Copyright © 1980, 1987 The Vietnam War Library


The Air Force section of Bien Hoa was located about 2 miles from the Army section. During our short drive to Company A44, the 1st Sergeant, "Top" Harkins, opened-up with small talk about the airbase.

"You know, Time Magazine says Bien Hoa is the busiest airport in the world. We land 5 times the aircraft that Chicago lands at O'Hare International."

"I can believe that!" I responded. "A chopper gunner told me there are a couple of U-2's on the airbase. Is that true?"

"No and yes. Officially, the Pentagon says America has no U-2's on foreign soil, but unofficially, between you, me, and the lamp post, watching those black Birds float up into the clouds is a beautiful sight."

"I've heard they don't take off in a straight line like regular airplanes."

"They don't. They spiral up like a screw."

"Where do they go?"

Pointing a finger in the air, he twirled it in a circle. "Round and round, up they go. Where they photograph, nobody knows."

I returned his smile. "Sounds to me like they might be flying over China or Russia."

"Well nobody on this base can say for sure since there really aren't any U2's actually here, are they?"

"Right. But I'd like to see one take off."

"Then watch the sky over the airbase around dinner time. They usually go up between 5 and 6 every night."

Passing a group of large, 2-story buildings, I asked about them.

"What are those over there on our left?"

"Those," he smiled, "are known around Bien Hoa as the Hilton Towers East. That's where the Air Force guys live. Compared to the hootches we live in, they're paradise. Compared to the tents some of the infantry guys live in, they're heaven. But don't feel too bad about not having enlisted in the Air Force. There's a reason why they got better barracks."

"Why's that?"

"The airbase gets hit all the time. Charlie rockets the place at least 3 times a week so they had to make their buildings out of stuff shrapnel can't penetrate. and you know how it goes when you start using lathe and plaster."

"No, how does it go?"

"You start putting in hot water heaters, in-wall plumbing, shower stalls, doors with knobs, and outlets for electric shavers. Those guys even have individual mailboxes with locks on 'em!" He laughed.

"What about our mail?"

"We've got a guy who distributes it for us."

"Where does he distribute it?"

"He throws it on our bunks."

As we passed an ARVN guard station, he pointed out several points of interest. "Over there to your right is the III Corps Tactical Zone (III CTZ) ARVN compound. That's where the company's main Comcenter and RTT station is located. You want to make sure you don't walk around that place in the dark when you go on night duty."

"Why's that?"

"They've got some saber-tooth rats on that ----in' place that're bigger than cats. In fact they eat cats."

"Anybody bitten by one?"

Not yet, but their ----in' fangs would probably rip through your boots like paper.

Seeing an American flag waving over a group of buildings on our left, I asked him what they were.

"That's the Special Forces compound. It was named after a Master Sergeant named Snake Hosking. He was a bad-ass Green Beret who died when he jumped on a VC prisoner holding a live grenade back in '67. He got the Congressional, posthumously."

"I saw a movie about a Green Beret named Provo who got the Congressional after he died. It's too bad we can't tell who the heroes are going to be so they could get their medal while they're still alive."

"Well, I used to know old Snake. and I think he'd be proud to know the cleanest ----- in V'nam is sold right here on his compound Bien Hoa. Not that he would've authorized it himself, mind you."

Surrounded by 3 rows of barbwire coils, there didn't appear to be more than a half-dozen buildings on the compound, all widely separated. Except for 2 or 3 men walking around and a few dogs chasing each other, the compound appeared deserted.

"Yeah, it seems like all the old gang is either dead or retired." he continued. "Sometimes I think there's no way of winning this war with all the young meat coming over these days.... no offense to you!"

I didn't reply.

"MACV keeps saying some of the youngsters we're getting are military geniuses, but I don't know. I kinda think we need more people with balls like old Snake to win this war." (1)

Watching the Sergeant drift, I changed the subject.

"The place looks like its deserted, where is everybody?

Pausing briefly, he collected himself. "They're probably all out on missions. It only takes 1 man to run the steam bath where the broads are."

"Where's the steam bath?"

Turning towards me, he smiled then pointed to a windowless, 1-story brick building standing alone in a far corner of the compound. As our jeep rounded the road behind it, a long line of 30 or 40 GI's were waiting to enter. Several prostitutes wearing long silk gowns over black silk pants walked toward it. Teasingly dipping their parasols as they approached the line, they were greeted by a loud cheer.

"Those girls are probably just arriving for work," he smiled, winking his eye.

"It's too bad there aren't a few places like that on the Army bases back in the States. The Army'd probably make a zillion least they'd make enough to pay for all the ammunition they use over here!"

"Yeah," he agreed. "But there are too many crucifix-carrying civilians, not to mention the Army wives, who'd bitch."

"Anybody over here ever complain?" I asked.

"No, not really." He shook his head. "There's always some asshole who's not happy with the piece of ass he got, but he either gets his money back or another girl. and once in a while a group of Congressmen will show up for one of those ----ing fact-finding tours. But the 1st Sergeant just shuts the place down 'til they leave."

Driving on, he pointed out the remains of an old Catholic church just ahead of us. Heavily mortared by Charlie during TET '68, its alter was the only thing left standing inside its roofless shell. The jagged tops of it's walls looked as if they were torn in half like paper.

"It's a miracle, isn't it?" he asked.

"What's that?" I asked.

"That a whole, ------- church can be blown half to hell and the alter comes out without a scratch. Look at it. It ----ing looks brand new."

As we drove past, several natives were inside polishing the marble base of the wood cross.

"Those people come out here every day to do that." He told me. "There's not many Catholics left in 'Nam since Diem bought the farm. Those poor gook slobs over there really think a miracle happened in '68 when Charlie wimped-out and failed to waste the alter."

"I read in the V'nam manual this morning that these people are super-religious."

"Yeah, they are. There's a story from TET '68 that says Giap had to give up trying to take Bien Hoa when his local commanders reported the morale of their men broke because they couldn't knock down the alter. The people from the village think it was an act of God. They've been trying ever since to get the Pope to declare a miracle but the Vatican refuses to consider any miracles that happen in Vietnam."

A short distance after passing the church our jeep was halted by a road-block set up by a medium-sized tank idling obliquely across the road. Pulling over to the side, an MP jeep darted from behind the tank and pulled up next to ours.

"What's the delay?" The 1st Sergeant asked, standing up and looking over the windshield.

"We've got a training patrol crossing the road up ahead, Top. They're on their way to the perimeter. Most of them are gung-ho newbies looking to throw some 200 degree lead up some 98.6 degree Chaz ass."

Looking down the road a large formation of troops carrying full backpacks were double-timing in our direction. Lead by a Sergeant running at the front of the formation, we could hear them singing a cadence song. Leading the cadence call, the Sergeant was answered by the men behind him.

"Your mother was home when you left?"

"You're right!"

"Your girlfriend was home when you left?"

"You're right!"

"And Jody was home when you left?"

"You're right!"

"Then sound off!"

"1, 2."

"Sound off!"

"3, 4."

"Cadence count!"

"1, 2, 3, 4. 1. 2. 3-4!"

"Sounds like Basic Training to me." I commented.

"Yeah," one of the MP's replied. "The infantry never seems to get out of Basic, do they?"

As the block-long formation jogged in front of our jeep it turned off into jungle to our right. The 1st Sergeant informed me that they were a group of newly-arrived 1st Cavalry Division replacements. and that the 1st Cav and Co A44 were close neighbors. (2)

"What about Company A44, what are its operational responsibilities?"

Turning sharply toward me, he glared. "Operational responsibilities? Are you asking me what we do?"


"Then you should say that. You don't have to sound like a text book. We're not that formal over here."

"I'll try to remember."

He informed me Co A44 was created and commissioned just before its arrival in South V'nam in 1965. "Back then we provided direct communications support for about 3 non-combat organizations that had no communications units of their own. We gave backup support to 2 combat units who didn't have transmitters powerful enough to get through the jungle. Today we provide primary support for about 20 of our own non-combat organizations and backup support for about 15 combat."

"The big (combat) one's are the 11th "Blackhorse" Armored Cavalry Brigade, the 1st Cavalry Division Airmobile, the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, the 25th Infantry Division, the 173rd Infantry Brigade, and Camp (Charles E. "Snake") Hosking of the 5th Special Forces Group. The big non-combat groups are the 20th Engineer Brigade, the 6th Psychological Operations Battalion, the 4th U.S. Army Personnel Detachment, and a surgical hospital. We also support a number of foreign groups. We help the ARVN's, Australians, Koreans, and a couple of units from New Zealand. Some of the other units are so secret I don't have access to who they are. You'll find out about those after you've been briefed."

