I was reluctant to take the spec ops assignment in Xuan Loc for 2 reasons. 1, I'd heard from other RTT men that the U.S. Army base in Xuan Loc was so tiny, about the size of a football field, Charlie could overrun it in a day. and 2, it was said to be (unofficially) controlled by a group of Sergeants who also ran the local black-market. But I had to agree with everybody else who suggested it would be wise for me to get out of Bien Hoa until General Tri cooled off about my running over his ceremonial column.
When I finally arrived and discovered for myself how tiny the Army base was, my first impression was that anybody with a decent arm could throw a rock across it. and although I was tempted to try it, I decided not to. It would have been just my luck the rock would've fallen on the head of a General's V'namese girlfriend and I would have to pack up again to find somewhere else to hide.
Xuan Loc was about 30 miles from Bien Hoa. The American 199th Light Infantry Brigade patrolled the perimeter and roads leading into it. The 18th ARVN Division surrounded the region outside.
The original plan for my getting there was for a special truck to drive me early one morning but because the driver was late in reserving a dependable vehicle, we missed the convoy and had to travel the road alone. Allied convoys drove Highway One twice each day, one going up in the morning, and another coming back to Bien Hoa in the late afternoon. An unofficial agreement between the ARVN's and the VC was that Allied forces would use the road by day and Charlie at night. The agreement lasted fairly well without too many incidents except when a few renegade VC came out to take target practice at the big white star painted on all American vehicles. Just before pulling into the compound we took an AK-47 round through the bottom of the rear door. Going straight through the metal, it missed me by 10 inches. This was one of those situations I mentioned earlier about making the right decision. Rather than ride shotgun on the front seat, I thought it would be safer to ride in the back.
Except for a few choppers swooping down to buzz our truck, and a couple of 199th tanks chasing us for fun, the ride was uneventful. Still, I was prepared. Armed with 2 M-16's, an M-79, a half-dozen grenades, 2 bayonets, flak jacket, helmet, and crossbow, it would take more than a few snipers to take me down.
Xuan Loc was considered a low-profile base. Meaning, true wartime SOP was in force. Those included not having to salute, dress codes un-enforced, social relations between officers and enlisted men were unrestricted, and freedom to circulate off-post was permitted. As long as no problems occurred, women were even allowed in the hootches.
The base was manned entirely by technical support personnel but, along with the 199th and 18th ARVN, it was defended by an elite ARVN Special Forces unit and a detachment of Green Berets. Artillery support was provided by an 11th Armored Cavalry Brigade battery. Because the ARVN troops lived in the village and the town was considered friendly and inaccessible to VC infiltration, the ARVN's patrolling outside our perimeter occasionally took the night off or found themselves a hiding place and rolled-up in a sleeping bag. To ensure their security, Americans stood nightly guard inside their perimeter line. The perimeter was fortified by several rows of barbwire and hundreds of Claymore mines.
The 200 or so technical, intelligence, and combat advisory personnel on Xuan Loc formed a tight-knit, family-type camaraderie. Everyone knew each other by first name and job. My title for the short visit would be Radio Communication Advisor for Advisory Team 87. Outside of one unpleasant experience, I would learn more about V'nam in the 3 weeks I spent in Xuan Loc than my other 49 weeks. I would have the opportunity to see how the war was fought from the Generals perspective.
Although on the surface newcomers like myself received the impression Xuan Loc's camaraderie was due to everyone liking each other, friendliness was not the case. Camaraderie was the result of a well-organized good old boys network comprised of individuals banded together by their black-market dealings rather than for the traditional ethnic, racial, or fraternal reasons. Most of the day-to-day management of the local black-market activity was carried out by senior enlisted men. Most of whom were black and openly bragged they were "sending home as much as $10,000 a week". Whole company operations, the mess hall, the supply house, the armory, and the PX, were all tainted by the enormous financial profits the black-market delivered. (1)
There was little doubt that base officers controlled the operations but stayed out of the intimate day-to-day dealings. Senior enlisted men simply could not have run the black-market without brass knowledge and support. The arrangement between the senior officers and enlisted men was best for 2 reasons. 1st, in the event a Sergeant got caught, any ensuing investigation was controlled by his CO who would, of course, find him innocent. and secondly, it was very dangerous to bring new, young officers into the operation until they had been in 'Nam long enough to gradually turn. Most new 2nd Lieutenants came out of OCS gung-ho and firmly believing the Army should be run strictly by the book. In cases where a new officer refused to conform he was given a tougher assignment, transferred out, or set-up. Usually, it didn't take long for a new officer to realize that having a quiet desk job in a PX on a small, well-controlled base like Xuan Loc, was better than commanding an infantry platoon in the Delta.
In order to keep those who weren't involved in the black-market in line, an unspoken gentleman's agreement was maintained. It permitted everyone to freely go after his own entrepreneurial or sexual pursuits without the fear of someone "going renegade" and causing MACV interference. Anyone deliberately breaking that agreement was considered to have committed a crime akin to treason. and being convicted of "good old boy" treason meant there would be no investigation of a renegade "getting shot by Charlie."
For new young officers or enlisted men who didn't understand how the game worked, they were politely taken aside and informed. and if the truth was not expected to work, they were lied to.
One case was an RTT man assigned to the base several months before I arrived. Finding out that his roommate, a 2nd Lieutenant who ran the base's maid service was sending home huge amounts of money, he went to see a base staff officer to complain about it. The RTT man was told the Lieutenant was "conducting a Top Secret operation for an unspecified agency to uncover female VC's among the bases maid staff."
