I’d like to introduce my guest writer, Jim Cain, who wrote this narrative some years ago and finding it quite cathartic. He was drafted in 1969 and served in Vietnam from 1/70 through 12/70 in the central highlands – assigned to the 4th Div. 1/14th Battalion Echo Company – recon platoon and carried an M60 for most of his tour. After leaving the army in 1971, Jim utilized the G.I. Bill and finished school. He recently retired from the University Medical Center in California and is enjoying retirement: playing guitar, reading as much as possible, riding his road bike and writing poetry.
This article was originally published in the Air Cavalry Squadron Field Manual – 1969; “Dazed and Confused-Vietnam: January 5th through December 8th 1970” by Jim Cain; National Archives – some of the pictures shown are from Jim’s private collection while others were pulled from the internet by me.
The imagination is a wonderful paintbrush when allowed to stroke the canvas of the past unhindered. Unlike a photograph it uses hues of emotional reality to create an image of personal reality. For this reason I decided to allow my imagination to use the emotional hues of my memory to paint this story.
My tour in Vietnam was full of segmented stories, some crazy and hard to imagine, but most were mundane, uneventful, and hard to remember. I have difficulty remembering the names of guys I lived side by side with for months. Humping through leech infested triple canopy jungle, sliding down monsoon-drenched mountainsides together for months, and I can’t remember their names. I suspect this is a coping mechanism, a cleansing of stressful memories of a stressful time. I do periodically have vivid flashes of faces and smells and images of mountains, streams, trees, and sounds of helicopters, artillery and those quiet dark nights lying under a poncho tied to branches with shoestrings. I can’t even remember walking out into the jungle alone to relieve myself. I know that I did and I did it often, I just can’t remember. I vaguely remember setting up our campsites for the night; setting up the trip flares and claymores. I have vague memories of night watch, fighting to stay awake and often falling asleep. So many memories lost to redundancy and the vagueness of passing time. Yet I have a sense of being there, a collage of the past, interpreted from so much vagueness. I did take a lot of photographs while in Vietnam. I had hundreds; photographs of the guys, the jungle, the Vietnamese, the Montagnards, even the first pair of jungle boots that I wore out, everything! I lost them, all gone. Now I have to rely on my memory. A collage of the past, painted with vague translucent images. The stories were prophetic
My first memory of Vietnam was the warm humid air; it engulfed my body as I stepped off the airplane in Cam Rahn Bay. It seemed so alien to me, I had never felt that depth of penetrating humidity before. At that moment I knew the world had changed, I could literally feel it.
I was taken with the other FNG’s (f**king new guys) to a holding area where soldiers who were on their way home, or “back to the world” were staying. I stayed there for a few nights and heard many stories from the old timers; some scared me, others made me laugh. One of the stories that scared me was told by a sergeant from Texas, I think San Antonio. He was a big guy, with thick wavy dark hair that seemed to stand up as he told his story, I know mine did. His squad was out on patrol one night when they made contact with an unknown number of North Vietnamese Army Regulars, NVA. After a firefight broke out, he called for artillery support. Not knowing the number of enemy or their exact location, he called in coordinates within 100 meters of his position. The first few rounds landed outside of the intended target, so he adjusted his coordinates. The next thing he remembered was the sound of incoming, and then he felt the outward movement of air, and heard the sound wave from the explosion. Immediately following the sound wave, he heard pieces of shrapnel tumble and fly through the air. He said, “These are sounds I will never forget.” His squad suffered casualties, and a number of wounded soldiers. He survived with minor injuries. I heard other stories of death, survival and mishap and wondered how I would possibly survive in this hostile world.
I did hear one funny story that stands out in my memory. It was told by a guy who was very jovial and had an infectious laugh, he talked about all kinds of funny things. He talked about the people of Vietnam and the military, and about his R&R in Bangkok, but his funniest story was about the Central Highlands. It was a funny story of survival, immersed in satirical irony. He said the Central Highlands was a nightmare during the monsoon season. The ticks and leeches were everywhere, and the rain was relentless. He said they would fight all day climbing and cutting the jungle from the mountainside with machetes only to slide back down in the leech-infested mud. After a few times of sliding down and crawling back up the muddy mountainside, he would stick the barrel of his weapon into the mud, using it as a grappling hook to pull himself up to the top of the mountain. He said the fight was no longer with the NVA or the VC, it was with the mountain and the rain, the jungle, the leeches and ticks, they were the enemy. The way he told the story made me laugh, but after a few months in country, the laughs turned to tears. The stories were prophetic; we all shared the same war! And I was so happy for those guys, I could feel the sheer joy of their happiness; it was palpable, they were going home, “back to the world.”
Camp Enari near Pleiku
The next day I was called into a large room where they read off my unit assignment. I was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division, which at that time, was headquartered at CampEnari near Pleiku in the Central Highlands, in the military area called II Corps. I loaded onto a C-130 cargo plane and flew to an American Air Force Base located just outside of Pleiku. Pleiku was inhabited primarily by Montagnards the indigenous people of the Central Highlands. The term Montagnard means “mountain people” in French and is a carry over from the French colonial period in Vietnam. I remember getting into a military bus that looked like an armored car. I can’t see an image of the bus, but somewhere in the collage, I remember thinking it was like an armored car. As we drove through Pleiku City, the driver told us to keep our heads down because of sniper fire. I was getting deep into the action and felt a little concerned because I still had no weapon.
After a short ride in the armored car, I was dropped off somewhere in Camp Enari. Camp Enari was a large base camp, devoid of trees, and the land looked much like what you find in South Georgia, lots of red clay and plenty of dust, which kicked up every time a helicopter came in. I found my way to the in-processing facility, and was assigned to a transit barrack (Quonset hut) that was located near by. I spent about five days in the transit area attending classes and orientation to Vietnam.
At this point, I believe I started to become a little paranoid. One night inside my Quonset hut, I began to think that this was all a dream, and I would soon wake up, and that everyone there was playing a trick on me. I realized it was no trick when a mortar dropped near the Quonset hut where I was staying, killing one soldier and wounded another.
Shrouded in a dingy green meshed mosquito net inside a dark and smoky room listening to rumbling voices echo into the darkness, I float on a dream of fear, filled with false images of a far away place anticipating the sudden awakening from the nightmare, when death awakened the truth from its slumber, and I rose into the light of day.
During this in-processing period, an officer and sergeant came around looking for volunteers for a two-week recondo training course for the 75th Infantry ranger unit. I figured two more weeks in base camp and a little more training would give me more time away from the jungle. I wasn’t ready to hit the kill zone. I wasn’t gung ho! by any means. I didn’t enlist in this crazy war, I was drafted! My only goal was to get out alive. I have to admit that I was very naïve for twenty. I had just turned twenty-years old three months earlier, while training at Fort Lewis. I knew how to survive on my own back in the world, but in Vietnam, I had no clue as to why we were even there. I had some vague image of fighting communism, but I didn’t even understand what communism was about. I was scared on the inside and trying to hide it on the outside. And there I was on the other side of the world, just doing what I was told, just like every other eighteen, nineteen, and twenty-year old naïve kid.
Throughout my entire tour in Vietnam I only remember kids like me, enlisted or drafted, they all were young and naïve! Some were so blinded by patriotism, they didn’t care why they were there, they were American and they would die for their country. I mean, come on! Even I, a naïve country boy could see that this third world country had nothing to do with our freedom. Did fighting communism mean killing thousands of innocent people? I didn’t know the answer, but what I did know was that I wanted to get my ass out of there and back to that little country town where at least some things made sense.
Recondo Training course
After classes and orientation to Vietnam, I signed up for the recondo training course. I was issued my gear including an M-16 with ammunition. Finally, I was assigned a weapon! I felt a little more secure, but still scared as hell! I passed the recondo course, which required learning advanced skills in escape, evasion, and survival. At one point, I had to call an artillery strike within fifty yards of my own position. This was a tactic used in the event that your position had been over run by the enemy. I remember the day that I was assigned to the artillery range, I was very apprehensive, and thought about quitting the course, until I found out that the 105 howitzers had been used many times and even if you gave them the wrong coordinates, they would always use the correct ones. I did complete the artillery course, and it was unbelievable! It felt as if the rounds were falling right on top of me. I remember thinking about what the sergeant from Texas had said back at Cam Rahn Bay. Fortunately, I never had to use this tactic during my tour in country.
