Although my old bunk had been taken over by a newbie, getting back to Bien Hoa was nice. Hoisting my duffel bag back on my shoulder, I walked back outside in of search of a new hootch. After checking out 3 others that turned out to be full, I found an empty cot in the last comcenter hootch near the outside road. This particular hootch was one few people wanted to live in because if a rocket landed on the open road just outside, screenwire was the only thing separating them from shrapnel. Several weeks later it turned out to be the only hootch spared.
When I walked inside there were only 3 available cots. 2 faced the road and the other on the opposite side. I chose it. It would give me ten extra feet of open space before any shrapnel would hit me.
The cot opposite mine belonged to a comspec named Jimmie. Jimmie was on R and R with his wife in Australia. I'd see him when he got back next week. It would take me that long to get back into the daily routine of Co A44.
Working non-stop 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, left very little time for ourselves. Adding 5 or six hours for sleeping, an hour for eating, and another hour or 2 for personal business like showering, writing letters, and going to the PX, only 2 or 3 were left to try to unwind from work. and part of that time had to be spent psyching ourselves up for the next day that everyone on campus wished would and wouldn't come. Everyone wanted to see the next day, it was the 12-hour work grind we would've liked to take a long break from.
Cutting back on sleep was the only way to add more free time to our limited schedules. Sleep time would often be cut down to 3 or 4 hours if not forsaken completely when the lure of a better attraction, like going to Saigon, was financially feasible. Saving up for the trip a month or 2 in advance, a minimum of $400 was said to guarantee the best time of our lives.
Although the Sergeants who ran the steambath on the Special Forces compound boasted of its "high" reputation for offering "germ-free vagina", and females "who weren't stretched-out after giving birth", it had several shortcomings. One, V'namese nationals were the only women permitted to work there. 2, a 10 dollar "surcharge" was required for its cover operation, giving massages. 3, you were required to show your ID card and sign-in before you could enter. and 4, on the average day 2 hundred guys had to share a dozen girls. This, of course, meant that after 2 months of visiting the steambath 3 times a week, everyone had gone through its inventory 5 times over.
In Saigon, on the other hand, there were women of every nationality and mixture, even American. and it didn't matter if they hadn't been "medically certified" or not because the girls at the Special Forces compound were certified but required to make sure everyone wore a rubber. Anyway, there were no surcharges in Saigon so the girls were happier to serve because they got more money. and because Saigon had a surplus of women, most of them wanted to see you more than you wanted to see them.
I took my first trip to Saigon with a comspec named Angus. Before being drafted, Angus was a suit salesman from Canton, Ohio. Always talking a mile-a-minute, he dominated conversations from the moment he entered until everyone walked away leaving him talking to himself.
Angus' dream was to design and manufacture men's suits. For him, our trip to Saigon would be both business and pleasure. Bringing his book of sketches with him, he wanted to look for a tailor to bring his "creations to life." Looking at his sketchbook his designs were, to say the least, unique. One design called for a brown corduroy jacket with pink leather lapels and red buttons. Another was to be made of white silk and sewn with black thread. The pockets were to be overlaid with grey plaid. The bright colors of some of his other designs were so contrasting my first impression was that Angus was colorblind. But according to him, "This is the way the brothers dress back home. and when I get back, I'm gonna be the baddest dressed mother----er in town! Ham's are gonna be coming from miles around to check my clothes out." In Canton, "Ham's" were what the brothers called women.
It only took us an hour to get to Saigon. The driver who's jeep we hitched a ride on made the trip 3 or 4 times a week so he knew the fastest roads. He was also familiar with the MP's in Saigon. He cautioned us against walking down any of the major streets and to find a "good house" as soon as possible. Neither Angus or I had a pass so getting caught before we found a tailor and got laid was something we wanted to avoid, at least until after we scored.
Saigon was an international city. People, or rather hustlers, from just about every country in the world made their home there. Around us, the streets were filled with black-market hustlers from Africa, Germany, Australia, Japan, France, England, Russia, and the U.S. Although they were all well-dressed jet-set types, it was more than obvious that anyone who took up residence in a country in the middle of a hot war was here only because they thought they'd make a "killing".
In South Vietnam's attempt to emulate American society, it granted its visitors and citizens almost as much freedom as Angus and I had left back home. Even more than would be expected in a country at war for the last 30 years. Except for having to dodge the American MP's, the local civilians treated us as if we lived in Saigon all our lives. There wasn't a shop we passed where someone didn't run out and offer us an ice-cold Coke. Although we were hot and thirsty, we had to turn them down. They were all in bottles. MACV recommended that we only drink ville "brewskies" that came in twist-top cans. The natives were known to mix up their own Coke concoctions, and they could only pass the stuff in bottles. To save us from a serious case of dysentery we were advised to only drink from cans we opened ourselves. Although Charlie and the friendlies could manufacture most things, they hadn't yet figured out how to reproduce a genuine-looking, twist-top, American Can Company beverage can. and the V'namese never went to market with a reproduction that didn't look genuine.
On our way to Saigon Angus described it as being "just like Tijuana but with taller buildings." That was an understatement. Not only were there signs of large metropolitan similarities, Saigon was a good deal cleaner and more orderly managed than Tijuana, or Mexico City for that matter. There were sanitation workers sweeping the streets, trash containers on every corner, street signs, and white-gloved traffic cops. Even the pedestrians walking in both directions kept to their right on the sidewalk just the way Americans used to do when I was a kid. The only feature I expected to see, but didn't, were a lot of ARVN's. Very few patrolled the streets. In fact, compared to Bien Hoa where almost half the people in the village were in uniform, Saigon appeared practically undefended.
Most of the hundreds of people going about their daily business around us were civilians. U.S. and foreign embassy workers were casually dressed. The women, walking with their purses slung over their shoulders, strolled through the sunny outdoor shopping areas as if they were in San Francisco's Chinatown.
"Some of these gringos you see walking around are probably spies spying on other spies." Angus told me, pointing to a group of conservatively dressed men wearing 3-piece business suits and dark sunglasses standing on a street corner not far from us. "Those dudes are probably CIA agents."
As we watched them survey the crowds on the street, a cautious-looking V'namese man in his mid-40's approached them carrying a large manila folder. Dressed in an all-white cotton suit, white shoes, and wide-brim straw hat, the V'namese handed the folder to one of the Americans holding a copy of the Wall Street Journal. Examining the contents, the American nodded to his 2 friends then placed the folder inside his newspaper. One of the other Americans, reaching into one his sleeves, pulled out a business-size envelope and handed it to the V'namese who quickly placed it inside his coat pocket. Then, exchanging a few words, all 4 walked away.
As the 3 agents passed Angus and I, the agent who carried the folder smiled and asked, "You guys having a good time?"
I smiled back and answered, "Yes".
Crossing an eyebrow with one of his forefingers in a makeshift salute, he said, "Thanks for the cover." He then walked to a taxicab waiting with his friends at the end of the block.
"Did you hear that?" I asked Angus, my eyes beaming.
"Yeah, he must've thought we were riding shotgun for their little rendezvous."
Amazed that I'd witnessed a real-life spy exchange, my first thoughts went back to an old black and white film I'd seen as a kid. "This is just like "Saigon", I told Angus. "It doesn't look like anything has changed since that movie was made."
"Saigon", man! You know the one with Alan Ladd playing a soldier of fortune."