I learned later they were the Office of Naval Intelligence, ARVN III CTZ Commanding General Do Cao Tri, 2 Pentagon agencies, the local CIA office, and a Military Assistance Command V'nam (MACV) intelligence office. All of which were assigned "CON's" or dummy names to hide their true identity. The only secret those of us cleared to handle the messages were unable to learn was the meaning of the term "CON". The best guess we could come up with was "Cover Organization Name."

Wheeling into Co A44's area, he pointed out the dozen or so buildings that made up the company.

"In all, Co A44 takes up about 1 1/2 square blocks. We have 3 types of buildings. Warehouses, hootches and quonset huts."

Passing the Co A44's supply warehouse, he pointed it out.

"That's where we keep the guns locked up. We've got a special cage we call the Arms Room."

I was shocked. "What! You mean we don't carry guns with us?"

Smiling, he looked at me. "Calm down. We keep 'em locked up for a good reason. The last thing we want to happen is somebody gettin' wasted 'cause his gun went off accidentally."

"You mean suicide?"

"Let's face it, some guys'll do anything to get home. But that's not the only reason. We don't want the gook broads we've got working here to steal 'em."

"That makes sense. But I wonder how many parents would like it if they found out their kids weren't able to carry a gun in a war zone."

The smile on his face immediately disappeared. He took my remark as a threat.

"Who's gonna tell 'em, you?"

"I didn't mean it that way, Sarge. I only meant it seems pretty weird that we're not allowed to protect ourselves."

"Well you don't have to worry about that. If Charlie ever gets within ten miles of our perimeter you can believe you and everybody else is gonna have more guns than you can carry!"

Changing the subject, he finished telling me about the hootches and quonsets huts.

"The Orderly Room, where me and the CO have our office, and the latrine are the only 2 quonsets. The sleeping huts and the Day Room are hootches. Did they explain the difference between a barrack and a hootch to you in ROT?"

"No, they didn't."

"It's pretty simple. A barrack is a permanent structure, it's got a solid roof, solid walls, electricity, built-in plumbing, and heating. A hootch is semi-permanent structure. More like a well-built shack. We got electricity wired in all the hootches about a year ago. But except for the CO's hootch, there's no indoor plumbing in any of the others yet. Everybody else uses the central latrine, which is also the company shower house just across from the Day Room. As you can see, the walls of all the hootches are made of screen wire. That's because during the day it gets pretty ----ing hot inside. The sun sets about seven-30 this time of year but it doesn't start to cool down until after midnight. Then it starts to heat up again about 6 am."

"Yeah, I know. I had to sleep outside in Cam Rahn."

"We use sheets of corrugated aluminum to cover the roofs of the hootches. They won't stop a bullet but the sheets are spread out in layers so they let the heat inside pass up to the outside. It helps keep the inside a little bit cooler."

"I see some tents across the street. Does anyone sleep in those?"

"No. Those are used to cover the tractors the engineers are using to pave the new road we're riding on.

"Do I just pick out any hootch to sleep in?"

"No. We bunk everybody according to MOS. Your tech-training is 05Charlie so you'll be assigned to the RTT hootch, except that right now it's all filled up. We'll have to stick you in a hold-over hootch until an RTT cot comes free."

After a quick tour encircling the company, we drove up to the Orderly Room.

"This is it." He told me, climbing out of the jeep. "Grab your stuff and we'll get you started."

Pulling my duffel bag out of the trunk, we walked inside.

The man seated behind the first desk introduced himself as Jim Dormally. Blonde and blue-eyed, his stocky frame looked like he may have played pro football at one time. Standing up to shake, his hand dwarfed mine. A short time later I would learn that he was nicknamed "Doormat" because the CO could always count on him to do a little dirty work like open our mail and read it.

"This is Coleman, Jim. He's another RTT man."

"Another one! You're the 5th this month! They must be churning you guys out of Ft Gordon by the truckload."

"Are you RTT also?" I asked.


"How come you're working in the Orderly Room?"

"We've got a special situation here. It's called Phase-One. There's more RTT guys in V'nam than there are positions to fill. So right now I'm part-time Company Clerk and part-time Mail Clerk."

"I didn't know we could work outside our MOS."

"Sure we can! If the CO thinks he needs you somewhere else you can work any job. I requested this job though, I never did like RTT."

That was the last thing I wanted to hear. I was looking forward to working my field. It didn't seem right that a company commander could veto a man's training on a whim, especially since it cost the Army over $20,000 to train RTT graduates. It also didn't seem right to send a man to a war zone if he wasn't needed to work his MOS.

The 1st Sergeant abruptly broke up the conversation. "If you 2 are done re-establishing old school ties I'd like to introduce Coleman to the CO."

Beckoning me to follow him, he led me down the corridor to an office at the end. The hut had been partitioned into a dozen or so small, one-desk cubicles. A nameplate identifying the man behind each desk and his job title sat facing the corridor. Reading each one as I passed, I was surprised to discover the personnel department bureaucracy over here was larger than some of my training company's in the states. There were 2 company clerks, a file clerk, a message clerk, an ARVN liaison, and others.

Reaching the CO's door the 1st Sergeant knocked and asked permission to enter. Not getting an answer, he knocked again. But still no response.

"Looks like the CO stepped out. Maybe he left a note on my desk. Wait here, I'll check."

Walking into an office directly across the corridor, he leafed through a note pad on his desk. A screen door leading to the outside separated the CO's office from his. The XO's office was next door to the 1st Sergeant and across the corridor was the company intelligence office. A steel grate outside its wood door was locked with a combination dial. A pen-written sign, "Authorized Personnel Only" was tacked to a beam over the door.

"Looks like he didn't leave me a note." the 1st Sergeant returned. "Why don't you have a seat inside and I'll see if I can find him."

Pulling a long keychain from his pocket, he opened the CO's door. Leading the way, I followed him inside.

The office was large compared to Dormally's small cubicle and the other partitioned offices. A half-open screen door inside the office explained how the CO was able to enter and leave without anyone knowing. Pointing to a chair opposite the CO's desk, I was offered a seat.

"I'm sure the CO will be back in a minute. If he doesn't leave a note or tell anyone he's going out it means he'll probably be right back."

Shaking my hand again, he reiterated his welcome. "I'll probably be seeing you before nightfall. Meanwhile, get to know a few of the guys and settle in."

Thanking him, I crossed my legs and sat back into the chair. As he left the hootch I could overhear him tell Dormally he'd be in the NCO club getting a drink if he was needed.

Looking around the CO's office, 2 large photographs sat on his desk facing his chair. One was of a young woman and 3 small kids. A note, apparently written to himself, was taped over his wife's face. It was a reminder for him to call the Battalion Commander in 2 days to discuss "T-traffic conditions during early morning hours." I recalled from training that T-traffic stood for teletype traffic, V-traffic for voice, and L-traffic for land-line (telephone).

About 10 minutes later voices outside indicated the CO had returned. A moment later, he entered. I promptly stood up to greet him. Before I could raise my hand to salute, he extended his.

"Cancel that salute soldier, good to make your acquaintance."

Returning his handshake, I thanked him for his cordiality. "Glad to be here, sir."

"You're not serious about that are you?" he smiled.

I smiled back.

"How was your flight?"

"Okay, not too bad."

"That's good to hear. I found mine a little too slow. We had a couple guys come in last week who said the turbulence was so bad on their flight the plane actually rolled over and flipped upside down. Can you imagine hanging from your seat belt staring down at the floor?"

"That's scary. I didn't think a passenger jet could fly upside down."

"Yes, it is scary. But I'm happy to say that experience may be the scariest anyone on campus will have to go through. We're strictly a non-combat operation...."

"On campus, sir?"

Smiling, he explained. "We're kind of loose around here. Some of the men here are real top drawer, if you know what I mean. For morale we like to think of the unit as a military campus rather than a hard-core unit."

"That's the impression I got from the 1st Sergeant."

"...except when we occasionally have to send a man or 2 out on a special ops once in a while. As a matter of fact, we've got a special going on right now."

