Only two things ever came easy for me: Running my Mouth and Falling in Love, and the latter would sometimes fetter my progress in reaching my goals. I am amazed and envy people who get all the way through college or even high school unscathed, not bogged down with love. Of course, love and relationships are a wonderful thing, if you can love and not get married or if married not to have children too soon.
Now, as a popular DJ, my dating pool had expanded at least fifty-fold. The temptation was irresistible; I could have fallen in love on practically every date, for no other reason than to have sex. This was not uncommon in the Bible Belt of the early to mid-sixties. Mississippi was not exactly Haight-Ashbury. People actually got married in Mississippi during this period just to have sex.
I, too, was one of those good Christian boys, but not so good that I would have turned down easy sex before marriage. There were a few boys my age who were sexually active (or so they claimed) and man did I envy them! I also knew boys who carried a condom in their wallets for so long that they were rendered useless and kept having to replace them.
Why does mother nature (more like mother evil) make puberty such a driving force? Not for all, I guess, but it was for me and lots of other boys I knew. I remember sitting in study hall — a few times in the tenth-grade — thinking of nothing but sex. I must have been “blessed” with high testosterone levels; on the bright side, I had a “radio voice” at age 15.
Her name was Linda Smith, if you can believe it, and she was a student from Amory, the largest High School in Monroe County. She was my first love. And there was Carolyn (she’s probably relieved, that I don’t remember her last name) from the same school. She was not the next love, but love at the same time, together, simultaneously. Men.
Elvis once said, “I wouldn’t call girls a hobby. It’s a pastime.” As for me, I’d say it was a necessity.
I ventured to Tupelo occasionally and had visited Elvis Presley Park and the shotgun-style house where Elvis was born. Another performer who would later become famous, Herschel Krustofsky (AKA Krusty the Clown) of the fictional and popular TV show, The Simpsons, was said to have briefly appeared in Tupelo as a mime.
The seat of Lee County, Tupelo was the first recipient of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s electrical grid in 1934; providing the community with reliable lights and more. What excited me was Tupelo’s twenty-thousand souls, four times the size of Amory. It was also the home to two radio stations.
One day on my way back from Tupelo (around June 1964), listening to Please Please Meby The Beatles, I got a ticket for a rolling stop and returned to Tupelo to pay the fine. I wanted to visit “WTUP high atop the Hotel Tupelo.” After leaving the courthouse, I spotted the rectangular 10-foot-tall lighted “WTUP 1490” logo rotating from the top floor.
When I stepped off the elevator, I saw an entire wing of the fourth floor* dedicated to the studios of “Top Dawg” radio. And it had the ratings to back it up. WTUP operated at 1,000 watts on 1490kh, 24 hours-a-day playing the hits. (250 watts, sundown to sun up.)
At WTUP that day, I made an audition tape, but they hired me anyway. I would be a disc jockey in Elvis’ hometown at age 16 playing his music and lots more Rock ‘n’ Roll! It was a wonderful time to be a disc jockey.
I left WAMY with virtually no notice. I didn’t want WTUP to change their minds. In a scramble to find someone, they replaced me with Mel Webster.
WTUP was the #1 station in a market of two. Elvis had sung on our competing station, WELO, at a very early age, and he was a no-show the first time he was scheduled. By now, WELO was playing a format of easy listening music; now we were the Elvis station. The two were once sister stations whose call letters spelled (w)tup(w)elo.
WTUP operated with state-of-the-art equipment and a full-time engineer. I had no problem adapting to the new set-up, and I was surprised (being the new guy) that the Program Director gave me the 7 p.m. to Midnight slot, instead of the graveyard shift of Midnight to 6 a.m.
WTUP’s modern studio was about 12 x 12 feet, with soundproofing, four turntables, a tall cart machine, and a wide RCA board. A large rectangular microphone and electronic clock was positioned in front of the high-back leather chair where the earphones lay. To the right, records were kept in slots for easy access. A large window behind the console provided a view into the newsroom-live performance studio. Entrance to the control room was a small door with “On Air” light just to the left of where the DJ sat. There was even a small restroom, with an access door on the back wall. Phone calls were announced by strobe lights flashing, just below the ceiling.
I was accepted by the other Jocks, and this was no small feat for a 16-year-old who had not yet finished high school. We were getting all the new records, had a playlist, a music survey, and our own jingles. If there were a record we somehow missed, the station would just buy it locally. I had upgraded to a station just 27 miles north of Amory, but a world away, I sensed.
Trying to shed some of my southern accent and pronunciation of words, Charlie Brewer, the program director, said I might have gone a bit too far when I began pronouncing “again” /e’ geyn/ instead of /əˈɡen/. (Translation: I said a-gain for again). Then a few weeks later, he admitted, “Don, I do believe I head the doggone President of the United States [Johnson] pronounce again, the same as you,” and laughed.
The manager told me I was doing a good job, and he raised my salary slightly above minimum wage after a few months on air. He had two rules for me: “Sound happy and don’t cut any audition tapes.” We enjoyed such a good reputation in the South that a decent air check from WTUP was likely good for a job in a larger market, and the manager didn’t want the turnover.
After my five-hour shift, playing My Girl by Mary Wells, Baby I Love You by the Four Tops, and all the hits on 1964, I usually stayed at Hotel Tupelo (gratis in an overflow bunk) and got up in time to make the 40-minute drive before my first class at Hatley High. This was almost enough to make me drop out. I missed a lot of school, fell asleep in class, as President of Student Body, this behavior was ridiculous. But, I was making good money — had lots of fans, and girlfriends too. Trigonometry just wasn’t doing it for me.
Girls calling my show in Tupelo were much different from those in Amory in several ways. First, there were so many, and they were calling at night. Pre-teens all the way to late teens and beyond were calling me complaining about their boyfriends, lack of boyfriends, and everything about love and sex. A few older ones actually talked about the music: many were just plain horny.
A heavy responsibility indeed for a 16-year-old, I assumed they assumed I was at least a 20.
Back in Amory, Linda and Carolyn eventually realized I was two-timing and learned of my female fans in Tupelo. They handed me my heart, dropped out of my fan club. That hurt for at least a month, and when you’re 16, 30-days is a long time. Linda and I believed that we would be together for a long time.
But Tupelo was brimming with pretty girls and most of them were listening to me play their favorite music like Chapel Of Love by the Dixie Cups; My Boy Lollipop–Millie Small; I Can’t Help Myself–Four Tops; This Diamond Ring–Gary Lewis & The Playboys; Baby I’m Yours–Barbara Lewis & Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me–Mel Carter.
I’d been working at WTUP for about a month when one evening about an hour into my show, I answered one of the request lines expecting a pre-teen girl, but it was a male caller. I assumed it was a jealous boyfriend telling me to quit giving his girlfriend advice. (Usually by me telling her to dump the boyfriend.)
But this mature-sounding fellow began telling me that I was a great DJ, one of those “What are you doing here” kind of things. In fact, he was a scout looking for raw talent for radio stations in larger markets, he professed. He would just need to meet with me briefly, face to face, for a few minutes.
I thought of the Roger Miller song I’d played on the radio many times, Kansas City Star “Better job, higher wages, expenses paid and a car” it goes. But he decides to stay put because he’s a Kansas City Star.
The man was calling from nearby; in fact, he could meet me in the lobby in just a few minutes to discuss the details. I called the desk manager in the hotel lobby and told him I’d be meeting a man down there. And just as the five-minute ABC News feed began, I rushed down to the lobby.
I met him as planned. He was about 30, average looking, and insisted on coming with me toward the studio. I allowed him to take the elevator (with an operator) to the fourth floor with me, but told him under no circumstances were visitors permitted inside the station after hours. Then he propositioned me in the hallway. I made a quick getaway and locked the door behind me. (I hadn’t even had sex with a woman, let alone a man!)
ABC News was wrapping up with the sports report when got back to the studio, with no time to spare. I can’t remember what disappointed me more, the fact that I had been approached by a gay man** (in 1964 Mississippi) who really had no job (well maybe a certain kind of job) or that he probably didn’t even believe I was an especially good disc jockey. I told no one.
One of my fellow DJ’s saw through my “lots of girl’s image” — probably knew the truth — and set me up with a nurse’s aide at one of their party houses. I had talked to scores of horny girls but had never met up with them, and despite my bravado as a Top-40 DJ, all the girls I’d been dating were celibate just like me. My first score was not the girl of my dreams, but Lord knows like in broadcasting, one has to start somewhere. I didn’t completely remove my pants, just down around my ankles, and it was really quick.
I’m sure it was great for her, too. I felt guilty for days and didn’t advertise it.
*Possibility the tallest building in Tupelo at the time.
**I did not then (in 1964) nor do I now have any animus toward gay people. I believe such an incident was a rare occurrence in 1964 Mississippi (and I now understand that “propositioning” is not a typical homosexual practice). I told no one of the event until now; it was no big deal, except that I was really crushed the man was not there to offer me the kind of job I was expecting.
I imagined the cloud I’d been floating on was now soaring to the heavens. Life was good. But leave it to me to nitpick something. I had dreamed, wanted, worked, and finally became a DJ motivated by Elvis and my first time on-air in Mid-63 there was just one Elvis song: (You’re The) Devil In Disguise in Billboard’s top 100. Of course, there were his previous hits to play. But I was anxious to say, “Here’s another new song from The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
When I reached another milestone of becoming a DJ in his hometown, in 1964, there was no Elvis on the Top 100! Not a one. That was not a total surprise as the Beatles were storming America in April 1964, no less than eight of the Fab Four’s songs made the Top 100 that year, and five of their songs were number’s 1-5 at the same time! Who didn’t want to hear the risqué I Want To Hold Your Ha-a-a-and five times in a row? That same month and year, another phenomenon that appealed to the youth of American was released.*
Although many fans thought they were hearing a new Elvis song in 1964, instead it was an Elvis sound alike, with a slight similarity in looks, (but not Elvis impersonator) the handsome Terry Stafford with Suspicion that made it all the way to number 22 on the Top 100 in 1964.
Then in 1965, Crying In The Chapel by Elvis came in at number nine on Billboard’s Top 100. On WTUP’s Sonic 60s survey, it went to Number One. Unchained Melody–The Righteous Bros, You’ve Got Your Troubles–The Fortunes–Little Things–Bobby Goldsboro and I Can’t Get No Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones were big hits in 1965.(Readers of my hard copy book, get out your magnifying glasses.)