"You've been watching too many of them white boy movies. You can probably find those same 3 dudes on a street corner every day of the week in this burg. They're probably just couriers. This kind of ---- goes down everyday."
"But that's what I mean! That movie's got to be at least 20 years old and they're still doing pass-off's like they did in WWII!"
"Let's keep moving," he waved, ignoring my naive fascination. "And you better grow up. This ain't no movie, this is real life!"
"You know what your problem is?" I yelled to him as he walked away. "You just don't have any ------- sense for nostalgia!"
Angus missed the entire mystery and intrigue. Either that, or he just didn't give a ----!
As we walked around the city going from one tailor shop to another, the one thing that amazed me the most about seeing so many people leisurely walking around as if the war was a million miles away was that some of the "contact areas" we had to drive through to get to here were hotter than the fighting around Saigon during TET '68. Although there were no battles going on at the time, Angus and I were careful to check the combat alert reports for Saigon and the surrounding area before leaving. Some areas reported that enemy activity could be anticipated at any time.
After a couple hours in the heat we decided to stop in one of the local tea bars for a Coke. Noticing one nearby with 2 smiling GI's walking out, we agreed to try that one. GI's had to be careful which tea bar they walked into. Some were clip joints that charged 10 dollars for a beer. Of course you didn't know the price until you've slugged down 3 or 4 and ready to leave. MACV insisted that we pay our tabs no matter how high they were. Their attitude was, if we were dumb enough to drink without first asking the price, then it was our own fault and we deserved to be fleeced.
As we walked inside the middle-aged waitress behind a long bar to our left threw us a smile. On our left were a dozen or so cafe tables surrounded a small stage where a topless dancer gyrated through her routine. Noticing us smile at her, she pulled the front panel of her G-string bottoms to the side flashing us a momentary glance at her jet-black hair. We decided to sit at the bar until we were sure we hadn't entered a clip joint.
The 2 closest stools were next to an American wearing a brown tweed business suit. 3 empty shot glasses on the bar in front of him were left uncollected to remind him how many drinks he'd downed so far. Angus took the stool farthest from him, I sat in the stool next to his.
Seeing 2 Americans nearby, he quickly started up a conversation, his speech slurred. "You boys here for the short ride or long ride?" he asked, saluting us with his hand turned upside down.
"The long ride." I smiled back.
"Well brother, I'm here for the short ride."
Taking another drink, he wobbled in his stool. Angus shook his head indicating he didn't care to talk to him. Leaning over, he whispered in my ear. "He's only being friendly 'cause he's drunk. If he was sober he probably wouldn't even talk to us."
"Why not?" I whispered back.
"He'd probably think we were a couple of MI or CID finks.
Surprising me with a tap me on the shoulder, the civilian asked for my attention.
"How long you boys been here?"
"This is his tenth month," I told him, pointing to Angus. "And my sixth."
"I've been here a week and I'll be outta here tomorrow. I'm just here for the short ride."
"What do you do?" I asked him.
Grinning, he looked down at his drink. "Well, I don't get so drunk I answer those kinds of questions, that's for sure! But I'll tell you this, some of you boys over here for the long ride better get smart!"
"What d'you mean by that?" Angus asked him, leaning over to look around me.
Squinting, he pointed his finger at us. "What're you boys working for? 17, 18, maybe 19cents an hour? Well I'm making fifty thou! My philosophy is if you're going to work for somebody you oughtta get the most money you can."
"What do we do, throw our CO up against the wall and rob him?" Angus asked.
Laughing, the civilian shook his head. "No, you don't have to rob the bastard. All you've gotta do is walk into his office, pound your fist on his desk and say, 'Hey mother----er, cough up the bones!' That's what I did."
"You're a civilian, you can pull that ----," Angus scowled. "What d'we do, tell the ----ing Army to write us new pay schedules?"
Raising his head in a braggish manner, the civilian stuck his thumb under a lapel on his jacket.
"See this! This is a $200 suit. I told myself if I ever had to come to this ----hole, this is the way I was going to travel. Not dressed like you guys."
Glancing down at his fatigue shirt, Angus' eyes frowned. Looking back at the civilian, his voice was now unmistakably angered.
"Hey dude, if you're trying to make us feel bad don't waste your time, 'cause it don't ----in' matter. You may be wearing tweed and we're here in OD green. But we still met up in the same ----hole, didn't we?"
Dropping his smile, the civilian stared down at his drink.
"Yeah, I guess you're right. Maybe if I was really smart I never would've taken this assignment." Looking back at up, he began smiling again. "But what the ----! War is hell ain't it? You kill a few, you make a little money."
"I think the expression goes, "You win a few, you lose a few"." Angus corrected him.
The civilian smiled. "No, I said it right. Mine was the civilian version. Your's was the military version."
Angus turned away. I smiled.
Lifting his glass toward us, the civilian offered us a toast. Raising my glass, I looked at Angus. He was still looking away and hadn't noticed. I nudged his arm. Turning towards us, he reluctantly lifted his glass.
"What the hell," the civilian smiled, "we're all Americans."
Swaying as he stood up, he put his hand inside his jacket pocket.
"I've got to get the hell outta here. I'm late already. But I'm going to do you guys a favor and turn you on to some really nice ----."
Pulling a card out, he handed it to me.
"Go to this address. Best bush you'll ever eat in this whole ------- country!"
Taking it, I looked at the card. The street name looked familiar.
"I think we passed Tudo Street about 15 minutes ago," handing it to Angus.
"Well you better backtrack like a son-of-a-bitch and find it again because that's a damn good address!" The civilian barked.
Staggering to the door, he turned around and gave us another upside down salute then walked out. Angus and I watched him as he left. The instant he stepped to the curb a taxicab, identical to the one that picked up the 3 agents we crossed paths with a couple of hours earlier, screeched to a halt in front of him. Stepping out, an American driver walked around to the passenger side of the cab and helped the civilian into the back seat. Running back to his side, the driver jumped in then sped off.
"You know," Angus smiled. "if for no other reason than having instant taxi service, I think I'd like to be a spy."
"Yeah, I can see you and Maxwell Smart working together as a team!" I laughed.
After finishing our Cokes we decided to try a couple more tailor shops before going after the big score. The next shop we visited turned out to be the one Angus was looking for. The owner, an East Indian from Ghana, spoke fluent English. Showing Angus some of his stitchwork, he stated he had done "flamboyant work" before and was familiar with the kind of work Angus wanted done. Watching Angus' eyes beam as the tailor showed him around his shop, he appeared more excited by the tailors interest than the Sears-type suits hanging on the racks near the front door.
"This dude really wants my contract," he whispered to me. "Now I know he'll do a good job!"
After leaving his sketch book and a few hundred piasters for a down-payment, we left the shop.
"Work's done, now it's playtime!" Angus clapped his hands.
"Why don't we try the place that spy dude told us about?" I asked.
Pulling out the card, Angus looked at the address again then nodded his head.
"Yeah, it's not too far from here. Let's head over."
Arriving, the sign over the doorway read "Le PETITE LaFEMME". Several mannequins in the windows wearing flowery sundresses gave the location the appearance of being an expensive dress shop.
"This can't be the place," I told Angus.
"That dude wouldn't have given us this address unless it was legit. Let's go in and check it out. Maybe the place we're looking for is in back or something."
Opening the door, a small bell hanging on a tiny hook near the top tingled as we entered. Stepping in, we shut the door behind us. The instant it closed the roar of traffic and street noise behind us disappeared. The half-inch thick glass on the door was evidently sound-resistant.
