The army has occasional moments of clarity and in one of them, I ended up in Vietnam. I’d actually asked to go, choosing to volunteer my services, such as they were, to my country. I was raised to believe in the concept of public service and the whole e pluribus unum thing. Unlike some who volunteered for combat duty, I’m unable to claim intoxication because I soberly sought out my commanding officer and asked if I could be transfered to combat duty. I had so distinguished myself while at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, that my CO had to look up who I was in a file cabinet behind his desk. “Ah,” he said. “Here you are.” He read from the file, all of a single page long, looked at me and said “Request granted.” Two days later I was on my way home for a 30 day leave, a gift from the army in gratitude of my choice to defend my nation’s friends against the spreading horror of Communism.
I really didn’t have the slightest idea what a communist was, but after four weeks of mooching from my parents I was off to try to kill some of them. My journey started at JFK airport in New York and took me by commercial airline to San Francisco. There I would spend a night before taking a charter bus to Fort Ord, where I would be flown to Hawaii, Guam and finally Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon. The orders I carried made the route I was to take totally clear, what they failed to convey was that once I sat down in my seat on the Chartered Northwest Orient Airlines 707 at Fort Ord, I wouldn’t be permitted to leave it until deplaning in Saigon. Honolulu International Airport and the Guam Air Base were, to me, only visible through the plexiglass windows of the airliner. They did show us two in-flight movies: Death in the Jungle and A Man Could Get Killed.
All of us aboard the airliner were dressed in our winter green uniform, the date to switch to summer khakis was still three days away. When we landed at Tan Son Nhut the temperature was 109 degrees in the shade with humidity sitting right around 76%. Standing at attention in a formation at the base of the deplaning steps, a third of our number fsainted from heat prostration. Through some snafu, our group was left on the tarmac for almost an hour and a half. It was announced to us as a snafu by way of an apologetic explanation why we were left to shed eight ot ten pounds of body weight through perspiration. Snafu is actually an acronym that means Situation Normal: All Fucked Up. But we were finally loaded on a bus and driven all of a half mile to Camp Alpha, where incoming soldiers are processed and sent off to their assigned units. The fact that we all could have walked there in under ten minutes wasn’t lost on any of us.
At Camp Alpha we were run through a series of lines. In one we handed in our orders, in another we received our new orders, and in yet another were handed three sets of jungle fatigues, a baseball cap, and a pair of jungle boots. At that point we were simply released without further instruction or orientation. “Where are we supposed to change at?” asked one of my fellow soldiers. “How do we get to our new units?” asked another. The staff sergeant that had taken charge of us after the airport delay shrugged his shoulders and told us where we were was just fine for changing. As to getting to our units, he suggested we be expedient and warned against taking too long and being declared absent without leave. When a soldier yelled out “When do we get guns?” the sergeant shuddered, shook his head and walked away.
Camp Alpha was a tent city, a maze of sandbag walls and olive canvass. I walked away from the crowd of people looking for a place to change uniforms in when I heard a loud whump! and felt the pressure wave of an explosion. I realized that mortar shells were dropping around me and it stopped me like a deer in headlights. People were running in all different directions as I stood there, wondering what to do. I heard someone yelling for everyone to calm down and that it was over. I could hear no further hits and so dragging my duffle bag, I went back to finding somewhere to change. In a kind of sandbag cul de sac I found an empty spot and pulled off my winter greens. Some of the sand bags had fallen over and made a good place to sit down to untie my boot laces, so I plopped down onto the pile and immediately jumped up again. Something stung me on the butt and it hurt like crazy. I looked where I’d sat down and found a crushed scorpion. It was black and about two inches long, including the tail.
I was horrified. Everything I’d ever heard about scorpions said they were painful and deadly. I gingerly grabbed the insect corpse by the tail and went running off to find a medic tent. My pants, undone, kept trying to fall down as I ran in a panic. I saw the white square with prominent red cross and ran to the tent’s entry. A guy sat at a table reading a Playboy and regarded me with disdain as I screamed I’d been stung. I held up the scorpion corpse so they’d know what had killed me and the guy sighed deeply. “Aw, shit.” he said. “That’s no big deal, man. It’s no worse than a bee sting. Now, pull up your pants, show a little dignity for crissakes.”
“It’s not lethal?” I asked, suspicious.
“Fuckin’ hardly. Now take off, and take the bug with you.”