As for the black-market itself, it had some legitimacy also. By controlling commercial trade the Americans were able to control the local economy. and by controlling the economy Charlie was prevented from getting a foothold in the area. The VC couldn't offer the natives the paychecks, electronic goodies, medical care, alcohol, cigarettes, and balanced diet we did. The civilians were happy with their higher standard of living and had no desire for the Spartan lifestyle Ho Chi Mihn recommended for his guerrillas but didn't live himself.
The only real problem with the black-market was that a lot of Americans were making a lot money. So much, the guys bringing in big bank rolls were placing the war secondary to making more money. A good example of that was a case I learned about shortly after arriving. A Sergeant, new to the black-market game, requested clearance to shoot one of the V'namese contact men he dealt with when he discovered the man was a double agent. The contact had sold arms to a renegade VC unit who wasted a 199th tank crew the week before I arrived. Denied his request, the Sergeant was told his contact was more valuable alive than dead, and that the business of keeping the market stable was more important than revenge. The Sergeant zapped the man anyway.
Because Xuan Loc was the field center for III CTZ, which encompassed politically-sensitive Saigon, it was regularly visited by every brass hat from MACV to the smallest administration company. Xuan Loc's main (Allied) command center was located on the ARVN compound a few miles outside the U.S. base in an underground complex. The communications office was located in a small room in back of the central war room where all regional allied regular and Special Forces operations were planned and monitored.
The entrance to the command center was perfectly chosen. There were no flags and no signs to indicate its status. Even General staff cars, who's drivers normally unfolded the flags mounted on their hoods to let everyone know the rank of the General "on station", were kept covered.
Resembling the covered stairway leading down to a New York subway station, the grounds around the entrance were unobtrusive. There were a few broken fences to the front of the entrance, a broken-down shack to the right, and a V'namese barber shop to the left. The head barber, a middle-aged V'namese of French mixture, wore a long-barreled .45 under his white apron on a swivel mounted holster. In the remote event he needed to shoot an assassin coming after one of his clients, it was said he could hit a moving target without lifting his apron or removing the gun from its holster.
Only 2 1/2 feet wide, the stairway leading down to the war room was intentionally designed to be narrow to prevent a large force entering the underground offices at once. Allied officers had to enter and leave 1 at a time. Courtesy was given to the highest rank. A Captain, for example, waited for a Major to clear the staircase before he stepped onto it.
Turning to the right at the bottom of the staircase were an array of offices, some permanently staffed by liaisons from the various services and governments, others occupied only when a representative was on-station. An interrogation office was located at the end of the corridor. It's door was barred and a burly MP remained outside whenever it was being used. NVA and VC prisoners were always brought in and taken out blindfolded.
To the right of the staircase was a dark, winding corridor with offices on both sides. Dimly lit, the lights were kept low so officers leaving the complex after sunset would not be night-blinded when they went topside. In the event the complex had to be evacuated in a hurry and one had to start shooting right away, it was an inconvenience to have to wait for your eyes to become conditioned to the dark.
The corridor was always filled with officers smoking and discussing strategy. Smoking was not allowed in the main war room located at the end of the corridor. Lack of ventilation prevented fresh air blowing the smoke out.
I'd heard a lot about Xuan Loc's war room before arriving. Entering it for the 1st time, it was everything everyone said it was. About 30-feet long and 20-feet wide, a large, 6-by-12 foot map table stood in the center. Recessed a half-foot below a 4-inch wide armrest, a huge terrain relief map covered the table. The map was made on a precise scale to Xuan Loc and the surrounding countryside. From the realistic map strategists could get a picture of where things were happening. Detailed with raised brown-colored hills, green patchy forests, red sand deposits, orange defoliated regions, and blue water lakes and streams, the map was altered daily to reflect changing characteristics. Miniature tanks were positioned where armored units were located. Tiny GI's indicated infantry operations, and cannons were used for artillery units. Green tacks were used for Green Beret operations, purple tacks indicated ARVN Special Forces locations. Grid lines crisscrossing the table horizontally and vertically indicated region coordinates in tiny, barely visible numbers.
The table was always surrounded by senior officers pointing to areas of the map or talking on field telephones mounted on the panels lining the outside of the table. The only lights in the room came from a few wall-mounted, single-bulb lamps spread around the walls and a ring of florescent tubes lining the table underneath the armrest.
Just inside the door to the right was a small bar cabinet with lead-crystal decanters and shotglasses. The cabinet contained a stained plywood cover that was closed when General officers who objected to drinking showed up. To the left was a small desk covered with briefing manuals. Framed pictures of Nixon, Thieu, Ky, Tri, 199th Light Infantry Brigade Commanding General William Bond, and other local commanders lined the walls. Tri and Bond were frequent visitors. A week after my departure, General Bond was killed. He was hit in the chest by a single sniper bullet. The American Army couldn't have suffered a greater loss.
The communication station was located in a small, 8-by-8 foot room directly behind the war room. Most of the messages handled were Flash category. In some cases messages to be marked NOFORN had to be placed in a brief case just to carry into the next room. Officers reading them had to be taken to a secluded corner and the messages had to be handed right back. Because there was always the risk VC might infiltrate the ARVN command, or a legitimate ARVN officer defecting, messages were stored in the communication station because a staffer (regular staff officer), upset over receiving bad news was known to slam a message on a table or counter and walk off, forgetting about it.
Shortly after arriving, I ran into an ROC classmate whom I hadn't seen since AIT at Ft Ord. Al terminated his training after ROC and got his orders for 'Nam while the rest of us headed for Georgia. He'd been in 'Nam 8 months when I arrived. Al worked in the base MARS station. The MARS assignment was said to have been one of the most preferred jobs on the base. Through sister stations located along the California coast MARS stations provided direct telephone communications for GI's in V'nam with their families in the Sates. Poor weather or ionospheric conditions limited the number of hours optimum contact could be made.
