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San Francisco International Airport - July 1970
The man walked quickly past the trash receptacle and dropped in a shoebox tied shut with string. He walked away, not looking back. Only a few seconds later, after scanning for watching faces in the crowded terminal, a young man in uniform walked past the receptacle and retrieved the box just as quickly and casually as the man who had dropped it. The young soldier hurried to the nearest men's room, locked himself into one of the stalls, and excitedly removed the string and opened the box. A pair of old tennis shoes stared up at me.
Damn! I thought to myself as I left the restroom after throwing the box away again. Movie images had flashed through my mind when I'd noticed the man discarding the shoebox. Maybe this was a drop! Maybe the box was full of money!
I wandered into an airport hot dog shop and was nearly finished eating at the stand-up counter when a civilian next to me started a conversation.
"You on your way to Vietnam?"
During the next five hours, the man bought drink after drink for me. He even fed me again. He was a great listener. I poured out my life story. Later, the only thing I could remember about the man was that he was with the Vendo Company and had an expense account. After all the drinks we'd had, I thought an expense account must be a bit like having a box full of money. I wish I remembered his name.
I was drunk when I got on the plane for Vietnam. I was still drunk when I got off twenty-one hours later in Vietnam. And being drunk, I stayed confused about a few things. I couldn't understand why I was on a civilian flight. I didn't know what a commercial flight was doing going to Vietnam. And I still couldn't understand what I was doing going to Vietnam.
Malensky was no help. He stayed just as drunk as me. He was another 2nd lieutenant, and we had gone through Jungle School together in Panama for two weeks. There were five of us from the same class on the plane full of civilians, and the nice stewardesses contrived to let Malensky and I sit together. The stewardesses were as nice as the man from the Vendo Company. Ostensibly, there was a limit on the number of drinks a passenger could have, but the stewardesses just kept on bringing Malensky and I fresh drinks and wouldn't let us pay for them.
Everyone was so nice. It made me feel awful. I knew they all thought I was going to die and that's why they were being so nice. A last wish for the dying man.
My hole in one had been the same. I'd scored the only hole in one of my life just seventeen days before reporting to Jungle School en route to Vietnam. It also happened to be the only time of my life that I ever played with the sportswriter of my hometown newspaper. I got my own little story in the paper with my name in the headline. I was glad I didn't believe in omens, because I thought this was a bad one. God had given me one of my greatest wishes just prior to my leaving for Vietnam. Why? I was going to die.
Malensky was no help. When I pointed out why I thought everyone was being so nice, Malensky disagreed.
"I'm not going to die. They ain't going to get me," he said with such an absolute lack of conviction that I didn't even laugh. Malensky had a hunted look in his too-bright eyes. I wondered if my eyes looked like that and glanced quickly all around the cabin of the plane to see if anyone was looking at me funny.
It was a long flight. Aside from a few minutes on the ground in Guam, we were in the air over twenty hours. In my stupor, I thought about Mike Mullen again and the way I'd acted in front of my wife.
I couldn't stop crying. And while I sobbed, I couldn't stop being angry at my wife for trying to comfort me. It had been a long time since I'd cried. Not that long in years, but for a twenty-one-year-old, even a few years is a long time.
I was angry at my wife because she thought I was crying for myself. She thought I was scared of going to Vietnam and that's why I was crying, sitting there in the living room chair in broad daylight sobbing my heart out. I knew I should appreciate her trying to show that she cared, trying to give comfort. Yet this was the first time I could remember an honest-to-God spontaneous gesture like this on her part, and it was for the wrong reason.
"There, there," she said, kneeling beside the chair, trying to pull my head to her bosom. "It's all right. It's okay to be afraid."
"No!" I jerked away from her. "That's not what it's about. It's about h-him. Mike Mullen. He's dead. And h-he ... he's the last guy who should be dead." I threw the letter I was holding in my lap to the floor and began a new round of shoulder-shaking sobs.
Mike Mullen had been the most alive guy I'd ever known. We'd been bunk mates in basic at Ft. Puke (Polk), Louisiana, and Mullen, an Iowa boy like me, had been the moral leader of the platoon of northerners sandwiched in between Louisiana blacks and Arkansas crackers. Mullen's ready smile and indefatigable good humor had made him the natural big brother for all of us.