At WTUP, I did remotes, (broadcasting live), at grand openings for car dealerships, furniture stores, record shops, and the like. That exposure turned into jobs as Master of Ceremonies (MC) for music venues.
When Jerry Lee Lewis came to Tombigbee State Park near Tupelo, for a performance, I was there to introduce and MC for him and the other bands. Jerry Lee was the headliner with hits like Whole Lottta’ Shakin,’Great Balls Of Fire, andRockin’ Pneumonia.I was excited and playing it like a seasoned pro, I thought. When making a dramatic introduction of his band members and asking them to say “Hello Tupelo” I inadvertently bopped Jerry Lee’s drummer in the mouth with my mic.
I was showing off on stage like I was part of the band when a member of the audience handed me a request. “Not doing no damn gospel song” Jerry Lee told me. As of this writing, fortunately, he’s still alive and living in Mississippi. I hope this doesn’t piss the “Killer” off for me telling this story of his implied disrespect to the good, God-fearing members of his audience. Although his moniker “Killer” isn’t to be taken literally, he is known to have a mean streak. Hopefully, I am so insignificant, he wouldn’t waste his energy. For that gig, I was given a $20 bill, almost a week’s salary at WTUP.
Since I wasn’t working Sunday mornings, I made an occasional visit to Hatley Missionary Baptist Church and was happy to hear, see and talk with Bro. McLeod. Now I was thinking I probably would have taken my first radio gig without his blessing. Of course, I didn’t tell him that I’d downed almost an entire bottle of lukewarm Miller High Life® — Baptists don’t have confessionals — from a bootlegger up in Lee County. (Mississippi was a dry state.)
Anyhow, I didn’t like the taste and didn’t have another beer for a year or two, and never in excess. I couldn’t understand the appeal it had for so many. A lot, I assumed, had to do with its illegality in the state. How wrong was that?
I was driving back home from Tupelo one Friday evening in a steady rain when I saw car lights in my lane at an upcoming curve. At about 50 miles-per-hour, I swerved left to avoid the headlights and rolled the Beetle about four times before landing right side up in a cornfield. The lights I’d seen came from a telephone utility truck that was parked partially in my lane and on the shoulder of the road with his brights on; the man drove me to the hospital in his truck.
I was met at the hospital by WTUP’s manager (where I was treated and released). He took care of the bill and drove me to his house in his white 1965 GTO convertible. I will remember for a long time that ride, in his four on the floor 389cid Tri-power Pontiac®, and the taste of the coffee he gave me spiked with hard liquor. It was worse than the accident. Like beer before, I thought the appeal for spirituous beverages must be small. Wrong again.
The next day I was sore, but I needed to see the car that, during the flips, hadn’t crushed into my head. The roof of the Black Beetle remained intact from the blacktop scrapes, and its tumbles in the field — the engine, front end, not so much. Someone said the speedometer was stuck at 90 mph, its highest reading. (That’s a joke, the Bug would barely do 70 on a slight downhill.) Dale, who had given it to me on permanent loan, declared it totaled. There was no insurance coverage.
Now that I had no transportation, the station allowed me the use of its almost brand-new news cruiser, a red ’64 Falcon with a white convertible top with a 260cid V-8 and stick shift. I was making just above minimum wage, but the fringe benefits, wow. Now, I was motivated to finish high school.
The first time I drove up to Hatley High in that cool convertible, radio playing House of the Rising Sun: life was so fantastic, it could have ended right there.
In May of 1965, at age seventeen, I graduated Hatley High — barely. Four months later, I was fired from WTUP.
The same station that allowed me to play Elvis in his hometown, opportunity to be on-air when the Beatles were taking America, advance above my peers, and gratis use their convertible was tossing me to the street. I had made an audition tape of my show, an air-check as it’s known (which was strictly against the rules).
Who had narked on me about making the tape? I believe it was the same DJ who set me up with the girl at their party house, not so long ago.
It was my last show in Tupelo, spinning King Of the Road on turntable two, I had no plan, nowhere to go, I hadn’t even sent out any audition tapes.
I picked up one of the phone lines, expecting a preteen girl wanting to hear Herman’s Hermits, but it was a male caller. The man identified himself as a Program Director (PD) in Wilmington, North Carolina. North what? They had an immediate opening; did I know anyone at WTUP who might be interested?
Okay, very funny, this had to be a practical joker or a man hitting on me. But I really didn’t think any Jocks at WTUP would have someone prank me and my audience didn’t know it was my last night on the air.
The PD calling was covering the shift that needed filling. He asked me to hold. I heard him announce the end of California Girls and, while giving the weather said something like, in case you’re going to the beach. Beach? Yes. Wilmington was a short ride from two popular beaches, Carolina and Wrightsville (Think: Wright Bros). Never seen the ocean before.
I surprised myself by negotiating with him on salary and an airline ticket to get there, and I didn’t tell him I was on my last shift. I would have taken my first two jobs for anything they offered, and although I’d just turned eighteen, I had gained some confidence in being able to deal with the realities or trying to make a living. No more free rent and car.
I was headed to a city about four times the size of Tupelo at more than double my salary. I would be making my first airplane flight — for free.
The last couple of songs I played for the good people of Tupelo, That’s Alright and another Elvis song from Haram Scarum few had probably heard, Go East, Young Man.
Momma, of course, didn’t want me to go. And although I hadn’t lived at home full-time for a couple of years, Momma certainly was not happy for me moving so far away. I had no reservations whatsoever.
Dale was excited for me, knowing I was on the way to fulfilling my dream. He picked me-up in his new 1965 Chrysler Newport coupe for the first leg of the trip. On the radio, I’m Henry (the) VIII, I Am, by Herman Hermits played. I was so sick of that song, I must have taken a hundred requests from preteen girls. By the time an avid radio listener has heard a song ten times, the DJ has played it twenty.
We silenced the radio and talked as we rolled past harvested cotton and corn fields, vast dusty farmland, baled hay . . . cattle and silos. Shacks, trailers, and brick houses dotted the landscape through towns like Verona, Cotton Gin Hill, Nettleton, Union, and Shiloh. In forty-five minutes, were at the small Tupelo Regional.
It was early Fall 1965, clear and cool, and after checking one suitcase, I skipped up the temporary ramp where I was greeted by an attractive flight attendant who directed me to a seat. I don’t remember any safety briefing. The fuselage creaked on the Piedmont prop-driven thirty-passenger relic, and her engine’s coughed and sputtered as we rolled toward takeoff for the 614 nautical mile flight east.
On my first flight, looking out the windows, I was struck by the farms below, how precisely they were outlined, pretty even. Not so impressed that I longed for agriculture, though. Naturally, I thought of my days working in fields like those — the hot sun bearing down on me all day. I wondered why we had lived so poorly. Had it really been necessary? With modern conveniences, Momma’s life would have been so much easier.
As we flew through clouds and over the farms I could no longer see, finally, I realized I was out of Mississippi, and on my way to the good life “in the big city,” in a state far away.
Heading toward the Coastal city on the banks of the Atlantic, I quit counting after we made about eight stops. At the Wilmington-New Hanover Airport (ILM), the plane bounced down to another rough landing. The passengers applauded the final touchdown — relieved the flight was finally over.
During the long flight, I sat most of the trip next to an attractive woman about ten years my senior. Naturally, I told her about my new and exciting job as a Top-40 Dee Jay. I was so excited and impressed with myself, I foolishly tried to give her a kiss just before we touched down. No airport police were called.
The PD met me at the airport, took me by the station briefly, and put me up in a nice local hotel. I was impressed, we were off to a good start.
After covering the seven to midnight shift for a couple of weeks, I was moved to the 10am-3pm shift. That was a quick move-up. WHSL, Whistle Radio, Top-40 Format, great jingles, 10-thousand watts, 24hrs a day operating on 1490Khz. Best of all, we were the number one station in the market, had the most listeners. Out of five stations surveyed in our listening area, we enjoyed a 47 share during prime time. A 47 share is unheard of in a city our size (50,000 plus). Our PD said we were going to keep it that way.
How, why? WPLO, Atlanta was one of the 20 or so leading stations in the Country. We had its former extremely popular DJ, Steve Reno, doing morning drive 6am-10am; a station’s prime-time. The theory: the station you’re listening to early in the a.m. is the one you will continue with the rest of the day/night.
What was Steve doing here, well out of the Top-50 market segment? He was paid handsomely (an educated guess-$475 a week, about $3,800 in 2019 money) and had a major part in building a station to number One, good for his resume.
I was pretty happy with $125 a week.* Why was I, a just turned 18-year-old with little experience, following him? My show was the lead-in to Afternoon Drive, the second most important slot, with people commuting in their cars, hopefully listening to the radio.
I was spinning Wolly Bully–Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs; For Your Love–The Yardbirds; Go Now–The Moody Blues; Puppet On A String by Elvis and all the great hits of 1965.
In any 15-minute period, WHSL had about as many listeners as the other four stations combined! An estimated 20,000 potential shoppers were listening to us and hearing our commercials. We could and did charge advertisers twice the rate for our commercials as the other stations. Forty dollars for a one-minute ad in prime-time, if I remember correctly. Back in Amory, it was three or four dollars.
I was renting a nice room, ate all my meals out, had a steak every other day, and was getting around in my very own 1959 baby blue Cadillac. With those incredible tail fins, it was arguably one of the most recognizable and pretty cars of the 50s and 60s.
There were scores of pretty girls to date, too. Cigarettes were 22 cents a pack, and Wilmington had lots of liquor stores (not that I was using them, but it was something new to me).
Life was so fantastic, it could have ended right there.
If a decent looking popular Top-40 DJ with a Cadillac can’t score, something is amiss. I’m guessing my readers aren’t interested in the specifics of any sexual escapades I might have had. Most of the time, I was dating just one girl. I know, a real gentleman, me. During this period, I would also meet my future wife.
A refresher from Chapter Seven; One of the two things that came easy for me was falling in love. She was at another girl’s house when I first saw her, short blond hair, tall and slender, mysterious persona and shy. No, it would not be one of those “love at first sight” sort of things, but I was definitely intrigued.
We soon began dating but understandably (well to guys anyway) I keep my semi-steady girl Mary, too. I led both Marty (pseudonym) and Mary to believe that we were in a serious relationship, bordering on love.
*From my first paycheck, I sent Momma 100 dollars.
Wilmington, the “All-America City” on the Atlantic with its great beaches, mild climate, the USS North Carolina, its beautiful historic homes, great restaurants, and friendly residents, was a good fit for me.
