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

Chapter 6 - DUSTOFF

After Leave, my orders commanded me to report to Ft Lewis, Washington on July 29, 1969 for final debarkation to the Republic of Vietnam.

When arriving, the RVN out-processing facility was jam-packed. Because of that, the Army was one enormous line. You stood in line to eat, to go to the head, to get into the PX, for your pay, your laundry, your haircut, your shots, and your paperwork. and because you were afraid to eat the chow in the unsanitary mess halls, you stood in line at the candy machines. You even stood in lines that were formed in back of other lines that were formed in back of still more lines. The line to board a plane for one of South Vietnam's 3 major U.S. military entrance ports, Cam Rahn Bay, Ton Son Nhut, or Bien Hoa, was at a minimum 3 days long.

Frustrated by the long wait to get out of Ft Lewis, I concluded that the line for 'Nam was a deviously well-conceived military plot designed to frustrate and fatigue us so that when we finally arrived at our unit in V'nam we would breathe a sigh of relief. The delay reminded me of the 4-day wait in Ft Ord's IRS center prior to entering Basic Training, except there we were kept busy. Here, like the fatigued GI's waiting on the coast of England before D-Day was finally launched, there was nothing for us to do but twiddle our thumbs and psych ourselves up.

I was told by one of the permanent-duty officers that just a couple months before the V'nam departure lines were only a day and-a-half long. and according to several of the clerks permanently assigned to the transfer installation, "Before Nixon's "Phase-One troop cutback two months ago, GI's would arrive here one day and be on their flights the next."

When I asked why the delay was so long I was told that the problem was not getting us out of the States, but into Vietnam.

"The in-processing companies over there are so overcrowded they don't even have enough beds. People are sleeping outside on their field jackets!"

"But were supposed to be in the middle of a cutback!"

"Yeah, well you know how those things go at the Pentagon. They say one thing and do something completely different."

It then occurred to me that if we were in a real cutback I wouldn't be going. Cutbacks were supposed to reduce numbers.

While everyone waited for their flight to be scheduled, life in Ft Lewis was made as comfortable as possible. Except everyone having to get their heads shaved before boarding their planes, showing up every morning at 8 am for the roll call that announced the names of those departing for 'Nam later that day, and the enlisted men having to perform police-calls to pick up the thousands of cigarette butts left on the ground from the previous day, nothing else was required of anyone. The only rule strictly enforced was a prohibition of leaving the post for any unauthorized reason.

During my first 18 hours, I was re-assigned to 4 different barracks. Although an attempt was made to prevent fraternization between different groups of personnel, as was the Army's custom, overcrowding had officers bunked with enlisted men, Special Forces troops with Regular-Army GI's, and people classified as "security sensitive" with people who weren't.

The turn-over of bodies in the barracks changed so often no one was in one long enough to make an attempt to clean them. The sinks in the latrine were layered with soap film, hair stubble, and toothpaste droppings. The trash cans were overfilled with shaving cream cans, paper towels, and cigarette wrappers. 6 out of the 8 commodes in the doorless stalls had broken flushers but were used anyway, spilling over. After the first 2 days, the hundreds of flies that buzzed in and out, day and night, were the only living creatures who wanted to go inside. Those of us with 2 legs did so only out of necessity.

Built for 60, the barrack I was finally assigned to housed more than twice that number. To accommodate us the double-decker bunks were crammed together so tight it was impossible to enter from the side, as one normally enters a bed. We had to get in and out from the head or foot. The only benefit in that arrangement was that it was impossible for the guys who got drunk the previous night to fall out. A drunk GI might wake up the next morning to find his nose brushing against the guy's across from him, but that was a lot less embarrassing, and painful, than falling out of bed.

I was lucky to have gotten a top bunk. The air near the ceiling of the oxygen-starved main sleeping room was a great deal clearer than the dust clouds lingering over the bottom bunks standing only 8 inches above the unswept floors.

The lower bunk opposite my double-decker was occupied by an Asian Second Lieutenant whose jet-black hair, flat-face, and dark sun-baked complexion appeared either Hawaiian or Indonesian. He was one of the few GI's at Ft Lewis who didn't have a V'nam crewcut or hairless upper lip. His hair grew long on the sides and back, and his conservatively-cut handlebar mustache set him apart from everyone in the barracks. Usually, only GI's on PDS were allowed the luxury of wearing a mustache.

