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BIEN HOA, VIETNAM
As I stepped from the plane, it wasn’t the sudden rush of heat or humidity that immediately caught my attention. It was the applause! Off to one side of the airbase terminal, several hundred gaunt, tanned, and laughing GIs wildly applauded our arrival. That is, the loosely assembled audience was applauding the arrival of our plane—a plane that when refueled would take them out and away from the Vietnam War. We were simply an added attraction.
Grabbing my duffel bag from the cargo area, I followed the other new arrivals to the terminal, running the gauntlet of catcalls and comments from the soldiers who’d soon be shuttling out of the war zone.
“Fucking new guys! Cherries!” howled a veteran, a thin, sharp-faced soldier who then pointed to our new, dark green jungle fatigues that still smelled of the mothballs they’d been stored in only a few days before. Pinching two fingers against his nose he added, “Shew! They even smell new!” Finally, there was one ringing editorial from another soldier that caused many to laugh and shake their heads knowingly. “Good luck, assholes!” he said. “You’re gonna need it!”
Luck? Sure, why not? Hadn’t the drill sergeants and training officers back in the States said we’d need training and luck “in the Nam” and that all of the training in the world wouldn’t mean a thing unless Lady Luck was on our side? God, too, for that matter? Then didn’t they smile, saying there was no such thing as luck and that God probably didn’t really want to get involved in this nasty little mess anyway?
To many veterans, the war seemed to be an inside joke, and we new guys always seemed to be part of the punchline. After all, we were the latest source of entertainment. So, with sweat beading our foreheads and spreading out at our armpits and lower backs, we grinned as though we really understood the jokes—or simply realized there was nothing to laugh about.
Facing the Viet Cong I knew would be easier; they’d only try to kill us. However, unlike our welcoming party, they’d probably leave us a little more dignity.
Shrugging off the insults, I followed the other “new meat,” under the ushering of a bored and mildly agitated master sergeant, into the cool shadows of the terminal holding area, where we were told to sit and wait for the transportation that would take us to the replacement station to begin our in-processing orientation. At nineteen, I was anxious to begin fighting. Like the others, I was also tired and surprised by the surroundings; the eighteen-hour flight with its stopovers in Alaska and Japan had taken its toll. Any momentary surge of adrenaline at finally being “in the Nam” gave way to protracted weariness. All I really wanted to do was get processed in, get assigned to a unit, and begin saving a people and a country, both of which I knew little about. Not that it mattered. I’d save them in spite of myself.
The tour of duty for the average army infantryman was exactly 365 days—one calendar year—and the clock was officially ticking, but for now, like so many other times in my brief army career, I’d have to hurry up and wait. Even in the war zone this army maxim seemed to hold true. Taking a seat, I waited and watched what was going on around me, taking in the limited view of Vietnam from the busy air force facility.
From where I was sitting, it wasn’t anything like I’d expected. There were no “Hit the beach” landings or cigar-chomping Sergeant Rocks, or John Wayne types telling us why we were there or what we’d have to do. Maybe that had been an earlier war. This one in the summerlike fall of 1969 had been going on officially for six years and unofficially for well over one thousand.
Any sense of urgency gave way to boredom and common everyday matters. On a nearby bench a GI, indifferent to our arrival, was lost in a comic book. Waves of ninety-plus heat, along with the lingering smell of jet fuel, exhaust, and mothballs, mixed with a slight breeze from the opening doors and tasted of dust. With the exception of the heat, Bien Hoa wasn’t much different from Mc-Chord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington, which we’d left from the day before. If anything, Bien Hoa seemed more laid back.
Like most other military travel facilities, the Southeast Asian, American air base was lean and Spartan at first glance; on second inspection it reflected the clean and responsible comfortable attitude of the air force. Something not lost on either the airmen who lived and worked there or on the army soldiers, like us new arrivals, who were only passing though.
A sign on a nearby wall pointed to a snack bar and said that it was open between the hours of nine and five. If war was hell, then here the extra heat melted the cheese and kept the side orders of fries warm.
Around the terminal soldiers and airmen, dressed in sun-bleached, faded jungle fatigues or clean, neatly pressed khakis, came and went. Some reading dog-earred paperbacks or old letters, while still others managed to sleep, even as a loudspeaker droned out manifest numbers to such distant and remote destinations as Nha Trang, Tay Ninh, or Vung Tau.
There were also salesmen in makeshift booths or at tables vying for the attention of the servicemen. Car salesmen showing brochures instead of actual products in a “pay now, drive later” plan. In this case the “later” came when the GI returned home after his monthly installment payments that made the down payment and more during his tour in Vietnam. Korean and Hong Kong vendors competed for attention as did a host of others. They had a captive audience, and they knew it.
One who was doing brisk business was a Bible salesman who hawked the large, family-size, vinyl-covered books that were complete with gold leaf and trim. At seventy-five dollars each—with a convenient installment plan—the salesman was getting his share of takers, especially the new arrivals. One, a tall, stoop-shouldered soldier, a new PFC, said the Book was a good investment, adding that he’d probably sell it at a profit the closer we actually got to the fighting. With prospective buyers around him taking a look, the PFC showed off his new purchase while the Bible salesman went back to his pitch. The carnival was still open for business, and he still had commissions to make.
“You can get one free from your chaplain,” a vet said from a nearby chair. His tanned face was three days into a beard. Both the comment and the attention seemed to be an afterthought, since his attention was focused on another activity across the airstrip. An olive drab forklift was lifting large metal crates into the hold of a transport plane.
“I said you can get a Bible free from your chaplain’s office. A small one you can carry in your rucksack. Ain’t no way you’re gonna be able to carry that thing in the jungle,” he said, turning his attention to a large white Bible.
“Thanks,” I said. Then, wanting to make conversation, I added, “You been here long?”
“If you mean here as in Bien Hoa, maybe four hours or so. If you mean in-country, I’m going on five months.”
I turned to see what he was watching but didn’t see anything other than the loading operation. Turning back to the soldier, I noticed that he seemed beat for only five months. My face must have revealed what I was thinking because he smiled and shook his head. “I know it doesn’t seem like all that long, but for some, new guy, five months is a lifetime. Like for those guys,” he said, pointing to the transport plane.
“Which guys? You mean the ones who applauded out there?”
“No,” he said quietly. “The ones in the boxes. Those are aluminum caskets. One day, five months, whatever. A lifetime, you know?”