“We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing.” President Johnson, October 21, 1964, two weeks before the presidential election.
The sun was trying to break through thin clouds of tiny water droplets obstructing the beauty of the Bay Area on a chilly January day in 1967. I wasn’t here waiting for the fog to break, or the summer of love, but a week late for my new assignment in Southeast Asia. I’d just recovered from pneumonia at a USAF hospital near my hometown.
I was sleep-deprived and anxious as I boarded a USAF C-141 out of Oakland* for our 7,824-mile flight to Southeast Asia.
We pulled up and out of the fog with 20,250 lbs of thrust from each of the four Pratt & Whitney turbofans. When I felt the wheels retract into the fuselage, I knew I was leaving the United States; a first for me. The others, quiet like me, must have been contemplating what awaited us at our destination, as we sailed at 567 mph, six miles above the Pacific with no land below.
Unsurprisingly, even as the flight turned into hours, repartee was virtually non-existent among the 154 of us. No pretty young ladies to impress with bravado; our flight attendants were junior enlisted men who served us box lunches. After about 10 hours of flying, facing backward in the canvas seats, we lost a day when we passed the International Dateline just before touching down at Wake Island for fuel and a fresh crew. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.
After seven more hours of boredom and on and off naps — in the comfortable belly of our silver bird — I was awakened by the Aircraft Commander, who announced thirty minutes to touchdown at Tan Son Nhut, 1400 local. No one applauded.
I felt the huge jet rapidly losing altitude as the pilots prepared for a tactical approach, an especially steep descent, into Tan Son Nhut. As we entered the hot, dense air over the South China Sea, an F-4 appeared at 100 yards starboard. The Phantom II rocked its wings, went wet with afterburners, and disappeared in an instant. An impressive welcome indeed, and a free flight over too, courtesy the USAF.
Fifteen minutes later, I stepped from the cool comfort of the Starlifter into the blinding sun, 90-degree heat and humidity thinking I’d walked into a wet sauna that smelled like bad breath, body odor, and someone breaking wind.
Unless severely wounded or killed, this was my home for the next 365 days or 364 and a wake-up from Jan. 7, 1967.
Subject to duty for every second of the next 525,600 minutes, or so, my compensation of $193 a month (including hostile fire pay of $65) worked out to about 27 cents an hour for the remaining 8,760. But it was not without benefits: Free postage on outgoing mail, room and board (such as it was), and complimentary helicopter excursions. Plus, we got to carry some wicked weapons and kill communists.
The DU** Field House was a bustle of activity and crowded on a hot afternoon, in the early fall of 1978, with students selecting courses for the next quarter. I had just finished talking with my VA Rep when a mid-20s man behind me with a beard and long hair asked if I were a Vietnam vet. This was before most vets ever talked about it.
He had accosted me for one reason: To tell me why Vietnam had been good for him. It was worth all the sacrifice, he said because that’s where he was Saved, found the Lord. If not for the Vietnam War, he would never have found Christ and Salvation, as I understood him.
I was tempted to tell him to di-di-mau, (get the f— away) because I didn’t have the inclination or time to challenge him. As usual, I was in a hurry, college full-time, work full-time, and single parent of twins full-time, trying to get home before they returned from Lewis Ames elementary.
Unlike the veteran I’d just encountered, for me, the Vietnam War had the opposite effect, I didn’t find Salvation there, that’s where I lost it. I suppose war is a good enough reason as any to give up on religion, or at least a reasonable excuse to question it. To wonder how “God Knows Best” or “It Was God’s Will” even when wicked things happen to “good people.” I didn’t give up on my religion without some soul-searching, a good choice since we’re talking about Faith.
Reflecting on my time in Vietnam at nineteen, too young for real introspection, or to vote for that matter (Had to be 21 then). I know what I saw, and it affected me intensely and tested my religion mightily.
What I saw in Vietnam were 18 year-olds (some 17); many away from home for the first time, flying for the first time, some still virgins screaming, “Mom, Mom!” and seconds later lying motionless. Others convulsing uncontrollably; blood spurting, teeth shattering, bowels exploding, limbs annihilated, bodies obliterated — All dying.
For me, that was a test, a hard one I hadn’t prepared for, never saw coming, somehow analogous to the projectiles the 18 year-olds never heard. And I was alive to think about it — remember it — forever.
Other boys and young men were dying at an alarming rate, too; the average age of the GI in Vietnam was my age, 19.
On the same tarmac, where we had just arrived, were the GI’s departing Vietnam. They were yelling, “ Shooort, Shooort!” making sure we knew their status. Soldiers with less than 60 days were short — these guys had less than six minutes — and I watched the long line of happy souls disappear into their “freedom bird” headed “back to the world.”
More than 58,000 young men and eight women would die in this Godforsaken country. Most would return in the “freedom bird” alright, albeit, in the cargo hold. Standing here amidst the mayhem, soaking in the heat and smelling stink, I had a bad feeling. And I thought I needed to get out of Mississippi.
Advancing with the others in my khakis and low-quarters, I made a futile attempt at fanning away the stink and heat with the manila envelope that encased my orders sending me here.
We were quickly and efficiently rushed onto Prisoner transport buses. Never mind, the sides read “US Air Force.” The steel netting around the windows was for our protection, don’t want an injury from a satchel charge before getting a taste of the jungle. Someone on the bus had a transistor playing If I Were a Carpenter, until the driver said shut it off.
Taking in the scenes and scents of a Third World country, Vietnamese were all around us. Most looked to be of combat age, and I would later learn that included children.
Their language was loud and harsh, and sounded like it was spoken with a pinched nose. In an uneasy sing-song rhythm without pauses:
“DangDongChingDaowChowThongDangDaowDongChingChow,” is what I heard on and on.***
Many were in conical hats, wearing simple and modest clothing that resembled pajamas. The Vietnamese were cooking and washing outdoors, vendors were hawking wares by the road.
Scooters were everywhere, spewing pungent blue smoke. They buzzed around like scurrying rodents, dodging pedestrians, maneuvering around rickshaws and competing for space with the occasional Simca taxi or the three-wheel Lambro.
Women were carrying heavy objects on their heads, others rested springy bamboo poles around their necks, balancing a heavy load on each end. Women and men defecated in public. Young girls squatted flat-footed, one in front of the other, took turns picking lice from each other’s hair, then cracked them with their teeth.
A sweaty 15-minute ride later, I disembarked at the Long Binh reception station. After finally convincing the sergeant who greeted me that I hadn’t been AWOL, showing him my note from Columbus AFB (where I’d been hospitalized), I was given a new assignment. Maybe it was because I was late reporting, who knows, but here’s what happened. A Master Sergeant called me over, “You’re not going to the 196th Light Infantry, you’re going up to Cowboy and Indian Country, you’re headed for the Cav son.” he said, smiling. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.
That night at Long Binh, my first night In-Country, I was awakened to Whoom, Whump, Whump, Wham, Splat, over and over.
Of course, it was mortars landing close to the tents where we were sleeping, and although there were no injuries that I heard of, it was a good time to change out of my khakis. AFVN Saigon was playing 19th Nervous Breakdown.
First welcomed by a fighter-jet from friends, and now by rockets from foes. I suppose the latter makes it official. Welcome to Vietnam. Indeed.
*Flying out of Oakland is my recollection, I not 100% sure.
**University of Denver
***I’m sure the Vietnamese had an opinion on our English, as well.