Cool Guy, Schlock, Maserati, Perry and the rest of the guys in the second squad are members of the first communications battalion to be sent to Vietnam during the war. All Army enlisted soldiers, they’re “communicators, not killers,” as Cool Guy says. It’s early in the war, 1963, before major shooting starts, so the restrictions are fewer on the men, and the four go into town and travel pretty much at will. As with young men away from home for the first time, they get into trouble, all sorts of trouble. And there are several serious incidents to remind them they’re in a war zone.
They spend many of their evenings in downtown bars wooing the bargirls and drinking Ba-Mui-Ba beer. Having arrived as teen-agers, they emerge at the end of their 13 months’ tour of duty as young men, anxious to get on with their lives and ready to tackle the world.
|Publisher:||Black Rose Writing|
|Edition description:||First Printing ed.|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.43(d)|
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Several Months In-Country
It was hot, really hot, with the humidity level off the charts. The only way to get cool was to sit in front of a fan or, if you were lucky, to crawl into one of the small communications huts with its bank of fans, but you would be sharing with other guys also trying to beat the heat. In the cramped space, you had to put up with relatively unpleasant odors, a mixture of communications grease and body sweat, but what the heck, you got used to it.
Inside the comm hut, the cackle of radio static and teletype machines was nearly constant, and the operator on duty kept fine-tuning the dials to make sure some poor Special Forces guy in a remote outpost wasn't trying to send a message about an attack and needing air support.
I was cooling it with four other guys, all of us off duty, sipping another Budweiser, my feet propped on the desk, thinking it couldn't get any better than this, given that we were in the Army – and in Vietnam.
A mirror on the desk, leaning against the wall of the hut, was angled just so I could see myself, and I have to say I admired what I saw: a tall, well-built man, even though I was all of nineteen years old. I stood six feet in height and was trim at a hundred-eighty pounds. My brown hair was cut very short, in a buzz-cut.
The radio operator could not drink booze while on duty, so I tipped my beer in his direction as a salute and took another long swig before rolling the cool bottle across my forehead.
"Are we goin' to Madam Kontum's on Friday?" Maserati asked all of us as he tossed off another slug of beer. Madam Kontum's was a house of prostitution that pretended to be a bar. Most bars don't have small rooms and beds upstairs, as Madam Kontum's had.
Maserati's nickname — all of us had nicknames — was after the fancy Italian car because he was Italian by blood and everything else and told stories of how racy he was with the girls. We hadn't seen any evidence of this, as all we had to work with were Vietnamese hookers, but we gave him the benefit of the doubt, and he liked the name. A native of Hoboken, New Jersey, he had a heavy accent and, based on what we'd seen in gangster movies, Italian ways, and he loved to smack his lips when he ate, especially if the meal was pasta. At five-feet, ten inches tall, he was the heaviest of us but still in fairly good shape. His thick hair was jet black, as was his thick chest hair.
In response to his question, we all nodded our heads yes, eager boys ready to have a good time.
"Got to get laid, man," said Schlock, which was his nickname. "At least once a week or I go crazy." He was our resident Southerner, born and raised in Houston, TX, and had an accent that we mimicked sometimes, which pissed him off. But it always was in good fun. He was tall, over six feet, and very thin and made you think of a rangy cowboy. In fact, he wore a cowboy hat when he wasn't on duty, and tonight his pride-and-joy hat was pulled low. He also was a damned good poker player.
At the dials was Perry. I never cared about first and last names, only nicknames, and I suspected Perry wasn't a nickname but a real name. Anyway, it was what we called him. He was a Californian from the L.A. area who loved to surf. He actually had won a local competition, and his ambition in life was to go to Hawaii to ride the big waves off the North Shore of Oahu, what he called the "Banzai Pipeline." Some ambition. When he was off duty, he would lie on his air mattress and tan himself in front of our hooch, which was our home, a squad tent secured over a partial wooden frame. Perry was the best built of all of us and tall, about six feet.
As for my name, they called me "Cool Guy" because I played a guitar, sort of, and liked to sing songs. I had bought a book of guitar cords a few months back and had been practicing, so I could strum a few cords to match my singing. I grew up in Nevada, in the capital, Carson City, thirty miles south of the famous Reno.