But my first love was still music and radio that allowed me to share it with the masses. Songs like You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling by The Righteous Brother, I’ve Got You Baby–Sonny and Cher, Hang On Sloopy–The McCoys, These Boots Are Made For Walking–Nancy Sinatra, Down In The Boondocks–Billy Joe Royal and We Gotta Get Out Of This Place by the Animals.
My listeners were more open and tremendously larger than at WTUP, who’s 250 watts after sundown barely covered Tupelo proper. Now I was disseminating 10,000 watts to a potential audience of at least 75,000 in the greater Wilmington area, Southeastern N.C. and ships at sea.
Women, girls-actually, were reaching out to me for all sorts of reasons, calling me for advice on love, marriage, sex, music, and the like. There was fan mail as well, here’s a sample:
Reminded me of Play Misty For Me.* (Swan archives)
These young women felt a connection to their favorite DJ, with a deep and sexy voice, who plays their favorite songs. We were their friends. They tell us more than they would a psychologist, more even than their hairdresser. Just listening, giving advice, or meeting with them to fulfill their desires and needs is one of the burdens that comes with being a popular Top-40 DJ.
Was I arrogant, egotistical, and patronizing? Well, I didn’t think so, and I still considered myself a Southern Gentleman. Hubris and full of myself? Very likely. At 18, I was a leading DJ in a top 150 market, on the Number One rock station in Wilmington, WHSL. One doesn’t become a good radio personality if they lack an ego or a line of BS, DJs have to be “on” all the time.
Jan, the receptionist, and sometime secretary at WHSL was an attractive lady in her late 20s. She was friendly to all the staff, except for me. She just didn’t seem to like me, hard as that is to imagine. No, I hadn’t hit on her or told her dirty jokes. I don’t do that sort of thing, and besides, I had limited interaction with her. She was nothing like Lynn at WAMY.
Certainly, she didn’t think I had exceptional intuition or that I was wise beyond my 18 years and perceptive enough for me to suspect that she was sleeping with the married station manager, Sidney Wilson, about 20 years her senior? Intuition or not, I believe she suspected that I knew long before it was common knowledge to the rest of the staff. It must have been me who started a rumor about the affair. Not true, but if she believed it, well.
Another possibility is that she may have overheard me talking with some of the other Jocks (who were laughing with me) about how corny I thought it was that most of our commercials ended with the tag: “And be sure to tell them you heard it on Whistle,” W H i S t L e. That’s the only incident I could think of, she might tell Sidney, that could tick him off. Unlikely, because I believe Sidney would have talked to me directly and reminded me that I get paid because of these commercials and to shut my big mouth.
Anyhow, having enjoyed my coveted the 10-3 mid-day show on WHSL for several months — playing oldies like Don’t Be Cruel by Elvis, Can’t Get used to Losing You by Bobby Darrin — without any complaint from the PD, listeners, or a slip in ratings; Sidney Wilson confronted me just as I finished my show one afternoon.
He was direct: “Effective immediately, you’re going on graveyards. [Midnight to 6 am] How you like them apples?” I didn’t think he meant to construct that in the form of a question. So, I didn’t reply. I still may have been part country bumpkin, but I wasn’t stupid. I kept my mouth shut.
Demoted from an important mid-day slot to the midnight shift is about as close to getting fired as it comes. The PD and Steve Reno were flabbergasted. But Sidney’s the man who signs the checks.
I would recover somewhat. After a week or so, I was hosting the 7 to Midnight shift (the slot I did briefly when I first came to WHSL) and was surprisingly filling in for the important daytime slots, including Morning Drive.
I was playing Ballad Of The Green Berets by SSgt. Barry Sadler, a top song in 1965-6. Other favorites were Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)–Cher, Seventh Son–Johnnie Rivers, Get Off My Cloud–Rolling Stones, Little Red Riding Hood–Sam The Sham and The Pharaohs, We Can Work It Out–Beatles . . . Lightnin’ Strikes by Lou Christie.
Just a few weeks after Sidney demoted me, he was calling my show for requests while lying in a hospital bed with a terminal illness. He mostly wanted something by the Platters, but not dedicated to him. In one of his calls to me, he said that I would have been a good son for him.
My recent demotion was never brought up. I keep my decorum and never asked. I always suspected that it had something to do with his (former) mistress, Jan. He had not reduced my salary and, in fact, had given me a small raise not long after my demotion.
He called me one last time, from his hospitable bed. “Just play some Platters for me, please,” he said sadly and hung up.
That night I did the most sincere dedication of my short career, and without his permission, I said: “Here are the Platters singing Only You for my dear friend, Mr. Sidney Wilson.” And now Mr. Wilson, 20,000 other souls know you were indeed my friend.
A few weeks after he passed, I learned that Mr. Wilson had scribbled a note from his hospital bed, asking that I be given $1,000 from his estate. The executor said his family would raise questions about his signature and his state of mind when the note was written. His family would fight it, and although that was a lot of money in early 1966, I did not.
Mr. Wilson, I didn’t really need to know why you clipped my wings and kept me on, but you need to know — my friend — all is forgiven.
At just 18, I was shaken by the events. But shortly I would have pressing problems of my own: The United States Army, you know, the Draft. My number was coming up. I was close to being inducted. I decided to enlist, adding an extra 12 months to my commitment — three years total. It wouldn’t keep me out of Vietnam, but it allowed me to choose my own Military Occupation Specialty (MOS) Broadcast-Journalist instead of the likelihood of going into the Infantry.
As for the ladies in my life, I continued to date both Mary and Marty right up to the end. I saw them once more, just before I left for Vietnam, knowing it could be my last. I told them both I would send my address and asked them to write. Regrettably, I never sent my address to Mary, never contacted her at all, deciding to choose Marty instead. We made plans to marry when and if I returned from Vietnam.
I also said goodbye to another girl I’d wanted to date. Talking with her as she sat in the outside ticket booth of a local movie theater, I boasted, “Hey, I’m going to Vietnam!”
I have no regrets in my entire life except for one Mary, I should have had the fortitude to write and tell you what was going on and not just blow you off as I did. Maybe you don’t even remember me, but you probably do, if for no other reason than my craven behavior. I wonder what you might have been thinking when you never heard from me. I often think of you and how I treated you. It bothers me to this day, after more than 50 years. My behavior was inexcusable, and for that, I am truly sorry.
Knowing you as I do and remembering your good nature and kindness, I was probably forgiven long ago, but just in case you haven’t, please forgive me now. I still have a picture of you smiling, just as I will remember you, always.
You no doubt found a man much more deserving than me, and I hope and believe you’ve had a full and wonderful life. I, too, have had a good life, and I’m living comfortably in retirement (albeit in ill-health) soon to be a well-known writer. Now my legions of readers will know and understand why you were a special person in my life and so remain.
My marriage to Marty didn’t last so long.
*Play Misty For Me; a phrase that’s become synonymous for an obsessed fan. Clint Eastwood starred in the popular movie of the same name about a girl that bedevils a small-town DJ.
The most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen: Ft. Gordon, Georgia disappearing in the rearview mirror of our taxi as we headed to Bush Field. Okay, I exaggerate a bit, but I hadn’t been in Augusta for the golf and never wanted to visit again. Yet, I felt some pride — gained some confidence and skills — in completing basic combat training at the army post in 1966.
Marty and I wanted to see each other before my Advanced Individual Training (AIT), but time and resources prevented it. We talked long distance occasionally, but the expense ruled out frequent telephone communication. Letters would have to suffice. She wrote to me often; those letters were a gift that I’ll always remember and appreciate. We were listening to our favorite songs Happy Together–the Turtles and Soul An Inspiration-Righteous Brothers, just not together.
My next assignment, AIT, was at Ft. Benjamin Harrison, a small Army post-Northeast of Indianapolis. Lined with mature hemlock, white cedar, and blue ash trees and dotted with beautiful historic Colonial Revival buildings, the Fort was commissioned in 1908 named for President Benjamin Harrison, who called the Capital of Indiana home.
I visualized its enormous parade field abuzz with thousands of recruits when it was the busiest reception center in the U.S. during WW’s I & II. Now it served as a training center for many clerical Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) and other Army activities. I would be on temporary duty at Ft. Ben several times in my Army and Government career for advanced training.
In the Fall of ’66, I was here to attend the Defense Information School (DINFOS), which trained all branches of the service in journalism for print and broadcast specialties. This is the school I got for giving an extra year to Uncle Sam. I was assigned to print for some unknown reason instead of the broadcast course. Close enough, I thought maybe I could do both, but I had a problem.
I was a poor typist and lousy speller; by the time I pecked out dateline “INDIANAPOLIS (UPI)” most students had completed their first sentence. I fell behind quickly struggled, and about two weeks into the 10-week course, I washed out, “Too slow, too many grammatical errors, not imaginative.”
Right then, I could have been relegated to Cook School,* without breach of contract where people like me, who hadn’t made the grade, were typically sent. “Failure to successfully complete promised training course(s) will relieve the Army of any obligation of said training,” read the agreement.
So, the extra year I was giving the Army, three years in all, I’d be peeling spuds in an overheated mess hall, standing in a serving line dumping what GI’s consider slop into their trays, and taking guff from a moody old Mess Sergeant?
I needed to think fast, go on the offensive. I had to appeal my case as private (lowest rank in the military) to a USAF lieutenant colonel. In my best radio voice, I convinced the colonel that I was supposed to have been assigned to the Broadcast course in the first place. The DINFOS Commandant said okay, but I’d have to pass a series of auditions. I started the Broadcast course already in progress, graduated in the top one-half, and was awarded the MOS 71R20.
I was looking forward to spinning Paint It Black & Homeward Bound, somewhere.
After AIT, I received my orders: “Report to Reception station, Oakland, not later than 31 December 1966.” That’s great, duty in San Francisco Bay Area! But the order continues . . . “final destination APO 96256.” Army Post Office 96256 directs mail to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade in Southeast Asia, uh, Vietnam.
I had enough time for a few days leave, before my reporting date, which I took to see my parents and brother in Mississippi instead of visiting Marty. While there on Christmas Day I contracted pneumonia and was admitted to the nearby Columbus AFB Hospital. I wasn’t going to make my reporting date.
Over the past few years, I’ve written several feature articles about veterans and their experiences in WW II, Korea, and Vietnam. I’ve garnered appreciation and acclaim for my writing, and the stories appeared in several publications and on the World Wide Web. Some of the details I elicited from these Veterans about their experiences in war was uncomfortable for me to hear.
