5: SERE Training
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Once you saw your name on the list, the next step was to go to receiving and pick up your ‘detailed orders’. Bob and I didn’t even go to chow, we ran to receiving as fast as we could and stood in line. It took about thirty minutes.
Both of our ‘detailed orders’ were the same. Prior to going to Nam we’d be assigned to several different facilities for TEMDUINS (TEMPORARY DUTY for INSTRUCTION).
First, on the following Monday, we were to report to a training building at Coronado for orientation classes on Vietnam. After a week of orientation, we’d be transported to the marine base at Camp Pendleton for SERE training.
SERE was an acronym for SURVIVAL, EVASION, RESISTANCE and ESCAPE. In other words, in SERE training we’d learn how to survive on the animal and plant life in Vietnam if we were ever lost in the jungle. We’d learn how to evade the enemy and keep from being captured. But, in the unfortunate event that we WERE taken by the enemy, we’d learn how to resist their efforts to make us talk; to give up any secrets that we might know. And finally, we’d learn how to plan an escape if we were captured.
At the conclusion of the TEMDUINS portion of our orders, we’d have five days to proceed to Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, California. From there, on August 27, 1969, we’d board a Military Airlift Command flight bound for the 15th. Aerial Port in DaNang, Republic of South Vietnam. Bob and I were a little surprised that we weren’t going to get leave before going to Vietnam. But we quickly realized that the Navy had probably put that five days of travel time in our orders to allow us a quick visit home before we left.
I was filled with mixed emotions. All of us were. I was elated that I wasn’t going to the fleet, and I felt as though I’d beaten the system on that one. But having orders for Vietnam; that was scary!
Having orders for Nam woke all of us up; in less than 40 days we’d be there. Accordingly, I think we all felt the same urge, and we all responded to it in mass. The weekend after we got our orders, every guy destined for Nam made a beeline for Tijuana, Mexico. Why? The answer was simple. Sex! Many in the group had never been with a woman that way, and no one wanted to chance going to Nam and dying before having a chance to have that experience at least once. And the ones that had had the experience, well ... one last fling before crossing the big pond certainly seemed like a good idea to them.
I’d reached puberty in 1959, when I was in the fifth grade. I can still remember what it was like when the hormones kicked in. But sexual mores were different in the fifties and early sixties. Young people weren’t as eager to become sexually active back then, and for a number of good reasons.
First of all, times were different. The birth control pill had been invented, but only married women who didn’t want to have more children were using them. In the early sixties, any young, unmarried woman who was on the pill was classified as loose and immoral. So, for the most part, the use of birth control pills was out of the question. Accordingly, four things could happen when a young, unmarried couple had sex in the sixties, and three of them were bad.
The good thing, the couple didn’t use a condom and were extremely lucky.
Bad thing number 1, the couple used a condom, it broke or slipped off, and the girl got pregnant.
Bad thing number 2, the couple didn’t use a condom and the girl got pregnant.
If the girl got pregnant there were only two choices, the honorable thing and the dishonorable thing. The honorable thing was for the boy to accept his responsibility and marry the girl. The driving element in this scenario was to keep the baby from being a bastard; to give the child a name; the name of its true father.
The dishonorable thing, of course, was for the father to shirk his responsibility and refuse to get married. That rarely ever happened, but when it did, the girl’s reputation was ruined forever. The father’s reputation wasn’t as severely damaged, but his family name would forever have a stigma attached to it.
One must remember that abortion wasn’t an option in the sixties. Abortion was illegal!
Bad thing number 3, sexually transmitted diseases. HIV wasn’t a problem; no one would even hear about that until the eighties, but there were a number of other sexual diseases that were the scourge of our generation. Syphilis, gonorrhea and herpes were bad news. And it was hard to come down with one of these diseases without your friends finding out about it, especially if you were a girl. When that happened, it was just as bad as being pregnant. Boy or girl, your reputation was ruined. You were immediately classified as loose and immoral and no one would have anything to do with you. Who could blame them? They didn’t want to get what you had!
I admit that I knew people who were sexually active during my high school and college years. But more weren’t than were.
Now no young man would admit that he wasn’t sexually active back then. It was an embarrassment to make it all the way through high school and have your friends think you were a virgin. None of the guys I knew went out of their way and lied; said they’d had sex when they hadn’t. But none of them ever volunteered an admission that they hadn’t! Include me in that number. I’m sure I had friends back then who thought I was sexually active, especially in college.
