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FALLOFFBook III of The ASA Trilogy
By Robert Flanagan
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Robert Flanagan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFleeing G.o.D.
Tan Son Nhut/Sai Gon, Viet Nam: December 1968
Specialist Four Abel Axelson, Duty Non-Commissioned Officer at Davis Station, had made scant record of anything that had occurred thus far in his tour of duty on Christmas eve, but the distant mortars got his attention, distance being relative. And he was still pissed that, as a Specialist-4, he had been put on the Duty NCO roster where only E-5s and E-6s normally were allocated to such lofty indignities. But he was on the list for promotion to SP5 and the First Shirt snickered when he told him, "Just gettin' you ack-li-mated, boy. Gonna be a lot of these now."
Indulging a mood both flippant and irascible, Axelson made an entry in the duty log when the mortars stopped dropping into the edge of Gia Dinh, miles away. Stopped. No one would ever know why this negative happening warranted notice; he had not logged the onset of incoming. But overtaken by events so soon after, no one ever asked. The Duty NCO had not finished documenting the distant absence of mortars when the rockets found Tan Son Nhut.
The VC rocket cadre, likely not seeking targets of the louvered board billets—shanties that resembled tall chicken coops—were after the tactical aircraft beyond the fence. But the first rocket hit the hooch at one end of a row of like structures that served as billets for the 224th Radio Research Battalion (Aviation) enlisted troops, as well as Headquarters troops of the 509th RR Group. Some of that mixed command of soldiers, for once, counted themselves lucky to have been at work in the unlikely night hours.
A second 122-millimeter rocket of the best Urals steel plowed into the middle of the road that separated Davis Station from the Vietnamese Ranger training area. No one home there, either, and in that persistently ravaged road, the crater was scarcely noticed.
The third and last rocket got close to the VC's likely target, striking a Conex in the middle of a stretch of Conexes lining the corrugated metal fence between the flight line and the 509th billets. The 146th RRC's aircraft were nearby, but remained untouched.
Conexes, large shipping containers made of steel, roughly 6 by 8 by 12 feet in size, resembled an a-cubical hut. Some boasted greater dimensions. After serving as containers for supplies and equipment shipped to the battle zone, instead of being returned to the continental US containing damaged equipment, spent artillery brass, battle-damaged tanks, trucks, and other vehicles as intended, they were often used for storage or utility space by the holding unit.
The rocket-stricken Conex in this instance belonged to the 146th Radio Research Company (Aviation.), and was used for storing mechanics' tools occasionally; aircraft engines less often, when one had been pulled for maintenance or upgrade; and POL—petrol, oil, and lubricants—in small quantities. On the quiet December morning when this particular Conex was struck by the Slavic thunderbolt, it held only parts of two different Vietnamese mechanics' tool sets and a case of automotive engine oil, likely stored there as the first step in a progressive theft. Considering there were no casualties from the barrage of three rockets and the aforegoing mortars, the Commanding Officer of the 146th felt pretty good, losing only one Conex.
By the time the After-Action Report was completed two days later, along with peripheral paperwork delineating material-fiscal losses, the CO was not so happy. Itemized as "Destroyed by enemy action" in the unfortunate Conex—the items' presence sworn to by two sergeants, a warrant officer and a major—and claimed for replacement, was a list of supplies that would have required a full size hangar to contain them: two aircraft engines, rotary—one 450 hp Pratt & Whitney R-985 for the DeHavilland RU-6A, the 224th's standard "Beaver" single-engine ARDF aircraft; and, though no one could explain the anomaly, one T53-L-7 turboprop, one of two engines for the OV-1 Mohawk, along with one 3-blade, reversible-pitch propellor for that engine.
