Viet Night – An Army Recollection

viet soldersInduction and Deployment

I rarely talk about my time in the army. Not that I am avoiding it. It just seems so disconnected from my previous and later life. It was like an interruption in the continuity of normality. Looking back at it today I can see how some very specific details may have made the difference between my surviving this military interruption or finding my post service life non existent.

It was cloudy and lightly raining when we landed in Fairbanks, Alaska having left overseas processing in Ft Lewis, Washington. It was our last stop in the US. Next refueling was Okinawa, Japan then on to Vietnam. We did not get off the plane in Alaska but looked out of the window at the bleak, rainy airport runway where other planes were parked or being refueled. I was wondering if, having not walked a step on Alaska soil, this stop would qualify as a state I could say I visited.

I had never heard of Flying Tigers Airlines but this was the name on the airplane we were flying. Someone observed that the initials of the airline was also that familiar abbreviation for Fuck the Army. It was by all appearances, a large, typical passenger jet inside and out, including stewardesses. Only every seat was filled with men, all quite young, all with close cut hair, all wearing olive drab uniforms, the majority of which compulsively smoked. The rest of us reaped all the advantages of a smoking habit without the dexterous effort. I knew no one on the plane. It was 1969 and we were all replacements for previous replacements in long established companies in Vietnam.

The guy sitting next to me was a Marine. I had a reluctant admiration for him. I recalled an incident that occurred the first day I was drafted. All us draftees were standing in a line, still in our civilian clothes, for the ‘swearing in’ ceremony and a Marine sergeant came in and announced “I am looking for three volunteers to join the US Marines.” Someone in the group laughed and blurted “No way man”. The sergeant looked at him and coolly responded “That’s one, I need two more.” I became as still and silent as a fence post, but my brain sensed imminent danger and synapses were wildly firing telling me to flee. He walked up and down the line looking us over then flippantly picked two more horrified “volunteers” from among us. This incident quickly impressed upon me how vulnerable I had become in the employ of my government.

I wondered if the marine sitting next to me was volunteer or a hapless recruit as I might have been. I never asked him for he instead said to me “You know we are going to Vietnam as replacements.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” I did not get his point.
“Have you ever watched Combat on TV?”
“No not really.” I answered, though now knowing him to be a fellow TV watcher he had already become a regular guy who I could talk to.
“If you watched that show” he spoke with some authority, “you learned that the replacements are the ones that got killed. As soon as you saw a new guy assigned to the unit you knew it would not be long before he would get it. Do you realize that we are the replacements.”
“Luckily”, I thought to myself “I never watched Combat.”

It was a uneventful flight, though the passengers were taciturn. Mostly we were thinking of our homes, friends and families and contemplating the chances we would ever see them again. We were all on a flight path into a combat zone, most of us for the first time. We knew nothing of what awaited us, except what the nightly news reports showed on TV. Many, I expect, harbored images of hardship and pointless death. Thoughts of glory and heroism had now pretty much given way to the futility of this prolonged conflict. Weekly casualty numbers rose to diminishing public support. But I suspect most of us knew that this was not going to be like TV or movies. Whatever this was going to be, it would have the human dimensions of wet socks and thirst, sleeplessness and boredom. Winning this war no longer seemed the objective. On a personal level, the objective of our one-year deployment was surviving this next 365 days so we could have a life beyond our youth.

Like a prisoner going to his execution, the process had been incremental. Painless, little, seeming innocuous steps. A letter from the draft board arriving at your house. A physical exam where you lined up with a hundred others, bent over spreading your ass cheeks while someone walked down the line looking at assholes with a flashlight. I passed the physical, though I got lightheaded after the blood test and was offered smelling salts. Now we were all on a plane, quietly, helplessly soaring high over the dark Pacific Ocean toward a destiny none could predict. Would we kill there? Would our youthful ideals be consumed by this foreign war. Would we be transformed into grown men or into monsters? Would we have all our assembled pieces if we returned alive? None of us had an answer.

A Secondary MOS

As a conscripted soldier I had no choice in my military training. I was trained as an infantryman and sent to Vietnam with an 11B MOS (military occupational specialty). Eleven Bravo was Army shorthand for infantryman. I could not imagine myself as an infantryman. Yes, I enjoyed the outdoors, I was a boy scout and liked camping, I even liked guns. However I found it repugnant putting worms on hooks or shooting birds with BB guns or even killing house spiders. I considered myself mentally unqualifed for combat. It was much later that I got a look into my army file and saw my vocational aptitude scores. I saw that I qualified for infantry placement with the bare minimum the score of 60, where I had exceptionally high scores in Mechanical (132) and Electronic (135) aptitude. My only hope for survival beyond 1970 seemed a new life in Montreal.