As a veteran, I had an idea of what it must have felt like for them, their emotions, their pain. It was sometimes difficult to get the men to open up, especially former POW Tom McMahon. He more than once said during the interviews, “What are you doing, interrogating me!?”
I am flattered that he trusted me with his most intimate thoughts and his unimaginable suffering as a prisoner of the Nazis. He had never shared such raw emotions with other writers. Tom was pleased with the story, and for me, that was a compliment of the highest order.
Shortly after my feature on him was published, he quit granting interviews. McMahon died in his sleep February 14, 2021, just shy of his 96th birthday. (See Bonus Chapter IV, With Deep Regret, in Part II of this book).
As uncomfortable as I am sometimes with the details I hear while writing about fellow veterans; tougher still is for me to open up with my own personal experiences in Vietnam. That, however, is what I’ll be writing about in the next few chapters.
*The culinary arts are all the rage these days, and without intending to insult any readers who were Army Cooks, it wasn’t considered the most desirable MOS at the time. If out in the bush, pounding the ground all day and dodging VC popping up from tunnels, Cook (MOS) might have some appeal. To start out as a one, not so much.
“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 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, 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.
It was no cold-stormy-rainy-night with wind whistling through the trees. In fact, it wasn’t night or cold. It was just time to take a break from 1967, and get the heck out of Vietnam for a moment. I’ll make any excuse or write about any subject, however controversial, to delay getting into the nitty-gritty of combat for a while.
Let me, before I get any further, remind you My Life At The Limitis an R-rated-read because of Language and Violence. It is also rated R for Realism and Honesty. I hope you find, in these pages, that it’s entertaining, informative, and sometimes funny as well. It’s not a Politically Correct piece, but I’ll not use racy language and delve into controversy just because I can. I’m not trying to convince my readers that I’m fearless and edgy in my prose.
In the next few chapters on Vietnam, though, I’m not going to tell you we lost someone on the battlefield (what, can’t find him)? Instead, you’ll hear something like: “He caught a large piece of shrapnel in the gut and kept asking if he was going to die, lied to, then made us to promise that we tell his mom he loved her and bled out before the Medevac arrived.” That’s reality, and that’s what you’ll read in this book.
As I began writing this book, there was lots of news about the “Me Too Movement” as was the issue of “Racism.” An overwhelming 87 percent of African-Americans say Black people face lots of discrimination in the U.S. and 49 percent of white Americans agree!*
The February 2018 poll was conducted before the Roseanne tweet, which no doubt further inflamed the issue. I’m pissed at her (Roseanne) for two main reasons. First, I liked the show which I won’t be seeing again and Second, I’m disappointed, she does indeed sound like a racist. Thanks for flaming the fire, Rose.
Last subject first. By now, no doubt, you know that I’m from Mississippi. “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi,” said William Faulkner, the renowned writer from the state named after that river. Then LBJ (not my favorite President) opined “There’s America, There’s the South, then there’s Mississippi.”
In his book Tell About the South, Fred Hobson said, “The Southerner, more than any other American, has felt he has something to explain, to justify, to defend or affirm.” Guess he was mostly talking about white folk. John Grisham believes, “Suffering that has been self-inflicted by slavery, war, poverty, injustice, intolerance. Great conflict produces great art, and Mississippi has its share of both.” But Malcolm X said, “As far as I’m concerned, Mississippi is anywhere south of the Canadian border.”
On the plus side, Mississippi in the last few decades has attracted dozens of writers and aspiring ones, (including African Americans) from around the world, to Oxford and the Delta. The renown William Faulkner compiled his immense catalog of works in Oxford and he and John Grisham graduated from the University of Mississippi in the city, where a popular and respected course is offered on Creative Writing. There’s a writing club in Oxford, numbering several dozen, and an eclectic bookstore in the town, Square Books. Authors from the area, who established successful careers elsewhere, have returned to the Oxford area to live, and continue writing.
As for me, I can only speak about the people I know, who live in the state. My amazing brother Dale, age 81, cared for his invalid wife for twenty years and for many years, provided for the well-being of our elderly Momma and Daddy. He is a well-respected member of the community and continues to help people. Dale has lived in Mississippi his entire life and resides less than two miles from the old place, the house where he was born. All his children, grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren live within a few miles of him. Point: He’s a really good man, and no racist, who happens to live in Mississippi.
Many of my high school classmate friends happily reside in, and love, the Magnolia State. Although I have not seen or visited them for several years, they are among my most avid readers. I have rekindled my friendship with Loyd and Boyd Pearson, twins, from our high school days; they both still live in the area where they grew up: Hatley and Amory, Mississippi. With another classmate, Joe Howell, I have done the same. All have provided me with inspiration. I would not have remained friends with any of them, if thought they were racist.
I’m not writing, however, to someone or for someone. I’m writing honestly about myself, my feelings, and my life experiences.
Living in the über liberal state that California is, I do not advertise that I’m from the state of Mississippi. I’ve come to that conclusion after extensive travel, interacting with other races, religions, and nationalities and my experiences in the U.S. Army active duty, U. S. Air Force Civil Service, as a major market Disc Jockey, a University Lecturer, Newspaper Editor and many other adventures. “Hey there, I from Mississippi,” would need to be followed be with, “But don’t think for a second, I’m a racist.” It is a counterproductive and time-consuming effort. It’s best for me, initially, left unsaid.
Once I have known someone for a while, my Mississippi heritage is not an issue, and I’m not ashamed of it. If I met someone of Africa-American descent, for the first time, and desired to make an acquaintance, I would not consider blurting, “Nice to meet you, I’m Don from Miss-cippi.” If we became friends and after a while, he determined I was a decent guy and not a racist, fine.
Crunch all the data you wish, and Mississippi will be at the top or near the top as the most racist state in the U.S. (Thank goodness for Texas and Louisiana.) Mississippi is usually at number one as the poorest as well. (Thank goodness for West Virginia and Arkansas.) This is reality.
I, like many writers, may never be able to shake my conscience free of the place because in Mississippi, nothing is ever escaped.
As for people in Northern states, they are far from angelic on the issue of race, based on my experience and data that support it. (I’m looking at you, Detroit.) Although I’m unable to defend Mississippi’s stigma of racism — that many consider indefensible — doesn’t mean I’m ashamed of my past while living in the state from birth to age 17. Here is what I remember from my personal experiences there.
Growing up in the early to Mid-60s with segregation, race relations for me, and all the white people I knew was simple, there were no relations — good or bad. That made it easy for me.
Although it was not uncommon to hear the “N-word” in the community at large, I rarely heard it at home. I never heard my Daddy or my brother Dale say the “N-word,” and the few times I heard Momma use it was in the context of “He’s been working like an ‘N.’” Hardly meant as an insult, but of course, insensitive to express.
And I never heard her or anyone in my family put down Black people or warn me about “Colored” folk. Momma was a good Christian woman. Would she have advocated inviting Blacks to attend Hatley Missionary Baptist church? Of course not, nor would they have accepted.
My family was not part of any effort to punish Black folk, and although we had heardof people being in the Klan, our family and friends never considered joining such a group. Of course, one didn’t have to be a KKK member to be racist.
I never thought of our family or anyone we were close to being racists, but in the purest sense of the definition, who knows? And one can be a racist while thinking they are not, I suppose. None of our ancestors (in our family tree of several generations) were ever slave owners; we were, and had been farmers, including dirt-poor sharecroppers, many years ago.
Our genealogy, in fact, revealed that a distant relative (not living in Mississippi) served in the Union Navy. Continuing Slavery was of no benefit, whatsoever, to any of my relatives past, some of whom died fighting in the Confederate Army, and a few who made it home, returned to nothing.
That said, and the manner in which I’ve treated African-Americans at work,** play, and in my community leaves me without any White Guilt.
Unquestionably, African-Americans have suffered incalculably at the hand of Anglo-Saxons and some of their African brothers, who sold them into slavery. The vile behavior and language that exists still today toward Black’s sixty years past the sixties, I would never have considered saying or even have thoughts about some of the things I’ve heard — most certainly not now. Approaching the third decade of the 21st Century, such behavior is more disgraceful and abhorrent than ever.
The persecution of one’s ancestors, of course, does not provide license today for any unlawful or repulsive behavior against the mores of the society at large. That I grew up and came out of the Deep South in the early to Mid-60s with negligible animus toward African-Americans is noteworthy and a source of pride.
(My sometimes Editor — gorgeous wife Cheri — thought that last sentence was self-serving, self-righteous and unnecessary.) For the Record: I am and have for many years been a registered Independent.
Last-minute update: Recently, a NASCAR Cup driver uttered the N-word on his team radio. This was a young man who got his break, getting into racing, as part-Asian, through NASCAR’s diversity program! Insensitive behavior, slurs like this, especially from a young person, continues to astonish me. (Did he hear African-American artists who sometimes use such words in rap songs, and it just slipped out?) I’m not excusing his behavior if that were the case, and no, I’m not blaming rap for white people’s insensitive remarks.
Now for the “Me Too Moment.” I doubt you’ll hear of me caught up in that thing. First, I’m too insignificant, and Second, I never asked a girl/woman on a date more than once. Thirdly, I was brought up to respect and honor women, and do. Finally, I raised twin girls and taught them to recognize and stand up for themselves on the issue of sexual harassment.
You may remember from earlier chapters when I dated more than one lady at a time, and I may have been guilty of behavior like “leading women on.” That was in my very young years, and I never cheated on a partner when in a committed relationship or marriage. Also, note my apology to Mary in Chapter ten.
I’m wondering if this break was such a good idea. This chapter has been the most difficult to write so far. But the chapters ahead, on Vietnam, will be even more arduous.
Do you ever get tired of people telling you to “Have a nice day?” (No, thanks, I have other plans.) They don’t mean it, do they? If you really want me to have a nice day, then quit telling me to. Maybe I am getting a little edgy. Now that I’ve insulted many of my readers, back to Vietnam.
*Public Religion Research Institute, reported by CNN.
**My record as a USAF General Manager in promotion and hiring practices support that claim.
No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it. Carl von Clausewitz, circa 1905.
Flying me and 75 other replacements, closer to the war, the USAF C-130 Hercules landed hard onto the too-short runway at the An Khe Army Airfield and quickly reversed thrust to keep from overshooting.
Here in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, was a sight to behold: The elite 1stCavalry Division (Airmobile), headquarters for “The First Team,” boasting 16,000 men including Airborne, Ranger, Pathfinder and other specially trained Skytroopers; high-tech gun-ships and support helicopters numbered 434.
