Flash Back to Nam
by Richard F. Denne
******Flashback to Nam *****
Sorry About That
I was so short I could sit on the edge of a dime and my feet would dangle.
“Short” was a colloquialism we used to express the passage of time. From the moment a soldier set foot in this godforsaken place, every minute that passed connoted how “short” he had become. When he got to within 30 days of going home, he reminded those around him of just how short he was, sometimes to ad nauseam, going so far as to carry a foot-long stick, with notches cut into it called a short-timer stick, signifying the number of days left in country.
I was never that bold. In fact, the ‘shorter’ I became, the farther away I felt from the going-home reality, though it would shortly become nothing but a bad dream for me, because I knew on a somewhat less than up-front consciousness that I was soon to be given my walking papers, a ticket for my ride back to the world. The ultimate “E-TICKET.” I wasn’t in Hell, but I sure could smell it from here.
It was dawn and we were heading down the incline from the barracks to the helicopter pads, which were contained within an immense airfield three to four football fields in width and five or six in length. Each pad inside the airfield held one helicopter. There were ten pads for my company alone, but the sea of aircraft went on forever and was busy day and night with choppers coming and going.
The noise of the war-making machine was incessant, wrapping itself around our lives. If there is one thing about the Vietnam War every veteran could relate to it was the combination of the whomping of the rotor blades on the choppers and the ever-present reek of diesel fuel in 130-degree temperatures. The smell was unrelenting. One more thing to complain about in addition to the food, the hours, the monotony and boredom of being in the Nam, except, of course, for the all too many sporadic harrowing interruptions of combat. To me, though, having come from the infantry and the pungent stench of rotting jungle vegetation, the smell of diesel fuel was as sweet as the smell of roses. It smelled to me of civilization.
I had been out of the jungles for about four and a half months and was serving as a door-gunner for the 129th Assault Helicopter Company for the 1st Aviation Division on the day I got my orders to go home. It had began as just one more day for me, heading out on another mission, and I was uncertain whether it might be my last, which is what I always thought when I was ordered on an assault.
I was at the wheel of a three-quarter ton truck with nine crewmembers as passengers. Even at dawn it was stifling and we were sweating; the movement of the truck created only the illusion of a breeze for the approximately 300-400-yard drive down a dirt road from our barracks to the chopper pads.
No one was entirely awake yet; most were likely still drunk or hung over from the night before, when we had been watching the flick, “Born Free” and tanking away on Dutch courage half the night even though we were all pretty much underage as far as U.S. law goes. Fortunately for us we weren’t on U.S. soil. In a somewhat comic perversion of law, vice in many forms were acceptable under our circumstances, and liquid courage was medically mandatory. At night in a rear area, drinking helped dull the senses and as a result, come morning, nobody was too with it; in addition, we were generally miserable and uncertain so the mood was somber.
To lighten things up and amuse myself more than anyone, I decided it was time for a prank. I shifted into third gear and tossed myself out of the truck, screaming, “I’m not going. You can’t make me. I’m outta here,” meaning out of the truck, but only I knew that, for unlike my passengers, I wasn’t hung over at all on this particular morning; in fact, I was feeling alert and mischievous. I hit the ground and rolled, watching the truck continue down the road driverless at a grinding speed of ten miles per hour. The passengers were dumbstruck with amazement and for a moment no one reacted, even though the truck was now heading directly for a helicopter. I had to get my kicks in before we actually got ready to rumble, for experience had shown me that once we were in a combat mode, we became sober at the starting of the engines. Adrenalin will do that to you.
Having cleared the truck, I lay in the dust snickering like the village idiot ay my lunacy even though another truck transporting officers was headed directly towards me from behind. With a flourish, I quickly jumped up and fell into the role of entertainer, executing a perfectly fine soft shoe in the dust at the side of the road and then took a bow. They weren’t all that interested in me, however; they found the pilot less truck now careening toward a chopper far more intriguing. The passenger-seat occupant of my truck finally came out of his stupor, got his wits about him, and leaned over to apply the brakes of the truck shortly before it connected with the chopper, ending its brief but terrifying excursion. At least everyone was now fully awake. As idiotic as it was, my general air of self-centered battiness could be rationalized; we were, after all, no more than high-school kids playing soldiers. All that came of my shenanigans was that everybody just sort of laughed at the insanity of it, for we were in an insane place in an insane time.
Back to reality. We had our orders to man the ships in anticipation of our mission and were scurrying around becoming combat ready for flight. It was business as usual; we weren’t laughing now. If the command had had been given to start the engines, I would never heard the sound of someone shouting my name. When I looked toward the source, I saw a soldier galloping down the road towards me like a house afire waving a piece of paper and yelling. His name was HANSEN, our company clerk, and he was yelling my name. “DENNE, DENNE, DENNE! You’re going home. I’ve got your orders.”
Now it was my turn to be struck dumb, all movement slowed to half time. The cacophony of preparedness for our flight stopped as though I suddenly had struck deaf as well. The only sounds I could hear were HANSEN’S words, but what was being conveyed to me wouldn’t sink in. I had been expecting it but still wasn’t prepared when it came. Home! Me? The crew around me erupted into celebration. The Viet Cong would have to wait; we wouldn’t be bombing the Hell out of them quite on schedule this morning.