When Bob and I got back to the barracks we settled into a conversation about what the future held in store. We were both anxious; we were both wondering what the TEMDUINS training would be like. Then, out of the blue, Bob said the most incredible thing:
“You know what?”
“I feel like gettin’ laid!”
I didn’t know what to say. Not knowing what to say, but eager to find out more about what he had in mind, I just blurted out the first thing that came to mind:
“Sounds good to me.”
“OK, then. Let’s go to Tijuana!”
Tijuana, Mexico is just across the border from San Diego (at the bottom of the Coronado peninsula), and on the Friday night before we began orientation on Monday, every man with orders to Nam made a pilgrimage across the border. There were bars in Tijuana with rooms upstairs where you could pay to be with a prostitute. Some very pained and innocent expressions made that journey, but everyone had a smile on their face when they returned to the barracks the following day. Enough said about that.
Bob and I reported for our orientation classes on Monday morning. The classes were held in the same building the C.O. of the Amphib Base had his office in. It was the same building I’d been to when the C.O. had had his ‘good-bye’ party for those of us dropping out of BUDS. The Lloyd Bucher Board of Inquiry was still going on and they still had that stupid sign in the lobby.
We spent two weeks going to class learning about Vietnamese culture. We learned that the Vietnamese had five primary religions: Shinto, Buddhism, Confucianism, Cao Dai, and Catholicism. Cao Dai sounded like the most exotic; one of their prophets was Victor Hugo, the French author.
We also learned that the Vietnamese had many customs that were totally alien to Americans. For one thing, we were told that in Vietnam holding hands was a sign of friendship. This custom applied to both men and women. The instructor said that it would not be uncommon for us to see two Vietnamese men walking down the street holding hands. Accordingly, we were told that if we ever befriended a Vietnamese man, and he wanted to hold hands with us in public, it would be best to just go ahead and hold his hand. To refuse to do so would be an insult. “I ain’t doin’ that shit,” Earles said. “No way in hell!”
We were also told that it would be impolite to point the bottom of our shoes toward the Vietnamese. Most American men, when seated, have a tendency to cross one leg over the other. In doing so, the bottom of the raised foot will invariably be pointed in the direction of where another person is sitting. “We don’t think anything about it”, the instructor said, “but to the Vietnamese, it’s the ultimate insult!” Again, Earles was not amused. “Screw ‘em,” he said!
We were also warned not to ever touch a Vietnamese child on the head or shoulders. It seems that the Vietnamese think all children are protected by a guardian angel. That guardian angel sits on a child’s shoulders. If you touch a child on the head or shoulders you might injure, kill, or scare off the guardian angel. Without the guardian angel, some harm might befall the child.
“If you ever do that,” the instructor said, “there will be hell to pay!”
There were so many cultural things to learn; really stupid, idiotic things. I tried to soak it all in, but I finally decided that if the Vietnamese didn’t know something about Americans by now, about the way WE acted, about US and OUR culture, then to heck with it. They’d just have to write off any indignations that I might commit, intentional or otherwise. Other than the guardian angel bit, I didn’t plan on memorizing any of those stupid rules.
One of the trainees in the orientation program was an E-6 gunnersmate. He’d noticed the crossed cannons over my seaman stripes and knew that I was striking for the same rate. One day, during noon chow, we sat at the same table. He was the one that struck up the conversation.
“I see you’re a gunnersmate striker.”
“Did you go to ‘A’ School?”
“Graduated in May.”
“When will you be eligible to take the test for E-4?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you done your Practical Factors yet?”
“Well, go down to receiving and get a form, Practical Factors for P.O. 3 & 2. I can help you qualify for most of it if you’ll be willing to work at night in the barracks.”
“Hey, thanks. I’ll do that.”
I don’t remember that gunnersmate’s name, everyone just called him ‘Guns’, but he busted his fanny working with me right up till the time we left Coronado. He drove me like crazy, and when we were done, I was qualified to take the exam for both E-4 and E-5.
I don’t know why, but tattoos are big in the Navy. I didn’t know very many men who got one in their first enlistment, but almost everybody I knew who had re-enlisted had one. The best I can tell, if you were considering making the Navy a career, you had to have at least one tattoo. There were exceptions, of course; guys who did a whole career in the Navy and never got one, or guys who got tattoos during their first enlistment. We had one of those in our orientation class.
