Landing in V'nam was an experience anyone who went there will never forget.
Confirmation that we had arrived was evident when the hatch-door opened and the oxygen on-board was quickly replaced with the stench of decay in the V'namese air. Thick and rancid, the smell was an odor those of us arriving for the first time had never encountered.
The first face to appear through the hatch was that of a young lieutenant who headed up the orientation committee. His hair immaculately combed and his fatigues freshly starched, he looked the perfect image of a West Point graduate. Complete with an Ivy League pipe and horn-rimmed eyeglasses.
As he entered the cabin he showed no surprise seeing a plane full of twisted faces with their noses pinched shut. Smiling, he took his pipe from his mouth and attempted to console us, "Please gentlemen, you mustn't let the air here bother you. Give it a couple of hours and I'm sure you'll be quite used to it. Besides, it won't be getting any better during your year here."
Asked what it was that smelled so bad, he replied, "That gentlemen, is the smell of human feces burning in gasoline. It is the only means the natives here have of disposing of their waste."
Asked why they didn't use flushing toilets, he smiled patiently and replied, "For the last 20 hours gentlemen, you have not only traveled the wrong direction across space, you have also traveled backwards across time. The V'namese are not quite up to 21st century standards. Pitiful situation for them, damnable war keeps getting in the way."
Glancing down at the floor in a reflective mood, he shook his head then looked back up and smiled. "But please gentlemen, save your questions for later. After you've had a chance to meet a few natives, or I should say, our grateful hosts, you'll discover your next question will be, Is the odor of Vietnam's air a by-product of its people's culture, or is their culture a by-product of their air?"
Unless you lived near a meat packing plant, like the rancid stockyards in Chicago, an unpleasant odor in America was a momentary occurrence. In Vietnam, however, you couldn't count on a fresh breeze to take it away. It existed wherever there were people. But as the smell may have been the worse thing about the air in Vietnam, its most impressive feature was that there was an incredible amount of it. Vietnam's sky was so expansive the sweeping curve of the horizon gave convincing evidence of the Earth's roundness. If the doubting Thomases who lived in the densely packed cities of Europe's Age of Discovery had the opportunity to travel to Southeast Asia, proof in Vietnam's horizon would have irrefutably silenced any contention that the Earth was flat.
30 seconds after stepping off the plane everyone's clothing was soaking wet. The temperature was listed at a 123 degrees. The change in barometric pressure and dense humidity felt as if someone was sitting on my chest. In order to breathe we had to quickly adjust to taking short, shallow, rapid breaths.
Lack of any trees or buildings over 1 story left little shade for protection. A combination of controlled burning, chemical defoliants, and Army tractors had denuded the surrounding land for miles around. We would later learn that most U.S. military bases in V'nam were built on areas having natural sand deposits to prevent the jungle from growing back. When expansion was required new sand was trucked in from the coast.
As we descended the exit ramp we were handed an inch-thick packet of papers that listed step-by-step instructions on how to proceed through our in-processing. Organized according to MOS, the first page listed job categories with locations. Infantry personnel were to begin at Building 3, clerks and cooks at Building 7, technical service specialists at Building 1, and those with security clearances at Building 6.
Building 3 was the base Armory. In the event of a ground attack infantry personnel were required to have their combat gear and M-16's with them before they continued with the rest of their processing. For everyone else, Building 3 was last.
The 2nd page instructed us to refer to a 3-digit, alphanumeric code located just after our names on a half-sheet page stapled to the TDY orders we received at Ft Lewis. The notation consisted of 2 capital letters and 1 number. Decoded, it revealed the name of our FDU (final destination unit) and the NLT (no later than date) we were expected to arrive there. My code indicated I was to report to Company A44, 36th Signal Battalion, 1st Signal Brigade located in Bien Hoa, III CTZ NLT 9 August 1969. An asterisk next to my NLT date ordered me to first check in at the 36th Signal Battalion headquarters located in Long Bihn, NLT 8 August.
After being given a few minutes to scan through the first few pages of our instruction packets, we were asked to form an assembly to receive an introduction by the CO of the Incoming Processing Company (IPC). Looking no older than 25, the CO appeared too young to be a Major and to have the enormous responsibility of commanding a unit as large as an IPC. After a few words extending a brief but polite welcome, the rest of his comments were an introduction to the frustration and bitterness we would soon be expressing ourselves.
He informed us that because of the massive amount of new personnel arriving around the clock every hootch in his facility, which was spread out for acres, was completely filled beyond capacity. and that because there were so many new arrivals bunk numbers had to be given out for the next available cot. "But because we ran out of number tickets 2 weeks ago, you'll have to make do with any open space you can find to sleep on. That, of course, means outside."
"But the newspapers say that we're going through a troop cutback?" Someone in the formation yelled out.
"Sure," he replied, "Nixon is pulling out brigades and battalions by (organizational) name, but he's replacing them with 2 and 3 times their numbers in unattached men. Most of you are coming in to fill up new organizations."
He stated that Nixon's Phase-One troop cutback "translated to 10 additional 707 arrivals a day. and the commercial flights are just the Army guys coming into Vietnam. The Navy troop-transports are bringing the Marines in, and the Air Force are using their own planes."
During the 3 nights I eventually had to spend in Cam Rahn I never got the opportunity to sleep on a cot, or in a barrack. But that was just as well. Because of the high rotation of GI's the Supply Room had stopped issuing sheets a month prior to my arrival. Every sheet in the transient barracks was so dirty the mattresses under them were black from the residue of unwashed fatigues and dirt-packed boots. We were informed by the supply clerks, "Although regulations say bedding has to be changed for each new transient, there was just no way we could clean the number of sheets (that were) needed."
For those of us sleeping on the sand outside, where the temperature would go from hot and sweaty during the day to frigid and shivering at night, we learned several lessons that ROT training failed to provide. One was, surface sand does not hold daytime heat past sunset. Although the sun's heat made it impossible to walk barefooted during the day, as the temperature dropped during the evening we would have to scoop away 6 inches or so below the surface layer in order to get to the warm sand underneath. Laying down quickly, our body temperature would reinforce the warmth of the sand for 3 or 4 hours. After that, we would have to move to another unused area, scoop away a half-foot deeper, then quickly lay down before the air chilled the new surface.
At night the 100's of tired bodies sleeping on the ground looked like an enormous OD green blanket spread out almost as far as the eye could see. By morning the ground was littered with a sea of man-shaped craters. By evening the craters would be leveled by 1,000's of trampling feet.
Besides learning that tired human beings were able to sleep any place, any time, and under any conditions, another lesson we learned was people will eat practically anything and anywhere when they get hungry. In Cam Rahn conditions were the worst. New arrivals had to adjust to filth or starve. I chose to hold out until I reached Bien Hoa. For the 3 days I spent in Cam Rahn my total diet consisted of Coca-Cola and a one-pound Collin Street Bakery fruit cake I bought in Osaka Airport during my brief lay-over in Japan.
The IPC ran 4 mess halls for transient enlisted men, one for permanent-staff enlisted men, and an OMH that was shared by transient and permanent officers.
The transient mess halls were staffed by 2 or 3 junior-grade cooks and a half-dozen V'namese kitchen aids, all of whom were pregnant. It was not uncommon to walk into a mess hall and hear a cook humping a kitchen aid in the back room.
The cooks uniforms appeared as if they had just walked in from a rice paddy. The cuffs of their pants to the knees were splattered with mud from walking around in puddles outside. Hats were rarely worn. GI's passing through the chow line had to either ignore a cooks sweat dropping from his forehead into the mashed potatoes or close his eyes when holding out his tray.
Because it was evident the CO did little to maintain hygienic discipline, most of the enlisted men subsisted solely on hot coffee loaded with heaps of sugar. and because coffee was their total diet, they ignored the layer of mosquitoes that fell into their cups after being overcome by the rising steam. One would simply blow the circle of mosquito carcasses to the opposite end of the cup and take a quick slurp before they shifted back around to the front.
