Vietnam: The Way It Was
by Tom “Buddha” Jones
The men laughed and exchanged stories.
“There was this guy, about twice your size, looked like King Kong. He really wanted to come here, but his piss looked like wine. He had diabetes or something.”
The work detail continued. The men pulled sandbags apart. Suddenly, Robert jumped and almost instinctively so did the others.
“What’s the matter?”
“I saw something down there.”
“It was a rat. I bet it was a rat.”
The men inspected the bunker carefully. A lizard crawled into view and stuck its head skyward.
“Kill the ugly motherfucker!”
“Get him! Get him!”
I stood by and watched the merriment. From the corner of my eye I observed the Vietnamese man mixing the tubs of shit after pouring kerosene on them.
He lit a match and dropped it onto the mixture. Flames erupted violently and frightened the man. He rushed away from the smoky goo towards us. I immediately assumed the on guard position with my hands that further frightened the man and sent my comrades into paroxysm of laughter.
The next day work detail found Robert and me together. Before the sergeant could collect our names we disappeared. We visited the PX at Cam Rahn Bay and bought some ice cream and contemplated the unique lottery that they were in.
“I don’t care if we never get called,” said Robert.
That night their numbers came up. Hoffman was called first. My name was called in another group of names. We were told what areas we were assigned to.
On a map of Vietnam we found where the American units were stationed. The division emblems were posted next to the areas. Hoffman was slated to go to the Americal Division near Chu Lai. I was listed for Phu Bai. I searched the map with my index finger and worked north. I kept going up until my finger settled near the DMZ. I stared at the picture of a tiny bald eagle. 101st Airborne Division.
“Hardcore,” someone behind me said.
“Gung ho,” said another, “Good luck.”
The men wished each other well.
The C-130 ride was noisy and shaky.
The men filled up the deuce and a half, and were driven to the rear at Camp Eagle. I stared at the people of the city, but only a few returned my glances. They were apparently used to the sight of American troops.
The truck slowed down and speeded up with the flow of traffic. The kids asked for candy, and when they didn’t receive any they thrust their middle fingers up in the air in the direction of the GIs. Others flashed the peace sign that were returned by the new soldiers.
The men were dropped off at battalion headquarters and assigned to companies. Two other men and me were sent to Bravo Company. Larry Hunt was a baseball player from Kansas. He once had a tryout with the Philadelphia Phillies. Jo Jo Sena was a redhead who had a wife back in the States. We shook hands, lifted our duffle bags to our shoulders, and made the trek to the company area.
The company clerk assigned us bunks. In the barracks we encountered a poker game with other men lying on their cots reading or writing.
“You new guys?” one of the poker players asked without waiting for an answer and extended his hand, “My names is Guenther.”
“The best ghoster in the company,” a black soldier in a green sleeveless t-shirt said.
“I ain’t got nothin’ on you, Williams,” Guenther retorted. “What’s wrong with your hand?”
“Got it infected,” Williams said looking at his hand as if noticing it for the first time.
“Infected my ass,” Guenther said and turned to the new men, “Let me give you some good advice. Stay in the rear as long as you can. The field’s rough.”
“Say, are you playin’ cards or givin’ a sermon?”
The next day was spent getting equipment and meeting the first sergeant, Top Sellars. He was a middle-aged man with close, cropped hair. He had a black eye patch over his left eye.
“I got this in the field one night,” he explained pointing to his eye. “An M-60 opened up and I knocked the Prick 25 over and bumped the antennae into my eye. It’ll be ok in a few days. Put on your gear and see how they feel.”
“Heavy,” said Jo Jo.
“I know. You’ll get used to it. If you carry a Prick 25 radio it gets heavier.”
Re-supply day arrived. The company clerk walked us to the helicopter pad. Whop. Whop. Whop. The chopper blades sliced the air and pushed wind everywhere. The clerk held onto his hat and shouted, “Get on that bird!”
“I ain’t got an air mattress, ” said Sena.
“I need a canteen cup,” I said.
The re-supply clerk looked at his assistant.
“I had to order some, ” he said defensively..
The men returned to the barracks.
“I thought that you were going to the field.”
“We were but we don’t got air mattresses.”
“Hennessey must have thrown a shit fit.”
“You guys learn fast. Not all FNGs are so smart.
The company clerk informed us that we were on guard duty that night. I peppered my guard duty partner, Roy, with questions about the Nam when we both were performing K.P.
“Each squad is broken down into a fire team and a gun team,” he explained. “The gun team carries the M-60 and ammunition.”
“Which is it better to be in?”
“That depends,” he said while dumping a tray into hot foaming water. “I like the gun team because Charlie don’t like the M-60. Too much firepower.”
“How long you been in country?”
“Do you like it?”
“You get used to it.”
The next night found them on guard duty together.
“The worst thing about this,” Roy confided, “is the damn lifers who come checking on you. We’re supposed to have two men up at all times, but we usually have just one. That way we get more sleep.”
That night we spent more time looking for the Officer of the Day rather than Charlie Cong.
The air mattresses finally came in, and the men went out with the choppers.
I sat on the outside of the Huey with my legs dangling down. As the helicopter tilted sideways my gut exploded with fear. I thought I was going to fall out.
We stopped at FSB Bastogne to wait another two hours as the choppers were called away for a combat assault, which takes priority over a simple re-supply mission.
We took time to find out more about each other over C-rations. Bill Hitchcock was the E-6 who re-upped from Germany to get more schooling. The Army had other plans and shipped him to Vietnam.
The whop-whop-whop of the choppers returned and transported the men to the field. We touched down in a small area near a pond where GIs splashed merrily. Others were shaving and glanced at the re-supply birds.
“Look at the cherries,” one soldier said.
“Over her,” another said.
The men were led to the platoon leader who sat in a poker game. He wore a lieutenant bar on his shirt, and had a stubble of beard.
“Have the squad leaders report here,” he said returning to the poker game. “Last hand. How many cards? Pair of eights. My name’s Lieutenant Miller. I’m your platoon leader. This is Sergeants Lee, Burton, and Wilson.”
A voice shouted from the bushes, “Pick the tall one, General, he looks like he can hump.”
The squad leader named Lee walked up to me and read my nametag. “I’ll take Jones.”
As they walked through the bush to the squad area Sergeant Lee asked, “What’s your first name? Follow me. Let’s go meet the squad. This is West Virginia. He walks point. This is Tom.”
“Howdy”, said West Virginia in a southern drawl. He had several teeth missing.
“This is Tennessee,” Lee continued, “the slack man.”
“This is Gabe, M-79 man. Here’s Yankee, Cadman, and Big John. This is Pierce, your team leader. You and Tom hooch together tonight. Now I want everyone to clean their weapons.”
“Yes sir, General,” said Yankee a little too emphatically.
“General?” I asked.
“Didn’t you know he was a general? Look at his last name. Lee. Remember General Lee in the Civil War?”
“Hey, Tom, want a coke?” Gabe offered a red can.
The men broke down their M-16s.
“Have they started passing out mail yet, Gabe?” West Virginia asked, “I’m expecting a letter from Claudia.”
“You and her hitting it off?” Tennessee turned to me, “Claudia’s my sister.”
“Wait `til you smell the letter.” West Virginia responded.
“Pick up the mail for the whole squad, West Virginia.” General Lee directed. “Well, Tom, is it anything like you thought it would be like?”
“I don’t know yet,” I said honestly, “Aren’t we supposed to be guarding the perimeter?”
“There’s another squad behind us, ” General Lee explained while motioning with his head, “Say have you given any thought as to what you’d like to do?”
