|I caught a hop on a C-141 out of Cam
Ranh Bay which was headed north to the airfield at Phu Bai in the “I Corps”
area of South Vietnam. I was trying to make my way to the village of Tan
My, on the coast six miles northeast of Hue City. The Officer in Charge
of Construction was building an LST port with associated dredging of the
approaches to permit more timely support of combat forces in the region.
With the increased enemy activity associated
with the 1968 Tet Offensive, the project was one of General Westmoreland’s
and the Marines top priorities. Being of such importance my “Two-star”
boss in Saigon wanted a staff officer on site as liaison between headquarters
and the construction site. It is well known within the Services: a Liaison
Officer is generally perceived as a spy, gets in the way, catches
a lot of crap from both ends and when all goes down the crapper, gets the
blame...What the hell, I gave a snappy “aye-aye” packed a bag and stepped
The Crew Chief, an Air Force Senior
Master Sergeant informed me they were going to pickup Marine units that
were being relieved after participating in action around Hue City. An urgent
priority flight; they were going to Phu Bai empty. So I was alone, strapped
in a metal dropdown seat in a cavernous dimly lit behemoth...perchance
a modern day Jonah in the whale?
I had flown in a variety of aircraft
in my career, the first which I shall always remember, was a PBY Catalina
flying boat in 1949; this was also a first in a “Starlifter.” I could only
imagine the size of the new C-5A when it came into service. Matter of fact;
we were currently building fifteen-inch concrete parking aprons for the
C-5 in Da Nang. With nothing to occupy my mind, I scanned the cargo bay
and became somewhat concerned as gadgets were hanging loose or sliding
about banging into other gadgets that I thought should be secured...but
then I’m not Air Force...
As the plane roared down the runway
in its struggle to become airborne, daylight showed through seams and loose
fitting hatch openings. The circular fuselage ribs and longitudinal struts
flexed, twisted and snapped profusely followed by violent vibrations before
soaring towards the heavens. Hot damn! I made it one more time! In the
past I had experienced veering off runways, blown tires, aborted takeoffs
and taking small-arm fire. So I freely confess to my wide aeronautical
yellow streak... I don’t mind flying, it’s just the damn iffy take-offs
and landings that makes my brownie pucker.
Uneasy, I quickly turned my thoughts
to Tokyo and my first [if I didn’t chicken] hotsie bath, my R&R was coming
up in two weeks! Then if the Lord willing, back to the good old USA in
about ninety days and a wakeup! As I pondered those pleasantries the Crew
Chief slid down the ladder from the raised flight deck area, hurried past
me to the large rear drop doors. Was it a routine flight check? Should
I be concerned...?
Fiddling and banging about for some
minutes he worked his way back toward me. Frowning, he cupped his hands
and hollered over the ambient roar, “I’m always having trouble with the
goddamn rear doors they don’t want to stay secured! Excuse the cussin’
sir, but it’s a bitch trying to keep this overgrown hummer together...maintenance
is a nightmare!” He disappeared back up the ladder leaving me to
contemplate his glowing remarks. Hell’s bells...the plane must have just
rolled out the plant at Lockheed, it still had that new paint smell...my
comrades in the Air Farce are spoiled rotten divas! However, I will kick
a tire or two, before climbing aboard another bird.
I don’t like being alone for extended
periods, I tend to brood and rehash crap. I had traveled extensively throughout
all four Corps areas during my tour, but this was my first venture north
of Hue. Being that close to North Vietnam and with the VC offensive, trepidation
was setting in big time! With peril imminent, one turns to thoughts of
family, plus a thousand other dumb and unrelated things. As I said, I don’t
like to be left alone...
I could not put my thoughts into words.
I was uneasy and had been extremely keyed-up for some time. As one of the
half-million GIs in country, my concern at the moment, other than saving
my ass, was our approach to this conflict. Twelve-month tours in country?
Go home win or loose? Political management of the war? World War II was
not won that way. After six years of involvement with the Republic of Vietnam
were we losing our focus? We were now building swimming pools and bowling
alleys at Long Binh for the Army! That bit of news should send the VC scurrying
back to Hanoi and thrill taxpayers back home! What was the big brass really
trying to accomplish? Maybe throw rubber-ducks, beach balls and bowling
pins at the enemy?
Our adversaries in the jungle below
had no R&R or rotation back home. They were committed to the long haul,
having fought for years with little or nothing to sustain their physical
or psychological well-being. Yet, they were damn well holding their own
against the best-equipped military force in the world. Goddamn it, we’ll
continue to piss around over here, the politicians will catch so much heat
they will call the whole thing off and leave the South Vietnamese with
their nuts hanging out!
I didn’t have the answers, so I tried
to clear the mess from my mind. I unclipped my web-belt and laid my .45
and ammo clips on the seat next to me, then stuck my carbine through the
grips of my canvas tote bag and rested my feet on top. My feet hurt and
were swollen. I had not had my boots off in several days and the neglect
was catching up with me. A passing downpour had caught me as I ran across
the tarmac to the plane, now I was drenched to the skin. With the wind
whistling through the plane, I became chilled and began to shake uncontrollably.
I had a couple sets of greens in my bag, but did not want to use them as
I had no idea what lay ahead, or how long I would be gone. Seeing a small
folded tarp under a seat; I wrapped it around me and slowly closed my eyes...cracking
a smile I thought, “Eddy, you are one big pussy!”