Grover was an idiot; an absolute, dumb-as-hell, block-head idiot. He was from Indiana and he was constantly talking about his girlfriend back home. Seems they were planning to get married during his five days of travel time before he’d leave for Nam. One night, Grover was sitting on his rack cleaning his brand new tattoo with an alcohol swab. He had the bottom bunk next to mine and I made an innocent comment about his tattoo when I returned from the shower.
“Hey, man, when’d you get the tattoo?”
“Last night. Pretty ain’t it?”
“Yea. What’s it say, right there under the heart?”
“Gloria. That’s my girlfriend’s name.”
“And it was OK with Gloria for you to get a tattoo?”
“Well, actually, she didn’t want me to.”
“And you went ahead and got it anyway?”
“Yea, that’s why her name’s on it. She can’t get mad if her name’s on it.”
“No, when she sees her name, hey, she’s gon’ love it.”
“Grover, why didn’t she want you to get a tattoo? Did she say?”
“She says they look nasty. She just doesn’t like ‘em.”
I couldn’t help myself. I laughed so hard I got tears in my eyes. Grover was neck deep in the stinky stuff and didn’t even know it.
“Hey, man. What’s so funny?”
“You are, dummy!”
“Wha’d I do?”
“When she sees that tattoo she’s gon’ leave your butt!”
“No she won’t!”
“Yes she will! And after she leaves, you’re gonna have her name tattooed on your arm forever.”
“No, she’s gon’ love it. You wait and see. She’s gon’ love it.”
During the last day or two of orientation our instructors had gone over the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and the Geneva Convention rules regarding treatment of POWs. Then, we were kindly informed that the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong didn’t adhere to those rules. To prepare us for what it would be like in case we were ever subject to capture by the enemy, the military had developed SERE: SURVIVAL, EVASION, RESISTANCE and ESCAPE training.
There were two SERE training programs; a three-day component that was all classroom study, and a seven-day component where you actually went out in the field for practical, hands-on training. All of us were Naval Support, so I don’t know how they decided who did the three-day and who did the seven.
Nobody wanted the seven-day program. It was a bummer. In order to teach you the fundamentals of SERE, they actually put you in SERE situations. Earles and I lucked out; we got the three-day component. But some of the other guys, with orders identical to ours, got that seven-day sucker.
The three-day component was a piece of cake. We were transported by bus to the marine base at Camp Pendleton and put up in old, dilapidated wooden barracks somewhere out in the boonies. We had classroom instruction on SERE in the morning, and in the afternoon we’d do fun stuff like firing weapons and throwing grenades. We even got these funky little box lunches at chow time with ice, cold tea and/or our choice of cola drinks.
The seven-day component was bad news. Those guys didn’t get box lunches; they got one full week of hell-on-earth! The Navy operated two SERE training sites, one at Whidbey Island in Washington State and the other at Warner Springs in California. Most of our guys went to Warner Springs, which was two hours from San Diego, but there were so many of them that an overflow group of about a hundred had to be sent to Camp Pendleton where the Marines got their training.
I didn’t go through the seven-day course, so the experiences I’m about to describe are from stories I heard from the guys who went to both Pendleton and Warner Springs. Mickey Bohon, a friend from Gunnersmate School, did his seven-day SERE at Whidbey Island (near Seattle). A PBR sailor named Bob Parrish went through the Warner Springs seven-day program a year earlier (in 1968). Bob and Mickey were kind enough to write me about their experiences and I’ve incorporated some of what they had to say into the Warner Springs segment.
On day one, the instructors took the trainees way out in the Camp Pendleton boonies. One of the instructors was with the K-9 Corps, the dog handlers, and he had this monster black & tan German shepherd on a leash. The trainees were forced to strip down to their skivvies, and the guy from the K-9 Corps had his dog sniff through their clothing. The dog was sniffing for any food they might have brought along. The dog found a few candy bars and some packaged cheese and crackers. The instructors ate the candy bars. The dog got the cheese and crackers. The trainees then put their clothes back on and were divided into ten-man teams.
Each ten-man team was given a pot. Each trainee was given a steel helmet with a helmet liner, a compass, a knife, and a deck of cards. But the cards weren’t traditional playing cards. Each card had a picture of an edible plant or insect that could be found in the Camp Pendleton area. Then, without saying anything, the instructors left.
