Vietnam Was All Our Lives – An Oral History

by Clark C. Smith

 

Victory is the main object of war.

If this is long delayed, weapons are blunted

and morale depressed.  For there has never been

a  protracted war  from which a country has benefitted.

                                                                                                         – Sun Tsu

 

CONTENTS

 

       Dramatis personnae

 

1.     Airborne:  Steve Hassna [March 1967–July 1968]

2.    Medic:  Charles Taliaferro [November 1967–November 1968]

3.    Wireman: Don Watkins  [November 1967 – May 1969]

4.    Psy Ops:  Roger Steffens [October 1967 – December 1969]      

5.    ‘Hoi Chanh’: Eric Herter [May 1967 – December 1969]

6.     The Radical: Bob McLane   [October 1967 – November 1968]  

7.     The Sham: Tom Taylor [October 1967 – October 1969]

8.    Booby-Trapper: Ron Greenwood [March 1968 – January 1969]

9.    Door Gunner: Jim Pechin [February 1969 – April 1970]

10.  Riverine: Ernie “Skip” Boitano [March 1969 – April 1970]

11.  The Translator: Tim Holmes [May 1969–December 1970]

12.  Mad Max: Maxwell Jouanicot [December 1969 – January 1971]

13.  Treasure Island: Chris Johns [June 1969 – September 1971]

 

Oral history note: These narratives of the Vietnam experience, given during the immediate post-Vietnam  decade of the 1970s, are the property of the narrators. My role in putting them before an interested public is purely fiduciary.  Over the years I have been very grateful to Columbia University’s Professor Louis Starr of the Oral History Research Office  for warmly receiving the interviews. He saw their intrinsic historical value and made possible their transcription. In their details they provide a sweeping portrayal of the latter half of the Vietnam War, the attitudes of veterans returned the war, and why publishers were shy to see them  into print.

                                                                                                   Clark C. Smith

1. Airborne

 

1967: Jump school is a three-week course. The cadre tells you: “The first week separates the men from the boys; the second week separates the men from the fools; the third week the fools jump.” Then I went home. I was so psyched I wore my uniform around the house. I went to the local roller rink because they had a live band there. It turned out to be the Buffalo Springfield playing For What It’s Worth. You know, “There a man over there, tellin’ me I gotta beware…” I’m just thinking, “What are they singing?” Four months later I understood exactly what they were singing: ‘The assholes are shooting at me!’ But then it was too late.

I arrived in Vietnam on March 21, 1967 at Bien Hoa Air Force Base. Coming off the plane you have a tendency to go into total shock. You don’t know what to expect. You’re not ready for the heat and the chaos of all these people running around. You walk down the ramp and across this concrete pad to a big hangar. There are no walls, just uprights and cross beams and, underneath, all these benches. The area is about the size of two tennis courts with different sections set up for in-country and out-country processing and guys returning from the hospital.

There are a  lot of people laying around, trying to keep out of sight. Some people might be AWOL; it’s a good place to hang around for a day or so. There would be Vietnamese and American concession stands with cokes and sandwiches and stuff like that. Some people would be ghosting. A ‘ghost’ is a person who might be cut loose on a Monday from, say, a hospital, but doesn’t get back to his unit until Friday. Of course, the newbee doesn’t understand that. He has just walked off this plane from the States into all this chaos.

A  newbee is a ‘new body in-country.’ He feels absolutely helpless when he gets into the Vietnam chaos. Yet, to everybody around him, there’s no chaos at all. To the NCO  or officer sitting on top of this little platform in the middle of this scene shuffling his papers, everything is perfectly normal. He knows that there are approximately so many AWOLs out there, that there are so many people leaving or coming into the country. The time of day might determine how full the area would be. And all kinds of trips are going on underneath that hangar roof. Everything! People are selling watches and radios; guys are gambling and drinking. Everybody is moving in and around each other. And the newbee is thinking, ‘What’s happening? What the hell is this?

The newbee doesn’t stay in this area too long. No use him hanging around and getting corrupted. Because that’s what happened when you went to Vietnam, you got corrupted. So they throw the newbee on the buses. Meanwhile, the newbee is slipping into an attitude of total dismay. I remember that the buses had chicken wire around the windows; it was like being in a cage. The sergeant told us that the cage was to keep the grenades, rocks, sticks and bottles out of the bus and I was thinking, ‘Well, if I’m here to help them, why would the Vietnamese want to blow me up? Don’t they want me here?’

See, I was under the impression that I was sent to help the Vietnamese people. But it was way to early for me to fully register that idea. It went right out of my head. I was still going, “Oooo, looka that!” Potholes, dirt, guns, poverty. There ain’t no poverty in the States like it, except maybe in a few isolated areas. And among the houses we went by there was an air of oppression, of total surrender. I learned real soon that from one day to the next the Vietnamese family didn’t know if they would be sleeping there or five miles down the road while the United States or the North Vietnamese armies shelled their house.

One minute the family is living in a nice little house with thick mud walls; the next minute it and them are spread over a four-block radius because someone dropped an artillery round on their house. The people went about their business, but they seemed to be looking over their shoulders the whole time. After several months in-country, I was looking over my shoulder and trying to look  straight ahead at the same time. You didn’t know when you were going to get fired at, from where and by whom, and for what reason. And that’s what the Vietnamese walked around with. That first bus ride warned me to keep looking over my shoulder.

They buses us down the road from Bien Hoa to the 90th Replacement Battalion at Long Binh. When I got there in ’67 it had three or four administration buildings, maybe a PX, an EM club, the mess halls in somewhat permanent structures and all the rest were tents. When I came back through there five months later, I saw all permanent structures, BANG, build right up!  It made it seem as if I got there at the beginning of the war, but the war had been going on for years.

Going through the 90th Replacement is a confusing two or three days. You’re so new, you don’t know what you’re doing. We hung around the 90th for a while. Nothing’s happening; we’re in limbo. You get a detail, then you’re told to go back and sit on your bunk and wait for your name to be called. All of this can last from a day to a week. All announcements would come over these big loud speakers: “All personnel, airborne qualified, truck drivers,…”  Or they call your name: “So-and-so is going to the 101st.” So they run you around, giving you in-country processing. You get your money changed to military script; you get your little talk  about VD, about the people and what to expect. It moves right along.

Because of the mobility of the base camps, they can’t put in sewer lines. In a combat situation in Vietnam, they didn’t bury the human waste or treat it with chemicals. The Army burned its shit. They take 55 gallon drums, cut them in halves across the center and put them under the outhouses. Every other day or so, when they’re full, the shit-burning detail drags these cans out, stacks them in a pyramid, pours diesel fuel all over them, and burns the shit. Hell, I was still in shock from seeing a mortar attack not far away when I got off the plane. So the sergeant says, “Okay Hassna, go burn shit!” I’m still awestruck at everyone with weapons. I’m not thinking, just reacting.  All I know is that all this training has come to the reality of Vietnam.

I went over to the sand-bagged fuel bunker, groped around—I didn’t stick my head in with a flashlight and look—grabbed a five-gallon can, felt if it was full, and took off with it. Well, diesel fuel takes a long time to light. But if you sprinkle five gallons of gasoline all over something in 110 degree heat with 90% humidity, why just the vapors in the air when you light the match will wipe you out. And that’s exactly what happened. I lit the five gallons of gasoline and—WHOOOMP!!—the whole thing blew up. The siren goes off and people are running all over the camp like there’s a mortar attack coming in and all I did was blow up the shitter. I’m standing there with human excrement all over me and a burned match in my hand. Welcome to Vietnam! And that’s the absurdity of the thing. I’m thinking, ‘I have only been here two days and already I don’t know where I am.’ Because part of the shock when you walk off the plane is, ‘I don’t know where I am.’ All I know is that I’m 8,000 miles away from my home.

So you’ve spent about three days in Long Binh. You’ve gotten accustomed to the GI slang, learned to talk to the local Vietnamese, how to ask for a piece of ass. Then they assign you to your unit. I got there with Ron Binky, Tom Dempsey, Steve Hutchinson, Roger van Sleuten and some others and we all went down to the 101st [Airborne Division]. To be a paratrooper in Vietnam in 1967, you really had to have been indoctrinated. All the people that were with the 101st at the time (whether they changed their minds about the war later or not) were volunteers. So when they told me, ‘You’re going to the 101st,’ I went, “Aw, wow, 101st! Hard core!”

‘Hard core’ means cold blooded. You see, the Army had me by the balls. They had me out there ready to bring God and Christianity and Democracy to the Vietnamese people whether they liked it or not. I was going to stop the commies.  I was going to kick ass and take names. It was that shot of pride, the exhilaration that this kid is going to a very old, established airborne combat unit. Well, It didn’t work out quite as we planned. But we didn’t know that as we went down the Bien Hoa airfield from the 90th Replacement Battalion.

When you get to Bien Hoa the second time, you start opening your eyes. The shock starts to wear off and now you are intrigued by what you see. ‘Wow! Look at this shit! Can you believe that? Hey, come over and lookee here…” So the morning of the third day they took us down to a C-130 and flew us to Phan Rang. When you walk off the plane at Phan Rang, you know exactly where you’re at—a military installation. Bien Hoa had the feeling of a regular civilian airport, even though it was an air force base. When you came down the ramp you could see the homes of the Vietnamese, people on the streets and all that shit.

When you got off the plane at Phan Rang, it immediately turned around and took off. All right, so that felt unusual. At Phan Rang you’re right in the middle of a military base: camouflaged C-130’s, big hangars, gun-jeeps, lots of fighters. On one side of the runway was a squadron of Australian Canberra jets painted stone cold black. They go out at night with infra-red cameras, taking pictures and dropping bombs. When I got to Phan Rang I knew I was a step closer to the war.

Phan Rang was the main base camp of the 1st Brigade of the 101st, the only brigade of the 101st in Vietnam at the time. It arrived in 1965 and was made up of the 1st and 2nd [battalions] of the 327th [Infantry] and the 2nd of the five-0-deuce [502nd Infantry]. The brigade was right there at the end of the runway that divided the installation.  It was next to the airfield because it was an airborne unit. If the troops had to jump, they’d have their people right there. When you get to the brigade area, you see these temporary administrative buildings lined up and spread out along dusty dirt roads. There are different company areas, but the companies are not there. The administrative buildings are for in-country and out-country processing, finance, the general’s house, the Red Cross building, the USO and the PX. Once in a while a company of the battalion would stop off on their way some place else. But Phan Rang was basically a processing and supply area.

When we arrived at Phan Rang as newbees, the people processing us took us right through the middle of this camp with all the one-stop barracks, past all these rocks painted white. We went right up the hill and, all of a sudden, we’re in a tent area. This is where we began P-training. Physical training meant a week of acclimatization.  By the time you pull up at P-training, you’re beginning to go into that second shock phase. They start the same Army bullshit. “GET OFF THAT GODDAM TRUCK, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH…!” Everybody jumps over the sides of the trucks and the lifers are yelling in our faces. The Army  walked us around and explained jungle tactics and booby-traps, which is all bullshit.

The Army shows, but it doesn’t teach. You get these people who were instructors in airborne school at Fort Benning [Georgia]. Maybe they’re on their second tour of Vietnam. A sergeant puts in his years in one of the different jump schools and wears this black baseball cap as his identity badge. He has it good. When Vietnam comes along, he gets sent as part of the rear echelon to places like Phan Rang. It was a cush job. My platoon sergeant was in the jump school at Benning for 13 years, and then he had to pull combat when they sent him to Vietnam. He didn’t like that too much. So you begin to get the mentality of the ‘grunts’ against the ‘lifers.’ You get off the plane and it’s hot and dusty. They cart you through all the dust by truck. As they  moved you toward combat, you’re beginning to reflect on what you’re seeing and then, all of a sudden, you’re hit with a whole lot more confusion.

The P-training area also housed the out-country  processing. So you’ve got the new grunts coming in and intermingling with the ‘old timers’ that are leaving, which was really a source of confusion. Say you’ve got a guy what’s spent 11 months on the line. Him and a couple of his buddies are going home in a few days. And this truck full of newbees pulls up. And these guys are laughing and pointing.

“Pick one! Just pick one!

“Which one!”

“Which one’s your replacement!”

“Man, look at all these new bodies in-country!”

“Hey, newbee! Come here, newbee. What the hells wrong with you?          Don’t you know nothing yet?  You gonna be a newbee all the time?”

They would laugh at you, but then they would stay off to themselves. You wouldn’t ask too many questions because sometimes you’d get some very sorrowful remarks. A newbee might ask, “Hey, who are you with?” and get back, “Why do you care? You’re here for a year, so what do you care what I’m doing?” And that was bad—that ‘go die’ attitude.

The Army puts in-country and out-country processing in the same place for administrative convenience. Vietnam service ends in the DEROS [Date Eligible to Return from OverSeas]  barracks. The newbee is stuck off in tents near the DEROS personnel for a week or so. These people going home were called ‘short-timers’ and they had short time attitudes. If you were getting ‘short,’ you were getting ‘old.’ And you liked getting ‘old.’ But you got worried the more you shot short because that meant there was more of a chance of getting dead.

Guys would chant: “Short-time, old-time, all-the-time.” Short-timers would sit in their barracks off to the side. They were grubby and they didn’t take orders. They did what they wanted to and got away with it. The inspections in the DEROS barracks were always coming up with hand grenades and stuff like that. Some guy would be sitting on his bunk tossing a hand grenade up in the air and catching it. By this time, the grunt has an attitude.

Well, when the newbee comes along, he’s forgot where is ass was because he ain’t shit in a week. When he walked off that plane, he’s constipated. He’s brand new. He just got there and he’s scared to shit, scared to sit down anywhere that long. So the short-timer’s would chuckle. Or they would look at you in that way: “Gee, I feel sorry for you.”  You think, “Wow, what in the hell is going on? Thanks a lot!”  You’re still airborne qualified personnel, so you’ve got that attitude.

You’re out there in the morning doing your callisthenics and your regular airborne run. You do that early in the morning and then come back up the hill to the processing section. And you meet four or five more short-timers. They come walking down the hill. One guy’s in flip-flops, got no shirt on; another’s wearing a T-shirt and sunglasses. They’re all funky dirty. Maybe one guy is going back to his unit and he’s going down to his company area in the base camp to check in before he goes back to the bush. He’s got a rucksack and a rifle. These guys are talking bullshit back and forth and drinking beer at 10 o’clock in the morning. Something like that.

You would be going down the road to a class or something. And they would look at you going by in new fatigues and they would start whistling. One of the guys would be yelling, “Three days, fourteen hours!” Another guy yells out, “Four days, six hours, and 32 minutes!” You  just think, “Wow, I got 354 days.” They’re yelling, “How many days you got left, newbee? Hahahahahaha!! You got a lifetime! Don’t look at your watch until you’re down to twelve!” The newbee reacts to this atmosphere of chaos. It’s not chaos in the sense of mass confusion. It’s just that the newbee has no idea of what’s going on. He’s used to military order and discipline. He is sent to classes; he is sent out to fire his rifle; he is moved from place to place. He doesn’t think for himself.

They should have never put newbees and short-timers together because the short-time attitude did rub off.  I remember I got in trouble for being  late to a formation a couple of times. The P-training sergeant really started getting in my face about it and I started thinking, ‘What the fuck are you gonna to do to me? Send me to Vietnam? Take away my birthday? You gonna court-martial me? Fine! What are you gonna do to me? And I’d only been there a week and a half. I attribute part of my attitude to the contact I had with short-timers who were in and about the area. They start you thinking.

After you’ve finished your P-training, you’re sent down to administration area for maybe a day or more. They check you finance records, they check this, they check that. Then they issue you orders to your unit in the field. First, we went to headquarters company of the 2nd for the 502nd— Binky, Hutchinson, Dempsey and me. From there we were sent to the five-0-deuce Recons—the black berets of the 101st. Then me and van Sleuten went to the 2nd of the 327th.  When I got to the 327th they sent me to 4th platoon of C Company and I stayed there the whole time I was in Nam.

The whole brigade was operating out of a place called Khanh Duong [II Corps]. We walked down the ramp at Khanh Duong air field and the back door of the plane slammed shut and it immediately took off. Me, van Sleuten and another man (I never learned his name) were just left standing in the middle of the air strip. We didn’t even know the name of the place. We just looked at each other: “What’ll we do? Let’s ask somebody.” So we just wandered and asked our way to the battalion area. It was like any military camp. You check in and the sergeant says, “Okay, fine, you’re in C Company.” So now it’s over! Long Binh, Phan Rang, Khanh Duong—here I am. All the shuffling around, that calm before the storm, is over. I’m in a combat infantry company, a line company. I’m an airborne paratrooper and I’m going to carry a rifle. Goddammit! I went, “Wow, now what?”

Everywhere there were tents. There were two tents per company, an orderly tent and a supply tent. There was a big mess tent for the whole battalion and each company would eat in rotation.  The battalions were set up on line. So you’d have two tents with your guide-on [flag] with the crossed rifles and the units of each company. Then behind those tents, straight back to the wire, was the rest of the company platoon areas. They would have their shelter-halves or ponchos. But the only people that stayed in these tents were rear echelon people. There was also people coming back from the hospital, some people going home, the company clerks, the supply sergeant, the first sergeant and newbees like myself.

When I got to the 2nd of the 327, C Company was in the field. I didn’t know what to do. So I went to the orderly tent and the company clerk says, “Well, okay, give me your name and all the other info. Just be around.” See, when they say ‘be around,’ you don’t know what to do. You’re afraid to go outside because you’re afraid some sergeant is going to say, ‘Hey you! What are you doing?’ And you’re going to say, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ Then he’ll say, ‘That’s not good enough. Let’s do something,’ which means burn shit. So you sit inside this tent, sweating and watching the centipedes run around.

So I was sitting on the floor of the tent, rummaging through my equipment, looking at my weapon, trying to connect some kind of reality to this whole thing and the clerk comes in and says, “First sergeant wants to see you.” I thought, ‘Oh God, what’s going to happen now?’ The first sergeant and the company commander have these little eight-sided one or two man tents, usually off to themselves. So I go over and knock on the door and he tells me to come in. First sergeants are usually assholes. I walk into First Sergeant Benson’s tent and the first thing I got was a cold beer. Top Benson says, “Sit down. What’s your name? I know you’re nervous. What I want you to do for the next couple of days is just kick around the company area. If there’s going to be some details, you’re going to be called. That’s the way it is, so just relax.”

Now that’s 180 degrees from what I was expecting. I just went, “Ahhh! Wow. What’s going to happen next?”  This was not something I could relate to. The first sergeant was a good person who gave me a beer and told me to take it easy. As it turned out,  Top Benson was the finest NCO I’d ever known. I mean that this man was no lifer; he was a good man. I found out that there wasn’t anybody in the whole company that didn’t like Top Benson (And he died. I watched his helicopter crash in a landing zone right across the valley from us. He was going home from the field for his retirement when his chopper crashed 4000 meters from where he just left. He died because he stayed in the bush with his troops.)

The first night I was there we slept in the supply tent. I had just kicked back—that’s when I learned about taking my boots off in the Nam. I would take them off to change my socks, but otherwise after that night I hardly ever took them off. I slept clothed for a year. But that night I had my pant legs unbloused, got my belt open, my shirt’s off, my boots are off. My rucksack is over here; my weapons if over there. I’m a newbee. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.  I only know that thing they gave me is called a rucksack and weighs a lot and the weapon they gave me might work.

Then, all of a sudden, some guy comes running through the tent. A star cluster [signal flare] has gone off. If you get a green one, it’s all clear. Yellow is caution. If you get a red one, then it’s kick out the jams, fucker, because here comes the stove.  So this guy just flies through the tent, yelling, “The VC penetrated the wire!  Charlie’s in the compound.” And he takes off right out of the back of the tent. He’s got his weapon in his hand, he’s yelling at the top of his lungs that the VC are inside the wire, and he’s really trucking.

I’m sitting there on the floor of the tent with my boots off. I got ammunition, but I don’t know where it’s at. So it was like trying to put boots on, load the weapon, grab my ass and run outside and look around all at the same time!. I hit the door and then the ground outside. Then I hear, “It’s all right, it’s all right. One of the drunks in a bunker set off a star cluster.” And everybody went, “wow” and “nice” and “thanks!” Then they could go back to sleep. Sleep? Bullshit. No way! Stay up, talk, smoke a lot of cigarettes, do something. Sleep? No way! After that, I would never take my boots off. Because jungle boots have canvas sides, I would unlace them and just fold them down. You just don’t take them off because you might have to run. And, if you’re running through the jungle barefooted, you ain’t going to run far. (Even the Vietnamese wore sandals; the Montagnards, who are the only people in Vietnam to run around without shoes, have got solid leather for feet.)

The next day Top Benson have us a pass to town: “Here, go on. Get out of here. Go to town for four or five hours.  It’s nine o’clock. I want you all back here by 3:30.”  We’d been in-country almost two weeks and he gives us a pass to go down to the local strip. See, if the battalion commander walks by and sees idle bodies, he’d going to go after the first sergeant: “why aren’t these people doing something?” The first sergeant may not particularly wish to have people filling sandbags and burning shit,  especially when it’s so hot. So he thinks, ‘If I don’t see them, I don’t have to account for them.’ So away we went.

When we got back, the company had come back to the rear. They’d been out on a road-clearing mission. They came back for a day or so to get re-supplied, pick up some newbees, then go back out to brush again.  Both me and van Sleuten went to the same platoon. Once the company comes back in and set up the platoon area, they start relaxing a bit. Here’s these dirty, funky people with the got-the-butt attitude. And here’s the newbee in their clean fatigues, their new boots and their big eyes. We’re standing around looking at everything and just going, “Oh, yeah, shit, yeah…”

Then I meet my platoon sergeant and he told me, “You’re in 3rd squad. They’re over there.” Great! So I go over there and started to put my rucksack down and I hear this grumble. I didn’t meet nobody; I just stood around. Then I  met Hedy, but I had to meet him because he was the squad leader. He said, “Well, you’re in my squad. I want you to go over there, put down your rucksack and sit on it.”

For the first month or so, the guys in my company wouldn’t talk to me. Those first few months have got to be the world’s worst. Nobody’s going to say nothing. I was the same way later on. I’d tell people, “I don’t want to know what you are, where you’re from, what’s your girl friend’s name, whether your mother is pregnant, or how many cats your dog had. I don’t want to hear none of it.” Well, that’s exactly the attitude I got when I arrived, just, ‘Newbee, get away from me! You’re dangerous.’ For the first three months you don’t know what you’re doing.

 

Newbees have a tendency of going along stepping on things.  I was still so flabbergasted at the whole thing, I didn’t know what to do for the first couple of months. While the company was in the rear the guys lay around. It’s the usual Army bullshit—shit burning, awards and decorations, go to town and get laid, pull a lot of guard duty and drink a lot of beer. The longest we stayed in the rear was a week. Every army, no matter what flag they’ve flown, has gone through the same rear echelon stuff. When you put combat troops in one place with nothing to do, then they have a tendency to make trouble. So the stay in the rear is brief.

While the company was in the rear I got a new weapon and test fired it. We got word the night before that we were going out. The next morning everybody  gets up grumbling, but nobody’s talking too much. The newbees are standing around going, “Oh yeah, oh yeah, what’s happening?” or “Eeee, tell me!”  We got on Chinooks; there’s only one way out—the back door. So I’m sitting there, but I don’t know how to sit. I’ve got this rucksack on, but I don’t know what to do. We take off and make this long flight; we’re going to make a combat assault. I don’t even know where I am. The shock of where you’re going generates itself by degrees. The shock of walking off the plane into Vietnam the first time;  the  shock  of riding on that bus;  the shock of P-training and short-timers; the shock of getting to the company in the field; the total shock of getting on this helicopter armed to the teeth has come down to this: you’re going out to find some guys and you’re going to kill them! That was your job.

When the bird starts coming in, I looked at Danny Putnam. He was one of the first guys I met in the platoon. He was a brother from Boston who carried the M-79 [grenade launcher]. Everyone called him ‘Duck.’ I watched him put a round in his M-79 and close the breach. I put a round in mine and closed the breach. We got off the helicopter together. Its blades are going WHWHSSSSHO and the noise is deafening. The wind is blowing and troops are running all over the place. I just followed Danny over to this bush and got down. I expected to find just about every North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in the world to be waiting on the other side of that bush.  But there weren’t nobody there. After about ten minutes of fooling around, the word comes down from the captain. “We’re going to move out! And we’re going to walk all over this country. We’re going to walk up every single hill, and we’re not going to walk down any of them!”

I remember my first day in the field. I just stumbled along. To this day I can still see the trail I was walking down. And we walked and we walked—for about three hours. I guess we’d take a break every so often. It got to be a bit wearing. The trail meandered across very green sloping hills, covered with tall grass. It was so green it hurt my eyes. As we’re walking, I’m just constantly turning my head and looking around and being ready. And I still don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m for doing it all: “Yeah, I’ll carry the radio. And the M-79? Sure.” I’m a glutton for punishment. Later on I’m thinking, ‘Get this goddam radio offa me.’

My first night in the bush we set up on this hill. Of course, we couldn’t have heliborne to the top of the hill; instead, we had to walk up from the bottom. Now, if you’re a newbee and this is your first night in the jungle, you’re a little jittery. Then, if you’re sitting on guard on a perimeter on the  top of a hill and you hear, “uckyoo…uckyoo…uckyoo…” about 300 meters out, the only thing that you can think of is that someone’s trying to draw your fire: ‘There’s 150,000 North Vietnamese out there and they want Steve Hassna to shoot at them so they’ll know where he’s at. But I’m not going to.’ I look at Gene Shroth. He got to be a very good friend of mine, though we almost killed each other first. He ended up calling me ‘his little Ayrub buddy.’ He was a man from Chicago with a small mouth and the coldest blue eyes. He could punch a hole right through you with those eyes.

This man had not said two words to me since I’d been in the platoon except ‘Get outa my way!’ So I wake him up and he listens and said, “That’s a fuck-you lizard. And if you wake me up again, I’m going to stick the barrel of my 60 right down your throat.” The platoon used to call him the Grim Reaper and his M-60 [machine gun] was the Black Mariah and it fit, too. Gene was a good man, but he just got cold. Anyway, I stayed up all night while everybody else slept. They woke up the next morning and I was still sitting there, looking out over the valley. I heard this: “Huh, huhuh, he’s scared.”

For the next two months I proceeded to stumble, fall and crash my way through Vietnam. I remember after I’d been there for about two weeks, Shroth used to say when he walked by me, “Hassna, you’re not going to make it. What’s the matter with you, man? Didn’t you see the rock in the middle of the trail that you just tripped over?” And I’m going, “I dunno, man…” It got to be funny. He’d say, “I don’t know about you Hassna, I don’t know. You fall down a lot.” It got to be a joke in the platoon. I’d come walking down the trail and guys would say, “Here comes Steve…” and I’d come crashing by them. Well, after a while I got my ‘sea legs.’

But one time Shroth almost shot me. He had jungle rot on his knees. I was still stumbling. He was walking up a hill to an LZ and I was walking behind him when he tripped and hit his knee.  He landed on his jungle rot and that really hurts. Well, I’d been taking the brunt of a lot of shit for almost three weeks. No one fell on their ass except me. So when Gene fell I started laughing. I started to say something like ‘What’s the matter. Can’t you walk.’ And he turned around and looked at me and said, “You say one word…” And I just shut up. After that we got to know each other pretty good.

For the first month of so that I was there out unit just wandered around Khanh Duong. I remember one day we were walking up the side of a hill with a lot of boulders. Just as we started down a secondary trail, this sniper jumps up and fires about four or five rounds at us: DADADADADADA and he splits. Well, everybody gets down. I figure it’s an ambush. We call in three or four rounds of artillery, get up to move, and this guy fires at us again. We’d get down, more artillery, then we’d get up, move about 10 feet, and he’d fire up our ass again. Well, my platoon leader called in 125 rounds of high explosive from a 105 mm howitzer and never hit the sniper.

We’d see him running around, jumping in and out of these boulders, but we couldn’t catch him. It turned out that there were caves in among all these granite boulders and some had been used as a hootch area, with a little blanket and cooking gear. One sergeant looks at that and says, “Hey, a cave!” Without thinking, he pulls a grenade and throws it in the hole at the same time that another sergeant happened to be stepping over to look in the cave he’s also just found. All of a sudden the second sergeant is looking at the grenade that the first sergeant tossed in. It blew his shit loose and they had to med-evac him. Sergeant Ortega from our platoon took a frag from that one, too. And this little Vietnamese guy is still running around up in the boulders. I actually saw him running down the trail with his weapon over his shoulder. I knew that the man was laughing at us. So one man with an automatic weapon help up a whole company (about 95 men) for about three hours—and made them inflict two casualties on themselves.

That was all that really happened at Khanh Duong. The rest was just walking up and down, up and down, digging holes, humping through the bush—all the things grunts did. I quickly discovered that when you weren’t fighting the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong, you were fighting the elements. You were fighting the wind, the rain, the cold (and it really got cold when it rained). The leeches and the red ants were everywhere. You quickly came to the conclusion that everything that crawled, swam or flew in the country was biting you. And every bush had a thorn in it. You’d run into wait-a-minute vines and you’d have to stop, back up, take it easy and wait a minute until you untangled yourself. Otherwise the vines would just tear you up. Everybody had jungle rot. And they’d have malaria or hepatitis or anemia or parasites or some combination of them. You’ve got 90-some people in the company out in the field and another 30 in the hospital with different diseases. You’ve got guys out there trying to learn to function and other guys down to seven or eight days, wondering when they’re going to the rear. And it all moves and flows and stumbles along, but the one thing it doesn’t do is function efficiently.

[General] Westmoreland was the division commander of the 101st back in 1959. In 1967, the 1st Brigade was his personal brigade. Any time a hot spot broke out, he sent us. We were a spearhead unit. We went all over Vietnam  from Khanh Duong to Duc Pho,  from Chu Lai to Phan Thiet,  to Bai Loc, Song Be, Cambodia and Saigon and Hue during the Tet Offensive—all in one year. You can find guys that never went anywhere once they got in- country. Maybe they operated in and about Cu Chi or Tay Ninh and they never moved. But my unit went from one end of the country to another. We outran our supply lines. We tried all kinds of infantry tactics: search and destroy, search and clear, checkerboard pattern, deep penetration patrols. All that shit was experimental. They had to try these different approaches because nothing worked. They never knew what they were going to get from the North Vietnamese. That’s why we operated like we did. That’s why we really didn’t function efficiently.

From Khanh Duong we convoyed to Nha Trang, which is a trip of about 50 miles out to the South China Sea. And we saw Vietnamese living very simple lives, a very mellow people. And that was part of the absurdity and contradiction of our relations with them. They were described to us as communist savages, but they lived in clean livable areas. They seemed happy with what they had. If there had been no war, and if their government was such that they could have been a bit better off, they’re living conditions were adequate. In a tropical country, they didn’t need a lot if they could feed themselves. You don’t need doors with locks and shit like that. I didn’t see a lock on any house except in westernized cities like Hue and Saigon and Nha Trang. These places had locked doors and chain link fences. But in the rural areas the people lives simply.

As we convoyed from Khanh Duong to Nha Trang, we went through a lot of these small villages. Kids would be out standing by the side of the dirt road. Maybe the people there got a few acres of rice paddies to take care of, just living. Maybe they’ve got a little shop or something. And here comes 50 trucks at 40 miles an hour down their road, throwing dust all over the place, with all these troops hanging off them with guns. There’s helicopters in the air and tanks and gun jeeps running around. The people in these little place would just stand there and look at you as you went by.

Well, the kids would get into begging—because begging, like prostitution, became a way to survive. So they’d be yelling at us, “C’s, GI! C’s! Throw of some C’s.! So a lot of guys would throw food over the side of their truck. Now, depending on the degree a guy has sadistic tendencies, or is pissed off at being where he’d at, is going to determine what type of food he throws and how he throws it. The C-ration box has these little flat cans of cheese and peanut butter and jellies. Then they had your regular food in cans of beef spiced with sauce or ham and lima beans, things like that. Well, if a guy just wanted to help out, he’d toss some food over the side. You know, he’d throw some crackers out there. Maybe he’d got some decent C-rations, some fruits or something like that and he’d just bop it over the side to the people.

The guy down the bench from him on the other side of the truck, he may not particularly care for the Vietnamese. So he might take a cheese can and throw it off the side of the truck like a rock. Maybe he’d bean some little kid in the head. Well, if you’re doing 40 miles an hour and you chuck a flat can off the truck and it hits a four-year-old kid in the head, it’s really going to do some damage. Then there was the little game that was played called get-the-can-if-you-can. A guy would drop a can off the back of the truck from the middle of the tail-gate so it would land in the middle of the road.

See, there were 25 meters between trucks and when a convoy started, it didn’t stop for nothing. The only time we stopped was when we were stopped by North Vietnamese or the VC. So how hungry the kid is will determine how much of a chance he is willing to take to dash out there and grab that food. And it depends upon how sadistic the grunt is. Unfortunately, there are people like that. The insanity of the situation, plus the mentality of the United States military and its government and society, will drive a man to do this. It’s really strange because you’re riding through these people’s country that you’ve come to save [from communism]. Yet you’re trying to kill their kids with C-rations.

After we went by truck to Nha Trang, we stayed there a day or so while the army was getting the LST ’s ready to carry us up the coast to Duc Pho. So here’s all these grubby, armed crazies on white beaches with blue water. It’s a fantastic area. So when they put us on the beach, the lifers said, “You gotta have a beach party.” So we barbecued some steaks, had beer and they let us swim. It was a typical army trip. They gave us a good meal and let us get drunk. It meant: ‘you who are about to die, we salute you.’ We couldn’t go to town because we’d start tearing things up, but some people did manage to slip off. Later that night, when everybody started getting  rowdy on the beach after drinking beer, they moved us out. They just said, ‘Get the animals on the boats.’ They meant “take all your shit, walk about half a mile down the beach, and get on the LST ’s.” So we had about a day and a half’s nice ride up north to Duc Pho.

I couldn’t get over the fact that, as ravaged as it was, Vietnam was so beautiful. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. I didn’t see a place in the whole country that I didn’t like, except the big American base camps. Duc Pho was slightingly inland in the flats between the ocean and the coastal hills. When the LST ’s went ‘cchuuhmm’ against the beach, we walked off, and that’s where we sat. Getting to Duc Pho meant at first we’re stuck in the sand, so we filled sand bags and built bunkers. The beach was the debarkation point for an old Marine base camp. When we occupied it, we ran a half-moon perimeter from the waterline inland and around back to the waterline. It was a beachhead with the main base camp inside it. Outside our perimeter there was a road going northwest toward a big hill maybe four or five klicks [klick=1,000 meters] away. On that hill there was an artillery unit that was a separate entity from our base camp. Basically, we had come in to reoccupy this old base camp. The Marines had been there since ’66 and set it up pretty much the way we did—only they couldn’t get more than 1,000 meters outside their wire for almost a year. Then they pulled out. So it was an insecure area. Up until that time of the war there had been no really heavy military action in the area. We were there to change all that.

So we built this brigade base camp up again with sandbags and bunkers. Right in the middle of the camp was this little hill. The general put his headquarters right on top of the hill. To the northeast of the hill was the 2nd of the 237, to the north was the 1st of 327, and to the southeast was the 2nd of the 502. As we set up, we supposedly secured this whole area. The engineers checked it out. Everything evolved around this little hill. After being there for several months, we found a tunnel complex that went right under the general’s hootch. Also, the local Vietnamese would come into the camp to give hair cuts and do shit-work during the day. Occasionally, we’d find their bodies on the wire at night. Duc Pho was hot—and it wasn’t going to take long to find out how hot it really war!

The 2nd of the 237  was facing a ridge line that ran to the northeast down to the seaside. The VC set up a .50 caliber machine gun that must have been on wheels or something. They would shoot four rounds from this weapon, run 100 meters down the ridge line, fire four more rounds, then move it 30 more meters back in the opposite direction, and fire four more rounds. We would throw artillery all over the place but we never hit them. I’m not even sure they wanted to hurt us. But they  were sure out to harass us. They would throw  rounds at the movies. The Army brought out Bat Man  in Combat and McClintock, with John Wayne (Can you imagine how absurd?). So we’d be sitting up there with a case of beer, fully armed with automatic weapons, watching the movie, and some jerk-off on the ridge line throw three or four tracers right through the goddamned screen. “Okay. Party over. Let’s get back to the bunker.”  So it was a matter of trying to run to the bunker without falling over your ass in the dark.

We arrived in Duc Pho in early May [1967]. After we filled sand bags and built bunkers for the base camp, the Army took us about 20 miles out of the base camp and dropped us off in the jungle. This was our first operation, which was a short one. We didn’t have much [enemy] contact. After that, they brought us back to do search and destroy in the coastal hills. The military had been able to secure Highway 1 that ran through Duc Pho only to the degree that the VC and the NVA allowed them to. But there hadn’t been any long range penetration of the surrounding coastal hills by U.S. military forces. So off we went. They’d fly us around, drop us off. We’d walk around in the jungle for 20, maybe 30 days at a time. By the time I got to Duc Pho, I’d been in the bush three months. I’d got to Vietnam in March, so by May I really knew what I was doing. But the shit hit the fan in Duc Pho.  For me, Duc Pho meant being wounded, having malaria, getting hepatitis, jungle rot, anemia and hookworm. And  it meant becoming as cold inside as any guy that had been a long time in-country. All of that caught up with me on the second operation near Duc Pho.

On June 8, we were heliborne from Duc Pho base camp several miles inland. We secured an LZ and headed out, moving uphill. Three hours out of the LZ we were engaged in a running firefight that lasted three days. This is what happened. My platoon and another platoon were sent up the back side of the same hill. As the other two platoons [of the company] were coming up their side of the hill, they were engaged in a firefight. We were given improper coordinates and we walked right into the middle of this firefight. Our point element was wiped out. We were immediately pinned down, but then managed to relocate ourselves to link up with the rest of the company. After we linked up, we pushed the Vietnamese back a bit. Choppers were called in to get the dead and wounded out. They had to hover; they couldn’t land because of the fighting. As nightfall came, we backed down into a ravine, secured a perimeter, and stayed there over night.

The next day we moved out. We got a few hundred meters up this trail and went right back into it again. That’s when it turned into a running firefight. By June 10 we had gotten to the top of the hill, but the Vietnamese backed down the other side. So we set up on top of the hill for the next night.  We had hit the LZ on June 8 with about 100 to 110 personnel. By June 10, when we had got to the top of the hill, we were down to about 60 people. We had gone through a continuous running battle around the hill, but there was no real objective. Or, if there was one, I didn’t know it. I was a PFC [private first class]; I wasn’t told the objective; I was just told we were going this way.

We were dug in on top of the hill on the morning of June 10 when a North Vietnamese soldiers moved on our perimeter and one got shot. About 45 minutes later my stupid platoon sergeant sent my squad out to find the man’s body—which you should never do. If you don’t follow them as soon as you drop one, you let them go. Because his friends will be waiting for you. And they were! My squad walked down the hill and two came back. I stayed with the company because I was carrying the M-79 and because, I guess, it wasn’t my turn to die. Let’s see, six of them walked down the hill: Rooks, Frambys, Lowe, Shroth, another guy and ‘Equador.’ Frambys died; Lowe and the other guy died; ‘Equador’ died. He enlisted in the U.S. Army to get his citizenship. After serving three years, he was eligible for it. He lasted four days. He hit the LZ on the 8th and was dead by the 11th. Shroth and Rooks got back to the top of the hill. About that time the Vietnamese counter-attacked.

The night before the Vietnamese had surrounded the hill and in the morning they came running up at us. We called in close artillery support and the first round that came in hit us instead of the Vietnamese. I was underneath a tree inside the perimeter when that round came in. It hit the tree rather than going past us. It blew me away along with a CBS reporter and a guy named Roger Tooten. So I ended up with my arm in a sling and a .45 in my hand. We repulsed the Vietnamese attack. They backed off and let us sit there for a day and a half. But we couldn’t get any choppers in.

I didn’t get a  med-evac until a day and a  half later. After the first day, the company picked up and left. They left me and 17 other people on top of the hill. About half of us were dead, so maybe there were nine or ten wounded. The 1st, 3rd, and 4th platoons moved out, but that night 1st platoon came back to stay with us. The engineers  had to blow another LZ on the top of the hill to extract people. Because of that, we got two more wounded. They blew a tree that fell on one of our people. So, from 8th to the morning of the 11th, my squad went from full strength to two people. Every platoon seemed to have two or three dead and three or four wounded. I was wounded; my squad was gone. We were down to 40 people walking; our company existed in name only.

After I got wounded by my own artillery, I was sent to the hospital in Qui Nhon for about 30 days. They extracted shell fragments from my arm. Then they sent me to the 6th Convalescent Center at Cam Ranh Bay. Convalescence was divided into three parts, which determines how many details you’ve got to pull.   You’re either in intensive care, bed rest, or walking wounded. As you rehabilitate, you go through one or more of these three groups until you are ready to go back to your unit. I started off with bed rest because I went to the hospital to recover from frag wounds. They had to sew up both sides of my arm so it would work right. Then I came down with malaria that I had contracted in Duc Pho. Well, they ran some more tests and found out that  I had hookworm and anemia. So I stayed in the hospital with these different ailments. When I came out, I went right back into the brush to link up with my company. We had hit the LZ on June 8th and I was wounded on the 11th, was in the hospital for 35 days and came back and finished 20 days of the same operation at the beginning of August.

When I got back to my company, I didn’t know anybody.  Everybody I had known was either dead or gone. And that’s when I closed up. I sat by myself; I ate by myself; people didn’t talk to me; I didn’t talk to them. When new guys would come in, they’d be so scared they just wanted to make friends with everybody. They’d come up and start talking to me and I’d say, “I don’t want to know your name; I don’t want to know where you’re from—because if you die, and I know you, then I die, too! Stay away from me!”

Right there, that’s a big breakdown in morale; that’s a breakdown in team effort. It was another way of saying, “I am going to survive.” It reflected my attitude: ‘I will work with you for our joint survival, but when I see you get hit laying next to me, I’m pissed because you’re dead, but at the same time I’m thinking,  it’s better you than me.’ And that’s what started happening to American troops in Vietnam.

The troops experienced the frustration of war. We never held anything. We would lose 30 people to take a hill and then walk off the damn thing and go to another hill and lose another 30 people and walk off that hill. And we would go from one hilltop to the next all over that country—over and over again. There was only a couple of times that we could claim that we had an infantry victory over the forces we were fighting in the sense that we overran their base camp and kicked their ass.

I remember another incident at Duc Pho when an NVA threw a hand grenade that landed between me and the sergeant. We were standing about six feet apart. The sergeant had instigated the thing because he was standing up in the middle of a firefight yelling, “All right, go ahead, sucker! You ain’t got a hair on your ass! Throw the damn thing!” And the North Vietnamese kicked back and threw the chi-com [Chinese communist] grenade and the sergeant shot him dead. The grenade landed between the two of us and he yells “GRENADE!”

Shit, by that time I’m on the ground and I’m turning my best side forward, giving him all the ass I can. If the thing goes off, I’m going home. But it just went ‘PFFFT.’ The NVA and VC grenades were really primitive. They’d have a thong that they would pull, which had a striker inside. That would ignite the fuse. If it got wet or even damp (which happened often), the grenade wouldn’t explode. It would just smolder. After that we ran into their bunker complex, right over the top of them, and just wiped them out. But it was always a two-way street. We respected the North Vietnamese soldier for what he was—a dangerous adversary. And he did the same for us. We’d find documents in enemy bunkers warning them about the 101st. It was because of that goddamned gung-ho, kill-the-enemy attitude. We referred to the VC as ‘Victor Charlie’ or just ‘Charlie.’ But then we called him ‘Mr. Charles’ out of respect.

And sometimes ‘Mrs. Charles’ was with him. I remember going up a hill. We dealt with that hill and took it. And there were a bunch of dead women on the top of that hill along with the men. And I though, ‘Wow, they are hard!’ That was real equality. Their determination weakened us. We were fighting against somebody we couldn’t beat. They knew the country and we didn’t. They were just kicking our ass all over the place. And even when we kicked theirs, they shocked us with their determination.

The first time I went in a tunnel was in Duc Pho. The lieutenant asked for people that would check tunnels and I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it,” thinking to myself, ‘All right! Get to drop this rucksack. Get to wander around. Get to smoke a cigarette.’ I stayed a tunnel rat until I left Vietnam eight months later. I went through tunnels near Duc Pho, PhanThiet, even near Saigon during Tet [Offensive]. The first time I checked tunnels was the last time I checked them the way the Army wanted them checked. There was this cliff face and three dugouts in the side of it. Part of my squad, including me and the platoon sergeant, went up to the dugouts and looked in.

The platoon sergeant decided he would check the middle hole, I would check the lest and another guy would check the right. The platoon sergeant ordered me into it and I didn’t like that. I told him, “Well, just because of my common sense and because I’ve seen a lot of booby-traps, I’m going to take my time going into it.” It was like a cubby hole in the side of the hill and it had a grass mat on the floor and a little back tunnel going out of it. So I got a long stick. And the platoon sergeant got in my face for not going fast enough. And I told him, “Then get somebody else!” Because he was saying, “Come on! Come on! Let’s go! Let’s go!”  When he started to go into the middle hole, he immediately jumped back because there was a trip wire across the thing. He was lucky; it was just a trip wire. There was no explosive, just a psychological trap.

After that search I became the platoon tunnel rat. When we found a tunnel, I was called up to search it. Since I volunteered, I would do it my own way. If someone threw a grenade in it, I’d say, “Okay, I’m not searching it,” because that’s telling them that I’m coming.  The company commander could ask me if I would search a tunnel, but he could not order me into that hazardous duty. There was no law in the military that I could be ordered down a tunnel. They might say, “We need someone to go down that tunnel, will you go?” And you could say, “No.” It was different from charging across a rice paddy at the enemy; everybody was going to go. Guys weren’t sent across one at a time. But tunnels were different.

Whenever we’d find a tunnel complex, it be “Okay, drop you rucksacks. Take a smoke break. I’ll see you in ten minutes,” and—whsssht!—away I’d go. There were some times in a tunnel when I’d have a backup, a second guy would come in with me with the M-16. But he would trail behind unless I would stop and call him forward. But most of the time I went in alone armed with a .45. Booby-traps were the main danger. Sometimes there was no booby-trap because the VC couldn’t get the explosives, but they would rig up a trip wire. That’s when you start getting jumpy. The Vietnamese were incredible. Psychologically, they could get you to make mistake after mistake just by rattling you.

Sometimes I’d go maybe 15 feet and come back out and say, “Well, why don’t you get bangalores or artillery in here because there’s just too much of it. Bangalore torpedoes are long tubes, six to eight feet long and two or three inches wide, with explosives inside that can be screwed together, pushed down a tunnel and detonated. It’s an ancient weapon. If you’ve got 30 feet of Bangalore, you can blow up 30 feet or so of tunnel. It was used to blow holes in barbed wire emplacements so troops could pass through. When you push them into tunnels, the concussion would collapse them. But the Vietnamese were slick in their tunnel building. They constructed zig-zag tunnels. Vietnamese people are small; a tall Vietnamese is about my size, slender, about five-six or so.

My job as tunnel rat was to go in and check out a tunnel complex or bunkers or spider holes to see how extensive they were. By examining their size, you can get an idea of how large a unit it operating in your area. You look to see how long they might have been there. Is the tunnel complex used all the time or once in a while? Is it a large bunker area, or just an ambush site? Is it a guard area for a major base camp? Things like that.  Over a period of maybe 2000 years of fighting people who invaded them, the Vietnamese had become master tunnel builders.

Most of the Vietnamese tunnels I went into were maybe three and a half feet high from floor to ceiling and maybe two and a half feet wide. They were just wide enough and just high enough to kind of duck-waddle down the thing, slouched over, rubbing your back against the ceiling as you moved. The tunnel would go for eight, ten or twelve feet in one straight direction. Then there’d be a 90 degree turn either to the right or the left. The tunnel had flat floors, but the sides would be curved and the ceiling domed. At the 90 degree turn, if you went to the left, then the left-hand wall of the tunnel would make a sharp 90 degree turn, but the right-hand wall would just curve around to the left. Keeping the curve of the ceiling, it would go another 10 or 12 feet and make another 90 degree turn, usually to the right with the right-hand side making the sharp turn and left-hands the sloping turn: they would reverse the construction.

The Vietnamese learned to do this to counteract hand grenades. That is why it was absurd to throw a hand grenade down a tunnel. You see, if you do, when it goes off, the rounded walls and domed ceiling and sharp turns with opposite curved turns just rolls all the smoke and concussion right back on you. If a Vietnamese is two turns down this tunnel, he’ll hear it, but none of the concussion and fragmentation and barely any of the smoke will get to him.

Light in the tunnels would be weirdly cast in odd patterns and deep shadow areas. It was easy to be deceived by what you saw. And you never quiet knew where you were going. Sometimes you’d come down a tunnel that would slope downward rapidly with steps and they climb right back up again. You’d come to an intersection of two tunnels. You’re in one and you’d have three choices—one going straight ahead in the direction you’re traveling and two others at angles to the right and left, sometimes going back behind you. A lot of tunnels dug like this were false tunnels; they were decoys. The Vietnamese would spend the time to dig 40, 50 feet of tunnel off the main tunnel to a dead end. They’d do it to confuse and unnerve you. Well, if you get all the way down to the end of a 40 foot tunnel and it’s a dead end, you’ve got to back out exactly the same way you went in. And that’s a very nerve-wracking thing to do.

Many times it would be possible to pick out a decoy tunnel. You have to learn how to tell if the tunnel has been used for any length of time. This comes from experience of being in tunnels. Say, you look for footprints or burned out candles.  You look for side tunnels going off in odd directions. Maybe you go 15 feet and haven’t hit a side tunnel going off to a room or a connecting tunnel going to another place. Then, sometimes but not always, the tunnel was not worth going down because it would probably be a dead end. If the main traffic seemed to be down the other tunnels, if there weren’t many footprints, if it looked unused, it was generally a blind tunnel. A lot of these dead end tunnels were booby-trapped. You crawl down 20 or 30 feet  of tunnel, trip a booby-trap that caves in the tunnel behind you, which means you’re stuck. You are shit out of luck!

Ever since I’ve gone down in tunnels, I’ve had this weird feeling about being closed in. I went down one tunnel that dropped into a big hole, then went in a fast slope down, with steps and everything. It has probably been a bunker area that got caved in from bombing. Seepage from rain or springs had flooded it out. Well, I turned around to leave the tunnel and discovered that there were a bunch of spiders in and about the area. And these spiders had dug themselves into the side of the walls and ceiling. When something comes by, it disturbs their senses, and they come out to check things out. They were big, hairy spiders, maybe six inches across. I don’t know if they were poisonous, or hostile or what. I just know they freaked me out.

I had to go out the same way I came in because the rest of the tunnel was flooded out and there was no other way. So I just popped a smoke grenade, threw it down the tunnel, and the spiders split. But I had to go out through the smoke. But I’d rather do that, choking and gagging, than deal with the spiders. When I got outside, I threw two hand grenades and a white phosphorus grenade inside the tunnel. There was no reason in the world why anybody should do down in there and get caught in that. You could have a heart attack just being there.

I captured a Viet Cong in a tunnel in Duc Pho. He was really lucky I didn’t kill him. The Vietnamese have these storage areas outside their small homes. It’s nice and cool in there; it’s where they store rice and vegetables and old clothes. These earthwork structure have what’s called a didi tunnel. In Vietnamese didi  means ‘get out fast,’ you know, ‘split,’ ‘scram.’  If anything happened, they could run into this storage area and then down the didi tunnel, and come out in the wood line and split from there.

Well, the area near Duc Pho that we were searching was supposed to be vacated. Maybe there were a few families here and there, but most of the homes were burned and destroyed There were no signs of life as far as people productively working their land. So I went inside this storage area and I was checking it out. I was opening suitcases, or what would be considered suitcases, and checking pots of rice for ammunition—just more or less rummaging through these people’s possessions  without  much regard for the fact that they didn’t give me permission to do that.

Then I went back to where the didi tunnel started, checking it out. Since a didi tunnel is a hands-and-knees type of thing, they didn’t put a lot of energy into it. I knew there wasn’t much reason to go into it, that it would pop up 30 or 40 feet away. So I backed up and continued to rummage through the storage area. I happened to turn around and saw this foot sticking out of a little covered area behind a wall near the didi tunnel. Well, I started yelling, “lai day!! lai day!!” It means ‘come here.’ Slowly this man came out from behind the cover of this alcove and he was holding up this chain with a crucifix on it in front of me. And he was smiling.

I had my .45 with me. He freaked me out so much that I had to do something, but at first I didn’t know  what to do. So I hauled off and smacked him one with the .45 and dragged him out of the storage area. It wasn’t that I was mean and rotten and wanted to hurt him, but that the man scared me half to death. I feel good that I didn’t shoot him, that I took him prisoner instead. When you carry a rucksack for a long time a kind of indentation develops from the weight on your shoulder blades. He had rucksack marks. He was of military age, probably nineteen or twenty years old, with no ID. So he was just packed up and put on a chopper and sent to a POW camp.

Americans have a hard time understanding why—with out superiority in firepower, ammunition supply, logistics, helicopters, jet aircraft, heliborne assaults and fancy tactics like ‘search and clear,’ ‘search and seize,’ and ‘search and destroy’—why we couldn’t seem to catch these people with their pants down. Part of the reason why was because of their tunnel building art.  For example, certain tunnels were built carved into the side of a bluff or hill. They were round, cone-shaped at the opening, making an area maybe six by six by six at the base of the cone. They would be built usually overlooking a large, wide, open valley. At the base of the cone tunnels would run off in different directions.

If you were to sit in one of these little cones, you could hear choppers coming 15 miles away. The cones functioned like a natural ear with near perfect acoustical balance. A Vietnamese experienced at listening was able to check which way the helicopters were coming and sometimes even approximately how many there were. And maybe there’d be three of these cones, 50, 75, 100 meters apart. In fact, the people in these cones could triangulate. Or, maybe they’d have a couple here and over on the far hill, 500 meters away, another set of con tunnel complexes. By coordinating between the two cone complexes, they’d know which way the choppers are coming, how fast, approximately how many, and sometimes even the type,

The big Chinooks [CH-47] would make a certain sound; the Huey’s [UH-1] and the fixed-wing [reconnaissance] aircraft would make a different sound. Big sky hooks, the flying crane, had its sound. With individual helicopters giving off a distinct sound in the air, Vietnamese could identify and triangulate their approach even thought they may not know exactly where you’re going to land. But they know how many are coming, so they can estimate the size of the attacking force and have all that down while you’re ten miles out. You [the infantryman] don’t even know where you’re going, but the Vietnamese knows you’re coming.

These cone complexes are dotted all across the country. The Vietnamese soldier would be set up to sit in the cone. He’d have all his possessions right there in a little living dugout right behind the cone. He’d throw his straw mat down, cook his food, relax and sit inside for several days just listening. Now, if you went into the living area behind the cone, there’d be a mat on the floor. You pull up the mat and there’s a trap door. But if you lift the trap door, it may be booby-trapped and go off in your face. Or, you may open it up and look down inside. You’d see what looks like a dirt floor and a tunnel going off that. If you jump down on that floor, thinking you’ll land on dirt, you might land on two inches of dirt on a straw mat, and go right through that into a punji trap. The tunnel that you see may only go a few feet and maybe they’d have a bunch of snakes there waiting for you. I you see a man jump in a hole, you might not see a tunnel because he’d jumped down on a little platform. Then he pulls the platform up behind him as he goes down the tunnel. He just seals it off, and it looks like the rest of the wall of the hole. You’re left wondering where he went.

The Vietnamese were ingenious, just ingenious. They are a strong, a very proud people. Through their determination, and what we consider very primitive means, they pretty much ran circles around the strongest army in the world as far as logistics and fire power and weapons are concerned. And one of the things that enabled them to run us crazy was their tunnel complexes. Their tunnel system were so extensive that you could see a man drop in a hole, and my might pop up 1,000 meters away, or maybe 50 meters away and shoot you from behind. The tunnels spread out like a net, like an underground network of transportation. The U.S. Army did everything they could to destroy them. They would saturation bomb them; they would send engineers to blow them up; they would send men like myself down inside to search them. I checked them out from one end of the country to the other: Duc Pho, Phan Thiet, Bao Loc, and along the Cambodian border. The more tunnels I checked out, the more awed I became at the determination of these people to do exactly what they wanted to do long after I left Vietnam, right up until their final victory.

Our efforts to destroy the tunnel complexes were absurd. You might as well kick an anthill. They’d been digging them for so long, the only thing you could do was to keep finding them. But you found one, they’ve dug two; you destroyed two, they’d dug four. There was really no way to stop them from digging. It all gets back to the same thing—you can’t win when you’re wrong! And they proved that militarily in fighting us. They proved it through their determination. They proved it by having whole hospitals and supply bases underground for years. Their basic determination to be free of us was part of the reason why they could dig and dig and dig!

Well, I come along and my job is to check out tunnels. The feeling of being inside one of their tunnels, along underground with just a .45 and a flashlight, realizing that there could be someone down there with me, was somewhat overbearing at times. You could step anywhere or touch anything and become dust. Yet, for me, it was a way of getting away from the company. I was a tunnel rat.  So the company would stop when I went down in a tunnel. Now, I could go down there and play games all day if I wanted to, and come back with maybe a few documents to justify taking the time that I did.

Sometimes I’d get down there and just sit down and rest. Maybe I’d smoke a cigarette. Now, it I got my ass chewed when I got back out of the tunnel, I’d just tell the lieutenant or the sergeant or whoever it is, “Well, then, if you don’t believe me, you go down and check it!” See, they weren’t going to do that—they got the fool to do it. They got the little man who didn’t have enough sense, they thought, to realize that it was a good way of getting myself dead. I did learn a great deal about digging tunnels from going inside the master builder’s tunnels. I never want to forget what the Vietnamese taught me.

When I  originally  got to  my  unit in Vietnam, I was told,  “Whatever you learned in A.I.T. [Advanced Individual Training], forget it. Out here it’s O.J.T. [on the job training]. You know how to use an M-16; you know how to keep your ass on the ground. Except for that, everything you’ll learn here is new.” All my previous training was negated with that one statement. Yes, I knew how to use the weapons; yes, I knew how to move through the brush and look for bunkers. But everything else I had been taught militarily as far as dealing with a guerrilla force in the jungle was garbage. I wasn’t trained properly even though I was trained in weapons and tactics.

I had no idea of guerrilla warfare, of ambushes and booby-traps. I had no general overview of what the military was trying to accomplish. Once I was in my unit, we were never informed about where we were going or why we were going or what type of resistance to expect. We were never told what unit we were going up against, what town or what province we were in. The only thing the infantry soldier was told was, ‘Okay, we got a combat assault tomorrow. Get your gear together, clean your weapons and come sunrise we’ll form up on the LZ. The choppers will come in and pick us up. We’re going west.’ Then it’s, ‘Grab your ass, grab your equipment, get on the chopper and here we go.’

It got to be very frustrating. If you don’t inform your soldier about what’s going on, then he has a tendency to develop a very apprehensive attitude about what he’s doing. The would take us from the base camp. We’d fly for 15 or 20 minutes. We had no idea where we were going. We’d arrive at the LZ, get off the chopper and form a quick perimeter. Then we’d set up a route of march. The lieutenant would tell the platoon leaders, who would in turn tell the squad leaders. They’d inform the members of their squad. They’d point at the map and say, “You’re right here,” and I’d think, ‘Where the hell is here?’ If I got separated from my unit, I’d be totally lost, but I’m told I’m ‘here.’ That’s all the information the military hierarchy gave the infantry soldier. And they still expected the man to go out and perform an effective infantry role, go out and overcome an enemy force.

I got to the point that once I was there—and since I was lost—the only thing I could do was try and stay alive. My attitude was: ‘Here I am, but I will not die!’ I had to go on that premise which was no premise at all. As an infantry soldier, I was to maintain a high level of proficiency. Proficiency [in Vietnam] meant body-count. My main objective was four-fold: 1) seek out, 2) close with, 3) engage, and 4) destroy the enemy. There was no way in hell that I could fulfill any four of those objectives if I had no idea what the hell I’m doing, where I’m going, and what to expect when I get there.

That’s why people started to rebel. If the military had said to me, ‘Okay,  on the other side of this hill is Hanoi and we’ve got to take it as a military objective to end this war,’ then I would have had some direction, right or wrong. But what I got was, ‘Okay, we’re going to go to the top of that hill and look around. We’re gonna go over here and burn these houses down. There’s some civilians over there, let’s move them outa the way.’ So the average infantry man just walked along waiting for his time to run out. Either he got hit, or he got sick, or his time was up. If something happened, he fired his weapon. He could expect that numerous times information he had would be totally disregarded.  That made walking point even more dangerous.

Walking point is being the first man down the trail or through the brush. Not everybody walked point all the time. You walked point when you were a ‘middle-timer.’ If you put a short-timer on point, then he’d going to start getting really nervous, really fidgety. If you put a newbee up front, he might walk you into Hell’s Half-Acre. So the man on point was about half-way through his tour; he knew what he was doing. If a newer guy was out there, usually there would be two slack men. Short-timers would sometimes walk slack. I got that way. I didn’t like point too much, but I would walk slack. Old-timers would be our there with the new guys steering them through the course of learning how to be point men .

I walked point for several months. Billy C. Bryles walked point; Shore walked point. He stood about six feet tall, thin, with blond hair and he would step out with those long legs. If you were in the back of the column, you’d literally run your ass off because Shore would just start humping. You’d have to tell him to slow down. If I walked point, the pace was slower. I was shorter and didn’t like to hump that fast. Except for medics, RTOs [radiomen], machine gunners and M-79 personnel, all riflemen walked point. Now, in a small squad or an under-strength platoon, maybe three or four guys would be your main point men and they would have their slack men. You would ask people to walk slack for you. Billy C. Bryles walked a lot of slack for me and I walked a lot of slack for him. It’s that comrade in arms kind of thing. You want to know the man behind you would be pulling your slack. Then you know that if you get your shit all hung out somewhere, he’d going to help you deal with it.

I remember moving down a trail outside the base camp wire. We were going through the rice paddies in an area of rolling hills. I was walking point. The platoon was walking maybe 35 or 40 meters up the side of this hill. Hills with houses on them rose to the right across a short valley. I came around a turn and the trail shot straight ahead for about 40 or 50 meters, and then made another little turn around a hill farther on. There were two fingers of land that just went by each other about 50 meters apart and this trail sort of meandered between the two. I saw this man run down the hill, run across the trail and disappear. I stopped but I didn’t have a clear shot at him. I really didn’t like the situation; it was too obvious. So I went back and told the lieutenant that someone ran across the trail and which way he had gone.

The lieutenant said, “Drive on!” I said, “Well, it doesn’t look good.” And he said, “Drive on anyway.”  So I drove on. I went across a little open area, around the side of the hill into a small villages area. Inside a bunch of trees was a large open area across from some rice paddies. The dirt side of the paddy went out too far to a bridge across a little creek. Beyond that there was a small mound of dirt that had a trail cut right through the middle of it. And beyond that there was an open area. Well, I walked through the trees and I looked at the hootches. I saw fires burning and rice drying in the open. Clothes were hanging on clothes lines—and no one was at home. No people! I went back to the lieutenant and said, “Sir, I really hate to be negative, but there’s nobody here. We got trouble.” And he said, “Drive on!”

We kept moving. As I took one step out of the woodline into the open area, the air was full of bullets. They were waiting on us. I knew they were waiting and I tried to tell the man, but he didn’t want to believe me. He didn’t want to deal with it. So he just said to keep moving. When the bullets flew, I jumped off the trail about six or eight feet and got my rucksack hung up in all these bushes and trees. Everybody else is down the trail, but I’m up the trail. They’re yelling to see if I’m all right, but I can’t get out of the damn tree. Then, I get my rucksack loose just as the firing stops, almost as soon as it starts.

After I got back down the trail, the lieutenant decided to call in artillery. When the rounds come in, I noticed that they instead of hitting directly in front of us in the direction of the enemy, they’re hitting at a 90 degree angle to our left. And they were coming down the side of the hill right toward us.  About that time somebody happened to notice that the lieutenant had the map sheet upside down. This man had 40 people scattered around him and he’s adjusting artillery with an upside-down map sheet. Somebody said to him, “No disrespect to you, Sir,” and took the map, “but the map goes this way.” This is not to say that the man was not a competent officer; he was just undertrained. There is no way that you can take a man and in six months or less make him a infantry officer responsible for the lives of 40 people. So he was frustrated and freaked out and didn’t know what to do.

When the artillery stopped, I knew they were still out there. I could feel them all over the place, but I had to pick it up and walk out in the open again. This time they didn’t shoot. Me and four other men hooked off across the first bridge. We no sooner got to the little hill area with the trail through it, than they opened up on us again. We were probably 50 meters out and they just closed the doors and cut us off from our company.  We took two casualties right off the top. We laid in a ditch in the cross fire for two hours until our support drove them off. We had nowhere to go.

That’s when the platoon leader decided that he should have listened. I knew it was going to happen 500 meters before I got there. Well, that was a bit late. The CO totally disregarded his point element with statements like ‘Drive on.’ Why am I out there on point if the officer is not going to listen to me? This kind of thing happened constantly. And it wouldn’t make any difference if I walked point or slack. I’d tell the lieutenant, “It don’t look good,” or “There’s something that just doesn’t seem right.” But it didn’t mean nothing. You’re walking out there, first in line, checking it out, and if you’re lucky, you’re not caught in an ambush. Sometimes they [enemy] would let the point man walk through the ambush site and fire up everyone behind him. Then they’d take care of the point element—the point man and the slack man.

The worst thing about walking point was the booby-traps. They were more likely to get you because you were the first one to find them. What type of damage was done to you depended on the type of booby-trap. The explosive traps might just take off an arm or a leg.* Or, they might kill you. Once and a while you might hit one of your own Bouncing Bettys; they could just cut you in half. Sometimes you could spot their wires. Worse than the exploding booby-traps were the natural booby-traps.  The Vietnamese used the resources around them to get at the American soldier.

The Malaysian Gate, for example, was a booby-trap that operated on the whip principle. Say you have a tree right next to the trail. The Vietnamese would put a piece of bamboo on one side of the tree and stretch it out across  the trail. Then they would bend it back around to where it’s running alongside the trail. They would run a trip wire down back in front of the tree and across the trail. The trip wire can be a vine, a piece of bush, anything that you just push out of the way as you’re moving down the trail. When you trip it, it swings across the trail with a whip action about waist high. They put long spikes on it that are dipped in shit or urine. I’ll wreak havoc with you.  Sometimes these booby-traps are placed in a position so that you will see them as you’re walking down the trail.  The psychological effect is that

you see only what’s obvious and you’re going to miss the one you should see, the one they got hid. When you’re walking around, you’re even afraid to sit down. You wish you could levitate—about 10,000 feet straight up. But then you’re afraid you’d appear on some radar screen. The point is that it didn’t matter where you went. You were never safe.

The Vietnamese people, being as industrious as they are, were blessed with this natural resource called bamboo. Now, bamboo has the ability to be  shaped, bent or twisted into all kinds of things if you understand its structure. Also, everywhere in Vietnam there are fields and fields of elephant grass 10 to 15 feet high. You can imagine how wide at the base the stalks of grass would be. If you take a piece of this saw grass that you find in a field and run your hand along the edge, you find it’s got a lot of little hooks on it. Well, if you magnify that piece of grass to where it’s four inches at the base, you can imagine how spiny that grass can be. That’s why we called it ‘saw grass.’ When you wade through it with a machete, you get your arms all cut up. Down inside this elephant grass, the Vietnamese would stake down bamboo poles, maybe at the four corners of the compass or every 45 degrees. There might be 10 or 15 bamboo poles. It was not uncommon to see bamboo stalks 30 feet high and they might be six or eight fee in diameter at the base.  After they staked them down, they would bend them into the center and connect them to a trip wire. They would throw a net over the bent down bamboo poles and on top of the net they would throw rocks, boards, pieces of bamboo. Then they would have themselves a booby-trap for helicopters.

The Vietnamese would have two poles stuck up in the grass with a wire strung between them. When the chopper came down and prop wash blew down on the grass, the poles would bend over to trip the whole mechanism.  Then all the bent over bamboo poles would swing back to their original position. The force would throw all these rocks and boards up in front of the chopper or up into the chopper blades. If any grunts have been on the side of a hill and had a Chinook or a Huey come in and blow their poncho hootch down, then they know what can happen. I watched a poncho fly up into the blades of a Huey and get cut to four pieces before it got away.

Well, if boards or rocks or anything hard is thrown into chopper blades, they can knock them off center. Then maybe the blade starts to dip down to dip or go up and come around to tear off the tail boom. Then the chopper will autogyrate to the ground. Or, if the booby-trap misses, it can so psychologically damage a chopper crew’s day that they become less effective. Imagine a pilot coming into an LZ or across some elephant grass and, all of a sudden, in front of him he sees a

cluster of rocks and boards. Even if they missed, the psychological effect can be incredible. It would

be totally unexpected, which is not to say it ever worked.

__________________

* Some 10,000 U. S. servicemen lost at least one limb in Vietnam, more than all those in World War II and Korea combined.

On patrol we would come across areas where there would be four or five visible booby-traps within several hundred meters. That would mean that there was one out there that you didn’t see.  They’re trying to tell you, ‘Look idiot, you want to walk on this trail? We’re gonna be nice about it. We’re gonna show you some of the old stuff.’ So you go back to the lieutenant to say, “I think we better cut a trail over here,” or you can drive on and meet a Malaysian Gate or a punji trap of some other booby-trap. Like I said before,  the non-explosive trap seemed more frightening.

Take the punji trap. The Vietnamese take a simple five gallon can (like a paint thinner can) and turn it upside down. They cut an X in it so that there are four pie-shaped sections in the can. The bend them back a little but so the points are sticking out of the can. Then they dig a hole in the trail and put the can in the hole, stake it down, shit or piss all over it. Next they  fill the hole back up around the outer edges of the can with dirt and throw grass or leaves across the top of it. When a grunt steps in the hole, his first reaction is to pull his foot back out. If he’s got a 65-pound rucksack on his back, he’s going to go in at least ankle deep to any hole he steps in. When he tries to pull his foot back by reflex, those spikes go right through the top of his jungle boot and catch him in the ankle. The med-evac will have to come and take him out.

Because the trap is staked down inside the ground, the grunt has to stand there with this thing stuck in his leg while the guys in his squad dig around it to get it out of the ground. They might dig down so far and hit a second booby-trap that’s placed underneath the can. It’s designed to blow up when someone digs deep enough to take the booby-trap off the grunt who already stepped on the goddamned thing to begin with. They’ve got another similar trap similar to the five-gallon trap. They dig a hole and cover it with two boards butted up against each other. The boards are pivoted against each other with long spikes at opposite ends. The two ends act like a see-saw. When the grunt steps on one end of either board, the other end comes up and catches him in the calf with long nails or bamboo-barbed spikes with shit on them.

The psychological effect of these traps really wears you down. I remember this one trail I walked down that had almost every conceivable booby-trap. After I walked 50 or 75 meters down it, I could tell that they were inoperable, that they weren’t just being exposed for me to see.  They were actually falling into decay. Another 200 meters in we came to an abandoned base camp. When old-timers see all these booby-traps they become hard-timers. As point man you’re doing a point man’s trip, but you’re becoming weirder and weirder as you go. You start getting very cold. ‘Point’ was just a job that didn’t make any sense because the war didn’t make any sense.

While I’m out in the brush, out in the dirt, I come down with hepatitis simply because of the living conditions.  I walked around with infectious hepatitis for two weeks carrying a 65-pound rucksack. I was jaundiced, the whites of my eyes were brown, my urine was black. At one point I sat right down on top of my rucksack and cried. I told my friend, Billy C. Bryles, “I can’t do this no way, man! I can’t do this no more, pal.” And he said, “You’ve got to!” So I stopped crying, picked up my rucksack and me and him and the rest moved off. I walked around in the jungle for another week and a half. Then we were brought back to the rear for a standdown. When guys come back the rear for a couple of days and lay up, they drink beer, get laid, masturbate, whatever else there was to do.

When I was out in the field, I’d go up to the medic in the mornings. Everybody would be kind of groggy, but I’d grab him by the shirt and say, “Look at this!” Then I’d whip it out and pee right there in front of him, and its black like Coca Cola. And he’d say, “Oh, here, here’s a couple of Darvon [ analgesic prescribed for pain].  So when I got back to the rear, the medic says, “You’d better go on sick call. You don’t look too good.” So I walked into the battalion aid station and the medic there said, “Piss in the bottle, please.”  He knew.  So I pee in the bottle and bring it back to him.

“Where’d you get this?”

“I just pissed that!”

“Lay down on a cot. Don’t move. Relax.”

He goes and gets the doctor. When the doctor gets there, he takes one look at  me and calls together all the medics in the battalion. The company medics were assigned to the battalion aid station. I mean that each company in the battalion was called and told, “I want every medic you got, HERE, NOW!”

When they got there, he chewed their ass. He yelled, “I don’t want to see this happen again!” I’m laying there on the cot, thinking, ‘What’s this?’ I’m really tired and I can’t move too well. But I really don’t know what’s happening. This scene is new to me, too, and I listen to the doctor tell the medics he doesn’t want to see this again. Well, fine, what does this mean? What’s going to happen to me? Finally, the doctor told me, “First, we’re going to send you to Qui Nhon. You’ll be in an isolation ward for three weeks until your blood count is normal and this infectious hepatitis leaves you. Then we’re going to send you to a nice hospital in Japan for bed rest because you’re so sick.”

I  got hepatitis in September [1967] and was sent to the 7th Field Hospital, Johnson Annex, Yakota Air Force Base, Japan. While I was in the hospital Danny Kaye came around and danced for us a little bit. “Keep up the good work, you know?” Fuck that! Also, there was a nurse that would come through in the morning. She’d have the top two buttons of her uniform unbuttoned. She’d be wearing a whole lot of makeup and perfume and that. She had large breasts and she’d lean across you and tell you to wake up so that when you turned, you stuck your face right in her cleavage. Then she’d go, “Oh!”

One morning she came through,  leaned across and played that little game with me that she’d been playing on a lot of men in the ward. But I reached up and grabbed with both hands, one on each breast. And she—“Oh!”—“oooo.” I said, “Well then, don’t stick them in my face! Damn it, I’m sleeping. I ain’t bothering you. You won’t let me out of this fucking room, but you come and stick your tits in my face at seven in the morning.” She got mad and went and told the doctor. He came down and told me, “Don’t talk to the nurses like that!” I said, “Send me back to my unit. Get me outa here. I want to go back to my unit.” I think her behavior was an exception to the rule and the rule was that Army nurses were righteous. They did a hell of a job. But what was happening to me was the I was relating to my home as my unit. That’s a problem. I didn’t feel right unless I was in my squad on a trail somewhere. You see?

Shore was a friend of mine in my platoon. When he was wounded, they sent him to Japan and he was still in the hospital at Yakota  when I got there.  His machine gun jammed when he was in a firefight at Duc Pho (It was the same firefight when the NVA dropped a hand grenade between me and this one sergeant.) Shore was freaked out so bad that he charged up the hill with an empty machine gun, screaming his head off. He threw a hand grenade into a bunker, turned to run and ran right into a tree. As he smashed into the tree, a North Vietnamese soldier shot him in the leg.  Then the hand grenade went off and did the bunker in. Shore crawled back down the hill, pissed off, moaning and crying, “The goddamned sonuvabitch shot me.”

Shore was a married man. He used to carry a tape recorder in the field.  He would get tapes from his woman back in the States. When we would be setting up, he would leave the perimeter, walk off a few yards, sit down and play his tape recorder, listen to what he wife had to say. That’s one thing that helped him stay alive. He was wounded in the thigh muscle. The bullet passed through the flesh, but didn’t break the bone and didn’t tear him up too much. So they sewed him up on both sides of his thigh and he began to heal. One day the doctor came in and said, “Oh, it looks like the leg is pretty well together. You should be going back to your unit shortly.” Shore looked at him and said, “Oh, yeah…” He put both hands on either side of the incision and tore the sutures out, just tore the whole wound open.

They rushed him to surgery and sewed his leg back up. A couple of days later, they came back to check on it and he said, “Am I going back to my unit?” When they said, “Yes, that’s right,” he did the exact same thing. And he told them that every time they sewed him up and told him that he was going back to his unit, he was going to tear his leg apart until they sent him home. Well, they sent him home, clean out of the Green Machine. The Army must have thought, ‘We don’t even want to think about having you in one of our units because you’re too dangerous. You won’t be coerced into doing what we want you to do.” That man was ready to go through that much pain and misery just to stay out of the field. He wasn’t doing it because he thought the while military was wrong. He just realized the point of survival was the fact that the United States Army was bound and determined to get him dead, and the only way he could prevent that so he could see his wife again was by not cooperating. Each man was attempting to survive and every man responded differently to the same experience.

The supremacy attitudes of the officers and NCO’s helped to undermine the military in Vietnam. I am not criticizing every man who served in that capacity. There were a lot of good people, but there were also a lot of duds. I remember an incident in Cam Ranh Bay after I got back from Japan. They had jerked me out of the field for another hearing test. The sergeant had said, “Just get on a chopper and go!” I had all my equipment—my rifle, ammo, grenades, a .45 and several knives. I was wearing funky fatigues and a swamp hat instead of a steel pot. I’m tired, I’m  mad, and I hurt. (I read Bill Mauldin’s Up Front several years after I got out of the service and couldn’t believe how similar the situation seemed.)

So I’m walking across the compound. I got a cigarette dangling out of my mouth. Instead of having my rifle at sling arms, I’d take a strap and put it through the hand guard on the M-16 and hang that off my shoulder. Then I could have my hand on the pistol grip. Using the strap on my shoulder as a lever, I could push the weapon straight in front of me if I had to, flip on full or semi-automatic, and go for it. And these two officers walk by, a second lieutenant and a captain. I saluted. I mean what I was supposed to do was take the cigarette out of my mouth, bring my weapon to present arms and salute with my weapon. But I kept my hand on my weapon, kept my cigarette in my mouth, and raised my hand to my hat to salute in a military fashion.

I really wasn’t comprehending what I was doing, but I still had this attitude that I should be respectful to officers. This second lieutenant stopped me and just dug right in my shit. He started getting in my face for everything he could think, you know, disrespect to an officer, a non-military attitude, blah, blah, blah, blah. And while he’s talking to me and I’m looking at him, I’m just pushing down on the pistol grip and I’m raising the muzzle of my weapon right up at him. And I didn’t have any idea of what I was doing. I’m just thinking, ‘But, goddamn it, I ain’t bothering you. And I’m tired and you’re PISSING ME OFF!’

Then the captain steps up, taps the lieutenant on the shoulder, looks at him and says, “I would leave him alone if I were you. And take a very good look at where he’s coming from. Because he’d been through enough. So why don’t you leave him alone.” And I looked at the captain, saluted with my hand and said, “Thank you, Sir.” He said, “That’s all right, troop. Just go about your business. Go have a beer.” And as I walked away, I could hear this lieutenant getting his ass chewed out. The main thing the captain was saying was, ‘If you want to stay alive for a year, do not do that again!’

My attitude was ‘Jesus Christ, everybody in the world is shooting at me, the bugs are biting me, I’ve had malaria and all kinds of other shit, and you’re getting in my face because I don’t look military? I’m going to make you look dead if you keep it up.’ And I didn’t want to do that. Why should I shoot a man I’m serving with in the Army? But it was a mentality that was being developed: ‘You will do as you are told! You will comply with my order, but I can do whatever I want to do.’ That attitude got a lot of officers and NCO’s fragged.  Fragging was never done indiscriminately. It was the result of harassment and frustration.

I’ve mentioned Gene Shroth before. He was a man that went through a whole lot of shit, and he became very hardened. Shroth and the platoon sergeant were beefing because Gene had shot a VC and claimed his weapon and the platoon sergeant wanted it. They disliked each other after that. I guess Gene wouldn’t do certain things in the field. Ordinarily, sergeants and officers wouldn’t mess with guys in the field because everybody is armed. They would try to disarm troops when they came to the rear, but most [infantry] people carried concealed weapons. (I carried a .357  magnum at all times that no one knew I had.) Anyway, the sergeant told Shroth, “When we get back to the rear, I’m gonna have you on every dirty detail I can find.” Gene just looked at him and said, “You gotta get back to the rear first, Sarge.”

And when Gene got back to the rear, the sergeant wasn’t anywhere in sight. He did hassle the man one bit. He realized, ‘Well, if I give shit to that man, in the middle of some firefight something might go wrong, and the next thing you know it’s body bag time for me.’ People left Gene alone. They knew he didn’t have ‘Black Mariah’ stenciled on his machine gun for nothing. Looking back, it was terrible for a guy 19 or 20 years old to develop such an attitude. That attitude wasn’t born in him; it was pushed on him. The traumatic effect of that war and its insanity amplified that attitude to the point that he became very cold and very mean, yet deep down inside he is not that way and didn’t want to be that way.

A lot of officers and NCO’s were caught between a rock and a hard place. They were ill prepared for their combat role. I had some feeling of compassion for some of the officers and NCO’s in the situation. But it was common knowledge why fragging was done. It’s not generally understood that the soldier was being constantly harassed in addition to being shot at by the Vietnamese, blown up by his own artillery, catching malaria, hepatitis, jungle rot and various kinds of parasites. On top of all that, they were catching a lot of bullshit. People wondered why nice-Johnny from suburbia or the country or the inner city, why Johnny comes home and won’t take shit from anybody at any time for any reason. The experiences of the war just made us cold. A lot of people should really look at themselves hard for helping to perpetuate that mentality. Most people just paid their taxes and looked the other way while thousands of men were ruined physically and psychologically by a totally unnecessary and absurd war of conquest that we couldn’t win.

I had been in Japan for three weeks getting over hepatitis, when I was sent back to my company. They had moved from Duc Pho to the Chu Lai area. I went, “Oh, far fucking out, no more Duc Pho; we’re in Chu Lai.” But you know, there ain’t no difference. Chu Lai was hot and it was fucked. I try to talk about Chu Lai, but it’s no use. Chu Lai is a blur because it was so extreme. When I got back from the hospital the second time, the guys in my platoon told me what happened to them.

My platoon was sent out to check out an abandoned base camp. Intelligence reports said, ‘There’s nothing there, so go ahead and check it out,” which was bullshit, of course. So my platoon walked into this big rice paddy area. And out in the middle of the paddy there was an outcropping of dirt maybe three, four acres with a bunch of trees on in and some storage sheds. There’s a ridge line running off a hill that comes out and just about touches that mound of dirt. It’s perfect for getting in and out, but then against people inside it can’t attacked except from that side because there’s just hundreds of acres of dried up rice paddy that you’re not going to walk across.

Well, my platoon bebopped down the ridge line and walked right into the middle of a North Vietnamese regimental CP [command post]. And they got their shit shot off. I mean those types of incidents are weird. No one is supposed to be there and everyone it there! The Vietnamese were all over that mound—under it, on top of it, along side of it. The mound wasn’t really high, maybe 10 or 15 meters above the level of the rice paddy, about the size of a football field. You can put a lot of people in an area that size. Many people think a combat soldier goes through combat every day. But that’s not the way it is; combat is sporadic. We wouldn’t see nothing for two months and then, all of a sudden, we’d have it for a week and a half. So you’re always ready for it, but it’s always shock when it happens.

When the platoon walked up to that mound and found a full regiment sitting on the damn thing, they backed right out. The point men and the platoon leader died right off the top, wwwhhhttt!, they’re gone. There’s only maybe 23 or 24  guys in my platoon to begin with. The initial burst just wiped us out. I was told there were maybe 15, 16 men left in my platoon after the whole thing was done and that’s a squad and a half. (Our company was always at least half-strength having to do the job of a full-strength company.) The platoon backed across the dry paddies and got down in a creek bed. That’s the only thing that saved them.

Of course, the platoon couldn’t have really stopped the NVA, but they didn’t come across the open area to get them. The platoon called in close support artillery and gun ships. At the same time, the rest of the companies in my battalion were moving on the area. The Vietnamese shot down one gun ship and two med-evacs. In the meantime, they were beating it out the back door. As all this is happening, the battalion commander flies over the scene and gets his ass shot down. Well, that’s one of the things that really pissed me off about the whole damn officer corps. Our guys could hear the CO yelling on the radio for support. All the support stopped coming to our platoon and went and surrounded him. It left shot up guys in my platoon hanging right out there in an open ditch.  Once they secured the CO, they came back and pulled out the platoon.

Guys in the platoon told me about this one North Vietnamese soldier. I guess he was either crazy or decided it was a good time to die. He tried to shoot a Phantom [jet] down with an AK-47 [assault rifle].  The Phantom came in really low on a gun run, right in over the top of the platoon, maybe 75 or 100 feet off the ground, if that. They he opened up with everything he had right at the tree line. This one NVA jumped out of the treeline, ran out into the rice paddy, aimed and dadadadadada, trying to shoot him down. They said you could see the Phantom kick his wing over to one side, the pilot looking down. Then he went straight up in the air, turned over and came straight down. The pilot and this North Vietnamese man stood and went to war with each other. The guy with his AK was kicking rounds up in the air. And this dude in the Phantom  came down and went BBBPPPT!  He literally blew the Vietnamese into the ground with his 20 mm cannon. He just made hamburger out of him, but that man died free. I can’t imagine the balls someone would have to have. Before that incident I had respect for the North Vietnamese soldier, but after I  heard about that I had downright fear.

So 26 people walked into a regimental CP with 2000 enemy in there. In that incident we took a lot of casualties in my platoon. With proper intelligence, some of those men would not have died. But often intelligence was wrong or misleading.  Or sometimes it was right but we didn’t listen, so we ended up wrong. I wouldn’t nearly think that the military would ever sacrifice lives to find out if the enemy is in a particular place. Yet, from time to time, I think that possibly, very possibly, the platoon was sent in there to get it going. You know, ‘Let’s send our people in there and if they catch any shit, we’ll just have out Phantoms go in.’ Because there was close support artillery and Phantom jet cover instantly. I have been known to question the motives for my country’s actions, but I don’t really feel that the United States Army would walk 26 young men into an ambush just so they could make sure. Then again, I could be wrong. I do know that the United States lied to me for a handful of years.

And not just lies, but stupidities. Outside Chu Lai, we were pulling a sweep on a hill. The engineers had come in and checked it out first. We came up and secured the hill. Now the Marines had operated in this area for a long time. It seemed like their attitude was to go through and place mines wherever they felt like it—one here, two there, another one over there. And then they’d walk off and leave them. They didn’t tell other troops about them. And consequently, when other Americans, or Vietnamese, or little kids, or water buffalo walked by, they were subject to getting blown to pieces. I remember we had secured this hill, set up or perimeter, and people were walking around inside it.

Just about dusk our first sergeant, a spit-and-polish crazy, stepped on a Bouncing Betty. This is a mine that comes out of the ground on a spring and explodes in the air once it’s triggered by stepping on it. Well, it popped up in time from him to turn and look at it when it detonated. It killed him right off the top. At the same time, it killed the company commander and the RTO and wounded two other men. The absurdity of this incident is that we not only had to worry about enemy attacks and booby-traps, but our own ordnance too. I had thought that someone was supposed to mark on a map every mine put in the ground so that friendly forces don’t walk on them. Well, the Bouncing Betty was American-made, American-placed, and it killed Americans.

Another example of the problem: We would set up night perimeters. Maybe we’d have two platoons in one place and two in another. One night my platoon and 3rd platoon set up in a night perimeter. The 2nd platoon was moving toward us to link up with us and expand the perimeter for the night. Customarily, whenever you get within five minutes of a position, you call ahead and say, ‘Be advised. There are friendlies in the area. Tell your people to be careful and not to shoot when they hear some brush moving.’ Most of the time the brush is so thick you can’t see through it. Our battalion motto was ‘no slack.’ So when we were close fo American units, we’d yell, ‘No Slack,’ so they know that there’s English-speaking people out there.

Well, the lieutenant that’s leading 2nd platoon marches his people right down into the 3rd  and 4th platoon area. But he failed to call ahead and inform anybody that he is coming. So 3rd and 4th platoon leaders do not notify their perimeter guards that there are friendlies in the area. Then this one man goes outside the perimeter area to go to the bathroom. He’s squatting down in the brush. He’d got his rifle with him and, of course, he’s not wearing any shirt or hat. The point element of 2nd platoon see someone squatting down with black hair. He thinks it is a Viet Cong, hits the ground and starts firing. The man in the bush relieving himself thinks the Viet Cong are attacking and he dives to the ground and starts firing, too. These Americans kill each other because their lieutenants failed to communicate. So we had two dead and our night perimeter was totally blown for security. We had to extract two bodies and everybody in the world knew where we were. There was no reason in the world for those men to die. But because of negligence, they did.  And it happened in Duc Pho and Chu Lai and Song Be.

I was blown up three times by artillery and all three times is was American. One of these times we were at the bottom of a hill, getting ready to assault up it to take pressure off a company of the 2nd/five-0-deuce. These were getting pretty badly mauled up on top of the hill. A 105 battery started firing for effect. But the support artillery that was supposed to help soften up the area for us, hit us. There are four guns in an artillery battery. They have a fan-shaped area or gun sheath that they fire into. They can fire between, say, 90 to 120 degrees. The gun sheaths are overlapping; they are plotted on a map sheet and these artillery people were outside their gun sheath and about 1,000 meters off their map sheet. I was standing in the middle of a creek bed when an artillery round hit the water I was standing in. They walked four rounds right down the line of men in my company and wounded three people.

We thought the Vietnamese were attacking, so we just opened a main frequency and started yelling, “CHECK FIRE! We have wounded! Who’s firing on us? What’s going on?” That’s when we found out that the rounds were our own support. So we had to pull into a night position to extract the wounded. That meant that we did not assault the top of the hill that we were supposed to. Consequently, the infantry on top of the hill sustained 33 dead and 65 wounded over and above what they had before we came to try to relieve them. So the whole battle was a fiasco. I don’t think the American people were ever informed about the fact that we were killing our own people. This kind of thing happened over and over. Often you didn’t know who was firing at you or for what reason. It was just totally insane.

