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November 26, 1965
The Boeing 707 sailed westward through the clear blue sky above the South China Sea. Now that their journey was near its end, the teenage passengers were quiet. Youthful bravado that masked their fear throughout the long flight across the Pacific ebbed, then ended, after the plane took off from Clark Air Base in the Philippines. During the final two hours of that longest journey, the only sound in the cabin was the soft, steady drone of the jet engines. For a few moments more, the passengers would remain boys, boys afraid of the unknown that lay before them. But soon the plane would land, and they would begin the process that would make them men.
Of the hundred boy soldiers, no two could call themselves friends. They were assembled from scattered Army training sites, leaving behind the friends with whom they faced the challenge of becoming soldiers. Unlike the heroes of earlier wars, these boys would fight as individuals. They would face their anxieties alone, without friends to share their thoughts, their excitement, or their fears. When they reached the war, the Army would scatter them throughout the country. They would join existing units as replacements for men who fell before them; they were to be the outsiders who must fill the slots vacated by men who were integral parts of their units. Each boy would face the war alone, shunned by those who came before him, shunning those who came after him. For these replacements, and those that followed, the great danger would be not only to their bodies, but also to their minds. Whatever emotions war wrought, they would be endured alone. Anxiety would build without a comrade to serve asa release, for these new soldiers were going to war alone, and alone they would remain, alone until the end, whenever and whatever that might be.
The hundred boy soldiers would live a hundred different dramas, each one a tale worth telling. Some of those dramas would end too soon, cut short by one of war's deadly events. Others would grow to manhood before their dreams abruptly ended. And some would live to take the long flight home, to face a world they would never understand. Only the Author of all life's stories knew the details of what would happen to whom.
Of all the boys on board that plane, Daniel Perdue looked least like a soldier. His was a choirboy's face behind Army issued eyeglasses. His five foot seven inch body was made lean and hard by five months of intensive training which culminated with three weeks in Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia, just one hundred miles south of his home Atlanta. As if to emphasize the surrealism of war, Daniel Perdue was not just a soldier, but a paratrooper, one of America's best. He had succeeded in a training regimen designed to weed him out, and in the process he acquired more than the skills of a soldier. Above all else, he learned what every paratrooper learned, that his body could and would do whatever he required of it. Daniel had the skill, the confidence, and the determination of a paratrooper, but all the training in the world could not change his appearance.
Nor could it change the fact that he knew nothing about war, for training and combat are divided by a chasm called death. Military training, when done right, prepared the body for the rigors of war, but the mind could not be taught to go beyond exhaustion. Only war could teach one to think and act quickly, rationally, to do the things that must be done without fear, for fear slowed reactions and created thoughts whereas only deeds saved lives.
Daniel stared through the window at the ocean below, that vast, empty expanse that reached from horizon to horizon. He looked for another atoll like the one he had seen in the Pacific, an unchartered, unspoiled ring of white sand in an endless blue sea.
In time the blue water yielded a thin white string on its western edge. Slowly the string grew thicker and became a sand beach. Behind it appeared a nameless assemblage of thatched-roof huts. Then rice paddies spread out below the plane in quilted patterns, an endless patch work plain bordered here and there by more nameless, isolated villages, some like islands in a sea of rice.
Along some edges of the paddies, the jungle began. Daniel saw only the top of the dense tropical rainforest, that canopy of trees so thick that there seemed no ground beneath it.
The plane began its long descent. More rice paddies spread out below. A large dike formed a causeway through a vast field, and from it grew innumerable tiny dikes, each forming its own design within the quilt. The sun reflected off a few flooded paddies, little lakes held together by dikes so small that the water seemed to be its own barrier.
The first person Daniel saw was a farmer tending his paddy. He wore one of those round straw hats that have become a symbol of the Orient. Accustomed to jets and their noise, the farmer did not look up.
As the plane dropped lower, the land below raced by. Daniel saw the first signs of western civilization, and war, but only in fleeting glimpses of that strange new world which would be his home for the next year, should he live that long.
There! A small clearing surrounded by barbed wire! Tents! Cannon! Army trucks parked side by side. And there: a building of some sort, gone quickly. A tank! And another! And roll upon roll of barbed concertina wire.