I later learned from some of the other RTT men that Al had traded his fear of death and Vietnam, along with his "anal virginity", for the security of the MARS station. The job had been offered to several guys by a Special Service Master Sergeant who supervised the station. Al later moved into the same hootch with the Sergeant. The one-man facility he operated was a comfortable 10-second walk from his hootch. There was no secret about the homosexual live-in affair between the 2. It was readily accepted like all the other insanity that existed in Vietnam.
As soon as I heard about his arrangement with the Sergeant, and other activities that would have sent a 1/4 of Xuan Loc's personnel to jail had their adventures taken place on a stateside base, I should have requested re-assignment back to Bien Hoa. But against my better judgment, I stayed. This was a decision I would later regret.
Like the senior Sergeant who succeeded in luring Al into his sexual underworld, younger GI's were always the targets of homosexual advances. The Sergeant who attempted to score on me was a weasely, black Sergeant 1st-Class named Johnson. The enlisted men on the base called him "Peanut Head" behind his back because of the double-lobed curvature of his skull.
About 40 years old and a true Army lifer in every sense of the word, it was difficult to regard Johnson's 5-foot-3 frame and 150 pounds as being worth respect. His compressed size put him in a category with other Army lifers whose obvious physical or psychological handicaps made the Army the only company in the world they could obtain a lifetime career. He was on his final 6-year contract and often spoke about remaining on active duty over his 20-year mark because he had nothing waiting for him on the outside.
The situation began for me one sunny afternoon while outside helping my hootch maid hang my freshly laundered clothes over the sandbags stacked outside our doorway. Clotheslines were banned by MACV because sheets and clothing hanging all over the base provided obstructions for enemy sappers to conceal themselves. So in lieu of clotheslines our maids made use of any surface they could find to sun-dry our laundry. This included sandbags, the roof of our hootch, and tree limbs. To prevent ringworm disease, MACV's Surgeon General issued an order prohibiting maids from using the grass.
Walking past the hootch at just about that time, Johnson stopped to talk. "What's going on here?" He asked. "Laundry time?"
I didn't answer. The heap of wet fatigues in my arms made his question unnecessary. But asking stupid questions was typical of Army clowns like Johnson.
Grabbing a pair of my Army-issue boxer shorts from the maids laundry basket, he held them up above his head. Smiling as he glanced at them, then at me, then back at them again, I smiled back. I saw no reason not to. I'd been in 'Nam a little over 6 months and I had seen enough weird things done by what probably used to be normal people that by now very few things shocked me. Having some guy walk by my hootch and examine a pair of my underwear was far from the wierdest behavior I'd seen since I arrived. Of course, what do you say when somebody walks up, picks up your shorts and smiles at them? You smile back and say hello. So that's what I did.
"Hey Sarge, How's it going?"
Still smiling, he didn't answer right away. He looked as if he couldn't figure out what it was he wanted to say. After staring at my underwear for a few moments longer, he looked at me and asked, "And who's nice looking body fits into these?"
The smile on my face slid to the ground. Looking around to see if anyone nearby witnessed my embarrassment, I noticed 2 microwave technicians sitting in lawn chairs sunning themselves. I could tell by their grins they had overheard Johnson's comment and were waiting to hear my response. They were probably thinking, "Okay, Phill. Let's see how the hell you get out of this one!"
I turned back to Johnson. Hoping to dismiss his comment with a joke, I answered, "Uh, I think they belong to mama-sahn here."
The instant the words registered, the smile on his face flattened out. He was apparently expecting to hear something else. Angrily dropping the shorts back in the laundry basket, he looked at me and stared.
After a few moments, and still no comment from him, I decided the best thing for me to do was just disappear before he had a chance to add to our short conversation. I figured he was just freaking-out on me and it would be best if he was left to himself.
As I started to walk back into the hootch he reached out and grabbed one of my arms. I stopped and turned around. "You got something else to say I'll think is funny?" I asked.
Looking serious, he whispered, "Mr. Coleman, I'd really like to talk to you sometime."
Looking straight into his eyes, I paused before answering. I wondered why he was whispering and what did he want to talk to me about that he couldn't say right now. Wanting to settle it, I asked him to go ahead. "I'm all ears Johnson, what's up?"
"Not now," he whispered back, "maybe later on....sometime in the wee hours of the night".
"In the wee hours of the night???"
"Yeah, when we can talk alone."
Again, wanting him to get it over with, I pushed him to settle his reason for confronting me. "Well, what's it about? Me, you, or work?"
"Nothing in particular, just one man talking to another."
He was obviously not going to say what was on his mind now so I gave up.
"Ok Sarge," I resigned. "You get back to me."
Glancing down at his hand still on my arm, I looked back up, indicating to him to let go. He did.
Walking back into the hootch I had to admit to myself he'd succeeded in shocking me. I decided to avoid him for the rest of my stay in Xuan Loc and hope he would forget about our conversation.
It turned out my ostrich-like way of dealing with his approach was wrong. 2 nights later we were both assigned to perimeter-guard duty. A month later I would receive a letter from Al informing me know he'd heard Johnson had pre-arranged with our CO for the 2 of us to be scheduled guard duty on the same night.
The night itself was a typical pitch black night. Hot, humid, and sweaty. and as usual, the air was thick with the odor of marijuana smoke. Burning weed was an odor that was present wherever there were GI's.
The sandbagged guard bunkers dotting the perimeter surrounding Xuan Loc looked like huge ant hills rising 5 feet above the ground. Hollowed out, they extended below ground deep enough for a man 6-feet or slightly better to walk comfortably around inside.