Sanitary conditions in the mess hall serving the enlisted IPC staff and the OMH were considerably better. However, one had to be recognized by the MP guarding the door of the IPC mess hall, or be an officer to get into the OMH. For some of the hungrier enlisted men, whose navels were playing tag with their backbones, the challenge of getting into the OMH was deemed more of a necessity than a frivolous desire to taste a bit of the good life officers enjoyed. Officers had their meals brought to their tables on a service of fine-quality China by a mini-skirted waitress anxious to satisfy, during and after dinner. Tables in the enlisted mess halls were covered with plastic, food-stained table cloths and paper napkins. Tables in the OMH were covered with laced cotton with napkins and doilies.
Needless to say, 2nd Lieutenant gold-bars were the hottest selling item in the local PX. and for a while, until things got out of hand, senior officers tended to ignore the ragmuffin crowd of "strange-looking 2nd Louie's" crowding secluded tables in a corner of the OMH. One reason was because all 2nd Lieutenants, whether they were legitimate or self-appointed, had to pay a $3 under-the-table service charge. The service charge went into a fund that paid for the gallons of alcohol consumed by higher officers.
Cam Rahn also had an Out-Processing Company (OPC). Intermingled among the GI's waiting for a plane seat home were deserters hoping to sneak aboard. But because daily roll calls and frequent unannounced inspections of the OPC barracks were made, deserters found it less conspicuous to hang-out in the IPC facility to avoid capture. Most would purchase new fatigues from GI's just arriving because their aged clothing made them stand out. They would change back into their old fatigues when returning to the OPC compound.
To prevent deserters from accessing the IPC mess halls enlisted men were required to show a food pass to an assistant cook before being allowed to enter. Because deserters had no resources for food, clothing, medical services, or money, except what little could be made on the local black market, they had to either buy or steal copies of orders from new arrivals. Some of those copies sold for as much as a $50 per set.
Among the many things V'nam taught Americans, learning how to re-evaluate everything we'd ever seen and done in life was probably the most important. Sleeping was one of those things. Artillery barrages firing repeated salvos at suspected VC positions in and around Cam Rahn Bay, helicopters flying 50-feet overhead, and loud music blaring from a dozen loudspeakers nailed to posts 3-feet over our heads would have kept anyone in the States awake all night. But in Vietnam, where sleeping had to be done when time permitted, nothing short of an atomic blast could rob us of the little time available for "crashing-out".
The chopper pad, located across the street, operated 24 hours a day. Between flight schedules and the reading of the names of GI's to report to the chopper pad for transfer to their FDU bases, announcements were made giving us the military status of the local area.
To accommodate our latrine needs, dozens of plywood outhouses were erected. Natives working around the clock were employed to hoist the 55 gallons drums from below the outhouses and burn the contents. Ash from the thick black smoke would settle everywhere. Including on us while we slept.
For washing, rows of fiber-glass sinks and large plastic pitchers of water were set up on the sand just outside the hootches. The morning wait for access to a wash basin was sometimes and hour or more. Although cold water pipes were connected to most of the sinks, a number of them were unusable because their faucets were old and rusted shut. Hot water would be a luxury most of us wouldn't enjoy again until we were back home a year later.
With the 1,000's of GI's arriving weekly, everyone was just an anonymous face in the crowd. Organization and procedure seemed to have been forsaken long ago. Trying to make your way through the maze of customs, orientation, and inspections was Army bureaucracy at its worst.
It quickly became apparent to new arrivals that in order to get through the IPC, let alone out of it, it was up to the individual to push his way through. But finding an easy way to do that would have been a trick even Harry Houdini would have found trouble managing.
The bureaucracy required that after we completed our MOS processing we next go to the medical building to verify we received our shots at Ft Lewis. From there we had to go to the identification building to be issued new dogtags. After that to the personnel building to pick up an "Authorization Permit" that gave us permission to get fingerprinted at the Provost Marshal's office. But before we were allowed inside the personnel building we first had to get a "military haircut", even if the one we were required to get at Ft Lewis was only 2 days old. and we weren't informed about the haircut until after we'd spent 2 hours standing in line roasting under a hot sun thinking we'd simply breeze right in and right out. Some guys had the foresight to get their heads clean-shaven to avoid having a nit-picking Captain say it was too long and order them back to the barber shop to get a 2nd cut.
The lines for most of the stations we were required to process through were made longer by the limited hours they were open, and all had to be completed in a certain order. Jumping from the top of the list to the middle, or down to the bottom, was impossible because a signature and special stamp was required at each station. and the only way to get into the next station was to show you'd been through the previous one.
During the day, the company area was the perfect picture of normal Army activity with everyone going about their business processing from one station to the next. But after taps walking through the company grounds at night was like trying to get through the packed crowd overflowing the streets in Chicago's Jewish shopping district on Maxwell Street. There, permanently built wooden stalls lined the sidewalks extending well into the middle of the street. The narrow walkways running between the structures were packed with shoppers, steerers, vendors, prostitutes, drug dealers, and soap-box preachers. Each one selling everything from apples to zodiac charms, mopeds to jeeps, hot dogs to caviar.
Although the merchandise was a little different in Cam Rahn's IPC, the atmosphere was identical. One couldn't walk 10 steps without someone trying to sell you women, dope, AK-47's, American currency, rocket launchers, alligator shoes, penicillin, silk pants, gold-handled umbrellas, pearl earrings, Purple Hearts, syringes, cattle prods, and douche bags. Helicopter crew chiefs sold tourist flights to Saigon, scenic flights up and down the coast, or photo flights over a combat zone. Medics sold morphine. Cooks sold prime beef. and PX employees sold America's Top-Ten record albums and battery-operated record players. Everything, of course, was at bargain prices.
For $50 you could buy a counterfeit pass that admitted you to a front-row seat at a USO show in the Mekong Delta. For a couple hundred, you could buy a camera that came complete with a jeep and driver who would take you to a village house where you could photograph a real live baby being born. For a tip to the midwife, you could even deliver the baby yourself.
If your thrills were more toward death than birth, you could have your driver take you to the local police station where you could take pictures of a "suspected VC" being tortured. and for a tip, the jailer would let you peel off a few inches skin and give you a cassette tape recording of his screams. The Sergeant I sat next to on the plane was absolutely right when he said a GI could get anything he wanted in Vietnam. Another name for V'nam was indeed Variety.
But the longer I spent in the IPC the more I became annoyed that the only thing I would gladly have paid money for couldn't be bought at any price. and that was a faster way out of Cam Rahn Bay. It took me almost 4 days, which was about the average, to escape. Because only one chopper was assigned the Long Bihn shuttle, and special seating passes were necessary to board, I was told I might have to wait as much as a week before my seat number came up. Fortunately, it only took a half day. and that was by sheer luck. That opportunity came on my last day while walking through the company and overhearing a conversation between 2 company clerks discussing a convoy of Chinooks that would be passing through Long Bihn on its way to Bien Hoa. From what I could overhear of the conversation, with all the din and clatter around me, it sounded as if the 2 clerks were making a bet as to whether the convoy would make it without being shot down.
I approached them.
"What's this about a convoy to Long Bihn?" I asked.
"It's going through Long Bihn, but it may not stop." One of the clerks answered.
"You mean it may not make it!" the other clerk laughed.
"What kind of convoy is it?" I asked.
"A risky one." The first clerk added.
"It's carrying ammo to the 1st Cav. One shot and it could go up like an atom bomb." The second clerk informed me.
"Is there any chance of me getting a seat on it?"
The first clerk looked at me as if my question was the strangest thing he'd ever heard. "What's wrong with you? Are you on a hurry to get toasted, or something?"
"Yeah, I'm in a hurry. I'm in a big, ----ing, hurry!"
"Tell 'em about it," the 2nd Clerk broke in, "I'll bet $50 he doesn't make it."
"I'll take that bet." I offered.
Looking startled, the first clerk asked, "Are you talking about a 3-way bet?"
"How the hell is that going to work?" the 2nd Clerk asked.
"Easy. If I make it I pay him instead of you. and if I don't make it, he pays you just as if I never walked up." Taking a copy of my orders from my pocket, I handed it to him.
"Here's a copy of my orders for Company A44. In a couple of days you can verify with my Orderly Room whether or not I got there."
"You got it!" He replied.
"But you don't get anything out of this." The 2nd clerk asked.
"Yeah, I do. I get the ---- out of Cam Rahn today."
"Are you finished with your processing?" The first clerk asked.
