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Sometime in 1969, Somewhere Outside Phan Tiet

by Dick Downes

I’m not the only one. There are others who do what I do, maybe two-hundred, tops. I am the senior of a pair of us working out of the Army Information Office in Cam Ranh Bay in the now defunct Republic of Vietnam, RVN. Others like me work out of other HQs in the war-divisions of South Vietnam: I-Corps, II-Corps, and so on (pronounced Eye-Core; Two-Core). Half the time I don’t know where, exactly, I am. Wherever it is, I really don’t want to be here.

We’re buddies. We get to wear special press patches. We have priority on in-country flights up to about a colonel. Well, that’s pushing it, maybe a major and we’d never bump the wounded). Sometimes we even get to travel for a date or two with a USO show—then write it up for our local newsletter. Maybe Stars & Stripes will pick-up one of our stories or photos. Hey, it happens… once in a great while.
We are correspondents—journalists. Granted, we’re active-duty military, but we consider ourselves to be journalists nonetheless.

Mostly it’s: get on a chopper early, go to a Forward Operating Base (FOB), take pictures of soldiers and get a brief tape-recording, “Hi Ma, I’m fine.” Maybe write something up, make promises about sending copies to their families, then return to HQ with our flush toilets and air conditioning on the same day. We turn in a form with the hometown info of the guy in question and marry it to the material. It will be collated and the huge Army machine will see to it that the tapes go to local radio stations and the photos to the soldiers’ home-town newspaper with a write-up. If he hasn’t been wounded or had something else happen to him that is journalistically interesting, he might just get a caption.

There are circumstances, however, that won’t allow me to get back to the relative safety of Cam Ranh on the same day. Idiomatically: “Numbah 10, GI!” Suck it up.

That’s when I join the real war.

I notify my HQ by radio, and it’s arranged for me to spend the night. Sometimes I’m in with a senior NCO, but tonight there’s an empty bunk in the strangely-inhabited quarters of the infantry guys who are here to do the grunt work and guard the place—mostly in the deep, dark jungle night. Their rank is roughly commensurate with mine.

Sometimes I share a bunker with other Army guys, sometimes Marines. It doesn’t matter. Once you’re in a hooch or a bunker in a war zone, everyone’s basically in the same boat. Generals bleed the same red as Privates. I toss my gear on my new bed, pop a soda, and settle in.

There will be many FOBs during this year, but for this occasion I am self-assigned to a place outside of Phan Thiet in the Republic of Vietnam. My CO is a young and budding wall-street banker and couldn’t care less where I go. Like someone who missed the lotto by one number, he’s stupidly-pissed that he ended up in Vietnam, even though HQ is in the rear.

Much to the distress of our senior Master Sergeant, he gives me free rein I go where I please, well, within the war zone. I can use his pistol, jeep, and even his woman (read: hooch-girl) as long as I don’t drink his scotch. This leaves him free to talk to himself nightly in his air- conditioned trailer or the huge tent with a red clay floor called the Officer’s Club. This club is a far cry from his Long Island golf digs.
By now, my captain should be making a hundred-grand a year. But “No!” his country says, “I need you in The ‘Nam instead of that Army Reserve posting on Long Island you were promised.” Though it is strongly discouraged, we commiserate from time to time since I’m a college guy, too. That’s how I learn his hopes and dreams are absolutely shattered. I mean there were only two other guys in his whole frat house who ended up in Southeast Asia… and they volunteered! Well, Captain, life sucks and then you die.

Back to our FOB: these guys in the boonies get hit pretty much every night. The positions are US Army specified and under ordinary circumstances are fairly impregnable, emphasis on ‘fairly.’ Most of the enemy attackers never make it through the perimeter. Or so I’m led to believe. Those few that do are dispatched quickly. Or so I hope. To these young men of the ‘60s it’s “Make War, Not Love.”
There are two to three lines of defense starting somewhere in a several hundred-meter clearing around the FOB, or as far out as they’d been able to clear. There are trenches, barbed and concertina wire, and sand bags. It just depends on what they had handy and how long the base has been fortified. Even the sneakier and truly committed enemy usually gets caught in the final fifty meters surrounding the place, nailed by the M-60 machine guns, grenade launchers, and however many M-16s can be brought to bear.