Standing up, he walked over to a large map leaning on a tripod in a corner opposite his desk. Pointing to a large forest area about 2 inches from a black X marked in grease pencil, I assumed the X was where Co A44's location.

"3 of our RTT men are out in the boonies right about here supporting a Special Forces A team setting up emergency dugouts. It's about seven miles from here. Too bad you didn't get here a week ago. You probably would've loved to catch that one, huh?"

"Yes sir. You say they're setting up dugouts?"

Walking back to his desk, he sat back down.

"Actually they're blowing up the ----ing jungle. They explode a 10 foot hole in the ground then bury a half-shell." Clasping both hands together, he quickly yanked them apart to illustrate the size of the explosion.

"What's a 'half-shell'?"

"A half-shell is what we call a small rig. We use 'em all over the country. It comes with a generator and all the commo gear needed to contact any of our rear units in case a Ranger or recon detachment gets lost in the uncharted jungle with no radio. They just home-in on the rigs location, dig down to it, then climb in through the top. Once inside, they crank it up and call for help."

"Has Charlie ever found a rig?"

"No, they're too well hidden and the engineers have come up with an ingenious way of hiding the antennas. We use incendiary charges to burn a hole straight down the middle of a nearby tree. Then we run an antenna pole inside. Charlie would have to climb every tree in the jungle to find all the rigs we've buried so far. and even if he did, he'd have to know how to open one up. 30 seconds after entering the wrong combination the rig blows up and Charlie eats with a straw for the rest of his life....if he lives.

"But enough of that stuff, let's get you into a hootch. You'll start work tomorrow, so spend the rest of the day checking out the campus and getting yourself oriented."

"Thank you, sir."

Standing up, we shook again.

Before leaving the Orderly Room Dormally who handed me 2 cards.

"One's your CCC. That means currency control card. The other's your ration card. You'll need the CCC to get paid every month and you'll need the ration card to buy your cigarettes and booze."

"Well, I'll take the CCC 'cause I definitely want to get paid, but you can keep the ration card 'cause I don't smoke or drink."

"That's okay, but if you open it up you'll see you need it to buy other ---- to."

Opening it, the card was folded into in 3 sections, 3 printed on the inside and 2 on the outside. One section was for cigarettes, another for hard liquor, and the last for electronic equipment, clothing, case beer and Coke. I would find out later that ration cards, like American currency, were as good as gold in 'Nam. American dollars were worth 4 times their face value. For currency, the military used payments certificates (MPC) in Vietnam, as it did in every foreign country because to use American greenbacks would disrupt not only the host economy but also the value of the dollar. When collected by the VC, American dollars could be used to purchase American materiel to use against us. MPC and ration cards were pretty much of a joke to those who learned to take advantage of them. A good supply of rations cards meant you could buy more booze and cigarettes to sell on the black market.

Leaving the Orderly Room, I paused to take a look down the central company area before walking to the holdover hootch. A narrow sidewalk running down the middle separated the company's twelve hootches, 6 on each side. Laying crooked and cracked in several places, the small, 2-foot concrete squares appeared to have been haphazardly dropped in place dry, rather than poured in wet.

Above my head, stretching the length of the sidewalk, an electrical wire interconnected each of the hootches, latrine, and Orderly room. Just outside the Orderly Room were 2 other structures, a 10 foot high bunker and an open-walled information hut.

The bunker was constructed out of 2 rows of 55 gallon metal oil barrels filled with sand. One row placed atop the other. Sandbags were stacked between the barrels and piled over the top. A sign nailed to a wooden beam over the door listed the capacity of the bunker to be no more than 15 men.

The information hut consisted of 4 2-by-4 posts holding up a straw-covered roof. 2 large billboards hanging opposite each other made up its only walls. Both billboards were covered with official posters, want-ads, photographs of the President, Secretary of Defense, the Commanding General (CG) of the 1st Signal Brigade, the Battalion Commander, and the CO. During the course of my year at Co A44, the CG would advance from Brigadier to Major General and receive several medals "for a job well done." The only medal most of the enlisted men and junior officers of Co A44 would receive would be the V'nam Service Medal everyone receives simply for serving in excess of 180 consecutive days in-country.

Also posted were "Dear John" letters several of the men received from their wives or girlfriends. After talking to some of the guys who received them, most agreed that Dear John letters should have been called "Remember You-Know-Who" letters. Practically every letter included the line, "Remember Harry?" "Remember Donald?" "Remember Joe?" "Remember David?" A lot of GI's were surprised to discover that their best buddies were closer to their girlfriends than they were. I felt sorry for those guys. Arriving in bushel baskets, some of the Dear John letters were even dated before the GI left home.

The first week of V'nam was said to be the most difficult for all GI's, but worst for the those who left women behind. Like the first few weeks of Basic Training, the first few weeks in V'nam were when most of the Dear John letters arrived. Basic and overseas duty were common in the sense that they were the only 2 times a GI's wasn't able to go home for a spontaneous check on his wife or girlfriend. Most women chose those times to send their men Dear John letters because it was apparent they wanted to put as much time as possible between the time their men got the letters and the time they came home. After a year in 'Nam most guys had gotten over their women dumping them.

As I started toward the hold-over hootch on the next block, Dormally stepped outside to offer his assistance in getting oriented and introducing me to some of the other RTT guys on campus.

"There aren't too many guys around right now, we run 12-hour shifts. While half the company is out on assignment, the other half is either ----ing-off somewhere or sleeping. But don't worry about waking anybody up, most of us can sleep through a thunderstrike. Just find yourself a cot and get unpacked."

Thanking him, I tossed my duffel bag over my shoulder and began walking down the central campus area familiarizing myself with its other buildings.

Chiseled in block lettering, a sign above the doorway of the hootch next to the Orderly Room designated it as the Day Room. Inside, several GI's were playing ping-pong, listening to music, and reading.

Next to the Day Room was a residential hootch. Then, spaced about 6 to 8 feet apart, 3 more hootches. About 20 feet from the last hootch, a newly-paved road had recently been laid, and across it, several more residential hootches on the next "block."

The company NCO Club stood on my left opposite the Orderly Room. Ordinarily, Army NCO clubs were only open to enlisted men above the rank of corporal. However, with protocol being relaxed in Vietnam, lower-enlisted men were allowed to enter. I would later learn that because tape-recorded Country and Western was the only music permitted, young blacks felt they were intentionally discouraged from entering so they stayed away.

Behind the NCO club a small outdoor basketball-volleyball court had been laid. At night a sheet spread across the volleyball net was used as a movie screen.

The Auxiliary Supply Room stood next door to the NCO Club. Next to it was the company shower house. According to the sign above its front door it was the meeting place where "Through These Portals All Souls Eventually Pass....something".

On a line down from the shower house were 3 residential hootches. The first was shared by the company cooks and supply personnel, the 2nd RTT, and the 3rd, Comcenter specialists.

Another bunker, identical to the one near the Orderly Room, stood at the end of the block between the last hootch and the road. In all, there were 4 of these bunkers on campus, the 3rd behind the RTT hootch, and the 4th just outside the CO's hootch.

Next to the CO's hootch stood 2 NCO hootches, and next to them, 2 that were unoccupied.

Because none of the hootches had solid walls inside or out, each was surrounded by a neat row of sandbarrels to prevent low-flying shrapnel from entering at cot level. Adding another foot and-a-half to the 4-foot-high barrels were 3 layers of sandbags bricklaid across the top. A row of 4 barrels also layered with several stacks of sandbags guarded both the front and back doors. Most of the orange-painted barrels were peeling around bullet holes made by Charlie during TET '68.

The block the hold-over hootch sat on was shared by hootches occupied by the 6th Psychological Operations Battalion. I would later share many interesting conversations with some of its personnel. Their "ground's eye" view of the war put them square into the minds of the VC. Some "psyops" officers were so adept in their trade they could analyze human waste and tell how long ago it was deposited, the height and weight of the VC who left it, how fast it was excreted, the nature of his unit, if he had any medical problems, and whether or not his superiors were veterans or green.

The man's weight was determined by correlating the mass of the feces with the depth of his sandal prints. His height was determined by the distance from his top of his heel to the spot his droppings fell. That distance gave the man's thigh length which by computation gave the man's height. In some areas of V'nam height was important because Chinese and Soviet advisors were significantly taller than most Vietnamese.