By the middle of December 1967, my unit had gone from Khan Duong to Duc Pho to Chu Lai and then from Phan Thiet to Bao Loc. But in the last two areas there was no contact, nothing. It’s bad when you get a unit that’s hyped into combat and there is no combat. They begin to get lax and, when they get lax, they begin to make mistakes and they start taking casualties. But we were lucky, nothing much happened. I was still a tunnel rat. I remember checking out what looked like an Indian burial mound. It had four posts off the ground and a platform on top. We found it wasn’t booby-trapped and went in, took it apart, looking for shit. And I found this ledger. I went back out and gave it to the company commander who turned around and gave it to the [Vietnamese] interrogator.

He just started jumping up and down and laughing and got a very weird look in his eye. Then I was told what I had found—a list of all the VC tax collectors and sympathizers for the Phan Thiet region. I knew then that the majority of people with names on that document were dead. I might as well have put my rifle to their foreheads and blown their brains out. It was my military duty to turn in that list of names, but it really grates on me that I got people killed simply because they were fighting to be free of us. In retrospect, if I had known what I found, I wouldn’t have turned it in.

We continued to operate around Phan Thiet for a while. We didn’t see much; it was a quiet area. We were still doing the same thing. They’d take us out, stick us in the brush and say, ‘GO!’ And we’d just go. Then, all of sudden, they picked us up and jerked us back the main base camp at Phan Rang. Between March 1967, when I arrived in Vietnam, and December 1967, there had never been more than one battalion in the rear at any one time. This time all four battalions of the 1st brigade were training at Phan Rang. At the same time, the 2nd and 3rd brigades were brought over and stationed at Bien Hoa. All the brigades were supposedly training for a parachute drop into Song Be Valley that never came off. The Song Be River came out of Cambodia at the bottom of the Parrot’s Beak [northwest of Saigon]. It was one of the main inlets for the Ho Chi Minh Trail from Cambodia heading for Saigon. I think they [the command] knew some kind of offensive was coming.

Shortly after Christmas 1967 the choppers came in and we were moved to Song Be. That’s when things started to get hot again. There was a big mountain just outside Song Be City that had a Special Forces communications camp on it. The guys there only owned what was inside their wire; everything outside the wire was VC. They had a steady fire fight almost 24 hours a day. Or it seemed like it was. We were put in a base camp at the bottom of the mountain so the VC were between us and the guys on top. Everyone we sent up the side of the mountain got kicked right back down again. The objective of going to Song Be was to slow down the supplies that were coming to the VC and NVA from Cambodia. I had a general idea of what was happening, but I didn’t know where Song Be was at the time. The lieutenant says, “You’re in Song Be.” Well, great, that’s fine, but I might was well be in Bong Song or Chu Lai or Duc Pho. Everywhere looks the same. Here’s here, so fuck it.” Later on, when I looked at maps and studied what I did and where I was, I can draw conclusions about why the hell I went into Cambodia in 1967.

What was clear was that at the end of 1967 things began to get rougher. More [U.S.] troops were coming. When the 2nd and 3rd brigades of the 101st came over at the end of ’67, General Barsani came over to command the division. These guys were ‘legs,’ you know, non-airborne. When the general gets there, he starts running down things like the dress code… for grunts! We’re supposed to shave and look neat. Dress code? Fuck you, general! Guys started doing things like drawing targets on the back of his tent. By this time  the brigade base camp at Phan Rang had been broken up and the whole division base camp was moved to Bien Hoa. Then the division general came up to Song Be where we were. This is the dry season and Song Be is in the red clay district.  The red clay dust get so bad that when it gets on you it pigments your skin. Some [sergeant] E-6 drove past the general and got red dust all over him. The general had the E-6 busted to private. But there’s no way in hell in Song Be in the dry season that anyone can avoid the dust, even generals. So on top of the heat and the dust and the firefights, we had lifer bullshit. I’m there in the rear at Song Be City thinking, “All I want to do is go to the brush.”

We were laid up in Song Be maybe four or five days setting up a base camp. When we left out of the base camp on Hueys we were sent right up on top of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Actually, ‘the trail’ was all kinds of little trails coming down from the north and in from Cambodia. We flew west to the Cambodian border and landed in rolling hills. We went only in one direction;  we just started walking right down the middle of the trail due west. If you  go west from Vietnam, you hit Cambodia. And that’s exactly where we went. All the signs were there I saw hard-packed roads with no bomb craters, but bomb craters were everywhere inside Vietnam.* We overran base camps that were like out base camp at Phan Rang. We found North Vietnamese soldiers that had never seen combat. I don’t know if the operation had a name or was just a quickie.

Now we were a battalion moving en masse. Companies rotated walking the point of the column. The 2nd of the 502 was on our left and the 1st of the 327 was on our right. We had extremely close [artillery] support and we needed it. It got to the point that they had to set up a fire base right in the middle of the trail. We operated for the first time without rucksacks. Before,  in rucksacks we carried four days of rations, six canteens of water, a bed roll,  a trenching tool, a machete, 500 rounds of ammunition, another 110 rounds of machine gun ammo, a claymore [mine], and assorted knives: between 65 and 80 pounds of equipment. When we got into a firefight we just dropped it. In Song Be we didn’t have to do that. We’d leave them in the base camp and go out in the morning on one day patrols with just ammunition. We didn’t have to search for the man because he was right there. We’d go out 400 meters, get in a firefight, just throw at them what we could, and back up into the base camp, stay there and pull perimeters. It was really hot. The North Vietnamese were walking around like it was home. You know? Hell, we found bridges for a deuce and a half [2 ½ ton truck].

So I was in Cambodia three years before the government launched its invasion [April 1970]. There is no way anyone could tell me I wasn’t because I saw these hard-packed roads about 20 feet wide going right into Cambodia with a telephone cable that had 26 phone lines coming from Cambodia into Vietnam. We overran a position, cut the phone lines, blew bridges, and destroyed base camps when we could. Since we were only 400 meters outside our own wire sometimes, the 105 howitzers fired very close support rounds.  The 155 ground mounts they had for close support would have short 8-inch gun tubes. They’d be almost straight up in the air. That’s how close support was.

This whole operation didn’t last more than two weeks. And yet we received more casualties in those two weeks than we received in the previous eight or nine months. We could hear the Vietnamese running around outside our wire at night, setting up ambushes on the trails. Our recon squad had to operate at platoon strength instead of by squads because it was so hot.  Well, as I said, we were operating right there in the man’s back yards.

It got pretty tense. In fact, it got so bad that this black brother from Baltimore flipped out in the middle of the night. He jumped up and grabbed his rifle, clambered around and jumped in the fire berm. (A fire berm is a big hole dug in the ground with a D-9 dozer; they put all the trash in it and burn it for sanitation.) Then he climbed out of the fire berm and started running for the wire yelling, “You’re not going to get me! You’re not going to get me! I’m going to get you first!” and shooting at the wire.

A couple of guys went out there and knocked him down, brought him back and let him rest. He was in our squad. The medics came and wanted to take him away from us, and everybody said, “Naw, he ain’t going nowhere! He stays right here! He’s all right.  You don’t need to take him away.” I saw it happen. That’s how people got. He was all right the next day. It turned out that he’d just gotten a letter from his woman that she was pregnant and he was thinking, ‘I got seven more months in this country and this is where I’m at.’ And I’m thinking, ‘It’s late December and I’m leaving in March and this is where I’m at.’ It sure seemed like things were getting rough.

One day near Song Be I watched my whole platoon just get eaten up. Shit, in a few minutes Will Mayhew died, Garver died and another man named Bruce died. We have four wounded. That might not seem like much, but if you figure you’re operating at half platoon strength and you get three dead and four wounded in two minutes, that cuts you down to 13. That’s real nasty. That does make a difference. We were getting our ass shot off.

They were busting claymores on us; they had us down and dirty. And we were afraid to go out, just knowing that if we went back to the same place, we’d make contact. And that’s what happened. On two different days we make contact in the same place. What happens then is that you start wondering what the hell’s going on. It was getting so hot that the NVA were beginning to run sappers against the wire at night, things like that. One day we were about 300 meters from the first base on a search and destroy  mission. They called up and said, “Pack it up, forget it, come on back to the base camp.” Just like that.

When we got back to the base campo, they were breaking shit down and blowing up bunkers and pulling the guns out with big sky cranes. I’m thinking, ‘What the hell is going on?’ Because the infantryman is never told anything. We were just told what to do, where to go, never why. They put us on helicopters and flew us all the way back to Song Be air field. There was just mass confusion there. They had us guarding a bunch of artillery pieces for about eight or nine hours. These were 175’s, self-propelled Long Toms. Then they picked us up and took us to the air strip at Song Be. We got on C-130’s and went directly to Saigon. The Tet Offensive had broken out.

We knew something big was happening, but we had no idea what the Tet Offensive was. We walked off the planes at Saigon, not on trucks and drove down to the end of Tan Sanh Nhut Air Force Base and went right back into it. In the span of 12 hours I went from jungle warfare—the only warfare I knew—to house-to-house fighting. Just like that! We were walking down the street and there were bloody finger marks all over the walls, military equipment all over the place, and bodies stacked up like cord wood in deuce and a halfs. I’m just totally in shock again. It has taken me months to get used to the jungle and now I’m fighting in the streets. I didn’t know anything about house-to-house fighting Nothing! At Tan Sanh Nhut was relieved parts of the 25th Infantry and the 1st Infantry.

The next day we had to go out and pull a sweep. The fighting around Saigon had pretty much died down by then. We worked outside the wire at the end of Tan Sanh Nhut near the main highway that runs through the base. We walked over that highway, down the other side, past the airfield. We skirted this little village  right in the middle of the battle. Everyone in it died. So we walked down the road through this devastation. There weren’t nothing but bodies all over the ground: women, children, old men, North Vietnamese in uniform. I stopped counting after 200. We walked  up to another village right next to this big factory. We had to search the factory out.

I walked over the pulled back the door of the guard shack and there’s this body laying there on the floor, bloated. I just went on by. We went out back and swept out into the rice paddies. We checkout a few more villages and saw the same thing: bodies everywhere on the factory floor, in village doorways, hanging out of windows, in front yards, back yards—just hundreds and hundreds of bloated bodies, women, old men, children, babies, dogs, cats. Bodies get big when they’re left out. You know that? Human bodies swell up. It got to the point where I just got numb. I just didn’t see it. It just wasn’t there!

Then we came back in. The company commander thought we shouldn’t have to walk so much, so he commandeered four buses from a parking lot, and we drove back to the wire. We just got off them and left them sitting by the side of the road. “Au, fuck it. Let someone else take care of them.” When it was clear that the area around Tan Sanh Nhut was calmed down, they picked us up and sent us by chopper clean across Saigon.  They put the company down in an Enco oil dump. For the next four or five days that’s where we sat, guarding the fuel dumps. The fighting had leveled the Cholon district of Saigon, but not a shot had been fired near the oil dumps. You don’t go blowing up Enco Refineries; they get pissed off at that. Guarding the refinery meant taking it easy, playing cards, kicking back.  The 2nd of the five-0-deuce had it rougher. While we were flying back to Song Be from Cambodia, they were airlifted directly into Saigon, briefed on the way and combat assaulted right in.

While we’re laying up at the Enco dump, a jeep pulls in. This guy gets out and says, “Steve Hassna, you’ve got to go to the hospital for hearing tests.” See, I’d been sent earlier for hearing tests and they all came back ‘hearing loss.’ But they kept sending me back to the brush. Well, the battalion had moved to Saigon for Tet, but the base camp didn’t move. To go to hearing tests in Nha Trang meant I had to go all the way back to Song Be, hand the doctor the slip that authorized the test, go to Nha Trang, take the test, go back to Song Be, where the doctor stamps ‘Back to Duty’ on the slip, and then go to Saigon to link up with my unit. By then the whole company  had moved back to the division area at Bien Hoa.  That’s where I hooked up with them and that’s where all the shit came down on me about being in the brush. They threatened to court-martial me.

The Army had made a big mistake. When I first got wounded in June 1967, I spent 35 days in the hospital at Qui Nhon and then was sent back to my unit. While I was in the hospital, I was writing letters home to the family. I wrote a letter to my mom and mentioned the fact that my arms was a little sore, but it was working all right and that I couldn’t hear too well, probably because of the concussion of the artillery round. I said I was going back to walking point.

My mom’s a great letter writer. So she wrote Congressman Miller [D:CA]. “My son is walking point and he can’t hear.” That was in September. So Congressman Miller sends down a congressional inquiry. Now the Army is supposed to reply to a congressional inquiry within 48 hours.  The first sergeant took the congressional inquiry and stuck it in his desk and forgot about it. Come late October/early November, when my whole brigade was back in base camp at Phan Rang, I’m called into the company commander’s office and read my rights under the UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice]. I told them, “Why, I’ve never seen the thing before in my life.” I didn’t know what they were talking about.

The reason I was on the carpet was that a second congressional inquiry was hand-carried by a major from the office of the Adjutant General at brigade headquarters to the company.  And they wanted an answer right now! The congressman was breathing down the Army’s neck. The company clerk said that the first sergeant forgot about it. Even though he was a dud, they didn’t want to burn the first sergeant. So they were going to burn me.  Then they told me, “Look, if you this waiver, then you can go back to the brush. If you don’t sign it, then you’re going to stay in the rear for the rest of your tour.” I was thinking, ‘Wow, I gonna pull details and burn shit and get messed with. I don’t want to do that!’

I was so out of it by that time I only felt safe in the brush with my friends. It felt like home. So I signed it to go back to the brush. I wasn’t told that if I hadn’t signed it, I would have been sent home. Over the next couple of months, I went for another couple of hearing tests. Each time I came back with the test results, the battalion doctor wouldn’t look at it. He would just give me a ‘back to duty’ slip and I’d go back to the brush.  This went on for several months. I went inside Cambodia, then after Tet, when the company pulled back to the old 173rd Airborne Brigade base camp at Bien Hoa in February, I’m called into the company commander’s office and read my rights again. This time I’m told that I have been ‘unauthorized personnel’ in a combat zone since June, 1967.

All along the line of military foul-ups, they had me staying in the brush for all those months when I didn’t have to be there. They weren’t going to burn the battalion doctor or the battalion commander or the first sergeant for it. They were going to blame the mess on Specialist 4 Steve Hassna and I didn’t know anything about it. When I found out, I just flipped out; I went nuts.  At one point, when were was a disturbance at the wire on the other side of the base camp, headquarters called up and told all available units to saddle up and get ready to move out. I saddled up.

That’s how messed up I was. I was going with my squad: “You ain’t taking my squad away from me! You ain’t going to do that!”  My platoon sergeant told me that he would have me court-martialed if I tried to lave with my company.  They took my weapon away from me. So I had to stand there and watch them go. They went on up to Hue, which was a son-of-a-bitch. When I saw them again, they had moved to Phu Bai, not that far from the A Shau Valley. When I realized that the Army was going to try to burn me for its mistake, it really bummed me out. When they told me I was ‘unauthorized personnel,’ I realized that I could have been killed or maimed.

When I got to Phu Bai, I guess I had about three weeks left in-country. They weren’t going to send me to the brush no more. I pulled “rocket watch.” I would sit on a chaise lounge chair—one of those aluminum jobs with the plastic weaving—out behind my company area and “watch for rockets.” So there I sat with all the remfs. A remf is a ‘rear echelon motherfucker.’ A remf is a person that sits. Every army in every war has remfs. This sit back in the rear, eat off plates and drink out of glasses. The remf has plenty of booze and dope. He pushes paper all day and goes to town and balls women at night. The grunt, on the other hand, is out in the brush getting his ass shot off and he can’t even get a beer. He can’t get clean jungle fatigues; he can’t get boots; he can’t get anything, but when he goes to the rear he sees remfs everywhere. If they bring out a sundry pack to you and you get a couple of packs of cigarettes, you’re lucky.  Everybody in the rear are ‘legs’ with clean fatigues, getting hot showers, good food, plenty of women. We got a bad attitude toward these people because ‘they ain’t doing nothing.’ That’s how I felt when I came to the rear.

Back in the rear I saw older grunts trying to scare the newbees.  What good is it to scare them? They’re already scared. A grunt might as well fight a war on Jupiter as try to relate to newbees. I remember I’d go into the [enlisted men’s] club, get a can of Dinty Moore’s stew, go back outside, sit down on my steel pot, get out some heat tabs and cook my chow, then get drunk. I’m in the middle of the base camp with the mess hall 50 feet away. I might as well have been in the brush. I’m grubby and filthy with no expression on my face. Everybody’s in the club, but I can’t related to the club. I’d go in, buy a couple of beers and go back outside. A majority of the grunts who were in the brush for any length of time were like this.

So I’m out there squatting down eating ‘C ’s’ with my rifle next to me. I went nowhere without my rifle, even in base camp. They tried to make me turn it in, but they didn’t do so well.  I either had a rifle, a .45, or an Arkansas toothpick, or all three. And these newbees would walk by, looking at me. They didn’t say nothing; they didn’t understand. Newbees and remfs didn’t understand. I told my company commander that I’d rather be in the bush than in the rear because all the lifers do is harass the guys in the rear. It’s a wonder they didn’t sent me home then, because they got uncomfortable with people like me. A guy want to go to the bush, maybe he wants to kill. They can’t control that because that guy might just kill them. After a while, some grunts don’t care who they kill. That was my experience with the rear before I got to Phu Bai.

So in February I was out of the bush for good—on “rocket watch.” But I got really nervous. As soon as they took me off “rocket watch” I got sick. I’m sitting on the steps outside the orderly room wrapped up in a poncho liner shaking. This lieutenant comes up and says, “You don’t look so good. Go lay down!” When I woke up the next morning, someone came into the hootch and said, “Hey, man, you all right? What’s happening?” All I do is lay there. Then there are these hands and faces moving me from there to some hospital. I had come down with malaria again. I’m deathly afraid of needles and yet they put an I.V. in each arm. I was gone. Later I couldn’t remember the flight from Phu Bai to Cam Ranh Bay. I woke up three days later: “Ah, what’s going on? I’m hungry.” Since I got malaria during the last three weeks I was in Nam, when I went back to Phu Bai to DEROS, I stayed there only two days. Then I went to Phan Rang because the administrative section of the 1st Brigade was still there.

By the time those last few days at Phan Rang came down, I was emotionally drained. I had six days in-country and I didn’t give a damn. I didn’t care. My attitude was LEAVE ME ALONE and we’ll get along great. Bother me and I’m going to shoot you! That was the attitude I brought home with me. Two days after I went home my company went into the A Shau Valley, And again the platoon was wiped out. I’m lucky I’m not dead.

I got into a crap game in the DEROS barracks in Phan Rang my last night there. At one point a man threw $500 down on the floor and the guy across from him said, “You’re faded.” I picked up my $50 and put it in my pocket and walked out. I wasn’t worried about losing my $50; I was worried about losing my life. Everybody in the room was armed to the teeth. If someone goes for that money, there might be a knockdown drag out with weapons. I said to myself, ‘No way!’ The game was played out, but when I saw that much money flash in a room with people whose attitude was just like mine, I walked out. Somebody might pull out a weapon and they might miss who they’re aiming at and kill me.

I had sold my .357 magnum to a  friend in my platoon. I gave my camera to Wilson. I was cleaning up, getting rid of all that unauthorized armament. I wore a Bowie knife in place of my .357 underneath my jungle fatigues and I carried an Arkansas toothpick on my right hip. If push came to shove, I was still somewhat equipped. On the morning that the plane left Phan Rang for Cam Ranh Bay, before we got on the plane, the sergeant said, “Okay, everything you want to send home that you don’t want to carry…” which was a nice way of saying, ‘stow the knives, sell the illegal pieces, the bayonets go  in the box on the right, the grenades go in the box on the left.’ I stowed my knives. I felt really edgy about that. It meant that I had to go from Phan Rang to Cam Ranh unarmed.  Before, when I had the knives but no .357, I was somewhat armed. If someone was crazy enough to jump me, I thought, “If you survive, you will never forget who I was.” The point of all this is that you are hyped. Having a .38 or a .357 was second nature: “It’s right here under my arm and I use it for this: BANG!!” Then, when you come home, you get no de-programming at all.

That last week or so in Vietnam was mainly the reverse  of the in-country processing. You’re in shock. You’re going home, back to the land of the big PX, back to the world. And no one’s bothering you. Binky was there, and Dempsey and Hutchinson and van Sleuten. And we were all standing by the  side of the road or walking by the newbees and chuckling to ourselves… or not saying anything—maybe just thinking, ‘It’s time to go home and maybe we  should spread out because  one incoming round could get us all.”  So we’ll go down the road and have a beer and think about it. We all went to Vietnam together and we came home together. Dempsey was the best man at my wedding. Van Sleuten went back to Salt Lake City after he got out of the Army. Hutchinson and Binky went their own way. A  lot of the brothers came  home in boxes; they came home broken; they came home maimed. The rest of us just came home. Now I was one of those people standing on the side of the road in funky jungle fatigues, staring at the newbees: “Hey, newbee! I got two days left. How much time you got left? Hahahaha. Man, you got a life time!”

April 1973

                                                                                    

2. Medic

 

November, 1967. We were just another plane load of GI’s going to Vietnam. We left Fort Sam Houston for Fort Lewis and then flew to Vietnam in less than 48 hours. It was an awful flight because we were going to war. Some people talked to each other but mainly everyone was very quiet.  The worst thing that happened though was that they served us some old sandwiches. It was November 19 and mine was an October-made sandwich. I got sick off of it. Or maybe it was just landing in Cam Ranh Bay.

I was sick for about a week and I used that week to stay out of the field. I really didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay back. Of course, I didn’t know about draft deferments or groups that could help me. Apparently all of the brothers didn’t know about it either.  They were all caught up in it with me. But I was a conscientious objector. Most of the people that  were C. O.’s went in on a religious preference. Mine was Seventh Day Adventist, which meant that if I had to go, then I didn’t want to kill. Usually they train C.O.’s as medics. And they needed medics.  I went over in ’67, when the war was being escalated by leaps and bounds. I was scared, yeah, I sure was.

When we got to Cam Ranh Bay, I got off the plane and started sweating all over the place. Everyone was still quiet, not much talking. There’s a sergeant telling us where to go, what to do,  just processing us into the war. So they sent me to the Central Highlands, a place called An Khe, the headquarters of the First Air Cavalry. From there I was sent to a landing Zone further north; I don’t remember the name. I was sent to an artillery group that I was going to be with—the 1st of the 77th of the First Air Cav. It was a 105 howitzer battery; we had six of those cannons. The war was all around us but not hitting us at that moment. We were in a quiet area. Remember that artillery units don’t normally get hurt; they usually expected to go through their whole tour safe. As it turned out, our group I guess was an exception.

I was going to be the only medic for 65 or 70 men. When I got there, the sanitation was pretty bad. I helped build an adequate latrine so that the feces wouldn’t effect anyone. I dug a huge pit so whatever didn’t get burned could be dumped and covered over with soil. Also, their kitchen was really disgusting, so I fixed that up. I noticed that people weren’t eating that well. I got close to a guy who knew some manipulative ways of getting sergeants and captains to do their thing for him. I used him to get more food for the guys and also some of the Vietnamese children in a village close by. So we managed to get B-rations, which is edible, you know, a lot better that “C’s.” Of course, A-rations was THE FOOD but we would hardly ever see “A’s.”

I used to go into the village and some of the children would come to the battery. I would take care of them. They had a lot of skin diseases and I knew a little about dermatology, so I’d deal with their fungus. I’d use a kind of all-purpose anti-bacterial ointment. It did the trick. Also, I developed a rapport with a doctor back in An Khe. I told him that supplies are often slow in coming and could he help me out. So sometimes I would give them shots, when I was able to get a hold of penicillin. I didn’t want to be like the regular medics who have a little bag and don’t carry a lot of shit. When they run out, that’s that. They expected supplies to come in but I didn’t want to wait.

For the first two and a half months I stayed at the LZ. Our group saw no action. Actually, we were there replenishing men who had been messed up earlier. I did my chores and I developed a rapport with a young boy, 14 years old, named Chen. That’s ‘ten’ in Vietnamese, so he was number 10. That was very bad to be, but he was number one in my eyes. He was fantastic. He did my laundry and we talked a lot. He spoke some English and I learned a few Vietnamese words. He helped with my orientation. I got to know about food; generally it was  pretty bad over there. I got my first cavities in Vietnam because they had so much candy. Also I learned that we couldn’t drink soda in the bottles because they could have hepatitis. Vietnamese used local water which wasn’t always the best to drink. So I made sure that the guys drank out of cans that had to be popped open. I had my first taste of pork in Vietnam. A Seventh Day Adventist doesn’t eat pork but I ate cans and cans of spam—and fruit cocktail, when we could get a hold of that. We would eat it to death.

I  had the responsibility of giving out the big orange horse pill, which was quinine to prevent malaria. The little white pill was sulfa against malaria, too. I did that every Monday, the designated day. Here I come with the pills and guys would say, “Oh, it’s shit day” and I’d say, “don’t say ‘shit’ around me. I want you to use the word ‘excrement.’ Or say ‘sugar!’ These are better sounding words. I even had the officers saying, “Oh, excrement!” I was damned scared and a little humor helped. Then, I’m black, all right? Most of the other medics in other units were white; nobody hardly ever saw a black medic. Guys in the unit didn’t know if I had my shit together till we got in a firefight and then I turned out to be fantastic. To them, anyway. So I had all these apprehensions and I had to ease some of that with myself as well as with them. That’s why I came up with these words.

By the time we left for Khe Sanh in the middle of February [1968] they knew I had something together because their whole diet seemed to change for the better. We had built a nice big wooden latrine so they could go to the bathroom a little bit better. We cleaned up the kitchen that was already there and made it look presentable. When the guys were told by the officers that they had to go on ‘shit duty,’ I wasn’t supposed to touch nothing. My hands were supposed to stay clean, just watch. But I would always do my own work. They would come on that duty and enjoy it because they wouldn’t have to do it. I wouldn’t let them handle shit, you know, that’s nasty stuff. You must have medical hands to do that. We used diesel, which is best to burn excrement with. Sometimes we used helicopter fuel or kerosene, but it operated to quick. You need a slow burning fuel to burn excrement and, boy, we had tons of it.

Monday: that was ‘excrement day.’ Somehow those big pills I gave out didn’t agree with most people’s systems. Actually, they didn’t have to take them. They could have just drunk quinine water. That’s all you have to take. There’s so many things they put on those guys. Like steel soles in their shoes to protect them from spikes. That’s a bunch of bunk. Nobody walked on spikes. The flak jacket was a little bit protective. It was thick and heavy but not really bullet proof. If the rounds came through the back or chest, maybe  guys wouldn’t get hurt. But lower body, legs, arms, head—the the flak jacket didn’t do much good. In fact, a lot of letters came to the battery, to the captain from parents asking for the medic to explain what happened to their son, how their son died. I wouldn’t tell the truth. I thought the military would destroy my letter if I did. A lot of guys died because of carelessness. If you take a break after constant fighting, you want to relax, you take off your protection, you let down your guard. So I told them that their son was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn’t their fault. They shouldn’t have been over there in the first place. But then I’d tell the officers, ‘Why don’t you take care of it.’

So I had my two and a half months of orientation. I learned to take care of the guys, try to keep things clean, even myself. When I had only one pair of fatigues, I would go to the lake near us and wash my pants while I was still in them—because of the leeches—come out and let the air dry me off. Of course I couldn’t do it during the monsoon when there was just no mercy from the rain. You’d just have to go through it and expect to survive. Most people did survive pretty well because of the determination to get back home. Most of the guys, especially the brothers, had an affinity towards the people. Some of the white guys, too. These were guys like hippies and when they heard I was from San Francisco I got a chance to play it up. So I was treated like a prodigy—which was very wrong–just because I was black and a medic from the place where the flower movement was happening.

 

Then we got the word that we were going up north near Khe Sanh where heavy fighting from the Tet Offensive was. This was the middle of February, 1968. When we left, I kissed Chen goodbye and told him and his friends to come to our mess hall to take all they food they wanted before the next units came into our position. They took everything they could carry and I felt good about that. Then we got on Chinooks, big, grey, ugly looking helicopters, and ended up at an LZ close to Khe Sanh; I didn’t know exactly where it was. We moved through four LZs between mid-February and May before we actually did see Khe Sanh. It was at the fourth LZ that we were overrun.

Before we left our old position we knew the war was close because we could hear BOOM, BOOM, BOOM in the distance. But until then nobody had been shooting at us. At the first LZ, which was about 30 miles from Khe Sanh, I got my first round passing over my head. We all ducked. It was a sniper that got away. It was over in a second and everybody slowly got us and went into the hootches which were mostly underground bunkers. This LZ was built up; it was huge. I guess guys had been there a while. That’s where I heard that the AK-47 can use M-16 rounds, but we can’t use theirs. Some of the men actually got shot with M-16 bullets, which, when it hits your body, just rips it up; it spins leaving a very lacerating wound, almost always fatal. But fortunately we didn’t have any fatalities that first night.

We stayed at that LZ for about a month with not much action. Most of the LZ’s were set up on ridges. They were like big T’s or U’s or L’s, flat on top and, because of th elevation, you could see clouds or patches of fog below you. The big helicopters—the ones with four blades on one big propeller, flying cranes. They brought in all the heavy stuff like our PSP, the steel plates we put on top of the hootches in case a round came in. The only incident was when something got away from one of the helicopters and hit this sergeant and gave him a big gash on his head. Another medic took care of it.

We were near the Laotian border. Khe Sanh was very close, about seven miles away. We were firing our guns right into Laos, even though the news was saying ‘No, we have no fighting in Laos.’ But we did have troops going in there in March of  ’68. The infantry was protecting us and we were firing out cannons to support them. Our cannons could shoot seven miles (which is seven charges behind that round) and we could hear the  1-5-5’s, which can shoot eight miles, and the 1-7-5’s that can shoot 25 miles. Every now and then we could hear a round from those huge navy ships with guns that can shoot 30 miles. But we were not receiving any return fire. I was right there at the LZ; I didn’t have to go out of our safe position because there were plenty of medics.

We were getting ready to leave for another LZ. We could do it in about 30 minutes. So we were packing up and I was called over by this first sergeant and told to spread the word to the other brothers that Martin Luther King has died. That night I almost got in aa fight with a white guy who got on my nerves. I usually hold it back so I guess that I just wanted to argue or something. When someone explained to this guy what had happened, even though he didn’t show any sympathy, he did quiet down and went about his business. The other brothers (there were eight of us out of 70 men) were just sad, I guess. None of us cried, though inside maybe some of us did. That man was good, you know.  We felt that if anybody was going to get us together and keep us together, it was him. And the man—the white man—took that away from us. We felt very hurt and some of us speculated (because we did talk about it) that there would be fighting in the streets like in ’65 and ’66.  And it there was another March on Washington, we would definitely be part of it. If we got back, we’d go right back into action because, we said, ‘This [Vietnam] really isn’t our war.’

I think that was my turning point. Because of Martin Luther King’s death we did sit down and talk finally. I began to develop a political perspective that I really didn’t have before I went into the service. The civil rights thing was in our heads then. And the Black Panther thing, too.  My brother was in the civil rights movement, president of the local [San Francisco] NAACP for while. So the political thing in my head made me hard-nosed. I brushed up on being a medic, on sucking chest wounds, how to give IVs (even though I didn’t have IV fluids; I eventually got some that I ordered), all kinds of bandages that some medics don’t even carry.   Some guys said, “How you gonna carry all that?” and I said, “I’m glad you asked. You’re gonna help me because you may have to use it one of these days.”

Most of April and into the second week of May we stayed at our third LZ about a mile from Khe Sanh and about four klicks from the 17th parallel. That’s North Vietnam. We were in their backyard. And we began to get what we had been giving them, howitzer for howitzer. Every now and then at LZ Snoopy men in the battery and some of the infantry guys started getting hurt. We were fighting a bunch of farmers but their brothers and sisters came from North Vietnam in uniforms. And then it started to happen throughout that month. The apprehension, the  fear of being hurt just built up to a head and some of the men would just scream or freak out.

When the first round came in that killed a guy in the infantry, I heard the cry go out:“medic’. Everyone else was down. The LZ was shaped like a ‘T,’ and I was at the bottom of the ‘T’ where the helicopters come in to pick up the wounded and bring  in supplies. So I ran up to where the infantry was, but their medic was already there. I asked, “Do you need my help?” But he said, “No, no, go back to your own area.” He had it under control. It was my first time seeing an open wound like that. They guy had a huge gash with lots of blood in the chest and stomach area. It must have been very painful, though the guy had gone into shock. The helicopter came and picked him up within 20 minutes.

The second time it happened I really had to deal with it. It was about 10 o’clock in the morning and this guy was coming out of his hootch on the side of the ridge line that was part of the ‘T.’ And he took a direct hit. We heard the round fired; that’s how close we were to them, maybe only four or five miles away. So they had no problem zeroing in on us. And we heard the round hit: BOOM!! But  when you hear it, you don’t have much time to run. When he stepped out of his hootch, he may have wanted to turn back, but he had only seven or eight seconds. Or he may not have heard it because the bunker could have blocked out the sound. We saw dirt flying all over the place and I got up and yelled, “Is everybody all right?” Something like that. And guys said, “Yeah, everyone’s okay.”

Someone said, “Take a head count!” It turned out that one person was wounded; a brother took some shrapnel in his arm. Walking around I said, “What’s this on the ground?” And someone said, “Yeah, I see something over here, too.” It was part of a man’s innards, his guts. The guy coming out of the hootch, a white guy, was just gone. At first we couldn’t find him. Hey, the round doesn’t know who you are; it just comes. I said, “Maybe he’s at the wire.” So the lieutenant told the medics to take care of  it: “Only the medics go get him! My men go through enough shit!” That was our job, a bunch of bullshit. But why should we go through the trauma (or for that matter anyone) of picking up a person like that? Everyone should be their own medic. Anyway  there were five medics, and one of the five froze. So the rest of us got a poncho and some shovels. We found the body on the barbed wire with just hundreds and hundreds of  flies on him. Everyone was quiet, just dead silence. All you could hear was the hum of the flies. All the infantry guys and artillery guys were just watching us at the wire.

The experience of moving him, taking our shovels and picking him up, shooing the flies away was unforgettable. His limbs were laying every which way. We more or less scraped him together and put him on the poncho. We pulled the four corners over the body and made kind of a sack. I held them and put it over my shoulder and the other guys got behind it and we pushed and pulled it along. He was just dead weight. You could see the drag marks from where we hauled him. I don’t know how  they put him together to be processed back home. But taking him to the helicopter pad was the hardest moment; I can visualize it right now. We were sweating and the flies were swarming around us. I don’t know where they came from but it was a gross swarming, just all kinds of flying insects because he was a completely open wound. We got him to the bottom of the ‘T’ and sort of straightened him around. I never did learn the guy’s name. I just went ahead and did it because the other medics were going through changes. They hadn’t seen nothing like this. We tied the poncho up and in about 20 minutes the helicopter came. Then I guess it was the usual scene when we put the guy on—still silent, no one talking. The helicopter left and then another round came in, but it didn’t hit anybody.

We  started getting more rounds and more guys started getting hurt, but not that gross hurt. They were getting small shrapnel wounds in the arm or the leg and they’d be sent back to the battalion aide station for week or so and then they’d come back to the field. About that time I asked our captain, “You know, you can get us off this LZ. You demand we get off this LZ.” And he said, “I know, Charles, they’ve got us now.” We were responding to their rounds; we fired and fired and fired all six guns in the same direction. Some guy was yelling, “We got them, we got them.” But it wasn’t true because when we stopped firing another round came in and hit our first cannon near the top of the ‘T.’ They had zeroed right in on it and got the cannon and three men at the same time.

I was down there on the cannon before the smoke cleared. I just responded, ‘Oh, my god,’ because we figured we got them. The crew had taken off their flak jackets and one guy was sitting on the side of the cannon starting to write a letter. So he was gone. I was yelling for somebody to help me. “Don’t be standing around bullshitting! Get out here and help me!” I had to do something. I didn’t know what the infantry medics were doing, maybe getting ready for the next round. I went to the next guy and I was on him for two or three minutes when I discovered that I was blowing into a man that had his neck completely gashed out; he was dead. The other guy had a chest wound. He was a big black man like John Henry on the railroad, huge, masculine, a beautiful bronze person. I could see right into his chest, but the round did not knock him down. He was on one knee saying, “Can I help you, Charles? Can I help you?”

I was working on the guy with the gaping hole and I said, “Yes, go over and help those fools who don’t have their shit together,” not thinking, although knowing that he was hurt. These other guys froze when the shell hit. They told me later that they were sorry; they didn’t mean to freeze. It was all right. Hell, I almost froze. But I didn’t because I was just crazy at the time. I had so much going on with me in that week that I just said, “Aw, fuck it. Every time something happens I’m there.” In a sense I was a fanatic. I always had my helmet and flak jacket on. I always carried everything I needed, never had my medical stuff hanging somewhere else to where I would have to run and get it. I would always have bandages in the bottom pockets of my fatigues. I was a complete walking medical bag. Guys were getting hurt too fast. TOO FAST! The responsibility was just too great, I think… eventually anyway.

Another medic ran down from the hill and helped me with the guy that was hurt and I covered one guy with a poncho. We moved all three of them past the other five guns to the landing field at the top of the ‘T.’ We didn’t get any more rounds until after the helicopter picked up these people. The black guy that helped me had a big bandage on his chest but he was sitting up with his feet handing out of the Huey which was crowded because it had picked up some other people, too. We gave each other the thumbs up. From the guys in the Huey I felt the emotional good will in their eyes and I have it back to them but there was no verbal thing. Almost immediately another round came in. I guess they knew they got our first gun, so they started getting the others: two, three, four, five, six… It took them until about 9 o’clock that night to get them all.

Each cannon had its own ammo hootch and that next round in hit the first cannon’s ammo hootch. The ammo started exploding with shrapnel flying everywhere. When the guns are set up in a row, its almost like a chain reaction. So the infantry—they were the 1st of the 5th–had to be completely evacuated from the bottom part and the right side of the ‘T.’ They were losing men and these men were replacements, green infantry who had just come in-country. These guys were still going through their sun burn problem; they didn’t have their tan. And what was heavy was that they were put right into this shit. And these guys were crowded into the hootches. Rounds were exploding everywhere, both theirs and ours, and all the men were scared. The lieutenant colonel was flying around overhead and we had been in contact with him, asking him to please get us off the LZ. And apparently he said, ‘No! You’re going to stay until all the equipment is salvaged. We’ll salvage what we can. We’re going to send in helicopters tomorrow to take it off, not today.” So we were left there, almost stranded. No one was happy about it, but we didn’t think anything would happen even though our captain said we might get overrun.

They had plenty of time, all that Saturday evening, to get us off the LZ. I couldn’t salvage any of my equipment. My IV equipment was all exploded and most of my dressings were lost. The cannons were destroyed. Some had gaping holes in their barrels. They had been held to the ground with spikes and one was overturned. There was no way we could have used any of them, though two might have been salvageable. I guess the lieutenant colonel who was in charge of the 1st of the 77th artillery (I don’t remember his name) wanted to make sure his record was clear so he could say, ‘We were overrun, but we got our equipment out even though it was barely salvageable. We only lost a few lives.’ To this day, if I ever saw him, I guess all the anger and frustration of remembering all those men who died that night would cause me to go after him. I sure would! I’ll never forget it.

By about nine o’clock in the evening all of our ammo had stopped exploding. All the firing had stopped. Even though the colonel said we couldn’t leave our captain was lifted out. We were told he had heat stroke, but actually I think he freaked out because he was scared shitless. He was a pretty good guy; I don’t think he could stand to see us get hurt. All the rush of adrenalin that happens in the body  can be too much. But the lieutenant colonel did not come to visit us that night. The lieutenants took command of the LZ. The captain of the infantry was there, but I think he left; he may have been wounded. We didn’t know it, but the North Vietnamese were regrouping for a sapper attack. We checked out the lower part of the LZ that we abandoned and recovered some rifles, but the sappers were not in the LZ yet. During the three-hour period from nine to twelve, none of us slept or ate. We were just there pleading to get off the LZ.

I just laid down on top of a hootch for awhile. This was before midnight. Everyone was either laying on top or grouped inside the hootches. Because the captain warned us before he left that we may be overrun, some guys were on top of the hootches; they didn’t want to be trapped inside. But at least half  the artillery people were inside the hootches. Maybe they thought there was more cover. A lot to the infantry guys were green and weren’t used to fighting. I think I went to sleep when all of a sudden I heard BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! and then “MEDIC! MEDIC!” Everything was pitch black, dead of night. When I heard the explosions and the shouts, I knew they were coming through the wire, throwing satchel charges into the hootches. Sometimes five guys would get hit at one time. The satchel charges were yellow-colored with explosives and scraps of metal inside. They were a little more lethal than hand grenades. These guys were not skinny Viet Cong either. They were big, healthy, well-fed North Vietnamese, the special forces of their army. And they were using their AK-47’s. We were mostly artillerymen and green infantry. When they came in on us it was real chaotic. A lot of it is a blur that I can’t remember too well. But it was really the climax to a lot of things in my life.

When I got the first medic ‘help’ call, I got off the hootch. I decided to use this huge crater next to the hootch were a 750-pound bomb from a   B-52 had hit. It was the size of three average-size bedrooms. There was a little hootch in the middle of the crater and I would pull guys in there who were hurt and take care of them. I was bandaging them as fast as I could get a hold of them. They were hit in the arms, legs, face and some had sucking chest wounds. While I was doing this, this infantry lieutenant comes running by saying, “Come on, hurry, we need your help! There’s six men trapped and wounded in a hootch down below and we need to get them out.” We were on the top part of the ‘T’ and the crater was right where the two parts of the ‘T’ come together. All the fighting is going on the right side of the ‘T.’ But sappers are coming from two directions and his men just froze. So I said, “I’ll go with you, but first I have to finish what I’m doing.” At this point my mind goes a little blank; the story is confused. I do remember my  lieutenant, Lieutenant Maynard, wanted to give me his .45 but I said, “No. No.” To this day I am not sure about everything that happened, although the officers and men tell me I was doing something outstanding, whatever they call ‘outstanding,’ heroic stuff, saving lives. They gave me the Silver Star for whatever I did.

I remember pulling one of the guys in the hootch that was sitting stiff-like with his rifle in the crater. I said, “Dammit, get in here! He came in the hootch and I told him, “This man has to sit up. Hold him up. Hold this bandage on him,” because people with sucking chest wounds tend to want to sit up. “I will be back.” I ran down with the lieutenant and we got the other guys out of the hootch, although one of them was dead. With the lieutenant helping, I carried or dragged each guy individually from the hootch to my crater. They were from the infantry. One guy had lost his foot; it was held to his leg only by a piece of skin. Other guys had gaping butt wound and I had no bandages big enough to cover them. It seemed like I ran out of everything I needed.

When the lieutenant was asking for men and the green infantry guys were frozen, one of the artillery guys—Chavone—volunteered. He was a Latin guy that always got extra food for us and I would do things for him like give him some Darvon and I was there to talk to him when he was depressed. He was a  muscular guy and he grabbed an M-60 [machine gun] and kept the Vietnamese off  us until we got everyone into the crater. Then a sapper got behind him and blew him apart. His right hand was gone; he also had a gaping hole in his left arm and his left leg from his buttocks to about his knee was torn completely open. And the only name he called out was mine, not his mom, just “Doc! Doc! Doc! Charles!” It was as if everything else stopped around me even though all this chaos was going on. All I could hear was just him.

I searched for bandages. I was frantic. I even thought of taking them off someone else, but I didn’t. When I saw this helicopter coming in I said, “Chavone wait here. Wait here!,” as if he could go anywhere. I ran to where the helicopter was coming in, but it couldn’t get in. The RTO  said that he couldn’t land until the artillery stopped firing and it wasn’t going to stop because we were still being overrun. I ran back to Chavone and said (I don’t remember the verbatim of  it), “Chavone! Hey man, you’ll be all right. It’s almost daylight. Hang in there. I’ll be back.” There were other people wounded. And he said something like, “Yeah, Charles. Yeah.” He was in shock, covered by deep pain, but he wasn’t screaming or crying.

Chavone lasted until morning. Finally, a helicopter came in to take out the wounded. The lieutenant colonel came in and that’s when I asked the time. It was about 6:30. This German guy, Lukey, helped me carry Chavone on a stretcher to the helicopter. He was still breathing, but there was not much that I could do for him—no IV’s, though I did manage to bandage his right arm and his leg. The helicopter wasn’t really a med-evac; they were using any helicopter they could pull into service because we lost so many men. And the one that came in could only hold two people and it already had one. So some guy looked at the guys on stretchers and said, “Which one? Who goes first?” I saw another helicopter in the distance and, without even blinking, I let someone else get on. Maybe if he had gotten on that helicopter they could have given him oxygen or some fluids, kept him alive. But I said, “Go ahead.” And at that moment I saw Chavone take his last breath.

That last breath did it. I had gone through enough. I guess I went berserk. I gave him mouth-to-mouth, three or four minutes worth. I had already been giving mouth-to-mouth through the night. But on Chavone it didn’t seem to work. I was headstrong: IT HAD TO WORK! And then Lukey pulled me off because there was just nothing we could do. He said, “The man is dead, Charles.” He was hysterical; he was beginning to crack up because he saws me crack up and I was his medic. I just bawled and bawled; all these feelings just get wrapped into the situation. When I stopped, McWilliams came by and comforted me saying, “Everything’s okay. You did what you could, Charles. You were absolutely beautiful.”

The last people were being evacuated on the helicopters and I was still sitting there on the sidelines. My emotions were still tight, real tight. I’m not saying anything, but responding to different things. And this loach [LOH] came in, a little, private-type [observation] helicopter that looks like a dragon fly, a water-drop with a propeller on it. That was our lieutenant colonel. The battle is over; the last guy has been shot. I didn’t learn till later that he came down to see about taking the cannons off the LZ. I just wanted to kill the man. He wanted those guns strapped up for the Chinooks [CH-47 cargo helicopters]. He did not want to leave the LZ with the guns still there, but I was thinking, “God darn, can’t you just blow them up? How many men have to die for this shit?” And I’m screaming this to no on in particular.

Some of the men came over to comfort me. They really didn’t say anything, but it was like, “Be cool, be cool. Everything’s all right. We’ll get off this fucking place.” Some guys were selected to go out and strap up the cannons. They were very brave because they were vulnerable. The cannons had been hit once, so the NVA had the grids to do it again. And they began firing at them again. Each time a Chinook would come in to pick up a cannon, a round would come in and the Chinook would drop the gun and back off. These are huge helicopters with two big propellers. The guys are standing on the cannon in all that wind to catch the hook, worried that a round will come in. The Chinook would have to come right over the guys to get hooked up and that was very dangerous with rounds coming in. The pilots of the helicopter were as brave as the artilleryman. So the Chinook would sneak in over the trees, swhoosh down over the hump of the ‘T’ and down its long stem to where the cannons were sitting. It usually takes 20 to 30 minutes to get off the LZ, but it took us all day with rounds coming in. ALL DAY! The 2nd of the 5th had come in to replace the 1st of the 5th, the green troops. The 2nd of the 5th was more used to fighting. But as soon as they landed, while we were still preparing our guns, three of them got hit. We finally got off the LZ about 5 o’clock that day.

After we lifted out, they flew us high over Khe Sanh to show us what we were protecting. They took us to another LZ. We didn’t get hit that night, but the 2nd of the 5th got overrun at our old LZ. I didn’t understand why they just didn’t evacuate everybody, totally, abandon the thing and bomb the hell out of it. But I was thinking of survival, of how 48 lives could have been saved. The next night Lieutenant Maynard told me that the .45 he wanted to let me use didn’t have any rounds in it. So if I’d tried to use it, I could have been shot. I’ll never forget that! That night he also told me that I was going on R and R [rest and recreation] the following day: “Charles, you really deserve a break.” and I said, “So soon?” The next day I left for Tokyo on R and R, replaced by a green medic just in-country, which was a bad scene. The night after I left, the battery was overrun again. One of my friends lost an eye and another one had his leg messed up real bad. A couple of them got shrapnel so deeply embedded in them that they couldn’t get it out, but at least they  were still alive.  But it was ridiculous to think that they can send somebody away for six days, expect them to recuperate, and then come back and do it all over again and stay sane.

I never saw the lieutenant colonel after LZ Snoopy but our captain returned after I got back from R and R. Everybody knew what happened. He seemed to be in good shape but they were taking him out of action.   And he was going to be in the Saigon area. At the end of May I got the Silver Star. Lieutenant Maynard and the first sergeant got one, too. Apparently, some of the men who saw me doing what I was doing, wanted me to get something for it. It didn’t mean too much to me, though, because so many had died. I was still angry. My gut feeling was still with killing the lieutenant colonel because he had the power to get us off the LZ. I was driven over to the battalion headquarters and they asked questions: “What did you do?” “Do you know who else saw you do it?” They fished into this trunk and got out a Silver Star. I saw a whole lot of them in there. That afternoon Major General Tolson came out and gave me the medal. Seems like they have out a lot of those medals. The ceremony was very short. Later on, when I wanted orders for it, they didn’t have it on record. But they tracked it down and said they were sorry.

All this happened after I came back to this quiet LZ. We had to get reorganized, so they kept us away from another kind of action—no mortars, no snipers, no nothing. We had gone through a lot of shit and they wanted to take care of us, too. So we were getting good food, regular A-rations. We were there from the end of May through June, July and August, 1968. That’s when I went to the villages to do my med-cap thing. We had a good liaison with the people there. It was very nice. We could do to the village, go swimming at the beach a few miles away. You could smell pot every night seething from the village like a little cloud overhead. But we got a first sergeant that was really a dog. He was a brother, but no brother to me. When he saw how good we had it, he thought we were doing this all the time. He didn’t know and he didn’t care what we had gone through. He was just too gung-ho. He was already pulling rank: “Now, when you speak to me, Mr. Taliaferro, you address me as ‘Sir.’” And I told him, “Man, one of these days something gonna happen to you. And realize why it happens, before it happens!” He wanted us to have our uniforms pressed by the people in the village and go out on police call around the LZ. It was just insane. Even on that quiet LZ somebody tried to shoot him.

We followed orders of the captain, but not blindly. Instead of a blatant following, we would question orders and there would be murmurings, and rightly  so! We talked about death , and what it is to fight for one’s rights and color. And who is “Charlie?” “Who is a gook?” I didn’t like the word ‘Charlie’ because my name in Charles and ‘Charlie’ had a bad connotation. And I called the enemy ‘gooks’ in the beginning. But when I started working with people in the village, the word ‘gook’ just totally left my head. So this stuff came out more and more in our discussion in the hootch. And a lot of guys would come to me because they were freaking out over getting a ‘dear John’ or because of their friends being hurt. They would just talk, talk, talk and I was just that ear that would listen.  My advice wasn’t that much. I didn’t know what to say sometimes. I did tell all of them the same thing though: ‘We need you support. If you go out on us now, who would replace you? Somebody who doesn’t even know us. We need you because you know us. You know how we are and how we think and if we lost you, we would miss you.’ I didn’t get that for myself, though. Maybe that’s why I kept it for myself for so long. It actually ate me up inside. Eventually, I broke down. But that was after I got out of the military.

But before I left, we moved to another LZ in September somewhere near Danang. We started to see some action again. Some snipers shot at us when we got there but nobody was hurt. In the mornings we got sprayed with that stuff that kills the foliage [herbicide]. They would spray nearby, the wind would take it and we’d get a whiff of it. Jets would constantly bomb our area. When B-52’s bombed several miles away, we could see huge clouds of dirt and smoke coming our way. It’s ominous looking. That’s when I saw my first black helicopter pilot. I didn’t know we had any. I had learned how to fire the gun and I was one of the fastest loaders. I did it because I didn’t want the men to think that I couldn’t help in case one of them went down. I knew how to tear down that howitzer and put it back together again. I’ve done it, taken out and cleaned the block, all the pins and springs, cleaned the tube. Later I helped fire into this village that had been told to clear two weeks earlier. You know, a plane flew over with leaflets. Then one night we leveled the village; two batteries just fired and fired and fired. The next day I went in with the infantry to help them if they needed it. Eight people were injured in the village and we patched them up. And I was saying in English, “You’ll be all right” and “we’re sorry, we’re sorry.” It was really bad for me emotionally. And weird to shoot somebody and have to go in and patch them up.

We stayed at one more LZ which was used by the C-130’s to carry troops down to Saigon. From there they were sent home. That’s the way I went back, thirteen hours to Fort Lewis. Everyone was quiet. I remember I gave a guy $60 to get home. I never saw him again, but I didn’t care. I was just glad to be back home. When the plane landed there was a big yell,  happiness all over the place. When we got on the plane I promised myself that when I got home I was going to lock the door to the  house, keep everybody out just as a symbol. When I got to San Francisco International I ran into my brother, Ray, who worked for KNEW and was waiting to meet an NAACP attorney. We didn’t call but went right to the house to see my mother. And immediately, I locked the door, ran upstairs and sat down. Then I saw my other brother, Richard, and went to his wife’s birthday party that also became a homecoming party for me.

But I couldn’t talk about the war. I couldn’t tell my family about it until 1974. It’s hard emotionally to get yourself together when you come back. You’ve been in the war for a whole year and then in 24 hours you back on the streets expected to act like a sane human being. They might take your uniform and gun physically, but mentally…?  Your mind is not a computer; you can’t erase the experience. I can’t forget that I might have killed someone—with a cannon. It bothered me to the point that I almost took my own life in ’74. I’ve never lost the thought of having killed someone. I can’t forget it. I can only get it in perspective. It stays with you. I can be sitting on the Muni bus, going home, and all of a sudden tears start coming out of my eyes. It’s something that just comes up in me. People will tell me. “Well, you should forget it. It’s over.” But it didn’t happen to them.

 

September 1976

 

3. Wireman

 

November, 1967. I had to report to Oakland [Overseas Replacement], which wasn’t that traumatic. It was like the rest of the army: there was more going on than anyone could possibly keep track of. So many people were going in and out with so much processing going on that no one really knew what you were doing at any given time. It was like you could fall through the cracks. But I caught KP [kitchen police]. That grounded me in one place.

I had KP right up until I got on the bus to go the Travis Air Force Base. So I was totally burned out when I got to Travis to fly to Vietnam for the first time. When we flew out on a commercial airliner it was night time, crystal clear, and when the plane banked over San Francisco it was playing the song ‘If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.’  I looked down and thought, ‘I’m never going to see it again!’ And that was my first doubt. ‘There’s a year in front of me and it’s all black unknown.’ I didn’t have a good feeling at all, got really lonely, heartsick. I’d made a mistake and didn’t feel good about it at all.

Flying into Vietnam, everyone was crowding to the windows, looking down to see, “Are they shooting at us?” Landing at Bien Hoa, I was impressed by all the craters; it looked like the moon. I’m thinking, ‘Shit! There’s a real war going on down there.’ Finally, even though we landed at this modern airport, all these craters made an impression. Walking out of the airplane into the air for the first time was like walking into cotton. The air was so thick it felt like you could grab it. It was hot, humid, pressured.

We were taken over to the 90th Replacement Battalion and immediately I caught KP again. At the same time, I had to go to all of the mandatory formations to process in. There must have been people with orders cut for particular units, but the manifest did not assign me anywhere. Then I found out I was going to the 9th Infantry Division. Someone knew where the 9th was and he said, “Oh yeah, they’re in the Delta,” and he looked at me with a lot of compassion. That made me feel like I was dead. When I heard the word ‘infantry’ and that I was going to the [Mekong]  Delta (whatever the hell that meant), I had the feeling: ‘That’s it!’

Where you were sent in Vietnam was a matter of manpower needs. So I got on the bus with a lot of other people going to the 9th Infantry Division. We were bused out to Bear Cat, northwest of Saigon, maybe 15 or 20 miles out of Bien Hoa. It was a big division base camp. There must have been two brigades there. We were still building up in 1967.

Before I went to my unit, we had to stay at the replacement company for a week. They wanted us to get used to the climate and the food. They wanted new people to take it slow, experience Vietnam in a safe way, kind of settle down. At the same time, they’re also running us through some basic  infantry stuff—going on patrols, shooting a  machine gun, throwing grenades. Everybody they bring in goes through this. You’re supposed to learn a little bit about the war at the same time that you have to deal with the environment. You really don’t learn any useful skills. I don’t think that much of  it stuck in anybody’s mind. But it gets you acclimatized.  I mean there’s just too much going on that first week. It was useful because it helped slow you down; everybody was anxious. I mean, ‘we’re here!’

No one in the tent paid any attention to the 175 howitzers coming in at dusk the first night we were in the replacement company.  No one told us they were going to do a fire mission, right? So everyone went about their business, settling down for the night. And I remember being really uptight, just really tense. I’m thinking, ‘Here I am in the country now, and I’m out in the middle of this  forest of rubber trees with part of this crazy 9th Infantry Division and this guy back at Bien Hoa looked at me like I’m dead and I’m going to be dead soon.’ I didn’t want to go to sleep; I couldn’t sleep. And all of a sudden there was this WHOOOOMMMM!

Guys are running out of the tent, diving under beds, running every which way, bumping into each other. The 175 crew had got their fire mission and shot off a couple of salvos. I can remember thinking as the ground shook, ‘Oh, God…’ Well, the shelling went on all night. I thought, ‘Obviously, no one sleeps around here.’ Once my adrenalin was up, it pretty much stayed up the whole week. When I caught KP again, I protested: “Listen, I got KP in Oakland. I got it again at Bien Hoa and when I get here to the 9th I catch KP too. You can’t do this!’ But they did.

Later in that first week I went on patrol. It was a patrol for the new people in-country. Immediately, I got to carry the radio because I had the wireman MOS, and that was when I got clued in to what wiremen do. If I was assigned to an infantry unit, I wouldn’t be carrying around a field telephone. That was real clear. The sergeant said, “You might as well get used to it now and this is the way we do it. You sling your C-rations in a sock. You carry an M-79 [grenade launcher]. You  use this antenna when you’re out of the tree line, and when you’re in the tree line, use this other antenna. This is how you turn it on, this is the frequency, and here’s the KAT codes. KAT codes are letters you look up in different columns, one vertical, one horizontal; then you ‘phoeneticate’ VC equals Victory Charlie. Each day you have a new  set of codes and that is how you keep track of who’s supposed to be on the radio and who’s not. You give two letters, and they’re supposed to give the third letter. There’s no possible way for them to do that unless they have the codes.  Radiomen carried them in little packets. So I had all my equipment together and went off on this patrol. I thought, ‘Well, this is great.’

My  job was to follow this lieutenant, a field infantryman. I don’t know how he got his assignment in this training, but he came from the field and he was supposed to share his knowledge. I guess the guys that did this were all short-timers. The whole idea was that we were going way down this road and out to this one spot to set up an ambush.  Then, as soon as it got dark, we were gonna move a thousand meters to a new ambush site. That was the whole tactic. The lieutenant had the map and he knew where we were going. Everything was simpatico. We were to follow the leader and “nothing’s going to happen.” Everybody was heavily armed and I was feeling real macho all of a sudden. I realized that, ‘Gee, there must be thirty of us. We could kick the shit out of anyone that comes by. I ain’t worried about nothin’. There’s more fire power here than I ever seen on the block back in Richmond [California]. I’m carrying a radio, an M-79 and enough rounds to satisfy me for a long time. I figured, ‘Geez, if I ever had to go through all of these rounds, we’ve got serious problems.’

So I was comfortable. I thought it was an important job to carry the radio. I knew how to do it and really felt good about it. I fell in with everybody else. It was really pretty simple in the daytime, but then it got to be dusk and I realized, ‘Gee, we’re a long way from everybody else.’ I understood there were other patrols out. We were in a rubber tree plantation when we set up the ambush. The start of the ambush was to be detonation of a claymore [mine]. So several people got their claymores set up. The sergeant had strapped his claymore to the back of a rubber tree, aiming it down the trail. Then he ran the wire back to his position so that the backblast would be absorbed by the tree and wouldn’t hurt anybody. Claymores had a killing radius behind them as well as a tremendous killing radius in front of them.

There’s a little line “checker” between the claymore and the detonator that shows, if you squeeze the detonator, the claymore will go off. The sergeant apparently had left the detonator compressed which meant that when he unplugged the checker, the detonator would set off the claymore. And that is what happened. Here’s all these FNG’s [Fucking New Guys] out in the middle of nowhere. We had just set up for the night and it had just gotten dark. When the claymore goes off, all hell breaks loose. I’m with the radio and had just called in a negative sit rep [situation report].  The lieutenant goes crazy because his weapon is back with me, leaning against a tree. Nobody knows what’s really going on. Half the patrol is shooting, blowing up trees. I mean, it’s like the end of the world.

Finally, the lieutenant gets everybody stopped. And then we have to move. I’m thinking, ‘Gee, everybody knows where we’re at now. Shit, everybody in the village saw which way we were going anyway.’ When we went through the village, we were heading in only one direction, right? It was like a game, you know? After the claymore went off, the lieutenant was really concerned that we move right away. We’d already eaten and I was feeling real comfortable. I thought, ‘Well, this is really hoaky.’ We got all packed up and moved out. We had been out of that position for about five minutes when all of a sudden all these mortars started landing right on the position we had just vacated. I had felt we were real safe and there were all these unseen Vietnamese, humping maybe  eight or ten rounds into this area. And that made me anxious. We weren’t out in the rubber plantation by ourselves. I began to take what we were doing real serious.  They had definitely hit the spot that we had been in.

We set up a new ambush site. Then we heard that another patrol about a click over [1000 meters] on the map got ambushed.  They took wounded and dead and had to call in the med-evacs [medical evacuation helicopters]. Gun ships came out to back them up. This big fire fight had nothing to do with us, but we could hear it and see it. I began to feel real uncomfortable. That’s when you begin to hear everything. I mean you hear the crickets a block away. Your mind just   races and you focus on leaves that are blowing and shadows that don’t move, but seem to be moving. I mean it’s just incredible how you tune in. I got no sleep that night even though nothing more happened to us.

Early the next morning we moved out of that position onto this road. We had to walk about a half mile before we could catch a ride. As I was walking, I noticed for the first time that when the little whip antenna (for open spaces) was changed for a big, flexible antenna, it had at the top an orange pennant waving in the air. I hadn’t seen it all night. But in the morning, I looked and though, ‘Holy shit, I’ve been walking around with this pennant on my back like a target.’ Man, I really felt like the joke was on me. Someone put it up there and I was dumb enough to carry it around. It told me something about the lieutenant because I was right on his back all the time. I decided it was an interesting lesson. That was the only patrol that I was ever on that got shot at, but it definitely left an impression. The patrol was operating outside of Bear Cat, a huge metropolitan base camp, that was a relatively safe area. A day or so after that patrol I was assigned to headquarters and headquarters battery of the 9th Infantry Division. I was quite happy not to be in an infantry unit.

 

I remember another incident that happened while I was at the replacement battalion. The cadre there had the habit of pulling people out of the left-front of formations, which was just the opposite of what would happen in the States. Sergeants in the States would always pull malingerers out of the back of the formation or the last formation on the right. That was where they would get people for details.  The FNG’s didn’t know they reversed it in the 9th and pulled out the front ranks for details. So all these FNG’s were getting right out there gung-ho to avoid details, falling right into the reverse psychology of the cadre. After experiencing that for a couple of days, I realized that I did not want to be at the front; I wanted to be in the back, but not in the last formation because they would always go there to pull people out.

So the incident happened at the end of the training period. We had broken down out equipment and everybody was laying around in their billets. I was in my skivvies. We weren’t expecting a formation and a formation was called. They had a PA system, but NCO’s would run around yelling, “FALL OUT,” and everybody would grab their shit and get outside. “HEY, GET OUTSIDE!,” just like basic training, almost. And I thought, ‘Oh, God, here I am in my skivvies and I’ve got to get completely dressed, put on my boots, everything. I’m gonna be in the last formation. I’m had.” But something had changed; the cadre was acting out something that was different, but we had no idea what it was except that it was serious because the cadre was coming through. I knew that I did not want to be called for that detail. And I knew that I was had and I was resigned to it. And sure enough, by the time I got outside for formation, I was in the back of the last group of people to form up. I had this sinking feeling that, ‘Boy, this is a terrible place to be.” As it turned out, it was the best place to be.

The cadre had come in with other people, not MP’s. They turned out to be truck drivers from the 2nd [Battalion] of the 60th Mechanized Infantry. So once we were in formation, they reminded everyone that we were ‘replacements’ and that they had to have people to send down to the 2nd of the 60th Mechanized RIGHT NOW! Even though our training week wasn’t up, they said, “You’ve been here long enough!”

First they called out everyone with an infantry MOS. Then they took the first formation en masse, regardless of MOS. They just counted off a couple of hundred people. They had to go back and get their duffle bags out of the bunk area and get on the trucks. They had five or ten minutes to do it. During this time, they were segregated from the rest of us and closely watched.

It was just like going grocery shopping, except the cadre came for bodies and that’s what they got. I remember guys crying, yelling , saying, “I have orders cut for such-and-such!” or “I’m a clerk” or I’m a cook, not an infantryman.” A lot of people were not complaining, but it seemed like they were in the throes of a nervous breakdown. It seemed really incomprehensible that this could be happening to them. It didn’t matter that they had orders to go somewhere else; it didn’t matter what their MOS was. All that mattered was that they were part of the formation that was called out, that was loaded up in five 5-ton trucks and driven to wherever the 2nd of the 60th was bivouacked.

I had a friend who knew a couple of the guys that went to the 2nd of the 60th. This guy stayed behind and ended up working in the awards department for the whole division. He typed up the three or four paragraphs that would go with the Purple Heart or Bronze Star awards, the standard schlock. We met after we got assigned. The 2nd of the 60th had had a battle somewhere in the Delta and had their ass kicked from one end to the other. He told me some of the people he trained with and who had gone to the 2nd of the 60th were dead within a week. Some got wounded. There were over 200 casualties.  Apparently they were sent into an on-going battle. These guy got thrown right into the jaws of the big, green machine and got chewed up along with everyone else. It was just a coincidence that I was in my skivvies and safely ended up in the last formation.

 

By then I’d been assigned to my unit. It was clear to me that I had lucked into a relatively safe position with headquarters battery. There was some wire stringing to do but the job took me out of my simple wireman status. They told me I was going to be trained as a radio repairman. The enlisted men making recommendations to officers and higher level sergeants were all Catholic. When they found out that I had graduated with honors from a Catholic high school and that I could type, they said, “We need this guy in the  message center.” I didn’t know what a message center was, but I thought, ‘Wow, if it’s working nine to five inside a building, and if I don’t have to go outside the berm, it’s fine with me.” When I came into the unit, this gregarious Italian guy walked up to me, threw his arms around me, hugged me and said, “YOU are my replacement!” It’s funny, I don’t remember his name. But I remember how happy he was to see me. He was there a month and then he was gone. In the meantime, he started training me to run the message center.

Headquarters and headquarters battery [HHB] was huge because there were so many artillery pieces assigned from other units. The command could pull artillery from II Field Force or  get artillery attached to other divisions. HHB was equivalent to a brigade. We were running all the inter-office communications including a secure crypto net, which referred to messages that went from one voice scrambler to another. All the artillery people were reporting back to a central location.

Fire missions were controlled through a tactical operations center [TOC] at brigade level for artillery. Though there was a liaison with division tactical operations, the real stuff of keeping track of all information—fire missions, who’s getting fired on, where you can or cannot fire—was with HHB  tactical operations. So we had voice communication, coded information that came in over the land line into a teletype writer, radio teletype coming in over radio waves. We also received all the official mail and publications. Some of this information had to be unscrambled from the crypto equipment. Messages included everything from ‘official’ to ‘top secret,’ involving  things like security and intelligence. We were doing data reports and sending them off to II Field Force, which was the administrative unit that the 9th division reported to. There were just all kinds of things to do.

In the message center at Bear Cat in 1967  at its peak of activity there were slots for six or seven people. We worked in this modern looking one-story pine building with a tin roof.  We lived not far away in reinforced sandbagged tents. The operations center was definitely reinforced with sandbags, but our workplace where the land line came in, where all the messages got processed, and where we worked on the codes was just a regular wooden building. It was fairly insecure. Someone could have shot right through it and killed everyone.

Going to work was just like working in an office. About fifty yards away was this sandbagged, bunkered in communications tactical operations center where they were actually running artillery missions. When we got messages over the land line (RTT), we had to take them to the operations officer of the 9th. I really felt I was in the Army at Bear Cat. We worked with artillery closely and it made me feel like I was in a war. Fighting itself was not that far off. One of the largest weapons cache was found just a few klicks off our berm and the Rung Sat [Special Zone] was within shooting range of our artillery.  But nothing much seemed to happen in the base camp. I was never personally threatened until after Martin Luther King was killed. I never felt threatened by the Vietnamese on the base even though during Tet my barber was shot setting up a mine on the road outside the gate.

We had various excuses to get away from the base. To the army, you know, you are a body. You got two hands and you can carry things. So there was the garbage run, the laundry run, all kinds of resupply, the kind of details you could break off from. In the beginning of my time at Bear Cat, delivering equipment was part of my work assignment. We had strung some wire and had to repair some lines that were down outside Bear Cat. After I’d been at Bear Cat a couple of months, I did the laundry run into the village  of Long Thanh. When I was assigned to it, everybody congratulated me. I remember guys getting real excited about doing the laundry. I couldn’t understand why anyone would get excited about loading up a deuce and a half with dirty clothes and taking it to the village.  It was like being on the outside of a private joke. So me and this sergeant (I was a private at the time) went on down the road to Long Thanh.

First we stopped off at the laundry and then we went over to a bar to have a beer. We sat on bar stools in what seemed like a regular bar. As we’re  sipping our beers, he got up and moved to the right to the next bar stool saying, “Come on, we  gotta move down.” So I got up and moved and we kept drinking. A little while later he got up and moved down again and so I moved, too. Guys were coming into the bar and filling up the empty stools to our left as we moved down to the right. It was hot, the music was playing and we’re having this meaningless conversation. Finally, after two beers, we were at the end of the bar and that’s when I noticed that people were getting off the stools on the right side of the bar and going into the back room. I guess I had been asked to move down one time too many. I began to think, ‘What’s going on here?’ I started to get fidgety and the sergeant started laughing at me and sharing this somewhat with the man behind the bar.  I noticed that a young girl had come up and got this last guy off the bar stool and I began to think, ‘Gee, I wonder if this could be a barbershop.’

I didn’t know what was going on. Finally, when the sergeant was on the last bar stool and a woman came out and beckoned, I asked him, “What’s going on?” He said, “Well, we’re gonna get laid.” I was a Catholic boy; I’d never been laid by a whore. And for that matter, all my contact with women up to that point had been rather rudimentary; it hadn’t been consummated in the way it was about to be consummated.  And I was stuck.  I’d heard stories about having intercourse among razor blades or getting shot in the act or getting “black syphilis,” this new exotic strain that meant there was no cure and you went to the crazy house and, gee, everybody would know that you were screwing around in Vietnam. My mind just started reeling.

Then everybody in the bar realized that it was my first time and it became a big joke. I was just really embarrassed. All of this went on in a matter of seconds because here was this woman standing there, taking me by the hand, me and my bottle of beer. It was fait accompli. I mean that I hadn’t intended to do it. I didn’t have the courage to say no and kind of liked it afterwards. I thought I was supposed to get completely undressed, but she said, “No, not be necessary. Leave boots on. Not be here that long.” So that was my first time in-country, but it wasn’t my last. There were some very good prostitutes in Vietnam  and, in saying that, I ought to say that they were good women. They carried on very good conversations and seemed to care about me as an individual. I still haven’t quite recovered from the meaning of that.

Another time when we headed south from Bear Cat we went to Tan Son Nhut [Air Base]. We’d been living in tents, living in mud, living with mosquitos. We were an army in the field. Going to Tan Son Nhut was a real shock that people tried to warn me about. I thought that everybody lived the way we did. But the air force had built two-story cinder block buildings for their enlisted personnel. I couldn’t believe it. But the next shock was seeing this huge modern cafeteria just like in the States. Everybody was real excited because we were going to order real hamburgers and  milk shakes. I thought this was a joke even after we pulled up in front of the place.

When we got inside it was like going into this big restaurant at home wearing flak vests and grenades, weapons and ammunition.  We were all dirty and grubby and everybody else in the place was clean shaven with neatly pressed fatigues and air force uniforms. They all made room for us to sit down and left us alone. But they stared at us a lot. There were vending machines and real hamburgers and real ice cream and real pie.  We ordered five or six hamburgers and put some of them in a bag to take back to Bear Cat to eat and prove that there were actually real hamburgers at Tan Son Nhut.

 

We did get attacked while I was at Bear Cat. I was on berm duty on the tower guarding the air strip where the helicopters landed.  This gun tower was maybe fifty feet in the air. If we were attacked, whoever was in the tower had a good sight advantage. You could call down to the bunker to let them know where the problems were, where the mortars were coming from, or where the enemy was coming through the wire.  But it never occurred to me that this could be a problem at Bear Cat. I used to go to guard duty with ammo pouches with cookies, junk food, and a couple of cigars. I had one clip in my weapon to make an appearance, but no other ammo.

This one night I was up in the tower with this guy they brought in to cool out. When guys got to be under too much stress, they were sent to Bear Cat. It wasn’t a routine thing, but this guy had seen a lot of death and destruction. After he came into the base camp to get himself back together, he caught guard duty. He had seen a lot of action while at my job I was getting a lot of information. The stuff I was reading was pretty hair-raising. So up in the tower at night we were exchanging war stories.

This guy had been at a small base camp where there were a lot of APCs [armored personnel carriers] and a couple of tanks. Every morning they had to go out and clear the road—their duty for the day. When they turned out of the gate, they’d go either left or right. But it didn’t matter; the result was the same. Every day invariably over about two or three weeks the vehicles would get blown up. So they would scrape up the bodies and haul away the track, but never get the guy that set the mine. It was wearing on everybody’s nerves. So he’s telling this story and he’s really animated about it, but I could tell he was really tired, really nervous. It was almost like he was there going through it again. The experience had really left an impression.

It was still before midnight. As he was talking, we noticed what we thought was a flare going up beyond the tree line. We’d seen flares before and we just watched it, fascinated by this big flare going off in the middle of the night.  We watched it arc and waited for it to burst. But it was really trucking  and it didn’t burst. Instead, it was coming toward us, over our shoulder into the base camp. I remember thinking. ‘Boy, someone really screwed up now. They’ve shot off this flare. What the hell is this all about?’ Well, it wasn’t a flare. It was the first 122 mm rocket fired in III Corps. No one had ever seen one at Bear Cat. I know this because later there was an investigation by the artillery people. They were really fascinated by the rocket.  And they had a right to be! The explosion shook the shit out of everything. It tore up a hootch and blew up a deuce and a half. But even after the flash and explosion there was no siren, no reaction from the camp at all.

It was like the surprise hit at the start of a fist fight. Someone hits you and you’re stunned. I can remember looking back and here comes more, three, maybe five. While these are in the air, the sirens still hadn’t gone off. I still hadn’t caught on that we were under attack. I was caught up in, ‘Wow, it’s a war happening right here.’ I turned around to this guy to say something like, “What do you think of that?” And he’s gone. He didn’t say ‘excuse me, I’m getting out of here. He just disappeared without a word. I looked down and he’s on the ground. He had slid down the ladder like it was a pole in a firehouse—in about two seconds.

Him  being on the ground kind of pulled me down. I started thinking, ‘Shit, this is no place to be.” As the other rockets are in the air, the whole right side of the berm lights up, everybody’s shooting at the tree line like crazy. In the base camp there’s a sandbagged bunker every fifty meters with at least three people in it and every other bunker is supposed to have a  machine gun. The bunker between has an M-79. So everyone is awake and all of a sudden this ordnance is going off. Tracers are bouncing everywhere. You couldn’t tell whether stuff was coming in or going out.

By this time I’m about five or six rungs down the ladder, thinking, ‘Boy, this is shit city,’ and the phone rings. That clicks me back into what it is I’m up in the tower for. I’m there to say, “It’s coming from over there” or “they’re doing this or that.” My mind had gone totally blank, and if this other guy was already on the ground, I guess I thought I should be there, too.

It was a good thing I heard the phone. I went back up and answered it. Someone, maybe the sergeant of the guard, wanted to know where the “mortars” were coming from. I was on the tower that took care of that whole side of the camp. So I looked at the chart and tried to remember where I saw the first flash. I told him what sector I thought it came from and he asked me, “Are there troops in the open?” I said, “No, I can’t see anybody. But there’s a lotta light.” Everything was lit up now, flares were popping, hand grenades, machine guns, M-79’s were lighting up the night.

At the moment it struck me that war was a pretty thing, like the Fourth of July. Only it was real. The other rockets had landed; the sirens were wailing in the background; people were scrambling everywhere. I think several infantry companies of the 3rd of the 39th had unassed their tents and were shooting from the berm. (The berm was this mound of dirt about six feet high that prevented shooting directly into the camp from the treeline.) After a while the shooting stopped.  It turned out that the whole side of Bear Cat was out of ammunition. I was on the phone, calling. I heard that they wanted resupply, more ammo—and there was no more ammo. Everybody had shot it all up but there never was a ground attack. That’s why the tower wasn’t shot at. What a tactic! You wait for the enemy to shoot up their ammo and, when the firing subsides, you attack. I thought about it later. It seemed real simple.

This attack happened the month before Tet [January, 1968]. As far as I was concerned, it was the  first time anything  interesting had happened. Everyone was pretty excited. Someone could have gotten hurt, but no one did. The guy in the tower with me had to go on sick call. It was laughable that he had all these splinters in his hands. The other funny thing was that guys went out to the berm  in their skivvies and the next day they’re doing on sick call because they got chewed up by mosquitos. From that time on, whenever I went on guard duty, I carried two hand grenades, two full bandoliers of clips, and all of my ammo pouches were full of ammo. I doubled up straight clips for my M-16. If anything was going to happen, I was ready.

After the rocket attack I had the impression that nothing was safe anymore. For me, it was like San Francisco getting blasted. Also, I had privileged information. I worked in the message center where we were getting messages from Intelligence and Operations. I was  sitting on hot lines listening to all this shit going over the radio. I knew that there was a real war going on. Guys that worked in the rear area in this huge base camp thought everything was cool. They weren’t getting shot at. They rarely, if ever, got mortared. For them the war was somewhere else. You know, it was a joke, right? But after the attack I got to be a real old 19-year-old. I grew up real fast. So it was a bit of a turning point.

It was about this time that I began to sense something different about the war. I began to see that at nighttime the Vietnamese had their way and in the daytime they let us have our way. I don’t know if it was because of what I was reading or hearing over the radio. I wasn’t being indoctrinated by anybody. Nobody was taking me aside to tell me, “Hey, look what’s going on.” I was just beginning to process all this information.

Right before Tet I was delivering a message in the artillery tactical operations center [at Bear Cat]. It was late night or early in the morning and the major was on operations duty. We got a call from the local Viet Cong commander over the operations net using the proper call sign. But even more interesting, he called the duty officer by name. The VC commander wished him a Happy New Year. Even though there was a lot of chatter coming in over the radios, you could hear a pin drop. It was a  real sobering experience. A Vietnamese man and woman were talking to the duty officer. They had this bantering exchange over the radio with the duty officer saying, “Get off my net…” It was crazy, right out of Twilight Zone.  I  mean, calling up on the net with the right call sign was one thing; that was easy enough. But calling the duty officer by his name? That was outrageous. It gave me a feeling of insecurity on top of the sense that things weren’t really in control.

 

When I first started working in the message center, we were getting reports of the enemy maneuvering in a certain area seemed to run in the 25, 50, 75 range. That was how I saw the scope of  the war, in not really large numbers. Then, as Tet got closer, reports came in of maybe a thousand or fifteen hundred enemy maneuvering nearby. Even though I’d hear this, and read it, as a Sp/4 I didn’t believe there could be that many. I was later to learn that was an underestimation. Pretty soon we had intelligence reports that there was a brigade maneuvering within one thousands meters of Bear Cat. I began to carry my weapon everywhere.

Talking to guys who had other jobs, I could see they just didn’t quite relate to it. Of course, we weren’t allowed to talk a lot about it. But the ‘commo people’ had this information and we’d talk mostly  among ourselves. We could tell that something was going on. We had the confidence to handle whatever came along. No matter what happened, we had a lot of firepower and, at that point, I never had a feeling of losing. You could lose  your life, but tactically losing a battle or the war itself was inconceivable. We never saw an enemy, though I did get to see some prisoners of war. But one idea that did drop away was the image of the simple peasant running around with a little carbine that could hardly hit the side of a barn. That impression changed real quick because of an incident on the road.

The first time I got shot at was on convoy. I took it personally. I kept thinking, ‘Why is this guy shooting at me? I’m a really good guy.’ Then my thoughts were, ‘If I could just talk to this person. I mean, this guy is trying to kill me.’ It was really obvious, the bullets were flying. ‘Gee, I bet he’s really a nice person, too. If we could just talk about it.’ I was in such a state of mind that I left my flak vest, my weapons, my ammunition, everything in the jeep and got down in a culvert with everybody else who brought their weapon, their flak jacket, and their ammunition. I just kept thinking, ‘What? They’re shooting at me?’ It seemed unreal at the time.

Another one of those sobering experiences happened just before Tet. It was another indication that things were changing. Every morning engineers would sweep a section of the road between Bear Cat and Long Thanh or Bear Cat and Bien Hoa. They would take some  guys from whatever infantry unit was assigned to Bear Cat at the time, packing them into one or two 5-tons [trucks]. Apparently, at the end of the sweep, the engineers would pull over and park under a tree and everybody would break for lunch. The grunts in the truck, they had been sent to the rear, were not out stomping around in the mud in the Delta. So they let down a bit.

It so happened that one day I was going to the 24th med-evac to get my eyes tested. We were maybe the second or the third vehicle out of the gate. Just after we went out, there was this huge explosion, and then it was very still. It turned out that these guys had the habit of pulling their 5-ton under the same tree and a 155 mm shell up in the tree was command-detonated. There wasn’t much left of the truck and the guys were just hamburger. By the time we got back there, the med-evac choppers were already coming in. My assumption was that everyone of those guys died. It was another example of how the war was different. You didn’t have to be in the field to be in combat. Combat came to you.

 

As the war was expanding, 9th Infantry Division headquarters was moving from Bear Cat to Dong Tam, an infantry base built on a sand bar in the Mekong Delta not far from My Tho. Different units  were going down to Dong Tam at different times. Other units were coming  in to take over their jobs. I was still at Bear Cat when a Viet Cong unit moved into this little village which the 3rd of the 5th cav had just swept. Either the 3rd of the 5th didn’t do a good job or they had to go do something else. So the 9th had to go in and clear them  out. Before Tet there were just a few radio calls every once and a while. During Tet there was constant radio traffic.

I was in the TOC [Tactical Operations Center]  when the radio traffic was coming in from their different patrols. So when I walked in I heard this guy giving negative sit reps. A  little while later I heard him again calling in to give his location.  Then, all of a sudden, this same guy breaks squelch and he’s got a high pitched scream in his voice.  Competing with his voice are explosions and small arms fire. It was obvious that there was one hell of a firefight going on.

In the TOC  they’re trying to calm him down, trying to get the information they needed. But the guy on the radio is in a dead panic, which only told me that whatever was happening was real bad. These radio operators were not usually guys who panic  under pressure. They ge their information out. But this situation was obviously life-threatening. As it turned out, the RTO was behind a big log. His unit was pinned down, getting heavy fire from this village. They were getting chewed up pretty bad and he was calling for artillery.

The major took the message, took the RTO’s grid co-ordinates and put him on hold.  Walking over to the map, it was all academic. He pulled down one of the acetate overlays which told him what areas could be fired into and what areas couldn’t. (They even had it broken down into what caliber weapon could be used.) And these guys were on a grease pencil mark, which meant that they couldn’t get artillery support because they were receiving fire from a “friendly village.” The major was just totally detached when he told the RTO that he couldn’t give him support. I think he recommended other possibilities. These guys finally got some mortar support from their own heavy weapons platoon. I remember thinking, ‘That’s ridiculous on the face of it.’ Headquarters battery had it all mapped out. They were within range; they could have hit anything. I think my outrage is still coloring this. It turned out later that most of those people ate it.

 

Another change that made Tet seem like a turning point was reading the Pacific Stars and Stripes. It wasn’t that people wanted to read the information that it printed. It was the army’s newspaper distorted events. Everyone knew that because they were participants. They saw it for what it was, but also everyone followed the KIA [killed-in-action] columns. They were broken down by state and every once in a while you’d recognize someone you knew.

Once you looked for all the homeboys, then you’d go back through the other names, state by state, to see if you recognized anyone else. During the phase of the war leading up to the Tet Offensive it seemed like the column size increased a little, but not significantly. Then came a dramatic increase, from one column to four columns, four times as many people. You’d turn the page and there were all these names—a whole column from California instead of a few names. I remember being outraged because it seemed like everybody that was dying was from California (or New York). I’d get real sarcastic. “Did anybody die from such-and-such a state.” Talk about being parochial; I was that self-centered. Also by that time I had been shot at a few times, so I personalized who was having to pay the price of the war even though at the time I was pro-war.

I had only one side of the story. We’d hear all the horror stories, but my impression was that we were still doing basically a good thing. But when Tet happened, it became clear we were getting out ass kicked. This made  me think about the officers and what they were doing, about leadership, there in Vietnam. Other people seemed to think about the politicians and what was going on at home. But I had read military history. It became clear to me that what was going on at home had no impact once you got to the field. Those local commanders had all this power and they were blowing it. They were the ones who were losing the war. I focused on the colonels and the majors. I felt all right about the captains, but at major a definite line gets drawn. I don’t think they had the guts to stand up to whatever part of the power structure was making them do the things they knew didn’t work. So they continued to do them and some of them paid the price. I mean that some of them died, but mostly what happened was that GI’s died.

Most officers—majors and above—didn’t pay any kind of price. And they couldn’t accomplish what needed to be accomplished. I was having these feelings back in ’68, but they were suppressed. I just began leaning toward the enlisted man in terms of real respect. But officers, man, I don’t know. I began to make distinctions where there wasn’t one before. I was working around officers, so I could see the contrast with enlisted people. Then, sometime during Tet, when I began to see all these deaths and injuries, I started making this separation. Tet really sharpened it. It was just really traumatic. First you had this feeling that there weren’t that many enemy around. Bridges were blown up; we couldn’t go the villages that we had gone to and then, all of a sudden, they were everywhere. Not only were there a lot of them, but they were good fighters and they were just kicking the living shit out of us.

By the time the last elements of the 9th went to Dong Tam after the Tet Offensive, I was being trained as sergeant-in-charge of  the message center. Two people, both buck sergeants, were getting ready to leave and I was the new buck sergeant taking over. These sergeants had been in-country replacements for the original people who came to Bear Cat when the division arrived. I was given all the responsibility they had, but with less personnel. No one knew as much as these earlier people had learned. When it fell on me, I knew probably half as much as the original people. At Dong Tam there was a lot more going on, more radio traffic and messages that were important. At this point the war had already turned. Matters seemed just as crucial, yet the personnel that performed the duties lacked the skill. I had to see to it that the land line was set up, that the RTT message traffic was coming to the office and getting to the right people. I was responsible for the crypto equipment being transferred back and forth. We began to send RTT units out into the field everywhere.

 

When I first got to Dong Tam there was no berm. It was strange living where you could get shot at from the treeline. Also, we were in two-story wooden billets made out of one-inch pine. It was crazy; I really felt vulnerable. Later, after they built a berm, I began to feel relatively safe. As a sergeant I was put in charge this detail to drain oil out of the communication section’s jeep. I thought of driving the jeep right up on the angle of the berm and let the oil drain that way. I was thinking ‘efficiency,’ not ‘safety.’ Me and two other guys had the jeep up on the berm, these guys are draining the oil, I’m overseeing the job like I’m supposed to, but for us it was F.O.T. [Fuck Off Time], stretching out the time, not  thinking of much, when I hear this zip…zip…zip. I start thinking, ‘Gee, that sounds like bullets.’I turned to look at the treeline, thinking, ‘Is that someone shooting?’

I couldn’t believe that someone would be shooting around Dong Tam in the middle of the day.  Then I noticed that little chips of wood flying out of the nearest billet. By this time the two other guys are on the ground underneath the jeep. It later turned out that the guys in the corner bunker were out sunning themselves in their skivvies without their weapons and got pinned down. Any way, I crouched down and we rolled the jeep off the berm. In a couple of minutes a gun jeep with a ‘fifty’ mounted on the back came flying down the berm road shooting up the treeline. That was kind of a close incident. But I still usually felt safe in the base camp. I tended to think it was a place that never got attacked, even though I had experiences to the contrary.

Another time I came very close was when Sergeant Binz and I were delivering crypto equipment to some of the outer base camps. We loaded this stuff in the jeep along with some beer and Pepsis. Most of the time I did the driving and he read the map. We were at this base camp at Tan An, down river from Saigon and not far from Can Giouc. We were taking it to an RTT rig supporting the artillery which was supporting an infantry operation. As we were driving toward this village, we heard an explosion. We kept driving but I shifted my weapon from semi automatic to full. By now everywhere I went I carried extra ammo clips and grenades.

When we took crypto equipment to the field, we had to carry a thermite grenade. If we were attacked, the first thing was to destroy the codes and the equipment and, if it looked like we would be overrun, we were supposed to shoot ourselves. I’d never heard of anybody doing that. The thermite grenade looked like a big hand grenade with a funny handle and came in a canister like a big beer can. You just set it on whatever you want to destroy and pull the handle. Once it starts, it is impossible to put out and it will destroy whatever it’s on. It’s great stuff. So I had it out of its canister, ready.