“Would you like to walk point?” Yankee chirped in.
“Walk point?” I repeated.
“First man on the trail,” Gabe said opening up his M-79 grenade launcher.
“No, thanks.” I said.
“Hey, you’ve got some sense, Tom,” said Tennessee. “Not like the rest of us.”
“We got West Virginia and Tennessee anyway,” General Lee declared, “How about walking rear security with Pierce and Yankee?”
West Virginia sauntered back to the squad.
“Have you seen Tennessee?”
“I think he went for a swim,” said Big John.
“He got a letter from his mother. And I got one from Claudia, ” West Virginia placed the letter to his nose and smelled deeply. “Claudia.”
That night Pierce and I set up our sleeping area. “You got second guard. Two hour shifts. You have to put out a claymore. Your relief is Gabe. He’s sleeping in a hammock.
Two hours later, Pierce shook me. “Time for guard, ” he whispered and handed me a luminous watch. I walked to the guard post were two claymore firing handles were. With my M-16 cradled between my legs, I peered out into the Vietnamese night. The moon shone overhead and the foliage had a silvery tint. I looked over at Gabe who hung like a cocoon. It was cooler now. I listened intently. The sounds of rustling were obvious. The machetes chopping the greenery in rhythmic fashion was unmistakable. I swallowed and switched the safety latched off the claymore handles. I moved over to where Gabe lay and whispered with urgency in my voice, “Get up Gabe! Charlie’s coming in!”
Gabe raised himself up in his hammock and listened.
I felt foolish like the hundreds of thousands of cherries before me.
The next day Pierce was complaining about the leech that had bitten him on the palm.
“You’re lucky it wasn’t your balls,” Big John laughed.
General Lee walked over to Pierce.
“We C.A. at 0900. Get your men ready. We’ve got the fourth and fifth choppers.”
Pierce told me that I was on the 5th chopper. “Here’s some extra ammo, Tom. I want everybody to carry two extra belts.”
The choppers came down and blew grass in all directions. Pierce sat beside me on the edge of the Huey during the thirty-minute ride.
As they bird made its descent the door gunner opened up fire. Pierce explained, “He’s just prepping the area.”
The helicopter landed and the men rushed to their positions. I saw Larry Hunt and joined him where he lay.
“Go further down,” Pierce ordered.
The door gunners continued to prep the area as the rest of the birds landed.
“Ok. Regroup,” Pierce’s voice broke the silence. “Let’s go. We gotta hump up the side of a hill.”
The rucksack dug into my back. I shifted it from side to side. My shoulders began to ache. My breathing was labored. “C’mon, Tom. We’ll order you a frame next re-supply.”
From time to time the human caravan stopped.
“Take five, expect three, get two,” Yankee explained wiping his brow.
Suddenly gunfire erupted.
“Let’s go!” Pierce shouted and began running forward where the sound had come from. “Get up, Tom!”
I struggled to my feet, traveled a few feet, and collapsed under the weight of the rucksack that was riding into my back.
“C’mon! I don’t want no pussies in my squad!” Pierce barked.
I struggled to my feet, and the rucksack slipped to my side.
Pierce shot me a disgusted glance.
I sat and watched others pass by. In a few minutes Pierce returned with the medic. I was perspiring profusely.
The mustachioed medic asked how I felt.
“Tired,” I answered.
Pierce left muttering.
“He’s a suck ass. Pierce is,” the medic said handing me some salt pills, “Listen. Take these. Anytime you feel tired, sit down. To hell with them. Pierce is just trying to make rank.”
“Call me Ziggie.”
Pierce came back. “We’re going to set up here, up apiece. Tomorrow I’ll help you repack your rucksack.”
The next morning I asked Pierce, “What happened yesterday?”
“Point man spotted a trail watcher and opened up.”
“He saw a Vietnamese?”
“Yep. Probably a Vietcong. Let me help you with your rucksack. You’ve got it packed all wrong. You want to put most of the weight on top. Anything you need quickly should be placed on the top. Like ammo.”
About a half hour later Pierce called to the men, “Saddle up!”
They started down the trail in their methodical manner, maintaining a five-meter distance between men, to reduce casualties in case of an ambush by the enemy.
Suddenly the line stopped. The word was passed back that an entrenchment tool was discovered at the side of the trail.
“Don’t touch it. It may be booby-trapped.”
Each member of the squad pointed to the tool as they passed it on the trail. A few more breaks and they stopped for the night to set up Night Defensive Positions.
It was about two a.m. when the machine gun opened up.
“Everybody up!” Pierced hissed.
“Jesus Christ,” Yankee muttered. “My shift just ended. Never happens until I get off duty.”
“Quit your bitching, Yankee,” General Lee directed, “Pierce, make sure everyone is up.”
While Pierce circulated around the squad, Gabe asked, “What happened, General?”
“O’Berry spotted a gook.”
I felt a chill in my spine.
The forward observer was on the radio asking for an illumination round to be fired from a nearby firebase.
The night sky burst into artificial light directly over our position. The spent canisters began falling inside our perimeter.
“Get artillery on the horn and have them stop it. They’re going to knock us silly.”
The next day arrived. Second squad was asked to go on patrol. We loped on the trail and returned within an hour.
Pierce came up to me and handed me an entrenchment tool. By way of explanation he said, “We only got another one for the entire squad. Carry it on the outside of your ruck with the straps.”
General Lee called for Pierce who returned minutes later. `We’re going to Firebase Roy.”
“Hot diggety dog!” West Virginia flashed his toothless grin.
“Hot chow!” Yankee said.
“When the birds comin’ in, Pierce?” Tenessee asked.
“They’re not. We’re going to hump there.”
“Hump there?” Cadman spoke for one of the few times.
“Yeah. We’re going to meet guides tonight.”
“Guides?” West Virginia was puzzled.
“Yeah. We leave as soon as it gets dark.”
“At night?” Yankee asked, “We never moved at night before.
“That’s what Lee said. Now get your shit packed.”
The men were joined by the other two squads and began humping towards their destination. After an hour of sweating the men stopped.
“Well, this is it,” General Lee declared and the word was passed back to the men.
“Where the hell are they. Get on the horn.”
A half hour later the men heard the Hues approaching. Whop. Whop. Whop. Whop
The platoon began to move again without respite.
“How about a fuckin’ break? Pass it up.”
The line paused. “Take five”
Two minutes later the line started moving again.
“What the fuck do they think we are? Pack mules?”
“When the start of the line takes five, the rear only gets two.”
“That’s the Army.”
“That’s what you fuckin’ volunteered for.”
“I didn’t volunteer for this shit.”
“I don’t know how these fucking cherries can make it. My ass is kicked.”
“Why don’t you guys shut the fuck up? You’re not making it any easier.”
“Fuck this shit. I’m getting rid of my smoke grenade.”
“Make sure you guys pull the pin. Don’t give Charlie any fuckin’ gifts.”
Phtt. The smoke lifted into the night air.
Pierce came running back. “Who threw the smoke?”
“That’s not funny.”
“This hump ain’t funny.”
“I should report you.”
“Fuck you Pierce. Crawl back under your rock.”
Pierce fumed and walked off.
“We’re going through a vill.”
“They must be fuckin’ lost.”
Pfft. Another smoke grenade. Pfft. Another smoke grenade.
“Alright you guys. Knock it off! You’re making more noise than a bunch of elephants.”
“Let’s take a goddamned break!”
“We’ll be there soon.”
“Where’s all the people in the vill?”
“They must have heard us coming.”
