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:
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 months 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.
Only you can make this world seem right
Only you can make the darkness bright
Only you and you alone
Can thrill me like you do
For it’s true, you are my destiny
When you hold my hand
I understand the magic that you do
You’re my dream come true
My one an only you
One and only you
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, final destination APO SF 96256.” That’s great, duty in San Francisco Bay Area! Except APO stands for Army Post Office, 96256 directs mail to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade in Southeast Asia.
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. 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 God-forsaken 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 All You Need Is Love. 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 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 about 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 stifling mid-90 degree heat and humidity — wondering where those Special Forces guys were headed. I had no clue where I was going, either, except to find 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 everyone, 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 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 pressed my steel pot down with my left palm, and 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 signaled for me to hop on. I jumped aboard and found a hold on the support of the canvas seat, already occupied. 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. The Huey lingered above the insertion point, about 12 feet from the 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.
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 northwest. 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].”
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 than landed on 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. Swarms of insects harassed and hovered overhead as I cautiously maneuvered around anthills, and grave mounds.
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 pots field stripping their weapons, with both hands busy, smokers squinted as their cigarettes burned short. Others stirred about 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, 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: cordite, 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 thirty 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 less three-hundred meters, when our point man yelled, “Ambush!” In a split second, he was face down — dead.
Hell was instantly unleashed on the entire platoon from our right flank.
At close range, .51 caliber bullets from Soviet PKM machine guns and 57-mm 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, 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, shock waves from Russian RGD 5 fragmentation grenades, unleashed shards of white-hot metal in a ruthless ring of fire.
Deadly salvos of flaming steel thundered down on us faster than the speed of sound, 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 desecrated, and our blood used to enrich the red on their NVA flag.
We were in the cross-hairs of an L-shape ambush, the most efficient and deadly. The speed and sound was overwhelming.
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 heads — 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. 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. I was overcome with the emotional rupture of death.
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 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; and 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.
With smoke dissipating, 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 Sec 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, a machine gun position, and 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 Spe. 4 was now platoon leader!
Finding his 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!?” Hagemeister shouted. Astonished, he said to himself, 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 to defeat the enemy emplacements to our right. If the NVA encircled us, from the left, we would surely be overrun. Perhaps I could delay any such intent. 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 and continued firing. It felt good.
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, Sp. 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 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 Sp. 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 cannon fire into the enemy bunkers.
Founds, knobby stems and sharp spines flew from swaying palms as we retreated a few feet from the 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 permiter 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 grunts 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 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 instructor (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 through 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.)
Given the choice between the experience of Pain and Nothing, I would choose Pain. — The Wild Palms
After the carnage, killing and courage at the Ambush, Medal of Honor nominee Hagemeister was promoted to Specialist 5, reassigned to Headquarters Company in An Khe, and never returned to the field.
I was back in An Khe as well, for a debriefing at PIO, with the Chief, Maj Witters, where I received kudos for my reporting from the Ambush and interviews with Maj. Gen. Norton and Hagemeister.Yet, I remained a PFC for five more months — nine in all — a lot longer than my peers. I was told later, that it was a “clerical oversight.”
My infected, ingrown toenails were removed, and my previously unreported minor shrapnel burns from the Ambush were noted/treated at the dispensary in An Khe. Most painful were the toenails or the lack thereof which dogged me throughout my wet, hot, and humid tour. (Military issue jungle boots were known to be a bit uncomfortable, even when one could find the proper size.)
After a few days of respite in An Khe, I imagined my first field trip since the Ambush would be uneventful. My rendezvous was with a platoon from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry. On a “search and destroy” mission north of Bong Son, they happened upon a dispensary, recently occupied by the VC or NVA.
It was still March barely, in the early afternoon of Friday the 31st* when I arrived at the former enemy aid station. I taped an interview with one of the troopers who had discovered it. I don’t remember much about it, (except an empty vial of penicillin labeled: “North Korea”) or the nearest village, but I clearly remember the rest of the day.
It was one of our own here in the field who needed medical treatment, a trooper down with a high fever, headache, vomiting, all symptomatic of malaria. The platoon leader called for any Medevac that was not engaged or on standby for expected casualties. This was a low-priority request, although a person with malaria is really ill. In addition to combat wounds, heat strokes, accidental injuries, jungle related disease, and other illnesses often resulted in requests for Medevac.
