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Chapter One: Sailing to Vung Tau
The soldiers reported one by one and in loose bunches, straggling into Fort Lewis from late April to the end of May 1967, all carrying orders to join a unit called C Packet. Not brigade, battalion, or company, but packet. No one at the military base in Washington State had heard of C Packet until then. It was a phantom designation conceived by military planners to meet the anxious demands of war.
The early arrivals were billeted on the far northern rim of the army base in a rotting wooden barracks with flimsy walls known derisively as "the pit." Many of them checked in at night after long flights and bus rides from forts in Louisiana and Texas or home leaves in the Midwest, and for them morning sunlight revealed an ethereal vision. Out the window, in the distance, rose majestic Mount Rainier. But after gaping at the snowcapped peak, they had little to do. Some were attached temporarily to an engineering battalion, the 339th, but they had no duties. A captain named Jim George, trim and handsome, a marathon runner fresh from the Eighth Infantry Division in Germany, led them through morning calisthenics and long-distance running, which was a drag except for the sight of flaccid lieutenants wheezing and dropping to one knee. One lazy Saturday they organized a picnic at the beach club and grilled hamburgers but ran out of beer, so a young officer rounded up a squad of privates and marched them to the PX and back on a mission for more. It was perhaps the best executed training maneuver of their stay.
When they could, the bored enlisted men slipped across the border into Canada. Gregory Landon of Vestal, New York, who wound up in the infantry after dropping out of Amherst College, rented a car for the trip and paid cash, not even having to use a credit card. He thought it odd to be provided a means of escape from Tacoma to the sheltering north but returned as scheduled. Mike Troyer, drafted out of Urbana, Ohio, while working the graveyard shift at the Navistar truck plant, made his way to Vancouver with another weekend squad. Some soldiers got drunk and climbed atop a memorial fountain before being run off politely by the Canadian police. Peter Miller, drafted out of the assembly line of a Procter & Gamble soap factory in Quincy, Massachusetts, found himself in jail in Seattle following a dustup at the bus station.
After a few weeks of this military being and nothingness, the men of C Packet were told to get their wills in order, their teeth fixed, and their dog tags ready because they were being shipped to Vietnam as permanent overseas replacements in the First Infantry Division. Most of them knew what was coming, but some were taken by surprise, and the news provoked a round of concerned calls to the base from relatives, congressmen, and clergy.
"Morale of the men is fairly good considering the situation we're in, but there is an underlying gloom," Greg Landon wrote home to his parents. There had been no attempt by the military to explain the war, he reported, and he felt "relatively ignorant" about jungle warfare even though there had been a Vietnam focus to his advanced infantry training at the notorious Tigerland compound at Fort Polk, Louisiana. What he thought he knew was discouraging. "Vietnam seems to be a real hell-hole," he lamented, reciting a litany of horrors: Viet Cong (from Viet Nam Cong San, meaning Communist Vietnamese), poisonous snakes and plants, mysterious diseases, leeches, chiggers, ticks, tigers, contaminated water. With all that, he was shipping off to a war that from his "lowly Pfc's viewpoint" could not be won short of a miracle because the Viet Cong could "easily blend into the populace while the large American" could not.
The one certainty Landon confronted was morbid. "Sad to think that a certain percentage of people here are sure to die in Vietnam," he wrote. In a P.S. he confided that he could sense even then who would die and who would survive and that he had to "extricate" himself from the doomed so that he would not die with them. Mike Troyer had similar thoughts. The favorite epigram of a gruff Tigerland drill sergeant stuck in his mind: It's not your duty to die for your country. It's your duty to make an enemy soldier die for his.