Because of those expensive weapons-of-war-aircraft and other security concerns, Camp Radcliff,* (unlike most other large US bases in Vietnam) was off-limits to Vietnamese Nationals. That meant low-ranking GI’s like me, did the dirty work usually performed by indigenous Vietnamese.
The enemy made up for the prohibition of their fellow Vietnamese (many of whom would spy for them) by launching mortars our way most every night.
My temporary quarters would be at Camp Radcliff, near the PIO headquarters building, just a couple of hundred yards from where our helicopters lifted-off for combat sorties, and (hopefully) returned for fuel, munitions and maintenance.
While I looked for a place to bunk, I thumbed the small wheel on my transistor, trying to get better reception from AFVN, as they played I’m ABeliever by the Monkeys. I found an empty corner in an old hooch located one hut over from the quarters of a slender USAF major from Ohio, the Weather Officer for the 1st Cav.
The nightly booms and echoes we were hearing had nothing to do with a weather event. It was our own 105-mm artillery (harassment & interdiction) rounds that filled the night as we lay half-awake and alert for a different sound — the shrill** of incoming mortars. Although the VC were typically aiming for our helicopters, we were close enough. For us and a dozen others who occupied makeshift shelters, we had access to a nearby bunker.
On my first day at Camp Radcliff, among tents, hooches, hard and dusty red dirt, stiffing heat and weary line soldiers on a short break from the field, just about everybody I encountered was talking about one of our undermanned Cav companies that was overrun by the NVA less than two weeks ago.
Twenty-eight of our soldiers were killed and 87 were wounded at LZ Bird on 27 December 66. The six men who survived, in one platoon, were saved by the firing of a beehive round; its first use in Vietnam. The projectile is a canister containing 8,000 fléchettes (darts) of metal fired horizontally and at ground level from a 105-mm howitzer at 1,600 feet per second that obliterates everything in its line of site. (A description of the battle, written by a man who was in the thick of it, Spencer Matteson, is included in Book II, Chapter V Bad Night at LZ Bird.)
In the context of that horrific battle — the dead, the wounded, the overwhelming fear and hopelessness — my first detail at the camp, as a honey-dipper, didn’t seem so bad.
A fifty-five-gallon drum cut in half, two-thirds full of diesel fuel, sat below the holes in the camp’s outhouses. When they were about to overflow with crap, someone needed to burn it. That task would go to low ranking enlisted like me.
Here’s a brief indoctrination, for the layperson, on the art of burning shit: Grab the rebar type handles welded near the top and carefully pull the honeypots out. Add a bit more diesel, stir a little, throw in a lighted match or carefully lower a Zippo®, ignite, stand back, and watch it burn.
This burning was done in the of the heat of the day, and it was usually hot in An Khe. And during the monsoons, it was not an ideal spot to dry out. On the upside, when on this detail, nobody messed with you.
In a few hours, the turds would be crispy enough to dump. Refill the drums to the proper level and push them back under the holes of the outhouses, all done. Unsurprisingly, this was known as the shit-detail — literally.
Given a choice, I’d take it over KP without hesitation; working in the mess hall peeling spuds, scrubbing pots, and taking shit from a grumpy old mess sergeant was a 10-12 hour detail. I got to do plenty of both.
As for actual work, I hosted news media from the states with briefings, some press releases, and a few other viable tasks at the 1st Cav PIO. One such event included a radio reporter from Chicago that I was assisting. He had just arrived in Vietnam and wanted to go straight to the 1st Cav where the action was.
I met him at our PIO in An Khe about 2100 one evening just as we were getting some incoming. He turned on his recorder, and in a high pitch voice announced. “I’m [whatever his name was] in An Khe, South Vietnam [heavy breathing, hyperventilating] and we’re under attack [near screaming] at this moment by the NVA,” he was yelling so loudly and over modulating (as we call it in the business) he almost drowned out the thump and splat of the mortars.
His recording reminded me of a radio reporter (also from Chicago) who thirty years earlier, while witnessing the Hindenburg crash in New Jersey, described it as “The worst catastrophe in the world . . . Oh! the humanity . . . .” Although it was a terrible event that killed 36 people (62 survived) the reporter was widely mocked for his over the top narrative.
Although there were no injuries here, and mortars are no joke, I got a good laugh from the An Khe recording, and the reporter was a bit embarrassed; we were a far cry from being “under attack.”
He and other reporters wanted something more substantial than a routine rocket barrage. They wanted to go where there was fighting. I, too, wanted that. I didn’t go through BCT, become a highly trained killer, and a Broadcast Specialist for shit details.
Unlike most support personnel, I had the option of volunteering for the forward areas. And that I did. It would prove to be more interesting and a lot riskier than burning shit. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.
The slick sleeve below Pfc., like me, (I thought) at the Armory in An Khe didn’t question my choice or amount of armament once he found out where I was headed. I had never seen, let alone fired, the recently introduced M-16 I was issued.
Before I left for “Cowboy Country” farther north, I was told the 1st Sgt. was looking for me, and when I stood before him, he said in a raised voice, “You’re out of uniform, soldier.” I was looking around my fatigues and jungle boots warily when he said: “Don’t worry, Swan, [he said in a joking manner] it’s because you’re not wearing your rank, you’re a Pfc., have been since you got here.” (Enlisted and officer insignia was not usually displayed in the field.) “Thanks, 1st Sgt,” I said, “Wish I’d known that last night when I was on Green Line guard duty.” “What happened,” he said. “Oh, nothing, 1st Sgt.”
What had happened was, the other trooper in the guard tower kept ordering me around because even though we were both privates, he’d reminded me he had been In-Country longer, and I fell for the petty rank pulling. As a PFC, I would have said, “No, you’re going to check the Claymores this time.” (Antipersonnel mines activated by wire). Anyhow, the 1st Shirt said to keep my head down up there and not make too many friends.
When I lumbered onto the ramp of the C-7A Caribou, at the An Khe Airfield, I had with me just about all I could handle, and so did the Caribou with room for just one more, me.
Let’s see, M-16 with bayonet and twelve clips of ammo with eighteen rounds each instead of 20 (less chance of jamming) Check. Six M26 grenades. Check. M-79 launcher (thump gun) with six rounds. Check. Mk V .455 (not army issued) sidearm with dozens of rounds. Check. You get the idea, I also carried a gas mask, first aid kit, entrenching tool, mosquito repellent and net, poncho and liner, C- Rats and P-38 can opener, 3 canteens of water, an extra pair of socks, my 10 x 10-inch reel to reel Panasonic® RQ-1025 tape-recorder with improvised strap and extra batteries, letters from Marty and so on, about 50 lbs.
Although the strip at An Khe was long enough for a leisurely takeoff, the pilot “pulled the guts” on the little Caribou, executing a max vertical tactical takeoff.
I had no preconceived notion on whom I would encounter onboard, but I wasn’t expecting what I saw: A dozen Green Berets with CAR-15s (Modified M-16s) Chopped M-79 Grenade Launchers and sidearms I didn’t recognize at the time. They weren’t wearing berets. Their headgear was green cravats with uniforms in leaf pattern camo, sans patches, name tags, insignia. Onboard for the short lift to Bong Son, they weren’t engaging in horse-play. They were quiet and looking straight ahead. I thought it unwise to ask, “Wassup?” (Oh, wait, that trash-talking hadn’t been invented yet.) Saying or asking nothing was wise, I surmised, and that’s what I did while sitting on my helmet in the droning Caribou.
There were several Marines abroad as well; there was a small Marine detachment in Bong Son. They weren’t completely stoic, but they were not loud, laughing or telling jokes either.
The Caribou we were guests on is a short landing and takeoff (STOL) tactical transport aircraft which can land within one-thousand feet on unimproved landing strips. These twin-engine prop jobs were a workhorse that kept U.S. troops moving, while freeing up valuable helicopter time for our soldiers who needed to get in real close. Bong Son would be that place. We gently touched down in the dirt, reversed thrust, rolled to a quick stop, and disembarked forthwith. Special Forces, Marines — then me.
*Named after the first U.S. casualty near the camp, an army major.
**Some GIs in Vietnam claimed that certain types of incoming mortars didn’t shrill — but that was not my experience. Everyone was required, once the mortar alert was sounded, to rush into the bunkers. Some just slept through these warnings, rhetorically asking: “What are you going to do, send me to Vietnam?”
The mid-afternoon sun was at full boil, like it was all for me, on this late March day* as I eased toward the small compound at Bong Son. I stepped it up a bit as I forged ahead on the dusty-red dirt-path, trying to keep up with the others — as best I could, lugging 50 lbs in the stifling heat and humidity — wondering where those Special Forces guys were headed. I had no clue where I was going, either, after I found the PIO tent.
As I got closer, I picked-up the bustle of what sounded like a large wilderness camp: jeeps, generators, a bulldozer or two and people moving about. I vacated that fantasy immediately when 155 mm (penny nickel-nickel) cannons began popping in quick succession and gunships in the distance letting loose with M-60s, 7.62 miniguns, and 2.75-in. rocket artillery.
Near the edge of the outpost, I raised the flap on the GP medium (18′ x 36′ tent) behind a sign shaped like a cross, stuck in the dirt, with the horizontal strip artlessly printed in black lettering: “Bong Son PIO.” Inside I saw a few soldiers with no rank insignia, uniforms already soaked-through-wet in the usual places with sweat. They stood in front of a map with grease pencil notations; to the right was another board with markings: “CBS SF, WTOP, ABC Net, Baltimore Sun, and Stringers.”
A few men in casual attire that I assumed to be reporters were sitting, feet propped on makeshift desks, and chatting. Several were puffing on filterless cigarettes. At other tables were TA 312 crank field phones, lots of wires on the dirt floor, and a single light bulb hanging from the apex of the tent. It looked like they could use some help.
Despite the sides rolled up on the OD tent it radiated heat, lots of it, a breeze hardly about. I felt a bit awkward with my heavy load and tape recorder competing for a natural resting spot, with my gas mask. I hunched down and dropped my butt onto a stack of empty ammo crates.
I stood quickly when I saw a tall thin man in his mid-twenties, sidewall haircut,** wearing a U.S. Army Uniform with a 1st Cav patch on the shoulder of his left sleeve, coming my way. He might be the Officer In Charge (OIC) of the 1st Cav’s small PIO detachment here in Bong Son. Yes, he was the man I’d be reporting to, 1st Lt. Blankenship (pseudonym).
