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I had emerged from a drunken and emotion-filled thirty-day leave at home, nursing a hangover but ready for the next step in my journey through life. After planing from Madison, Wisconsin, to O'Hare to San Francisco, I took a helicopter from the airport across the bay to Oakland. The Golden Gate Bridge was shining in the warm California sun as we passed over it. Once on the ground I counted my money, then flagged down a cab and told him to get me to Army Replacement Depot, wherever it was.
"Goin' to 'Nam, huh, soldier? All ones on your profile, I bet."
I nodded and grinned. "Eleven B Ten. Light infantry, headed for 'Nam."
"You look like an intelligent young fella. You know you don't have to go. There are lots of ways around it, even now. You could disappear to Canada."
"Desertionthat's a capital crime. I could face a firing squad. Not much future in that."
"Not if you never come back. Oh well, I'm just making conversation. Just something to think about."
"I know, and I have thought about the options, but I was raised to face things, so here I am."
As we pulled into the main gate I spotted some of the guys I had spent the summer with in Fort Polk, Louisiana.
"You can let me out here, man." I gave him a five and told him to keep the change, but he said, "Nah. Have yourself a couple of beers before you leave and keep your head down. Good luck, son."
I hefted my duffel bag onto my shoulder and got into line with the others. Mock, Miller, Doolittle, and I had endured advanced individual training in the same company at Fort Polk and now would beshipping out together. We exchanged handshakes and insults as the line moved into the building and processing began. Two days later, after numerous injections and indoctrinations, hours of hurrying, then waiting, we were called into yet another formation.
"Group Three, grab your bags and head for the bus. You are shipping out. Move!"
My heart quickened, but I was glad the damned waiting was over and ready to get started.
The sleek Braniff 747 lifted off the runway at Travis Air Force Base a few hours later. The pilot pointed the jetliner west and we began to chase the sunset across the sky on the first leg of our journeya journey to a different world.
We landed in Honolulu during the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen and headed into the terminal for a two-hour layover. There we sniffed out a cocktail lounge and quaffed more than a few drinks, toasting John Wayne, Audie Murphy, and America until it was time to go. We staggered back onto the plane, then began opening the small airport booze bottles we had procured and mixing it with the pineapple juice being served. A few drunken hours later, I began to fade and fell into a stupor. When I came back to reality we were descending into Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
After refueling, we reboarded. As the plane taxied to the runway, smoke began billowing out of the right engine, forcing the pilot to turn back to the hangar where we got out quickly. No great damage was done but the repairs took several hours. I spent the time trying to sleep in the dilapidated terminal while my head throbbed and my stomach churned. Finally we boarded once more and began the final leg of our quest. Next stopTan Son Nhut Airport, Saigon, Republic of Vietnam.
As we began to descend and circle, I noticed that the land seemed to be covered with water. Must be the Delta, I mused. We came in fairly high, then dropped quickly and hit the tarmac hard, bouncing and shuddering our way down the runway. The plane finally stopped about seventy-five yards from the nearest metal hangar and the troops began stirring, reaching for their bags and hats.
"Welcome to Vietnam. Make sure you get all your bags and personal belongings. Good luck."
The flight attendant sounded like she meant it. She smiled forlornly at us as we headed out the doorinto Vietnam. I felt like Alice stepping through the looking glass.
As I stepped out onto the portable stairs I felt like I was in a saunaa very smelly sauna. Sweat beads formed immediately on my face and arms and I stopped to get a breath. Heat waves were shimmering off the tarmac and the acrid smell of jet fuel and smoke from distant fires filled my nostrils and overwhelmed my senses. Welcome to Vietnam, indeed. I flashed one last look back at the flight attendant, who gave me a worldly look and mouthed, "Good luck."
I turned back to the task at hand. I knew my life would never be the same from this moment on. This was the initiation into my Rites of Passage. Miller moved past me quickly, panting and half-dragging his bag.
