosted more clandestine activities than the rest of world, combined.

We were told, "There are 2 reasons why some of the information you learn about won't be in the news as quickly as you may think it should be. One, some seemingly unrelated incidents with far-reaching effects in the intelligence sector have to be carefully analyzed before even a hint of activity in a sensitive zone can be disclosed. and two, information must be released under controlled conditions. By releasing it slowly and in small amounts, the public builds up an insensitivity factor. By the time they hear the hardest part of the story they've been sufficiently inoculated with a few smaller shocks to prepare them. There've been too many occasions when the military told the whole story all at once and the public freaked-out. The press came down on us like a ton of bricks and the American people forced us to cut back on programs that may have had negative short-term results, but would've turned out positive in the long-term."

In some cases, however, bad news simply couldn't be made to look better. If the military suffered an embarrassing loss it hastened to conclude that report with an attached "tag-along", that is, a report of some exaggerated success to counter-balance a defeat. In other words, the boys in the military information office were saying to each other, "Ok fella's, let's throw in something positive so people don't think we're totally ----ed up."

Although withholding and altering information before releasing it to the press appeared to be unfair censorship, the military was not being malicious about it. The military simply believed their obligation was to the President. and the responsibility of informing the American public fell on the shoulders of their elected officials.

The men who worked the comcenter were sworn to secrecy about the information we were exposed to. This, we were ordered, was "in the interest of national security. and the security of the nation is paramount to any other interest, "even our own personal beliefs regarding what we felt to be morally right or wrong."

During my RTT ROT debriefing, we were told, "before our eyes would pass very sensitive information that had to be kept secret because, with our open democracy, to inform the American people about everything going on in V'nam would also be to inform the entire world. This would mean giving our military and economic competitors unfair access to information American boys were getting shot up and killed to obtain."

In one ROT lecture we were told, "The American people are too easily swayed by subversive elements out to exploit the facts by twisting them into a million confusing lies. Commies like Jane Fonda is the best example. How many real Americans do you know would even want to go to North Vietnam?"

In late-night debates on the subject everyone agreed the conflict between allowing the free press access to the military, while at the same time maintaining national security was, even by our school instructors admission, "a real dilemma." For us, serving on the bottom rung of the military ladder, yet having access to information going to the highest, was a personal dilemma.

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