Most of the enlisted men in C Packet entered the military as draftees or volunteers for the draft. Few had attended college. Even fewer were from professional, comfortably middle-class homes like Landon, whose father, an Amherst graduate, was a lawyer for IBM, or Troyer, who had studied psychology at Urbana College and whose dad was a labor leader at the truck plant. They were working-class kids drawn from a handful of states scattered around the country: Landon, Peter Miller, David Halliday, and Frank McMeel among a group from New York and Massachusetts; Faustin Sena and Santiago Griego part of a cluster from New Mexico; Troyer, Bill McGath, Doug Cron, Terry Warner, and Tom Colburn, five of the large contingent from Ohio and Michigan; Michael Taylor from Alaska; Doug Tallent from North Carolina; and Jack Schroder in a group from Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Schroder was a quiet young man with reddish blond hair who had entered the army at nineteen after studying to be a dental technician at the Career Academy in Milwaukee. His aim was to own a lab and make false teeth. He had volunteered for the draft mostly out of a sense of duty and family tradition, partly from frustration. His girlfriend, Eleanor Heil, a nursing student, had become pregnant but at first did not feel ready for marriage. She feared that her father in the small northern Wisconsin town of Edgar would disown her if she tried to come home, so she chose to keep the pregnancy a secret until she could put the baby up for adoption. In early March, when her boy was born, Heil realized that she could not give him away. She felt instantly grown up and ready to marry Jack, who had gone off to the army a few months earlier and was finishing infantry training at Fort Bliss, Texas. Jack was elated by her change of heart. They got married on his first furlough and spent a few days together as a family before he reported to C Packet. When Eleanor learned that the packet was being shipped to Vietnam, she traveled to Fort Lewis to be with her new husband for his last few weeks stateside. They shared a mobile home in a trailer park near the fort with two other married couples. On her final day there, as she was saying good-bye, Jack blurted out that he would not come home a cripple.
Four days later, on the day after the Fourth of July, Private Schroder started keeping a daily journal. "Was woke up this morning at 0515, had Reveille at 0600 and chow following," the first entry began. "Had formation at 0800, the captain telling us that we had approximately 24 more hours till we leave Fort Lewis, Washington. He said to plan on leaving base at 0300 in the morning. There is a lot to do and a short time to do it in."
Schroder returned to his bunk and packed his large green duffel bag -- four issues of khaki uniforms, still the stateside version, with heavier cotton than jungle fatigues, plus two pairs of boots, socks, and underwear. Then he walked to the post exchange with a pal to "get some personal items" he might need in Vietnam. After standing around while his buddy "called his 3 girl friends and took plenty of time to tell them good-bye," Jack phoned his parents. No one was home. He tried Eleanor. "But it seemed she wasn't home either, anyway no one answered, she and my son Lawrence Wayne probably went shopping in town." Mail call brought a letter from his mother urging him to be careful and have a "fast trip back to the States" at the end of twelve months.
That evening a posse of privates sat for haircuts, an outing described by Michael Taylor in a letter to his parents in Cordova, Alaska. "Everybody went haircut crazy....Some guys got mohawks, some had rings going around their heads, others got polka dots. One guy had his look like wings....Of course, we all have to have another haircut because the Old Man won't go for it." It was, if nothing else, another way for the young soldiers to express their conflicted feelings about the military before they departed for the unknown.
"Men are anxious to leave now," Schroder signed off his diary that night. "I don't blame them much." Officers included: at their own private going-away party, sixteen war-bound lieutenants emptied four cases of champagne.
The soldiers were mustered at one the next morning and ordered to turn in their bedding and clean the barracks before being divided into three groups for the bus ride to the air field. "It was a very cloudy rainy & dreary day plus cold," Schroder wrote. He talked to two stewardesses on the commercial flight to San Diego, but still it was "not a good trip," lasting "4 hours and some odd minutes." A charter bus brought them to the navy pier, where other replacement packets, some army aviators, and a vast contingent of marines waited to board the ship that would sail them all to Vietnam. It was the USNS General John Pope, an old bucket named for the Civil War general who was relieved of command by Lincoln after the second Battle of Bull Run.
The USNS Pope had made its first Pacific run in December 1943 carrying troops from San Francisco to New Caledonia and was pulled out of mothballs by the Military Sealift Command for Vietnam service. It was a General Class transport ship: 623 feet long, with a maximum speed of twenty-one knots and room for 5,289 men. When sunlight hit at certain angles, massive dents became visible in the hull. "Is this what the Reluctant looked like?" asked C Packet lieutenant Tom Grady, a graduate of Lasalle University in Philadelphia, when he caught sight of the creaky vessel. Grady was reminded of the hapless supply ship that Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon were stuck on in the dark World War II comedy Mister Roberts.