Every once in a while, others die. Soldiers on our side. They get wounded, too. To the enemy, a wound is generally considered to be as good as a kill. Unless it’s just a minor injury, the wounded GI will go home.

Now I’m inside a strange bunker because I’m held-over. Late afternoon sinks into dusk, and it’s down-time. I’m off duty. I’m settled, introduced, and accepted. One thing about the military, you become acclimated to meeting new people often.

It is unmercifully, almost unbearably hot. To add to the fun, it’s so humid that it’s difficult to breathe. There is no breeze and the misery is unrelenting.

The infantry and Special Forces guys are preparing for the evening’s festivities. This is a completely self-imposed job. I’m an observer. It’s like being a fly on the wall:

“Billy?”

“Yar’m.”

“Who’s got the gun t’nite case we get hit?”

“Me, course.”

“Aw, man. You had it last night.”

“’Scuse me,” as he points to his rank insignia, “These are called stripes. They indicate rank. I have two of them. You got one. Therefore, I am a Corporal and you are a Private, Private! End of story. You are the assistant gunner. I’m on the gun, you are on the ammo!” Very emphatic. Then an aside: “But you clean it”

“Hey! FUCK you!” The private leaps up, feigns outrage and turns to the ultimate decision-maker, “Hey, Winston?” he whines. His young voice lilts up. “That ain’t fair… Yadda, Yadda, Yadda.” Thus does Private Jackson make his case to the sergeant.

One-stripe to two-stripes to three-stripes: eighteen, twenty, and twenty-two, back home in Tulsa, Hattiesburg and New Jersey, respectively. But this is in a bunker in the boonies. Private (E-3) Robert Jackson, nicknamed ‘Gomer,’ is a tall, gangly, tow-headed and tousled kid from Oklahoma. His freckles and ultra-white, soft, baby complexion evidence his youth.

Corporal (E-4) Billy—never Willy—Jones is a black kid from Mississippi. His afro is as big and buffed as he can get away with, as is his attitude. He is hip, cool, peace-loving, ‘black-&-proud’ and well-liked.

Sergeant (E-5) Randolph X. Winston, goes by his surname because he considers his Christian name to be poufty. Winston is a rangy, world-wise, dark haired, muscled and mustachioed, big-city guy with street smarts. Those instincts come in handy, not so much on patrol, but especially when wheeling and dealing inside the base or during an infrequent leave. As one who enlisted, he’s at an imminent reenlistment crossroads. He is still undecided about the Army as a career. Winston’s on his second tour in Vietnam and will get a thirty-day leave, a promotion to Staff Sergeant. (E-6) and a pay raise if he stays in.

Up to three stripes/Spec-5 (me), there isn’t much respect for rank here in “The Big Muddy.” The Corporal/Sergeants/Specialists up to E-5 are mostly draftees or college flunk-outs. After that, you got less than college high school grads and dropouts. Beyond that, they’re career military guys who won’t put up with any insubordination. They hate us because we made our rank in fourteen to sixteen months. It took them several years. At my level…what fun to watch in that summer of ’69.

There’s an entirely different ranking system since WWII and Korea—Specialists. A specialist is the same pay grade as the equivalent hard-striper, but without any command responsibilities. They are the clerks, truck drivers, cooks and journalists starting at Spec-4 then Spec-5 and so on. I am the latter.

This is not squirrel hunting in orange vests back home with a fifteenth birthday .22 rifle. This is a real-true, actual war zone, with a real live, motivated enemy… with real guns.

So these boys take care of their equipment as if their lives depend on it. Roger that! Biet? (“Get it?” Or “Ya’ know?”)

