Black Virgin Mountain: A Return to Vietnamby Larry Heinemann
In 1967 Larry Heinemann was sent to Vietnam as an ordinary soldier. It was the most horrific year of his life, truly altering him—and his family—forever. In his powerful memoir, Heinemann returns to Vietnam, riding the train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh city and confronting the memories of his war year. Black Virgin Mountain confirms Heinemann’s/i>… See more details below
In 1967 Larry Heinemann was sent to Vietnam as an ordinary soldier. It was the most horrific year of his life, truly altering him—and his family—forever. In his powerful memoir, Heinemann returns to Vietnam, riding the train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh city and confronting the memories of his war year. Black Virgin Mountain confirms Heinemann’s legendary plain-spoken reputation as one of the essential chroniclers of our war in Vietnam
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I was a soldier once, and did a year's combat tour in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi and Dau Tieng from March 1967 until March 1968.
The town of Cu Chi, twenty miles or so northwest of Saigon, straddled Highway #1 (see map) and was profoundly undistinguished. The American base camp was just outside of town. Nowadays it is famous to the world for the Tunnels of Cu Chi, built by the South Vietnamese guerrillas with ordinary garden tools over a decade and more, and which spread out (if you stretched it) beneath us two hundred kilometers' worth. I am told that the local Vietnamese revolutionaries looked on in astonishment as our division engineers laid out and then built the base camp of considerable acreage over a portion of the tunnels. This was not to be the last of the 25th Division's fuckups. Is it any wonder that when asked to describe the Americans during the war, about all that occurs to the Vietnamese is that we were "brave" and "valorous"? That's what armchair historians say about the Federal troops who assaulted the Stone Wall at the foot of Marye's Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, and who disappeared, said one participant, like snow falling on warm ground.
Dau Tieng was the base camp for the division's 3rd Brigade, squat in the middle of the Michelin Rubber plantation--forty miles north (and a touch west) of Saigon as the crow flies--in Cochin China; the classic image of a company town in every sense of the word. The Americans lived in run-down tents with dirt floors and slept on cots (the canvas all but rotting off the wooden frames), and shared the base camp with half a dozen large French colonial manor houses that had galleries all the way around where the plantation management and extremely senior brigade officers lived, tile-roofed plantation outbuildings, and an aboveground Olympic-size swimming pool (of all things); the lanes and gardens were lushly shaded with plane trees--just like in the movies. Outside the perimeter, the village streets were lined with offices, block-long clusters of company-owned housing, and somewhere in there was the ubiquitous company store. Down by the river was a huge latex processing plant that gave off a heavy industrial stink rivaled only by the leaden, acrid smell of foundries and mills in Southside Chicago and Gary, or the bourbon distilleries of Bardstown, Kentucky, on sour-mash day. The thick orchards of working rubber trees came nearly to the base camp perimeter, which was marked off with sloppy coils of concertina wire and spotted with sandbag bunkers, pathetic and well-weathered hovels that collected garbage and rats. The plantation ("the rubber," we called it) was laid out with cornfield-like precision that was seriously scary but somehow pleasing to look at; there was an undeniable parklike atmosphere. It should come as no surprise to hear that during the war the tending of the broad stands of rubber trees and the harvesting of raw latex diminished year by year, but it never ceased. War was war, to be sure, but business was (ever and always), of course, still business. Halfway through my tour we were told that the Army had to pay Michelin an indemnity for every rubber tree we knocked down--an easy thing to do with a thirteen-ton armored personnel carrier; a thousand dollars per tree, more or less. Well, after we heard that, we never missed a chance to take a whack at one. Fuck rubber trees; fuck the Michelin Rubber Company; fuck the Army.
In the spring of 1966 my younger brother Richard and I had received our draft notices, and we submitted to conscription with soul-deadening dread; Richard was twenty and I was twenty-two. No one told us we could hightail it to Canada. No one told us we could declare ourselves conscientious objectors and opt for alternative service--a special punishment all by itself during those years (like the preacher's son I know who did two years in a big-city hospital morgue; might as well have been Graves Registration). No one told us there were any alternatives. Even joining the National Guard, another well-known way of avoiding military service, was a waste of our time because everyone knew the waiting list was a mile long. You had to be a well-connected politician's kid, some big-name professional athlete, or have some sort of clout otherwise. Such things were not a topic of conversation in our family, anyway. Always, the word in our house was: graduate high school; get a job. Ida Terkel, Studs Terkel's wife, once asked what it would have taken to keep my brother and me from going, and I told her that in 1966 she would have had to come into our house, sit down at our dining room table, and explain it. All we knew was that if we didn't show up for induction, a couple of guys from the FBI would come looking for us, and off to jail we would go; and jail, then as now, was no fun.