During the night the bunkers were usually manned by 3 guards. One stationed on top with a grenade launcher, another inside manning an M-60 helicopter machine gun, and the 3rd sleeping on the 2-by-4 mattress-less bunk. Guard shifts were rotated every 3 hours so that each man spent one shift in each position.
Because the village surrounding the compound was considered highly secure, and Green Berets routinely patrolled the bush, bunker duty seemed almost unnecessary except for the possibility that a "lone wolf" or cowboy might sneak through a gap in the patrols and waste a few GI's sleeping in the nearby hootches. (2)
Johnson requested the 1st shift topside. I took the 1st shift inside. When it came time for us to rotate, me topside and him to sleep, he informed me he wasn't sleepy and preferred to "just sit on top of the bunker and watch the stars drift by." He gave the 3rd guard permission to sleep another shift. Although I preferred pulling my shift alone I couldn't argue with him. It was his sleep he was losing, not mine. Johnson was a chain smoker never without a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Often, before the one he was smoking was ready to be tossed, he lit up another. He gave you the impression that keeping a lit cigarette in his mouth was as important as eating and sleeping.
About 30 minutes into my shift he stood up, stretched, and climbed off the bunker. As I watched him walk inside, I gave a sigh of relief he didn't use our being alone to have our "wee hour" conversation. But much to my disappointment he came back out a few seconds later.
Carrying a clipboard he climbed back topside and asked me to accompany him for an inspection of the Claymore mines lining the barbwire. I found nothing strange in his request, although the particular timing seemed slightly off. With the 3rd man inside sleeping, there was no one left to man the M-60 or answer the field phone should the Command Center call. Also, checking the Claymores was a chore that should have been done before the sleeping shifts began, not during. However, checking the wiring connections was SOP so I agreed.
Because the devices were connected to the guard bunkers by contact wires, small rodents or monkeys darting across the perimeter would frequently run into the wires and disengage them. Having one of the wires removed, and not knowing about it, could prove very embarrassing if Charlie decided to attack the base and repelling him was given the responsibility of the Claymores that failed to explode.
It was always better for 2 men to go through the checklist inspection than one. One man would physically inspect the wiring connections while the other monitored and read the step-by-step instructions. The SOP of requiring the checklist method of inspecting the Claymores was due to a fatal accident that occurred several months prior on a Marine compound up north.
Without informing their Command Center 2 guards had left their bunker to check their Claymores. Their mines were set up to go off automatically by tripwires strung behind the perimeter barbwire instead of a control switch in the bunker. and because they approached the mines in the wrong direction, from the front rather than behind, one of the GI's fell over a tripwire, detonating it.
Shrapnel from the mine critically injured both men and set off several other tripwires positioned in front of it. Giving the appearance of a sapper attack, the multiple explosions set off a base-wide red alert.
After sitting out an entire night on alert expecting a VC attack, it wasn't until dawn when it was discovered why the mines had been triggered. An autopsy of the 2 guards revealed that both had expired just minutes before their bodies were found. The medical report read that had they been discovered sooner, they may have been saved. But because an impending attack was anticipated no one was allowed in the free-fire zone to investigate.
Since that accident, MACV ordered that all rear-base perimeter Claymores be set to detonate by manually-operated contact-switches. The mines we were about to inspect had recently been fitted with these new switches.
As we walked toward the perimeter Johnson talked about some of his adventures in earlier years. There were very few senior Sergeants who didn't have at least 5 hundred Army stories to tell. I'd heard a thousand of them by the time I had gotten to 'Nam.
Most of the stories, no matter what they involved, all possessed 3 main components. 1, the Sergeant was facing insurmountable odds from an antagonist, be it an Officer or the enemy. 2, by sheer genius or guts, he was able to get himself out of it. and 3, when he did get out of it, he always came out smelling like a rose. This story was no different so I let it go in one ear and out the other. But, unknown to me, the adventure Johnson was about to hatch tonight was one I personally would learn a lot, and grow a great deal from.
Our checklist showed 6 Claymores in the quadrant of our bunker. As we came upon the 1st mine he stopped mid-sentence and dead in his tracks. I didn't notice I had left him behind until I had walked about 8 feet or so in front of him.
Looking back to see out why he stopped talking he had turned around and stood facing the perimeter as if he had heard something outside the barbwire. Wondering why I hadn't heard anything myself, I quickly looked around also.
"What's up, Sarge, did you hear something?" I whispered.
"Shhh," he whispered back, continuing to look around.
After pausing for a few moments, he suddenly dropped to a crouch.
Instinctively, I followed immediately, my M-16 slid off my shoulder and into my hands. With my finger on the trigger, I waited to see something move.
"C'mon Sarge," I whispered louder. "What the ----'s up?"
Answering in a normal voice, he looked toward the bunker, then back at me.
Standing up, he placed his M-16 back on his shoulder. "I thought I heard something.....it must've been a monkey or something."
I stood up, raising my helmet and wiping my forehead.
"------- man, you scared the ---- out of me! I didn't hear a thing."
"This place can be murder. You've got to keep sharp out here."
"That'd be easy if it wasn't so ----ing dark. I think every ------- hair on the back of my neck is standing up."
Looking around again, I pulled my M-16 strap back across my shoulder. "Let's get on with this inspection. I'd rather be in the bunker if something real happens."
"I think we'll stay out here," he came back. "This place is better."
"Better for what?"
Without answering he unbuckled his belt, unzipped his zipper, and let his pants drop to his feet.
After waiting 20 or 30 seconds as he stood motionless staring back at me, I decided an answer wasn't necessary.