If the droppings were deposited in broken pieces, tapered-off at the ends, it could be hypothesized the unit was either in a hurry to leave the location or arrive at another. To figure out which, deducing their "line-of-march" revealed their target location and probable mission. A recent VC attack at a nearby site meant the VC were in flight. If no reports of hostile activity were recently received, it meant the unit was on its way to launch one. Of course, if an allied operation was carried-out anywhere near their line-of-march, fear of being caught was considered a probable factor for their hasty travel.

By chemically analyzing the content of the chlorophyll, salt, and cellulose of a sample in a test tube, psyops agents were able to tell how much food was carried or foraged and how much was cooked or preserved. A high chlorophyll and cellulose content meant the unit foraged as it traveled. Since salt was commonly used as a preservative by the VC and NVA, a high salt content indicated the unit might be a part of well-planned operation carrying dehydrated food with them.

Because humans are unable to digest cellulose, its unaffected composition determined whether the food was cooked or eaten raw. Having been consumed raw meant the unit was either in desperate condition or on a kamikaze-type mission and its survival dispensable. If the cellulose was "structurally defeated" (or cooked) the unit could be considered to be in good physical shape and probably in high spirits thinking it would able to carry out its mission and safely return to home base. and since the VC were known to be smart enough not to light fires above ground at night, an underground bunker or tunnel complex might exist somewhere along their line-of-march.

The "state of bury" revealed the character of the unit's command structure. How well the droppings were covered-up determined the combat experience of the unit. If the droppings were left unburied the unit was considered to be comprised of both inexperienced enlisted and officer personnel.

Lastly, bacterial content, rather than dehydration, was tested to determine age. Because environmental conditions like rain or sunlight affected moisture content, dehydration level could not be trusted. The amount of bacteria, however, was constant. Not only did microbes reproduce at fixed rates, they lived for a limited number of hours. Relatively new waste contained only intestinal bacteria. One-day old waste contained "airborne communicable" bacteria as well. The higher the content of airborne bacteria, the older its age.

Walking inside the holdover hootch, it appeared to be darker than the other hootches I passed on the main compound. Someone had covered all of its upper windows with unstitched sandbag cloth, evidently to keep out light or insects. The hootch was approximately 15 feet high, 35 feet long, and 20 feet wide. 4 massive 6-by-6 posts held up its aluminum roof at each corner. Except for the roof the entire hootch was made out of wood. Virtually all Army housing structures in V'nam were of this same basic design.

Stretching along the length of the hootch were 6 horizontal rows of 2-by-4s, approximately 2 feet apart. Screen wire, tacked between each row, ran the length of the hootch and around to the front and back where screen doors were located. The only solid walls in the entire structure were quarter-inch thick, 4-by-6 foot plywood panels used to divide the hootch into 10 2-man cubicles. 5 on each side. To minimize the loss of life or injury should a hootch be blown up by an in-coming rocket, or a time-bomb planted by a VC maid, MACV had issued a directive several years prior restricting the double-decking of cots to increase the 20-man capacity of residential hootches.

Inside, general lighting was provided by 4, double-tubed fluorescent fixtures hung by clothes-line along the length of the ceiling. Outside, a 60-watt bulb hung over both the front and back doors. The wires feeding the light fixtures were tacked along one of the 2-by-4 ribs running along the side of the hootch to a switch near the front door. Electrical outlets were wired in 10 foot intervals along the main line. Many of them were overloaded with 3 or 4 adapters permitting over a dozen appliances to suck juice at each junction. To prevent an excessive power drain from blowing a fuse a gentleman's agreement was honored among the residents to unplug an appliance if it wasn't in use.

Some of the individual cubicles were lavishly decorated with oriental ornaments and lamps. Although the openings to most were covered with 6 foot-long strands of multi-colored beads or brightly colored plastic streamers to provide privacy, their interiors were visible as the wind coming in through the doorways and windows blew the curtains into the aisle.

Each cubicle came equipped with a wooden footlocker, a 6 foot-high metal wall locker, and a 40-pound, wire-frame cot. All were painted OD green. The 2-foot wide, 6-foot long cot consisted of a thin, chain-link mesh "spring" connected to an inch-round frame of metal piping.

Hanging from the panels separating the cubicles were a variety of personal effects. Guitars, bongo drums, swords, machetes, cross-bows, VC souvenirs, family pictures, and a variety of other items. Stuffed under the cots were boxes of C-rations, extra uniforms, combat equipment, typewriters, and spare boots. Small wicker end-tables made by Montagnard tribesmen were usually covered with record players or large reel-to-reel tape recorders. Nailed to a hook overhanging the head of the cot were small reading lamps. Lining the tops of most panel-separators were strings of Christmas lights that burned all day, all year long. I learned a short time later one had to enjoy things like Christmas lights in July, or turkey dinner in February because there were no guarantees we would be around when the real holidays came. Charlie was known to occasionally "-----up our schedules."

The only feature common to every cubicle was the famous "shortimers calendar" hanging on the door of almost every wall-locker. After checking to make sure no VC were hiding under his cot, a GI's first act each morning was to draw a large 'X' over the previous day signifying another day he'd survived. Most of the calendars were printed by Playboy Magazine, Readers Digest, Ebony Magazine, and The Farmer's Almanac. But the more intimate ones were printed by local businesses in the GI's home neighborhood. Names like "St. Joseph Hardware", "The New Buffalo Bar and Grill", or "The San Francisco Dairy Co.", were a reminder of where a GI came from and where he hoped to get back to.

The hootch was empty when I entered so I had no distractions while setting up my cot and putting away my uniforms. Opening the wall-locker I noticed a note taped to the back wall behind the empty hangars. Reaching in and pulling it down, I couldn't help but smile as I read it. It was a welcome message from its last occupant.

"I was here, but now I'm gone,

I leave this note to carry on.

Now that you're here for a year to stay,

don't let the bedbugs drag you away.

If you should get lonely and want to feel better,

go to this address and show them this letter.

Saigon: 853 Tudo, (Hotel Ren de Lat),

ask for the girl with the juicy "you know what."

If you find it too tight try not to brood,

I did my best to widen it every chance that I could.


Staff Sergeant Jeffrey J. Harris, Retired."

It was refreshing to see that at least one veteran had left V'nam with his sense of humor still intact. After reading it, I decided I would try not to let V'nam change me so radically I would forget how to laugh, as some of the men in Cam Rahn's OPC had.

As I folded the letter and placed it in my pocket the sound of naked feet walking up behind me caught my attention. Turning around, a young V'namese woman wearing a bright-yellow blouse and black silk pants approached me. In her arms she carried a stack of folded sheets.

About 25 years old, she stood about slightly under 5 feet and wore her jet black hair pulled back under a red bandanna. Her eyebrows had been plucked and re-drawn in a looping arch an inch or so over the stubble of her real ones. Wearing bright red lipstick, her full mouth indicated she was a Cambodian-Vietnamese mix. I had heard in Cam Rahn that this combination was believed to produce the most beautiful women in Southeast Asia. Her tanned, baby-smooth skin confirmed that belief.

Tossing the sheets on my cot, she placed her hands on her waist, shifted her weight to one leg, and looked me over, head-to-toe.

"You new GI," she asked, smiling.

"Yes, me new GI." I answered.

"You no need to say me. I understand how to say 'I'."

"Okay, then yes, I'm the new GI. and who are you?"

"Me mama-sahn."

"Don't you mean, 'I' mama-sahn." I corrected.

"No, no," she laughed. "You no mama-sahn, me am mama-sahn." Pointing to her chest.

I laughed. "Okay, you am mama-sahn, I am new GI. What can new GI do for mama-sahn?"

Holding out a hand, palm up, she quickly answered, "New GI can pay me now."

"Pay for what?" I asked, confused.

"Pay mama-sahn for work to GI?"

"What work? You haven't done any work for me."

"But mama-sahn clean GI's clothes. Brush GI's shoes. Make GI's bed."

I looked over at my cot. The mattress was rolled and tied up at one end.

"That cot isn't made. Is mama-sahn trying to cheat GI?"

Frowning, she became defensive. "Mama-sahn no cheat GI. Mama-sahn do all work for GI. GI must pay mama-sahn."

"Well, GI will pay mama-sahn when mama-sahn do work." I told her.

"But today payday. GI must pay mama-sahn every week on payday."

"But I don't have to pay you for last week because I wasn't here last week."