Technically, my first mission in Vietnam was during my recondo training course. One night the sergeant took me and three other soldiers outside of Camp Enari. We traveled light and headed for a wooded area about a kilometer out. The sergeant explained that we were on a reconnaissance patrol and that stealth was priority one. What made the patrol interesting was that the sergeant appeared to become a little nervous. I figured it was because he was out there with four FNGs, so I kept my eyes and ears open. That night we made camp in a small depression under some thick brush. Just after nightfall, I spotted some movement on a trail about 100 meters away. I saw the silhouette of two men walking quickly toward the Base Camp. I became very excited and informed the sergeant. He didn’t seem too interested so I figured it was okay and continued my watch for the night.
What really stands out in my memory from the recondo training course is the running. For two weeks, I could not walk anywhere. I had to run, even if it were only two or three steps, I had to run. If you were caught walking, you had to do fifty push-ups. I must say, “I got pretty good at doing push-ups”. The final test was again, running! This time it was a five-mile run to be completed in less than an hour. What made it tough was that you wore complete jungle fatigues with weapon, ammunition, water and a thirty-pound sand bag in your rucksack during the hottest part of the day.
I made the run and passed the course only to be told that I did not pass the security screening because of an arrest for possession of marijuana. I was eighteen and fresh out of high school and was busted for thirteen roaches in 1968. Then, there in Vietnam, I was told that I was a security risk, when everywhere that I went up until that point in time, marijuana was smoked as casually as smoking tobacco. I remember being disappointed. Looking back on it now, I think I was fortunate. I mean spending a year in the jungle as a 75th Infantry ranger; seems a little crazy in retrospection. Just shows how naïve I was!
After my rejection from the 75th Rangers, I was assigned to a recon platoon out of the Divisional Base at Camp Radcliff. I rode on a convoy to Camp Radcliff from Pleiku on highway 19 passing through a narrow slit in the mountains known as the Mang Yang Pass.
The pass is infamous for the 1954 ambush of the French. It’s said that over 2000 French soldiers died that day and were buried standing up, facing the west. That defeat and the defeat at Dien Bien Phu ultimately forced them to sign a peace agreement with the Viet Minh a month later. It was very intimidating passing through that narrow stretch of highway with its history of so many ambushes. I felt like a sitting duck in the back of that deuce and a half. We passed without incident and continued on to Camp Radcliff.
When I arrived at Camp Radcliff I was assigned to Echo Company, recon platoon 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry; “The Golden Dragons.” The 14th Infantry was named Golden Dragons during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The Chinese dubbed the American unit, “Golden Dragons,” because of their fierce fighting spirit. The Golden dragons also fought in the Iraqi war; a war of similar consequences of Vietnam. Iraq like Vietnam was a war of so many contradictions…
“a war with no boundaries or indications of friend or foe. So many smiles of, “you number one GI,” and beyond the looking glass; the need to survive, “you number 10 you die.” In Vietnam, you humped with Kit Carson scouts former Viet Cong acting as guides and you humped the mama-san prostitutes who surrendered their pride. You felt compassion for the people, next to your primordial need to survive, often you killed indiscriminately, and later you cried.”
Echo Company was out on a mission when I arrived at Camp Radcliff. Camp Radcliff was a very big place. It was originally built as the base camp for the 1st Cavalry Division in 1965. It became home for the 4th Infantry Division, and thus 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry in early 1970. Its strategic location allowed for the defense and control of the Central Highlands.
Hon Cong Mountain was a prominent landmark right in the middle of the base camp. From the top, you could see for miles. There was an observation post on top with a communication tower and a very large searchlight. It was common to have mortar attacks during the day and night. At night, the searchlight would light up the area where the mortar shells hit. Because the base was so big, you became accustomed to the sound of the mortar shells after a few nights. I can still hear the sound…
“a piercing shrill in the darkness of night, as I try to gauge its intent. I welcomed the thud at the end of its cry, for I knew I would not die. I’ve heard it said, with no cry you die, but I’ll never know, as the shells they slow, and the night becomes permanent for those who know.”
It was difficult getting use to the relentless firing of artillery. The 105mm and 8-inch howitzers and the 175mm guns fired all day and night, mostly at night, harassment and interdiction (H&I) fire. The sound and shock waves were unbelievable! I would lie on my cot at night thinking about what it must be like on the receiving end of those guns. I knew what it was like with VC or NVA mortars and rockets. It was very frightening to say the least. I just could not imagine being on the receiving end of the magnitude of firepower that was unleashed on the Vietcong and NVA every day and night from Camp Radcliff. It must have been like Dante’s Inferno, a “Living Hell!”
There was a huge commissary, “Wal-Mart like” in the middle of the camp; it had everything except a ticket back to the world! It had electronics of all kinds, jewelry and clothing, and the biggest seller, cigarettes! With cigarettes, you could trade to the Vietnamese for just about anything. With enough cigarettes, I probably could have gotten a ticket back to the world. Camp Radcliff was like a small city back in California. It was located near An Khe. An Khe was a small Vietnamese city that looked similar to Tijuana Mexico in the 60’s. One section of An Khe was often referred to as, “Sin City.” Most Vietnamese cities near a military base had their own Sin City.
Sin Cities were whorehouses sanctioned by the army. The military police would be stationed outside during the day, and they made sure that you were gone before nightfall. GI’s would go there to have a little fun and blow off some stream with the mama-sans. You could buy a beer for around 50 piasters and sex for 300 piasters. The mama-san would say “you number 1 GI” which meant great, number 10 meant you suck, and sex was “boom boom” and that usually happened in a small room behind the bar.
Everything in An Khe looked old and dirty; buildings were made from cardboard and odd pieces of tin. Like Tijuana, with enough American dollars, the key to the city was yours. Drugs and prostitution were big among the troops; go figure! Get high, find sexual gratification with a mama-san, and pretend it’s your girl and hope you don’t get the Clap!
Di Di Mau
If you were lucky when on stand-down, (time away from the jungle, usually three or four days at base camp), you would draw patrol duty on the An Khe side of Camp Radcliff. I got lucky one stand-down around my third month in country, and was assigned patrol duty on the An Khe side. We set up in the area around “Sin City” for the night. There were five of us in our patrol. We set-up an observation post so that we could detect enemy movement around the base camp and give them advance warning. Before we left the base camp, the old timers filled us in on the mama-san situation. They said it sounds crazy but when the mama-sans are there you knew the Viet Cong, wasn’t!
Well the mama-sans did come out to our campsite and they partied with us all night for twenty dollars each. When I say partied all night, I mean they stayed all night. I was a little hesitant about having these girls stay all night, but nature’s call intervened, I gave a pretty mama-san twenty dollars, and we both climbed on my air mattress. The party lasted about an hour or so and I wanted to sleep, but I had a problem. The air mattress was not big enough for both of us. I pushed her off hoping that she would find her way home so I could get some sleep, but she didn’t go home, she said something in Vietnamese and climbed back on the mattress. I finally gave up on that tactic after a few tries and rolled over onto the ground wrapped in a blanket and went to asleep. I woke up just before light and she was still there on my mattress, so nature and I crawled back on that mattress until the sun peaked above the horizon and she “di di mau” (go quickly) back home.
119TH AVIATION COMPANY (ASLT HEL) Logged on 16 Feb. 1970
The Gators and Crocs initiated the insertion of the 4th Inf Div troops 1st Battalion, into firebase Abbey. Firebase Abbey is located 7.5 KM northwest of firebase, LZ Lewis. The next day the company supported firebase Abbey by inserting dog teams and recon patrols 10KM west of Abbey. This operation was to detect enemy movement from the north to the AN KHE area.
I flew out to firebase Abbey a week or so after arriving at Camp Radcliff, my first helicopter ride. It was somewhat intimidating, that big green Huey, with its M60 machine guns, rocket launchers and most of all those two big open doors. I climbed on board and moved to the middle of the Huey. Two old timers sat in the open doorway. I knew they were old timers because they were sitting with their feet hanging out. It looked like fun, but I wasn’t ready for that yet. The Huey made steep left and right banks; it looked like the old timers sitting in the doorway would be thrown out at any moment, not to mention the target they made. The view was unbelievable! The jungle was so vast, green, and thick and the mountains were rugged and gnarly! Beautiful water falls and clouds swirled below the helicopter, how unreal it all seemed; so much beauty hidden behind the veil of war!