Embarrassed, but still in pain, I pulled up my pants and tried to look nonchalant as I limped back to where I’d left my duffle and change of uniform. I managed to finish changing without further incident. I tried to look salty, that is, like I wasn’t fresh meat, and grabbed my duffle and started looking for a sergeant to ask how I should go about finding my way to a place called Phan Rang. That was the base in Vietnam for the 101st Airborne Division. After two “I don’t know, ask someone else” and three telling me to “fuck off,” I found one who suggested I go to the airfield and try to mooch a flight. “There’s always flights comin’ or goin’ there.” he told me. I worked my way towards a side gate and getting there, could see a bunch of military and civillian aircraft across a flat sea of concrete. I saw the Northwest Orient 707 that had brought me in country, still sitting where it had stopped a couple of hours earlier. Heat waves from the cement created water mirages on the seemingly endless concrete, and I felt like I was being baked alive as I made my way to where C-130s and Hueys sat in loose rows. The air reeked of burning jet fuel and the noise of many turbine and jet engines made talking almost impossible. I approached plane after plane, yelling “Phan Rang?” at ear muffed crew members and watched them shake their heads until finally one of them nodded. He pointed to the tailgate of the Hercules and I scrabled aboard. I was immediately pressed into service. I dropped my duffle and helped offload pallets of boxes, pushing them one after the other over the rollers built into the cargo floor of the aircraft and down the ramp. Forty minutes later I was told to take a seat and the big airplane began to taxi. It lined up on the runway and began to accelerate in earnest, the tailgate of the airplane clamping shut on the run.
The plane virtually jumped into the air and immediately banked hard to the left. I got up and made my way to one of the rear side doors, the only place there was a window, and looked out to see Saigon spreading every which way. The plane took a lazy climb and one of the load masters came back with a thermos and offered me some lemonade. I took it gladly. “It’s not a long flight.” he told me. “Maybe a half hour if we go the scenic route.” He grinned and moved up to the front of the aircraft where he had a little kind of desk built into the right side of the aircraft, opposite the front side door. I sat down again on a seat which was little more than some aluminum tubing with nylon webbing. I leaned my head back and listened to the thrum of the powerful turbines. The next thing I knew we were descending and shortly the tires screeched and the plane slowed rapidly. “Welcome to Phan Rang!” yelled out the crewman, smiling. The plane rolled a bit, came to a stop and the tailgate opened and the ramp swung down and I climbed off.
It didn’t seem as hot, but there was more difference than that here. The runway and parking pad was all PSP, perforated steel platform. There seemed to be miles of it. The air smelled of jet fuel, but it also smelled of dust, mold and rot. Dragging my duffle, I managed to get a ride in a jeep to division HQ. Phan Rang was a tent city like Camp Alpha, but it was huge in contrast. A sea of tents stretched as far as I could see. Like Camp Alpha, sandbag walls created dividing and protection barriers everywhere. I went into the HQ tent and handed my order in over a plywood counter. An E-5 specialist looked at my order and then back at me. “You’re a rigger, Private?”
“Yeah, Sarge. I am.”
“Our riggers aren’t here. You belong either in Nha Trang or back down in Saigon. Hang on.” He disappeared behind a canvas wall that created a blind that separated the duty office from what was probably the CO’s office for Headquarters Company. I heard some quiet discussion and the sergeant came back to the counter. “Yeah, you’re supposed to be in Saigon. No sweat, though. We’ve got you checked in but you need to find a flight to take you back down to Tan Son Nhut. I’ll call down there and have someone pick you up. Look for people in red hats just like yours.” I held up the olive drab baseball cap I was issued. The sergeant shook his head and mumbled “Assholes.” Then to me, I’ll get you a lift back to the airfield.” I stepped back out in front of the HQ tent and sat down on the sandbags that made up a halfwall. I jumped back up and looked at the bags, checking for scorpions. Seeing none, I sat back down and lit up a smoke. A few minutes later, a guy in a thre-quarter ton truck pulled up and waved me in. The military version of a pickup truck, this was my ride to the airfield. I ended up getting a ride south on the same C-130 I’d hitched a ride with coming up.
When the tail end of the C-130 opened again in Saigon, a jeep pulled up to the ramp. With no top on, it was easy to see the three bright red caps on the people inside. The driver hopped out as I trudged down the ramp and came towards me, hand extended. I shook it and he introduced himself at Tom and pointed to the other two guys in the jeep saying “Bill and Frank there in back.” He smiled and reached up and took the olive colored ball cap off my head and dropped it on the tarmac. From the side pocket of his jungle fatigue pants he pulled a red cap with the embroidered wings and parachute. “The sargent up in Pahn Rang said they gave you the wrong hat. Hope this one fits okay.” It fit just fine. “We’ll take you down to see mama-san. She’ll sew your jump and rigger wings, name tag and division patch on your jacket. Takes her, like, two minutes. Then we’ll hit the bar.” He looked at his watch. “It’s way late to be working.”
He got back in the jeep and I climbed in back with Frank. With a jerk, the jeep lept forward and off we went. Bill turned around in the passenger seat. “Welcome to the war!” he said.