“They’re afraid to come out of their houses.”
“Must have heard that pierce was with us.”
The men guffawed.
“Hey, Pierce, this is for you.” Pfft.
“How you doing, Tom.”
“I’ll make it.”
The march in the moonlight continued. At one point the men had to retrace their steps and go in another direction.
“We’re going in circles.”
The men continued to complain.
“That’s Roy in the distance.”
Heavy breathing, steps, and grunts filled the air. Drops of sweat ran into their eyes.
The line stopped. Some men sat down. Others remained standing.
“If I sit down I’ll never get up.”
The line began moving again. They trekked to the firebase.
“Each squad to a bunker.”
The men rushed to claim sleeping spots.
“I’ll sleep outside,” said Yankee.
The next day Piece gathered the squad to divide up some C-rations. The case of rations was turned upside down so that the labels on the boxes could not be seen.
“Go ahead and pick, ” Pierce said. “This is the fairest way. Everybody wants beans and franks.”
The men chose their meals.
“Let’s go and get laid,” said Big John.
“Where’s the women?”
“I saw some in the ville when we humped in.”
A few of us walked off the firebase onto the road. A small, raggedy Vietnamese boy ran up to us.
“Boom-boom?” The boy made a gesture with one of his fists tapping the other.
“Yeah. Boom-boom,” repeated Big John.
The boy departed and returned about 15 minutes later with two young girls, one of whom was his sister.
“They look like they got the sift,” Yankee remarked. “I don’t want either one.”
“The big one has nice tits,” said Big John. “How much?”
“Seven. Ok?” said the taller woman.
“Too much,” Big John countered, “Three.”
The women shook their heads.
“Alright. Five,” said Big John pointing to the large breasted woman.
They went behind the bushes.
“I don’t want sloppy seconds, ” said Horton taking the other girls arm.
“You guys will get the clap from those two.”
Yankee and I returned to the firebase. Later Horton and Big John joined us.
“She wanted two extra dollars to let me see her tits,” Big John complained.
“Did you pay her?”
“Hell no,” Big John said, “I think I got the clap.”
“You guys better get some penicillin just in case.”
The men spent three days on the firebase with KP and guard duty occupying their time.
Lee called them together in the morning. “We C.A. tonight at 2130. By boat.”
“By boat? What do they think we are, fuckin’ jarheads?”
“To the lowlands.’
“Hot damn!” said West Virginia.” You cherries are sure lucky. I didn’t get to go to the lowlands until I was in country six months.”
“What’s so great about the lowlands?”
“Hot chow every meal. You just run patrols and set up `bushes at night.”
The day passed uneventfully. I watched the men fire their artillery rounds. Together with the big guns they worked in workmanlike proficiency. Their tan, muscular bodies glistened with sweat.
That night we waded into the sea wearing life preservers to the boat that awaited us. We all had to fit inside the boat so that our life preservers didn’t show. We were cramped and sleep was difficult and fitful. The boat swayed throughout the night. The sun was shining brightly when the men were ready to disembark.
The men gently slipped off the side of the boat into the water to wade the fifty yards to the shore.
“Its cold like a motherfucker.”
“Not all at once. You’ll tip over the goddamned boat.’
Once on shore we dropped our preservers in a pile. I stood and watched the rest of the platoon approach the shore.
I gotta get a fuckin’ picture of this,” one of the troops said.
The land was flat. Rice patties abounded. After everyone was ashore they began to move out on the rice patties. Each man followed each other maintaining their distance. The walked in the boot prints of the man in front of them to reduce the likelihood of booby-traps.
About thirty minutes later they reached their destination. The men were divided into squads and sent to different pagodas. Second squad staked out their territory and pulled off their gear. Gabe claimed a corner to hang his hammock.
“There’s some birds coming in with hot chow.’
“I’ll bring him in,” Horton said.
An open space behind the pagoda served as a makeshift-landing zone. Horton held his M-16 over his head parallel to the ground. The Huey approached with Horton slowly lowering his weapon until the skids of the helicopter touched the ground.
I helped unload the steaming canisters. They were set next to each other.
“We need some servers.”
Yankee, Tennessee, and I volunteered.
“We get chow first,” Yankee said, “it’s the only time I volunteer for anything.”
After chow, the men met as a group in the pagoda.
“We’re gonna pull `bushes two days in a row and get one off. The captain wanted them every night.”
“Fuck the captain,” said West Virginia.
“That talk will get you a court martial.”
“What’ll they do? Send me to Nam?”
The days passed. Big John and Cadman, the Navaho Indians, played a game called “stretch” which involved throwing a knife near your opponents boot. If it stuck in the ground within a boot length away you had to move your boot adjacent to the blade and maintain that position. The first man who stretched to far and fell was the loser.
Big John won often, but Cadman was the best. The silent Indian never failed to win his matches.
“Who wants to carry the M-60 tonight?” Cadman said one day.
“I will,” I volunteered.
That night just before dark the ambush party moved towards their site which they had found during the patrol, called an x-ray, earlier in the day.
“Let’s set up here,” General Lee said. “We’re supposed to go another few hundred meters. But who’s to know the difference? Tom, you and Gabe set out claymores.
The men blew up their air mattresses and settled down to sleep after guard rotation was established. The bright moon cast a pale light on the Vietnamese landscape.
My left heel was hurting so I pulled the boot and sock off to take a look-see. A black swelling was noted. Ziggie the medic lanced it and advised me not to aggravate it.
The next day the second squad was scheduled to go on a Search and Destroy mission. I took my left boot and tied it to my rucksack.
The helicopters lighted on the flat ground like huge bumblebees as the men flung themselves aboard. The door gunner only glanced at his shoeless passenger.
When they reached their location the men de-assed the chopper.
“Spread out!” General Lee barked. “V.C. have been spotted in this area.”
The men combed the area for an hour and a half without making contact. They returned to the other squads at their area of operation.
“We’re movin’ tomorrow, and the marines will be coming in the area.” General Lee shared with the men.
“Those jarheads are really stupid” Yankee commented. “They set an ambush and fired on their own men.”
I noticed a small swelling on my left inner thigh, but I didn’t pay much attention to it.
The squad moved with the rest of the platoon and set up a night defensive position in a pagoda where they would be re-supplied.
To pass the time the men engaged in a football game. Kelly, a short stocky man from the Bronx, had gotten a football from the rear. Teams were quickly chosen. I found myself in a huddle with Kelly, a black called A.J., short for Alex Johnson, and three others.
“Who can throw the ball?” Kelly, the team captain, asked.
“I can,” I said remembering my senior year in high school gym class.
On the first play I threw a long touchdown pass that the acrobatic A.J. snared between two defenders. My credentials were established.
The other team took the ball and marched down the field and scored.
The ensuing kickoff found Kelly’s competitive fires burning.
“Give me the damn ball,” he said.
Kelly made about five yards before he was gang tackled.
“Where’s the damn blocking?” he demanded.
On the next play Kelly ran for about fifteen yards.
On third down Kelly managed a few yards before he was pulled to the dirt.
After a punt the other team scored again and were never headed. Their big bruising fullback dragged the smaller defenders with him.
Kelly noticed that I was wearing only one boot. When we had the ball again Kelly ran out on a pass play and shouted, “Throw the ball.Boota!”
I drilled the pass to him and he streaked for a touchdown.
“Nice throw, Boota!” Kelly yelled and a nickname was born.
The name stuck. Boot-a became Buddha when the men found out that I had declared Buddhism as my religion on my dog tags.
“You guys can’t complain about humping now,” Pierce observed from the sidelines.