There were no explanations as to what would happen next; the guys were just left in the boonies. After an hour or so the trainees began to realize that the instructors weren’t coming back, so they began to improvise. The senior petty officers in each group began to take charge. A senior P.O., a first class engineman named Everett, sent one guy out to find some water. He gave him the pot to put the water in and told him to fill it to the top. Meanwhile, the other eight men in the group were looking for plants that looked like the plants on the cards. Nobody went looking for any of the insects. The seaman with the pot found a creek in a wooded area nearby and filled the pot with water. He took the helmet liner out of his helmet and filled the steel outer helmet with water, too. The water in the pot was for cooking. The water in the helmet was drinking water. He unbuckled his belt and looped the belt through the helmet liner strap. That freed up his hands to carry the pot and the helmet, both full of water, back to where Everett was. By the time he returned, Everett had accumulated some firewood and had managed to start a fire with his Zippo lighter.
The other groups began to notice that Everett’s group had water. They sent runners over to find out where the water was and the sailor who’d found the stream told them where it was. Each group then sent a man, with a pot and a helmet, to get water, too.
Everett placed the pot full of water on the fire. As Everett’s men returned, he compared the plants they brought in with the pictures on the cards. Once he was sure he had the right plant, he began to strip the leaves and place them in the pot. Any other part of the plant that looked edible was placed in the pot as well.
By nightfall, all the groups had managed to prepare a vegetable porridge. Once the porridge had cooked to a boil, it was taken off the fire and allowed to cool. When it was warm enough to handle, the pot was passed around and each man took turns drinking the soupy mixture right out of the pot. It really didn’t taste that bad. Then, with their stomachs full and nightfall setting in, each man began to gather leaves and pine straw to prepare a soft place to sleep for the night.
All of the groups were out in the open. Everyone had pretty much set up shop where they’d been left earlier in the day. There were wooded areas all around, but no one had thought much about concealment; they’d been too concerned with preparing their meals to think about that.
Just after sundown, Everett, who had laid down to catch a nap, bolted to a sitting position and stared straight ahead. For a moment or two he didn’t say anything. Then, in a whisper, he called his group together.
“Men, we need to move to the woods. NOW!”
No one asked any questions. The men just got up and started moving toward the nearest tree line. While his men moved to the woods, Everett went to several of the other groups and told them he thought they ought to move to the woods, too. One or two did, but most didn’t. They just stayed where they were, exposed, right out in the open.
The groups that moved to the woods set up positions a hundred yards or so just inside the tree line. They were deep enough in the woods that they couldn’t be seen from the clearing, but close enough to the clearing that they could see what was going on with the others. Everett made up a watchbill and posted a sentry position for the night. Each man on the watchbill would stand a four hour watch.
At about 0200 hours (2 o’clock in the morning) all hell broke loose in the clearing. Men were yelling like banshees, and there was small arms fire, too. The attack had come so quickly that it caught everyone by surprise, even the sentries. Everett sent all of his men deeper into the woods. He told them to stay together, and to keep an eye on him so they could summon him to their position when the excitement died down. The other groups that had entered the tree line, leaders included, just scattered and ran in all directions.
Everett made his way to the edge of the tree line. He concealed himself behind some scrub brush and watched what was happening in the clearing. Men in black uniforms and conical straw hats were firing weapons and yelling obscenities at the trainees. Once all the men had been rounded up, their hands were tied behind their backs and they were blindfolded. Then, they were marched off into the woods on the far side of the clearing. The march into the woods was disconcerting. Some of the enemy, the men dressed in black, were beating some of the prisoners, and the beatings seemed pretty severe. This was a training exercise. Why were the trainees being hit so severely? Everett was shocked at how brutal some of the blows were.
It was obvious that the men dressed like Vietcong were going to try to capture all of them, and it was obvious that all prisoners would be taken to some place in the opposite direction. To evade the enemy, Everett concluded that he and his people needed to move in the opposite direction, away from the direction the prisoners had been taken, but he didn’t want to move them in the dark. He decided to move them in the morning. Everett made his way back to his group and told them what he’d seen. He re-posted a sentry and told the others to bed down and get as much sleep as they could. Then, he lay down to get some rest himself.