As we flew over firebase Abbey, it looked very dry and dusty. A river flowed lazily along the valley floor, creating a beautiful view from the helicopter. As the huey set down, red dust began to fly everywhere. I was amazed that the pilot could maneuver the helicopter down onto the landing tarmac. The firebase was built on a mountaintop that had been denuded. The trees and bushes had been replaced with artillery and bunkers. Barbed wire had been positioned all around the perimeter. Bunkers lined the inner edge of the perimeter and the artillery was located near the center. As I stood there looking at all of this, a CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter began hovering over the tarmac. I had never been this close to a Chinook so I stood there just watching. Big mistake, red dust was flying everywhere and so was I. The force of the wind created by the Chinook tossed me into some barbed wire about twenty feet away. Trip flares began to go off, which totally freaked me out. I was pulled from the barbed wire unscathed and very embarrassed.
I was ushered into a dark bunker where I was introduced to members of my new platoon, Fox Force. Fox Force was part of Echo Company, which was comprised of two platoons; Four-Deuce mortar and Fox Force recon platoon. Our lieutenant’s name was Norton. He was very young. I would guess around 23 years old. I immediately liked him because he seemed so self-assured; I needed that at that time. He asked me if I had ever fired a machine gun. I said “only during training.” At that point, he introduced me to Dan, who was the current machine gunner. Dan had been in country for quite some time and decided to relocate to the rear. The platoon needed a machine gunner and I was picked for the job.
The platoon also had a couple of “Kit Carson Scouts”. Their names were Ten and Who. Kit Carson Scouts were VC soldiers who surrendered themselves to an American unit, this was called Chu Hoi. They received indoctrination and some training, and then were assigned to American units. The theory was they could assist American units because they were familiar with the terrain and the tactics of the VC. Many of us thought that, at least some were actually still VC. I was never certain how these guys were controlled, because they seemed to come and go as they pleased. After a few missions with the scouts, I accepted Ten as one of the guys, but Who, he always seemed lazy to me.
First Combat Mission
The following day after meeting the platoon, we were assigned a combat mission, which would be my first! That morning I noticed that everyone was wearing a red scarf. I thought this was crazy, but I didn’t say a thing. I found out later that it was a tradition carried on from a past group of Fox Force members. I think it was supposed to show the enemy that we were a little crazy as well as courageous. I know that I did wear the scarf, and I still have mine, but on hindsight, I think it was more crazy than courageous.
Lieutenant Norton gave me the machine gun and asked me to shoot at a tree about 100 yards away. I fired about 100 rounds and hit the tree only once, Lieutenant Norton said, “Good shot, saddle-up.” We all loaded into three or four helicopters and headed out for my first combat assault! Dan was sitting next to me telling me what to expect. As the helicopter got closer to the ground, everyone started to jump off. Everything was a blur; guns and rockets were firing and I was a little confused. What I remember next was Dan pushing me to the ground as he fired at a VC, who appeared to be just behind me. Dan saved my life that day. I think that’s what binds soldiers together; strangers from all parts of the country; from different cultural back grounds and differing political and religious affiliations. They’re all bound by the need to survive. You watch my back, I’ll watch yours! The soldier’s bond is a very special one, its family.
As I ran down the ridge from our Landing Zone (LZ), me and a few other guys, I can’t remember who they were, began to chase a couple of VC into the jungle. We ran quite some distance until we came to an open area where the trail began to drop off into a valley. I still remember the view from there it was post card perfect. Only problem was, we lost the VC, so we turned and headed back toward the LZ. As we turned and headed back through a small clearing, a Cobra helicopter spotted us. Cobra helicopters were armed with a side-mounted six-barrel “minigun” and a seven-tube 2.75-inch rocket launcher,which could rain down terror from the sky. Because we wore camouflage jungle fatigues and bush hats instead of the normal jungle fatigues and steel pots, the pilot thought we were VC and opened up on us with his minigun. I dove under an old tree limb and didn’t move a muscle. The other guys did the same. I will never forget that sound, it sounded like a sewing machine on steroids, and then the whole jungle began to rip apart.
It seemed ironic that my first combat assault would end with me being killed by friendly fire. We didn’t have a radio, so we had no means of contacting the Cobra. One of the guys said, because I have very blonde hair that I should take my hat off and run out into the open waving my hands. I thought man this is crazy just about the same time the Cobra passed over again and sprayed the area with his steroid sewing machine. I had no choice, so I ran out like a mad man, waving my arms and jumping up and down to get his attention. It worked! He flew by and waved from his cockpit. I could just hear him thinking, whoops!
Ambush and Moans
We made it back to the unit all in one piece, albeit scared as hell! We joined the platoon, and as we moved down the hill into a small flat area, one of the guys, Peaches, a very young likeable guy from Georgia, spotted four VC walking along the ridge top. Lt Norton called for a hasty ambush. So we scurried up the ridge and hid in the vegetation. Lt Norton told me to point my gun in the general direction of the VC and start shooting when he gave the signal. The next thing I remember was a lot of gunfire. I remember just holding that trigger. After a short time, the firing stopped and I could hear someone moaning. I had never seen or heard death before. One of the guy’s, a sergeant, walked over to the VC that was moaning, he was just out of my sight, and then I heard a short burst of gun fire and no more moaning. I cried so hard that night that I vomited. Peaches came over to me that night; he must have heard me crying. He sat there not saying much, but his presence and reassurance I remember. He showed me compassion that night. He understood what I was feeling and that’s what I needed.
The next morning someone spotted a VC walking nonchalantly across an open area just below the ridge where we were. I remember for some reason, we had a sniper with us on this mission. He carried an M-14 with a scope. He took aim on the VC, who was about two or three hundred yards away. He pulled the trigger, I heard the shot, and about a half second later, the VC fell. We watched for a moment, and then he moved. He was trying to crawl behind a big boulder that stood near by. The sniper fired a few more shots and it was over.
The transitional line where life ends and death begins, is the moment of truth known and simultaneously forgot – where a soft flickering shadow licks a silent caress on the moment between the end and the beginning – the moment where life is but a silent caress!
Because we had found a cache of rice in the area, which meant that there could be more, Lieutenant Norton called in for artillery to work the area around the clearing. One of the guys took a punji stick in the kneecap while searching the tall bush for weapon or rice caches. The punji sticks, made of bamboo, were mounted vertically in the ground with sharpened tips around the rice cache. The punji sticks were frequently smeared with feces, adding insult to injury. The injury may heal quickly but the insult of bacteria may cause longtime disabilities.
The lieutenant was told that the artillery on Fire Base Abbey was being used in support of another company. He finally was granted support from naval guns located offshore in the China Sea. I remember the lieutenant saying, “it’s on its way.” It seemed like an eternity before I heard the squealing sound of incoming. The first round hit within yards of the dead VC. They worked the area for about ten minutes and we moved off the ridge toward the jungle.
We stayed out on that assignment for a week or so looking for food and weapon caches, and during that time, I learned a lot about myself. I made the transition from boy to man. We eventually ended up back at firebase Abbey. Before we climbed up to the firebase, we all jumped in that lazy river for a swim. What a treat that was! This account of my first combat assault is comprised of many vague thoughts and feelings. I’m sure the reality for each guy was different, but for me, this is how I remember my first combat assault.
Fire in the hole
We never stayed in one place too long. We often did rescue missions. I remember one where a Chinook had dropped a load of ammunition in dense triple canopy jungle. The army didn’t want to recover it, so they sent an explosive team to blow it up. Our job was to march through the jungle as fast as possible, securing the area for the explosive team. We humped all day through very dense terrain and finally reached the dropped munitions. We set-up our perimeter and waited for the explosive team to wire the ammo for detonation. The next day we were ready for action. We moved away, far away from the site and some one yelled,” fire in the hole” Well let me tell you, that was some explosion! The area looked like a B52 bomber had dropped a couple of bombs on it. I often wonder how much money was lost, and why they chose to destroy and not recover. Oh well! There is a lot I will never understand about Nam.
119TH AVIATION COMPANY (ASLT HEL) Logged on 22 Jun. 1970
“Gator 362” was about the finest aircraft in the first flight. Today the ship was destroyed by enemy mortar fire sitting in LZ Nutmeg. It was piloted by 1LT Mchugh. The only serious injury was WO1 Spivey who broke his leg while flying as first pilot. Later in the day, the Gator and Croc pulled a final extraction of LZ Nutmeg and moved the people to LZ Mark Twain 20 miles to the south.