The 224th did not own, fly, or even like Mohawks. Wiser counsel prevailed, and the T53 and prop were removed from the list. Also itemized were five "tool sets, mechanic, aircraft-complete"; four wheels—three aircraft main wheels for the U-8, and one Jeep spare; 61 "blanket, Army, wool"; bed linen, 74 sets (complete: two sheets, one pillow case ea.); 19 "parachute, emergency"; seven cases of "bug spray"; and in an adventurous departure, two cases of frozen steaks, though no one attempted to explain how the Conex had come to be equipped with temperature control refrigeration.
The well-undocumented storage facility become known as "the million-dollar Conex," bringing smiles and guffaws across the four Corps. Visiting personnel expressed interest in visiting the site of the $1M Conex.
Captain Bannister, down from the 144th, leaned against the metal fence, admiring the full extent of destruction involving the Conex. With Chief Warrant Officer-Three Gardena, also of the 144th, they speculated how they might arrange such an unfortunate event on their ramp at Nha Trang. At the sound of irregular footfalls, they turned to stare out toward the open airfield.
A PFC clad in olive-drab T-shirt, torn-off fatigue trousers, and un-tied jungle boots jogged by at the edge of the taxiway. Beyond the PFC moved a Jeep driven by a sergeant, the vehicle geared down and pacing the PFC's exhausted strides. As the PFC shambled past the two officers, they heard his plaintive cry arise from a core of despair, "I hate this fuckin' place!"
If the two bystanders had not agreed with the plaintiff's position statement, being officers they would have been obliged to bring administrative action against this unseemly behavior. They turned back to considerations of the defunct Conex.
* * *
Hearing a rumor there were incoming 058 manual Morse intercept operators somewhere in the pipeline, Winter, at the request of Lieutenant Mabry after their return from Plei Ku, had visited 509th's personnel section.. Piltdown Pilot had requested Winter look over the list and see, first if he knew any of the Morse ops, and if so, might any of them offer help in PP's recruiting for LAFFING EAGLE. Winter's mind was on CRAZY CAT, but being somewhat unemployed, awaiting transfer, he agreed to help. The new year was still a few days away, and nothing would happen until after. But these new guys all came directly from school, Winter had heard. He was unlikely to know any of them.
The personnel clerk he asked about the new personnel regarded the warrant officer with a blank stare of disinterest and never answered. The hubbub of typewriters, shouts, ringing telephones, curses, and the overriding din of hammering by two stockade rats, awaiting courts-martial and spending their detention pointlessly pounding nails into boards, killed the possibility of ever running the rumor of fresh ops to ground. But Sergeant Fantz, standing nearby, said, "That's the first of 'em, Chief," pointing to a soldier standing before another clerk's desk.
When Winter turned, he was startled to see a soldier he recognized, and not one fresh from school. Billy Ray Damson, wearing SP4 rank. Damson had soldiered in the 3rd RRU with Winter in 1965, and had been at that time an SP5. That time together in Viet Nam four years before had been of minimal contact. Though SP5 Damson had tried to transfer into the Air Section where Staff Sergeant Winter was NCO-in-charge, it never happened. At that time, and for a change, the Air Section had been fully staffed. And though they worked in related sections, there had been little contact between the two men, who had an even longer history.
Now Damson was here, and in the mix of emotions and memories stirring him, Winter realized that, despite his lack of warm and fuzzy feelings for Damson, the man was qualified. He was even a good 058, had performed well in that role. He'd be a shoe-in for Air this time. Chucklin' Chicken was coming, already looking for ops. He walked over to break the ice, and to engage the assignments clerk in the possibility of such a deal for Billy Ray Damson. But, his mind a-swirl with conflicting memories, Winter felt no great hope about recruiting this soldier for LAFFING EAGLE, though he was technically competent.
For Winter had known Damson before that Viet Nam 1965, assignment. Asmara in 1961 had been their first encounter in the Army, a relationship that had not progressed well.
