When I look back on my time in Vietnam, some vivid images stand out. I can remember on the flight out of Travis Air Force base, looking down at the California coast line and wondering if I was seeing it for the last time. I tried to keep the beaches and sparkling blue water in view for as long as possible, but they quickly slipped away under the wing of our Braniff jet. Our next stop was Honolulu. Was this someone's idea of a cruel joke? Here we were, on our way to, God knows what, and they plunk us down in the middle of paradise. We were allowed to get off the plane as they refueled. We wandered around the airport filled with families on vacation and couples off for a romantic interlude, or their honeymoon. Everyone was a having the time of their life. Everyone, that is, but us; we were off to war. It was tough getting back on that plane.
Next stop, Clark air force Base Manila. Now it was really beginning to sink in. The terminal was jam packed with military personnel coming and going. We stood around in the sweltering heat for an our or so, then it was back on the plane, next stop Ben Hoa Air Base. After a short time, or so it seemed, the pilot announced that we were approaching the coast of Vietnam and that as a precaution they would be turning out all the lights. We flew along in utter silence. Something about turning out the lights got everyone's attention. The Captain sitting next to me said to look out the window. There in the darkness was the silhouette of a jet fighter. It was close enough that you could see the lights on the instrument panel. There was one off the other wing as well. Welcome to the war zone.
We landed at Ben Hoa at some ridiculous hour of the morning. It was about 85 degrees and unbelievably humid. The pilot kept the engines at high rev while the crew opened both doors. As we were getting off the front of the plane, the guys going home were scurrying in the back. I remember looking at the flight attendant as I passed her in the doorway. She had a hard time looking me in the eye. When she did, it was the look of someone who had just sold their prize steer for slaughter. Something you knew had to be done, but you felt fifty different kinds of shitty for doing anyway. She said simply "Good luck". What else was there to say.
Buses awaited, grenade screens on the windows and headlights with covers that allowed only enough light for the dirver to make his way from the air base to Camp LBJ. Was it merely concidence that LBJ stood for Long Binh Junction and Linden Baines Johnson? I think not.
It was pitch black in the barracks. After stumbling over most of the people in there and waking up the rest, I found a place to lie down. After a few miserable hours trying to sleep on a bunk with no mattress and my duffel bag for a pillow, we were awakened by the sound of helicopters. I walked out into the early dawn hours and peered out on a scene replicated millions of times in the pages of Life, Time and Newsweek; choppers, dozens of them, loaded with dirty and tired grunts coming back from a night patrol. The blades of the Hueys kicked up the fine brick red dust creating a surreal tableau that I can see as clearly today as that June morning in 1967. We were really here. Suddenly the jokes about the war, rife with black humor, didn't seem as funny. In fact, there was no humor at all in that moment. All I saw was a bunch of scared, tired, and frustrated kids, who wanted nothing more than to just get home in one piece.
But my tour of duty was certainly not all grim. There were lots of good times, too. Lots of goofy things, like the pool table in the club, so warped that when you broke the balls they all rolled to the rails. Or the movie "Trunk to Cairo", starring Tony Randall. We must have seen it a hundred times. The one night we did get a decent movie, "Lord Jim", I was so tired I fell asleep about 10 minutes in. Oh well.
There was the black panther that used to cruise the concertina wire at the back of the camp. My first night on guard duty was out there. It was the farthest post and smack in the middle of a grave yard. There I was all alone, about 3 o'clock in the morning and I hear a low moan and see glowing eyes moving beyond the wire. I grabbed the field phone so fast I almost ripped out all the wires. I was told that it was only the panther, he smelled the food from the mess hall and was hungry. I was also told not to shoot it, because if it was out there, I could rest assured that nothing else...or no one else...was!
There was Ronnie Spratt from North Carolina. Ronnie was a piece of work to be sure. This guy sounded exactly like Gomer Pyle. He took a fancy to the airborne boots that some of us wore, but they were hard to come by in Vietnam. So, not to be outdone, he went downtown and had a pair custom made. Only his were about half again as high as our Corcorans. He dubbed them his "boo-coo" boots. Boo-coo was a corruption of the French beaucoup meaning many, or this case, BIG. He loved those boots and spent countless hours polishing them. One night Ronnie had a little too much to drink. All right, a LOT too much to drink. I've been told since, that it was the first time he had ever been drunk. Somewhere along the line Ron had to drain his bladder. In his drunken haze he stumbled out onto the balcony of our barracks, and thinking he was in the latrine, let fly. It was one of those rare moments that you usually only see in movies. Ronnie pissed all over our commanding officer, Capt. Corey, who had the bad fortune to be walking by at that moment.
There were the nights running around with our company scrounger, Steve Poling, a master at his craft. I saw him convince some poor guy at the supply depot that they had actually gone to high school together. We walked out of there with more stuff than you can imagine. After Steve rotated home, a fellow by the name of Gene Young took over the position, scrounging an unbelievable amount of Uncle Sam's goodies.
There were the late nights when we would cruise the mess halls, scoring bags of fresh hot donuts and coffee from the cooks. One afternoon one of our more skilled scroungers hit the supply depot for cases of steak and lobster. We fired up our make shift BBQ and prepared for a feast. Sports that we were, we invited the officers to join us for dinner. They declined saying they were on their way to the officer's club downtown for a wonderful dinner of their own. They were back in about a half hour. Seems the food that had been specially ordered for the brass, steak and lobster, had mysteriously disappeared. Go figure.