Lower still. The plane passed over the airbase perimeter. The barren earth was scarred by more barbed wire, and, behind the wire, bunkers and guard towers, and a dirt road snaking along the rear. Big green tents were everywhere. Lower. Tin-roofed buildings. Trucks and cannon, and now helicopters, raced beneath the plane. Then came the airstrip itself: more buildings and tents, and more helicopters parked amid stacks of sandbags. A row of camouflaged jet fighter planes, each in its bunker, appeared and was gone. Large rubber bladders of jet fuel streaked by, each surrounded by sandbags. Everything was surrounded by sandbags, the tents, the buildings, everything.
The plane touched down. More buildings and bunkers rushed by outside, more tents and trucks and fighter planes and helicopters.
The plane slowed and stopped; a stewardess opened the door. Without orders, the young soldiers stood and started for the exit.
The quiet tension of moments before gave way to excitement. Fear of the unknown yielded to the mystique of war. The fear in all their hearts was subdued now by the nonchalance boys' display when they think they are supposed to be brave. But without that display, without that self-deceit, frightened children could not easily endure those first, tense moments of war.
The waiting, the anticipation, was over. The adventure began.
When Daniel stepped through the door of the plane and onto the ramp, he was hit in the face by the overwhelming heat and humidity. It stopped him in his tracks. Even his native subtropical Georgia had not prepared him for Viet Nam's tropical steam bath.
"What's the holdup?" asked the soldier behind Daniel.
All the way down the ramp Daniel reacted to the heat, and he was totally aware that his khaki uniform clung to his instantly sticky body before he reached the bottom step. So strong was the impact of heat and humidity that Daniel's first step onto the soil of Viet Nam passed unnoticed. In the coming months, many unique moments would go unnoticed.
The new soldiers were led a hundred yards to a building, where they were told to wait. It was but the first of many buildings Daniel would see that had no windows, or, at least, no glass windows. The upper half of every exterior wall was screened. There would never be any cold weather to keep out, but there would always be flying insects wanting to get in.
Daniel sat quietly with the others, but his manner betrayed his youth. His eyes revealed the excitement he felt, an excitement born of childish innocence and the naive belief that death was but a scene in a movie.
Daniel was enthralled by the activity around him. Soldier clerks walked about with clipboards and stacks of papers. Trucks came and went outside. Cargo in a thousand shapes and sizes waited to be carried away. Officers scurried by without being saluted. Amid the hustle and bustle of war, Daniel sat and waited, just one more piece of Army equipment to be hauled away.
A group of GIs came in laughing and joking. They were going home.
One of them looked at the new arrivals and yelled, "Forty-three minutes and counting, cherries!"
As Daniel watched them pass, he was struck by the disparity of their dress. Some were in new jungle fatigues that still had the oddly placed creases that develop during shipment to point of use. Others wore dirty and ruffled fatigues that displayed for all to see the results of months out away from the niceties of base camps and permanent positions. All had on their heads soft caps, but few resembled the army issue baseball caps that were so common on army posts in the States. Most were crushed and wrinkled as though they had been rolled in a ball and sat on for a week; others were new, but an odd shade of green and a shape that gave them away as being local products. The soldiers looked little like the clean, crisp formations back home.
Those who were headed home looked, too, at those who were just arriving. Whereas Daniel's reaction to the veterans had been one of silence bordering on awe, the veterans' reactions to Daniel and his comrades were vocal and crude.
"God damn!" one veteran said loudly. "Did you ever see such shiny fuckin' boots?"
"Fuckin' A," agreed another.
Said a third, "So that's what cherry fuckin' boots look like. Look at the fuckers."
Daniel glanced at the old soldiers' boots, which were scuffed and worn, but he reacted more to the language used by the veterans. Daniel was not raised in a monastery, and he was not offended by profanity he heard occasionally in his youth, but he was not prepared for the casual, and repeated, use of what, in other places, would be considered filthy language. He recalled that soldiers in the States had not used profanity in the same casual manner, as if the words were no longer profane. He wondered what circumstances could change people so, for he could not imagine that so many soldiers had all arrived in the war zone with the habit of extreme profanity already so richly developed.
The short timers moved on and home. Daniel and the other cherries sat and waited for transportation in the opposite direction.
"Damn, it's hot!"
The soldier sitting beside Daniel spoke. He removed his cap and used it to fan his face. Seconds later, he continued.