Informing us he was from Austin, Texas, the large brown cowboy hat he rarely took off did more to accent his phony Texan drawl than did his voice. Always wearing a floral-print Hawaiian shirt over his Army shirt, he asked that everyone call him Tex because his first name was difficult for most people to pronounce.

I placed his age at about 22 or 23, which was ancient to those of us at 19. On the surface he appeared to be an okay guy, his overall personality was one of relaxed unconcern. and even though anyone meeting him would probably associate his sedate personality with the tropical environment of his apparent ethnic background, his care-free attitude seemed abnormal because it was diametrically different from all the other guys in the barrack. So much so, it made me wary of him. Everyone else was nervously chanting their rosary, writing home unending letters, gambling, or unsuccessfully attempting to subdue the panic and high anxiety of going to 'Nam by babbling continuously about matters of no concern to anyone, least of all themselves.

Like everyone else Tex was supposed to be enroute for 'Nam but had been held over at Ft Lewis for "nearly 2 months waiting for re-assignment to the Philippines, Japan, or Thailand." Because the V'namese had once been subjugated by the Japanese they held deep contempt for all foreign Asians. As a result American GI's of Asian descent were exempted from V'nam duty unless they had a certain talent or MOS that was needed there.

The story Tex gave his nearest neighbors, Cliff, who bunked next to him, Jerry, who bunked above him, and me, was that somehow during the tremendous confusion of bodies and names the Army had "simply forgotten about" him. This was an easy story to believe since practically everyone on their way to V'nam was being subjected to one inconvenience or another due to a clerical error on 1 of our 5-dozen processing forms. Unfortunately, for a lot of guys who didn't want to go, their errors were easily correctable.

But according to Tex, not hearing his name called during morning roll-call, he returned to his bunk to wait another day for another roll call to pass him by. "And in the meantime," he said, "there's no reason to deprive myself of the necessities of a bachelor life." He informed us he got the brand new white convertible Chevy Impala he kept parked behind the barracks from money he won gambling. When he wasn't talking about his car, he was looking at it.

Hospitable, polite, and generous, he knew all the local pizza parlors and liquor stores in nearby Tacoma and was more than happy to make drives off-post with our shopping lists.

Although everyone else was prohibited from leaving the base because of the possible adverse contact we might have with anti-Vietnam protesters who continuously picketed the front gate, he had somehow managed to obtain a pass from the CO to leave for brief periods of time because of the "hangup" in his status. and because the pass was "given in trust," he said, he rejected repeated requests to accompany him. He stated that he didn't want to risk the CO revoking his pass if he was caught with somebody who didn't have one, especially if they were in his car at the time.

But during breakfast on the morning of our last day he did a complete turnabout. Departing from his previous refusals, he offered to drive the 3 of us to Vancouver, Canada for what he called a "wild, high-rolling, vagina-chasing, beer guzzling night."

Noticing our surprise, not only at his change of mind, but because we had given up asking, he gave us a humble glance and said, "I'm only doing this for you guys because this might be your last chance to score some Western bush."

He went on, "Anyway, Vancouver's not too far, only an hour and-a-half away. and for 10 bucks apiece, gas money, we can roll right across the border for all the ----- hair chewing your 19 year-old teeth can handle."

Naturally, it didn't take more than that to get us raring to go. Seeing us smile, he encouraged us even more.

"We can leave around 6 this evening, get there in an hour and-a-half, and be back by 8 o'clock roll-call tomorrow morning. Anyway, it's better if you don't sleep tonight because then you'll be so tired you'll crash-out through most of your flight."

Although I was the only one in the group to admit that I'd never seen a completely nude female, the wide-eyed expressions on the other guys faces didn't look as if they'd had years of experience either. Personally, each one of us thought the trip would be more needed than fun.

"Besides," Tex went on to say, "I've made this trip more than a dozen times so I know all the hot spots GI's under 21 can get into."

For the rest of the day the trip was just about all he talked about. In fact, he seemed to look forward to it more than we did. So much so, I began to get a twinge of suspicion.

The 1st time I felt the twinge I dismissed it. But the 2nd time it buzzed me I wasn't able to. I began worrying about what if we don't get back in time? Or being under-aged, what we if got caught in a bar? Or what if we got stopped by the MP's off-post? There were just too many "what if's" for me to chance going. I decided to cancel out. Besides, I told myself, there was an old saying that fit the occasion perfectly, "You can't miss what you've never had!"