Bong Son is 113 kilometers northeast of An Khe in the Binh Dinh Province near the South China Sea in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. It was the forward operating outpost for the 1st Air Cav with choppers, hundreds of troops coming and going, all using it as a base to launch combat operations closer to the enemy.
No formal mess halls, no KP, no formal shitters, no burning shit. Although I had a full-time job here with PIO, I was subject to details like helping set-up tents, assisting the engineers in building bunkers, filling sandbags, digging slit latrines, and pounding spent ARA (aerial rocket artillery) tubes into the dirt for us to piss in. For me, a 14-16 hour day was typical, seven days a week, of course.
I’d rather be out in the bush with the infantry, and I volunteered for those assignments.
The mission in and around Bong Son was straightforward: Search out the enemy, kill him, and destroy his matériel. Now that’s more like it, that is, until you actually do — encounter the enemy.
Until you’re actually in the bush, like this unidentified soldier. The towel around his neck is designed for cooling and keeping insects from his collar. (U.S. Army-Charlie Haughey)
In Vietnam, there were no front-lines per se, but if there were a firefight, ambush, a specific operation with likely enemy contact, that could be considered a front-line, while it lasted. Even the Base Camp back at An Khe could be a front-lineif the enemy were to gain access in significant numbers. Now that I’ve probably confused many of you, it’s safe to say that the Binh Dinh Province, in and around Bong Son, was one of the Cav’s most active areas of operation during the time I covered it, Jan. 67-Jan. 68.
My first field assignment would be my most significant, considering the eventual publicity and culminating at the highest level: The White House.***
Lt. Blankenship, my OIC, knew me from nothing, I was a Private First Class with no experience in the field, no record of anything actually, and had been In-Country all of two months. He, no doubt, saw me as just another soul sent from HQ (at the member’s request) he’d be somewhat responsible for.
It was mid-morning, Monday, March 20, 1967, AFVN was playing Happy Together by the Turtles. At the White House, 14 hours behind us, LBJ would be celebrating a birthday in a few hours.
I was in the PIO tent answering phones, rereading, and taking in the scent of a letter from Marty when I got a message from G-2. One of our Cav companies several clicks (kilometers) farther north was in jeopardy of being overrun by a superior enemy force. Requests for reinforcements had just been flash messaged Z.
I raced to my tent, gathered my gear, returned, and volunteered to go to the scene and cover it for AFVN radio news. I would try to chopper-in with some of the reinforcements.
My OIC — thinking I couldn’t get a lift — approved it. Within the hour, I was Airmobile and cruising at 100 knots barely above the palm trees, in a UH-1D 1st Cav Slick. (Unarmed logistics ship, although some had door gunners.)
I made my case over the fluttering chopper blades and rotor-wash to the pilot in the right seat (usually occupied by the Pilot in Command) why I needed a lift. Halfway through my appeal, he pointed toward an open door. With one foot on the runner, I hopped aboard and found a hold on the support of the already occupied canvas seat, slid my butt on the floor to the open port door, and sat next to another trooper. With our legs suspended just outside the chopper, we pointed or M-16s straight ahead. The pilot pulled power on 6,500 lb Huey, dipped its nose, and lifted us above the palms in less than three seconds.
The pilots were on ass-and-trash duty (non-combat passengers & supplies) when they were diverted to Bong Son to pick up some troopers that were needed to assist the Cav company farther north. Onboard was a squad of six infantrymen laden with M-16s, M-79s, fragmentation grenades, an M-60 with several bandoliers of ammo (about 45lbs alone), several canteens of water and a bunch of other stuff, a huge load for sure.
The men appeared anxious. A half-hour ago, one of these soldiers was probably catching up on some sleep, folding a good hand of poker, listening to a tape from home, or about to get off alert and scrounge a lukewarm can of Schlitz® when notified they were shipping out immediately.
To the West, the beautiful Annamite mountain range (2,819 meters) and to our right, waves from the South China Sea crawling gently onto the sugar white beaches, made our flight seem more like a sightseeing expedition than a military operation. Upon closer observation, the landscape below was dotted with bomb craters, some fresh, while others reflected water in the bright sunshine. The air at our altitude was cool, and we were ready for what awaited us — I thought.
One of the soldiers, sitting atop his helmet, raised his voice, over the din of our vibrating, amped-up bird, and said to no one in particular “If a Cav company is in trouble, there must be beaucoup gooks out there,” and then looked my way and said, “You been out there, out there in the shit?” “Yes, No, I mean, No,” I stuttered. He shook his head and went back to adjusting stuff. I would have felt even more out of place, had my jungle fatigues and boots not been broken in, a quick tip-off for being a FNG (f—ing new guy).
Another trooper dangled a Pall Mall® from his lips, unsure if he was allowed to smoke, or if he could light it with his Zippo® at this altitude with the doors open.
Our unarmed chopper would not fly near a suspected VC battalion with crew-served weapons just to insert the seven of us. But it would get us closer.
My first flight in a Huey was exhilarating and a bit uneasy, especially when the pilots banked a hard left squeezing all 1,400 hp from its turboshaft engine and straining our bodies with about 2 Gs (gravity); I realized, I was just along for the ride.
A first-timer like me inadvertently tumbling from one of the wide open doors where I was sitting, at thirty-five-hundred feet would be a detriment to the mission, and the battalion commander would, no doubt, have some tough questions for the pilots. Finally, an unlucky clerk would be tasked to diplomatically explain my “non-combat death” — for the commander’s signature — in a letter to my next of kin.
After about twenty-minutes in flight, I felt the chopper bleeding off speed and losing altitude as the pilots lowered the collective, assumed a slight nose up attitude, and decreased RPM. At the insertion point, the pilots settled into a hover, about 12 feet above ground, swaying the vegetation. The Slick hovered scarcely low enough and barely long enough for us to leap from the skids. I landed awkwardly, shoulder-high in Elephant Grass.
Now 1,700lbs lighter, the pilots kept the bird low, RPMs high, and swooped away like a hawk chasing prey, and soared to altitude. They disappeared way too soon for my comfort.
I thought about the popular and prudent military truism, “Never Volunteer for Anything.”
The seven of us had just been inserted in the Plains, about 50 clicks North-Northeast of Bong Son and alone. It was quiet except for the whir and buzz of swarming insects, and a monkey or two sounding off in the distance. Now we were getting a taste of what it must be like for the elite Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP), who are dropped off in small numbers and on their own for several days at a time. We weren’t expecting to be out that long. But, still.
There were no known friendlies except for the Cav platoon we were to reconnoiter with. Where? We didn’t know exactly. Our best intel from G-2 and the erstwhile chopper pilots indicated about ten clicks farther northeast. We had maps, a prick twenty-five (PRC-25 radio), impressive armament, first aid kits, several canteens of water, C-rations, and a buck sergeant to lead us safely to our destination. The standing joke was, don’t worry about the bullet with your name on it so much as the one with: “To whom it may concern.”
If we met enemy resistance, larger than a platoon, well, I tried not to think like that. I had no input, nor should I, in planning our route or tactics. My responsibility would entail scanning the terrain, remain in the prescribed formation, take orders from the squad leader, and do nothing stupid. Sounds easy enough.
The monsoons had pretty much rained out this far north, and in the sparse vegetation, we had little protection from the early afternoon sun; chalky-white residue bordered the wettest spots on our uniforms, already soaked from the heat and humidity.
I had already lathered myself with army-issue bug spray, 100% DEET, marginally effective, but it was good for removing the dreaded leeches. I was told to be careful of swatting insects, as the enemy knew only GI’s did that. (I would also learn that when insects are slapped, especially the mosquito, the injection stem, often, remains embedded in the skin.)
During a brief break as we feasted on C-rats, I got affirmation of what I’d been hearing all along; few GIs are fond of the ham and lima beans entrée. I loved them. I could trade most anything (even crackers, salt or sugar) for a can of that nourishing mix. Had a Snickers® bar been available, I’d smack down 20 MPC dollars (military pay currency) without hesitation, and savor for 20 minutes. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.
After burying our trash, we hydrated and moved out proceeding in a wedge formation, as much a squad can, or we maintained a squad column. When the terrain began closing on us, we moved in a trail formation. Our squad leader kept reminding us not to bunch-up. When we encountered thick canopy, the squad leader put one of the men on point, his M-16 on “semi [auto],” with his magazines taped together, one up and one down for a quick change.
By the time we had covered a couple of clicks, we heard sporadic clack, clack, clack, in the distance, indicative of AK-47 small arms fire. Our RTO employed his radio but was unable to raise the 1st Cav platoon, we believed to be near our location. During a brief respite, our squad leader reiterated our responsibilities. We took a few sips of water and moved out in the direction of the gunfire.
With each step, the top of my snug jungle boots pressed down and pierced the soft skin in and around my inflamed, and sweat-soaked ingrown toenails of both feet. I’d already found open blisters on my heels at our last break. Here I was trying to keep up with foot soldiers, and I was having foot trouble. Of course, I wouldn’t tell or complain to the men in the squad. Soon enough, I’d see pain from a different perspective.
After advancing for another half-hour, we spotted unidentified troops at about 500 meters from our elevated location and quickly moved into a concealed position. Unfortunately, no one had field glasses, and our RTO was still unable to reach any friendlies.
We became whisper-quiet, communicating with hand signals. No cigarettes from here on, recheck weapons, determine if any equipment was making noise as we walked. (Dog tags were already taped together.) We proceeded slowly and strategically, hot and tired, not swatting insects.
When we were within about 100 meters of the troops we had spotted earlier, our squad leader determined they were friendlies. We spread out, crouched in the vegetation, and began to high crawl when finally our RTO made contact. The squad leader popped smoke (asking them to identify the color) to be sure they knew our location and the direction we were coming. We found the haggard infantrymen in a sandy field lined with palms trees and dotted with local grave mounds.
Hot and tired, I backed away from the group of soldiers and stood alone watching — wondering if I would have a story to file, or how and when I would get back to Bong Son — when a scourge of mosquitoes swarmed overhead and descended upon me with their unmistakable high-pitched whining. The winged warriors punctured my sweat-soaked skin, injected saliva, and sucked blood, leaving itchy red welts from their painful bites. I resisted the urge (from previous advice) to slap the parasites attacking me, hoping I was up-to-date on my Primaquine. I squirted the last of my army-issue bug juice around my collar and down the back of my neck.
We had made it to our first objective; find some 1st Cav troopers and join them in search for the Cav Company. The soldiers were from 1st platoon, down by 20 men, and far from being fresh troops. The seven of us gave up one canteen each, enough for a few sips for each man.