A few days later, we flew into firebase Nutmeg, south of the Mang Yang pass. We landed on the firebase and immediately set-up our positions on the perimeter. We were pretty close to the landing pad and it was cool watching the helicopters. They would fly in as fast as possible, and fly out just as fast. I soon realized why. I remember the first mortar hitting about one hundred yards beyond the landing pad. The next few rounds walked right down to the pad where a huey helicopter was dropping off some troops. Just as the last soldier jumped off the huey, it took a round right in the nose and rolled forward onto its blades. It spun around a few times and stopped. The first pilot suffered only a broken leg, and the co-pilot and door gunners were thrown clear, receiving minor injuries.
Fox Force was sent out to locate the VC and eliminate the threat. We left the firebase and headed down the mountainside into very dense terrain. We knew the VC was very mobile and they could be anywhere, so we just kept our heads down and moved very quietly through the dense jungle. We stayed out there for days playing a cat and mouse game, the mortar attacks continued, we were always where they weren’t. We did find an abandoned Montagnard village that had been abandoned just minutes before we arrived. There were chickens and pigs running about as we searched the hootches and the bush along its perimeter. I remember looking in an area just out side of the perimeter of the village where I saw some straw laid in an unusual position. Thinking that it may have been a cache of food or weapons, I slowly stuck my hand inside the straw feeling for any objects that may have been hidden there. To my surprise it felt like mud, so I with drew my hand and realized that I had just stuck my hand into feces! It probably was their composting pit, because human and animal waste was an extremely valuable commodity to the Montagnards. What little crops they grew they would need fertilizer. So I suspect they composted human and animal waste for that purpose. My hand smelled for days, no matter how often I washed it; time was the only cleanser of that smell. I remember one of the guys chased down one of the pigs, it wasn’t very big, he hit it across the back of it’s neck a few times with his machete until it bleed to death. He them skinned the pig and skewered it over a fire pit. Some of the guys ate it, I couldn’t because it smelled to bad. We returned to the firebase and after a few more days, and it was decided that the firebase would be shut down. We returned to the jungle and continued our reconnaissance until the firebase was abandoned. The downed huey was stripped of all usable parts and the shell was left behind as bait for scavenging VC.
We moved in on the perimeter of the abandoned firebase, and positioned ourselves on a small hill that gave us a clear view of the firebase, and the downed helicopter. The firebase looked eerie, just days before there was so much life;
Soldiers moved across the landscape of bunkers and foxholes, as helicopters floated down from the blue sheath of sky, stretched from tree line to tree line. Laughter and music waxed and waned between mortar and artillery fire, and the smell of diesel thick, wafted above human waste pits, overflowed with stench. So much blood, sweat and tears shed for this empty firebase, in the middle of a jungle, half way around the world. Insane!
We sat there quietly, watching and waiting for any movement. Just about sunset a group of people came out of the jungle and began to rummage through the abandoned firebase. I didn’t get a good look at them, I was covering the rear. As the group approached the downed helicopter, the guys up front opened fire. My curiosity caused me to move to the front so I could see what was happening. I remember seeing dead bodies lying near the helicopter. A couple of the guys went down to check them out. They returned with some weapons and we made it out of there in a hurry.
As we entered the jungle, the sun had gone down and it was pitch dark. It began to rain so hard it was difficult to walk. Because of the rain and the darkness, the point man couldn’t find his way through the bush, so word came back from the front to drop in place, we were going to stay there for the night. I fell right there were I stood and pulled my poncho out of my rucksack and pulled it over me and fell asleep. When I awoke in the morning, the rain had stopped and I was almost dry. We never looked back; we just saddled-up and moved on.
A few days later, we cut an LZ for our resupply helicopter. We were resupplied about two times a week. If we were in a hot zone, the supplies were dropped from the helicopter to the ground. The helicopter crew didn’t like to hang around very long. They wanted to get in and out as fast as possible. Our supplies usually consisted of clean fatigues and underwear, food and water, ammo and mail. There were times when we got beer from the rear. We would all chip in some money and one of the guys in the rear would payoff a helicopter crew to bring it out with some ice. We cooled down the beer by rolling it on small pieces of ice for a few minutes. It never got that cold but hey, it was beer. Each C-ration meal contained cheese, crackers, a can of something edible, toilet paper, and a small box of cigarettes. Once in awhile we would get a Supplementary Ration Pack. It was a cardboard box about three feet by two feet by eight inches in size with 10 cartons of cigarettes, some chewing tobacco, some candy, several tablets of writing paper and ball point pens, and some replacement boot laces. Once, a helicopter flew in with ice cream. It was a reward for having the highest number of kills for the week. Now that was crazy!
The next mission that I remember was around the time of the Lieutenant’s or someone’s birthday, not sure who’s. We celebrated that night with fireworks on the mountainside. Each night before setting up camp the lieutenant would call in our coordinates and have smoke markers fired to mark our position. On this night, I remember live artillery and white phosphorus rounds lighting up the hillside. I think I was listening to The Beatles song “A long and winding road,” it was the first time I heard the song and thought that it was perfect for how I felt at the time. There were a lot of times lying out there in the jungle late at night, curled up on my air mattress, or on the ground if my mattress had a hole, which it often did, that my mind would try to escape the reality of the jungle. I would just lie there staring off into the darkness.
The dark walls of jungle push from all sides, pushing from all directions at the same time; the color of its darkness so heavy with despair, smothered in depression, I gasp for fresh air. Tomorrow seems a distant thought, shaded in fear and uncertainty, the moonless night it wrought. I roll from side to side in search of a glimmering light, until slumber claims the darkness of the moonless night…
The next morning came with a bang. We were saddled-up and ready to head out when a couple of VC walked right into our campsite. The point man saw them and fired a few rounds. They turned and ran back down the hillside. We chased them; I think there was a blood trail but we never found a body. I did fine a pith helmet lying in the bush. I still have it. It’s one of the few things I brought back, other than myself. I kept it because of the inscription inside the hat. The inscription was the name of the soldier and the date he enlisted. The curious thing is that the date was the exact date that I entered Vietnam, Jan. 05, 1970.
It put a human face on Charlie, which I had forgotten. The military tries to dehumanize the enemy with names that take away his humanity. I’m sure this was done on both sides of the battlefield; names like, gook, dink and Charlie. I don’t know what names were used for GI’s by the enemy, but I suspect there were a few.
119TH AVIATION COMPANY (ASLT HEL) Logged on 4 May 1970
Once again, the Gators were over the Cambodian border inserting recon patrols and companies from the 1st and 2nd Battalion of the 4th Inf Div. This time the enemy was a little obnoxious as he continued to put massive ground fire up at the C and C ships. There were negative injuries but operations were delayed until the enemy strongholds were equalized by heavy artillery and continuous air strikes.
Around the first of May, we got word that something big was coming down. A few days later, the sky was full of hueys. It reminded me of the scene in The Wizard of Oz where the flying monkeys filled the sky in search of Dorothy; It was very ominous. The helicopters swooped down and gathered up all the line companies, as well as Echo Company. We were flown back to Camp Radcliff, re-supplied and trucked by convoy to an airstrip near Plei Djereng. Plei Djereng was located on the border of Vietnam and Cambodia. The airstrip at Plei Djereng was bustling with aircraft coming and going; Hueys, Cobras and Chinooks carrying troops and supplies, moved with an urgency of surprising the NVA and the Viet Cong.
While sitting there on the dusty airstrip waiting for our transport chopper, a reporter from Time Magazine took a few snapshots of the platoon. I saw the pictures a few weeks later when one of the guys got a letter from home. His mom had seen the pictures in the magazine and sent them to him. I couldn’t see my face in the picture because I had my back turned to the camera, but you could see my M60, and the other guys pretty well. Their red scarves stood out!