"Okay Sarge, you go ahead and take care of business. I'll meet you back at the bunker."
Continuing to stare at me, he made no reply.
Turning toward the bunker, I began walking away wondering why he didn't just walk over to the latrine. It was only a few dozen yards away.
After taking 3 or 4 steps I stopped when hearing what sounded like his M-16 strap sliding across the shoulder of his flak jacket. The M-16 shoulder strap made a distinctive sound. Turning around, he was now bent over. Placing his M-16 on the ground near his feet, he laid the Claymore checklist on top of it.
Standing up again, he reached into the breast pocket of his fatigue shirt and pulled out a flat object that looked like a catsup or mustard envelope given out at hamburger stands.
Taking the cigarette out of his mouth, he placed a corner of the envelope between his teeth. With one hand he yanked the envelope from his mouth, ripping it open while tugging a pant leg over his foot. Then transferring the plastic envelope to his free hand, he tugged the other pant leg off the other foot.
Putting his cigarette back into his mouth, he took in a deep drag. He continued to stare at me. Shifting his w8 to one leg, he stood motionless.
Still confused about what was going on, I looked around to see if anyone else might be watching and just as bewildered as I was. But the night was so dark anyone out there would've had to be standing right next to us to see us.
The closest candle-lit huts in the village outside the perimeter were about 75 yards away. Behind us, the closest Army hootch was about 50 yards. I could see light coming from several lamps burning inside 1 or 2 of the hootches but no movement.
Turning back to Johnson, he was still standing motionless.
As he took another drag on his cigarette the red light from the tip glowed brightly, lighting up his face. His mouth, turned up slightly at one corner, gave off a snickering, twisted smile. His nostrils appeared to flare out as he took in deep, quick breaths. Looking up to his eyes, they were frozen in a stare. The instant I saw them something in the back of my mind told me this asshole was going to try and shock me again.
As the glow of the cigarette grew red hot, his eyes flinched from the curl of smoke climbing up his face. Then, with a quick hand jerk, he flicked the envelope towards me. Passing through the dark between us, I lost sight of it until I felt it strike me in the chest. Automatically, I reached up to catch it.
Trying to keep my M-16 from sliding off my shoulder, I fumbled with the envelope. When I finally got a firm grip on it, I looked back at Johnson. Still staring at me, his face hadn't moved a muscle.
Looking back down at the envelope, I rotated it around to catch some of the peripheral light coming from the nearby hootches. Barely visible in large, black letters were the words "PETROLEUM JELLY, WHITE". Directly below was smaller writing that gave instructions how to apply the ointment to a burn or abrasion. In bold, dark lettering near the bottom crease of the envelope was the word "FSN", then a series of small numbers. I had seen enough Army equipment to know FSN stood for Federal Stock Number.
Having found out what the envelope was, I looked back up to Johnson. The wide-eyed expression on his face seemed to be precipitating a statement. After several moments, he made one. "You know what that is, don't you?"
I looked back down at the envelope pressed between my fingers. Some of the oil inside had started to ooze out. I wiped my hand on my flak jacket.
"Sure, I know what it is. It's Vaseline."
"You know what to do with that, don't you?"
"Yeah, when I need it. Right now I don't need it."
"Oh yeah babe, you're going to need it."
"Why don't you give me a hint what for? You're losing me."
I knew what he was leading up to, and he knew it.
He laughed. It was a snickering kind of laugh meant to let me know he was willing to tolerate my pretending to be naive.
"So you're going to play hard to get, huh?" he smiled. "I like that in a boy. It's makes this more enjoyable."
It was apparent my acting dumb wasn't going to work. He was more than twice my age. In the 20 years or so he had over me he probably had a lot of experience in putting the make on younger men and anticipated getting a fair amount of resistance. He'd probably already heard everything I was going to say.
Because this was my 1st time ever being directly approached by a homosexual, I had no personal experience to draw from on how I should deal with Johnson, that is, outside of knocking him on his ass. Everyone I knew who ever mentioned being approached said that was how they handled it. But rather than just haul off and hit him right now, I told myself to try talking him out of it. I could deck him anytime.
"What more do you need to straighten you out?" he asked.
Taking a step back, I let him know he could forget about what he was planning. "You know Johnson, I think you've got the wrong man for what you're thinking."
Shaking his head, he shot back, "Uh-uh, you're the one that's got it wrong. Besides, I don't pick men. I pick boys."
That was the second time he called me a boy. I didn't like it the 1st time and I disliked it even more this time. Hearing it again made my temperature go up. "---- you Johnson. This "boy" is going to surprise you."
He came back even quicker.
"You know Coleman, I was hoping for just that. Every time I make it with a new boy I look for an extra thrill."
He was not only too fast for me, he was enjoying it. It was obvious his quick responses were meant to make me think he was way ahead of me. He was probably telling himself that by beating me with my own words he would intimidate me into giving in. He started to take off his flak jacket.
I realized the only way to talk to him from now on was straight up. Tossing the Vaseline back to him, it hit his arm and fell to the ground.
"You must've been thinking about this for some time, Johnson. What makes you think I'm going to let you use this on me?"
He dropped his flak jacket to the ground near his pants and laughed again.
"See, I told you that you've got it all wrong. You're not going to spread it on you. You're going to spread it on me."
His answer didn't shock me as much as my having to realize I'd gotten him wrong. Everything made sense now. He was a com-tech Sergeant. He got his training at Ft Gordon. He must've been part of the fag club along with the rest of the Sergeants back there who ran the Officer's mess.
Still, it was difficult accepting any of this was happening to me. I felt stupid for not suspecting he would pull this kind of ----.
"You're a sick mother----er, Johnson." I yelled to him. "How the hell did you manage to stay in the Army for 18 years?"