Usually  when we were driving in  the country in the daytime my mind wasn’t on getting attacked. I always got nervous when I had to drive  at dusk or at nighttime. But this time I had my M-16 on automatic, ready to go. We pulled into this small village of probably not more than a couple of hundred people at one end of a bridge. The Viet Cong had blown the bridge just a few minutes before we got there. The local Vietnamese were pretty excited. Not only was it going to be inconvenient for them, but we were going to have to backtrack through the rice paddies to get back to Can Giouc. Plus we had all this sensitive stuff—KAT codes, some SOI’s [secret operational information], crypto equipment—in a highly charged atmosphere. Sergeant Binz read the map, found another road that he thought we could use, and we started backtracking.

Sergeant Binz was driving and I was  riding shotgun. We were going about 40 miles an hour on this dirt road, which is fairly fast. You’re not supposed to go too fast because it is really easy to turn over a jeep. About a half an hour from the village we were making a sweeping left-hand turn with jungle on the left right up to the side of the road and rice paddy on the right. We came speeding around this corner and there was a line of about eight Vietnamese in black pajamas wearing little wicker basket hats. They didn’t hear the noise of the jeep; apparently it got swallowed up by the jungle. Everyone had a rice sack  slung from shoulder to hip. The last seven had their AK-47’s slung over their shoulders and across their backs, but the first guy in line had his AK at his waist with his hand on the trigger housing, ready to fire. They were heading in the direction of the village that we had just come from.

They were as  surprised to see us  as we were to see them.  They didn’t have time to do anything.  I had my M-16 on my hip, across my waist, and I raised it up and aimed it at him, ready. But he never brought his weapon up. He was ready, but he never swung it around, never crouched. The other Vietnamese just froze. He and I just looked at each other, made eye contact and never lost it the whole time we were sweeping the turn. As we drove by, my weapon followed him and then, as quickly as it started, it was all over in maybe three or four seconds. He might have been thinking, ‘God, what’s coming next?’ There might have been a tank behind us. I’m thinking, ‘God, maybe there’s a battalion of them in the treeline.’ I didn’t know. They never shot and I didn’t shoot. We went on down the road in a state of high agitation.

Farther down the road we came to some MP’s out in front of a tank blocking the road. All of them had locked down on us as we were flying down the road toward them. When they saw who it was, they couldn’t believe it. At first they thought we were coming to attack them. They told us that a major enemy unit was maneuvering in front of them—where we have come from. We told them what we saw and went on to deliver our equipment. Even though there was no shooting in this incident, the psychic scar was fairly deep.

Later I talked with other people about why I didn’t shoot. I think it was because the Vietnamese never swung his weapon around and the others didn’t move their weapons off their shoulders. If one of them had moved, or freaked out, or hit the ground, anything, I would have pulled the trigger. We were moving pretty fast and I was on automatic. I could have gotten one clip off and loaded another one before they could fire. The Vietnamese with his weapon unslung had the power to do something, but he was first in line, and he was dead. I think he knew what I knew. Those moments were surreal. What he did was just done, not thought about. There was no time to think. When he didn’t move, he saved everybody’s life.  It was almost like our minds were one.

 

Another time when we were traveling down a road, we met up with an American infantry battalion that was being pulled out as a blocking force and put on trucks. A Vietnamese [ARVN] battalion was taking  over their position supported by one of our mechanized units—the 3rd of the 5th cav or the 2nd of the 60th.  Supposedly there was a battalion of Viet Cong or NVA [North Vietnamese Army] trapped in the treeline. I remember that the American infantry guys were thankful that they did not have to fight this particular unit. So we were all hung up in a huge traffic jam by these trucks being loaded up.

We sat there watching two Phantoms [jet aircraft] working this treeline off in the distance. I was interested because I had never seen jets work. There was just two of them, and when one was down firing, the other was up making a loop. During the five or ten second lull after one jet had finished firing and the other jet hadn’t started, someone was shooting at them with a heavy caliber machine gun, maybe a French .51. I was really fascinated. They were dropping bombs, shooting cannons, just lighting up the place. I would have thought that nothing could have lived under all that, but as the jet would make its turn and start on its way up: Datadatadatadatadat.

Meanwhile all these grunts are getting on the trucks and they’re saying, “Yeah, man, we’re happy to be out of this shit!” and “Forget this shit, man, we’re going back!” As the ARVN are having to get on line, we watched the jets, wondering when they were going to run out of ammunition. Then, WHAM, this one jet makes a funny noise and black smoke starts coming out of the back.  It does this spin and heads off over the horizon, slowly sinking, and every once in a while making this funny maneuver. The other jet made one more pass, broke off, and went after his buddy. It wasn’t like there were a whole bunch of people shooting at the jet; it was just one guy shooting when he had a chance and being real persistent. It was real clear that whoever was in the treeline wasn’t afraid to fight and people coming up against them were. If whoever was in the treeline decided to break out, it didn’t matter whether you were an infantryman loaded to the gills with ammunition or a clerk-typist delivering coca-cola. If you were in their way, it would be a pitched battle. By this time, it was getting on toward dusk. We were only about 200 yards from the treeline. We’d seen enough.

 

Sergeant Binz and I  got shot at on another resupply. We had taken come equipment out in the jeep and were on our way back to Dong Tam. We had gotten a late start and we were concerned because we didn’t want to be on the road after dark. I  must have been going 50 miles an hour down this road; we were just flying. When it got to be dusk, it meant we had half an hour before our lights had to go on. I left them off as long as I could. And I was scared.

We were on the other side of Tan An somewhere and we were approaching a bridge that went over a fairly large river or canal. There was a South Vietnamese command post in the village nearby and a guard house on the bridge. As we started up the bridge all hell broke loose. I mean small arms weapons and I heard a THUMP from mortars or grenades near the village. We were traveling fast up the bridge and, by the time it all registered, we were halfway up the bridge and couldn’t stop. The firing was coming from the opposite end of the bridge, so we were going toward the firing. Maybe it was an old French .51 again or something like a .50 caliber machine gun, shooting up the village, green tracers flying. About this time I became conscious of the fact that they must have caught sight of us.

They  swung the machine gun around and started sweeping the road. They started at the end of the bridge that we were driving toward and swept toward us. Everything went real slow, sounds seemed to drop off. Because they were down below shooting up toward the bridge, these green tracers were like a  giant arm at one end of the bridge and coming  toward us at about eye level. I was driving real fast right into it. I remember ducking behind the steering wheel. Binz ducked too.

The tracers arced right over our heads. Then we were off the bridge and down the other side. They attacked the village, but didn’t come across the bridge. As it turned out, there was no one guarding it. When I got back to Dong Tan I was real upset. This was my second undefended bridge incident. Later I got my second Army Commendation Medal for getting shot at. (The first one was for the surprise confrontation with the Viet Cong.)  When I got these medals, they never told me anything. They had a formation like any other and just called out my name.

 

In between trips to the field or to base camps, I was busy in the message center. I remember one incident when Steve, my friend from San Diego, got these oatmeal raisin cookies. They were sent by ship,  so when they got to us—I say ‘us’ because everything was shared—these cookies were hard as bricks. Steve was so impressed by this fact that he got a bunch of us outside the communications bunker—this is at Dong Tam. He would throw the cookies up against the big 12 x 12 beams outside the bunker and they’d make a dent in the wood, but didn’t break the cookies. Since they were kind of flat, he was sailing them in the wind.

He tossed one real hard off in the direction of  Operations. By this time Dong Tam had two-story billets and an Operations building with all these offices that were conducting the paperwork side of the war for division artillery. Major Phillips and Master Sergeant Williams were coming out of the door of  Operations when this cookie completed this big arc. It was like a bunch of kids watching a rock going through a plate glass window. We were fascinated by this cookie sailing through the air like a flying saucer. And it hooked around and hit Major Phillips square in the head, right above the eye: WHAM!

It caught him off guard and he kind of stumbled back and went down. Maybe he thought he was shot. All five of us just got real excited like a bunch of boys. And we ran! We were far enough away so that they really didn’t know who did it. Of course, he didn’t know where it came from, but as soon as we scattered, he had a good idea. Instead of running into the Engineers right next to us, we all ran back into the commo bunker, which was our bunker—and his bunker. He was the officer-in-charge.

Now it wasn’t our intention to hit him. The cookie was thrown before he came out of the door. But we all went looking for a place to hide. And we were all giggling as we went. Some guys ran back with the teletypes, some went up with the radios, another went to where the switchboard was and I went into the crypto room, which is a secured area. You can’t even open the door unless you have permission. If you find someone in there, you can shoot them dead. So I’m in there trying to look busy  while Major Phillips and Sergeant Williams are going through the commo bunker checking people out.

They eventually ended up in the message center. They had one cookie and they were looking for the other cookies. They searched everything. The guys had given me the cookies and I had gone in, opened up the crypto safe and locked the cookies in there. Well, the crypto safe is where we kept the KAT codes and the secret messages and ‘Top Secret’ documents, things like that. When Major Phillips came into the room, I saw he had a nick in his head. He said he was looking for something. I had this real empty feeling like nausea creeping over me. I was scared. ‘Oh, my God! This is it. I’m going to hell. They’re going to lock me up.’ He checked in the secure cabinet area and behind the machines. Then Major Phillips goes over to the safe and, instead of opening it, he pulls out the log.

All opening and closing of the safe was supposed to be logged. The safe is opened twice in 24 hours—at midnight and at 6 AM—when the codes are changed. Whoever opens the safe signs his initials and the time. So the columns of initials and times are always the same. Everything was real proper. But this was so much bullshit because people would get what they wanted out of the safe and never log it. The log book remained pristine. It had nothing to do with reality. So Major Phillips picks up the log card and looks to see what time it was last opened, which was—of course—6 AM. He didn’t open the safe where the cookies were. He just put the card back down like a good soldier and just walked away. I did everything I could to stop from cracking up in front of him. I was saved by the military mind.

We were really just a bunch of boys.  Late at night some of us would get together in the major’s office in the commo bunker—he’d let us do this—and we’d jam. One of the officers got hold of an electric guitar; someone else had half a set of drums donated, I think, by the Red Cross ladies. Some of the enlisted men were really hot on the guitar but hardly ever got to play it because the officers hogged it. But we still had the drums. Well, one night late we decided to get together, but we couldn’t get the instruments. So we ended up in this room without much to do.   One of the guys had been an actor in off-Broadway productions in New York and he could mime a monkey really good. Kevin could also mime our pet preying mantis cleaning its antennae, twisting its head, and eating bugs. There was no particular party atmosphere. This was a group of people that did not smoke pot. Some people might have had something to drink, but it was mostly the higher NCO’s that were getting drunk. It took  me a year to figure out that some guys were smoking pot.  So we were just sitting around entertaining ourselves.

About this time Armed Forces TV went off the air with the Star Spangled Banner. One of the popular figures on Armed Forces TV was Super Chicken, a cartoon character who went around going ‘Bokkk, bokkk, bokkk.’ We were sitting there when someone started doing that. Bokkk, bokkk, bokkk to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner. It was late, I mean that it was after 1 AM. We didn’t hear the colonel fly in or his helicopter shut down.  I don’t remember his name but if you needed a  soldier this is the guy you wanted on your side.

He was a real young bird colonel maybe 32 or 33 years old, an airborne ranger in charge of all this artillery. He was gung-ho, driving everybody crazy, a brilliant man on tactics, a two-percenter* supposedly re-writing the book on how to use artillery. Apparently after he shut down the chopper, he heard the “Bokkk, bokkk, bokkk” and came over to investigate. When he came into the office, we were totally into it and didn’t notice him. He stood there until finally somebody saw him and called attention. But he just looked at us, turned around and walked out without taking a salute. He must have been halfway to his hootch when we all cracked up, laughing even harder than before. He never said anything. We never got a reprimand.

 

I’d have to go to the colonel at times to deliver an SOI. When I first got in-country, I was told I could not take SOI’s from units outside our division. If we somehow got compromised, everyone’s call signs and frequencies could get compromised. We could get the call signs from other frequencies, but then we’d also have to have the KAT codes to phoeneticate into their systems. I  was becoming adept at getting this information out of other units. As soon as I had it, I ‘d print it up for our air observers, forward observers and officers. Our SOI’s  were a complication of all the SOI’s of maybe one-forth of Vietnam, including a significant part of II Field Force, which was a layer of bureaucracy overseeing several divisions. Our officers insisted on this information.

Sometimes an officer would come to me and say, “I’m flying over here and I gotta talk to Black Horse,” which was the 3rd of the 5th cav. “Get their frequencies for me tonight; I gotta fly out tomorrow.” So I’d get on the horn or the radio and find someone who would give me the right codes; then I’d go to division and get those codes. When the officer would show up in the morning, I made sure he had them.

So this was my interaction with the officers. I was encouraged to get the call signs and yet I knew that if I was caught at it, the buck  stopped with me. If ASA [Army Security Agency] or 9th Signal [Corps] found me doing this, there would have been real problems. But the colonel would do the same thing. All of a sudden he would want some obscure unit that was supposed to be in II Corps. Units were being moved all over the place. That this unit was assigned to II Corps didn’t mean a thing. The colonel is operating in IV Corps but he wants to talk to these guys. They’re on an operation together.  I was supposed to get this information for him and he wanted it right away. I never knew exactly what he wanted it for, but I’d get it for him. So I’d go to his hootch every once in a while.

The colonel didn’t really have a hootch like the rest of the officers. He had a nice mobile home. One night we had an attack and mortars turned it into Swiss cheese. Him and the nurse inside were unhurt. Some of the sergeants in our unit came and took all his stuff out and towed it down the highway to the Saigon docks. They pulled up to where all these mobile homes were parked, exchanged it for a good one, and drove out. No one ever checked. It was right out of Catch-22.

That was another one of those times when I realized that the war was really loose. In fact, at one point these sergeants ripped off this huge 15,000 kilowatt diesel generator, which no one was supposed to have. It produced enough electricity for a whole battalion staging area and we had it for our little headquarters battery.  At Bear Cat we lived in tents but we have more electricity that we could ever use. Later, when we got down to Dong Tam, we had out hootches wired up like a city. Other units had one light bulb in the middle of their tent; we had AC up the ass. It was incredible.

I extended my tour right after the Tet Offensive. When I extended, I got a 30-day leave, so I went home. I didn’t feel so bad coming back that time. After I’d been back a few months my sister died, and I had to go home on emergency leave. This was after I’d been at Dong Tam for a while and the war had gotten real nasty. Many more people were dying. I had real bad feelings about it; I didn’t want to be there. Even though the war was losing its gloss, I was still involved in doing my job. Then I had to fly out again. The colonel had a flight going to Bien Hoa in his helicopter and he was taking this nurse that spent the night with him. That was another thing that used to upset people. He would fly in with the same chopper but with a different nurse.  She would always be young, always beautiful. They’d go right to his hootch and wouldn’t come out until morning. And then he would fly her off to wherever the hell she had to go back to.

This one morning I had to fly to Bien Hoa on my emergency leave. When I walked up to his helicopter I could smell this perfume over the aviation fuel. I mean that is how long it had been. So I ended up sitting with the colonel and the nurse, two guys from the CIA, an intelligence officer and two majors. The helicopter was full up. No one would make room for me, but they were obliged to take me. So I got stuck out with the gunner, who didn’t have any room either. But at least he was strapped in. He was kind enough to give me his machine gun to hang on to.

As we took off I was thinking about  my sister being dead and about this colonel fucking this nurse.  The whole thing seemed unreal. He’s flying into Bien Hoa  or Saigon to drop off this nurse, and then he’s going out to conduct his war, and be home in time for dinner.  So when the helicopter went up in the air—chop, chop, chop—I looked down, but the ground was gone. The pilot went into a long sweeping bank and against the centrifugal force it was only that gun and my steel grip that kept me in the helicopter. The whole experience kept me in the bad state I was in to begin with. I had been confronted with another side of the war.

Another part of the war came around once a week at Dong Tam in the form of a 3/4-ton truck spraying the culverts. At first I didn’t pay  too much attention to the  spraying. You never knew when they were coming. Having experienced it several times, I knew that if you got caught downwind it would make you teary-eyed and nauseous.  It was definitely something to be avoided. It was sprayed out of the back of the truck by a guy with a hose. He’d just stand on the running board spraying the culvert at the truck moved along. I don’t recall him being extra careful. He didn’t wear any kind of protective gear. He was just another GI going up and down the roads.

When he sprayed the culverts the spray would drift up and out, especially if there was any kind of breeze. It would blow across our area in a big cloud  covering an area a couple of hundred yards long and wide. When you saw this cloud coming, you tried to get away, over by the engineers, or over where the grunts and the mechanized units were set up. After the spray had drifted down over the air field, past where you had dodged it, then you’d come back and do whatever you were doing.

Of course, if you were inside a building, you never saw it coming— which happened to me several times.  The mess hall was parallel to the culverts. It always seemed that the wind was blowing perpendicular so that the spray would go right through the mess hall. The cooks were always pissed off. It was hard enough cooking in Vietnam, so when you had these guys spraying this junk around, it’d make them angry. Well, it turned out later that this spray could have been anything from Agent Orange to DDT, any number of harmful chemicals.* I knew that weeds were not growing in the culvert. There was lots of water and the mosquitos never did go away. The spray truck just kept coming around. Since we never had orders to be on the lookout for the truck, we’d set up our own alarm system like Paul Revere. Then everybody would unass the buildings and let the sprayers do their thing and the come back and try to work.

Against these minor annoyances there were other little hazards. After Tet there were literally hundreds of kids around and some of them were dangerous. They might take a shot at you or leave you with a grenade. You had to be mindful. You were not supposed to allow any Vietnamese on the vehicle when you went to dump out all the trash. We were dumping a lot of excess food from the mess hall. The cooks had x-amount of meals to make.  We had people in and out of headquarters battery. So, invariably, the extra food went to the dump, carried usually in these big cans. It was relatively good edible food, and highly sought after. The Vietnamese knew what trucks brought what. Lot of them would gather around the food truck to get this food. So this FNG had gone out with this old timer on the garbage run. I was coming off radio watch late in the morning and the deuce and a half had pulled up beside the mess hall, back from the dump. These two guys had to

take out the empty cans. When they undid the latch on the back of the truck, the tail gate came down, and a hand grenade came rolling out.     It always seemed like incidents like this move real slow. The handle was up on the bed of the truck and the FNG was standing next to the hand grenade laying on the ground. The old timer had been reaching for a  garbage can and had not seen the grenade fall out. The FNG, on the other hand, was fascinated. “Oh, look, a hand grenade.” When the old timer caught on, he threw the can aside, grabbed the hand grenade and threw it in the culvert. When it hit the culvert it blew up. When the grenade went off, someone yells, “Mortar!” The siren goes off. The cooks are running around asking what happened. Dust is flying everywhere. It was an impressive scene. The FNG was still standing by the truck. He could have cost both their lives. The old timer ended up getting a Silver Star.

Everyone at the message center had defensive responsibilities. We even had an M-60 machine gun assigned to us; I’m not sure why. Maybe we were supposed to go down fighting. Because we had a machine gun, we got a defensive position at the corner of the perimeter facing the treeline. This was when Dong Tam was being built up. At night they’d bring movies around, just throw up a sheet on the side of one of these buildings and show it. We sat facing the building, watching the movie, with our backs toward the treeline about 50 meters away. Someone could have run  from the treeline to us in about 30 seconds. It was really a weird feeling at night. Our defensive position was out by the treeline and there was a bunker out there that was permanently manned day and night. It was a “response position.” If we got attacked, we had to “respond” to that position.

One night I was watching this movie on the second floor of the new officer’s building and I heard small arms fire. Then a green cluster flare went off in our corner. That meant that we were under ground attack, not the engineers next to us.  I jumped off the second floor onto the connex where the weapons and ammo were kept, and onto the ground. I ran in, picked up the machine gun and 1200 rounds of ammo. When I  ran out to the position, I had all this ammo wrapped around me. I got set up, found my field of fire, and waited for someone to move. But no one moved. Finally, the assistant gunner came up. He didn’t carry any ammunition because I had grabbed it all. He had his M-16 and he wanted to know what was going on. I said, “I don’t see anything.” We stayed out there


 about an hour or so. When it came time to go back I couldn’t pick up the weapon and even half of the ammunition. The assistant gunner helped me carry it back. As it turned out, there was a small arms exchange with a sniper farther down the perimeter and some guy grabbed the wrong flare. Later I remember thinking, “How did I get all that stuff out there?”

There were lots of little incidents. One of the other hazards was when there was an MPC [military pay currency] change. Every now and then the authorities would dry up all the black market money by changing the military script. If you didn’t have a legitimate reason for having it, you were just stuck with worthless paper money. On the day of the big MPC change, we were planning a pig roast. Some of the boys in the unit bought this pig in the local market with Monopoly money.  They told the farmer it was the new MPC. They felt they were getting even a little bit because these farmers had been taking advantage of them. I always wondered what happened to the farmer when he tried to use the Monopoly money himself.

 

Life at Dong Tam seemed to shift between daily work and startling events, mainly mortar attacks. During Tet we got mortared all the time.  And I mean it was incredible. I got real tired reading about all those poor Marines up at Khe Sanh getting mortared and rocketed, mortared and rocketed, while we were getting mortared and rocketed, mortared and rocketed, and we weren’t getting written up. So I had this professional jealousy. I thought, ‘Gee, the Marines are the only ones in this war, right?’ One thing I learned early on back at Bear Cat was that there was nothing built in the Delta that could withstand a hit by one of those rockets—not even the new tactical operations center which had concrete on top of sandbagged bunkers on top of concrete with these big beams and steel doors. The artillery officer told me, “Well, if this place takes a direct hit by one of those rockets, it’s gonna go right inside and when it explodes, everybody is gone.”

One night I was on radio watch when they started walking these rockets right into the camp—six or seven of them, not very many of them. But each one that landed shook the building I was in a little more, got a little louder, and shook a little more dust down. Finally, it seemed like the next one would hit the building when they turned. I think they ran four rockets in a straight line and then made a 90 degree turn. The building got bracketed. I cried that day. Everybody just totally freaked out.  I was no good after that. I mean that I thought I was dead.

Another time I was mortared in a building at the headquarters of the 7th ARVN Division. Americans were running operations out of there. I was there delivering communications equipment and I had to spend the night. This building also got bracketed, this time by 120 mm mortars. They missed the building from five yards in front to ten or fifteen yards in back. Shrapnel holes were everywhere; they were maybe four feet deep and ten feet around, an incredible hole. I was thinking, ‘Shit, if one of those things hit the building, just one of them… All they had in the hallways were two rows of sandbags, and that doesn’t mean a thing!”

At Dong Tam they put me in for ‘Top Secret’ crypto clearance. I only had a classification for ‘Secret’ crypto information and codes.  Yet, in my safe there were ‘Top Secret’ codes. Every 24 hours the code on the code/decode machine was changed. Using one setting, we would receive ‘sensitive,’ ‘non-critical,’ ‘confidential’ and ‘secret’ messages. As soon as we went to ‘top secret,’ there had to be a  different plug for a different kind of code. I thought they wanted me to be able to use it. I made it through all the investigations, and then they decided that I wouldn’t have a ‘top secret’ clearance. No one ever told me why and I didn’t think anything of  it. One day the phone rang at the same time that the teletype started jumping; the bells on the carriage are ringing, which meant FLASH! This signal from the teletype was supposed to warn us that a high priority message was coming through.

We didn’t get that kind of call too often. I responded to the phone message and someone on the other end only wanted to talk to me. I was told to clear out the room, that I was going to receive a ‘top secret’ message. I said, “I don’t have a ‘top secret’ clearance.,” and the guy answered, “It doesn’t matter. You take this message and act on it.” My adrenalin was pumping. I said, “But our machine is not plugged for ‘top secret’ code.” My mind was really military at that point, thinking, ‘How you gonna send me a ‘top secret’ message on a secret code.” It never dawned on me that’s exactly what they did. The message just came across****FLASH****TOP SECRET****and it was operational orders for people in several artillery batteries to fly to Korea to participate in in-country training to fire nuclear tipped projectiles from 8-inch guns.

Of course, I didn’t know what strategy was being played out. I knew things in the Delta were never that bad. I considered it just another example of the Army screwing up, making me handle ‘top secret’ messages when I wasn’t cleared for it. I was more concerned with these other “secret” messages about 1500 enemy troops operations 1000 meters off the berm killing people. You know, we were really vulnerable and there’s nobody taking care of business. Here’s the Army training these artillery guys to fire nuclear weapons in another country.

It was right around Tet that the Bien Hoa ammo dump was blew up. I had radio watch that night and radio traffic was slow, nothing much going on. I wandered outside the building, started to light up a cigar and, at the same time, it was “daylight.” I took a few steps into this “daylight” only to realize something was wrong. It was so natural that it didn’t dawn on me that it was two o’clock in the morning. It was really eerie.

There was no noise; I didn’t hear an explosion. When the rumble caught up with me, I looked over toward Bien Hoa about fifteen miles away and saw this huge mushroom cloud in the air. It was “daylight” everywhere. Officers began coming out of their billets, people coming out of their tents. Everyone standing around in their skivvies. No one was talking, everyone just absorbed in the moment. The only thing I could think of was that the Russians had dropped an atomic bomb on Bien Hoa. I knew that’s what happened and that we were next. Later on at Dong Tam the 9th Division ammo dup got blown up. It was dangerous because so much ammo was stored in camp. That night, I remember, everybody got up on the tops of roofs and watched the Bien Hoa dump cooking off rounds.

The sergeant came out and yelled at us, but nobody cared. Everybody  was drinking, kicking back: “Wow, look at that one over there!” “No, man, look at that one.” But what sticks in my mind was that the 9th Infantry Replacement Center was right next to the  ammo dump. They’d have probably a couple of  hundred people going in and out of country through the replacement company. I guess that some people got a warm welcome to Vietnam. And from that one experience, they developed at attitude that would carry them through the war. It was probably their first, second, third day in-country and some of them ended up dead. The explosion turned one of the billets into something that looked like Swiss cheese. I thought, ‘Those guys that survived are not going to be any good to anybody for the rest of their tour. Might as well make clerks out of them and put them someplace relatively safe.’

 

I  was living in a racially and regionally  mixed tent. We had people playing bluegrass at one end of the tent, others playing rock and roll at the other end with soul music in the middle—all going on at the same time. Everybody got along together, working and passing the time.  There were no overt racist or anti-regional attitudes. Then one night, I remember coming back to the hootch after radio watch.  A fellow from Georgia, a real honest-to-goodness redneck, and also the person responsible for all the good bluegrass music we heard in the tent, was outside drunk. He had been listening to his music and celebrating. Everybody else was pretty quiet in the tent, but he was in a real jovial mood, happy and singing to himself.

I stopped to pass the time with him a little bit and then went into the tent to learn he was celebrating the death of Martin Luther King. Even though up to that time I didn’t dislike him for any reason, I  had an intense desire to go out and kick his ass. Some of the blacks in the tent restrained me. They said this kind of person just wasn’t worth it.  The blacks were just letting this guy run his course. From that time on, everybody shunned him—whites, blacks, the sergeants. The word went around and he was later transferred. But it was a real shock, coming from where I came from. I grew up on welfare. I had been around a lot of poor blacks well as poor whites. That anybody would celebrate the murder of a man that stood for peace, a religious man, was just beyond my comprehension. I had never seen anything like it.

Of course, there were different reactions [to King’s murder]. One night about eight or nine o’clock at Bear Cat I was down the road a long way from my unit. Coming in my direction was a group of maybe fifteen or twenty black infantrymen, apparently on stand-down. Grunts have a different air about them. These guy were in ratty fatigues and they were real boisterous. I could hear them maybe a block away. I didn’t know any of these guys. When I was within 20 yards from them, several guys in the group started talking about “offing” whitey. I didn’t think anything of it. I really didn’t associate it with me. I grew up in Richmond [California] and I had heard this kind of conversation before, so I wasn’t threatened by it. Nothing like this had ever happened to me. In fact, I think it made me less defensive.

But as they got closer, not only did I begin to realize that they were talking about me, but that there was a group of them within the larger group who were serious, beginning to act it out. My mind was picking up that ‘this is real,’ but my body was still sauntering down the road. I really didn’t get defensive until I was almost upon them. At the last moment, the blacks that were cooler headed just elbowed the others to the side with “What you doin’, man, this ain’t worth it!”  I can’t remember their exact language, but they not only talked against it, but they physically moved them to the side. No one said anything to me.

I could tell they weren’t drunk, just really angry, hostile. It was like they were doing their thing and this idea came up, it got bantered around, my life was threatened, and I got a reprieve all within a matter of seconds. As I was walking through the group, I was aware that some people were reaching for the buck knives and I remember I  didn’t think, ‘I’m dead, I  gotta run, I gotta fight.’ All that kept going through my minds was ‘Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit.’ After they passed, I kept walking but with a knot in my stomach and thinking, ‘How am I going to get back?…’ So I woke up to a different kind of racism, a different kind of anger, because it happened for no other reason than that I was on that road and that I was white. It was another thing to think about from there on out.

One of my jobs was to handle all the interoffice mail. It came up from different batteries to the battalion. The battalion would send it to us and we did whatever we had to do. It was regular mail and someone would sign off for it. As regular mail, it might go to division or II Field Force. One kind of mail was Article 15’s [non-judicial punishment]. After I made sergeant-in-charge, I was taken aside by the buck sergeant I was replacing. It was his job to pass what he knew along. This time he said, “Look, every once in a while someone will call from the field and he’ll tell you that an Article 15 is unfair and so you have to do what you think is right. Okay?” I didn’t quite understand what he meant, but it didn’t mean much at the time. Someone would call from the field? No one had ever called and said, “Look for such-and-such in the mail.” And I’d been there a long time. Besides, the sergeant hadn’t taken me aside and whispered that he’s got this great secret he’s passing on. So I just forgot about it.

Some time went by and then one day I got a call from the field from another sergeant. He identified himself, but that happens a hundred times a day. I didn’t know him, but he knew my name. He told me, “In the interoffice mail there’s an Article 15 on such-and such a person. It’s all bullshit. They’re trying to screw this guy, trying to hang him up. If the Article 15  goes to division, he won’t be able to DEROS [Date Eligible to Return from Overseas].” I  don’t remember that the guy gave me the details of the case. He just said matter of factly the way it was. I said, “okay,” and didn’t think much more about it.

We routinely had to open different packets of mail that would have to be sorted to go either to Intelligence or Operations, over to II Field Force or to the colonel. One day here comes a package of mail with an Article 15 against this guy. Every day we had to burn all the old codes and SOI’s in this 55 gallon drum set up outside on its own little pedestal. Someone had to burn all the classified trash. So I  took the Article 15 along with the rest of the trash to the burn barrel. I burned it up along with everything that came with it. I didn’t think much of it and didn’t feel anything about it. It just made sense.

I was getting short. And this guy with the Article 15 was even shorter. Some time went by  and Operations send an inquiry back down to battalion. They were looking for the Article 15 that they knew was coming up. So I burned that. Then battalion sent a notice that they sent the Article 15. So I burned that, too. Meanwhile this guy must have been getting real short. Division was not doing anything because they’re assuming that battalion would sent it up eventually. Besides, there is so much going on that they won’t burn down the place looking for it. It will come, right? And the people at battalion are thinking, ‘Well, we sent it up.’ So they know its already there and they’re waiting for division to make a decision on whether to screw this guy or not.

The result was that the guy got to DEROS [rotation home] without an Article 15 because it was taken care of in the middle.  No one called to say thank you, nothing came in the mail, no gratuity, no other calls. It had never occurred to me that this was an option people had or that it was something that was going on. But having participated in it at my level, I could see where old sergeants and officers might take care of things in the same way. So it was nice to know that it was going on with the enlisted men, too. That was the only time I destroyed government property in the course of my duties. I’ve reflected on it since. I suppose there is no telling what other things have gotten taken care of in that way.

Finally my time to leave came. When we landed at Travis [Air Force Base] and were bused to Oakland [Overseas Replacement], I sat with the captain who was my dentist at Dong Tam. We had this conversation going into Oakland: “Where are you going?” “Well, I’m a local boy. This is my turf,” and I started naming off the streets as the bus went through Richmond. He went on about setting up his practice in the East Bay, but after naming those streets, I completely let go of the war. The closer I got to home, the more I was totally in another space. I was already home and the war was behind me. I was getting out of the fucking Army.

Processing out of Oakland meant that everybody had to get a haircut. Never mind that we had gotten hair cuts in Vietnam. Our hair wasn’t short enough to get out of the Army. That was a real drag. So finally, this would be the last time they would ever harass me. I didn’t want to hassle it. They brought in some extra clerks to process us out that night in a matter of hours and that was all right with me. We were given new patches. They made sure all the ribbons were sewn on real nice.

I went to take a shower and shave. But I left my ditty bag with some shrapnel I’d saved on the sink. The shrapnel was from a mortar attack at Dong Tam. The shrapnel had gone into the building I was in instead of me. It had been a close call. The ditty bag had a few other mementos and souvenirs. I went around the corner, got my duffle bag, realized I left my ditty bag, went back and it was gone. I can’t remember anything ever being taken in Vietnam. And I had gotten used to that. So I reminded myself: ‘Well, you’re back in the States. You’re not among people who are necessarily going to take care of you.’ That was my first jolt as I was getting out of the Army and it was a good jolt to have because I lost some things that were personally important to me. They were gone, but now I was wide awake. I was home.

July 1980

 

4. ‘Hoi Chanh’

 

May, 1967. We left on Peter Pan Airways. The stewardesses were dressed up like Peter Pans with hats and feathers. We got drinks and they played music on the plane, the whole thing. Many little companies owed their existence to the war, and Peter Pan Airways was one of them. We flew to Anchorage, Alaska. We were allowed off for 45 minutes while the plane refueled. We were allowed to walk out of the airport if we felt like it. You could see mountains ranges, some pine forest  off in the distance and I kept wondering, “Why am I so gutless that I don’t just go off  in those woods and become a trapper. It’s a lot better than where I’m going.” I was really disgusted with myself for getting back on that plane.

I had the same feeling in Japan. We got off for an hour in the middle of the night and then I passively got back on, allowing myself to be flown off to Vietnam, the one place on the planet at the time where people were shooting each other. It seemed insane. But then, I would have thought of myself as chicken had I not gone.

This was in May of 1967. Flying over Vietnam, the pilot said as they do on domestic fights, “If you look down on your right, you’ll see Vietnam.” We looked down and saw flashes. It was insane. There were people down there killing each other. And we are being given an scenic tour description by  the pilot of our 707. We were told the temperature and the weather conditions as we arrived over Cam Ranh Bay.

When the plane landed, I noticed that none of the stewardesses got off. They all stood in the doorway, but they didn’t go down the gangplank, and the pilot kept the planes engine running. All of the stewardesses were very sincere in their ‘good lucks.’ As I went down the gangplank, I felt like running in zigzags and dodging around and stuff because there might be land mines.

I had in my youth been sort of a war buff, or morbidly curious about war. And I read a lot of novels and saw a lot of movies about the Second World War. It was a German movie called The Bridge that I saw in my freshman year in college that really turned me around. It made me decide that if it could change my opinion so drastically in an hour and a half, there was something to making movies. So the predominant image of warfare on my mind was lots of blood and suffering and no honor on anybody’s part. My image of Vietnam was booby-traps under every bush; everywhere you stepped might explode beneath you.

 

We stayed in Can Ranh Bay for two or three days and got our papers in order. The sergeants immediately put you to work doing one thing or another. Even though you hadn’t slept for a long time, they wanted to keep you active rather than let you think about what was happening. They put me on guard duty the first night even though I’d been awake at least a day and a half. I was given a rifle and a clip of bullets and told  to keep the clip of bullets in my pocket. Under no conditions was I  to put it in the rifle. If circumstances arose, I was to check with somebody first.

I was told to just walk  down this road. I was certain that Cam Ranh Bay was fairly secure but at the same time I was walking around in the middle of the night, and there were things rustling in the  bushes. Up on the mountain sides people started shooting flares and I was sure the entire North Vietnamese Army was on the mountain. I heard things everywhere all night long. In fact, it was ridiculous to be on guard there because the mountains were guarded by Korean troops that completely encircled Cam Ranh Bay.

After several days we got sent to Saigon. I had been assigned to a photographic company [221st Signal Company (Pictorial)] at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, which would in turn send photographers off to every possible unit throughout the country. I mean that guys in this unit would spend a week or a month with an engineering unit that was building a road and they’d make a film of it, or they’d go to an air cav unit, go on an operation with them, and make a film of whatever happened.

There were different kinds of films that were being made for the Department of the Army. They would become the record of the ‘Vietnam Conflict.’ We did it the way the army wanted to see the Vietnam War. I really wasn’t aware of that then. Later I learned the films were sent back to the Department of the Army film center on Long Island (NY). Some people I knew from school had been sent there. The films,  they said, were edited by civilian editors and about 75% was cut out because it was too bloody. It showed wounded and dead American soldiers. It showed Americans shooting Vietnamese. It made war a grimmer business that the Department of the Army cared to reveal.

My first impression of Tan Son Nhut Air Base was just amazement at the number of helicopters there. It was like being around a huge number of constantly  swarming bees.  They were every-where, flying very low, and they made a huge amount of noise. There were jets landing and taking off and landing and taking off as well as huge transports. You could hardly hear at Tan Son Nhut.

The first night I went to the enlisted man’s club. It was very plush. It was all red plastic with furniture tacks, recessed florescent lighting overhead and little neon Schlitz beer signs back of the bar. I was expecting something more spartan. Most of the clientele at this time, around 6 pm., were sergeants, big lifers, guys that had been in Vietnam for a long time.

When the entertainment arrived, it turned out to be this Vietnamese rock-and-roll band. A Vietnamese girl came out to sing, and she was beautiful. She looked like she was about 15 years old and weighed about 80 pounds. She looked to fragile and so delicate and vulnerable in comparison to these beefy sergeants. She started singing these lovely songs, and they all started yelling at her, “TAKE IT OFF!” I don’t know. It really made me mad. It reminded me of these scene in Casablanca with all the Germans at the bar. I felt we were the Germans and we were in occupied territory. These people were entertaining us but it was against their will.

The next day we were sent to Long Binh. As far as I was concerned, we could get shot at anywhere outside of Saigon. When we went out to the trucks, we got told to put on flack jackets. There were all these guys carrying M-16’s who had been there for a while, who were going to escort us. So we went out in a caravan. At first it really seemed like we were going out on a dangerous mission, but we drove on an 8-lane freeway at 60 miles an hour all the way up to Long Binh, surrounded by nothing but other army trucks and jeeps. We passed concrete factories and apartment complexes and it was like any American freeway. There was 35 miles worth of it. When we got to Long Binh, we were only assigned to a company area. We were told our first assignment was to build our own barracks, even though we were broadcast experts, movie and still photographers.

We all went to work building prefabricated Adam’s huts which came in a package. We spent a number of weeks with cement mixers pouring out the concrete pads, 80 feet long and 30 feet wide, smoothing them down and building up a frame. I did that for about two months. I was also made into a supply clerk, handing out toilet paper, blankets, sheets and so on.

Our only change was to go off on weekends of Bien Hoa, the town hear the base. Long Binh itself was nothing but endless rows of aluminum prefabricated huts. I think the total area of Long Binh was about 80 square miles, a huge place. You could drive for 10 miles in any given direction and not come to the other side of Long Binh Post.

Everything on the post was American. The only Vietnamese on the post were mamasans who would come in to shine shoes and make beds. This struck me as very strange.  There was an old man assigned to our company who would come out every morning and take the barrels out from under the latrine, mix the contents with kerosene and light the whole thing. He wore a pith helmet and had a mustache and wispy white beard. He had great dignity and sort of looked like Ho Chi Minh. He was the oldest man in his village and also out company shit-burner. It was just bizarre seeing 19-year-old healthy Americans boys having this old man do this job for them.

I started to get stoned a good deal in that company. I had smoked grass probably 20 times before I went to Vietnam. I smoked a few times in my last year of college, then a fair amount during the summer before I got drafted and in the film company before I went to Vietnam. At Long Binh, I lived in the supply room of my company. In the evening, when we were off work, I’d go out and get stoned. I didn’t like the club. It was mostly the sergeants who liked it, and they get all boozed up and kind of dance around with each other. It wasn’t much fun. I would go off walking around the post and smoke a joint.

There were movies going on outdoors everywhere. You could just walk by different companies and see different movies.  They did 16 millimeter versions of television shows without commercials. It was great. They had Gunsmoke and Combat. That also struck me as bizarre. Everybody was watching ‘Sergeant Rock of Easy Company.’ He’s 45, has a deep voice and stubble on his face, and he’s saying, “Follow me, men!” And here were all of these really young guys, some barely shaving (I  was about 4 years older that most of the enlisted people). These guys were getting deep into the fantasy of noble and heroic warfare, and then some of them were going out later on an operation—not with Sergeant Rock, but with a bunch of scared 18 and 19 year olds, not some brawny superstar. It must be a real snap of the mind when they’re all out there and one of them does get killed. He just doesn’t fall over, putting his hand to his heart, but he flies to pieces, and he’s somebody they know.

After a while I was approached by a guy in the company asking me I had ever smoked grass before. He said he had just read an article in Time magazine about it and was fascinated by it and thought he’d like to try it when he got back to the States. After I had gone through explaining what it was like, he laughed and said he really smoked too, and so did a bunch of his friends. It turned out that everybody’d been doing it in little clusters thinking they were the only ones. It turned out that half the company was stoned every night.

The lifers made it easy because they weren’t looking for it. They knew marijuana existed in Vietnam, of course. Every once in a while an announcement would be read about how it was harmful to your health. But the lifers were getting drunk every night, so they could barely tell what was going on anyway. Being on the base with nothing to do led people to get stoned or drunk every night. People were so drunk or stoned that they were literally passing out. And this really struck me as a  symptom of something wrong. Why do people have to wipe out their minds so completely every night?

We’d go into Bien Hoa on the weekends. There were a lot of bars filled with prostitutes. Some Vietnamese guys were guiding guys into the bars and stealing their wrist watches and whatever else they could. The whole town’s culture had been completely corrupted by the fact that it lay adjacent to this gigantic base out of which on weekends came 20,000 GI’s with money in their pockets.

I wasn’t that much of a beer drinker, so I didn’t go into bars that much. I had a couple of friends who were still photographers and they got me interested in still photography. I would mostly be stoned and I’d wander around and take pictures. There was a beautiful little park by the river and we’d go down there and watch the sampans go up and down.

At Sergeant Schmidt’s instigation I went to a whore house one time. He said it was really a terrific place and that I should go there. So I went with him but had no intention of sleeping with a girl. I thought somehow it was exploiting people who were in a bad situation. Also, I was scared of getting VD. When I walked into the place, I was pounced on by a woman who was quite ugly. I disengaged myself, went outside and walked down the street and smoked a joint, waiting for Schmidt.

Schmidt was really an operator, a wheeler-dealer, an amazing guy. He weighed  414 pounds. He left the army with a congressional investigation on his heels and probably with half a million dollars in his pocket. I found that I didn’t mind his deals, really. It seemed to me that nothing was wrong with stealing from the army, with shipments of things disappearing into somebody’s pocket, somewhere. All of this was fine. The fundamental principle and purpose of the army was corrupt and anything that corrupted it, that made it less efficient and less capable of doing what it was supposed to be doing, was to the good.

So I admired Schmidt for all his thievery. He had the best stuff to trade of anyone around. One time he got two jet engines in crates in trade. Everybody wanted cameras and film, and Schmidt had a warehouse filled with both. He sold TRI-X Kodak film in packets of 20 and movie film, perfectly good stuff. At one point we received a shipment of one and a quarter million dollars worth of film, 10 truck loads. It was just left in the company area.  About 3 days later they unloaded the prefab refrigerators that were to be put together. But the film and the refrigerators were supposed to arrive in reverse order so that the refrigerators would be there for the film to go in. That’s when it was discovered that all the film left out there had gone bad in the sun and had to be burned. This was one small supply company of 120 people and that was over a millions dollars right there, just gone. Schmidt wasn’t upset; he could just reorder. I’m sure he did.

At one point we received a movie camera made by Beckman-Whittley, a company nobody had ever heard of before. We assumed it was another creation of the Vietnam War, probably  with an ex-colonel as chairman of the board. This camera cost the army about $8000. Now the best 16 millimeter move camera was the Airoflex, which cost $2,500 in 1967 (A standard film camera, Oricon, cost between $4,000 and $5000). So the Beckman-Whittley was three or four times as expensive as the Airoflex and it didn’t work. Within 10 seconds it would tear film inside the camera into confetti. Someone took one up in a helicopter for aerial filming, pointed it down and all the lenses fell out. I left that company after almost three months, but I learned that a representative of Beckman-Whittley  finally showed up and figured out a way of fixing the camera, probably at greater cost. It was, in fact, a camera developed exclusively for the army for use in Vietnam for a huge amount of money.

These were impressions that stayed with  me. All of this really felt wrong. I remember one time going into town on the weekend. There was a big crowd of people around something in the middle of the highway. A couple of friends and I got into the crowd enough to see that is was three people, two of whom were dead and one just shaking  his last shakes. An American ambulance with a couple of MP’s showed up. They put the two dead people on stretchers and put them in the back and they picked up the injured guy and just dropped him about a foot off the stretcher. Absolutely no concern.

These were civilians who had been in a 3-wheeled Lambretta, like mail trucks in the States. In Vietnam, they were more common in small cities than busses for short-distance transportation. This Lambretta had been hit by an American truck which had not stopped. There was a South Vietnamese policeman  at the scene who, when it was determined that it was an American truck, just stopped writing notes about the accident. Apparently, it was more or less pointless to try and investigate that thing or try to prosecute the guy driving the truck or even tell him to slow down.

I remember my friends, Dennis, who lives back in Boston, who had been a truck driver for the marines up north in Quang Tri. He said that the marines were encouraged to drive fast and scare the people, to show them that the marines were in charge. If they hit people, that was okay; it was all part of the game. And he said that he didn’t count the number of people that he ran over with his truck. But then he ran over a boy on a bicycle, maybe 15 years old. Somehow the kid got tangled up in the wheels. Dennis stopped, got out of his truck, and walked around to look at this kid who just stared back at his with an absolutely level stare, like ‘why did you do this to me?’ Dennis walked away and wouldn’t get back in his truck After he came home, he wouldn’t drive and hates to be driven. He stays out of cars, trucks and buses. Of course, not all GI’s drove this way in Vietnam, just some.

A lot of us were avowed ‘chickens.’ We were not going to be volunteering for things that could get us killed, if we could avoid it. You were plain stupid if you were going out to a place where people were getting killed if you didn’t have to. Most of my friends were also grass smokers and, at that time, there was an illegal brotherhood of grass smokers. This was the summer of 1967 when Time came out with a flower-child on its cover and talked about Haight-Ashbury [district in San Francisco]. It was the first time it was becoming  public that there was a counter-culture. I guess we were the Vietnam equivalent of that, and there were a good number of us.

I think we shared some of the same ideas as people in the States. People who shared more or less the same attitudes would be turned off by people who were into the macho army killer trip. Guys in my company were photographers and not particularly geared for killing. But the company of MP’s near by would go out and patrol at night. We would eat in the same dining hall, and we’d hear them talk about fire fights. The big one that happened near the base while I was there was between the MP’s and another American unit. They started shooting at each other and it took them about 20 minutes to figure it out.

One night I came walking back into the barracks after lights out. I was groping in front of me and I stuck my fingers into of these big fans they had to cool us off. They were cut up pretty badly, so I went to the 24th Evac. Hospital to get some stitches. I remember being terrified of the idea that while I was there, somebody was going to be brought in screaming by one of these helicopters with his guts hanging out. But it didn’t happen.

You knew that those helicopters coming into the hospital were carrying people like that, that they were coming from someplace outside. Long Binh was a secure base, but there was a tension. You knew the war was going on, you could hear explosions off in the distance, but nothing really happened on the base. Going downtown on the weekend was an adventure. You weren’t allowed to carry weapons with you. In fact, the NLF [National Liberation Front] protected you while you were in town because 20,000 people, each spending $20 a weekend was a huge source of income through their taxation system.

I had this general feeling of unease about what was happening in Vietnam. ‘I had read Jonathan Shell’s ‘Iron Triangle’ piece, and I really started to have some doubts. I felt that I wouldn’t be able to face myself  later in life if I didn’t do something about the situation,  if I passively made no protest of any kind. I wrote a letter to my senator, Robert Kennedy, which I never mailed. I thought that we were helping the Vietnamese, but I also thought that perhaps we were averting a war with China that people in the know knew about. At the same time, I felt that I was going to get up one day and not dress in my fatigues. I’d start hitching to Tan Son Nhut and see what happened. What was likely to happen was that I would be picked up and put in the stockade. I had never heard of any GI resigning in the middle of his time in Vietnam. I got all self-important about it. It was going to have such an effect that the CIA was going to rub me out before it happened.

So I told all my friends about it. In case I got rubbed out, they would be able to tell the story. I went to the C.O., who was a pretty nice guy. He dissuaded me. He said, “It’s really going to be a waste. You’re going to get out [of the stockade] and still have the same amount of time to do. You’re smart and you’re doing a good job here. Go to Saigon. Find something humanitarian to do.”  So he let me go with the mail carrier, who went off every day. I started going with this guy to Saigon, trying to find work in a hospital or in a refugee program. But I couldn’t find anything.

The company commander is basically the final authority in a company. If he knows you’re going to Saigon, and thinks its okay, then it’s okay. So I went to Saigon every day for a week or more, going to hospitals, an orphanage, to the Friends, just from office to office. I went to a whole lot of different people and explained how I felt about things, and also that my C.O. said that he would sign anything. They all said, “That’s great. But you’re a private in the army. We don’t know how to do what you want. There’s virtually no way  of getting the paperwork through for you to be transferred.”

So I went to USAID [United States Aid for International Development] to see about the refugee program.  They said they would be able to get me into the refugee program by making me a clerk in the Saigon office in about 3 months. Maybe later I could work with refugees. I was discouraged. On my way back to the company. I  ran into somebody in USAID  who I’d met wandering around Saigon. She said, “Why don’t you go see  Ogden Williams, the guy who runs the chieu hoi program.” I didn’t know what the  chieu hoi  program was. She said it was the ‘Open Arms’ defection program, but I said that it didn’t sound like what I wanted to do at all. But she said, “Williams is an interesting guy.” So I went to talk to him. The first thing he said was, “Jesus, are you Fred Herter’s son?” It turned out that he and my father had gone to grade school together, or something like that. Then I knew that I could work in the chieu hoi program if I wanted to.

I took volumes of program descriptions back the barracks at Long Binh to figure out what it was about. The descriptions made it clear that the guys that came in on chieu hoi program from the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army would be well-treated and would get all the benefits that were listed. They’d get a house and a trade; they’d get to bring their family in; they’d get allowances and clothes and draft exemption for a year.

The idea of the program was to deplete the enemy ranks by inducing the enemy to defect. They claimed that in the prior year [1966] 25,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers had come in on the chieu hoi program. USAID would weigh the amount of money it cost to get one person to defect against the amount of money that it cost to kill one soldier. The chieu hoi program came out way ahead, according to them.

I believed the claims about good treatment. But it still bothered me. It sounded sneaky, like the program was covering up something bad. So I really pressed Williams, questioning him closely. He kept saying, “Yeah, it really does all the things that it says it does. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t work. If a guy defects to a chieu hoi center and it beaten to a bloody pulp, the world would go back and nobody else would come in. So they have to be well-treated.” I didn’t really feel much of anything politically about it. At that point, I didn’t feel much of anything for or against the NLF. I felt that the army had no place in Vietnam, that we were completely insensitive to the Vietnamese people and that we were just wrecking the country.

I was scared of the NLF, of course. They were the people shooting mortars at us. Williams said that for the 25,000 who had come in on the chieu hoi program, about 50,000 ARVN (South Vietnamese army) in the same period had deserted to the NLF. That’s a loss of 25,000 people. But what really convinced me was his picture of the 25,000 who came in. They were no longer shooting Americans and they were no longer getting shot at or napalmed. That was 25,000 that were out of the war for at least the 60 days they were at the chieu hoi center and for the year afterwards that they were draft exempt.

By this time I had become aware of what the situation was for a Vietnamese in the midst of the war. Any male between the ages of 16 and 42 was in one army or the other. They could not become teachers or go off to Canada. They did not want to go to jail. If they’re married or have kids or if their parent get sick or their crops fail, or whatever, it didn’t matter. They’re stuck in the army. There was no way out. They’d spent their entire adult life being a soldier. They didn’t like it in Vietnam any more than anywhere else.

It’s not fun being shot at. If they had a chieu hoi program for Americans to get out of Vietnam and out of the army, I would have done it in a shot. It seemed absolutely insane to me to be a soldier. The whole art of soldiering was crazy, going around killing people and being killed by them. They were causing so much pain, not only to the person who was killed, but to all the people who loved that person. It was a crazy business, and here was a way some people got out of it to live a semi-normal life for a  period of time. And that seemed really fine to me. So I  told Williams, “Sure, I’ll do it.”

I transferred to Saigon and stayed there for about 3 weeks [learning to be an advisor]. Then I transferred into USAID. They made me a “civilian” for the rest of my tour.  If I were in the military, I was supposed to be a major to be a chieu hoi advisor. I got everything transferred over, a really big step. Going off to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta was going off the whole Saigon orbit. One guy who was a still photographer had been down there for a week, and he said, “God, there were bodies stacked up in rows like cord wood everywhere, and they were all baking in the sun.” That’s what I heard what the Delta was. They gave me a carbine and all these papers. I put my GI clothes in a duffle bag and went off in civilian clothes to check into the USAID compound in Can Tho.

Can Tho was the central city in the Delta for the Fourth Military region [IV Corps]. There I  met my regional superior, a major in the Australian army named Riddle, who looked and sounded like [the actor] David Niven. He was English, but had emigrated to Australia. He had this little mustache and carried a swagger stick. He was one of four people in charge, who would report to Ogden Williams, who ran the central office in Saigon.

There was a chieu hoi center for each province. Riddle ran the program for the 16 provinces in the Delta. I was assigned to run the chieu hoi center in Ba Xuyen province. Riddle took me around to a bunch of the different provinces to give me an idea of what the chieu hoi centers were like. We flew around in a little STOL [short take off/landing] aircraft. It was an amazing plane that can take off in 40 feet. It’s built like a Piper Cub with a high wing and turbine engine which revs up to a huge amount of speed and just keeps going at that speed with the propeller flat. Then the pilot pushes a lever forward and the angle on the propeller blades turn. The effect is like being in a  dragster. It’s just… zing and you’re off. Just like that!

Some of the provinces we visited didn’t have airstrips so we would circle a road three or four times. Down below a national policeman would tell people to get off the road. This way we saw a bunch of different chieu hoi centers and met the chieu hoi advisors there.  Some were Philippine army people turned civilians. I guess they had experience with counter-insurgency  ten or  so years before against the Huks [Filipino insurgents of the 1950’s]. I think in only one or two of the provinces were there actual American army majors or colonels in charge. In most of the provinces they were young  guys who had just gotten out of the Peace Corps and decided that they wanted to go into USAID and continue development work under the American government.

So we went from province to province in the daytime and from bar to bar at night. Riddle proceeded to get drunk in the evenings and tell me with great wit about the ‘anti-hangers’ in Australia and how he hated their guts. The ‘anti-hangers’ were people opposed to capital punishment and against the bomb and the Vietnam War, bleeding hearts to him. He explained how the best thing that ever happened in Australia was when they ran the aborigines off cliffs at the end of the 19th century. He said that he wished they had gotten them all because now the aborigines were going go the university and thinking that they were as good as normal people because they could read and write. The reason we were in Vietnam, obviously, was because people of color were designed to be servants to white people. And if they started to get out of line, they must be put back.

So these were the basic motivations and attitudes for the guy who was  in charge of the chieu hoi program for a quarter of Vietnam [IV Corps]. I was so flabbergasted by this outright racism and Kipling-style colonialism that I didn’t know what to say to him. I managed to say, “Are you serious?” That was about all I could come up with. It was so basic to his nature that you couldn’t say, “Well, did you ever think about it this way?” I didn’t fight with him. I just listened to him, amazed.

I went to the capital city of Ba Xuyen by bus. Soc Trang was where I spent the rest of my time in Vietnam. I was introduced to the province senior advisor, who was the head American in the province. The military forces in the province included a squadron of helicopters, some prop planes, some transport helicopters and a lot of GI’s to maintain and fly them. Probably 1,500 people were at that base with the advisory team downtown.

There was one advisor to each department of  local government. Each one of us was the American equivalent of a Vietnamese government official. So I was equivalent to  the chieu hoi chief. The refugee advisor, for instance, would be the American counterpart of the refugee chief. There was an agriculture man, an education man, and a police advisor. Also there were revolutionary development and rural support advisors for which they had a department in local [south] Vietnamese government. The advisory team consisted of about 70 people all together. About half of them—like myself— were “advisory” and the other half were army enlisted guys—clerks, vehicle maintenance people, like that.

On arriving I was immediately  told that I was not to associate with the army enlisted people, that I was to disguise the fact that I was really a private in the army because there would be bad feeling. I was to eat with civilians in their mess hall which was also the officer’s mess. This situation made me unsure of everything. I  had really  gotten used to being an enlisted man.

From basic training on there is such a difference between enlisted men and officers, like slaves and their masters. The officers are privileged; they tell the enlisted what to do. The enlisted men are allowed to gripe and bitch about what they’re doing, but then they shuffled around and did it. The officers have to keep up a face about the ‘army way’ to do it. So, as an enlisted man, you were licenced to goldbrick, to dissent, to dislike army, and to say you disliked it. But if you’re an officer, the reverse was true.

I thought being an enlisted man was right; I liked that. All my friends, the guys I really liked in all three places I’d been—basic training, the film school and the film company—were enlisted men. So I felt that my new job was, in a sense, a betrayal of my enlisted status. I didn’t like being told to go off of the officer’s mess and to lie that I had just come from USAID in Washington, D.C.

I couldn’t and I didn’t do it. I spilled the beans to the first person who asked me. It created a very strange situation with the officers. I’d be eating dinner with a colonel and a major and a couple of lieutenants. They would all know that I was a private, but they couldn’t call me private because I was in civilian clothes. And I didn’t have to salute them. I called them by their first names. I didn’t get along with them very well. But my attitude did not have to do with the officer-enlisted difference. It had to do with attitudes about the war which I could not get out of my mind or out of my mouth.

I would dissent on conversations relating to the war—and most of the conversations were about the war. And I would get angry. The officers would just say, “This guy is crazy…and subversive… and possibly dangerous.” They disassociated themselves from me. I would be sitting at a table and they would come in and sit at every other table possible, so they wouldn’t have to sit and talk with me at dinner.

But I made a group of friends of like-minded people. They were USAID people, mostly from the Peace Corps, who wanted to make a career out of whatever development skills they had. They had been sent to Vietnam and some of them were not happy about it. My best friends were the refugee advisor and a guy who was in the revolutionary development program. I don’t think he ever figured revolutionary development out. He was trying to form cooperatives in villages to get a new form of social structure going and make for faster development than the old village system.

The whole social system was shot and everybody was scared of the Americans, on the one hand, and the NLF, on the other hand. The whole job was crazy. The refugee advisor job was crazy, too, but I guess it was the best job there. He went out all over the province, largely to areas where there’d been battles. He would assess the value of the people’s destroyed homes and dead livestock and pay them off. For example, an adult civilians over 15 years old who was killed was worth $35 to their family. A child under 15 years was worth $14.40. That was the only kind of relief work that was going on.

My friend also would go out and try to get materials released from province chiefs to rebuild people’s houses, stuff like that. The whole province officialdom was corrupt. He would find that the concrete to be used to rebuild refugee houses was being used to build a house for the refugee chief.  But the refugee chief would have no idea of where the concrete went and we’d never see it.

I remember one incident at the chieu hoi center. I was really good friends with the Vietnamese chieu hoi chief. He told me that he had been fired because he refused to make the payoff to a man in Saigon. He told me, “I don’t give a shit anymore. I just watched your airplanes totally destroy this city. The money is supposed to go for the people in the chieu hoi center, so I’m going to stop making these payments.” This happened after the Tet Offensive [January 1968].

He immediately got drafted. He had been in the army before and he had a wife and three or four kids. He was a good man and I liked him. He stopped making the payoffs because he was disgusted with the corruption and cynicism. So I was going to make a stink about it, but he said, “No, for God’s sake don’t do that. I could be found floating in one of the canals. Anybody who raises any kind of problem about payoffs or the internal corruption of the Saigon government is ambushed by the “Viet Cong.” It is easy to run corrupt practices in a country where people are being killed as normal consequence of war. This goes for the CIA or for guys who don’t like their officers. This murderous situation applied to anybody. So he said, “Don’t tell anybody about this!” Then he went off to the army.

Mr. Dang was made chieu hoi chief. I had known him as assistant chieu hoi chief and I didn’t like him at all. He was always coming up and being buddy-buddy with me when we weren’t good buddies. I hardly knew the guy. I distrusted him and one of his first acts as chieu hoi chief was to take a huge percentage of the budget which I oversaw. He took almost the total amount allotted for lumber, which was to be used to build houses for the hoi chanh, the guys that came in under the chieu hoi program.

Part of our promise was that they would have government-donated lumber to build their houses. He ordered the lumber with this money  from a friend of his who ran a lumber mill in a nearby town. He ordered $40,000 worth—a massive amount—to be delivered to the site of the chieu hoi hamlet-to-be. The next day he claimed not only that the lumber has been delivered to the site, but that the Viet Cong had come in the middle of the night, scared off the hoi chanh left there to guard it, and ran off across the rice paddies with over 20 tons of lumber on their backs. So we had neither the $40,000 nor the lumber. It was a fantastic story.

I reported this story to Mr. Thorn, the province senior advisor and he said, “Have Mr. Dang shot!” I said, “Are you kidding me? What are you talking about? Okay, he stole some money, but you don’t kill him for that!”  I had to hand it to Mr. Dang. It was very well done. I wanted to catch him at it because I really didn’t like him. He’d done a number of things throughout the year in a really malign way that were really dishonest. I was involved in the idea of these hoi chanh having houses and getting jobs and doing what the program said it would do. So I was keeping track of the funds. But it turned out the program didn’t conscientiously follow up anywhere. I was playing a game, but taking it seriously. I was trying to make good on promises that were not really meant to be made good.

So I was upset about this lumber thing. And I went out to the village where the lumber mill was. I’d been there before. I took this sampan across the river to the mill to asked whether Mr. Dang had in fact paid this amount of money. I assumed that he had gotten his friend, the lumber man, to go along with his story and then split the money. In the sampan coming back from the mill was one of Mr. Dang’s headmen. He smiled as I went across and I smiled at him. He knew what I was doing and I knew he knew. But there was nothing I  could do.

These Vietnamese were not the only thieves. About 20% of the stuff shipped to Vietnam never made it from the Saigon docks to its destination, the American PX. Tape recorders, cameras, air conditioners, refrigerators, cases of liquor would just disappear and end up on the Saigon black market. Transported from Saigon to, say, Danang, stuff would just get lost. Or, it would be a “combat loss.” The trucks were attacked by the “VC.” There was a kind of underlying humor in all of this and a great deal of time I spent really laughing about it, it was so absurd.

 

The army was almost as absurd. Some of the officers were serious, of course, but only in terms of their careers as lifers in the army. They were not being serious about the ‘crusade’ to save the people ‘from this filthy communism.’ Just about anybody, if you got him drunk enough or weary enough, or shaken up enough, would say, “Boy, there’s something  really  wrong   here. This situation is all screwed up. Nobody better ever figure out what it is that’s exactly going on here because if they do….  I don’t think about it.  I’m here because I’ve been in the service all my life and this is the only thing I know and the only way to make rank. Don’t say this to anyone, but I think this whole war is fucked up. But I’ll continue to do whatever it is I have to do because I’m not to question it. I’m a soldier. I’m an arm of policy. The politicians may have it screwed up, but it’s not my fault. So I’ll go along until they tell me to stop.” This was their outlook.

One little anecdote concerns a Major Berger who showed up from somewhere one day after I’d been on the advisory team for about three months. Major Berger appeared at dinner his first night very excited. He was a rotund, middle-aged, balding man, and he’d been up on a ‘fire fly’ mission the night before. ‘Fire fly’ was a nightly helicopter mission on which three helicopters would fly together. The central one had a huge bank of spotlights like a section of lights at a football stadium. They could illuminate an area so that it was brighter than daylight.

‘Fire fly’ would go out to fly along over canals, over rice paddies and villages where there were curfews. If they saw anybody out and about, they assumed they were Viet Cong, that they were doing something illegal, and that they should be shot on sight. That’s what the other  two helicopters alongside did. They were equipped with rockets and machine guns with tracers, just everything imaginable to kill people. ‘Fire Fly’ would spot something, a sampan going down river, or something in a rice paddy, and these other helicopters would just obliterate it.

Well, Major Berger was all excited because, as he announced at dinner, he had been out on the ‘Fire Fly.’ This was his first time in Vietnam and he wanted to see some action, fast. And, boy, he’d found it, because going down the canal was a large sampan with all these guys in orange robes on it. He said, “There was a swastika and I ordered the Cobras on that boat in a flash. We blew the thing right out of the water. I knew there were Commies in Vietnam, but I didn’t know they had Nazis here.” And somebody said, “Major, those were Buddhist monks and that so-called swastika was the symbol of  Buddhism.” And it didn’t upset him, except that it ruined his story. It didn’t cross his mind that when he blew the boat out of the water, he killed the people on it. That fact that they turned out to be Buddhist monks made it a less good story.

At the same time that these incidents were occurring, I started getting into Vietnam, into what the people were doing. Something was happening to me. I went out and took pictures of people on the weekends when I felt like doing it. During Tet, when the head of Psy. Ops. [Psychological Operations]  in the province said, “Eric, I know you are a photographer, so I want you to go out with your camera and take pictures of bodies around the city. I want to make leaflets showing the bodies.” Except for that odd assignment, I just took ordinary pictures of my Vietnamese friends.

My interpreter became a really good friend. He was really a good guy and I got to know his family. It turned out that as chieu hoi advisor I had an allocation for a driver. So I hired his brother. Since his brother didn’t know how to drive, I drove the jeep and his brother—the driver—sat in the back seat. I figured it was a good deal because he was getting $50 a month and it was just going to get wasted some other way.

While I was getting more interested in Vietnam, I was avoiding the senior officers. Often I would come to eat at the mess hall last so I wouldn’t have to talk to Major Berger or Colonel McCray. And usually I was pretty stoned. I got so that I after a while I was eating a joint when I got up in the morning. And it was not a way to escape. I was finding Vietnam really fascinating, this world, this whole way of defining everything in different terms. I was getting  into Buddhist thinking. I’d never known much about it before, but suddenly I was seeing that an Asian culture had evolved totally separate from ours based upon different premises.  It  had a completely different cosmology. In fact, the two cultures miss each other so entirely that there is no common definition for a whole lot of things.

I found that my natural inhibitions, my self consciousness about being an American, about being huge among Vietnamese people, was really alleviated by using grass. I’d become much more outgoing and, in a lot of ways, much more perceptive. So I’d eat a joint before breakfast and go up to the  chieu hoi center where I spent my day. At about 10 am I’d start getting stoned. But the causal link gets lost when you eat grass rather than smoke it. I would have forgotten that I’d eaten this joint and I’d be drinking tea with the chieu hoi chief, bullshitting about this and that and, all of a sudden, the conversation would go off. I’d be having this fantastic  conversation about really strange subjects that neither of us had thought much about. The same thing happened with Bao, my interpreter. My conceptions were changing as well as my feelings about the United States role in the world and about Americans and Vietnamese. I was really beginning to come undone about the United States, about South Vietnam and the NLF.

There was an ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] unit in Soc Trang that would go out on an operation every day. They’d load up about 25 deuce and halfs and APC’s [Armored Personnel Carriers]. They be swarming all over the tops of the APC’s, hanging out the sides of the trucks with red scarves, big wrap-around sunglasses, smoking cigarettes, covered with ammo belts and grenades. With their women and children waving and cheering, they’d ride out in all these trucks and steal a bunch of chickens and have lunch. Then they’d come back in. In their thousands of missions they had made contact with the Viet Cong maybe 14 times. These contacts were obviously a big mistake.

Everybody had brothers and cousins in the Viet Cong. Everybody knew everybody else. Often in the evening, coming back from the chieu hoi center, Bao and I would stop off for milk shakes that were made of ice, milk and any kind of fruit handy. They were really good. And on a couple of occasions, Bao would say, “Hey, do you see that guy at that table over there? He’s the NLF tax collector for Phu To village five miles outside town.” I’d look over at the guy and he would look back at me and nod, knowing what I’d just been told.

It didn’t matter. In a way we were in a free area. They were not going to shoot us, and they could have easily. We Americans stuck out like sore thumbs. This was just the way things were in Soc Trang. I would walk around there at night. My other good friends, beside the refugee advisor and the rural development advisor, were guys from IVS [International Voluntary Service], a kind of Peace Corps. They were living all around in town. I’d go down to their place and have dinner with them or go out carousing around town, drinking rice wine or coffee. So there was a certain amount of humor in the situation. In many ways it was a pleasant time.

I taught English 3 nights a week to the Vietnamese-American Association school. They had asked if any of us wanted to teach English there and I said yes because I wanted to meet some more Vietnamese. They kept saying that they were going to set up courses in Vietnamese for those of us who wanted to learn it. It was always going to be next month. But Tet came and it never happened. My interpreter and a couple of friends offered a couple of times to teach me and actually started me on some words, but I always felt that it would be easier if I had a text book. So I taught English. It was really the single most enjoyable thing I did in Vietnam.

I really loved it because the kids were so responsive. They were really eager and funny. They would notice anything that was out of place and they were really open about laughing about it, not just snicker among themselves.  I didn’t speak enough Vietnamese to make myself understood, so I had to jump around, do charades, draw things on the blackboard and play different games to make my ideas understood.

I had a great time. The kids ranged probably from about 6 to about 20, mostly 12 to 16. I started with nothing at all and worked up to a second class with kids who spoke some English already. I would read some passages from this terrible book that told about geysers in Yellowstone Park. I’d say ‘geyser’ and everybody would say ‘geeser.’ Of course, we had a certain amount of military terms. I’d say ‘pilot’ and everybody’d say ‘filot.’ I’d repeat “p-p-p-pilot” and they would say “f-f-f-filot.” ‘P’s just didn’t come out right. In the intermediate class we went on to stalagmites and stalactites, totally useless stuff, completely outside their experience.

 

All during my time in Soc Trang I lived in the Bungalow Bar, which was a whore house. It was one of the half a dozen whore houses in town. I’d been assigned there. The advisory team had grown. It didn’t have enough space in the buildings already leased in the middle of town, so they leased added space in the Bungalow Bar, which was the remaining building that formed a whole city block. So a bunch of us lived in various rooms along the second floor. The girls lived and transacted business downstairs.

It was a great place to live. I’d come in from work in the evening and sit down at the bar and have a Coke, usually not a beer because I was still so stoned that, if I had a beer, I would just go to sleep. I talked to whoever was sitting around at the bar. I wasn’t anybody’s client because of Kim (who I will get to later). This put me in a nice kind of relationship with the women. I could bullshit with them without them getting into their routine, trying to turn me into a client because they knew I wasn’t. And I felt much more on their side, seeing things from their point of view more than from the point of view of the GI’s who were coming into the bar.

So I was just another person hanging around the bar. These guys were at the air base that was a couple of miles outside of town. They’d get themselves all stoned and drunk and rowdy and come wheeling into town. They were really venturing. They were really doing something coming into the bar right out there in Indian Country. Christ, they thought the might get killed. All of us on the advisory team felt like old hands. We lived in town. They all thought that we were out of our minds: “No way are you going to make me live in town. I wouldn’t be there after dark if you paid me.” That was pretty much their attitude out at the base.

So they’d get pretty well tanked up to come into town, come into the bar, and get in fights. And these guys were giving these girls lines that were just so bad. Actually, some of them were really just sad. Some of these guys, who seemed really young, would be telling these girls about their girl friend back in Minnesota or wherever. They’d have all the pictures out of their wallets and they’d be telling the girl and the girl would get into it. It was so beautiful. She would hold the guy’s hand and he would say, “Oh, Mary, where are you?” The girls would pat him on the shoulder and say, “That’s okay now.” These girls were so great. I liked them a lot. I felt I was seeing so much there. I really wanted to somehow document some of it. One of my ideas was to do a whole lot of interviews and take pictures of girls working in bars around town. They’re a singularly maligned group. The Vietnamese were maligned to begin with and then to be a Vietnamese prostitute practically excluded them from the human race.

I think that the thing that touched me most was how they would allow themselves to get very emotionally involved with the guys. They had done themselves in as far as Vietnamese society was concerned.  Even their families would give them a certain amount of distance for being a prostitute. Nine times out of ten they were doing it for their family. The girl would be good-looking and the family would be poor. How virtuous is it to remain virtuous when by doing so she was depriving her family of more money that her father could make? The greater virtue lie in giving up her “virtue” and, in a sense, sacrificing herself, her life.

Vietnamese women are raised with the idea of being a wife and a mother, with a very idealistic sense of it. There is practically no divorce in Vietnam and when people married, they did it with the greatest kind of sentimental attachment. They profoundly believe in the institution of romantic love. So these girls had thrown that away and, in a sense, were on their own. And a girl would get really attached to an American guy. And I’d see lots of times that he was a shit, that he was bullshitting her about his affection for her and that she was believing it.

She was not a role-playing person and didn’t understand about the possibilities of insincerity and all the multiple roles that we’re adept at. While an American would see through it, a Vietnamese would believe it. All her girl friends would be holding hands, saying “God, isn’t it great. True love at last.” And then the guy would leave, and the girls would be all broken up. And then she would do it again! Most people I know, when they get stepped on, are very cautious about doing it a second time. To me it was real bravery to see a girl get into heavy emotional feelings, get hurt, and then turn around and do it again.

 

So I lived at the Bungalow Bar and taught English at night. I avoided the officers and spent time with my American and Vietnamese friends. One night I was walking along the street toward the Bungalow Bar. It was about 10:30 pm. Some kids were bicycling by on their way home, but most people were home in bed. Across the street from the Bungalow Bar was a large, open square, like a park. There were big lights on in the square and the ARVN would park their trucks and APC’s that they used for their chicken stealing expeditions around the edge of the square.

I was about halfway back to the bar when BOOM! Everybody across the street in the park was shooting. Guys were jumping on top of their APC’s, swiveling their .50 caliber machine guns around in the darkness. People were running through the park shooting at each other. I froze where I was, not knowing what to do, but thinking that if I went backwards over the fence next to the sidewalk, that just the motion of my going over might be enough to make me somebody’s target. Because it didn’t look like anyone knew exactly what they were shooting at. They were just shooting at anything.

I just stayed put. I squatted down so I was less of a target and watched.  Eventually all the shooting died down and the ARVN ran off to another part of town. Then I walked very quickly down the sidewalk to the Bungalow Bar, which had a barbed wire fence around it and a barbed wire bamboo covered door. It was locked and I was outside saying, “Jesus, let me in!” Boy-san come running out of the place saying, “Hurry up, get in here!” Boy-san was this “boy” who was in fact 24 years old, but his I.D. said that he was 14  so he could stay out of the army. He was going to be 14 until he got to be about 30 and then, all of sudden, he was going to be 42.

Coming in I saw mama-san. She was a shrewd old lady, who would play cards with the GI’s. She would  beat them every time. She was also taking her percentage from all the girls. There are bad mama-sans and good ones and I guess this mama-san was okay. She had send some of the girls upstairs to the second floor. There was a window up there and they could look down on the park. Three looking out the window and everybody else was on the floor huddled against the wall. A couple of  girls and some kids of the girls were crying.

I came up the stairs and I became a big hero because I’d been out in the middle of it. And everyone was asking, “How was it?” and “What’s happening out there?” I said, “I don’t know.” And there was this one girl who had just arrived from somewhere and she was very young and seemed very lonely. She didn’t know any of the other girls. Maybe she had just started being a prostitute and was afraid of all the big Americans. I’d never talked to her before and, when I came up the stairs, she was just standing there. I stopped and looked out the window. She was standing next to me and all of a sudden she began to cry. So I patted her on the shoulder saying, “That’s okay,” and she turned around and hugged me. I stood there patting her on the head and saying everything was okay and wondering what the hell was going on.

It turned out to be a firefight between ARVN Rangers and a regular ARVN unit, some sort of inter-service rivalry. The Rangers knew they were better and the army guys hated them for it. So some Ranger had to prove that he could take on 25 ARVN’s. They had gotten in a fight in a bar downtown and all of them went running for their guns. I didn’t see anybody get hit. I didn’t think it was all that funny at the time. To tell the truth, I was pretty scared.

Though I had contempt for the ARVN, I was really curious about the  hoi chanh because they were the enemy even though they had quit the fighting. What kind of people were those who deserted their own buddies and, in rare instances, had turned around and led an ARVN operations to find some weapons? There was a whole reward system. If they led an operation back out that finds a weapons cache, they could get a reward for all the weapons found: find a Howitzer, get $1000, $5 for a rifle, $3 for a hand grenade.

Most of the chieu hoi people spoke only Vietnamese, and even with a good interpreter it was almost an impossible barrier to be an American associated with this program. I had a hard time talking with them. They didn’t know what to expect; they’d never been within talking range of an American. They were very apprehensive that Americans are going to turn out to be ogres. If I was a Vietnamese and had never talked to an American, I’d have really bad feelings about them.

The guys that I knew well were those who had been recruited at the end of their time into a group called the APT’s [Armed Propaganda Teams], which was made up exclusively of ex-hoi chanh. There were allocations for 72 salaries for APT’s. They were supposed to guard the chieu hoi center from Vietnam Cong attack. Depending upon the province of the chieu hoi chief and his advisor, there would be  x-number propaganda operations a month. The teams would go into villages that were contested or that were Viet Cong villages taking loud speakers and leaflets. They say, “I used to be in the Viet Cong and look at me now. I have a salary and a boy scout uniform.” There weren’t any uniforms allocated, so that’s what they wore. If they got a medal, it was a boy scout medal. I got pressure from Major Riddle in Can Tho to turn up with a propaganda mission every once and a while. But, as chieu hoi advisor for Ba Xuyen province, I had no interest in them at all.

I also got pressure from this crazy guy who was head of Psy. Ops. He had grabbed on to the APT’s to make them into his own elite fighting force. His name was Steve Shepley. He was about 29 or so, had gone to college, maybe he had been in the Peace Corps. He wore sun glasses, little French blue-tinted globules of glass hanging off a wire. He wore a skin tight tiger suit, one of those striped things, custom tailored. He just zipped himself in.

He carried at least 3 weapons with him  wherever he went. He had either a little Beretta or a Derringer tucked in his boot. Then he wore a black Belgian nine millimeter pistol with white ivory grips with dragons carved on them that he found in some shop in Saigon. And when he was really duded up, when he was going to walk down the street, he’d wear an AK-47 over his back that he had got on some operation.

Shepley had read everything about Vietnam. He knew [counter insurgency expert] Robert Thompson inside and out. He’d read all the State Department’s books, Pike’s book on the NLF, and Hickey’s book on the village in Vietnam. He understood Vietnam from an anthropological, psychological, sociological, mathematical and every other point of view. And he spoke French and Vietnamese. He was really bizarre, smoking opium and living with a horde of young boys. He was playing ‘Lawrence of Vietnam.’ I think he was more or less running the Ten Commandments down backwards to see if he could get them all. He was being evil just to prove to himself that it was a mode of existence. He had broken the social conventions of every conceivable society, so he really was his own man—a complex game of philosophizing himself into a role that was totally evil, yet totally free.

I introduced Shepley to marijuana. I thought it would be better for him  than opium. Along with some IVS people, we became a regular circle of marijuana smokers who would always get together in my room at night, get stoned and shoot the breeze. And Shepley would say, “Ah, got to try some opium sometime if you’re really going to understand the Orient.” And he had under the glass top of his desk that cute little ditty about ‘east is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.’

Steve once got a medal from Lyndon Johnson. He got flown back to Washington with Fred Zimmerman, our agricultural advisor. Fred was this old guy from Missouri or somewhere in the middle-south who had been a professor at an agricultural college for years and years. He needed money and the money was good to work for USAID for two years in Vietnam. He didn’t think much about the war one way or another. Well, I’m sure he thought about it, but he was a farmer kind of guy. He talked cows and chickens, rice and pigs most of the time. He was really into planning new strains of rice and checking his projects. I shared a room with him for a while, so I sort of knew  him. He didn’t understand me at all and I didn’t understand him entirely.

The advisory team had old French Landrovers and International Scout Carryalls. So team members would go off on operations in a turqouise and white International Scout. It seemed so bizarre. We also had patrol boats, Boston whalers with Evinrude outboards on the back. Shepley and Zimmerman were traveling on a canal in this little pastel blue and white whaler when a lone sniper fired at them.

And Steve, so Zimmerman said, collapsed on the floor of the boat, scared to death. The driver of the boat jumped overboard, which was a pretty sensible thing to do. Zimmerman got down on the floor of the boat, too. The boat was going about 30 miles an hour down the canal out of control. Then it started to swerve toward the point where the sniper had been shooting. Shepley was discharging his weapon all over the place, so the sniper ran away. That’s how Shepley got a solemn handshake from Lyndon Johnson for this single-handed routing of an enemy emplacement.

Shepley’s boss was Nick Thorn, the senior province advisor. (I mentioned him earlier regarding Mr. Dang.)He was in his early fifties, had gone to prep school, Yale and then into the Marine Corps for 20 years. He was a gentleman soldier right out of Kipling. He had a bullet head, bald with a fringe of red hair around it and a neck coming straight down from the head, and he had a handlebar mustache which he waxed and curled. He wore light-weight, drip-dry Brooks Brothers suits with a  little chamois skin Beretta holster and Beretta under his armpit. Along with his Australian bush hat with the side pinned up and a leopard skin band, he carried a swagger stick.

He was really close friends with Major Riddle. They were both gentlemen soldiers—and military historians. They would talk about great battles here and there, great generals. They both quoted Kipling. It was amazing. Thorn didn’t live in the compound. He lived in a villa downtown with leather-bound volumes on tactics and brandy snifters, the best cognac and Mozart on the tape recorder, all this stuff. And he was the person to see in the province. When the press came around to the Delta, they came to see Nick Thorn because Nick Thorn really knew what was happening. He was the counter-insurgent’s counter insurgent. When Sir Robert Thompson, who wrote Defeating Communist Insurgency, visited Vietnam the important person he talked with was Nick Thorn. They’d smoke cigars over brandy and talk  about strategic hamlets late into the night. Thorn was a movie character, an authoritarian caricature, and American version of the British colonial officer in Burma.

I had a fair amount of contact with Thorn. We had a meeting every morning—that’s when he saw all of his advisors. Thorn would always be the last person to come into the briefing. We’d all be sitting on folding chairs, but he had his large leather army chair right in front of the map. He and Shepley would come in giggling about something. Shepley lived right next door to Thorn. They’d sit up all night and smoke cigars and drink brandy in Thorn’s villa. Shepley was a bright man. He would supply Thorn with the information he needed for his counter-insurgency. So he would be whispering to Thorn, and Thorn would be saying, “Ah, ah, ah, Steve, that’s a good one…”.

Then he’d get up and slap the map with his swagger stick and say, “Gentlemen, last night the VC struck  Quang Tri hamlet. This will not go on!” And in the back row there’s a bunch of us: “Hee-hee-hee.” We were scared of him, too. Because all of a sudden he’d thunder, “What have you done at the chieu hoi center about blah-blah-blah?” He would know everything I was supposed to be doing at the place. And he would know through some source or other that something had fouled up. It was like having the headmaster chew you out, like being called on by the teacher when you were unprepared.

He was extremely knowledgeable about everyone’s program and intimidated almost everyone on the advisory team. And I must say that when I was called on to stand up and recite at the morning briefing the first time I was really petrified. Here were all these colonels and majors sitting around and Private Herter gets up and says, “I don’t understand what is going on at the chieu hoi center.” But I finally did learn what to say: You find out something you can quantify. For example, “Last week we built 13 feet on the wall of the new chieu hoi dormitory. Six hoi chanh came into the center and 4 left.” Or, “We have taken steps toward digging up the ground for the new chieu hoi hamlet. Mr. Dang says he will get the lumber next week.” When I figured this out, I gave up being intimidated by Thorn.

Around the time of  Tet things began to get serious, when the whole business of game playing took a different tone, Thorn, Shepley and Colonel McCray connived to turn me into an assassin to be sent off with the APT’s on killing operations. These were operations set up to ambush people. I hadn’t been going along with the game and this was their way of getting me into it.  I was around all these APT guys who had been soldiers for years. On rare occasions I had gone out on operations with them and I knew they were good. I felt much safer with them than with any group of Americans because these guys were all ex-Viet Cong. They knew what was happening, where to look out for the enemy and for booby traps. If they said, “Go here, it’s safe,” I went. So Thorn, Shepley and McCray wanted me to lead these people on ambushes and assassinations. All three sprung it on me. They said, “You’re going to do this!”

Their plan was that APT’s would go out into the villages that were supposedly controlled by the VC. These hoi chanh would talk to the villagers about what a great thing it was not to be in the VC: “Look, I’ve got a house and a job and blah-blah-blah. The Americans are really nice people; the government of Vietnam is terrific. Why don’t you tell your brother, husband, son, cousin, whoever, when he gets home, he could have a really good deal if he comes in on the chieu hoi program. Here’s some leaflets. Show them to him.” That’s what we did. I did it maybe five or six times.

One time we actually found a guy hiding in a cellar. Someone said he was a Viet Cong. We brought him back to the province interrogation center. Maybe he was a Viet Cong. So what! Shepley was the one in control of this whole thing. So we took this guy in and his father came along with us. He kept pleading to Shepley that it was his only son. The old man kept begging Shepley and Shepley was being polite but firm in Vietnamese saying, “If he’s not a Viet Cong, we’ll see at the province interrogation center.” I was in the truck that took this guy and his father with Shepley to the center. When they got off, the old man knelt in front of Shepley. He had his hands clasped in front of him and was crying for him to let his son go. And Shepley was saying, “No, can’t do that!” We left and they went into the interrogation center. The old man had money and he paid the proper price to somebody there and his son was let go. At least that’s what I heard, which made me feel better, sort of.

Anyway, after Thorn, Shepley, and McCray told me I was going with the APT’s, I went back to my room, smoked a joint and thought about it. I thought, “God almighty, I’ve gotten this far without doing anything that destroys my conscience forever. I can’t start now. It’s against my principles. And besides, I wouldn’t know what I was doing. It takes a certain amount of knowledge to lead an operation around in the woods. You have to know where you are; you have to know how to work the radio; you have to know how to fire a weapon. And all along I avoided learning these things.

I did learn to fire a rifle; I was best on the range in my basic training company. But when Shepley instituted rifle training for the APT guys, I made it a point never to carry a weapon. We’d go off to this ARVN Ranger compound in the afternoon and they’d throw cans and blast away. And they would keep trying to hand me a rifle saying, “Come on, Mr. Herter. Let’s see you do your stuff.” And I’d say no. I felt that everybody should understand that I wasn’t going to carry a rifle and that they shouldn’t depend upon me. I was going to be there with a camera. After Shepley connived with McCray, Thorn was my only hope, but it seemed impossible to deal with him.

I was afraid I would fumble it in front of Thorn. We had a funny relationship because I was one of the only people who recognized him for the great Kipling character that he was. Other people in the advisory group were so intimidated they just said, “Oh, Thorn,… God….” They didn’t see this beautiful character he was playing. So, in a way, he kind of liked me. We disagreed on everything. But at least here was one member of his audience who saw the role that he was playing.  I wrote this letter to him because he was in charge of the province. I had agreed to do it when they sprung it on me. But in my letter I said I had grave doubts about it. I said I had come over as a photographer and not with the intention of  harming people. And that I was going to stick with that. Also, if that wasn’t enough, I mentioned that I didn’t know how to work the radio or read a map, that I would get people killed, and that it was really foolish to send out someone who was so inexperienced. Then I took it to Thorn.

I was pretty scared not knowing what would happen. My letter amounted to insubordination, refusing a direct order. I thought there would be a big hassle. I could be court-martialed or, at the very least, get transferred out of the province. I was, after all, still in the army. So I gave it to Thorn and he read through the whole thing and then said, “My boy, I was a commander in Korea for 15 years, 3 of them in the heaviest combat anyone has ever seen. In my command I had several of these—what should I call them—letters of conscience. I want to tell you now that I’ve always respected them. I respect this one. I can see your sincerity, and so on and so forth….

Afterwards, he tried to get me thrown out of the province by saying I was an ineffective  chieu hoi advisor. I protested that he was trying to get me to do something that wasn’t my job. So Thorn had to keep me whether he wanted me or not, partly because he didn’t have a replacement. He answered my letter by saying that I would soon be leaving and I would be replaced by someone who perhaps would be more valuable… so why struggle with me? He had gone to Major Riddle to get me transferred, and Riddle told him: “Look, you’re doing the wrong thing trying to get a chieu hoi advisor to go out on assassination teams. It’s not what they are supposed to do.”But that didn’t really make any difference. Had I been willing, he would have used me even though it was bureaucratically illegal. It was for the greater purpose of the war. It showed his initiative.

It was about this time that we were getting intelligence reports about Viet Cong movement. At the morning briefing, the intelligence officer would stand up and say that there had been sighting of a Viet Cong unit of approximately 150 men near the canal outside of My Xuyen village. He would point to it on the map. The Thorn would say, “What kind of weapons did they have” or “Who saw them.” Or the intelligence officer might say, “There was an ambush  of  an ARVN unit here and blah-blah-blah.” Well, as Tet got closer, the officer would get up and say, “There were 6 Viet Cong units sighted 2 miles outside Soc Trang yesterday afternoon along here  (pointing to the map), and another 12 off to the side here.” Everybody knew.  It was just common knowledge that we were going to get attacked seriously at some time soon. And it was going to be tomorrow and tomorrow and so on right up to Tet. And then everybody just left for Tet and forgot about it.