Suddenly, she started to cry. Flopping down on the cot she stamped her feet on the floor in protest. Looking around to see if anyone nearby could help me explain to her I didn't owe her any money, I noticed 2 Sergeants walking past the back door. Running over, I asked one of them to come inside and help me communicate with her.

After introducing ourselves he walked back with me to intermediate my conversation. I explained the situation.

Smiling, he explained what she meant. "I think you misunderstood her. She doesn't want you to pay her for last week, she wants you to pay her for next week."

"You mean pay her in advance?"

"Yeah, that's the way they work over here."

"I've never heard of that. I thought people got paid after they did their work, not before."

"That's how we do it in the States. But over here it's backwards."

"How come?"

"C'mon, that should be obvious. If you get killed in the middle of the week, she doesn't get paid. But if she's already been paid, she doesn't have to worry about not being able to collect."

"You mean these people are more concerned about getting paid than one of us dying?"

"You've got to look at it their way. To her, you're only going to be here a year but she's got to spend her whole life here. Most of them have been fighting this war all of their lives. The way they look at it they have to get what they can in case the war gets you before it catches up with them."

Shaking my head I found it difficult accepting V'namese logic. Looking at the maid, it seemed to me she should realize she may not even have a job, much less be alive if we weren't here to support her. But his words made sense so I had to accept what he said, he'd been here longer than me. Reaching in my wallet, I pulled out a roll of bills.

"How much do they get paid?" I asked.

"How much do you want her to do?" he returned.

"She said something about making the bed, brushing my shoes, and washing my clothes..."

"And that's it?"

"Yeah, that's what she said."

"What about -----?" "Are you going to be banging her?"

My mouth dropped. "I hadn't planned on it,"

"Then give her 10 bucks."

I pulled out a $10 bill and handed it to her.

In a flash she reached out and grabbed it as if she was afraid I might change my mind. Turning it over to look at both sides, her eyes lit up. Smiling again, she thanked me. "GI nice man, GI real nice man. Thank you GI."

"Yeah, you're ----ing welcome."

Looking back up, her large brown eyes seemed to glow.

"GI want mama-sahn's shortime?"

Confused, I looked at the Sergeant. "What's she want now, the rest of the day off?"

Smiling, he replied, "-----. Shortime is -----. A 10 minute quickie is shortime, keeping her for an hour or so is longtime. She's asking you if you want to score."

"Hell no!"

"Then put your wallet back in your pocket. If you leave it out she'll think you want to give her more money."

I did so immediately.

"You mean if I asked her to do it right here and now she would?"

"She'll do it whenever you want to. But if you're going to start right now, wait for me to leave."

Turning around, he laughed as he walked out the hootch.

Looking back at the mama-sahn, she continued to grin from ear to ear. Raising my hands, I waved her away.

"No, mama-sahn. GI no want shortime."

Frowning, she flopped back down on the cot and stamped her feet again.

"You're not going to start crying again, are you." I asked.

"GI no like mama-sahn?"

"What are you trying to do, make me feel guilty? Well it won't work. I don't want any shortime. I want to shower and change my clothes."

Immediately, she climbed up on the spring of my cot and rolled down the mattress. Apparently she hadn't understood a word I said.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

Embarrassed, I looked around to see if any passersby were observing us. I was afraid of being caught with her in this position.

Realizing she wasn't going to give up, I decided to take my shower and just forget about trying to communicate with her. The frown on her face told me we probably wouldn't be getting along for the rest of my tour.

Arriving at the shower house, I undressed and stepped into a stall. The water was freezing. A week later I learned that a hot-water heater had been installed well over a year ago but never connected to the pipes leading into the shower house. The story behind why was an example of why a lot of things in V'nam were started but never finished. The company had hired a V'namese engineer company to make the installation, but rather than do any work the men procrastinated until the CO got pissed-off and ordered them off the compound. For 4 days straight they did nothing but squat outside the shower house, smoke hash, and talk about women. Their dislike for work was like their soldiers dislike for combat. Since both were getting paid whether they did anything or not, neither the ARVN or his cousin working as an engineer cared one way or the other if anything got done.

A few minutes after soaping down, another GI entered the next stall. Introducing himself, he told me his name was Robert and that he arrived 4 months ago.

"That practically makes you a veteran," I told him, "you could probably teach me a lot about this place."

"Sounds like you've just had an experience to remember."

"Yeah, I did. The maid in my hootch just tried to convince me she was my mattress."

Laughing, his unsurprised expression indicated he too must have had a similar experience.

"And how much was this new mattress going to cost you?"

"5 bucks."

"Well you can chalk that up as a compliment to your race."

"How's that?"

"It costs us gringos 20."

"You're ----ting me? I wouldn't pay it!""

"I haven't."

I was pleased our conversation started off smoothly. He seemed to be a person I could get along with easily and comfortably. After a few more surface exchanges I took the conversation to a more personal level.

"Where you from?" I asked.

"Madison, Wisconsin. How about you?"

"Los Angeles, metro. Are you drafted or enlisted?"

"Drafted. My 'friends, relatives, and neighbors' caught me just after graduation. How 'bout you."


"Nobody could talk you out of it, huh?"

I smiled.

"What can you tell me about this burg?" I asked. "I need to get familiarized real fast."

"Where do you want me to start? Bien Hoa or Vietnam?"

"How about Bien Hoa."

"Let's see now," he began. "....Bien Hoa....everybody calls Bien Hoa the rear zone but from the reports I read in the Comcenter, V'nam doesn't have a rear. Just yesterday I read a CIA report that said...."

Suddenly, he broke off, his face revealed he had caught himself talking too much.

"That said what?" I asked, hoping he'd continue. Instead he ignored my question. Appreciating his sense of security, I didn't press him.

"Where are you going to be working?" he asked.

"I don't know yet. The CO mentioned something about A44 sending out men on a lot of special ops. I'd like to score on a few of those."

"Then you must be RTT?"

"Yeah, why?"

"Because those are usually the only guys who do specials. I came in with a guy who was RTT. The day after we got here they sent him to a one-man outpost called Song Be."

"What's he doing there?"

"Something to do with coordinating Air America flights, I think. Has anyone told you about Air America?"

"No. What do they do."

"They say all they do is fly, but they're really owned and operated by the Agency."

"How much do we have to do with the CIA?"

"Some of us nothing. Some of us very little. A couple of us a lot."

Changing the subject, I asked about some of the units served by Co A44.

"The 1st Sergeant mentioned a whole list of combat groups we support. Know anything about any of them?"

"Yeah, but let's get out of here. We can head over to the Officers Mess Hall and get a hamburger. They make the best chili burgers in South Vietnam. People come from all over to get one."

Remembering how difficult it was to get in Cam Rahn's OMH, I asked about this one.

"Sounds good. Any hassle about getting in?"

"Naw, they let anybody and everybody in."

"8 to 80, blind, cripple, or crazy, huh?"

"No, they're in it for the money. It's more like 'Have buck, Get burger'."

Drying off, we agreed to meet at the Day Room after getting dressed. Robert's cot was in the Comcenter hootch. Most of the men who worked there were 72Bravo's, Comcenter Specialists. Because the Comcenter was the largest of A44's departments, its personnel took up about 3 hootches while the RTT specs filled only one. Microwave, Landline, and Technical Maintenance crews filled another. Satellite and Intelligence, another.

Arriving at the Day Room about the same time, we started off for the OMH. After a few minutes of chit-chat, I inquired again about the different units served by Co A44.

"Which one would you like me to start with?" He asked.

"The 1st Sergeant mentioned a unit called the 173rd Infantry Brigade. How about them?"

"Most of the combat units here (with bases in Bien Hoa) arrived about the same time A44 did in 1965. Back then, the VC leaders used to tell their troops to stay away from the 173rd. They called them 'the juvenile delinquents with the little black rifles'."

"That's about the time the M-16 got here, wasn't it?" I asked.

"It may have been a year earlier but I think you're right. It's kind of a coincidence, isn't it?"

"What do you mean?"

"That the war began escalating about the same time a new weapon goes into mass production."

"They must've made the 173rd some really bad-assed dudes."

"Yeah, and they still are. A 173rd recon ranger probably carries more firepower than a whole squad of VC's on their way to a pajama-party."

"Pajama party? What's that?"

"That's what we call VC raids. The VC always wear black silk pajamas when they go out."

"But those aren't real pajamas are they? Where do they get them?"