"I was finished yesterday."
"Then go over to the Orderly Room and ask for Master Sergeant Zuanich. He'll tell you where the convoy will be loading. But don't tell him we told you about it."
"Thanks. You guys have made a good bet."
We shook hands and exchanged goodbyes. I ran back to the spot on the sand I slept last night and picked up my duffel bag. Heaving it on my shoulder, I double-timed over to the Orderly Room.
The man seated behind the desk was an ostrich-necked, red-nosed Master Sergeant looking down at what appeared to be a foot-high pile of papers that trailed from top of his desk to a 3-foot stack on the floor. Barely visible underneath dozens of used rubbers bands wound around the small triangular nameplate sitting in the middle of his desk were the words, "Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge". Another dozen rubber bands were wrapped around one of his wrists.
"Ahem. S'cuse me Sarge"
"A-hem. S'cuse me Sarge"
Still no answer.
Just as I was about to try it again he stopped me, answering in a monotone, unconcerned voice.
"You know sir, I've heard a lot of throats cleared during my 19 years in this man's Army. and I've got to say, you sound like a little puppy dog whining for a bone.
"You don't have to call me sir, Sarge. I work for a living too!"
"I appreciate that sir. But it's a habit with me. These days I call everybody sir."
"Because in 10 months the Army's going to promote me to PFC. and when you're as low as a PFC, everybody is sir."
"How can the Army demote a Master Sergeant to Private 1st Class?"
"They're not demoting to Private 1st Class, they're promoting me to Proud ------- Civilian!"
Then for the 1st time, he looked up at me. Instantly, I recognized him.
"Hey I know you," I told him. "You're the Top who sat across me on the plane a few days ago."
"Yeah," he smiled. "And you're the guy who joined up to kill commies."
Looking embarrassed, I faded him off.
"That was all a misunderstanding."
"For who?" he laughed, "You or the Army?"
"Maybe for both of us."
"Yeah, well I suppose you didn't come in here to talk to me about your misunderstanding with the Army. What did you need?"
"I heard there was a Chinook convoy heading to Bien Hoa by way of Long Bihn. I wanted to hitch a ride."
"How did you hear about it?"
"I called my FDU in Bien Hoa. They told me about it."
"Did they mention the nature of the convoy?'
"No, I just want to make it. It's my fastest way out of here."
"It may be your fastest way out of life, it's carrying high-explosives, or didn't your FDU tell you that?"
I tried to sound rugged. "They say war is hell. I might as well start out getting a taste of it now since I'm going to run into it eventually."
"Don't try to impress me. I've been in this man's army longer than you've been alive. You don't know anymore about war than you do about shaving. War isn't hell, it's stupid. If you want to know what hell is, hell is getting your balls shot off trying to be brave."
I didn't reply.
After a few moments of silence he asked, "And you still want to go?"
"Like I said Sarge, it's my fastest way out of here."
Accepting that I was determined to make the convoy, he reached over to a corner of his desk and picked up a sheet of paper with flight schedules written on it.
"It's your ass, not mine. Here, take this to Captain Roberts down the hall. He'll write you a boarding pass." Pointing his thumb toward the XO's office down the corridor behind him, he indicated for me to go get my signature.
Looking down the corridor, there were 3 doors. 2 opposite each other mid-way down the hall, and 1 at the far end. Open just a crack, a light came from the door at the end.
Leaving my duffel bag propped against the Sergeants desk, I started down the corridor. Approaching the door at the end, I knocked. Knocking 1st was Army SOP.
"Yeah, what the ---- is it?" A voice from inside yelled back.
"Sir, I'm here to see you about the Chi-con to Long Bihn."
"Are you a newbie?"
"I'm new in-country sir, if that's what you mean."
"Well I don't talk to newbies so get the ---- away from my door."
"How's that, sir?"
"Come on in."
Opening the door, the XO was leaning back in his chair with his feet propped on the desk. In one hand was the chewed end of a cigar and in the other a highball tumbler. His bloodshot eyes indicated he was probably on his 3rd or 4th drink.
Judging by the short span of his legs I made him out to be about 5-4 or 5. His mustache was handle-barred, well beyond Army regulation length. The wrinkles around his eyes put him about 40 years old, but the tone of his clear voice placed him in his late 20's. Hanging on the flat-grey wall behind him were 2 photographs and a huge tactical map of South Vietnam. I recognized one of the pictures to be Humphrey Bogart. The other photo was of another man I didn't recognize.
Reaching over his desk, I handed him the boarding pass. He accepted it, then spoke.
"If there's one thing I don't like, it's talking to newbies. So make it short."
"Why is that, sir?"
"Because newbies don't know ----."
"Well, I was told that you could get me on the Chi-con to Long Bihn."
"How long you been in country, newbie?"
"3 days now, sir."
"3 days, huh? and you don't know enough to stay away from ammo transports. You really don't know ----. Do you, newbie?"
"Well sir, I really haven't had enough time to figure things out yet. I was hoping...."
"You can stop calling me sir, newbie. I'm not your father."
"You ever heard of Saigon, newbie?"
"That's the capitol. It's south of here, isn't it?"
"You must've been watching the news on your Leave, because you're right, Saigon is south of here."
"Well, where I really need to go is Long Bihn. I really don't need to get to Saigon."
"You see newbie, that proves me right. You really don't know ----. Because if you knew where Saigon was, you'd know where Long Bihn was."
"Well now I'm getting the general idea that Long Bihn must be somewhere near Saigon. But what does Saigon have to do with the Chi-con to Long Bihn?"
He changed the subject. "Can you read a map, newbie?"
"Sure, I can read a map"
"Can you read the map on the wall behind me, newbie?"
I looked at it. Multi-colored, it covered most of the wall. Criss-crossing it were a mesh of lines going up and down forming 100's of tiny squares with brightly colored pins stuck in several of them. Inside each square was a handwritten, 6-digit number. There were no names of any kind. I recalled a Basic Training map-reading class where we were taught that 6-digit map numbers were called "coordinates". We were told the purpose of printing tactical maps using coordinates instead of names or unit locations was the result of a lesson the Army had learned from the French occupation of V'nam during the battle of Dien Bien Phu. During the 1st few days of that battle the artillery officer had been captured by the NVA. On a map he carried were notations marking all the locations of the French artillery emplacements. Having secured this information, General Giap immediately ordered the destruction of the French howitzers to be the 1st priority of his offensive. When they were destroyed Dien Bien Phu was unable to defend itself.
After giving the map a good look, I answered, "Sure, I can read it."
"Can you find Saigon on the map, newbie?"
"Sure. It's....uh....right over there."
Rotating his swivel chair around, the Captain looked to where I pointed.
"Your're pointing to the Cambodian border, newbie. You want to try again?"
"No sir. I don't know where Saigon is."
"It's on the red tack, newbie."
"Okay, I see it."
"Can you see Long Bihn, newbie?"
"Yes sir, it's....uh....right there next to Saigon."
"Which one, the yellow tack or the green one?"
Guessing, I chose the green tack.
"It's on the yellow tack." he corrected me.
"Okay, I see Long Bihn."
"You need a lot of help, newbie..." Reaching toward the map he pulled out the yellow tack then wheeled back around and raised it towards me. "...and I'm going to help you. It'll be my good deed for the day."
Handing me the tack, he continued. "Now this, newbie, is Long Bihn. If you ever get lost again just stick that tack in your ass. It'll wake you up and you'll be sure to find your way."
I stared at the tack for a few moments while tossing over the idea of jumping over his desk and ramming it up his left nostril.
"Quit dreaming, newbie. I know you want to shove that tack up my nose but V'nam is no place to be fantasizing."
"I was thinking about which pocket I should save it in, sir." I lied.
"That's bull---- and you know it. But don't get offended, I was just playing with your patience. The heat in this asshole country can make tempers really ----ing short. and it takes a great deal of patience to put up with it."
Scratching his signature on my boarding pass, he handed it to me.
"This is Vietnam, newbie, you're on your own over here....so take that tack and this paper to the chopper pad just down the road to your left and you'll sure as ---- find a large yellow sign that says "Long Bihn". Right behind the sign you'll see a whole bunch of large green helicopters shaped like weenie dogs. You can't miss 'em 'cause they've got big yellow flags on their tails. and that, newbie, is the yellow brick road to Long Bihn."