"Oh, so now you're gonna get insulting," taking a step toward me.
I retreated on my words while stepping backwards.
"No, I'm not getting insulting. I'm telling you I don't play this kind of ----."
Taking another step towards me, I stepped back again.
"Listen you dip----," he yelled, pointing a finger at me. This is 'Nam. This ain't the States. Ain't nobody here playing games but you."
His tone was getting heated.
My mind flashed back to the afternoon he picked up my underwear. I remembered his hand reaching out and grabbing my arm. His grabbing me indicated his aggressiveness.
Just then I thought this was the time to floor him. But the thought that I might hit him too hard and put him into a coma, or even kill him, flashed across my mind. I saw myself sitting in a court room answering question after question about how he got knocked out or wasted on my guard shift. The thought of seriously hurting him by accident made me burst into a sweat. I told myself to relax. I was freaking-out.
Calming down, I tossed around the idea of just pushing him down, grabbing his pants, and taking off to the bunker. Then I realized that too wouldn't work. He'd just run over to his hootch and grab another pair.
He took another step towards me. This time I decided not to move away. Seeing me hold my ground, he stopped.
"Ready for me now, huh?"
"I'm not ready now, and I won't be later!"
Taking another step toward me, he was now about 3 feet away. His face clearly visible. Sweat rolling down from his short, nappy hairline soaked into the cigarette still hanging on his lip.
I hadn't noticed the alcohol on his breath until now. Booze was the dope for lifers his age. The young men stuck to weed and pills. The old men were hooked on juice.
"You must've been drinking some heavy ----, Johnson. You're freaking out really bad."
"Uh-uh, babe. I haven't been drinking any heavy ----. I've been waiting a long time."
He took another step closer.
"Yeah, well you can ---- that 'babe' ----. I ain't your ------- babe."
Ignoring me, he took another step. He was now a foot away. Well within striking distance.
I had kept my right hand clutched around the shoulder-strap of my M-16 since the beginning. With his last step I dropped the M-16 to my side, the barrel facing him. Gesturing a wall between us, I brought my left hand up and pushed my palm outward. Ignoring me, he took another step, leaning into it.
Feeling the sweat soaking his shirt, I pulled my hand away and stumbled backwards. He followed me. He was now 6 inches from my face.
His face was now completely visible. His red, waxed-over eyes confirmed he was loaded. Dozens of micro-thin capillaries criss-crossed his pupils.
A vision of seeing myself smashing my M-16 butt in his face flashed across my mind. In a split second I imagined his body crashing to the ground. A medic was pulling a sheet over him. Another medic was filling out a death certificate that said Johnson had bled to death or died from brain injury. A half-dozen MP's then began dragging me off to the stockade. I could see the prosecutor at my trial asking my judges if they could seriously believe my story about a senior enlisted man with a spotless record and 18 years honorable service "making a pass at me."
Suddenly Johnson reached out and grabbed the lapels of my flak jacket. His grip shaking me back to reality.
Taking a deep breath, my arms grew rigid.
His cigarette fell to the ground between us. This was the 1st time I had ever seen him without one.
A thick, tobacco-brown drool oozed from both sides of his mouth.
"I want you to smear that grease on my ass and do me like you do those clap bitches in the ville!" he yelled.
The stench of tobacco odor mixed with booze flooded my face, stifling me.
"Whooooaaa!" I sputtered as I staggered backwards, dragging him with me.
Feeling the short hair under my helmet bristle, my leg muscles tightened. I told myself that win or lose, now was the time do something. There was no way Johnson was going to stop.
He pressed closer.
Feeling the blood rushing to my head, a wave of heat passed over my face. I raised both hands and pressed them against his chest.
Forcing a sudden constriction in my arms, I shoved him away as hard as I could. Staggering backwards, he lost his balance and fell.
With my hands now free, my M-16 slid off my right shoulder and fell into the palm of my hand. The shoulder strap seemed to automatically wind itself around my wrist. The barrel rose up and fell into my left hand. My right left hand slid across to the trigger.
Recovering from his fall, Johnson pulled himself to his feet. Still dazed, he wobbled from side to side. Righting himself, he suddenly jumped forward as if beginning a charge. Reaching out with my M-16, I jabbed it at him, threatening him at bay. Abruptly stopping cold in his tracks, he snickered a taunting laugh.
"Ooooh, this is better than I thought." His mouth twisting in an insane grin. "You're a feisty young bastard but it don't mean ----. I have the unique ability to bounce back."
"Oh yeah," I gasped, catching my breath. "Well fortunately I can bounce back too, mother----er!"
I could sense he saw my holding a rifle on him as nothing more than a display of theatrics. I knew I couldn't get away with shooting him, and he knew I knew it.
As we stood staring at each other waiting for the other to make a move, his eyes darted toward my mid-section for a split-second. Taking advantage of his breaking the stare-down, I blinked my eyes to clear some of the sweat now pouring down my forehead and onto my eyelids. I didn't dare raise my hand across my face to wipe the sweat away. He might use that split-second to rush me.
Adjusting my stance, I pushed the barrel of my M-16 out further. Then again, for only an instant, I noticed his eyes dart away. This time looking off to my side.
Giving me the impression he had noticed something that caught his attention, a warning bell inside me told me his fleeting glances away from my eyes were intentional. If my suspicions were right, he may have been trying to distract me so he could take a dive at me.
The thought made me tense up even more. My hands twisted tightly around the muzzle and trigger of my M-16. Then again, a 3rd time, he glanced away.
Now I was certain he was trying to get me to look away. I decided to let him play his hand. If it was his plan to rush me, it would be better if I controlled when he would try it. But 1st I would test him.