"Oh, come on, Pete, let's get into the hangar. Maybe they've got air conditioning." I hoisted my bag and we headed to the warehouse-style terminal where the others were gathering. By the time we reached the shade I was panting and sweat was running off my body.
"It's gotta be a hundred degrees or more. I thought Louisiana was bad, but I've never seen anything like this," I said to a drooping Mock while Miller nodded. "Fuckin' place doesn't have air. How do they work here?"
A specialist, 4th class (Spec 4) began yelling at us, "All right men, form up here and move out the rear door. We've got buses waiting to take you to Bien Hoa. Move out."
We loaded onto the olive-drab Army buses (circa 1945) and headed out of the main gate and into Saigon. Heavy screens covered the open windows, and as none of the troops had planned to throw anything from the bus, it became obvious that the screens were there to prevent anything from being thrown into our midst. Since the U.S. Army rarely planned things like this in advance, the protection had undoubtedly been added following an incident, probably a tossed grenade, I thought.
"Hmm, screened windows. Wait a minute, now, let's see if I've got this straight. We're here to help defend the South Vietnamese against the Communist invaders, right? Why do we need protection from the people we're protecting, who should be our friends?"
"The sarge back at Polk said there were enemy everywhere. He never knew who he could trust, Pete. It's a pisser of a war, but it's the only one we've got," Miller told me.
As we passed through the outskirts and into the heavily populated downtown, I was taken aback by the squalor and abject poverty in which most of the Vietnamese were living. The houses were a few pieces of lumber and cardboard held together with cord and flattened metal beer and soda cans. Many of the locals were cooking on the dirt streets in front of their hovels, squatting near the black pot over a small fire. The smell of their food and its spices and the resulting smoke hung heavily in the humid air. There was also a stronger, rancid odorperhaps garbage, I thought.
As we moved along I spotted several locals relieving themselves along the streets. They merely dropped their trousers, did their business, then moved on. Therein was the source of much of the odor. We continued along slowly through the bustling heart of the city, moving past thousands of bikes, motorcycles, scooters and a few hundred small cars and trucks. I noticed hundreds of young Vietnamese men walking the streets or riding scooters. Why weren't they in the military? I pointed them out to Mock.
"They couldn't all be on leave, could they?" He shrugged and shook his head slightly. Mock hadn't said much since we left the plane; must still be in shock.
The bus left the city and continued to the compound at Bien Hoa, where we entered through an opening in the barbed wire and watched the gate close behind usI immediately thought of prison movies where a busload of new convicts pull into the yard. We unloaded, stood in formation until we were called, then went to our assigned barracks and waited to be called again. That night we walked around the encampment to familiarize ourselves with what our life might be like for the next year. Barbed wire enclosed the perimeter, with fighting positions fortified with sandbags and logs every thirty feet. The fighting bunkers were large enough for two or three men to sleep in while one stood guard.
"It would take a helluva force to try to overrun this place. There's a lot of firepower here. The artillery is always on call and I saw some tanks just down the road." Doolittle cupped a cigarette as he spoke. Mock answered, "All I want is a nice typewriter to fire and a desk to drive around and I'll be happy for twelve months."
"Why didn't you go for the enlistment option: an extra year, but a guaranteed job?"
"I took my chances, Pete. I didn't want to do the extra time, so I gambled that I'd get a soft job. We still got a chance when we get assigned to our final unit."
"Yeah, but it's like karma or fate for me. I've always known that I would be in a war someday. As I sat there listening to that Spec 4 in basic tell me I was eligible for almost every school they had, something was telling me, 'It doesn't matter what you do. You're going to 'Nam and fight.'
"So I turned him down. It pissed him off, so he said he was putting me in the infantry. I don't know if he had that much power or what, but here I am."
"So, was it karma, or did you influence the outcome with your preconceived notions?"
"I see your point and I can't really answer your question. I remember a few years back when one of my teachers stated, with damned good foresight, that Vietnam would be the site of the next war. As he spoke I felt a numbness in my heart and something clicked in my brain. I knew, then, that I would be in it. This would be my war. Whether I then consciously set out to make that come true or it had already been predestined is the question. But I know what I believe. I believe it was my karma . . . my destiny."
