We do this [escalating U. S. military involvement in Vietnam] in order to slow down aggression . . . We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw either openly of under a cloak of a meaningless agreement.” President Johnson, April 7, 1965.
On the subject of Vietnam, one can find an argument for just about anything. But her beauty is not one of them. From tropical lowlands to densely forested highlands, the Annamite mountain range, the Mekong Delta, Coastal lowlands, 12 great rivers and beautiful beaches on the 1,650 kilometers of coastline, Vietnam is beautiful indeed. I stand corrected, there is an argument. Some foot soldiers and Marines disagreed. All they remembered was dirt and mud, the jungle and rice paddies, squalid villages, ancient men and women, naked-dirty-hungry children, bomb craters, barbed wire, sandbags, impenetrable jungles, soldiers burning shit, natives craping in public, a lot of ugly things.
My purpose was not to enjoy her beauty, or the ugliness of war, but to work seven days a week in the monsoons with mud sucking at my jungle boots; in oppressive heat where insects, booby traps and snipers were plentiful. Although I was assigned to AFVN, An Khe, I still had field assignments, included recording Hometown News Interviews. “This is Specialist 4 Don Swan near Bong Son, Vietnam, and today I’m talking with Sgt. John Gilliam of Columbia, South Carolina. John is a squad leader with A Company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). Sergeant, what would tell the folks back home and the work you’re doing for the people of Vietnam?”
After a dozen or so interviews, they were packaged and sent to the Hometown News Center in Kansas City (where I would later be assigned) for distribution to the radio stations in the soldier’s hometown. Although not my favorite job in Vietnam, it was a good program. Citizens of the community got to hear from a soldier, perhaps one they knew, serving in Vietnam. For family and friends, no doubt, it was good for their morale, maybe even a source of pride.
I was still doing a few field assignments beyond Hometown Interviews that included some blood and battle,* but nothing approaching the Ambush in Binh Dinh. There were some plum assignments as well, like Masters of Ceremony gigs at Bob Hope’s USO shows thorough Vietnam.
I interviewed the icon after one of his shows, for AFVN. It was to be a greeting from Mr. Hope for those unable to attend the show (which was almost everyone). I failed to get that message across in the interview. I still remember the producer’s words: “You got nothing here [fit to air].” One of my easiest assignments in Vietnam, and I blew it.
Nevertheless, just before my tour was up, I was promoted to Specialist Five, perhaps as a reward for staying a PFC much longer than usual. Or maybe the U.S. Army thought my ingenuity and diligence with the Ambush scoop, Stream deed, AFVN talent, and so forth merited another promotion. (Nobody ever said the Army was perfect.)
December had finally arrived, I was officially Short with just thirty-six days (and a wake-up). I really began to believe I was going home; that I would actually make it. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so optimistic after hearing the story of one man’s last night in Vietnam.
A soldier who had already “processed-out” would be heading “Back to the World,” on a “Freedom Bird” early the next morning. He had only a wake-up remaining.
Tonight he sat on his bunk, reading the most recent letter from his wife and gently rubbing his index finger over the picture of the daughter he had never met.
He tried to stay cool and get comfortable with the feel his OD boxers.** His jungle fatigues had already been traded-in for khakis. Ribbons — the medals he’d earned here — were precisely mounted, then pinned above his left front pocket, and his unit patch hung under the other. He had neatly folded his khakis, which lay atop his tightly packed duffle bag. His shiny-black low quarters sat nearby.
Late that evening, he had shaved and showered, one less detail for tomorrow morning. AFVN was playing Strawberry Fields Forever. When the call came, he would be ready in an instant.
Soon after he fell asleep, no doubt dreaming about his small family that awaited him, and unnecessarily rehearsing his first moves; like kissing his wife while caressing the soft skin of his baby. His mind most likely wandered to some of the worst times in the field, but somehow he overrode that vision. He continued with the good dream, that in a few hours, he was leaving Vietnam forever.
On the same overcast evening, somewhere in the darkness, less than a mile outside the perimeter of the airstrip, a small team of VC was setting up a tripod, and adjusting distance and direction. At 0200, a 60-mm mortar burst from its tube with a ssss.
In less than two seconds, a 12-inch rocket flying at 336 mph arced toward the tent of the man scheduled to leave in just hours. The mortar impacted near his cot — exploded in a ball of fire — shattering his dreams, charring his body, and extinguishing his life evermore.
He would still be returning home. Just not in the cheering section of the jet with pretty, good smelling, round-eyed female flight-attendants. He died in this stinking, godforsaken country with just a wake-up up remaining!
Incredibly, 1,448 servicemen died on their last scheduled day in Vietnam. They were killed with a day or less to go before coming home!
“We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view . . . I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing.” General William Westmoreland, November 21, 1967.
It was an unseasonably cool 70 degrees, under a high cloud ceiling, when I boarded my 707 out of Tan Son Nhut on Jan. 7, 1968. Ecstatic passengers and a happy crew; all seats were filled with cheering GIs for the roughly 17-hour flight “Back to the World.”
A couple of hours before we were to touch down at SFO — in our country, the land we had fought for, dreamt of, and yearned for more than a year — the pilot told us not to expect “Thank You For Your Service,” but to be prepared for organized protests in San Francisco against returning soldiers.
*Thankfully, the majority of my assignments did not include blood and battle.
**Most GIs who were in the field for extended periods wore no underwear.