Momentarily darting my eyes toward the ground, I quickly flashed them back toward his. My glance was too short to allow him to attack me, but long enough to notice that his shoulders had raised slightly and his eyebrows had heightened a shade.
Discovering I was right, I decided to take another dry run. This time I would look away for a second or 2 longer and see how far he might go.
Bracing myself, I took a quick look toward the horizon behind him. Just as I did, he rushed toward me. Swinging the butt of my M-16 up, I shoved it deep into his rib cage. He jumped back with the force of my jab as if he had intended to do so. Gathering himself, he broke up laughing.
It was obvious his brief and halting rushes were not meant to actually attack me, but simply test my reactions. He had no plans of assaulting me, he just wanted to get screwed. To him, this whole escapade was nothing more than a seduction ritual. It was his way of engaging in psychological foreplay. His broad grin made the thought repulsive.
I had over-reacted by shoving him away. That made my actions more offensive than his faking a charge at me. By engineering my reactions he had forced me to make the 1st contact. He was probably interpreting my anger as fear. His smile had widened each time he faked a charge.
It became obvious he wanted me to feel stupid for initiating the contact by jousting him away with the M-16 muzzle.
Suddenly, he made another jerk toward me. This time I decided not to jab but only to pretend to. I shoved the muzzle only half-way.
Laughing out loud, he took credit for what he thought was a victory.
"You're learning fast, babe! You and me are gonna have a good time tonight!"
"Stay away from me!" I yelled back. "I mean it!"
Although I could tell the shakiness in my voice made my threat sound as weak as my words, I wasn't about to credit him with victory for anything more than having inconvenienced me.
"Oh do you now?" he laughed sarcastically.
"Godammit, I really mean it Johnson!" I yelled again.
He responded by making another rush toward me. But this time he came all the way.
Feeling his hands crushing the fabric of my flak jacket, I let go of my M-16 and raised them up between his arms. Pushing sideways, I slammed my arms against his, breaking his grip. Suddenly everything in my vision seemed to glow bright red. Losing sight of him and everything else, the temperature of my body seemed to rise a 100 degrees. The next thing I knew, it was all over with. As quickly as he had made his lunge, I ended it. He was now laying motionless of the ground in front of me.
As the red in my eyes began to fade I could see his body laying near my feet. He was twisted in a heap. His torso was turned around and one hand clutched his chin. The other arm was wedged behind the back of his neck. He looked like a drunk who had just been thrown into the gutter. Motionless, he was out cold.
Feeling my left hand begin to throb, I looked down to see if it had been bruised or cut on his jaw but it was too dark to see. Rubbing it with my right hand it didn't feel bloody or skinned.
Using my feet I slid them over the ground searching for my fallen M-16. Kicking it, I reached down and picked it up. I wasn't sure whether I had hit him with my fist or the rifle butt. Although I knew whichever it was, I was beginning to feel good about it.
Collecting myself, I stood looking down at him another minute or 2. I wondered what we must have looked like if anyone was able to see us in the dark. It would be an absurd sight seeing one GI holding a gun on another GI who was laying in a field with no pants on. But I was lucky, it was too dark for anyone to have seen us.
Now that the worst was over, the next thing was to figure out what to do about him. I thought about going back to the bunker and reporting what had happened to the Command Center, then thought better of it. Nobody was going to believe this had happened. Even if they did, he would just lie and say I knocked him out and took his pants off to embarrass him.
Then I thought about how embarrassing it would have been for me to stand up in court and state that a queer Sergeant with no record of homosexual behavior was after me. Being only 20, senior officers would more than likely have concluded I was the one who was weird.
No, I thought, the best thing I could do was just take off and leave Johnson laying in the dust. I knew I could always say I decided to take my sleeping shift in my hootch.
After checking my pockets to make sure I didn't drop my wallet or break my dogtag chain, I took off running. I ran all the way back to my hootch, jammed into my room, shut the door, and sat on my bunk for the rest of the night.
All night long I sat in the dark wondering if the knock on my door that was sure to come would be the MP's coming to drag me off to jail for knocking Johnson out, or Johnson himself wanting to finish our 'discussion'. I was certain it would be the MP's. They'd either get me for striking a Non-Commissioned Officer or for deserting my guard post.
Thinking all night about what had happened, I didn't want to accept that it was partly my fault. I felt stupid for not realizing what was going on in Johnson's mind earlier. I recalled he had always offered to do me favors or asked if he could help me with my work, even when he and I both knew help wasn't needed. Then I realized I knew what was going on the day he grabbed my underwear but I had refused to recognize it because I didn't want to confront it. Beginning to feel more anger at myself than at Johnson, I ordered myself to snap out of it. His mind was already screwed up and long gone. But me, I thought, I've got a long way to go.
I told myself that from this point on I would learn to look ahead, anticipate, and face up to situations like tonight so the next time it happened I'd be in a better position to shut it down before it became confrontational.
The rest of the night went by quietly. When dawn finally came I was amazed the MP's hadn't shown up. I was even more amazed that even though I hadn't slept all night, I wasn't tired. My mind had been so active I was still wired-up.
When the morning chow bell sounded I climbed off my bunk and changed clothes. Walking into the latrine, the surface conversation passing between the guys who spent the night with their V'namese girlfriends in the village told the routine story about how each one had "pumped on her all night long." But the spring in their step and absence of baggage under their eyes told a different story. They probably lasted the standard 10 minutes and slept straight through the next 10 sessions they bragged about.
When I arrived at the mess hall about a half-hour later I don't think I was really surprised to find Johnson was already there.