While in Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Poke, my friend Roger from North Carolina, told me “It is every solder’s right to apply for a secondary MOS.” I was unaware that there was such a thing as a secondary MOS. He told me “A secondary MOS can be awarded on past experience or training. Though there was no guarantee of getting it and even less of being assigned to that specialty.” It presented a thin wedge of opportunity for me to try to influence the army process. Taking this action also required a fundamental change from my previous “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” philosophy which had worked fine until my army induction. Roger had worked as an accountant before he was drafted and he told me he would be applying to get a secondary MOS as a Payroll Clerk (71J).

In the dwindling days of my civilian life, after having been notified of my induction date, an acquaintance named Jimmy Harper gave me the best advice I had ever gotten about the army. He had been a soldier in the 50’s.and had little good to say about it. Jimmy had a prominent scar on his left forearm that I imagined was a napalm or gun powder burn or something from his time in the military. His advise was emphatic, “DO NOT VOLUNTEER FOR ANYTHING, except for typing. They always need typists. It is nicer work than anything else they would have you do.” Recalling this as I listened to Roger I decided I would apply for a secondary as a clerk-typist (71B) since I had taken a typing class in Junior High summer school. (It was later revealed to me that Jimmy had once had a dragster tattooed on his forearm with smoke curling off the tires and billowing past his elbow. The scar was the result of having the tattoo removed.)

The next Sunday, Sunday being the only day we had any free time, Roger, prepared and looking confident, strode toward company headquarters to see the first sergeant to begin his application for a secondary MOS. This took some guts for whenever you break rank and make waves, you are leaving the anonymity of the flock and availing yourself to scrutiny, harassment or retribution. Standing at attention, his shoes shined and belt buckle polished, uniform neat and strack, he announced, “ Sergeant, I request form “DA3165.” I never knew how he got this information about secondary MOSs and this form number but I admired him for doing his research. The First Sergeant looked up from his paper work and emphatically responded “Private, I will not give you that form.” Roger regrouped and responded “Sergeant, it is my understanding that I have a right to request and submit this form.” The sergeant half stood and looked him in the face, “I will not tell you again, private, you will not be getting any such form from this office.”

Roger left confused but not defeated and possibly even more determined to get his form. If it had been me, even if I had the guts to confront the company First Sergeant in the first place, this would have finished it. But Roger began formulating his next move. He knew that when a soldier has a complaint that is unresolved at the company level, he can take it to the Inspector General. And that is just what he did. A week later he got his appointment to see the IG and returning that afternoon to the barracks he sat on my foot locker and excitedly relayed the information to me. “The IG told me that the form number that I asked for has been changed. He told me ‘Form “DA3165’ is now Form ‘DA 4187’”.

The following evening Roger entered company headquarters, approached the sergeant’s desk with the revised information. He made the same request but used the new form number. The sergeant knew he had been to the IG. He looked at Roger, said nothing. After a dramatic silence he reached into his desk drawer and handed him the blank form he requested. With the trail clearly blazed, the next evening I walked into the first sergeant’s office and requested Form ‘DA 4187’. I was politely handed the form without delay or comment. Back in the barracks we used our footlockers as writing tables and filled in all the blanks.

I consider myself an honest and truthful person but I will confess to exaggerating my typing speed by a factor of three. Thirty words per minute seemed more salable to the army’s needs and I believed it was the case that a flawed bureaucratic process that gotten me into this infantry situation in the first place. Against the backdrop of the waste, corruption, horror and carnage of our Vietnam incursion, I trust my embroidery will be lost in the glare of this historic blunder. We both submitted our forms and we both were awarded secondary MOSs before graduating from infantry training. Had it not been for Roger’s knowledge, persistence and courage I would have never made this application or received my secondary MOS.

Arriving in Vietnam

When you step off a plane into a strange country after a long flight, your senses go into a special mode, like a child awakening at his grandmothers house for the first time. The brain primed and open for input. It becomes minutely perceptive. Sensory filtering is turned off. The memory recorder is running. The ordinary becomes hyper reality. This is, I believe, the chief addiction of travel. Standing at the top of the roll-away steps, I involuntarily inhaled my first breath of Vietnamese air. The sky was dark. Only a scattering of electric lights dotted the edge of the airfield and beyond. Cam Ranh Bay seemed more like a camp than a city.

The air I felt and breathed was warm, heavy with moisture and tinged with a recognizable smell. Sewerage, that was the smell. My first thought was it was from the local villages, that this was the smell of Vietnam. I later realized it was from the military base which used above ground latrines. The humidity was close enough that it limited visibility beyond the confines of the airfield itself. Except for some local lighting it was dark and quiet. Vietnam was asleep.