The C Packet troops waited three hours before they were allowed aboard. They marched up the plank to the huzzahs of a brass band, but once they reached deck, there was another delay before chow, because twenty-seven hundred marines ate first. The next morning Schroder hustled to the breakfast line before the mob of marines. The ship was scheduled to leave port at one that afternoon, but the loading took several hours more, which seemed providential to the men. "All day there were young women & girls here at the dock trying to get the GIs to whistle and talk to them and they did," Schroder noted. "Some even missed chow because of the girls. I don't know what they are going to do when they get a leave in December for R.R. (Rest & Recuperation)."
Not long after they shoved off, there was an abandon-ship drill and another meal. The food was not bad, Schroder wrote touchingly, as if he had been living in domestic bliss for years, but "not anywhere near the cooking at home I get from my wife Eleanor." For Michael Taylor and Bill McGath, two C packet troops assigned KP duty, the comparison to home cooking was beyond imagining. One of their jobs was to help navy chefs prepare scrambled eggs for breakfast, which involved climbing up a metal ladder to crack 122 dozen eggs into a massive kettle. They staged contests to see who could crack the most eggs at once, with shell shards flying unappetizingly into the mix. McGath noticed from the crates that the eggs were not fresh but had been in cold storage for fourteen months. What struck Mike Troyer most about breakfast service was that meals awaited them on prestacked trays: eggs that were stuck to the bottom of one metal tray would be scraped onto the plate below.
The enlisted men were also stacked, floor to ceiling, row after row, seven berths high. The first few nights at sea were all rocking and rolling. Troyer's bunk felt like a stomach-turning amusement park ride. His feet would rise above his head, then his head would rise above his feet, up and down, all night long. "A lot of the men was sick during the night. The sea got plenty rough last night and has been almost all day," Schroder's July 8 entry began. "After chow almost everyone has been hanging over the sides vomiting." Doug Cron, from an Ohio dairy farm, had never been on a boat before. He felt queasy as soon as the ship left port and stayed sick most of the way, spending more time on deck than in the mess hall. Santiago Griego discovered danger at the rail. His first time there he looked up barely in time to duck vomit streaming down at him from a deck above.
Seasickness was what passed for excitement. The daily routine grew so tedious so quickly that Fort Lewis seemed hectic in retrospect. The soldiers went to movies, read paperbacks, prepared quarters for inspection, sunbathed when the weather turned hot, peeled their skin, began taking malaria pills, did more calisthenics, attended Vietnamese language classes, or skipped them, went to Bingo Night on Tuesday and Thursday, and jostled with the scruffy, tattooed marines. "Everywhere you go there are Marines, most of them are good men but there are a few that could stand to be thrown overboard," wrote Mike Troyer. They also played poker in the latrines, organized boxing matches, wrote letters and notes in journals, talked endlessly about what they would do on R&R or when they got back home, and slept. Lieutenant Grady, who under normal circumstances prided himself on the ways he could avoid physical exertion (he was one of the winded officers during the long-distance runs at Fort Lewis), became so bored that he started looking forward to physical training twice a day.
The only good part of the voyage, Grady told the troops, was that time aboard ship was subtracted from the one-year Vietnam tour. "Hey, look, it's not that bad," he often said, trying to raise spirits. "That's three weeks you don't have to spend there." With his gregarious nature, and without rigid regard for rank, Grady, who volunteered for the draft and was commissioned at officer candidate school, often talked freely to the kids in the packet and made friends among them. He grew especially fond of Michael Farrell, a nineteen-year-old draftee from New Orleans, who had a "bubbly and optimistic nature." Farrell was the sort of young buck who thought he was invincible. He confided to Grady that he wanted to be a machine gunner in Vietnam. "Why in God's name would you want to do that?" the lieutenant asked.
On the twelfth Jack Schroder wrote in his diary: "Well, today is my birthday, and what a place to be spending it out on a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean miles from nowhere." Private Landon, who also kept a diary of the voyage, described the atmosphere that day as "battle ship gray all the way." He had been pulling guard duty on deck since they left port five days earlier and had "yet to see another ship." On the thirteenth, as they crossed the International Date Line, he spotted a small whale three hundred yards away. What he saw most often were sweaty, bored men in T-shirts and caps, overheated privates looking for places to catch a breeze but lounging in all the wrong places. "Constantly shooing troops off equipment etc. Tedious job," Landon wrote. "Other guards let the rule go to seed, making the job that much tougher. Hate having to be the son-of-a-bitch, but these privates stick together like glue."
