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By Bill Shanahan
Da Capo PressCopyright © 2004 Bill Shanahan
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Chapter OneHow It All Got Started
I'd gotten my draft card in the fall of 1967, while I was going to school at Jefferson State, a small junior college in Birmingham, Alabama, about twenty minutes up the road from where I grew up. I wasn't any too pleased about getting it, but the next day I went over to the army enlistment center and signed up for a stint with the infantry. I thought I might get a different assignment, but the way it worked out I ended up in the infantry all the way. They gave me a couple of months to get my stuff in order-to organize my belongings, that type of thing-and then sent me down to Fort Benning to do my basic training.
Fort Benning is close to where I lived-it's located in Columbus, Georgia, about a hundred miles southwest of Atlanta-but in many ways it was like a whole other world. Fort Benning is one of those big, sprawling military complexes that dominate the countryside and the town, and for me it was a pretty drastic change. Basic training was constant busyness-there was no free time at all, and everything we did we always had to do on the run. Literally, any time we went someplace, we had to run to get there. Even if it was just down to the post office or over to the mess hall. Being from Alabama, I was pretty well used to the heat and humidity, but all that running was enough to make a guy wish he was someplace else.
But eight weeks later I finished up there and moved on to Fort Gordon, where we went through our advanced infantry training. Fort Gordon is located just outside Augusta, and for me it was even worse than Benning. Up there we had to go to a place called Camp Crocker, where they put us through all this advanced training-real experimental stuff-out in these remote, primitive areas, and when it was over, I was actually glad to be headed back to Fort Benning.
I had to go back to Benning for jump school, which lasted for the next couple of weeks, and then after that I was pretty much ready to go. They gave us two weeks at home, then shipped us off to Fort Lewis, Washington, which was basically the jumping-off point for Vietnam.
I waited at Fort Lewis for about a week, and then we finally headed out. We stopped over briefly in Anchorage, then touched down for a minute in Hawaii-not even long enough to see the beach-and then from there it was straight on in to Cam Ranh Bay. That was April 1968.
When I first got there, I was pretty much like everyone else-green and not a little naive-and Cam Ranh Bay didn't do a whole lot to fix that. In a lot of ways it was just like being in the United States, like we'd never left. Of course, it was hot as hell, but the facilities were top-notch, just like something you might find at Fort Benning or Fort Lewis. And the beaches, just to be honest, were magnificent. Like Panama City down in the panhandle. White, sprawling sand, clear-not blue, but clear-water. At Cam Ranh Bay it didn't seem like being at war at all. In fact, it actually seemed kind of nice.
The base itself was located along the coast, about a hundred kilometers due east of Da Lat and about fifty kilometers to the south of Nha Trang. It was situated on a peninsula that juts out into the South China Sea, and at the time it was generally considered to be one of the safest and most important bases in Vietnam. The area itself had been used as a harbor for many years, but when the Americans came, we turned it into one of the most massive and modern port facilities in the world. There was an airstrip, a hospital, a ship-repair facility-basically everything you could possibly need to run a world-class port.
Almost all of the new guys passed through there at some point or another. When I first got there, the place was crawling with GIs, with their duffels packed and their shoes shined. The place had an energy to it, almost a tangible optimism. The buildings were clean, and the sand was white. People smiled, and the jeeps were bright and shiny like a fresh spit-shine. There was even a wooden boardwalk that ran along the side of the barracks-just exactly like Panama City!
Of course, for us it was really just a holding pattern, a place to stay before they shipped us out, but at the time it didn't seem like such a bad introduction to the place I'd been hearing so much about.
That first night there were so many people there that I ended up having to sleep outside, under the eaves of one of the buildings. I found a row of sandbags piled up along the outside wall of one of the barracks and just climbed up there, used my duffel for a pillow, and slept straight through the night-surprisingly at ease for my first night in country.
The next day they started organizing the new arrivals, and before I even had time to think about it they changed my assignment from the 101st Airborne Division and put me in with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Apparently the 173rd had gotten hit pretty hard-down manpower, somebody said-so they decided I'd better go with them. Of course, to me it didn't really make much difference. One sounded just about as good as the next-and either way I'd still be getting my jump pay.