"Thank you, Sir."
"And the next time you walk into another Orderly Room, make a point to read the signs on the wall. The one right over the front door outside says, "Boarding Passes Available at Transport Office". You could've saved all of us a lot of time by going straight to the chopper pad."
Feeling stupid for not reading the sign before I entered and saving myself some humiliation, I accepted his message and chalked it up to learning the hard way.
Acknowledging me with a nod and a smile, he waved his hand toward the door. Placing the yellow tack in my shirt pocket, I saluted, and left his office. Picking up the duffel bag at the Sergeants desk I walked toward the door. Just as I was about to leave, I remembered the other photograph on the Captain's wall. Turning back to Zuanich, I asked him about it.
"By the way, Sarge, who's the guy next to Bogart in Captain Roberts' office?"
He smiled. "You see," he replied, "that's what he meant when he said newbies don't know ----. That picture, newbie, is the greatest director who ever lived. His name is John Huston."
The name was familiar, but not the face. "Never heard of him, Sarge. Did he make any good movies?"
Shaking his head at my ignorance, he looked up at the ceiling then back at me. "Ever heard of the "Treasure of Sierra Madre"?"
"No, is it new?"
Shaking his head again, he mumbled, "Lord, give me patience."
"Must be a good one, huh?" I asked.
"Yeah, it's a good one. It's got all the elements that make up what this war is all about. Adventure, betrayal, honor, greed, guerrillas, corruption, heat, gun battles, strategy, and the girl we all left behind."
"I guess I'll have to see it some day."
"Yeah, you do that. You might find it'll make a better man out of you. Until then, you just walk out that door, follow the yellow brick road, and have a real nice stay in Vietnam."
Waving goodbye, I smiled and left.
Following the row of yellow-painted bricks lining the walkway to the chopper pad, I ran over to a lone gunner standing outside the last of about 30 Chinooks lined up for takeoff. Yelling over the engine roar I informed him I had received permission to hop a ride to Long Bihn.
"Do you need to see my papers?" I asked.
"You're an American aren't you?"
I just looked at him.
Seeing I was a little impatient with being kidded, he pointed toward the open door.
Throwing my duffel bag into the open doorway, I followed it. Inside, I looked down the long stretch of the Chinook's elongated cabin. Filled with 100's of boxes, each stamped with its contents. I recognized "K-Rats" to be K rations, "LRRP Rats" to be Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol Rations, and "Mesq Repel" to be mosquito repellent.
Right behind me, the gunner yelled for me to make my way up to the front of the chopper. Twisting and turning between the rows of crates, I made my way to a seat directly behind the pilot's cabin.
Tossing my duffel bag under the web seat, I sat down. Reaching into a compartment above my head, the gunner yanked down a bundle of belts with metal hooks attached.
"Here, strap this around your waist and hook it to the U-bolt behind you."
"What's it for?" I asked.
"It's a safety strap. I'm going to be opening these doors. It'll keep you from leaving the chopper before it lands."
"Do many people fall out of these things?" I asked.
"Only the ones who don't strap-in."
Immediately, I hooked myself up.
"Am I the only passenger?" I asked.
"Yeah, looks like you're it for this trip."
The chopper ride to Long Bihn was the 1st time I'd ever been on a helicopter. I'd never seen the contraption he handed me. But fortunately, since most military equipment was designed so a 4 year-old could figure it out, I pulled it around my waist and hooked an attaching cord to a hook behind me.
"Looks like a parachute hook-up." I told him.
"Yeah, kind of. Except chutes don't work on choppers."
Looking around me, I noticed there were no emergency parachute canisters.
"You mean we can't jump if we get hit?"
"Nope. On a chopper everybody is Captain. We all go down with the ship."
"But why don't they just put chutes on board?"
"Like I said, they wouldn't work. The rotors would waste us."
"Whether we got hit with a power failure or ground fire, the up-draft of wind on a falling chopper would keep the rotors moving. and since there's no way to jump clear of them, you'd get sliced in half the minute your chute opened and slowed down your fall."
His explanation made sense.
"They say the odds were a million-to-one of safely passing between the 30-foot rotors," he continued.
"Yeah, I guess those odds are too great for the Army to recommend anyone trying to beat. But what if the blades get shot off?"
"We call them rotors, not blades."
"Okay, what if the rotors get shot off?"
"That's the least of our worries. There're other parts a lot more fragile."
"There's the stabilizer bar that works like a gyro. It keeps us from turning upside down. Then there's the hydraulic dampers that keep the stabilizer bar in synch with the rotors. There's the swatch plate that controls the rotor-hub. It's connected to a little gizmo called a Gimble-ring. There's the push-pull pins that control the mixing levers that control the stabilizer bar. There's a pitch-change link that..."
"Wait a minute," I stopped him. "I think I get the message."
"I heard someone in ROT say that a chopper is aerodynamically able to fall flat on its landing pods if it gets shot down. Is that true?"
"Me and every other gunner, crew chief, and pilot I know wishes it was, but it ain't. If a chopper goes down, it goes down heavy end 1st. Choppers have to deal with gravity just like everything else.
"I thought it was bull---- when I heard it."
"Yeah, but bull---- was what ROT was all about."
Because chopper gunners spent more time in the air than their passengers, their "intestinal fortitude" made them a special breed of men. The job of chopper gunner was strictly voluntary. They were often hanging half-way outside the doorway trying to spot ground activity. Although most were said to be "out of the raving-assed minds", there wasn't a gunner in V'nam who would trade his job for one that was far less hazardous.
This gunner was obviously a veteran of many flights. As the chopper glued itself to the treetops making repeated 45, 60, and 90 degree climbs and dives, he remained calm. I was beginning to feel air-sick. A sudden shift in altitude made it worse.
"What's going on?" I asked, my voice shaking.
Holding both sides of his earphones to his head, he listened to the pilot. "We're being diverted to an eclipse," he answered. "We're climbing to a couple 1,000 feet."
"What's an eclipse?"
"It's when we black out the sun for a raid on Charlie."
Almost stuttering, I asked, "Black out...? Raid...? The sun...?"
Smiling at my nervousness, he explained. "We got a flash over the radio. The 173rd is about to start an offensive a few miles from here."
"What's that got to do with us?"
"We link-up with the fleet of attack choppers. It's just for effect. Most of us don't actually participate in the fighting but if we're lucky we'll get to pop a few caps."
"What's the point in going then?"
"To scare the ---- out of Charlie."
"How's Charlie going to be scared if most of the choppers aren't shooting at him?"
"It's the way the oriental mind thinks. Something that goes back 100's of years. Haven't you read the V'nam manual they gave you in ROT?"
"No, I haven't read it yet. What's it say?"
"It says the V'namese are terrified of locusts."
"Vietnam gets hit by locust swarms every 4 or 5 years. They eat up all the crops."
"But what's that got to do with only half the choppers shooting?"
"It's not the shooting, it's the numbers. The old choppers used to look like dragonflies. You know, a big ball in front and a long skinny tail in back. But our Huey's look like locusts. Charlie gets really freaked-out when he sees a hundred choppers screaming down on him."
"Is that what eclipse means?"
"Yeah. The 173rd always has observers on the ground when they pull a raid. The observers say chopper eclipses literally black-out the sun when they come in."
Looking out the doorway all I could see was wall-to-wall treetops.
"But how do the attack choppers know where to find Charlie in all that jungle down there?"
"Easy. They send in a Huey Bell. One of those tiny one-man jobs that attracts Charlie's fire. When the Bell pilot starts tasting lead he radios to the big boys hanging loose up in the clouds. Then the main group comes down like locusts and kicks Charlie's ass."
"Yeah, and it only takes 15 minutes or so. After the 173rd gets done with Charlie's hideout, all that's left is a few toothpicks."
Suddenly, the chopper lurched forward then vibrated violently.
"What was that?"
"It's the draft from all these choppers being in one area of space at the same time. The pilots call it rotor-wash."
"Yeah, it feels like we're in a washing machine."
"That's the Army for you. Basic terms for basic descriptions."