We eventually were loaded onto a Chinook and dropped off somewhere in Cambodian or around May 5th. I had never flown a combat mission in a Chinook before. I remember the rear ramp dropped and we ran off like marines landing on Guadalcanal. Fortunately, the landing zone was very quiet; we made no contact with the VC or the NVA. We were all very anxious and had expected heavy resistance. The terrain was heavily scarred with large bomb craters filled with red muddy water from the – all too frequent – monsoon rains. It was spooky! The jungle surrounded the craters with a dark and quiet eerie anticipation. The air was thick and humid, and the sky was covered with a gray misty blanket of clouds that hung just above the treetops. The faint light of the morning sun created patches of glowing light around the craters as silent dark shadows bleed into the darkness of the jungle. We moved off into that quiet eerie darkness of the jungle, like voyagers from another world in search of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
In the early days of the war, it took six months to travel from North Vietnam to Saigon on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. By 1970, as many as 20,000 soldiers a month came from Hanoi using the trail. From the air, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was impossible to identify because of the triple canopy jungle, and although the Air Force had been trying to destroy it with heavy bombing, they were unable to stop the constant flow of men and supplies.
On April 30th, President Richard Nixon announced to a national television audience that US troops were invading Cambodia. In fact, the US had been conducting bombing raids in Cambodia for over a year. I guess bombing was not considered an invasion! A few weeks later, I heard about the rioting back in the world. I was shocked when I heard aboutKent State. Innocent people were being killed here; and now back in America, for what? I think I can now understand both sides of the war, having been in Vietnam I truly believe the war was wrong, not that stopping the spread of misguided communism was wrong; I think the way in which we were trying to stop it was wrong. Vietnam needed help moving into the twentieth century not bombed back into the dark ages.
Three Stupid GI’s
We had traveled about two kilometers when word came down to take a ten-minute break. Me and three other guys dropped our rucksacks in a slight depression and sat down. While sitting there I noticed the ground began to move. I pushed back some decaying leaves and hundreds of leeches began crawling up my legs. I pulled my legs back and pulled up my pant legs to check for leeches. There was a battalion of these slimy bloodsuckers marching up my legs. They were big, fat, and juicy blood engorged suckers, working hard to suck all the blood from my body. I whipped out my Zippo and began the firefight. One after the other they fell, and just as the last sucker fell, I noticed that me and the other two guys had been left behind. I didn’t want to panic but I felt very vulnerable.
I remember thinking that the VC could have been waiting for the perfect moment to strike, and this would be the perfect moment to take out three stupid GI’s. We couldn’t yell because that would give our position away. Fortunately, one of the guys was the RTO, (radio telephone operator) and had a radio. He got on the horn and told the lieutenant that we had lost contact with the platoon. It was decided a yellow smoke canister would be popped and that we should walk toward the smoke. When we saw the smoke, about four hundred meters away we wanted to run toward it, but we didn’t, because we didn’t want to be mistaken for VC and shot by a trigger happy soldier. We slowly advanced toward the smoke and made contact with our unit. We were very happy and embarrassed at the same time, to be back with the unit. Some of the guys made a few wise cracks; but we knew we deserved them.
We made camp there for the night. The jungle was very thick and because total darkness comes quickly in the jungle, we hurried to set out our trip flares and claymores on the perimeter of our campsite. Just before darkness, we heard someone yelling off in the distance. He was yelling in English that he was lost and from Bravo Company. We didn’t want to give away our position by yelling back, because it could have been a trap. A couple of our guys went out to check it out. They returned with a very frightened American soldier. He had been separated from his unit for a couple of days. I remember thinking how frightened I was for the hour or so that I was separated from my unit and understood his fear.
The next day one of the line units spotted a hootch, (hut). Lieutenant Norton was a little upset that the recon platoon didn’t spot the hootch first. I figured who gives a crap it was spotted. The hootch was part of an abandoned campsite for the NVA. It looked as if they had left in a hurry. The bomb craters near by were clues as to why they left lickety-split. Someone found a wounded NVA soldier in a small bunker. His entire body had been burnt with napalm and was full of maggots. I was amazed that he was still alive. The medics refused to treat him because he smelled so badly. They were ordered to make him comfortable until he could be evacuated by helicopter.
We destroyed the hootches and bunkers and moved to higher ground for the night. That night I heard gunfire and mortars from all directions. It began to rain hard and I was wet, cold, and laying in the mud. It was miserable. I couldn’t make a hammock from my poncho to get off the ground because of the gunfire, so I just wrapped myself in the poncho and waited for the sun to come up.
When I woke up I was dry and still pissed off but happy that it had stopped raining. My body heat inside that poncho had dried everything. The next day we found the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The trail was very wide and you could tell that it was well used. The earth was very hard, the exposed roots of trees were worn down, and the jungle was thick. We leftCambodia with out having to fire our weapons. I felt very fortunate, knowing that others didn’t fare as well.
The bird twittered & The lizard would croak
We flew back to Camp Radcliff for a three-day stand-down. A stand-down was a period of rest and refitting in which all operational activity except security stopped. I was very happy to be back at Radcliff. Those artillery sounds were music to my ears. While on stand-down, we were assigned guard duty on top of Hon Gong Mountain. We rode in a deuce and a half truck to the top of the mountain. The view from the top was spectacular. You could see for miles and miles, and down below was Camp Radcliff with the airstrip, sometimes called “The Golf Course” lined with helicopters. Our job was to guard the communication tower.
That night felt like a party. Everyone was in a great mood. I remember it was the first time I heard the Re-up Bird. I couldn’t believe it at first. I thought the guys were kidding me. Well after listening very closely, I could hear it! Re-up, it would say, in a twittering kind of way. That was funny, but the F**k You Lizard was even funnier when it answered the Re-up Bird. That night I was entertained by the Re-up Bird and the F**k You Lizard. When the bird twittered, “Re-up” the lizard would croak “f**k you.” This was crazy! Sitting on top of a mountain in Vietnam listening to a lizard tell a bird to get f**ked, when just a few days ago I flew on my first combat assault; crazy!
Well things did get crazier! Later that night, sometime after midnight, we could see some explosions on the airstrip; one after the other, right down the line, explosion after explosion. I thought it was incoming from outside the camp. The word came up that Sappers had infiltrated the perimeter and had attacked the airstrip. Sappers were North Vietnamese Army or Vietcong demolition commandos that would snick through the perimeter of the base camp and place their satchels of explosive in bunkers or aircraft, usually in the middle of the night. This attack resulted in 17 aircraft destroyed or damaged. There were no American casualties’ and the sappers evaded capture. We were very vigilant the rest of the night “to say the least.”
LZ Hard Times
After our stand down ended we headed by convoy to LZ Hard Times. Hard Times was located in the Vinh Thanh Valley 20 km northeast of An Khe on highway 19. Hard Times was surrounded by high mountains, so incoming was as often as mealtime. You would just get settled outside of your bunker and a mortar or rocket attack would drive you back inside. Some guys would just sit there reading, eating or whatever during the attack. I didn’t want to stay there long enough to get that comfortable.
I believe our next mission was in conjunction with two other line companies. We were positioned along the base of a mountain near LZ Hard Times. All the companies were lined up in single file and swept across the mountainside flushing out the enemies’ position. I remember this as being one of the stupidest things I had ever seen. We had hundreds of soldiers, single file, cutting through brush and boulders up the side of a mountain with f-105 jets firing 20 caliber exploding rounds on the mountainside. This was well and dandy, until one of the f-105’s left its guns on a split second too long, dusting the area where we were with 20 caliber exploding rounds. Fortunately, no one was injured. This was up there with my Cobra experience a few weeks earlier. It looked as if friendly fire was becoming my nemesis.
119TH AVIATION COMPANY (ASLT HEL) Logged on 13 May 1970
With the combined efforts of Gators and 57th Gladiators, the 1st BDE, 4th INF. DIV. was pulled out of Cambodia. Parts of this element were inserted 4 kilometers east of the Se San (hot) Pass.
We set-up shop on firebase Stump located on the Vietnamese side of the border. We worked hard to complete our bunker before nightfall. firebase Stump was appropriately named because stumps were everywhere. It must have been cleared with chainsaws. It was built on flat ground surrounded by dense jungle. The tree line was maybe 200 meters away from the perimeter and our bunker! That night around midnight sappers penetrated the wire on the other side of the firebase and tossed explosives into a couple of bunkers. I heard the explosion and thought it was incoming.