As we turned to look around the shop, a young Cambodian woman came from behind a beaded curtain leading to a back room. Wearing a bright yellow chiffon dress, she greeted us in perfect English.
Angus took the card from his pocket and handed it to her. Her features were perfect. Large, dark eyes, black eyebrows, unblemished skin, smooth lips, and long black hair tied in a pony tail over her right temple.
Smiling as she read the card, she apparently recognized it. Looking back up to us, she stepped to the side and pulled back the beaded curtain.
"This way, gentlemen."
Leading the way, Angus stepped through. Close behind him, I had to duck as I passed under the short archway.
The back room was almost as large as the outer store. Almost empty, only a small desk and chair standing in front of a pink door were inside. The young woman stepped in front of Angus and sat behind the desk. Opening a large guest book, she turned it toward Angus then offered him the fountain pen. A long list of names preceded the blank line where he was to sign.
Taking the pen, he leaned backwards and whispered to me over his shoulder, "Don't use your real name, Phill. This place could be an MI set-up."
Angus always spoke louder than everyone else. His whisper sounded like most people talking normal. Hearing every word, the young woman looked down in a gesture of respect for his discretion, though rudely expressed.
When it was my turn to sign I looked down at the name he used. "Leroy Jones" was a good choice. It was a typical black name he knew no one would challenge. Pausing momentarily to think of something more unique for myself, I looked up at Angus to see he was walking off toward a large picture on the wall near the door. The instant my eyes caught him a bulb flashed in my head. As he started to turn and walk back to the table I quickly signed his name and turned the book around towards the young woman. Laughing under my breath, I told myself I'd tell him about it on his last day and watch his expression. Angus was known for playing tricks on people. This would be their revenge.
Taking a small paper napkin from a side drawer, the young woman blotted our signatures. Still smiling, she stood up then stepped toward the pink door behind her. Turning off the lights in the room, she opened the door. A red light and the sound of music coming from the long corridor behind the door flooded the room. The Temptations, "My Girl", was playing on the radio or a record player somewhere down the hall. Both of us felt more relaxed hearing something we were familiar with. Looking at each other, we smiled.
"Nice." Angus whispered to me. "This place has got class."
Waving her hand, the girl motioned for us to step through the door. Angus took the lead again with me right behind. Pausing for the young woman to close the door behind her, she then escorted us to a small room at the end of the hall. As she turned to walk through its open doorway her yellow dress appeared to turn gold from a subdued yellow light coming from inside the room.
When Angus turned to walk into the room, a wide grin spread across his face as he began to snap his fingers and rock his head to the music. It was apparent whatever he saw inside was a sight he welcomed. Anxious, I quickly doubled my steps to move closer. As I turned the corner into the doorway I was blown away. Seated around the room were a half-dozen young black, white, and Cambodian girls in sheer, baby-doll pajamas just barely covering their bottoms. All were smiling and all were waiting.
As I stepped inside, Angus was already holding 2 of the girls around their waists. 2 more walked up to greet me, their cologne preceding them.
"I guess we're supposed to take our pick." I told him.
"----! I'll take 'em all!" he laughed.
The room looked like a painting of a 1890's cathouse parlor. Papered with alternating rows of white and pink squiggles of raised felt, the walls were covered from baseboard to ceiling. Large purple peacock plumes were arranged in deep, pink vases sitting on several lace-covered endtables. 2 deep-cushioned loveseats were positioned back-to-back in the center of the room with six large 2-seater, high-back chairs spread out around them. Lace throw-pillows were neatly arranged on each chair. Adding to the sensation of stepping into comfort, our feet sank into a purple, deep shag carpet. Stepping off the linoleum-covered hallway leading into the room felt like walking onto a pillow.
Leading us to the 2 loveseats, I chose to sit in one of the high-backs chairs positioned near a large glass-filled China cabinet. One of the girls holding me by the arm sat on my lap. The other walked across the room and opened a buffet cabinet. Inside were more bottles of booze than I'd ever seen in my life, each one different. Watching her negligee slide up as she bent over to pick up a bottle, Angus remarked, "Brother Phill, I do believe these girls do not like wearing underwear."
"Yeah, I noticed that." I smiled. "Makes it kinda nice doesn't it?"
Filling 2 aperitif glasses, she handed one to both of us.
"Was is this?" I asked, taking the glass from her manicured hand.
"Taste it, you'll like it." she smiled.
Taking the first sip, Angus smiled. I followed.
"I don't know what this stuff is, but it's good!" He glanced at me.
"I sure as hell can't tell you," I shrugged my shoulders. "This is the first hard stuff I've ever had."
Emptying his glass, Angus handed it back to her for another shot. I did the same.
"You know brother Phill, I think you're finally growing up. After 2 or 3 more of those I don't think you'll be able to tell which you like more, the taste of that stuff or watching her walk back to that cabinet to pour it.
When she came back with our refills, I asked her again what it was.
"Irish Mist." she replied.
"Good stuff!" Angus smiled at her.
"Real good stuff!" I followed, raising my glass for a toast.
After several more glasses, and 3 1/2 hours of relaxation, we decided to head back to the campus.
The one thing no GI wanted to do was get caught out on Highway One at night, especially unarmed. (1)
We were lucky coming to Saigon. We had been able to find a driver who was making the trip here himself. But on the way back we had to thumb rides on 3 different vehicles. On our first ride, a broken-down deuce-1/2, I asked Angus which girl he ended up with.
"The blonde one with the long hair. She told me she was from Santa Monica, California."
Surprised, my mouth dropped. "Santa Monica? California? That's bull----! She was just lying to turn you on."
"No she wasn't, she even showed me her drivers license."
"How'd she get here?"
"She said she used to be a stewardess on the Los Angeles to Tokyo run. She said she got tired of making chickenfeed and wanted to get into the big bucks."
"Geez, you must've paid her a lot?!"
"$500 dude, but it was worth it. I ain't seen no American bush for almost a year. and the way Chaz has been hitting the airbase lately, I figured I'd better get it now while the gettin' was good."
Because the truck we were riding on carried 55 gallon drums of Agent Orange, by the time we reached Long Bihn we were desperate to find anything else going the rest of the way. After passing up a convoy of 173rd APC's on their way to a war, we hitched a ride on a fuel tanker trucking Phantom jet fuel from the coast to Bien Hoa air base.
The guys who drove fuel tankers were as crazy as the day was hot. Our driver was a guy from Bloomington, Illinois named Corey. Corey informed us, between drags on a huge joint he sucked on every 30 seconds, that his 5-truck convoy had to space themselves a 1,000 feet apart in case one of Charlie's sniper rounds "Roman candled" one of the tankers and it ignited the others.
Inside his cab were 15 holes made by snipers since taking over this rig six months ago. Next to each bullet hole he'd drawn a "Kilroy" face and under each face were the words, "Ha-Ha Charlie. Missed again!"
"There's another 2 dozen holes back there on the tank." He told us.
"How come this sucker hasn't blown up yet?" I asked him.
" 'Cause the only time dumb-ass Charlie gets the balls to come out and shoot at us is at night on our way back. By then we're empty and almost all aired-out."
"One day Charlie's gonna get wise to you mother----ers and end your little game of Russian Roulette!" Angus laughed.
Taking another drag on his joint Corey looked over at Angus and smiled. His eyes bloodshot and half-mast.