* * *
Asmara, Eritrea (Ethiopia); February 1961
On Valentine's Day, a levy of new Morse operators arrived in Asmara from Fort Devens in Massachusetts and Vint Hill Farms Station in Virginia. They were assigned out to the four tricks in short order. One, PFC Billy Ray Damson, found himself on DELTA Trick where, like any new man, he ordinarily would have been assigned a bunk in one of the DELTA Trick squad bays. But due to a temporary housing crisis, he was given the empty rack in Room 31 in BRAVO Trick's area. That assignment was also temporary, the clerk had assured the room's other occupants.
Rooms were reserved for SP5s, NCOs who did not have quarters off-post, and when circumstances permitted, the odd lesser grades, especially SP4s who were "old timers," men who'd been at the 4th USASA Field Station for more than a year and were nearing the end of their 18-month tour. Winter, by virtue of prior service and having made SP5, shared Room 31 with two other trick workers. The room held an empty bunk after Mellinson was shipped to Landstuhl Army Hospital, Germany, for the witch doctors to tease his schizophrenia. The empty bunk made for a measure of luxury in an environment of normally congested living conditions.
It provided slack space for the on-going poker game, then running for seventy-some-odd days; the room had acquired the risqué title of "Club 31." The bunk was handy for the occasional drunk who couldn't make it from the game back to his proper area—some as distant as the far end of that same third floor hallway, or more challenging, another floor of the building.
So when Damson dragged his duffel and B-4 bags into Club 31, looked about, and settled onto the unmade top bunk and occupied the unused wall locker with contentious arrogance toward the poker players, it set a bad precedent. Several of the players glanced at him between drawing cards, checking, calling, or raising; some tried to make small talk—"Hi, New Man. Where'd you come from?"—and checked his nametag for identity. Their efforts garnered small returns. They quickly ignored new guy, went back to drinking and cards.
When SP5 Winter came in at midnight from an eight-hour Swings trick, Damson was asleep in his new-found bunk. At one point in the foregoing evening, the new man had made a pointless appeal for the gamesters to "Keep the noise down!" after a particularly exhilarating outburst. Afterward, aware that he had fallen among chronic miscreants, he kept silent.
Later, after some weeks of little-to-no communications with the new loner, Winter discovered that he and Damson were both from Mississippi; further, they had lived close together in the same town, and had started school at the same time in the same class. It quickly emerged that they had known one another, were close friends and playmates in those best-forgotten days and here, half a world away in Eritrea (Ethiopia), they took up the friendship.
But it was short-lived. After a few days and a few drinks together, both men realized they had nothing in common, did not care for the other, and thus went back to enforced strangerhood, sharing the same room.
* * *
Tan Son Nhut, Viet Nam: December 1968
Winter paused to reflect on that earlier history, thought about his meager contact with Damson in his first Viet Nam tour, and decided there were too many question marks for him to recommend the man for Piltdown Pilot's menagerie.
December was disintegrating ever faster. Christmas had already done its worst. Signs of general paranoia emerged as the season inched toward year's end with Tet to follow. The question and the fear in every mind was: Would Tet '69 be a repeat of Tet '68?
A calm appraisal could have dispelled those fears. The Viet Cong, despite frenzied media assertions to the contrary, had effectively been destroyed as a viable fighting force in the '68 Tet uprising, which didn't rise up as expected, but did bring into common parlance the word "Tet."
Foremost in Winter's mind was his upcoming transfer north to Cam Ranh Bay, not some rippling fear of charlie. Sai Gon and III Corps had worn him quite thin. He was ready for change. The continuing standoff with his wife with its burden of oppression, and missing his children— even any word about his children—made him hunger for change.
The rift between him and Nickie was eight months old now, originating one dark night last April on a winding road in the Austrian Alps, when he, belatedly, informed her that he'd received orders for return to Viet Nam for a second tour. Badly wounded at the end of his first tour, Winter had been at great pains to convince Nickie that he would not be at such risk a second time. Having suffered every pain with him in the follow-up to that wounding, she held no fondness for the news which offered only the opportunity to re-live that time—or worse. Over the following months, after receiving orders at Bad Aibling in Bavaria, the split between them had taken firm hold. By the time he'd left her and the two boys on the Mississippi Gulf coast, in a new house where they would await his return, his marriage bore no promise of survival.