"That's all well and good but I'd like to think they train their pilots on a more sophisticated level."
"Don't worry, they do. But doesn't rotor-wash sound a lot better than non-integrated turbulent residuum?"
"It sounds more like you've been reading helicopter manuals."
"I have. I'm scheduled for flight school in 3 weeks."
"Thanks. I just hope I live that long."
"Yeah, I hope I live long, period. This sucker is shaking pretty bad."
"We call it a ship, not a sucker."
"Sorry about that."
"Take a look through the porthole, we're starting to link up."
Pointing to a tiny circular window just behind my head, I turned around and looked through. I had a clear view of the sky in front of our chopper. It was filled with dozens of Huey's.
Tapping me on the shoulder, he directed me to an even larger group rising up to our rear.
"Now look behind us."
"-------," I yelled, "every chopper in 'Nam must be up here."
"Naw, not every one," he smiled. "But a lot."
"Well, it's going to be real hard for Hollywood to simulate one of these eclipses if they want to make an accurate movie about 'Nam."
Pressing his headphones to his head the pilot was informing him to strap-down for our 1st pass over the attack zone.
"Hold tight! The pilot says we're lining up for our 1st fly-by."
Looking out the door the crowd of choppers at 1st appeared to be unorganized gang of hooligans, but as they began jockeying their positions they layered themselves as if organized by a choreographer. Turning around and looking through the front porthole again, I counted 5 distinct layers. All perfectly lined up, they stretched from one end of the horizon to the other. Turning back toward the gunner, I yelled to him, "They're all lined up. Is that to scare Charlie or to keep us from hitting each other?"
Pushing his head to the porthole, he looked at the rows of choppers examining their dispersion.
"Looks like a staggered-trail left formation."
Tongue-in-cheek, I replied, "Yeah, that's what my guess was."
"See the alignment," he continued, "everyone's at a perfect 45 degree angle, 3-foot step-up, 2-rotor disk separation with the chopper in front. It's a perfect trail!"
"Okay, you've already impressed me. I suppose you know all the other types of formations too?"
"Yeah....there's the V, Diamond, Echelon, Tactical....and a couple more."
"Do these pilots do this all the time?"
"A lot. It's a piece of cake for them. They all went to the same school."
Turning around and looking out the door again, he yanked on my shirt.
"Quick, turn around and look down here!"
Pointing to the jungle floor beneath us, a horde of 3 to 4 dozen VC, most of them dressed in black pajamas and carrying AK-47's, scurried under the trees. Machine-gun fire from the 1st row of choppers raked the ground. Leaves, branches, clumps of ground, and bodies exploded into fragments.
"-------!" I yelled. "There must be a million of them buggers down there. They look like a bunch of cockroaches trying to get away from a size 11 boot!"
"In a minute they'll look like a bunch of squashed cockroaches."
Hopping into his M-60 pod, he yelled for me to slide toward the door and hold his ammo belt. I did.
Firing-off several dozen rounds at a time, both he and the M-60 moved as if they were both one unit. As the 4-inch long shells rattled out of the M-60's barrel, the hair on his head shook. His eyes darted rapidly across the tree line searching for movement.
"I used to worry about hitting lions and monkeys." He yelled between bursts, his voice out of breath. "But I don't worry about that any more. Can't take any chances getting shot back."
"How many people have you hit so far?" I asked.
"You sound like a civilian."
"Civilians always ask us how many people we killed. They don't ask how many VC or how many enemy soldiers. They ask how many people."
"Sorry about that."
He looked up at me. "What are you apologizing about. They're gonna to be asking you the same ------- question."
"Then I just won't answer the assholes."
Looking back at the trees, he resumed firing. "I guess some guys give 'em a number and other guys just say ---- you. I lost count a long time ago so I'll have to say ---- you."
"You think they're curious or just weird?"
"Just weird. How many sane people would ask a question like that?"
Noticing a group of bodies darting behind a bush, I pointed their location to him. Jerking the M-60 toward it, he emptied the remaining rounds. 4 bodies recoiled. One wearing a white shirt turned red before our eyes.
"I need another belt. Watch the door while I get one."
Sliding off his seat he crawled over to a large wooden ammo box in a corner on the other side of the cabin. Yanking out a 12-foot belt he climbed back into his seat and loaded the 1st round into the chamber then ejected it.
"Why'd you do that?" I asked.
"1st round always jams."
Stretching the belt towards me I grabbed it, keeping it elongated to prevent it from folding. He continued firing short, rapid, bursts.
"Check each round as it passes through your hands. If one of them is off-center, slide it back into place."
"Does it have to look perfect?"
"Yeah, if it clogs the gun I have to pause to eject it. and I don't like pausing. I hate having a single Cong miss his share of hot lead."
"How high are we?" I asked.
"Optimum, about 1,200 feet."
"Optimum for what?"
"Optimum for asskicking. 12-H is the altitude that's the least susceptible to direct hits from rifle fire on the ground and the best for scoring direct hits from the air."
"But how come we were flying so close to the trees before we linked-up with all these other guys?"
"Because 45 to 50 feet is the best altitude for sneaking up on Charlie. By the time he sees us coming we've tossed a ton of lead up his ass and gone. Any survivors we leave in our dust won't have a chance to take aim and get a clear shot at us."
Then suddenly, like the lurch and lift of a jerky, fast-moving elevator, the chopper began to quickly rise. The G-force shoved me down. Falling back in my seat, my head hit the panel behind me.
"What's going on?" I yelled.
"I don't know. Hand me my headphones."
They were hooked to a strap on the ceiling. Yanking them down, I passed them over. Pulling them open he held one side over an ear. The other ear was left uncovered to allow him to continue hearing outside noise.
Listening intently as the pilot sent back information, a look of frustration spread across his face.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"----! We're being recalled. and just when my aim was getting good."
"What do you mean?"
Waving his hands in the air for me not to talk while he listened, he paused for a moment then answered. "The raid's off. Somebody canceled it."
Pausing for another moment, his eyes moved quickly. I could tell he was doing some fast thinking. The other choppers behind us were still firing at the ground.
Suddenly he jumped up. "I think I know!"
"What?" I asked.
Ripping off his headphones, he slid over to the other side of the chopper. Holding onto the hand grips on both sides of the doorway, he stuck his head out. Twisting his neck towards the clouds above us, he looked 1st in one direction, then in another. After searching the sky for a second or 2, a wide smile stretched across his face. Apparently finding what he was looking for, he reached out his arm and pointed to a small opening between a cluster of clouds about 10 o'clock high to our rear.
"C'mere. Look over there!" he yelled.
Sliding across my seat to the doorway, I yelled back. "What is it?"
"Up there. See 'em?"
Not seeing anything, I asked again. "What am I looking for?"
"No, thunder! B-52's! See 'em up there right between those clouds?"
Again I looked. All I could see were a half-dozen tiny black specks silhouetted against the blue sky above them.
"Those are B-52's?"
"Yeah, looks like about 6 or 7 of them at about 30,000 feet, I think."
"Aren't we a little too close under them?"
"Yeah, too ------- close!"
Moving back to the M-60, he strapped it down.
"That's why we're being scrubbed. A thunderstrike must've already been arranged. Then somebody else ordered an eclipse. Too many ----ing idiots are running this war."
"You mean we could have a 1,000 200 pound bombs dropping on us?"
"They're only 100 pounds."
"That's still pretty ----ing big!"
"Calm down. We'll be out of here before they start dropping."
Noticing my face perspiring, he laughed.
"You're starting to sweat like a pig."
Raising my left hand to wipe my forehead, I noticed blood on it. My 1st thought was that I'd been shot by a stray bullet from the ground.
"I think I've been shot!" I yelled, holding up my hand. "One of those Charlie's shot me!"
Grabbing my wrist, he looked at my hand then pushed it away. His grin got wider.
"You haven't been shot." He yelled. "You were holding onto the seat too tight. Look at your hand. You can still see the impressions from the webbing on your palm."
He was right. I had been clutching the seat so tight 2 of my fingernails had broken into the skin. Embarrassed, I balled my hand in a tight fist and covered it with my other hand.
"Does it hurt?" he asked.
"I didn't even know it was cut until I saw the blood."