I sat around Cam Ranh Bay for the next week-the newest member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade-waiting to get shipped out. Then finally one morning, bright and early, just as the sun was peeking over the ocean, they loaded us up and sent us off to join our infantry companies-in my case, Company D of the 4th Battalion. I was kind of glad to be going actually-after all that waiting, I was anxious to see what all the excitement was about-but I knew once we left it'd be a long time before I'd get to see those beaches again. I packed up my bag, climbed on the chopper, and was off to join the company.
The first thing that struck me about the countryside was the size of the mountains. I mean, I knew to expect mountains, of course, but these were mountains, not just hills or mounds like I was used to back in Alabama, but real mountains, Blue Ridge Great Smoky Mountain-style mountains-tall and rugged and up into the sky and sprawling out into the distance.
I guess from Cam Ranh Bay the scope and size of the mountains didn't really translate, but riding out across the Central Highlands in a chopper, with the wind in my face and the treetops zipping along below us, I could really appreciate the depth and the size of the countryside. The land was vast, the mountains were huge, and the entire area was blanketed in trees bunched together so thick that you couldn't even see the ground.
The first leg of the flight, to Tuy Hoa, I actually rode in a Chinook, one of those big, tandem-rotor cargo helicopters, but the second leg I hopped on a slick, a Huey-style transport chopper, and from there I could see it all. The mountains, the roads, the wide meandering rivers. The Central Highlands was a pretty rugged place, and from what I could tell they were taking us right into the heart of it.
The flight itself didn't last that long. We flew across the treetops for maybe twenty or thirty minutes, until we spotted a bald patch on the top of one of the mountains, about a mile or so off in the distance. This was the fire support base where we were headed, and within a few minutes the pilot was setting us down in the middle of an empty clearing.
The base was situated on about a fifty- or sixty-acre lot, swept clean of trees and overlooking the highlands for twenty or thirty miles in every direction. It seemed like a perfect place for a base camp, if not the most luxurious-compared to the lush, green landscapes of the Vietnamese countryside, that base camp was nothing but dirt and dust.
When we came to a stop, I climbed down from the chopper, and as I was getting off, I noticed another guy climbing aboard. He was just like me, with his ruck packed and his helmet tight, except that he was headed home. It was kind of odd seeing a guy headed out like that-my own mirror image-but there was no question as to which one of us was on the better end of that deal. When I found out later that he'd been leaving, I pretty much considered him the luckiest guy around.
I stepped away from the chopper and noticed a guy waving to me over at the edge of the clearing, but before I could make it over to him, the chopper lifted off again and sent a swirling gust of dirt and debris flying into the air and, unfortunately, into my eyes.
"Welcome to Vietnam!"
When I opened my eyes, he was standing there in front of me, with one hand extended and the other one pressed against his forehead, shielding his own eyes from the dust.
"Don't worry about it-it happens to everyone. First time I got here I thought someone had thrown sand in my face ..."
I blinked a couple of times to try and clear up my vision. The chopper moved higher, away from the camp, and as it did the air-and the noise-began to settle.
"... but you'll get used to it."
I followed him across the camp, trying hard not to trip over all the tree stumps. I guess when they'd cleared the top of the mountain, they couldn't really do anything about all those stumps. There were these sharp little stubs of bushes and trees just sticking up out of the dirt everywhere, and if you didn't keep up with what you were doing, or keep an eye out for those dern little things, you might just get one in the heel-a lesson I'd learn well soon enough.
We continued across the camp-keeping one eye on the ground and one eye out front-to where my platoon was situated. He walked me over to this barren, bunker-looking thing and said, "All right, here ya go"-then patted me on the back and walked away.
Not exactly the welcoming party I was hoping for, but then again, as hot as it was, I couldn't really blame anybody for not rolling out the red carpet. Standing there at that fire-support base, it felt like it must've been about 120 degrees, and the air was just still and oppressive, with no breeze at all.