Haggard Trooper, (unidentified) in Binh Dinh area, near ambush site in March 1967. (US Army Charlie Haughey)
*March and April were the hottest months in the Central Highlands.
**Army lingo for hair shaved from sides of the head, similar to Kim Jong-un.
***After my initial foray with a Cav infantry platoon, there would still be plenty of time for action and adventure in attacks from an enemy, that many times, we never saw.
Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place. — President John F. Kennedy, June 1961.
An hour before sunset, 20 March 1967, near village of Tan An, Bong Son Plain, Bind Dinh Province, Central Highlands, South Vietnam.
I shielded my eyes as the late afternoon sun sank toward the horizon directly in front of us, but it was still plenty hot. Soon I would realize the true meaning of heat. I cautiously maneuvered around anthills, and grave mounds, followed by harassing swarms of insects that buzzed overhead.
Today I’d already choppered from Bong Son on my first aerial sortie, and marched about five kilometers through enemy territory with an infantry squad. We had finally caught-up with the platoon we’d been searching for; it was down to half-strength, leaving just 20 men.
Some of the soldiers sat on their steel pot’s field stripping their weapons, with both hands busy, smokers squinted as their cigarettes burned short. Others stirred on the sandy field, complaining about, and trading C-rations. A few, wearing sleeveless flack jackets, were posted around the perimeter, M-16s at the ready.
No salutes were exchanged when our squad leader reported to the tall-slim, 2nd lieutenant, who was commander of 1st Platoon. His weathered face belied his age of 23. An army issue Benrus™ hack-capable-watch, hung from the left pocket of his jungle fatigues. On his right hip, a shiny-black leather holster encased his standard issue M-1911A1 .45 caliber pistol. He held a folded-up map.
The Lieutenant (who had just minutes to live) met with his platoon sergeant and squad leaders. The plan was simple; his depleted platoon would move out and consolidate with other troopers thought to be close by. We would proceed, forthwith, toward the village of Troung Son on our way to assist the Cav Company.
In the group of soldiers, unknown and unnoticed to me at the time, was the platoon’s medic, a young man from the Midwest, the youngest of four children and the only boy. His mother struggled to take care of the family of five after his father died, when he was just four. After a year at the University of Nebraska, he ran out of funds, and was working at a warehouse in his hometown of Lincoln, when the local draft board took an interest in him. Soon, Uncle Sam came calling and welcomed him into the fold of the US Army.
The medic would not remain anonymous. Soon, there would be a calamity that gave cause for me to remember him — forever.
In our society today, there are many who are wont to describe natural disasters and murder scenes as war zones — looking like war zones. I will concede living in California as I do, fires sometimes leave devastation that looks similar to Hiroshima, and some scenes at mass shootings are akin to remnants of a small-scale battle.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for those (not in a war zone, not expecting terror) who were in the line of fire, gunned down by the coward they couldn’t see, shooting from an elevated position in Las Vegas.
But don’t ever say: “It was like being in a war zone,” unless you have. A well-executed ambush from an entrenched enemy, in my experience, is the worst. It is pure Terror. The Noise: unimaginable, impossible to overstate. The Speed, the Shock, the Carnage, the Pandemonium, again impossible to delineate. Then there’s the Smell: sulfur, burning flesh and hair, and the copper scent of blood.
And in store for us this pleasant and serene Monday afternoon were two companies of NVA, estimated at 300, lying in wait for our undermanned platoon, now all of 27 men compliments of our arrival.
Shadows grew longer on the mostly open field ahead as the late afternoon sun dipped closer to the horizon. A row of tall palm trees, just to our right, stood about twenty feet apart, head-high vegetation grew between them. We moved out around waist high grave mounds and anthills in a column formation.
We had advanced no more than three-hundred meters, when our point man yelled, “Ambush!” In a split second, he was face down — dead.
Clak clak, baroom, varoom, splat, boosh, bwoom, splat, kya-du-ku-ku-dun-dun, poom, poom, splat . . . . At close range, hell was instantly unleashed on the entire platoon from our right flank. We were in the cross-hairs of an L-shape ambush, the most efficient and deadly.
White-hot-lead (at 2,400 deg. F) dammed us at supersonic speed; the noise was overwhelming:
Ka-ka-ka, brata-tat-tat, in a deadly rhythm, taka taka, rat-a-tat-tat,da-kka skrr-ahh, pop, pop, pop, p-warp, w-rocck, as 7.62 caliber bullets from Soviet PKM machine guns and projectiles from recoilless rifles flashed from concealed, dug-in concrete bunkers, ripping and tearing into the men — spitting out death at twice the speed of sound.
Snipers in trees aimed their K-44s with deadly accuracy, kung, kung, kung, rang out with an eerie echo, then splat, splat, thumping bullets into the heads and necks of the platoon’s leadership. Eighty-one-mm mortars with the force of small artillery rained from above, ssss-whom, whump, whump wham,ssss-blamm, splat.
Shock waves generated an ominous snap as Russian RGD fragmentation grenades exploded . . . boom, poom, poom, bwoom . . . unleashing shards of white-hot metal in a ruthless ring of fire. Deafening cracks of man-made thunder overwhelmed our senses, including sensory stimuli we could have done without, like the dreaded smell of sulfurous dioxide from the ordinance, the copper-metallic scent of blood, and the despicable fetor of burning skin and eviscerated internal organs. No one in attendance will likely forget this day. Not the Smell. Not the Sound. I will never forget.
For us, Hell had become a place on Earth. It felt like the entire war was being fought right here, that all the NVA in Vietnam was out for us, and not relenting until no American invader remained. We would be overrun, our throats cut, our weapons seized, our body’s stripped and desecrated — our blood used to enrich the red on their NVA flag.
Some of our soldiers made cover behind grave mounds, small palms, anything. The not so fortunate screamed and scattered as blood squirted, bones splintered, abdomens exploded, body parts disintegrated, skin burned, and the pink mist of pulverized brain matter sprayed from skulls — all in the blink of an eye.
Before I could react or grasp the melee and chaos that overwhelmed us, a concussion blast threw me into the air — separating me from my M-16, tape recorder and helmet — and landed me hard, flat on my back, in a small depression on the sandy field. The upper part of my chest was stinging like a nest of pissed-off hornets was trapped under my fatigue jacket.
My ears rang incessantly, smoke overwhelmed my nostrils, and I smelled burning flesh from a blistering sting just below my neck where hot metal had pitted through my jungle fatigues. I brushed and patted out the smoke, lucky to be alive, I reasoned.
After sweeping sand from my eyelashes, I spotted an M-16 and helmet at two or three meters to my right. I rolled toward them, hugging the earth, and clutched the weapon to my chest and lay dead-still, but observant.
For a brief moment — struck by fear or pain — I couldn’t move. I was overcome with the emotional rupture of death. My heart pounded in my throat.
I was lucid enough to observe the tangerine tint of the late afternoon sky, but drawn to the carnage that surrounded me.
My mortality was in grave danger, and I thought — death was imminent. What I was seeing and hearing erased any doubt. The sound of men yelling-screaming-crying-dying and the thunder from the weapons were irrepressible. Soldiers were down all around me, most with obliterated viscera that no one could survive. A blood covered pack of Pall-Mall’s lay alongside one of the men; probably the trooper who was on the chopper with me on the way in.
The quickness of the bullet is sometimes slower than the quickness of thought. In a nanosecond,* I recalled special memories like Momma's apple turnovers, Daddy's peanut brittle, my brother teaching me to ride on his new bike, catching my first fish, my first ride in Tommie's Tri-Power GTO, dedicating a song, on my radio show, to my girlfriend, and my first date with Marty would all melt away — disappear forever. Although just nineteen, I'd already aged far beyond that, those memories seemed to be a lifetime ago.
I raised my chin toward the heavens, observed the darkening sky, tried to take in more oxygen, only to inhale more acrid smoke.
As the smoke and haze of the ambush dissipated, movement toward any cover, or remaining still, seemed hopeless. There was nowhere to hide, no way out, except to shoot it out.
I can describe how fear feels, but not courage; for that, I needed a hero. I didn’t have to wait long. He was tall and slim, with a handsome-oval face and dark closely cropped hair, and he was our medic.
The Spc. 4 reacted instantly by grabbing an M-16 from a severely wounded comrade. Without hesitation, he single-handedly took out an enemy sniper in a tree, then employed an M-79 grenade launcher to silence a machine gun position. Seemingly before he took another breath, he unleashed another M-16 from his shoulder and assertively dispatched three or four more NVA along the width of the seemingly endless ambush site!
He pulled an M-60 from his dead gunner, gave it to a rifleman for more firepower, and lobbed hand grenades into enemy positions.
To aid his wounded comrades — every move drawing enemy fire — he dashed, sometimes crawled, totally exposed through the withering enemy fire, again and again, refusing cover. Bullets struck his poncho; streaking lead cracked all around him.
Finding his Platoon Leader with a gunshot wound to the head, he gave him a shot of morphine while lying atop the officer for his protection. When he saw who was firing at them, he pivoted, took aim and eliminated the shooter, then found his lieutenant — dead.
One of his two machine gunners was KIA, and his Platoon Sergeant, like many others, badly wounded.
The Spc. 4 was now platoon leader!
Finding the RTO wounded, he pulled him to a safer spot, provided aid, then grabbed the PRC-25 handset and succeeded in reaching his Company Commander. Although they were in the shit too, the Captain said when he heard the cacophony of battle (the ambush) he’d sent third platoon, but they couldn’t find him. “All hell is breaking loose, the ‘ville’ is burning all around us, we have dead and wounded, we need help now, and they can’t find us!?” Astounded, Hagemeister shouted, “I’ll find them.” His face showed fierce determination.
Our medic dropped the handset, wiped blood on his fatigues, took a breath, rolled his neck, pulled his hands down his face, flexed his jaw muscles, then promptly got back to the business at hand. In war, death leaves no room for rest.
After reassuring his wounded radio operator that he’d be OK and help was on the way, he secured his medical satchel over his shoulder, shoved a fresh clip of 5.56 ammo in his M-16, and high crawled with it cradled in his arms. The medic pulled himself up on one knee, secured a foothold, covered his advance with suppressing fire, ran a distance weathering a storm of bullets, and returned with men from third platoon to help us repel the ambush.
Hot, scared, and thirsty, I was nevertheless encouraged by our superhero. I had slithered a few feet from the fallen, hugging the earth, steel pot on, M-16 at the ready.
I had no advanced infantry training or a squad leader anymore; what could I do? Lie still, keep my head down. No.