"From the local tailor shops in the village."

"You mean our allies make VC uniforms?"

"Don't be surprised about anything that goes on over here. Besides, we're teaching these people how to be capitalists, aren't we?"

Getting back on the subject of the 173rd, he continued.

"The 173rd was one of the first airmobile units over here. They're kind of like Green Berets without berets."

"What's airmobile?"

"Airmobile units are groups that move from one eagle-strike to another...."

"Hold on," I stopped him. "Finish telling me about airmobile before you hit me with 'eagle-strike'."

"An airmobile brigade is a unit that moves its entire command by helicopter to its next combat assignment...."

"Rather than just sending out companies to do the job?" I interrupted.

"Yeah, that's why they call their attacks eagle-strikes. Squads and companies used to get completely wiped-out in the early days. Then when we began sending out larger units we started kicking Charlie's ass and winning back some of the areas he took away from us."

"How big is an eagle-strike?"

"Pretty big. They send in a couple of infantry companies, an artillery, cavalry, medical, gunship, engineer, maintenance, signal, supply, personnel, everything."

"Sounds like a lot of dudes."

"Yeah, they say that even 60% of their support personnel go on combat operations. It's regular Army duty for everybody."

"I bet there are a lot of pissed-off clerks who thought they wouldn't have to carry a gun."

"Most people would say that, knowing how clerks hate to work, but I heard it's just the opposite in the 173rd." He corrected me. "At one point their re-enlistment rate was as high as a 100%. Even their clerks were signing back up to stay in the fighting."

"That's a big difference from today, ninety% of the people I know can't wait to get out."

"Well, it's understandable why the 173rd didn't mind fighting when their Brigade Commander's motto was "Spend bullets, not bodies."

"How did they get along with the natives?" I asked.

"Real good from what I've heard. They guarded the harvests and marketplaces. They built churches, schools, and orphanages. Sometimes they even used money out of their own pockets to buy the stuff they needed for building supplies. They were also the first American unit to do night patrols, something the ARVN's never did because there was a rule in V'nam that we ran the roads and countryside during the day, but Charlie controlled them at night."

"The natives should've been impressed with that."

"They were. The night patrols helped build native confidence."

"Hearing you talk about the 173rd makes me wish I got assigned with them."

"That would have been easy for you, a little more than half the unit is black."

Just then, we arrived at the OMH. Walking up to a take-out window, we ordered chili-burgers and fries to go.

Finding a table in the outside patio, I asked him to finish telling me about the other units stationed at Bien Hoa.

"What about the 11th Armored? The 1st Sergeant mentioned them also."

"Those are some bad dudes too! They're called the Blackhorse Regiment. They operate like the 173rd but they attack as an armored group rather than with infantry. They don't use choppers, they use the Sheridan tank. They call it their "calling card." It's got a 150 millimeter cannon mounted on it."

"What's so special about that?" I asked, biting into my burger.

"Wait'll you see it fire. The whole front end rises off the ----ing ground. It can hit a target 15 miles away with plus or minus 5-feet accuracy. The VC are scared ----less of them."

"Where are they stationed?"

"About a half-mile from here. They still sleep in tents."

"Why's that?"

"They have to stay combat-ready. The Commanding General of the 11th figures if he builds barracks for his men some of his chicken---- company commanders'll start ordering them to pull GI parties. He says he doesn't want his men domesticated. He says in order to fight jungle-style his men have to think jungle-style."

"That makes sense. What else is a barrack for if not to clean it 10 hours a day for some asshole Captain who likes making asshole inspections."

We laughed.

"What are their operational responsi...I mean, what do they do?" I asked.

"They protect the roads. You'll see them from time-to-time riding up and down Highway One in APC's mounted with 60-caliber's. They're the ones who secured Bien Hoa in the early days."

"And what about the 1st Cavalry Division? On my way here the 1st Sergeant's jeep got held up by a ----load of new grunts from the Cav going out on perimeter patrol."

"They've got 2 nicknames. Sky troopers and sky cavalry. Their real headquarters is in An Khe, I think. The HQ in Bien Hoa is just a rear command post."

"Do they operate any differently from the 173rd or the 11th?"

"Not much. All 3 do their equal share of ass-kicking. But the Cav are said to have survived more Dien Bien Phu-type battles than any other unit. In fact, they go out looking for them. They've got the largest area of operations, over 500 miles."

"Do we ever work with them? In combat, I mean."

"Only on guard duty. Their new arrivals land here first then later get assigned to commands in other areas. For OJT they do all the patrols outside the perimeter and pull guard duty in the bunkers behind the barbwire."

Finishing our lunch, we started back to the company. Noticing it was close to sundown, I mentioned I wanted to watch a U-2 go up.

"Where's the best place to go to see one?" I asked.

"On the microwave tower across the road from the main compound. We should head over there right now. By the time we climb to a good height, one or both of them should be taking off."

The microwave tower stood on a barren field directly across the road from the Orderly Room. Painted in alternating 10 foot sections of red-white-red-white, the microwave tower stood about 120-feet high. Several dozen antennas and disks, each one a different size and shape littered the tower. Robert indicated we would have to climb at least 40 feet to get a clear view of the airbase. Having made the climb several times before he volunteered to take the lead and along the way show me how and where to hold onto the 3-inch round pipes.

"Be sure not to touch the wires hanging down the middle," he warned. "There's beau-coup volts traveling inside them."

"What's "beau-coup"?"

"French for 'a whole, ----ing, lot'!"

The wires were covered with 1/4-inch thick black rubber.

"But they're insulated."

"Yeah, but we're not. We're going to be holding on to raw metal. The sweat on your hands seeping into a hairline crack in the rubber could set off an arc that'll fry your asshole Post Toasties to the max, and probably turn me black."

"Lord knows we wouldn't want that to happen, would we?" I teased. "There isn't enough fried chicken and watermelon in V'nam for all the real brothers. The last thing I want to do is make more competition going after my share."

He laughed then started his climb.

After he reached the 10 foot mark, I followed, careful not to touch the wires brushing against the inside pipes.

About fifty feet up, reaching a point above the surrounding tree-line, Robert pulled himself around the tower to the opposite side while I climbed up to his level. There, we had an open view of the airbase.

"It's pretty ----ing windy up here." I yelled. "But the view is perfect."

"Yeah, it is. We better tie ourselves on so we don't blow off."

"Tie ourselves with what?"

"Didn't you bring any rope or reinforced cable?" He asked, looking serious.

"What're you talking about. You didn't say anything about any cable.

"Then I guess we better improvise, huh?"

"With what, some of this black wire?"

"Watch me. Then do what I do."

Reaching down to his belt, he unbuckled it. Pulling the belt-end out the buckle he slid it backwards removing it from the last belt loop on his pants. Winding it around a section of the tower frame near his waist he slipped it back through the belt loop and re-buckled it.

"See," he yelled. "Now if I get shot or lose my balance I won't fall and break my neck."

"Good idea!" I yelled back, repeating what he'd done.

"It's good the sun's still high, the wind is nice and warm." he remarked.

"The visibility is so clear I can count the Phantoms parked on the airbase." I noticed.

"This is everybody's favorite pastime. Sometimes you can count 50 bodies hanging off this tower."

"I can see why. Being this high above ground makes you feel like you're in V'nam as a spectator, not a participant. It sure would be nice being a seagull. I'd fly from aircraft carrier to aircraft carrier until I ended up in California."

"That's why I like to come up here. It's kind of like you're having a dream, like you're detached from the planet."

Looking up into the clouds I noticed a TWA 707 coming in for a landing. Slightly below it, a Phantom F-4 followed close behind.

"Check out those airplanes," I yelled, pointing skyward.

"Looks like a Freedom Bird with a Phantom riding shotgun. Watch the Phantom, he'll rock his wings and take-off toward the jungle."

Watching it, it did exactly that. First dipping one wing tip, then the other, then screamed-off toward the trees.

"Why'd he do that?" I asked.

"Dipping your wings is the universal sign for friendly forces. The airbase would let a Russian MiG land if he rocked the peace sign."

"What if he didn't?"

"They'd scramble a couple of snub-nosed fighters in less than a second and blow his ass clear out of the sky."

"And why'd you call the 707 a Freedom Bird?"

"That's what everybody calls them. They're our ticket to freedom.

"I have to admit," he stated. "I hate seeing other guys have to come here, but it sure is nice knowing they're still coming."