But he had good friends at Tan Son Nhut, here in the 224th/146th; they had helped his acclimation to solitude. Though he was shortly leaving them, no doubt he would make new allies up the coast. It was the military life.
He didn't realize just how much he anticipated the move until CWO Ito pointed out to him that evening in the lobby of the Newport that Winter's conversations these days invariably worked their way around to Cam Ranh Bay. The two were seated on the distressed sofa that formed the bulk of lobby furniture, awaiting time for the Circle-34 mess to open for the evening meal. Their conversation, lacking new inroads in culture, turned on Winter's mention of transfer.
"Cam Ranh. Cam Ranh. Winter Man, you're beginning to sound like a bleeding draftee with orders for Hollywood. It's not as if Cam Ranh is out of the warp zone, you know. Gotta be threats there like anywhere else in country."
"That's monumentally perceptive of you, Mister Ito. No doubt you're right. But the mission's attractive. Being back in the Ops end of things, instead of riding around country like a disenfranchised Ichabod Crane. I miss Ops. I've never been out of Ops since I joined this man's army ... except for schools. Operations is my thing." He let it sit and fester as Ito said nothing. Then added, "Besides, the living can't be bad. I mean, anyplace where the bar stays open twenty-four-seven doesn't leave much to long for."
"That is such bullshit. You're not even a heavy drinker. And there's no downtown, no coochie bars, no poontang."
"Coochie bars? Poon-tang? You forgetting your officerly vows, inscrutable one? How can your little Oriental mind even conjure up those terms?"
"You're right," Ito smirked. "And I'm wrong. There is a ville. Just across the bay, or around the peninsula, whatever. Dong Ba Thin, right on the doorstep."
"Dong Ba Thin. S-two has nothing good to say about that place."
"Well, so what if it's the illicit substances capital for all of Two Corps? Gotta be some cooze in the woodwork."
Winter cleared phlegm from his sinuses and spit. "You'll never catch my virgin ass over there—for cooze, for dope, for liberty. They got nothing I want."
"Well, it's a choice. I may."
"May venture into Dong Ba Thin. Not for substances, you understand; merely to avail myself of feminine game. If any."
Winter gave him a look of astonishment. "When do you figure you'll get T.D.Y. to Cam Ranh to pull liberty in Dong Ba Thin?"
"This 'liberty' you keep on about ... is that something like a pass? I mean, pass is an Army term and you may not be familiar with it, stuck as you are in the 'fifties Marines' mindset."
"Yeah, yeah. Carry on. But don't forget what the Marines did to your people on Iwo."
Excerpted from FALLOFF by Robert Flanagan Copyright © 2011 by Robert Flanagan. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Fleeing G.o.D....................6
Chapter 2 CRAZY CAT....................21
Chapter 3 Borin' Holes....................32
Chapter 4 Der fliegende Holländer....................47
Chapter 5 Straphangers and Near-naked Sheilahs....................57
Chapter 6 Fairy Dust: WTF? O ....................70
Chapter 7 Six Merchants of Toledo....................89
Chapter 8 Mayday....................106
Chapter 9 Reinforcements....................119
Chapter 10 Baldur's Bale Fires....................135
Chapter 11 Seeking Cinderella....................152
Chapter 12 Rumor....................168
Chapter 13 The Upas Tree....................185
Chapter 14 This Will Win the War....................204
Chapter 15 ARC LIGHT....................217
Chapter 16 Winter in the Tropics....................230
Chapter 17 Retrograde....................246
Chapter 18 Caesura....................259
Chapter 19 Allies....................269
Chapter 20 Anachronism....................285
Chapter 21 Free Fire Zone....................296
Chapter 22 Aces, Straights, and Flushes....................309
Chapter 23 Green on Green....................328
Chapter 24 Bad Cess Rising....................344
Chapter 25 Goodbye to All That....................358