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A Saigon Christmas
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VIETNAM MEMORY     By Commander Ed Bookhardt, US Navy, Retired
Part 1  Monsoon
See the companion piece:   Part 2   Mekong Memories
Posting date: February 2009
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 out smartly!

 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 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 most invigorating!”

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 to Hue.

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 infinity.

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...

In January 1967, Viet Cong Sappers placed plastic charges under the Dredge JAMAICA BAY which was under contract to the OICC and sank her near Dong Tam in the Delta. This was followed by the sinking of the Dredge NEW JERSEY. Headquarters, to prevent this from recurring while I was in route, had ordered the Dredge SWELLMASTER, which was on-site at Tan My and her housing/support barges along with related personnel, to sea until the Marines regained control and secured the area. [ External reference links:  US Army report - BASE DEVELOPMENT IN SOUTH VIETNAM 1965-1970   The Bases - TOC ]
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