"What the heck, bro? You know what they say about living forever. Even if you could pull a Jesus Christ number on yourself and lick all the ------- diseases known to man, the sun's radiation would wind up kicking your ass anyway. So if Charlie doesn't blow me up in this ----in' rig, the rays are gonna get me sooner or later."
Already bright red from roasting in his truck for six months, he looked like he didn't have too much longer to go.
"Besides," he continued, "I heard that if I get dark enough my dick'll grow another 9 inches and there'll be a welfare check waiting for me in the mail when I get home."
Laughing almost hysterically, the truck swerved from one side of the road to the other. Angus, angered by his racial joke, frowned. I laughed. I thought it was funny.
With a perpetual grin spread across his face, Corey leaned over his fur-covered steering wheel and turned up the volume on the radio. A huge, red, 12-inch long cardboard arrow was taped to his dashboard pointing down to the tuning knob. Written along the length of the arrow were the words, "Don't touch that dial!" The AFRTN was playing an hour-long special on Jimi Hendrix tonight. Corey turned the volume up full blast when "Purple Haze" began. For the next half hour we bounced our way to Bien Hoa listening to Hendrix.
The next time I saw Corey was 7 months later at Ft MacArthur, in San Pedro, California. Although he had lost about 30 pounds since that night, I recognized him right away. The cut of his short blonde hair hadn't changed.
Needless to say, I was shocked to see he made it out of V'nam alive and still wearing that same ear to ear smile. But when thinking back about my brief ride with him, I realized he was too crazy and too unique not to have survived. Anybody with the balls to drive a truck filled with highly explosive jet fuel in one hundred-and-20 degree heat with Charlie taking pot shots at him all the time damn well should have survived!
When Angus and I got back to campus I was disappointed to find out my name was placed on the guard duty roster for tonight. I had less than 20 minutes to get suited-up and over to the perimeter. The only reason why I picked today to go to Saigon was because tomorrow I'd be changing to night shift so I had tonight, and during the day tomorrow, to rest up from Saigon. But when it came to guard duty the Orderly Room had no sympathy for excuses like being tired. To them, guard duty was a privilege every man should feel proud to do, knowing his comrades trusted him to protect them during their sleep.
The only thing that made pulling guard duty more bearable was my excitement in finally being able to officially carry one of the new M-16's the company Arms Room recently received to replace our aging M-14's. Most of the guys on campus already had one. After sawing off the barrel, half the stock, and removing the handle and heat shield it could easily be carried under their shirts whenever going to the ville for shortime.
It had been almost 5 years since the M-16 was introduced in Vietnam, but because Company A44 was an American non-combat unit we were on the bottom of the priority list for replacements. Even the non-combat ARVN units, because it was their war, were higher on the priority list than we were. Later on, however, I accumulated 3 '16's for my personal protection. Having read reports written by 1st Cav platoon officers complaining that their M-16's were literally "burning holes in their barrels after 2 or 3 months of continuous use," I carried 3 in case I got caught in a situation where one or 2 might jam-up or burn-out in the middle of an unexpected firefight. I purchased the 3 from V'namese street vendors on later trips to Saigon. For $25 MPC they were a deal.
To be certain every man in the company was familiar with the M-16, everyone was required to attend a practice firing session. The session was being held on a flat, barren stretch of land 2 miles outside the main gate. Denuded by Agent Orange, the land for miles around was lifeless. Except for a few rat and monkey skeletons laying around, it appeared as though no life had ever existed there. Called "Radiation Red" by the comspecs who had to pass it everyday on their way to the comcenter, everyone was nervous about laying on the ground because they knew the insects, rodents, and monkeys that died expired after absorbing too much of the poison through their skin. As a pre-caution, most of us brought throw-away towels to spread-out before laying down on the makeshift rifle range set up by the CO for our practice.
For lack of paper targets, a row of green T-shirts with rings drawn on them with a felt marking pen were nailed to wooden crosses 25 yards down-range.
Although most of us who attended infantry ROT had already test-fired the M-16, Brigade required certification papers from everyone stating we'd "officially" been trained. (2)
A week prior to the practice I obtained 2 empty M-16 20-round ammo clips from a 1st Cav recon ranger, which I had welded together upside down by a mechanic at the Motor Pool. Now, instead of having to handle 2 separate clips all I had to do was rip the empty end out of its well, flip it upside down, and re-insert the full end. Practicing the flip with the M-16 in the RTT rig, I got so good at it I reached the point where at no time did some part of the clip lose contact with the rim of the well for more than a split-second.
I learned in ROT that re-load time was a GI's worst enemy during a firefight. Time and motion studies performed by the Army determined that the fastest a GI could remove an empty ammo clip and insert a full one was slightly over 3 seconds. With my new contraption I was hoping to cut that time in half. My desire to develop a faster method came from learning that the most important moment to have a full clip in our M-16 was when Charlie was so close we would barely have enough time to turn our empty M-16 around butt-first and smash it against a his face, let alone re-load and fire. and if we dropped the new clip or fumbled it Charlie might come out the winner if his bayonet was only inches away.
Before beginning the test firing, Captain Jones, placed in charge of the training, began by instructing us how to fire.
"You will first be firing 20 rounds of semi-automatic fire. After that you will re-load a new clip, flick the mode switch to automatic, then rapid-fire 20 more rounds. Aim slowly and squeeze the trigger, don't pull it."
Jones then organized us into six groups of ten. I was placed in the 3rd group.
With the temperature at 123 degrees and no shade, everyone wanted to shorten the amount of time we had to lay on Radiation Red playing pop gun. By the time my group got its turn to fire, a half-hour later, I inserted my piggy-back, immediately turned the mode switch to "AUTO" and fired-off my first clip. After discharging the last round, I flipped the piggy-back upside down, and fired-off the second 20 rounds. I was finished before everyone else on both sides of me were on their 10th round. Surprised by hearing automatic fire during the single-fire phase, Jones ran over to my position.
"What the hell are you doing Coleman! Making up your own ------- rules?"
"No sir. But if Charlie ever gets that ----ing close to me, that's the way I'm going to shoot."
Immediately, everyone on the firing line began flicking their switches to automatic and rapid-fired their remaining shells. Looking around, Jones placed his hands in his pockets and walked away. The next group stepping up to the firing line were permitted to "pop their caps" anyway they wanted.
The next day I was confronted by Jones and asked to explain my "asshole" behavior on the range. I replied that had we been on a rifle range back home, where both time and conditions permitted him to use his stateside procedures, I would have agreed with them. But here in Vietnam, where stateside rules don't apply, everybody was justified in altering them. "Besides," I told him, "only an idiot is going to leave their switch on semi-auto over here."
Agreeing with that rationale, we were good friends after that.
Perimeter guard duty came down to every man in the company regardless of rank about once every 2 months and was virtually the only time everybody but the RTT men had to suit up in their flak jackets, helmets, and other combat gear. RTT men were taught in training to always carry a .45 caliber with them whenever going on field duty. We were advised to hide it outside the rig under a bush or in a nearby tree. The reason for this was to have an extra weapon to run to in case we were caught without one, or we were overwhelmed and had our M-16's taken away. Applying this training to guard duty, I always carried my .45 inside my flak jacket. While the other guys were busy getting the bunker set up, I hid it under a loose sandbag a few feet from the bunker. I was determined to live up to my promise to myself not to get captured without a fight.
