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From that day on they called him Cherry and from the night of that day and on he thought of himself as Cherry. It confused him yet it felt right. He was in a new world, a strange world. Cherry, he thought. It fits. It made little difference to him that they called every new man Cherry and that with the continual rotation of personnel there would soon be a soldier newer than he and he would call the new man Cherry. Cherry. He would repeat it to himself a hundred times before the day ended.
For James Vincent Chelini the transition began early on the morning of 12 August 1970. He was at the 101st Airborne Replacement Station at Phu Bai for the second time; there now to receive his final unit assignment for his year in Vietnam. The air in the building was already stifling. Chelini sweated as he waited anxiously for the clerk to dig through a stack of personnel files.
"No way, Man," Chelini shook his head as he read the order.
"I don't cut em, Breeze," the clerk said. "I just pass em out."
"Listen, Man," Chelini protested. "I'm not an infantry type. I'm a wireman. That's my MOS. Somebody screwed up."
"Breeze," the clerk shrugged, "when you get this far up-country aint nobody here ee-ven kin figure what them numbers mean. We's all Eleven Bravos. You know, you get that from Basic."
Chelini cringed. It was one more snafu in a series of snafus that were propelling him faster and deeper into the war than he had ever anticipated. "Man," he said, restrained, "I can't be sent to an infantry company."
"Next," the clerk said lethargically.
"Hey. Dude." A harsh voice erupted behind Chelini. "Just say fuck it, Dude. Don't mean nothin." A red-haired man in civilian clothes had entered the office without being noticed. He addressed the clerk. "Hey REMF," he said in a voice of complete authority, "you seen Murphy?"
"Murphy's gettin ice cream," the clerk answered.
"You REMF fuckin candyasses sure got it dicked," the red-haired man laughed harshly. The man gestured at Chelini, who flinched, then ordered the clerk, "Square that cherry away, Man. Ya don't gotta fuck with everybody all the fuckin time." The man glided out the door and was gone.
"Who's that?" Chelini asked the clerk.
"Him? He's a crazy fuckin grunt from the Oh-deuce. Fuckin asshole. He en Murphy use ta be in the same company till Murphy extended ta get out a the field en they put him here."
"Yeah, Man. Oh-deuce. Four-oh-deuce. That's where you goin, cherry. That's where you goin."
Chelini had allowed himself to be drafted and he had allowed himself to be sent to Vietnam. He had had the means to resist but not the conviction or the will. Indeed, inside, he heard opposing voices. His father was a veteran of World War II. All the Chelini men—and the Chelinis were a large Italian-American family—had served in the armed forces. James observed that having served somehow set them apart from those who had not gone. On the other side were the people of his own generation, the protestors and students, who included his older brother Victor.
In 1968, in order to avoid the draft, Victor had skipped to Canada via the New Haven underground. James told himself that that had sealed his destiny. Victor was a disgrace to the family. Outwardly, Mr. Chelini defended his older son's right to make his own decision, but inwardly, James felt sure, it tore at his father's heart. James saw his draft order as an opportunity to reestablish the family's honor.
Before basic training began Chelini signed up for a third year and a guarantee of communications school, in order, he justified it later, to avoid combat. In Basic Chelini was an enthusiastic trainee and he tried hard to learn good soldiering. In advanced training he became a telephone systems installer. This, he was certain, would guarantee his safety. No matter where he was stationed, he thought, he would work at a rear-base. He would support the war effort if needed, yet he would not really be a part. After AIT, when Chelini's orders came through for Vietnam, he told himself he would experience the war zone, exactly as he had always planned, without exposing himself to combat. He told himself that he was totally naive, that he had everything to experience and to learn.
Chelini arrived at the giant army replacement station at Cam Ranh Bay near midnight 31 July. It was dark and raining as the plane descended steeply toward the airstrip. GIs on board were fidgeting. They had been en route from McCord Air Force Base via Anchorage and Yokota, Japan, for seventeen hours. Because of the jet-lag, the confusion of crossing the international dateline, his excitement and exhaustion, Chelini didn't know if it was the thirtieth or thirty-first of July or the first of August. He had been up for twenty-five hours.
An MP welcomed the planeload of arrivals to the Republic, then said, "Go directly to the buses. In case of rocket attack on the base or ambush during convoy, remain in the buses and get on the floor." Chelini could not tell if the MP was serious. Here? he thought. He tried to look at the MP's face but was propelled with the mob toward the waiting vehicle.
What he thought was the third and last leg of his journey turned out to be a middle step. "Move your body, Troop," he was ordered, prodded, pushed. They boarded the buses by rank and service, army lower enlisted last.