Tom Colburn, another C Packet man with guard duty, was more lenient, allowing soldiers to sprawl on deck for five minutes or so before asking them to leave. Colburn, whose pals took to calling him Baby-san, was the youngest of the bunch, a high school dropout from Pontiac who had just turned eighteen and barely carried a hundred pounds on his five-nine frame. Faustin Sena, who guarded a freezer, was more substantial but also easygoing. He loved nothing more than to sit above the hatch chugging on liberated cans of Hershey's chocolate milk.
News from the outside world arrived in a shipboard newspaper known as the Pope Pourri, which had a twelve-man staff of editors, reporters, and illustrators and included wire reports from the Armed Forces Press Service and United Press International. It was a straightforward sheet, with little attempt to propagandize. Day after day came reports of deadly race riots in Newark, the arrest of segregationist terrorists in North Carolina, the difficult aftermath of the Six-Day War in the Middle East, fighting in the Congo, the debate over a national tax increase, and of course the news about Vietnam. On the Saturday morning of July 15, the men of C Packet read the latest unsettling figures: 282 Americans had been killed in battle during the previous week, the third-highest weekly total since the war began. The trend seemed to be more of the same. "More Troops to Vietnam -- LBJ," read the banner headline that day over a story noting that President Johnson, after two days of meetings with his generals at the White House, had decided to send more battalions into the war.
Considering where the soldiers were coming from, and where they were going, it was inevitable that tensions would play out aboard ship. There were fights every day, mostly minor scrapes. But on the nineteenth Landon reported "a small riot on the deck, drawn along racial lines." Not surprising, he thought, since fires of black rage were burning in so many inner cities that summer. "This tied in with the concurrent unrest in Newark, N.J. The problem grows with the length of the trip and as the climate grows hotter and thicker. Thank God for the air conditioning in the compartments."
That last sigh of relief was something that Captain Jim George could not utter. He was stuck in a small cabin with three other captains, a room without air conditioning that soared above one hundred degrees and was unbearably sticky even on windy days. George was fastidious about washing his underwear but was warned by the ship captain that they were using too much water and might have to start rationing. Some officers played poker at night, but George did not know how. He consistently lost at bingo, but at least won at Monopoly once. For George, who prepared for an officer's career at Wofford College in his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina, the long trip was another reminder of the occasional frustrations of the military bureaucracy.
First the army cut short his command of a tank company in Germany to rush him to Vietnam, then they made him wait and do nothing at Fort Lewis for two months, and then they put him on this slow voyage across the Pacific. "I just feel as though I've wasted so much valuable time and also the taxpayers' money just sitting around," the earnest officer wrote home to his wife, Jackie. "I'm not doing much and ready to get on with the task at hand." He was a bright officer, only twenty-five, with two young sons, John and Jay, and a wife whom he dearly missed. In one letter home to Jackie at 155A Pine Grove Manor in Spartanburg, his mind drifted back to their first apartment and how they "worked together to prepare it for a happy marriage"; and to the day he rode a motorcycle up on the porch of their little house on Vernon Street and how Jackie "raised H -- -- L" with him for buying it; and to the first night in their apartment in Germany and little John's afternoon naps; and to all the good times they'd had in five married years "even though outside factors such as college, money, parents and the Army" had put some pressure on them "from time to time."
These wistful daydream remembrances were welcome interruptions to the sounds of war rumbling in his brain. In spare hours he read books about combat, first The Last Battle, a narrative describing the final Allied push toward Berlin in World War II, then Dateline: Vietnam, an account by Scripps-Howard war correspondent Jim G. Lucas of the fighting zone to which George was headed. During nightly bull sessions in the airless cabin, the captains talked about what to expect in Vietnam and how they would fare in battle. George wanted to command his own infantry company in Vietnam and was surprised to learn that some officers had no desire to lead troops into combat.