"Don't let it bother you," he laughed. "I've seen that happen before. We had a Major once who was so scared his teeth chattered. I told him he should put his dog tags between 'em so they wouldn't crack. Do you know what the stupid bastard did?"
Busting out in a gut laugh he answered, "He swallowed them."
"No, his dogtags. Chain and all!"
"It's the ------- truth, cross my heart."
"Was he okay?"
"Yeah, he was okay. I heard later the doctors stuck him in the hospital and made him ---- in a bedpan for 3 days until they finally came out."
I looked down at my chest. My dogtags were swinging outside my shirt. Quickly scooping them up, I stuck them inside my T-shirt. A second later, the chopper jolted again. Veering sharply to the left, it turned off in another direction.
Grabbing the straps on my seat again, I yelled, "Where're we heading now?"
Pressing the headphones to his head, he listened to the pilot.
"Long Bihn....we're back on course....should be there in a few minutes."
"Can you promise me there won't be any more diversions?" I asked, still shaken.
"What's wrong, didn't you like that?"
"I'm going to have to get used to it."
"Man, I could shoot gooks all ----ing day. Being up here makes me feel like I'm a giant looking down at a little bucket. Those gooks down there are like fish swimming around just waiting to get shot."
A smile stretched across his face. It was almost infectious. I couldn't help but smile back.
I looked down at my hand. The wind coming through the door had dried the blood. Looking back at the gunner, he was looking at me. Pointing to my hand his smile broke into a laugh. I laughed with him.
"Don't it just make you feel alive being up here on top of the world?"
I looked out the doorway.
The gleam in his eyes told me he really enjoyed his job. Seeing his excitement, and feeling a little of it myself, I began to understand why we all came to Vietnam. It wasn't because we were afraid of going to jail. We came because we all had a deeply-rooted desire to participate in a real-life war. Every one of us were living out a childhood fantasy of playing soldier. Even the draftees who'd never admit it.
Looking out the window, chopper after chopper peeled-away from the formation. Each one heading back to its original destination. As I watched their exhaust trails fading across the sky it suddenly occurred to me that it really didn't matter if we left this place still being patriotic or turning radical, confused, rebellious, or any of the other negative descriptions the press used to describe V'nam vets. Everything that made up being an American GI was in each of us. and we had a lot of wars to look back on. Never in human history had the pictures of past wars survived the men who fought in them. For some of us, serving in V'nam helped to resolve the lifetime of war influence hypnotically placed in us after growing up with both simulated and real pictures of war.
Several miles away from the bodies of the VC we left bleeding on the ground, the smoke from the 100's of bombs dropped from the B-52's rose higher in the sky than we were. Stretching for miles across the distant horizon the smoke rose from the tree tops as if it was being pumped out by a fast moving freight train passing underneath.
Finally arriving in Long Bihn, I reported to Company A44's parent organization the 36th Signal Battalion. This would be my last stop, completing my in-processing.
While waiting for my paperwork to be passed from one clerks desk to another I got an opportunity to take my 1st shower in 4 days. It would be shared with another GI who didn't appear to be much older than my 19 years. He had entered the bath house a few minutes before I had. His aged and faded fatigues hanging on a hook outside the shower room door indicated he'd been in 'Nam for at least a year. I learned later he was a medical holdover who was long-overdue for home. He was awaiting a plane for Japan where he would receive more medical treatment for a problem he contracted over here.
While we were in the shower I noticed his eyes would make frequent darting glances at my midsection. My 1st thought was that he might have been gay but that didn't seem to fit because his own constant shift in position made it obvious he was taking great strains to keep his front away from my view. and from what I'd heard about homosexual behavior, fags were said to enjoy exposing themselves. But for the instant he forgot himself, and briefly faced me, I knew the myth of the Black Syphilis had some basis for fact.
Unfortunately, for him, the group-shower houses the Army preferred to use provided no privacy. His penis had apparently been the subject of recent reconstructive surgery. It didn't hang like it was supposed to. A row of black stitches along the top made it turn upward in a U-shape. In its present state it would only permit a normal toilet shot if he were standing on his head.
Needless to say, the experience stunned me. The only words spoken by either of us during the shower was a warning he gave me after he dried off and was about to leave the building. "Adios brother, and watch out for yourself over here."
I was too dumbfounded to speak. But I did answer him in my mind. "You're -------, mother----ing right!"
In mentioning the experience to several of my hootch-mates later on after arriving in Bien Hoa, everyone came to the conclusion the Black Syph was kind of like Vietnamitis, except specifically related to sex. It didn't matter if it was disease, war, or accident that left you grossly incapacitated, either way you were just as incapacitated.
While re-dressing I remembered one of my Basic Training DI's relating a story he had experienced during his tour in Vietnam. Serving with the 101st Airborne Division, he told us that while on patrol one day, the point-man (or lead scout) of his platoon was shot in testicles by a VC sniper. In his platoons desperate attempt to root out and waste the sniper for his "vile and dreadful deed", revenge-seeking patrols were sent out for 3 succeeding days to search for him, but for each of those following days, a new point man suffered the same malady.
After the 3rd day of having their point men's balls shot off, it finally dawned on the 2nd Lieutenant platoon leader that the sniper was not hiding in a tree or hanging from a vine in camouflage as he originally suspected, but had to be located on the ground and hiding under something that was approximately waist high.
This theory was confirmed by one of the doctors who had treated several of the injured men. After removing the bullet fragments the doctor was able to determine that the trajectory of the gunshots were on a straight line of fire and not angled downward, meaning the sniper was not up in a tree.
Airborne reconnaissance photos were then taken of the patrol grounds. All the existing mounds of earth and clumps of bushes were picked up in the photos. When analyzing them, several of the waist-high obstacles that littered their patrol trail were pinpointed as the possible hideout and origin of the sniper fire.
On the next patrol day, instead of re-duplicating their frontal line of march toward a suspect mound, the patrol was ordered to sweep around and encircle each one. Several hours into their search the mound inhabited by the sniper was isolated and the VC was captured without firing a shot.
As punishment the sniper was injected with morphine and castrated on the spot. The morphine was used, we were told, to keep the sniper from passing out. After his "jungle surgery" was completed "a thick tree branch" was anally inserted using "a great deal of thrust." Twisted inside, the branch ensnarled his intestines, ripping them to shreds. He was then tied to a tree and "his head used for target practice."
We were told the men who took part in this type of activity found no guilt in participating. They were in V'nam not because they wanted to be, but because they had to be. "And after all," we were told, "it was the sniper who started the dirty street fighting, not us." The platoon saw their retaliation as an emotionally pain-relieving revenge that was justified in Vietnam. The days of honorable warfare that practiced respect and fairness had long been abandoned by us because it was never practiced by the North Vietnamese. Where women and children in past wars were spared the "hammer of death", as the VC called it, in V'nam they were raped and bludgeoned. Finding the dissected remains of civilians and POW's had enraged both the ARVN's and Americans to punish VC and NVA POW's similarly. ARVN's were said to be especially brutal to their POW's.
In the early years of American involvement GI's had a difficult time rationalizing the brutal difference between honorable and dishonorable warfare. Eventually, they were forced to accept that no one could make rational sense out of insanity. The VC were savage killers, hacking up people rather than just shooting them. Seeing the mutilated remains of civilians, comrades, and priests every day, Americans were left emotionless, some of them unable to smile for years afterward. Although North V'nam never signed the Geneva Convention's Articles of War they promised not to permit inhuman atrocities. But deep inside the heavy-canopied rain forests of Southeast Asia jungle warfare took over. In V'nam no one asked the philosophical question about 'hearing the tree fall in the forest'. Everyone knew if you couldn't hear a tortured blood-curdling scream, you damn sure wouldn't hear a tree falling. The VC and NVA weren't afraid their bamboo concentration camps would ever be discovered like the brick ovens in Germany. It would be a long time before anyone would be able to find disfigured bodies buried under vegetation that had only been slightly disturbed since the earth was created.
The blank, emotionless stare I got in the shower was the symptomatic badge of being a shortimer although it didn't take a full year to obtain one. When a rare smile was mustered, only the corners of the mouth displayed movement, the eyes and eyebrows remained frozen. During ROT it was said "If you want to get rid of facial lines, go to Vietnam. Because even if you cry you won't feel the tears rolling down your cheek."