The men played until dark.
The men made a combat assault to Hill 807 and humped another three klicks. My leg began to aggravate me. When the platoon halted for the evening I approached the medic who was involved in a card game. He paused long enough to cast a quick glance in my direction. His green sweatband propped up his curly hair.
“What’s the matter?” Ziggie sounded irritated. Maybe he was losing.
“My leg has been bothering me, ” I started to explain.
“You in, Zig?”
“Sure I’m in,” he responded tossing some military payment currency into the pot. “It’s probably the heat. Take two salt tablets.”
“Ain’t you gonna look at my leg?” I knew it was not heat related.
“I’m pretty busy right now.” He held up his cards. “I’ll look at it after the game, o.k.”
Later Ziggie examined the leg and palpated the black mass.
“Looks like it’s infected. I’m gonna send you to the rear. But you’ll have to wait three more days for re-supply. Try to stay off it for awhile.”
I walked over to O’Berry, a good ole boy from the south who always had a cheerful disposition.
“Hey, Buddha. Heard we’re C.A.ing to Eagle beach in a few weeks.”
“Who told you that?” Dave Sund asked.
“The lieutenant said it while we were playing poker.”
“Rumors. Nothing but rumors.”
“What’s Eagle Beach?” I asked.
“A place to relax. A beach, booze, and .”
“Broads,” Big John finished the sentence. “Say, anybody seen Cadman?”
“That injun ain’t been around here,” said West Virginia. “Probably somewhere smokin’ a peace pipe.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” said O’Berry. “Anybody want to get stoned? I got some dew while we were in the lowlands.”
“You know. pot. marijuana. Do you smoke?”
“Want to try some?”
“It won’t kill you. Who wants a shotgun?”
I watched as a few men crowed around O’Berry who placed the joint in his mouth, inhaled deeply and blew the smoke into the mouth and nostrils of the other men
“Let me give you an elephant.”
The men shared marijuana and laughed uproariously at the slightest change in the environment.
Re-supply came and I left on the chopper towards the base area. Gabe and West Virginia waved.
After a ten-minute ride the helicopter sat down on the pad, and I limped away on the corrugated steel that composed the pad. I walked to the company area and reported in.
“What are you doing here?” the re-supply clerk demanded.
“Got something wrong with my leg,” I explained, “Got to get it checked out.”
The clerk assigned me a cot and directed me to the mess hall.
As I walked away he said, “Go to the battalion aid station after you eat. You’ll be on guard duty tonight.”
I trudged to the mess hall and stood in the line that snaked about ten meters from the door. My dirty fatigues were in sharp contrast to the clean pressed fatigues of the rest of the men. My unshaven face was an exception.
“Uh oh,” said someone behind me. “Here comes the tribe.”
I turned and watched as eight black soldiers approached the mess hall line. They passed the others and me and walked to the front of the line where they recognized another soul brother.
“Hey, brother me. What’s happenin’? Give me some dap.”
The dap was the soul shake that black G.I.s used to greet each other. They made a fist with their right hands and tapped the top of the other mans closed fist. The dappee then returned the dap, and both men tapped their fists on each side of the other man’s fist.
“Look at them black sons-of-bitches”, said a bulky white from the southern state.
“Don’t cause no trouble, Mississippi,” cautioned his companion as the blacks entered the mess hall ahead of all the others.
I finally made my way through the door and grabbed a warm, freshly washed tray with beads of water on its surface. I passed through the line and the cook and his servers loaded my tray down with chow.
Other men asked for extra food but were denied.
“What about him?” a soldier pointed at me with his tray with about half the portions as mine contained.
“He’s fighting the goddamn war, can’t you see? All you guys are REMFS, rear echelon mother fuckers.”
I felt the eyes of the men upon me and walked with a little extra swagger.
“Over here!” I heard a voice call to me as I reached the end of the chow line.
I looked in the direction of the voice and saw the wide grin of Joe Hennig, someone who I had worked with at Motorola back in the States.
“Small world,” Hennig said swallowing his food and licking his fingers.
“How long you been here?” I asked him.
“About a month. How `bout you?”
“Two,” I said. “How are things back at Motorola?”
“Same old shit. They got you in the field?”
“Yeah. How’d you escape?”
“Enlisted for another year.”
“No,” Joe continued. “I’m gonna be here another year drawing my combat pay and save up a nest egg for when I get out.”
“What you doing?”
“Company clerk over at E Company. Got it made in the shade. No guard duty. Share hooch with another guy. Come over after you eat and I’ll show you around.”
“Got to go to the battalion aid station.”
“I saw you limping. Stop by after you eat. I’m just around the corner.” He pointed with his fork. “See ya.”
Hennig left with his empty tray. I finished my meal and visited his hooch.
“Ta-dah!” Hennig swept his arm across the room that revealed a stereo in the corner, two lockers, and individual beds, a blond pin-up on the wall sectioned into days with black Xes marking the time towards DEROS. “Not bad, huh? A real kick ass bachelor pad.”
I sat down on the bed and patted it. “Pretty comfy. Beats the hell out of my air mattress.”
“How is it out in the field? The worst we have here is an occasional mortar or two just to harass us. They try to hit the ammo dump.”
“We were in the lowlands for two weeks,” I tried to downplay the severity of the field, “I really enjoyed it there. Well, I better be off. I got to pull guard tonight. See you around.’
“Stop by anytime.”
“I just might do that.”
I limped to the battalion aid station and entered the screen door. The clerk looked up from his novel.
“I just came in from the field,” I began.
“I was wondering when you’d come in. I saw you limping’ from the pad.”
“I had chow,” I explained my delay.
“The doc just stepped out. He’ll be back soon. What’s the problem with the leg?”
“It’s swelling and turning black.”
The doctor entered the room. He was tall, clean-shaven, with blond hair. “Take his vitals. Let’s look at your leg. Drop your trousers.”
I complied and the doc blinked. “What’s his temp? You’re running a fever. We’re going to keep you overnight, Mr. Jones.”
“I’m supposed to be on guard tonight.”
“The clerk will inform your company.”
The next morning I was shipped to the 26th Evacuation Hospital where I received two injections a day in my gluteus maximus. The doc made daily rounds and said, “There’s no improvement.” I wrote my parents so they wouldn’t worry.
One afternoon as I lay reading in bed, a black sergeant made his way to my cot.
“I’m Sergeant Owens, your new Top,” he announced. “I got some mail for you, Jones.”
He handed me some letters and a small package about the size of a paperback book.
“Looks like a book,” he said.
“Yeah, my Mom and Dad send some each month.”
“There’s going to be some changes now. I’m going to spend some time out in the field with you guys. If you have any problems feel free to call me. Get well.”
During my next visit from the doc he informed me that they had done all they could for me and would ship me to the Cam Rahn Bay Hospital to receive further treatment.
I had another ride on a C-130 that was equipped to handle bedridden patients. At the hospital in Cam Rahn Bay I was assigned to bed 26 and immediately started on anti-biotic. I began to count the I.V. bottles and the nurses.
For a while the swelling in my leg went down, but not enough to the doctor’s satisfaction. “We’re going to operate on you, Mr. Jones.”
“Don’t get excited, Mr. Jones. It’s just a local procedure, not an amputation. We won’t use anything but local anesthesia.”
After the application of the anesthesia to the affected area, the doctor incised the tissue and implanted medicated gauze. More antibiotics were in my future.
After a few more days and a total of 13 bottles of antibiotics I was transferred to a rehabilitation company. There were three mandatory formations a day. Doctors gave medical excuses to avoid calisthenics and guard duty for those who were still convalescing.