Everett woke up just after sunrise. He wasn’t completely awake, he was in a foggy, dreamlike state. He was still lying down when his eyes finally focused. He could see the shapes of two or three of his men right in front of him. They were still asleep. He slowly raised himself into a sitting position. He turned his head slowly to the right and saw the others, all still asleep. Then, he turned his head to the left looking for the sentry. What he saw sent a chill down his spine.
The sentry was sitting in a squat position with duct tape over his mouth. His eyes were the size of silver dollars and his hands were tied behind his back. Everett’s eyes then focused on a figure standing just behind the sentry. It was a man dressed in black. He was holding an M-16 assault rifle. He wore sandals that looked like they’d been made out of old automobile tires, and he had black makeup smeared all over his face. Everett stared at the man for a moment. Then, he slowly turned his head and scanned the scene again. There were eight or nine other men in black standing in a circle around the group.
Everett looked back at the first man, the one standing behind the sentry. The man, aware that Everett was looking at him, put his finger to his lips and made a ‘shhhhh’ sound. Everett nodded to acknowledge that he understood the instruction. Then, the man in black behind the sentry, who was obviously the leader, waved his left arm from side to side. The other men in black acknowledged his wave by raising their left hands. The leader then counted to three very slowly. He did so by nodding his head three times. When he got to the third nod all hell broke loose. It didn’t matter that they were firing blank ammunition. It didn’t matter that they were pointing their weapons straight up in the air. It didn’t matter that everyone in the group knew it was just an exercise. When those M-16’s went off, IT GOT REAL!
Everett watched as his men reacted to the gunfire. It was total pandemonium! Some of the men wet their pants. One lost control of his bowels. His name was Grover.
Still firing, the enemy yelled and screamed as they formed the prisoners into a tightly packed group. Then, just as suddenly as it had started, the firing stopped. The enemy began subduing their prisoners.
Each man had a piece of duct tape placed across his mouth. Duct tape was also used to bind their hands behind their backs. Black elastic sweatbands were used as blindfolds.
Once subdued, the prisoners were formed into two five-man columns. While they were being formed up, if they were slow to respond or said anything, they were beaten. The beating wasn’t extreme, but it hurt. IT CONTINUED TO GET REAL!
When the prisoners were formed up, the two five-man columns were side-by-side. One enemy soldier got between each group of two men and grabbed each by the upper arm. The leader shouted an order and the whole group moved out in the same direction the other prisoners had been taken the night before.
It was a long march, and all along the way the men were periodically beaten and verbally abused. Grover got the roughest treatment. It didn’t take long for his soiled trousers to begin to smell profusely.
All during the march Everett replayed what had happened in his mind. He felt like an idiot. He should have moved the men in the dark. He should have gotten them as far away from the clearing as possible. He wondered, too, if the other groups had been captured.
Everyone in the group wondered who the enemy was. Were they SEALs? Were they Marine Recon? Who were these guys? Pendleton was a marine base, so they were probably Marine Recon. But whoever they were, THEY WERE GOOD!
Everett wondered how the enemy had been able to sneak up on them. Had his sentry gone to sleep? Surely not. And where were they being taken? He wondered about that more than anything else during the long, miserable march.
The men didn’t know how long they’d been marching, but it seemed like hours. Finally, they began to hear sounds in the distance; people talking; people laughing; people yelling. And there was a strange music being played. It sounded oriental. The prisoners were finally called to a halt. Their blindfolds were removed. They weren’t used to the light and it took a moment, while their pupils adjusted, before they could see their surroundings. There was no mistaking where they were. They were standing just outside a makeshift P.O.W. camp.
The enemy soldiers removed the duct tape from their arms and mouths. They were then led into the compound. The camp was small and square. There was an 8’ high perimeter fence. The fence consisted of two runs of coiled, razor-sharp, concertina wire stacked one on top of the other. The wire was tied to poles that had been cemented into the ground. In the center of the compound there was a small wooden shack. It was primitive, but much nicer than the open-sided tents that the prisoners occupied. Just outside the compound there was a larger tent. It had side flaps. Everett figured that that must be where the enemy soldiers were quartered.
Once inside the compound, Everett began to look around for members of the other groups that had been in the woods. He didn’t have to look long; they were all there. At least his group had been the last to be captured.