The brutal reality of man killing man, he confided in a letter to Jackie, now dominated his conscious and subconscious thoughts. "I've had a lot of time to engage in deep thinking and it's really sickening how the world is so full of conflict and what's more how we're so much a part of it. At times I feel so guilty and know I could do more to make it a better place. I'll do what I can, and pray that God will lead me. I've already started to dream of killing and am already tired of the smell of death. Life is so short at times but too long at others. We're all a 'bunch of nuts' I guess. I'm just out on a limb by myself today and have no one to talk to who has the patience to understand me or will let me try to understand them. I'll endure what I must and remember that I must be a good 1) soldier, 2) gentleman, 3) lover and 4) Christian. The most important, of course, is #4 and the others as apropos."
Thoughts of killing also raced through the mind of Private Troyer. He wondered if he could take a human life. Peter Miller had the same question. Like the others, he had grown up playing army and watching John Wayne movies. Was that version different from the real thing? Bill McGath wondered too but felt a moral obligation. In his eleventh-grade speech class at Mifflin High in suburban Columbus, he had chosen the pro side in a war debate, and he believed still what he had said then -- that the United States had to "protect its allies, fight communism, and let free policy reign." Terry Warner, off a livestock farm in western Ohio, had "no feelings about the war one way or the other" but knew enough to be scared. Alaskan Mike Taylor was already sick of the military. "This Army is something else," he had written home to his parents after his records had been mixed up with two other Michael Taylors. "They are always screwing up something."
Whether it was mass dyslexia, hope for some spiritual blessing for the year ahead, or most likely just soldierly sarcasm, some troops aboard soon reversed the name of their ship and started calling it not the John Pope but the Pope John. Not that they treated the vessel with more reverence after that. Somewhere along the Tropic of Cancer in the vast Pacific stretch past Midway Islands, one soldier felt so trapped that he jumped overboard, a suicidal escape attempt that was thwarted when the ship turned around and picked him up. He was the second would-be escapee from the USNS Pope that year. During the January voyage a soldier in the Ninth Infantry Division had gone overboard to his apparent death.
dThey reached Okinawa at nine on the Saturday morning of July 22, the first land in two weeks. The troops were allowed off ship but ordered to return by 1800 hours. Mike Troyer and his pals marched up the hill to the enlisted men's club, where they drank scotch for twenty-five cents a glass and played slot machines. Landon was forced to stay on board because an officer decided his hair was too long. In his diary he recorded the harbor scene: no gunboats; two cargo ships, one coming, one going ("war keeps them pretty busy"); bright white sand; turquoise water spotted with jellyfish; the wreckage of a four-motor airplane from World War II hulking on the beach; a storm approaching from the south.
Vietnam was a few days distant and closing fast in Landon's mind. "The daily reports of action in the war seem so common now," he wrote on his lonely watch, reciting news from the Pope Pourri, "200 enemy dead in a sweep...15 American dead and 50 casualties etc. etc. It is as if we will never see the end. If N Viet Nam is bluffing, it backs up its bluff. Politics in S Viet Nam hardly help. Until there can be 2 sides to this war, and not 50,000 shades of commitment, this war cannot and will not be won. The populace is obviously confused and divided. These people must decide and decide soon or the U.S. will tire to the point of despair in tiptoeing through the morass of politics while ducking improvised weapons of Viet Cong and barrages of Russian-made artillery fire. Maybe."
The troops who scrambled off that morning stumbled back up the gangplank on their afternoon return. Lieutenant Grady said he never saw so many drunk kids in his life, almost every single one dead drunk. One smacked an officer and ended up in the brig. Another sauntered aboard toting a cheap guitar case, which when searched contained not an instrument but a fifth of whisky. A third pulled up in a taxi and stumbled out naked, claiming he had gone swimming and someone had stolen his clothes. Another wobbled halfway up the plank and keeled overboard. How's the water? some buddies yelled down. Just fine, he answered, squirting an arch of spray from his mouth, and with that a few jumped overboard to join him. The officers were for the most part sympathetic: Just get these kids back in, Grady said. They know where they're going. Let's not make this any tougher than it is.