The level or lack of emotion a man personified depended on how well or poorly he handled what he witnessed in Vietnam. In most cases the 'Picture of Dorian Gray' was worn inside. Every day added another brush stroke to the portrait, every incident another line. The green of the jungle, the red of the blood, the orange of the clay, the white of the ash, and the black of decay would remain inside us until the day the painting was completed. That was the day we left for home. Then it would begin to ooze from every pore until the last drop of V'nam was resolved and finally laid to rest.
The only time I'd seen a similar expression was in guys who just received their orders for Vietnam. The entire face went blank as if they had been injected with a gallon of tranquilizer. The eyes became glassy, the voice became monotone, the chest sank, and the shoulders bowed to a slump. The boyish expression that reflected all the things that young men dream about vanished as quickly as sunlight was eclipsed by a cloud.
One of my classmates during RTT school, a 19 year-old Latino from Tuscon, Arizona became a living cassette tape after receiving his orders. His total vocabulary for about 2 weeks prior to his 30-day Leave consisted of 2 short sentences. One, which he said to his mother during a brief phone call home informing her of his orders, and the other, her reply. "I told my Mom I just got orders for Vietnam. She told me she knew I wouldn't be coming back."
On his last day of ROT he received a call from the Red Cross informing him that his mother had suffered a fatal heart attack. After contacting his father he was informed that his mother's depression, hearing about his orders for Vietnam, had caused the attack. The Army immediately revoked his V'nam orders and granted him a change of duty to an installation near his home.
In protest to another death being caused by the war an anonymous student drew a cartoon of President Thieu and posted it on Himmler's billboard. Wearing spiked talons for fingers, Thieu was caricatured reaching an elongated arm across the Pacific Ocean piercing the chest of a middle-aged Mexican mother. The caption under the drawing reflected Thieu's angry expression at having lost the presence of another GI in his country. It read, "I will not be deprived of my body count."
After completing my processing at the 36th Signal Battalion I had to finagle another chopper ride to ferry me the 20 miles to Bien Hoa.
Up to now every personality I encountered while in V'nam displayed its own unique variety of insanity. and anybody who'd been here for more than a month was unqualified to judge who was sane and who wasn't. After my last flight I wondered if I was qualified to judge sanity anymore. The conversation I had with the chopper gunner during my flight to Bien Hoa shook me back to reality. I knew then I needed to remain sane so I wouldn't lose my sense of reality while I was here. But listening between his words I began to realize one had to be insane over here to survive.
Wearing a bush hat pulled down over his eyebrows, it was obvious he was loaded on some kind of dope. His companion, the crew chief, was more of a loner, rarely speaking. Throughout the flight he never said more than 2 sentences. Perched in his door seat opposite the gunner he sat staring down at the jungle holding a grenade in each hand. His thumbs nervously rolled inside the rings of the firing pins.
Noticing me watch him, the gunner attempted to relax my concern. Pulling a marijuana joint out of his pocket he took 2 deep drags then reached it toward me. I shook my head. He didn't appear offended.
Over the roar of the chopper's egg-beaters he yelled out, "Don't worry about Sarge over there, he's never dropped a live one inside the ship."
"He's a grenade man," he went on. "he likes blowing Charlie to bits. Me, I kinda like making Chaz taste the bittersweet flavor of bullet molecules boring through his skinny little bod."
His hand slid across the top of the M-60 as he spoke, petting it as if it was a Cocker Spaniel.
"Old Sarge used to be a gunner but he couldn't shoot straight. Now he never misses, except for the time one of his grenades dudded on him."
"What happened." I asked.
"He dropped a grenade that bounced right off Chaz' head without going off. You should've seen that gook. He's rubbing his head while cussing at us in Vietnamese."
"It would've pissed me off too!"
"Look at old Sarge, people on the ground say he looks like a bird the way his neck twists and turns."
Smiling, I saw the similarity. "Yeah, he looks like a seagull looking for a fish."
Seeing me relax for the 1st time, he asked where I was headed. "Where ya goin'?"
"Isn't this chopper going to Bien Hoa?" I answered.
"Yeah, it's going to Bien Hoa, but where are you goin'?"
"I'm going to Bien Hoa."
"Hey, that's cool. How long you been in-country?"
"I just got here, about 4 days. Landed in Cam Rahn."
"Yeah, that's cool. How long you gonna be here?"
"About a year, how long you been here?"
"Little over a year, I'm on my 2nd tour. Sarge over there is on his 3rd."
"Extended, huh? I don't think I want to stay here longer than I have to."
"You should stay longer....you really don't get to know this place until you've been here at least a year. Where'd you say you were going?"
"Bien Hoa's a real nice place, 'specially the Air Base. They've got real nice planes on the Air Base."
"Well I guess I'll be there long enough to see them."
"They've got a couple of real nice U-2's on the Air base....one day I'm gonna get me a U-2."
I smiled. "Are there any for sale?"
"Not really, but you can get one. You can get anything over here....so you're going to Bien Hoa, huh?"
"Yeah, that's what my orders say."
"I really like Bien Hoa. 'specially the Special Forces compound. They've got really nice girls on the Special Forces compound....you ever been to the Special Forces compound?"
"No, not yet. This'll be my 1st time in Bien Hoa."
"Bien Hoa is a real tight base. They've got a lot of really secret-type stuff goin' on there. Are you gonna be one of those secret dudes?"
"In a way, I'm into communications."
"That's what I mean, all that communication stuff. It's all pretty secret in Bien Hoa....you never know what's really goin' on in Bien Hoa."
"How many times have you been there?"
"Never really, I only land there and take right off again....they've got too much secret stuff going on and I'm not cleared to leave the landing pad....those MP's are fierce about guys who don't have security clearances. What kinda secret stuff you gonna be doin'?"
"I don't know. Probably just communications."
"You look like you could be one of them spies that hangs out in Bien Hoa....you never know what's going on in Bien Hoa."
"You know anybody who's been there for awhile?"
"Yeah, lotsa guys. They were all doin' some kinda spy stuff but none of them would ever talk about it. Some of the wierdest guys you'd never in your life think were spies turn out to be spies....you look like you could be some kind of spy for Bien Hoa. Spies don't like letting their hair grow long."
"I had to get it cut 3 times before I could get out of Ft Lewis. But no, I'm not a spy."
"Well you watch out for some of the weird stuff that's goin' on in Bien Hoa....cuz there's a lot of it going on. How long you did you say you're gonna be there?"
"Probably a year."
"You should stay longer, you really don't get to know this place until you've been here at least a year."
Reaching over to an ammo box bolted to the floor near the doorway he pulled out a small portable radio. Turning it on, the local AFRTN radio was playing Jerry Butler's "Only The Strong Survive". Rotating his seat toward the open door, he laid his chin on the butt of the M-60 and began singing along. The Sarge was still hanging half-out his door feverishly searching the ground for enemy movement. Both thumbs still caressing the firing-pins.
After my conversation with the gunner it didn't take me long to realize that V'nam was not the kind of place Americans should be, and this war was by no means the type of war that Americans should fight. It simply blew our minds. Americans are best when they pour into an enemy country, kick ass, then get the hell out and back home to making babies. But to win the war America would have had to be at war with both the North and the South. Although to the common GI, we were. GI's over here were never confused as to who the real enemy was.
After landing at the Air Base in Bien Hoa I was ordered to report to a hangar just outside the chopper pad. The sign over the door of a large room read, "New Entry Holding Area". As I filed alongside a large group of passengers just arriving from other choppers that were landing every few minutes I glanced over my shoulder and noticed an Air Force Private breaking through the crowd running toward an Air Force Sergeant seated at a desk near the hangar door. He appeared to be rushing a stack of papers to the desk. Because several other Air Force enlisted men scurried back and forth I probably would not have paid this one any attention except for the fact that he looked exactly like Walt O'Toole. After watching him for a few moments the more I looked, the more he looked like O'Toole. My guess was that they must be brothers. I decided to try yelling O'Toole's name to see if he'd turn around. If he was Walt's brother I'd introduce myself. "Hey, O'Toole....O'Toole!"