From 6 o'clock in the evening until 6 the next morning, guard duty lasted 12 hours. Usually, those assigned guard were given "prep" time off from their regular job the day they had to pull duty, and "recovery" time off the day after. But in instances where someone got sick or called away for another assignment, a comspec coming off the day shift had to fill in. and needless to say, after 12 hours of being up all day, it was very difficult to stay awake during the next 12 additional hours of guard duty. Because I was switching from day shift to night, my being off during the day automatically put me on priority list for guard duty tonight. The RTT man I was scheduled to replace was ordered to hold-over his switch to night duty another day.
Fortunately there'd been no perimeter activity initiated by Charlie for almost a year, so with nothing expected, I anticipated a slow and easy night where I'd at least be able to rest, if not sleep. But because a new TET season was shortly upon us, the base commander ordered the perimeter guard doubled and every guard to be "quick and alert" just in case Charlie tried a sneak attack. Each bunker was now assigned 4 men instead of the usual 2. Shift rotations were decided by "drawing shells." Using a grease pencil, M-16 shells were numbered and placed in an empty helmet. With one man holding the helmet high above his head, each man selected a shell.
The bunkers traditionally manned by Co A44 and the 1st Cavalry Division ran parallel to the airbase runway. The 11th Infantry Brigade, 20th Engineer Brigade, and 6th Psyops Battalion handled the bunkers closest to the Army base. The bunkers closest to the airbase were manned by Air Force MP's.
Throughout the night Phantoms coming in from nighttime sorties would land every 15 minutes or so. But even with the deafening noise of their engines it was possible to sleep through them if you were tired enough. Before leaving the company for the perimeter, word of another F-4 pilot going bonkers was circulating the Army base. This was the 4th time since my arrival I'd heard that a pilot had attempted to fly his Phantom to Hawaii, only to go down in the sea a couple hundred miles off the coast. None of the pilots or their planes were said to have been recovered.
The 1st Cav's newbies handled patrol duty in and around the perimeter's 3 mile free-fire zone while their shortimers and "field rejects" assisted the non-combat agencies on the base manning the bunkers that dotted the perimeter line every 150 feet or so.
Comprised of apprehended deserters, malingerers, and cowards, field rejects from all over the Cav were sent back to Bien Hoa for reassignment or trial. Known to tolerate only a few, the Cav worked their rejects eighteen to 20 hours a day doing back-to-back "flunky chores." The pressure was kept up until rejects either agreed to pull their weight like everyone else, or backslid deeper, fueling the severest charges the Army could prosecute them for.
It was apparent most of these men were hoping that by refusing to go with their platoons on patrol, or refusing to get off the choppers when they were forced to go, the Army would simply send them back to the States. But MACV was aware that if it allowed one GI to succeed in arranging his own rotation date, everyone would try it. Most rejects eventually realized the evil of their ways, snapped out of it, and were warmly accepted back into the fold. Others, like the reject we were to pull guard with tonight, never did. and pulling guard duty with men of his low caliber was like pulling guard duty alone. Having little respect for their own lives and no respect for anyone elses, nothing could be done with these men or for them. They usually wound up spending a month or 2 in LBJ before being sentenced to several years of hard labor at Fort Leavenworth.
On one occasion, several months earlier, I learned about rejects the hard way. Like tonight, we drew shells to decide the shift order. The plan was that one man would guard while the other 2 slept. I pulled shell number one so I took the first shift. The 1st Cav reject, a young black Private, pulled the second. and Arnie, another A44 man, pulled the 3rd. Arnie was a former professional roller derby skater for the "Los Angeles Thunderbirds" who stood 6 foot 5 and weighed 220 pounds. More brawn than brains, Arnie had been knocked over the rails more often than his skull could tolerate. Although he was sharp working in the telephone frame office, he was lost anytime he tried performing dexterity functions that weren't laid-out in an easy, step-by-step process.
During my shift the reject slept sound and secure. When I woke him up for his shift I was surprised he got up promptly, inspected the M-60, and laid-out his grenades across the window ledge. He even asked if there were any special instructions from the Command Center.
After informing him that the only instruction was to randomly fire an M-79 grenade into the free-fire zone every 15 minutes or so, I laid down on the bottom shelf of the double-deck wooden cot to sleep. Because the bunk was positioned next to the wall parallel to the door, Arnie had to sleep on the top shelf. With his legs sticking out across the doorway it was easier for me and the reject to know how deep to duck than how high to lift our feet when entering or leaving the bunker. Pitch black inside, it was impossible to see one-foot past our faces.
Unfortunately, the responsible attitude the reject displayed when he began his shift ended shortly after I fell asleep a half-hour or so later. Seated on a lawn chair topside, he too fell asleep. Fortunately, the perimeter-wide alert initiated by a guard in one of the neighboring bunkers was caused by his mistaking several monkeys playing on the barbwire for VC sappers trying to break through our defenses.
It wasn't until several dozen M-16 rounds were fired, a half-dozen M-79 rounds shot off, and 3 Claymores detonated, that Arnie and I woke up. Jumping out of the cot at the same time, he landed right on top of my shoulders, both of us falling to the ground.
Making our way out and on top of the bunker, the reject was still crashed-out. 3 marijuana roaches laying on the sandbags near his right hand answered why.
Outside the barbwire in front of us, the perimeter was lit up by a dozen flares floating down from the sky. Several streams of red M-16 tracers zig-zagged across the ground where the flares dropped. Hearing the Guard Commanders voice squawking over the field telephone yelling to us to answer, Arnie picked it up and responded our bunker was secure. Relieved to hear our quadrant had not been breached by sappers, the GC stated he thought we were all dead.
Several tense minutes later 4 choppers arrived. Using their searchlights to illuminate the area where activity was reported, the bodies of a family of monkeys was discovered strung across the barbwire, their blood running over the C-ration cans filled with rocks we used for warning rattlers. Shortly after that the Command Center donwgraded the alert status from red to yellow. The reject slept through the entire event. Highly pissed-off, to say the least, Arnie and I were ready to string-up the reject. Realizing if there were VC coming over the wire instead of monkeys, both of us could have been sliced into beef jerky.
After shaking him for almost 5 minutes and pouring 3 canteens of water on his head, it took the Guard Commander, 2 guards from the neighboring bunker, Arnie and myself to get him to his feet. His speech slurred and his eyes bloodshot, we learned he had also taken 5 Darvons as well. The next morning he reported himself out for sick call as the only human casualty of what was later called "the monkey brigade attack." Apparently, somehow in the darkness and excitement, someone accidentally stepped on his face a couple of times blackening an eye and disfiguring both his nose and jaw. Although he claimed the injuries were inflicted by "the dudes on guard duty with him last night", The Guard Commander reported he couldn't find any record that the reject had even been scheduled for guard duty.
Several weeks later I learned he was at his old tricks again. This time, his winding up in the base hospital was accomplished by his own hand.
He hadn't learned his lesson about mixing drugs with guard duty. He smoked a couple of joints on his shift then went outside the bunker to routine-fire an M-79 round into the perimeter. Laying on top of the bunker he somehow pointed the M-79 at a sandbag, ricocheting the round back at him. It lodged in his chest just to the right of his breastbone without detonating. Fortunately, everyone had known about his irresponsibility and one of the other guards stayed awake during his shift. The reject was lucky. The round was surgically removed without exploding. He was later shipped back to the states, minus his right lung.