Tet is such a terrific holiday. People really take it seriously. They stop working about a month beforehand and start buying presents and getting ready. Tet is a complete blow out. Whatever surplus money there is during the year, they blow it completely.  They get their houses all stocked up as much as possible with food and drink. And they dispense this to anybody that comes in, the more people the better. Everybody wears new clothes, all the kids especially wear new stuff. It’s everybody’s birthday;  everybody is a year older. So a lot of things come together on Tet. It lasts four days. Every body said the attack would come before Tet, right up to the first day of the Tet celebration. Then, if it didn’t come before Tet, it had to be after Tet because everybody was going on this four-day vacation.

So on the first day there was this pall of smoke hanging over the city just like the fog coming in over San Francisco. But this “fog” was from fire crackers going off everywhere in the city. And I kept thinking at the time, ‘God, if I were the Viet Cong, I would come in right now with the fireworks’ because no one would realize anyone was shooting until the city was taken. Well, they didn’t come at that point. They came in about 4 am, when everyone was asleep, exhausted.

Tet came to Soc Trang with a big mortar barrage. But this had happened several times before. We had small arms fire right close to where we were. But it had always been short and it had gone away. More often than not, it had been the national police blasting away at somebody they had caught sneaking around town. There was this one guy that wandered around town. He would come up and stare directly at you and say, “Knock-knock-knock.” Then he’d look to see what you’d do. Everybody said, “Oh, that’s old Joe, he’s crazy.” And he was. But it was wonderful the way everyone was tolerant of him. One evening when  no one was supposed to be on the street he was and the national police shot him.

The only time that I fired a weapon in Vietnam was the first evening of Tet. We had no idea that the Viet Cong were coming. Everybody was setting off fire works. I had heard from everyone who had been there the previous Tet was that it was a great event. Everybody in town would stand on the roofs of all the buildings shooting tracers up in the air, having fun with all these pyrotechnic weapons. So at midnight of Tet, when all the fire works went off,  I loaded my rifle with tracers, leaned out of the window on the second floor of the Bungalow Bar and fire two or three clips into the  sky. I told people about it later and they said, “Didn’t you think about the bullets coming down?” But the way things were, I didn’t think about that or I thought that when they came down they wouldn’t hit anyone.

John, my roommate, said, “Hey, man, you’re going to be in such trouble.” He’s running around picking up all the shell casings and saying, “Oh, I’m gonna get screwed.” And I kept telling him, “John, John, everybody says you can do this at Tet.” The ARVN were doing it. The whole sky was lit up with streamers of tracers going all over the sky. I realized that if you waved the barrel back and forth, it was like a water hose. So I had these great S’s going up in the sky. Then Colonel McCray stepped out of the back of the Bungalow Bar drunk. He shouted up, “God damn it! Who’s up there shooting. I’ll have his ass. I’ll court-martial him!” I guess I was going to be in big trouble, but then the Viet Cong came that night and everybody forgot about it.

We finally fell asleep. About four AM. there was a huge crash. The Bungalow Bar was shaking and I was thrown out of bed. I got my rifle and my helmet and went crawling. I didn’t want to get up because the crash was a signal; it was the opening timpani. The Viet Cong had arrived and set up in the buildings all round us. They had cut loose all at once. There were bullets zinging all around the bar. An M-60 [machine gun] was set up inside the compound and they were cutting loose, too. It was a siege, but you couldn’t tell who was shooting at what. The noise was deafening.

There was a building next to us,   which had three floors. So while the M-60 was shooting back at the third floor, someone at the post office was shooting at us. They were smart; they didn’t us tracers. But we did. Tracers would draw a straight line to where you were. Sometimes you couldn’t tell you were being shot at; other times you felt the bullets go by. The big bang that started the whole thing was a rocket grenade which was aimed at the guy standing guard at the head of the stairs down the hall from me. It had blown the shutters of the Bungalow Bar near this guard who was full of splinters. He was sitting there just saying over and over again, “Oh, am I lucky.”

The mortars missed us every time. That was something, being awakened in the middle of the night by mortars. You wake up with the first thump and  your heart is going BADUMP, BADUMP, BADUMP! You know what’s happening immediately. I would be up with the first thump and in a second I would be in the bathroom, which was the safest place to be. At that moment  you didn’t think about whose house it was falling on. You just laughed with your own personal relief at being alive. I shared a room with this black guy who was also working with USAID. He was a sergeant in the Army, but in civilian clothes like me. He was working under Pys Ops [psychological operations] in the same office I was in downtown, a really good guy. We just started to laugh when the second mortar round went over us. All of a sudden life is precious because, just then, it was held in the balance and then given back to you. I think that is pretty much the normal reaction.

There were 60 or 70 of us and (we were told) maybe 1,500 of them. They attacked us several nights. But the ARVN  units in town really saved our lives. Also, there were helicopters from the base putting a circle of machine guns fire around us. So  we had some outside support.  I hoped that the people that lived near us had the sense to get out. The nearby buildings got mortar rounds a number of times that were meant for us. We got blamed for it and it just goes to show “ungrateful” the Vietnamese were, blaming us when it was the Viet Cong that mortared them. I had the feeling that the Viet Cong messed up on purpose. It served their purpose to have some people in town killed and then everybody would get pissed off at us. And everybody did get  pissed off at us. The attitude was, ‘If you’re fighting the Viet Cong, why the hell don’t you go out to the countryside and fight them and not sit here endangering us because they’re going to shoot at you but we’re going to get it.’

At Tet there was a lot of shooting, it was close, and it continued. As the sun came up, it didn’t go away, which had always been the case before. Usually, if the Viet Cong attacked at maybe three or four in the morning, they disappeared by sunrise. But this time it kept on going. Nick Thorn proceeded to get plastered throughout the whole of Tet. He told us at the briefing that first morning that this was a bunch of “Mickey Mouse” stuff, and that these “God damn Viet Cong with their hot little guns was just a lot of penis envy,” and “blah-blah-blah”—a whole lot of stuff that we all tried to remember later.  He provided some of the classic misstatements on what the Tet Offensive was about.

The firing kept going throughout the day. The first day it came close to the compound, though there was no [ground] attack. Intelligence was saying, “They’re coming for the advisory compound,” which was by far the best target in the city. “You’re going to get wiped.” If they were going to take the city, that would be the place to take. So the next night we were all primed. We were feeling, ‘This is it! We’re going to hold the fort!”—the second floor of the Bungalow Bar.

The Bar was one building out of six that made a city block. Everybody was in there. And there was a hyper feeling about possibly being dead the next morning. Your adrenaline gets going and it makes you behave in a different way. They were supposed to come that first night after Tet began and there were seven of us guarding the Bungalow Bar. If they got upstairs then they could take the whole compound because it was the only building with a second floor. They could shoot down into the rest of the compound. We were told that, if we should start to get overrun and chicken out and run back to the rest of the compound, the guys down there would shoot us because they wouldn’t know who we were in the middle of the night.  At the time it struck me as a little weird.

I remember John Day, an IVS guy. John was beautiful because he was the most avowed chicken of us all. He was so honest in the way that he was a chicken. He would say, “Man, I plan on going home. I don’t give a shit. You guys think I’m funny, but I’m carrying my rifle to the bathroom. I don’t care, man, you don’t understand. I’m going HOME.” He didn’t want any part of the Bungalow Bar thing. He worked his way down to the compound somehow and didn’t get assigned upstairs. Another IVS guy was up there with me and we talked into the night, not about to go to sleep. I ran a tape recorder for a while, figuring to make a last document. Someone would find this little tape after everything was over. With prospect of being dead in the morning, you think of corny things like trying to immortalize yourself somehow. (I had the habit before very operation I went on of writing letters to everyone I could think of and saying everything I was thinking right up to that last moment.)

So there we were—the magnificent seven holding the Bungalow Bar. We were given grenade launchers and cases of grenades. It was like getting cartons of beer instead of cans of beer. They came in cylindrical cardboard cartons and we kept at the head of the stairs. If the Viet Cong got in downstairs, then we were to blow up the stairs, so they couldn’t get to the second floor. At least, that was the theory. We took turns being on guard and the rest of us tried to get some sleep.

All of us were really shell shy. Nobody knew what to do. The other guys who lived on the second floor were medics. There was an MP officer who was a lieutenant. He was a real macho soldier. The real heavy dudes all had rifles chopped and channeled. And this guy had a carbine that had been chopped down into a long pistol so that he would hold it with one hand, no stock, just a hand grip. And during the first night this guy was jamming one clip after another into his pistol-carbine and firing out the window at God knows what. He had no idea what was out there. None of us did. The next morning some ARVN came by dragging a couple of dead ARVN. It turned out that he had been firing all night as a machine gun position that the ARVN had set up and they were restrained enough not to shoot back. He shot both of them, I think.

That night I got into the lowest corner of a window so that I could see out. I was looking across at this three story building. It was called the Caroussel  Bar because it had a tin circus tower on the third floor which was where the VC shot from. I was feeling that I should put in an appearance with a rifle. I know this conflicts with what I said about carrying a camera. I don’t know why I had a rifle. Maybe it was circumstance. I assume I was going to shoot it if I saw someone who might endanger my friends. Then this guy came around the corner of the building down below and across the street. He stood on the street outside the building directly across from me, only about 70 feet away.

The street was narrow between the two buildings. He was a VC wearing shorts and carrying a rifle. He stood almost completely obscured by the shadow.  I aimed my rifle at him but didn’t pull the trigger. I thought, ‘If he does anything, if he pulls out a hand grenade to throw in the Bungalow Bar I’ll shoot him.’ Then somebody came in the room and said, “Hey, be careful who you shoot at because there are ARVN Rangers down on the street and you don’t want to shoot any of them.” I had turned to hear what this guy was saying and, when I looked back, the VC was gone, my one opportunity to shoot somebody. I am overjoyed to this day that that guy came into the room.

We got through that night and had only one more day of Tet. One person had been shot in the stomach and he was okay and that was all. I was dumbfounded that so few people in the compound had been hurt. During the night there had been heavy firing everywhere. All these helicopters from the base were flying all around us just blowing up everything.  You see this solid stream of what looks like red liquid from the mini-guns firing tracers from the helicopters. It looks like a laser gun in a science fiction movie and only one bullet in five is a tracer. So you’re seeing only a fifth of the fire and you hear this low, steady whirring. It’s called ‘muttering death.’ The helicopters were laying down these little lines of death all around us. One helicopter pilot had been shot in the head and killed. He was the only American dead all night. The helicopters would drop flares all around us. When the flares went off, it was eerie because they would throw out a brilliant yellow light. This huge yellow shadow would silhouette, day a giant black palm tree and then slowly fade out and everything would be deathly still. When the flare went out, then BOOM, firing would begin. Than another helicopter would drop some more flares. This went on for three hours. During the day, though, the firing slowed down.

About four in the afternoon of the fifth day Thorn told everybody to gather in the back of the compound. Trucks were coming from the air base to evacuate us because he said 6,000 more Viet Cong were coming into the city. Since there were already “thousands” against 70 of us, the whole U.S. Air Force wouldn’t help against a few thousand more. So we had 15 minutes to collect our more precious belongings, destroy our files, and evacuate.

We got to loading up the trucks. There was this guy named Sheriff Moody, a long tall Texan or Arizonan. He had been in the Highway Patrol and he  looked like the Marlboro Man, real leathery, gaunt, and he spoke with a drawl. He was the advisor to the National Police, showing them  how to interrogate and torture, how to break into people’s houses and grab them. I don’t know what the National Police were doing otherwise. It wasn’t traffic safety. Anyway, Sheriff Moody started protesting that these old Cambodian guys who had been hired as guards for the compound shouldn’t be left behind.

The compound had a barbed wire fence 10 feet high around it right out to the street. At the front gate was this old Cambodian guy who was about 60 years old. He was really a very gentle, handsome man with a strikingly strong face. I really liked him. We’d go through elaborate thank-yous and so on in pantomime as we went through the gate. Whenever I was going anywhere with my camera, he’d come up and smile and point at himself and want me to take his picture. He and about five other Cambodians were doing this job because it was good money and, in a way, semi-prestigious and secure. They didn’t think it would come to this—being left to guard the compound against the 6,000 VC. And, in a way, I had this feeling that this old guy would be dumb enough to be the last man to guard the fort. That would be just murdering these guys. Sheriff Moody had that feeling, too. I really wasn’t going to buck it but Moody said, “Mr. Thorn, I  want to stay here because I don’t think its fair to leave these guys behind. I’ll stay here and fight with them.” And his having said it, I said it too. Thorn dressed us down and made us get on the truck.

When there was a lull in the fighting, we rolled out of town with our most precious possessions, leaving these old guys to guard the fort. And people started coming out of their houses to see what was happening. Here  go the Americans, their buddies, the people who had ‘come to save them,’ who when the chips were down, were going off with their own and letting the city get wiped out. That was what was going to happen and the Americans were not going to be there. We went on out to the air field, a lot of us shaking our heads, saying, “Boy, this is really it! Thorn has done it this time.” And we waited and waited and waited for the attack that never came. The 6,000 VC never existed.  We went out to the air field only to get mortared. In the meantime, the air force bombed the town.

When they bombed Soc Trang something snapped in me that still isn’t back together. Tet brought the Catch-22 war in the Delta to an end. Phantom jets were zooming around bombing places where I went to drink tea in the evening. For me it was traumatic. I lived there. I liked that town as much as any town I had ever lived in. I knew people all over the city. I felt at home there and to see jet planes coming in and bombing was more that I could bear. The next morning we went back into the town and tried to continue to do our jobs. But Tet was the culmination of the experience of living in Soc Trang. In a way, the whole experience was summed up in the combination of personalities of the advisory team.

I focused on Shepley primarily being the great interpreter of the Oriental mind and deep into its mysteries. He had this batman, Mr. Khiet, who had been a paratrooper and had fought with the French.  Once over an alcoholic beverage of some kind he pulled back his forelock, showing me a big scar on his forehead and he said, “If it hadn’t been for this I’d be a general now!” Well, Mr. Khiet was a procurer. He supplied Shepley with his opium, his boys and his information. Mr. Khiet supposedly had a string of agents out in the countryside who were gathering every conceivable bit of information about everything. And they would report to Mr. Khiet, who would report to Shepley, who would report to Nick Thorn.

Well, there were a few of us who scoffed. Maybe Mr. Khiet didn’t have any agents at all and collected about 25 salaries a month for his “agents.” Or, perhaps, his agents were his brothers and cousins. And it was Mr. Khiet who had come up with the information about the 6,000 VC. He had passed it out to Shepley, who had taken my advice about smoking marijuana and was smoking it like it was going out of style. And Shepley had run to Nick Thorn. Maybe he told him that the 6,000 VC were crawling down the canals breathing through little reeds. Because there was no other way that 6,000 VC could have gotten anywhere near the city. Soc Trang is at the confluence of 10 canals. Everything is flat going away. Either you go across the rice paddies, which are wide open so anyone can see you, or you go down the canals, where any airplane can see you. There were no sighting by anybody. Only Mr. Khiet’s agents had seen the 6,000 VC. And Thorn, being really drunk through the whole thing, and Shepley, being really hysterical, believed it and pulled us all out of town.

I think on the same day, Shepley had gone off in a jeep on a feat of derring-do. When he learned we were to leave, he whizzed off out of the compound and downtown to his house to save his antique Chinese furniture from the Viet Cong. He put up a white Flag on the back of his jeep, hoping not to get fired on. But all the local people saw the flag. And word spread all over town that “Mr. Supply” (that’s how they said Mr. Shepley and I think they knew what ‘supply’ meant) had surrendered.

I was told by Bartells, the refugee advisor, about a meeting with the province chief a couple of days after the Great Retreat. The Province Chief  and Thorn, the Province Advisor, were sitting together discussing Tet and the fate of the province and what to do. And the Province Chief turned to Thorn and said, “I thought you were my friend. Why did you go?” And a little tear trickled down from his eye. Thorn was just abashed. This was a terrible blot on an otherwise honorable career. Not too long after, he got transferred. Our whole advisory was transferred.

After Tet, Steve Shepley went off hunting rhinoceros in Burma with high-powered rifles. Thorn got transferred to become Senior Province Advisor at Ben Tre, which was the city during Tet that Americans “destroyed in order to save it.” Bartells told me that one night he apparently stepped out of his house in Ben Tre quite drunk and a mortar went off in front of him. I really felt a pang because I thought he was going to say next that Thorn was dead. But Thorn wasn’t dead, just full of shrapnel holes. I guess just for being the character he was I liked Thorn and I would have been sorry that he died. It’s funny because at another level the man was a monster who was having people killed right and left for lousy reasons, which he even knew were lousy. There were different frames of moral reference. I liked some people who were killers. They had no other reason for doing it. I mean they were not deluding themselves about saving the world from communism or anything like that. They just liked to kill people. And I found them to be, in many ways, likeable and I couldn’t reconcile these feelings.

After things cooled down a bit—some fighting was still going on in Ba Xuyen Province—a couple of friends and I went venturing around the city to see what had happened. We went to the TOC  and the gates were closed; we couldn’t get in. It was the radio command center of the province. From there the command instructed pilots on air strikes and talked to people on operations. As were looking through the barbed wire, a guy was pushed out of the radio shack whose whole crotch area had been torn away. His pants and everything inside was just a bloody pulp. He came out of the front door barely walking and then somebody came up behind him and knocked him to the ground with a rifle butt. Then a couple of other guys dragged him off somewhere. I saw this through the barbed wire gate—maybe 30 or 40 feet away—and there was nothing I could do. What was I going to do? Even if I had a rifle with me, what was I going to do? That was my only experience with torture; I had no doubt it went on.

We all knew who the CIA guys were. It was almost as if they weren’t involved in any sneaky activities. When you first met them, you’d say something like, “Hi, I’m so-and-so, the chieu hoi advisor.” They’d say, “I’m  the something  or other,” and someone else would say, “Oh, he works for the CIA.” If you ask him, he doesn’t deny it. Gorman was our CIA man. He was open and personable, blond-haired, blue-eyed, tennis sneakers, a real California kid, saving his money to buy a Porsche when he got home. He was leading operations in the Phoenix program, going out and assassinating people. He would go off with the PRU’s [Province Reconnaissance Units], who also lived in the compound.  These guys were recruited by the CIA for huge salaries. Some of them were ARVN deserters, some had been chieu hoi and some ex-POW’s. They would go out at night on these targeted assassinations led by Gorman. They were super-killers.

I don’t know whether Gorman enjoyed it or not; he did it. I think he thought he was really a person with nerves of steel. In a sense he was, since he went around in the middle of the night killing people. He was one of the most frightening people I met in Vietnam because he was so normal and familiar. He wasn’t any kind of spookie  wierdo. He was the most normal guy there. He looked like he had all of Pat Boone’s records. Just before I left Vietnam Gorman discovered the chief of the PRU’s and his buddies were shaking down all the other members of the PRU. You know, “You give me 30% of your salary or you don’t have a job with the PRU.” So some of the guys in the PRU decided, “Well, shit, we’ll just kill this guy.” The whole business of violence and corruption gets out of hand when the atmosphere for killing is accepted. When somebody complained to Gorman about it, Gorman decided to assassinate the PRU chief. Somehow word got back to the chief that Gorman was going to kill him on the next operation, so he was going to get Gorman first. I left the province before it happened, if it did. I don’t know the outcome. But I understand the insanity of it.

Before Tet there had been a little game going on. The NLF people would walk around downtown and they’d smile and wink at us and vice versa. I don’t know if ‘us’ is the right word; it may have been me because I was obviously more sympathetic to the Vietnamese, if not the NLF. Most of the people in the advisory team would stick to themselves—‘Americans together in this great sea of alien people.’ At one point Thorn told me I was ‘the tallest Vietnamese in the country.’ I’m not sure whether he meant it as a compliment or an insult. It was probably both. Anyway, the overall situation changed after the first week of Tet.  The battle had lasted for a week downtown and for months out in the province. After Tet I didn’t feel very safe driving around anywhere. And I wasn’t out drinking coffee at night. As a matter of fact, I never was again.

During the Tet Offensive  we were all restricted to the compound that we lived in because, of course, the VC were all around us. This restriction applied to the Vietnamese that worked in the dining hall. Because they couldn’t go home to their families at night and get back in time to cook breakfast, they  brought sleeping mats and were more or less living in the kitchen. We were on guard all the time and not getting much sleep. Our meal schedules were all off. So we were just going to eat food at different times. One of the hairiest ingle stretches of time was when we had gun fire all day long. Along with everyone else putting up with the situation was Kim. She worked in the dining room and occasionally we joked around.  I really found her attractive.  She had large expressive eyes, a very warm, wise person. But I never harbored any designs. I don’t know, I suppose the fact that she was older than I was, and obviously a mature person made a difference. She had children. I was 22 and, in some ways, still a kid.

So one night about nine o’clock during the first week of Tet, Bartells and I went down to the kitchen to get some soup or something. As the Refugee Advisor, Bartells had gotten some language training somewhere before he got to Vietnam. And we were joking around with everybody in the kitchen I was talking to Kim and all the girls started to laugh. They said something to Kim in Vietnamese, but I didn’t know what it was. And Bartells started to laugh. Kim put her hands in front of her face and went running from the room, embarrassed. I said, “What’s going on?” And one of the girls got through laughing long enough to say, “She really likes you.” I was amazed. So I went in the other room and told Kim to come back. We kept joking about things and somewhere along the line, somebody, Kim, one the other girls, said something about marriage—that we should get married.

It was all a joke, and everybody was laughing. And I said, “My friend Bartells here, you don’t know it, but back in America he is a priest, a holy man.” It was a joke, and it was seen as a joke, and Bartells was going to marry us right there on the spot. We held hands. He took a soup ladle and waved it around and tongued a mixture of Latin and mumbo-jumbo. The “ceremony” was a joke, but it wasn’t entirely a joke. Some of the girls were still laughing and then, suddenly, they were more serious about it and Kim was quiet throughout.

And so we were married. For about the first three nights Kim went to bed with all her clothes on. I kept urging her that it was more comfortable without her clothes on, but she wanted her clothes. I went through all this stuff in the beginning about marriage,  and our two different worlds, and how our being together there was cool but that I was going to leave. She had some friends who had gone to the United States with Americans and really disliked it and after several years had come back to Vietnam. They had said that it was “too cold,” meaning more than just the temperature. She knew that she didn’t want to go to the United States.

After about six weeks of sleeping together, at some point it dawned on me that we should have stopped sleeping together. I asked her about birth control and she said, “Yes, she knew all about that.”  Then, after a period of time, I said, “Now,  wait a minute. There must be some time when we stop sleeping together, otherwise you’ll have a baby.” And she said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. I know about that.” After about two months she seemed sick and I started to think, “God damn, she’s pregnant.” And I asked her about it and she said she wasn’t. I asked her again later and she said she wasn’t and finally, yes, she was! And there was a great flood of tears. Her understanding had been that if you wish to have a baby when you make love, then you have one and if you wish not to have a baby when you make love, then you don’t have one. This was the conventional wisdom. I believed her fully then; I don’t know if I do now or not. I don’t know what to think now, so I don’t.

It began with me liking here and finding her appealing and attractive and really respecting her because she worked like hell. She was supporting two children and her parents, both with an amount of work that would have driven any American, male or female, crazy and not complaining in the slightest. She was just so damn cheerful all the time in spite of the hard life, just a very strong person. It was funny. With most of the women I’ve gotten involved with, I’ve invariably started with a preconception about what a wonderful person she was and finding out she was not exactly that way. With Kim, I didn’t start with any preconception at all; I started without knowing much about her: ‘She’s Vietnamese and I’m American and we’re really different.’ I didn’t know what to think. Not knowing anything to begin with made it so great. There were just so many things that she would do or say, each one of which were pleasing, really nice to have done or said. And I fell in love with her.

We started to live together during Tet. And everything that happened, including her getting pregnant, was over the period between Tet in February and May [1968] when I left Vietnam. During that time my head was becoming unstuck. I was already upset from everything else that was happening—from watching the destruction of the city, from just a dead certainty that I had ever since Tet that the war was not simply wrong and a mistake, but that it was positively evil and that everyone of us there and everyone in the United States who was supporting the war was involved in this evil.

My attitude toward my work and everything else was colored by that. I tried to do absolutely as little as possible. I did everything short of sabotage. If I had thought of any good ways that I might have gotten away with, I probably would have done that, too. I wasn’t feeling any kind of ideological pull toward the NLF. But I was feeling an  emotional pull toward them in the sense that they were the patriots of the country. They were not the people saying, ‘I’ll go along with it.’ They said emphatically, ‘I’d rather die’ or I’d rather take my chances.’

Working every day with people who’d been in the Viet Cong really did something to me. Regardless of how knowledgeable I thought I was or how tolerant I might be of the enemy who might want to kill me, I began to see their point of view. If people shoot at you, it is because you’re an American, an invader, and they’re the National Liberation Front and against the invasion. But regardless if its right or wrong, they’re trying to kill you. And you feel their anger.

I could see that they are concrete people, not just an abstraction, not just shadowy little noises in the woods—which was most military people’s vision of the Viet Cong. Most GI’s never saw a VC. GI’s just saw bodies, that’s all.  They might get ambushed, and the Viet Cong would just disappear. I knew a fair amount of infantry people. To them the VC were an abstraction that they had respect for. Sure, they know the VC and the NVA are people, but they are this mysterious force they don’t understand. They can’t grasp how these people can be better than them. After all, we had all the helicopters and napalm and all kinds of other weapons. Why was it that they could get wiped out by these people? So there must be something  miraculous about them.

I was spending all day with 80 to 100 guys who had been NLF; half of them still were. These guys were just taking a few months off with chieu hoi. They wanted to come home and see their wives. Like I said before, every male had to be in one army or the other. Hardly anybody could get out of it. So these hoi  chanh were perfectly aware of a fundamental Vietnamese notion which is—when you’re born in a country that has a war going on long before you were born and is probably going to have a war after you are dead, the person who wins is the one who is alive in the end. Regardless of your ideological affiliation, if you die, you’re dead, you’re lost. I think that the only people who were exceptions to that notion were the ones who were really into the NLF and really believed that their deaths were a sacrifice which was going to have a reward reaped by a later generation of survivors. Americans don’t understand that notion.

In the last couple of months before I left Vietnam I was walking a fine line. I had some choices to make. I could do insane things to get out of the quandary. The quandary were Kim and her child more than anything else. God, I was just more and more tangled up with her as the child grew and I loved it. I loved her. I really loved the idea of being a father and I really hated the United States for what it was doing to Vietnam. And I couldn’t see how it was going to work to marry her and bring her, her two daughters and her old parents to anywhere I’d ever been in the United States.

I couldn’t think of any place in the United States where they could survive and be happy, especially her  parents. They were old people, illiterate. She was illiterate, too, but that wouldn’t have been a problem. She could have learned anything I’m sure, and gotten along anywhere. And her kids could have become American, which I thought would be disastrous. But her parents hung me up. I didn’t know what to do about them all. And I thought I could figure anything out. But the idea of moving back to the States, being in the Army, having no trade, no way to make a living, with a family of six, two of whom were in their seventies and right out of the rice paddies… that I couldn’t figure out. I talked a lot with Kim and friends about it and I just didn’t know what to do. The only think I could think of was what I did—to leave, hoping to go back. I sent her some money, I imagine out of guilt but also out of husbandly responsibility. At least at the time of delivery, she could have enough money so she could take time off. I think the standard was that women who were pregnant got two days off to deliver their child. If they didn’t get back on their job, they’d get fired.

We wrote back and forth for about six weeks after I left. And it was getting up to the time she was supposed to have the baby and I was about to get out of the Army. I was at Fort Knox still unable to come up with any idea, still putting it off because I was in the Army. The only way I could think of going back was with a newspaper. That was the only way that would be acceptable to me morally. I had all kinds of strong feelings about the war as well as about her. And I couldn’t go back in any construction or civilian aid thing because I thought they were just so bad. I was so radical that I just knew that I really wasn’t going to be able to get a job with a newspaper. It was only 1968. My views, if I could express them clearly, and I could have, would have been just too far out for any newspaper.

Then I got a letter from one of my friends on the advisory team who had been transferred. The whole advisory team had been disbanded in the months after our evacuation from Soc Trang during Tet. Within about three months everybody who had been there was somewhere else. Advisory Team #63 became Advisory Team #71.They even changed the APO [Army Post Office] number. One of my friends sent up to Can Tho went back down to Soc Trang and saw Kim. She was working behind the bar at the enlisted man’s club, which is what the Bungalow Bar became. It was no longer a whore house. I guess the girls had gone off to other bars.

He saw her before the nine months were up and she wasn’t pregnant. He asked her what happened and she said, “Baby fini, gone. Just don’t ask about it.” She didn’t write to me about it, so I wrote her. At first I was really angry. I had been banking on that kid; I really liked that kid a lot. And here it was gone and she didn’t write to tell me. But then I stopped being angry. She was there with the baby and I wasn’t, so whatever happened happened. I wrote a pretty gentle letter and I never got a response. We’ve written back and forth maybe two or three times since.

Kim and the baby were the single strongest reason for my really intense opposition to the war. Being in love with somebody that stands to get killed by the war makes it all the more amazing that people continue to think there is a reason for it. In a funny way, by loving her, I realized the potential in me for love for all kinds of people. Feeling that, God, if I loved this woman like this, well then what about Americans as well as Vietnamese who love somebody who is killed. The pain of humanity on such a grand scale is really amazing.

So, initially, my reactions on just getting back to the States was the amazement at the insanity of warfare and at the callousness at which America practiced this game. The complete disregard of the Vietnamese had to be racist. But I didn’t really get political about it. I was just totally opposed to America. I wasn’t pro-NLF except in the sense that they were the people that were resisting America.  It all stemmed from this strong emotional involvement. I felt turned off by the peace movement because it didn’t seem completely imperative to the people in it that the war had to end immediately. They were too concerned with the whole spectrum of social issues in the States. I could see the issues were important, but to me they were small compared to the number of people being killed everyday.

May 1973

5. Psy War

 

October, 1967. We arrived at Bien Hoa Air Base. You get off  the plane and it was tremendously suffocating—the air so think and so hot you have difficulty breathing. It was something I never got used to in my 26 months in Vietnam. I got my first taste of  Vietnam in our bus, hurtling from Bien Hoa  to Long Binh about five or six miles away. We were going down a one-lane street filled with Lambrettas and cycles, pedicabs and people on bicycle anon foot.  And the driver was in third gear going about 35-40 miles an hour, pushing the horn all the way. Lord knows how many times he had this run each day for however many months he’d been in Vietnam. And all I could flash on was the Ugly American—here is was, our driver.

That was my initial impression: the squalid streets, the incredibly intense and nauseating smells, the disregard that the Americans had for the Vietnamese. It was overwhelming, like putting too much electricity into a machine. It was more than I could take in.  We arrived at the barracks at Long Binh that slept 40 men to a room. Again, it was oppressively hot and dirty, dust rising everywhere, and huge barrels of defecation being set on fire down the block, the thick smoke of it drifting into the barracks. We were in Long Binh two days before we finally made it to Saigon.

I don’t know how to describe my first sight of Saigon except to say, after the rigors of Long Binh, it looked rather interesting.  We were taken to the headquarters of the 6th Psychological Operations Battalion, which was located in a former rail yard. The former round house had been converted into a printing plant and 19 Quonset huts were set in line along the rail tracks. About 30 vehicles were parked in front of the Quonset huts and the rest of the motor pool was in part of the warehouse. The entire compound was surrounded with barbed wire. When we got there, they began the processing that took two or three days; they went through our records pretty carefully. They looked at my typing scores (85 words a minute) and instead of sending me out to the field for the next three months I worked as the colonel’s typist.

We were quartered in the air-conditioned Walling Hotel—two men to a room with hot water, showers, each room had its own toilet fixtures. It seemed like heaven to me after Long Binh. There was, I think, a one o’clock curfew. There were quite a few good Chinese and European restaurants in the area. My kind of night life consisted in going out every night to a different one with people from Psy Ops or the television station. I remember one called Paprika, which was on the roof of an apartment house off the main road between Saigon and Tan Son Nhut airport. It was pleasant and airy and adjacent to a Mahayana Buddhist-Thai temple with a magnificent fluted Chinese-style roof with serpents coming out of the corners. Across the street from that was a Chinese black marketeer who had a one-story wall around his compound. Inside he had a three-story marble and granite house with a moat around it, a swimming pool on the roof and floor-to-ceiling tinted glass walls.

So we would go to this restaurant and have long discussions. I can’t comment a heck of a lot on the Saigon bar scene. I may be one of the few Americans who went to Vietnam who never laid a Vietnamese prostitute. I just wasn’t attracted to them physically. It’s not a prejudice; I just wasn’t turned on. Had I been stationed in Germany, I would never have left. Also, I didn’t particularly appreciate VD or crabs. One day I sent on sick call and after 43 people in front of me went through for the clap, I said I have a sore throat. The doctor just laughed and said, “Oh sure, now take off your pants!” I felt embarrassed that I didn’t have the clap. So that’s an insight into life in Saigon. But those were, to use a hackneyed phrase, the halcyon days.

In May I moved into an apartment on Tran Hung Dao, which was a main boulevard between downtown Saigon and Cholon, the Chinese quarter of Saigon. It was a curious place—two bedrooms, a kitchen, huge living/’dining room, and maid. I shared it with Jack Martin, an illustrator in civilian life, who designed propaganda leaflets for our unit.  We were immediately above Dispatch News Service. They were the people who broke the My Lai [Massacre] story. And below lived Dick Hughes, who was famous for working with Saigon street kids.  Hughes and I had been classmates at Carnegie Tech’s drama school eight years before. We discovered each other one afternoon walking down Tran Hung Dao, doing a triple-take and then saying, “I know you.”  We couldn’t believe we had run into each other in Saigon.

I would say that almost 30% of  the 180 people assigned to our unit were living on the economy. This meant that they were not living in their assigned barracks, but living in apartments somewhere in the city with a Vietnamese whore. If, for example, the NCO in charge of our intelligence section (a very important and strategic position) was shacking up, then it was safe for the low ranking enlisted men to live on the economy, too. That meant that the barracks rooms which they had been assigned were empty. We were drawing combat pay for living in hotels and apartments.

There were nightclubs a plenty, rock bands in the mess hall every night for dinner, drinks were 25 cents a piece and strong, restaurants and the mess halls had slot machines. There were lots of parties and lots of comradeship. Blacks and whites were together far more than I would have expected.  We were required to stand inspection once a week, but after about three weeks everybody considered it a joke.  The colonel in charge of the unit finally got the hint and cancelled them. So we would work from about 7:30 AM to about 6:00 at night. Each of us would have guard duty on the average of once every five nights. Guard duty consisted in walking in circles  around rather large compound in the center of Saigon, usually carrying a transistor radio. It was a very hang loose time.

All this was the calm before the storm. It began at the end of January, 1968. I think it was the night of the 30th. I woke up to an unbelievable cacophony of violent noises, explosions everywhere. The entire city seemed to be going up in flames. It seemed as if every one of the three million people in Saigon had a bomb in his hand and set it off simultaneously. And I dived underneath the bed. As it kept up, I began to hear voices and laughter. I crawled on my belly out to the balcony of my third floor room overlooking Pham Ngu Lao Street. From there I could see people celebrating.

It was the first night of the four-day Tet Lunar New Year celebration and they were setting off firecrackers. They had set off so many that the next day the exploded fireworks paper was three and four inches deep on certain parts of the sidewalk. The next night I slept soundly and didn’t wake up until 7:00 in the morning, when there was what I can only call an ominous silence. Usually, once the 6 AM curfew lifted in Saigon, then every sputtering motorcycle, pedicab and Lambretta took to the streets making a deafening roar. I usually woke up at six with the beginning of those traffic sounds. But that particular morning there was nothing.

I walked out on the balcony casually and looked down. The streets were absolutely deserted. There was a tank in the middle of the street. The guard at the guard post beneath me had on his steel pot and a flak jacket with his gun in his hand. Normally guards had their rifles leaning on the side of the guard kiosk. Then I saw a couple of people pull up in a jeep wearing flak jackets and steel pots and run into the hotel. So I want down toe second floor of the hotel, which was the mess hall, to learn what had happened the previous night. Of course, that was the first night of the Tet Offensive.

My roommate and I went  immediately to work  and we were  given our  M-16’s  along with several ammunition clips, flak jackets and told to take position either at some place on the perimeter of the compound or to wait in the guard room until we were called. Then we began to hear some of th tape recordings from Armed Forces Vietnam network about the attacks. According to the radio reports, the city was under siege. At that point, the American Embassy was still under attack.

We sat around listening to the radio all morning. There were certain sections of the city which were said to be completely under the control of the communists. The officers quarters, where most of the Psychological Operations officers lived, was in Cholon. Our officers were not able to get through the communist positions to come to work. So most of the people in charge were senior NCO’s.

That afternoon some of us went up on the Hotel Walling roof. Of all the thousands of pictures I took during the war in Vietnam, one snapshot sums it up for me. Taken at 12 noon on the first day of the Tet Offensive, you can see a huge column of smoke rising up from the Vietnamese naval headquarters adjacent to the American Embassy. In the foreground of the picture on the hotel roof is a man in a very skimpy bikini laying flat on his back developing an even better tan than he has, a transistor radio at his head, and curling hundreds of feet in the air behind him is the billowing smoke of part of the city of Saigon going up in flames. That one snapshot captures the entire Vietnam experience for me.

Even though there were thousands of rumors going all over the city, we were obviously told the truth. The city was under attack and we were going to have to change our ways. We weren’t backwater troops any more; we were on the front line just as much as any one else. For us, the VC had arrived and they were going to take our psychological operations compound.

There were isolated skirmishes around our compound, but I didn’t take part in anything directly. I saw a furious firefight that took place after midnight on the second night of the offensive. It turned out the next day to have been “white mice” [Saigon police] shooting at ARVN [South Vietnamese Army] units. We all thought it was an attack on us. The thing that scared me most was hearing the third day that a jeep load of four Australian correspondents in Cholon had been shot up. I knew one of the correspondents slightly. That was the first death in Vietnam while I was there of someone I knew. It was eerie.

The city was under 24-hour curfew. The garbage began piling up higher and higher. By the end of the fifth day there were ten to twelve foot piles of garbage everywhere. You could see rats the size of cats scurrying through the streets, running from one pile to another. And still, there was this haunting silence day and night. Because Saigon is, above all, the noisiest of cities. We were excited by the silence. I didn’t want to shoot anybody if I could help it, but I finally realized that if it came down to a one-on-one situation where somebody was coming at me with a weapon, I was going to shoot at him.

By the end of the second week of the Tet Offensive, when the communists were pretty well on the run, a friend of mine and I drove out to Gia Dinh, which is a northeastern suburb of Saigon just over the Saigon River. We found a church there on an acre of ground with over three thousand people living on it. The Vietnamese in this camp had no food, no clothing, virtually no medicine. Doctors we were told had come briefly a couple of days before and diagnosed two cases of plague, but they had no vaccine. There were over 100 babies born during the first two weeks of operation of the camp. And nearly all of them died. They had not been able to leave this camp because the area was communist controlled. Many of the bodies of the babies had been piled in a corner of the camp and were sitting there rotting. That’s going to be an image that haunts me for the rest of my life. So I went back to Saigon, thinking.

I had done a great deal of speaking, particularly in the Midwest before I went into the service. I was pretty well-known in several towns there. So I wrote to the editors of several newspapers, one in Racine, Wisconsin. I described the situation at the camp and asked for some kind of help. I said that I would make sure that the food and clothing they sent me would be given personalty by me to the people who needed it most. The Racine newspaper published my letter along with an editorial urging support of this project. And that was the beginning of a project that over the next two years sent more than 100 tons of food and clothing in little 25 pound boxes to me. They spent over $7000 on postage alone just to get the stuff over to Vietnam. The army would not carry it; it had to be sent through the U.S. postal service.

The project was spearheaded by Shirley Woodward of Racine, mother of ten foster children. She turned her entire basement into a warehouse. She and a couple of other women in town hand packed every single item that was sent to me in Vietnam. It was almost an obsession with her. And she wrote me, “As long as you are there, I will continue to send these supplies.” At the end of my first year in October of 1968 I was still receiving monthly several tons of food and clothing from people in the States. I was faced with the choice of coming back to the States and shuffling papers for two more years in the army or staying in Vietnam up to a point five months short of my three-year required enlistment at which time I could get an “early out.” I could go back to a safe surrounding or stay in the middle of a war in which anything could happen. I took the five month “early out” to keep the project going.

The project got underway at my end within three weeks after my letter appeared in the Wisconsin paper. The mail clerk appeared one morning, calling me by name and then, “Get outside!” Outside he pointed to a 2 ½ ton truck that had three immense 10′ x 10′ x 10′ connexes or metal packing crates. I said, “Well, what’s the matter? What’s that?” And he said, “That’s your mail! And there’s another truck load out there that I have to bring in this afternoon, you s.o.b.”

So I walked over to the colonel’s office (I was still the colonel’s typist). I had been writing two or three letters a day and then sitting around the office writing letters to my friends because there was nothing else to do. So I said to the colonel:

“Sir, would you mind coming outside with me. I’d like to show you something.”

“I’m very busy, Steffens.”

But I insisted.

“Sir, I really think you should.”

So he reluctantly got up from his desk and walked outside with me. I pointed to the truck and said,

“That, sir, is my mail this morning. That is three tons of food and clothing that my friends in the States have sent me to distribute to the refugees.”

And his face changes. He lights up, saying,

“Well, that’s outstanding, Steffens.”

But before he could take another breath I said,

“And I’m going to have to send it all back to the States.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Well, I’m so busy typing your correspondence, sir, that I have no time  to distribute this stuff  to the refugees, and I promised the people back  in Wisconsin who sent this stuff that I would make sure it would not end up on the black market.”

So he said,

“Come into my office, Steffens. Let’s have a talk.”

 

The next morning I had my own Quonset hut and I was only a PFC. I was given virtual autonomy to work on this project. I could go anywhere in Vietnam I thought appropriate to get the supplies to the people who needed them most. There were a lot of reasons for this. The primary reason was  Lieutenant Colonel Beck, who was on the make for full colonel, hoped desperately to be the very first psychological operations general. Like so very many very short men, he had a very well controlled Napoleonic complex. He was very self-important, a studious man, somewhat out of the grain of  most of the army lifers I  met. He had a keen eye for public relations and he wasn’t slow to see a rare opportunity for himself to advance. Ultimately, at the end of the year when he left his assignment, there were three paragraphs that covered his marvelous accomplishments in civil affairs and civic action.

I was his civic action. I didn’t care. I was certainly not in the army for a career. And besides, I felt I was doing something positive, helping the Vietnamese people. I had grown to like a great many of the Vietnamese I met. Most of them were either ARVN soldiers who were assigned to our unit or people who lived in our neighborhood. There were a couple of children who lived right next to the hotel and I would see them in the evening. They appealed to me tremendously because they were the only kids I had seen in Vietnam who never begged for anything. Their mothers sold  newspapers whose offices were on my street. Lots of GI’s had their special kids and these were mine.

Over the next couple of months I began working on the project. Whenever we would make a distribution, we would have pictures taken and I would sent them back to the newspapers in the States. That in turn would engender more contributions. The more people in the States could see the results of their donations, could see people putting on the clothes that they had actually given for the relief of the Vietnamese, the more the project gained momentum. Several big corporations in Racine responded with large donations of money to defray the postage. Johnson’s wax gave packing crates so the food and clothing could be packed sturdily and carefully. There was a ‘Roger Steffens Week’ in Racine with high school assemblies. A special account was opened in my name in the American Savings Bank in Racine and over the next two years donations were given to that account to defray costs of the project. Of course, all this time I’m still in Vietnam.

During my travels in Vietnam, I began to learn first-hand of American idiocy. And, as a former speaker in the cause of Barry Goldwater in 1964, I began very gradually to shift my position. I was afraid originally of going to Vietnam. I didn’t want to get my ass shot off. But I thought that the U.S. belonged there: ‘We’ve got to fight “the gooks” in Saigon rather than fight them in the good old USA.’ I’d been pretty much a non-thinking rabid anti-communist when I went over there.

Then I saw what the South Vietnamese government was (or, more properly, was not) doing for its own people. The millions and millions of dollars that each day was being siphoned off the American contributions and put in Swiss and Hong Kong bank accounts of Saigon bureaucrats and army officers was something that was pretty much talked about—not only by soldiers, but also by people who worked for USAID, by U.S. embassy people, and much more commonly among newsmen I got to know. Several times during my tour some of the networks and newspapers in the States came to do stories about our civic action work. I became friendly with a lot of newsman.

One particular story about corruption stands out. The largest construction cartel in Vietnam was RMK/BRJ. BR stands for Brown-Root, a Texas construction company whose rise to wealth and prominence parallels that of a politicians named Lyndon Johnson. In 1960, when Johnson became Vice President he sold his extensive holdings in the company to his wife. Not long after the Tet Offensive, I went to Hue to work with some refugees left in the wake of the offensive. And while I was there I met the assistant to the senior province advisor, a State Department official with a rank equivalent to an army general. This official was responsible for many things, including disbursing funds for projects.

During the Tet Offensive in Hue the Paul Domer Bridge was blown up. After the communists were chased out, the senior province advisor called in the army civil engineers and asked them to build a bridge  back  across the river The engineers suggested putting up a pontoon bridge that could be done fairly cheaply while the longer task of rebuilding  the Paul Domer Bridge was underway. So they took bids on it and, according to the senior province advisor, Eifel—the old French  construction company was still active in Vietnam—bid $250,000. For the exact same job, RMK/BRJ bid $1,350,000 and got the job. I met one of their chief accountants in Saigon who told me that they sent out bills each month for $600,000 at the height of the Vietnam War—paid out to a construction company in which the president had an interest.

There were lighter stories in Psychological Operations. Our mission was to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Vietnamese people. One of our first projects was a propaganda radio station at Pleiku in the Central Highlands. This was the project that was getting the most attention in Psy. Ops. when I arrived. It was a three-part campaign. Part one was the dissemination of several million leaflets, talking about the eventual airdrop by tiny parachutes of minuscule transistor radios that were fixed-beamed to the propaganda radio station’s wave length. That was part two.  The third part of the project was the construction of the radio broadcast tower. It think it was 100,000 to 150,000 watts built on a hill in Pleiku at the end of a very wide sweeping plain to broadcast propaganda messages to the Montagnards.

Montagnards are a primitive people living in about nine of the westernmost provinces of Vietnam. They were the original inhabitants of Vietnam who lived in the very fertile Mekong Delta. Over the centuries, as aborigines they were gradually pushed further and further into the Central Highlands, into an area which is totally inhospitable. The land there cannot support them for more than two or three years. So they’re nomads and quite impoverished by any standard. They have a totally separate culture and language from the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese and the Montagnards despise each other.

Needless to say, a gigantic broadcast tower with blinking red lights on it is perfect to home in  mortar tubes on. About three weeks before the opening of the station it was blown up in a gigantic Fourth of July burst of fire works that could be seen for about 25 miles. This event caused a certain amount of consternation at Psy. Ops. headquarters. I don’t want to sound un-American, but I thought it was great. It was just such a stupid idea to expect the communists to leave this gigantic broadcast tower alone just because Psy. Ops.  thought they had a good idea to propagandize the Montagnards.

Getting back to the first part of our project, we made up a leaflet showing how to receive and activate the radios that were going to be air dropped. On the leaflet were three pictures. One was a woman bending down over the parachute and radio package; the second picture showed her opening the package and reaching for the radio; in the last picture we had her holding the transistor radio about half the size of a package of cigarettes next to her ear and smiling. This was supposed to be a leaflet geared toward the Montagnard people that were the target audience of the radio station.

Next, Psy. Ops. in Saigon found a Vietnamese maid, dressed her in black pajamas and a conical hat like a Vietnamese, and took her to the Saigon zoo. First, she was photographed in the middle of the grass with her manicured nails, covered with nail polish, bending over and opening the plastic package with the radios, second, reaching in and picking it up, and third, this winsome Vietnamese lady listening to the radio and smiling.

We printed up some 10,000,000 leaflets for dissemination by airplane over the Central Highlands. Montagnard people speak some 200 dialects and I think only seven or eight have been written. The leaflets were in Vietnamese. The Montagnards, with maybe 1% of their population being a rare exception, are illiterate in their own language, and certainly in Vietnamese. We dropped these millions of leaflets in the Central Highlands to certainly no avail and followed that up about a week later with about 250,000 radios dropped by tiny parachutes.

In the meantime, our propaganda equivalents on the other side, the VCI [Viet Cong Information] teams went around to the Montagnard villages, held up the leaflets and said, “The Americans are going to booby-trap you. They are going to drop tiny explosive charges in black boxes and if you pick them up, they will blow you sky high. Don’t touch these bombs.” And to this day there ware some quarter million radios rotting in the Central Highlands, totally untouched by any living being except an occasional American propaganda team who went through and picked them up as souvenirs.

Strange lesson number two in our Psy. Ops. unit took place toward the end of 1968. (I can’t swear to the exact date.) [Major] General [Charles P.] Stone, who was in charge of the Fourth Infantry, became world famous for a short time. The Fourth Infantry [Division] was a rather luckless unit stationed not far from Pleiku at Camp Enari, underneath a rather suggestively shaped hill that everyone, including the air traffic controllers, called ‘pussy mountain.’ General Stone was famous for saying, ‘if anybody in my base camp doesn’t salute his officer, I will send him to the front lines.’ He said this in front of an Associated Press reporter who dutifully broadcast the message around the world.

Months before that incident, General Stone managed to create a lot of havoc. Some of Stone’s Fourth Infantry found three NVA KIA’s [killed-in-action] in their AO and on their bodies the Americans found Playboy  centerfolds. They reported this in  their after-action report. Genera Stone eventually saw it and seized upon what he thought was a marvelous idea. He wrote down to Colonel Beck and told him he wanted a leaflet with a naked Vietnamese girl on it, saying, ‘Look who’s waiting for you when you surrender to our side.’ Now like all Asians, the Vietnamese are a very modest people. You will not see a man and woman, even if married, walking down the street holding hands.

In fact, it is more common to see two soldiers walking down the street holding hands as a sign of friendship. Many of the Vietnamese with whom I came into contact personably thought Americans were sex-craved humans, who came from a race of women all built like Molly Moo Cow, all of whom had staples in their navels. They thought that Americans had come to Vietnam to rape their daughters, wives and sisters. And in some cases that was true.

Our job in Psychological Operations, I thought, was to counter these semi-mistaken  ideas about Americans and to build friendship between the races. We didn’t know a hell of a lot about psychological operations at this point, but we did know that the general’s idea was a no-no. So Colonel Beck wrote back and General Stone finally conceded to a Vietnamese lady in a two-piece bathing suit. Now, Vietnamese women are far from voluptuous, but we did find one that was pretty well-built. She was about a 28 double -A. We took her out to the Saigon Zoo, put here out on the grass wearing this two-piece bathing suit—you couldn’t tell the front from the back—and took her picture. We laid out the leaflet and printed up over 10,000,000 copies. The first batch of two million was to be flown up to General Stone’s AO and dropped, thus causing in General Stone’s estimation mass defections. On top of each box of leaflets was taped the leaflet inside.

The army pilots were pretty sharp guys and one of the pilots looked at this leaflet and said, “What does this say?” We told him and he just looked at us. Then he smiled rather smugly and said, “No way in hell!” He took off from Tan Son Nhut, hooked a right at Bien Hoa, and flew out over the South China Sea where he deposited two million leaflets. The next day the same thing happened. By the third day, General Stone is very upset because nobody’s defected and he can’t understand why. So he dispatched his aide, a full bird colonel, to fly on the next propaganda leaflet drop and discover what was happening.  This colonel made damned sure that the remaining six million leaflets were dropped over General Stone’s AO.

As we learned later, something very curious happened. After the leaflets were dropped, our old friends the VCI went into the villages in the area, held up the leaflets and told the people there: “You see what the Americans think of you? Can you see the filth that they are putting out to influence you? See what immoral, degraded people these Americans are!” And the humble peasants in the back hills of Vietnam were in most cases inclined to agree with the communists. So again, we were out own worst enemy.

We learned all of this, of course, from the men who worked in our field teams. Not only did the Viet Cong have propaganda teams going into the remote parts of the country, but so did Psy. Ops. And the American teams had Vietnamese-speaking personnel attached to them. When some of our teams went into these villages and discovered leaflets lying around, or pasted on village walls, they asked where the leaflets came from. The villagers told them about the Viet Cong teams coming through and what they said about the leaflets. These [U.S.] field teams filed monthly reports with Saigon group headquarters. From the time I first got there, we had expanded from a small battalion to a very large 1200-man group. We went from 6th Psychological Operations Battalion to 4th Psychological Operations Group.

Because I was at headquarters in Saigon and still in the colonel’s office, I was lucky to have my finger in everything and I knew what was going on. The teams from the entire country would feed their reports through us. Men of the various sections—intelligence, logistics, supply— were friends of mine. When we saw each other at the end of the day, we would exchange stories; everyone would tell what he learned that day. Most of all, we sat around drinking beer and talking about the latest insanity.

I went to the ‘Five O’clock Follies’ as often as I could when I first got to Vietnam. That was the official press briefing held at five pm in the JUSPAO [Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office] building. One of my best friends who was in our information office had to go down as part of his job. I was very curious and during the Tet Offensive a bit stir crazy when we were confined to the compound. I went with him about eight or  ten days into the offensive. Inside the building they had what looked like a high school auditorium with a  raised proscenium  stage with blue curtains and lots of theater seats. Every chance I got I went down to the Follies.

Representatives of the American Embassy would be up on the stage. There was a screen that could be pulled down for slides, showing where the day’s battles were taking place and where casualty figures could be projected. We were well into the Tet Offensive when an Army colonel stood up before several hundred international journalists and said, “Gentlemen, I am very pleased to report today that the Army’s casualties have finally caught up with the Marines.” There was this gasp from these hardened correspondents and the embassy official saw it instantly. He jumped up and said, “Colonel, surely you don’t mean that!” And the colonel replied, “You’re god damned right I do. The Army should be pulling its weight, too.”

A  man in front of me turned to the correspondent from the London Times and said, “This is straight out of Catch-22. I cannot believe this is happening.” The journalists pretty generally came over to write good stories, to be open-minded, not to be either hawks or doves, but to learn the truth. They usually left after their three months or three years as very, very cynical, hard-nosed doves. It was inevitable that anyone who saw first-hand what was going on in various parts of the country and then went back to the Army’s press briefing version of what they’d often just seen, had to leave at the very least disturbed.

I remember another thing that happened about that time. Not long after the Tet Offensive, a captured 16-year-old girl was paraded before the ‘Five O’clock Follies.’ One of the interesting things that came up in the interview with her was that the most difficult thing for a female Viet Cong soldier was the inability to get any kind of sanitary napkin. So the psychological operations geniuses in Saigon hit upon the wonderful idea that came to be known as ‘Psy. Ops. Kotex.’ It was simply that the shield for the sanitary napkin would be a flag of South Vietnam. And the idea went all the way back to Washington for final approval before it was eventually quashed. Another aborted idea was to use abrasive inks that would cause serious skin rashes on all Psy. Ops. leaflets. Some of our people realized that most of our leaflets ended up as ass wipe. But we were told that somebody in Washington decided that was against the chemical warfare provisions of the GenevaConventions.

Some of the crazy ideas were implemented, more ironically than successfully. The one that comes to mind was the loudspeaker broadcast. I was told by an Army doctor I knew at the time that anyone with approximately 2500 yards of a B-52 500-pound bomb is deafened for up to 24 hours. But a favorite psychological operations technique was to get someone who had recently been captured or defected from the communist side to make a tape recording saying that he was not being tortured, that he was being treated well, and get him to urge his comrades to defect.

The idea was to use a 02-B, a Cessna push/pull aircraft. It has a cabin about 12 feet long, propellers in front and behind that generally cost $50,000, though the Army version costs $112,000. What you get for the extra $62,000 is a hole chopped in the floor to drop leaflets through and a 1,000 watt loudspeaker on the back. We were told to fly out a half an hour after the B-52’s bombed an area, broadcasting surrender  tapes to the  survivors, who were of course absolutely deaf. So thousands and thousands of dollars were spent each week all over Vietnam flying totally useless 02-B  loudspeaker missions to deaf people. This was still going on when I left Vietnam at the beginning of 1970.

There were lots of boondoggles that wasted money. I did some pictures for the Chicago Tribune. One of them shows downtown Saigon just across from JUSPAO building and down the street from the Vietnamese parliament. In this pictures there are well over a thousand motorcycles. Back in 1965 some genius in the American embassy decided that the answer to the ‘Vietnam problem’ was the creation of what he called a “mobile middle class.” USAID made long-term, interest-free loans to Vietnamese to buy motorcycles. All those dollars were spent in Tokyo buying Hondas, Suzukis and Yamahas. And to this day [1974] there are almost a million motorcycles in the city of Saigon, bought with American tax dollars.

 

Back when I arrived Saigon in October of 1967 there were a small number of people smoking pot. These were particularly people who had been heads in civilian life. Pot came in many forms. One form was the re-packed cigarette in which Marlboro, Winston or Salem had the tobacco taken out and the empty cigarette paper refilled with marijuana. They were 100 millimeter, filter-tipped, mentholated joints. My favorite was Parklane.

I  once met a woman who worked in a Parklane factory who prided herself in a strange way on her choice of crops, almost like a fine Virginia tobacconist. This woman would go down on regular trips to the Mekong Delta to places held by the VC where no American could ever go and she would sample the various hemps down there. She brought the best ones back and blended them into Parklane cigarettes. There were three different types of grass used. All the Parklanes that I bought in Saigon were marijuana. The first type that she used got you off instantly;  the second type was mildly hallucinogenic;  the third type sustained the buzz for long periods.

It was easy to find Parklanes. We used to buy them at the candy counter of the movie theater on the corner. It was  easier to get Parklanes than it was to get a loaf of bread. Another way of getting Parklanes was to go down to Tran Hung Dao to the Hung Dao movie theater in front of which parked a dozen or so pedicabs. Each driver was a connection between the Parklane factory and the consumer. If you wanted a big shipment, you would go down a day or two before you wanted it and tell them, say, “I want five cartons,” and argue over the price. If you were a regular customer, the price was understood. Generally, you paid about 2,000 piasters for a carton of 200 Parklanes.

By the end of 1969, 2,000 piasters was worth roughly $4.75, say five dollars for the strongest smoke in the entire known world. So, if you were picking up a shipment, you would go down two days later at the arranged time, jump in the pedicab, and the driver would take you back to wherever you lived.  During the ride he would place his hand very quickly over your shoulder and drop a paper bag in your lap and you would kind of grin and cradle it under your arm. When you got out of the pedicab, instead of giving him 15 or 20 piasters for the ride, you would hand him 10,000 piasters, supposedly for the ride if anybody was looking, but actually for the five cartons of Parklanes.

Right up to the end of 1969 it was terribly easy to send the stuff to the States. Usually mail clerks were heads. I don’t know why it worked that way, but they generally were and they would mail the stuff to you. There was never any danger of getting the stuff out to the APO [Army Post Office] at Tan Son Nhut. The easiest way we found to ship it was to buy an empty five-inch tape reel out of the Cholon PX . Exactly 39 Parklanes fit into the box with the empty reel. We’d put it into an envelope, write ‘free’ where the postage would normally go, and in the bottom corner write ‘TAPE RECORDING: DO NOT X-RAY.’ If someone picked up the envelope, they could feel the reel inside, so they “knew” it was a tape recording. I know people who sent back as many as five cartons a week in a box marked ‘clothing of deceased soldier’ and smoked them for almost two years afterwards.

There was nothing else except opium, which virtually nobody touched because it was addicting and debilitating. Occasionally, somebody would show up with LSD or mescalin sent by mail from the States, but most people did not want to take a chance of using something that would put them out of commission for 12 to 14 hours. After all, we were in Vietnam. The Tet Offensive could come again. More and more people were taking hard drugs after 1969, but those of us who had been there for a long time just really didn’t think we could take the chance. In a society like Vietnam, back in a little corner of your mind you had a little man who kept whispering, ‘It can happen anytime.’

After a year or so in Vietnam, you had heard enough stories of bizarre happenings, people doing something stupid and getting zapped on their last day in Vietnam. No sane person wanted to take a chance. The longer you stayed in Vietnam, and the closer you came to your own DEROS date, oddly enough, the more careful you became. I learned later from friends in my unit that stayed through 1970 that a concerted effort was made by the command to destroy the pot mess in the Army. The result was that people started turning to heroin.

They started smoking “OJ’s,” opium joints, but it was pure heroin. Pot became more and more difficult to get and to conceal. There were surprise inspections meant to prevent people from hiding pot in their lockers. Heroin was very easy to store and, unlike pot, it was odorless and tasteless. It could be smoked in a cigarette. It was 98% pure and people became addicted through  smoking it. So the Army created its own monster. By cracking down on pot, they suddenly made heroin the only drug that could be safely used. I say ‘safely’ with considerable irony.

During the final year I was in Vietnam [1969], I did a television show on the Armed Forces Vietnam Network directed by Tom Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s elder son, reading poetry to the troops. In civilian life I had done a one-man show of modern American poetry. So we used to play, literally play, with the television studio—it had three million dollars worth of equipment—any night we wanted to do it. My program was on in what was prime time in Saigon: Sunday afternoon between the football game and Combat, the most popular television show in Vietnam. The whole war seemed to stop when Combat was on television because you knew that everyone else would be glued to the box. We used to video tape the show three or four weeks in advance. One Sunday I devoted the entire program to readings from Richard Brautigan’s The Pill Versus The Spring Hill Mine Disaster.

On Sunday afternoons the only guy in the station was an old Air Force lifer sergeant who ran the control panel and played the tapes. So about three weeks after I taped it, it was shown on television. And, about halfway through the show, I did a little four-line Brautigan that goes: “You got star spangled nails in your coffin, kid, that’s what they’ve done for you, son.” Five seconds later the phone in the control room rings. “This is Air Force Major General So-and-So at Tan Son Nhut. I want that faggot, junkie, long-haired, pinko, hippie thrown off the air or I’m going to come down and punch him in the mouth.” And the old sergeant said, “You can’t do that, Sir, he’s on tape.” I learned from the station manager a week later that this Air Force general got so bent out of shape that he called General Abrams to lodge a stiff, formal complaint. And Abrams apparently told him, “Sir, if you really have that rank, you should have more important things to do on Sundays than watch television.” I guess that was one for our side.

So that was a pretty thick leisure activity that was all done in my spare time. Plus, I made some public service announcements over AFVN. In one I played Count Malaria, who would bite people who didn’t take their Cloraquine and Primaquine phosphate tablets each day. The alarms would ring and bluie!

“I am Count Malaria and I’m going to bite you on the neck, or maybe the forearm, and give you malaria.”

Or I’d show up in somebody’s mashed potatoes in the mess hall in Da Nang.

“What are you doing in my mashed potatoes?”

“The Australian crawl.”

“You bite?”

“How observant or you.”

It was a comic way of getting guys to take their pills. And it was fun because it was like keeping a hand in.

I didn’t kid my self that even though I was in Saigon for the most part, it would always be safe. I knew there was that tinge of danger to the experience. But I weighed everything—my distaste of the Army, my desire to get out of it as soon as I could, and my belief that I was doing a little good. If in some small way I could counter the psychic damage that so many Americans were doing to the Vietnamese people, then that was worth my staying there. I extended twice, up until December of 1969, and then I was discharged. It was voluntary, not altruistic. A couple of time when I was going to remote villages with supplies of food and clothing, our truck would be shot at. I’ve had bullets within two feet of my head, right through the back of the truck. That was the closest I came to the real war with one exception.

The time that I felt death in my mouth was the evening of May 19—Ho Chi Minh’s birthday—at 1:00 in the morning. A rocket slammed into our block in Saigon and my roommates and I leaped under our beds saying, “Jesus, that was close.” Nothing happened for about two minutes and I crawled out, crouched down and looked out over the balcony. At that instant, on the block behind our compound, another rocket landed. And I watched a house and its foundation hurtling over 100 feet in the air, blown sky high, and I dove under the bed again. Then there was another tremendous slam that blew out the windows of our building—that shell fell right behind our building.

Two of the three 120 mm rockets landed on our block. When I looked out again from the balcony I saw flames that must have been 200 feet high, just churning and feeding themselves with jet black smoke pouring out.  Even thought it was 1:00 am, by the time I got out on the balcony after the third rocket hit, the street had more than a thousand people in it. I saw refrigerators, furniture of every description and baskets full of clothing. There were more than a few television sets. These people were so geared to living in a war that before they went to bed they’d pile everything in baskets on carrying poles and in chests that they can pick up in a second in case they’re under attack. And that knocked me out because the whole area was evacuated; the fire burned all night long. It destroyed 400 houses in downtown Saigon and burned right up to our building.

If the little guy who set off those rockets had popped out of his hole and set down his rocket to shoot a fraction of a millimeter less to the left or the right, the rocket would have hit my building and I would have been killed. I had long thought what I would do if I knew my house were about to burn down and I had only a couple of minutes, or even seconds, to go back in and safe things that were precious to me. I learned that night what they were. I had several thousand dollars worth of camera and tape recording equipment in my room, but I packed an AWOL bag instantly with voice tapes I had made and my photographs, both of which were really irreplaceable. I included a tube of fresh mustache wax for my handlebar mustache and left the building immediately. And I left all those thousands of dollars worth of stuff in the room. It was a good less for me, a very good lesson.

 

In May of 1968 the South Vietnamese government announced that all refugees created by the Tet Offensive had been rehoused. This was a 100% lie. Their idea of “housing” was called a Saigon duplex, large sewer pipe. There were two families living in each of them and some 52 families living in them less than a mile away from the Vietnamese parliament, the presidential palace, the American embassy and the big hotels. Whenever conservative columnists like Joseph Alsop or William Buckley or conservative congressmen would come over to Vietnam, they were taken by South Vietnamese officials to what was a luxury apartment development built with American funds by President Thieu for his own profit. The [monthly] rent was more than people living in Saigon Duplexes made in an entire year, people in the countryside who would not be able to go back to their land. The Americans were told this project was refugee housing.

When a refugee registered with the South Vietnamese government, he was allowed what was called a 10-10-10 distribution. Ten sheets of tin roofing, ten bags of cement, and ten thousand piasters, which at the black market rate was roughly equivalent to perhaps $20 at most. The black market fluctuated so greatly that 10,000 piasters at the official rate $1 per 114 piasters could unofficially be worth only a quarter of that. The common practice among South Vietnamese officials was to get as much of that 10-10-10 distribution for himself. I think our biggest mistake was to turn over the means of assistance for the Vietnamese refugees solely to the South Vietnamese government officials. A majority of that assistance, I think, was ripped off. My biggest problem in the two years I worked with refugees was these officials.

A typical South Vietnamese official appointed by dictator Thieu was a man who, as a middle-level army officer, was known to have bought his promotions consistently without any qualms. That was the only way an officer could advance in the South Vietnamese army. By the time he reached the rank of, say, major, it was clear that he played the game pretty much according to the corrupt standards that applied. I know of a man who, in the mid-1960’s, was appointed district chief of Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon. On his first day in office, a representative of the Chinese community clad in Mandarin garb, long, flowing robe, tiny circular hat, asked to meet with him in his office.

The Chinese said, ‘We congratulate you on achieving this position of great prominence and, as a token of the esteem of the Chinese community, we want you to have these.’ On the official’s desk he placed the keys to a brand new Mercedes-Benz and bowed deeply, and stepped back in deference a couple of feet. And then he gestured to a man at his side and he said, ‘This man will be your chauffeur and valet and he will be at your call 24 hours a day.’ So the Vietnamese official asked in response what he wanted from him. And the Mandarin seemed greatly embarrassed with this breach of etiquette but recovered quickly and said, “Well, there are certain dealings that go on in our community having to do with opium. We would just suggest that when these dealings come to your attention, you be stricken by a temporary deafness.’ And when the Vietnamese official wondered what would happen if he were not stricken with deafness, the Mandarin bowed deeply and said, “Then I am afraid we will kill you.” So corruption had its own logic.

I was told this story by a man who worked as secretary to the district chief. He spoke seven languages and this is the reason he was his right-hand man. Eventually he came to work for Psychological Operations as a Vietnamese-English translator.  I was complaining to him one day about the corruption that was so abundant and he said, “Ah, but that is just the way of doing things.” So you’ve got a mid-level Vietnamese official who is at once threatened, not only by the communists, but by the people he is supposedly there to help. In order to further advance his career he had got to build up a small fortune to pay off the officials who control it. So he is given control over everything that goes on in his district, from the amount of sugar that is allowed to be sold prior to the Tet holidays to the flow of traffic down his street to the rental warehouses in his area. Everything! And, as I said before, the 10-10-10 distribution, which was supposed to be given to every refugee, was given to the district chief and his subordinates. In this way, Psy. Ops. experts believed that the U.S. would create a climate in which the average Vietnamese felt his government was doing something to assist him. No American was allowed to give anything directly to the South Vietnamese.

I had Vietnamese with me quite often, but I stood there and made sure that every individual refugee walked away with stuff in his own two hands and went back to the hut where he lived. Otherwise, the South Vietnamese official or the ARVN soldier would steal it. Particularly when there were South Vietnamese reporters present for the television or newspapers, we had to have ARVN troops distribute the stuff. But, in most cases, I was standing there.  Needless to say, the South Vietnamese official was going to take as much of the 10-10-10 distribution for himself as possible.

What generally happened was that he would give out the 10,000 piasters and say, “If you want the tin roofing and bags of cement in order to rebuild your houses, you’ve got to give me 10,000 piasters.” Now, he’s talking to people who were absolutely wiped out, lost everything—their homes, their belongings, many members of their families. They were devastated. Generally, these people were forced to come to Saigon. I was told that before the war Saigon had maybe a quarter of a million people, but when I was there it was estimated at between three and one-half and four million. They lived in lean-to’s hammered out of coca cola cans, in cardboard boxes (wood was worth its weight in gold) and, as I mentioned, in sewer pipes.

I was constantly fighting a bureaucratic battle. At that point I was a Sp/4. What right did I have to walk up to a Vietnamese captain or major and tell him what he was doing was wrong. If I had the right, I certainly didn’t have the authority. If I made waves among the Vietnamese, it would reflect badly on my American commander because he would be seen as not cooperating fully with his Vietnamese allies. And this would reflect poorly promotion report. So there was all this pressure not to make waves. If we knew about corruption, if we knew about theft—well, there’s no other word for it—we had to keep our mouths shut. This kind of pressure came out in some ways that were quite obvious. During my second year in Vietnam, after my considerable autonomy, Colonel Beck was replaced by a Nisei from Hawaii, Colonel Katagiri.

The new colonel, although taller than Colonel Beck had a totally overwhelming Napoleonic complex. He figured he was God. He would chew people out if they didn’t salute the insignia on the front of his jeep as he drove by. He’d be hurrying to an appointment, and if a troop was walking down the street and didn’t salute him, he would order his driver to jam the brakes on the jeep, back up, and he would chew the soldier out for five or ten minutes for not saluting a passing colonel. He was a little Hitler in many ways.

Well, because we had achieved a certain amount of success in our civil action work, Colonel Katagiri  still thought this looked very bad. There was no officer involved in the project just a lowly enlisted man. So Colonel Katagiri assigned a young, totally green second lieutenant Dan Davis, to our unit. We were put in a table of organization underneath the S-4 section, which was supply. Major Price was in charge of supply. He had been in the Army 18 years and was still a major. He was about 80 or 90 pounds overweight drank a great deal and was convinced that he was the greatest officer in the history of the Army. He smiled to people out of one side of his mouth and chewed others out constantly. He was called “Porky Pig,” sometimes almost to his face. He was a total dud.

My first run in with Major Price came at the end of January, 1969. I’d been in Vietnam at that point almost 16 months. Each month we gave a ‘civic action’ report that was sent down the line. First it went to Army Pentagon East at Long Binh, then to the Saigon embassy, and eventually to Washington. The report had a title that made it virtually impossible for an American soldier to fail at whatever civic action project he encountered. It said: “List this month’s civic action activity and the reasons for its success.” But at the beginning of January we were having considerable difficulty. We were beginning to build a village on the outskirts of Saigon for 4200 Taoist refugees.  We provided wood in the form of empty packing crates. Psy. Ops. Went through a dozen huge packing crates of news print each day in our printing of leaflets.  The packing crate wood was extremely valuable. It could be used to built houses and furniture, to build anything what you possibly imagine that wood could be used for by very skillful Vietnamese scavengers.

So we provided the wood for flooring for a village of 4200 people. The village was to be constructed in a swamp. The houses were built on pylons that had been coated with creosote, bought with funds from Shell Oil. The pylons were place in the swamp and then a walkway was built to where the houses were before being destroyed late during the Tet Offensive in 1968. To complete the houses we needed tin roofing and, in certain cases, cement, which every refugee was entitled to. The South Vietnamese had signed treaties which essentially said, ‘We will accept these commodities  and guarantee them to each refugee, if you provide them to us.’ They signed it; we signed it. It was the law. But the refugees could not complete their houses because the South Vietnamese officials would not turn over any roofing or cement Only in a few cases did they give out 1,000 or 2,000 piasters, which was about four dollars or so. And these people had nowhere else to turn. I raised a big stink, but to no avail. I was a sergeant by this time, but what could I do?

In my January, 1969 ‘civic action’ report I wrote that the Phu Lam project was stalled because we were unable to secure the necessary supplies from the South Vietnamese district chief. When I  handed in the draft of my report, Major Price literally threw it across his desk in my face and said,

“I don’t give a good god damn whether it’s true or not! You go back  and  write that we got the         fullest support from the South Vietnamese people and all the officials did everything they could        to help us. Are  you trying to ruin my career?”

I was tempted to say,

‘No sir, you’re doing a good enough job yourself.’

I told him point blank that I would not lie  in the report, that I would not put my name on anything that was not true. So he said,

“Well, god damn it Steffens, I could have your ass for insubordination. If  you refuse an order         from me again, I’m going to send you up to the DMZ and I don’t care what the hell happens          to you.”

This was not an idle threat. During the two months that Lieutenant Davis worked with us in Saigon, he managed to get a great many supplies through some friends of his in the Vietnamese army with whom he had gone to officer’s school in the States. Davis was a real go-getter. He was a very bright but somewhat naive second lieutenant who didn’t realize that you couldn’t get things done even if you really wanted to. At the end of the second month through a friend of his who worked with a high-ranking South Vietnamese officer, Lieutenant Davis was given a South Vietnamese civic action medal. Major Price called him into his office and screamed at him for more than half an hour.

The thrust of his yelling imprecations were that Lieutenant Davis did not play the game. If he got a medal, his superior should get a medal, too. And he had no right to accept the medal: “That’s not playing the game, you s.o.b. I’m going to have your ass I’m going to teach you a lesson.” A week later Lieutenant Davis was assigned to a  mountain top north of Da Nang. This info is all in the Army records and can be traced. He was sent up, of course, for “tactical needs” or sone such army baloney. And,  during his first month up there, the VC blew up the Quonset hut next to his and killed several people. So when Major Price told me that if I did not lie on the civic action report he would send me to the DMZ where I might have my ass shot off, I believed him.

 

The bulk of the work that I tried to do in my final year in Vietnam was  frustrated by battles  I had with this man. Major Price wanted desperately to win awards because his officer’s file was very poor. He was afraid of being mustered out before his 20th year was over. To get recognition, Major Price insisted I give a  truck load of supplies to the ARVN  Rangers and their dependents. I said, “Sir, I don’t want to do this because the Rangers (equivalent to the U.S. Green Berets) have access to everything they damn well need. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees surrounding Saigon alone who need this stuff much more than the Rangers.”

ARVN  Ranger dependents have husbands and fathers who made a regular salary and who were well-known throughout Vietnam from plundering rather than fighting. And I told Major Price, “I have what I consider a sacred commitment to the people in the States who are sending me these supplies, not to let it fall into the hands of these people.” And Price said, “Steffens, you’re through if you don’t go along with this project. I have the means of sending you out of here so far, you won’t even remember that a city like Saigon exists.”

I went to Colonel Katagiri, but he said in somewhat less forceful terms that Major Price was my commanding officer and that I had to do what he said. And besides, he noted, “The ARVN Ranger dependents needed help, too, didn’t they?” So I ultimately agreed to a compromise of making up food kits and clothing kits for a list of some 500 dependents and have it signed by a Vietnamese officer We spent three weeks making up individual boxes by name and then we rode out—Colonel Katagiri, Major Price and myself—to Thu Duc, approximately 20 miles northwest of Saigon, where the ARVN Rangers had their headquarters.

I guess they knew we were coming. There was a very elaborate production staged for us. We were seated on a raised platform, provided with tea, and serenaded by a group of orphans. A ribbon was to be cut and there was a pile of our boxes with the names of all these dependent families in one corner of this vast square. On the opposite side of the square, facing the platform where the colonel, the major and I sat with our Vietnamese hosts, were several hundred very raggedy-looking Vietnamese women and children and a couple of ex-soldiers with one arm missing, another without a leg.  The women were lined up and the boxes were handed out by the colonel, the major and I. Watching out of the corner of my eye, I saw the women walk back into the crowd and each of them was approached by an ARVN Ranger who took the box from her and loaded it onto as truck. I turned to Major Price and said, “Why are they doing that?”  And he said, “That’s just so they can distribute it to the proper people after we go.”

After the distribution was over and all of the boxes had been loaded onto an ARVN truck, we were invited inside for an hour of chit-chat with the colonel of the ARVN Rangers for all of Vietnam with Major Price slapping him on the back and laughing, being very buddy-buddy saying, “I’m really glad I could give you these supplies; I really think you guys are great; I really think that you deserve all the help we can give you.” I said nothing during the whole time. As I luck would have it, as we left the compound in our jeep, the truck load of food and clothing pulled out in front of us.

We followed it out of the camp and back to the center of Thu Duc village where the truck pulled to stop in the middle of the black market. And as we turned the corner, I looked back over my shoulder and saw a group of black pajamaed women come running up to the boxes and start throwing the clothing in the air, searching for whatever they could find to sell. I said, “Major Price, you must see what they are doing there.” And he said, “Oh, hell, everyone in this village is an ARVN Ranger dependent. Just keep driving and shut up, Steffens.” So that clinched it for me. For the last six months in Vietnam in 1969, I directly disobeyed virtually every order the United States Army gave me.

On the surface I seemed to channel my food and clothing supplies to wherever Major Price felt they should go for his own aggrandizement. Instead, after hours and at lunch time, when most of the officers were gone from the compound, I would call the one man in Vietnam for whom I had great respect. That man was Thich Nhat Thien. ‘Thich’ is the Buddhist term for ‘venerable.’ The Venerable Nhat Thien, or TNT, was the monk that headed the Buddhist Relief Service. He was the most important Buddhist relief official in all of Vietnam. And I went with him on dozens of projects. I went with him to Hue to work with the refugees there. I saw what he did with our supplies.

For months in the early part of 1968, I had watched two 2 ½ ton trucks a day, loaded down with our scrap lumber, being driven out of the compound by a Chinese who sold it for his own profit. Every month he would throw a party for everyone in S-4 [supply section] with unlimited quantities of girls and booze. He became a very wealthy man, eventually buying up several buildings in Cholon, all because our American Army officers gave him scrap lumber under the guise of cleaning up the compound after a day’s work. They knew exactly what he was doing for them, but they were having parties at the end of the month, so what did they care? Finally, after about four months, I had convinced Colonel Beck that the wood would be much better used by refugees to build shelters and houses. And I would bring truck loads of wood, maybe on the average of a dozen trucks a week to the Venerable Nhat Thien who was directly responsible for some 300,000 refugees in the Saigon area.

One particular story I found overwhelming. Between Saigon and Bien Hoa runs a super highway that was called the Bien Hoa Highway. It had a gigantic green freeway signs over its length and looked no different from Interstate 80. It was built by American engineers to connect the South Vietnamese capitol of Saigon with what was ultimately the “American capitol” of Long Binh. About halfway to Bien Hoa from Saigon I had often taken notice of a three-story concrete building with large balconies on its outside wall and a huge swimming pool set off maybe a thousand feet from the road near a grove of trees. My immediate impression was that of a Holiday Inn.

The surrounding area was impoverished with thatched roof huts and walls pounded out of soda cans and card board boxes. In this area there were over 600 children living with their families who had no school. It was primarily a Buddhist area. In November [1969], just before I left Vietnam, the Venerable told me about a special project he had in this area and he was very excited about it.  And during my final week in Vietnam, I drove with him up to the project. Out of empty packing cases he had built two long, narrow buildings. Each building was about 250 feet long, divided inside with partitions. Three-quarters of the way up the walls were louvered windows made from packing crates and there were doors that swung on hinges and close perfectly flush with the walls of the building.   Everything except the cement floor was made from packing crates.

Inside there were long, long single desks with benches next to them and a very rude chair in from of a polished black piece of wood that served as a blackboard. At the end of the second building was a narrow chamber, perhaps three feet square with two straw mats on the floor.   Two Buddhist monks who worked with the Venerable had agreed to donate their lives to this village in return for a daily ration of rice and nothing more. The two straw mats were their beds and the room was their home. In the morning each monk took a different building and taught 150 students. In the afternoon each monk taught another 150 students. So, by the end of the day, each of the 600 children of the village got some instruction I asked the Venerable, with all the U.S. government aid earmarked for education, why couldn’t he get some for his project. And he said, “It is because we are not Catholic.”

The Venerable explained that only about 10% of the people in Vietnam then were Catholic and that might be an exaggeration. Many are token Catholics, but certainly no more than 10% espouse Catholicism.  The rest of the 90% are Buddhist with some Cao Dai, Hoa Hoa and Taoists. But mostly they are Buddhist who got virtually nothing from the South Vietnamese government, even though American tax money was intended for all the people. Because the government of South Vietnam was composed of middle-level functionaries who were originally French-trained and Catholic, only Catholic Vietnamese got the aid intended for the whole Vietnamese population.

At this point I looked out of one of the crude windows of the school building and I noted again that gigantic Holiday Inn-like building. “That’s something that has puzzled me for a couple of years, Venerable. Do you have any idea what it is? It seems so out of place.” That was the only time in Vietnam that I saw him lose control and he spat out, “That is a Catholic seminary.” And I said, “Well, the church must be doing pretty well to afford a building like that.” And he responded, “The church didn’t build it. The Vietnamese government built it. President Thieu gave them the money to build it. The building exists for 80 people. There is air conditioning in every room, a swimming pool and my people in this village must work everyday in their fields, look over their shoulders at that building and be reminded of what the South Vietnamese government’s priorities are.”

With the thought in mind, I left Vietnam the following week.

April 1974

6. The Radical

 

October, 1967. We’re going out to the airport to get on the plane to Vietnam. I’m looking at the cars on the freeway going to El Toro [Marine Air Station]. And I’m going like, ‘Well, that’s the last time you’re ever going to see a 1957  red Chevrolet with a blond riding in it. You’d better take a good look.’ I’d been in the Marine Corps for a while and at that time the Marines were surrounded in a lot of places in the DMZ [De-Militarized Zone] and getting the shit kicked out of them.

So there was not much enthusiasm for going [to Vietnam]. Of course, there was this macho ‘We’re going to fight a war; I’m going to be a hero’ thing. I ran it down all the way; I was knocking it. There was this film called Why Vietnam? They’re telling us why we’re going to Vietnam. And there were discussion periods afterwards. I was always asking these dynamite questions. I would usually get out one or two of these questions that would end the discussion. Like, I referred to the Viet Cong as the National Liberation Front, which they [Marine cadre] couldn’t understand. When I was there, the only people that defended it (even in Nam) were the lifers and even some of them didn’t defend a great deal of it. I caught a lot of support because I was more vocal than a lot of guys. I tried to get them to put ‘hippie’ on my dog tags as religion. They gave me some shit about that. That created a stir.

I was sent to Okinawa first. In training I met some guys that smoked dope. We used to get stoned every afternoon. So naturally we smoked grass on the airplane going over. We spent three days in Okinawa, got gamma- globulin shots and different papers processed. Then we left for Da Nang. At that point the whole thing became more real. The flags were at half mast. We heard a rumor that the  jet before ours had crashed or got shot down at Da Nang and that everybody was dead. And we believed it. We thought, ‘Wow, all those guys we knew… already dead.’ As we landed, we went by the morgue and you could look out the window and see all these stacks of coffins. And that was a weird scene. I could hear the artillery blowing off in the distance as I got off the plane. That was in October, 1967—before Tet.

Every guy was either in the First Marine Division or the Third Marine Division. The Third Division was along the DMZ, the border of North Vietnam. When they lined us up, every other guy was going to be in the Third; the rest would be in the First. So I got in line to be with the First because they were in Da Nang. That would be 100 miles south of the DMZ. Then somebody said, “Yeah, but the First and the Third are going to trade places because the Third’s been up there so long.” So I thought, ‘Well, you’d better get in the Third then.’ So I changed places in line.  I got in the Third and they had already stamped my papers when I heard it was a bullshit rumor and the Third wasn’t going in. But, you know, it was too late. I’m actually going to be on the border of North Vietnam and that just blew me out. I mean, before I went to Vietnam I’d read some magazines and I’d seen Vietnam on television. And I remembered using a guy’s locker in the barracks back home and he had written, ‘Gone to war, March 29, 1967.’ And I realized that the guy that wrote that was in Vietnam now and could very well be dead. And I had this weird feeling looking at all the guys around me, wondering how many of us will be dead in a month or in six months.

After Da Nang I was supposed to go to Dong Ha. We couldn’t leave for several days because Dong Ha was under such heavy artillery fire that nothing could land there. It took about a week before it was safe for a plane to go in. Even then I started trying to miss flights. I’d arrange to be taking a shit when the last call for flight blah-blah  is made. Then, you know, when the plane is off the ground, you appear. “Where’s flight such-and-such? Ah, I was taking a shit.” I mean, you can to that twice, maybe three times, but you can’t miss flights for 13 months. So I finally landed in Dong Ha. One of the first things I saw through the window of the plane was a rooster. And I thought, ‘Wow, I’m from Texas. We’ve got roosters in Texas!’ And then I thought, ‘Well, he doesn’t seem too freaked out.’ It was raining and I looked out at Vietnam for the first time and it was all mud and wet clay and oriental people.

I started asking questions. I was wondering what the sound of an incoming shell was like. Would I know how to recognize the sound and not just be standing there when it went off. Right of the bat some sergeant asks, “Can anybody type? And I’m going, “Yeah, yeah, I’m the one! Seven hundred words a minute!”  So right away I snag a typing  job in the rear at Dong Ha. I was supposed to go out to the battery and be adjusting artillery fire, but for the first six months I was in the rear at Dong Ha working as a typist, driving a truck at the motor transport, and then I did a lot of shit jobs—in fact, I burned shit. At the same time I had a lot of hassles with the Marine Corps. In the rear there are a lot of games played. Shave everyday, do this , do that. They tied to make a plastic showcase. That is, you’re not actually dodging bullets and there’s not that much work to do. So it’s a case of ‘build this tower here’ and ‘fill those sandbags,’  ‘now were going to move everything over there’—it’s just a whole madness. I got written  run up in 24 hours on Article 15’s. I beat off three of them and got a reversal on the fourth. I forgot what I was charged with. The captain just said, “Oh, you’re not worth it. Get outa here!” The very next morning I was a couple of minutes late for formation. They had dropped the earlier charge; they wrote me up for being late and fined me $74.

During this time I sent the entire company roster to a radical GI newspaper called The Bond. They nearly blew me away when they printed the letter I sent with it. Even though I didn’t sign the letter, any idiot could tell it was me. I gave them everybody’s name—it was about 56 guys from the regimental commander on down—for their mailing list. And when the next issue of The Bond appeared, here’s 56 of them for all these different people. So the major got his copy and the privates got their copy. And in that particular issue was my letter saying, “Here’s my outfit’s roster.” I thought they were incredibly stupid. I don’t think they did it on purpose, like ‘we’re going to fuck him.’ They probably got a lot of letters and they thought The Bond was so big. The day my CO left for home, as he was leaving to get on his chopper he said to me, “I know what you think of me. I know you wrote that letter. I’ve known all along.” I looked at him and in total monotone I said, “Sir, I have as much respect for you as I have for any other officer.” I had save that line for that kind of opportunity; I enjoyed the total ambiguity of it. He just looked at me with a slow burn.

I  scored my first grass the night I landed in Vietnam. After I got there, we were waiting to go inside the wire for the night and I saw these real salty looking grunts that had just come out of the field.  They looked like heads. So I walked up to them and asked, “Where can a guy get some dope around here?” They told me the Vietnamese word grass and how to do it through the kid at the wire just before dark. So just before dark, there I am out there with a  zippo lighter. I flashed with fingers how many joints I wanted for my lighter and he flashed back how many joints he’d give me for the lighter and we finally found a middle ground. I threw the lighter over the wire and he threw me the joints. I knew what to expect because some of us had smoked on the airplane flying up to Dong Ha. Vietnamese grass is the most asskicking grass in the world. Later I tried to get opium a couple of times, but they didn’t know what I was talking about. I couldn’t verbalize it [to Vietnamese]. Guys were doing a lot of weird things to get high. They would take cigarettes and soak them in Right Guard [a solvent], let them dry out and smoke them. Or, there are little plastic increments used in the charges on mortars. Guys would eat about seven of them and they’d give you a real flash. I don’t know what they are except they are little sheets of plastic that go ‘bang!’ I just smoked a hell of a lot of grass.