The lieutenant asked for a couple of us to go help defend the other perimeter. I grabbed someone’s M16 and headed over to the other side of the base. It was dark as hell; I could barely see but a few feet in front of me. I knew that I could have easily been seen as a sapper, so I made my presence known as I approached each bunker. I eventually made it to the other side and found the damaged bunkers. The perimeter was secure so I returned to my bunker. The next morning a body count revealed two dead GI’s. By mid afternoon, the bodies still laid in a metal container that looked like a small storage shed. Some of the soldiers on the firebase were upset that the bodies were still there, because the heat inside that metal container must have been extreme. They felt that the unit commanders were being disrespectful in leaving the dead soldiers in the hot shed. I believe the bodies were flown out the next morning.
I think that its human nature that we look for someone or something to blame for our pain. Once we find the source of our pain, we then can channel our anger and frustration toward its center. In this case, the soldiers felt the pain of losing two fellow soldiers, and the emptiness of not being able to inflict revenge on their killers, so the unit commanders become, “the center focus”.
Having survived the invasion into Cambodia, I returned to Plei Djereng on May 13, 1970. My company was headed for a much-needed stand-down back at Camp Radcliff. While we were waiting on the airstrip at Plei Djereng I witnessed a Chinook crash into a deuce and a half truck loaded with troops. The accident happened some distance from my location but I could see the Chinook. It was drifting to the right and because of the dust; the pilot couldn’t see the truck. The wheel of the Chinook caught the truck causing it to flip over. The rotor blade hit the truck and the Chinook settled on top of it. I found out later that four soldiers had been killed and twenty-five injured. I remember thinking that death comes at any moment, and just being in Vietnam pushes those moments a little closer together.
The stand down at Camp Radcliff was a much-needed rest. We slept in military barracks on cots with blankets, had hot meals and showers, we had all the conveniences of home. Well maybe not all the conveniences, but it felt like it after being in the jungle so long. Often there were movies outside using what looked like giant bed sheets for screens. I remember watching only one, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” I liked the movie, but not the ending; they were killed far away from home!
There were a lot of tribute bands that played little venues scattered around the camp. The best one I saw was a Beatles tribute band. The band was Vietnamese and they sounded just like the Beatles. The most popular bands were the female bands. The officers always made their presences known when the ladies performed.
The big parties happened in the late night hours. GI’s gathered in the middle of the camp forming giant bong circles some with bonfires in the middle to signify the connection of the circle. Bongs were water pipes made from all sorts of things; beer cans, bamboo, anything that could hold water. Actually, the Bong was a cheap water pipe invented in Vietnam during the war.
The circles often had a hundred or more GI’s passing their bongs or pipes around. I remember sitting in one of these circles with a bonfire fit for a Celtic king for hours and never saw the same bong or pipe pass by, this includes my own. Guys would sit there listening to Rock’n Roll and talk about home, their dreams, about everything. It was a time to forget the war and relax. It never got out of control that is until the MP’s came to break up the party. I never saw anyone arrested. I think if they had, a riot would have broken out. I know the parties where alcohol was used often became violent. Fights would break out and someone would be shot or killed.
There were typically three kinds of parties; White parties, Black parties and Hippie parties. The Hippie parties had every ethnic group covered, everyone got along very well. I think this is one reason marijuana was used so heavily in Vietnam. It made life in a world of death and destruction a little more bearable. Not every GI smoked marijuana or drank alcohol, but I think everyone had their own personal escape.
A Friend from Back Home
During our stand-down, after Cambodia, I was completely shocked one day as I made my way to the mess hall for lunch. While walking along the road a jeep passed and I heard someone call my name. When I turned around the jeep had stopped and the driver was running back toward me yelling my name. As he got closer, I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was Jeff, a friend from back home. How strange was this, so far away from home and here he was standing in the middle of Camp Radcliff in the middle of Vietnam giving me a big hug!
Jeff was drafted a few months after me and had been in country for a few months. He was assigned to a company that helped the locals with their rice productivity. He said he was more like a gofer, he would drive the officers around and do minor jobs for his unit. I asked him how he got the job and he said, they asked him what kind of job he had before he was drafted. He told them that he worked for a rancher who grew rice, so they assigned him to this company.
He was a spec4 and had his own jeep and hootch, which comes with a mama-san housekeeper. I thought he had it made; the perfect job in Vietnam. He asked me what I had been up to and I told him a little about Fox Force and the missions I had been on. He was excited about combat and said that he had been thinking about a transfer to a line company. I told him that he was crazy! Don’t even think about it.
We jumped in his jeep and drove to his hootch, which was cool. He had electricity and all the comforts of home. I couldn’t believe he wanted to transfer. I would have traded places with him in a second. I hung out with him as often as I could. He knew all the hot spots in Camp Radcliff and An Khe very well.
On my next stand-down, I found out that Jeff had transferred to a line company. I think it was Bravo Company. I never saw him again while I was in Vietnam. I did hook up with him after I returned home and we shared war stories. I asked him if he regretted transferring to Bravo Company and he said no. He had learned a lot about himself and he wouldn’t change it for the world.
1. The next missions are hard for me to remember, I have fragmented images as I hover above a hot LZ with hueys and cobras firing their rockets and miniguns below me. I hover like a buzzard waiting for the kill. I see images of tall elephant grass ten or fifteen feet below. I see a hot LZ and hear the door gunner yelling, “jump, jump” and me yelling back “lower, lower,” “too
high, too high.” I have images of jumping off the huey firing into the jungle. Running into the darkness of the tree line wondering what monster might be waiting there. I follow a small trail into the thickness stopping at a narrow stream flowing below a jagged cliff of faded gray. I sit my gun down and walk a short distance when the sound of gunfire and metal ricocheting off granite forces me to fire my pistol into the darkness above the cliff. Others fire into the darkness as I roll over to my gun and fire a burst into the emptiness, no need to make chase; the sniper is gone. We back off, return on the trail a few hundred yards, and take five, I began to write a letter to mother. A crack, a yell, “man down.” The FO, (forward observer) hit in the back of the head and rolls down an embankment. He is unconscious but alive. The bullet parts his scalp to the bone. The medic wraps his wound and we move to a spot for a dust-off at sunrise…
2. Walking single file along a jungle trail, I remember wondering what it must be like to walk point, to hear the subtle sounds, and smell the wafting odors of jungle, not knowing what’s beyond the next turn… a wired bomb, hanging shoulder high, high enough to take off your head… A mine buried beneath jungle decay, one fail step removes your legs… An ambush of
cracking AK 47’s from beyond the darkness… A face-to-face surprise meeting of your enemy, as you push back the jungle, “who will be first to draw?”… The point man meets the enemy face to face as he fires a burst from his M-15, low to high, killing one and wounding another, the wounded runs until he bleeds to death. A rucksack full of money and documents covered in blood; sent to the rear… to be cleaned!
3. Another day out of sequence in a mosaic portrait of Vietnam, painted with hazy images of abandoned bunkers and rows of hootches with no enemy insight. The lieutenant, the point man and I leave the platoon at ease and move from bunker to hootch searching for signs of life. From one to another we move in stealth across the humus floor of jungle decay. Empty cans of mackerel and rice kernels litter the early morning shadows. I listen to a quiet stillness echo from empty bunkers and imagine the laughter and cries that filled their darkness. I imagine men huddled in their protective cocoons made of sandbags and crumbling logs, fortifications to withstand an aerial assault as they think of family and friends at home. I think of me in their world and see no difference, and yet I know things are not the same no matter how much I want them to be. We find a trail along the perimeter of the abandoned camp and move along its winding mark; moving toward the rear of our platoon, unknowingly! Ten or fifteen edgy soldiers huddled down on a trail with orders to shoot and kill, and the lieutenant, the point man and I are moving toward their rear. I hear the clicked engagement of bullet to barrel and feel the death I never knew. Staring down the barrel of an M-60 locked, loaded, and filling the sights of twelve M-16’s and two M-79 grenade launchers and I walk away unscathed…
4. I have more images of incomplete stories, no beginnings or ends, just images as I jump from the huey’s open door onto a hot LZ and run ten feet or more, falling on dry elephant grass, firing into the distance creating cover as more hueys return with soldiers who will jump until their last. The tall elephant grass goes up in a blaze from rocket fire, which we must now evade.
We run for higher ground and wait for the blaze to still, then walk single file through the burned out ash into the hills. In the morning hours a chopping sound is heard, a four-man patrol heads out to observe. They returned with weapons and personal items they retrieve from four dead VC they killed with ease. A wallet with pictures of family and friends; a bullet hole through its middle with blood stains within, the contents dispersed amongst the men, and when I think about that wallet I think about the stains within.