But all the fun and games came to an end with Tet. We were awakend in the middle of the night and told to head to the Provost Marshall's Office, that there was "some trouble" downtown. The trouble turned out to be a huge contingent of Viet Cong blowing up everything in sight. They commandeered the radio station to broadcast to the people, hoping they would rise up. They didn't and the Cong were trapped in the building and eventually killed. The early morning hours were spent running around the town trying to figure out what the hell was going on. There were explosions and automatic weapons fire everywhere. At one point, we were on the front porch of a house right off of Vo Tanh street, it was still very dark. The ARVN's had an armored car parked in the middle of the intersection and were exchanging fire with VC down the street near the QC station. Larry Cremeans and Ronnie Orlando were out near the jeep. Suddenly Cremeans is yelling that Orlando's been hit. We drag Ronnie back up on the porch and turn on a flashlight. He had a hole in the back of his head you could have dropped a golf ball into, and it was still smoking. He'd been shot through the neck with the bullet exiting near the base of the skull. He's screaming and suddenly goes limp. We figure he's gone, but a quick check of his pulse says otherwise. Now it was a scramble to get him to the 85th Evac. No mean feat because of all the action in town. We had to take the long way around and by the time we got there, Orlando was soaked in blood. The expression on the medics faces told us everything we needed to know about his condition. But, you know what, it wasn't his time. You hear that trite phrase tossed around a lot, but if you've ever been in combat you know its true. The next day Ron, who was 19 and had a baby boy back home that he'd never seen, was up walking around complaining of a sore neck. That bullet had missed all of the nerves and major blood vessels and simply blown out a chunk of skin in the back of his head. He went home a couple of days later. Amazing.
Others were not so lucky. Lt. Dingus Banks was a nice guy. He liked to play basketball with the troops and was well liked. He hadn't been in-country very long when Tet rolled around. I can still hear the radio crackling and Cpl. Stevens' voice asking for help and that a "mike papa" was down. Stevens sounded very shaken, we knew the situation wasn't good. Others know more details about happened, but apparently Banks kicked in the door of a building, and then stood in the doorway. He took a blast of AK-47 fire in the chest. The medics did their best, but they couldn't save him.
Later that same day we got tagged for a mission down Vo Tanh street across from the sports arena. A group of civilians had been out partying the night of Tet and gotten killed near the radio station. The details are kind of hazy at this point, but I think the ARVN's had set up a road block to keep people out of that area because of the attack. I need to point out here that the reason most people didn't know any of this was going on, was because everyone thought the gunfire and explosions were fireworks or ARVN's firing their weapons in celebration. It was for just that reason that the attack was planned for Tet, the lunar New Year.
As I heard it, these civilians didn't listen to the ARVN's and drove through the roadblock and were killed in a hail of machine gun bullets. When we tried to retrieve the bodies, we were immediately pinned down by automatic weapons fire. Vo Tanh street was a scene out of Dante's Inferno. You couldn't walk down the street for all the bodies. Mostly Vietnamese, but some Americans as well. The ARVN armored car was now in the middle of the intersection of Vo Tahn and Tang Bat Ho, if I remember the names correctly, and blowing the hell out of the radio station. We finally were able to get out of there after some very close calls. I'd always heard that bullets whizzing by sound like bees buzzing. They do. Somewhere around here I have a slug I dug out of the ground about an inch from my leg. Bob Wizorick (sp?) took some shrapnel in the arm dragging a Cam Sat out of harm's way during the fighting. Two of our MP's got caught in machine gun fire. We counted the bullet holes in the jeep, and while I can't remember the exact number, it was something like 86. Except for a wounded foot, they both essentially unscathed.
In the afternoon the Koreans arrived. And the Montanyards. I'm not sure of the spelling, but they were the primitives who lived in the mountains and hated the Viet Cong with a passion. The VC would come through every year and take their food, leaving them just enough to survive so they could grow more. The Special Forces trained these guys to fight and equipped them with an amazing collection of armaments. They were very tiny and wore loin clothes as they proudly marched into town carrying weapons almost as big as they were. The VC saw this parade coming down the street and tossed their weapons and id's into garbage cans, changed clothes and took off. It was amazing. The Koreans spent the rest of the day and that night ferreting out the stragglers. Every once in a while, for the weeks after that, a Korean jeep would drive by and dump a couple of bodies in front of the PMO. VC with one ear cut off.
I heard later that the Special Forces compound near the beach had been hit and there was a huge fire fight between the Green Berets and the Cong at the train yards. If any SF trooper reading this can confirm that it would be appreciated.
Things were never the same after Tet. Qui Nhon never felt safe again. There was the occasional sniper fire, sappers got into the ammo dump and we went tactical. No tops on the jeeps, sandbags everywhere, and we were on yellow alert more nights than I care to think about.
Shortly after Tet, I was transferred to ship duty. That was great. We would stay on the merchant ships in the harbor and pull guard duty. We slept in bunks with clean, crisp sheets, ate great food, and could do our laundry in real washing machines, not in a stream. It was heaven. But the Army had other plans for me, so after a month or so on the ships, I was transferred to the 66th MP's in Phu Tai. We ran the highways to the north of Qui Nhon. But that's another story, for another time.
Eventually my tour of duty came to an end. I packed my gear and made my plane reservation to Cam Rahn Bay. It did my heart good to tell the clerk at the air field that the purpose of the flight was "deros", military jargon for rotating back to the States. I was going home. The flight over had been one big party. The flight attendants had been wearing green berets while serving food and the SF troops with us had been wearing the attendant's little pink caps. It was nuts. I envisioned an even bigger party on the way home. Hey, we had made it. We were the survivors. But that flight home was the quietest plane ride I've ever taken. Except for the whine of the engines you could have head a pin drop. I would look around and everyone was just staring straight ahead, stunned to finally be there. The flight attendants couldn't do enough for us, or at least they tried. Most offers of blankets, pillows, magazines, food or drink, were politely refused. We didn't need anything else, that plane ride home was more than enough.