"Don't the wind ever blow in this country?"
"I sure hope so," said Daniel, also suffering.
"I'd give ten dollars for a shower." He raised his voice in hopes that someone would hear and respond, "And when do we eat?"
When the question went unnoticed, Daniel offered a hand to shake and spoke, "I'm Daniel Perdue."
"I'm Griswald. From St. Louis."
"I'm from Atlanta."
The budding conversation was cut short by a young sergeant, "Listen up, cherries." The sergeant spoke loud enough to be heard over the din that filled the area, but his words lacked emotion, as though he had said them a hundred times. "Pick up your dufflebags and follow me. When we reach the trucks, you are to put the bags and yourselves on the trucks. Any questions? Move out."
The group followed the sergeant out of the building and around a corner to where two deuce-and-a-halves were parked.
Griswald spoke up, "Come on, Sarge. There ain't no way in Hell we'll all fit on those trucks."
The sergeant looked at him as a babysitter looks at a foolish child. "Unless you're the base transportation officer, cherry, your opinion ain't worth shit."
Griswald started to speak again, but the sergeant cut him off.
"Get on the fuckin' truck, private."
And Griswald got on the truck, packed in with the others as only the Army can pack. The trucks began to roll and Daniel looked back at the sergeant who stood shaking his head.
The ride to the processing area was not long, but to Daniel it was interesting. All along the way new and exciting visions of war appeared. Everywhere there was the beehive of activity that denoted a combat zone, and everything was surrounded by sandbags.
The cherries passed a truck loaded with soldiers armed to the teeth, a real combat platoon just in from an operation.
One old timer, perhaps only twenty years of age, yelled at the fresh troops, "Seventy-one days and counting, cherries!"
And another, "Lookie! Fuckin' civilians!"
Others just glanced up and shook their heads. Some paid no attention at all, too tired to have an interest in new soldiers who seemed very young, very inexperienced, and very, very clean.
Moments later the truck turned into an area of closely spaced tents and jerked abruptly to a stop.
Another young sergeant, no more than nineteen, walked up to the trucks, "Okay, cherries, this is it. Everybody off."
Daniel and the others jumped down from the cramped truck and began stretching.
"Fall in. Fall in," the young sergeant ordered. "You're still in the Army, you know."
The young men formed three ranks, then stood at rigid parade ground attention while the sergeant looked them over.
"Listen up," the sergeant ordered. "From here over," he pointed, dividing the group in half, "you bunk in that first tent. The rest of you are in the other one. After you stow your gear, I suggest you locate the nearest bunker. In a while you'll be called for chow, so hang around the area and don't get lost. Anybody who don't hear the call don't eat. Fall out."
The men moved into their assigned tents and chose bunks, then followed the sergeant's advice and found a bunker that was convenient.
Daniel returned from the bunker and was sitting on his bunk when Griswald walked in.
"Well, boys," he announced, "I found out where the EM club is. Anybody want to go grab a quick beer?"
Several men agreed and started for the door. Griswald stopped and looked at Daniel. "Perdue? Right?"
"You coming along?"
"I'll pass this time," Daniel answered.
"Suit yourself," Griswald said as he turned and walked out of the tent.
Daniel sighed. Fortunately, he had not had to admit that he did not drink beer. He had tried it only once and it had made him sick. He resolved that he would acquire a taste for beer before he left this country, or, at least, learn to tolerate it well enough to drink one socially. It was a resolution he would not keep.
Someone outside announced that it was chow time. Daniel and some others were up and out of the tent quickly, ready to follow blindly anyone who knew where the mess hall was.
The dinner was bland, even by army standards.
The sun was setting when chow was over and the men had returned to their tents.
They passed the evening in different ways. Two men left saying they would try to find the EM club. One sat down in the dim light to write home, most sacked out, including Daniel. After a twenty-four hour plane ride, Daniel was content just to stretch out. Only a few minutes passed before he heard the snoring of one who fell asleep quickly.
Daniel lay on his cot and listened to the sounds outside. Somewhere in the distance a generator chugged noisily. A truck cranked up and drove away, the rumble of its diesel engine fading slowly. A faint, but distinct, explosion echoed across the compound. Daniel wondered if he was the only one who could not sleep.
Copyright © 1992 by Kenneth Waymon Baker
Posted April 6, 2012
No text was provided for this review.