Another fifty meters inside the wire lurks a bigger even more-solid command bunker. This is where the officers and higher ranked sergeants and specialists scheme. Their job is mostly to figure out “What the hell are we doing here–and let’s make it as short as possible!”

Buck-Sergeant Winston, twenty-two, puts the letter he’s been reading on his chest and glances at the bickering men under his command. “You assholes just follow the goddamn schedule and make sure the gun gets cleaned, starting now—and you two CAN shut the fuck up!” He’s shouting, but does he mean it?

Winston takes a breath and wearily says to a fourth man sharing our quarters, “Somebody start a tape or turn on AFVN or something. I’m tired of listenin’ to this Mickey Mouse bullshit.” He lights a cigarette from the 5-pack in his rations, then exhales slowly.

In another setting, back “in the world” as the US is called way out here, he’d be the senior DA bitching out a roommate or freshman pledge, then turning to a peer for a little peace and quiet late in the frat house or dorm. That is if you kept up your GPA. Those that did, got to stay in college with a student deferment. (I was having too much fun and did not).

But these guys didn’t go to college and they got drafted. Or, they did go to college, but didn’t move along fast enough, and they got drafted. Or they enlisted… because they were about to get drafted. Instead of being a budding adult in this America of the sixties, the emphasis is on ensuring you don’t get drafted!

The guys I share a bunker with tonight are mostly unsuccessful in their efforts not to get drafted. So was I, except I enlisted by the skin of my teeth, which is why I am a correspondent and they are grunts.

“Winston…” starts the Corporal again.

“That’s Sarn’t Winston to you, motherfucker.” Now he’s messing with them. These guys love him and it’s reciprocal. I can tell by the jousting it’s not just a show for me.

The two-striper looks at the one-striper and the other three or four men in attendance. “Oh, now he’s Sergeant Winston!” enunciates Billy with mock disbelief. He has six months in Community College, but dropped out. Therefore, he got… you guessed it!

Both men laugh and trade shoulder-punches. They commence the cleaning of their M-60 machine gun. The others grin and carry on. The moment is over. Creedence Clearwater blares from the stereo. The moment occupies a couple of minutes before another long night in the heat and the dust. Another long night with the bugs and things that go ‘bang’ and ‘boom’ in the night. There are moths so big their wingspans cover a screen door sideways, and their bodies are the size of a big man’s fist. You’d quickly open, then slam, the door to send them flapping slowly away, lumbering off into the dark.

Soldiers from other bunkers and hooches are in and out visiting, borrowing or just shootin’ the shit. There are dozens of these conversations, shouting matches, decisions and rulings during the time from mid-afternoon until after sunset. None of them enforceable, but all are deemed reasonable. Cigarettes and tall stories are passed around. There’s a joint smoldering or a beer (or two) quaffed, but most of the guys are finely attuned to the fact that in a few hours they must be in full control of their senses. One discipline tolerates the other, though rarely does a pot-head drink alcohol and vice-versa.

That was then. A lifetime ago, this afternoon. The background hum created by the indigenous beings steadily increases as the light wans. Now Led Zeppelin rocks.

Suddenly it is after dark. Senses are ramped-up ‘til dawn the next day except during the fighting. If there’s to be fighting tonight. That’s when senses shut down, when the shit-storm hits and instinct and training take over.

A meal has been consumed, gossip shared, buddies have returned to their assigned hooches and bunkers. A hooch is a four to eight- man hut, depending on rank and available size. It’s usually divided by a curtain into two relatively comfortable sections. There is open access. There are the inescapable posters of hot babes and rock stars on the wall, a Hong-Kong stereo and indigenous Montangnard area rug covering the floor. A bunker is a just a heavily fortified hooch with sand bags and other materials protecting its occupants. Access is limited with emphasis on firing lanes, sight lines and visibility. Comfort is a luxury and out of the question. As the visitor, I’ve caught a few stares in my relatively clean uniform and HQ haircut. Nothing unfriendly, just curiosity. Those who ask are soon chatting me up for a photo to send home. All is good.