When I saw reinforcements from our sister platoon coming from the north, I believed our western flank might be in jeopardy. With the additional infantrymen on site, there seemed to be adequate firepower on the enemy emplacements to our right. But, if the NVA encircled us, from the left, we would surely be overrun. Perhaps I could delay any such intent. After quickly conferring with one of the infantrymen, I switched to auto, aimed my M-16 to the west, and gently squeezed the trigger; recoil pounded my shoulder, and a reverberating brrrt, brrrt, brrrt rumbled as I unleashed three 5-round bursts of suppressing fire.
With the ejection port on the right and me shooting left-handed, the hot brass was flying toward my face like confetti, but stinging like Mississippi fire ants.
I loaded another clip, disgorged 18 more rounds of 5.56, popped a 40-mm grenade in my M-79 blooper with a Shss-Dook-Thump and continued firing .It felt good.
Combat is utterly astonishing, terrifying and intoxicating.
An M-60 pig just a few meters to my right, in a deafening but comforting clatter, sprayed 600 rounds per minute into one, then another, of the 50 fortified bunkers with cement casting and overhead cover. Reinforcements brought from other platoons were blasting M-79s, thumping in quick succession — splintering everything within 60 meters — and employing lethal crew-served weapons. Could the cataclysm be turning in our favor?
Then I heard that beautiful sound: Hueys in the distance, Dustoffs hopefully, gunships maybe.
Our incredible soldier, Spc. 4 Hagemeister, still too young to vote, saved at least seven of his fellow Skytroopers, killed at least 10 of the enemy, encouraged and directed his men, treated the wounded, called in the Medevacs, and supervised the evacuation!
Most of the dead and seriously wounded fell within the first minutes. Yet, the twenty-year-old draftee from Lincoln, Nebraska held together for six more hours what was left of 1st Platoon as the darkness fell upon the fields of fire.
Of the 27 soldiers in our platoon who were targeted in the initial ambush, six were killed outright. Just seven escaped death or serious injury. I was one of those. As the intermittent battle continued late into the evening, reinforcements from other platoons, brought in by Hagemeister, also suffered casualties.
I interviewed Hagemeister, as soon as there was a respite in the battle, in case we didn’t make it through the night, my recording might be found by friendly forces (who would learn of the unselfish bravery and valor of our medic).
As I questioned Hagemeister, he echoed what many brave fighting men have said after superhuman feats on the battlefield: “You take care of what you’re supposed to do. You’re there to take care of your men, I was just doing my job . . . didn’t have time to be scared. But I’ve never seen so much fire in my life.” Then he added that the ambush had really pissed him off. Few things are more lethal than Air Cav trooper, with sufficient weaponry, who is motivated into action against an enemy who is slaughtering his fellow soldiers. Hagemeister had charged and decimated the NVA like he was possessed — possessed in a good way.
Incredibly, the lowly Spc. 4 (albeit acting platoon leader) was successful in getting us air support. Artillery was out of question, we were too close to the enemy.
An Eagle Flight of seven heavily armed gunships, topped off with JP-4, was approaching from An Khe in a tactical formation led by the faster ACH-47 at 130 knots on the first, helicopter only, night-assault mission of the Vietnam War. Air Cav choppers from the 227th, 228th and 229th Attack Helicopter Battalions were about to exact some payback on the enemy that remained in and around the ambush site.**
Less than an hour after launching from An Khe, a beautiful noise from the south sounded in the distance. Directed by Hagemeister, Eagle Flight bolted toward us, just above the treetops with navigation lights defeated under a half-moon.
Suddenly, two recently activated Firefly choppers broke formation, approached opposite ends of the ambush site, and flooded the fortifications with an estimated 64 million candlepower while a pair of UH-1B gunships swept in fast and low over the targets, disgorging 30-mm cannons at 60 rounds per second.
Recently introduced ACH-47 Guns-A-Go-Go with 1.5 tons of armament (above & below), swooped in with other gunships, adjusted pitch attitude, decreased RPM, settled in a nose-down hover and triggered a devastating fusillade of fire; spewing four-foot-long 2.75-inch rockets from their pods, thumping M-79s from their launchers, and flashing fire and red tracers from 7.62 cal. and 20-mm cannons into the enemy bunkers.
Founds, knobby stems and sharp spines flew from swaying palms as we retreated a few feet from the reverberating-ear-splitting thunder and intense heat generated by the ordinance. Explosions shook the littered field, incited hellish flames — instantaneously decimating and annihilating everything. Just golf-ball-size rocks and smoking rubble remained. During the two-minute bombardment, no enemy resistance was observed.
What remained of our platoon roared with gratitude.
Despite the havoc wreaked by the gunships, they were gone, and we would have been foolish to assume that no enemy remained, like those who may have escaped deep into tunnels or blended into what was left of the village. We had scarcely enough troops to maintain adequate listening posts, and just three claymores available for our tight perimeter defense. With one soldier always on alert in each foxhole, the occasional AK-47 fire in the distance, and ominous sounds we couldn’t identify, sleep was sporadic. It was a long night.
As the first rays of sunlight filtered through the tattered palms, the enormity of the ambush and ensuing battle revealed a hellscape, where many of our men were cut down before they could fire a single shot.
Another unit was later tasked with the cleanup operation. After such devastation, it was impossible to precisely verify enemy deaths; their losses were believed to be six-times more than we suffered. This favorable ratio provided no solace for us or our dead.
Just after dawn, another helicopter came calling with Maj. Gen. (former enlisted) John Norton, the 49-year-old commander of the 1st Air Cavalry Division and Army aviator, to pay respects to the fallen. A heroic airborne trooper himself in WW II, Gen Norton was an early proponent of the air assault concept. His stood six-foot in a slender frame, with a ruggedly handsome face, slightly bulbous nose, and closely cropped graying hair. He holstered a Colt Commander .45 APC on his right hip, and his customary slender cigar hung loosely between his index and middle finger of his left hand.
Our memorial was on the battlefield where it went down, where our brothers in arms — our friends — had fought and fallen beside us.
As the battle weary soldiers stood at rigid attention, some choked-up as bayoneted weapons were spiked into the soil, helmets atop, boots in front. Heart in the throat raw with solicitude and emotion — a ceremony that no one in attendance would likely forget. The dead ones are out of war, the survivors never leave it.
The commemoration continued with the 1st Cavalry Division Commander pining the Silver Star (third-highest award for valor) on the left pocket of Spc. 4 Charles C. Hagemeister’s shoddy blood-stained uniform for his heroics the previous day while serving as a medic with A Company, 1st Battalion of the 5th Cavalry Regiment (Black Knights).
After at-ease was called and just as I was feeling a bit like an intruder, a couple of the infantrymen approached and patted me on my back. These honorable soldiers, I would not see again nor remember their names.
After a respectful pause at the end of the ceremony, I taped a quick interview with Gen. Norton and saluted.
I approached Hagemeister once more — his oval-shaped-face finally relaxed — gestured to his Silver Star, and rubbed it between my index finger and thumb. As we examined bullet holes in his rolled-up poncho in the small of his back, we laughed nervously. Hagemeister had not been wounded during the battle! He had danced with death, and never missed a step. A simple thank you for saving our lives didn’t seem nearly enough. But for now, that and a Silver Star was good enough for the man from Lincoln.
Thankfully, I was interrupted by Gen. Norton. He shook Hagemeister’s hand once more, saluted him and said: “I’m about to rotate back to the states, and I’m gonna’ put you in for the Medal of Honor, boy.” Smoke ’em if you got ’em, indeed.
In cities and towns across the United States, about 14 hours behind us East coast time, a casualty officer and chaplain were getting notifications of the men who were KIA here last night.
When teams were formed, near the hometowns of the fallen, they were triple checking addresses before ringing the doorbells where next of kin Mothers, Fathers, Wives and others were about to get the worst news possible. Outside of yesterday’s ambush — these officers were tasked with the worst duty in all the U.S. Army.
It is sometimes said, military service is the least “individual” undertaking. The individual must, of necessity, always remain “expendable,” to be sacrificed, if necessary, for the greater good — the mission must be accomplished for the nation to survive. Over time, that principle of supreme sacrifice by the individual has been turned on its head. The Vietnam War greatly precipitated that reversal. (Partiality from What Remains by Sarah E. Wagner.)
I bummed a ride back to An Khe in the general’s command helicopter. After the pilot twisted the throttle to 6,600 rpm, pivoted, and lifted us from the erstwhile battlefield at 2-Gs, an olive drab poncho liner fluttered among the dust and debris, above the hallowed ground.
I kept my eyes on the men — what remained of 1st Platoon — until they shrank, then disappeared in the distance. For the brave soldiers who fought and died there; I will revere and cherish for all time.
When the battles of the Vietnam War were written, this ambush would hardly merit a mention, it had no name, no hill was conquered.
We never reached the Cav company that was in trouble; however, they received reinforcements from other units and made it out with fewer causalities than expected.
My adventure in the field with a 1st Cav Infantry platoon when scores of NVA were intent on killing us all doesn’t make me a foot soldier, by a long shot. Next time, though, I won’t stutter when an infantryman asks me, “You been out there, out there in the shit?” I won’t feel like an interloper; not like an intruder at all.
*There’s really no time to think, but in extreme peril, thoughts can be processed and recalled in a second. Wonder what my old drill sergeant (Staff Sgt Hicks) would do or where he was for that matter, on a second tour in this Hellhole maybe? What had I learned in BCT at Ft. Gordon to prepare me for such a moment, the dilemma of a deadly ambush? Not a goddamned thing, is the short answer. I believe it’s more of an individual thing, a reaction no one can be sure of, until the bullets are blazing toward you. I was just hoping any training and discipline that I had retained would kick in as advertised — automatically and immediately. An argument could be made that it did because I made it out alive, without cowering in the face of death (though I may have pissed myself).
**Those who escaped into tunnels or blended back into the villages would live to fight another day, as so many did throughout the war.
Official records indicate that 2nd Battalion, 20th Aerial Artillery and 1st Battalion, 77th Artillery also assisted after the Ambush. With my book classified a work of fiction, I have taken a few liberties in the sequencing of some events, including their operations and movements for continuity, dramatic effect, clarity, transition, and people’s privacy.
Nevertheless, My description of the episodes, in and about Vietnam, are from actual events as I remember them more than 50 years later. Every detail, exact time and place, type of weapon, or conveyance would not necessarily withstand archival scrutiny. (Not written by a lawyer.)