The other two guys were in our squad but not of our tight group. We all were communicators and pulled shifts on the radios, taking care of on-air traffic between our headquarters and the outlying units, mostly Special Forces teams in really remote places that I would never want to visit. The outskirts of Da Nang, where we were, was remote enough for me, like a forgotten, backwater diner on the outskirts of a city. I was a repairman for special communications equipment but pulled shifts as a radio operator to keep busy, as there wasn't a big need for my skills just yet.
Suddenly, we heard a shout from outside the hut, and someone started pounding on it.
"Hey, some bastard's tryin' to blow up our shit!"
We grabbed our weapons, cut the light in the hut so as not to be a target and poured outside into the night to see what was going on.
The heat hit us immediately. God, I've never been in such a hot place before. It must have been over 100 degrees and was on the verge of raining: humid, humid, humid! And this was at night. Whew! Western Nevada, my home, was one-hundred percent opposite from Vietnam in every way.
I was wearing shower shoes, shorts and a T-shirt, and so were Maserati and Schlock. Perry had to stay in the hut to operate the radios. We had our rifles and carried them with us unless it was turn-in time when we locked them up.
I took another swig of my beer as I looked around to see what was going on. In the distance, about forty yards away, was our new pride and joy, a huge antenna standing thirty feet high and fifty feet long. A transmitter-receiver unit was mounted about ten feet in front of the antenna, and the signals would be caught by the big antenna and directed to the unit and vice-versa. It was the latest technology in 1963 and something we were happy to have because it gave us communicators something to actually do. Before, it was make-work, but now we actually were communicating.
On the other side, the Viet Cong, the enemy, didn't want us to have a functional system, so we knew the antenna would be a target too big to resist.
We all ran to a short fence and looked at the antenna. The Vietnamese army was responsible for the security of it, but no soldiers were anywhere near that we could see.
The area around the antenna was cleaned and sheared off, so it appeared as stubble weeds and provided no cover for anyone trying to hide. Not too far behind the antenna was a razor wire fence, and behind that was the jungle: high shrubs, trees and thick bamboo with spikes on the trunks.
The guy who called to us, another communicator from the second squad, pointed toward the antenna. "The prick's over there somewhere. I saw him. He's in his black pajama shit." The guy was nervous and excited, and it registered in his voice. "Man, let's blast him!" he shouted, and he aimed his rifle in that direction but did not pull the trigger.
There were six of us standing in a line now with our weapons at the ready, no bushes around or anything that might offer protection in case we became the targets, like props in a shooting gallery. Oblivious of that fact, we just stood there, looking intently, weapons ready to aim and shoot – drinking our beers. How more American could you get?
"See anything?" Maserati asked in a whisper, as if it would make a difference. I heard the excitement in his voice.
No one said anything as there was nothing moving. If the guy was there, he knew we knew it and was lying low.
Schlock turned away from us and started urinating.
"Jesus, Schlock, do you have to do that now?" Maserati complained. Several of us shook our heads but laughed.
"Hell yeah, y'all. Why not?" Schlock responded. "Got to piss, man." He continued to empty his bladder.
When Schlock finished, as if on cue, a tiny bush moved near the antenna, and the guy who alerted us opened up with his carbine: blam! blam! blam!
Smoke swirled around us in the heavy humidity, and the smell of expended ammunition suddenly filled our nostrils, strong, biting.
"Did you get him?" I asked, trying to see in the dark.
Thankfully, in between the banks of clouds, the moon cast its glow on the antenna, which reflected enough light to see much of the area, but there were a lot of shadows. Lights on poles near the antenna shimmered and seemed to fade in the humidity.
No one said anything as everyone was straining to look.
Then, the sapper, or whoever he was, made a run for it, and he was clearly outlined in the moonlight.
All of us started firing our weapons, and for a moment the din was at once deafening and exhilarating, making us manic. A guy from the second squad hollered: "Kill the prick!" "Let 'im have it!"