5. When I think of Vietnam, it’s often like waking from a dream, lost and confused with faded beginnings and never-ending ends. I see images of a forced evacuation for reasons unknown, and the calling of choppers to our landing zone. We’re told the hueys are too far away, the only chopper available is a Loach, and it’s on its way. The Loach is small, capacity of six; it’ll take a few trips so the evacuation will not be quick. We huddle down in the tall green grass as the Loach hovers above the verdant mat. I watch and listen as the chopper moans, the rotor wobbles and bends from the excessive load, just as the person next to me stands in its path, he didn’t know. I watched in slow motion from the tall grassy shade, watching his head fly, fly away. I was hesitant to go, but I ran to his side, he was laying on his back and still alive. His helmet saved him from the arrant blade. I found it dented and scarred lying in its would be grave. I saw death and he saw stars…
New Platoon Leader
Sometime during July, we got a new platoon leader whose name I cannot recall. He had graduated from a military school and thought he was John Wayne; he turned out to be indecisive and never earned the respect of the platoon. Lieutenant Norton rotated back to the divisional base camp, and I never saw him again in Vietnam. The Army assigned officers to the field for six months then rotated them to the rear. I suppose this was to give them a chance for combat. In our case, it took a very good officer and replaced him with a very bad one.
My time for R&R arrived a few weeks after the new platoon leader took over the platoon. The popular R&R destinations in Vietnam were Hawaii, Bangkok and Sydney. I decided on going to Sydney Australia for reasons unknown. Bangkok was probably the most popular. The stories I had heard about it where often times unbelievable. The guys always had great stories about the parties and the women, mostly about the women. I remember one story about the massage parlors. The kind where one hundred girls dressed in evening gowns would sit behind glass windows waiting for their number to be called. You could buy a 24-hour escort and tour guide for $25, with an option to extend, but for me, Sydney was the place I wanted to go; like I said before, “just a naïve country boy!”
We were out humping in the jungle the day before I was scheduled to fly out for my R&R, when I noticed fresh footprints all over the trail. I informed the Lieutenant, but he figured the footprints were not that fresh. This was not what I wanted to hear, I was short and didn’t need that. I had heard stories about guys being killed on their last day in country, how ironic would that be, I didn’t want to take a chance. We followed the trail all day and the footprints were still as fresh as ever. Just before nightfall we set-up camp right there on the trail. I really felt uncomfortable with this; it was like sleeping in the middle of a freeway and I didn’t want to get stepped on!
That night I handed over my M-60 with about 600 rounds of ammo to one of the FNGs, (his first mission) and he gave me his M-16 and a couple of bandoleers of clips. I felt very vulnerable with the M-16. It felt like a toy after carrying that M-60 for so many months. The next morning when I woke up I found a large tick stuck in my chest. I asked the medic to take it out and he tried using a cigarette to irritate the tick, but that didn’t work. Next, he just pulled on it and the body broke away leaving the head of the tick stuck in my chest. I grabbed it with my fingers and pulled the head out leaving a big hole in my chest. Ticks, leeches and mosquitoes sucked! But I was too excited about going on R&R to worry about those blood suckers; Hey, two weeks out of the jungle. The only thing better than that was going back to the world.
The Lieutenant came over and asked me to walk out on the left flank about twenty feet, I had never seen anyone walk flank in the jungle, but he was the man and I wanted to get on that bird, so I saddled up and walked out about twenty feet when I heard…
6. Crack! Crack! A sudden burst of sound and light from the thickness screams by my head, hitting a tree and sending bark across my face. I return fire into the thickness at my front and hear a burst of death, tap! tap!, from friendly fire on my right, while the crack! crack!, continues from the thickness at my front. Others fire into the thickness as the Lieutenant pulls the pin of a grenade, tossing it into the thickness. It hits a tree, bouncing back, exploding into a soldier’s neck. I hear a large explosion and cries of “I’m hit! I’m hit!” I try to move to my right, and the tap! tap! of death is heard, and I fall back into the jungle decay and wait. The medic frozen in fear cannot move, a solder near, moves forward, removing his scarf, saving the blood from the wounded neck. I crawl slowly back through the jungle decay as the FNG sits with gun and cries, “I didn’t know you were there”, he did not see, for fear is blind, and it’s okay, this time.
The Lieutenant asked me to explore the thickness of the ambush source, I said, “You’re crazy, I’m too short.” We called for a dust-off and they dropped a line. They pull the wounded up through the trees and we headed off to my LZ.
We cut an LZ in a small clearing that afternoon, and I flew back to the firebase on a “beautiful Loach OH-6 helicopter.” It was the same kind of helicopter that almost took my buddies head off, only this time it was taking me off, off the battle field for two weeks. I flew on a C-130 Hercules Airplane from Camp Radcliff to Da Nang. I was shocked to see sidewalks and grass along the streets while I was at the Air Force base in Da Nang. I even had an ice cream cone in an air-conditioned ice cream parlor. Man! Those Air Force guys really had it made. I only had ice cream once before that day in Vietnam; it was because my platoon had the most kills for the week. I stayed that night in Da Nang, then boarded a commercial jet liner for the flight to Sydney.
My clothes consisted of two pairs of pants, a couple of shirts and some underwear and socks that I bought in Da Nang. I had approximately $350 in my wallet for seven days in Sydney. It turned out that was enough money. The flight to Sydney took quite awhile, about eight or nine hours. When I landed, I learned that it was wintertime there. I hadn’t considered that Sydney was in the Southern Hemisphere. It was hot and humid when I left Da Nang and when I stepped off the plane in Sydney it was cold.
There was an R&R Reception Center at the airport. I got a briefing about what to do and what not to do while in Sydney. After the initial briefing, I got a briefing from a young Australian woman about the sites to see, and the activities available to us while visiting Sydney. Right next to the Reception Center was a men’s clothing store. I bought a nice cashmere sweater, a pair of slacks, and a dress shirt and a few other miscellaneous items.
I took a cab to the Bondi area to check in to my hotel. The cab drove on the left side of the road, which really freaked me out. I think the cabby knew it because he was going pretty fast and weaving in and out of cars like a maniac. We finally arrived at my hotel; it was just off the beach and it had a quaint Victorian look. The area around the hotel was mostly residential and quiet. The Bondi area is famous for its beach. I only walked down to the beach a couple of times, the waves were huge and it was very cold. I walked around the Bondi area on my first day there to get a feel for the area. I bought some Fish and Chips from a street vendor. The Fish and Chips were wrapped in a newspaper and they tasted very good. I also saw my first Rugby game in a park near the hotel. What a tough sport Rugby is. The players wore kneepads; however, they wore no other protective equipment. They tackled each with the fury of an NFL professional football player.
The second night I went to Kings Cross. I called a cab from my hotel and told him where I wanted to go. I remember driving for what seemed like an hour on the wrong side of the road. Driving through what looked like Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. We finally arrived at Kings Cross and the taxi fare was around ten dollars. It seemed rather high.
Kings Cross was where the action was in Sydney; nightclubs and bars were everywhere. Places with names like Whisky a GOGO, Texas Tavern, Bourbon Beefsteak and the Goldfish Bowl. You could listen to live music, dance on a dance floor and, most importantly, pick up women.
That first night I met a young lady and her two friends. We danced and talked about America and Australia. They took me around Kings Cross, I believe we visited every bar there. I got drunk and they took me back to my hotel. I wanted the young lady to stay over, but she said that I was too drunk, and that we could meet tomorrow morning, and she would show me around Sydney harbor.
The next day I called a taxi to take me to Sydney Harbor, and during the drive, still on the wrong side of the road, I asked the diver how much would the fare be from my hotel to Kings Cross, he said about two dollars. I told him that I paid ten dollars the night before and he asked me if I remembered seeing many trees. I said yes, and he said you were had. You took the scenic tour through Hyde Park at night. He said there are a few crooks that drive taxis, but most are honest. I told him that it could happen anywhere. He dropped me off at the Harbor, I met my friend, and we boarded a tour boat.