Days were spent in the USO club playing cards and board games. Re-runs were the fare on the television sets situated in various areas of the spacious center.
At night movies were a well-attended entertainment and we viewed such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Boom, and The Green Slime.
Doctors examined my status every day. My condition progressed to the point where I was classified A status which meant exercise and work details every day. At night I was assigned to guard duty. My role as patient was gradually reverting back to that of soldier.
“They want you back as soon as possible,” one of my chess acquaintances explained. “The Army doesn’t care about you as a person, but as a body. You’re just a cog in the machinery.”
The exercise program and guard duty lasted another week and I was returned to my company. The days at Cam Rahn Bay faded into memory.
I saw my old dusty company area with its dry, hot buildings.
“Well, look who’s back,” the supply clerk greeted me, “You just missed re-supply. But you’re in time for guard duty and K.P.”
I was assigned a bunk and saw a buddy named Robinson.
“Let’s dash,” he said, “They just assign guard duty to anyone who’s in the rear.”
We took off for the PX.
Top Owens saw us from his office and rushed outside.
“Jones, where you going?”
“To the PX,” I said thinking fast, “to get a new hat. I lost my old one.”
“We’ll take care of that. I need somebody for K.P. Report there after you eat.”
I spent the night on KP and the next day on guard duty before returning to the field with the next re-supply.
“I bet you was too smart to return to the field,” Tennessee related.
“Thought you had a million dollar wound,” West Virginia added.
“What’s been happening/”
“Spent three days at Eagle Beach shortly after you left,” Yankee said smiling.
“Other than that, the same ole shit,” West Virginia said, “and when you get there, hurry up to get somewhere else. Where you been?”
“Camn Ran Bay.”
“Camn Ran Bay,” Tennessee repeated, “What was wrong?”
“Got my leg infected by playing stretch.”
Cadman smiled and said, “Just when you was getting’ good.”
“Where we at?”
“Who knows? The lieutenant can’t read a map. I hate to break in these new shake-and-bakes.”
“Got a new platoon leader and platoon sergeant,” Gabe reported. “The lieutenant’s not so bad, but the sergeant’s a lifer. Sergeant Bowles is his name.”
“Our day will come,” Yankee started singing.
“That’s his theme song,” West Virginia said.
“He carries a cassette player with him,” Tennessee elaborated, “Always playing Stevie Wonder. Here he comes now.”
A stolid black man with short cropped hair and an army regulation moustache walked past us. His upper teeth protruded slightly and were lined with gold.
Pierce followed behind him like a shadow. When he spied me he stopped and did a long take.
Pierce left to catch up to Bowles. He returned minutes later and said, “Tom, you’re being sent to third squad. We’re redistributing the squads. You new guys are experienced now. You’ll all be in the same squad.”
I met up with Jo Jo, Larry, and the new squad leader, Garry. I also met the new lieutenant who was curious about my nickname, Buddha.
The next day we made a combat assault into the hills near FSB Bastogne, and the routine of life in the field was in full swing.
A stand-down was coming up, and the 1st Sergeant had requested five dollars per man to buy beer and soda.
Top had ordered us to be clean-shaven before coming to the rear. A Vietnamese barber was sent to the field to crop us.
Yankee was incensed. He ordered the barber to cut all his hair off. Big John thought he looked funny and said something in Navaho to Cadman who grinned.
“Ok, what did he say?” Yankee demanded.
“He said your head look like a white bowling ball,” Cadman answered.
The squad broke up in laughter.
“Why don’t you have him shave your eyebrows, Yankee, while you’re at it?” Horton suggested.
“For five bucks from everybody I’ll do it.”
Horton put up five dollars as did nine others. Yankee’s eyebrows were gone.
“You look like a ladies man now,” Big John remarked, “A bald ladies man.”
“It’ll grow back,” Yankee asserted.
We found tents lying on the ground when we arrived at the base camp in Phu Bai.
“Top says we gotta put up these tents,” said Bowles.
“We usually means you,” West Virginia muttered.
We struggled with the circus size tents and finally were able to settle in our cots.
“Where’s the beer?” Big John asked.
“It’s coming, but it ain’t cold yet.”
That afternoon three tents were erected, one for each platoon. Outside the tents aluminum garbage cans were filled with ice, beer, and soda.
As night fell, cacophonies of sound were heard from tape players and radios. Men drifted from tent to tent, renewing acquaintances. Drugs were everywhere. Alcohol was the drug of choice in the first tent that was closest to Top’s tent. The pungent smell of marijuana emanated from the second tent. A few soldiers experimented with heroin in the third tent.
I saw West Virginia and Tennessee staggering outside the tent area.
“Buddha,” West Virginia slurred his speech, “Hot damn! Have a drink.”
“I need a stand-down to get over this stand-down,” Tennessee said adjusting his military issued glasses.
I grabbed a cold beer from the garbage cans filled with ice and entered the first tent. Mississippi was inebriated and haranguing those who would listen.
“Those damn niggers,” he said, “They think they own the army. Oughta ship `em back to Africa. Ever last one of them.”
“Ever one of `em?” asked West Virginia.
“Yeah,” Mississippi continues, “They always complain about how everyone’s prejudiced. If they go on KP it’s prejudice. If they go on guard duty, it’s prejudice.”
“Blacks have been discriminated against in the past,” I offered.
Mississippi’s head recoiled. “What are you? Some kind of Nigger lover?”
“I just believe that everybody should get a fair shake. I’m not for shipping anybody back to Africa.”
“Shh-h,” Mississippi said putting his index finger to his lips as a black soldier walked through the tent.
The partying lasted throughout the night. The Beatles’ Abbey Road played over and over.
The next morning the men fell out for formation. Top Owens held up a bag of marijuana.
“Who owns this?” He said in a booming voice. “I don’t want no dope heads in my outfit! If I catch anyone with dope they’re going straight to Long Binh jail! Now you men get your gear ready! We’re going to be on alert!”
The formation ended. Some of the guys surrounded a grunt nicknamed Ed the Head who was planning to celebrate the first sergeant’s order.
“Fuck `em,” Ed the Head said. “Let’s go to the latrine.”
The men walked over to the latrine area, which also housed a shower that was adorned with graffiti.
“Want a hit,” Ed produced a joint and lit up with a zippo lighter. He sucked the blunt and passed it around.
I left the potheads and returned to our tent where West Virginia was complaining.
“This is supposed to be a stand-down.”
“That’s the army for you,” Yankee said arranging his rucksack.
“Then why did you join, Yankee?”
“F.T.A. Fun, travel, adventure as they say. Fuck the Army.”
Two new men were added to the platoon. Kunnert was a six foot five, giant of a man who had ambitions of being a schoolteacher in Iowa. Yates was a married man from Tennessee.
Kunnert and I quickly developed a friendship. I showed the cherry how to pack his rucksack and answered all of his questions about the field.
We visited the enlisted man’s club where we drank beer, chewed beef jerky, and listened to In a Gadda de Vida. A Vietnamese girl served the drinks. Behind here a big sign hung in the corner with the advice You’ve only got one mind. Don’t blow it.
The Alert turned the three-day stand-down into a two-day stand-down.
Conway, the new leader of third squad passed out an extra round of M-60 ammunition and three grenades apiece to each member of the squad.
“I E.T.S. in a couple of weeks. I ain’t taking no chances.”
Conway had extended his Nam service time thirty days to get out of the army sooner.
“I don’t want to play no lifer games back in the States,” Conway explained.