Hell, at twenty-four he was older than us all. He had a master's degree in chemistry. And they'd drafted him. And now they'd killed him — "killed on nite ambush by friendly forces artillery fire," said the letter from his mother in reply to my own asking if the Michael Mullen I'd seen in the weekly "KILLED IN ACTION" column in the Stars and Stripes could be the same, and offering my condolences in any case. I hadn't believed it, or I'd tried not to. Until this letter came from Mike's mother.
"The sad, sad part for us to accept is that Michael wasn't even allowed the decency to be killed by an enemy," her letter said. "I feel I must apologize for writing some of the things I have to a boy who will be soon facing Vietnam in a capacity different than Mike's. The sad thing we are also hearing about is the harassment of the grunts when they come back to base for their stand-down — I suppose this the result of a Guilt complex on part of personnel in the safer jobs. Please write again."
I never did write again. I tried to several times, but my letters always ended up crumpled in despair. My wife had been wrong about why I had cried. I hadn't been thinking of myself, hadn't been scared of Vietnam. I was immortal. Or had been until there was no doubt that Mike Mullen was dead. They'd chewed up Mike and spit him out. Eight weeks of basic training in the barren sand dunes of Ft. Puke, then eight more weeks of Advanced Infantry Training. Then they'd sent him to Shake'n Bake at Ft. Benning, a twelve-week crash course to create infantry sergeants out of privates.
Then ... straight to Nam. Into the bush in I Corps. Where American ineptitude had killed him. An artillery barrage that hit the trees above him rather than the enemy in front. If my wife had been wrong before, she was right now. If Michael Mullen could die, so could I.
Which is what caused me, a second lieutenant of infantry, to make a pact with myself, a pact that I did not then know would cause me to become something I'd never even heard of yet: a REMF.
Malensky and I drank pretty much the entire way. The aborted landing at Saigon only increased the growing paranoia of the besotted pair of us. The 707 was almost touching the runway when it suddenly increased power and took off again.
"Sorry about that, folks," the pilot lied over the PA system, "but there was a mix-up on landing authorization. We'll just go around and come back down now that it's cleared up."
"Right," I said cynically, imagining a mortar attack underway on the ground.
"Yeah," replied Malensky, in full skeptical accord.
It was the smell that hit us first. When the door to the plane was opened after landing, the distinct smell of Vietnam was immediately overpowering. The sun hammered the concrete tarmac, which we were used to after Panama. But not the smell, a smell that would permeate everything for our entire year's tour in this small country that had been called Chen-la a thousand years before.
Cultures that have had to rely upon essentially one bland staple for the existence of the masses have invariably created their own unique flavors to add spice to the otherwise tasteless staple, usually a hot, tangy flavor. India has its curry powder. Mexico has its hot sauce for the otherwise bland tortillas. For its rice, Vietnam has nuoc mam.
Nuoc mam is nasty stuff to Western sensibilities. Fish are laid out to putrefy under the sun. They are put on nets above the ground and containers beneath catch the drippings of this process. The drippings are nuoc mam. And nuoc mam is as commonplace in the kitchens and in the foods of Vietnam as table salt is in America. Nuoc mam exudes a powerful odor. It is the odor of Vietnam.
Malensky and I staggered down the steps to the concrete, the heat beating at our alcohol-saturated brains. No jetways here. The moment our feet touched the tarmac, we went into an instinctive half crouch, scanning the area for hostile activity, prepared to dive and roll for cover. Around us, civilians walked nonchalantly past, throwing curious glances.
All our training about Vietnam had been about booby traps, defensive cover, clearing hostile villages, the difficulty of discerning friend from foe. No one had ever mentioned flying into Saigon on a commercial flight. The civilians just headed straight for the terminal, walking along like everything was fine, carrying their small bags. The plane was going on to Bangkok.
"Shit, man," I finally said, straightening up. "Nothin' happenin' here."
"Yeah," agreed Malensky, as we grinned sheepishly at each other. "At least not right now."
So we hoisted our duffel bags onto our shoulders and staggered after the civilians, each of us still prepared to hit the dirt in an instant.
There was a five-inch beetle in one of the urinals and mama-sans doing laundry only six feet away in the same room. I turned around and walked back out into the bay of the transient officers' barracks.
"How the hell do you take a piss with those women in there?" I asked the man at the closest bunk to the door, not being able to tell if I was addressing a lieutenant or a captain since the man wore only an OD T-shirt.