For those of us working in a war zone, it was sad but true that men like him existed on all levels of the military in Vietnam. Although it was easy dealing with a malingerer or coward below you in rank, it was potentially fatal if the man above you had no more common sense than a warthog. Incompetency in command was a very dangerous place for it to exist or remain. The decisions, or indecisions, of an incompetent commander often cost the lives of men under him. But in the Army, and probably true of the other 3 services, men too often ascended in rank because they tested high in MOS proficiency but had no talent for leading the men in their shop. Job proficiency resulting from length of service did not necessarily guarantee command proficiency. Guard duty was one of those jobs that tested not only common sense, it tested everything we ever learned or experienced, not to mention our nerves.
My shell came up number one this night assigning me the first watch from 6 to ten. First shift was always best because then you could enjoy an unbroken sleep during the next two. Setting up the lawn chair I brought with me on top of the bunker, I inserted my piggy-back clip into my M-16 and stacked 6 regular clips alongside the chair. Filling my pockets with a dozen or so M-79 grenades, I sat down laying the M-79 across my lap. Removing my metal-fingered Afro comb from my back pocket, I placed it in a top shirt pocket. My hair was too thin to use an Afro comb but a lot of white guys also carried them because they were handy eye-stabbers in case we got caught in the ville surrounded by a pack of cowboys.
Checking the bottoms of my inside pant seams, I made sure my 2 choke strings hadn't slipped out. I learned from Cav snipers that "E" guitar strings were the best to use because they cut while they choked. Although it took a while to slide them up between the double row of stitches, if ever needed they were easy to get to. Unhooking my dogtag chain I looped it through the hole in my bayonet handle then slung it around the back of my neck letting it fall between my shirt and T-shirt. I knew that Charlie had gotten wiser over the years and he knew Americans had a habit of hiding their bayonets in their boots. With my .45 hidden a few feet away and my bayonet down my back I was going to make sure I had a couple nest eggs to fall back on if I needed them.
Over the months it had become somewhat of a joke for some of the guys in my hootch to watch me suit-up for guard duty. Robert used to say I looked like I was "heading off to North V'nam to single-handedly kill General Giap." I answered him by saying that even though we weren't pulling grunt duty we were still fighting a war and should be ready for it to show up at our doorstep at any time. But that was my public story. Actually, every time I read my name on the guard roster my mind would flash back on every war movie I'd ever seen that had a scene where a lonely guard got jumped from behind in the dark by a sapper with a razor-edged hunting knife. My mind would go over every one of those scenes in detail then repeat them over and over again until daylight the next morning.
Before coming to V'nam I learned that my father had the same worry when he pulled guard duty in Korea. He told my brother and I that he and his bunker buddies would sleep with one hand on their throat and the other hand on their balls in case (Korean) Charlie would sneak up on them. After seeing me sleep that way my first night on guard, the guys on duty with me thought it was funny. But the next morning when I climbed down from the top of the bunker and walked inside, both of them were asleep on their backs with one hand covering their throats and the other cupping their balls.
The sun was just setting on the horizon but the heat was still up at around 85. Wiping the sweat from my forehead with the towel I wore around my neck, I leaned back and unbuttoned my shirt letting the weight of the M-79 grenades pull it open. Taking off my helmet, I placed my cassette player inside to keep sand leaking out the sandbags from getting inside and ruining the mechanism. Sand was a bitch to get rid of in 'Nam. Once it got stuck on the oily parts of machinery there was no way of getting all of it out.
I had just received a new tape from home I was anxious to hear. I'd written my sister Pat telling her the AFRTN recently aired an Ed Sullivan Show featuring 5 young black kids from Detroit, Michigan called "The Jackson 5". Everyone crowded in the hootch to watch the only TV set on campus. We were especially impressed with one of the youngest in the group, a 10-year old named Michael.
As the sun disappeared behind the tree line, taking the last of the light with it, I pulled-out a piece of paper and made a quick sketch of all the larger shrubs and bushes on the other side of the barbwire. "Perimeter mapping" was a technique we were taught in Basic to insure that our daylight sketch of what was supposed to be out there didn't change over the course of the night. We were told, "The commies have been watching our westerns too! They know all the tricks the Indians tried using against us like uprooting bushes and creeping up behind them."
As it turned out, with no moon out tonight, it got so dark I was unable to see the barbwire a half-hour after sunset, let alone the bushes beyond it. So in lieu of having a definite target to shoot at, we simply random-fired a clip or 2 into the perimeter every so often. If Charlie was out there playing Indian we might get lucky and paint a few of his feathers red.
Those of us coming from big cities with street lights, billboards, and neon signs burning all night weren't used to Vietnam's kind of darkness. We also weren't used to seeing the million of stars completely filling Vietnam's sky. Coming from Los Angeles where the only visible stars were those directly overhead, it was a surprise for me to see them sitting right on the horizon.
But even though most Americans eventually got used to Vietnam's dark nights after pulling a few guard shifts or going on a few S and D's, everyone still felt a little uneasy sitting alone on top of a bunker. Looking out into the perimeter searching for any movement that didn't look like a tree branch swaying in the breeze made me appreciate the use of Agent Orange to get rid of some of Vietnam's vegetation. Like the lightweight M-16, Orange was a necessary invention for this war. The heat and humidity made it cumbersome to carry the much heavier M-14, and leaving the jungles standing where they grew gave Charlie an opportunity to sneak up that much closer. and this being Charlie's turf, he knew it like the back of his hand. The huge, wide open free-fire zone in front of our bunker was big to us, but to Charlie it was just another one of his small backyards. But one of America's greatest talents was rising to any occasion by adjusting to new situations. Just as we developed the M-16 and Orange to fight the inconveniences of Charlie's environment, we even made use of a special group of Americans whose native talents surpassed even Charlie's combat style. Because their missions were classified, neither the public nor the regular Army were told about their service in Vietnam. It was only by accident that I found out about them. and learning about them was probably the most memorable experience of my 12 months in-country. The opportunity came on my way back from a spec-ops in Cambodia.
It was another hot night on July 1st when my small RTT detachment received its marching orders to "proceed immediately to (its) parent organization." The order stated that "down to the last man," 12 midnight was the deadline MACV set for all American forces to be out of Cambodia. and as many guys as could make it out by zero hour were out. Reporters covering the exodus described it as "the fastest military departure since the British evacuation of Dunkirk." Virtually every road in South V'nam was packed with thousands of vehicles of every kind overloaded with GI's streaming back to their home units. To help facilitate the extraction of stragglers, hundreds of choppers were called in. It was on one of these choppers that I saw my first American Indian.
Cu Chi was just a few miles on the South V'namese side of the Parrot's Beak where I found myself stranded with more than 5,000 other mud-soaked guys competing for a chopper seat. Although the choppers were landing and taking off around the clock, there still weren't enough to carry all the guys hoping for a ride. After hitching jeep rides from one landing pad to the next, only to discover each one already filled-up, I gave up and decided to find a truck convoy heading for Bien Hoa, even if it meant tying myself to the side of it for the overnight ride. Some guys were even riding on the canvas tops of deuce-and-a-half's.
When arriving at the Motor Pool where I'd heard most the convoys were gassing up, a Chinook pilot and his crew chief were arguing with the Motor Pool officer about getting jet fuel for their chopper. The Motor Pool officer was refusing to give up any fuel to choppers from other units. The pilot explained that he'd just received a verbal order over his radio from MACV to pick up a Special Forces team enroute to Bien Hoa. Hearing Bien Hoa mentioned I walked over to the crew chief and asked about getting a ride. Showing him my teletype order he said that unless his flight crew got fuel for his chopper, even they weren't going to make it out of Cu Chi. I then suggested that they simply steal the fuel and I would help. Several minutes later the 3 of us were riding a tanker truck to a remote field where 2 Chinooks and 4 gunships sat stranded. Filling their chopper first, I helped load 3 other birds before the well ran dry. The truck was only half-full when we "acquisitioned" it but every drop was squeezed out before we gave up.