Our draft notices, literally facetious letters of congratulation from President of the United States Lyndon Johnson, arrived in the same mail. Richard and I walked together through our induction physical with one hundred other guys, passed together, took the oath together, were put on a train together (the Illinois Central's City of New Orleans, as it happened), and taken south for Basic Training at Fort Polk near Leesville, Louisiana. Fort Polk, home of the Tiger Brigade, where the
11-Bravo light weapons infantry trained before going straight overseas.* I was born and raised in Chicago, and I hadn't been much farther away from home than St. Louis. Our family was not much for traveling, and the farther south Richard and I (and the rest of the conscripts) traveled, the more depressing the countryside looked. Here was my first unsullied look at the rural, Southern poor; ramshackle farms with unpainted barns and swaybacked barbed-wire fences, dry-earth fields, and well-weathered farm machinery (the paint job all but burnt away). And it was hot; God, was it hot, and the rain came down in roaring sheets and filled the overlarge ditches to the brim. More than once the runoff came down the hill at the back of our barracks and washed in one door and out the other. Between downpours everything was dry and dusty, and crawling around the woods, training our little hearts out, everyone in the company agreed that Fort Polk was on the same list of shit-holes with Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, Fort Ord in California, Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and Fort Hood in Texas. I looked around at the military squalor and thought to myself that when Louisiana seceded from the Union all those years ago, they should have declared New Orleans an open city and let the rest go. Richard and I were sent to the same training company, the same platoon, the same second-floor squad bay where we stood side by side in front of our bunks every morning for inspection. Our father, an awkward and uncommunicative man, sent self-conscious, not-quite-newsy letters; I would get the original and Richard the carbon copy. Our training company was made up of guys from Chicago and California. The draftees among us laughed loud and long at the Regular Army volunteers--the poor suckers who got conned into joining up; the Army was going to make a man of them; they were going to "learn a trade." That got a laugh every time. And, I kid you not, one of the California enlistees was a guy named Gump--"Like gum with a pee," he was always careful to explain.
Here we encountered what is perhaps the dumbest man I have ever met. Drill Sergeant S-----, one of those classic, dufus boneheads for which the Army is only too famous. It's the guys like him who wind up working as guards in military prisons--that he can handle. The kindest thing you could say about Drill Sergeant S----- was that he was not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
You need to know that during the post-World War Two Cold War years of Selective Service, every once in a blue moon twins would be drafted together, go through Basic Training together, but afterward split up and deliberately be sent their separate ways. This was because of the Sullivan Rule: in 1942 the five brothers named Sullivan of Iowa joined the Navy, and for sentimentality's sake were allowed to serve together aboard the cruiser USS Juneau; that November the Juneau was struck by a Japanese torpedo and sank along with seven hundred crewmen, including all five of the Sullivans--George, Francis, Madison, Joseph, and Albert (the youngest). The shock of that singular loss, not to mention the utter devastation to the family, caused the military to adopt the strict policy that blood kin brothers could train together but could not afterward be compelled to serve together--just in case--even in the same war zone.
Well, Richard and I stood side by side in formation and, aside from our white-cloth name tags over our right shirt-pockets, it was obvious by our brown hair, blue eyes, and the clefts in our chins that we were brothers. But I was two years older than Richard and half a head taller--we were definitely not twins. However, Drill Sergeant S----- simply could not get his mind around that fact; as if his imagination and view of the world would not permit it. He would eyeball us from under the wide, flat brim of his Yogi Bear drill sergeant's campaign hat. He'd look at Richard and his name tag; then he'd look at me and mine. Finally, S----- would say something like, "I know you two squirrels are trying to pull something, and when I catch you dipsticking around with whatever little scheme you've got cooked up, you are in big, big, big trouble."
What, I ask you, do you say to that? In later years we spoke of that clown many times.
Well, we horsed around Fort Polk for eight weeks, and about the only thing anybody ever got out of Basic was "in shape"; all those first-thing-in-the-morning miles of the Airborne shuffle, all those push-ups and jumping jacks and squat thrusts (PT, we called it); all those hours in the bayonet pit where we learned that the spirit of the bayonet was "to kill!"; all those sessions in the sand-filled hand-to-hand pit where we learned to "rip your head off and shit down your neck"; all those pugle-stick brawls; all those sessions at the rifle range; all of the brigade chaplain's character lectures. You learned to call everyone by his last name; even Richard and I called each other Heinemann, laughing. The fat guys thinned down and the skinny guys like me gained weight, and just about everybody wised up.
After Basic, Richard and I went our separate ways.
He was sent to the artillery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and eventually wound up in Germany on the crew of a Pershing missile. There is more to his story, and we will come to it by and by.