Now the men are at the sandbagged entrance to their bunker and in their assigned fighting positions. The sergeant of the guard stops by with words of encouragement and shoulder slapping.

“Specialist, these guys treatin’ you okay?” he asks.

I reply in the affirmative. It is hot and wicked humid—steamy. There’s no breeze to provide some small comfort. Salty, repellant-soaked perspiration leaks into eyes, burning, itching. Sweat and sand have congealed around our butts and balls. We smell. Rats and roaches are rampant, but at least the leeches and snakes seem to have taken the night off. The cacophony of strange insects and monkeys lay a noisy carpet to the inky tableau. Occasional screeches from some doomed prey split the night and provide syncopation to the bug buzz. Flares blossom bright in the sky, fired off by nervous sentries closer to the wire. Nothing moves beyond the wire.

Two hours, three…four…zero-dark-thirty and there is a palpable tension in the air. It is like a semisolid, a thing that can almost be touched. A living mist of apprehension over our heads. The men are straining to see or hear any strange thing in the dark. Anything out of the ordinary. Like silence.

Too late, one or two men notice that the insects and monks have gone quiet. There’s a quick flash of flame at the tree line. Then another and more. Before the significance fully groks, a sentry shouts, “INCOMING!” Mayhem ensues.

There’s an explosion behind and to the left of our bunker, no more than ten meters from us. Another to our right. Then another and another. Sand and stones rain down, gunk blows into and around the bunker. Sgt. Winston shouts at me, “Get in the corner and don’t say or do shit!” then turns his attention to the front as more mortars and grenades rain down on the base and AK-47s chatter from in front of the wire. I check my pistol and chamber a round just in case.

More explosions, machine gun and rifle fire meld with the concussion of artillery. This is the sound of war. It is scary, yet exhilarating. The earth beneath us shudders. Screaming, shouting battle-cries come from outside the perimeter as squads of the enemy run toward the wire, sealing their fate. Their death throes are lost in the howling of artillery shells as they pass overhead. The night is crazy with flame, death and destruction for twenty-two solid minutes. Now the noise tapers off. Breathing eases. Insects and animals once again take up their cry. The attackers have vanished. The horror is probably over for tonight.

There are no roosters nearby to announce the dawn, but it surely comes anyway. The crowing is replaced by a distant shout, “Dead Gooks in the wire!” Now our boys will sleep until mid-afternoon, and with any luck I’ll be long-gone.

It’s another day, just like the last. This is when the others decide about bridges, rice to the population, bombing Cambodia, and other stuff that officers and senior NCOs are in the field to determine. Grunts are there to implement and protect.

Now the visiting correspondent prepares to leave. I have filled my cassettes—written my notes. With great secrecy, before nodding off, Gomer confides in me that Billy relents a couple of times a week, allowing him to take charge of their biggest weapon. The others I have interviewed are relegated to their rifles and grenade launchers. The mortar-men to the mortars. The spotters tell of directing artillery from cannons fifty klicks away. Others in the bunker have M-16s. Well, all of them have M-16s, a few also have these extra firepower responsibilities.

Out of my hearing range, someone will have been assigned to ensure my safe departure on one of the first Hueys headed out in the morning. He is an unknown quantity; an eye was to be kept on him. It has been Winston’s overnight responsibility. He succeeded in keeping me alive.

On most of these trips into the wild, one of the men in the officers’ bunker is my more-official minder. He’s usually a seasoned Second Lieutenant. Maybe a First Lieutenant, sometimes a Captain. Never a Major, though. Journalist or not, it would be unseemly for a Major to mind an E-5 Specialist.