We had moved back to our barracks in the growing darkness where we alternately regaled and bored each other with tales from our past and plans for our future. Doolittle forwarded a theory that this war couldn't last long and we might be lucky enough to be in on the finish. Miller summed it up:
"Wouldn't it be a blast to take part in a victory parade through Saigon and have all the girls run out and give you flowers and throw themselves at you? You know, like you see in those old newsreels and movies. We'd be heroes."
"Go home a hero. What more could you ask for?"
"Well, Doolittle, I'd be happy just to go home. If we could wrap this little skirmish up by Christmas, I'd be happy enough."
"Amen, Pete, and goodnight, guys."
We moved back into the Army bureaucratic pipeline the next morning, first into formation, then lining up for processing and listening to the NCOs and PFCs throw crap at us.
"Hold on to your papers. Don't lose them."
"Give me your damn papers. What are you doin' with them anyway? Jesus H. on a crutch. Get outta here and take your damn papers."
We filled out forms, answered questions, then trudged back to formation where Miller and I were pulled out for a brush-cutting detail. We hacked throughout the afternoon in the heat and humidity, sweating through our clothes. Miller stopped after whacking down a particularly stubborn bush.
"I don't think I've ever been this hot. The sweat is running down my back and into the crack of my butt like a river."
"First liar never has a chance, man. I'm so hot my hair is sweating."
"I've got pools of sweat up to my ankles in both boots."
"I'm so hot my fingernails are sweating. Your turn."
"It's too hot to complain, Pete. I'm taking a break."
When we returned to the barracks I was so tired I couldn't make it to the mess hall for chow. I drank a ton of water, poured some over my head and slept wordlessly through the night.
At formation the next morning we learned we were headed for Pleiku that afternoon. We were told to clear out of the barracks, they were needed for more new arrivals. I hauled my bag out into the loading area, found some shade and waited for the truck to the airport. As I sat there on my duffel I looked at the other troops milling around or standing in formationthey all looked like they had been hit over the head with a hammer, rendering them unable to function. I was certain that I looked the same to them.
At 1300 hours we headed to the airport, boarded a C-130 cargo plane, strapped ourselves in as ordered and flew to Pleiku. The large door at the rear dropped down for easier loading of cargo and troops. It was left partway open, creating a slight breeze which made the trip comfortable.
The temperature in the Central Highlands was at least fifteen degrees cooler with lower humidity. The almost always cheerful Miller took a quick glance around the area and said, "Hell, this won't be so bad. It's like Oregon weather."
"Yeah, it's like June in Wisconsin, except we don't have all this red dirt. I'll bet that clay gets sticky in the rain," I added, thinking, this really might not be so bad. The drier air and lower temperature had raised my spirits.
As we loaded onto trucks and headed for 3rd Brigade headquarters, I spotted a sergeant leaning on a truck, smoking a cigarette as he gazed at us. He was wearing torn and dirty jungle fatigues and had ugly scratches and pus-filled sores on his arms and deep, dark circles under his eyes. I tried to meet his gaze, but his eyes were two black wells that seemed to stretch into infinity. I was mesmerized by his countenance, but Doolittle broke the spell by yelling at the weary-looking trooper, "Hey Sarge, what's happenin'? You seen any action?"
"Fuckin' new meat. . . ." The sergeant muttered a few more unintelligible phrases, then turned away. Our truck roared off as the bedraggled NCO shook his head.
The base camp was laid out over a slightly rounded, rolling low hill with brigade and battalion headquarters in the center and company compounds around the outside. All of this was surrounded by the barbed wire perimeter and fortified bunkers connected by a series of trenches. It looked formidable enough as we headed into the heart of the compound and were disgorged at the 1st of the 14th Infantry Battalion HQ.
From the Audio Cassette edition.