You could not always tell who smoked. I remember this really careful sergeant with a beautiful record who I thought was Sam  Straight right up until I went home. One night I wandered by his gun pit and there he was toking away on a big pipe of dope. Out of 56 guys, I’d say easily 40 had tried it and maybe 30 smoked it regularly. That’s well over half the battery. I knew that because I unloaded 600 joints inside of 56 guys. I sold it to them for what it cost me. It was like bringing water to the thirsty. It was nice, an easy way to get outside Vietnam, a short simple escape. You’re be totally stoned on a couple of joints and maybe a gunny would walk into the bunker and say, “What’s that funny smell?” The lifers didn’t know what grass smelled like at that time. And somebody would say, “I farted” and everyone would laugh. Or, I’d be incredibly stoned and this lieutenant would come up to me and start chewing my ass about something. I’d be so far away that finally I had to focus on where his voice was coming from. I’d look at this person and I’d think, ‘What are you? Why don’t you just go away!’ Soon he would get tired of yelling at me and walk away and all the hassling would have no effect on me. I didn’t feel bad because I got my ass chewed. We used to have a saying, ‘Die stoned, if you’re going to die, and maybe you’ll take your head with you to your next life.’

We used to smoke in the morning. We’d be standing in line before chow, before daylight, and see joints pass up and down the chow line. We’d start in the morning and just go. Guys used to brag, “47 days I’ve been high now!” or “32 days, man.” For some of them it was an ego trip. I honestly don’t think I would ever have lasted as long as I did if I didn’t have grass. Mostly we got stoned at night. Then the bunker might become a nightclub. We put up colored lights and all of a sudden you were someplace in Chicago: “Hey, buddy, you just stepped on my date’s foot there. Watch it, will ya!” And guys would pretend to be go-go dancers: “Here comes Tina from Yugoslavia. Hey, Tina! Tina!” And some guy would bounce around. Or we would be in Yankee Stadium. It’s the third inning, second out and all the guys are looking at the play going on: “Would you remove your hat, please?” and “Do you want some peanuts?” One guy would verbalize his fantasy and everybody would hook into the absurdity of it. This put a Lewis Carroll touch to the whole Vietnam thing; it made it seem not quite so absurd.

Of course, it didn’t take too long for the Marine command to catch on. I remember one day we were walking to chow and we spotted a  joint laying on the ground near the mess hall. Guys said, “Wow, what a plant!” And there was a 30 foot circle walking around it. Everybody had their own stash hidden. But the rats kept eating the stashes. I had a 20 joint stash and smoked only three of that.  Between the rats and the lifers, we had to be careful. One time I was on observation duty. I sat there with binoculars all day, looking, bored. I had just finished smoking a pipe of grass and the colonel came walking up. I immediately put the field glasses to my eyes and kept my eyes covered with them the whole time he was there except when he asked to use them. Then I stuck them in his eyes and looked away until he gave them back to me. So it became a real cat and mouse game to catch guys.

I remember one time we were going from Cam Lo to Ca Lu. We had gotten ambushed that day and there had been other real bad ambushes. I smelled dope in the air while I was waiting for the convoy to leave. Then I saw a guy a ways up in the chow truck pass a number to this other guy. I thought, ‘I think I’ll go ride in that truck up there.’ So I got out of my truck and rode in their truck and we got incredibly stoned. It was weird because it was the chow truck, stacked up with garbage cans and stuff for chow, but it also had a bunch of artillery cases with what was called ‘firecracker rounds.’ This kind of round is filled with BB pellets in the shell. When the shell hits, these huge pellets spray everywhere. The truck was stacked with cases of them. If one shell hit that truck, the whole thing, garbage cans and all, would have gone off. And we’re sitting there among the cases of these shells and garbage cans getting as stoned as we possibly can. In fact, we got hit that day. We passed vehicles that had windshields full of bullet holes and vehicles that were on fire. And we’re just sitting there… detached.

Maybe in a way it was suicidal. It’s what I think of as the ‘don’t-give-a-damn’ period in Vietnam that exists for Marines for about 10 or 11 months. There’s the ‘new-guy’ period when you first get there and don’t know what the hell’s going on. You’re asking everybody, “What’s this like? What’s that like?” You’re trying to get your feet on the ground. That period ends when you’re close to getting killed. Then you realize it could happen, but the enormity of the amount of days ahead of you is so overwhelming that you just can’t get that excited every time you go through an ambush or an artillery attack. So you enter the ‘don’t-give-a-damn’ phase when you go through the motions but you can’t really get excited about it.

Later on after I got to Khe Sanh, I was in a little makeshift shower covered with soap, and shells started coming in. I just sat down at the bottom of the shower and waited for the shelling to end. Or, another time, I was on the shitter with 102 degree temperature. I had dysentery and I just waited out the shelling, sitting there. I stayed in the field on full duty. I was told you had to have 104 degrees or better to go to the rear. I was assigned to do mathematical corrections for artillery and I made about a 60 mill error. A guy caught it before we shot the round. Normally, you can go to jail for that but they didn’t write me up because I had 102 degree fever. That was because we were really short of men at Khe Sanh. They put me on some kind of light duty. You weren’t really encouraged to think that you could survive.

So if you get through 10 or 11 months, you get to the ‘short’ period. You begin to think you might actually get through this thing alive. During an attack, the ‘new-guys’ and the ‘short-guys’ would run and get in a hole; the ‘don’t-give-a-damn-guys’ would sort of mill around. I knew a guy who used to run around taking pictures with his camera of the shells impacting. I saw these pictures later on. I knew a cook that got drunk or stoned at night and, during a mortar attack, he was running around outside the mess area with his helmet in his hands like he was going to catch the next mortar round that came in.  As they came in, he actually ran toward the whistling sound with his helmet. He didn’t get killed, but I guess he got sobered up.

It was amazing the things that go on that cause as little commotion as they do. One night at C-2 (near the DMZ) we turned a guy on to dope for the first time. He had a real bad inferiority complex, some kind of self-hatred, maybe suicidal, and he freaked out. We thought he might be fixing to freak, so we took the firing pin out of his rifle and, sure enough, he grabbed it, leveled it at us, and pulled the trigger. At the same time that the trigger clicked someone on a night mission fired his rifle and, for an instant, we thought we had gotten the rifles mixed up. Our hearts skipped a beat. He threw the rifle down and ran out of the compound and out through the wire stoned on grass at two AM. We chased him but he evaded us. So we’re out there whispering, calling him. Then we realized that we’re outside the wire and we forgot to tell the sentry  we left. So we’ve got to walk back in through the wire  without getting shot. We managed to get back in, told the CO that this guy freaked out, and that he’s out there. The listening post heard him out there thrashing around in the dark. He spent the night out there and came back in the next morning at sunrise totally unharmed. And the area was supposed to be crawling with NVA at night. The guy should have been sent to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. Instead, he was fined $100 and he lost a stripe and returned to duty right there. He never went to the rear.

In the rear I met a lot of blacks. They were very clannish, pretty much stuck together. I smoke dope with them and learned to shoot craps with them. I think I did it too much; the officers didn’t appreciate it. A lot of times they were treated as non-persons by white officers. I was vocal enough about politics that I was accepted as a kind of white radical, someone they hadn’t encountered that much. I used to do a sort of role playing trip as southern racist. Like, “all’s you want is my sisters…you don’t care about no school… you just want to drink wine… blah, blah, blah.” They could get off on this super racist trip because they knew what I really felt. Sometimes they covered for me. About this time blacks were getting involved with the Black Panthers. Some of them told me they were going to join when they got out [of the Marines].

Most whites were not political. I got a Che Guevara tattoo on my arm and I wore a Che Guevara T-shirt in Nam. Guys in the mess line would say, “Who’s that?” And I’d say, “That’s Che Guevara.” And they’d say, “Who’s he?” “Well, he used to be Minister of Defense in Cuba and then he went to Bolivia… blah, blah, blah.” It was really weird. I’d be trying to do what I thought was this heavy, profound thing and they’d have no idea what the hell I was talking about. I got really frustrated one day and I put up a picture of Ho Chi Minh on my locker. Underneath Ho Chi Minh I had written “George Washington of  Vietnam.” Then I put up a picture of LBJ, who was then president and I put under it “Wanted for Murder.” When the first sergeant saw this he had someone take my locker down to the CO’s tent. The CO put a 24-hour guard on the locker and called the CID [Criminal Investigation Division]. I guess they must have stayed up all night studying the UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] trying to decide what regulation I had violated.

I was worried. It occurred to me that I might have left some dope I forgot about in the locker. I went by the CO’s hootch and I knew the guy that was supposed to be guarding it. I said to him, “Do you mind if I pick up a couple of letters?” and he let me in to it so I could check to make sure that there was nothing there. The next day I learned they decided to rack me up: Writing Offensive Gestures. Here are guys everywhere with ‘Fuck You’ written on their flak jackets. Hell, I decided, the sky’s the limit. They tried to get me to take an Article 15: “You’re going to be in a lot of trouble if you don’t!” I thought that I had really been pushed pass the edge and felt like pushing back.

So I said, “You really want to do that? Let’s go.” The CO said, “You can have a civilian lawyer, you know.” And I said, “Fine, I’ll take one.”  “Well, you’ll have to pay for his flight over here.” And I said, “well, I’ve got $900 in the bank right now. That should pay for his ticket and we’ll talk about his fee when he gets here.” I saw this whole First Amendment trip coming down. I thought they were foolish, bothering with my fucking pictures. So, the CO said, “Who do you want for a lawyer?” My answer was, “Well, whoever the San Francisco Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union picks is okay with me,” implying that I was already getting ready for my appeal. So the CO says, “Okay, you come back tomorrow at 1300 hours and we’ll let you make a Morse call to the States to talk to a lawyer.” Afterwards all my friends are coming up to me saying, “Boy, You’ve gone too far this time. You’ve really done it.”  But by then it was too late. So I went back the next afternoon and the CO said, “Pack your gear. You’re being transferred.” They had dropped the charges.

I went from Dong Ha, which is eight miles south of the border of North Vietnam to C-2 [Charlie-two], just about a half mile from Con Thien and the North Vietnamese border. But I wasn’t a new guy. My boots were pretty well faded out by then. I was glad to get out of Dong Ha, that hole.  I had asked for a transfer to an actual firing battery that shot artillery all day long and got shot at, too. There was a lot of artillery going back and forth across the DMZ. We were just south of Con Thien [C-1]. I got hit in the arm the first day I was there.

I was putting up a volley ball net and I got very tired. I took off my helmet, my flak jacket and T-shirt. I was naked from the waist up when I heard a whistle. At almost the same moment it blew up. By the time you hear it whistling, it’s right there. There was this big explosion 50 feet away, all kinds of dust. I could see people running around, and I realized we were getting hit by artillery. I ducked down behind some boxes and I though, ‘You could be hurt and not know it.’ I’d heard of guys getting hurt and they were so excited they didn’t realize they had a leg gone. So I ran my hand over my body to make sure everything was there, and as I ran my hand along my left arm I saw blood all over my hand. I thought, ‘Wow, you got wounded.’ In the back of my mind I had been figuring, ‘What are my odds of getting killed this month?’

I used to read the casualty list in the Stars and Stripes to see if any of the Marines I went to boot camp with got hit. You could tell the extent of  the killed and wounded taken all over Vietnam by the size of the casualty lists. During Tet it went for pages and pages. Anyway , if I saw a long list in the Stars and Stripes, then I figured there was a heavier chance than usual of getting hit that week. But it really blew me away when I got hit my first day out of Dong Ha. I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve still got seven months to go.’ But I only got nicked. You had to really fuck up in my outfit to get a Purple Heart. I didn’t feel bad about that though because the same shell fucked up some guys really bad. One guy nearly lost his arm. Anyway, I had only been there a day and I had respect from everybody else in the outfit. You know, “You’re not a new guy anymore.”

 

About that time I heard guys discuss fragging. I had heard of one fragging at Cam Lo.  Some guys threw three grenades into an officer’s hootch one night. Everything got blown up; all they found were the grenade pins. So they put a guard on them and, by the time the CID got there, they were covered with rust. All the CID could do was count them. I remember a couple of guys were going to kill Lieutenant Wheeler, the transportation officer at Dong Ha. He had busted one of them who was a company clerk. He told the clerk he wanted to write to his old professor. You know, “Take a letter, Dear Prof…” And the clerk said, “What the hell does this have to do with the Marine Corps and the war? I’m not going to do this!” So Lieutenant Wheeler told him, “Well, that just cost you a stripe, Jack.” These guys wanted to take the lieutenant for a ride, pull over, break he neck, and then turn the jeep over. But he picked up their vibes and wouldn’t ride with them.

That was a time when prices were going down on people’s heads. Guys would pool their money: ‘Anybody that kills this guy collects $1500.’ A good example of the situation was Captain Stack, the CO who gave me all the shit about my pictures and wrote me up in the rear. He got transferred up to the same outfit I was with. We did about three months together. When he came up, I had been there a  month. I couldn’t believe seeing this son of a bitch and he’s my CO again. And he’s real friendly: “Well, McLane, let’s let bygones be bygones. We’re all part of the same team up here. I hope there’s no hard feelings… blah, blah, blah.” He was scared of me.

His whole attitude was totally the opposite of what it had been in the rear because he knew how vulnerable he was. When we had been in the rear together, I had gone to the corpsman saying, “You’ve got to give me some medication or do something. I’m going to kill him.” He gave me some librium and, later, he doubled the prescription. So I was very doped upon on librium all day. I didn’t get high, but it calmed me down. The corpsman wrote down exactly what I said. So they sent me to Quang Tri for a psychiatric evaluation. I told them that the whole thing—the war, that is—was a farce. That the killing was absurd.

The psychiatrist knew I was legitimate. I had been there about four months then. He said I could go home if I wanted to. But I had grown up in Texas, you know, the whole macho trip: God, Country, War. That whole scene had been laid on me. I knew when I went home everyone would ask questions: “Bob got out of the Marines early. What happened?” I saw this whole stigma on me and my family, maybe for the rest of my life. And I didn’t want that. I said, “No, I’ll go back as weird as that scene is. I’ll got back and finish it.” And I did. But I considered the whole thing a scam. So I figured out ways to deal with it to keep my sanity.

I  subscribed to Time and Newsweek while I was over there.  This captain would come up to tell me my Time had come in the mail: “Do you mind if I see your Time when you got through with it?” And I’d say, “Well, I promised it to Private Jones, you can ask him.” Then I’d tell Jones to say that he had promised it to Lance Corporal Brown: “You can ask him.” So he would have to ask six flunkies before he could get his hands on it. I did that game with him every time it came in the mail. Some Air Force captain wrote Time that “patriotism was alive and well at Con Thien.” I wrote to both Time and Newsweek that “dissent is alive and well at Dong Ha.” I guess they didn’t print it.

When the Tet Offensive [1968] started I was still at Dong Ha. We were doubling and tripling the guard and we caught a lot of incoming [artillery rounds]. Before Tet we’d catch incoming maybe once a week; then it started happening everyday. Then I was sent up to C-2. There we’d get hit from three to ten or fifteen times a day. I mean I didn’t really keep count. They’d try to hit us when they thought we were eating. We ate between 12:00 and 1:00. We’d have rockets impacting between our bunker and the mess tent. It got so you’d try to outguess them. Either you’d try to eat real early and get back to the bunker before the shelling started or you’d wait until the last possible minute before chow was secured.  It was always a guessing game.

The days you knew you had guessed wrong was when you you’re half way there and you’ve got your tray and you’d hear these shells start screaming in. I remember one time we got hit at breakfast. I ran and jumped in the trench line and I did the whole thing really nice, balancing my tray to keep my eggs. Just as I’m settled, three guys come piling in kicking mud and shit all over my eggs. It’s another day in Vietnam. I knew one guy who lost an arm during the noon shelling. It made me wonder, ‘Why do we always eat chow at the same time they shell us?’ Why couldn’t we have chow at, say, ten, two and eight at night? We could all make it through a meal in one piece.’ At other times, incoming was welcome. It meant a break from working. You could stop and go into a cool bunker, sit there maybe 10 or 15 minutes and enjoy the cool air. At C-2 we had a lot of those breaks.

 

They moved us over to Khe Sanh in May of  ’68. The siege there was over, but we didn’t know it. We were still surrounded and heavy artillery was still coming in. We used to joke about getting overrun either tonight or tomorrow night. We knew they could have taken Khe Sanh any time they wanted to. Before we got there, they had overrun the Special Forces camp about three miles away. LBJ did this whole number about holding Khe Sanh, but he had the Joint Chiefs of Staff sign a paper that they agreed that Khe Sanh would be saved. He had his out, but where was ours? Maybe on a tombstone. I really felt like a pawn. I had been reading Time and Newsweek and comparing them with the Stars and Stripes. I was also listening to Hanoi Hannah. I could make my own analysis.

At Khe Sanh we knew some of what was going on because we recognized a counter-artillery build. Between our artillery batteries in the south and their artillery to the north we were at a disadvantage. We had a range of seven miles; they had 133’s and 152’s that had a range of 17 miles. So they had the reach on us. They could sit back comfortably, maybe 15 miles into North Vietnam, and were capable of hitting us. But we weren’t capable of shooting that far. So a lot of times it was a one-way duel. Also, at Khe Sanh we were shelled from Laos. But we couldn’t shell into Laos because it was a neutral country. We had observers in Laos on a big mountain and they could see the  muzzle flashes from their guns. So the best we could do is get calls from them on the radio. We’d yell, “Shot from the rock” and we’d have about a five-second edge on getting down before it actually came in. Khe Sanh was for me sort of like the Alamo. I really felt like I was part of history, but I didn’t particularly like it.

We were just like rats. You know, we’d scurry from one place to another. We were just trying to stay alive from  day to day. The attitude of guys there was aimed at survival. You’d only move if you had to, maybe to take a shit or something. Very seldom did an hour go by that we didn’t get hit. At first we’d get hit in the daylight hours, early in the  morning until dusk. Later, we started getting hit about two AM.  We used to sleep on top of the bunkers because it was cool. And I remember one night I was just completely asleep—we worked eight hours on, eight hours off—just totally crashed. This shell came in at two in the morning; we’d never been hit in the morning. I actually woke up in a full run across the roof of the bunker. I could never get used to the insanity of it.

I remember when I first got there, the area we moved into was a mess.  We replaced another unit and the area was covered with C-ration cans. Right away the gunny says, “All right, we’re going to clean this area up! This is a Marine area…blah…blah…blah.” So we’re on trash call and I’ve got an arm load of C-ration cans and shells start coming in. The gunny says, “Just crouch down and, when it clears, finish cleaning this shit up.” And I can see myself getting killed with an arm load of fucking tin cans, risking getting killed to pick up this trash.

I knew one guy that got a psychological out. He saw Jesus one night on guard. Something like that. And he was getting out. Everybody ostracized him. I felt sorry for the guy. I think he was faking it but he did seem pretty messed up. I guess I felt like I was part of it. I knew everybody back home was watching TV, reading and talking about Khe Sanh. It  was something to tell the grand kids if I ever saw them. But Khe Sanh was strictly a survival trip. When we pulled out—I had been there 45 days—we were still getting hit every day even though the siege was officially over. It was coming in heavier before I got there and then, after I left, I heard they were taking 1150 rounds a day, which I just can’t imagine. That’s like staying in your bunker all day. And the bunker did not provide that much security. If a shell hit a bunker, it killed everybody inside.

A lot of guys had real cynical attitudes. They thought that the Marine Corps didn’t care that much. Like when I was at Dong Ha, we  sandbagged in all the trucks. Some guy wrote his uncle who was a congressman that it sure was weird that all the trucks were sandbagged but our living quarters didn’t have sandbags.  The reality was that it’s a lot easier to replace a Marine that it is a half-ton truck. So the shit hit the fan and we had to take the sandbags off the trucks and sandbag in our living quarters. Then we had to fill more sandbags for the trucks. There was a whole reversal of policy because some kid happened to have an uncle who was a congressman.  But the truth was that we were easily replaced. Cynicism led to atheism. I met more 19-year old atheists in Vietnam than I could ever meet in the States. Guys laughed at the whole ‘God and death’ trip. I’m sure they’ve got head problems now if they’re still alive.

The day before we left Khe Sanh every hole had to be filled, every bunker had to be blown. The command didn’t want anything left that the North Vietnamese could use. We joked about how they wanted to restore Khe Sanh to its natural beauty. Actually, it looked like a big city dump. They had bulldozers that just leveled everything. Three guys were killed because one of their shovels in the process of burying everything hit an unexploded shell.  They could have just left all this shit, got on trucks and got out of there. But three guys had to die because the absurdity never stops.

The day I left Khe Sanh we were lugging our gear onto the helicopters to got to the rear. There was this guy that had a Monopoly set that his mother had sent. Somehow the Monopoly set got dropped and the prop blast blew the play money, the deeds to Boardwalk and Park Place,  everything all over Khe Sanh, just scattered it beyond recovery. I still have this vision of all this phoney Parker Brothers money blowing across this half acre of ground where so many guys died. I used to wonder what North Vietnamese Intelligence thought when they picked up this money and tried to figure out what it was.

We just went down the road to the Rock Pile [an installation east of Khe Sanh]. We were getting hit a lot there, too. This was around August of ’68. Most of the guys that came from Khe Sanh were in a kind of shock fatigue.  We had a four foot wall of sandbags and a tent; that’s what we lived in. It would be raining and maybe 1:00 in the morning we’d get hit. Guys would just lay in their racks, go back to sleep. The idea was that you’d be asleep if the shell hit inside and killed you. If it hit outside, the sandbags would stop the shrapnel. The really safe thing to do was to go into a bunker that was chest deep in water. (The trench lines actually filled up with water during the monsoons.  It was safer in the water because much less of your body was exposed. That was like trying to get the  monsoon on your side, but I didn’t actually get in the water when the shells were coming in. I’d just get out of the rack and crouch down beside the bunker or trench line.

It was about this time that the command tried to set me up on a drug bust. One day the XO came up to me and said, “You’re going to the rear today. But I want you back this afternoon.” Like, I was going on a short mail run. And that was a real plum. But normally they have that to a kiss ass. So I asked myself, ‘Why me?’ But that lasted only about a minute and I didn’t think any more about it. The whole idea of going to the rear, of eating a cooked meal in the mess hall… It’s a totally different world. I had an hour to get ready; the captain gave me plenty of notice. We all had been out of grass for maybe three weeks. I went around to everybody taking orders. Guys gave me ten, twenty dollars and I took their names down. This was the Dong Ha where I had spent six months.  Here I come back   and I’m very salty.  I’d seen all this combat and the guys are going, “What’s it like out there at the Rock Pile?” Just outside of Dong Ha, on the way back, I stopped right there at the gate and I bought a fifth of Jim Beam and about 600 joints. Then we drove back out to the Rock Pile.

When I pulled into the Rock Pile they should have busted me at the gate. I’d still be in the brig. I guess they were after bigger game. They let me distribute all that stuff to the different guys who had ordered it. Then, about three AM, here were all these flashlights in our eye, everybody called out of  the tents for formation. “What the hell’s going on?” They’re having a shakedown. They caught three guys who hid their stashes in their personal gear. They all got court-martialed. They didn’t catch me because I was getting short. I was turning on so many guys that, if I wanted to get high, I could go up to any number of guys sand say, “Hey, let’s smoke some dope.” I went out and scored all this shit, so I didn’t keep any for myself. During the shakedown they searched my area three times. You are supposed to stand at attention and they ask you, for instance, “Is this your gas mask?” “Yes sir!”  And then they take it apart looking for dope. The first time I was scared because I knew that I had smoked in my area. I thought they might find a roach. The second time I was worried they might find the roach they overlooked the first time. But the third time I really got salty. They’d say, “Is this your gas mask?” and I’d say, “Is it green?”

They were really pissed because they wanted to get me. Obviously they knew where the grass came from but no one would tell where they got it. Next day the XO called a meeting in this big bunker. He said, “We know who’s smoking dope in this outfit and it’s going to stop, McLane.” Out of 56 guys he names me. Some of us thought, “Wow, we got a snitch.” Who is it? The XO left us in the bunker to hash it out and everybody agreed to give up dope. At least, that’s what he thought. But I rapped out this other line: “Boy, I’d hate to be that guy when we catch him.” In a while this guy came over asking questions like, “What do you think they’ll do to him?” I just looked hard at him and he knew that I knew.  That freaked him out even more. And when word got around, like standing in the chow line, there was five feet of space around this guy.

Being a rat is encouraged from boot camp on. That whole Marine spirit that guys signed up for out of high school never existed. The whole thing was a scam Every place I went in the Marines, you found your own clique and you protected each other. That was the reality. The snitch transferred out of there. We considered fragging him, but we couldn’t figure out a way to do it. He slept in our tent, next to people we liked. You couldn’t just throw a frag there. It was like when I saw my old DI [drill instructor] from boot camp. He didn’t recognize me.

I was on mess duty and he drove over to borrow some potatoes or something. Right away I went looking for a frag. I was going to pull the pin and put it under the seat of his jeep I was going to pay off a promise I made to quite a few guys in boot camp. The only thing that saved his life that day was the PFC riding shotgun with him. I couldn’t risk injuring that PFC. Later, after I got home, my first impulse when somebody pissed me off was to want to kill him, or at least beat him up. But then I would think, “You can’t do that! You’re back in the States. There are laws and you can go to jail.” So I would catch myself in a mild irritation with somebody I didn’t even know. And I’m thinking of  physically destroying that person. Sometimes I still feel the impulse. But I recognized where it’s coming from and I see the absurdity of it. Lots of guys still feel this way.

I took part in 13 operations when I was in Vietnam. Some engineers would drop down on a mountain and blast the top of it away. Then they’d fly in guns, lay them in, get their data organized and be in business. We were at a place called LZ Winchester for a while, about 700 meters from the DMZ. One night while we were playing hearts, a shell came in and hit 15 feet outside the bunker filling the whole place with smoke. The same officer who tried to set me up on a drug bust said, “McLane, you go make a crater analysis. Do it NOW!” A crater analysis is a risky business. A person actually goes to a shell hole, digs past the hot shrapnel and finds the fuse at the very tip of the shell. You can tell from the fuse the type of shell it is and get other data.

The NVA had all kinds of tricks. They might send another one right after. So I said, “Do you mind if I wait 10 minutes or so to see if they stop [firing]?” In a rain storm their guns would go off with the thunder so you wouldn’t hear the boom of their guns. If you heard it, it meant you had a few seconds. Like at Dong Ha you had maybe five seconds; at C-2 maybe a two second warning. It might sound like a car door slamming two blocks away.  At first you don’t hear it, but after a while you tune your ears to that sound.

Sometimes the NVA would fire a shell, wait 20 minutes, and then shoot an identical shell on the same data figuring there’s going to be a bunch of guys standing around looking at the hole made by the first shell. So when I asked to wait, he said, “No, I want it right now. Do it right now!” I knew that he would have written me up for cowardice or something if I balked. So I grabbed a helmet and a bayonet to dig the fuse out. I had to fill up my helmet with hot shrapnel that was burning my hands. Then I got the fuse out, brought it back in and gave it to him. He said, “Thanks. Good job.” I felt like I should have gotten a medal. It shows you the bad position you could be in if your CO doesn’t like you. He can actually get you killed.

On another operation we were at LZ Tuck’s Tavern (Tuck’s Tavern was the place where they recruited the first Marine). I remember these choppers would land these heavy crates of 105 mm shells. We would dismantle the crates and stack the shells. Well, one chopper flew too close to the colonel’s tent and blew it over. So the colonel closed the LZ and the chopper had to unload the crates 150 yards downhill from where we had been unloading them. We had to go down the hill and hump these 70 pound shells back up so the colonel doesn’t have to redo his tent again. The lifers wouldn’t stand up for us. They were willing to see us get screwed. So we sang the Marine Corps hymn just as mockingly as we could when we walked by the colonel’s tent. Morale was never worse. Nobody was serious about it. The Marine Corps was a joke.

We used to joke about all the bad equipment we had. I remember eating C-rations that were dated 1945. The canned food was older than I was. We had radios that didn’t work. At one point we didn’t have ponchos, so someone in  supply  got a hold of several crates of plastic raincoats made-in-Japan. These fell apart in a day. We were issued a single wool blanket.   The Army threw away a sleeping bag because it had a tear so I took it and sewed it up. Even when I was in boot camp I didn’t get any boots for the first two weeks; they didn’t have  my size.  When I got to Vietnam I didn’t get any jungle boots until after the first month I was there. I finally got some from the city dump that had been taken off a body at de-med.

Bad equipment can lead to  bad attitudes. Funny things could happen in an artillery outfit. Before a shell will explode, you have to tighten down the fuse. Otherwise it will be a dud. And guys could care less. They weren’t tightening them down. It meant that the CO would have to do spot checks and burn people for not tightening the fuses. The whole attitude was ‘go through the motions, cover your ass, and count the days.’

When I was first there [in Vietnam], I was amazed. When I did some of my radical things—like the picture of Ho Chi Minh—I thought I might face a lynch mob. I thought, ‘You’d better cool it on your rhetoric because some of these guys have been here 10 or 11 months and have had buddies killed. They might not turn on to what your saying.   So at first I threw out a few things just to get a reaction. Then I realized that nobody gave a shit. The officers might get upset, but the guys didn’t care. They were glad that I was verbalizing a lot of the idiocy, saying what I felt. I had this fantasy of  splitting  to make contact with the National Liberation Front, but that seemed pretty far out and I didn’t want to get killed before I verbalized my sympathies.

Then I went back to the rear to go home. I couldn’t believe that I actually  stood a  chance of going home alive. I went on R and R in July right before we got out of Khe Sanh but then I didn’t come out of the field until November. I had been out there for four months—it was during that time that Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were murdered. I couldn’t believe that it was really over for me. When I got back to Da Nang I tried to recount in my head what positive things had been done but I couldn’t add up anything. We killed a lot of people, we destroyed a lot of country, but I thought the whole thing was a waste.

My  family had a big welcome home party  for me. They rented a private club, bought champagne, the whole bit. I got really drunk and obnoxious and ended up sitting by myself in an alley behind the club crying. Because the first thing that hits you is, ‘God, I’m sitting here partying and there’s some guy out there who’s soaking wet right now and may not be alive in the morning.’ And, at the same time, somebody is saying, “Yeah, well, the Cardinals are playing so-and-so this weekend and I got some tickets.” It was mind-bending not just to imagine but to know that those two experiences were going on at the same time on the same planet. That’s when you really knew how unreal Vietnam was to everybody else… and how real it was to you.

April 1973

 

7. The Sham

 

October, 1967. After going through the Fort Lewis [Washington] processing, I was really tired. I’d been up for three days by the time I got to Vietnam. I hardly even remember it maybe because we came in during the night and after the long flight my reactions were dulled. Maybe it was even early morning when we flew in. It was dark, and when I looked down and off toward the coast, I could see tracer fire. When I saw that there was action going on, I was prepared for the worst. Once we landed, even though it was night, it was hot and humid. We were put on buses and shuttled over to some barracks.

So my first clear recollections of having any feel for the country came the next morning after I woke up. After roll call, I just sort of walked around and observed the ‘gook workers,’ as they were called. My first impression was ‘look at these small peculiar people.’ Their tongue fascinated me because it was soft and high-pitched, almost singing. And as I was just soaking it in, flashing on the idea that I’m supposed to go fight these people and here they are working in the camp.  I was sort of confused about having to deal with these people as my enemy. They are working around the mess hall, filling sand bags, or working at construction and odd jobs.

As soon as I got there, I tried to talk to the brigade chaplain. I told him I didn’t want anything to do with the war. And I wasn’t going to give up hope until I was actually in the field. But all I got was lip service: I couldn’t do anything until I was assigned. About a dozen of us were flown up to An Khe by helicopter, which was the big 1st Air Cav base camp. The company they assigned me to hadn’t been there for something like a year; they’d been in Quang Tri. So we arrived an An Khe and got the orientation from the battalion commander there. Then we were assigned to companies. I was assigned to a company sitting right there on a perimeter of LZ Ross, right over in the Que Song Valley. So it took me about five or six days in-country to actually get to my company—B Company, 2nd of the 12th.

There was a combat orientation. Like, we went out on a one night mock patrol outside An Khe that was supposed to be preparation for the jungle.  We actually  went outside the wire about  50 feet and everybody was paranoid as hell. Being outside of An Khe was like being next to a freeway; it was really a large base camp. We had to go out and straighten the concertina wire about a mile inside the perimeter. And all the time this guy was harping about all the great kills he had made. He was talking about it the way somebody talks about a baseball game. I was just really getting repulsed. I felt myself slipping, you know, like every turn was one step closer to being there—right where I wanted NOT to be.

It seemed like every time we moved up north everything got a little bit smaller, a little more intimate, a little less impersonal as far the size of things. When I did get to the actual company at LZ Ross, I remember I looked outside the base camp wire and seeing people working out in their fields right in front of our positions. They were cultivating their fields right up to the wire. And there was a village right next to the fields and we were aimed right towards the village. I just kept wondering how I was going to bring myself to fight this war that I really didn’t believe in. I was waiting for some act of God or something to stop it.

As soon as I got in the company at LZ Ross I went through the whole process again of trying to see the top man to say, ‘Hey, I don’t want anything to do with this infantry.’ I had a pretty good speech developed by then. I tried to appeal about how I had got fucked, that I had enlisted in MP school and thought I was going to get it  automatically. Even after I had gone through infantry AIT [Advanced Individual Training] I still thought I was going to MP school. But I had waived that when they told me I qualified for OCS [Officer Candidate School].  I remember when I did it that a guy that saw me do it laughed and I wondered why he was laughing. I had a taste of infantry training at Fort Benning—all the harassment—and found out only about 1% of the trainees go to MP school and they had prior police experience.  When I didn’t want to go to platoon sergeant school and really just dropped out they put me in a holding company until I got orders cut for the infantry in Vietnam. So I saw the  XO [Executive Officer] of my new company because the company commander was on leave. I told him, “This isn’t where my head is at. I can’t get behind it.” I told him my plight and said I didn’t want to go out to the field.

The XO told me that the company was going to make an air assault that afternoon and he just said, “No, you have to go!” So we went out to this villages and tore up some vegetable gardens supposedly looking for weapons. And then we flew back. I was just really awed at how simple the operation  was—get on helicopters, fly a few minutes, get off, search the area, and fly back. I thought, ‘Wow, nothing to this.’  But still I didn’t want any part of it. So when the company commander came back from his leave I went to see him. He was unpacking his little grip while I was talking to him and he had his back to me, which sort of pissed me off. When he turned around and saw I had a mustache, he told me to go cut it off before he’s talk to me. So I went back [to the barracks] and cut my mustache and then he caught my plea on how it was and how I didn’t want anything to do with the infantry. He told me, in essence, to shut the fuck up and get back in line. So that’s what I did, but all the same I was feeling uneasy. Pretty soon I began to get a reputation because it was quite obvious that my heart wasn’t in it. A lot of guys in the company began to have resentment and hostility toward me. And that made me even more uncomfortable.

We went out on some operations and I was in some fire fights. I saw how some of the men reacted and it really frightened me how the adrenalin would start pumping and their eyes would get all excited and fiery. The fire fights were just utter chaos and confusion with everybody firing their weapons. This really grabbed me. It was a complete turnoff because it seemed like there was no real organization. The squad leader might be next to you, but it was really a fucked up mess. We just continued to work out of the LZ [Landing Zone]. We’d spend a few nights out, come in for a few days, and then maybe go out for a week, that kind of stuff.

When we were in I made a request to see the IG [Inspector General] because I heard I had that right. I went up to the headquarters bunker and, after going through the chain of command from my squad leader to the company commander, I actually had somebody escort me up. But I wasn’t really satisfied because I only saw the IG’s representative and he assured me that if I made it through the first six months, that it was a common practice to rotate out of the field. He told me, “Just keep your nose clean and do well for the next six months.” I told him that I didn’t even like that and tried to convince him that it wasn’t my bag. He started ticking off all his great exploits, what he did by  directing  mortars and how  it was written up in Newsweek. I couldn’t communicate with the man at all. But he did give me some kind of insurance that in six months I’d have a chance to get a rear job. You know, supply.

I had been put immediately into a rifle company. Everyday was a  really  different experience. My squad leaders was a mother hen. He was an old lifer in his mid-thirties and he really did take decent care of me as far as making me feel at home. So there were all these forces saying, ‘All you need to do is cooperate. We’re all out here just to make it as easy as possible, so don’t go against the grain.’ To a certain degree I went along. I didn’t refused to go out [to the field] when the company went out. I never just sat down and said, ‘No.’ But as far as executing it to the full extent, I didn’t.

We went into free fire areas on search and destroy missions. We could shoot anything that moved. It was common practice for the zippo squads to just go up and put the torch to the huts. It would even go over the radio: “Put the Zippo to it.” I would just step back and say no. I was always able to refuse stuff like that, like dropping hand grenades down wells and shit like that. Not that I ever did it, though I wanted to get rid of the weight too. But the part that really turned me off was the jubilant hurrah. Sometimes the company commander would put out an order to go ahead and probe this or that and guys would just jump at the chance to fire their M-70’s  or their machine guns. I was paranoid that they knew I was definitely against it. Yet, I was going through the motions just to keep my ass out of a sling.

Many of the things they did really got to me, especially when they caught a Vietnamese. I never saw any torture, but I did see some brutal slapping around. Our Vietnamese interpreter and the company commander were buddy-buddy. They would hold someone, shove him around and threaten him, pull out a knife and put it under at his throat. I was close enough to see this happen. We were supposedly running into these large rice caches but, in fact, we were finding small ones, like  in large mason jars. They’d be destroyed right on the spot, scattered, thrown down a well. Water buffalo, any live stock was just destroyed.

I  remember setting up on this hill overlooking some terraced rice paddies. Below us there were maybe a dozen head of water buffalo and the company commander was talking to the first sergeant about how they would make good target practice. They were anywhere from 300 to 400 meters away, which was a good distance but definitely within the killing range. Finally  they said, “Anybody that wants target practice just go ahead.” I’d say a good half of the company went over to the side of the hill and just started plugging away at these animals. I just stood there and watched it. The animals were going back and forth, terrified, until eventually every one of them were killed. This was sort of typical of the attitude, but was on the biggest scale I’d seen. They guys were getting their rocks off, definitely. I mean, if you could burst an M-79 round off the back of a buffalo and knock it down, that was really great, wasn’t it? It was a complete turnoff to me.

I  never communicated my deeper feelings to anyone else. It never seemed like there was anybody that safe. There was a kind of philosophy that you were out there and you had to do the best you could to survive. I never found anybody to talk to out in the field. Although back in safer area I talked to guys that were holding out, guys that were ducking going out to the field. I talked to some of them about it. ‘Ducking’ is when it came to pointing a rifle, and firing it, or instead of firing up a hootch, stepping back and not doing it.  It meant being told to take point and taking a wrong turn, so you’re taken off point. I was immediately tagged as a fuck-up, which was great because I was given unimportant, stupid things to do.

 

One day I got the chance to go to the mortar platoon: “Taylor, you want to go on mortar platoon?” I go, “yeah,” because mortar platoon often times stays back  while the rest of the platoons go  out to the bush, circling around, poking in the bushes and shit. When I was in the mortar platoon I sort of got the brunt of it. I was given to this big black squad leader. He was one of the back alley boys from Detroit and he rode my ass pretty heavy. Ordinarily, guys would carry two mortar rounds, but I carried three plus a claymore [mine], stuff like that. I knew it was harassment, but for me to get out of being on the end of the rifle-carrying bit, just to be able to hang back a bit, was good for me. I really didn’t take anybody down the tubes; guys knew I wasn’t suicidal. My reason were more subtle than I showed because I was rebelling in my mind. It was easy to hang back when everybody else is excited; you’re not noticed so much. So I was tagged in a certain way by certain people. But when it came to cooperating, like to cover somebody else’s ass, of digging a fox hole or filling sand bags, clearing a field of fire, then I carried my weight and I carried it well.

Fire fights were really sporadic at LZ Ross. We’d go out for a week and nothing would happen or maybe we’d run into a sniper. Other times they  would probe the perimeter really hard and the next day we’d have to go out and get them out of the wire. But a typical outing was either walking or being  flown  maybe three or four kilometers and staying out for three or four days. Then we’d get flown back to sit on the perimeter. Sometimes we thought it was better to be out in the field because we didn’t get the harassment and bull shit that we got at Ross. Just about the worst harassment was loss of sleep since we’d have to work all day. There was always work to be done; we’d have to rebuild bunkers. Then we’d have a few hours to relax in the sun. At night around two or three o’clock there’d be a ‘stand to,’ which meant everybody would have to be up. I think the Marines had just vacated the area and they really had shitty bunkers. Everything the Marines built we had to rebuild. They’d build what looked like a  rabbit hutch. We just improved every place we went.

It seemed like there was always something about to happen. There was another LZ at the other end of the valley that was being built. I remember digging a huge ammo pit bunker for the mortar platoon and I made friends with the guys that were on the quad-50  machine gun there. We had seen them at different LZ’s in the general area. Later these guys got overrun. A satchel charge got thrown into their bunker. While I never had anything like that happen to me, my squad leader got killed right in front of me with an AK-47. We were point squad and the squad leader was being really super slow and cautious. We’d move along the rice paddies and upon approaching these tree lines, he’d sort of hang back and slowly work his way through. We started getting static from a few squads back for not moving fast enough. So the squad leader said, “Screw it!” and he just started moving out. We apparently just walked up on them [the enemy]. When I heard the fire, I dropped.  The first response is to get as close to mother nature as possible. But as I looked up, I knew something was dreadfully wrong. Then I saw a set of khakis with a Vietnamese in them  running away. He was inside the tree line but I would see him through the trees. He was maybe 100 meters away. Well, I had an expert rifle badge but I fired over his head with tracers. I think I had a tracer every other round.

I had no inclination to shoot this guy in the back who was running away from me. This is the closest I came to physically seeing the enemy and killing him, unless I inadvertently killed someone with scattered fire or dropping a  mortar round.  But some of the guys next to me saw me shoot over his head and brought it up to one of the lieutenants. The message was something like, ‘Taylor had a clear shot and he was firing over their heads’ or ‘Did you see how high he was firing?’ I returned fire; I was scared. I knew the damage had been done. So I was willing to put out fire to repulse or scare away the attacker, but I wasn’t willing to drop anybody. I don’t think they knew I was within earshot, but the lieutenant said, “Well, that’s common  for somebody when he’s new in combat.” He sort of let it go at that, but I was paranoid enough to think that now my own side was out after me. I remember when I found out that my own squad leaders was dead I was in a state of shock. It happened right at the tree line. Inside the tree line there was a hootch with a straw roof. Inside the hootch was an older woman with a young girl, holding a baby and crying, just scared shitless. I mean she was just shaking. I tried to console here but I’m sure she didn’t understand a word I was saying.

But we made contact very, very rarely. The unique situation about being with the Cav was that we were constantly moving from one LZ or another. If some other battalion started getting hit, they would single our company out of the battalion to go in. Or we went out and just probed. I can remember only one cavalry-type charge with the battalion commander on line with us. And he was a complete idiot. Usually, though, after we dropped fire, our birds would be there in two or three minutes. And they had gun ships pouring in rockets and rounds. The birds and sometimes artillery from the LZ would just work out the area. We  would  literally  make  ourselves  comfortable  and  warm up some  C-rations. Then, afterwards, we would go in and explore the damage.

 

I remember once we found a fresh grave. I was amazed that the NVA took the time to bury him with all this shit going on. Then we were doubly amazed. Here we were out in the field just grubby and funky as hell (we didn’t always get showers even when we came into the LZ) and we dug this guy up and he had on a starched fatigue uniform, clean, even in the earth you could tell he had a clean uniform on. Obviously, the NVA were getting help from the village. I don’t know whether it was willing or not.

Another time I remember going into a village and getting a haircut. I had my M-16 slung and I was walking with someone else. At that particular time we had no ARVNs around. We were only a couple of hundred yards from our wire. A short half-block away, walking in the other direction, I spot two NVA with AK-47’s slung on their shoulder. And we just looked at each other; both parties just kept walking. And these are the guys that we’re fighting. But we weren’t about to shoot it out. That was really freaky. About the same time, on another LZ some of the gung-ho guys were volunteering for what they called ‘rat patrol.’ They would go out in a jeep with what I’m pretty sure was just an M-16 mounted on a pod. They would cruise the roads at night. This was right after the rat patrol series on television. These guys wanted to go out and play ‘rat patrol.’ I asked this guy, “Why?” and he said, “Oh, it’s neat, it’s going to be all right.” So they probed with fire, stuff like that, but I never heard of them having any contact.

My first inkling of Tet I think was in November [1967]. I was with our interpreter and some other guys drinking beer in this villages near Quang Tri. It was just prior to Christmas and we were sort of getting ready to get hit. And sure enough we were. I remember distinctly on Christmas day I developed a huge cyst or boil on my shoulder blade that I attributed to my web gear, my back straps rubbing in the place where it hurt. I was able to go into the med station at Da Nang. While I was in this general purpose tent getting four shots a day to fight off the infection, my company was getting the shit mortared out of them. I was glad to be having these shots and just sitting around. I spent New Years night there and we had a big punch. I think they put in straight alcohol. It was for officers and I snuck in on it. I always tried to cover myself as well as possible. I remember once I was sent to An Khe and it was raining like hell. They wouldn’t let me in the enlisted men’s club because I wasn’t E-5, so I went to the officer’s club with my poncho on. And this captain started a conversation with me, which made me really nervous. So I finished my beer and split. There are a lot of names for it, but it was basically called a sham. Anyway, I was able to spend the Christmas holidays at the med-evac unit. The company was under all kinds of shit, but I missed it.

When I got back, the Tet Offensive was on and we were waiting to be flown out someplace. The monsoon had started and the weather was fucking up our support. Things were really starting to turn sour. The weather made me depressed and the situation was getting worse. I was just counting my days to get out. I had only been there a couple of months and I was crossing off the days on my calendar, thinking that it really hadn’t been that bad and that I’d made it that far. I realized that if we got into trouble, we did have all this air support to bail us out. But now the air support wasn’t doing that well because of the bad weather.  That really worried me.

By this time I was the RTO [Radio-Telephone Operator], so I carried the radio for the mortar platoon and I’d gotten some experience there. We were going on this long patrol outside of Hue. Instead of carrying our packs, we were supposed to take our rucksacks off their frames and leave them behind. We just took a poncho, and a poncho liner for a bed roll and all the ammo we could carry. We were also doing stuff like putting our dog tags all the way down on our boot laces. Sometimes they’d have trouble finding dog tags, but they would always find a boot.

I remember we were probing this area outside Hue. We were moving as a battalion and we got cut off. The weather was bad and we didn’t have any way to get our dead out. We had to move on, so they were buried in a mortar pit in the middle of a field. I guess it’s uncomfortable for the army to explain why they couldn’t get a body back. And I remember asking the question and getting the answer that they’d be listed as missing-in-action.

 

When we went on any operation, we were constantly warned about leaving anything behind that could be used by the enemy. This had always been part of our training. And I remember being comfortable behind a natural barricade across from a rice field during this battalion-size operations. There was an area that was cut off that was one of those extended positions in the perimeter and some guys were there either dead or wounded. Our mortar platoon had to move up there to reinforce them. My squad leader—this hard guy from Detroit—told me to volunteer to go out and bring back either the machine gun or the guys. So I figured, ‘What the shit!’  I mean that I had lots of pressure and I was scared. So they popped smoke to put up a screen of camouflage that we could move in. We had to leave out web gear and our rifles behind, to run out there and scoop up what we could and run back.

It seemed like 10 miles, but in reality it probably wasn’t more that 25 yards. The area we were in was like a fortification compared to the part that was cut off. Well, the smoke was thrown, but I don’t know if it did any good. I do remember running through the smoke, so maybe  it screened us. I didn’t really look around. They put out a lot of fire to protect us; I heard the rounds going off. I hardly even remember what I carried back. There was a dead guy out there and his M-60 machine gun. I brought back the machine gun on the first run and then another guy helped me bring back the dead guy.

I got the Bronze Star for that. I really don’t put any pride in it. The first sergeant told my squad leader that we had to go out and do it. He spent, oh, maybe one or two weeks in the field during the six months I knew him. For giving us the order to go out there he got a Silver Star. I was friends with the  company clerk who told me about it. This clerk was a small, intellectualish guy who worked himself into typing all the company garbage. Because he could type well, he had it made. He had an out. He typed out the citations and the one for the first sergeant was part of the same action. He happened to be in the field at that time. He was usually shitting in his pants just to be there.

At Tet everybody was in the field—even the battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel, a short, fat, little guy. We had been completely cut off and we couldn’t get any air support. We had buried our dead, we were leaving weapons and ammo we couldn’t carry (which is ordinarily never done) and we turned off our radios. And I don’t mean down, I mean OFF! So, in essence, we were a lost battalion, cut off from all communication. We were out in the plains west of Hue someplace in a large rice paddy area. There was an enemy battalion supposedly encircling us. We were taking fire from 360 degrees. They were probably  monitoring us and, of course, they were very much feared.

We were there in equal numbers, it seemed. It was the only time we were on an equal footing in the field. So the radios were turned off for security and we were going to move out single file—that’s a long file, a battalion. I was somewhere in the middle and it seemed like I had to wait 15 minutes before it was my turn to get up and go. And I remember this full blooded native American; I think he was a Navajo. He led us out and got a Silver Star for doing it. There was no moon and it was pitch black. We walked single file trying not to break contact with each other. All you could see were vague silhouettes. We walked through a river up to our necks, but nobody complained.

I was just utterly amazed how I heard relatively little noise because everybody was really scared. Tired too, because we had been under siege all that day plus the previous day. So we walked all night long, almost walking in our sleep, guys running into each other, tripping. I seemed like we literally marched until dawn—about five or six hours (I don’t know the exact time). Finally, we came to the bottom of this hill and on top we could see an LZ that had actually been an old French base with bunkers, a well-constructed miniature fort. We had to stop over night half way up, but we finally walked our way out of the trap.

During that time there were constant personnel changes; guys that were riflemen became squad leaders and squad leaders became platoon sergeants. I was told: “You will be forward observer for mortar platoon, okay.” And I thought, ‘Well, forward observer isn’t that bad.’ They went out with a radio operator to some spot where they could observe where rounds were hitting. Usually they went only a short distance outside the perimeter to do this. It was a cool situation, like pulling  guard duty when we had a listening post or an observation post at night. Especially when the weather was foul, you could pull  it right next to the perimeter, have a radio and share somebody’s hole or hootch. And if we did go out on line, we went out maybe 10 or 15 feet up to 20 or 30 yards, though we were supposed to go out as much as 100 or 200 meters. Go that far? That was bullshit. Nobody went that far. I think that even the company commander knew nobody went out that far. There was a lot of game-playing and I just played my game a little bit more.

After the long march that night, the next morning we had a hot meal flown in to us. We were in relative safety. Everybody was just physically and mentally exhausted. We were looking around at the lay of the land down below us, maybe a thousand feet down. So we had a good vantage point. I started being broken in by the old forward observer who was a Spec/4  like myself. He was getting ready to rotate and he was really happy and enthusiastic to teach me the job. And I was really beat, dead tired.

He was going over some points on the map and with the binoculars so I would be able to identify features and make sure exactly where they were, grids and everything. But I didn’t know anything about mortars. None of my training was in the mortar platoon. I used to drop around some of the piss tubes but as far as graphing, the technical side that would make me a forward observer—that part was unreal. So this guy is showing me the features, pointing out a tree line, and at the same time we saw smoke come up from it. He says, “Now, see, that’s a mortar down there.” We thought that maybe it was a quarter mile straight line distance down to it; it was really close. They guy said that when the mortar went off  it was like seeing a radiator get pissed on because you could see this steam come up. It was cold and rainy as we saw these white puffs and heard this THUMP! THUMP! He was saying, “Where do you think it is?” We were just talking about it, and a round landed right behind us. They were mortaring us.

As the rounds started hitting, we could see where they were coming from. Some ARVNs that were with us had set up and they had an old .30 caliber machine gun.  They just poured all kinds of lead into the area. The NVA had cracked off maybe a dozen rounds of mortar fire and that was it. Our two machine guns zeroed right in and that was the end of it. We were back in relative safety. The band aids [medics] were taking care of the dead and wounded, doing what little first aid they could do. I remembered that I had a sharp sting in my ass. There was a little shock from the sting but I was all right. So as the medic was making his rounds  after the seriously wounded men were gone, I went up to him.  “Hey, doc, my butt hurts.” I pulled down my pants and he goes, “Yep, that’s a heart all right.” The wound was about the size that a BB would make. So I go, “Whoopie, I’m getting the fuck out of here.”

As I pulled up my pants, the doc went up to the officer in charge and said, “Hey, Taylor’s hit.” “Oh, yeah? Where?” And I’m walking around, eating and stuff. They wouldn’t call in a  med-evac for me because there were too many things happening and I couldn’t demand it either, for obvious reasons. We were down the mountain a ways and there was a log bird [logistics helicopter] flying in log to the top. The officer told me that no more birds were scheduled where we were. But I said, “Wow, I’d sure like to get in and have this tended to.”  He said, “Well, there’s another bird due up there any minute. I don’t know how far it is but it’s a pretty good hike up to the top.” So I said, “I’d like to try to make it.” He looked at me funny, “Well, if you want to.” So I dropped all my shit and ran up the hill and caught the bird. And I remember coming off that hill. It was a really nice feeling flying out of there.

 

I had decided to intentionally set myself with a sham just as long as possible. So I went into the battalion aid station. I don’t think they even gave me a shot of penicillin. The medic just looked at it and put a band aid on it, literally. He wasn’t going to probe my cheek for a little piece of lead. I took a warm shower and slept. I was really glad to lay down next to the aid station on an old air mattress with a poncho over me. Being at the med station was just like being in heaven.

Then I ran into my buddies that were on the quad-50’s at the LZ down from LZ Ross. I think it was LZ Leslie. One guy in particular I liked, but I felt peculiar about him. When they were overrun at the LZ, it was his quad-50 that saved what was left of his unit. He was in the saddle in this little knoll and the NVA couldn’t get to him he told me that he literally melted down the barrels of the quad-50 pumping so many round into them. Here was a guy I could communicate with and yet he was literally killing by the tens with his quad-50. Yet, I sort of justified it, because when you are overrun it’s either you or them. Him and his buddies had a nice general purpose tent set up with cots and everything. I visited them because they were only a couple of hundred yards away from our aid station.  They said, “Why don’t you stay here with us for a while.” And I go, “What?”  They said, “Yeah, you can take Watchamacallit’s bunk.” So I hid out with those guys for a week or so until I accidentally ran into the company XO.

The XO had come into the base camp on some kind of official business and he saw me” “Taylor! There you  are. What are you doing here?” I told him I was at the aid station. I had been so desperate to get my mail that I chanced every once in a while going down the company log next to the aid station. I’d pick up my mail and retreat back to my buddies in their general purpose tent and stay there. As a matter of fact, I ate in their mess hall, I showered there, and I got stoned with them. They had a deuce and a half with a quad-50 and they would go down to the village. They’d say, “Do you want to ride along?” At first I said no, but after a week of hanging around their tent I began riding on the back of their truck. They were just going to town to buy some dope. Then I ran into the XO. He gave me an ultimatum: “You got exactly five minutes to get your shit up on that log pad and go out to the company.”

So I went back to the company. It was fairly cool. I thought there was going to be repercussions, an article 15 or something, but there was so much chaos that nothing came of it. I found out later that there were guys that were hanging out at the base camp for months. The MP’s would get together and have sweeps, pulling guys out of every kind of hiding place. They would literally hide out for months until they could turn up in time to leave for home. I’m sure that some of them got caught and ended up in the stockade. Apparently, the risk was worth it.

When I rejoined the company they were in the suburbs of Hue. This was a completely new environment for me because it was a kind of suburbia, not like you’d find in the States, but a suburbia for Vietnam, stucco houses with tile roofs. They had dirt floors and no windows, but lots of nice green shrubbery. They even had cats. I realized they had their own little community here and we were sort of milling through it. I remember this one guy; he later went on to the new Echo Company, which was like a battalion recon company. He was digging this whole scene. As we were going  through we were supposed to stop any  military age male, check out his ID, question him. And we saw this older man break away and start to run.

And this guy yelled something like laudez—come here—maybe it’s French. [lai de  means ‘come here’ in Vietnamese]. Then he just dropped him right there with a shot through the head. When he went up and rolled him over, God, I don’t know how many hundreds of piastre bills he had on him. So he just picked them up and stuck them in his pockets. Nothing was made of it. That really bothered me. When I casually talked about it with some of the guys I found out that, back in Que Song. This guy and my squad leader had shot this Vietnamese right off his chair as he sat by his hootch. They were just plinking; zeroing their rifles was the excuse. So I decided not to bring anything up about the money. I just wanted to cover my ass. I was depending on these guys to keep me alive. I was scared enough. I didn’t want to have to worry about them.

We were sitting outside Hue when we heard that the North Vietnamese flag was flying at Hue. And somehow I just couldn’t believe it. We just kept moving. There was never any kind of monotony, though it was monotonous every time we stopped someplace to set up a perimeter, dig in, set up trip flares and claymores, protection for ourselves. We were always in a different place picking up a different kind of mood or atmosphere. Some perimeters had fire fights right down the road and there were dead bodies—Vietnamese and American.

I remember casually waiting for the log bird to come into this suburban area. We had our dead right there and they weren’t even in body bags or anything like that. They were just laying out with ponchos over them. I was really struck by the scene.  Guys sitting down and cooking up C-rations and what not. I hadn’t eaten in a while and I was hungry. So here I am standing next to these guys who were alive a few hours before and I’m eating chow, waiting for the bird to come in. When it came in, they were loaded up. These were guys I knew, though I didn’t know them well. I mean they were in my company. And I had come close to getting wiped out,  actually feeling and being prepared and still riding it out thinking, ‘I know it can happen to me, but I don’t think that it will.’ I wouldn’t let myself analyze it; my trust was not enough to let my intellect get into it. I had just enough faith that I attended services by the chaplain on the ammo boxes out in the field. I just kept up the facade.

We were constantly getting replacements. By this time there was enough turnover in the company that I was looked upon as one of the old timers. So guys asking me about stuff and it was really weird. I could begin to see the whole cycle. I didn’t feel myself in a place of seniority, but I was. This was a time when Khe Sanh was underway [February-March 1968] and so we packed up and they flew us further up north. They put us in the foothills near Khe Sanh. We could actually look down on it. And I  remember seeing the planes  come down , barely touch down,  push out their cargo and then just keep going.

We were getting artillery from North Vietnam. Up north I remember being on patrols and being dug in really deep, like six feet or so because we were getting this artillery. It was a new experience for us. Mortars were no sweat compared to artillery, which sounds like a freight train coming in sideways. With a mortar round you just sort of hear a little scream and an explosion, but with artillery you feel this rush of air and a surge. And when it hits, the ground just trembles. It was different from anything I had experienced.

Our stay up north wasn’t too long.  They moved us south to LZ Lacy I think it was, not too far from the National Vietnamese Forest. It had huge trees and jungle canopy. It was lush and mountainous. It was surprising how beautiful the country was. We were put on LZ’s there and I remember for about a month straight we’d have contact every day. We get sniped at during the day so we were careful to stay off the trails. At night we would be probed. They [the enemy] would take our claymores away from us at night. Guys would go out the next morning to bring in their claymores and they’d be gone.

There were a lot of new guys in the company and they’d be falling asleep. By this time I was carrying the radio full time and I’d be calling in sit reps [situation reports]. I’d go out and kick guys in the foot to wake them up although I was just as guilty of sleeping on guard duty when we were at LZ Ross. I’d go out and sack out on the ammo boxes and when somebody called in for a sit rep, the radio would wake me up and I’d answer it.  But that’s just how tired you get sometimes, so tired you didn’t give a damn. So I never really got pissed off at them. When you first get in country you’re super scared and then, after a while, you know you’re going to be in it for a while, so you take a more relaxed posture. But then,  as you begin to think that you’re going to make it, that you have the potential to survive, you start tightening up again. Especially the guys that had literally four or five days left in-country before they’d be sent out. Their assholes were really tight.

After we got moved to the National Forest, I remember one particular incident. We were walking in a file. We’d been working in one direction for a time. Everyday we’d get hit, some kind of firing. So our progress would be super slow. Maybe the whole company would move a kilometer a day. We were outskirting the trail when the moving was easy. Every once in a while we would cross the main trail. It was a well-used trail way inside the forest, so we’d see signs of their movement. We saw flashlights at night and stuff like that.

So one day the guy in front of me had his helmet creased by a small rocket. It blew up right in front of  me. We could have been badly hurt, but we were lucky. If you got hit lightly, say just a small piece of shrapnel in a limb, something like that, then that was beautiful.  It meant that you could get the hell out of there. Everybody would yell, “Hey, so-and-so is on his way to Japan.” The med-evac bird would come in and his friends would wish him well. So this guy with the crease in his helmet was going to take it back to the world as proof of his good luck. But there were all kinds of stupid mishaps, too. One day some guy riding in a helicopter was scout dogging it in front of us and he dropped a white phosphorus grenade on us. A couple of guys got hurt from that.

Also, I remember a really unusual situation. As usual, I was looking for any chance to get out of the field. And I knew this guy named John. I had met him at the battalion aid station. He was an epileptic. He had a fit while he was digging a hole and I had gone over to check him out, make sure he was breathing, just try to console him. He was sort of a small, withdrawn guy but he really seemed to stick out. He didn’t carry himself like he had many smarts.  The medic had said, “Yeah, he’s okay. No sweat.”

Later, when I saw him back at the company, he was carrying an M-79. He was creating all kinds of static for himself and when a squad leader challenged him, he snapped his grenade launcher shut, aimed it at him, and told him to fuck off. So he got sent back for some kind of court-martial. I told him, “Hey, John, if you need a character witness, give me a call.” Sure as shit, a week later I got to hang back a couple of days when the company got flown out. I appeared at his court-martial for about ten minutes. The board was in this tent. I went in and told them my impressions of how John  had a hard way to go. It seemed like they were buying it; it seemed like they were going to give him a general discharge. But instead they kept him working as a permanent KP around the camp until his rotation date came. I came back a month later, saw him and said,”John, why aren’t you out of here?” And he said, “Aw, they’re just fucking me over.”

When I think of other individuals, I think of Lieutenant Draper. His whole life’s aspiration was to become a general. But, as a second lieutenant in the infantry, he had a way to go. We had been wandering around in these hills for a solid month, getting picked at and picked at, losing men. It wasn’t anything like Tet but a couple of guys dying every week adds up. There was this slow turnover. And I remember being back at the supply tend. This new Echo Company was starting and I was applying for supply clerk. I didn’t miss a punch. I tried to get out of the field at every chance. And I picked up on this conversation that Lieutenant Draper wanted to go back up into the mountains because there were a lot of medals to be won up there. That just hit me really hard. But not all the lieutenants were like him. I remember another lieutenant who came in. He was just like other guys getting off the chopper in the field.  You could easily tell they were in shock. They had hit the end of the line; this was it.  So this one lieutenant shot himself with an M-16 in the foot.

Then my R & R notice came through. I’d been in-country seven or eight months and now I was going to Hawaii.  I was going with a girl and I really wanted to get home because I felt it was either now or never. Married men traditionally went to Hawaii and that was my first choice and I got it. On my way I passed through An Khe and bought myself a shark skin suit. The tailor at the PX was a civilian and he had a whole rack of unclaimed suits that had been ordered but that for obvious reasons couldn’t be picked up. One of them fit me to a tee, except for the length (which I had altered).  When I got to Hawaii, I just went into the PX there and bought what I needed to go with it: Samsonite suitcase, white shirt and tie. I had a good haircut that wasn’t especially military and a good tan.

I went up and bought my airline ticket for San Francisco. As I’m paying the guy in new 20 dollar bills, my R & R money, he said, “Just recently released from the Army, Mr. Taylor?” And I said, “Well, no. It’s been quite some time. Why do you ask?”  He said: “Well, this is the way we’ve been able to catch some guys in the Army on R & R that go AWOL from here.” And, trying to stay as cool as possible, I said, “Huh, hmm.”

There was a luggage inspection on leaving Hawaii. I was in my shark skin suit (fit me to a tee), and I opened my suitcase and here’s a pair of jungle fatigues and my jungle boots. And the girl just looked at me and gave me a real cunning smile and said thank you very politely.  I closed my bag up and locked it. I’m really sweating. There’s MPs walking all over the place. I really didn’t think I was going to make it home until the plane touched down in San Francisco. I remember this was so striking because I had been away from my home for less than eight months. And we flew over the San Francisco peninsula, where there is all this affluence, all these swimming pools. I really marveled as I looked down on the runway. I couldn’t see any potholes from bombing. I was just amazed. When I arrived, I called my girl and she came over and picked me up.

When I flew back to Vietnam seven days later, the whole sickening feeling of returning came back. Here I had been home. It was really a traumatic experience having to return. Yet my philosophy was that I had so much invested that I didn’t want to get fucked up with jail and an extended term of service. When I got back to Vietnam, I began working my way back. In Cam Ranh Bay I  marveled at seeing the fiber-glass water ski boats and shit like that there. And then, just as surely, I worked my way back up into the woods. Every time I landed at an LZ, it would be a little smaller, a little dirtier, with a little bit more armament showing, a little bit more muscle. Eventually I ended up at my last stop, my company’s base camp, where we got our log [supplies].

 

I knew a band aid who had worked his way into the aid station there. He invited me to stay in his hootch the night I arrived rather than scoot over to the company tent and maybe pull guard or something like that. So I just hid out with him. And I had a terrible nightmare and scraped my knuckles up against the bunker walls where I was sleeping and drew blood. I thought, ‘I’m really deranged. I’m not going back into that shit!’ And then another thing happened: I sleep walk and I did then, too. I actually walked into the wire in front of our position. I  woke up as the wire was pricking me.

I told this story to the shrink and later saw his report. He said I was just going thought anxiety—obviously!—and that it was very typical for returning R & R’s and that I would get over it. He wrote it up in two or three pages of bullshit, which sent me back to my company. He told me, “Now go to your tent and the sergeant will call you when you’re helicopter is here!” So I took the last cot at the end of the tent. I stayed there for about a week waiting for the sergeant to call me, but I was never called. Finally the shrink spotted me in the chow line and said, “Taylor, what are you still doing here?” And I said, “Oh, I’m waiting for my bird.” So he told me, “You’d better get the hell out of here.” And I did, but I took my time getting back to the company. I was becoming really proficient at knowing how to  stay away. I came back about two weeks after the people in R & R  that I left with. And everybody goes, “About time! Did you go home? We knew you’d figure out a way.” So everything worked out okay.

It was late July [1968]. (I was due to get out on the 27th of October.) We had a new lieutenant at that time. He had been to Ranger School and he was really fresh and new. I told him that somebody had taken over my position on the radio. I said, “Look, my job’s carrying the radio.” This lieutenant turned out to be a big candy ass and I talked him out of all kinds of shit. I remember one incident when we were told to go down this hillside and the bushes were still shaking where they [the enemy] ran down. The lieutenant said, “Come on! Let’s go!” and I said, “Just a second. Let’s talk about this.” He was really gung-ho and I sort of mellowed him out.

I was really kind of proud because I was carrying the radio and I was able to receive messages and interpret them   my own language to the lieutenant. That was a pretty powerful position even if it was at the lower end of the scale.  I was able to give the message as I heard it. I didn’t contradict it, but I would sure lighten it up. Usually the lieutenant took the message directly but I got my chance when the captain would say, “Check that out,” or “Look at this.” Then I’d sort of mild it out and smooth it over  so that we didn’t carry it out to the fullest extent. I think that was part of the game that was generally being played and I was just happy to be able to add to it. I didn’t change the course of history much.

It so happened that I was eligible for an in-country R & R, so I went to China Beach right there on the South China Sea. We watched movies, went to the club and drank and just relaxed with nice clean sheets. It was a first-rate hotel, really great. And I extended that by an extra day. And when I came back to the company I got my ass chewed.

While I was at China Beach, I went into Da Nang. I took it upon myself to tour the barracks of the  other troops to see how they were living. Lots of people had their stereo tape recorders and what not. I walked into this one black barracks and felt some racial overtones; I could tell there was some black/white thing happening there. I could see in the rear racism was being perpetuated, but out in the field it didn’t exist. I had different races, black and Chicano, above and below me in rank. We had every breed of person. And in the field there was a real closeness that superseded any racial attitude. I never saw any overt acts out in the field. I remember sharing poncho liners with my black squad leader or having three guys of different races sleeping head to toe on air mattresses in an 18 inch fox hole. We were just people trying to survive. Some people enjoyed the mixture. But when I went through Da Nang I really felt the race thing.

Pretty soon I was getting short. I really started to get nervous and everything. I was still out in the field, still carrying heavy packs, roughing it.  And I developed a case of hemorrhoids. And I thought, ‘Ah, this might be my answer.’ I went to the med station. I remember this Spec/5 dealing with me after the doctor said, “Okay, go over there.” The Spec/5 was breaking in a bunch of new medics. So he had me lean up against the side of the GP tent while four or five of the medics observed. I spread my cheeks and he took a rubber gloved finger and literally pushed the hemorrhoids back up in  me. Then he said, “Okay, you’re fine. Go back to your unit.” I had really lost out because when I discovered these hemorrhoids on my in-country R & R , other medics that I talked to told me, “That’s great! You’re as good as out.” So I was sent right back to the field again.

After another bowel movement, the hemorrhoids recurred. When I noticed them, they seemed even bigger. And I thought, ‘Well, they’re not going to screw me over and push them back up and send me back out again!’ Instead of going to the company aid station, I went to the battalion aid station where the big med-evacs come in. They actually had operating tables instead of band aid treatment. By this time I had about three months until I could go home. I thought, ‘This is my key and I’m going to use it.’

I  told the doctor there that I had recurring problems over and over again, of course, exaggerating it. So they sent me to Da Nang, to the 50th Convalescent Hospital. When I got there they put me on sitz bath treatments. They wanted to try to shrink them away. So I would prepare the bath, go through all the steps, and then not do it. The doctor kept looking and finally he said, “Well, I’m going to have to operate.” I didn’t realize the pain that would be involved. I’m not a masochist, but I preferred the pain to being out in the field and taking my chances at playing army.

After the surgery, I got sent to a convalescent center at Cam Ranh Bay. It was a really  nice existence. The barracks were a few feet off the beach and I went swimming every day. You get reevaluated every two or three days and it was obvious I was getting better, though I wasn’t completely healed. Then I ran into a friend of mine. Tom Murphy, who lived a block away from my home [in the States]. He was in convalescence for stepping on a land mine. He suggested that I do anything I could to get a job there in the convalescent center. He really encouraged me. I don’t think I could have done it without his advice.

I went up to the first sergeant at the headquarters company and told him my predicament. He said, “Fine. You have to check with the head nurse.” He was a major, a really nice man. I told him I was in the infantry, that I’d been in the field for 10 months, and that I had only a couple of months to go and that I’d do anything not to go back up north. I told him I had this job from the first sergeant and all I needed was his approval. He signed it.  He took my records, put them on his desk and said, “Don’t worry about it.” I will never forget  the glee that went through my  whole body when he said, “When do you want to leave?” And he literally wrote down in my file the day I would get sent home.

I stayed there at Cam Ranh Bay, living the life of Reilly, swimming, nightclubbing, watching movies. I was still apprehensive that maybe this was a dream, that it wouldn’t last. But I rode out the sham to the end. When I had maybe a week left, I had to go back up north to my company to process out. Talk about being scared—just the trip north, riding all these different conveyances, to get these papers signed, and then processing through (They had a change over of MPC and I was delayed by that).

I was sure that I was going to get it at the end. I didn’t witness any action directly, but the company was still going from place to place. And I remember collecting my medals. This supply clerk was going through this desk, looking for these stupid medals for me: “Just a second, I think I got a Purple Heart left.”  Riding out of there was really a good feeling. I think I stayed awake three or four days and then, after I got home, I stayed awake another day or two.

It was an anti-climactic ending because I still had another year to do in the Army. It was a great relief and cause for rejoicing that I returned safe and sound. I was very much in love with life. I weighed out how really lucky I was. More than once I had AK47 rounds bursting near my head and rocket exploding right in front of me and men dying next to me. At the time I partially justified our being there. But I couldn’t see any significant ground being taken. We were jumping from place to place, getting in skirmishes, losing men and then moving on. When I think back on it, I just get more bitter, more resentful of why we even took part in it, how we were lied to.

My attitude toward the Army is resentment, anger, frustration, hatred. I know that 90% of what I’ve seen of stateside duty is a complete waste. And when I saw the Army at its best, doing a job, how wasteful it was in resources and manpower. I was lucky enough to go through it without losing life or limb. My own selfish interests were the only thing that really kept Number One alive. The instinct to survive paid off. I never tried to explain it to anyone in depth. I remember reflecting on what happened to the guys I went through it with and coming to the general conclusion that, well, there’s no sense in even trying to convey the message. The feeling that accompanied us just can’t be relived by being told.

April 1973

 

8. Booby -Trapper

 

March, 1968. When I finally realized that I was going to Vietnam, my  motivation was to try and get promoted.  Because if you’re a private, they’ll  stick you in  all the worst places and tell you where  to go and what to do. Of course, its easier to get rank when people are getting wounded.  But anyway, I put up a good front to get sergeant. They gave me sergeant a couple of months after I got to Vietnam.

I was in D Company, 5th Battalion of the 199th Light Infantry [Brigade]. We weren’t in as bad a position as some airborne people or Marines, but we were definitely right out there in the action. Most of our maneuvers were very massive operations. Out in the jungle we operated at battalion strength—four squads eleven men to a squad makes a platoon of, say, 45 men. There’s usually four platoons to a company—three infantry and a mortar platoon. There’s four or five companies to a battalion. That gives you an idea of the number of troops spread out on these giant sweeps. Especially for fighting guerrilla warfare, it was amazing how ignorant we were.

We would be spread out on these giant sweeps that were just literally insane. They didn’t make any sense at all. You cannot walk 1,500 men through the jungle. You are literally cutting your way through it at all times. If you ever found a trail you couldn’t use it because it would be booby-trapped. Each platoon would be going along in two lines, essentially 20 men single file about ten yards apart. Each company is broken down into these single file spreads. We would see the other companies, but we wouldn’t be camped with them. I remember one 10-day stretch. Three people were killed and about 15 wounded by booby-traps. We never saw anybody. It was ridiculous. And that kind of thing creates a powerful level of paranoia.

I remember our first mission. We were out 17 days before they got a change of clothes out to us. We were just walking through the jungle. We would never see anything because, when you have that many men, you have to bring in supplies by helicopter every night. So the enemy, who is quietly in the jungle, hears these thousands of people thrashing and chopping their way through it. The enemy  always knows when you’re coming. If  they want to be there when you come, they will; if they don’t, they’ll be gone. You could literally walk right over [empty] battalion bunkers, go right on by and not even know it. So that was the first thing that was absurd. There was no way we were ready for that.

I was about three feet away from it when I saw my first bunker. I was  in the middle of my platoon. We had already walked through this base camp and I saw this hole about one and a half or two inches in diameter in among the bushes. A lot of bunkers are very old, made maybe in the 1950s  when the Vietnamese were fighting the French. They had hardened, mud-caked roofs covered with vegetation. When your chopping your way through the jungle you just don’t see them. Whenever we did take fire from them we were never ready for it. The fire just broke out.

The psychological tension made a lot of people shoot themselves. I got real close to it myself one day. I remember a friend of mine who shot himself when he was squad leader. He decided to try it by inspecting one of his men’s rifles. It wasn’t something that came up in daily conversation, but in our company between 10 and 20 people had shot themselves.  If  it didn’t happen in your platoon, it was difficult to hear about. If they thought you did it on purpose, they would court-martial you. They would certainly try to hang you for it. So it was talked about [in the platoon]. People were prepared to go to extremes. They would tell stories about the guy who didn’t aim right and shot himself in the foot. Generally, people would try to aim between the bones.

I remember when we got a new captain.  This was at a time when we were finding a lot of booby-traps. We had been out all day in these swamps and it was getting dark. Everybody—the officers, the sergeants— had tried to get the captain to stop. We were supposed to reach a certain place that day and we hadn’t reached it because the booby-traps had put us behind schedule. But the captain wouldn’t let us stop before it got dark. I was thinking that it was really stupid. At night you can’t see in the jungle, so you walk by feel. We had pulled ambushes at night, so we knew that silence is the golden rule. It is really amazing what you can hear at night. We just felt much more vulnerable because of this captain’s decision. That was our first mistake—never walk in the jungle past dark.

The second mistake was to never have a helicopter land at night. After we finally got to where we were going, the captain had us set up our perimeter and dig foxholes. It was a good thing that we did it. About 8:30 this helicopter comes in to bring us food and ammunition. But it couldn’t find the landing zone in the dark, so the pilot turns on his spotlight and he landed right in the middle of our perimeter. Usually, unless a helicopter has to land for wounded, you try not to have it land inside the perimeter.  And, if he has to land, you absolutely never turn on the spotlight. The enemy is always out there. You can’t see him, but he sees you and the direction you’re moving. When the pilot turned on the light, I am sure the enemy  shot their azimuths and with their compasses zeroed right in on our perimeter. Our perimeter was not big, maybe about 60 meters across. Thirty-five mortar rounds came in that night—all landing right inside the perimeter. Fortunately, we didn’t suffer  too many casualties. But we pinpointed our own position. Most privates would have known better than to do what the captain did. It was just that kind of ignorance that was common over there. Eventually, that was what finally brought us to changing our tactics.

It happened in September, of maybe October, of 1968. They had moved us north of  Saigon about a hundred miles until we were about six miles from Cambodia, right next to the border. That’s where we sustained a lot of booby-trap casualties. After a while we wised up and formed small ambush patrols. A lieutenant would be in charge of one, a platoon sergeant in charge of another; squad leaders would be in charge of the other two. It was a long  time before I got to be squad leader; people had to rotate out or get wounded. I finally did get to the point where the lieutenant or platoon sergeant were not with my group. We would usually have a machine gunner, somebody with a grenade launcher, everybody else with rifles and as much ammunition as we could carry. We usually had an infra-red scope for mounting on rifles to see at night. We would carry five days supply of foot and quinine tablets for purify water. We would be out for five days and five nights. We wouldn’t have a resupply helicopter come in and give out position away. When we went out we kept moving. We moved during the twilight of the evening, just at dusk. We moved, watching carefully, from where we’d hidden all day to place where we would spend the night on ambush.

That’s where  the anti-war movement  really became effective. As long as there wasn’t a lieutenant or a platoon sergeant there, and there wasn’t anyone coming out to meet you during the five days you were out there, if had the courage you could call in false radio reports on your position. This frequently happened. You weren’t where you said you were. You’d stay in a more secure area and pull guard and call in radio reports that you didn’t see anything. But there were problems with this. I talked to this friend of mine the day after we pulled this ambush near Saigon. ‘He said that five or six heavily armed men walked through his ambush that night. Two of them had mortar launchers. Nobody  moves at night except the enemy and that’s that truth. He was very much against the war and he said he thought of not having his men open up on them. But the Vietnamese were on their way to Saigon and, if he didn’t kill them, then they would kill people. I remember feeling strange the next day after the conversation because it was so true.

Once you got there, you saw that the South Vietnamese weren’t so anxious to fight. It’s amazing what went on in their army. I guess they weren’t disciplined or something. One day we were under fire and they command called in this South Vietnamese unit to reinforce us. We were already in the ‘mop up’ stage. Helicopters from our unit went over to their base, picked them up, and were going to fly them in to reinforce us. There was still some pretty heavy firing going on. The helicopters came flying into this field where there was all this firing. It touches down for about three seconds. They had six men to unload quick because on the ground these helicopters are sitting ducks. Maybe 40% of these South Vietnamese would just sit in the helicopters. They wouldn’t jump off. Then the helicopter just takes off.

I remember another incident with the South Vietnamese.  We found out about this after the fact. We got up one morning about six o’clock and moved out. We were supposed to reinforce this bridge that had been blown up the night before. The bridge was maybe 30 or 40 feet across a canal that ran through this little village. It was about 20 feet wide, so one big truck could go across in one direction, but not two trucks at the same time. There were two bunkers at each end of the bridge at the corners.  It was a strategic location because it was on a supply route for units out of the bush. The South Vietnamese had the job of guarding the bridge. The Americans always wanted the job because they’d get to sit around all day in the bunker, listen to the radio, play cards, buy meals in the village and have beer on days off. Compared to being in the bush, it’s very mellow. It’s about as nice a job as you can ask for. But the Americans never got the job; the South Vietnamese kept it.

The night before we were sent there the Viet Cong had come up the canal, got off their boat and with a loud bullhorn told the South Vietnamese [soldiers] that if they did not get off the bridge they were going to kill them all. So the South Vietnamese picked up their weapons and their ammo and scampered into town. Then the Viet Cong came up, set their charges on the bridge and then occupied the bunkers. Later an American deuce and a half came along maybe with a jeep. I know for sure there was a deuce and a half because it was still there when I got there; it was a wreck. There was a driver and somebody else and four guys in back.

Now a Vietnamese looks like a Vietnamese. At night, when the Americans drove up, they couldn’t tell that it was the enemy in the bunkers. So the Viet Cong let them right onto the bridge and, when they got to the middle, they just blew their shit away. The truck was a shambles. There was an incredible story of a guy who survived. He had an arm and a leg blown off and he rode a Honda about 12 miles into Saigon. He was the only survivor. So we got the call about six AM to reinforce the bridge. Well, when we got there, we could see that the bridge was blown to hell. The Viet Cong had exploded their charges and gone on their way. So the South Vietnamese are back in their bunkers at each end of the bridge. But there is no bridge to guard anymore. We just wanted to wring their necks, just break them in two.

There was another time when we should have gotten a lot of enemy. We swept through this area that had been defoliated I don’t know how long before. It must have been a long time because it had been jungle but it had become stumps of trees maybe two feet in diameter, just rotting. There was nothing green, just brown-black muck like swamp water. We walked through that most of the day.  It was a pretty fast maneuver, too. There was a report that this particular battalion of North Vietnamese was in the area. We were going to sweep in from two sides of the canal and drive them right into the canal. If they didn’t fight, they’d have to cross the canal.

On the other side of the canal there’d be all these South Vietnamese that had been brought in on boats. So the maneuver was going real fine. We could tell we were moving them because we came across bunkers and camps that were just abandoned, fires still warm. They were on the run. But the South Vietnamese —something like 1,200 of them— refused to get off the boats and so the boats sailed back to wherever they came from. A  blocking force is a well-practiced maneuver. And here we sweep on through and we’re out 500 enemy. It was a total failure. We never shot one of them. When they hit the canal, that was it for us. They were moving too fast and we couldn’t catch them. In the meantime, we got a lot of people killed with booby-traps.

 

I found booby-traps sometimes. When I found them, it was almost like ESP [extra sensory perception]. I had a very powerful experience over near the Cambodian border. We were on a road, and we were finding hand grenades and all kinds of old artillery shells that had been fired, just laying around, not booby-trapped. Live and duds. We’d collect 20 or 30, maybe 40, into a pile, get some plastic explosive and set them off. We’d been doing that for days. In maybe two days we found about 120 hand grenades just laying on the trail. Also, there had been some booby-traps.

So on this day we were stopped on the road. Usually we didn’t walk on roads. And no matter where we were, in the middle of a rice paddy, we’d never have two men side by  side. They’d be three feet apart and staggered, so if we took fire there’d be less chance of getting more than one man. We  were on this road, spread out walking, and we came on  a  55 mm artillery shell sitting on the ground on the other side of the road. Most of the people in our platoon weren’t in demolitions, so they’d just leave the grenades for someone else to check out. But there was another guy that was much closer to it than me and he and I had been in the habit of picking up these grenades.

I used to carry a grenade launcher, which was about three feet long. It was like a sawed off shotgun. (I can’t explain this very well because consciously I wasn’t there at all.) As this guy started to reach for the shell, I stopped him. As he stepped out with his right foot, I grabbed the barrel of my weapon. With one motion I swung it from my shoulder around with the butt and cracked him right in the knee. I made sure I hit him hard enough so his hand went to his knee. He fell to the ground and immediately got on my case, making me feel like an idiot. But I knew that I had done the right thing. There wasn’t time to yell, “Stop! Don’t touch it!” Everyone was uptight. I got them moved to the other side of this hard-packed road. The 55 mm was about a foot long, sort of missile shaped, maybe about four inches in diameter. In this particular road it would have blown a little tiny hole maybe a foot across and six inches deep. So I stuck some plastic explosive to it and blew it. After the explosion, there was a crater in the road about four feet across and maybe three feet deep. I don’t know exactly what kind of device that it was for sure, but there’s only two kinds of anti-tank devices that can set off a mine. It was a narrow escape.

One day I found a booby-trap two inches away from my foot when I just happened to stop for a few seconds. If I had taken another step, that would have been it. It was a Chicom grenade. American grenades have a handle that holds  the pin in place. You can hold the grenade in your hand with your thumb holding the handle and pull out the pin. As long as you hold the handle down, the fuse timers won’t go off. Once you release the handle, you have maybe four seconds. Holding the handle down allows you to throw it a long ways. The handle will fly off as soon as it leaves your hand. So it won’t explode right close to you.

The Chinese grenade had absolutely no delay whatsoever. There’s no way you can throw it. It was only for bobby-traps. Most of these grenades had very fine wire—finer than piano wire—attached to a nearby bush. The grenade would be wrapped around the bottom of the bush in very low brush or grass. The Vietnamese knew how to pick the right place. The pin would still be in it. When the pin came out, the grenade exploded. Depending upon how daring the man who set it was—and he could be damn daring—he would pull out maybe a quarter of the pin. As I said, the American grenade gave you about four seconds to run and dive, but if the pin popped out when they were setting up the Chicom, well, they’re gone. It wouldn’t take much pressure on the trip wire to set it off. Anyway, the one I was looking at was pulled out about three-quarters of the way. About a quarter of the pin was holding the handle and my next step would have set it off right at ankle level. But I saw the wire rather than the grenade. It looked like something hanging across with dew drops on it. And my eye just followed the wire over to the grenade at my feet. I just casually got down on my knee and grabbed the handle and hung on to it to make sure the pin didn’t come out.

 

Most of the motivation in the war was for vengeance from guys that were wounded by booby-traps. They couldn’t see beyond it. There’s a lot of ignorant people in the military and a lot of them end up in the infantry. That’s where nobody wants to go and that’s where a lot of people who are not smart get shoved. Just from a military standpoint, no matter how much training they give, if the guy doesn’t believe in the war, then he’s “not there.” And if there’s a lot of people around him who don’t believe in it, it gets even more dangerous. When I was there, the general atmosphere was not to try and be a “good soldier” and try to kill a lot of people. But there was a lot of outward vengeance. I don’t think I experienced it, but I saw it in people.

I remember a day when a very good friend of mine was killed. He was killed because one of his men was so goddamned stupid. Pappy was our machine gunner. He was Puerto Rican, the best machine gunner I ever saw, accurate. He had a man posted in a  tree as  a lookout about 20 feet away from him. Ordinarily, shifts in trees are rotated, but this guy had been in this one place for about five days, off and on. He was a new guy. Well, these NVA were walking down the trail in broad daylight right into the ambush. The first thing you’re supposed to do is not make any noise, but use hand signals to communicate. Another basic rule is that you’re never supposed to fire when in a tree. But this new guy got all skitterish and, instead of  letting  the NVA walk into the ambush so the ambush team would have the upper hand by being at ground level with minimal amounts of their bodies exposed, he opened fire. He blew it; he didn’t hit any of them.

Immediately, Pappy and two other men crossed the canyon. Pappy laid down a barrage and helped get some firing going so everybody could get into position. I think he did the right thing. He was firing his machine gun and he got one of the NVA. A couple of his men crawled up to where this wounded NVA was. I think the guy had seven bullets in him and when Pappy got there he was still alive. Incredibly enough—and they have this scene in the movies where the guy is almost dead, but has enough strength to pull the trigger. The NVA had his AK-47  on automatic. He rolled over and just wiped Pappy out.

I was at another ambush about half a mile away. I got radio contact about what was happening and immediately we just packed up and were in a trot over there. I was in charge when we got over there. The guys that were there just didn’t know what to do. It was amazing. They had just totally fallen apart. “Oh, God, he’s dead. What do we do?” All they could do was call the company and tell them what happened. So I moved out with three other men. As soon as we got past the dead Vietnamese we saw lots more blood.. We were moving through high, heavy grass so we knew the guy was wounded. Paranoia was high because no sooner do you take a step than some guy hiding in the bushes has got you. There were three of them altogether. One had been killed, one was wounded, and the guy that wasn’t wounded was dragging the wounded NVA. He had a chance to get away because our guys had stood around and waited until I got there. We were very lucky. We found the wounded NVA dead. Someone barely spotted him in the bushes.

Then we went back to Pappy. I guess I like Pappy more than anyone in the company. I had trained with him  for five months in Washington  and there were a lot of other more personal things. But this one guy was really irate. I suppose he was a little more militaristic, but somehow he was just really ready to vent his emotions. I don’t know if he should be called insane, or what. He wasn’t hurt, but he was falling apart. He just crazily emptied a magazine of 18 rounds into the dead NVA. I guess that’s what war is.

Second to having Pappy killed, the worst thing was having this colonel fly in all proud because his men had just killed the enemy. We had to drag the two bodies over to where his helicopter was going to land. So here’s one of my best friends dead, right there on the ground, and the colonel is so happy because we had two dead enemy. Really, it was a very sick scene, but very real. I didn’t know who the colonel was. I had never seen him before.

Colonels are the kind of people who fly around in helicopters way up high where they are safe. We always figured that the generals were drinking and playing craps back in Saigon. We had a theory that in Saigon there was a map on a dart board with a different colored dart for each general. Wherever the darts would land, the generals would draw lines between them and that’s where the maneuvers would go. It seemed that sometimes out in the field that they didn’t know what their decisions meant. They had intelligence reports that the NVA moved through this or that area, but they couldn’t have been very accurate. If there were troop movements going on, we were missing them. Again, it seemed like some general somewhere was just randomly picking a spot. The dart game joke meant that there were all these miles and miles. The general sends out ten men into this little ten square meter area for an ambush, hoping that some NVA would walk into it. Of all the ambushes I led, in three months  (maybe 20 ambushes a month) meant a minimum of 60 ambushes. I never had anybody walk into our ambush. And, on all the large maneuvers, they always knew we were coming. If they decided to fight, it was always on their terms. There were a few ambushes that got NVA but they were rare.