The company made a combat assault to an area where Charlie Company had been hit a few days ago. After the birds touched us down we humped three klicks under the searing Vietnamese sun.
During one of the infrequent breaks Jo Jo, Larry, and I each took two of our grenades and placed them in Conway’s rucksack while he went to relieve himself. We could barely contain our glee when he returned.
“Saddle up. We got a long way to go.”
We began to hump again. One foot, another foot. Each man had his own thoughts.
After a while Conway re-adjusted his rucksack on his back. “Damn, this ruck is heavy.”
“Probably too much food in it,” Jo Jo said.
“I’m going to repack it,” Conway said during a break. His forehead was beaded with perspiration. He held up a grenade.
“Where in the hell did these come from?
“I’ll take an extra one,” I said. “I like grenades.”
Morning saw the men inspecting their bodies for leech activity.
“God damn leeches,” the redhead said. “Make sure you order some bug juice, Conway.”
Insect repellant was the grunt’s best friend after his M-16.
“What are you doing, Jo Jo?
“I got me one of them motherfuckers,” said Jo Jo who smiled maliciously.
The men gathered around as Jo Jo held up a twig that held a fat leech. He placed the bloated animal on the ground and surrounded it with paper and C-4 that he proceeded to ignite with his Zippo lighter.
“He had his last meal,” Jo Jo said as the flames incinerated the bloodsucker.
“I think you guys fear the leeches more that the Viet Cong,” said Hunt.
“At least you can see the Viet Cong,” JoJo retorted.
Conway was called away and returned minutes later.
“We’re going on an x-ray,” he announced, “Get your shit.”
The squad ambled down the trail about fifty yards.
“This is good,” Conway decided. “I want one point over there and one over there. I ain’t gonna take no risks with twenty two days left in country.”
Fortunately, Conway’s extra precautions paid off. He discharged from Vietnam after his extension.
Life in the boonies was boring and monotonous. One day was like another day.
“Hey. Take my picture for the folks back in the world,” I offered my Kodak camera to a buddy.
“How do you want it?” Big John asked.
“With my rucksack on,” I replied, “I spend most of my time in it anyway.”
Re-supplies came and went. The men passed the time talking about the world, the girls they had screwed, and the girls they were going to screw.
Mail was a big event. West Virginia continued to receive his perfumed letters.
“Claudia,” he said as if he had inhaled opium.
All the news was not rosy. One of the men in second squad received a “Dear John” letter.
“I don’t fucking believe this!” He exclaimed and began to read from the letter, “I think that our relationship has ended. Would you please send me the picture of me that I had given to you? I know that this must be hard for you, but I feel that it’s the best thing to do.”
“I thought absence made the heart grow fonder,” Hunt said.
“Usually fonder of someone else,” Yankee opined.
“That bitch has a lot of nerve asking for her picture back.”
“Tell you what to do,” Big John said, “Everybody’ll give you a picture of their girl. Send `em all to her and tell her that you forgot which one was her. Tell her to pick out the one that was her and send the rest back to you.”
The wisdom of the Navaho.
To ease the boredom in the field the men played cards.
“What good is this stuff out in the jungle?” Someone held up a fistful of MPC, military payment certificates.
“Let’s play some poker.”
I drifted over to the game.
“Need some new blood in the game?”
“Cash or credit,” asked the bucktoothed Sergeant Bowles who flashed his gold trimmed teeth..
“Cash is always welcome. We’re playing seven-card showdown. Ten bucks a hand.”
The black sergeant dealt the cards with dexterity.
“A four. No help. A whore. A six. An eight. A cowboy. Another cowboy.”
I lost five straight hands. Fifty bucks.
“Your credit is good.”
“No, thanks. I think I’ll just go and count some leeches.”
O’Berry and Hunt were in an animated discussion about which sport was more exciting, baseball or football.
A helicopter buzzed in the distance.
“Looks like we’ll be leaving soon,” O’Berry said.
“What do you mean? ” Hunt was puzzled. “We just got here.”
O’Berry pointed at the command post.
“Look at the C post. They’re already packing.”
“You think so?”
“I know so.”
Hunt hurried to his rucksack and began arranging its contents. O’Berry and Jo Jo burst out laughing.
“Don’t believe everything you hear in the army, cherry,” said O`Berry.
Guard was especially tough for me that night. I had second watch and had just fallen asleep when it seemed that I was awakened for duty. I grasped the timepiece that was passed from man to man and stared at the luminous dial.
“Here’s a radio, but don’t let Bowles catch you.”
I put the earpiece in my ear and peered out into the darkness. It was nighttime in the Nam. Echoing through my mind was the words of a song in boot camp. “Late at night while you’re sleeping, Charlie Cong comes creeping around.”
The next morning was a beehive of activity. We cooked our c-rations and LRPs, defecated, packed our rucks.
“Saddle up, people,” Conway passed the word.
The platoon moved like a green caterpillar through the foliage. Each man kept five meters away from the man in front of him. Keeping your distance prevented losing most of the men to an ambush.
We set up a perimeter defense on the side of a hill. Claymore mines and trip flares were set up. Guard rotation was established.
Suddenly a M-16 erupted simultaneously with a flare hissing.
“What was it?” someone asked.
“A Cong. I saw his face.”
Sleep was restless that night. When my guard finished I woke up Jo Jo and handed him the watch. He took it grumpily and sat with his poncho liner covering him.
I returned to my air mattress but kept my eyes on Jo Jo who was not moving. I returned to him and had to shake him awake.
“Wake up, Goddammit.”
The next day we received two new men from the rear. One was a new lieutenant, Keaton, who seemed quite green. We kept the trip flares out. One of the men announced that he was going outside the perimeter to take a crap. Upon his return he accidentally tripped a flare. Keaton opened fire with his M-16.
“It’s our guy!” someone shouted.
The men rushed to the soldier lying on the ground. Blood escaped from his face. He had been grazed on the cheek. Keaton had his sobriquet, “Hot Guns”.
We made a combat assault to a new position. Patrols went out. Third squad was looking for a possible command post position.
“We’ll stay here,” Bowles declared
The next morning the air was filled with the sound of chopper blades. A Loach (Light observation Helicopter) skimmed the tree line.
“What the hell?”
“A.K 47s! Gooks!”
The Loach went into a spin and crashed a few hundred meters away.
The lieutenant yelled for the squad leaders. He was on the radio. The second squad leader arrived first.
“We got to reach the Loach to pick up survivors. Take your squad.”
Second squad assembled and proceeded down the path. Ka-Boom. A rocket-propelled grenade exploded on the trail and was followed by the distinctive sounds of AK 47s.
“Get down,” yelled Bowles to no one in particular. Our instincts had already preceded his command.
Bullets passed overhead.
The radioman was on the horn. Enemy contact!
Everybody spread out.
The men were returning fire. Cadman returned. He had a trickle of blood streaming down his face.
“Moon. Hurt bad,” he said simply.
The medic from first squad was shaking badly as he attempted to bandage Cadman.
“Let me do it, Doc,” said Big John the other Navaho.
Moon was brought up on a poncho stretcher. His groin was a bloody pulp.
“Call a dustoff ASAP!”
Cobra jets lurked in the air overhead.
In a matter of minutes the medivac with a huge red cross on a white field arrived. Orders were given to fire into the jungle while the rescue took place.
Sergeant Bowles announced, “We need some volunteers. I mean with John Wayne courage.”
The men met resistance after they had proceeded a few meters down the trail and had to retreat.
“The bastards got a bunker complex. Close.”
The Cobra jets continued to empty their guns.