We were led to an open sided building. Wooden posts supported the corrugated metal roof. It was illuminated with a sparsity of bare light bulbs mounted on the exposed joists. Inside were a number of galvanized troughs running at waist level through the length of the building. Above each trough ran an iron pipe fitted at regular intervals with a pair of faucets projecting on opposite sides. The lighting was dreamy and noirish. We were instructed to take a position at a faucet, which put each of us facing someone dimly across the trough. If I had awakened at this moment I might think this a dream, forgettable but for the lingering existential residual.

One might expect that soldiers arriving in a war zone would be issued a helmet, rifle, flack jacket and hand grenades. Even a mosquito net would be a reasonable issue. We were given a new toothbrush and a tiny tube of toothpaste. Our instructions this night were “Squeeze the entire tube of toothpaste on to your tooth brush and brush you teeth for five minutes.” As trained soldiers we had been conditioned to unquestioningly obey orders. An adjunct of this conditioning had been to silently accept the seemingly illogical and bizarre. I had, by now, come to regard such surreal situations the propriety of the army. These instructions, at this time, were consistent with to my military experience. Separately they demanded little. They were each simple, incremental and usually easy to comply with. The cumulative effect being we were all now standing in a war zone prepared to be sent into deadly combat and ordered to brush our teeth.

As the foam fell from my mouth into the trough I did wonder just what was in this toothpaste? Was this part of some psychological experiment? Were we being drugged? Or were we the control group? Was this something I would read about in 20 years like the CIA tests of LSD or the Bikini Island observers? These are my first expectant minutes in this faraway land. I am standing on a novel continent half way around the word from my home now separated by a great unassailable ocean. My only way back is with the organization that just brought us here and instructed us to brush our teeth. Once done we filed out depositing our empty tube and brush in a trash container and directed to an area where we were reunited with our duffel bag.

When the deuce and a half trucks came we climbed into the back with our bags. Riding in the back of a covered truck produces a response of resigned pre-destiny. You are not driving, you have no idea about where you are going and you can only look out the back and see, with a constricted tunnel vision, where you just were. No one talks for the noise of the running gear and the canvas slapping against the supporting top ribs. With no sense of direction or topography we rode in through a mystery landscape.

The ride seemed an hour long. I could not tell if we were still in the air base or traveling between villages. You just sit with your duffel bag between your legs either looking out the back or just thinking. I thought of my boyhood friend who came back from Vietnam with brain damage resulting from a truck blowing up. He told me “The VC will secure the handle of a hand grenade with masking tape and pull the pin. Then they will drop it in the fuel tank of a military vehicle. The diesel fuel begins dissolving the adhesive on the tape aided by the agitation of bumpy roads. At some point, probably while the truck is in motion, the tape will come loose releasing the spoon and the grenade will explode igniting the fuel in the tank.” I tried to listen for the grenade in the fuel tank, rolling with the turns.

When the truck stopped and the engine shut off, we knew we had arrived somewhere. The driver announcing “Everyone out,” corresponded with his opening the tailgate. “You guys go to that hooch” the driver pointed to a low, pitched roof building, among a row of identical buildings. We entered a wooden barrack, much like our training barrack but with louvers over window screen for walls. We each found a bunk with a folded mattress at the foot.

There was little talk. We stowed our bags under the metal bed frame and stretched out for the first time in 24 hours. It felt good to lay down with my boots off, even on the bare mattress ticking. Someone turned on a radio. The music playing was Rock and Roll just like what we heard driving around at home. Once settled someone announced lights out and darkened the room. We lay silent each in our own thoughts. I imagined men in black pajamas setting up rockets just outside our perimeter. Then the American DJ on the radio announced that the station would be signing off for the day and the last song he played made one of the most memorable and incongruous moments for me in that war that was so full of incongruities. It was a lilting lullaby with hushed assuring words to calm a tired child ready for sleep. It was the voice of Ringo Starr.

Now it’s time to say good night
Good night, sleep tight
Now the sun’s turned out its light
Good night, sleep tight
Dream a dream of me
Dream a dream of you.

I stayed in touch with Roger. We wrote letters to each other. I learned that he was assigned to an infantry company in Vietnam. It was some months later he wrote to me from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was seriously wounded, sent home and discharged from the army. He called it his “million dollar wound.” He said he was happy to be done with the war, even at that traumatic toll.

I was assigned to an administration company with the 101st Airborne Division where I became a clerk typist. I served my year keeping my head down. Not because anyone was shooting at me, I was staying as anonymous as possible. I still had that 11B primary MOS. Shortly after being discharged from the army, I passed through Roger’s hometown while on a driving trip further south to Atlanta, Georgia. It was after dinnertime when I called him from a phone booth having got his number from the information operator. He was not expecting my call. I could tell he was uncomfortable with my proposal to visit. He told me it was not a good time. I was disappointed but I did not take it personally. I understood that that whole army experience is one often best forgotten and I knew he also was in the process of putting it as far behind him as possible.

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