The enemy lived in the jungle without helicopters supplying them the way Americans were supplied. They couldn’t afford to shoot up 50 magazines an hour because a helicopter would not fly in at 120 mph and drop off crates of ammo.  We heard that Americans were spending more than 500 thousand dollars to kill one North Vietnamese soldier. The NVA rifles and other equipment were good, but more important, they knew how to live in the jungle. They were a thin, awfully wiry people.  Their diet was certainly not as elaborate as ours. They had supplies brought in by foot so it was much, much slower. Their food came from the jungle, off the land. If they were Viet Cong rather than North Vietnamese, they probably lived in the area and had friends and relatives helping them. The large maneuvers made it seem that Americans weren’t good guerrilla fighters. But on small operations, when we played the game their way, we were as good or better than  them. Then, their only advantage was that we operated in their areas. That was another thing: villages. We’d go into a village  not knowing whether they were friends or enemies, and we’d leave still not knowing.

I remember that the only Viet Cong I ever saw before he was dead was when we were out on ambush one day. One of the guys spotted somebody way down the road. I had a pair of binoculars, but I couldn’t see too well. So I left five people at our ambush site and me and another guy set off through the rice paddies rather than going down the road. I wanted to get out where I could take a look at them. I could see people in black pajamas, the old stereotype. There happened to be a woman out there on the right flank. Just before I saw the woman, I saw a guy down the trail working on… well, it looked like a booby-trap. He was bending over a bush and it definitely looked like he had a hand grenade. And fortunately for me, I wasn’t incorrect.

When the woman saw us coming, she started shouting. The guy that was with me started firing. I had a grenade launcher that I hadn’t shot in a while and I remember I was terribly inaccurate when I fired it that day. The guy firing had wounded the woman and she was laying on the ground but he missed the Vietnamese who was running off. I took his rifle from him and fired. He was over 100 years but somehow I managed to hit him in the leg. It turned out that he was a nine-year-old kid.

There was a big outcry from the people in the village who were really irate at the Americans. We had shot both the boy and his mother. The mother was clean, no grenades on her.  But by the bush where I first saw the boy  there were five hand grenades. Also, a booby-trap had been set farther up the trail. We were not wrong about the kid. I didn’t want to think about it, like ‘maybe I won’t shoot anymore.’ Before that day I wasn’t sure that I had ever killed or wounded anyone. I had shot a lot but I had never known  if I had anybody. When they’re firing at you, you can follow the tracers back and shoot into that area, but I only saw them when they were dead. After shooting the kid, I thought that there was no way we could win [the war].

To describe an  incident, a booby-trap or a battle, that’s just one part of the war: humans killing humans. But a bigger part was being out in the field for days and days when nobody was being killed. And those days would just be miserable because of the conditions. From my first maneuver we didn’t get a change of clothing for 17 days and, for me personally, I never took my pants off  day or night; I slept in my boots. When you’re walking through the jungle in the monsoon season it would just rain and rain. The insects were just incredible. I remember the first time I waded through a canal. The sergeant wanted to inspect us for leeches. You open your pants and they’re all over. It was somewhat repulsive seeing these leeches sucking your blood. But, compared to someone getting killed or falling apart, you were glad when you only had leeches and mosquitos and monsoon rains.

I  remember this black guy from Cleveland. Johnny was a very good friend of mine. We had flown into this area by helicopter and we were expecting to be fired upon before we got on the ground. That didn’t happen, but when we landed we charged into the jungle. As we’re moving out, Johnny happened to have a machete and he was chopping his way through the jungle. With one slice he went right through the center of a bee’s nest. In an instant the place was literally covered with thousands of bees and they swarmed on Johnny. We had short-sleeve shirts on and his arms were just covered with bees, just smashing the bees all over his body. It was surprising that the bees never came after the rest of us. It took five minutes before all of them were gone but by this time Johnny was unconscious. We had to med-evac him out. I remember that it took him about seven days to recover. So out in the field, we never knew what to expect.

We had malaria pills we were supposed to take. There was a big orange one that we were to take every week and a little white on we were to take every day. But a high percentage of the people didn’t take the malaria pills, thinking that they would rather risk malaria because then they would be out of it. I was one of the ones who never took the malaria pills after the first week or so in the field. I didn’t get sick, but a friend of mine did. Back at the base camp one afternoon he wasn’t feeling so good and went to lie down, say maybe two PM. By five he got a fever, he’s sweating and he’s really sick. Nobody thinks anything of it, you know. A lot of people have fevers. Apparently someone sleeping  in his bunker went over to  get the medic about eleven at night. But the medic was playing cards, gave some excuse and didn’t come. In the middle of the night, the guy became delirious, but he wasn’t med-evacked until the next morning. We learned about a month later that his temperature had gone over 105. He was sent to Japan where he recovered consciousness, but had total amnesia. They didn’t know how much brain damage was done. Probably he was sort of fried out.

 

The mosquitos could drive you crazy. The worst night I had was out on ambush. It was miserable. The mosquitos were huge with a wing span the size of a quarter. We reached this spot a little after dark and the place was lousy with them. Of course, we were used to mosquitos, so we put on the lotion. But it didn’t really work. There were millions of them and they were incessant. I think we had eight men out that night. Normally, we’d have two men awake and six men sleeping—and absolute silence. I used to  snore.  The first night out on ambush the other guys would wake you the minute you made a sound. They woke me up in the first 20 minutes three times. After that, I was never awakened again the rest of the time that I was in Vietnam. When you’re sitting there, listening and watching on your two-hour shift, a guy snores and you immediately touch him. And he immediately knows he made a noise.

But this night no one got more than five minutes of sleep. There was only one way to get rid of the mosquitos. Two guys would get under a poncho liner. It was just big enough that when we squatted on the ground it would cover us. And we would have two cigarettes going, but if we inhaled and blew out the smoke, it wouldn’t handle the problem. Apparently our lungs refined the smoke enough so that they mosquitos could handle it. So we just sat there and puffed and puffed without inhaling. Then, momentarily, there wouldn’t be any mosquitos. We were really glad when morning came and we could move out.

Ultimately we got used to the leeches, the mosquitos, the snakes (some guys got bit by snakes), the rain and mud during the monsoons, and the dust during the dry season. For example, during the monsoon we were out in the field in the mud. And I told my men: “Let’s gamble on the road.” We were just down from the base camp. It was rainy and windy. The road was about 18 inches above the water level. But on that night the water came up about five feet so that it was about 2 ½ feet above the road. Even though we were supposed to be on ambush, we were on the road where it was drier.  But pretty soon we’re sitting in water up to our ankles. When it got to our knees, the squad was just sitting in it all night long. It turned out that the whole base camp was under water, so when we came in we just sat on top of the bunkers trying to dry out.

The conditions of the war were varied in Vietnam. We had six months of monsoon, but we also had six months of no rain. Instead we had dust. It was usually not so bad for infantry troops because we weren’t traveling around on road in vehicles. But when we went back into the base camp for a few days of rest, the roads would have two or three inches of this very fine dust.  Truck convoys were something else.  If you were in the first truck, you had half a chance. But the second to the fifteenth truck was just lost in a nauseating cloud of dust. Dust was constantly in the machines. Vietnam was a country of extremes. In the monsoon rains, the dust turns to mud. I remember one mission walking through rice paddies which in the monsoon season became mud. It would come half way up to the calf, sometime the mud went over our knees. We were in it for hours and it would be 110 degrees. We had people dropping right and left from heat exhaustion.

One time our machine gunner got stuck up to his waist. Four of us tried to pull him out with a rope, but it worked inversely—the more we pulled, the deeper he went. We had to have people pull us out. We had to call a helicopter to drop a line. And this had to be done carefully because if it pulled him out too fast, it would just destroy him. As it was, it pulled his legs out of joint and the helicopter had to take him in. But walking in the mud will make your legs strong, get you in shape. I smoked three packs of cigarettes a day over there and I could outrun any of my friends back in the States four times over. Just counting days we were out on missions, I think I averaged walking about five miles a day.

We’d walk by these huge craters. Try to imagine a rice paddy. It’s nice and square, with a pathway all the way round and its essentially a foot deep in water. But if you walk into it, its all mud and you’ll sink maybe up to your knees. When the B-52s  dropped bombs in them, they would make craters maybe  50 feet across and 15 feet deep. It’s all clay-like muck. As you walk in it, it just cakes around your boots up to your ankles and you just keep sinking. If you tried to go swimming in the crater, you’d be up to your knees in much before you got there. Or, sometimes the mud would be so soft that you couldn’t walk down into the crater.

I noticed as I walked along that there wouldn’t be more than 10 feet between craters. Of course, it depends upon how many planes were flying in the formation, but I’ve seen craters between 30 and 50 yards wide, extending for up to 2000 meters. It depends upon the size of the strike force. And there wouldn’t be a bush or tree left standing. The shrapnel— these big chunks of  metal coming from the 1000 pound bombs—chopped everything down just like a haircut. It was amazing. I remember watching TV news stories after I got home: “2000 North Vietnamese killed” Well, they had these little one-engine spotter planes that would come in low after a B-52 strike. The spotter would look down and say, “Ah, direct hit on bunkers, 125 dead.” Hell, after a B-52 strike, if there were bunkers or bodies down there you would never know it. We were right down on the ground and we never saw anything after a strike. There was nothing left, only these giant mushroom craters all over. Where there used to be a bunch of trees, you couldn’t even find splinters of wood.

I remember sleeping one night about five miles away from a B-52 strike. The ground was rumbling; you could feel the vibrations. I knew from the captain’s radio where the force was. Usually the  Marines were closer, sometime the airborne, but they don’t get the Americans very close to the bombing because the B-52s can’t be that accurate. It’s not like they’re dropping shells within 300 yards with the pinpoint accuracy of good artillery. B-52s are flying miles high. Even if you’re hundreds of yards away with no chance of shrapnel hitting you, you’d be shaking in your boots in every way, mentally and physically. The sound was incredible. It’s supposed to be absolutely terrifying. I was never really close to the bombings, so I don’t have first-hand information. But knowing the size of my  hand grenades  and of  artillery shells and knowing the size of the holes they would make in the mud, and then seeing the size of those craters, it’s difficult to imagine the size of those 1000-pound bombs.

The main job of the demolitions man was to dismantle booby-traps, whenever they were found. It’s kind of strange. I was against the war, but when nobody volunteered for that job, I took it. Now that I look back on it, I tie it in more with that extra-sensory experience with the 55 mm shell. Maybe I felt positively humanitarian; I don’t know what to call it. I could never explain it. It seems really stupid because it’s much more dangerous. Whenever we would we would find unblown explosives, shells or grenades, I would blow them.  I did get reasonably good at it. I had a knack somehow when booby-traps were around. Even when I got wounded by one, I didn’t set it off.

Also we would find these underground bunkers, probably dug during the monsoon season when the ground was soft. But the mud becomes very cement-like, very, very durable when it hardens. They’d be dug into the ground with hardwood logs from the jungle across them with three or four feet of dirt of them. They’re constructed with tiny, well-concealed portholes and entrances. Whenever we came across these bunkers, I would blow them up.

Sometime the bunkers would be more elaborate with many other interconnecting bunkers.  I remember the company next to us came across and underground hospital that could house 50 people—all hidden underground out in the jungle. It was pretty amazing.  There were all sizes and shapes of bunkers for living, for cooking, for fighting, for staying safe from bombing. And they were pretty safe. If you can imagine three feet of cement; it would take a pretty good bomb to go through it. Artillery and mortar shells could not destroy the bunker even with a direct hit. Sure, it would loosen some soil, shake things up a bit and maybe a second or third one would go through. But if you put explosives on the inside, set them to electrical charges and timed so we could get out the pressure from the explosion would lift the roof right off and collapse it back in on itself. And that’s how we’d blow them. As I look back, I suppose when there was no action going on, I must have gained some release from being able to blow up something without being in danger.

Dismantling booby-traps was the worst, though. There was always danger. I remember going on R & R for seven days. I left a good friend of mine in charge of the squad. Potter was going to be there six months after I was supposed to go home. So I had showed him how to dismantle booby-traps. I suppose he would have taken over for me. When I got back from my seven-day leave, they told me that Potter had been killed. He was dismantling a booby-trap in the jungle and it went off.  I remember sort of arguing with the clerk at the base camp. I didn’t think it was very funny. I don’t know if I didn’t train him well enough; maybe it would have happened if I had been dismantling it. I guess I didn’t grasp it right away. Of all the people who were killed, none of their deaths affected me like his. I suppose I loved the guy. And I remember three or four minutes after I found out, I walked out of the back door of the tent thinking, ‘If I see a Vietnamese, I’m going to beat him over the head.’ I remember seeing a two by four on the ground and I picked it up. With my bare hands I just started beating it on the ground, smashed it to smithereens. I pretty much wreaked my hands, splinters and blood. I remember punching a few walls. It was for me essentially the last straw. I hurt to the gills.

Potter’s death broke the emotional stability of my being able to deal with the war day by day, feeling that I was going to make it home. And somehow, as much as I was comprehending it all, I suppose I reached a point where I though that I would never get out of there. I was at a point of total disillusionment, total apathy for everything. I did not care about anything anymore. I might have smoked grass twice in the 10 months before Potter died. I sort of thought that it was better not to be smoking grass, just because of what was going on. I felt more in control of the situation without it. After Potter was killed, I smoked every day. I was a totally new person at that point. I was discouraged, very quiet and reclusive, apathetic though I was still in charge. I was wounded seven days after Potter was killed.

The guy that set off the booby-trap that wounded me had set off two before that. He wasn’t wounded when he set off the first one that killed one person and wounded three. The second time he got hit in one of his fingers, got first aid, and never left the field, but another person died and several (I don’t remember how many) were wounded. He wasn’t wounded when he set off  mine. By the time I was wounded, most of my men were new. We were operating in five to seven man patrols for five days at a time. We’d  sit out during the day and pull ambushes at night.  So this same guy and I were going over to these bushes to make sure that nobody was hidden there. Then we were going to set up and hide out during the day. The rest of the squad was just sitting about 20 yards away. He was walking across the trail and he hit the wire. As soon as he felt the wire he started running. I’m about six feet behind him and when I see him running I know something’s wrong.

At this point the seconds are just ticking. He had taken several more running steps. See, he had hit the wire and went past it. There was a tree about four feet away from him. I realized I had to move. As I began moving, I saw him dive behind the tree. That’s when he yelled, “I hit it! I hit it!” I turned around and for the next eight feet there’s nothing. A bush wouldn’t do and there’s a canal about seven feet away. I got about half way  to the canal, running. I don’t know how many steps I had taken when it went off. The blast literally lifted me off the ground and moved me down the trail. I remember falling against a tree. Remember the old cowboy movie when come guy gets shot in a shoot-out and he staggers around. It came to me that I was in the same state and that the key was not to fall down. If you fell down, that was it!

I was convinced that I was going to lean against this tree. All of that thought must have taken a second  because I hit the tree and crumpled to the ground. I couldn’t move; I was paralyzed.  I suppose that I was about six feet away from the hand grenade when it went off. They claim the killing range is within a 20-foot radius. So I should have been dead. I was hit in almost every part of my body—both feet, both calves, both thighs, my butt, my back, my arm. I didn’t get hit in my head and my left arm. And I didn’t fade out.

I remember every order I gave. The guy that set off the booby-trap was out of it because so many people had been wounded. It was the third booby-trap he’d set off and I looked like I was dying. Everyone that checked me out thought so. I was wounded everywhere. The guys in the squad were coming over, saying “what happened?”  “What do we do now?” Three of these guys had not been in-country more than a couple of months. I remember yelling all of my orders. I yelled to a guy to get me my radio and told him to call for a med-evac.  But as soon as I said, “No bring me the goddam radio. Let me make it!” I don’t remember everything I yelled, but I was trying to get them into a defensive perimeter. “Go set up over there!” “Where’s the goddam medic?”  But, like I said, we were always short of men. I was the platoon demolitions man; I was also the medic for my squad.  But I couldn’t administer  myself. Guys were coming up to me and they were asking, “Where do I start?” They didn’t even try to stop the bleeding. Luckily, after about five minutes the pain sort of went away. By that time the medic got there, the med-evac was there.

The med-evac took me to a hospital in Saigon. I was on the operating table being cut open approximately 45 minutes from the time I was wounded. The doctor told me that in about an hour and a half from the time I got hit I would have bled to death internally. They had to cut out my left kidney, my spleen and sew up a lot of torn and damaged tissue. I don’t know everything they did. I had huge gashes in my legs, my feet, my thighs, my back, all over. I got hit in the elbow and the wrist I lost some of the nerves in my right hand. The doctors dug out the large pieces of shrapnel. They said that digging around trying to find  the small pieces makes a mess. So they just left in 18 or 20 pieces of shrapnel.

The doctor claimed that just being  med-evacked there saved me. In most other wars, like World War II, I would have been a dead casualty. Helicopters are invaluable for saving lives. I was 50 miles away from a hospital. The helicopter had to come at least 20 miles for me, so it was at least a 70 mile trip from the time I was hit. To get me on the operating table in 45 minutes meant that they were flying 100 miles an hour, or faster. I think  the top speed for a med-evac chopper was 120. I was conscious the whole time. That helped me to think that possibly I wouldn’t die. But I was out of it. There was no doubt about it.

 

I remember the first few times I got out of the hospital in San Francisco. My dad would come over and drive me home. I remember looking at the cars going in the other direction. It was a nice, sunny Sunday, American families going by, their kids in the back seat and the parents in front. And I had this terrible feeling of animosity and disgust, repulsed by what Americans were, what the American system was. And to most Americans it was just another Sunday drive to the zoo, regardless of what was on the news or in the newspapers. For umpteen years the American public went along with the war with the attitude: No artillery shells landed in my back yard with the kids in the swings, so I don’t give a damn. Maybe they weren’t aware; I don’t think the government wanted them to be aware. I remember being quietly but totally aggravated about the American system. I still am today, but I’m directing it by more conscious efforts. It’s a kind of awareness which has shaken me pretty much for the rest of my life.

This is the first time I’ve voluntarily attempted to remember the war. It’s not that I haven’t remembered things. Probably every single day it occupied my mind. But this is the first time I’ve volunteered to say anything about it and I suppose I have a lot of strong motivation. War is probably the worst legally sanctioned insanity on the planet. To me the war was just a total disease, a total sickness, a total cancer.   I think it’s difficult for anybody who comes back from the war not to be insane to a degree, unless they’re so hardcore that they believe in what they’re doing. Then, mentally, a person might not be so affected. The other thing was that I was nineteen and twenty in Vietnam. You’re young and immature. And the whole world, everything you know, comes down on your head. It sort of fries you in a way. You take in everything while you’re there, but you never consciously remember more than a bit of it at any one time. And you automatically block out a lot of things on a conscious level. But even then, much of it would be locked in the back of your mind, waiting to come out.

January 1975

 

 

9. Door Gunner

 

February, 1969. I didn’t know whether Vietnam was a good thing or a bad thing. Somehow something told me that the Kennedy’s people wouldn’t get us into something  that could be real bad. They seemed to think it was a good idea for people to go [to Vietnam]. But I’d heard some people speaking against the war and what they said seemed to make a lot of sense. So I went to Vietnam with the attitude that I just didn’t know. We could be right or we could be wrong and I had a sense of relief that I was finally going to find out first-hand what everybody was arguing about. But, once I got drafted, my main objective was trying to stay out of Vietnam. That was something that most people were into at the time.

I went into basic training unassigned. Draftees could be sent to any school. The Army could make anything out of you  that they wanted. If you enlisted for three years you can get a guaranteed school; you could be a medic or an electronics technician. You could chose a job that they didn’t utilize in Vietnam and you could use that as a way to stay out. If you’re unassigned, normally they put you in the infantry. And that’s what happened to about 80% of the people that were drafted. I wasn’t willing to spend the additional year. I just thought I would take my chances. So I went through the first six weeks of basic training thinking I would get stuck in the infantry. Because I’d scored high on the tests they gave us, this captain kept hitting on me to go OCS [Officer Candidate School]. It turned out an average IQ would make you an ‘officer and a gentleman.’ They commission you both, which I thought was nice. By mandate you’re a gentleman as well. Enlisted men are not gentlemen—that’s assumed or they would have told us.

I went through this whole basic training thing thinking, ‘I really don’t want to go in the infantry.’ They had selected a certain percentage of us—all people that were unassigned—and took us out to show us how to use a new weapon which turned out to be the M-16. Since everybody else was being trained on M-14’s, that was a real danger sign that you were probably going to Vietnam. But in the sixth week they put us in a big command formation and we got pitched by different people including the chaplain of the training battalion. And he gave his pitch for chaplain’s assistants. I thought, ‘Chaplain’s assistant! That sounds like a really dynamite thing to do.’ I’d never heard of a chaplain’s assistant being shot or killed or anything like that. I didn’t think they went to Vietnam.

It turned out that 300 other people out of this [training] battalion had volunteered to be chaplain’s assistants. So there was a big, long selection process where they automatically weeded out everybody that hadn’t had two years of college. They chose the people that had the educational background. I lucked out by being interviewed by a Catholic chaplain. I’d been through 12 years of Catholic education. So right away that biased him in my favor. When they got down to about 20 people, they conducted personal interviews to see what our motivation was to be a chaplain’s assistant.

I gave what I consider one of the best performances of my life when I talked about being torn between serving God and serving my country:  ‘It was a real dilemma for me and I didn’t know whether I had a calling to God or whether I felt really strong about protecting my country. I decided to serve my country but in basic training I discovered that there was a way that I could do both.’ That was the gist of the story I told him. I really wanted to be a chaplain’s assistant because I didn’t want to be a grunt. I’d talked to enough people who had come back to know that walking all day, to say nothing of booby traps and ambushes, was not what I wanted to do. So I did get selected to be a chaplain’s assistant.

The Army sends you to Fort Hamilton in New York to chaplain’s assistant school, after being trained as a clerk two months [in AIT]. The school’s fascinating. They make you go to class all day long. They teach you how to set an alter for three different denominations. They point out significant differences between Jews and Catholics in case you can’t tell the difference, or what a Protestant is. You learn nifty things about what a field altar is. And how to set it up if there’s combat near by. The macho part came from being responsible for protecting the chaplain’s life. So there was a little bit of that John-Wayne-element in that you were going to ‘guard God’ or at least take care of his man.

Chaplain’s weren’t supposed to carry guns, though I learned later there were chaplains who liked nothing better that a good fight and were very willing to pick up a gun. Some of what I learned about the war came from dealing with different chaplains. I listened to a sermon once in Vietnam where this southern Baptist minister was talking about going out and persecuting the enemy with the same fervor that you use in your daily prayers to God in trying to be a good Christian person.  And he didn’t differentiate between being a good Christian and killing communists. It was one and the same. I had a little difficulty with that. Coming out of Chaplain Assistants School, where I went specifically to stay out of Vietnam, our entire class of chaplain’s assistants—there were 26 of us—received orders on the same day for Vietnam.

 

I  arrived in Vietnam at Tan Son Nhut [air base] during Tet. I didn’t know what Tet was before I got off the plane, but I rapidly found out. This was the second Tet [1969], hardly as bad as the first Tet [1968]. But we got hit with rockets the first night. Being new in-country, they give you the nice jobs. We were pulling KP from midnight to four AM because they fed people on a 24-hour basis there. So we were on KP at three AM when the rocket attack hit. All the experienced people split immediately and left all of us newbees standing around wondering what to do Some of us crawled under tables and some people just looked around. Nobody really knew what a rocket attack was, just loud noises.

I  spent only a couple of days there and then I was sent to Cam Ranh Bay, a very safe place. And that’s where I was assigned to a chaplain. I started forming  impressions of  Vietnam within that first week when I decided that something was really wrong. One of the advantages of being a chaplain’s assistant was that I had access to a jeep. It was to take the chaplain places—I was his driver, his administrator and supposedly his bodyguard. But I had a lot of time with the jeep to myself. I went looking around, trying to figure out what was going on. And I got interested in the garbage.

What happened to it? Because they would fill up these massive cans of garbage at the mess hall every night. I was raised in the Midwest so I thought of agricultural kinds of things, like it would be really good slop for hogs or you could use it as compost. There were all kinds of ways to use this wasted food productively. So I decided to follow the garbage truck that picked it up, to see where they took it. I followed the garbage truck to a little Vietnamese village on the other side of Cam Ranh Bay. And the driver pulled right into the center of this village and stopped in the middle of the street. All of a sudden, all these old women and children came running out of these buildings and up to the back of the garbage truck and they’re digging this slop out with their hands and eating it right out of the garbage can without distinguishing anything. I didn’t see any young men, only older men. And this is the way the village ate every day. They just scarfed up all this garbage and went away smiling, looking satisfied.

It seemed like it had been going on for quite some time. And that’s when I started getting confused about what was going on  in Vietnam. I knew how much money we were spending. In 1965, when I was a freshman in college, one of the assignments in a  speech course was to give a 20-minute persuasive speech and Vietnam was one of the topics. So I went to the library to see what information was available. I gave a speech in favor of why we should be in Vietnam. I was very persuasive. My main reason for being in favor was because of the amount of information available. There was hardly any information against. There wasn’t a single  senator or representative who spoke out against involvement in 1965.

Everybody thought it was a good thing and the Kennedys had been  leading the parade. That was when I had no doubt that I would never go there. But I had some idea of what we were spending on bombs and ammunition—I knew the approximate cost of a helicopter—and  here are these people starving to death. That was another way that Americans looked down on Vietnamese—that they would eat our garbage.

Americans are not trained for anything cultural. I remember when we were landing in Vietnam, and we’re looking at the Vietnamese for the first time, a guy on the plane next to me said, “I bet they’re all talking  gook.” He thought ‘gook’ was a language. And then you see them  shit or piss in the streets. And there’s an odor to the country that’s totally different from our sanitized country.  So these are things that contributed to guys having a really poor attitude toward the Vietnamese. And then to see them eat garbage, you could say that they’re like the aborigines, inferior people.  But when I saw them eat garbage, my impression was immediate. I thought, ‘How can we spend millions and millions, billions of dollars on bombs and weapons when the people that we were supposedly trying to protect and defend and guarantee freedom were all starving. Our priorities seemed to be screwed up somewhere. ‘Maybe we don’t need quite as many guns. Maybe we should spend some of the money feeding these people.’ And it wasn’t necessarily that I disapproved of the way the weapons were being used.

Then I started seeing more of the relations between Americans and the  Vietnamese. One of the things a  chaplain does is counsel GI’s who think they  want to marry a Vietnamese. My chaplain had set a policy. If you wanted to marry a Vietnamese woman, he could find out your ETS [discharge] date and your DEROS [rotation] date. Then he would make sure it would take you at least that amount of time just to complete the preliminary application process. You would always end up ETSing before you could actually marry a Vietnamese person. I met several GI’s who were on their second or third tour and maybe have a child by the woman. And the chaplain would run the same number on them.

I’ve always been big on personal freedom. If someone wants to marry someone else, that’s cool and they ought to be able to do it. I didn’t consider myself a racist in any way. So I found out that by paying a couple of  people bribes, and by knowing what the papers were ahead of time, you could do the whole process in under three weeks. So I got in the habit, when the chaplain would be advising somebody on this kind of problem, of waiting for him outside. When he came out of his office, I’d motion him over and take him into my office. I’d show him how to do the thing the chaplain was trying to talk him out of. The chaplain eventually found out I was doing it and got really unhappy, telling  me about these Vietnamese coming to the United States and that they’re not like our people. He just took a very racist point of view on the whole thing.

The kinds of attitudes that were exhibited toward the Vietnamese were amazing. I knew of one E-7 who was responsible for some of the barracks over there. The biggest thing that happened in his day  was getting upset over the hootch maids using our latrines. We had regular flush toilets. He was really upset by the fact that they wouldn’t sit on the stool like we did. They were used to squatting. So they squatted on the commode. This turkey used to go around and  jerk the doors open to make sure they were sitting on it properly. He went so far as to post notices in Vietnamese that he would fire them if he caught them squatting on top of the stool.  That was one of the things he did daily; he put a lot of energy into that.

I never saw Vietnamese and Americans operate on an equal basis. We were occupying their country. It didn’t fit with all the rhetoric I’d heard back in the United States about ‘we’re going over to protect them to ensure their freedom’ or ‘we’re going to help them have a democracy.’ I was over there when they had their election, so I saw when they voted for [President] Thieu. But that was all they could vote for was Thieu and I’d seen that touted as an other breakthrough for democracy.

My life as a chaplain’s assistant started getting really depressing about that time. The chaplain was a southern Baptist, an extremely conservative man. He’d do very  well in the United States. He was in the military because it provided him with a good way of life. He was tolerating the whole thing. But he shouldn’t have been sent to a foreign country. My general attitude toward chaplains came to be that they were not capable of holding a congregation in the civilian world, so they went into the army where attendance was mandatory.

 

One of the things I did as a chaplain’s assistant was to give character guidance lectures. They were mandatory for enlisted men below the rank of E-6 [sergeant]. If you’re over E-6, they typed out the character guidance lecture and sent it to you. If you’re over E-6,  you obviously could read it and understand it by yourself. If you’re an officer, you have no need for it. But if you’re under E-6, you have to be told how to run your life.

So I’d give these lectures for the chaplain  and he’d come down on me for the way I gave them. Like, I  had to give one on racism. I stood up in from of these men and told them that I honestly felt that they were not the people to talk to about racism, that I ought to be talking to E-6’s and above and officers since they were the most racist people in the military. Well, the chaplain didn’t dig that at all. At that point, he made me type them up and give them to the people. And he wanted to read them before I gave them out.

Chaplains are in a unique position. They have the rank of, say, a captain or a major, but they have no command authority. At the same time, they have  unbelievable command  authority because I’ve seen them tell generals what to do.  It all comes down to the religious beliefs of the individuals involved. So they could pretty much do that they wanted to do. Since we were attached to a signal unit, we got to fly to different places. We’d do so many days in Can Ranh Bay, then we’d go to Dalat—a beautiful place—and occasionally we’d go to Ban Me Thuot. One thing I really enjoyed was being able to fly somewhere  every two or three days. It was the first time I’d ever been on a helicopter.

So, as I was flying around, I was getting glimpses of the war, but no real idea of what was going on. Dalat was a very secure place, even though the war occurred around Dalta at different times.  Cam Ranh Bay was extremely secure. Occasionally there would be a sapper attack; occasionally there would be a rocket attack. So I never really got to see much of the war. I knew there was a war going on, but from my position it was difficult to perceive. I would talk to people coming back who had been out in the field somewhere; I spent a lot of time trying to find out why they despised all the people in Cam Ranh Bay. It turned out that there were a couple of wars going on. One was all spit and polish and shine your boots and press your fatigues. You live inside a compound and the Vietnamese are the people that came in from their village and worked and cooked and cleaned the latrines. The other war involved people that went walking through these same villages, that saw them shoot at people who shot back at them.

You could spend a whole year over there and never even actually know there was a war, except for an occasional rocket attack which was not very serious. And that bothered me. I  started getting really, really curious to know if there was a real war going on out there, what the fighting was like, and where it was taking place. Fortunately, I was moving every few days so I didn’t have to deal with the long-term boredom that I saw a lot of people going through. A lot of people were just going buggy and turning to anything they could just to get around the boredom of being confined all the time.

People used to say that we controlled certain parts of Vietnam, but I eventually figured out that what we controlled was what was enclosed by concertina wire. That was ours; everything else outside was controlled by them. So ‘inside’ was the only place you were relatively safe. And there were a lot of people who stayed inside that concertina wire the whole time they were in Vietnam. Their problems were completely different from somebody that was out in the field all of the time with an artillery unit or with the infantry. So that got to be a problem, just wondering what the hell was going on. I was there but I really didn’t know that much.

And, I was getting terribly disenchanted with being a chaplain’s assistant. It just wasn’t working out. I started smoking dope. And that changed my attitude somewhat. I believe that it was my first night Cam Ranh Bay. Three guys took me out to the sand dunes somewhere and they got me so loaded I couldn’t find my way back. They conveniently split and I sat out there all night waiting for the sun to come up so I could find my way back to the base. And I was sure that everywhere I turned I was going to find a Viet Cong, that they were hiding in the bushes, that they were everywhere. I’d only been in-country about a week then, and I was just scared to death. Finally the sun came up and I found my way back. And then I learned to cope with it and not smoke quite so much all at one time.

The grass was really potent. After so much, it could just set you down. Inside the compound in Dalat it turned out that the chapel was THE safest place on the base to smoke dope. I made a whole bunch of friends just on that premise. Nobody ever went in the chapel at night. So every night I used to open it up and eight or ten of my friends would come in and then I would lock the doors. It was very nice and we were very safe, smoking grass. Eventually the chaplain found out. He didn’t think that was a proper use of a chapel. He got rather irate about the whole thing.

The chaplain had made the decision to get rid of me; he made the decision before I did. But I had observed him one day with his hootch  mate.  They were on pretty good terms. And I  kind of held that over his head a little bit. He knew that I knew things that were damaging to him, that could just blow his facade to pieces. In the army, the more shit you have on people, the better off you are. Later I learned the relationships that existed between all kinds of people, about black marketing, and about the way  things worked economically. But because the chaplain and I were having all this trouble, I knew that I wasn’t long as the chaplain’s assistant. The only thing I could see happening to me was that they would probably  make me some kind of clerk since that was my other training. And I was terrified about that. I really didn’t want to spend a year sitting in an office typing forms for the army.

 

Just dealing with military bureaucracy is a problem. So I talked to some people who said, “You can be a door gunner on a helicopter. ANYBODY can be a door gunner!”  And I came to understand why: There’s a form you use—they call it ‘ten-forty-nining’—which means basically that you’re volunteering. At the time, one of the options that was talked about a whole lot in safe places like Cam Ranh Bay was to 1049 to be a door gunner. It turned out that a door gunner’s life expectancy was about six months, depending upon the unit he was with. It varied a whole lot. Due to the fact that so many of them were getting killed there was a big need for them.

The Army needed all the volunteers they could get a hold of. Just about anybody could be a door gunner without any previous experience or specialized training. I went through all these changes. I would go off and sit by myself at night and think about it: Do I want to do this?  After a couple of weeks I finally decided I was going to be a door gunner. I had some idea of what the chances were of being killed. But it turned out that I overestimated; I ended up with a pretty safe unit.

Anyway, I submitted the 1049 and, after I submitted it, I used a little bit of pressure with the chaplain. I knew that him putting in a good word for  me would have a whole lot to do with how quickly I could get through the whole thing. So I mentioned that I might have to write his wife a letter and tell her how he was doing, especially if I didn’t get to be a door gunner in a helicopter. I’ve often wondered if he thought I was going to die when he said he’d help me be a door gunner. But he agreed to speak to the commanding officer. He even said that he knew the officer in charge of the helicopter group that flew support for these signal sites. I went across the bay and took a flight physical, which was extremely thorough. They even tested the strength of my eyeballs by bouncing a little ball bearing off of them. But I passed the flight physical with flying colors. I didn’t know where I would go and where would make all the difference in the world.

Three days after the physical I got orders to ship to Nha Trang and report to the 73rd Signal Company. I soon found out it made a big difference whether you were in a combat assault unit or in a supply unit. Fortunately for me, I wound up in a supply unit. I didn’t have to fly gunships that much, which had a lot of advantages. And Nha Trans was probably one of the most beautiful cities I’d ever seen. A  lot of villas right along the ocean, it was very peaceful. I was going to be an O-J-T door gunner. I knew nothing about an M—60 [machine gun]. I’d never fired one. I knew very, very little about flying on helicopters,  just what I’d experienced flying back and forth between Dalat and Cam Ran Bay. On one day they took me out to show me how to fire the guns and that night the crew chief showed me how to tear the guns down and clean them. They next day I was flying as a door gunner. It took only two days; I was just amazed that you could become a door gunner in 24 hours. You didn’t really have to know anything. They’d put a helmet on you and show where the  switches were for the radio. From there you were on your own to learn the job.

 

One of the reasons I really wanted to be a door gunner was to find out about John Wayne. John Wayne really fascinated me. I wanted to know if he was a real person. I wanted to know if men actually acted that way in combat situations, you know, with all this bravado, making little jokes under their breath, pulling triggers and laughing ha-ha-ha—the total impersonality of combat as I had been exposed to it on television and in the movies. I was curious; I wanted to know if John Wayne really existed or not. And that was one of the reasons I wanted to be a door gunner on a helicopter. ‘I’m actually going to find out. I’m going to know what a combat situation is like. I’m going to know how men react And I’m going to find out for myself whether I have what it takes to be a John-Wayne.’ Am I a hero? Every man probably wonders. Do I have heroic qualities? Am I capable of doing those kinds of things?’  I’ve since learned that it is not a rational question. It all comes down to situational ethics. People seldom understand why they do or do not act heroic. And John Wayne is not at all real.

My view of John Wayne was that the next time I saw one of his movies I wanted to run a scene on the other side—kind of weld the two together. You have John Wayne on one side shooting bullets and laughing and on the other side you’ve got a bunch of kids maybe 19 or 20 years old and they are crying and shitting in their pants and they’re pulling the triggers, terrified. They don’t want to do what they’re doing. They’re shooting because somebody is shooting at them. They feel helpless, like victims. That was my impression of combat. That was what I saw. That made John Wayne about the farthest thing from the truth I could think of.

I remember after I was flying out of Nha Trang, which was the headquarters of the 5th Special Forces. Sometimes, when we had a day when we’d be down for mechanical work, I would go over to the Special Forces enlisted men’s club and drink beer all day. And that was where I saw John Wayne in The Green Berets [1968]—at 5th Special Forces headquarters. And the irony of that just blew me away. I said, “I can’t believe that I am sitting here watching this!” It was customary when one of the Green Berets saw something he didn’t like on the screen, he would throw an empty beer can at it. The screen was actually a plywood wall. So they would bounce a beer can off it. By the time that particular movie was half-way over, people were no longer drinking their beers before they threw them at the screen. I saw people actually buying beers and throwing full cans as hard as they could and poking big holes in the wall because they were so infuriated with the way this movie was coming across—Green Berets themselves watching John Wayne act like a Green Beret.

What made it so odd was that being a door gunner on a helicopter, I had standing orders that if a Vietnamese national came with 100 yards of  ship I could shoot to kill. And it didn’t matter if it was man, woman or child The reason for that—and I believed in it very strongly—was occasionally Viet Cong would take a hand grenade and wrap a rubber band around it, holding down the handle. And they’d come up and stick it in your fuel cell. And it would stay in your fuel cell until the rubber band was eaten away. You could be anywhere, flying. When that grenade went off, you’d never know what happened to you. So it was best to keep Vietnamese away, but here was John Wayne coming in and landing and these little Vietnamese kids would come up and climb all over him and his aircraft. That was just a sample. I couldn’t tell you if there was an actual plot to The Green Berets, but I knew that the instances didn’t hold true. Actually, it was very insulting. But I thought that was the best possible place to see the film.

 

At Nha Trang we had about 10 helicopters attached to this signal unit and we flew support missions for these different signal sites. They were located in all these out of the way places.  So I flew almost everywhere in II Corps that there was to go. One day every other week we would fly to Saigon to pick up and bring back the batch of medals for the entire battalion. That was a fun experience. I used to sit and read these commendations.  They just really cracked me up. Occasionally I would encounter a lifer being awarded a  medal for something that I didn’t think he deserved. So I’d throw it in the ocean on the way back up. I just trashed the ones I really didn’t like. But I learned about medals that way.

It turned out there was a lot of maintenance work on a helicopter. The crew chief was responsible for all the work, though they did have a person that inspected it. But, by helping him, I saved him a lot of time and I learned a lot.  We had a really good relationship. We also had a good relationship with the pilots, too. There were a whole number of things that I liked about being a door gunner. I didn’t have to pull guard duty because I was on flight status. When I got sick, I was seen by the flight surgeon. So I got better medical care. I got special neoprene flight fatigues that would last five seconds in a fire rather that two seconds. And I got all this karma that went with being a door gunner. I was treated differently by almost everybody. People automatically assumed you were either crazy or very brave;  most thought you were crazy. I liked that. People left me alone. They no longer questioned my motives. I kind of had my own little world; I could establish my own identity.

So there were a whole number of advantages that I hadn’t been aware of. We’d stay over night in different places. And I was like a guest of honor with the kind of people that I’d left in Can Ranh Bay, clerks, people that didn’t get out very much. But, unfortunately, most of them wanted to hear war stories.  And I listened to so much bullshit stories that I finally developed a rule of thumb. If somebody was telling a very long or involved story, they were probably lying and, if they weren’t talking at all, they’d probably have stories to tell, if you figure out a way to get it out of them. (And that still holds up to this day, even in talking to veterans.) People who concentrate on combat experiences usually  haven’t seen much of it;  people who describe the conditions over there  maybe experienced a whole lot of combat. I  guess they estimate that about 12% of all the people who went to Vietnam actually took part in heavy combat on a daily basis, say more than just once a month or occasionally.

Part of the “glory” of being a door gunner, if you want to call it that, or just being a crew member on a helicopter, was that an awful lot of times you could help save people’s lives. The time factor in med-evac missions was what normally saves their life, getting them from a battlefield to a hospital quickly. If they had to wait another hour, or even 15 minutes, that’s it. Occasionally we had people die on us before we got them to the hospital. But if we could keep them out of shock and get them in somewhere, they were going to be saved. And grunts knew that. They relied on us. And that was really a dynamite relationship. They were really grateful. What I was doing before being a door gunner was just pure Mickey Mouse. I wasn’t helping or hurting anybody. I was just there. Then, suddenly, I had a purpose. So there were human factors involved that I just really appreciated. I felt worthwhile because I was doing something that I finally saw value in.

I got very concerned about how my guns worked; I got really big on self-protection. The people that I saw in helicopters never actually went out and looked for fights. Mostly they just wanted to get where they were going  with as little hassle as possible. And, if you were fired at, you fired back. The guns took the personal element out of combat. Like shooting at people. When you are going 160 knots or, say, 180 miles an hour, and you’re shooting an M—60 machine gun that has a cyclic rate of fire of 550 rounds per minute, you don’t really know if you hurt anybody or not. You’re pouring out a lot of lead, maybe you see things happening—flashes on the ground—but you don’t actually know whether you killed anybody or not. It’s not like I sit here and shoot you with a gun. That would be traumatic compared with flying through the air—it has a sense of unreality to start with.

The unreality is something I spent a lot of time thinking about. We had five different [radio] channels that we could listen to at one time. When I first started flying it was confusing and all I could do was listen to the intercom and talk to the other crew members. After a couple of months, it was possible for me to monitor four channels and converse on the fifth all at the same time. And I’d pick up significant amounts of information. I got really fascinated by how the whole [communication] thing operated—using radios, artillery advisories, weather advisories, listening to the war.

One of the channels that we always kept tuned to was AFVN [armed forces radio]. That’s where we got pop music and that’s what made it so weird sometimes. We would take off in the morning flying low level across these rice paddies and I’d hear Diana Ross singing Everybody Loves You. The sky is beautiful, the sun is glistening off the water—rice paddies look like felt on a pool table from a certain altitude. I looks like you could jump into it and not get hurt, and then you’d hear this music that’s enjoyable at the same time. I used to think, ‘How can I ever describe this to anybody?’ And three minutes later, I might be shooting my gun at somebody or going in to pick up some wounded soldiers or landing some place where someone it shooting at us.

When I started listening to the war is when I started figuring out what was going on in Vietnam. I  had what I considered a perfect observation point. I flew to all these different places. I was always fairly safe when I was up in the air. I mean there were times when it was dangerous, but most of the time I was just involved in flying, getting from point A to point B, taking stuff to people who needed it. I got into Cambodia a couple of times. I flew over Dak To, went to Pleiku, Ban Me Thuot, around Nha Trang, Praline Mountain, all these different mountain sites. I got north almost up to Da Nang on one occasion and way down south past Saigon. I flew over Teddy Roosevelt’s hunting lodge; he used to go over there and hunt lions and tigers. He had a beautiful lodge built out of bamboo (It burned down right before I left). Our day would start about 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning. We’d be on the flight line and try to take off when the sun came up because we weren’t supposed to fly between sundown and sunup. It wasn’t unusual to make up to 15 stops in one day. For us the war usually stopped when the sun went down, a nine-to-five war.

We’d get up in the morning, fly to these different places and II Corps and then come back. So I spent a lot of time listening to other people, tuning in on different things. I like to listen to jet pilots. There was the anonymity of being on a radio, right?  You could say a whole lot of things and a lot of people often did!  You would hear a colonel or a general giving orders, and you’d hear somebody else come on the same line and say, “Oh, fuck you!” The reply always came back from the officer, “Identify yourself! Identify yourself!” And the guy would come back and laugh at him and say, “Do you think I’m a fool?” There was nothing to be done about that. They [officers] were always getting uptight about who was getting on the radios. So that gave me an additional insight.

 

Like I got to see how the ARVN’s were fighting the war. I remember going to a signal site at Dak To [Central Highlands]. Sometimes Dak To was hard to get into. Sometimes we’d radio ahead and they’d say, “Don’t try!” It was a strange base; most of it was underground. When you flew over it, you’d only see a couple of buildings and a runway. I saw a real hard core combat scene there. We landed at the air field and observed a staging area of Vietnamese soldiers. We had down time of about two hours there.

They must have been drafting kids when they turned 15 or 16 years old in South Vietnam at that time [1969-1970]. But at the staging area in Dak To, whoever was in charge was just very, very stupid from a tactical point of view. They had a shuttle system of helicopters ferrying these troops out into this battle in Cambodia. At 3000 feet over Dak To you could see Cambodia. And this is when we weren’t in Cambodia [before April, 1970]. Even though there was a big war going on in there, nobody was talking about it. When I was carrying med-evacs, I found out ‘we weren’t in Cambodia.’ I was really surprised. I had a lot of trouble putting that together and still do.

But they were shuffling these Vietnamese in and out. In the ships coming out they were bringing back dead South Vietnamese soldiers and they were stacking them up—they had maybe 20 or 30 dead ARVN’s in a stack—and 20 yards away they had maybe 50 of these young Vietnamese soldiers that had never been in combat before waiting to get onto the helicopters to go out to the battle. And all they had to look at were the stacked up dead bodies and they didn’t want to go out there and get killed the same way those people they were looking at did. That put the Americans in the position of forcing them on to the helicopters, getting them into the battle zone, and then forcing them off the helicopters. And it was not uncommon for somebody to get killed as part of that operation. Fortunately, I never had to carry Vietnamese troops into battle. That would have been a real hard thing to do. But I knew people who were doing it. These guys would beat on them, break their hands, kick them, whatever they had to do to get them out of the helicopters.

Occasionally, they would shoot these guys. I’ve heard of cases where they would kill one just to make the rest get off. They’re afraid of dying, so you kill one and the rest think, ‘Well, I’ll get killed in either place.’ So they go ahead and jump off. But it put the Americans in a really bad spot. From the viewpoint of  just being a crew member, the longer you stay on the ground, the more danger you have of getting hurt yourself. The whole idea is to get in and out as quickly as you can, get out of range of their [enemy] guns. So you don’t have time to screw around with people. I’ve seen insertions when the  helicopters would hover about 25 feet and they’d just start throwing people out.

 

One whole side [of the experience] was learning how a helicopter worked and learning how to fly. The pilots were really good about that. I had about 10 hours of actual flight time my self by the time I got out of country because the pilot was willing to teach me. He did it partly because he was a nice guy and we got along and there was also a tactical reason. If he and the co-pilot both got shot, they would want somebody to get the hell out of there or land the plane. Both the crew chief and I learned how to fly. And it was something we were always pushing for. When we had time, it was always, “Well, teach me how to fly now?” It was like bugging your father to let you drive the car up and down the driveway. I thought of  a lot of analogies between cars and helicopters, especially with regard to a lot of warrant officers.

I was 21 when I got drafted and I was actually older than most of our pilots. Our chief warrant officer and the best pilot I our whole unit and the person responsible for all the maintenance turned 21 when he was in Vietnam. I used to watch some of the stunts these guys pulled with their helicopters. A lot of them were into risk-taking. Everything was a risk anyway.  Sometimes people would say, “What’s it like flying with those young guys?” and I would say, “You know how a 17 year old kid acts with a ’57 Chevy that he’s got all souped up? Well, give that same kid a $650,000 helicopter and see what he does! He’d do that same thing.” They call it ‘cowboying.’ He’d do things like diving under high wires and flying low level. I used to get pissed at some of the pilots because I’d have to clean a bunch of trees and shit out of my guns. I got used to it, though; I really liked it.

They got a technique they call auto-rotation, which is the way you descend if you ever get hit and you lose all your power. The pilot decreases the pitch of the blade completely and you just fall out of the sky like a rock. When you start an auto-rotation your body always will float up out of the seat because the ship starts going down faster than you do. And then you catch up and sort of ride it down. Fifty feet from the ground the pilot pulls full pitch back into the blade and it catches like a parachute and then you bounce once and slide to a stop. That’s a real rush, even when they told me. There were a few times just to fuck with the lifers we’d pull auto-rotations.

One of the unfortunate jobs we had was we had to take commanding officers out to see the troops. The guys in the field didn’t want to be bothered, they didn’t want to be fucked with, they didn’t want to be told how sloppy they looked. And here we are in the position of having to take this colonel out to inspect the troops. So we used to play games with them. And more than once we’d be flying along and all of a sudden I would scream, “ENGINE FAILURE! ENGINE FAILURE!” as the pilot would pull an auto-rotation. And everybody on the ship except the crew members knew they were going to die immediately because you just drop out of the sky. But the pilot pulls it out at the last minute.

There was a sense of power in being a crew member. As soon as you left the ground, rank and authority were no longer the same. The pilot was the commanding officer; he was in charge of everybody in that helicopter including the colonel. Now with a general that didn’t always work. I’ve seen generals in a helicopter where they’ve still managed to maintain all of  their authority. But there were a number of times when I got into arguments with colonels and majors and I would just go to the pilot and tell him what was happening and the pilot would back me up 100%.

One of the rules we had on helicopters was that no one was to fire a gun except crew members. And there was a  damn good reason for that. Because there were a number of cases—especially when the Army first started shooting guns out of helicopters—where you start tracking something on the ground and, as you’re aiming at it, you swing the gun around and shoot the pilot in the back of the head. There were cases of crew members shooting their own pilots with machine guns. Eventually the Army came up with these little stops on the M-60’s where you couldn’t point the gun back far enough to injure the pilot. But you didn’t want people shooting out of the side of a helicopter. You didn’t  know what they were going to do. They might shoot a hole in your rotor blade which throws the whole ship out of balance and you can crash really easily. Also, you’re sitting on 220 gallons of JB4 aviation fuel and you don’t want somebody shooting into that.

Engine trouble could be a problem. I remember one situation when we were out in the middle of  nowhere. When you have no idea where you are, you automatically assume there were Viet Cong everywhere. The rule was ‘if it’s not inside the concertina wire, it belongs to the enemy.’ So when you go  down unexpectedly, you never know what to expect. But one thing you can rely on is that as soon as you put out a ‘may day’ call, any other aircraft will be there in a matter of seconds. They know that next time it may be them going down and you’ll be coming to rescue them. So this time we  were losing altitude rapidly because of mechanical problems and there’s a colonel sitting in front of me. And I told him, “We’re going to put down.” I always tried to keep the passengers informed, tried to make them  feel better until they had given us a lot of reasons not to do that. But this colonel got all excited and pulls out his .45 and he’s trying to put his clip in only he’d got it backwards.

I was busy doing a whole lot of things because you’ve got to be ready when you go down. I told him to put it away and he didn’t do it. So I just reached around and grabbed the .45  out of his hand and threw it back on the floor out of his reach. Then we went ahead and landed. Fortunately, there wasn’t anybody down below waiting for us. As rescue ship was already on the way. When we got out, this colonel was just furious. And ‘He’s going to kill me,’ ‘ he’s going to court-martial me,’ ‘He’s going to have my stripes,’ blah, blah, blah. I didn’t even talk to him.  I just went to the pilot and explained to him what I’d done. The pilot talked to the colonel for a while and that was the end of it.

 

Something else I enjoyed is that flying did away with the rank distinctions between pilot and crew member. Even though our pilots were warrant officers—lieutenants or captains—they couldn’t really follow the traditional chain of command, ordering crew  members around. Their lives depended on you as much as yours did on them. There was no difference between me shooting the gun, the crew chief keeping the plane flying, and the pilot flying the plane. We all worked together and that did away with a lot of the petty shit that I didn’t like about the military. When we were flying, we were men doing a job and we were equal. That I really liked. Some of  the pilots I got really close to. Then I learned that helicopter pilots are not the best people in the world to befriend. You’re dealing with a high risk category.

We had one pilot who was back on his third tour of duty and at that time where was a big need for warrant officers. The army would send them over, they’d do 12  months, they’d get three or four months back in the States, then they’d get shipped back to Vietnam again. This pilot was the last person out of his class that hadn’t been wounded or killed. And I think there had been 25 of them. He was one of the most fatalistic son-of-a-bitches I ever met in my life. He was literally just waiting to die. And he knew it was going to happen. The person flying right before him had had a .51 caliber round go up through the bottom of his seat, right up his ass and out the top of his head. I mean there were certain weapons that could get you from the ground. Especially up in the northern part of  [South] Vietnam. They were using SAM’s [heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles]. The radar device on a  SAM would jam this one radio station, break the channel. You had three seconds to react when you heard this sound before it would track into your heat vapor trail and lock on to your helicopter. We got chased by one of those once.

It was the quickest auto-rotation we ever did. Then we flew low level for 100 miles to get back to where we were going. You’ve got to drastically change your position as quick as you can. And the best way to do it is to shut off your power and drop. You lose a couple of thousand feet of altitude immediately and there’s no vapor trail. Pilots had to know that sound and they learned it by listening to a recording. So one channel of our radio was always set to the SAM radar frequency. The SAM would make a beeping noise as it came looking for you. There were probably people that thought they were being chased when it was just the radio but you couldn’t take any chances. You didn’t get a second guess.

 

One of the fascinating things about flying is getting to talk to other crew members. I started finding out what other kinds of missions there were. One operation that really fascinated was the ‘people sniffer.’ A helicopter would be rigged with these big poles that extended over the sides. They would take it out and fly low level at night over trees and it would detect body odors and urine. It would presumably pick up the “scent” of Viet Cong. Then the crew would phone in the grid coordinates and rockets would be sent out to his that spot.

The only trouble with the people sniffer was that it couldn’t tell the difference between a person and a pig. So they spent a  whole lot of time blowing up animals out in the woods. The Viet Cong had an amazing way of dealing with this high tech. They would just take buckets of urine and hang them in the trees. So the helicopter would radio in the coordinates of the odor and they’d blow up the bucket of piss. I thought it was beautiful because it showed an extremely complicated technological machine trying to cope with a bucket of piss. And the technology was being fooled every time.

Another type of helicopter that went out at night had an infra-red light and a scope set up with a mini-gun. Mini-guns have a phenomenal rate of fire. They can shoot up to 6000 rounds a minute, but they would normally set them between 3000 and 5000 rounds a minute. The crew members on the night shift would go out and fly low level as well. And they would look through an infra-red night vision mechanism and spot troops.  Mounted next to the gun they had this giant spot light. As soon as they would see some Viet Cong on the ground they would flip on the spotlight. They figured that they had about 15 seconds before these people could recover from this blinding light in the sky. During that 15 seconds, they would kick on the mini-gun and just blow them all away. Most of these things were thought up by the psychological operations people. One minute VC are going down a trail under total cover of night and the next minute they’re all just blown away.  The people sniffers never met with such success. But I had the impression that the infra-red scope worked pretty well since, if they found something, they could always identify what they were shooting at before they did it. That kind of technological thing fascinated me. Plus, we always had the chance to deal with other pilots.

Sometimes I would go out in these little spotter planes that they used, which are just two-seater, fixed-wing craft. They would be a lot of fun, too, because of their maneuverability. But nothing every quite compared with a helicopter. I remember the Air Force sent over some 17 and 18 year old kids, young cadets, future pilots. They sent them to Vietnam on their summer exercises which meant getting the training right up to where the combat was. We took one of them, put him in the co-pilot seat, and gave him a ride. He was being trained to be a jet pilot. There was this big rivalry between jet pilots and helicopter pilots. You’d hear jet pilots say they could go 400 or 500 miles an hour. Helicopter pilots would say, “I can leap a tall building in a single bound. I can go straight up and down and you can’t do that.”

So we got this Air Force kid in the front seat, put the pilot helmet on him, got him strapped in, and we took off. The kid had been saying as he got in that helicopters were really boring compared to the jets he was going to fly some day. And the pilot decided to show him. Instead of doing a normal take-off, he just lifted off the ground going straight up in the air to about 2000 feet, a completely vertical assent.  Then he nosed it over and took off a little bit, got up to about 120 knots and then had a hammerhead stall. This is where the rotor goes back kind of like sliding to a stop. As soon as we lost enough air speed, he nosed it over. You feel like you’re falling straight down. And as he nosed it over after the hammer-head, this kid finally couldn’t take it any more. He threw up all over himself, inside his mask, and wet his pants. We took him back down and let him out of the ship. His instructor was really upset with him because he had disgraced himself somehow.

We were forbidden to fly with Vietnamese pilots at any time, supposedly because they were such lousy pilots that they [the command] didn’t want to trust an American life with them. But I found some Vietnamese pilots I thought were really good. I  flew with them a couple of times. I went up in an A-37 fighter jet with a Vietnamese pilot.  I remember we passed another plane some distance off and I pointed at that guy and told the pilot that the guy was upside down. Then I realized that we were upside down. He’d done this whole maneuver without me even knowing it.

I also had the opportunity to fly in a Cobra [helicopter gunship] once. The Cobra only has room for a pilot and co-pilot, so I got to sit in the co-pilot’s seat. Cobras are extremely quick, plus they had mini-guns mounted right in them and cannons. The gunship itself would carry just a phenomenal amount of fire power. They’d get so heavy that they had trouble getting them off the ground. They weren’t good for maneuverability because they were loaded down with so much ammunition. But just flying in the different types of aircraft was fun. I guess what I liked more than anything else was the idea of having some kind of professional skill, learning how to do a job well. After I got home, I missed the excitement of the flying experience more than anything.

 

I also got to see a lot of Korean soldiers. In fact, the closest thing I ever saw to a large-scale atrocity was by the Koreans. We were flying over a village and I looked down and noticed all these women and children running out of one end of a town. I told the pilot and we circled back around for a closer look. And there were Koreans at the other end of town methodically burning all the houses, driving all the people out. Koreans were basically  pretty friendly  toward  American soldiers. So when we landed I went walking around. I talked to them.  I  found out that they’d been hit by a rocket from somewhere in the vicinity, so they just went in and burned the village. That was the way they normally deal with those things. They were always into self-defense things. I’ve been in the Korean barracks and the Korea idea of war trophies was a string of ears above a man’s bed. The more ears he had, the better warrior he was. That was the way they graded themselves.

We used to have to resupply Korean headquarters up near Qui Nhon. As I learned things about the Koreans, I came to the conclusion that they were in the same situation as the [South] Vietnamese, but they were willing to let the Americans dominate their attitudes. The Vietnamese didn’t do that and that made the Koreans hate them. The Koreans had the habit of never taking prisoners. They also killed each other with amazing regularity. I saw a command performance outside Qui Nhon. I watched it from the air.  We flew in a circle about 1000 feet over it, trying to figure out what was going on down there. You can see a hell of a lot from up there, especially after you get trained into looking.

I could see people lined up. Then I saw another group of men lined up and then I saw the prisoner. It was an execution by firing squad, a ceremony with everyone lined up to watch them kill this Korean soldier. I had never seen one before. It turned out that his offense was to let two captured Viet Cong escape. They had complained of illnesses, got put in a hospital, and when this guy turned around they split. So they shot him and I think that was fairly common. I was told by one Korean soldier that if he fell asleep on guard duty and his officer caught him, he didn’t have to wake him. He would take out his gun and shoot him. He swore it happened and everybody seemed to agree on it.

That’s very different from the way the American military operated. By that time [1969] the military in Vietnam was disintegrating so much anyway. Commanding officers were coming to the conclusion that they couldn’t control their men. That was when all the fragging started. Drug use was extremely high. There was no morale to speak of. Everybody knew the war was doomed. Because I was flying all over II Corps, I got all these stories from different bases. There was this general dissatisfaction. The most common response  to officers and NCO’s was  to think immediately in violent terms. The first reaction if someone didn’t like something was to say, “I ought to frag him.” Because you were surrounded by violence.

I remember flying into Cam Ranh Bay and visiting another aviation unit. I found out about a warrant officer and an E-7  who had made a career out of trying to find dope smokers at night. One night when they opened the door to their room after leaving the bar, a claymore mine wired to their light switch blew them both back across the hallway. I was told they barely had enough pieces to scrape up. They had a big investigation and found that it was definitely done by men on that base and that everyone seemed to approve of it, but they couldn’t find any one person to blame it on. That was their official result. Somebody there did it, but nobody talked. It was accepted.

Sometimes they used helicopters to fly CID [Criminal Investigation Division] units in to look for dope. But what was so funny was that the military spent a lot of time responding to marijuana and that directly caused an increase in the use of opium and especially heroin. It was really easy to get busted smoking marijuana because they could smell it. But it was possible to pack the ends of cigarettes full of heroin. Two or three hits was all most guys wanted. So you could smoke heroin almost anywhere and nobody would even know it. But they’d bust you in a minute for marijuana. Smoking heroin became more desirable. And it was cheap. You could get probably $300 or $400 worth in the United States for maybe $10 in Vietnam. The purity must have been well over 90%. The heroin used in the United States might be only 10%.

In damn hear every base I went into, I’d go to the enlisted men’s club, and see the kind of shit going on there. It was kind of like Al Capone and the Mafia days, when the club manager got to fuck every  go-go girl that came through; that was part of her contract. The amount of gambling that took  place, the amount of total, absolute drunkenness that was going on, the amount of alcohol that the military wanted people to buy was incredible. I mean that they’d give you ration cards that allowed you to stay drunk 30 days a month just on your own rations; you didn’t have to use anybody else’s. You could get six quarts of hard liquor, four or five cases of beer, five or six cartons of cigarettes for one person for one month. You’re talking about two dollars for a case of beer. I was buying Chivas Regal for $1.50 a bottle. I wish I could buy it for that price now.

If I had wanted to study the army’s loss of control while I was in Vietnam, I would have done it in the NCO clubs. I’ve sat and listened to some of these lifers crying in their beer about the way the Army’s changed. I mean they were literally singing the blues. It was no longer their Army. They were no longer proud of it. They were in this god-damn awful place with their god-awful soldiers and there was no respect and they didn’t do things the way they were told to do. Plus, almost everybody had a gun. This was because of the fighting between the ‘juicers’ and the ‘heads.’ And for a lot of people there was no crossover. You couldn’t be a juicer and a head at the same time. Some people who smoked a lot of grass would despise you if they saw you drinking a beer. They’d say, “What are you doing to yourself?” It got that exaggerated.

And there were a lot of lifers that had a very similar attitude toward drugs. One night at this one particular engineering base camp–They were an engineering battalion working on roads, so it wasn’t a fixed base camp— a bunch of lifers got drunk and said they were going to take care of all these heads who were smoking dope out behind this barracks. They had an actual firefight. It was right in the middle of the base and you had all these drunk NCO’s and all these stoned GI’s shooting at each other.  I was told a couple of people got killed.

What the military did—and it was funny because the whole thing was instigated by the juicers —was to ban alcohol coming into the base. They couldn’t do anything about the marijuana because that was already illegal. So the fact that the lifers had started the fight meant that they could not have their booze anymore. We would stop and refuel at this base.  It was only an hour out of Nha Trang on our way to Pleiku. When the NCO’s would come scurrying up to ask if we have any liquor on board, I figured out real fast that I could buy a $2 bottle of whisky at the PX and sell it for $25.

There was a lot of barter going on, black market stuff. I got into dealing a whole number of things because I was flying. That gave me a distinct advantage in any kind of market that I entered into. I could start out in a day and land somewhere where they had more C-rations than they knew what to do with. I could get four or five cases of C-rations for free and go somewhere else where they had more steaks than they knew what to do with and I could trade the C-rations for the steaks. If I got a couple of cases of steaks, I could trade them for an air conditioner somewhere. I might sell the air conditioner to an officer for $300. It depended upon how much energy I wanted to put into it. Occasionally I did, but I would have put a lot more into it if I had known how broke I was going to be when I got back to the United States. Some people did come back rich; there is no other way to describe it. I gave away somewhere between $50 and $100 once when I was really stoned, just gave it away to these Vietnamese kids. Money just didn’t mean much over there.

 

I began to get along with the Vietnamese downtown who were doing black market things. They were interested in me because I had access to the PX; I could get money orders. I had financial advantages for the black marketers. The rest of the Vietnamese people didn’t seem to care whether you were there or not. The fact that the MP’s wouldn’t come in there made it the most desirable place for me to go. I went primarily to meet Vietnamese women, but ended up being exposed to opium dens. It was a kind of ritual. Somebody would take you in and show you how to smoke opium. The first time I went in I smoked two bowls and I was stoned for about 48 hours. And it wasn’t like I’d ever been stoned before. I was very mellow; I was in control of all my faculties; I could do what I wanted to do. There was a nice cloud put all around me, effecting everything else; it made it much easier to deal with things; it just dissolved all anxiety.

All this time I was trying to figure out who the real Vietnamese were.  Eventually I spent a lot of time rapping with this old man. He was the papa-san at the opium den I went to. He knew who Marx and Engels and Lenin were and he spoke enough English to get across being one of the Viet Minh. That man had a pride that I couldn’t even touch. He was proud of what they had done to the French and he told me that, without a doubt,  that was going to happen to the Americans one day. It was just a matter of time. I’d go to him and talk about how fucked the war was. And we agreed almost always for the same reasons. I respected his right of self-determination and he respected mine. And it didn’t seem like either of us had much at the time. He provided me with a lot of food for thought. I was trying to get a sense of history of the Vietnamese and where they came from. I had to think about my sexism about Vietnamese prostitutes. It took me six month of fucking Vietnamese prostitutes to ask why all these pretty young girls were prostitutes. I realized that a 16-year-old girl could earn as much money in one day as her father could earn in a whole month. If her family was starving to death, what was she going to do? It was an honorable thing for her to be a prostitute. Because the name of the game was getting money away from the Americans and she was good at it.

The opium I was smoking cost 50 cents a bowl. For a couple of dollars a day I could stay completely stoned for 24 hours if I wanted to. Opium was much more available than anything else. When I got off duty, the main thing I wanted to do was get away from the military, which is really hard to do when you’re in a country occupied by the military. I’ve often thought that there was a concerted effort to separate the Americans and the Vietnamese; the military didn’t want Americans to know the Vietnamese. So we were warned about VD and drug use. Some sections of town, and pretty soon the whole town, was off limits.

The parts of Nha Trang I wanted to go to were the part the MP’s didn’t go because they were controlled by the Viet Cong.  It was really a switch. You go through the day wondering about the Viet Cong shooting at you when you’re in the helicopter and then you get off work and go downtown knowing that the MP’s have been known to shoot people at night. So then my enemy became the MP’s. And everybody carries a gun with them at all times. There were a number of fire fights between GI’s and MP’s in different parts of town.

I originally smoked opium because it kept me away from all these prostitutes. It was almost like a substitute for sex.  Opium has a way of sneaking up on you. By the time I left [Vietnam], I was smoking as much as 15 to 20 bowls at a time. It would take me about three hours. I could get just remarkably loaded and still function. If I went through an extremely frustrating situation in the helicopter at the base, I would go downtown and smoke opium and it all went away. Eventually, in the last six months before I came home, it got so I could get letters from the United States and tear them up without even opening them.

Because I didn’t want to deal with that shit. I had my own things to think about and I couldn’t be bothered. There was no crossover between their world and mine. And that created problems for me when I got home, when I had to face all that. But opium was really a good way for me to deal with it. I don’t know if I would have lived through the war without opium. I tend to think that people that get under a whole lot of tension do things to get them killed. If you put some distance between you and that, it’s much easier.

A Vietnamese papa-san  described opium to me better than anyone I’ve ever talked to about it. He told me about a Vietnamese legend  about this goddess whose name was Ko Ba. ‘Ko’ means children; ‘ba’ means older woman. The goddess lived up in the sky. Ko Ba was opium. She would be floating up in this cloud and in order to reach her you had to smoke opium. The more you smoked, the closer you got to her. But the closer you got to her, the farther she drifted away. It was a never-ending cycle.

The eventual goal was to become one with Ko Ba , which maybe meant death. Their idea of death is 20 or 30 years of smoking opium. Maybe if I was going to commit suicide I would go back to Vietnam and spend the next 20 years committing suicide in an opium den—just lay there and smoke opium. It was one of the most profoundly relaxing experiences I ever had. In view of their medical system, smoking opium is much more humane [than in the U.S.] They don’t have all these pills that all these Americans are popping all the time. The opium is for older people to smoke; it’s a normal way for dealing with aches and pains. Maybe that’s why they smile all the time. But also they are never gathered up and put off in buildings by themselves. All of the older people stay with the families that they raised and they are respected. Our old people are like automobiles that don’t work anymore. They’re discarded, only they are more expensive to take care of. We don’t have an efficient junk yard for old people yet.

In the beginning I only smoked on my days off. But eventually it turned into an everyday thing. I’d go smoke opium every night and I’d be back on the helicopter the next morning. And I could do all the things I needed to do. Fortunately, opium did not make you nod out. Then there was the question of how adrenalin mixed with opium. If you’re scared, it kept you calm. People smoked marijuana on the flight line before we took off; they smoked in flight, including the pilots a lot of the times, though it would depend on the pilot. It depended on their age quite a bit. The older pilots wouldn’t touch marijuana because they thought it was addicting; younger pilots had been exposed to it somewhat weren’t worried about it. You could tell from whatever pilot you were assigned to whether you would be smoking in flight the next day.

Some of the pilots would try to bust you right on the spot, create a really bad situation. It would have to be resolved one way or another… I’m surprised! I was just implying that somebody would get killed… just then! I haven’t felt like that for probably three or four years. That just really surprised me. My initial reaction, right away, is violence. It’s not a good way to live a long life. It’s something I’ve thought about really seriously from every aspect. I’ve made conscious choices not to be that way. But how easily you can fall right back into it. These are things that will take me another 20 years to figure out if I ever do, dealing with survival instincts.

 

I remember one day we got a special mission. We were told to be on the flight line early in the morning. We had some special passengers we were supposed to take to certain locations. What showed up were two second lieutenants that had just gotten  in-country, both infantry types. We had to take them into battle so that they could get their CIB’s [Combat Infantryman Badge]. But they didn’t tell us that. I found out after we got there. They [the command] wanted the men in the unit these lieutenants were going to  think they had CIB’s coming in. That was the whole purpose. That way the men couldn’t look down on them and say, ‘Well, I’ve been here. I’ve got my CIB and you don’t!

In order to get a Combat Infantryman’s Badge you have to be under enemy fire. If you don’t have one of those, you haven’t really seen combat. So, what we did, we flew into a hot area, we landed, these two fuckers got off, walked up, saluted and spoke to the person who was in command there, came back, got on the ship, and we took off and went back to the base. The only reason we took them there was so they could get those badges before they were sent to their own units. We took fire coming in and we took fire going out. When we finally got back to base I was so pissed I was ready to shoot them myself. I almost got in a fight with the pilot over it afterwards: “If they’re going to get CIB’s for being under fire, I’ll put them under fire right here.” He just said it was one of those things that we had to do. I told him that if  he ever took me on a mission like that again, that was it. We were done!. To me that meant how cheaply they valued my life.

One of the really significant things that probably everybody does through in Vietnam was to reach the point where you get short enough to think that you’re finally going to make it back home. For a long time it never seemed possible to me that I was going to live through the whole war and come back to the United States. I’d been flying for about 10 months and I had around 40 days left in-country. At 40 days I thought I was going to survive. I just went out to the flight line one morning, looked at the helicopter and I said, ‘I’m getting too short for this shit! I can’t do it.’

Another nice thing about flying it that it is voluntary. They can make you be a grunt or a clerk if you don’t want to, but they can’t make you fly. That is because of the importance of everybody working together for the same goal once you’re in the air. You don’t want somebody who doesn’t want to fly in a helicopter with you because they’re not just endangering their own life, they’re endangering your life. So if somebody doesn’t want to fly, it’s really very simple. They just don’t go up. And it is always understood. It was never even questioned. I just went in to the C.O. and said, “I’m not flying anymore.” Depending on your C.O., he might try some shit. He might say, ‘Well, you ought to fly anyway.’

My  C.O. reacted very, very poorly. He was looking for a good reason to get rid of me anyway. We didn’t get along; he didn’t like being disagreed with. He was a captain  and it was his first command. He was the third C.O. we had in a 12-month period. He thought I was a trouble-maker because I didn’t have the proper respect. He especially wasn’t used to dealing with people that talked back to him, even if they put ‘sir’ at the end of every sentence. As soon as I told him I wasn’t flying anymore, his way of telling me that I should keep flying was, “Well, if you don’t fly, We’re going to have to ship you out. We just can’t keep you around.” It was unheard of to get transferred  with 30 days left in-country. But with 30 days left, he sent me to Cam Ranh Bay.

They put me at this signal site up on this hill. That was probably one of the most interesting things I went through. Here’s this guy who has just put 600 hours in the air and he’s coming down here. A lot of people would ask me about flying, and I’d tell them about how beautiful the country was, what is was like to be at 10,000 feet, what it’s like to fly low level. Eventually they quit asking me because I was talking about what I liked. I wasn’t talking about gun runs on Vietnamese women lined up along the side of the road or the normal horror stories that people hear about helicopter pilots. A lot of pilots did a lot of damage to people with their helicopters. I’ve talked to pilots who’ve said that they could go down on a Vietnamese with their helicopter and take the back of a man’s head off with the front shoe of the helicopter skid. And that they had to stop outside the camp and wash all the blood off their skids before they went back in because that was illegal. Stories like that explain the way I was reacted to by the other people.

The sergeant-major in charge of this signal site decided that I was going to be his personal shit-detail man. He had all these plans for me. They really couldn’t do much with me because I had only 30 days left. So he told me that, first, I was going to build a latrine, then I was going to dig this ditch, and next I was going to fix up these barracks.  I wasn’t very pleased hearing that. I learned he’d been in the Army 19 years and was getting  ready to retire. So I just took him aside and told him that I really hope that he would be able to retire and that, if he tried to make me do all that shit, I was going to kill him.

I told him that life meant nothing to me whatsoever, that I was not going to do any work for him, and that I wish he’d please understand that. He believed me right from the beginning. He actually told me, “Look, I’ve only got about six more months to do and then I can retire.  I’m getting out of this Army. I’ve seen what’s happened to it and I  can’t take it any more. All I want to do is live through this tour.” So I said, “That’s fine. You can live through your tour. But you’re not going to  fuck with me!” And I was very adamant about the whole thing. He just bought it. He was going to leave me alone; I was going to leave him alone. And that is such a long, long way from where you are when you come into basic training, when you’re afraid of everybody—when you don’t know it’s a bluff.

My understanding with the sergeant-major meant I had pretty much a 30-day vacation before I went home. My day consisted of waking up in the morning, usually smoking a joint in bed before I’d get up. Everybody was smoking in the barracks of this place. The NCO’s and other people that didn’t approve of it didn’t come in the barracks. I’d get up about ten o’clock and go down to the ocean. The South China Sea is right there and the water is beautiful. I’d lay on the beach all day, then go back and eat dinner and watch a movie at night, drink some beer, smoke some dope, and go to bed.

 

By that time I’d spent time dealing with black GI’s and I got closer to some of them than I did hardly any  white GI’s.  There was a whole black sub-culture doing on there [in Cam Ranh Bay]. I related better to blacks because of the experience I had in Nha Trang, where most of the guys I met in the opium den were black.  They tended to congregate in the same place. The general attitudes toward officers, the drug use—all this was widespread. Since I’ve been back, I’ve talked to officers who have been discharged, listening to their side of the story.

I  know a captain who tried to have a command inspection. He just wanted to get people to fall out in formation. At first they refused to do it. When he finally got them to fall out, he saw this black soldier was wearing a nose ring and two ear rings. And the captain got carried away and pulled the nose ring out. The black soldier stepped out of line and knocked him flat on his ass. He hit a captain in front of the whole formation and he wasn’t severely disciplined. He was just given an Article 15 [non-judicial punishment]. This captain didn’t think there was any reason to discipline him any more than anyone else. It must have been a frightening time for officers.

One of my close friends was an infantry first lieutenant. We’d go around and do some speaking about the war. You know, as veterans we had some kind of special credibility. I guess the people who hadn’t been to Vietnam couldn’t know it was wrong to kill people. You had to go kill them and then you could come back and say it was wrong. We’d go around to college campuses. He was just really dynamite because he’d get up there and he’d say, “I’m alive because I went through Vietnam and I learned that you can’t shit the troops. You don’t lie to them. If I’d lied to them, I wouldn’t be here right now. They would have killed me.” And he was really conscious of that.

When you get that kind of talk coming from a former officer, well, that’s a long way from saying, ‘I was an officer and that automatically commands respect and attention and privacy.” He ended up thinking, “I have to be an honest person or else they’re going to off me.” I don’t know if it’s possible to come up with a good estimate of how many officers were killed by their own men. I have no idea, but I would imagine it could be very high. See, at that point in the war, I think the Army had almost completely lost control, almost totally.

There were a whole number of lines drawn—between blacks and whites, between whites that were sympathetic with blacks and whites that tended to be more racist. There was almost a riot at our welcoming back speech when we got off the plane from Vietnam. That was probably some indication of what was to come. You spend 24 hours on a plane coming over, they get you off and take you into this big room.  Everybody is freaked just to be back in the United States, knowing they are about to get out of the service. Then this captain comes out and he’d got a canned speech that he’d going to read welcoming us back to the United States.

He goes into his little song and dance: “You men have earned the right to live here as American citizens. You need to look up to no one when it comes to your right to be an American… You have done all this… you are equal… You have protected and defended our freedom… blah, blah, blah.” He got about half way through and a brother stood up in the back of the room and screamed out, “You filthy motherfucker, haven’t you ever been south of the Mason-Dixon line?” About ten or fifteen other blacks stood up and started screaming along with him. And this captain just lost it. He had never had people stand up out of an audience and address him that way.  He just put down his speech and walked off the stage. That was the end of our welcome home speech. And I wholeheartedly agreed with them. He was just giving us a bunch of bullshit—as if their life would be any different back here after going to Vietnam.

The significant thing was that those blacks were not willing to sit there and listen to it. They were not willing to tolerate it. They wouldn’t wait until they got outside to talk about it. They got up and stopped it right when it was happening. And I liked that. For them, that was probably the beginning of a new sense of racial equality. For me, it was the ending. That was something I truly miss about Vietnam—the sense of racial equality that I had when I was over there. I felt that I was one with my black brothers while I was in Vietnam; as soon as I got back to the United States (even with people I had known in Vietnam) we were no longer equal. We had to deal with our society again. I was a “racist” again, whether I wanted to be or not because I had some share of the responsibility just because I was white. While I was in Vietnam I didn’t have to deal with that shit and it was a relief. That’s something that I envied about being in Vietnam. For the first time I my life I didn’t have to be a racist. It could be a conscious decision. I chose not to be.

In the signal unit I was transferred into blacks were kind of tolerated flunkies. Most of them were so stoned all the time that if didn’t matter what job they gave them to do. The way the military functioned in Vietnam, in the infantry units and the units that were in the field, the units that had a real mission that required effort and energy and intelligence to accomplish, they didn’t have time to deal with disciplinary problems.  If somebody was a fuck-up, if somebody had a bad attitude, if somebody was hurting the work effort of other people, you didn’t take the time to discipline that person, to talk to him, to counsel him. You just shipped him back to a rear unit. So the rear units became the dumping ground for all the bad actors from these front line units. And some of them were really outrageous because the people who were least equipped to deal with those kinds of problems were the ones that were in charge of the rear units.

So it got to be a circus. The rear had the worst morale without a doubt. Everybody was unhappy back there. Out in the field, people would go off and do their own thing and occasionally got some satisfaction. They were in charge; they knew what their job was; they could get some gratification out of doing something right. But back in the rear none of it seemed to make any sense at all. Racial tensions were so polarized that sometimes they would have a white barracks and a black barracks even though the military was supposed to be integrated. But that wasn’t always enforced. There again, the overriding factor was that everybody had a gun. That makes these racial things much, much more complicated. Any number of times people would go out and shoot a gun before they knew what they were doing with it and sometimes they were the people with the least amount of experience with guns.

Everybody felt like they were outcasts. Nobody had hopes of winning the war. Everybody knew that the war was a loser.  You’d get scattered reports about demonstrations in the States and, of course, you’d get the military version of these “communist anti-war marchers.” I happened to have a friend who was a priest. He wrote me a letter telling me that he had just taken part in a demonstration against the war in Washington with 100,000 people. He was there. I read about this in the Stars and Stripes, which said there were only 10,000 people there. I started to realize the amount of lying going on. They’re lying to the Americans in Vietnam about what’s going on in the United States. There was talk among us about the amount of deception going on. But there were never any discussions about ‘what are we doing here?’ or ‘can we win or can’t we win.’ Everybody knew we were going to lose, but they viewed it in more personal terms, like ‘I want to do my year and get out of here’ and ‘I want to survive.’ On your first day in Vietnam you say you say to yourself, ‘I’ve got 364 days to make up.’ The very first day you start your countdown and then you wait a whole year. That presented a problem.

I had waited 14 months for that one event to occur and when it occurs it’s not unusual to have a complete sense of emptiness, of just being totally lost. You no longer have a goal to work for. When the goal is gone, what do you do then? I wasn’t prepared to go through all that and then come back to the United States.  They didn’t do a very good job of getting me ready to go to Vietnam; they did absolutely no job of getting me ready to come home. It took  not more than 48 hours from the time I left Vietnam until I was on the streets as a civilian walking around Seattle.

I was just totally freaked. I was scared, terrified because I didn’t have my gun. I felt threatened by everybody. And I was confused because I couldn’t figure out how life was going on so normally over here. I mean everybody was just going about their business. There wasn’t a war going on over here. People weren’t concerned about the war; they just didn’t give a shit.  I  didn’t know what to do; I didn’t know where to go.  I didn’t want to go home because I didn’t know if I could face my family yet. The reason I went to San Francisco was that it was a big city and I didn’t know anyone. I wouldn’t have to deal with anyone I knew. And so I just walked around a lot and looked at things and hardly talked to anyone.

I had a friend down in Los Angeles who was in the same helicopter unit in Vietnam. So I went down and stayed with him for a couple of weeks. He’d been back about two months longer that I had. And he was very reassuring. He said, “I know it doesn’t make any sense and it probably won’t and I can’t tell you anything, either…” Finally I got up enough courage to go home. But that didn’t work out well. See, I went through a big thing in Vietnam once I felt strongly and had taken a position on the war. Then I became over zealous in persecuting anybody I thought was responsible for it. There was no doubt in my mind that I had been duped and lied to and shipped off to fight something I didn’t know anything about. Partly that was my responsibility for not being better informed. I’ve since tried to take steps to remedy that. But partly I blamed everybody that sat back and paid taxes.

That made me feel better about what I had done, too. Two of the people I blamed were my parents. And I blamed them very strongly. When I was in Vietnam I had written a letter to my parents instructing them on what to do after I was killed. Naturally I knew that I wasn’t going to make it back. I told them that I didn’t want a military funeral, that I didn’t want any uniform anywhere near where I was going to be buried, that I didn’t care about anything else as far as burial arrangements. And then I took a page to tell them why I was killed. I told them basically that it was their fault.

I’m glad I didn’t die so they didn’t have to read that letter. But I came down on them really hard of my being there. And I told them that it wasn’t something that they had wilfully done. It was the fact that they live in this country, that they pay taxes, and they had never spoken out in opposition to that war. And that they  were willing to give my life on as little information as they had about what was going on over there. And that it was their fault as much as it was anybody else’s fault that I was there. I still feel that way to a certain extent, but I am a little more benevolent about saying, “Well, they are still my parents; and I love them both.” It’s hard to say what causes a war, but eventually it comes down to taxpayers. If it is being fought in our name, we’re responsible whether we like it or not. I still strongly believe that we have an obligation to do something about that.

After I got back home [to Indiana] I bought a motorcycle and for about three months after I got back I just rode my motorcycle. I refused to get a job or do anything that was supposedly productive. One day I picked up a copy of the Indianapolis Star, a somewhat conservative newspaper, probably the largest paper in Indiana. The headline on that particular day—it was a couple of months after I got out of the Army—was “First U.S. Soldier Dies in Cambodia.” And I knew that was just total and absolute bullshit because I had carried dead American soldiers out of Cambodia a hell of a long time before that newspaper came out.

So I very righteously picked up the phone and called the editor in Indianapolis. The guy at the editor’s desk wanted to know  what I wanted and I told him that his headline was wrong, and that he’d been misinformed,  that somebody had obviously gotten something screwed up. Because there were a lot of Americans killed in Cambodia for almost a year prior to the time he announced that the first one was killed. And I told him he should print a retraction. He told me very bluntly that he was used to getting calls from kooks, that he knew how to deal with them, and “Thank you very much for your opinion.” That was it. He hung up.

Then I started to realize what the hell was going on. The positive effect of the call was to make me angry. Here I’d just spent 14 months in Vietnam and this fat ass who’s never been out of his chair in Indianapolis, Indiana all his life is telling me his headline is right. So I decided that I was going to have to go out and tell some other people. Eventually that became almost as obsession. I spent a whole lot of time going around talking to people. I would go anywhere—high school classes, grade school classes. I didn’t drawn any lines; I felt it was my obligation. The way I had it worked out in my mind was: ‘I spent two years in the military; I’d better spend two years doing something about the military.’ And then maybe I can say I’ve got a clean slate for now. It didn’t work out that way. I   may spend the rest of my life trying to do something about the kind of attitudes that caused a situation like Vietnam to get started.

May 1976

10. Riverine

 

March, 1969. Vietnam was something I’d seen on the news. I was 18 and a half and at the time I hadn’t developed any sentiment one way or the other. Somehow we were right in the middle of things, but we listened to music and not the news. I think deep down inside I knew I’d go to Vietnam.  I always hoped I’d go to Germany, but then I began to change my mind. We got a lot of snow that winter at Fort Lewis while I was in AIT [Advanced Individual Training]. We had to pull FTX [Field Tactical Exercise] training and then we had another week of RVN [Republic of Vietnam] training. A lot of mock hootches were set up and we had to take these villages and pull bivouac. The only problem was we were doing it in three feet of snow. It made me feel that I wasn’t cut out to go to Germany or Korea if I had to spend it in the infantry just sitting in a fox hole in the snow.

I think going to Vietnam was a mere formality. They had gotten pretty loose by then. It was kind of obvious we were going. The drill sergeant pulled a midnight company formation the last week of training. He was a real asshole. He started laughing, saying, “I guess you guys don’t have anything to worry about. I’m being shipped back  for the second time.” Everybody  sort of hoped they would run into him over there. That was the night that we found out for sure.

We received our orders officially the day we graduated from AIT. I got two weeks leave. I left Fort Lewis February 14 and, on March 1, I reported to Oakland Army Base. That was a pretty hairy experience, too. Everybody knew we were headed for only one place and a lot of people were freaking out. They had a lot of weird details you had to pull while you were there. I ended up giving blood twice—two pints within 48 hours to get to go home for an extra day. The first morning I reported in they had roll call. We stood out on this huge street in front of the barracks. It seemed like there must have been 100,000 people there. They called off section numbers and those section had to get their stuff out of the barracks and report to this other building. Once we went in that building there was no way out. We were locked in. Each section was assigned to a flight. We stayed there until our flight was ready to leave. I thought that I was going to be put on a plane then; I had no idea I was going to be locked up in this bigger building for two days waiting.

It was like a big warehouse that had been filled with beds and partitions that didn’t go to the ceiling. There were some candy machines. We just sat and talked. I remember talking about what we expected. I still think we were all still hoping to get assigned to something besides infantry when we got there. People were talking about signing up for helicopter gunner and stuff like that so they wouldn’t have to hump. There were other people who had already split and the military caught up with them and brought them in. I saw one guy in handcuffs with his legs shackled together. They were putting his butt on that airplane. Some people got claustrophobia when they got locked in. There was always a constant hum in the building, along with the rattle of the candy machines. Everyone stayed with their section, just sat there and waited for someone to come and say, “Okay, there’s a plane.” The anxiety level in that building was incredible.

Then, suddenly, we got bused over to Travis Air Force Base, got on the plane and took off. We got to Bien Hoa on March 3, 1969. The first thing we noticed when the plane stopped was this ungodly smell. It was like musty bodies. Maybe everybody in the plane started a nervous sweat at the same time. Or maybe they circulated air in from outside, but I remember that it was awful. So we got off there and sat in this great big open Quonset hut until buses came. When they finally came we got on and it was strange because it had bars all the way around it like a jail. It meant hand grenades couldn’t come in. I was pretty freaked out. There had been a couple of buses with replacements hit between Bien Hoa Air Base and Long Binh, where we had to get our assignments. I felt nervous. I don’t think anybody knew exactly why they were nervous. Maybe it was because they could see Vietnamese on both sides of the road or they didn’t know what was going on, or they didn’t like being locked into something else, or ‘I’m finally here and I’ve got to spend 365 days.’

So we drove over to Long Binh.  After I landed in Bien Hoa, I noticed that everybody walking around had knee deep red marks on their pants and boots. Everybody called in ‘laterite,’ this red dirt, a thick powder. It was everywhere, maybe three, four, five inches thick, just blowing around. The weather was hot. Some people ended up staying in this stuff at Long Binh, but not me. They brought us into this great big room and we stood around a railing. They went around handing everybody their orders. I ended up going to the 9th Infantry Division.