I was sent to Fort Knox (famous as the Gold Depository and "The Home of Armor") to join the armored cavalry--my specialty would be reconnaissance (Armored Intelligence; recon, we called it). Our cadre kept telling us that we were "the eyes and ears of the combat arms," trying to hide their smirks and instill in us skeptical draftees what passed for esprit de corps. A hundred-twenty-thirty-forty years ago, I would have been a scout in the horse cavalry. You know, the flinty Lee Marvin character in the John Wayne movies, looking sharkish in his mountain-man leathers with a beard like an inner tube, a juicy hunk of chew in his cheek, an eagle feather as long as your arm tied to his hair, and a hard-boiled voice straight out of a whiskey kegger. He'd be packing an Arkansas toothpick, a vintage model lever-action Winchester, a Henry buffalo rifle (one shot will bring down a twelve-hundred-pound buffalo), and a couple of six-shot 1851 Navy Colt revolvers in a carnival display of visceral panache. And he'd be mounted on some big-ass, steady-as-a-rock chestnut plow horse (called Bubbles or Hipshot or Standard Issue). After scouring the tall savanna grass of the Old-West Great Plains scaring up Indians (like a setter flushing pheasant), he'd ride back hell-for-leather and come pounding up to Mr. Wayne with hair a-flying and eyes wild, whooping and shouting, leaning way out of the saddle, "Balls o' fire, Kunnel! A whole passel of Injins! Lots of 'em. 'Ata way."
In Vietnam, to be called a "John Wayne" was a flat-out insult. Boyhood hero as verb: to John Wayne it, to pull a "John Wayne," was strictly for the ticket-punching lifers, the Boy Scouts, and the other assorted hot-dog, hero wannabes--the guys who had watched way too much television. You want somebody to take a mess of hand grenades and assault that bunker up the slope yonder? Well, sir, get John. He's just that big a fool, right down to pulling the pins with his teeth; dead already, went the running gag, but too dumb to lie down. John Wayne's real name was Marion Michael Morrison, and the man, the husband and father, the actor, was likely as friendly and likable and generous and gregarious as the day is long. But "John Wayne," the big-screen Technicolor postwar film persona and pop culture legend I grew up with, was something altogether different. His 1968 film The Green Berets is especially patronizing and insulting, though screamingly funny in a gallows-humor sort of way, right up to and including the closing image when he stands with his arm around a young Vietnamese lad at the very edge of what we are to suppose is the South China Sea, facing east, watching the sun "go down." In the late spring of 1979, I was driving home one night and happened to catch the Chicago Sun-Times headline in a street-corner vending machine out of the corner of my eye: JOHN WAYNE DIES. I started giggling, then laughing, then roaring with laughter. "John Wayne," the larger-than-life Hollywood character, the very beans of testosterone-poisoned, cartoon-macho movie bullshit, was dead; finally, and thank God. I laughed so hard that tears came to my eyes and I had to pull to the curb.
Military service has been important to the have-not, working-class young men in this country at least since the time of the famous Irish "famine boats," when the men were recruited into the Civil War Union Army right at the dock. Military service will always be seen as a "crucial rite of passage" for young men; if it was good enough for the old man and the uncles, it's good enough for me. Just finished with school, looking to get out of the house once and for all, ready to scratch the traveling itch and see the world? Might as well start with Germany. Ah, those lusty frauleins; ah, the Bavarian Alps; ah, Oktoberfest. For some, military service is the only way up and out. And some are driven to military service by legal circumstances; it is understood as an all-but-fatal chore--just grit your teeth, cousin, gulp down your reluctance, and get through it. Regardless, here commences the rest of your education with a little something about how the world actually works--the banal, bland imagination and pervasive stupidity of large, severely organized hierarchies and the closely shaved, narrow-minded venal immaturity of the guys "in charge." And, if you don't already know, you learn that the world at large doesn't much care if you live a decent life or die in a ditch with a bullet in your head and dirt in your mouth. You are not so much a number, not even one of those famous bricks in the wall, as you are a cipher, like the tick of chalk on a dart game scoreboard. Our armed forces have always recruited heavily among the nation's high schools. Boards of education everywhere are only too glad to give the buffed-out, hardy-looking recruiters all the time they need for the shuck and jive pep talk, the four-color posters, and the slick commercial video showing the happy smiles of the Airborne Rangers as they shinny down ropes dangling into verdant pastures--and a lot of guys go for it. (Nowadays a lot of young women go for it, too.) Here is an endless supply of cheap labor that will work for peanuts, shut up, and do what it's told; all those kids "saving for college" the hard way, and no one paying the fine print any mind until it is long past too late.
From the Hardcover edition.
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