After a brief debate over whether or not to return the truck to the Motor Pool, we decided against it. Taking off, the pilot radioed into Nha Trang to request landing coordinates for their special pick-up. The orders took us back across the border, 4teen miles inside the Beak. (3)
In less than 10 minutes we were over the landing zone (LZ). Looking down from 1,500 feet, the streams of tracers being fired from the LZ looked like half-mile long red shoestrings winding toward a hill lit up by small fires caused by artillery fire. Seeing our chopper lights approaching, a ring of yellow flares were ignited on the ground telling the pilot where to set down. After circling the LZ twice we landed.
The second we touched down a Green Beret Captain, his face covered with black and green camouflage grease, ran up to the door.
"Who's in charge here?" He yelled.
"I am!" the gunner yelled.
"Who's he?" The captain yelled, pointing to me.
"Special orders for Bien Hoa, sir." I yelled back.
"Lemme see 'em." he demanded, reaching his hand into the doorway.
Fumbling with the button on my shirt pocket, the Captains face quickly became irritated.
"C'mon, c'mon," he yelled, "we've got a war going on here!"
Finally getting the teletype out of my pocket, I handed it to him. Reading it, he then asked to see my ID card. Taking it from my wallet I handed it to him.
"What's your clearance?" he asked.
"Top Secret, sir!"
"Okay, sit back down, and put that ------- M-16 you're holding on safety!"
I was surprised he noticed the switch. I was watching his eyes all the time and hadn't seen him look at it. Handing back the teletype and my ID card, I moved back into my seat.
Looking at the crew chief, he ordered the 2 red lamps lighting up the inside of the chopper to be turned off.
"But they don't have switches, sir." The gunner apologized. "They can't be turned off."
"Then unscrew the ------- bulbs! This place is lit up like a ------- Christmas tree!"
Running over to the first bulb, the Sergeant unscrewed the glass case then the bulb.
"Now the other one." The Captain yelled, watching him.
Running to the rear of the chopper, the Sergeant unscrewed the second bulb.
"Okay, now get back over here!" the Captain yelled.
Running back toward us, he slid to a halt. The Captain then tossed up a large duffel bag.
"Okay Sergeant, your first job is to put that bag by those seats at the rear of the chopper. Your second job is to keep this ----ing chopper right here until I get back. and your 3rd job is to make sure that man over there does not speak to the passengers I'm bringing aboard," pointing to me. "Is that understood?"
"Your instructions from Nha Trang specified no passengers. If he says one word to my team both of you are going out this door, the hard way. Understand?"
Tossing his ammo bandoleer into the chopper, the Captain then disappeared. The gunner sat back down next to me. Stone-faced, he was shaken by the Captain's threat. I asked him what was happening.
"I don't know," he answered, his voice weak. "We just got orders to come here right away. Nobody said anything about not having any passengers on board."
Just then his intercom light came on. Jumping up, the gunner put on his headphones. The pilot was requesting information about the passengers we'd be taking on.
"There was a Captain here, sir. He's gone to get his team. He left just a couple of seconds ago."
Apparently told they would be leaving with or without the Captain in 5 minutes, the gunner replied, "We may need more than 5 minutes, sir. This guy seems like a real asshole. He's already threatened to throw me and the other guy out of the chopper if we talk to his team."
Listening to the pilots reply, he took off his headphones and hung them back up.
"Bob's coming back. He's pissed."
Sitting back down, the gunner still seemed shaken.
"That asshole Captain looks like he'd be the type to throw somebody out of a chopper."
"----! He won't do it," I told him. "We just won't talk to the son-of-a-bitches. They're probably just a bunch of assholes who think they're Audie Murphy's little brothers."
"I don't know, he seemed pretty serious to me."
"Then do like I say, don't say ---- to him."
Just then the pilot came up to the door.
"What happened to the lights in here?"
"That Captain made me take 'em out. He said the place looked like a Christmas tree." The gunner answered, walking over to the door and looking out.
Turning to look into the jungle, the pilot asked, "Has he been back yet?"
"Not yet, sir!"
"----, it's pitch black out there. How long does he expect me to keep this tank on the ground? We're burning up fuel waiting."
Getting up, I walked over to the door to look out also.
"I can't see ---- out there." I remarked.
"We're waiting 2 more minutes, then we're getting the ---- out!" The pilot yelled. "We'll radio in for another Chinook to make another try later."
Suddenly a voice from behind yelled for us to close the door and take off.
"We're all here, yardbirds. Let's go!"
Surprised by his sudden appearance, the 3 of us jumped. The gunner shrieked.
"Yow! Where'd the ---- you come from?" he yelled.
"The other door, stupid! Now let's go. These guys are tired."
Climbing aboard, the pilot ran back into the cockpit. I jumped back into my seat and strapped myself in. The gunner pushed the door closed. Sliding the other door shut, the Captain moved to the back of the chopper and sat down. Taking a seat next to me, the gunner strapped himself in. Then with a jolt, the chopper rose and took off.
2 minutes into the air the Captain yelled for the gunner to run back and screw the rear lamp bulb back in. Hanging onto the guy rope as he made his way back, the gunner twisted the bulb lighting up the inside. It was at that moment we discovered who the passengers were. Shirtless, wearing feathers banded around their heads, loincloths over their fatigue pants, beaded belts, moccasins, and makeup on their faces, arms, and chests, eleven American Indians sat staring at the gunner. All had hunting rifles strapped over their backs. Several were carrying 5-feet long metal bows. At their feet were half-empty arrow slings with subdued, black-covered arrows inside.
"What the hell?" The gunner yelled, turning around and noticing the men seated on both sides of him.
"Go on back up front an sit down with that other guy!" The Captain yelled.
Sitting back down, both of us stared at the end of the chopper.
"I can't believe this!" the gunner whispered to me. "Red-skin Indians in Vietnam!"
"Look at their hair and noses. Those guys have got to be real." I whispered back.
"But what the hell are they doing here? I thought they lived in Arizona or New Mexico or some ----."
"I don't know, I never heard of anything like this."
We watched as they wiped the paint from their faces and changed into jungle fatigues. Rolling their long hair on top of their heads, they covered them with bush hats. All appeared to be between 25 and 30 years old. After they were dressed the Captain handed the ones with bows a 3-foot long, brown, leather pouch. Folding their bows in half, they inserted them into the pouches. The bows were obviously specially made to collapse for easy carrying in the jungle. Several minutes later, the Captain walked up to our end of the chopper and sat down beside the gunner.
"You guys haven't seen anything, right?"
"No sir." I quickly answered.
"No sir." The gunner repeated. "But what are Indians doing in Vietnam?"
Looking at the gunner, the Captains solemn face turned into a smile. "You guys wanna know what's going on, huh?"
Neither of us answered.
"Okay, I'll tell you. You've already seen them. Maybe if you understand you'll keep your mouths shut."
"We won't say a word, sir." I spoke up.
Just then the sound of Barbra Streisand singing "People" flooded the chopper. One of the Indians must have pulled a cassette player out of his bag. Turning it up all way, the entire group began singing and laughing with the music. The Captain laughed.