I stood back and surveyed the layout. The most striking feature about the camp was probably just how dry and rough the terrain looked. It was like you were standing in the middle of a big dirt field-like a cotton field maybe, before the cotton had started to grow. At the edges I could see rolls of razor wire placed along the bottom of the fence that surrounded the camp. And in the distance I noticed a stack of scrap metal, just randomly piled up for no obvious reason.
The bunker itself looked, really, like something a bunch of kids might've built if they'd been playing war, like out in the field behind their house or something. It looked like somebody'd taken a big piece of sheet metal, folded it over against the ground, and then coated it in sandbags.
But apparently that was where I'd be sleeping for the next couple of days-or at least until we got going-so I set my rucksack down and went about the business of getting settled in. No point in just standing around sulking.
In looking back on it, I think that fire-support base was probably the first real taste of Vietnam that I had. Cam Ranh Bay was an illusion, and the chopper ride over was only a bird's-eye view, but sitting around that fire-support camp, in the heat and the sun and the dirt and the dust ... now that was Vietnam.
We sat around for two days before another company showed up to replace us-they'd been out in the field and were getting a chance for a break-at which point the real fun started.
Bright and early on the third morning, we saddled up and headed out, one after the other, out through the perimeter and down into the brush.
Now, coming in, I didn't really know what to expect-had no idea really-but once we got going, pushing our way deeper and deeper into the bush, I was pretty sure that it wasn't this. More than anything I was struck by the noise we were making. Hack hack hack! Sticks breaking, limbs popping, leaves shredding.
The point-man-whoever he was, I couldn't even actually see the guy, being in single file like we were-was just chopping away at the brush, trying to clear us a path, and the racket he was making-limbs breaking, leaves flying-was just unbelievable. Like I said, I couldn't see him, but I sure didn't have any problem hearing him.
Hack hack hack!
I looked back over my shoulder at the guy behind me and gave him a kind of Are you hearing this? look-he just shrugged.
So there it was.
I hadn't been on patrol ten minutes, and already I knew that this was no way to be running a military operation. The noise we were making, it was just absurd, but it was also pretty much the way things worked.
As I'd soon find out, walking the bush like that-or "humpin' it," as we called it-was pretty much the norm for us. It would become my daily routine: up in the morning, then walking the highlands in a single-file line that stretched back through the trees and tunneled across the land like a long and noisy train.
And as if that weren't bad enough, they loaded us down with food and supplies that probably totaled near seventy or eighty pounds: a mortar shell, M-60 machine-gun ammo, five hundred rounds of M-16 ammo, C rations, water, a rucksack, a poncho-plus your M-16 and whatever else you thought you might need for the day. Lugging all that stuff around, with the temperature so hot you couldn't walk fifty meters without getting soaked in sweat-it wasn't a comfortable feeling.
And yet despite whatever trouble it was having to carry all that stuff around, it still wasn't as bad as the noise. Above the heat, above the load, above whatever level of physical discomfort you might've had, the worst of it, by far, was the noise. And yet every day, over and over, just as surely as the fact that that sun was gonna rise up over the horizon and make us sweat like a bunch of stinking pigs, there it was:
Clomp clomp clomp!
Hack hack hack!
Anyone out there?
Here we come!
When that first day passed and we set up camp for the night, I thought it was basically a miracle that we'd survived as long as we had. If there was anybody out there looking for us-the VC, the NVA, whoever-I knew one thing was for sure: they knew exactly where we were.
Now, the idea behind all this, at least as I understood it, was for us to go out into the highlands and to basically just overwhelm whatever VC (Vietcong) or NVA (North Vietnamese Army) troops we happened to come across. At this point in the war-I got there right after Tet-the NVA had penetrated pretty deep into the South and the VC were solidly entrenched throughout the highlands.
There was a specific concern among some of the higher-ups that the VC and the NVA were trying to cut off the DMZ from Saigon and the lower half of the country-and thus to choke off whatever level of support was being supplied from the U.S.-backed government in the South. This meant that we-we being both the U.S.
Excerpted from Stealth Patrol by Bill Shanahan Copyright © 2004 by Bill Shanahan. Excerpted by permission.
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