"Okay, everybody," the shout of a cadre cracked as they disembarked. "Form up on the hardstand." Chelini trudged on with the others. He did not remember the bus ride. Strange, he thought. Strange to fall asleep after spending all that time getting here. Chelini stared at the installation about him, but nothing stood out. It appeared to be just another base.
Crackling static from an olive-drab loudspeaker stationed at the peak of a white clapboard building interrupted his thoughts. "ATTENTION! Attention in the company area. Those manifest for An Khe report to the orderly building. You are shipping."
Cadre continued shouting. "Okay. Listen up. We've had a sapper attack an we didn't get em all. We don't know where they are. Sooo, stay away from the perimeter. Got that? I know you've heard Cam Ranh Bay is secure. In the past two months we've had more activity than in the past two years. Two nights ago we had a rocket attack."
Chelini was too tired to talk. He looked at his feet. "Sand," he mumbled to himself. "That's what this place is." The sand lifted with the slightest kick. It was so fine that little clouds formed around feet and rose to his ankles and then to his knees. It stuck to the sweat on his arms and face and neck. Soon itching tormented his entire body.
Processing began immediately. Chelini filled in form after form without paying attention to what they were. His money was changed for Military Payment Certificates (MPC), and he was assigned a bunk in the transient barracks. By 0300 Chelini, without having slept, was back on the hardstand with his duffel bag and a manila envelope of his records. Wearily he, and about five hundred others, waited for orders.
Helicopters had been in the air all night. Now they opened fire with miniguns, showering the bay in a red waterfall of tracers. The firing seemed to be concentrated about six hundred meters from the processing center. Some cadre spoke of AK-47 fire, but Chelini couldn't distinguish the sounds. Most of the cadre paid no attention to the helicopters. Somehow it seemed far off. Chelini watched the firing and listened to the buzz of the mini-guns but he was very fatigued and apathetic. "They didn't even have coffee for us," he griped to a man near him. "Fuck the army, Man," the soldier grumbled back.
0400. 0500. 0600. Finally, "... Ivor Carton to Bien Hoa. Timmy S. Cervantes to Quang Tri. James V. Chelini to Phu Bai ..." Chelini smiled as the sound of his name came over the address system.
0615—the first light of his Vietnam tour. The area surrounding the post was exquisite, a bay of deep blue-green waters surrounded by mountains. The temperature was already rising and it was muggy. Chelini did not notice the beauty. He looked about him and was aware of only one thing—sand. It got into Chelini's mouth and ground between his teeth.
New people continued to arrive. Some looked concerned about the sapper attack and the helicopters firing. Chelini assured them it was nothing.
Phu Bai, Chelini thought. He looked up the location on a large, crude map drawn on the side of a processing building. He traced the route with his finger. That's about three hundred and fifty miles north of Saigon. Near Hue. The XXIV Corps is the division in that area. That's good, he told himself. It's just what I want. It's farthest north, so it's got to be cooler than here.
He was shuffled about like baggage. Line-ups, formations, order checks. The temperature kept climbing. He yawned. There was so much activity and noise, and he was so tired.
Chelini was the last passenger to board the C-130 transport going to Phu Bai via Da Nang. The noise of the uninsulated aircraft made it impossible to talk or to sleep. He felt like a zombie. The ride was rough, and he was becoming nauseous. The men sat on four rows of webbed benches that were suspended from the plane's raw metal skeleton. "If Ah was a side of hangin beef," someone shouted into his ear, "they'd a treat me bettah." Chelini did not respond.
The C-130 approached Da Nang from the sea, descended and landed. Twenty soldiers deplaned. Though he was not scheduled to disembark, Chelini, who was at the very back of the ship, got off and pulled his gear down to the pavement to make it easier for the others to exit from the narrow bowels of the plane. The rear door closed with Chelini watching from outside. The plane taxied to the runway, paused, sped forth, lifted off and flew toward the sea.
Chelini was paralyzed with exhaustion. He shuffled off with the others who had left the aircraft and then found himself left behind by the side of a taxi way. He sat on his duffel bag. The envelope with his orders and records remained on the webbed seat in the plane. He sat by the runway for a long time. The Da Nang airfield was flat and clean and everywhere white concrete glistened in the noon sun. "Snafued," he mumbled to himself.
Chelini had felt that something was not right the moment he left the aircraft, yet he was too self-conscious to yell, to make himself seen. He simply sat and thought of ways to justify what had happened. He was sure someone would take care of him.