"Get used to it," the unknown officer replied with a chuckle. "That's where they do their thing. They don't give a shit, why should you?"
I really needed to go. I steeled myself and walked back into the latrine. I fervently hoped I wouldn't be assailed with a case of bashful bladder. If the Vietnamese women (most of them older, plump, and gray haired) didn't care, then by God, I wouldn't either. I stared at the enormous black beetle lying lethargically in the next urinal. The pincers alone were gigantic, making up at least half of the monster's length. Someone's idea of a joke, throwing the poor creature into the urinal.
The mama-sans were chattering and cackling away over in the corner, sitting on the floor with piles of laundry. Despite the unknown officer's remark, I was convinced they were stealing glances and making joking comparisons. They all wore sandals, silky-looking black trousers, and colored blouses with no collars. A couple of them had conical straw hats hanging on their backs, held around their necks by cloth ribbons.
The briefing room reminded me a little of one of the old-fashioned college classrooms back at the University of Iowa. It was comprised of several tiers with the presenter placed down in a well at the front of the air-conditioned room. I sat high, near the back, as a captain introduced us to Vietnam.
"The communist forces are comprised of two main groups," the captain told the two dozen "fresh" officers in the room, pointing to the overhead projector image he was using as a visual aid.
"There's the regular forces of the North Vietnamese Army, the NVA ... and there's the Viet Cong, the VC. The NVA are regular army soldiers like we are. They are trained and outfitted with the most recent methods and weaponry. Their logistical supply line is connected directly to Hanoi.
"The VC are local guerrillas. They work in coordination with the NVA and also autonomously. Their bases are all in South Vietnam. They are not regular army types and are poorly equipped. Their logistics are met by terrorizing local villages and exacting payment by way of food and supplies. They augment their numbers by conscripting young village men against their will."
As the captain droned on in a presentation he'd obviously given dozens of times, pointing to his visual aids, I wondered how the VC could effect any morale in their ranks if all their soldiers were kidnapped.
"We have divided the country into four areas of military responsibility," the captain was saying, pointing to a map of South Vietnam. "Four Corps (IV Corps) is here, the southern-most region, comprising mostly the wetlands of the Mekong River delta. Three Corps (III Corps) is here, including Saigon. Two Corps (II Corps) includes Binh Dinh province and Pleiku inland," the captain slapped the screen with his pointer as he moved up the map.
"And up here is I Corps," he didn't say One Corps, it was Eye-Corps, "just south of the DMZ. Da Nang and the old capital of Hue are located in I Corps. Each of these areas ..."
There it is, I thought, as the captain droned on. The line it wouldn't cross. I played the word game with myself, thinking of the humiliation still visited upon the First Cavalry Division because of an ignominious retreat in Korea. The logo of the 1st Cav was a large, yellow patch with the black head of a horse facing backward with a black line slashed diagonally through the patch. To this day, without knowing the historical details surrounding the 1st Cav's retreat in that earlier campaign, soldiers were still taught the disdainful ditty now attached as a permanent stigma to that patch, "The horse that wouldn't run. The line it wouldn't cross." I've always thought we should try and name a unit that did not have an ignominious retreat in Korea.
I had a line I wouldn't cross. That was the line into I Corps. I'd promised myself that. I'd known the moment I began pursuing entrance into Infantry OCS (the only OCS available) that I was assuring myself a trip to Vietnam. There could be only one destination for an infantry lieutenant, but I had wanted badly to be an officer. If Infantry was the only avenue to that goal, so be it. But I'd promised myself the day I got the letter from Mike Mullen's mother that I would draw the line at I Corps.
I would do my duty. I would fight for my country. I would go to Vietnam. But I would not go to I Corps. Few soldiers who went to Vietnam, or anywhere for that matter, were in a position to draw the line concerning their assignments. But I had my ace in the hole. I just hoped they wouldn't make me use it.
I'd done my homework. Most of the Americans who were dying in Vietnam these days were dying in I Corps. I considered myself a zealous patriot. I could imagine many scenarios where I'd be willing to die for my country. None of them included Vietnam.
The instructor captain was talking about body count now, "So if you add the confirmed kills over the past five years, we have a body count of 260,000 NVA. That has to be highly demoralizing for the enemy, gentlemen. They can't continue to sustain those kinds of losses for much longer."