Captain George had spent six hours in port. He wrote to Jackie that it was dirty and smelled "worse than Germany." Even though he was impressed by the low prices of clothing in the PX, he passed them up, but he could not resist buying a Japanese steel string guitar for only ten fifty, which he would strum until his fingers went raw. He also went to a geisha house with the other captains and got a bath and a massage for a buck eighty, an enjoyment he described to his wife without hesitation: "It was real unusual. The woman started by walking up and down our backs."
Schroder wrote in his diary that he stayed away from the bars, choosing instead to go swimming. He got cut by coral, managed to avoid the jellyfish, but could not avoid his sloshed compatriots at the end of the day. "There were a lot of fellas they were so drunk they had to be carried back. 90% of them. There were several fights. A fight here in the compartment, two men on one. They beat him up while he was asleep in bed, he got messed up pretty bad he got kicked in the face. Nobody would break it up, so I broke it up, don't like the odds 2 against one."
As the ship steamed down into the South China Sea, the weather turned from torrid to unbearable. One hundred degrees during the day and one hundred at night. The air conditioning system broke, which was when many soldiers first realized that the ship had air conditioning. Although sleeping on deck was prohibited, the rule was obliterated by necessity, and for a few nights a thousand or more men slept in the open air. "As many as could fit went up there," Landon noted. "It looked like we were boat people."
The morning sunrise was soothing, the water a shade of dark blue the soldiers had never imagined and perfectly smooth. "I've never seen Indian Lake as calm as what this water is," Mike Troyer reported to his parents, referring to a small Ohio lake of his boyhood. Flying fish were everywhere, and occasional whales. Four days past Okinawa, the ship reached Da Nang, Vietnam, where the rest of the marines off-loaded, leaving the mess hall at last to Schroder and the GIs. Jim George heard "artillery or mortar fire" when they pulled into Da Nang, but "it was about 10 or 15 miles away and I think it was ours." Peter Miller stood at the rail and watched the marines march away, and surveyed the harbor with its exhilarating bustle of ships and boats, a riot of smells and colors, and here came barefooted Vietnamese men unloading cargo. It all seemed exotic to him, nothing like the soap line at the factory in Quincy. "Hoo boy," he said, taking it in. "This is a different world."
Two days later, after a final leg south at the end of the six-thousand-mile voyage, the ship came to a stop a few hundred yards from the beach at Vung Tau, an old resort town known during colonial days as Cap St. Jacques, about sixty miles southeast of Saigon. Late that night Faustin Sena saw bright lights in the distance and remarked that it must be a big city out there. The lights were not from a city, he was told. Those were the lights of war -- bombs and tracers. A chill went up his back. "Oh, mama," he whispered.
The next morning, in the bright dawn of July 29, this latest batch of American infantrymen clambered down Jacob's ladders into old World War II-style landing boats and came ashore.
The water was smooth and easy, barely disturbed by the crafts plying back and forth from the big ship. The sand of Back Beach, white and clean, invited these young Americans in, with the verdant rise of Nui Nho, the little mountain, framing the vista at the southern end of the peninsula, its three rusted, thirty-three-ton French naval guns offering only an intimation from on high of the war-torn history of this slender land.
For most U.S. enlisted men in Vietnam, history tended to begin anew the day they stepped foot "in country" and to end the day they left. Evocative war stories were passed down from one group to the next, but few historical facts. Back Beach might have meant nothing to the men of C Packet, just an insignificant point of entry, a brief stop on the way to somewhere else. But in the legend of the First Infantry Division's service in Vietnam, the white sands of Vung Tau represented the first station of the cross. It was here, less than two years earlier, during the early days of October 1965, that the main force of the First Division reached Vietnamese soil -- 9,600 troops and their equipment brought over on twenty ships as part of Operation Big Red. Army cameramen were at the beach October 7 and recorded that day's arrival on 35-millimeter film. Their grainy footage of the seminal scene, as viewed later, flickered eerily between color and black-and-white, as though caught forever between present and past.
Soldiers line the deck of the U.S.S. General Daniel I. Sultan, green duffel bags slung over their shoulders, waiting their turn to board landing craft, many of their faces pubescent, unmarked. On their shoulder sleeves, the proud Big Red One insignia, an olive drab shield two and a half inches wide, three and three-quarters inches high, with a red Arabic numeral one in the middle. Placid waters, blinding sand, a welcoming party of big brass on the beach, including the architect of the American buildup, General William C. Westmoreland, commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, neatly attired in starched fatigues with a MACV patch on his left sleeve, his blue-gray eyes gleaming under a baseball cap. Behind him, an ethereal array of Vietnamese girls holding lotus flowers, each dressed in an ao dai of pure white. White, black, Latino -- the soldiers disembark and march up the beach, their figures dissolving into brightness.