After a while someone did come up to him. "Where you going, Soldier?" the man asked. Chelini told him Phu Bai. The man directed him to a helicopter pad that had stacks of bundles of "Stars and Stripes" newspapers at one side. A large helicopter landed. Chelini helped someone load the papers, then climbed aboard and sat amidst the bundles. His body seemed to be on auto-pilot.
The thought of having to explain where he had been without having a good explanation made Chelini tremble. Oh, God, I'm AWOL. They'll court-martial me. What if something happens to me? Nobody'll know. His body twitched. His eyes opened wide. He kicked some of the bundles as the helicopter banked to one side. He fixed his eyes on a man standing, peering out the left rear porthole. The man wore a dark olive-drab flight suit and an olive-drab fiberglass helmet with wires and a mouthpiece. The upper front of his helmet was covered with a dark, opaque sun visor and the sun glinted off the shield as the man looked out the porthole. In front of him was a machine gun.
Chelini did not know where the helicopter was going. He climbed out from the bundles and stood up. His thighs twitched as he attempted to stand in the moving aircraft. I'll go ask the captain, he resolved. I'll say it was a mistake. Anxiously he began the walk up the corridor of the ship's belly. The helmeted man stopped him. Chelini screamed a question at the crew chief. The man pulled the side of his helmet away from his ear, but he couldn't understand the words amidst the noise.
"Phu Bai," Chelini yelled. He cupped his hands about his mouth. "Phu Bai."
The crew chief nodded. He motioned for Chelini to sit down and look out the back of the Chinook.
Chelini had been in-country for fifteen hours. He had traveled over half the land, and yet he had seen nothing except distant mountains, sand and U.S. military installations. Below him was the city of Da Nang.
The Chinook stopped at various landing pads on the city's outskirts. Newspapers were dropped at each location. Soldiers boarded and disembarked.
Chelini saw large portions of Da Nang from an altitude of three hundred to four hundred feet and a ground speed of thirty to forty knots. He saw the large parabolic bay sided by mountainous ridges and he saw the wide river which ran inland between the ridgelines. Straddling the river, the city seemed to be thriving.
At the edge of the bay, and running as far as Chelini could see way from Da Nang's congestion, glistening white sand beaches were partitioned by concertina wire. From the air he could see a riverfront street and a market packed with food and wares and men and women bustling about. Rising above the market were three and four storey French Colonial buildings, which looked like Jackson Park in New Orleans. Small secondstorey wrought iron balconies extended over peasants carrying provisions—dried fish, live chickens, bread, cans of oil—in baskets suspended from the ends of bamboo sticks which they balanced across one shoulder. Chelini laughed, enthralled by the sight.
The aircraft banked back over the east side of the river, above a sampan village, then landed near a shipyard. Several wooden trawlers were in various stages of assemblage. To the north of the shipyard Chelini saw shanties built almost on top of each other from scavenged ammo-box wood and government-issued tin roofing.
The CH-47 flew away from the coast, to the sea and north. To Chelini, in his mixed state of fatigue and excitement, the trip became a fantasy, an exotic travelogue.
The helicopter banked left over the beaches and sand dunes. The dunes swelled and withered and were separated by waterways. Nestled here and there, small hamlets seemed isolated and random in a sea of sand, as if someone had thrown seeds from an earlier helicopter traveling over this area long ago and the seeds had fluttered down in a gentle breeze, scattering, some germinating and growing into hamlets, some germinating and withering in the sandy soil, some never germinating at all. As the land leveled, clumps of green and brown brush overwhelmed the mounds. Hundreds of tiny temples and tombs and small pagodas cluttered the piedmont. Between the monuments and sometimes coinciding with them, bomb and artillery craters pockmarked the land. Water filled the craters and they appeared blue or mudbrown. Chelini saw it all but he did not understand. He did not associate the sights with war.
At Phu Bai the crew chief directed Chelini to the 101st Airborne Replacement Station. Engulfed by the activity of the receiving area he walked hesitantly as men hustled briskly or jogged toward destinations. Everyone wore a division patch on his left shoulder, a black shield with the white head of an eagle with gold beak and red tongue. Over the shield in a black arch were the gold letters AIRBORNE.