"Okay here it is. American Indians have helped the Army for a long time. They helped us in the Revolutionary War, the Spanish-American War, WWI, and WWII."
"What did they do during WWII?" I asked.
"They communicated for us. They saved us the trouble of having to work out a code the Japanese couldn't break. The ----ing Japs were freaked out. None of 'em have ever heard Indian before."
"Heavy." The gunner commented.
"Yeah, the Jap's thought so."
"And what about now?" I asked.
"These guys are great. They move like the ----in' wind." Taking off his Green Beret, he pointed to it. "You see this? Well it don't mean ----! The Army can train us for years to survive with nature, but you see those guys down there?" he pointed. "Those ----in' guys are nature!"
Feeling a chill run down my back, I nodded. "Yeah, I know what you mean. The Army can train us for years but still you feel like something's missing."
"Well those guys have got it. They can hit a moving target with them bows of theirs better than our best sniper can shoot a gun."
"What kind of targets?" I asked.
"Stars." His smile grew bigger.
"You mean Generals?"
"Generals or any body else we want 'em to hit."
"Hey, sir," the gunner spoke. "Can we talk to them?"
"That's out Sergeant! Look at 'em. They don't even talk to each other until they're back home. A mission to them is more than a mission. It's their conditioning."
"Do we use them a lot?" I asked.
"How come they never get in the news?" The gunner asked.
"That's classified too!"
"Are they in the Army?" I asked.
"Some of those guys had ancestors who were in the Army." he smiled. "See that guy on the end?" Pointing to the first Indian. "His Great-Grandfather made buffalo skin shields for some of his brothers who took on the 7th Cavalry during Custer's last stand. Indian shields were so tough they could deflect a rifle bullet at 25 feet!"
"Geez!" the gunner remarked.
"See the guy next to him? His father single-handedly wiped out a whole platoon of Japs on Guadalcanal. You know what he used?"
"What?" I asked.
"A gold railroad spike. He jabbed 'em right in the heart. The spike came from a new railroad track christening in the 1800's. They've kept it in their family ever since."
Just then the gunners intercom light flashed on. Getting up, he pulled the earphones over his head. Without speaking he took them off again then told the Captain the pilot wanted to talk to him. After listening to the pilot the Captain walked back to the end of the chopper and spoke to the Indians.
"What's happening?" I asked the gunner.
"We're dropping them off. There's a special chopper coming to pick them up."
"Abrams is probably going to pin a medal on them."
Feeling the chopper descend, the gunner and I clamped ourselves in. Moments later, we landed.
Feeling the wheels touch ground, the Captain stood up. Using the butt of his M-16 he broke the rear lamp. The inside turned black.
"----!" the gunner whispered, his voice frustrated. "I'm either going to have to steal a bulb from another chopper or fill out 20 ------- forms to get one from supply."
"Looks like they're about to leave." I whispered back, noticing the Indians stand up.
Leading the way, the Captain walked toward the left door and slid it open. Then, one by one, the Indians jumped off the chopper and jogged toward a covered deuce-and-a-half waiting for them a dozen or so yards away. Folding the rear flap down after the last man was on board, he waved to the driver who immediately took off. 2 MP jeeps with swivel-mounted 60-calibers sped off behind the truck.
"That's the end of them." the gunner remarked, unhooking his strap. Walking to the door he closed it then put on his headphones notifying the pilot we were ready to proceed to Bien Hoa.
Ten minutes later we landed at Bien Hoa airbase. I was home!
Getting up first, the gunner helped me unbuckle my straps.
"You ever gonna tell anybody about this?" he asked.
"No, I'm going to keep my word to that Captain....at least until I'm out of the Army."
"You know," his voice sounding reflective, "after seeing those Indians I wonder how many other people are doing some of the same ---- we just never hear about it."
"I don't know," I answered. "But it makes me wonder too. I joined the Army to be a Green Beret. Now I wish I had painted my skin red and joined up with those guys."
Returning to the campus, Robert and Jimmie were sitting in my cubicle.
"Phill!" Robert yelled, surprised to see me. "We were just talking about you!"
"Yeah," Jimmie jumped up, grabbing my pack. "We thought you bought the farm."
Anxious to hear about my "vacation", as he called it, Robert asked me how things went.
Thinking about my promise to the Captain, I answered, "Situation Terminated."
Laying down on the cot, I pulled my pillow over my face and fell asleep.
Waking up a couple hours later, Jimmie was standing over me holding a tin of Jiffy Pop. While we ate, he and Robert filled me in on all the things that happened on campus since I left. Apparently the comcenter was falling apart because of a lot of new people coming in weren't trained properly, and the new CO was being an asshole about dress codes and protocol. While they spoke my mind drifted back on the Indians I saw on the chopper. I thought about how real Americans were in the jungle trying to win this war while assholes like our CO were concerning themselves over trivialities. Suddenly I got tired of hearing about the same stupid problems that never seemed to improve over here. Waving my hand at Jimmie, I told him for forget about telling me the rest. I already knew the story. I got up and took a shower to clean Cambodia out of my soul.
Several days later I would learn a secret that hit all of us who arrived in V'nam during the Phase 1 Troop cutback with the force of a thunderbolt. The revelation could only be compared to finding out one's reason for existing. We learned, through reports, that the Cambodian offensive was on the drawing boards for almost 10 years. The original plan was secretly drawn up in 1959 by Ngo Dinh Nhu, the infamous brother and chief political adviser to former President Ngo Dinh Diem. Nhu, apparently, was a cryptic man of many dark secrets. He confused many people with numerous false impressions of his personality, the true one of which, he guarded like one of his invaluable treasures. He was, quite probably, one of the most intelligent men of contemporary Vietnam. and his one great quality, to the consternation and envy of his rivals, was his ability to enlist and surround himself with others who had a clear, pragmatic understanding of V'nam and its people.
One of Nhu's favorite deceptions was to give the impression he was an avid game hunter who loved to go off for days at a time into the jungle with a small entourage of fellow sportsmen seeking wildlife trophies for their Harvard-like club rooms. Nhu's real reason for "going off" into the jungle was to perform his own reconnaissance missions for military strikes. Some of his "hunting" trips into the Parrot's Beak were designed to map and plan incursion routes for ARVN Special Forces teams to seek-out and eliminate the newly-formed hidden bases used by anti-Diem opposition armies.
Ten years too late, the Cambodian Incursion of 1970, we learned, was intended to be launched several months previous to May. Nhu's original plan, studied later under Harkin's MACV command and subsequently under Westmoreland's, was finalized by Abrams. In precise detail it listed the numbers and types of units estimated necessary for its execution and success. Brilliant in it's organization not only were the levels of materiel pre-arranged and set aside, but also the required personnel. That meant, of course, a certain number of communications personnel to accompany the combat groups were needed and it was important they be sufficiently experienced and "weathered" for the difficult assignment. Having arrived in V'nam the previous year, those of us who participated in the operation were indeed "sufficiently weathered".
Also, those of us who were, up until now, confused as to why so many communications personnel were arriving so close together during the so-called "troop cutback" now understood why.
One V'namese belief held that one was born the instant one confronted death. The meaning, of course, was that one only truly understood life when losing it seemed unavoidable. Learning the secret of the specific reason why many of us were in V'nam answered the mysterious question of why we were born. It was apparent we'd grown up for Vietnam.
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