His face suddenly grew solemn, as if a twinge of depression suddenly overcame him.

"What do you mean by that?"

"Seeing other people arriving from home lets me know home is still there. The day those Freedom Birds stop coming is the day we should all start worrying."

"Why would they stop coming?"

"You just never know. Over here we're cut off from the rest of the world. If nuclear war was to break out we probably wouldn't hear about it for a month or more."

For the first time since I arrived I began to understand what shortimers meant when they said a year in V'nam was like a year in hell. A day could be a lifetime and hell was like eternity.

"Being stuck in this hole 12,000 miles away from my wife sometimes makes me wonder if home ever really existed." He continued. "Sometimes it feels like I've been here all my life and home was just a dream I keep having every night."

Looking back up toward the Freedom Bird, 2 more Phantoms approached from behind. Robert said the commercial jets came in several times a day, usually between noon and 6 pm. The Phantoms, flying combat sorties 24 hours a day, were an almost constant occurrence.

"Look at how slow the Birds fly in. It's like they're floating on air." he remarked.

Yeah," I agreed. "But I wondered how come the Phantoms pitch and roll like that. It's looks like they're not sure if they want to land or not."

There's a good reason. See the line of trees over there bordering the perimeter?"

He pointed to the edge of the straw-covered free-fire zone that stretched about a mile out from the perimeter wire.

"All that yellow land between here and the trees has been sprayed with Orange to keep the jungle pushed back. The Phantoms don't dive for their final approach until they've crossed over into the free-fire zone."

"Why's that?" I asked.

"So Charlie doesn't ---- 'em up with a few AK rounds. Those birds they fly may cost 20 million dollars but it doesn't take more than a rock tossed in their induction vents to knock them down."

"But if they don't want to risk getting hit when they land, why do they fly so low over combat areas?"

"Because here in Bien Hoa Charlie sneaks in and waits for them in the trees. On combat missions Charlie is too busy trying to keep up with the grunts to take time out to watch the sky."

Turning toward the airbase, we watched as the Freedom Bird landed. The Phantoms, circling overhead, came down for a landing several moments later. Using parachute brakes the Phantoms landed at more than twice the speed of the Freedom Birds. The high-speed landings were needed to reduce the amount of time Charlie had to fire at them.

Pointing to the Freedom Bird taxiing to the incoming terminal, Robert directed my attention to a crowd of GI's waiting to board after the newbies were escorted off.

"You know," he told me, "if you close your eyes you could almost imagine the smiles on the faces of those shortimers in that hot-ass outgoing terminal waiting to climb aboard that Freedom Bird?"

Remembering the exuberance O'Toole expressed after having been in V'nam only a few days, added to my own thoughts forced to the back of my mind, about how I would probably feel if I was on my way home after spending a year here, I could imagine how some of them must have felt.

"I try not to think about it this early," I told him. "I haven't been here a week yet. If I let myself trip-out about going home, I may not be able to maintain my sanity for a whole year."

"I can understand that. I guess it's harder when you've left somebody at home waiting for you."

His face grew despondent again. I told myself to try to keep home out of the conversation. Changing the subject, I brought up the Freedom Birds again.

"What do you think it is about a Freedom Bird that makes it look so good?"

"You mean other than the fact that they carry our Emancipation Proclamation out of this place?"


"I think it's because Freedom Bird's are the only machines we see over here that were built just for comfort rather than destruction. Seeing them makes me feel there's still some sanity left in the world."

As the Freedom Bird stopped at the Incoming Hangar we could see a group of Air Force attendants push a debarkation ramp to the hatch door. Every eye in the nearby Outgoing Terminal was probably focused in on the hatch door as it opened. The first person to step out was a stewardess wearing a wide smile.

Looking back at the terminal, a line of bodies started filing down the ramp. "Here come the newbies." I remarked.

"Yeah, they're moving real slow."

Watching each one as they stepped out, their feet appeared to probe the stairs on the ramp as if they weren't sure if they should, or really wanted, to get off. Quickly looking in one direction then another, each newbie scanned their surroundings as if trying to engulf as much of V'nam as they could see in the small, self-contained, incoming terminal.

"Now I know what I must've looked like getting off my plane last week." I told him.

He smiled. "We all looked like that."

We watched as the newbies were gathered into a group at the bottom of the ramp and herded like confused cattle into the Incoming Terminal building for initial processing. They would probably be bussed to Long Bihn's IPC, then eventually cut loose to find their own way, as we were.

In all the major incoming ports, new arrivals were hustled into a separate terminal a good distance from the outgoing terminal jammed with shortimers who had survived their year in hell and now waiting for the jet to be refueled. The Army didn't want its new arrivals to hear shouts like, "Get back on the plane, suckers!" and, "Don't get off!" coming from shortimers to create a bad first impression. The Army also didn't want the newbies to see the frozen and emotionless faces of the men whose eyes, ears, and souls had witnessed a years worth of atrocities and insanity.

"See that spot at the bottom of the ramp?" Robert asked me, pointing to it.


"After the newbies split they put a sign on it that says "Checkpoint Charlie."

I smiled. "They've got a Checkpoint Charlie on every Army base in the world. What's so big about that?"

"This one is special. It's the last stage. 2 feet from that sign is the ramp. Once you're on it, it's "Check you later and goodbye Charlie"."

"I didn't see any shortimers when I landed, did you?"

"Yeah, the Air Force screwed-up and we were all together. It really freaked me out. Some of them were so zapped-out they had to be led around like little kids.

"How did they make it through their out-processing?"

"They couldn't, alone. People had to tell them where to go, where to sit, and where to stand. I saw this one Air Force guy tell an 82nd Airborne Sergeant to stand in a line waiting to get their shot records stamped. It was a real depressing sight because that's all he did. As the line moved ahead, he stood in place. People behind him stepped around."

"Why was that?"

"Because all he was told to do was stand in line. He wasn't told to move along when the line did."

"Did anybody ever help him?"

"Yeah, I did. I took him up to the counter and then to the next station. I even tried talking to him, but conversation wasn't working out."

"Couldn't he understand what you were saying?"

"I could tell he was getting some of the things I'd say, but not all. Any sentences over 3 words went right over his head. It was really freaky when I used words like 'home' and 'America'. His eyes would get big and stare at me. His left hand would start twitching and one of his knees shook."

"Were there a lot of guys like him?"

"In varying degrees everybody was zapped. Another guy told me it had been a year since he used a toilet that flushed. He said the first thing he wanted to do when he got back to the States was use the bathroom so he could feel the water pop up and hit him on the ass."


"And every month or so we hear about another Phantom pilot going zonkers and trying to fly to Hawaii. There's been 4 since I've been here. Every one of them burns-out a couple hundred miles off the coast and drowns, not to mention deep-sixin' 20 million dollars worth of aircraft."

"How come nobody in the States hears about ---- like that?"

"Maybe I'll write a book one day and tell 'em."

"Oh yeah, how would you describe all this? There's too many things going on over here."

Looking upward, his eyes darted across the clouds as if he was reading his thoughts spread across the sky. After a few moments, he answered.

"Before I'd talk about the war I'd talk about the guys. I think I'd write it this way, "The minds of many of those men going home were still laying on the jungle floors they had patrolled, fought, cried, died, and barely survived for 12 eternal months."

Pausing for a moment, he took a deep breath, then began again, "I'd write, "These men spent so much time in the jungle, the long, looping vines hanging over their patrol grounds had replaced the stringy, connective tissue in their brains. and the parasite-infested moppy water of the rice paddies had replaced the blood in their veins.'"

"These men," he went on, "had not just simply toured Vietnam, they metamorphosized into Vietnam. In order to survive the war they had to live like the enemy. This meant erasing all memory of life back home. There was no room for conflicting morals and values. Because to try to retain what they once believed, and impose it on a world that was different in a hundred-million ways, always brought the same, terrifying result, insanity."

Looking back at me, he stretched a wide grin across his face then smiled, "What'd you think?"

"I don't think I would have said it any differently myself. I'd buy your book."

"Well, I hope I'm around long enough to write one."

"You think it's true what they say about the last month being the hardest to survive?" I asked.