The platoon leader suggested, since I already had my story, that I might accompany the sick soldier on a flight to An Khe. I would replace a medic that might be needed more urgently elsewhere, he reckoned. Don’t think that was plausible, a Medevac probably was not allowed to fly a mission without a medic. That was the plan, nonetheless.
It’s possible he just wanted me out of his way. Reporters were not usually a welcome sight until the commanders heard of the positive stories we generated.
My rank was not displayed but, of course, I wore my uniform and Cav patch. Some Army correspondents wore “U.S.” insignia on their collar, instead of grade (should officers attempt to intimidate reporters, whom to my knowledge were all enlisted). Sometimes civilian reporters wore military type uniforms, and they could be confused with military correspondents, even though there was no censorship of media in the Vietnam War.
The platoon leader lieutenant had not bothered to see if there was a suitable Landing Zone. So, the platoon sergeant and about five others volunteered to find the best spot to make one. They choose a location, several meters away, across a small stream. I was near the site where they were clearing, awaiting the Dustoff, with the man to be evacuated.
The men made good progress with their machetes, but it wasn’t enough. With a small fire already burning, they molded C-4 around the base of saplings, fused, lit, and detonated the explosives. The fire spread quickly.
All around us, bamboo was popping in an eerie symphony as flames raced up their stalks. We were literally feeling the heat.
The problem, other than the fire, was the threat of explosions from the packs and pistol belts (flares, grenades and ammo) the crew ditched as they entered the small opening toward the clearing. It was not a safe escape route.
The Medevac, now on-scene, hovering above the LZ, realized his rotors were stirring the fire out of control. The pilot increased rpm, pulled up on the collective, and cleared the area safely.
The fire surrounded us on three sides, and our only escape was 10 meters away. We had to get to, and then thorough the triple jungle canopy behind us.
Through the haze of the smoke and fire, I’d lost sight of my patient. Just as I turned to pursue, and sooner than I could process the explosion that thundered behind me — flaming shrapnel struck me with a piercing sting, spiking the soft skin of my upper left shoulder, then another slashed into my lower back impaling me, and slapping me to the ground! Pain was intense, like nothing before, from white hot-burning-fragments. The ordinance was cooking off with deafening explosions.
Flat and face-first on the jungle floor, I thought my skin was afire, burning from the inside. My ears were ringing. I felt my heart racing on the sandy soil where I’d landed, my mouth dried, I smelled burning skin and hair.
Once again I found myself in the throes of plausible death — doomed by fire? There was no time to revisit special memories like Momma's fried chicken; pinned in my seat when cousin Jackie floored his Biscayne 409; the first time I heard Elvis sing Are You Lonesome Tonight; when I kissed Marty for the first time; my inaugural shift at WAMY or my most recent letter from Marty. No time for any; they would vanish, evaporate, be extinguished forever.
Pain be damned, I needed to get up, remain lucid, and escape this chaos.
Get up hell, I needed to stay flat, make myself as small as possible, hug the earth.
With my heart pounding in my ears, I low crawled a few feet through the smoke, and found my patient, on the ground near me (apparently uninjured) and screamed, “Goddammit move with me,” hoping to startle him into action from his fever and confusion. I low crawled with him in tow, fast as we could, toward the jungle’s triple canopy.
We had to get through the web that surrounded us if we were to escape the fire. Should I ditch my explosives, so we could move faster? Are we going to die in a fire our fellow soldiers started? Not exactly the heroic battlefield death I had imagined.
On our knees with the flames licking dangerously close behind us; together we broke through with bare hands and bayonets the triple canopy of wait a minute vines, thickets, brambles of prickly pear cactus, and anthills into a maze of banyan tree roots while struggling to maintain my M-16 that tangled with every conceivable obstacle.
Helmets, canteens, grenades, clips of 5.56 ammo, and C-rations gave way as we lost our footing in the soft-sandy dirt, stumbled, fell, and rolled 15 meters until we landed into precious water.
My patient and I were in the comfort and safety of cool water, marvelous H20, liquid gold — our savior. I wallowed like a pig in mud, reveling in a foot of cool water, nursing my pain. My tape recorder lay submerged, in the bed of the stream, and I didn’t care.
Sooner than I could fathom, LZ fire under control, came the most beautiful sound. Finer than an Elvis ballad, sweeter than Marty’s voice, more soothing than Momma humming a gospel tune; the unmistakable thumping of a Huey — a Dustoff chopping through dense air over the jungle, rushing to relieve me and my patient from pain.