His buddy echoed him and started laughing crazily. "Let him have it! Man, blast that bastard!"
Bullets were zinging around the Viet Cong, kicking up dirt, like hail hitting a sidewalk and bouncing. I couldn't believe the guy was not hit, but he kept zigzagging this way and that, and we fired more rounds, but again the guy managed to not get hit.
Then, he climbed through a hole cut in the razor-wire and ducked into the jungle and was gone.
"Holy shit, man, we didn't hit him once," Schlock complained. "Not once. We're horrible shots." He took a long swig of his beer.
I laughed and finished my beer. What else could I do? The episode actually was quite funny, and secretly I was happy we didn't get the guy. At first, my blood lust came to the fore, and I wanted to hit him, but now that it was over, I didn't.
An infantry lieutenant ran up to us, followed by several armed soldiers on duty and then six Vietnamese soldiers.
"What happened!" the officer demanded.
"A Viet Cong guy over there" – I pointed in the direction – "was trying to blow up the antenna, and we saved it by chasing him away," I said.
"You didn't hit him?" the lieutenant asked. "Man, I heard thirty or forty rounds being fired. What kind of shots are you?" "We're communicators, lieutenant, not killers," I told him, with a smile on my face.
He shook his head to let us know he wasn't impressed, turned to his sergeant and told him to search the area and to make sure the Vietnamese guards were back on duty guarding the antenna. "And fix that fucking hole in the fence!" he ordered.
With the show over, we all went back to the communications hut to tell Perry what had happened and to relive the event. Besides, my beer was done, and I needed a fresh one. It was an exciting night, and even though we didn't hit the guy, we sure as hell scared him.
Several Months Earlier, Ft. Sam Houston, TX
Our company commander was a West Point graduate, and we all thought he walked on water. He had just made captain and wanted to do a good job. What endeared us to him was his fairness. He made you believe he would treat you right, no matter what. We called him Captain Peters, which was his real name. He was of medium height, fair-skinned, had very short blond hair and was in great physical shape.
We were waiting for orders to ship out, and we knew we were heading for somewhere in the Far East, but we didn't know where exactly. No one had heard much about Vietnam in the early 1960s except for a short news item now and then, and President Kennedy went on the TV a few times to talk about the need to keep Communism from spreading. But to us it didn't mean much. We just knew the Commies were the enemy. So as to where we were going, our speculation was we'd land in Korea, Japan or the Philippines. But secretly I thought we'd go to that escalating war place: Vietnam.
Our headquarters company was part of the 39th Signal Battalion, the first and main communications unit to go into Vietnam, but now we were clueless as to our own destination.
I first met Maserati, Schlock and Perry at our bunks in the barracks. Their beds were close to mine, and we all seemed to hit it off good.
Now in formation, Captain Peters called us to attention and then turned us as a unit and started us jogging along the streets of the post. Fort Sam Houston, or Ft. Sam as we called the post, is just outside San Antonio, TX, which could be warm at this time of year. And today was a warm day, in the mid-to-high 70s, with lots of humidity. The sun was shining, as it did most days, so we heated up quickly as we ran, like barbecue on a hot grill.
Ft. Sam was a typical Army installation at the time, wooden barracks left over from WWII or earlier, adobe headquarters buildings painted white with red trim, and grass everywhere that was cut and trimmed by soldiers on extra duty. The overall terrain was very flat — no hills in sight.
After jogging for a while, the sweat started pouring off us, and some of us were gasping, but the captain kept running, looking as cool as a frosty cone. He wasn't even sweating that I could see. One mile, two and then finally we circled around and headed toward our barracks. I wasn't sure I would last much longer, and already a third of the guys had fallen out and were walking.
"Just a bit more," the captain shouted. "You can do it!" Puff, puff, puff.
Finally, he ordered us to a stop, just in time as most of us were wheezing and ready to collapse. He turned us to face him along the flank, stood there a moment to survey his men, who were left, and told everyone they did a good job. "It was hot today," he began, "but you overcame the heat and made it. Congratulations, men." He turned and went into the headquarters office and to his inner sanctum and closed the door.