My company commander from AIT was from the 9th and all I heard the whole time I was in AIT was that you didn’t want to go  to the 4th [Infantry Division] or  the 9th because both of them got their ass kicked the whole time they were in Vietnam. The 9th lost a lot of people in the Tet Offensive of ’68 because they had to take Lower Cholon Bridge in Saigon. Later they got hit with a lot of booby traps in the Mekong Delta. They ended up having the largest turnover of people. So I got assigned to Company A, 3rd of the 47th Mobile Riverines. They worked off Tango boats which were like iron clads with a big landing gate in front. They looked like something out of World War II. These landing craft cruised up and down the rivers making insertions. Originally the 9th Division went to Nam  on three big ships. The division lives on the big ships and pulled operations on the small ships. That’s what the Mobile Riverines were. My orders were to go to Dong Tam, to the 9th Division base camp. It was the first base camp turned over to the ARVN in the Delta in June/July of 1970 after I left Vietnam.

We went from Bien Hoa to Dong Tam  in the Mekong Delta for training. We spent seven days learning what Vietnam was all about. It was about as valuable as the rest of the training. After we got assigned our rifles, we were supposed to go out and zero them in, set the sights on them. Trainers had people walk  point. They set off smoke grenade booby traps. They were trying to show us what to look for. They had us do unreal things, reaching around in the mud and water and someone would hit one of the trip flares and this smoke grenade would go off right next to him. The sulfur from  the  smoke grenade  is just terrible. The training  NCOs would laugh;  they’d think it was funny.

They were supposedly trying to save us from ourselves. We pulled one night’s guard at Dong Tam in a bunker on what was supposed to be a pretty safe airfield. We got to sit there and watch the planes take off and land all day long. In the company area they had half a building reserved for people who were leaving on R and R or going home. We had formation there every day. The sergeant in charge made sure there were always less people there than were there the day before. That meant that for every person he had in the building, he had to send that person out on a detail that day. So whenever we were in division base camp, we had to pull details for division, either KP or burning shit. That was supposed to be one way of keeping guys from shamming in the rear.

The sergeant got me out of  there the first day. The supply sergeant from A Company had to come up with a truck every week and get all of the supplies for the company. So I just got on his truck, headed out of the division and went down to the My Tho ferry, crossed the Mekong River and drove for a while to a  town called My Long. The battalion had four company-sized base camps along this highway. Alpha Company was the first, then there was an artillery battery. Next was headquarters and Bravo Company. Charlie Company was three-quarters of a mile further and then Delta Company was even further down in the Delta. So we went through My Long and then, all of a sudden, we saw these people on this berm shooting off rifles. This was the first time I heard firing. The sergeant says, “Okay, this is it.”

 

These were people in Alpha Company. I found out later that they had gone out on an operation and come back and they were just firing off ammo they had taken out. It was easier than cleaning. So we drove into the base camp and I talked to the first sergeant while he decided what platoon I was going to. There were four platoons, three infantry and a mortar platoon. Ironically, they were called red, white and blue platoons. I was assigned to blue platoon. From then on everyone seemed to be more or less in the same boat. We had a black platoon sergeant who really looked after his people.  We had a hard-nosed lieutenant from West Point who knew he had to spend six months in the field and he was out to do all he could for his “country.” He never got anybody hurt, luckily. But he did some pretty crazy things.

The first day I was there I was introduced to David Weiss who was one of the people I was going to be living with in the bunker. We lived in bunkers that were nothing but posts with cross braces on them with sand bags laid up against them like igloos.  The first thing we did was to go over to the  bunker and get issued two claymores, some smoke grenades and some ammo. They decided that I would carry an M-16 for a while, which was lucky as far as I was concerned. People with M-79’s [grenade launchers] were carrying 120 rounds to the field. I guess they were going to break me in easy.

The second day I was there the company had an air mobile operation. Red and white platoons were going; my platoon was standing down, but they needed some people to fill a couple of extra choppers. The platoon sergeant and Louis Toma (who just got back from R and R), three new guys and a couple of other people who had been there a couple of months pulled the operation even thought it was their stand-down time. They were chosen because either they hadn’t pulled the last couple of operations or they hadn’t been around in a while. It was a ‘search and destroy’ operation of an island that was supposedly “infected” with VC. I was glad not to have to go.

On my first operation, the helicopter landed and we got off. Toma just looked at me and said, “Don’t move!” I still remember the look on his face. The chopper had landed on a booby-trapped 105 howitzer round. The trip wire went out in two different directions but the pin connected to the trip wire had been there for a while. It was rusted and that’s why it didn’t go off. We ended up getting on line and doing this search mission through a coconut grove. These groves are like four foot strips of dirt maybe 80 to 100 feet long with a canal on either side of them for irrigation. We were always humping across them. During high tide the canals would be up to the middle to your chest. You’d go across maybe two steps and the person in front of you would help you up out of it. We would do that all day long.

On this first operation we were on line and had to pull ourselves out all the time—150 people headed in a straight line. We were in the Nipopalm area and it was about the third canal that we hit ants. The red ant in Vietnam is about an eighth of an inch long. They’ll cover a green Nipopalm plant, a kind of jungle bush. It will be just red with ants. And you can’t go around it. In the military you’ve got to sweep on line, so you have to go through it. Everybody would get ants on them. Our pants would be tied shut at the bottom but somehow they would still get on our legs. All we could do was hope to get through them in a hurry and then start beating  on them while they’d keep biting. They were easy to kill, but whenever we’d run into them there’d always be too many. It always seemed like by the time we realized they were there it was too late because they were already doing their work.

On our search and destroy mission we found some civilians that weren’t supposed to be there. Whoever we found was supposed to be Viet Cong, so my lieutenant took them back to the PZ [pickup zone]. We were told, “Just do it and forget it!” It really didn’t matter to us that they were civilians; we just figured that somebody else would take care of them. Later on I found out that no matter what kind of identification they had, it wasn’t going to be good enough, especially if they were military-age males. It turned out that we had this one rice paddy that we used for pickups and landings. So we got picked up and flown to Alpha base camp. In addition [to operations], we usually ended up pulling three guard duties. One was at the company base camp which we had to do that night. Another was for our artillery support. The third guard was over at the ferry building, which turned out to be guard for the local whore house that was right there. Sometimes we also guarded an OP [observation post] if we were out in the bush. It all depended upon what the command wanted.

We were supposed to pull berm security, but we really did not have a berm [defense mound around the camp]. We were set up in this coconut grove along these canals with six bunkers per platoon. They were just scattered around this rectangular area and had trip flares and booby-traps outside of them. The only way to get from one bunker to another was to go across a hunk of tree maybe six inches in diameter set across the canal. It is pretty hard to learn to walk  on poles.  At high tide the canals would fill up and at low tide they would drain down, but most of the time they were full of pretty junky water. You had to put one foot in front of another for about eight feet or you fell into this muck, including a lot of it garbage that people threw out of their hootches. When I first got there, I fell off all the time.

After my first operation I got acquainted with Weiss. That first night we pulled guard together. He wanted to teach me what was going on. We were sitting on top of the bunker and he told me I was going to hear a fuck-you lizard. I just laughed and told him he was crazy. And then I heard what sounded like somebody sitting out in the jungle yelling, “Fuck you. Fuck you.” That was the noise that they made, so that was what they were called. He found a couple for me just to make me believe it. So we pulled guard, but nothing important happened. The company was pretty tight with the townspeople in My Long. The people did a lot of work around the company area. Any time there was extra food we’d take it down to  the village. Our company always had the least amount of trouble with the VC,  so things seemed to work out both ways.

Alpha Company  was a  loose company. We never had to wear our uniforms; we could wear shorts in base camp. But it got progressively tighter. At first we didn’t have to wear boots all the time. They almost forced us to wear thongs because of this skin disease that developed from having our feet in the water all the time. Our feet would swell up two sizes from being continually wet. It was an irritation, but if feet stayed swollen long enough you’d get a blood infection and these big sores would start popping out all over your legs. And once you have a blood infection, you weren’t going to get rid of it. I saw guys who had been out humping, staying wet five or six days at a time. They got the infection and had big oozing sores all over their legs six months later. A friend of mine had it and still has big scars on his legs. I guess I was lucky but some people swore they would never get rid of it. They’d go down to the first aid station every day and have the sores scraped. They were in a lot of pain.

So we pulled operation after operation. We used to do a lot of dumb things. For example, everyone in Mobile Rverines was supposed to take a swimming test. We were always traveling over water. I remember one operation when we went across a river at low tide. The water had dropped 20-some feet so it wasn’t too much of a problem getting across. When we came back though it was about 15 feet deep and we didn’t have any ropes. It had even flooded about 10 feet on either side of the bank, so you couldn’t even tell where the river was. And we had to get across with our gear.

You have flak jackets, ammo, Claymores, and all this other junk. In the past we have been able to find a sampan, push all our stuff across, and then swim across. But this particular time we have five people in the platoon who couldn’t swim. The lieutenant, using all his military strategy, put three of them and all of our equipment in a boat we found. Instead of having us hold on to the boat and kick it across, the lieutenant got them all in the boat with all of the gear and no paddles and tried to shove them across. It was bad enough that they couldn’t swim, but that was just too naive. They were quickly pushed downstream and the people in the boat got panicky. The guy in front leaned the boat which immediately dumped them all in the water along with all of the equipment. There was a big scramble for people and everybody got out okay. I heard later of a couple of people getting drowned that way and I can see how easy it would be.

Later on, I had a similar experience when we pulled an operation off Tango boats. We got dumped off at low tide. When we began to cross the river we had to drop down about 14 feet to get to the mud. When you walked across the mud, you walked as light and went as fast as you could, hoping you didn’t get too much weight on one foot. But I was carrying the machine gun when I dropped down, so that I sunk down a little farther that everyone else. I had ammo on my wait and the mud covered the ammo. I just kept sinking and sinking until I was tuck in the muck up to my chest.

The only way to get out was to keep rocking back and forth, trying to move my legs up a bit, trying to get some of the mud to ooze up under me for support. It’s kind of like getting stuck in the snow. But it was all silt, what I’d imagine quicksand to be. Nobody would help me because they knew they had to cross it and they didn’t want to get stuck either. They took the machine gun off my shoulders because they didn’t want anything to happen to it. But as far as them helping me, it was useless. Other guys started crossing farther down so they wouldn’t get stuck. I kept trying to wedge my body. I finally worked my way out after about 45 minutes. It seemed like forever.

Another incident occurred when Secretary of Defense [ Melvin] Laird was flying into the tip of South Vietnam to have tea or whatever he was having with one of the provincial leaders. This was May of ’69. He flew in to see this area which had been supposedly liberated by the Thieu regime. The ARVN had secured the town. So Laird’s going to make this big debut for lunch or whatever he was to show up for. And the division asked the brigade and the brigade asked the battalion, so battalion asked A Company. Blue platoon of the 47th was selected to go pull security guard for the Secretary of Defense on their stand-down day.

We had to wear clean fatigues and polish our boots. We had been humping in the boonies for three months and we had to polish those boots. Instead of carrying ammo wrapped all around us, like we did out in the field, we had to carry it in boxes, which is just absurd. We had to put on new camouflage liners on our helmets so that none of the foul things  we wrote on them could be seen. I had written FTA [Fuck the Army] down the front of my helmet and had a seven-inch purple and pink flower pasted on the back, which didn’t go very well with the officers. Anyway, we had to get all dressed up and be flown down to the South China Sea. I had never seen it before. The whole time we were working the Delta all we saw was rivers and rice paddies. There were no mountains; all you could see was coconut trees and wood lines.

We got on the helicopters and took off. Nobody knew exactly where Laird was because it was supposed to be a big secret. So they dropped us in the wrong town.  Then the ARVN’s were supposed to drive trucks to pick us up, but they never showed up. We ended up walking two hours carrying all this ammunition in our hands in boxes down this road that was covered with about three inches of dust in an AO that we had never worked before. We finally got to town, but instead of being able to stand out in front of houses and drink coke to wash away the dust, we had to hide behind the buildings so that Laird wouldn’t know we were there. I remember my parents wrote to tell me about it and I wrote back saying, “Oh yeah, some secure village. We were hidden in the bushes.” They had ARVN positions out in front of us and we were right behind them. It was a pretty ironic situation. After Laird had his ride around town to see what a secure place it was, to see how much more developed it was, he got back in his helicopter and flew back to Saigon. We immediately ran into the village for some cokes and waited for helicopters to get us out of there. It was just a disastrous day.

But each day was mostly just a normal routine. There were two wood lines we used to work as AO’s. One was called Bravo Ten. It was just outside our base camp. It was where the company commander sent you if there wasn’t any other place he’d like to send you. It was a catchall operation. You’d be sent out to find booby traps. The first 20 feet of the wood line was guaranteed to be nothing but solid booby traps. We had two Tiger Scouts, On and Lee. They used to walk point all of the time. On had been a company commander for the NVA and Lee had been a kind of goof-off. Their job was to clear booby-traps. And they were real good, at least until they walked into one wood line too many and got hit.

By that time I had moved around the platoon and I had learned a lot of Vietnamese. I knew  On had connections with the NVA. When you were with the Tiger Scouts you picked up key phrases. And later on, after I had been moved up front and was walking point machine gun, I got to talking to them. The whole time we’d be on an operation, they’d be talking. But they weren’t talking to each other; they were talking too loud to be talking to each other. They were talking to somebody else. I think our platoon had a lot of respect not only from the Tiger Scouts, but I think there were other people that didn’t want to mess with us. That was part of  how you went through Vietnam, at least where I was. You let people think you were good and they left you alone.

Lieutenant Daley, our platoon leader, helped. He was kind of crazy. For example, one day we got shot at from the wood line. Daley had a 90 mm  recoilless rifle; its like a big mortar that shoots beehive and HE (high explosive] rounds. This gun is like an artillery piece except that you fire it from your shoulder. We usually never carried it, but this one day it was going to be an easy day, so we did. We set up to eat lunch and we got fired on. And, all of a sudden, Lieutenant Daley loads rounds into this 90 recoilless. We were behind the hootch and the back blast comes right through and takes out half the hootch. We didn’t even know he was standing there with this damn gun. We thought we were taking mortar rounds and that we were all going to die.

After he fired the 90 recoilless, Daley got our platoon together and, at a dead run, we started chasing whoever shot at us. We chased them for 45 minutes. The whole time the company commander is yelling, “Come back! Come back!” He was left with white platoon, which was a screw off platoon. He hardly ever sent them to the field and they never pulled security for him. So we were running around the wood line. He didn’t even know where we were. Lieutenant Daley didn’t care about anything except catching the VC. We got shot at three more times, but nobody got hurt. By the time we got through, we didn’t have any ammunition left. That was the only reason we went back in.

After my first two months Lieutenant Daley left. A lot of people turned over because of the pullout in June and July, 1970. Just before we pulled out, we went on our standard sweep mission. We hit a booby-trap and that’s when our two Tiger Scouts got killed. We lost 15 people that day. We got picked up by helicopters in the usual way.  There were only so many areas where they could drop us and pick us up. But we got inserted at an LZ I had never seen before. I had been in these areas enough to have a pretty good feel for them, but I had never seen this place before. It made me real nervous to begin with. I was still carrying the machine gun. When I got on the helicopter for some reason I didn’t sit by the door where I normally sat. Ordinarily, you wanted your machine guns by the door in case any thing happened.  I was on the inside of the wrong helicopter and got inserted that way. So I got off in the back of the platoon instead of the front.

There was a lot of confusion, a lot of milling around. People just did not want to go into the wood line. It was one of those days where people knew something was going to happen and they didn’t want anything to do with it. The company commander was with our platoon that day and he said, “Come on, let’s get going. Let’s get in the wood line.” We had a new platoon leader. I guess I was still E-5 (I was E-3 when I got in-country. My orders for E-4 were backdated to March 1969. By May I had made E-5 and got E-6 in August.) Anyway, this new platoon sergeant was the first from NCO school. He didn’t prep fire the wood line like we normally did by firing M-79 rounds into it. There was this path going into the wood line, a hardball or hard surface of ground. So the first 10 or 15 people in the platoon started walking on the hardball along the edge of this canal, moving right into the wood line. As I walked onto the hardball from the paddy, I heard this huge explosion.        The blast had come from the front. It wasn’t like a howitzer round, where there would be a hole in the ground. It was like a Claymore that blasted down the canal. The Tiger Scouts were right up front when it went off.

My partner David Weiss was one of the first people in line behind the scouts. He had been in the platoon longer that almost anybody. There was a standing rule that people who were short [ready to go home] never walked in front unless they were crazy. The longer you were there, the farther back in line you were supposed to be. We used to have a philosophy that the operation you miss may be the one that saves your life. But the CO needed some people to fill the helicopters that day. Weiss had gone on sick call. The next day he was supposed to go to Hawaii. In fact, he had already been replaced because of his R and R. So the CO had gone in and talked to him and said, “Look, we need some guys to fill the chopper.” And Weiss said, “Do I have to carry a radio? And the CO said he didn’t. Weiss said, “Okay, I’ll go. He was walking point and got clobbered. My friend Garf was standing right in front of Weiss and behind Nodich, who got hit. Garf wasn’t even touched, but afterwards he wouldn’t talk to anybody. I don’t know what was going through his head. Maybe is figured, “How could that happen?” For a while he just sat and rocked. The last time I saw him was when they took him out on a helicopter because he was so blown out.

I couldn’t believe what happened. If we had only prepped the wood line like we always did with Lieutenant Daley. I really thought what happened could never happen. I dropped my machine gun; I was one of the first people up there after the explosion. And I got yelled at by the CO. He wanted me to set up a position. He didn’t know what was going on. So I went back, got my gun and set up a position. Then I took off all my gear and went to see what I could do. There were these two Tiger Scouts and all these other people just laid out. Everybody carried two bandages, those big first aid patches. There were maybe 40 guys in the platoon. But even thought there was only one explosion, people had so many holes in them that there weren’t enough bandages to go around.

On guy ended up losing an arm; someone else lost part of a hand. About five were killed and the rest were wounded. People farther back just got scratches, not major stuff. If I had been on point, I would have been killed. Just counting back from where I normally walked, that guy got it. (That happened to me twice. The other time I was the platoon sergeant in the 6th of the 31st. But I missed an operation and I had this other guy take over my squad. Later they dusted him off in a body bag.) Whatever it was, something was right. Maybe it was the pastie flower on the back of my helmet.

The day the Claymore went off, I ended up carrying the two Tiger Scouts out with Weiss. The colonel brought his loach [LOH: light observation helicopter] down. He got a medal for his observation. He got off and let us put Nodich in it. He had some real bad shrapnel wounds on his head. He was still alive but he couldn’t stand the noise of the loach. Then we put Weiss on the loach. I was giving him mouth-to-mouth and then, just before the loach took off, a medic came and took over. When I quit, I told him to hold on. He said, “Yeah,” and his eyes just rolled back in his head. They dusted him off. I found out later that while they were going to the hospital at Dong Tam, the noise of the helicopter got to Nodich so bad that he almost shoved the medic out of the back of the chopper. He died 15 minutes after he got to battalion.

After all that, I was just covered with blood. My platoon was just completely wiped out. Everybody in the platoon knew these people. Of course, it had happened before but this one really got to everybody. Instead of  it being one or two people, it was 15. The colonel called in some Cobras and they blew the wood line. He called in some artillery; he did this symbolic thing. Than he said, “Now we’ve got to go in the wood line and clear the rest of it.” This one black guy named Artice, who was in another squad of the platoon carrying the other machine gun, walked over to me and said, “If you’re not going, the rest of the platoon’s not going.”

You see, there was a rule when you went to Nam. An “older guy” would come up to you after you got there and say, “Walk everywhere I walk and you’ll be okay.” And you put all your faith in that person. Weiss was the person I had put all my faith in. He and I were the to “oldest” guys in the platoon by then. Everybody in the platoon knew how close we were. As a matter of fact, everybody in the company knew, even the CO. So when the colonel said that… well, all the guys liked Weiss well enough that they weren’t going to do anything else that day. And if I felt that way, there was no way they were going to do anything to put me in a position where I was going to get hit. The colonel was told that he might as well call in for some choppers because we weren’t going to do it. So he ended up taking us all back to the base camp. He wasn’t too happy about it either. And he dressed our CO down right there in the field, which didn’t go down very well either.

The colonel was not well liked in the battalion to begin with. He made people do things like go into the Bravo Ten wood line. Because he was such an ass, some guys drew up posters saying, WANTED: DEAD  OR  ALIVE  and put them up all over battalion. We had two radio frequencies, company and battalion. When we were on an operation, maybe sitting in a bunch of hootches just waiting around, a lot of times were would flip on battalion frequency. You’d hear things like a helicopter pilot call down and say, “Hey, I’m short.  I’m on the left  side of his helicopter,”  because obviously it was  M-60 machine gun fire. The pilot could count the tracers coming up. So when I made the decision that I wasn’t going to do anything else and the whole company backed me up, he wasn’t in a position where he could really push the issue. He would have had a whole company on his hands that would have gone nuts. He already had what appeared to be a mob. Guys wore beards; they didn’t exercise military courtesy. They were probably as close to a group of mercenaries in the sense of organization as you could get. And here was this clown trying to make them do things.

I remember once I was walking point and I reported to him over battalion frequency. “Hey, I found five booby-traps. I don’t want to go into this wood line any farther!” He said, “Sergeant Boitano, are you on point?” And I said, “Yeah.” This was after we got to know each other, after the first incident. And he said, “Get your ass off point and put one of those FNG’s [fucking new guys] up there on point and keep going. Keep going and be careful.” I called him back and said, “What the hell do you think I’m being! Why don’t you come down here and be careful.” And I just turned off battalion frequency. To have a person tell you to ‘be careful,’ when the only things you’re finding is booby-traps—what good is that? That’s just absurd. The one thing you’re sure of  is somebody’s going to step on one.

About a week after Weiss died I had to go up to the colonel’s office with the company commander. There was no way that I was going to the colonel’s office before that. I made myself scarce for a while. Finally, I went up there and he went though this long thing about what I did was a court-martial offense and how he could do all these things to me. The CO was in the background. He had already had his butt chewed and lost all his brownie points for the rest of his military life. He wasn’t going to say anything and I didn’t care. So here’s the colonel yelling at me and I’m sitting there listening to him. I didn’t want to say anything because I knew that he was hot enough to do something that I would regret later. So I just led him babble and babble.

I learned in the military that you have to attack a problem logically. And I thought about this thing they were going to have for my friend. After you’ve been killed, they have this military ceremony. So after he got through yelling at me and telling me all of the horrendous things he could do to me, I looked him in the eyes and asked if he would come to the ceremony. I said, “Look, this guy was the next best thing to a brother I’ll ever have and he’d dead. So will you come to the ceremony?” That just stopped him. By keeping himself away from that, he was able to make people do all these crummy things. When I confronted him with ‘will you come?,’ it put him on the defensive. He was going to have to come up with a reason why he couldn’t come. And he couldn’t. I started communicating with him at the human level. “Okay, these people got killed. Now what?” It’s not like ‘these people are dead, so that’s the end of it.’ But, ‘these people are dead, so what are you going to do to rectify the problem.’ What was going on between us at the moment was, ‘So you’re a colonel. Bring my friend back and I’ll fight you war. If you can’t do that, then you’re just like me.’

In our company area we had a headquarters building which was a big old stucco mansion and behind it was something like a servant’s quarters, a long narrow building that was next to the eating area. It had a covered area with a bunch of tables under it. We gathered out there and all this brass showed up from god knows where just for this ceremony. First of all, they had this table with two helmets and two sets of boots on it for Weiss and Nodich. The helmets had brand new camouflage covers and the boots were brand spit-shined new. Both Weiss and Nodich had FTA written on their helmets and neither one of them wore spit-shined boots. So the brass started doing these speeches. They were telling how these people died for what they believed in and how we had to go on in their name and do the same. Everyone in the platoon was looking at me and I was looking back at them thinking, ‘Man, how can this guy say this stuff to us? Maybe it would have been better to take the court-martial and keep him out of it.’ The colonel was making a mockery of the whole thing. He was way over his head; he left right after that. The whole battalion had had it. He thought he had the Viet Cong on the run and he was going to keep them that way. But the only people running around like chickens with their heads cut off was us.

There was never a sense of mission. We just kept walking around the same area  mostly looking for booby-traps. Some of the missions were search and destroy. We were supposed to go in and tear everything up. We all knew that it was absurd. First of all, you’re doing this blitzkrieg on everybody’s home. We’d just walk into a Vietnamese house and do what we wanted. I’d automatically shudder and say to myself, ‘What are you doing?’ Then we’d give people a break and start knocking on doors saying, “Can we come in?”  Then there’s this clown flying around in a helicopter, telling us these absurd things, and we’d be down on the ground trying to interact with these people. Or, we’d be walking in mud up to our knees or our waists and he’s flying around playing his little games.

Maybe one full platoon out of my company or one company out of three or four companies [a battalion] would be ‘loadies.’ They’d get loaded. The rest wouldn’t want to have anything to do with dope. People would get loaded in a place they felt comfortable, like a base camp, where someone else could be concerned about what was going on. I remember one night with the 3rd of the 47th when my platoon got loaded. I went to sleep early. Later I heard this ‘bock, bock, bock.’ As soon as I heard it, I knew what it was. All seven trip flares had been set off along this path that led up to this one bunker. When I heard the seventh one, I got up and went outside. I waited almost a minute.  Nobody was awake on the entire berm. I started firing and then somebody else started firing, and then somebody else. There must have been 80 or 90 people there. One guy in each bunker—18 bunkers—was supposed to be awake. At least! I think everybody had partied that night. We never found out how the flares got tripped. It might have been a dog, no telling what. You had to have been loaded and crashed not to have heard all that noise because the flares definitely make a noise when they go off. And if you weren’t loaded, you  didn’t have a reason not to be on guard duty. That was in April or May [1969], after I’d been there a while. That shows you how loose it got.

One day just before the 9th Division officially pulled out of Vietnam, we  made 15  insertions. They picked us up with helicopters and put us in 15 different placed just to see if we could make trouble. As far as we were concerned, the colonel was just trying to use us to force the Vietnamese [enemy]  into something that they didn’t really care to do. They were a lot more effective in firing mortars into the division base camp.

We did find a big weapons cache. That’s because we had a chieu hoi who knew where all these weapons were out in the middle of nowhere. The Viet Cong could never get in there to carry them out. There was a big write up about that: “Ninth Division Finds Big Weapons Cache.” That was one of the operations when ARVN were supposed to be working with us. We had all these weapons spread out on the ground. We were getting ready to get back on Tango boats when all of a sudden this helicopter drops in to have a look. This American mercenary gets off. I talked to him and he told me he’s making $80,000 a year.  All he did was take this group of 10 or 20 ARVN’s around. So they had their picture taken with these [captured] guns. We were covered with mud, but their pants weren’t even muddy. Then they got back on the helicopter and took off with the guns. That was their part of the mission. The big write up told about how they helped us to find all this junk.

We had company stand-down the first of July. They [the command] had decided that they were going to give everything in the Delta to the Vietnamese. I was still with Alpha Company. We were the first unit to be sent home, quote unquote. We sat in our base camp for two weeks while the division was getting ready. I think all they were doing was shuffling everybody’s paperwork; some people were going home and some people weren’t. I got reassigned to the 6th of the 31st in the First Brigade. It was our recondo unit which worked six-man lurp [Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol] teams. It was crazy. People I knew were going home after three months in-country and others like myself—I had been there five months—weren’t going anywhere. When I went to the 6th of the 31st, they were pulling helicopter operations out of the division base camp heliport.

So I got to see a lot of people coming in and getting flown out to Bien Hoa. The people coming in were wearing patches other than the 9th Division on their shoulders: 101st [Airborne], 82nd [Airborne], 4th [Infantry] Division and Big Red One [1st Infantry Division]. People were getting moved around, giving the impression that all these people were going home. In actuality, most of the guys going home were slated to go home anyway.  The people I saw were going home maybe two months early. They’d have ten months in-country. Back in the U.S. it sounded like the whole 9th Division was being sent home. I was in the 9th Division and I wasn’t going anywhere. They had a big parade in Kansas City, I think. [Fort Riley, Kansas was home base of the 9th Division]. The 3rd of the 47th Mobile Riverine was sent home and here I was sitting in Vietnam. I just thought, ‘Yeah, President Nixon. You did it again!”

The 3rd of the 47th had it together, but the 6th of the 31st had a lot of accidents. Most of the time they got assigned to berm guard at division base camp. When we moved from the Delta to the division base camp we surrendered our whole area to the VC. The brass said they gave it back to the ARVN’s but I had my doubts. When we pulled out, our whole base camp was torn down. They had already pulled Charlie and Delta Companies out before we left.  We were still pulling operations and then one day we went by our base camp and there wasn’t anything there. It turned out we were security guard for the 9th Division as it was leaving Dong Tam. It was a pretty strange thing to be the last people to leave the division base camp. Every time in the past I had gone into division base camp there would be just thousands of people. As we pulled guard duty there was hardly anybody there anymore. One day we officially turned the base camp over to some ARVN’s. They were supposed to pull berm guard. I don’t know if they ever did.

After I got to the 6th of the 31st, we went into Saigon. As we were crossing the Cholon Bridge, we saw this ARVN guard on it. One of our guys who had lost a friend made this smart remark to this guard, something like “You know, if you were out in the field, my friend wouldn’t have gotten killed.” And the guard looked back at him and said, “This is your war, not mine,” and went back to guard duty. The guys just didn’t know what to do with that; they talked about that for a long time. How could this guard say that to them? Here they were protecting his country.

You were in an indefensible position. You went over there because you didn’t know what was going on. You did, but you didn’t. You got over there and didn’t like what was going on, but you couldn’t leave. You just had to make the best of it. Some people did things that I’m sure they wouldn’t do if they had them to do over again. And other people did things just to get by. I did the least to get by. I wasn’t going to get anyone in a situation that was going to endanger them; it wasn’t worth it. At the gate of Tan San Nhut Air Force Base there’s a cross for the first American to die in Vietnam. That made a big point with me.  After that first person died, I didn’t care how much President Nixon said that he was going to have a “just and honorable peace.” All the hope was lost when that person got killed and it was just downhill from there.

The 6th of the 31st moved to Can Giouc, about 15 miles south of Saigon. It’s still in the Delta, but its south. We opened up another base camp in a real flat area with huge ponds in it. That building were built on either side of the road and over the water. We pulled operations from there for about three or four months, then we moved further south again and built a third base camp. They sent a lot of the company out to work with the 25th Infantry Division. We were working Parrot’s Beak, which was east of Saigon. Everyone believed that there were a lot of NVA there. The theory was that the NVA would come crashing down from this area in huge swarms to do this big attack on Saigon. So we had to do lurp team patrols  [Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol] and make sure there was no big buildup. The helicopter unit that flew us most the time were called “the Boomerangs.” They were kind of crazy. They flew us out of Dong Tam and later out of Bien Hoa. They used to dump us off the helicopters in these six-man teams, laugh and say, “See you in six days.” But a lot of times they didn’t see anybody in six days.

We pulled these phoney operations. We went out and set up. We were supposed to be doing patrols, but we’d just go out and sit. I wasn’t going to be a hero. I was a platoon sergeant and we were working as squad details. I got to pick the people I wanted to go with. Then I’d say, “Let’s go,” and we’d go out and lay back. Some of these operations could get pretty hairy. Patrols would make contact and there wasn’t any support. You were just out there by yourself and you had to do whatever had to do to get out of there. There was infiltration going on in maybe twos and threes, but not a lot of enemy movement. Most of the traffic was going back to the Parrot’s Beak. We were out in the middle of nowhere. In general, the NVA were coming from way down south in the Delta (where we had been before) or from the north, from the pineapple groves in the 25th Division AO. Where we were, the situation was more or less in limbo. So we just sat back and hoped nothing would happen.

 

The Parrot’s Beak is pretty close to Nixon’s [1970] Cambodia invasion route. People at home got uptight about being in Cambodia, but we had worked Cambodia about three or four months before then. I had maps. They’d let us off the helicopter and say, “Here you are, buddy,” and that’s where we stayed until we got picked up. Sometimes we moved north or south, did these cloverleaf movements. But in general I wasn’t going anywhere. Some guys played cards. I just lay back the whole time and pulled guard at night. The VC or NVA figured we weren’t bothering anybody, so they didn’t bother us. If we came in contact, it was because the battalion commander was doing something that he knew was going to get somebody hurt. For example, when I was with the 3rd of the 47th, a cease fire would be announced. Instead of having  everybody  stay in the base camp where they’re supposed to be during a cease fire (as far as I’m concerned), he’d send everybody out on the wood line and have us setting up these long blocking forces. If  there were VC  trying to infiltrate into town to see their families, they’d run into these patrols. So it was similar; we’re out on patrol during the stand-down.

I remember this one operation with the 6th of the 31st. We were set up in this ville and we’d have artillery fire marker rounds every  night so they [headquarters] would know exactly  where we were. If something happened, they could put artillery around us. So this one night we called in  a marker round and had them set our position. Then these two Cobras arrived; they wanted to fly a sword mission. That’s when they come in with their flood light and look over the wood lines. If they saw anything suspicious, they’d just blow it up. The Cobra pilot called me and said, “I’m flying over your position now,” and he had his light on. He made this big half circle around the area and then turned off his light, flew over the village toward the wood line and blew it away. It seemed pretty obvious that everybody was shamming.

A lot of times air support would be out somewhere on a mission and they’d fire off some rounds, but they’d have some left. The Air Force would call us and say, “Do you need anything? We’ve got two Phantoms flying around loaded. Do you have anything you want us to blow up?” I had this happen one time and I said, “Sure, there’s a tree out here. Do you want to blow it up?” And the pilot says, “Sure, we’ll try.” So these two Phantoms did this long bombing run, dropped all this napalm on this tree. When they were all through they asked, “Did we get it?” I said, “Yeah, I don’t see it anymore.” That seemed to be what people were doing. Everybody just tried to get by the best they could. That made nice being a platoon sergeant because you could make it a lot easier on everybody else in your platoon.

We set up a base camp outside Cambodia. It was an artillery position that we’d pull operations off of. This was an area between Saigon and Cambodia called the Plain of Reeds. It was just water and real high elephant grass that kind of looks like sugar cane.  You have to mat it down to get through it. The area is so flat that the rivers would just flood over in places, just water everywhere. We’d pull operations  on these hydroplanes. We screwed around, went for rides and stuff. There wasn’t anybody around, really. As far as the booby-trapping that we were used to farther south, it just wasn’t going on.

With that danger gone, all you had to contend with was making contact with the enemy and hardly ever happened. Then again, with booby-traps, you did have a way of finding them before they found you. So we thought we had it pretty good where we were. The only problem was the mosquitos. And, after all, it was really pretty country. I made a lot of jokes about coming back to Vietnam and opening a travel agency, taking tours of Vietnam, showing people Hamburger Hill or taking them down to the Mekong Delta  saying such-and-such a unit operated here. People laughed at me, but as far as weather and being able to get by, that country has a lot to offer.

In my eleventh months I went on R and R; then I went AWOL and went home. I had saved up my R and R  so I had a lot of seniority. I didn’t use it until my eleventh month in-country because I decided I was going to extend. When I asked for Hawaii, they said okay. I flew out of Tan Son Nhut to Hawaii where we had a briefing. They told us we couldn’t leave the island and all this crap.  Before I went to the briefing, I had called the airport and told them I wanted a reservation on the next plane out. I had an hour. I used a different name. I didn’t know whether they’d check the roster of names at the airport.. I should have known they’d never bother. At the airport I paid for my ticket with brand new bills. I had this silver bracelet on, short hair, I was pretty tan from the sun in Vietnam. I must have been obvious. These two MP’s walked by while I’m pulling out these new bills and I thought, ‘I’m going to get popped right here.’ But I didn’t get caught and I flew on toe San Francisco. So I got to come home for about six days. I was on R and R in Hawaii but AWOL from Hawaii. Maybe they didn’t really care as long as you got back in time. It gave me a different perspective for what it was going to be like when I finally left Vietnam.

Vietnam becomes all your life. Then you come back to the United States for six days all the time knowing that you’ve got to go back. I was kind of in limbo at home because I knew I had to go back. Then, on the flight back, it was like I’d gone to sleep and dreamed it while I was on guard duty. Like, I had been sitting in Vietnam and thought myself home. I had waited eleven months for six days and then, here I was, back again. It was such an emotional letdown… the reality of being back. I think I cried for a little while. Then it really hit me. God, I was home. Why did I come back? I was there; that’s all I wanted. After April my only goal was to go home. It made me feel that I hadn’t gotten any smarter.

 

In the unit I was in we didn’t have any black/white problems; we had black/Puerto Rican problems. They were drafting a lot of guys from Puerto Rico; these people were feisty. I would imagine there will be a pretty big thing in Puerto Rico one of these days. When they got back they thought they’d been shucked pretty good, even more than the blacks. The blacks in the U.S. didn’t have any reason to go to Vietnam; the Puerto Ricans were one step further down the line. When I was in the rear, I saw them come through the barracks with bunk adapters, these metal rods that go between two bunks to stick them together. One night one group would go through venting their frustrations; the next night the other group would go through.  The whites just minded their own business. We just stepped back and thought, ‘As long as you guys are beating on each other, you not beating on us.’

Blacks and Puerto Ricans knew that if they started beating on whites the repercussions from the military hierarchy would be a lot harder than if  they just beat on each other. When people asked me about race relations  in Vietnam and I said it wasbetween the blacks and the Puerto Ricans, they just looked at me and say, “Are you crazy? Where were the whites all this time?”  But people that spoke the same language stayed together. Californians hung out together; New Yorkers hung together. You could talk about the same places; you just had common points. Puerto Ricans loved baseball. When they weren’t fighting, they were listening to baseball games. They hung together because they had a language and culture in common. Same with blacks. I think that the only time that blacks and Puerto Ricans didn’t fight is when they were at the whore houses. That was neutral territory.

There were two attitudes that were parallel while I was in Nam. A lot of people had the feeling that, as long as they were there, they might as well carry their load. Because if they didn’t, somebody else would have to carry it. In other words, when you went to the field, so many claymores, so many LAWs [Light Antitank Weapon] had to go with you. So if you weren’t there to carry them, somebody else had to. It seemed like there were a lot of blacks in our platoon. Our platoon leaders was black. Jones used to treat his brothers okay, so a lot of them used to sham. And that wasn’t because he was a  shammer; it was just because he didn’t want to push them. Actually, he didn’t want to push anybody. I guess anybody could have shammed if he wanted to. But it seemed like they tried to do it more or they just did it more. It made everybody feel shit on when that was going on.

It wasn’t like anybody was asking for any more than they would do. You’d do it for them; you’d think they would do it for you. I still remember a couple of days when a couple of them ended up going to the field. They had to carry their stuff, just their stuff. They just cried all day long. And yet we carried our stuff. Here they were complaining, yet we had carried their stuff for weeks on end. We’d come back to base camp and they’d be smiling and snickering. I mean, they had a point. They weren’t going to get anything extra by being over there. It wasn’t like they were going to be able to come back and get a job. Doesn’t look like I came back and got a job.

There was a lot of that going on. Certain people shammed and others didn’t. And the people who shammed always seemed to be the first people to take advantage of you. And when you were over there, it didn’t seem like you needed anyone extra taking advantage of you. That made it a little bit harder. I learned to live with it though. After a while I got to the point where the people who were shamming really weren’t the people I wanted to go to the field with anyway. They were the kind of people that fell asleep in guard. Instead of carrying a LAW to the field, they’d get an old cannister that was already fired and pack it with beer and ice. That’s what they carried. Things like that ate you up. So you got to the point, ‘Well, maybe we’re better off not having them come with us.

This one guy, Bostick, had a long history of emotional problems. No one knew what to do with him. He was a big black dude. He could beat the hell out of anybody in a second. The officers were hoping that he would make one more mistake so they could throw him in the clinker. That was the place for him to go the next time he screwed up. But he just wanted help. He was reaching out, saying, ‘Look, I got problems.’ The officers were willing to dismiss him: “We’ve got to get rid of the guy. What’s the easiest way?” They even sent him home once to the States trying to get him to go AWOL. When he came  back  the officers were pissed. They just couldn’t believe it. “The nerve of this guy to come back. Here we went to all this trouble to get him a special leave to go home…”

I was in the office one time when they were talking about how they could get Bostick to do something that would allow them to throw him in LBJ [Long Binh Jail (the army stockade)]. So this one day he was swinging around his M-79 grenade launcher. It was loaded and he was pointing at people. He pointed it at me and I said, “Look  man, anything you need to do with that thing loaded, you can do with it empty. What are you doing. Take the round out.” Pointing a loaded gun, that’s court-martial stuff. So the CO brought me into the office and said, “I want you to sign a complaint against Bostick. We know he pointed a loaded M-79 at you. We want you to sign a statement so we can lock him up.  I said, “No way.” Well, the next day I was told he did the same thing with an M-16.

A  day or so later the CO called me in again and he said, Okay, I got these papers on Bostick. They are waiting for him at LBJ. Put him in a jeep and get out of here.” So we drove from Can Giouc to Long Binh Jail, drove up to this gate and walked inside. LBJ was surrounded by this high cyclone fence. They had watch planks that guards could walk on up on high towers. As soon as he got to the entrance, they made him take off all his clothes, take everything out of his pockets, and leave it all there. He wasn’t allowed to have anything  personal, no comb, no  toothbrush. Then they issued him some prison clothes.

Standing there near the entrance, I could see this big open yard and the only thing in it were about six 4 x 8 connixes, which were like big metal shipping crates used for containerized cargo. That’s what they housed people in. Each one had a small window on the side. I didn’t see any kind of sanitary facilities, but they must have had them. I didn’t get a grand tour, but it just looked like a big jail. We drove around it, but didn’t go inside. Everybody knew that once you went to LBJ you were that far down the road. It was a place in Vietnam where they sent people who were socially down. The next step after LBJ was Leavenworth. The last I heard, that’s where Bostick got sent.

The military had this attitude. If your platoon sergeant gets down on you and you don’t have something going for you to get him off your back, then pretty soon the platoon leader’s down on you. If the platoon leader and the platoon sergeant make you the kicking boy of the platoon, pretty soon the CO’s down on you. All he hears about you  is bad and the next thing you know you are up for an Article 15 [non-judicial punishment]. Pretty soon you’re up for a battalion Article 15 because the colonel has heard bad things about you.  Maybe he catches you goofing off. You don’t have to be doing anything anybody else isn’t doing, but because they know you negatively, you’re it. It starts with a person with a little bit of power and builds from there. That person bends someone else’s ear saying, “Hey, look  at that clown.” It may be that the whole platoon starts working on you. They want to get in tight with the platoon sergeant or feather their own cap. So they all end up working on one poor guy and its’s down hill from there.

So that’s the kind of guy that went to LBJ—the guy that couldn’t get out from under, who didn’t have any stripes either because maybe he was just the kind of person who didn’t get stripes or people just didn’t like him. If you come across negatively within the company or platoon hierarchy, it’s just amplified. I knew guys who tried to get out from under it, but there was just no way. I could just stand there and watch it and it never got any better for them. No matter how much they tried, how many times they went to the field, or how much they carried, people got on their back. It was like somebody with a little rank picked them out and put a sign around their neck and from then on everybody just let them have it. Any time they had trouble, that person got it.

I got pulled out in April [1970] just before the invasion [of Cambodia]. When I finished my tour, after pulling those crazy operations for the 25th off the Parrot’s Beak, I got send back to Can Giouc, just a honk and a holler down from Saigon, to do all the stuff you have to do to get out of country.  The clerk there said, “Do you want to see your orders before you get a chance to extend?” Of course I said, “Yeah.” That was when I learned I was ordered to Fort Benning [Georgia] to a Green Beret school as an instructor. But there was no way I was going to go to Fort Benning. I would have to be there for six months and have had to put up with whatever you have to put up with when you’re cadre at a Green Beret school. As an E-6 I decided I couldn’t do that. Everybody was extending [their tour of Vietnam]. You had to sign a contract, fill out paperwork, to request to stay in Vietnam. So people were extending for 39 days, 8 days. My cousin extended for one day. I extended for 48 days. This meant that when I went home I would have less than six months left in the Army. Under the regulations, I could just get out.

So I got an ‘early out.’ First I went back to Bien Hoa. That was pretty trippy because there were so many people being pulled out at the time. When I finally got to Bien Hoa, there were five or six meetings every day. You had these massive assemblies of people all the time. So at certain times you had to go to a certain area and stand in this huge crowd waiting for your name to be called over the PA system. Then you’d go in your group and they’d tell you when you were going to leave. The people who were going home couldn’t be anything but excited. I had noticed before I left that there was this huge change in the people coming in. They couldn’t believe where my head was at. I had long running discussions with them about what was going on in the United States.

While I  was in Nam there  was this long propaganda campaign against long hair and hippies. We read the Stars and Stripes and  the Ninth Infantry News. The radio and television was all Armed Forces. A lot of material was spoon fed to us, that there were all these long-haired people doing crazy things back in the States, destroying property. You know, they were just a bunch of cowards who wouldn’t go to Vietnam. I thought, “Let’s all go to Washington and shoot them when they come marching down the street.” I heard myself say that.  In fact, I said it about a month after I was back in country and I thought, ‘My god, what am I saying?” By then Kent State had happened.

Finally, after all that waiting, from Bien Hoa we got on a plane for Guam. That was a different kind of experience. The moment that the plane left the ground there was this rush, this sensation. I had beat the odds. You had 365 days and for those days you supposedly had somebody watching over you. And then you extended—well, you were asking for it. I had 408 days. That’s a long time. I got flown back to Travis Air Force Base. Then we got bused back to Oakland.

I went into the same building that I left the country from. I’ll never forget it. It’s like a rail car building with the doors that slide. And you walk in that door and there’s this great big American flag painted on the wall right in front of you. And most of the people were ready to spit on it, if not kick it. They had lost friends who really didn’t die because of any kind of ideological belief. It wasn’t like they had walked across the street and got killed. It was because somebody had pushed them out in the street.  The flag represented the people who were pushing. We had a huge feeling of alienation. We were alienated from our peers, from the people we were going to end up associating with back in the States, back in the world. As far as we were concerned, we were alienated by our country. We were like the last man on the totem pole, at the end of the stick. We just felt lost.

From ’68 to ’70 there was such a big transition in social consciousness in the United States People were saying things like ‘The people coming back from Vietnam should be put in detention camps.’Some people wanted to do psychoanalysis to make sure Vietnam veterans could fit back into society. For me, all I wanted to do was pull a blanket over my head and go through everything incognito. For the most part, vets would not talk to anybody about what happened. You take your honorable discharge and put it in the closet and, if anybody asks, you say out of the corner of your mouth, “Yeah, I got it.” Waving it around is not something you’re going to do. It was a pretty hard thing to get used to.

I had just got home when the Cambodian invasion began and I saw this massive surge of people. I was in a weird position. I was ready to beat heads with the people who were protesting the war, but I hated the country. I knew it was doing something wrong. I had lost friends in Vietnam and I kept saying to myself, “Well, the people who should be complaining about this fucking war are the people who were there. Yet, they’re not saying anything.” I was the first one to say I’m going to crawl into a little hole and pretend it never happened. I made these huge pendulum swings from ultra-conservative right-wing hawk to a let’s-blow-up the-establishment, it’s not worth it. Look at what its doing to our generation. Then, somehow, I  made it back into the middle.

I talked to friends who were in Berkeley when I was in Nam. They said, “Look were doing this [protesting] for you. Don’t you understand that?” And I thought  that I was doing that [combat] for them! I don’t know whether it was community values or may parent’s attitude, but I had this… you got to fight for your country. That was something that I thought was right before I went into the service. And now, in retrospect, I can say bullshit.                                             February 1975

 

 

11. Translator/Interrogator

 

May, 1969. I  went to the 3rd Marine Division headquarters at Dong Ha  in “eye” corps and got assigned to an interrogation-translation team, which only about 15, maybe 20, people. There’s a captain in charge and it set up with a lieutenant and an enlisted man attached to each battalion. But sometimes you’d have a lieutenant and two or three enlisted men. It varied. Before I joined the team, I had to go to headquarters company and get my rifle and blanket and see the First Sergeant. He had to get my ration card out of the safe. So I saw him and he says, “Jesus, Lance Corporal, I’m making up a new mess duty roster. I’d been a Lance Corporal for two years, a real shit bird at Camp Pendleton [California]. And I thought, ‘Oh, fuck, just getting in and they put me on mess duty. Shit!’ So I went back to the staff sergeant, the team chief who runs the place, and he says, “Okay, I’ll give you a choice. You can do mess duty for a month (which sucks) or you can go out to the bush. It’s up to you. I said, “Okay, I’ll go to the bush.” I had my fill of mess duty at Pendleton.

First I did a little interrogating about three weeks at a chieu hoi  center in Quang Tri city which was run by the Vietnamese. It was supposed to be an initiation to interrogation, but chieu hoi wasn’t.  I had just gotten there and expected to be interrogating soldiers. You know, “I’m sorry, but I cannot say anything. Ho Chi Minh says we cannot say this.” But instead there were just these old,  don’t-give-a-fuck people just sliding along, inviting me for a beer across the street. Finally, after about three weeks, I went out to the field with the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines.

I was with headquarters company first and then, once we got up in the hills, I was assigned to Charlie Company. We walked to a small fire base and stayed there a while. Then we walked off the first base and climbed around in the hills near the fire base. The sides of the hill are really steep and you crawl up them like you’re climbing a ladder. The bushes are really thick and the sides of the hill come down to a ‘v’. I’m assigned to the colonel’s staff. The fucking colonel says, “Walk right up through the ‘v’ and go to the top of the hill.

Someone said, “Hey, colonel, how about let’s get some arty [artillery] or some air [attacks] on these hillsides here. Those motherfuckers could be sitting up there with .50 cals. If we’re in the middle of the ‘v’, we’re fucked.” And the colonel said, “Naw, we don’t have time. We’ve got to get to the top of the hill.” It was late in the afternoon. And the colonel is saying this [on the radio] from about 500 yards back. Of course the Vietnamese can hear you coming 20 miles away. So the platoon went on up the ‘v’ and got opened up on with .50 cals. Everybody eventually scrambled up the hill, but nine people in the lead platoon got killed. I don’t know how many got wounded. I was at the top of the hill by the time the med-evac chopper came scooting in on the side of the hill.

I saw some OB-10 Broncos flying around spotting. Then the Phantoms came in. I figured the Vietnamese could have run away, but I guess they didn’t want to. The Phantoms dropped napalm, time and time and time again they came in: SWOOOSH! We had to go in there the next morning. It was very thick jungle. Then, all of a sudden, there is a scorched clearing stripped of all foliage with a shitload of  bunkers all over the place. I remember when I first walked into this area I saw half a face against this tree. Then I saw a whole bunch of burned bodies.

Later on  I was with five guys walking through the other side of this area. We’d stop every once and a while to rest because it was so hot. We walked a few paces off the path that the lead guy is making and found this North Vietnamese collapsed there on the ground all full of shrapnel. So I got my first field interrogation. I got out my interrogation kit. I’m supposed to write a spot report to go to the regiment. We used a kind of mimeograph mechanism. But there was a light rain. So I’d be writing and the ink would run and I’d be trying to do it over. At the same time, the colonel is standing over me: “Ask him this! Ask him that!” We had Vietnamese interpreters, too. So I’m relying on the interpreter, the interpreter is asking questions, and the colonel is fucking with me and I’m trying to write but the gadget is not working. When we finally finished, we carried the dude up the hill and the doc examined him. He told us, “He’s fucked up, but he’ll live in time for tonight’s med-evac.”

Just at dusk a regular chopper picks up all the routine medical cases. The doc had said, “He’ll be all right until the med-evac comes in,” but he says it in the morning. So I keep talking to this North Vietnamese.

“How old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

“How long have you been here?”

“I just got here.”

“What do you mean by ‘here’?

“I don’t know.”

The Vietnamese interpreter didn’t give fuck about anything; he’d been doing this for years. Later the dude died.

The doc came over and said, “shit, I don’t know. He wasn’t supposed to die. He should have lived.” And I remember the thing about him dying got to me because from then on time and time again, when Vietnamese person was wounded, the doc would say, “he (or she) will be all right.” And the docs are not just saying it. Well, sometimes they are, but a real doctor, not a medic, would say, “Yeah, he’ll live,” and then they would die. I’d ask the doctors, and they’d say, “God damn, I don’t know! They just don’t have the strength.”

So I spent three weeks out in the bush that time and then me and another guy got assigned to the document translation center in Dong Ha [12th Interrogation/Translation Team]. The staff sergeant E-6, who had been running it all by himself and had been in the service for 18 years, didn’t give a fuck about anything except intelligence. He wasn’t into shining shoes or anything like that. His whole set up is just for him. We went in and tried to figure out what’s going on and we couldn’t. You know, four million coffee cups laying around and papers piled so high. We had no idea what they were. If we asked him for something, he could dig way down and pull it out. He knew right where it was. It was great for him. But they wanted guys who had an interest in the Vietnamese language, which I had. Not that I was that all-fired good, but most of the guys didn’t give a fuck about Vietnam; they hated it. So they  wanted someone who would have the patience to sit down and figure out what all the captured documents said.

I worked at Dong Ha until August and then I went down to the Da Nang area. I got sent right out with Kilo Company, Third Battalion, 26th Marines. The headquarters of Kilo company sat on a hill on a big defense line outside Da Nang. It was supposed to be in charge of this big flat area along the river. There was a whole shitload of hamlets in among the rice paddies. And we were supposed to prevent the VC and North Vietnamese from coming into those hamlets and getting past them into Da Nang. So we sat out there about 10 miles outside the city and went on ambushes and worked with CAP units [Combined Action Platoons].

We lived in a hamlet and were responsible for this whole village and for working and training this PF [Popular Forces] platoon which was made up of people in the village who were too young or too old to too fucked up to be in the regular ARVN. At night we’d go out on an ambush somewhere and during the day we’d mostly just sit around. I don’t know really what we were supposed to be doing.

I got to hanging around the school house and the market place. Most places were ‘off limits’ to most GI’s, but I could do it because I spoke Vietnamese. I was supposed to hear things like, “Oh, we’re hitting the school house at three AM.” The villages was right near the ocean, so they had crab and squid. It was really fine.

Only one bad thing happened at the market place. It was made up of three large cement squares. Poles held up a tin roof over each one to protect it from the sun and that’s where everybody  sat.  Two of these squares had tables and people squatted on the third one selling things. I hung out on the square where all the girls were. The villages heavies sat on the other one. The village heavies didn’t live in the village because they’d get killed. They lived in Da Nang and rode out on their Hondas on certain days and sat around the market place shooting the shit. So the village chief and his assistant, the village military affairs chief and the villages education chief were there.

This little girl threw a bomb. It blew the tin roof off one of the squares and killed a whole bunch of people. I was about 100 feet away. I got really bummed out and stayed away for a while. I really hated the VC for giving that kid a bomb and killing those innocent people. I began to feel very frustrated. So I started hanging around the school house and got into teaching English for a while to the little kids until I began to feel silly doing it. What am I teaching these little kids English for? But I still hung around for a couple of months because I liked the kids.

I worked for Marine Corps counter-intelligence, ARVN intelligence and the Army. Counter-intelligence is finding out who’s spying on you, finding out their plans, paying informers. We’re famous for just sitting there and supposedly at three AM this dude is going to walk by and we’re going to tackle him. Or, the Phoenix [CIA assassination] version— shooting him (or her).

One night I’m out with a CAP team across in another village. We were set up in someone’s house with sort of a loose perimeter. All of a sudden, somebody’s shooting up a storm. We’re all looking through Starlight Scopes. You think you see a million people, and you’re really not seeing anybody. Then we get word, “There’s about 80 Vietnamese with AK-47 coming right at us.” So we say, “Shit, we gotta move.” We figured they wanted to come over this wooden bridge because the river was high and otherwise they would have to swim. So we’re seven Marines and 50 PF’s between them and the bridge. Since they had flares, we got away from the bridge and over to the other side of the hamlet. Up on the hill, Kilo Company has got mortars plus we have the pop flares, which aren’t too good. Typically, the flares go over us instead of them, so we’re all lit up.

Five Vietnamese did go over the bridge. We waited until they got across the road before we opened up on them and killed them. One of our dudes got hurt. M-16’s jam a lot and his rifle didn’t eject a round. What happens is that you’re firing maybe two magazines real fast, so the chamber gets hot as hell. Then you shove another magazine in, fire some more and then stop, but you don’t pull the bolt back so the M-16 doesn’t eject the last casing. That happened to me twice and I got a new rifle.  So that night we killed five and took one casualty. The round went off his face and he was all bloody.

The next morning we went to the village where we thought the VC were getting support. There were a bunch of ARVN intelligence people around this house in a clearing where they sift rice. The lieutenant told me, “Well, we’re interrogating these women and there’s a whole bunch more North Vietnamese hiding somewhere.” Apparently they didn’t know  how many, but it was a lot. I talked to one of the ARVN soldiers and he said, “Yeah, these guerrillas have been fucking around here for years. They were doing the water torture on these woman. They put a handkerchief over their faces and pour water down their throats, giving them the sensation of drowning. One of the girls that was going to be questioned was standing beside the house with about 100 soldiers around. Then one of the ARVN intelligence people came out of the house yelling something about a haystack next to the house. I was in the house looking out of the window at the soldiers when they started shuffling.

To my left was the haystack. As I looked, another girl popped out of it with a 9 mm pistol and started shooting.  The first girl who had been standing by the house ran down this alley between the house and a sort of barn. She got shot in the foot. A medic went over and bandaged her foot and said, “She’ll be okay.” But in about a half hour she was dead. Both women were killed by the ARVN and they we’re making a big deal about taking the clothes off these dead women. They’d take the barrel of their rifle and shove it down their pants and play with these dead women. They’d giggle and laugh. I thought it was dumb; I got really disgusted. Then they dragged the bodies toward the market place and dumped them along side of the road. This was standard practice to show people, ‘Hey, look what could happen to you.’  Both Americans and ARVN did that everywhere I went in populated areas.

I didn’t do much interrogating in all the time I was in the field. I tried to interrogate prisoners who were so shot up they couldn’t even think, much less talk. A unit would go out somewhere and pick up someone and bring  them in and say, “I’ve got a VC for you!”  According to the lingo, anyone who was picked up was a ‘detainee’ first.  So it was my  job to classify this detainee according to the information that I collected. The classifications were ‘North Vietnamese Prisoner of War,’ ‘Viet Cong Prisoner of War,’ and ‘Civil Defendant.’  A civil defendant was anyone who had at any time worked for the enemy in any capacity other than carrying a weapon. If he (of she) was carrying a weapon, he (or she) was a prisoner of war. Civil defendants were tried supposedly by the military. After I turned them over to the South Vietnamese I only know what was supposed to have happened; I didn’t know what really happened. If they were guilty they were either killed or they went to prison.

We had another classification: ‘Innocent Civilian.’ But they weren’t just released. We had to bring them to district headquarters, which was a governmental level between village and province.  A district was sort of  like a county. According to the Geneva Convention we were supposed to return ‘innocent civilians’ to where they lived or to where they were picked up. But I wasn’t going to do that  in a lot of cases because they were picked up in enemy territory. So I am supposed to drive  my jeep out somewhere and say, “Okay, so we’ll see ya.” Since that was impossible, we brought them to district.

The standard approach was to work them for a couple of weeks for no pay. Most of the time the person who was an ‘innocent civilian’ goes to district, works two or three weeks there and, when released, just walks back down the road to his village. On the way there he gets picked up again by the Americans and they bring him to me and I say, “What the fuck are you bringing him here for? And they say, “God damn it, I’ve seen him before and there he is again. He’s gotta be a VC.” So I try to explain the whole thing, but it’s too late. It’s in the record. So he had to go through the whole thing again.  It was one of those typical stupidities. Interrogation teams had their bitches about all the fuckups and what everyone else was doing with their prisoners.  They didn’t follow any of the rules. That pissed us off. About 99% of the time they brought in JSRs—Joe Shit, the rag man—you know, no one.

Up until the last quarter of my time in Vietnam I did feel that my whole justification for how I acted in interrogation, torturing and beating was justified by the fact that I could be saving lives. Also, us Americans were there to help the South Vietnamese people against these commies, these soldiers, this military that was trying to take them over. It was my job to get all the information possible. Interrogation  in the broadest sense of slapping happened 90% of the time.  The said slapee ended up slap-happy. My job was to make them very aware that I was in the position of superiority, that I held their fate in my hands, which I did. If they played along, they’d make out better than if they didn’t play along.

I had to figure out just where to draw the line. I never wanted to hit people. I didn’t enjoy it; I found it very distasteful. But I also found that it was necessary.  I didn’t know if the person knew what I was looking for, but I thought that it was well worth trying every possibility to get it. Besides the physical torture, pressure on them  included filling out reports in a certain way. Take a chieu hoi who had actually defected. I had the power in my report to say, “Source has not acted in the true spirit of the chieu hoi program. Therefore, I recommend that source’s classification be changed to that of  Prisoner of War.” That is very heavy. That means a prisoner of war camp instead of freedom. I could initiate that and my recommendations would be acted upon. I did this three times. I felt that in all three cases that the guy was not telling me all he knew. I very much suspected that these three were plants, that they were told to chieu hoi but that they were not sincere. It’s impossible to prove.  Sometimes South Vietnamese intelligence would find out  about plants because they had informers.

Besides beating up people with my hands, the other form of torture was electricity. I’d attach two wires of a field telephone usually to the earlobe or the cheek, sometimes the balls or the crotch. That’s the next step after slapping. It fucks them up. Doing it was usually up to the interrogator.  You could make them stand at attention 24-hours a day, not let them move or make them stand with their hands out. You could put a stick behind their legs and make them bend backwards until their heads touched the ground. I learned this in  [Marine] boot camp where the DI’s [drill instructors] did it to us. It fucks you up bad; it is just amazingly painful. I would have done anything. If the DI said kill that man, I would have done it. It was really horrible. So we used that on them and electricity. And water, I never used the water. But other people did. But as I say, and I think I am being honest with myself. I didn’t feel this high moral purpose of doing these things but I felt they were necessary. And I did not enjoy it.

The most important POW was a bonafide North Vietnamese soldier. I could tell the difference between an NVA and a VC by his haircut, by his clothing, by the sores on his body. You can tell a bush VC, He’s skinnier than fuck and he looks like shit. Since he’s out in the bush, he gets cut up from the sharp grass and then he gets jungle rot over it. GI’s get these sores, but GI’s have medicine. I could tell he’s North Vietnamese as soon as he opened his mouth by his accent.

All the POW’s talked. I only saw one prisoner out of a couple of thousand in the 20 months that I was there that didn’t talk. But they lied their asses off, too, at first. I never got a North Vietnamese prisoner that wasn’t wounded. What happened to a wounded prisoner was up to the interrogator. I would always have the doc work on him while I’m asking him preliminary questions for a spot report. And then I would decide whether I wanted him back at the hospital. If I felt that he had information that could be of use  to the unit right there, if they needed tactical data I thought he had, then I would want him there, of course. But, given the circumstance of being out in the bush, you can’t do a thorough  interrogation. You can ask questions, but you don’t have all your references, your order of battle, your information files. If you suppose he knows a fuck load of stuff, you really  want him to live. So in that case, I would send him back. But I would also talk to the doctor. Nine times out of ten he’d say, “Uh huh, he’ll live.”

It was standard to use the fact that he was wounded to make threats and give rewards: “That really hurts, but you can get it all fixed if you just help us out.” But a lot of the prisoners just resigned themselves to dying. That’s pretty much impossible to deal with, once they’ve resigned themselves. They would just tell you outright that they didn’t give a flying fuck.

“I’m dead. It doesn’t matter.”

“My leg is missing. There is no life for me.”

You’re giving all these threats:

“Look, you’re not going to eat tonight.”

“I’m dying.”

“We won’t work on you.”

“I’m dying.”

I would tell the doc not to work on him right then. I wouldn’t do it if the blood was gushing  all over, though. And touching wounds, you have to. I think North Vietnamese and Viet Cong expected interrogators to slap them. Innocent civilians did not expect it. They didn’t expect to get shot or to get picked up. So they’re very surprised and scared.

Getting reliable information is called “making money.” First off, you find out his unit. You know what units are in the area or have been in the area for a long time. So if he tells you that he is from the 9th battalion of the 305 regiment, which has been in the area  a long time, then it’s no big deal, then you’re not going to make any money. Or you can see that you’re not going to make any money with the followup: “Why are you here?” An NVA would say, “I’m going  to get some rice” rather than “I’m leading an attack on Da Nang.” But you can make some money if you find out that his unit is, say, 3rd battalion, 575 regiment which, according to your information, is 20 kilometers away. And so you say to yourself, ‘What the fuck. Either he’s lying or his unit has moved.’ And that is something to sweat.  So you question him heavily about the unit’s movement. You’re checking this against what you already know. Your knowledge depends upon other interrogations and captured documents. Additional information comes from informers and reconnaissance people, from  Green Berets and CIA contingents.

The VC and NVA  have their table or organization and sectors of operation, too. So you sum this up to see if it jibed with the information you already had. That’s mostly it.  I worked at the NSA hospital in Da Nang, where you’re bonafide POW’s are. That’s where you get some good info. But it’s all pretty historical. It’s good for your files and builds up your information. You very seldom get anything like the 3rd battalion is going to attack such and such a place tonight. So you just have to keep pressing and even though you know that the person probably doesn’t know about an attack. He may know that something it coming up, though, and he’ll admit that to you: “I don’t know. We been moving all over the place doing this and that.” He could know something that fits your info. So that’s the heavy part.

You just have to keep hammering, going over everything again and again, trying to trip him, asking control questions. You have a list of about ten names. You start a heavy interrogation. All of sudden, without warning, you pop these names to catch him up: “Who is your platoon commander? Who is your supply officer?” If he tried to lie his way out of it and you get pissed off, you slap him around and tell him, “God damn it, You’re not going to get out of this until you come across. What the fuck do you bother lying for. Let’s have it!” You do that with a regular POW. A regular POW knows that he’s not going free so the only thing that you can give him is, say, “As soon as you get it over with, you can go back to camp and lie down and eat rice.”

 

With  an ‘innocent civilian’ you can make promises, like, “Oh, we’ll bring you back to your village; we’ll try to contact your long lost brother.” With a ‘civil defendant,’ you can tell him or her that you’ll classify them ‘innocent civilian’ and explain to them that if you classify them ‘civil defendant’ they’ll probably be killed.  You’ve got to make them aware that there’s a way out. If you convince them that they’re going to get killed, then they won’t believe anything you say and they won’t give a shit.

It was necessary to be really methodical by going over every little thing. This is the way to ‘make money’. You find a POW is from a particular front, which is like a whole province. Say he is from Front Headquarter. He’s been with the “heavies” and he knows “places” where they are, so you can hit them. So the dude is from 70-C, Front 4, which is the highest you can go in Quang Nam province. You know where he was picked up, so you try to find out why he was there, who was with him, what he was doing, where he was coming from, where his units it, how many people are in it, how  it is set up, where there are bunkers, how deep, how large, the exact measurements, how many rifles, how many rounds does each man have per rifle, how much do they eat, what have they been doing, what have they been discussing when they have their group discussions, what their political officers has been telling them, everything.

The main thing you want to know right there is where they are. To ‘make money’ means finding out where they are and getting a hit. When you find out unit 70-C is at ‘x,’ you go up with your team commander to the colonel. Your team commanders says, “They’re right here.” He gives a six digit coordinate, and if the colonel believes you, then he’ll order a bombing run. Usually it’ll be a Phantom  with the Bronco spotter if it’s a regular unit. If   it’s a listening  post or something like that, they’ll use helicopters. If  it’s a big unit, they’ll use B-52s. Getting a B-52 strike is making the most money! This is where you find out how good you  are and how much he lied. Or, he could have been telling the truth and you could have map-tracked wrong. The map shows steep hills; it all jungle and you’ve got to track them. It’s an acquired skill. It’s a bitch.

I had only one B-52 strike. I don’t know how many bodies they got. I got the info from the liaison communications officer of unit 70-C. He had a radio and he knew that there was no way that he was going to lie his way out of it. He was a North Vietnamese in his early thirties from somewhere south of Hanoi. I could tell by his dialect. They couldn’t lie about that. He had been in South Vietnam for about three years and in the army for a long time, a professional. He was assigned to act as liaison with a guerrilla unit in the villages and hamlets. He also picked out sites for rocket firings and hidden weapons, food and ammo and avenues of approach. After the strike I went in to look. The bunkers have low roofs and logs and earth over more logs. They’re only about 1 ½ feet deep, big enough for two people laying flat. They place was all fucked up. Maybe 20 dead people were found.

These were called Kingfisher Operations. We’d scour all the sites where there had been firing. With bodies we’d find documents. On this particular operation, we were looking for an NVA general. We used drawing of the dude from a description that a prisoner provided—just like the police use. We didn’t find the general’s body and assumed that he hadn’t been hit. That’s what we were trying for. We got a shitload of documents and a printing press putting out the VC province newspaper. There were no weapons, no radios. It was supposed to be a communications center. But to ‘make money’ on a B-52 was unusual for me. Nine-tenths of  the time when I interrogated a  chieu hoi or a POW  he’d say, “Such and such a unit is there, maybe 80 men and two tons of rice.” If he was a chieu hoi, I’d go with a platoon or a company out to the spot with him leading the way. If  it was a small unit we were concentrating on, we’d surround it and hit it with arty. If it was a big unit, we’d hit it with air or arty or both, and then we’d move in. Usually with big units we’d find a base camp and sometimes we’d get shot at.

 

Toward the end of my time in Vietnam a girl was brought in who was about 16 or 17 years old. She lived in a village that was in a free fire zone. Some of the people living out there wouldn’t move. I started interrogating her. Slapping her around the hootch, beating on her, and she shit in her pants. She was very embarrassed about it, trying to wipe it up, trying to hide it and it was impossible. How can she wipe it up? She didn’t have anything to wipe it up with and she’s trying to use the bottom of her pants.

And I stopped. I said,

“Where’s your father?”

“He’s dead.”

“How was he killed?”

“Killed by artillery.”

“Whose artillery?”

And they look at you. “American.” Of course. I heard it a million times. Well, it just so happened that this time it hit me, DONG,  American! Why are we killing all these people? These people aren’t soldiers. I’m beating on  this girl and it all hit me. I’m beating up this girl for what? Who am I? What the fuck am I doing? I just felt like shit. It was as if for the first time I was looking at myself.

I wrote the girl up as an ‘innocent civilian.’ Plus she was fucked up. Her abdomen was swollen. A lot of women had this disease. They look like they’re pregnant, but they’re not. I don’t know what it was. The corpsmen were in the regimental aid stations were guys who had been out in the bush all the time with the grunts; they’re a different breed. They had the typical grunt attitude toward the Vietnamese people; they hated gooks. So whenever you try to get care for any detainee, you weren’t going to get it from  them. I’ve seen corpsmen carry wounded Vietnamese out on a stretcher to the chopper and they’d be throwing them up. They wouldn’t do it if an officer was around. No one I  knew ever thought of doing anything about it. I didn’t like it, but I thought, “Those fucking corpsmen, just like those fucking grunts.”

Most of the doctors were different, though. They didn’t seem to care whether they were working on a Vietnamese or on an American, though they would work on the American first.  So I tried to get treatment for this girl. And I was told, “Well, she’s have to go out to Da Nang, you know. As a detainee, she couldn’t do that. Plus, I knew she’d have to be brought to district and I knew that district would either work her or fuck her. So I really didn’t do anything. I asked if she could be released, but that didn’t mean anything. All it really meant was that for the first time I was looking at this person, a detainee, as a real human being, not as a source of information. I wasn’t a very good interrogator from that time on. I lost all motivation.

 

I extended six months for a number of reasons. I liked Vietnam. I really dug walking or driving along and smelling all the different smells, seeing people working in the rice field. I just really dug it. I don’t know why, probably because everyday was new. I loved going places. There was always something new to see. I was interested in everything that was going on. Every day I’d learn something new about the language about how they conceived of things. Of course, I realized that most Americans didn’t give a fuck. I saw that this was the reason why we were doing some of the things we should not have been doing.

But that was the military. I had been in the military 2 ½ years. It wasn’t like I went to boot camp and right to Nam  and didn’t know. I knew the regular military was fucked up and that you were very lucky if anything got done right.  But I blamed it on the inherent sloppiness and inefficiency of the military system rather that on the fact that we shouldn’t have been there. I just accepted the supposed reason we were there. I thought it was just the way we were doing  it that was wrong. And then I switched.  If  we’re doing it wrong, then we shouldn’t be doing it. More and more I realized how wrong we were. I was bummed out a lot about my job. I really noticed it. This was around August of 1970.

When I was stateside, I was a shitbird. I didn’t give a shit about nothing. But when I got to Vietnam, all of sudden after 2 ½ years, I had this responsibility. People listened to me; I could save lives. If I could get this information. Jesus Christ, this could mean a lot. I had this status. It was a very heavy deal, a  death deal. Couple this with the fact that I was speaking Vietnamese and having Vietnamese friends, I was really digging it. The vast majority of Americans hated it. And all they ever talked about was buying a corvette and being back home with Susie May.

I  wanted to stay in Vietnam. My friends were mostly ARVN because that’s who I came to know on a daily basis. I could identify more with them than with the VC because the VC were too alien. I could never become friends with them, but I tried. When I finished an interrogation, I wanted to shoot the shit with them to find out about them. I was interested, so I’d say, “Okay, the interrogation’s finished. Have a cigarette and a coke. How are things in Tun Hoa village?”  I realized that it sounded like more interrogation and I really felt stupid, but I kept trying. A couple of times I tried it in front of the ARVN interpreter and he just laughed. So I stopped. I wanted more than anything just to be a regular guy—not an American Marine—sitting there in the market or in my hootch, having a wife and kids. I just wanted to live there. This happened when I was with the 1st Marine Division northwest of Da Nang.

Later I was with the 5th Marine Regiment southwest of Da Nang, An Hoa, the Que Son Mountains, Dodge City. I did a fuck of a lot of interrogating in ‘Indian Country’ near these towns. Beyond our base was all free fire zone. Some Americans have a romanticized view of the NVA and VC. But they destroyed an orphanage and, in the same province, they went into a village and killed everybody. When I was there the VC forces were really depleted. The 1st Marine Division had been there since ’65. So there weren’t that many VC around. Their forces were beefed up by the North Vietnamese.

The North Vietnamese feel and act, and seemingly are, superior to the South Vietnamese in terms of organization.  South Vietnamese were known to be lackadaisical and inefficient, but the North Vietnamese weren’t. The South Vietnamese language was soft and there was less distinction between words, but the North Vietnamese spoke with heavy, hard zzzzzz sounds. The North Vietnamese had bigger vocabularies with more technical words. It seemed like communism had a lot to do with that. Anyway, the North Vietnamese acted superior.

I read a lot of captured documents. They wrote reports to different units. When we captured them, I translated them. There was a lot of friction between the NVA and the VC. The report would say, “North Vietnamese lieutenant so-and-so is getting double rations. We’re getting a can and a half of rice a day; he’s taking three cans a day. This has got to stop. It’s screwing up morale.”  The North Vietnamese would report that the guerrillas didn’t clean their rifles and were sloppy on patrol. I really dug translating these documents. And on the human side, just like all Vietnamese, the VC and NVA all wrote poetry. Every soldier had a goddam poetry book, just a little notebook to write their poems. And they’re so goddam  mushy, sentimental, really fine. They were all writing about how far away from home they are and wishing they could see their moon rather than this strange moon and that they miss the flowers of their home. I remember one: “Oh Da Nang, I am in love with you.” It was like Da Nang was a woman and he was gazing down from the mountain at the lights of the city and  wishing they could be coupled together. It was really fine.

 

With the 5th Marines a lot of times we would search and clear. We’d surround a hamlet in the middle of the night and then I’d go in with the fire team and a bull horn. I’d pick a collecting point, a school yard is the best place, and say, “Okay, everybody has to go to the school yard. We’ve got to check ID’s. That’s all. No problem.” So we’d wait a while and get everybody moved there and then the rest of the unit would close in and search the hamlet. I’d be at the collecting point, getting everybody together. I couldn’t talk to everyone, so I’d screen them. I’d pick any male between the ages of 14 and 50. He shouldn’t be there. Very seldom did we find many of those. They were either in the VC  or the ARVN or dead. So I’m looking around and my eye locks on this very beautiful girl. I took here into the school house, sat her down, and got all this information: Who she was, where she lived, who her parents were and what they did, and that she wasn’t married, the whole bit.

Since this area was quiet, I started visiting her.  At first it was a bit strange. She was uptight and her parents were especially uptight. What the hell is this dude doing here? At first, I’d sit in their front yard and try to smile and talk to the little kids, give them candy and 20 piasters. Then grandma gave me a cup of tea. After that, I helped them carry some bags of rice that they were taking off a Lambretta and I finally talked to the girl. As we talked a little more, she eventually got to trust me and like me and I got to like her more. Of course, her parents never let us out of their sight. I was always telling them I was sincere. Every once in a while I brought presents, a carton of cigarettes or something.  After about 2 ½ months I asked her to marry me and she said yes. Our plan was to live in Vietnam. I planned to get discharged from the Marine Corps, go on a honeymoon to Saigon, and then live in Da Nang.

Both the Americans and the South Vietnamese frowned on mixed marriages. I knew that I couldn’t just go up to my commander and say that I wanted to get married. I knew that if headquarters found out, they couldn’t transfer me to Okinawa because I had extended for six months in Vietnam. But they could send me somewhere else in Vietnam and that is precisely what they did. First I went to my lieutenant; we had a good relationship. He said, “Why don’t you go to the chaplain. Maybe he can help you get through all the paperwork.” The chaplain was a captain in the Navy. I went to him and told him the story. He gave me this rap that mixed marriages don’t ever work back home. “If a Pole and an Italian get married, it hardly ever works out,” he said. “You’d better stick to your own kind, son. Besides, you’re too young.” So I got angry and swore at him and was generally disrespectful. Then I went out on an operation for ten days with the 5th Marines.

When I came back, walked into my hootch with all my gear on, pack, rifle, and grenades, the sergeant said, “”Keep you gear on. Go down to the airport. You’re going to the Ca Mau Peninsula.” Ca Mau is the southernmost tip of Vietnam. In Vietnam, you can’t get any farther away from Da Nang. I was to be a interrogation advisor to a South Vietnamese marine battalion there. No American ground troops had gone into this area, ever.

Ca Mau had been completely under VC control since the Viet Minh days. The Americans were in the process of trying to clear the area and moving this refugee camp, a big bundle of huts, up river. Our base was Nam Can. When I got there, they had defoliated the area in strips. It had become a Free Fire Zone. I just questioned the people who got shot, picked up, or  who floated down the river without getting shot up by our helicopters and gunboats. The marine battalion was really stranded. I don’t know what the hell they thought they were doing down there. I was all water and mud up to your armpits. Everyone had to travel in sampans or boats, including the VC. Anyway, I was down there for two months: no word, no mail, no nothing.

I felt bummed out. What could I do? I got away as soon as I could. They didn’t need me down there, not one bit. So I went back up to Da Nang on my own, which proves how stupid it was. I supposed I could have stayed there forever or I could have left. So I left.  No one was in charge of me. I was just sitting around talking to these people, finding out that they had a pretty nice village and they elected their village chief. They’d talk about, “Well, we got to grow more rice, goddam it” or “We have to put up punji stakes over there so the fucking Americans won’t come in and shoot us up.”  So I was saying, “Oh, fuck, why not. What’s wrong with that?”

So I went back to Da Nang and went to her house. Mama said, “she was sent up to Hue to relatives. Everything was off.” It was shaky anyway, allowing her daughter to marry an American. She’d be automatically labeled a prostitute. American influence was so corrupting because of our wealth compared to their poverty. Girls did become prostitutes, a lot of them. And that was a very big factor in just completely ruining their society. And getting married was off because I would get killed, or sent home, or just leave.  So we wrote saying that we still dug each other. I still intended to marry her and I was figuring, “Well, when I get discharged…” But looking at it realistically, I can say that I was living in a dream. If  her parents said no, she couldn’t buck that. I guess I see it now.

I extended for another six months and had reenlisted for several months more to cover that because I would have been discharged otherwise. So I had reenlisted for nine months and was going to spend the 30-day honeymoon leave in Saigon. I got that cancelled. The captain in charge of interrogation teams for the whole Pacific area had been my team captain up in Quang Tri and down south, too. He knew me and he dug me and he was the one who approved my extension.  So I explained it all and he said, “Okay, what if I disapprove it?” At that time I wasn’t being rational: “If I can’t live with her, I don’t want to live here.” I couldn’t. Even before I met her I had decided to live in Vietnam, but after meeting her, the intensity of that love overpowered everything  else. I lost that. I just said, “Fuck it, let me out!” I got the whole deal cancelled. I went home.

June 1973

 

 

12. Mad  Max

 

December, 1969. I knew I was going to be in Vietnam a year and I was all psyched and ready to go. I had joined the Army at 18. I had always wanted to be a soldier. I took the test right there in the reception station in January of ’67. Then I went through Basic and Advanced Infantry Training and straight to Fort Green for six months of OCS. I went to Ranger school and back to Fort Ord [California] as a  training officer. They had a little patrol base out there and guys would go for a week of training for Vietnam. We’d march them around and they would shoot off their guns. I gave a class on helicopters… sort of act like it was Vietnam.

I went to Vietnam as an infantry officer in December of ’69 and, except for R and R and a 30-day leave, I didn’t come home until January of ’71. I was assigned to the First Cavalry Division. They just flew us in there, gave us a quick orientation course and sent us right down to the damn battalion. I ended up in Echo Recon Platoon, 2nd of the 7th.  We operated out of  Quan Loi at the time. Most of my tour was there and in Phouc Vinh and Bien Hoa—actually all one area about the size of Los Angeles. My first day in the field, one of my buddies got the med-evac home the same goddamn day. He went out there, got in a big fire fight, got shot in the stomach and went home the same day. He was in the field about two hours.

I was very fortunate to be sent to an experienced recon platoon assigned to battalion headquarters. We worked out of a fire base. They’d send us out on special little reconnaissance patrols. Once in a while we’d get some shit details, like once in a while Delta Company would get their ass kicked. Once there were three bodies in a bunker and they couldn’t get them out. So they called us in, told us to get them out. So we did these ‘dirty dozen’ type jobs, pretty tough, too. These were a bunch of animals, actually—just the biggest scuzz in the battalion but they were damned good fighters. I had a hell of a first sergeant. I learned the job being with them.

I like to think the reason I’m still here is because I was one of those lieutenants who was willing to walk in and listen to people who had been there a while. These guys would give you a little shit when you’re new, kid you and harass you, this kind of crap, but they taught you. I had a couple of good sergeants who’d say (instead of telling everybody what to do), “This is how it is and you god damn well listen!” It worked pretty well. I didn’t get into a real fire fight for about three weeks. So I got time to learn a little bit, to walk and talk and carry a pack. Shit like that. I was fortunate.

 

So you spent your whole life running around these little fire bases. We were air mobile, so after you go in to a fire base, you just do all this hopping around. They constantly drop you off, you walk around for a couple of weeks, looking here, looking there. Then they pick you up in a helicopter and dump you some place else. For the first two weeks nothing much happened. We’d been told to set up an ambush and we were sitting out there. Actually, we were sleeping outside the perimeter and when we got up in the morning we were told to patrol west of the fire base, only about a mile out. There were about 20 of us and we found a big goddamn trail, just as fresh as hell. We could just smell the little bastards running around there.

So, shit, we set up a machine gun on the trail. And I said, “Okay, I’m going to check it out this way first.” I left a few guys and took the rest with me. I didn’t walk either. We all got down and crawled down the trail. I thought we’d check it out at the other end. We got down the trail a ways when I heard CRACK, CRACK, CRACK, CRACK. I had left my men up on the trail and the machine gunner was sitting on his ass bullshitting. The other men weren’t watching either. Some gook ran up and just emptied a magazine into these guys. One guy was sitting in the middle of the trail reading a comic book and he got his brains blown out. The round just clipped the whole top of his head off. And that’s the first thing I saw when I came running back, him laying there with his brains scattered on the trail.

The other guy that got shot was just sitting there. He’d lost an eye, had a shattered arm and he was shot in the chest. He was screaming like hell, you know, just going nuts. One guy’s crying because his buddy just got killed. We’d been sneaking around in the bushes without getting in a firefight for a while. Even though my sergeants were pretty experienced, these guys had been sort of slack and then BANG! It just really hit them. And here’s my first damn fight and, Jesus, I’ve got a mess. So  we called in artillery. I was sitting there calling,  looking at this guy laying there near me for two hours, while we tried to get the other guys shaped up. I tell you it’s the first time in my life I’ve seen a guy laying there with his brains out. Your asshole is sucking wind and you want to shit, piss and puke all at the same time. I guess it’s an old story, you know?

We finally got a  med-evac in, which is a hell of a job, trying to bring down the sling to get the guy out. When the medic comes running up to pick the guy up, he starts to put a bandage on his head as if it’s going to do any good. The helicopter is making a hell of a noise and I try to yell at him, “No!”  But he reaches down and takes the guy’s brains, but drops them on the trail, then picks him up and carries him off. So, Jesus, here we are. It was my first time and really pretty god damn messy. The wounded guy went first and then they took the body out with them. They usually don’t do that.

Most  med-evac people were damned good people, but somebody stole the dead guy’s wallet on the flight out. He was a machine gunner, but he had a .45 that someone stole, too. Maybe the crew chief, it might have been the pilot for all the hell I know. I’m sure he didn’t have much money. It pissed me off. This guy had eight months in-country and gets killed reading a funny book. It was stupid; he should have known better. You know?  I should have kicked them in the ass because they were screwing around. It was bad luck, too. The guy [enemy] must have just walked up and opened up on them and hauled ass. Finally, we got our shit together and got everyone back to the fire base. I felt pretty bad about it, actually, and went down in the bunker and cried.

We had to go out the next god damned day. When I’d think about it, I’d get pissed off… and a little scared, too. But it didn’t really bother me after that, that much. It did and it didn’t. After an experience like that you don’t see bodies any more…  In a way. I mean if a guy is lying there dead, he walked into a mine and got his guts blown up, sure you see him, but you really don’t look at the gore. I mean you just keep going. The guy’s dead, he’s dead. You don’t mess around.  But it makes you a little nervous when somebody’s laying there dead. It was just a hell of an introduction, my first action, hell of a way to get started. We just went to check the place out. We shouldn’t have lost anybody. We didn’t find anything.

After that first action we just sort of moved around to different fire bases. I was very fortunate with that outfit, though we got a little bit of action here and there, but, Jesus, things can get flaky, especially when you’re out there with only five guys. We stop for a break and we think we’re secure. I’m sitting down having a cigarette and here comes three gooks  sneaking  through the damn bushes, walking up on us.

I remember that I opened up on one 50 yards away with an M-14.  I was carrying a big rifle because I didn’t like the 16. And I missed the damned guy.  Then he started shooting back and we had a god damn fight. I really kicked myself for missing him. The next day the five of us are right back out there again. We’re sitting there smoking cigarettes and a gook crawls up right behind us on the trail, checking out the fire base, trying to check out artillery and everything. He’s caught us dead to rights, you know? We’re sitting practically wide open.

There was not a lot we could do. We’d been expecting them to come the other way. We were spread out, but my platoon sergeant and I are sitting there with this guy lying right behind us. If he’d rolled over, he could have shot us deader than shit. My sergeant is carrying a grenade launcher, which does us no good. I’ve got the rifle, but I’ve just got the top of his head to shoot at, which is a flaky shot. He’s lying in a trench at the side of the trail. We really can’t throw a grenade because of all the bamboo. We really don’t know how many there are behind him on the trail

If we opened up on him, we wouldn’t have anything to hide behind. So we sit there for 45 minutes watching the top of this guy’s head, waiting for him to get our ass. After a while we didn’t see him anymore, so we crawled over there with hand grenades in our hands. The god damn grass was still matted down where he’d been, and apparently there were some others because we heard movement. We called in a helicopter and it spotted about three of them out there. So we experienced these dumb little incidents.

While we experienced a lot of little shit, the next day Delta Company went out and walked right into the middle of a U-shaped bunker complex and just got dusted. They lost about five killed and 15 wounded. When they try to go in and get the bodies out, they’d lose another guy.  They’d been fighting the whole damn day when they called us in on the thing. The colonel said, “Get your shit together! You don’t need food or anything. Just take your gear and go out there and get them.”

They flew us in, but they couldn’t land the chopper and we had to jump out of the damned thing. Delta Company pretty well got their butt kicked. So we get there and crawl out to get the god damned bodies. I really wasn’t gung-ho; I didn’t walk point or charge bunkers. So I got everything set up with a rope and snaffle. I was going to drag the guys in. But then they burned the damned bunkers out with napalm and  the bodies along with them.

We were going to do whatever we could do.  The bodies are a damned mess. I thought at first the dead guy was black, but it turned out he was just charred black. And he was soggy. The guys couldn’t pick him up, had to have a poncho to carry him. I grabbed a poncho, ran over there, threw it to a guy and said, “let’s pick him up!”  At the moment we pick him up. This god damned [enemy] guy opens up on us. Shit! He was right there in that god damned bunker all the time. He hit the body we were carrying about four times and put a bullet through my shirt sleeve. He pinned us down and there was nothing we could do.

Fortunately, he didn’t hit anybody. So we’ve got a guy in a tree, got a machine gun on one side, got the guy in the bunker in front of us and we’re just stuck out in this burned out area. Hell, the shit’s still burning out there; our pants are burning. We’re laying behind trees anything we can find, just getting  our ass  shot up.  Finally, we started  throwing smoke  [grenades]   (I made everybody carry smoke.) So we just threw up a big smoke screen and the firing stopped. Then we got up and ran like hell.