My biggest concern now was how to break it to Jerry and Cliff. They were both hyped-up and making a group adventure out of it. They would see my bugging out like turning traitor. Still, I had to go with my instincts. Paranoia was an Army by-product I'd fully assimilated after going through Cage training in RTT. I didn't forget their warning that our integrity might occasionally be tested by ASA agents trying to entrap us into revealing a secret or two.

The next time I saw Jerry and Cliff was about 5:15pm.

Still wearing wide grins, they were leaving the mess hall after night chow. Running over to meet them, I broke the news I wouldn't be going. Cliff looked the most disappointed.

"Hey man, don't be chicken----. We can have a really good time?"

"Yeah," Jerry added. "don't you like women?"

"Sure, I like women, who doesn't?" I defended.

"Queers don't!" Cliff quipped.

"Well you can ask your mother if I'm queer, asshole! Besides, you can't use my dick to screw the broad you get."

Jerry laughed.

"He was just kidding, Phill. But seriously, how come you're bailing out?"

" 'Cause I don't know what to expect. Too many things could go wrong."

"Like what?" Cliff asked.

"Like the car. The MP's. The police. The hookers. Getting back in time. You name it, anything could go wrong."

Turning to Cliff, Jerry began to look concerned. "I never thought about that."

"What! You too, man?" Cliff yelled, getting angry. "Phill's talking ----! You gonna fall for it?"

"Look at him, Phill," Jerry teased. "You're the one who admitted you've never been laid. But the way he's acting, I don't think he's had any either!"

"Sure I've had it, asshole! That's why I want to go. To get more!"

"Then go then. Nobody's stopping you." I told him.

"But you dudes were supposed to help out with the gas money. Tex said it was gonna cost at least 30 bucks!"

"Hey if it's the money, me and Phill will loan you the bread and you can pay us back when we get to the 'Nam." Jerry offered.

"I know what it is, you guys think Tex is setting us up for getting robbed or something, right?"

"I don't think that," I told him. "He's already making more than $20 on the deal."

"How do you figure that?" Cliff asked.

"Gas is only 27 cents a gallon and Vancouver's only a 175 miles away. That only comes to about 8 bucks."

"Who're you, a baby Einstein?" Cliff teased.

"No, I just don't think he's trying to set us up for a robbery. He's already doing that by charging us 10 bucks apiece when it should only be 2 1/2 or 3."

"----! You RTT nerds are just paranoid, that's all!" Cliff charged.

"Then let's forget it!" Reaching into my wallet I pulled out a $10 bill. "Here's a 10 spot. and you don't even have to pay me back."

"No, no. I'll pay it back." he promised, smiling again. "I don't take candy from babies or money from chicken----s."

Jerry pulled a $10 out of his pocket. "Here's mine."

"You guys are really serious, aren't you?"

"I am." I answered.

"Me too." Jerry followed.

"Okay, ----heads. But dig this, if I don't pay you guys back in money, I'll pay you back a couple of hot, juicy stories that'll make your dicks get harder than the bedroom wall I score in tonight!"

Cliff walked off with an ear-to-ear grin that almost made me regret my decision. Jerry and I started back to the barrack.

"Okay, what's the real deal, Phill?" he asked. "Why didn't you want to go?"

"The reasons I gave were my real reasons. Didn't they sound like good reasons to you?"

"Nope. Not measuring them next to women."

"Then why'd you decide not to go?"

"It sounded to me like you had another reason you weren't giving."

"Well, if you don't think those were good enough you can still catch up with Cliff and Tex. They haven't left yet."

"No, I think I'll pass. I was just testing you to see if you had another reason for bugging out."

"You virgin! You were scared too, weren't you?" I laughed.

He laughed back. "You think we'll be like Cliff after we've finally scored?"

"----, I hope so! Everybody I know who's had a broad says there's nothing like 'em."

We both laughed.

When we got up the next morning Cliff still hadn't been back. His bunk was as stiff as it had been last night. Jerry and I began to worry.

Thinking he may have gone straight to the mess hall, we searched for him there. But no sign of him.

Next we went to the roll-call formation. All 3 of our names were called for today's flight, but he didn't show up there either.

We decided to check back at the barrack for Tex's car. It wasn't there.

"There's not much time left." Jerry frowned. "We're gonna be getting on the bus for the airbase in 20 minutes. I think we should get his duffel bag ready in case he shows up at the last minute."