“They’ll be crawling towards the perimeter. Pass the word.”
“Ask the cobras to identify. What color did you throw?’
“My favorite color.”
“Let’s hope it’s not Charlie’s.”
The cobras continued their peppering fire.
“We need another patrol. Conway, take your men.”
We moved cautiously down the trail and reached the bunker complex.
“Grenades,” Conway shouted.
Three pounds were dropped in three bunkers.
“Fire in the hole!”
The earth shook with explosions from the bunkers.
“Who wants to go down?”
One of the men slipped into the hole. In a few minutes he popped his head up.
“Bastards left when they saw the cobras. Keep going. We have to find the Loach before it gets dark.”
Again the men moved cautiously. The point man had his M-16 on rock-and-roll. Rapid fire.
A pungent odor filled the air. The men had come upon the wreckage of the Loach.
The charred bodies, which were once human, were now lumps of burnt flesh, burnt beyond recognition. Some of the men barfed at the sight.
“Put them in panchos, what’s left of them. Radio back we found the Loach. No survivors. Two dead.”
The next day’s re-supply brought news of Moon. “He’ll live, but he’s lost his balls. We got to move out to connect with C Company. They’ve suffered more casualties.”
The men of C Company were a disconsolate group. Some had tears in their eyes. Others muttered epithets against the Vietnamese.
“Goddamned motherfuckin’ gooks.”
A dead member of Charlie Company lay on the trail with a pancho draped across his torso and covering his face. Only his dusty boots were showing.
“How’d it happen?” West Virginia asked.
“Claymore. He was walking point. Didn’t have a chance. Talked about his family a lot. How much he missed them. Had a wife and little girl. We split up his gear with his squad.”
“Want to guard the body while we get re-supplied? Got lots of ammo coming in. Going to need it.”
“I’ll do it,” I volunteered to sit on the trail.
The body lay dormant like a sleeping giant. A slithering leech unceremoniously propelled itself up on one of the boots that pointed towards the sky.
I jerked the plastic bottle of bug juice and squeezed hard, coating the animal with the liquid. The leech agonized.
The men encountered the rest of the bunker complex later. It contained concertina wire.
“Made like a firebase. This is a boot camp for the fuckers!”
Chickens and fish were found.
“They left in a goddamned hurry.”
Patrols were sent out frequently in all directions but the enemy had left the area. At times the men would smell the lingering odor of cooked fish, which indicated that they had departed not long ago.
The men had a stand-down on a Firebase Bastogne. After bunkers were assigned to the various squads details were assigned.
Sergeant Conway approached his squad and said, “I’m too short for this shit. You guys decide what you want to do. I don’t want one of you guys fragging my bunker at night ’cause I’m picking on you. Cut cards or draw straws.”
Hunt came up with a deck of cards. I lost and reported for kitchen police duty the next day.
It was ten thirty in the morning when the first explosion hit. A black cloud of smoke rose from the firebase.
“Mortars coming in!” someone shouted.
The firebase convulsed into action. Artillery fire responded almost immediately as I rushed to my bunker.
Five more mortars exploded on the firebase causing black plumes of smoke to lift into the air. Five Americans on the firebase were killed that day and the wounded were many.
“Get your helmets on!” Conway shouted.
The men were instructed to fire into the nearby hills. They fed the magazines into their M16s for five minutes and sprayed the surrounding hills.
“Now get those 16s cleaned,” ordered Bowles.
That night the men were more alert on guard duty. At 11:15 a “mad minute” was held. The men fired randomly into the night at the pre-arranged time.
In the dark the grenadier, Gabe fired a gas grenade by mistake. Plop! The gas drifted back toward the firebase causing the men to cough and their eyes to burn. They searched frantically for their gas masks while their eyes smarted. Some of the men ran aimlessly around the firebase unable to locate a gas mask.
The next day orders came down that every man would carry a gas mask. Supplies were divided up. The men made a combat assault to another location.
The leeches were thicker than usual. Bug spray was a frequent request on re-supply. Big John felt one of the bloodsuckers on his testicles. He shouted in anguish and dropped his pants including the green army boxers. Grabbing a bottle of bug juice he squeezed a stream of liquid on the engorged animal that had attached to his skin. The leech fell like a rock to the ground.
Big John’s solution had brought its own pain. He rushed to the medic who prescribed a cream for Big John to apply himself to reduce the painful burning sensation caused by the insect repellant juice.
The men devoured their mail at re-supply and also received copies of the Stars and Stripes newspaper. The paper was filled with success stories of the Army, sports, and human-interest stories.
“Look at this, West Virginia,” Tennessee declared pointing to an article in the paper, “This guy re-ups for six years and gets a ten thousand dollar cash bonus.”
“Let me see,” said West Virginia snatching the newspaper and reading, “Army Specialist Fourth Class Jenkins is all smiles after signing a six year contract. What a fool!”
First squad was sent on an x-ray. A short while later, a loud blast was heard in the distance. The RTO reported that the squad had hit a “bravo-bravo-tango”.
“What the hell is a bravo-bravo-tango?”
“A medivac was called.
“Horton’s got a million dollar wound. The doc gave him morphine. He’s got shrapnel up his leg. Hit a big bertha.”
Horton was lying on the ground. He was smiling broadly and holding a photo of his girl. “I’m coming home,’ he said to the picture.
Orders came down from higher for the platoon to hump a klick a day. The terrain was slow going. The sun hung like a giant yellow ball in the sky. The sweltering heat took its toll on the men. Breaks were short and few. The grunts complained about the heat, the captain, and whatever.
The new cherries were exhausting their water supplies.
“Better take it easy,” Gabe cautioned to those gulping water from their canteens, “You don’t know how long it’ll last.”
The rucksacks dug into the men’s backs. You could hear the grunts of the men and they plodded on the trail. The medic passed out salt tablets to the men who were sweating profusely.
I was so damn tired that one night I slept through a claymore blast.
The platoon was air lifted to Firebase Tomahawk for one night prior to a stand down. The men were asked to contribute seven dollars each to a kitty to cover five dollars for drinks and two dollars for prostitutes for the upcoming stand down.
Two Vietnamese whores were obtained from a nearby Ville and they set up operations in two bunkers on the firebase. They were going to provide sexual services for the entire platoon.
The black re-supply sergeant with a paunch circulated around the bunkers. He had had too much to drink.
“I want every man in this platoon to get a piece of ass,’ he said, “You deserve it.”
He told us where the prostitutes had set up shop on the firebase.
One of the black soldiers was gone over thirty minutes. Afterwards one of the women came out of the bunker and told the lined up men, “No more soul! No more soul!”
The men were told that there were no “mad minutes” scheduled that night, as they were short on flares and ammo.
“And be damned sure that you don’t send up a red flare by mistake.”
The next day the men were flown to the rear for the stand down. They helped erect the circus tents and settled down to a night of partying.
The following day the news was spread that Firebase Tomahawk had been hit by a sapper attack the night after we left the firebase. A few sappers were found in the concertina wire in the perimeter.
An entertainment show was scheduled for that night. The men crowded around a stage where a band performed with several scantily clad go-go dancers gyrating to the music. The smell of marijuana and Thai sticks permeated the air. The Australian female singer mesmerized the men.
“I’d eat a mile of her shit to see where it came from,” one stoned soldier said.
The singer danced to the rock and roll music, smiling and winking at the men. When their set ended the soldiers crowded around the stage to shake her hand, touch a real, live woman.
An inebriated Mississippi propositioned the singer, “I’ll give you a hundred dollars to spend a few minutes in my tent.”