* * *
On the morning of 2 August Chelini was transported in the back of an open topped trailer truck from Phu Bai 50 kilometers north on Highway One to Camp Evans for proficiency or P-Training at SERTS. He had slept yet a tiredness lingered in his muscles and mind. The highway passed through the suburbs south of Hue. The truck rolled north through Hong Thauy, Phu Long and Phu Loc. It crossed a temporary wood-beamed bridge spanning the Song Loi Nong. Downriver a new bridge of steel I-beams and reinforced concrete was under construction. Up-stream a steel-truss bridge lay bent, twisted, ripped from its concrete footings. Chelini shuddered in awe. It thrilled him to see this: it was the first evidence of war he understood.
The trailer truck jolted at the end of the bridge and descended into a major marketplace. In the market Chelini could see hundreds of small women squatting beside piles of raw fish or rolls of bread. His eyes were shining with excitement. The world was new and fascinating. The truck rolled on skirting the scarred and shattered walls of the Citadel of the old Imperial City at Hue. There really was a war here, he said to himself. Inside the Citadel's gates he could see ancient cannons.
North of the city the truck passed fields with peasant farmers working knee deep in water or plowing behind water buffalo. They passed villages with thousands of children and hundreds of peasant hootches—some colorful, some dingy—and peasant shops which were busy selling everything from soda and soup to motorscooters.
Excerpted from The 13th Valley by John M. Del Vecchio. Copyright © 2012 John M. Del Vecchio. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted March 7, 2013
When I began reading “The 13th Valley”, I was immediately taken aback by the author's assertion that Vietnam was "the most moral
war this nation has ever engaged." I had never heard anyone make that claim before nor had the option ever crossed my mind.
I taught history, and it is almost universally believed that the distinction of “most moral war” lies with the Revolutionary War,
the Civil War, or World War II. I was intrigued. It was a bold statement. He had my attention.
As I read the story of Company A, 7th Battalion, 402nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division I began to understand that
the author’s definition of moral pertained, not to the war itself but what occurred within the fellowship of the soldiers fighting it.
The story gives utterance to a range of camaraderie and courage between and in the men who battled in Vietnam that is profoundly
moving and which calls into question many of the stereotypes perpetuated about the war and those who fought it.
As you read “The 13th Valley” you hump with the boonierats and come to grasp the psychology of endurance that men like Egan,
Cherry, Doc, Jax, and Lt. Brooks use to keep from going insane: "Don't mean nothin. Drive on."
John Del Vecchio's engrossing and powerful writing plants the reader right there in the Khe Ta Laou Valley up in I Corps.
As I read, I felt the elephant grass slice my fingers as I traversed into the valley with my squad. The descriptive language alone
is masterful while the characters seem so real they appear before you as you read.
When you finish the book, you will be convinced that this was the way Vietnam was. The language of the grunts is authentic.
When you finish the book, you will be convinced you were there because the writing is that good.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 20, 2013
Posted December 22, 2011
A remarkable author. One of the finest fictional stories of Vietnam. I have read his other book, "for the sake of all living things" and it was simply incredibleWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 25, 2007
Having read several novels involving our military in Viet Nam, I can easily state that 'The 13th Valley' is clearly the very best of them all. The closest thing to being there that one can hope to achieve within the pages of a book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 20, 2006
Out of the many Vietnam books I have read, no other Vietnam book can even step up to The 13th Valley. The book is so rich in detail and boonierat dialect you would think you are one of them. From page one I was amazed at how wonderfully the author described everything about the boonierat's life. Definetly a book to own.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 9, 2003
this is possibly the best book i have ever read about the vietnam war. it comes very close to not being a fictionalized account of the life of 'the grunt' in vietnam.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 12, 2000
I picked up this book for something to read on a trip. I have just finished the second read of it and it gets only better the second time. Del Vecchio brings the men of Alpha company to life through this book. You feel as if you are there and could help the men in their trials. Personal, accurate, and emotionally stimulating. A great work for anyone who does not feel like they owe something to the men who fought and died in Vietnam.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 12, 1999
The 13th Valley brought me back to the sights, the sounds, THE SMELLS, of the In-Country experience. After thirty years, the language of the grunts was searing, but all too real, unfortunately. The base-camp scenes were sooo real it was startling, and the life lived by the 'boonierat' is a description every 15-30 year old male in this country needs to read, and re-read. This is how their Dad, their uncle, their older brother-in-law lived for days, weeks & months on end, in this and several other units. John DelVecchio has captured the essence of life in the 101st Airborne (Airmobile) Infantry Division in early 1970. Aspiring leaders need to read this book, and re-read it every year. The leadership traights of L-T are something that every American Male ought to emulate. He brought the meaning of Duty, Honor, Country back to mind. If you know someone who actually was a 'boonierat'--not one of those who wish they had been-- this book will help explain why they are the way they are today.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 18, 2010
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