The four-star general and the ao dai wisps were nowhere to be seen as the replacement troops from the USNS Pope came ashore twenty-two months later. A Vietnamese teenager chased after Doug Tallent as he reached the beach and tried to take his watch. Another group of local boys stood nearby yelling, "Fuck you, GI!"
Greg Landon, with his deadpan sarcasm, said all he needed was a corncob pipe to feel like General MacArthur staging his dramatic return to the Philippines. The beach swarmed with six hundred men, some in formation, others roaming the sand, uncertain where they should go. There were now nearly a half million American forces in Vietnam and more arriving daily by air and sea. Battalions were growing from three rifle companies to four, which was what the packets were all about -- a means of quickly providing fresh troops for the additional companies. C Packet was being divided into two units that would be assigned to different battalions within the Big Red One.
First Lieutenant Clark Welch and First Sergeant Bud Barrow came upon this hectic shoreline scene looking like a modern-day Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the officer stooping slightly next to his shorter sidekick, who carried a makeshift flag that they had fashioned the day before -- blue cloth attached to a bamboo pole with crossed rifles braced by the words D Company above and the numbers 2/28 below.
"Where's Delta Company? Are you Delta Company?" Welch asked the first beachmaster he encountered carrying a clipboard. These were not companies, they were packets, he was told. A navy officer finally pointed him toward a unit of men standing at attention in fatigues, "a beautiful formation, with this beautiful captain" -- officers in front, sergeants in back, duffel bags at their sides, the ship behind them in the glimmering sea. It was the unit led by Captain George.
"There's only one commander here, and it ain't you," Welch told George in his invariably direct manner after they were introduced. C Packet existed no more. These men were now part of Delta Company, the fourth and final company of a battalion that made up half a regiment known as the Black Lions. What a storied history these Black Lions had: formed in 1901, the first American unit committed to combat in World War I, twice awarded the croix de guerre with palm, France's highest military honor, named in the aftermath of their most famous battle there, when they became known as the Black Lions of Cantigny. Welch addressed the newest members of that proud lineage. He gave little thought to the fact that George was the superior officer, captain to lieutenant. He never was much on rank; he rarely even wore his rank on his battle uniform.
Welcome to Vietnam. He was Lieutenant Welch, commander of Delta Company. They were now Delta Company, Second Battalion, Twenty-eighth Infantry Regiment, First Infantry Division. They would move from Vung Tau to the Big Red One base at Lai Khe by C-130 airplane. No time to waste. But first Welch needed a guidon bearer, someone to carry the blue Delta banner. No one stepped forward. "Okay, goddamit, you!" the lieutenant bellowed, pointing to the tallest soldier in the rear. "Wherever I go, you go. Hold that banner high!" And with that he marched ninety-three of his new men, plus several dozen others who were as yet unassigned, off the sand, into the sunlight, toward the airfield and the transport planes that carried them to their strange new home.
It was raining when they arrived at Lai Khe, but the division band was at the airstrip to greet them. Drum rolls and trumpets for the arriving heroes. Wow, this is special, Greg Landon thought. Then abruptly he found himself loaded into the back of an old deuce-and-a-half, a heavy supply truck, where he and the other Delta recruits slipped around on a truck bed as muddy as the hoof-slopped earth beneath a feeding trough for dairy cows in the aftermath of a midsummer thundershower. So much for feeling special. Captain George and the other new officers were taken another direction, to headquarters of the Big Red One's Third Brigade. A colonel was waiting for them. He seemed eager to give them an unsentimental lecture on the facts of life in the war zone. Enlisted men could not be trusted, he said. Enlisted men were nothing but sons of bitches.
Sons of bitches. Jim George was stunned. His "blood boiled" as he thought to himself, "Aren't those the guys pulling the triggers and doing the fighting and dying?"
Copyright © 2003 by David Maraniss