"Good idea!" I agreed, gathering up Cliff's things.

"It may not be the neatest packing job, but it's better than leaving his ---- behind." Jerry said.

"Let's just hope he shows up, period."

Just as we finished a clerk yelled into the barrack. "Buses are loading. Get your stuff together and get aboard."

I looked at Jerry. "Too late now!"

"No it isn't," he replied, trying to be hopeful. "We'll take his stuff with us so if he and Tex are racing to get back they'll probably drive straight to the airbase."

Climbing aboard the bus we both grabbed window seats on both sides. Jerry sat directly behind the driver and I opposite him. He looked toward the gate and I looked toward the company area.

"Any sign of an Impala?" I asked.

"There must be a million Impala's in Washington state alone, and all I see are VW's, Mustang's, GTO's, and Nova's. Not one ------- Impala!" He replied.

The bus started up. As we rolled up to the outside gate for a final roster check, Jerry yelled for me to jump over to his side of the bus and look out the window.

"Get over here quick! I see him!"

"Where?" I yelled, sliding into an empty seat behind his.

"Over there, near the guard shack. He's over there!"

Rubbing the dust off the sealed window, I cupped my hands around my eyeglasses to see better.

"Where?" I asked, looking around. "All I see is a couple of MP's and some protester with his hands cuffed behind his back."

"That's no protester," he yelled back. "That's Cliff!"

I pressed my glasses to the window.

"You're right! That is Cliff. He looks like ----."

Flanked on both sides by 2 MP's, Cliff's head hung on his chest. By the amount of dirt on his borrowed civilian clothes he looked as if he'd been rolled out of a saloon. The line of fresh blood trailing from his mouth looked like he'd been bullied by one of the MP's who enjoyed slapping a GI in handcuffs.

"Where'd he get those civilian clothes?" I asked.

"Who the ---- knows!" Jerry answered. "What I want to know is what happened. and where the hell is Tex?"

"I don't see his car." I answered. "Where they gonna take him? To the airbase?"

"Looks to me like he's a deserter. They're probably hauling him over to the Provost Marshal's office." The bus driver interjected.

"What for?" Jerry asked, looking back towards me.

"I don't know," looking back at him. The instant our eyes met we both figured it out. "Canada!"

"Yeah, they get 'em every night up there," the bus driver continued. "Every night they try to get away, and every night the MP's bring 'em right back."

"But he wasn't deserting!" Jerry yelled.

"Let 'em try telling it to the judge," the driver callously shot back. "The next plane he's gettin' on is one going to Ft Leavenworth, Kansas."

"That's bull----!" I yelled. "Where's Tex, how come he's not with Cliff?"

"I don't know Phill, but I've got a bad feeling about this."

Just then one of the MP's jerked Cliff's arm, snatching him to the side as an unmarked military police vehicle screeched to a halt. Climbing out both sides, 2 plainclothes CID agents flashed their badges. While one took charge of Cliff, pushing him into the back seat of their car, the other signed the MP's clipboard. Jumping back into the car, they sped off.

As the car drove away we could see Cliff's anguished face desperately trying to plead a useless defense. The CID boys didn't give a damn about what he had to say. One of them raised his hand as if to warn Cliff to shut up.

Jerry suggested we jump off the bus and rush over to the Provost Marshal's office to give our story about Cliff's joyride to Vancouver only being a one night stand. But I waived that suggestion stating Cliff may have been arrested for something other than desertion.

It wasn't until we got to the airport that an announcement was made by one of the clerks from the out-processing company confirming what the bus driver said.

The 4 buses that transported us to the airbase unloaded each bus into separate rooms until our plane was ready. The rooms were "sealed" by Air Force MI personnel.

Reading from a clipboard the clerk carried, he informed us, "4 GI's were arrested last night trying to cross the border into Canada. That brings the weeks count to 11."

A Signal Corps Major seated near the back of the room, 1st looking around to confirm he was the highest ranking officer, challenged the clerk. "Why are you telling us this?"

"Because from this point on, sir, you gentlemen are being entrusted with your own authority. You'll be dusting off in about 20 minutes and we'd like to make sure no one tries to leave the room."

"You mean you're threatening the rest of us because a few scumbags couldn't handle their responsibility to serve our proud country?"

Caught off guard by the Major's defensiveness, the clerk appeared shocked. "That's not what I meant, sir. I was just ordered to read this morning's brief."