The medics retrieved my munitions, cut off our wet uniforms, inspected my shrapnel wounds, documented his malarial symptoms, validated our dog tags, covered us with blankets, and secured us for flight.
As the frequent flyer I had become, I knew what was happening in the cockpit. One of the pilots twisted the throttle to 6,600 rpm, pushed the cyclic slightly forward, pulled up on the collective, lifted the Huey, dipped her nose and bolted us north toward An Khe.
Under the care of those 1st Cav medics, we were in cool air at altitude — rotors rushing the air in that beautiful bird at 110 knots — on the way to medical aid for my (erstwhile) patient and me.**
After a Lidocaine injection, shell fragments were removed (from my upper back shoulder wound) cleaned, and disinfected. My puncture wounds (approximately) 40-mm wide and 30-mm deep were stitched at the 17th Field Hospital in An Khe, and I was given antibiotics and a tetanus booster. I overheard the doctor tell a medic that some of the shrapnel (in my lower back wound) entered dangerously close to my lower spine, and they elected not to remove the fragments. The doctor placed me on light detail status, for 48 hours, “duty permitting,” gave me care instructions and when to return for follow-up care. After two days of light duty with the PIO in An Khe, I was ready and anxious for more field duty.
Two decades later, x-rays showed shell fragments in my lower back had migrated dangerously close to the base of my spine and in 1986 were removed in a meticulous surgical procedure along with more shrapnel from my shoulder wound.
*Another thing burning on that day was the guitar of Jim Hendrix who set it afire in London.
**I never learned the name of the soldier with malaria that I assisted that day, and I do not take credit for saving his life. Helping a bit, maybe? I’m no Chuck Hagemeister. We both arrived in An Khe for treatment (and although painful, my wounds were minor). And that’s all that really matters.
With my book classified as a work of fiction, I have taken a few liberties in the sequencing of some incidents, 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, time and place, type of weapon, or conveyance would not necessarily withstand archival scrutiny. (Not written by a lawyer).
“I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.” Newly inaugurated President Lyndon Johnson, November 24, 1963.
Good thing I didn’t waste time worrying about someone patting me on my back (where I had been injured) upon my return to Bong Son.
“I don’t know what kind of shit you pulled in An Khe, but I’m still your boss, did you get the interview?” Lt. Blankenship greeted me upon my return to Bong Son.
“Yes, but my tape recorder was KIA, sir, though I may have saved somebody’s life,” I answered. He countered, “Yeah, yeah ok, so you didn’t get the story, and you destroyed government property, is that about right, Swan?” I didn’t answer.
“Alright, get outta here and get back to work and be sure to take care of your wounds,” he snapped sarcastically. This is what awaited me upon my return from the scare at the Stream.
I had noticed that Lt. Blankenship, after my reporting on the Ambush, was treating me differently and not in a good way. I could not fathom why. Now I felt it getting worse (like his condescending greeting above). Understandably, my morale was low.
During this difficult period, little did I know someone was looking out for me. I would come to believe it was none other than the two-star general who happened to run the 1st Cavalry.
I had the occasion to interact with Maj. Gen. John Norton, not long after my lieutenant had dressed me down. He was giving his last interview as commanding general with a reporter where I was present hosting the newsman.
He remembered me from the field where he presented the Silver Star to Hagemeister, shortly after the Ambush (Chapter 17) when I interviewed him. He seemed sincere when he asked me how everything was going. I stuttered with my response, without anything specific. I believed he sensed something was amiss.
Within a couple of weeks, I was promoted to Spc. 4, and called back to Camp Radcliff with a new assignment. I was to be a DJ on the recently reactivated AFVN in An Khe!
I suspect the General had an aide call Major Witters, head of PIO, ask to speak with him presently or pronto with a return call. The difference in rank from major to a major-general is considerable.
I thrived at AFVN, An Khe. I dedicated songs to choppers pilots, artillery, engineers, infantry, men like the ones I had met in the field, soldiers who were doing the real work.
Of course, men who were in the shit would not be listening to AFVN. But in the field, somehow, the troopers found a way to listen to the hits emanating from An Khe.
There were reports, from GIs in the field, the transistor radio was second only to their M-16. Chopper and other pilots could pick up my broadcasts on their FM frequencies.