I raised my hand. The captain had been throwing out numbers for the past five minutes. I'd been taking notes. "Uh, excuse me, sir, but these numbers don't jive. According to the numbers you gave us earlier regarding the number of NVA who have infiltrated down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and other avenues of egress, well ... now you're saying that we've killed about 25,000 more NVA than ever made it here in the first place."
The room erupted into appreciative chuckles. I could see some heads nodding, indicating I wasn't alone with my math. It had been a serious question, but I made the mistake of returning Malensky's big grin from across the room. When I looked back at the captain, still grinning, the man was scowling at me.
"Some of us are here to serve our country, Lieutenant," the man said huffily, "not run it down. Most of us are here to do our patriotic duty, not to question it. You're new here, mister. There's a lot going on you don't understand. That's why you're here. I'll thank you just to listen up and not ask questions! If you do that, all of this will make sense by the time I'm through and you'll see how the numbers add up."
That sure quieted the room down. But nothing further the captain had to say had any bearing on the body-count discrepancy. None of us were reassured. Most of those being briefed were disgruntled when it was over.
"What a load of shit!"
"Christ, can't they do any better than that?"
"You'd think they'd save the propaganda bullshit for the public and at least give it to us straight!"
Excerpted from "R.E.M.F. Vietnam's Other GIs"
Copyright © 2018 John Vandevanter Carter.
Excerpted by permission of Sunbury Press Inc..
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
1 | En Route, 4,
PART ONE: SAIGON,
2 | First Orders, 8,
3 | Lucky, 12,
4 | The Stripper at Bien Hoa, 19,
5 | Playing My Ace, 24,
6 | Black Market, 28,
7 | Cong Sai, 34,
8 | Indigenous, 42,
9 | Lucky Again, 48,
PART TWO: DETACHMENT 2,
10 | Assignment, 59,
11 | Ring of Fire, 67,
12 | Phu Tai, 70,
13 | Bastard Outfit, 75,
14 | Camp Humper Stone, 81,
15 | French Speed, 88,
16 | Hammerhead Clap, 96,
17 | The Subsidiary Dayroom, 104,
18 | Harassing and Interdicting, 112,
19 | Angelo, 118,
20 | Dear John, 122,
21 | French Downers, 128,
22 | AWOL, 131,
23 | Tank Farm, 136,
24 | Shakedown, 144,
25 | One Payday, 153,
26 | Tournament, 158,
27 | C-Day, 161,
28 | The Pentagon, 167,
29 | Fred's Cargo, 171,
30 | Red Alert, 177,
31 | New Quarters, 183,
32 | Monsoons, 186,
33 | A Real First Sergeant, 191,
34 | A Promotion, 194,
35 | Withdrawal, 196,
36 | Racial Divide, 202,
37 | Sniper, 210,
38 | First Sergeant's Demise, 216,
39 | Very Cold Duck, 219,
40 | New Year's, 226,
41 | Busted, 228,
42 | A Congressional, 232,
43 | Lieutenant Colonel Smith's Good-bye, 234,
44 | Over the Saddle, 240,
PART THREE: THE AIRFIELD,
45 | The New Guy, 263,
46 | Code Burning, 267,
47 | Motorpool Mary, 272,
48 | Supply, 278,
49 | The Hospital, 282,
50 | The Gift, 288,
51 | Victim of Phu Tai, 290,
52 | Post Office Bust, 292,
53 | Those Crazy Bastards, 296,
54 | Viet General Bust, 299,
55 | Party Girls, 304,
56 | Police Brutality, 308,
57 | The Opium Den, 313,
58 | The Next Day, 323,
59 | Smack Selling Mama-san, 327,
60 | CIA Impunity, 332,
61 | Lunch with Lily, 338,
62 | Still Lily, 340,
63 | An Aside, 342,
64 | Fake Bust, 348,
65 | Almost a Mugging, 351,
66 | Picnic, 353,
67 | Bullet Hole, 356,
68 | Korean Bribes, 359,
69 | Mary Banned, 362,
70 | Power Thieves, 364,
71 | Fragging, 369,
72 | Danang, 371,
73 | Medals, 374,
74 | The Bus Out, 377,
75 | Cam Ranh Bay, 379,
76 | Home, with a Delay, 383,