Looking around the room again, the Major stood up.

"Okay, Corporal. Consider your job well done. But I think I can speak for all the officers and enlisted men in this room. None of us here is even contemplating not boarding that proud bird waiting out yonder for us."

"Yes, Sir." the clerk replied.

"I'm sure everyone in this room feels just like I do that we're on a mission from God to jump on that bird and fulfill our obligation as true Americans."

"Yes, Sir," the clerk replied again.

Ignoring the Major's West Point heroics, Jerry and I both agreed that Cliff was probably 1 of the 4 who were caught. After the clerk finished reading his other bulletins we cornered him. Giving him Tex and Cliff's names Jerry asked he check his list to see if they were on it.

Scanning his clipboard, the clerk shook his head. "No Sir. I see your Cliff character but not the other one."

"That doesn't make sense, Phill." Jerry looked at me.

"No, it doesn't. Unless they were separated and Tex got away."

"What'd this guy look like?" the clerk asked.

I gave him Tex's description.

"Oriental guy, huh?"

"He was probably wearing a cowboy hat and Hawaiian shirt." Jerry added.

Giving Jerry a quick, jerking glance, the clerk's face suddenly went blank.

"What is it?" I pressed him. "Do you know the guy we're talking about?"

As if caught red-handed, the clerk stuttered, "Uh...uh..."

It was obvious he knew something.

"C'mon dude, spit it out!" Jerry asked. "Did he get into a car accident or something?"

Ignoring Jerry, the clerk looked down at his watch. "You guy's better get going. The flight crew gets real pissed-off if somebody holds them up."

Jerry looked around. Everyone had moved outside the building and was now walking toward the plane. Several of the senior officers were standing under it. Pointing to different areas of the fuselage, they appeared to be examining the hull as if they understood aerodynamics. I kept my eyes on the clerk.

Raising my voice, I tried a second time to get the clerk to say what he knew.

"C'mon, don't freeze up on us. Both of those dudes are our friends. We just want to know what's going on."

Exasperated, he dropped his arms to his sides then nervously folded them across his chest as if using them to place a barrier between us. It was clear he was afraid to talk. Resignedly, Jerry tugged at my sleeve. "Let's go, Phill. It's all over with."

As I let Jerry pull me away, I looked back at the clerk, catching him glance back at us as he walked off toward a jeep waiting to take him back to Ft Lewis. His guilty expression confirmed he knew something and it wasn't good. When we got to the plane Cliff's name had been scratched off the boarding list.

Jerry and I were assigned separate seats at opposite ends of the plane. We got a chance to talk to each other several times over the flight but split up in Tokyo during a brief lay-over. He boarded another plane that took him into Ton Son Nhut. My plane went on to Cam Rahn Bay.

I never saw Jerry again nor found out what finally happened to Cliff. Although I did hear about Tex. It was 3 months later in Bien Hoa. During dinner one night a group of new guys were talking about their stay at Ft Lewis. As I walked up to their table with my chow tray I overheard them speaking about "a weird Asian dude" who kept trying to get them to take a drive into Canada on their last night. Sitting down, I asked them about it.

"What's this about some weird Asian dude at Ft Lewis?"

One of them replied, "Just some asshole who kept trying to bribe us into going to Vancouver."

"How so?"

"1st he said it would cost us $10 apiece for gas money. When we said we weren't interested he said he'd drive us up for free. When we told him we still weren't interested, he said he knew a place where we could get free ----- and weed...."

"Did he wear a Hawaiian shirt and cowboy hat?" I interrupted.

"A big brown one. Why, do you know him?"

"Yeah, I think I do. I think he had a friend of mine sent to Leavenworth."

"No ----!"

I got up and left. As I walked away I overheard one of them say to the others, "See, I told you that gook mother----er was hinky."

The scam was obvious. With the large number of guys deserting it must have been difficult, if not impossible, for the CID to catch them. To justify their budgets and lack of ability it appeared as though the CID was actively soliciting guys to "desert". Placing their undercover agents in the RVN out-processing barracks to encourage short trips across the border was a guarantee of "catching" a few. One foot in Canada and a GI without a pass was immediately charged with desertion, no matter what excuse he made. and no matter how many of them would swear on a stack of bibles that they hadn't intended to go AWOL, but only wanted to enjoy their last night, their judges would probably just laugh.

Return to War Library

Goto Cannon Fodder Main Page

Goto next chapter