One of the guys in a nearby bunker got a shrapnel wound and is being carried to the first aid tent. He is a Corporal like our Jones. His screaming lent some extra urgency to the evening. No one knew where the molten hot piece of metal originated, just that it decided to bury itself in his left buttock. He’d been out in front of our bunker near the wire checking on a claymore, a particularly nasty piece of weaponry that sends dozens of shotgun-like pellets into whatever is in front of it when it blows. He gets to go home via a faulty clacker, what they called the firing device. Weird.

This Sergeant is going home on the first bird out. See there how he got promoted? Here’s why: It will take over a year for his wound to heal. He will never walk right again and every time he sits to shit he’ll be reminded of that calamitous tearing of his flesh. Our neighbor is lucky. Others died this past night. His disability pension will be partly based on his rank and circumstance. He will be awarded a Purple Heart. Consequently, battlefield promotion coming up! “Bye soldier!”

Winston will stay with me until about twenty minutes after dawn, then my minder takes over. He comes to the bunker once things have quieted. He’s a First Lieutenant. He’s about my age.

We grab coffee and a roll. I had dozed for maybe an hour or two, total.

Soon, at the first distant thumping, all eyes simultaneously move to the direction of the sound. It is ubiquitous, and in that way we are all the same, all counting the days until we grab that last chopper ride out of this insanity and head back home on a “Freedom Bird.”
The minder runs me out towards the metal grid landing pad. That we’d been hit the previous night is a given. Two choppers are approaching. One is medevac, a red-cross is emblazoned over the other insignia. They are fondly called dust-offs, I don’t know why. It will take the wounded and dead. The other Huey is for more mundane purpose, such as transporting the occasional journalist. I couldn’t help thinking that with all the firing, running, yelling, and the newly promoted Sergeant’s screaming, it was like it didn’t register to those facing more days and nights here. It certainly did to me, even while bravely keeping my head down and not saying or doing shit.

On the way out to my transportation, I notice a burial detail outside the wire pulling enemy bodies off the barbed wire (“Dead gooks in the wire,” is the call to action for those unfortunate few saddled with that detail). Two of the GIs are mock sword fighting with dismembered limbs. I stop and try to grab a photo or two of the gory scene. My minder says, “That wouldn’t be a good idea, Specialist.” He puts a palm over the camera lens and gently takes my arm and moves it out of shot range, then resumes his mission to get the visitor out safely. We’re standing behind a revetment that protects the small helicopter pad. He ensures that the visitor remembers to send that tape and photo to his folks in Tulsa. We’re lousy with irony here in The ‘Nam.

“Oh, don’t take a shot of that horror, but take my picture and send it to Ma!” In return he makes sure that I get on that second bird out. Many things are subject to negotiation in a war zone.

The visitor/reporter/journalist/correspondent guy races off to the helicopter. Race may be too strong a word. I’m covered in dust, tired, my thighs squeak as I walk and the cleats of my damn boots are filled with red clay. I am loaded down, flapping a tape recorder, camera, and satchel with notebook and tapes. I’m holding on to my cherished, non-uniform, faux jungle hat (bought at a local village) so it won’t blow off in the chopper wash. I carry no M-16—there’s no room for one—so I wear a.45 on my hip and hope for the best.

I. Am. A. Sight.

The minder watches as I poke my head into the gut of the machine, “You guys headed to…? Good!” Then I climb clumsily aboard. I’ll get a shower and neatly pressed uniform. Maybe I’ll spend the afternoon at headquarters, take a picture of the HQ Colonel in a recreation planning meeting with several Red Cross girls. These are the only American women I’ll see for a year unless I get shot, then I’ll see several nurses. Then it’ a good night’s sleep in my own bunk, and off to another FOB the following day.

On Friday the Captain says my buddy and I can grab a bird into Tan Son Nhut, the capital’s airport. “Spend a coupla nights in Saigon, you deserve it.”

We do that, then head back Sunday afternoon with massive headaches and grins on our faces. We’ll be back in the shit on the first Monday morning bird. Back in harm’s way.