"Yeah, I can agree with that. If I live past 11 months I could see myself getting real paranoid about lasting one more. But when I get that short I'm going to be watching every shadow, peek around every corner, and take a long look down every road before I make a move. I guess most of us take every day for granted. But when I get shorter all my senses are going to get super-acute. My hearing's going to get more sensitive and my vision sharper. I'm going to change my daily routine only enough to keep it from getting stagnated and repetitive. Every decision I make is going to be the right one. I'm going to think-out and plan everything I do and everywhere I go. If I have to check out a hut, I'm going to toss a couple of grenades in first. If I get ordered to drag a prisoner back to base for interrogation, I'm going to first pump him up with a -----load of heroin and tie his wrists to his neck. Then I'll tape a bayonet to his chin so all I have to do is yank his hair down if he breaks loose and tries to shove a bamboo chute into my back."

"Maybe we should start being careful right now and climb down." I noticed the wind had picked up.

"Yeah, you're right. I've been running my mouth too much."

Climbing down, we started back toward the company area. Then suddenly, not more than half-a-minute after leaving the tower, the sound of air-raid sirens could be heard coming from the airbase. A second later, Co A44's sirens echoed back. Looking at each other the shrill seemed to be all around us.

Confused, I yelled to Robert, "What's going on?"

"Incoming! Charlie's firing at the airbase."

"You mean right now?"

The instant I finished speaking, a large explosion rang out in the distance.

"Yeah, right now!" he yelled back, falling to his knees.

"I'm going back up to take a look." I yelled.

"No! Don't do that. If the whole base is being attacked there could be snipers in the trees."

"The trees are a mile away," I yelled back. "Nobody can aim that good."

"Wait!" he screamed.

Ignoring him, I ran back to the tower and started up. The pipes felt cooler this time. Feeling my hands slip across the bars I realized it was my sweat that made them feel cold.

Right behind me, Robert grabbed at my cuffs. "Move over to the other side. I'm coming up too."

Reaching the spot we hung from earlier, a cloud of thick, black smoke rising from one of the hangars fumed upward. Pointing to the Freedom Bird that had just started to load the shortimers, a flurry of activity buzzed near the base of the boarding ramp.

"Look at the ramp," I yelled. "It looks like an MP is trying to keep them from getting on the plane."

"I can't blame them for wanting to get on. They probably think this is their last chance."

Suddenly, another explosion went off. This time striking a nearby Phantom. A trail of black smoke billowed above a roar of bright red flames.

"Where the hell are the rockets coming from?" I asked.

"Out there behind the tree line."

"It looks like everybody's running back into the Outgoing Terminal."

"Yeah, it's stupid to try getting on now."

A group of determined GI's remained at the base of the boarding ramp. Dropping their small carry-on bags, they began running up the ramp. Simultaneously, 2 more rockets jetted in. One slamming head-on into a nearby hangar housing another Phantom, the other screaming directly into the ramp.

Covering his eyes, Robert tried to shut the sight of exploding bodies from his view but he was too late. He'd already seen it. It was like trying to look away from someone when you didn't want them to catch you watching them.

"Most of those guys on that ramp will never know what hit them." I told him.

The orange-red fireball rising above the explosion sent a huge wave of shrapnel tearing into a group of GI's still at the base of the ramp. The once-overjoyed crowd of shortimers now turned into a pandemonium of torn bodies limping and dragging for cover. One of the MP's collapsed clutching his throat as he fell to the ground.

A cloud of black smoke quickly covered the area around the boarding ramp. Momentary gaps in the cloud revealed it was now a twisted frame of severed steps and broken handrails. Several shortimers just about to step into the hatchway were hanging from the footpiece. One after another, their bleeding bodies gave up their hold, dropping them 30 feet to hard pavement.

Mechanics working on a nearby Phantom were now running over to help the wounded. In the distance a bright yellow Follow Me vehicle raced up behind the mechanics, passing them. Just as it arrived at the base of the melted ramp, the hatch door snapped its severed hinges and crashed into the pile of shortimers falling just before it.

"It looks like hell down there," Robert yelled, his voice shaking.

"Here comes the emergency teams," I pointed, noticing several vehicles racing across the runway. "They'll put the fire out and help those guys under the hatch door."

"They'd better get to it before the fire ignites the fuel."

Another group of Air Force personnel ran from several nearby hangars toward the Bird. Fighting their way through the smoke, they began dragging bodies into clear air. Most of their shredded clothing had turned from faded-green to bright red.

A crowd of Co A44 personnel were now crowding the road outside the company. Stretching their necks, they pointed to the plumes of smoke rising into the sky.

Over the sirens several Phantoms could be heard winding up their engines for an emergency take-off. We turned back toward the airbase. The Freedom Bird's engines were winding also. Slowly, it began to pull away.

"Where's it going?" I yelled. "It's still burning."

"It's probably trying to get some distance from the luggage and bodies burning on the ground. Those flames could set off its fuel tanks."

As it pulled toward the main runway, it's engines began spinning faster."

"I don't know. It looks to me like it's going to take off."

"It can't. It doesn't even have a back door."

Picking up speed, the Bird raised it's nose and screamed off.

"Without that hatch door it won't be able to get much altitude," he shook his head.

"....let alone out of the country." I added.

Suddenly, 2 successive explosions lit up 2 more Phantoms parked adjacent to the one that had taken a direct hit.

"Those are secondary's, I think." he speculated. "They were probably started by the fire coming from the other Phantom."

Noticing to a caravan of red trucks flashing yellow lights on top, I pointed to them.

"It looks like hospital people have arrived. Those guys in white are carrying a stretcher."

Running into the black smoke, they re-emerged moments later with a body slumped across. A chopper coming in for a landing was guided toward the funnel of smoke caused by the burning luggage. Hovering just above it, its rotors fanned the smoke, giving the rescuers clearer air to see the victims sprawled underneath.

Looking skyward, Robert pointed to the towering cloud of smoke rising from jet fuel burning in the Phantom hangar.

"That tower is going to tell the VC for miles around they scored a lucky hit today."

"What do you mean luck? Those look like direct hits to me."

"No they weren't. Charlie aims his rockets at the airbase and crosses his fingers. He's shooting for anything he can hit. Most of the time they just blow a few temporary potholes in the runway."

"You'd think they wouldn't hit the airbase when GI's are heading home. You'd think they'd want to get rid of us so much they'd be at the ramp handing out flowers and wishing us bon voyage."

"You forget there were guys coming in too. Besides, when it's your turn to go to that big PX in the sky, it doesn't matter when you go, does it?"

Even though a shortimer made it on-board, he really wouldn't be safe until he was well over the ocean. A rocket soaring through the air could collide with his plane sending it right back to the ground faster than when he left it. I remembered the photo Sergeant Smith showed me on the plane.

"Let's get off this thing," Robert called over to me. "I've seen enough."

As we started down, 2 Phantoms roared overhead toward the perimeter. Reaching the bottom of the tower, we walked back to the company.

"Where do you think those pilots are racing off to?" I asked.

"The Air Force radars probably did a reverse-plot on the trajectories of the rockets. Those Phantoms are probably going to napalm the coordinates."

"They don't expect to find any VC still there, do they?"

"Probably not. But they might be able to locate the launch tubes. They were probably set up 2 or 3 days ago and self-timed to fire when they did."

"Ever see a VC rocket launcher?" I asked.

"Yeah, once. They've got a model of one at the Post Library. It was captured just after TET '68."

"What does it look like."

"The VC are always making use of anything and everything they can to use against us. Their timers are real simple. They use hourglass weights that spill sand from a plastic container into a metal one. When the sand fills up, the metal container drops to a metal contact sheet wired to a 9-volt battery. When the metal container and the metal sheet make contact, the charge from the battery ignites a blasting cap at the end of the rocket, launching it."

"....making it unnecessary for Charlie to sit around waiting to get caught." I followed.

"You've got it!" he confirmed. "And if he's able to come back a day or two later and recover his apparatus, he'll use it to lob another salvo at us a week from now. If he can't find it, there's no major loss. He could always build another one in an hour."

"What are they made out of?"

"Usually a large metal drain pipe. He can pick one up at any village hardware shop. The shopkeeper probably gets them from an American contractor selling his surplus stock on the black market."

I shook my head. "This place is just like back home. Most of time we're fighting against ourselves."

Robert let me know we would retaliate by sending out "the usual air and ground assaults and rounding-up the usual number of suspects" in the village. and next week, after we got hit again, the same air and ground operations would be sent out and the same ARVN MP's would pick up the same suspects.

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