Sitting at one of the corner tables, his chair faced the door. He had probably chosen that table so he could watch the door and see me if and when I showed up. From the minute I entered he watched me like a hawk.
The mess hall ran on Basic Training rules, meaning everyone was to spend no more than 10 minutes eating chow. The limited number of chairs required us to eat our breakfast and get out so the guys waiting in line outside could get their turn.
Senior enlisted men and officers, of course, were excepted. Johnson's tray was only half-eaten. He had obviously been stalling for me to arrive.
I decided to take my time and let my breakfast linger. I used the time to watch his movements. He used his time to watch mine.
It didn't take long for me to read in his face that he wasn't about to inform anyone of my knocking him on his ass last night.
As we ate, his fleeting glances toward my table became less frequent. The more he looked up at me, then diverted his eyes when I looked at him, I knew that I had not only won the battle but also the war. I would have no more trouble from him.
In the 10 minutes I spent watching Johnson I grew up about 10 years. The feeling made me grow more and more confident that I had done the right thing by busting him in the face, although I wasn't able to take a lot of pride in having hit him, it was more of a reflex than a decision.
Immediately after finishing my chow I went back to my hootch and composed a personal letter to my CO in Bien Hoa requesting I be immediately replaced in Xuan Loc. He did so about 2 days later.
I didn't mention the incident with Johnson, but after a brief conversation with him when I returned to Bien Hoa, I could tell he knew something serious must have happened because he never asked why I requested to come back early.
The standoff between me and Johnson was a mutual one. He couldn't prosecute me for striking him for fear that I would report his homosexual advance. I couldn't report his advance for fear of being charged with striking him. As far as the Army was concerned, no one at MACV gave a damn about what really went on in 'Nam as long as there weren't any problems. If one did occur then everyone involved, innocent and guilty alike, got the Green Weenie. To the Army there were no perpetrators or victims, "just assholes and asswipes who made more paperwork for asspushers."
The reason behind the Army's policy to persecute everyone, whether innocent or guilty, was to send the signal that it was "unofficially okay" to do whatever they wanted to do in 'Nam as long as they kept it quiet and no disturbing reverberations made it up to command level. But the instant someone let things get out of hand and a complaint was registered, everybody involved got the shaft.
Although I was forced to learn the hard way that individuals like Johnson were in the Army, the consolation was that he, and others like him, were not representative of the military. They were a small minority that managed to remain on active duty only because the Army made it difficult, if not impossible, for victims to report them. and if company men like my CO in Bien Hoa, Generals Westmoreland at the Pentagon, or Abrams at MACV knew there were queer Sergeants in the Army they would have them booted out on their asses, post haste.
Unfortunately there were too many commanders between Johnson's level and Westmoreland's who protected senior Sergeants as if they were protecting themselves.
The only conclusion I could come to about last night was that men like Johnson were a product of the insanity of our time. and that war has a way of bringing out the worst in people far more often than bringing out the best. Men like Johnson had chosen to be a part of the worst because they had long since given up living for something better. and his being in Vietnam, along with others like him, confirmed what a lot of serious GI's were saying about the large number of assholes showing up over here: that the Army was sending all its expendables to Vietnam. Sending men like Johnson to 'Nam may have been the best way of getting rid of them without the negative publicity of a General Court Martial.
My last encounter with homosexuality in the Army occurred during my last few months on active duty.
While stationed at Ft MacArthur, near San Pedro, California in 1971, 2 homosexual junior enlisted men were temporarily "attached" to the base "under emergency orders." Both were Special Service Corps General Officer Aides, and according to one of them, recently relieved of duty.
"We used to work at General (Omar) Bradley's house," one of them told me. "But we got caught in the kitchen."
"What do you mean, "you got caught"?" I asked.
"The chief aide was an asshole Master Sergeant. He caught us getting it on. It was late at night and we didn't think anyone would be coming downstairs. But wouldn't you know it? Every night the Sergeant went to bed when the General did. But on the one night we decide to stay up and do our thing, the Sergeant comes downstairs for a glass of milk!"
Although uncertain about what he was talking about, I had a pretty good idea. I lead him into an explanation.
"Master Sergeants are like that, real un-----ing-predictable. Did he catch you in the act?"
"Yeah," he replied, "I was on my knees."
I was then given the whole story. Apparently he and his fellow aide were engaging in a homosexual act in the kitchen of General Bradley's living quarters and were caught cold. Immediately relieved of duty, they were transferred to Ft MacArthur for "later transfer to another post".
The more I listened to the aide's story, the angrier I grew. Hearing him tell how he and his "co-worker" had abused the household of a man who helped shape world history, I was torn between my recent V'nam conditioning to waste assholes like him, and my current "re-conditioning" to tolerate them.
It was difficult restraining myself from kicking his teeth in. Fortunately for both of us, there were several other people in the barrack when he walked into my room looking for someone to talk to. Not wanting to be arrested for ripping his ears off, I told myself to let my anger pass and hope that DOA would take care of him and his friend in its own way. If the decision was up to me I would have stranded them on an isolated post near the North Pole. I would not have sent them to V'nam where they'd get in the way of the war.
My duty at Xuan Loc lasted only 3 weeks. A combination of Johnson, corruption, and the small size of the base chased me away. Although all of my friends there saw Xuan Loc as secure, my feeling was that it wouldn't last a month if Charlie ever decided he seriously wanted to take it away from them.
During the final days in 1975, when section after section of South V'nam was being over-run by the North, Xuan Loc became one of the last major stands of ARVN resistance. With remnants of several other shattered ARVN divisions, the 18th held out for nineteen days of round-the-clock fighting. It fell on the twentieth day, opening the door for the NVA to sweep into Saigon. A week later, the war was over.
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