The woman paused as if she were considering the offer.
“I’ll make it a hundred and fifty if you come to my pad,” said another man.
Mississippi’s fist was fast to the man’s mouth. A melee ensued with the object of the men’s desire exiting backstage.
The next day the stand down was terminated early and the soldiers were sent back to the field. Rumors abounded that Charlie continued to inflict massive casualties on Charlie Company in the field. The soldiers stayed overnight on Firebase Birmingham where the captain addressed the company.
“I would like to announce that any man who captures a VC will receive a three day pass to Eagle Beach!”
The men cheered.
The captain departed.
“Quite a pep talk.”
“Three days at Eagle Beach, man.”
“And a death ride in a chopper for the VC.”
“Whose side you on? Those slant eyes are the enemy.”
The men made another combat assault to the field where Charlie Company had suffered their losses. A patrol had discovered another bunker complex. The captain had ordered the rest of the platoon to proceed to the area ASAP. Those who were in the vanguard were pelted with artillery fire.
“Get on the horn and tell them to stop the goddamned fire.”
The men had already been victimized. A chubby black soldier lay on the ground uttering a repetitious prayer. The medic rushed to his side and discovered that the man had small shrapnel wound in his large stomach.
“Quit your bitching. You’re not dying,” said the medic.
No one was seriously hurt from the friendly fire that was meant to destroy the bunker complex.
“Goddamned captain. Just had to see a bunker complex.”
The men cast hateful glances in his direction.
“Get your men ready to move,” ordered the captain.
“Moo,” someone said, and it spread like wildfire.
“Sounds like a herd of cattle, captain,” Sergeant Bowles flashed his gold-rimmed teeth in a smile.
“The men aren’t happy if they don’t complain.”
“They must be deliriously happy now.”
Rumors of a planned fragging circulated around the platoon.
The only companion on guard duty was loneliness. The men shared the burden by passing the timepiece to the next scheduled guard. First and last guards were the preferred shifts because your sleep was not interrupted.
One night the last guard was surprised when morning light did not arrive as scheduled. He had to pull an extra two-hour guard duty. He grabbed Ngoc, the Vietnamese Kit Carson Scout, and held a Bowie knife to his throat. “Don’t you ever set the watch up again! Do you understand?”
The days blended into one another. The temperature remained in the eighty-degree bracket. The soldiers kept track of their own time in country in various ways, counting down the days until they could “return to the world.” Some kept their calendars in ink on the camouflage cover of their helmets. Mail was the contact with the “world” that kept their hopes up. Mail arrived every re-supply. The guys carried it on their persons or inside an ammo can in their rucksacks until they burned it. Packages from “the world” were shared with other members of the squad. The major portion of re-supply was C-rations, which were a medium of exchange. If we were in an area where “nook” (water) was scarce blivets of water were brought in. Most men carried ten quarts of water consisting of five canteens and a five-quart bladder. Major re-supplies came every six days and in addition to mail and food contained fatigues and sundry packs in which we received cigarettes, candy, soap, writing materials, pens, razors and blades, gum, and string. Stars and Stripes newspapers came with mail although AFVN radio kept most of the GIs informed.
If there was no landing zone for the choppers we created an LZ by using explosives and machetes to clear the trees and vines. If there wasn’t time to make an L re-supply came by “kick-out”. Choppers would then hover over our area and throw the re-supply off.
In my rucksack I carried a gas mask, pancho, air mattress, chow, ten quarts of water, trip flare, claymore, rain jacket, personal items, LAW (light anti-tank weapon), and two bandoliers of M-16 ammo.
Conway had ended his time in the Nam and took the Freedom Bird home. Big John had been to the rear twice to get injections of penicillin. We got a new squad leader, E-5 Donald Benson. Squads were reconfigured. I was in Sgt, Frazee’s fire team along with Dave Sund, Bill Noble, the “Chieu Hoi” KCS (Kit Carson Scout) Ngoc, and Jerry Rusnik. In the other team, the gun team was Jo-Jo Sena, Daniel O’Berry, Larry Hunt, Pat Kunnert, and team leader, Sgt. James Short.
One day the re-supply chopper started to land when three rocket propelled grenades were fired at the chopper and the distinctive small arms fire of the Russian made AK-47 was heard. A member of third squad reported that he saw three gooks running into the nearby hills. The squad returned fire and within minutes the cobra gun ships were in the air working out their mini-guns.
Our long periods of inaction were punctuated by these moments of sheer terror.
Securing Firebase Vegel was one of our company’s assignments while it was being rebuilt. Because the enemy hit it so many times in the past FSB Veghel had been abandoned, but now it was to be remade. No bunkers were available so night guard was pulled from foxholes, which we dug during the day. Platoon leader Bowles had the audacity to ask others to dig his foxhole for him in addition to their own. If he had asked me I would have had a surprise for the lifer. Fortunately for him and me, I was never asked.
Bulldozers leveled the top of the hills on which the firebase was located. Chinook helicopters transported the heavy artillery pieces and equipment, which was to be used on the firebase. The constant purring of the bulldozers and sounds from the 8-inch guns were irritating. Not to mention the constant visits from the generals and colonels who checked on the progress of the construction at the firebase. All of them had suggestions, which we, the eleven bravos, had to implement. The surrounding trees and brush were cleared with explosives. Also dud rounds of the prep fire that was delivered before we came had to be exploded in place.
During the day we would improve our positions, and perform duties for the platoon and company CP. Most times we would get one hot meal a day. Mainly we would chow down on C-rations and “W” (world) rations that we received in our packages from the states. We did not have any showers and the hot chow became infrequent. Many of the troops preferred life in the bush.
The weather became foul and miserable. It rained heavily for two days and Firebase Veghel became a mountain of mud. Due to the amount of rainfall, large amounts of fog accompanied the men during the night. Passwords were utilized at night and changed daily. Illumination rounds fired periodically throughout the night gave us brief feelings of security.
Alpha Company 2/502 made contact during the night about four klicks from the firebase and suffered four dead and twenty- three wounded. Our Vietnamese adversary used the elements to his advantage.
Five men were injured in a freak accident on Firebase Veghel. Some trip flares and claymores were stored in the same box. When one of the flares erupted into flame it ignited the C-4 explosive in a claymore sending shrapnel flying in all directions. At the time I was with the majority of the company clearing out a field of fire for some positions on the firebase. We were cutting small bushes and sawing trees when the fireworks went off.
After two weeks on the firebase we were replaced by Alpha Company and moved out to the hills. As there were gooks in the area we prepped the area with artillery fire and CS gas.
Eagle Beach did not happen as promised. But you could count on the rain. There were only two seasons in the Nam, hot and wet. Combat assaults came and went. Re-supplies sometimes came on schedule. Everyone was hungry on re-supply days. Ironically when re-supply came we had to throw a portion of the food out. It was just too much to hump in the field. Fruit and cocoa was taken from the extra meals, and holes were punched in the remaining cans of C-rations so that the food would be spoiled if Charlie ever found it. We tried to bury what we could.
At the end of June I was transferred from the 1/327 to the 1/501 as part of the Army’s Infusion Program that was designed to prevent a mass exodus of soldiers from the Nam at the same time. Hunt, Stobe, Jo-Jo, AJ, and I were sent to different units.
The last day with the 1/327 in the rear I participated in training exercise which involved rappelling from a helicopter. It was a strange experience to stand on the skids of a helicopter hovering fifty feet from the ground. We had a ten-foot drop in the air before ropes secured around our pelvis caught us so we could control our descent.