"I'll bet he collapsed on his chair," I told Maserati, who was bending over at the waist, hands on his knees, and gasping for air next to me. "The captain looked cool, but, man, no one could stay cool in this temperature."
We both lit cigarettes as we walked to our barracks, which had a set of stairs to climb as our bunks were on the second floor. I sat down on the steps to renew my energy, knowing I couldn't make it to the top without resting.
Schlock and Maserati sat down beside me. "So where do y'all think we're going?" Schlock asked in his Texas drawl. It was the main topic of conversation among all of us.
"I think we're going to the Philippines," Maserati responded.
"And what makes you think that?" I asked.
"I know a guy who's got a friend on the inside at battalion. He said we're going to the Philippines."
I shook my head no way. "Your friend's full of it. I'll bet we're going to that place called Vietnam. They have a new war going on there, and they need communications. But, hell, where exactly is this Vietnam?"
Both Maserati and Schlock shrugged their shoulders. "Over by India or China, I think," Maserati added.
Just then, my immediate superior, a communications sergeant, called down the stairs. "Hey, man, get changed. We need to go into town."
I was all for it, and it restored my energy. I took the stairs two at a time, told the sergeant I'd be ready quickly and grabbed my soap and towel and headed for the latrine to wash up."
The barracks were part of the older ones on post, built at the turn of the 1900s, and big, made of adobe and painted tan on the outside. Each floor was about two hundred feet long and twenty feet wide, allowing plenty of room for everyone, so the bunks were not crammed together like in the barracks during basic training. Each soldier had a footlocker for small stuff that could be locked, and an open shelf with a pole for hanging uniforms and civilian shirts and jackets. The floor was polished linoleum that was added over the top of the original wood in the 1940s, and the place always smelled of wax and cleaning solution.
The sergeant's bunk was next to mine, and he and I had become friends. He was only one rank above me, and we used first names. His was Jed, and, like Schlock, he was a Texan and spoke with a bit of a drawl, but not nearly as pronounced as Schlock's. He was smaller, about five-feet, eight inches tall, and had brown hair, and he was older at 30 years and had been in the Army for ten years. One quirk he had that bothered me occurred only when he was driving. He suddenly would start sucking in short bursts of air and roll his eyes to the right when you asked him a question, and this would go on until it made you want to grab the steering wheel to make sure you weren't going to crash. But he would straighten out in the nick of time and continue on as if nothing had happened. It scared the hell out of me, so, after the second time, I never asked him questions when he was driving. The first time I couldn't believe it, so I tested it again but quit asking questions after that when we were in vehicles. He must have had a type of epilepsy, but I'm not a doctor, so who knows? He asked me to keep it quiet, as I know if the Army knew he had epilepsy he'd probably get booted out.
Jed and I climbed into his Chevy, a two-door coupe with red leather upholstery, which was hot in the San Antonio sun.
"Where we goin'?" I asked before he started driving.
"Errands," was all he said, and for the next hour and a half that's what we did, errands. Upon our return, the place seemed changed. Guys were running along the sidewalks, others were talking excitedly.
"We must have gotten our orders," Jed said.
Excerpted from "13 Months in Vietnam"
Copyright © 2017 Bill Kroger.
Excerpted by permission of Black Rose Writing.
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.
Table of Contents
Notes from the Author,
CHAPTER 2 - 1ST MONTH IN-COUNTRY,
CHAPTER 3 - OUR ASSIGNMENTS,
CHAPTER 4 - 2ND MONTH IN-COUNTRY,
CHAPTER 5 - TRAVELING TO OTHER LOCATIONS,
CHAPTER 6 - 3RD MONTH IN-COUNTRY,
CHAPTER 7 - 5TH MONTH IN-COUNTRY,
CHAPTER 8 - 6TH MONTH IN-COUNTRY,
CHAPTER 9 - 8TH MONTH IN COUNTRY,
CHAPTER 10 - 11TH MONTH IN COUNTRY,
CHAPTER 11 - 12TH MONTH IN COUNTRY,
CHAPTER 12 - 13TH MONTH IN COUNTRY,
CHAPTER 13 - HEADING HOME,