It was good for morale; songs they had listened to with their wives and sweethearts like (You’re) My Soul and Inspiration by the Righteous Brothers, When A Man Loves a Woman by Percy Sledge and Cherish by the Association. Most importantly, they were reminded of what awaited them “Back in the World.”
Occasionally, I got fan mail from women who lived in nearby villages. One in particular asked me to play songs for GIs she’d met, I can only surmise, while they were in the village of An Khe, aka Sin City (probably when they were picking up their laundry). I didn’t dedicate the personal — “From Kim to Larsen and Knelly”— but I did play the songs she requested, doing my part for “Winning the hearts of minds of the people.”
There were no Arbitron ratings in the combat zone. But among the 25,000, or so, GIs who had access to my show, it was estimated (tongue in cheek) that I had almost as many listeners as Hanoi Hannah.
As for the over-hyped “Good Morning Vietnam” thing made famous in a movie of the same name, by the late Robin Williams; many GIs detested the “greeting” and in some rare cases, grunts, after hearing “Goooooo-o-o-o-o-od Morning Vietnam” one too many times, promptly shut down their radio’s courtesy of an M-16. Obviously, these men found no “Good” in their morning and didn’t need some smug DJ, sitting in the comfort of an air-conditioned studio in Saigon, telling them it was.
As for our little station in An Khe, my only real friend in Vietnam, John Bagwell, (1st Cav PIO) was enthusiastic about our operation and did many things to improve it. He got current hit records and some oldies sent to us from Seattle’s KJR rock station. And unbelievably, by just writing a few letters, he convinced a popular production company (in US) into recording professional jingles for 1330 AM&FM AFVN, An Khe, (valued at $2,000 in 1967 money). He was a true radio guy and did a lot for the station and made our operation better for the troops we served. Late in his tour, he saved the life of a cameraman working with an NBC reporter he was hosting near Khe Sanh,* and Bagwell almost lost a foot in the engagement. He received the Bronze Star for Valor and Purple Heart. “John, I will never forget you and the good you did in Vietnam. You never got the credit you deserved for your deeds in An Khe and beyond. I hardly made any friends because I traveled so much. With so few, thank goodness, I had a friend in you.”
Although I didn’t get to know many of the men — remembering what my 1st Sgt. said about not making too many friends — here are some who were with PIO, An Khe: Maj. Witters, Captain Coleman, and Master Sgt. Bradley. Others whose rank I don’t remember: Larsen, Grizzle, Knelly, Basile, Ferrel, McGrath, and Jim Pruitt. (Not sure of all spelling.)
I was proud to be recognized for my efforts at PIO and AFVN, An Khe. Here’s a clipping that ran in the 1st Cav’s official newspaper, in 1967, The Cavalier.
Songs than stand-out from my time as a DJ in Vietnam are Happy Together by The Turtles, Strawberry FieldsForeverby the Beatles, 96 Tears, by ? and The Mystreians and naturally, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place by the Animals.
Although I had an easier job now (and no interference from Blankenship), I was anxious to get home to Marty. I still had a long eight months remaining.
*I was back in the states when I received a letter from Bagwell, who was still in Vietnam, telling me that my replacement was killed shortly after their move to Khe Sanh (I had missed Khe Sanh and Tet by just a couple of weeks).
We do this [escalating U. S. military involvement in Vietnam] in order to slow down aggression . . . We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw either openly of under a cloak of a meaningless agreement.” President Johnson, April 7, 1965.
On the subject of Vietnam, one can find an argument for just about anything. But her beauty is not one of them. From tropical lowlands to densely forested highlands, the Annamite mountain range, the Mekong Delta, Coastal lowlands, 12 great rivers and beautiful beaches on the 1,650 kilometers of coastline, Vietnam is beautiful indeed. I stand corrected, there is an argument. Some foot soldiers and Marines disagreed. All they remembered was dirt and mud, the jungle and rice paddies, squalid villages, ancient men and women, naked-dirty-hungry children, bomb craters, barbed wire, sandbags, impenetrable jungles, soldiers burning shit, natives craping in public, a lot of ugly things.