After we ran back in, I got a hold of the company commander and asked to readjust an air strike in there. I said, “Okay, it’s up by that tree there.” The chopper came in again after then, spotted a machine gun crew and went in to shoot them up. Then we had to go back out a second time to get the same bodies out. We still didn’t know if there’s anybody in those bunkers. They enemy always took their bodies and we took ours.

That was a problem. You’d fight all day and you’d find bunkers with six inches of blood in them but no damned body. You’d know damned well you killed some of them and, six weeks later, if you’re lucky you’d find where they buried them. It’s depressing. Who the hell wants to fight all day and not have any bodies to show for it? Some of us would get killed, but we wouldn’t know if we got any of  them. You assume you do; you claim that you do. But it’s very hard to actually get bodies. So this was a pretty flaky operation, getting bodies out. Finally we got them on our second try.

After that we were supposed to be pulled back in. They had told us, ‘Don’t take any food or anything…’ Shit, they told us to march down the road to Delta Company and set up for the night. We  didn’t have any food, no claymores, nothing. So we were supposed to spend the night out there. Then we’re got to bring the company back to the fire base. Before we got in, we had to go check the perimeter. That night at two o’clock in the morning we got a ground attack. So a little bit of contact builds to this. We fought from two o’clock until daylight and we were tired, too.  This shit went on for about five days in a row. But this time we got some bodies. We had 54 inside the wire. Inside! We killed 67 total. We ended up taking a bulldozer and burying them. So we had hell of a fight.

I think the body counts were somewhat psychological. As for me, I wanted to kill the little bastards. That’s the whole objective. It was a pretty stupid war. We went out and fought for this piece of jungle. Then, six weeks later, we’d fight for the same piece of jungle all over again. So the way I looked at it, if you killed enough of them, then it’s going to help. It just comes down to who gets blown away. I think I had more ambushes than any other officer in the battalion. We’d try to figure out where they’re going to be and just sit out there, hiding in the damn bushes. When they come through, you’re just going to blow them away, sit there and shoot them. Period! No messing around! Why get into a god damned fight and let them kick your butt? Not if I can help it. So I used to set up ambushes all over the place. That was the best way to work.

They ambushed us and we ambushed them. Of course, this is strictly NVA [North Vietnamese Army] We’re not fighting VC. We weren’t  fighting a bunch of peasants running around doing sneaky things. We were fighting  another army. The VC  were known to do weird things, set up tricky grenades and all this crap. But we didn’t run into booby-traps that much. The NVA would set up these big claymore mines and they would do it by hand with a man sitting there, just like we did.

They were professional soldiers. They wore uniforms and they were straight. I mean they didn’t mess with our bodies, the ones we left out there, except if you went back out to get him, they’d try to shoot you. So we were working on all those villages areas that had been cleared out. We went through a lot of old sites, but they weren’t villages anymore. There weren’t civilians out there anymore.  The only thing that moved out there was the enemy. Period! Or us, we shot a lot of each other up.

That’s one of my complaints about the war. The Army doesn’t like to talk about it, but we killed a lot of each other—short [artillery] rounds, mistaken identity, just stupid. Two patrols go out, get screwed up, walk  into each other and start shooting. I remember two days after I got to the fire base they had LP’s [Listening Posts] out at night around the perimeter, usually two or three guys sitting out there all night on alert. They got up the next morning at dawn, started walking back in and some jerk wakes up, sees something, them, and blows off a claymore mine. He killed two guys. This happened all the time.

A few weeks later, the same type of thing happened. Guys are out on patrol and they set up an LP at night. One guy’s supposed to be awake. He thinks, ‘Well, I gotta go to the bathroom…’ He walked off to the side to go and the other guy woke up, saw him, panicked and shot him. Of course, it’s always the officer’s “fault,” and some of it may be. But we were out there to stay alive. No matter what anybody tells you, you’ve got to keep yourself together.

 

We’ve all made mistakes we should have gotten killed for. Sometimes you’re told to hurry and you have to move faster than you want to move, but you just do it. Sometimes you have to take a chance and you hope you can get away with it. But when guys get misdirected on patrol, that’s just sloppiness, stupidity. There is a way to do everything that’s better than any other way, but somebody was always screwing up. We killed a lot of each other over there.

I had one guy get drunk and blow his brains out with a .45. He was a good sergeant. I don’t think it was a suicide. I know he’d been under a lot of pressure. I blame them [the command] for keeping us out [in the field] too long. We were just beat and we needed a break. I had asked for a break but they wouldn’t let us come in. Finally, when they brought us in, back to Quan Loi, they put us on perimeter guard, which is shittier than being in the field. You’ve got three men in a damn bunker and somebody’s got to stay up all night. And the guys were just pooped. Maybe they can drink beer and booze it up during the day, but they have to quit drinking at night and sit there on guard.

Well, this sergeant is out boozing it up during the day and comes in at night a little bit loaded. He’d been walking around with his .45 and  he starts  waving it,  just horsing around. Some guy says, “Hey, that could be loaded,” and he says, “See, it’s not loaded.” He sticks it up to his head and blows his brains out. Well, that’s pressure; that’s a mistake. The colonel came around jumping my ass. He gave one guy an Article 15. But the sergeant was a soldier. Are you supposed to take their guns away when troops go to the rear? Shit, this man lives with his weapons for 24 hours a day in the field and when he comes to the rear he’s treated like a baby? Sometimes that might be necessary, but there’s a limit to what you can do.

Actually, I had wanted to stay in the field a bit longer, but I got in a bit of a bind with the colonel. It all happened during a three-week period when the sergeant shot himself with his .45. They blamed me for that. And I told the colonel over the radio to kiss my ass. So… The previous colonel was a hell of a nice man, Colonel John A. Winterall. In some ways like a father to me, not the typical colonel type. He was a nice old guy, though he didn’t put up with much shit either. He was good to work for and took care of us.

 

We found a new bunker complex.  We ran down a hill, set up machine guns and here comes this [enemy] guy running down the trail with a grenade attached to him. Just everything was going off. We ended up killing him and maybe four others and kicking the shit out of the bunkers. We didn’t lose a god damned man. It worked out really beautiful.  I had all this shit going on, artillery coming in, and the colonel wants to talk to me. “God damn it,” I said to him, “Don’t fuck around. I’ve got all this stuff going on down here. I’ve got five radios going. I don’t have time to talk to you.  You’re already in there, you’re stuck, so open up a perimeter and just start kicking ass!” And he did. But it pissed him off. He said, “Roger, I’ll see you later.” When he flew in the next day, we shook hands and, because we did a hell of a job, he was as happy as a pig in mud.

Then we got this young punk, [Lieutenant] Colonel Carr. He was a little short fellow with a baby face. He looked about 20 years old, but I think he was about 40. He was a sawed off little bastard, a real cocky piece of shit. He acted like he had a Napoleon complex  but he’d kiss ass like I couldn’t believe. He was up for full colonel and he was really bucking for it. These colonels were supposed to run the battalion command for about four months, which isn’t that long. It takes time to get rolling, to implement things they want done. One colonel hardly turned around before another one replaces him.

So then all these fucking colonels will get their ‘combat time’ and get their Distinguished Service Cross or their Legion of Merit or whatever they’re supposed to get  before they go back to their staff jobs somewhere. They want to get their battalion and their ‘combat time’ because they are bucking for general. Then they will get a brigade. The Department of the Army is very careful that they all get properly rotated. I only saw a few lieutenants from West Point. They didn’t come in until they were captain, ready to take over a company. Then they wouldn’t get their shit blown away as platoon leaders, that kind of crap. I’m not really bitter about it but they do take care of each other.

Colonel Carr was mostly interested in protocol, to me a real butt kisser.  He’d come out [to the field] and jump my ass because the men didn’t shave that much. Hell, I didn’t either. When we had about 20 replacements coming out to different companies, six to Alpha Company, the previous colonel would say to them, “Well, you guys are going to Alpha Company. They are the best! They look pretty sloppy. They may not look like the best, but they are.” I didn’t give a shit if they didn’t shave every day or shine their boots. But this new colonel was really worried about that shit. I mean, who the hell saw us?

When we came in, we shaved and cleaned up, but out there we’re in the damn jungle. We’re fighting. I had the highest body count and the least casualties in the battalion. We’re doing the job and he’s ordering us to shave. I told him one time, “I don’t give a damn if they shave or not!” Besides, we don’t have that much water. What we carried was our drinking water. So the only time we could shave was when we were resupplied. And that’s about the time he shows up. “God damn, pretty sloppy around here,” and he wants to know why we aren’t shaved yet. Well, shit, our guns are clean. Hell, we want beer first.

So I put up with this shit from him. Then he sends us out on this combat assault. We get a little bit of contact, a little shooting back and forth and we come right up to this damn bunker complex, maybe 50 bunkers with a lot of men in them. We hear them talking, joking around, as we’re carefully crawling down the trail. And I call in for artillery. But the colonel’s got us so far out, we can’t get any artillery from our base. I try another base and all I can get is 105’s within 200 yards. I can’t get mortars; I can’t get air support. Finally, an Air Force FAC [Forward Air Control] bird comes up and I’m relaying through him to talk to battalion. What kind of shit is this?

If they can’t give me support, then they’d better god damn get me some help. If I can’t get any help, we’ll get our ass kicked. You know  where the colonel was?  He had gone up to Quan Loi to pick up ice cream for some Australian generals coming out to visit. Can you believe that shit? It just blew  my mind.  I told the major, “Will you do me a favor? I give him my call sign—Scout 6—and say, “Will you please tell him to kiss my ass.” And the major says, “Roger to that. White 6 from Scout 6 here relaying a message, he says ‘kiss my ass’.” It didn’t actually go to the colonel directly, but I know he got the word and he never said shit about it. Fortunately, the gooks ran out the back of the bunker complex. But there were guns in there, there was rice sitting on the table, still hot, ready to eat, and hot tea. I went in and they’ve got bags of rice from a  Sacramento warehouse with ‘Hands of Friendship’ printed on it and olive oil stamped ‘United States Government.’ That’s what they’re eating. That’s enough to piss you off. Plus, we couldn’t get any help.

I think we were some of the best soldiers in the world in Vietnam. When you put them in a fight, they put out. But they’re also sloppy and spoiled and they’re lazy, a bunch of mama’s boys. And I include myself, I guess. The guy with the funny book that shouldn’t have died. He just said, ‘Fuck it, I don’t feel like watching. I’m tired. I’m just going to read my funny book.’ He should have been sitting off the trail, looking out. His negligence could have caused somebody else to get killed instead. The machine gunner should have been looking instead of bullshitting.

Take the guy who you put out somewhere on an LP by himself. The company has dug holes 25 meters back, but he digs in out in front, sitting there by himself. If somebody sneaks up and he doesn’t see them, he’s going to get shot. I go out there to check on the guy and he writing a letter. “What are you doing?” “Uh, yeah, I’m writing my mom.” I told him, “Well, shit, your mom’s never going to see you if you keep writing the letter and not watching out.” So you can kick their butts all you want, but if they’re not looking at the right moment, well…

As I said, we were spoiled. When guys got a little bit to tired, a little bit too thirsty, a little short of water or a little too hot or it rained too much and there was too much mud—or whatever the hell it was—then it was BITCH, BITCH, BITCH! Too god damn lazy to dig a fox hole? You boot them in the butt. Things like that shouldn’t happen. To me that means that they’re spoiled. The worst was when they got lazy and they didn’t think anything was going to happen.  Say a commander says, “Aw, screw it. There’s nothing around here.” But there are gooks 50 meters away and they’ll come and kill you in the night. Well, you could have found that out if you’d sent a patrol out there. But, “Aw, shit, we’re tired. We don’t want to check tonight.” If you’re going to fight a war, you’ve got to do the job. That’s why some officers were like me. I was really gung-ho in the sense that I was out there to get them. By God, if I thought a gook was out there, I wanted to shoot him.

We  took a lot of prisoners, though. If a gook was wounded, we didn’t just shoot him. They didn’t give up that easy. They had to be wounded. I never allowed our guys to kick their teeth out, shit like that.  Guys wanted to do it, you know, smash their heads, some dumb thing like that. Lots of times we had to dig up graves. One reason was body count. We’d find a fairly fresh grave and we’d dig it up to look at the guy and call in and say, “Looks like he got hit by artillery” or “He’s got two bullet holes in his head, must have been small arms.” So we’d give somebody some credit. It gave us an estimate of how effective artillery was.

Occasionally, we’d leave the body laying out there, but most of the time I’d tell the guys to stick him back in the hole. The biggest thing I let them do was when we shot this one guy that we just happened to run into on the trail. We knew there were lots of gooks in the area. So I told them they could set him up on the trail where we shot him, prop him against a tree, put a smile on his face and a beer can in his hand. I don’t know if that’s funny or not. It probably disturbed his buddies when they came down the trail and saw him. There’s something psychological to that.

After three months, I was the only lieutenant in the whole damned battalion that was out in the field; we lost too many lieutenants.  There had been 30, but some of them rotated and some just went back to the rear. A lot of them were shot up and we had some dummies out there that didn’t make it past a couple of months. The Cav was pretty good about that. If a guy was a  dud, they would have him out of the field in about a week. They said, “Shitcan that sonuvabitch!” Get him out of  there because he’s going to get somebody hurt. They were used to the theory that a good sergeant can run a platoon better and a bad lieutenant. So we were always short of lieutenants. I remember one lieutenant that came out to the field. He thought he could do the job. I think he was ROTC, which is no reflection on them. Some of them were damned good. But some were not all that well trained. They didn’t have real army training. I told the company commander, “This guy is a little flaky.” The first time the guy got shot at, he just got scared. He went out with his platoon beyond the fire base. There’s some bunkers out there and discovered fresh tree cuttings. So, Jesus Christ, you’ve got to be careful.

But he wasn’t careful and walked into an ambush anyway. They [enemy] opened up, emptied their magazines and just hauled ass. The lieutenant had one man just blown away, another shot in the chest and the last shot in the head. He’s got three dead bodies laying there and the platoon is all around him on the ground trying to get their shit together. The platoon sergeant had come up from the rear to take over the platoon and the god damned lieutenant’s still laying there. One guy who’s a Puerto Rican just goes nuts; his buddy is one of the guys killed. (Later on this guy shot off his trigger finger to get out; he couldn’t handle losing his friend.) The lieutenant’s still laying there with his eyeballs bulging.

I came up with the company commander and 2nd platoon. I said, “God damn it, get off you ass! Let’s go.” And then I took over his platoon. “Let’s get going, get this one over here, get that one over there,” going in and checking out those damn bunkers again. His platoon was up and moving and this guy is crawling on his hands and knees while his platoon is walking off and leaving him. He wasn’t in shock, just flat out scared. Sometimes it happens. You get scared and it’s hard to function. But you can’t be a platoon leader and do that. I don’t care if he’s a hero the next day; it’s too late. The platoon’s not going to follow him. The next day he was sent to work in the PX [Post Exchange].

There were the career types, some of them really funny. We had one who always carried a $300 Randall knife. He shined his boots every day, shaved every morning, always had shiny clothes on. He had his RTO [radio operator] carry a little canister of water so he could take a sponge bath, shave every morning, wash his crotch every night. He carried a clean pillow slip and would lay it out every night to put his head on. Shit, he was acting like a little god. And you didn’t forget that he was the  captain; everything was “Yessir” and “Nosir.” Those kind of guys were a real pain in the butt.

You need a commander who knows how to fight and still understands his troops. When he gets to be a general, he’ll still remember what these guys are like. Hell, I called my RTO and everybody by their first names, joked with them. When I was company commander, I called one lieutenant ‘Dingleberry.’ I’d call up the RTO, “Hey, send Dingleberry over here,” and everybody would laugh. Two months later he comes over to me; he finally found out what a dingleberry was. It was funny. I had to make another lieutenant quit playing poker because he kept losing money. Then, when he’d tell a  guy to do something,  the guy would say, “Screw  you, you owe me money.” So I told him, “You can’t play poker anymore, you dumbbell.” It was the silly things that kept us together.

I think I got along pretty well with the enlisted men. We lived in the damn field. When I was a lieutenant in the 2nd of the 7th they called me ‘Mad Max’ and nobody seemed to mind. It got to the point they  would say it in front of  the colonel and he wouldn’t say, “What the hell is going on here?” Say you’re platoon leader of 1st platoon, or company commander 6:  “Hey, one-six,” they’d usually say. But when they called me Mad Max I didn’t lose any discipline for it. Not everybody [officers] could do it. I think it worked out because I took care of them. I’m sure some guys hated my guts, and I supposed I screwed over people and, of course, I made mistakes. But I tried to be more fair that most. To me it wasn’t ‘I’m-an-officer; you’re-a-dummy-private, so you gotta do this.’ Most of the time you can ask somebody to get something done and it gets done.

Half the time you can ask for volunteers. Everybody knew whose turn it was to walk point. Then it gets done. You’d rotate by platoons, and platoons would rotate by squads. There’s a little hierarchy in each company, in each platoon, in each squad.  Usually a couple of guys [in each squad] would be your point man and after they got a little seniority, they’d transfer around. Everybody got their shot at it, so that it was always fair. When a new guy came in, the squad leader would give him extra shit to carry, sometimes put him on point, right up there walking about fourth. They’d be trying to help him out, show him how to do things. They all had to learn to take care of each other.  Just because he’s there doesn’t mean their going to lay down their lives for him. They’re going to break the guy in; they wanted him to prove himself, too. I actually wasn’t part of that. I could see it, but the squad handled it themselves.

I actually had new guys walk up to me and say, “I want to walk point.” I’d say, “How long you been here?” and he’d say, “Two days.” Then I’d say, “You’re going to get somebody killed because you don’t know what you’re doing. Get you ass back there!” In some companies new men were put on point, but generally, when it was tough, the best men would find their way up there. They’d just as soon be up there to find out what was happening as to have some new guy walk them into an ambush and get them killed. I’ve walked backup with five men, and I didn’t like that. I always tried to walk a couple of squads back. I didn’t want to get my ass blown off before I got a chance to do something back. If some sergeant has got to take the lieutenant’s job, then that person is missing some place else. We were usually under strength anyway. A platoon that’s supposed  to have  44  will have 18 to 25 men, something like that.

We didn’t run around screaming banzai, charging bunkers, that kind of crap. But being a platoon leader is, I think, one of the great jobs in the world. When the shit hits the fan, everybody hits the ground and the guys, however many there are, are looking at you. And I swear, at the moment, if you told these guys to stand on their heads and gargle peanut butter, they’d probably do it. And they were all good men, though occasionally there’s a dud. My radio operator was a school teacher. He was no fool and you don’t treat guys like him as fools either. A lot of them could do the same job I was doing.

But when the time came, my job was to say, “Get up, get out, let’s go!” Most of the time they know what to do and they’re already reacting. It’s not like you have to tell every guy because the squad leader would be off their butts, hustling. The machine gunner would be setting up. If I thought there was a sniper out there, or an ambush, I’d call in for artillery. Or I’d ask for mortars, any god damn thing I could get, even if I had to lie about what I thought was there. There was no sense of getting a man shot because of not checking.

 

In Vietnam you had to send people out to find out what was out there. That’s a problem. You’re always worried you’re going to lose somebody that way. It’s better to send a squad out than walk in with a company. You try to give them the support that they need and they appreciate that. And if you need some water, you call up the colonel and tell him to get off his fucking ass, that you want some water. I don’t care what the colonel said when he flew by in his helicopter. I could say, ‘You can fire me if you want, but I’m in charge on the ground at this time because you’re not here.’ He can tell me what he wants, but that doesn’t mean I have to do it. He can say, “Check that out!” and I say, “Roger on that.”

But we can turn around and walk out of it, too, because I don’t want my ass kicked. Some things are not worth losing men for. It doesn’t mean that I’m autonomous either. If he says, “You gotta be at ‘x’ tomorrow,” then I’m there tomorrow. And when you get in a fight, if you can get support in there, you give them support. You’ve got two radio operators and a lieutenant for artillery with a radio, maybe even a backup radio and your job is to run the company. I knew company commanders that rip out the old .45 and went charging up to the front, shooting, BANG, BANG, BANG. The guys loved it, but that’s not his job. He has to get the artillery in, talk to the damn colonel (who doesn’t want to talk to anyone else). That’s what you  do for the guys while they protect you by setting up a perimeter, so you don’t have to watch while you’re talking on the damn radio. That’s the way it’s  supposed to work and most of the time it did.

I remember a young lieutenant in the next company. Nice looking fellow, a young kid. He had just got put in for a Silver Star. He charged a god damn bunker, which was stupid to start with. He saw this gook trying to get out of the bunker so he ran up there with his gun, fires it and nothing happens. He hadn’t realized his gun was empty. And as this gook turns around, the guy falls over backwards. As he did, his helmet came off and the gook shot him, hit the helmet and missed hitting him in the chest. The round glanced off his wrist. He should have been a dead duck, except he fell away and got shot in the helmet. But its not his job to charge bunkers; that’s what grunts are for.

A few days later this same kid heard something out on the trail. It was an ambush, but he decided to walk down the trail and check it out. And the gooks that were there just shot him, period! So there was one dead lieutenant and nothing to show for it. It happened quickly and the gooks didn’t hang around. I would doubt that a fire fight from an ambush would last over 45 seconds, unless one side pins the other side down. Then it could last for what seems like hours, but is more like five or ten minutes. By that time you either have somebody dead or you don’t have somebody dead.

The grunts that had to deal with this had more guts than I could believe. I mean they had to carry their balls around in a wheelbarrow, guys that were absolutely incredible and half of them don’t have medals to show for it either. They were just doing their job, and always doing something gutsy—moving in, moving out, crawling into bunkers and checking them out, taking charge when they had to. I remember one guy, a lousy private, that did a lot of this stuff. He’s in a situation with the enemy up front and the point man gets shot. This lieutenant goes charging up, shooting like mad. He sees a claymore mine, runs over, kicks it over, and gets shot in the chest.

So he’s laying out there in front of his platoon. The platoon sergeant’s laying back somewhere on his ass, so the medic gets up and takes over the radio and starts calling in artillery. Then this private crawls up and starts shooting until he runs out of bullets. He crawls over to the point man who is shot, takes his gun, and keeps the enemy pinned down so that the guys could crawl out and get the lieutenant. He got wounded, took a pretty good crease, but he held those [enemy] guys down to keep our two guys alive. That was the first combat he was in and he’s a one-man fight. This guy was one of your Audie Murphys. It turned out he wasn’t crazy; he was one of the best guys to have around. In general, he wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t pretty safe.

We had some colorful people and they did incredible things. We had a guy named ‘Greek.’ Every unit’s got to have a Greek. He had this big old handlebar mustache and he carried this big knife. He started out as a machine gunner, just shooting the shit out of everything. One time he was shooting from the rear—BAMABMBMMMMMM and he’d shooting as us. He got a little disoriented but didn’t hit anybody. We finally taught him how to quit shooting down the trees; he was always going this shit.

I remember he decided to get circumcised. He could get a couple of days off to do that. He’d go back to the rear, get ripped, and get sent back out to the field. When we’d get some new guys out there, he’d say, “God damn it, you do what I tell you” or “This is what you’re gonna do…” He’d tell them what the deal was and that they couldn’t shit straight unless they talked to the  Greek first. But he was a mother hen, too. So when he finally got squared away, he turned out to be a hell of a soldier. Instead of having to tell him to move it, I had to tell him to slow down.

Lots of strange things happened. One night three guys went out on ambush. One was this sergeant E-7. They were set up out there on this big trail. The gooks were running down it at night carrying supplies on bicycles. These guys hear a noise and they can’t figure out what it is. So they crawl out there. It turns out to be a crossroad. It’s dark. They can’t see anything. About this time nine gooks come walking down the trail right toward them. The three guys are just sitting there, got their hats off and their guns in their hands. The first guy walks up to the sergeant and puts his hand on his shoulder and then  he realizes who he is. AMERICAN! Then our three opened up in the dark and killed four of the nine. The others ran off, blood all over the place. They had to be really cold to let these gooks walk right up to them and then let them have it.

If you’re out on ambush and you run into the enemy, sometimes there’s not much you can do. You either shoot them or you don’t. I’ve had ambushes where you let them walk by: “Well, maybe I don’t have to shoot these two. They don’t know I’m here, so I’ll just let them go by” because you don’t how many there really are. But usually you don’t do that because you don’t know what they’re up to. On one ambush I had six men. We were sitting there bullshitting.

I was going to pull out early. I had picked out that trail for that night and was sitting up there, but nothing happened. So I said, “While we’re sitting here, let’s play some cards,” while the other guys are looking. Later on I said, “Okay, we’d better knock it off; let’s get back.” About this time some guys come walking through the bushes, right across the trail in front of us. They never come where you expect them. I counted at least ten and they were still coming when I pulled off the claymore on them. I wasn’t sure if I should have or not but I just had to do it, I guess.

One of these guys was standing right in front of one of the damned claymores and he turned around.  I had raised up to make sure I could see what was going on. As I raised up and he turned around I could see his eyeballs just bulge as he looked right at me. A guy at his side came running right at me with a god damned AK. I didn’t even see him and one of my guys next to me jumps up and ZAP! ZAP! ZAP! He hits him in the leg, in the heart and between the eyes and drop him, just like that. At that moment I fired off the claymores and I just blew off the head of the guy looking at me. You know—ZAP! We blew every damned claymore and chucked every grenade we had at them. When the smoke cleared, I said, “We gotta check it out.” This young private I  mentioned before said, “Okay, I’ll check it out.” We pulled the machine gun around to cover him and he did a fine job. He was killed about three weeks later doing the same job, checking something out, maybe getting a little too nosey.

Freaky things happened, too. I remember once we just got resupplied. The point man was a moose. He could carry everything. He’s carrying four or five gallons of water, all these C-rations, all this junk on his back, maybe 100 pounds. And he’s walking point. He gets up to a corner of the trail and he turns (which you never do) to ask the guy behind him something. This gook is sitting behind a tree and opens up and puts 23 rounds in his rucksack. You could count the holes. Of course, it knocked him on his ass but all he got was a graze on the neck.

Hell, that’s funny stuff. It’s a big god damned joke. When nobody gets hurt, who cares? But if somebody starts screwing around on patrol, or gets lost, or they make too much noise, or don’t know what they’re doing, then it’s not funny.  Maybe the guy lights a cigarette in the dark that can be seen for two miles when everybody else lights it under their poncho. So he’s a dumb shit, and somebody smacks him in the head. If the guy goes to sleep on guard, somebody will kick him in the butt and that’s the end of it. There’s no tirade; everybody knows.

Once they sent out the company with an armored unit. We were chasing a bunch of gooks and we caught them  in a bunch of  little fights.  We chased them all the way up to within two kilometers of the Cambodian border. At one point, I threw a hand grenade into a bunker and the guy inside threw it back out at me. It hit 13 other guys, though only with little flesh wounds. We were running after them, shooting. One guy got killed when a 20-ton APC [Armored Personnel Carrier] backed over him. You’re not supposed to be that close to them, but he was looking the other way.

The gooks would rip the shit out of those tracks. You think you’d be safe in a ‘tank’ like that, but the gooks would blow those things up. Hell, guys would be scared shitless of the little gooks who would jump up with a B-40 [rocket] or an RPG [Rocket Propelled Grenade] and just blow the cupola off the top. I’ve seen these tracks get so screwed up they were shooting at each other when the gooks are popping out of bushes —BOOM! BOOM!—blowing the shit out of them and taking off.

So here we are, marching on Cambodia. We got right up to within two kilometers and we heard, “Everybody haul ass back!” We just turned around, which looked kind of silly. Bang, this operation is over. Well, everybody got out except us. We were still six kilometers out when night came and I knew we were in trouble. We were with four armored personnel carriers and a Sheridan tank. I said, “Dig in! Dig in! We’re in a bad spot here.” So we started digging like mad. It wasn’t an hour after dark when they hit us and god damn scared the living shit out of us. I was sitting on the back of one of the APC’s, talking to the APC commander, when I went PHEW! And took a swan dive off the back of  it. I about broke my neck getting out of the way of the green tracers. They hit us with B-40’s and RPG’s. I don’t know how many we killed, but we saw some blood. We got one wounded.

Delta Company, 2nd of the 7th, was a hell of a company. They had a reputation for always getting into trouble. I think between November of ’68 and June of  ’70 they had something like 56 people killed and 178 wounded. For example, they flew into an LZ in Bien Hoa province on a combat assault. First, they shot some artillery into it; some Cobras came in. Well, 99% of the time the LZ’s are cold; there’s nobody there. So they flew in with 124 men, got off and found they had hit an enemy battalion base camp. They were immediately pinned down in that field for four hours by .51 caliber machine guns, mortars, RPG’s and snipers in the trees. So this sergeant crawls out toward the edge of the field with a machine gun and killed about 10 gooks, charging their position. He gets hit with an RPG round, crawls back, gets another gun, goes back out and shoots some more. It ends up he dies out there, a guy named Holcomb [Sergeant John N.] They gave him the Medal of Honor.

So these guys were in all this shit and they [the command] couldn’t get resupply in to them. Chopper pilots came in, kick the ammunition [out the chopper door] and it would be shot full of holes before it hit the ground. Choppers were getting hit, pilots and gunners. It was just one hell of a fight, like a god damned massacre. That shit doesn’t happen very often. To top it off, the Vietnamese set fire to the field. I talked to a lot of guys that were there, including the company commander and the platoon leaders.

Lieutenant Bill McIntyre was there and ended up, I think, with a Distinguished Service Cross. When I was with Echo Company recon, he was the executive officer for a while. He used to carry a shotgun. When they were getting hit from bunkers with .51 caliber, he came around the flank and charged a bunker, fell into it. There were two gooks in there shooting. BOOM! BOOM! He blew then away with his shotgun He knocked out three god damned bunkers all by himself with a damn shotgun. That’s a hairy dude, I’ll tell you.

After I had been in the field for about four months, I was made executive officer of Delta Company. ‘Dying Delta’ they called it because they had lost so many guys. By that time I was senior lieutenant. The other lieutenants had either been hurt or transferred out or promoted. I spent about six weeks in the rear at Quan Loi, doing paper work, shuttling guys in and out. They’d come I for sick call or I’d write letters home, maybe get the mail out.

I’d take the pay out to the company and end up getting stuck out there all night. I’d bring maybe $14,000 in my rucksack. Finance gives you the money and you’ve got to get it out there on payday, go wherever they were, pay them, and get it over with. They could only spend $10 each a month for our beer and coke ration. We’d fly out supplies about twice a week. Every man would get two cokes and a beer, which was nice. I liked to drink the hot beer and I could trade two cokes for four beers any day.

I used to love to see black guys and some white guy from Alabama sharing a foxhole. There were a lot of good black soldiers and we got along great. White guys better not mess with any guy from your company either. People in the same company stuck together. So it was interesting. These guys from Alabama or wherever would have to bite their tongues a few times, but they usually worked out. But when some blacks went to the rear, though, it was not as nice. It always seemed that wherever I was, any battalion I saw, there was a little bunch of blacks that hung around the company rear, who wouldn’t fight. They wouldn’t work; they wouldn’t do shit. If you want to know the truth, everyone was afraid of them. You figured they might frag you. I never worried about it much, but they gassed us a couple of times. Somebody called me as a witness in a court martial.  I had gotten drunk and was sleeping there one night and they threw some CS [riot control] gas in there. Some people got sick, vomiting, but I slept right through it.

Lot of times the majors were afraid of them. Maybe the major was running the battalion. So there are about 10 blacks and they had around the bunker and smoke dope right out in front of everybody. The first sergeants are afraid of them and the executive officers don’t want to fuck with them. They’re intimidating and whatever you do it’s “prejudice.” I went through three different divisional directives there. For example, when I got to Vietnam in ’69, they were all ‘soul brothers.’ Then we had to call them ‘black Americans.’ I’d say ‘soul brother,’ and the major would turn and say, “Oh, you  mean ‘black soldier.’ Then I’d say, “Oh, you’re right, black soldier.’ Shit, I just thought he was one of the guys.

Blacks used to push us a lot. They had this saluting and bullshit. It really used to irk us, especially the senior officers. It used to drive them nuts. Whenever these guys would meet, they would do it, especially if someone was looking. Sometimes the ritual would take 30 seconds, which is a long time doing this shit. Maybe five guys would walk up and they’d do it with each guy. They were really trying to stuff it down our throats. I mean challenging authority. And the guys in the field weren’t for this shit; it was the assholes sitting back in the rear, causing trouble, breeding dissension, drawing black power signs, saying we’re all prejudiced, calling it a ‘white man’s war.’

Probably the war was inequitable. But there were a lot of poor white people in the army. We’d get some guy from West Virginia who was illiterate, that we couldn’t understand. They had a deal where you could go in and take a test if you wanted to be a truck driver or get some other job. But if you don’t pass the test, then you go to the infantry. Then there were the guys that just refused to go to OCS or NCO school. They said, ‘Screw it, I’m not signing up for anything extra. I’ll try to live through this damned thing and not get shot and that’s all they get out of me.’ These were our best men, the ones that hated every god damned minute of it. But they got out and did the job and always worked. So that made me more pissed off at the guys that didn’t do the job.

When I was executive officer you get these guys in the rear. I had a batch at Quan Loi, both white guys and black guys. There was a series of ways a guy could get out of the field on a sham. You get some jungle rot, you get some of this, some of that. Every time you turn around this guy is going to the doctor. Before you know it, the guy’s back sitting in the rear for three months. Then something else comes up, he gets some paperwork in, he wants this, he wants that. It was just an amazing series of things that these guys could pull off to never quite get back to the field. I was one of the guys who had to try to catch these sonuvabitches.

I hated the job. It was depressing. I remember one group of black guys, about six of them, some from other companies. There were some big, mean ones, too, along with one really ornery sonuvabitch. The major  would come around, saying “What are you doing about those guys?” I’d say, “I don’t know. What are you doing?” Then he’d say, “Nothing. If I was black, I’d feel just like them. I’d be militant, too.”  I said, “Shit, yeah, but they can’t get away with that crap. Hell, we’ve got guys in here that are doing their job and they see these guys getting away with it. So why should they go out and get shot?”

This one guy was sort of running the bunch. He gave me all this shit, prejudice and all. So I went to check his records and it turns out he’s got an IQ of 130. He joined the army, was an airborne trooper and had a good record until he got to Vietnam. His first time in combat he just went chickenshit and ran for the helicopter and got shot in the butt. So we couldn’t get him back to the field. Now, there was no prejudice involved, just plain chickenshit and his record indicated it. I talked to people who were there when he ran. That’s understandable, but he had to go back after he recovered. Well, he always had some medical thing.

I had at least a dozen guys that pulled this shit.  Finally, I got this one guy down to where he had no more excuses. He had to go or disobey an order. “I’m in the chain of command, I understand your rights, I have a witness here”—I read him his rights—“I’ll give you a direct order, take you in a jeep to the launch pad and put you on a helicopter and you will report to the company in the field.” He said, “Yes sir, I understand,” and then went out, grabbed an M-16 and started blowing holes in the [barracks] roof.  So I walked across the street, waited for the MP’s who came crawling down the street.  He gave up his gun, but it took six guys to tie him into a straightjacket. Then they gave him a shot. It was such a waste.

I tried to work with some of these guys, kind of like a social worker. I’d try to keep one guy from taking drugs or another guy from going AWOL, try to keep them from wrecking their lives. It was not so bad out in the field. It seemed like it was better if they got shot than what they became after being in the rear. But I was real proud of one guy. He had a beard and was always fucking with the colonel. The colonel would see him walking around without a hat on, stop him, and the guy would have a wrong name. Later the colonel said to me, “You got a guy named so-and-so?” and I said, “Never heard of him. What does he look like?” This guy had been snorting heroin, in with a bad bunch. But I worked with him until I thought he was going to shoot me. I got him transferred down to the mess hall. He became one of the best cooks in the damn place. But I lost a lot of them, too.

I remember we had this little, fat white guy who was a cook, too. He’s 19 years old, just a kid. And he wants to marry some new broad at the steam bath in Saigon. You know, you go in and they jump on you back and do message. So he fell in love with this girl down there and comes in, “I wanta put in paper work to get married.” I say, “Who are you marrying?” “Oh, the new girl down at the steam bath. She loves me and I love her,” all this shit. I said, “I’ll make you a deal. I want you to write your mother a letter, tell her all about it, see what she thinks. Then, when you find out, you tell me and I’ll do the paperwork for you.” She wrote back just all freaked out and he comes in and says, “Well, my mom wasn’t very happy. So I don’t think I’ll marry her.” There were lots of guys like that. Christ, the poor kid is so damned lonely he falls in love with the girl in the steam bath.

The job of executive officer of the company is interesting. We handled letters home from the brigade, no more of the old company commander crap of writing a letter home. But I did get letters from guy’s mothers wanting to know… I got several letters from the mother of the guy who was all burned up, wanting to know what happened. Well, I couldn’t tell her that. Or the guy that got killed reading a funny book. He got a bronze star and a purple heart.  A package kit was sent out. Everyone who dies gets one no matter what he did. They had the  guy killed reading a funny book as mortally wounded while attacking the enemy. It’s bullshit, but you’ve got to give the family something. I don’t feel bad about the guys that got killed getting one. I don’t like the sonuvabitches getting one they didn’t earn. That happened a lot, too—with officers mostly, and some sergeants. The officers wrote each other up. I never worried about it much. Maybe I should have asked for them [the commendations] like the rest of the sonuvabitches did. I think I earned them. But I just didn’t put many guys in for it. I put in six guys for Silver and Bronze Stars. I just didn’t think  about giving myself one.

One day I remember I went out to pay the company and the commander was there. A real bastard, he wanted the god damn  Silver Star. He had a guy out there that had gotten orders to come in because they were going to send him home so he can marry some girl he got pregnant.  The Red Cross has the family all squared away and the captain says, “I’m not going to send him on this bird yet. We’re short on guys. I’m not going to send him in until later.” Well, this guy got killed attacking a bunker. Another guy volunteered to go back in and get the body out and he got killed, too. I had come in on the only helicopter that got in that day. I’m stuck out there myself with my little bag full of money. And when the shit hit the fan, POW, the company commander went right down in a god damn foxhole. All I can see is his helmet and his mean little eyes sticking out of that hole. And he’s on that radio all that day and into the next, sitting in that damn hole. Finally, we get the bodies out.

A couple of weeks later he says to me, “How’s my Silver Star coming along?” All the medals are supposed to go through the  executive officer. Usually the sergeant would say, “So-and-so  gets such-and-such a medal.” I’m supposed to write up this glorified statement, do the paper work, and the CO signs it. Most of them are straight. So I answered, “What Silver Star?” Then he said, “Oh, don’t worry about it.” I went to the battalion S-3 and it turned out that the battalion executive officer wrote this shit up: …whereas Captain Maynard personally led his men out under enemy fire to recover bodies at risk and peril to life and limb,” all this shit, “that he personally directed artillery fire from the forward position.”

But I knew the whole show. He was down in the damn foxhole and was going to get a fucking Silver Star for that. It made me sick and I was going to do something about it. One day I was in the mess hall talking  to several captains about this shit: “Do you know what the hell’s going on? I should go talk to the battalion commander about this!” They all about died. They said, “You’re out of your gourd, if you open your mouth. They’ve already got the paperwork going anyway.”

Since  they  turned in the paperwork, who am I to say such-and-such didn’t happen. The battalion executive officer wrote it up and the battalion S-3 signed it. The colonel, well, he’s not interested in that shit. They would have told me to stuff it in my ear. I’m just a lieutenant. To make an official complaint would have pissed everybody off and I’m sure he would still have gotten the medal. Dumb things like this happened all of the time and nobody cared.

I remember a god damn colonel got a Distinguished Flying Cross and he’s not even a pilot. A friend of mine was a battalion doctor. He’s making $100,000 in New York, but they’ve made him a captain and they put him in Vietnam. One day he’s flying around with this colonel and they got into a damned big fight [below]. Fifty-one caliber machine guns have got guys pinned down and one guy is wounded real bad. The colonel has the pilot fly in and drop the captain off. The doctor crawls out under the machine gun fire and does an emergency tracheotomy and saves the wounded guy’s ass. The doctor got nothing for it but the colonel got a Distinguished Flying Cross for having the plane fly in. What kind of shit is that? That’s unfair. It gives me a pain in the butt.

I  was executive officer for Delta Company for about six weeks and then I took my R and R. When I came back, the new company commander said, “I need you out in the field.” We were usually short of lieutenants, but we had an extra one. He had been out in the field a few months. I told them, “I don’t want to go back in. Shit, send him back.” So they  made him the XO and I spent the next five months in the field. That made me the senior lieutenant out there. I’d take over from a captain, so I was getting built up to be a company commander myself. And I wanted the job. At the end of my year, I volunteered for another six months and made captain. I tried to get the same Delta Company because they were fantastic, but when I came back after my leave, I walked right in and got my own company but in another battalion of the First Cav. It was Alpha Company, 2nd of the 5th.

 

I guess most of the real good fighting was going on when I was a platoon leader. We had a lot more action then, but when I came back as company commander we were sort of winding down a bit. That would have been January-February, 1970. There wasn’t a hell of a lot of fighting, just a lot of little shit. The company worked out pretty well. At first there was a lot of bitching; they’d been soft for a while. Before I arrived, they used to stop every day for an hour, just sit down at 12 noon without putting out security, and have a big lunch break wherever they were. Well, the war doesn’t work that way.

I fought them for a while on that one. When they wanted lunch, I’d say, “No lunch break! We’ll stop and eat when we get to it!” One time they said they weren’t going to move. They wanted their lunch and I told them, “Look, you ass holes, what the hell are you pulling?” It’s not a mutiny. It’s just that I’m pushing them and they knew it. They’re a bit sloppy. Just before I took over they had a man killed. They had set up near a bunker complex and they hadn’t checked it out. On the other hand, I’d done a lot of fighting in my previous company but they hadn’t been in a fight for a while. So they weren’t worried.

The previous company commander was a good man but he was leaving and the company was not getting enough action, just getting lazy. Finally, when they tell the platoon leader, “We don’t want to move!” and he says, “What do you mean, you don’t want to move,” and they say, “we wanta eat,” I called them all together. I said, “Look, you guys make habits of stopping every day at the same time for lunch. Probably no one is following us around in the jungle, out in the middle of nowhere, but just in case… So you find something before you stop. And you check it out. Then you take a break when you know where you are. Basically, I want to know where the enemy is. So I want you off your ass. We’re going to move until we find a trail or something like that. Then, after we check it out, we can have lunch. Then we’ll know what we’re in to.” After I explained it to them, they said, “All right” and they got up.

They didn’t move 50 meters before they walked into this big ass trail. Now, if we’d taken lunch 50 meters from that trail, 100 guys out there eating lunch, then CRUNCH! CRUNCH! CRUNCH! We’re going to have some mortars stuck on our ass. The trail was fresh as hell. So we set up an ambush and then we started eating lunch. Pretty soon, right in the middle of lunch, they shoot some [enemy] guy running down the trail. And that’s what I had in mind. This worked out super for me because it proved I was right. I had said, “There’s gotta be something there…”  It didn’t make any sense that there was nothing there. And I was right. There was stuff all around us—we were in the middle of everything, but we were nowhere.

I knew this sounds like Daniel Boone stuff, but when a trail is really fresh guys trained as scouts learn how to read the signs. On a trail you look for broken branches. The dirt is kicked up or sometimes the enemy will drop things. Maybe it rained the day before and their rubber sandals would leave marks. You can tell a fresh track; you can tell how wear is on a dirt road. After using the same trail, they end up wearing it down. When you get near a bunker complex, sometimes you’d start getting their smell.

Different peoples have different smells that comes from their diet.  I’m sure they could smell us; we could smell them. Different diets produce different odors, kind of musty. When you get near their bunkers—they built beautiful bunkers—you’d find little trees cut down.  They’d use little branches and built them up with dirt. By the time they got through with them, they’re like concrete. After a while, you can almost feel signs of them even though you’re barely conscious of seeing them. You get used to looking for dumb little things—nicks, scratches, scuffs of dirt or whatever. In fact, the gooks would even brush off the trails with branches and you could tell when they did that.

‘Gook’ is just a word; you’ve got to have a word. When somebody comes walking through the jungle, you don’t want to say, ‘Here comes a North Vietnamese soldier,’ or some dumb thing. When somebody said ‘gook,’ everybody was ready. I had tremendous respect for them, especially those little guys [People’s Liberation Army] out there. Half the time they’ve got their crummy old rifle with a few magazines of ammunition, if that much. Their clothes are ripped up. They don’t have any good food, and they’ve got diarrhea, and malaria, and ringworm. And they’re just fantastic. You couldn’t get any American to go through what they went through. It would be just impossible.

I couldn’t believe how well they fought, too. They weren’t afraid of anything. Shit! We had one charge a machine gun with a grenade tied to his belt. He just came out, no gun, and just kept coming. They had to kill him. I mean, that may be crazy but they sure believed in what they were doing. And it was so irritating. You’ve got a hundred men out there walking down the trail.  They’d shoot right through you and you’d haul ass after them and they’d disappear. So you’ve got one man dead, one man wounded, something like that, and they’re gone, skipping down the trail.

They’d take anything you left laying around. They’d pick it up and use it for something. We’d change batteries in our radios every other day. So we would break each cell with a machete because if they got a hold of it, they’d build a walkie-talkie. You leave some crud and they would build a  mine out of it, and blow you up. When I blew these guys with the claymore in the ambush I described, they had all this shit on them: little bags of sugar and salt, little leftover goodies from C-rations that people hadn’t buried. One guy from Delta Company had left his hat and this gook was wearing it. So we took all this little shit back, which is kind of funny when you think about it

And with our weapons, both sides used the 7.62, which a .30 caliber bullet. They could use that in their AK-47  [assault rifle]. It fit perfectly. But their .30 caliber is flared at the end so that we couldn’t put it in our M-16. Our .50 caliber will fit their .51 caliber machine gun, but we couldn’t use theirs. We had an 81 mm mortar and they’ve got an 82 mm, so ours would fit in theirs but not vice versa. They were using 60 mm mortars that we didn’t use anymore, army surplus shit. So you’re sitting somewhere out in the bushes and you hear BUMP! BUMP! BUMP! God damned 60 mm mortar. You don’t appreciate getting hit with your own shit. The whole thing was just ridiculous.

I was due to leave in January of ’71. The war was pretty well winding down by then. There was still fighting going on, but it was sporadic. In ’69  there was a lot more fighting and our unit, the First Cav, did a hell a lot of it compared to some other units.  So when I left, the First [Infantry] Division had left, the 101st Airborne [Division] and the 199 [Infantry] Brigade were gone. We were getting new guys; the leftovers were coming to us. And a lot of these guys thought we were out of our minds. They had never done the kind of fighting we had done.  There was just enough fighting going on to keep us busy so that there wasn’t that morale problem, but other units did have it.

After I extended, I was a company commander for six months, but the extension was for a year. After that first six months, I ended up at Phouc Vinh, working on the green line perimeter for the 11th Aviation Group.  It was a pretty big outfit.  In fact, they had the division headquarters there at the time. Artillery headquarters was there, engineers was there—a big military complex next to the city with a big defensive perimeter around it. We had about 30 bunkers that we had to get manned every night. It’s a full time job; so they got an infantry officer. I slept out in the god damn bunker and at night I’d be running around, checking all the jerks, kicking them in the ass, trying to keep them awake. Basically I was in charge of 11th Aviation defense in their sector of Phouc Vinh.

During the day I had to get bunkers built or fixed up and keep the [perimeter] wires squared away. I had three or four guys that supplied me with the warm bodies I needed to get all the work done. The helicopter people didn’t want any of their pilots doing this shit. I got along with these guys great. We had a little refrigerator down in this bunker I lived in. It was my office and my room. The way I got work out of these guys was hustle and bullshit. I would say, “I need a fork lift. We’ve got to move this big conex.” Then one of these guys would sneak off and, pretty soon, he’d come rolling over with the forklift and I’d hand him a couple of beers. So we’d steal something down here or trade this for that over there. That’s how we got the job done.

So one day we’re working our ass off out there. I had sent my sergeant out with the regular crew that had been doing all this shit for me and then they’d come down in my bunker. We’re sitting around in there. I’ve got no shirt on and we’re drinking beer and the colonel walks in. So, “How you doing, Sir? Would you like a beer?” Well, the colonel got all upset. I explained to him, “I’m not getting enough support around here. It’s like pulling teeth to get any people from these [helicopter] guys. They say they’re going to send the guards out every night, but I’ve got to call ten more guys. You told them they have to supply two men for details and it takes me until noon to get half that many.” So the colonel says, “Aw, I told everybody: ‘You give Captain Jouanicot all the help he needs because we gotta get this green line cleaned up.”  Well, telling them and them doing it was two different things. This was the kind of crap you had to put up with in the Army.

But I decided when I was company commander that I was getting out of the Army, but I still had eight more months to go. In my last four months,  I got a fairly good job with the VIP Center at Bien Hoa. The VIP’s are the troops, you know, semantics of ‘the fellows.’ It had started about 1970. It had enough billets for about a battalion’s worth of people. I had about 60 men working for me. I knew what it was like coming in from the field. So we tried to do a good job when these guys came in. They could have everything they wanted.  Naturally, we made sure they had plenty of beer in the joint . We’d meet them at the helicopters and bring them to the Center. It was pretty nice. We had a steam bath, a barber ship, a little PX, a movie theater, a big mess hall, some creation rooms, a place where guys would call home, TV sets and pool tables, the whole shot.

Of course, it wasn’t as fancy as it sounds. It wasn’t Howard Johnson’s, but it was about the best they were going to get. They were dirty old buildings and guys came in and threw their shit down on mattresses. The theater was a room with projection equipment, but it sure was a nice break for the  troops—three days of goofing off. They would rotate companies in from the field, one, two, three at a time. Guys had three days to get drunk, smoke pot, generally get fucked up. We didn’t bust nobody for nothing, unless they started shooting at each other. But we took away their guns, and they could just lay around, screw off for three days. I enjoyed running the damned thing.

The VIP Center was where I saw most of the dope smoking. Out in the field we just didn’t have the marijuana because you could smell it. It’s too easy to get caught. Everyone’s sleeping together; there was just no way you could do it. I did catch one guy doing it out there. I told him if I caught him again I was going to shoot him and put him in for a Silver Star the same day. Later, at the time of the big ground assault, you know, when we killed some [enemy] guys, I knew guys were smoking. I could walk around and smell it all over the god damn place. And it wasn’t just my men.

I knew two of them were smoking, but they did a hell of a job that night. They were sitting there in their bunker  when the gooks decided to blow the wire and hit them head on. The gook fired their guns,  threw some satchel charges in there and wounded the guys slightly. And a freak thing happened, both their guns jammed. The gooks are climbing on the damn bunker. The platoon sergeant turns the guns around and, fresh shit, just blasts them off the bunker. Then these two guys jump out of the bunker and haul ass. We thought they were dead anyway. They ran to where the mortars were, got some guns and went back. Neither one had their shoes on, one didn’t have his shirt. They ran back and took back their bunker. When they got through they had six bodies in there. I don’t know how stoned they were, but I know they were smoking.

The guy from the next bunker was smoking, too. He came over to help them. One guy is saying to me the next morning, “Hullo, how you doing one-six?” but I heard him yell over, “Damn, I sure came down fast when hit us last night, but now I’m getting up again.” He had been sitting on top of  the bunker with a can of beer when the shooting started. They [enemy] put a hole in the can and during the fight they were passing around that can with the bullet hole in it. So there was dope smoking on the perimeter, but you sure didn’t want to do it in the field.

In the VIP Center it was a different story. I’d walk in and here’s 30 guys sitting there.

“How you doing, Captain?”

“Fine,”

and I’m seeing stuff all over. If a colonel had been there, it would have been a different story. But colonels stayed away. So we kept an eye on them, making sure they’re sensible. Of course, they don’t walk up in front of an officer and blow smoke in his face. I did bust two guys from a nearby battalion standing right by my hootch, smoking weed right in front of me. I grabbed their asses, called the MP’s who dragged them off. And I did it as an example to their outfit because I didn’t want them messing with our combat guys, trying to get free beer, maybe stealing their money, which was a  problem sometimes. But I really wasn’t trying to nail anybody. It was just ‘I know you smoke, so be reasonable.’

Usually, we  didn’t have much deterioration of morale. In the field we’d go in cycles. Sometimes when there wasn’t that much going on units would get lax. I’m sure it happened that they’d be told, “Check that out.” Then, “Roger  to that,” but it didn’t quite get checked out. Sometimes the men are tired, sometimes they’re let down. If they’ve worked too hard, or maybe had too much [enemy] contact or they been out 30 days without a bath, just a bit too damn long, then they get stressed to the point that they don’t react as well as they should. They need a break and the VIP Center was for that.

All the dissension was in the rear, guys sitting around in their quarters all day with time on their hands. For example, one night a bunch of blacks walked into the VIP Center. There were some clerks in there. The next thing I knew they’re out in front of the club, 15 guys beating on this one white guy. That pissed me off. I don’t care what color they are.  I went wading  in to break it up, get the guy away from them, hoping they don’t kick my ass, too. I had to shut down the pool room and the TV room. The MP’s wouldn’t arrest them at the VIP Center and I couldn’t do anything with them.

Right near the VIP Center was the reception station for the Cav. That was where they’d bring in the new guys, run them around the block, tell them how good the Cav was, a little initial training. And every week or so some guy would come in there and drop dead. He might OD from heroin in the same day he arrived. This heroin supposed to be five or ten times stronger than stateside stuff. It got to the point that guys did not run around with roach clips and pipes. They bought cartons of [marijuana] cigarettes, rolled and filtered, just like you  buy cigarettes in the store. I think they were only 10 bucks a carton. They called it Cambodian Red. My driver used to joke that the colonel’s driver would take the colonel to the village to check out the bazaar and his driver would buy a carton and stick it under his seat.

Christ, the colonels didn’t know what was going on under their noses. Finally, they got all worried about this shit and called a meeting, you know: “Division says get your ass out and teach everybody about this [marijuana]…”  They called all the officers down there. I escorted some major, a brigade or division bigwig, through the VIP Center. The stand-down troops are there.

“I want to check out some troops here. Let’s walk through this area.”

“Right, sir.”

He wants to see everything, so I walk him into this god damn barracks with about 30 beds and everybody in the place is smoking pot. It’s two in the afternoon and the whole place is just reeking with it. This fucking major walks in and guys are going POUM! POUM! POUM!, throwing the cigarettes in butt cans, stomping on them. I just couldn’t believe the scene and I thought, ‘Oh, shit! Now we’ve got problems.” So this guy walked through there, shaking hands.

“How’re you doing, fellow?”

“Fine, sir.”

“How’s it going, buddy?”

“Just fine, sir.”

And he walked right on out without even turning and looking at me. At first I thought, ‘Maybe he knows.’ Then I realized, ‘God, this guy doesn’t know what he’d got here.’

It was about this time that division came up with the idea of calling the officers down and giving a little class on marijuana.  They had a little pipe  with an atomizer, blowing smoke around the room: “Now you know what it smells like so you can tell when guys are smoking it.” You know, it’s so damn funny. They tried really hard to think that they were doing something, but they didn’t know how to handle it. Many guys got to the point that they’re doing this shit in the field and when they got back to the rear. I guess they couldn’t cope or they didn’t want to, and they have to do something to survive, so they get into this shit. They’d been good soldiers, but it [loss of mission] is just the most depressing thing in the world, I guess.  It was about that time I left; I finally went home.

I guess nobody expected to win the damn war, and nobody wanted to fight too much, you know, to get the job done and go home. I think that was how the troops felt. We knew we were going home. When your year’s up, you go home. And that’s about all everybody thought about. And some day they would get through screwing around and we would have a treaty. But nobody expects the war to be over until its over. One day we got a call about a one-day truce. The response was ‘big fucking deal.’ We knew it was just so much politics, so much crap. In other wars, too, troops fought over the same ground. But there was no strategic objective, so what could you do? You’re just out there tromping  around in the brush. When we chased them, they ran; when we stopped and set up, they’d come after us. They are over there, so you go over and try to catch them, but they’ve come over here. Running around trying to kill them is what we were trying to do—and vice versa. So many people hated the war and yet I think that if it had been announced:’We’re going to Hanoi tomorrow! Get on the helicopter. You can volunteer, I think half the company I worked with would have gotten on the helicopter. I think I would have gone because I didn’t like losing the god damn war. And we lost it. We didn’t accomplish anything.

Most of the officers felt that way. Most of the lieutenants and captains — shit most of them weren’t staying in. The guys stuck in between were the majors, always a pain in the ass. They can’t have a command because they are majors; they’d got to have staff jobs. They’re screwed because lieutenants run  platoons, captains run companies, lieutenant colonels run battalions and colonels run brigades. To make general, you have to have so much command time, so much staff time. Well, staff time is when you’re a  major. So they are battalion execs, battalion S-3’s.

They are at the general’s headquarters, running around drawing maps and charts. You go in there and they’ve got god damn shiny boots and they put on their .45’s for the briefing. And they have passwords and codes and all this wonderful stuff. Running the war gives them a lot to do, but they seemed to be the guys that had the time to screw around with the troops the most. And, of course, they’re bucking to make colonel and the colonels want to be brigade commanders. Some colonels knew they weren’t going any farther [up the chain of command] and were satisfied. Others thought they were going to the top. And you could always tell the difference. The god damned colonels were a pain in the butt, too.

There was one good general over there, General George W. Casey. He had been a captain in Korea, maybe a bit younger than some of them. He came over as a brigadier general and got two stars and the command of the First Cavalry Division. He was an impressive man, did a pretty good job. I liked him, too. He came out to the field, gave out medals, put on a good show. Flying down to Cam Ranh Bay, his chopper ran into a hill and wiped him out. He was one of the good ones.

There are colonels and generals that want to be heroes. The colonel of the battalion next to us was flying around with his battalion sergeant major and his aide, a major, when he saw a fire base that he thought had some gooks. So he tells the pilot, ‘Let’s go down there and land. I want to check it out.”  They land and get out and the gooks open up on them. They kill the sergeant major, wound the major and others end up dragging them back to the helicopter and finally getting out of there. What kind of an ass does that? And this guy was a colonel. We had another colonel repelling out of a helicopter with little hatchets and knives and shit hanging of him. He thought he was General Patton.

We had gung-ho officers you’d want to follow and some that were not too bright. Bill McCaffry shot a sniper out of a tree with a .45. He was the kind of guy you’d follow any place. He was a career type but he had guts. He charged a bunker and like to get his arm blown off, just hanging off him. He was holding on to the thing, saying “I’ll be back, fellows.” Before this he would be down playing poker with the lieutenants. He was the kind of guy that would never introduce himself as “Captain McCaffrey.” He got along damn well with the troops. And his father was General McCaffrey. Boy, did he have it made.

When I first went there the division commander was [Major General] E.B. Roberts. He was a pretty good man, but hell, he was a captain at the Battle of Bastogne in World War II. The older generals didn’t always see the war  the way we [lieutenants] saw it. So we had a lot of bright guys and we had a lot of dummies. For instance, we had a lot of guys get malaria. Roberts was saying, “God damn, anybody that gets malaria didn’t take the pills.” Well, you could talk to any doctor…  The big one was 90% effective; the little one 60%, something like that. Some people could get malaria with the pills.

I took them every day because I didn’t want to get malaria. As a lieutenant, I had to go around and make sure everybody else took them, too. And the general used to be all over our ass: ‘There’s no way in hell a man can get malaria if he’d taking his pills.’  If the general really wanted to believe that, okay. They can get a little bit carried away with their ideas and directives.

Commanding officers often made unreasonable demands. Like Colonel “Mad Dog” Murtell of the First Cavalry Division. He was always screaming at people, always mean and ornery. I knew a captain in his headquarters company. Even after the guy got transferred, but before the colonel wrote up his efficiency report, the colonel called him up and said, “I need a new .45 down here. You bring it. Get a helicopter and fly it down here to me.” What the hell is that kind of shit!  It happens because the colonel is ‘saying’—‘and don’t forget I haven’t signed your efficiency report yet.’ The [the command] has the career man by the balls, where they didn’t have us [non-career officers].  I didn’t want to get court-martialed, but my attitude was: ‘If you don’t like me, stuff it up your ass!’ But if  they’d got the OER [Officer Efficiency Report], you’re dead. You might get away with a couple of bad ones, but you’re never going to go anywhere. Supposedly MacArthur gave his aid, Eisenhower, a bad one. In general, though, with a bad one your career is done. That’s  where they’ve got the officer by the balls. If they want to get promoted, they’ll grovel.  Fear can be a good tool. I guess I used it a little. You try to make a guy afraid of you. If he’s not going to do something because he wants to, then he’ll do it because he doesn’t want you on his ass. But a lot of those colonels misused it. They were always pulling those fear tactics. The men sure didn’t like it either. To them any officer was a ‘damned lifer.’

Hardly anybody wanted to be there [in Vietnam]. I guess I wanted to go over there at first. And I went back, I think,  because the job was good for me at the time. I liked what I was doing. There were a few gung-ho guys, a little weird. I remember a sergeant who said, “I don’t want to go home.” I guess coming home was scary, too. As an officer, you’re a little kingpin. It’s safe in its way; there’s an officer’s club; you wear your uniform. I don’t think I snuffled around kissing ass. I was always getting someone pissed off. Then you come home and you’re a civilian. And nobody gives a shit what you were or what you did. All you hear is bullshit and pretty soon you just go and get rip-roaring  drunk and tear something up, that shit. So you get sloppy.

I didn’t mind the war that much. I think it was a tremendous experience. I came out without getting shot. I met a lot of good people. But I didn’t like the Army that much; it was a pain in the butt. It’s not that reasonable; it’s not that fair. They didn’t treat people right. The whole war was run by officers and sergeants from World War II and the Korean War. They’d fly around in a helicopter, lots of them thinking it’s just a big game.

I enjoyed the combat, but it wasn’t a game. And those sergeants wouldn’t go out in the field. They were always screwing around with the enlisted men, which was not conducive to a good army. So these old sergeants should have been kicked in the butt—just like the officers. Because they say ‘DO IT,’ it’s not going to happen. It doesn’t always work that way.

October 1974

 

 

13. Treasure Island

 

June, 1969. My dad had been in the Army and my two older brothers had been in the Navy. The reason I chose the Marines was because it was the hardest and I wanted to see if I could do it or not. I did boot camp at Camp Pendleton [California]. I was really gung ho. It was extremely hard to accept that instant obedience to a command, but I did. You wanted to prove something to everyone. In the mess hall there was this big picture of a Marine in dress blues, and he had a PFC stripe, and it was unbelievable how badly you wanted to be that ideal.

I remember in basic [training] they had what they call a fat private who they put on a diet to lose weight. And he was complaining, saying “Man, I just can’t hack this stuff—one glass of water, one piece of bread, and one piece of meat. It was humorous and I couldn’t help laughing a bit. And here comes the DI [Drill Instructor] with my platoon commander and he hits me up side of the head and says, “This is the one I was telling you about.” Then he looks at my name stamped on my fatigues and he said, “Johns, huh. You want to laugh, huh, asshole. You come and see me at the duty hut and I’ll give you something to laugh about.”

The worst thing in Marine boot camp was going to the duty hut. Well, I reported there, requested permission to talk to him. He had five of us in there for talking and I tried to explain what happened, which was the biggest mistake of my life. So he sent all the other guys out and he stood in front of me and hit me with his open hand across the face. I’d never been hit that hard in my life. I just saw stars. This was a guy could do 50 one-arm pushups. Then he put is hand on my shoulder and I thought he was going to tell me about what it was like to be a Marine.  Instead, he walks me behind the wall of lockers and, while I’m standing at attention, he hits me in the stomach as hard as he can. When he hit me, I flew up against these lockers. Then I would come down and stand at attention.

He did that maybe 20 times and that’s no exaggeration. Then he brought in this other guy that was talking too and he put us in a half-squat position. I mean, you can only do that for so long. Pretty soon I had a pool of sweat down there by my feet and my body was trembling. Then the gunnery sergeant comes around and says, “Do you like girls?”  and naturally we say, “YES SIR!” as loud as we can. Then he says, “Oh, like me, huh, girls? Well, let me tell you something, girls. Liking leads to loving and loving leads to fucking, and you DON’T FUCK ME!” And we go, “YES SIR!”  I thought that I just couldn’t take any more when this other guy says, “Sir, the private can’t take anymore.” And I thought to myself, ‘Man, I’m glad he said it instead of me.’ So I’m told, “Private, you can go.” You’re supposed to double-time out; well, I quadruple-timed out of there as fast as I could. And as I hit that hatch, I remember the DI yelling at the top of his lungs to this other guy, “YOU WANT  TO QUIT ON ME IN COMBAT,  ASSHOLE! After that, for my own psychological well-being, I made a pact with myself: I would never go through anything like that again. Later, at the rifle range, I fantasized that I was shooting this DI. I just hated his guts so much. But you were striving for this ideal—to be a Marine. To be a man you have to be treated like an animal.

Later, when I was at Camp LeJeune [North Carolina], I was in Casual Company. It was harder psychologically than boot camp because you wanted to go out and do something constructive, but they just send you out to rake leaves. Then my mother got sick and I applied for a hardship discharge. There were seven kids still at home and my father was their sole support. I went in and tried to explain it to the gunnery sergeant. And the first thing he said to me was, “What do you mean, hardship discharge. What can you do? In two months you’re going to be in Vietnam.”  The way  they handled it was appalling. Right away he tries to scare me. He doesn’t know what my orders are. The next thing I know I’m seeing the major. So I’m trying to explain the situation to him, that I come from a family of 10 kids. And he’s a major in the U.S. Marine Corps, an arrogant pompous ass. And he said to me, “Now, Congress said every man has to give two years.”  I had a letter from an employer and he asked, “How much money would you make?”  And then, “Private Johns, for all we know, when you get out you might buy a big car.” I could have hit him at that point. Then he said, “Why can’t you send money now?” I was getting $40 every two weeks. That’s nothing. But he said, “If you were a corporal in Vietnam, you might make more money.” But the fact was that I was a private and I wasn’t in Vietnam. I remember when I walked out of there, I was on fire.

I went back to the barracks and wrote letters to [Congressman] McCloskey, [Senator] George Murphy and [Governor] Reagan. They all wrote letters back. Then my mother passed away and I went home for the funeral.  When I came back, I had this hardship board with, you know, a major, captain and lieutenant. They asked various questions. This time they were decent because of the congressional inquiry, but they denied the discharge. They said I had two older brothers, even though they  weren’t at home. At this point I went back to see this major and I asked for orders for Vietnam. I needed some sort of income so I could send money home to my dad. The major said, “Well, we’ll have to wait and see what orders you get out of your school.” So I explained that if I wasn’t going to Vietnam, I was going to try to get a humanitarian transfer close to home. What happened was that I graduated third in my class. The top five guys got to chose the place they would transfer to, depending upon the quotas. So that’s why I went to Treasure Island [Naval Base, San Francisco].

So my problem got worked out okay, but I still had this psychological thing. I wanted to see what Vietnam was like. I wanted to answer this question for myself. So when I made corporal, I asked for orders to go over. I was doing the work of about three guys at the time. Because I was doing a good job and this captain that I worked for, when he found out that I had submitted this form, he called Washington and got it cancelled. This lance corporal knew I’d asked to go and, when I gave him his discharge papers, he said, “Corporal Johns, don’t go over to that war; those people don’t want us over there.” And he was a guy that had seen a lot of combat and had a lot of ribbons. But he hated it because he thought it was wrong. I was told by numerous guys that it was wrong. One guy said, “Well, I’d never want to tell a guy to go over there because I’d feel bad if something happened to him” and he told me, “You’re not missing anything.”

I still wanted to see for myself. I guess I had this assumption that I wouldn’t really know until I saw it. Plus, this might seem ironic, but I wanted the ribbons for myself, to say that I had done it. The ribbons on my uniform were very prestigious; Marines are judged by how many ribbons they have. I wanted to be a combat Marine able to say, “Yeah, I’ve been there.” When Corporal Williams said those people don’t want us over there, I resisted the idea. And I heard it over and over from other guys. They  weren’t  lifers; they were guys in for a two or three year hitch. Most were corporals or below; a few were sergeants.  And I put it in my mind that they weren’t good Marines. What did they know? What rank did they have? Because, after a while, I had a higher rank than all of them.

I remember when I went back to a school at Camp LeJeune that Richard Nixon was giving a speech. It was after he’d been in office about six months. ‘I’m here to report to you tonight on Vietnam…” I thought the guys would be interested in listening to Nixon’s speech because he was our leader, but I got “TURN THAT FUCKING RADIO  OFF!” And I said, “But this is Nixon’s speech…” and another guy yelled, “WHO  GIVES A SHIT!” I knew that for most guys their only aim was getting out of there; they hated it. I guess I was trying to make them live up to unreal values. There was a great lapse in morale, not the reinforcement that morale needed. I felt it. Treasure Island was distinctly different, especially around 1969. I saw the bitterness of these people who were processing out.

People in finance worked really hard, maybe 16 hours a day. I was a pay clerk. My job in dispersing involved being in charge of the records of guys returning from Vietnam or from other units who were getting out of the service. I made sure they got their military pay and allowances owed them by the Marine Corps or converted their leave time into money. When I paid them for their leave, I made sure their leave records were straight, got their discharge papers ready. Basically we closed out their account with the military. I was the non-commissioned officer in charge; I made sure the work got done.

But other guys did more than that. We had this one master sergeant who was a Marine all the way. So there was harassment of the guys coming home. Some of them didn’t want to wear their uniforms home. Others were getting undesirable discharges, maybe as many as 30 or 40 percent were coming back that way. There was plenty  of  tension in  the office.  I remember another guy who wanted to get paid and for every one to hurry up so he could get the hell out of there. The clerk said, “No, you’ve got to come back after lunch.” As he leaves he kicks the door, makes a fuss, and hell, they had him in that office all afternoon until four o’clock. He got his discharge papers but only after that type of harassment.

So I saw all these guys coming back through T. I. We had 20 to 30 guys going through our office every day.  It was a big complicated bureaucracy. The clerks were lethargic. A lot of the time they didn’t give a damn. The job became so monotonous that there were times I felt lethargic, too. These guys coming through had been waiting two, three years to get out [of the Marine Corps] and they were not always treated very well.  They had to wait in all these lines and were always being sent out on work details. Here’s a guy who just got back from Vietnam, he’s getting out of the service in three or four days, and some sergeant tells him, “Okay, go clean the head!” Sure they rebelled a bit and rightly so. They didn’t want to be used and that caused a lot of discipline problems.

Some Marines were coming back through other [California] bases like El Toro or Camp Pendleton, but the bulk of them were coming to Treasure Island. I guess it was an easy place to bring them. Also, we had a large brig. And I can remember the mentality. This one sergeant had been to Vietnam earlier. He’d been in recon and he worked in the brig. I remember him telling me that they beat the hell out of those guys in there. He told me that one guy would not do pushups when they told him  to, so they made him lie down and one of them got up on top of the wall lockers and jumped down with both knees going right into the guy’s chest. They had to take him to the hospital. The sergeant got court-martialed for that but he got off. At courts-martial, it was one guy’s word against another and authority is upheld.

Drugs were definitely a problem.  I could go through the barracks and smell marijuana.  I  had a number of incidents. One time this guy came up to me and said, “Sergeant Johns, there’s three guys  over  there smoking marijuana.” I went over and kicked the door open and said, “All right, stay where you are!”  This one guy put his hands behind his back and flipped his marijuana away. So I just grabbed him and hit him in the mouth and said, “You just stand there at attention!” Then I  marched them down to the officer-of-the-day and they were put on restriction.  The next day these guys went to see the colonel. And they tried to play it up that I had hit this guy. When I turned them in, I had said that there were three guys and it was dark and the person on duty said, “Well, we’ll log it as a defensive maneuver.”  I told the colonel right to his face: “That guy moved suddenly, so I hit him in the mouth.” These guys went to the brig for seven days. Nothing happened to me because this warrant officer went to the colonel and said, “I’ll stand behind that sergeant 100 percent.”

There were a lot of problems with blacks. A good percentage of the guys coming back were getting ‘bad conduct’ discharges and maybe 40  or 50 percent of them were black. And, you know, a lot of black people talk differently to begin with and that was hard for the staff NCO’s and the officers in authority to accept. They wanted their rank respected and they didn’t get it. I remember this black guy coming in saying “Hey, man, I want to get some dust so I can get my threads cleaned…” I can’t really remember all of the lingo but this one lieutenant had a hard time with it. I had one guy say to me, “Hey, man I’m gonna kick your motherfuckin’ ass!” And I swear, I wanted to hit him so hard. So I marched him into the major and he denied it, said exactly the opposite. And it’s pretty hard when it’s your word against his, but in the Marines they accept it. Even so, a lot of officers were afraid of being called “prejudiced.” You would see a lot of blacks, especially the ones back from Vietnam, go through this symbolic black power hand thing. I’m not sure whether it was against white people in general, but most white Marines took it as anti-white and offensive to them personally. The Marines were supposed to be one body of men; we put color aside when we came in. I remember distinctly one black sergeant who said, “You don’t see any of us [black sergeants] beating our fists.”

So there was a real conflict over authority. I remember one guy who was going to OCS. He was going to be an aviator, but he had physical problems and had to drop out. He got re-cycled and they sent him to boot camp at Parris Island. His attitude was ‘if I’m not going to fly, why spend four years in the Marine Corps as an officer when I could spend two as an enlisted man.’ I remember him saying that he didn’t want to be a ground officer because a higher officer might say, “Go take that hill over there,” and he would say, “Why?” I said to myself, ‘I can’t ask myself those kinds of questions.’ I mean, I honestly thought that. It’s unbelievable that I maintained that attitude for almost three years.

By the time I had made sergeant we had a new captain in. So I asked to go to Vietnam again. By this time I had only a year left in the Marines and this captain told me that I had only one chance in four of getting to Vietnam. When I went over to fill out the administrative action form, somebody told me that I had to be willing to extend for the time necessary to complete a full tour over there. That meant they could give me orders the week that I was to get out [of the Marine Corps] and I’d have to go another year.  I said, “nothing doing.”  I remember Warrant Officer 4, Leroy McVey, the third highest ranked warrant officer in the Marine Corps. He had been through World War II and Korea and he had two tours of Vietnam. He was one of the most respected men in the Marine Corps. He knew the Commandant. He had seen war for himself. And he told me one time when we were alone “Those kids out there  [referring to the demonstrators], they’re smart. They know this war is wrong.”

It was hard for me. My mind was changing a little bit, gradually. When the Pentagon Papers [1971] came out, I didn’t want to believe them. The first thing that came to mind was that it was the communists. When there were demonstrations in Berkeley, we were told it was the communists. I was told in boot camp, “The demonstrators out there want peace—they want a piece of ass.” Everybody laughed. Later I ran into officers like Captain Harvey, Lieutenant Blake, Captain George—some of the finest men you’ll ever meet. And I remember saying to Captain George one time, “You know those guys out there demonstrating, it’s just the communists.” He was holding a cup of coffee and he just looked at me and didn’t respond. And now I can see that he could look through my naivete.  I think down deep inside he knew, but he felt a tremendous amount for the Marine Corps.  I remember Lieutenant Blake; we were real close and later in my tour, when I started changing my ideas, we started to split apart a little bit. And he said to me, “Sergeant Johns, it’s my feeling that those demonstrators cause more deaths in Vietnam. Otherwise we could have won the war a long time ago.” That’s exactly the way he felt. So there was just more and more polarization.

Guys used to come into our office wearing civilian clothes, sometimes they looked like hippies. And the officers and the NCO’s just boiled because they hated to see that. So this one guy came in wearing a peace sign and the lieutenant said to  me, “Sergeant Johns, you know what that is? I said, “Yeah, I know.” But he continued, “That’s the symbol of the American chicken,” and so I said, “Lieutenant, that’s nothing new.  It’s the John Birch [Society] slogan.” And that made him  mad because it seemed to him that I was siding with that guy and I was supposed to be a lifer.

All this was happening toward the end of my tour, when I had more or less decided to get out of the Marine Corps. I almost re-enlisted. I thought very much about being an officer and I had the opportunity proposed to me many times. But I didn’t feel confident enough academically; that was my hangup. I had a low grade point from high school, so I told the warrant officer, “How am I going to get to Annapolis?,” when he offered to send me. It takes a GTC score of 120 to be an officer and I had way above that. So I could have gone. But I remember at Camp LeJeune watching this movie, The Graduate, and I remember this guy driving down [California] highway 101 and I wanted to be free so bad.  And that haunted me all the way through. I was a sergeant and I would always have these obligations being in charge of a whole squad of guys. If I was an officer, it would be 40 or 50 guys. It was a tremendous pressure to be responsible for them. And I felt that I could never just drive down the road and stop at the beach or in the mountains and just say, “Screw it! I’m not going to work on Monday.”  I got out of the Marines because I wanted freedom.

Another reason I got out was because the military was almost like being in a prison as far as women are concerned. People don’t want to look at this, or they say, “Oh, that doesn’t matter.” But when you’re with men all the time, it distorts your mind in a way. I mean you stop growing intellectually. The next thing you know you’re out on the town, trying to get laid every chance you get. I had the sense of   losing my humanity. When we were out on the town, we were always trying to prove how tough we were, how much we were drinking, and who we were screwing. And I knew that there had to be something deeper. I remember walking out a whorehouse with another guy, thinking to myself, ‘You’ve just stopped at the bottom of humanity.’ So we went out and got drunk. I wanted to be in an environment that was natural; the military is very stifling. The big thrill at Camp LeJeune was walking over the main barracks or the main PX to watch the pretty  girls walk around. That was a very real need. But if you went out to town—in Jacksonville, North Carolina—there were only prostitutes and bartenders. I knew I had to get away from that.

This was about May of 1970, when I was at another eight-week disbursing school, one for lifers at LeJeune. They thought I was going to reenlist. I had arrived at Treasure Island in June 1969. And one of my jobs before I became a pay clerk was to take these messages when they came of the teletype. They would be about guys that had been killed in action. I remember reading, “The Commandant wishes to express his sincere regrets.” And I thought to myself, ‘How absurd this is. The Commandant doesn’t even know who these guys are.” They are names on a computer printout. And I could see that these people had just become a number.

My own experience happened when I had to take a guy’s body home. It was a guy I knew very slightly when we worked at a gas station a few nights together before he went in. He was going into the Marines in a few weeks and I went a few weeks later. When I was coming back from Camp LeJeune, he was coming back from Vietnam. I went to see his girl friend and she told me about his being killed. So I went to see his family and they requested me as a special escort. That meant that I put on dress blues and I would take the casket home. I’ll never forget that experience.

I went to Warehouse #4 in Oakland. This where the deceased arrived [from Vietnam], where they had their ribbons put on and so forth. There was this awesome smell. I looked down at the guy’s casket and its said ‘James Mathew Wandrow’ with his serial number. And they opened up the casket and I looked down at his body. His face had been burned a lot, but you could still tell it was him.  They had to close the casket. And I remember driving back with the funeral director. In the Marines you’re not supposed to mention anything about money and he had the gall to ask me, “By the way, you don’t know how much the family is allotted for the funeral, do you?” At first, I interpreted it that he was trying to be a sensitive guy and he wouldn’t charge them any more than they could afford. But after I reflected on it, I realized that this funeral guy was going to put the screws to them for every nickel and dime the government would give them. And it hit me right in the face, another insensitivity. I thought, ‘What this guy is asking for, these funerals, this is big business and that’s the way he looked at it.’

There was a lot of support at the funeral. I made the presentation of the flag to the family. They had a seven gun salute and played taps. My exact words, “Mrs. Wandrow, I give you this flag for Jim, from a grateful country, and from  myself.” She was crying, and she just reached out and grabbed hold of me, and I  guess when she was grabbing hold of me, she felt like it was part of her son. But at that moment when I handed the flag to her I felt so inadequate because I hadn’t been to Vietnam. That was one of those times that I really wished I’d gone, so I could have felt that I’d really done something. His father had been in the Navy in World War II and he could accept it more.

I went down and had this little plaque made for them. My dad had told me, “Say it’s from the guys in the barracks, instead of just from yourself.” I took it over to them and told them,”The guys in the barracks helped me get this in memory of Jim.” But it was just from me for his family, to make them feel better. When I gave the family the flag, I knew it was not from a grateful country. I even saw guys in my own barracks sometimes escort bodies if it would be close to their house so they could be home for a few days. But a lot of guys after they came back from an escort said that they would never do it again. It was so horrid for them to face the family; immediately the family identifies with the Marine escort. One sergeant, who had been to Vietnam and had a couple of Purple Hearts, and who was a permanent escort—this was his job—told me that sometimes the family asked him to stay with them for a couple of days. And this one father asked him to stay and they went swimming. As he was getting out of the pool, the father said, “You know, I don’t want you to leave. I want you to stay here and be my son.” This guy said that going on these escorts was the hardest duty he ever performed because you could see that the family was literally ripped apart.

I remember another Marine telling about going to pick up a body. He heard some guy yell out, “Hey, here comes another stiff!” And this big lance corporal said, “That Marine died for his country, so shut your mouth!” I don’t know whether he believed it or not. It was hard. In the newspaper is was just numbers coming back from Vietnam. I might have escorted again, but I felt so totally inadequate. You take this guy home and, in my own way, I wanted it to mean something. I expended so much energy trying to make my service meaningful. I worked in the disbursing office a lot of the times as much as 16 hours a day. In the military, the mental strain is greater than the physical.

 

The tension over the war never stopped. There was Corporal Ray, who was attached to Casual Company at the Marine Barracks at T. I. I remember him saying distinctly that we had no right to be over there in Vietnam and he didn’t care what anybody said.  Those were his exact words. I remember another sergeant telling me that they’d be driving along in these trucks and when they saw Vietnamese children they could take these cans out of their C-rations and try to hit these kids with these cans. And I said, “Why did you do that?” He said, “You have to be over there to see why.” I guess that it was just a certain feeling that they had.

In April of 1971 they had a big protest in  Golden Gate Park. Some Marines started going to these protest things. And I remember that we were told that we could go out there, but we were instructed that we couldn’t wear our uniforms. This one sergeant said he was going and we were kidding him about it. He’d flown a helicopter in Vietnam for 13 months and he said the war was wrong. He had actual combat experience and,  at that time, was doing some kind of paper work at 12th Marine Corps District.  He was against the war and meant to prove it. I thought, ‘What an ass! How the hell can he do that?” I more or less had a ‘lifer mentality’ at the time.

There was just this polarization. We were trained for riot control and we were ready to go to Berkeley one time.  We practiced forming a wedge to go through a crowd.   But I think they were afraid to send in the Marines. If  you think Kent State was bad… I mean a lot of us had never seen action and would have been glad to bust a few heads, for crying out loud. I distinctly remember this gunnery sergeant saying, “Now, you know, if someone comes in this wedge I don’t care what you do to the guy.”  It was the same thing in our office when they killed those four demonstrators at Kent State. We cheered in our office. “Fire on those long-haired sonuvabitching communists! Maybe they’ll stop their protesting now.” The best way that I can explain it was this elitist mentality. We were right and they were wrong, so we could do whatever we wanted.

I remember this picture in Time magazine of the national guardsman standing at port arms with this ‘flower child’ putting a flower down the barrel of his gun. And this sergeant named George said, if he had been that guy, he would have just smashed her head with his rifle butt. And he would have thought nothing of it. This guy was as big as a door. He told the story of this girl that came into the bar talking about being in the protest march. And the bartender looks over at George, who’s not in uniform, and says, “Hey George, what do you think of that? Did you go to the march?” And George says, “Fuck no, I didn’t go to the fucking march. You think I want to lose my job killing women and kids? And it was sort of a half truth, because in a way the guy really meant it. Needless to say, the girl was shocked.

But a lot of Marines wanted to go to Vietnam for the extra money—$65 a  month combat pay. And from what I understand there was less harassment in Vietnam. In the States you were terribly harassed with inspections, cleaning your rifle and what not. They more or less bred it into you that ‘you’re a Marine and you’ve got to look sharp.’ You get tight with the officers, calling them by their first names. Some guys  got harassed for going to school because a lot of the guys that reenlisted came from backgrounds where they didn’t have an opportunity to go to college. If you don’t make it in high school, how the hell are you going to college? They had this Project Transition. If a guy had less than six months to do in the service, he could be sent out to work part-time to learn civilian skills or there was a specialized program to take six courses to give the tools to go to college. These programs were set up by Congress.

I  felt the military authorities hated these programs. A lot of guys got harassed for choosing them.  My captain didn’t harass me, but he didn’t want to give me up either because I was a good man. No one wants to lose a good man. So it was the guys that didn’t do their jobs, the shitbirds, that would get in these programs. I stood every inspection they had. It was a paradox because if you were a ‘good Marine,’ out there in all the inspections, then they’d just pile more work on. I remember this one captain who kept a guy out who wanted to get in very badly  and it was because he did such a good job.   So I had to go to the commanding officer, who was a colonel, and he tried to discourage me. “Sergeant Johns, now these programs are for people who haven’t learned anything in  the service.” But when I showed him the contradictions, he said, “Well, I’ll have to think about it,” and then he let me in the program.

Everyone in the class was a veteran and, in one of the introductory courses, we had to give three to five minute speeches. This one guy got up and drew a peace symbol on the blackboard. He pointed to it with his thumb and said, “That’s what I believe in.” Then he started to tell his story. When he was in Vietnam, he went on patrol. This one time he heard rustling in the brush and he turned and emptied is M—16 magazine into it. He killed a mother and two children. He said he didn’t mean to, but he did. When he admitted it to himself after he came back to the States and when they wanted to send him back, he reenlisted for another two years so he could go to another duty station. It was the only way he could get out of going back to Vietnam. It was worth two more years of his life not to go.

When I heard that, I really started to change. Because these guys that got up to talk had all been to Vietnam. They brought out the absurdity of the war. I remember another corporal at T. I. who just got back from Vietnam. I asked him, “Well, can you tell me what it was like? Do very many guys smoke marijuana over there?” He told me that a good percentage of the guys did. And then he proceeded to tell me how he and four other guys had taken this Vietnamese woman down by the river and they all raped her and then they drowned her. And there was no tremble in the guy’s voice, no concern. They just got a piece of ass without repercussions. And I wondered how this guy could be so insensitive. That made me change a little. I began to see other contradictions—the sons of doctors and lawyers that weren’t drafted or didn’t go to Vietnam because they could get an excuse. I was reading books like Catch-22  and All Quiet On the Western Front, where a guy says, “Here we are, we’re 19 years old. They took us at 18 years old. What did we know about life?” And here were  60 guys in this program and everyone of them hated the Vietnam War. To me it was ironic.  I was the only Marine there, and I hadn’t been to Vietnam.

A friend of mine  once quoted to me from Warriors that  “there’s no cause, no force, no idea that men fight more for in combat than comradeship.” So it doesn’t matter who the enemy is. I know that when I was in boot camp with these 70 guys, they were my family. It didn’t matter whether the enemy was Russian, or Chinese, or Vietnamese. And I asked myself, ‘Are you fighting for your country or are you fighting for these 70 guys you’re with?’ It’s ambiguous; it’s a dilemma. A guy gave me a book and challenged me to read it. I was afraid to read this book, entitled Johnny Got His Gun, because it was about a guy who had everything shot off. He didn’t have any arms and legs, no eyes, no ears. All he had was his mind and he spoke with his mind. And there’s one passage that goes

Somebody said “Let’s go out and fight for liberty” and so they went out and got

killed without ever thinking about liberty. And what kind of liberty were they

fighting for anyway? And whose idea of liberty?… What the hell does liberty mean

anyway?… The next time somebody comes gabbling to me about liberty…

And he pauses.

What do you mean the next time? There’s not going to be a next time, but if there

is I’d want to know in advance just what type of liberty and how much of this

liberty we’re going to have, and what’s more Mister are you as interested

in this liberty as you want me to be? I think I’ve got liberty right here—liberty

to walk, to talk, to eat, and to sleep with my girl.

And when I  read that it just hit me  like a ton of bricks. I thought, “Yeah, you really only live once!” My father had 14 years in the Army and that’s all I ever heard, you know? ‘You got to be tough! You’ve got to be a man.’ That was bred into me. And you see all these war movies. People don’t believe it, but those war movies have a tremendous effect on kids. You see John Wayne charge up a hill and he never gets scratched. Well, what about when a guy gets his arm or leg blown off? You don’t hear so much about him.

There was a hell of a lot of pride in the Marines. I felt it a lot of it. I mean there were times when it was very intense and I was very proud to say I was a Marine. But all that pride, and all the camaraderie, and all that work was undermined. I was lied to; they misled me. They distorted the news. I can remember hearing [Secretary of Defense] McNamara: “Peace is just around the corner” and then Nixon with “lasting peace” and “Peace with Honor.” It’s all rhetoric. But when you’re a little guy, you have to hang on to that. Because that’s all you have. You don’t want to believe that it was all in vain. The general feeling from the [American] people was that they were sorry we were in Vietnam. There wasn’t that push of strong moral support you thought you would feel.

If you were getting out and you were wearing your uniform for the last time, you’d want to have shiny  shoes, polished brass, and you’d want your uniform pressed. Say 50 percent would look sharp because they were going home on a flight.  But some guys would look like slobs. I couldn’t believe it. They just looked like rag dolls. They could give two shits worth. They just wanted to get the hell home, get out of that uniform. They called it ‘the rag.’ They just wanted to “get that rag off me.” In the Marines, that uniform is one of the biggest things. When you were out in the public eye, they wanted you to look as sharp as you could. It really hurt me, too, because I really felt a lot for the uniform. And guys would come into the finance section and they do not look sharp. They would be rated to wear ribbons and they wouldn’t even wear them. It’s strange that a guy would spend 13 months or more in a place earning ribbons and then didn’t have enough pride to wear them.

They just wanted out. Nobody cared. People can say that they do. They can put up these plaques: ‘In memory of those who gave their lives in the service’ or something like that. But who cares? We were just one tiny part of a word called ‘troops.’

February 1974

 

 

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