Friday, August 8, 2014

A boy goes to war.  Part 3

“Random turkey shoot”

A short walk from our Quonset huts was the perimeter of the airbase. This consisted of a dirt road lined on the jungle side with a sandbag wall about four feet high. Rows of barb wire covered the barren ground extending out another seventy or eighty yards. Beyond that the ground was low grass and small bushes to the edge of the jungle some 250 yards out.

Members of the 101 airborne maintained LPs or listening posts near the jungles edge at night. A man with a radio would sit in the dark and report any suspicious noises he heard. They knew the path back to the perimeter in the dark.

On several occasions at random, our company would be called to line up behind the sand bags with 2 clips or 40 rounds of ammunition. When the command was given we would fire our rounds into the night, aiming toward the jungle.

As far as I know there were two reasons for this.
The first was that we were training ourselves to assemble at the perimeter without warning and defend it.
The second reason was that this discouraged the enemy from going anywhere near our perimeter under the cover of darkness.

One such night while we were waiting for the sign to fire, the guy on my right tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “LP coming in, don’t fire, pass it on.” I sent the message down the line but could not help but think what would have happened if one man started to fire.

A picture of the jets on parked near the runway at Bien Hoa.

“Best part of a chicken”

All soldiers returning from town would just start walking the five mile road to our camp. Any two and a half ton trucks coming along the road would pick them up and all the soldiers piled in the back. Frequently the returning soldiers were drunk, especially the ones that belonged to the 101 airborne unit. These men spent most of their tour in the field and when they were back in camp, women and drinking was the only thing they had on their minds.

Now the airborne soldiers had earned their ‘wings’ by jumping out of airplanes and they were proud of them. People who never jumped and were not airborne were called “legs” probably because they were infantry and walked into battle.

Somehow, a few of the airborne soldiers got in the habit of asking the men as they boarded the trucks, “What is the best part of a chicken?” It was a reference to the idea that they were braver than the grunts that did not jump.

“The legs” was the answer they were looking for and all the airborne and most of us knew the answer and the game. However, when they asked a new soldier and he said, “I don’t know” they would throw him off the moving truck and yell the answer for his benefit.

Picture of one of the mama-sans near our office building at Bien Hoa.

“Jungle training school”

When replacement troops came to Vietnam bound for the 101 Airborne units, they were required to attend a 5 day refresher course on jungle warfare. Our commander decided it would be good experience for members in our company to also attend. He sent 10 soldiers at a time whenever a class was being held. Because my last name begins with “A”, I was in the first group.

This accelerated class covered everything from booby traps and hand grenade etiquette to tricks the enemy would play with our own claymore mines. They would sneak up and turn them around and then make noise so that if the soldier watched them detonate, he would blast himself in the face. The class ended with a jump from a 50 foot tower wearing a parachute harness attached to a cable.

Following the class was a three day patrol in the field. We carried 40 pound packs which consisted of our ammunition, food, clothing and some miscellaneous items. Most of us skimped on everything and carried as much ammunition as we could. I know I did. We had some tense moments on our patrol but no shots were fired by us, or at us. One man got jabbed in the back of his leg when he lost his balance and fell on a Punji stake crossing a flooded rice paddy field. The pointed stake went right through his leg and stuck out the front.

On the following patrol a man from our company was seriously wounded in a ‘fire fight’. He spent a month in the Convalescent Center at Cam Ranh Bay after surgery before being sent home. Our commander took us out of the program after that incident.

Picture of two girls that worked on our huts doing housekeeping. I would talk with them sometimes while they ate lunch, which usually consisted of rice and fish heads.

“My encounter with…….”

This story is very personal to me and I anguished over whether or not I should include it in this blog. It was over 45 years ago but it brings back a lot of unpleasant memories. Since this story is about the trial and tribulations of a young man joining the army and going to war I guess this needs to be a part of it.

We had a latrine building with four showers in it for our use. It consisted of a wall down the center with two shower heads on each side. These were just open showers like in a men’s locker room.

 I was taking a shower one evening and an older high ranking sergeant from our company started to take one next to me. We were the only two people in the building. He seemed to be acting strangely. He kept clearing his throat and when I glanced at him he was staring at me and smiling in a way that made me very uncomfortable. The combination of these things and other noises he started making while washing his genitals that told me to get out of there. I turned my shower off and left. A few days later while I was the only one in there taking a shower he came in again. He tried making small talk and was obvious about looking me over as he got in the shower next to me. I turned mine off like I was done and immediately left.

I strongly suspected he may have been gay because of his feminine actions and the fact that he was often seen in the company of a low ranking soldier in our unit that we all knew to be gay. Whenever I would see him I had the feeling he was watching me. He was a black man and although I had many black friends in the army, the fact that he was black, gay and interested in me was really creeping me out. I told a friend of mine one night about this sergeant. He was a short Irishman from Boston but a stocky little scrapper. He tried to talk me into jumping the guy one night with him and kicking the crap out of him, but I was not comfortable with the idea.

The following week I was walking to my hut just after dark and he called to me from the shadows of a hut.

“Hey, come here a minute. It is me, Sargent no-name. I want to talk to you.”
I approached him reluctantly due to his strange behavior.
“Stick your dick in here,” He said as he pulled down the zipper on his pants.
“It will feel just like a pussy.” He added in a soft voice.
I backed away.
“No thanks, I don’t want to…” Or something like that I said.
“You can have it made here with me. I have connections.” He started to say.
“I will just forget this happened, I have to go now.” I said. just wanting to get away without any trouble.
“If you don’t play ball with me, I will get you transferred out of here.” He was saying as I turned and quickly walked away.

My nerves were a wreck after that as I tried to decide how to handle the situation. I honestly thought reporting him would be the wrong thing for me to do. It seems hard for me to rationalize those thoughts now that I am older.

Two weeks later I received orders that I was being shipped out to a heavy equipment maintenance company at Long Binh Post about twenty miles away. I was relieved to get away from that situation. It had caused me much worry.

 Picture of the walkway between our quarters at Long Binh. I think those were outdoor showers on the left of this picture but I honestly can't remember.

Long Binh was the largest U.S. Army base in Vietnam. It was about 35 km or 22 miles from Saigon the capital city of South Vietnam. It was the headquarters of the U.S. Army Vietnam Command and First Logistical Command. 

Long Binh Post had a dental clinic, restaurants, snack bars, A Special Services Craft Shop, Post Exchanges, swimming pools, basketball & tennis courts, a golf driving range, and a few nightclubs. Long Binh also was home to the Stockade or military jail.  

I arrived at Long Binh and went to the 632nd Heavy Equipment Maintenance Company, which overhauled tracked and wheeled vehicles. I reported to the company headquarter and the commanding officer told me to sit down. He informed me that I was being sent there as the new company clerk. He asked me if I knew how to fill out and file all these stupid damn forms. Apparently his last clerk was inept. I told him I was trained in all the forms and that I was deployed with the company that processed them. I assured him that I could have any forms processed immediately as I knew everyone at the 520 company. He told me if I could do that he would exempt me from KP (Kitchen duty) and Guard Duty. I fell into a very sweet deal thanks to Sargent No-name.

I will continue part 4 with my next post...

You can click NEWER posts at the bottom of this page to go to the next each time in a series.

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