Still overcome with disbelief, I turned to my pilot, Officer DEADEYE. It seemed as though I should say something profound, but all that was forthcoming was, “Does this mean I don’t get to go on the mission?”
“Are you crazy?” Officer Deadeye answered. “You’re so short you’re going to disappear. Get back to your barracks, shit, shower and shave, you’re out of here. You’re going home!”
It was that simple. Because of the upcoming mission, there was no time for any type of real goodbyes. I got big smiles and thumbs-up signs as the rest of the crew boarded and flew off.
As HANSEN and I walked away from the airfield, the din around me blasted again as though someone had turned up the volume. Although we walked back to our quarters in complete silence, when we arrived, HANSEN, ever the MC, announced to everyone in residence. “This short-timer is going home.” His announcement didn’t evoke the same reaction it had at the chopper pad. Since my bunkmates had the luxury of time to think about what HANSEN had just said, whereas the combat crews I had just left hadn’t, there was the feeling of general envy and resentment in the air that was almost palpable as I made my preparations to leave. I knew all too well, what they were feeling; I’d experienced it too many times myself. I only remember one guy’s face. He was wearing glasses. I could see in his eyes the reaction of sadness, resentfulness, jealousy, and resignation that he wasn’t the one leaving. In a farewell gesture, he shook my hand. If he wasn’t going home, at least he could touch someone who was.
It is difficult to explain the extent of those feelings, because only in war can a human communicate such a range of emotions with just an expression, but by seeing it, it becomes easy to understand because many soldiers went home from this war one at a time and always at different times. No one really made friends in the combat zone, only acquaintances. There were exceptions, of course, but few in my experience. That was a unique characteristic of the Vietnam War, the indifference of our coming and going. Because of the way the military moved troops in and out of the Nam, many times the dates of rotation had a significant number of men coming and going as independents rather than as a group. In true U.S. military fashion I had arrived by myself and I was leaving by myself, a micro version of all our lives if you will.
Within the hour, I was packed and out of the barracks. I hadn’t really said goodbye properly to anyone. My comrades at the chopper pad were long gone; I would never see them again. So there I was; standing alone, this time on a different helicopter pad, my duffel bag beside me, still surrounded by the roar and whirling of choppers coming and going and the stink of fuel and of the oil applied around the pads to keep the dust down, waiting, waiting, waiting for a ride out. But even with all of the air traffic buzzing above me, I easily picked out the lone chopper that was sent to pick me up. It was a gunship.
I’ll be damned, I thought. It was rare that a war bird instead of a slick was used for transporting cargo. Gun-ships were modified UH1B Huey Helicopters equipped with heavy armor — machine guns, rockets and so forth, whereas slicks were a somewhat larger chopper used for carrying equipment and troops into battle. Sure enough, the gunship landed on the pad right in front of me. The co-pilot yelled out his window, “Are you our mail pickup?”
Great, I thought. My last chopper ride out of the bush and I was to be accompanied by the same type of cocky pilots, as I had been upon my arrival. Standing there with the swirling wind of the rotor wash blasting over me, I grabbed my crotch and mumbled back, “I’ve got your male’ right here, sir.” As I climbed aboard, the pilot, reached back, to shake my hand.
It was the end of a party I hadn’t particularly enjoyed attending, a party like the one the MAD HATTER threw for Alice. I had been an invited guest at a party of undistilled chaos, and the authorities who sent me there were themselves gatecrashers, unwanted intruders who weren’t sure of the reasons behind their being there in the first place. As for myself, I could never get a handle on just what” the boys in the back room” wanted from me at their event. That information was kept a mystery from us; the very men who were asked to put their lives on the line every minute of every day we had been there.
The greeting I had just been given by the pilot of the gunship brought back powerful feelings associated with my arrival. I had been standing in a place similar to this, duffle bag in hand, just as I was now, waiting to make the transformation from dog-faced grunt in the infantry to that of a door gunner on a gunship. I had been warned that I was making a serious mistake, possibly fatal. For me, though, getting reassigned to a chopper company in aviation instead of humping around in the boonies was a no brainer. True, door-gunners on the choppers had the highest mortality rate, but for me making the choice to die in clean air rather than biting it in the filthy muck and stink of the jungles was too tantalizing to forego.
Every warrior has a rendezvous with destiny, and I had no illusions about being able to change when or if my dying might happen, but I could, and would, change where it might happen. I had been an experienced airborne paratrooper. But all that meant was that instead of being trucked into battle, I had jumped from a plane. Or air assault from a slick. Until I had made the choice to fly, I was still just an infantryman taking my chances on the ground.
Looking back, in my mind there was no comparing the two choices. You see, no member of the air support in a combat situation, going through flak, missile attacks, having his plane shot out from under him and having to jump, would “EVER!” change places with a combat grunt engaging in hand-to-hand combat, same goes for the Navy Seals, Green Beret, or any special fighting unit; however, the infantry would gladly have changed places with any outfit in a heartbeat, even in a combat situation, as no one saw more action more of the time than the infantry. My decision had been absolute, for no matter how bad things got, I knew that if I made it back from a mission, I would have clean, hot food; a shower; a cold beer’ a warm whore; and dreams. Sweet safe dreams.