My purpose was not to enjoy her beauty, or the ugliness of war, but to work seven days a week in the monsoons with mud sucking at my jungle boots; in oppressive heat where insects, booby traps and snipers were plentiful. Although I was assigned to AFVN, An Khe, I still had field assignments, included recording Hometown News Interviews. “This is Specialist 4 Don Swan near Bong Son, Vietnam, and today I’m talking with Sgt. John Gilliam of Columbia, South Carolina. John is a squad leader with A Company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). Sergeant, what would tell the folks back home and the work you’re doing for the people of Vietnam?”
After a dozen or so interviews, they were packaged and sent to the Hometown News Center in Kansas City (where I would later be assigned) for distribution to the radio stations in the soldier’s hometown. Although not my favorite job in Vietnam, it was a good program. Citizens of the community got to hear from a soldier, perhaps one they knew, serving in Vietnam. For family and friends, no doubt, it was good for their morale, maybe even a source of pride.
I was still doing a few field assignments beyond Hometown Interviews that included some blood and battle,* but nothing approaching the Ambush in Binh Dinh. There were some plum assignments as well, like Masters of Ceremony gigs at Bob Hope’s USO shows thorough Vietnam.
I interviewed the icon after one of his shows, for AFVN. It was to be a greeting from Mr. Hope for those unable to attend the show (which was almost everyone). I failed to get that message across in the interview. I still remember the producer’s words: “You got nothing here [fit to air].” One of my easiest assignments in Vietnam, and I blew it.
Nevertheless, just before my tour was up, I was promoted to Specialist Five, perhaps as a reward for staying a PFC much longer than usual. Or maybe the U.S. Army thought my ingenuity and diligence with the Ambush scoop, Stream deed, AFVN talent, and so forth merited another promotion. (Nobody ever said the Army was perfect.)
December had finally arrived, I was officially Short with just thirty-six days (and a wake-up). I really began to believe I was going home; that I would actually make it. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so optimistic after hearing the story of one man’s last night in Vietnam.
A soldier who had already “processed-out” would be heading “Back to the World,” on a “Freedom Bird” early the next morning. He had only a wake-up remaining.
Tonight he sat on his bunk, reading the most recent letter from his wife and gently rubbing his index finger over the picture of the daughter he had never met.
He tried to stay cool and get comfortable with the feel his OD boxers.** His jungle fatigues had already been traded-in for khakis. Ribbons — the medals he’d earned here — were precisely mounted, then pinned above his left front pocket, and his unit patch hung under the other. He had neatly folded his khakis, which lay atop his tightly packed duffle bag. His shiny-black low quarters sat nearby.
Late that evening, he had shaved and showered, one less detail for tomorrow morning. AFVN was playing Strawberry Fields Forever. When the call came, he would be ready in an instant.
Soon after he fell asleep, no doubt dreaming about his small family that awaited him, and unnecessarily rehearsing his first moves; like kissing his wife while caressing the soft skin of his baby. His mind most likely wandered to some of the worst times in the field, but somehow he overrode that vision. He continued with the good dream, that in a few hours, he was leaving Vietnam forever.
On the same overcast evening, somewhere in the darkness, less than a mile outside the perimeter of the airstrip, a small team of VC was setting up a tripod, and adjusting distance and direction. At 0200, a 60-mm mortar burst from its tube with a ssss.
In less than two seconds, a 12-inch rocket flying at 336 mph arced toward the tent of the man scheduled to leave in just hours. The mortar impacted near his cot — exploded in a ball of fire — shattering his dreams, charring his body, and extinguishing his life evermore.
He would still be returning home. Just not in the cheering section of the jet with pretty, good smelling, round-eyed female flight-attendants. He died in this stinking, godforsaken country with just a wake-up up remaining!
Incredibly, 1,448 servicemen died on their last scheduled day in Vietnam. They were killed with a day or less to go before coming home!
“We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view . . . I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing.” General William Westmoreland, November 21, 1967.
It was an unseasonably cool 70 degrees, under a high cloud ceiling, when I boarded my 707 out of Tan Son Nhut on Jan. 7, 1968. Ecstatic passengers and a happy crew; all seats were filled with cheering GIs for the roughly 17-hour flight “Back to the World.”
A couple of hours before we were to touch down at SFO — in our country, the land we had fought for, dreamt of, and yearned for more than a year — the pilot told us not to expect “Thank You For Your Service,” but to be prepared for organized protests in San Francisco against returning soldiers.
*Thankfully, the majority of my assignments did not include blood and battle.
**Most GIs who were in the field for extended periods wore no underwear.