Sydney and Sydney harbor reminded me of San Francisco. The Sydney HarborBridge is similar to the Golden Gate Bridge, and there are areas in Old Sydney that have many Victorian buildings built on hillsides. The Opera House was still under construction, but you could still make out its distinctive architecture. After the harbor tour, we visited the Taronga Park Zoo and down town Sydney. I was amazed at how many tall buildings, and how many people there were in Sydney. I remember going into a souvenir shop while I was downtown. I noticed a cute stuffed Koala Bear and bought it for my niece; I don’t remember how much I paid for it. However, while talking to the sales clerk he asked me where I was from. I told him California and he suggested that I let him take care of the packaging and shipping. I thought this was a good idea so I paid extra, I think the packaging and shipping was more than the Koala Bear. Well my niece never received the Koala Bear and I was left wondering if it was lost during shipping or I was ripped off by a con man. Some years later I told this story to a person that I had met at work, she was from Sydney. A week after our meeting I received a small box in the mail, it contained a small Koala Bear and a note that read, “Not all Australians are that way”. I continued my site seeing tour of Sydney until I found a pub later on that day and popped in for a pint or two. The beer was very tasty, and I was very tired, so after the beers I went back to my hotel. I was supposed to meet my new friend at Kings Cross that night, but unfortunately, I could not make it.
That night I felt a little dizzy and nauseated in my hotel room. I started to perspire quite heavily and could barely stand-up. I realized that something was not right, and I called the front desk. I told the desk clerk that I was not feeling well, and that I wanted to go to the emergency room, and could he please call a cab. This nice old guy came up and helped me down to the cab. He told the cab driver to take me to the emergency room quickly. On my way there, in the back seat of the cab I became very disorientated,
I stepped from the cab into an abyss of conscious uncertainty, where lights swirled in a vortex of muffled voices, and faces contorted into fragments of dark and light. I moved between two worlds, juxtaposed within a mysterious matrix that pulled and pushed my sanity, like waves lapping upon a fragile beach stretched into oblivion.
A few days later, I remember waking up to the sound of voices, voices giggling and talking about my tan. When I opened my eyes, I saw three of the cutest student nurses I had ever seen. They were giving me a cool sponge bath. My first words were, “I must be in heaven!” The nursing students laughed and told me that I had been sleeping for two days, and that my body temperature was as high as 106 degrees. One of the doctors came around and said they were going to move me into an isolation room, because they had originally thought that I had malaria, and now, because I hadn’t responded to treatment, they would call in a jungle disease specialist, Dr. Campbell.
I was removed from the ward and taken to an isolation room that same day. Sometime that day Dr. Campbell came in and asked me if I had noticed any unusual bites or rashes on my skin. I told him that I had removed a tick from my chest about two weeks earlier, just as I was leaving the jungle. He asked to see the spot and I showed him. He had some blood work done and within the hour, I was put on a regime of tetracycline. The diagnosis was Scrub Typhus, an acute infectious disease common in Asia that is caused by a bacterium called Rickettsia. It’s transmitted by ticks, fleas, and lice, and characterized by sudden fever, painful swelling of the lymphatic glands and skin rash. Within a day, I was feeling better.
Dr. Campbell came by one day and asked if he could take a picture of the bite on my chest. He wanted to use it for future publications. I said that it was okay. I thanked him and told him that I was feeling better. He said that I would stay in the hospital for another week or so, and then I would be discharged.
The girl I had met at Kings Cross and her two friends came to visit me a couple of times. She said that the hotel manager told her what had happened, and that she wanted to see if I needed anything. I told her that I was doing better now, and that I would be out of the hospital in about a week.
The hospital staff was very friendly to me, especially the nurses. One afternoon, about a week after my hospital admit, a nurse came into my room and said that I had a phone call from the USA. The call was from my mother. The army had called her, and told her that I was in the hospital in Sydney, and gave her the phone number. I told my mother the story, and that I was okay and would be released from the hospital in a few days.
The army gave me a few extra days after my release from the hospital, so I continued my R&R. I returned to my hotel at Bondi Beach and found that the staff had gathered up all my personal things and had stored them away for me. I settled into the same room and called one of the nurses I had met at the hospital. She became my tour guide for the rest of my R&R. We became very good friends and she continued to write me while I was in Vietnam and a few times after I returned home.
In the end, I stayed in Sydney for three weeks, two weeks in the hospital and one week as a tourist. I don’t remember the flight back to Vietnam, but I’m sure I wasn’t happy about returning. I returned to my unit and picked up where I left off.
Back In Nam
My plane from Sydney landed in Da Nang and after processing in; I flew on a C-130 Hercules Airplane from Da Nang to Camp Radcliff. I stored away all of my civilian clothes and personal items at Battalion Head Quarters and was re-issued my equipment. I think it was the next day that I flew by chopper to LZ Hardtimes, and then out to the jungle to meet up with Fox Force. Everyone thought that I had gone AWOL, (absent without leave) while in Sydney. After two weeks, and I had not returned, the Lieutenant assumed that I had gone AWOL and contacted Battalion Head Quarters. It took a few more days until they sorted it out, and finally contacted my mother to let her know where I was. I don’t remember much about this time in Vietnam. I know the days were long and I was getting short and the platoon mostly patrolled the areas around the firebase, with little enemy contact. All of the original Fox Force guys had gone and I was the old timer and I remember feeling responsible for showing the new guys how to survive in the jungle. I was a Spec 4 with over eight months in country, mostly in the jungle carrying an M-60 machine gun, and many airborne combat assaults. I had learned a lot about survival in Vietnam. I knew that the small things that were often taken for granted, were the things that could save your life. I knew the most important thing was to take care of your buddy, because together you fight as one and survival is the one thing we all had in common.
After about two weeks back with the platoon, I was called back to Camp Radcliff to receive a promotion. The first night back at Camp Radcliff, a friend and I went out to a couple of clubs to have a little fun. We partied very hard and we were drunk when the CID pulled up in their jeep, as we were walking back to our barracks, and asked for our identifications. They began to hassle me about my hair being too long and that I needed a shave. I explained that I had been out in the boonies for the last few weeks and hadn’t shaved or cut my hair. I told them I just arrived that day and didn’t have time to get a haircut or shave. They didn’t seem to care and I thought they were being abusive, so I said a few words they didn’t like, so they put me in their jeep and took me to the brig. While at the brig, they found some OJ’s in my pocket. OJ’s were marijuana and it was illegal; so they arrested me and called my first sergeant and I was placed on house arrest.
Choices made from Choices made
I remained at Camp Radcliff for a few more days and then flew out to our battalion’s firebase to receive, not a promotion, but a demotion, an article fifteen and E-1 ranking. I also was fined $250.00 and reassigned to a line company. At this point, I was disgusted with the army and only wanted one thing, “to go back to the world!” I stayed on the firebase for weeks it seemed, waiting to officially receive my punishment, I often thought about the guys in Fox Force, and how they were doing. I felt that I had let them down, being one of the seniors in the platoon. But after thinking about this crazy war, I realized that things happen because we make choices, “Choices made from Choices made,” and on, and on, never ending choices that we make, some right, some wrong, in the end just choices.
I met all the guys in the 4.2 mortar platoon while on the firebase. They taught me how to load the C-4 plastic on the mortar rounds. It was interesting and fun, especially yelling, “Fire in the Hole” and dropping the round down the tube. That was a rush!
I met another guy whose job it was to hook and unhook the sling load from helicopters as they came in or flew out of the firebase. He showed me how to unhook a load without getting shocked, if done wrong you got hit big time, “sounds analogous to my tour in country!” He had a comfortable job for firebase standards. He and I would party in his bunker, sometimes with 5 or 10 guys. We would drink and smoke and listen to music or just tell stories about home or stories about the bush. I liked him a lot, because we had so much in common. He didn’t let life live him, he lived life. He had a sensitivity about himself that I liked. He did take life seriously, that’s why he seemed to always enjoy every second of his life. Then one day my time on the firebase ended, I was sent to Charlie Company. Charlie Company was out in the jungle when I joined them. I was assigned to a platoon – and became a line grunt the rest of my short time in Vietnam.
Distant memories blur the horizon like smoke across battlefields
Where figures move in a surreal flight of spiritual metamorphosis
Like butterflies into the darkness of night
Where the sound of jungle wraps around your thoughts
Until the crackling whip of fear pierces your being
With projectiles of uncertainty
And you know those ghostly places and faces of jungle
Will forever cast shadows across your path
Shadows that will merge into the shade
Of your late afternoon
First Fox Force reunion Albuquerque New Mexico 2000. Jim is standing far left.
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