Two days earlier, I had flown out of
Tan Son Nhut for Cam Rahn Bay along with Ensign Dave Williams, my “TET
Grease Monkey” sidekick from another story. We had taken the 0500
red-eye flight on one of our old DC-3 cargo plane. It made the trip daily
loaded with assorted supplies, equipment and expendable Junior Officers
getting splinters up their ass trying to stay atop some beat-up wooden
crates in 40-year old airplanes! I love to bitch! I learned the fine art
of doing the B&Ms [bitchin’ and moanin’] as part of my early Chief Petty
Officer quals. Bullshit aside, it is duty first and always will be...
Lulled by the drone of the old prop
engines, I laid back on a crate and drifted somewhere between the Planet
Krypton and La-La land. With the frenzied tempo of activities, one learns
to catch a wink at every opportunity. The plane hit some turbulence and
I was suspended in air flaying like a fledgling chick as the cargo below
me shifted. I busted my ass...Dave laughed his off! “Ah, riding atop crates
marked high explosives somewhere over the jungles of South East Asia is
On landing I had checked with Cam Rahn
Air Ops for a flight to Phu Bai. There was nothing scheduled for the rest
of the day. We rode one of the cargo trucks back to the OinC compound.
I delivered the orders, plans, etc., to the four-stripper in charge of
our operations in the Cam Rahn sector and then sent Dave back to Saigon
on the return flight with the weekly updates for Headquarters.
The deputy OinC, a friend of mine, had
just been promoted to Commander and wanted me to join him in “wetting down”
his new stripes. Tired, I was only too happy to oblige, a few drinks would
perk me up. As dusk fell we headed to his hut with a jug of J&B and proceeded
to get shit-faced. The war and Tan My would wait until tomorrow...
I came out of my daydreaming as the
C-141’s jets changed pitch and the plane banked sharply on making the approach
through the black turbulent clouds to the Phu Bai airfield. Pelting rain
sweeping across the field in torrential sheets hammered the aluminum skin
with such force it drowned out the touchdown and reverse thrust of the
engines. The annual monsoon season had arrived with a vengeance!
I thanked the Crew Chief for the ride.
He smiled, saluted and said sarcastically, “It is indeed a pleasure to
have you fly the Asian skies with the Air Forces finest!" I returned the
salute, “Sergeant, when you get some long-legged Stews, puffy white pillows
and those little bottles of J&B, we’ll talk again about flying!” He laughed,
shaking his head in agreement.
I grabbed my gear and ran through the
standing water to the Operations building. I prayed the Resident Engineer
at our Tan My site got the message of my arrival. Voice short wave/side
band radios were our only means of communications with remote sites...messages
were often garbled. If no one showed, I would hitch my way up Highway One
Large numbers of the faceless milled
sullenly about outside Operations. The rain beat a rhythmic patter off
ponchos and helmets as I found my way through the olive drab montage to
the entrance. Opening the door, I stopped in my tracks. Before me was a
huge German shepherd, his fangs glistening as he strained against his leash.
In the middle of a perimeter he had established was a shapeless heap on
the floor. At first glance it looked like a pile of wet clay. Then as I
looked again, it was a Marine Scout apparently in a comatose state of exhaustion.
He was so covered with mud and filth that he was hardly distinguishable
as a human being. Tethered to his boot was the vigilant dog pacing about
his handler. All that dry space was going for naught. I turned and stepped
back into the downpour looking in vain for my contact...
The route north was a mass of chaotic
humanity. Vietnamese refugees in a state of frenzied insanity streamed
southward from Hue carrying or dragging their meager belongings. Carts,
animals, motorbikes, bicycles, etc. clogged the roadway. The shoulders
were littered with discarded possessions and exhausted women, children
and old people. Military trucks, tanks, men and equipment inched forward
through the convoluted maze. I caught a ride in the last truck of a Marine
Support convoy. Glancing in the truck, the Marines were all youngsters
except for a Gunny Sergeant who helped pull me up into the vehicle.
Before I could greet and thank my new
comrades... THROOMP, THROOMP, THROOMP! The VC had bracketed the road ahead
with mortars! THROOMP, THROOMP, several more rounds landed close by! Gunny
screamed, “Hit the ditches!” Then it was assholes and elbows in the
exodus that followed and I found myself face down in the rain swollen ditch!
The mortars went silent and then it was a scramble back into the trucks
as the convoy accelerated to clear the targeted area.
The salvos had hit just off and along
the shoulders, leaving the road passable. Unfortunately, numbers of Vietnamese
massed along the shoulders were killed or wounded. Bloody clothing, entrails
and body parts were strewn across the rain soaked highway mixing with mud
strewn from craters. The slaughter turned puddles bright crimson... then
gradually to shades of pink as the diluted substances drained off into
The bright eager faces of the young
Marines that greeted me just moments before were now ashen and aged. We
sat in silence as we passed the horrific carnage. It would become commonplace
as the convoy neared Hue City. The screams and pleads of the innocent would
go unheeded as men and equipment rushed headlong into harm’s way.
When I reached the abandoned LST site
I stood in utter bewilderment. I was alone except for some locals who had
refused to leave. The din of war and distant sporadic chatter of small
arms fire echoed through my soul...yet deep within there was an eerie silence.
Dear God the futility, the madness of
it all. I dropped to my knees in the soft dredged sand and stared blindly
through the misty rain at the South China Sea...