Hearing me, the private slid to a halt and wheeled around to see who called his name. Spotting me in the crowd waving at him, a wide grin spread across his face. The instant he smiled, I knew he was Walt. I smiled back.
"Hey Phill!" He yelled back. "Just get in?"
"Yeah! But what's with the Air Force uni...."
Breaking me off with a finger crossing his lips, I picked up his drift and didn't say anymore.
"Stay right there, I've got to run somebody's emergency flight orders to the Outgoing Terminal. I'll be right back."
Acknowledging him with a wave, he took off running again.
After finding a seat in the Incoming Terminal an Air Force sergeant came in and asked that we remain in the room until vehicles from our individual units arrived to pick us up. He stated the Flight Commander was concerned sightseers in the group might wander onto the flight field and get in the way if an emergency Phantom scramble suddenly got under way.
Pulling my RVN Introduction Manual out of my duffel bag, I thumbed through it while waiting for O'Toole to return. About 45 minutes later I noticed him standing in the doorway, his eyes searching the room. Tossing the manual back into my duffel bag, I yelled out to him.
"Hey O'Toole....over here!"
He looked in my direction, noticed me, and trotted over.
"I was having a hard time finding you in this crowd. All you guys look alike in those new fatigues."
"Yeah, I can see that."
Looking at the 2 officers seated on both sides of me, his face suddenly took on an expression of concern and reservation. "Let's take a walk outside. I want to show you something."
"Sure dude. All I've seen of V'nam so far is the inside of holding facilities."
Getting up, I tossed my duffel bag on my shoulder. He grabbed it and pulled it back down. "You can leave that here." He stated, placing it back the floor near my chair. "We'll only be gone a minute or 2. Besides, I just overheard that most of you guys'll be moving out in a few minutes. There's a whole fleet up jeeps coming through the gate."
As we walked out the door I was anxious to know why he was now in an Air Force uniform. The instant we cleared the building I couldn't contain my curiosity any longer.
"What's with the new uniform, man?" I whispered.
"I'll tell you in a minute."
We walked outside to the flight area. There were rows of Phantom F-4's parked in open hangars stretched out for 100's of yards.
"What's the deal?" I asked him again.
"Remember when I 1st met you and Harry back in Georgia? Remember when I told you and Harry my tour was only going to be a couple of days?"
"Yeah, I remember that. He asked what you meant by that but you didn't have time to answer."
"I couldn't tell you then anyway, it was too early in my operation to let anyone in on it."
My eyebrows curled in concern. "What operation?"
"My scheme to get out of this burg."
Surprised and confused, I offered my confidence.
"I wouldn't have squealed."
"I wasn't worried about anybody squealing. I was more concerned about somebody trying to imitate me and blow the plan before I was finished."
"What's it all about?"
"It's about how ----ed-up this place is. In the 4 days I've been here my worst imagination of this place has been confirmed. and the sooner you get out yourself, the better."
"How the hell can anybody get out of here any sooner?" I asked.
"Do you remember what I said about getting book smarts?"
"Yeah, I remember."
"It's too late to do what I've gotten away with, but if you can come up with a plan to get out of here sooner than 12 months you might be able to add some years to your life."
"Is that why you're in that Air Force uniform?"
"Yeah. I just finished taking my emergency flight orders over to the Outgoing Desk. I should be back in the States this time tomorrow night."
"How the hell did you manage that?"
"Easy, I made up my own orders coming here and going back. When you've got access to an Army mimeograph machine you can do anything." He laughed.
"What about signatures?"
"One signature is like any other. Nobody really reads them or attempts to verify them. They only look to make sure they're where they're supposed to be."
"Besides, the clerks here aren't any different than the grunts. They hate the place just like everybody else. Most of them are just paper-jockeys. Their job is to make sure the paperwork they inspect is in the right order before they pass it along to someone higher. and the man they turn it over to has to make sure it's in the right order before he passes it along to somebody higher than him. It's all one ----ing continuous circle of bureaucratic bull----."
"I saw some of that in Cam Rahn Bay."
"One of the 1st things I learned when starting college was that anything one man can create, another man can figure out. The only exception is that intelligent men go on to use what's been created by someone else for their own benefit.
"So how are you getting out of here?"
"Those orders you saw me taking to the Outgoing Terminal listed me as Captain O'Toole being discharged from the 82nd Airborne Division."
"How long have you had all this planned?"
"From the start."
"I told you back in Georgia. I need to be a V'nam veteran to get the things I need out of life. But I also knew that if I did it on straight time it was going to be a long process and a lot of work. Not to mention the fact that 365 days over here means 365 chances of getting wasted. But now all my planning is almost over."
I was all ears as he told me how he had enrolled in several training schools only to fail each one, facilitating fewer days spent in training although his falsified record showed he completed them. He stated he had enrolled in "so many schools in order to use up" as much of his 2-year draft cycle as he could so that when it was time for him to go to 'Nam he'd have very little time to do over here. He listed Clerk School, OCS, Computer School, Jump school, and others. He said each school had given him access to a little more information to "complete my operation than I had before."
It was after his last school, he said, that he hatched his plan to make the remaining time he had to do under his control rather than the Army's. He and his girl friend would spend the rest of his 14 months in Hawaii so his getting back on campus too soon wouldn't arouse suspicion.
He detailed how he bought old combat fatigues in the States from GI's coming home, and how he made up his own orders shipping himself to 'Nam a year ago and more sets of orders with varying dates placing him in different organizations while over here.
Grinning, he stated he made several entries in his medical files, complete with forged comments from doctors indicating various visits to the base hospital over the course of his "year". He listed several service medals he had "awarded" himself, but was proud to say he never wrote himself orders for a Purple Heart. He respected the Purple Heart as an honor deserved by people wounded in battle.
He explained that the Air Force uniform was used "just for the 5 minutes it took to carry the emergency flight orders to the desk sergeant at the Outgoing Terminal." He said the orders were best delivered by an Air Force GI than an Army GI because the Air Force ran the flight operations and they would not suspect one of their own personnel pulling a scam on them.
His plan was ingenious. For almost half an hour I sat listening in awe. I was both astounded and impressed that at least one person in the Army was not only completely unafraid of concocting a deception on so large a scale, but actually carrying it out.
With a big smile he concluded by telling me that his dossier was now complete. He would now be on his way back to the States a Captain and a V'nam veteran. But more importantly, someone that would be viewed by both his peers and his conservative superiors at Berkeley who had "proudly fulfilled his service to his country."
When he finished I couldn't help but congratulate him. "You're a ----ing genius, O'Toole!"
"No, I'm not a genius." he humbly rejected. "I'm just a human being who doesn't want to die fighting this stupid war."
"Yeah, after only 4 days I'm beginning to feel that way myself."
"Look at me," he stated, staring into my eyes, "if I can pull off what I did, that should tell you the system is really ----ed. So you see, you'd be justified in doing whatever you have to do to get out of here. How can anyone in their right mind support a system this ----ed-up."
"Well I'd be able to handle it a lot better if it wasn't always working against us."
"Well it may be too late to get the system to work for you here, but you can always get it to work for you when you get back."
"You mean 'if' I get back."
"You'll get back okay. You're too naive to get wasted over here. Don't worry, you'll get back, and in 1 piece."
"I wish I could be that confident."
"It's not confidence that's needed. Just stay the way you are. Live one moment at a time. Don't worry about what could happen in the future or what did happen in the past. Just keep going the way you have up to now and you've got nothing to worry about."
Those were obviously closing words. We both stood up and shook hands.
"I've got to go change my uniform and rejoin the Army now." He smiled.
"Yeah, Captain," I teased. "You don't want to miss your flight."
"Good seeing you again Phill. Can I consider that I have your discretion in everything I told you?"
As he walked off, we both waved.
"By the way," I yelled to him. "When I get back I'm going to college. Those book smarts are okay!"
He smiled and disappeared into the beehive of bodies clustered in the Outgoing Terminal.
I walked back to the Incoming Terminal just in time to pick up my bags and jump aboard a bus to take me to another area of the air base where I could telephone Company A44 to request transportation. Half an hour later the company 1st Sergeant drove up in a jeep. Hopping aboard, I officially began my "year in hell". The "real adventure", some guys were calling Vietnam, was about to begin.
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