Some of the men in the compound began to help Everett’s men to a large lister bag at the north end of the compound. It was full of potable water, and the men were dying of thirst. A short time later the camp guards assembled the prisoners in the center of the compound. When they were all gathered and seated on the ground a man that none of them had seen before came out of the wooden shack. He had on a black uniform just like the others, but he wore a black baseball cap with a red star on it.
“Gentlemen, you are now prisoners of war. You have just been through the survival and evasion portion of your training, and I’m gonna be honest with you. You didn’t do well. You didn’t do well at all. The resistance portion of your training began when you were captured. I’m sorry to say that, so far, there has been no resistance. But you have another chance; the resistance portion of your training will continue here. As you know, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, there are only four pieces of information that you are allowed to give an enemy: name, rank, serial number and date of birth. Having said that, I’m now going to give you ten minutes to organize yourselves. There are no officers in this group, so identify your senior petty officer. He’ll be in charge. He’ll delegate responsibilities to the rest of you. Organize a plan of resistance. Try to organize one or more plans for escape. That’s what you’re here for. That’s what you’re here to learn how to do. Aside from that, I can promise you, you’re going to be treated like prisoners of war.”
One of the guards walked over to the man in the baseball cap and handed him a large white envelope. He, in turn, walked over to one of the prisoners and handed it to him.
“Mr. leader, once you’ve been identified, open this envelope. It contains ten very simple one or two line phrases. Have your men commit them to memory and then destroy the document. These are the secrets that you are to protect. These are the secrets that we want to know. You’ve got ten minutes, then the fun starts.”
It didn’t take long to identify the senior P.O. It was Everett. Everett gave another E-6 the job of organizing an escape plan. Then, he turned his attention to the envelope.
The envelope contained a single piece of paper. The words printed on the page brought some laughter:
Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Daffy Duck, Sylvester
the cat, Tweedy Bird, Wiley Coyote, Roadrunner, President Nixon,
Vice President Agnew
Whoever made up the list certainly had a sense of humor. Lumping Nixon and Agnew in with eight cartoon characters was funny, but Everett couldn’t help but wonder what Nixon would say if he knew. Once he was sure that each man knew the information, Everett took out his lighter and set the document aflame.
The men knew when the ten minutes were up. An oriental-sounding song came blaring over the P.A. system. The camp guards began yelling and screaming for the prisoners to stand at attention. One of the guards, trying to speak in a combination of English and Vietnamese, began yelling:
“Attention and salute! Attention and salute! Honor national anthem!”
The prisoners were beaten as they were herded into a crude formation in the center of the compound. They were then ordered to render a right-hand salute. Some did right away. Those who didn’t were beaten until they did.
The interrogation process began immediately. One at a time the men were chosen at random and herded into the shack. The camp commandant, the man in the baseball cap, was sitting on a stool behind a small table in the center of the room. There was another stool on the opposite side of the table just inside the door. Grover, the first prisoner to be interrogated, was forced to take a seat.
Just behind the commandant there was a green chalk board. The words THE TEN SECRETS were printed in block letters at the top of the board. Off to the left there was a 55-gallon drum. It had a plywood cover over it. There was a baseball bat leaning against the wall next to the drum. There was a silver platter on the table. It was covered with chocolate chip cookies. Just to the right of the platter there was a cold pitcher of milk. Right next to the pitcher there was a large empty glass. The commandant took the glass and placed it on the table in front of Grover. He picked up the pitcher and filled the glass with milk.
“You can have all the cookies and milk you want. But first, I want to know just one of the ten secrets. OK?”
“Grover Ellis, HMSN, 2-17-49. I can’t remember my serial number, sir!”
“Fine then. No cookies and milk for you.”
The commandant then motioned to a guard. The guard used a crayon to put a mark on Grover’s forehead and then escorted him out the door and back to the compound. The initial interrogations continued throughout the day.
Everett figured out the crayon trick in a hurry. The guards were using the crayon mark to keep up with who had been interviewed and who hadn’t. Everett spread the word for the men to erase the mark. The guards picked up on what the men were doing, and those they caught erasing the mark were beaten.
In spite of Everett’s attempt to disrupt the process, all the men were interrogated. Accordingly, they all now knew the drill. They all now knew that if they talked they’d get cold milk and cookies.
As soon as the initial interrogations were complete, the process started all over again. One by one they were led into the shack. But this time, the commandant was more deliberate.
There was some physical abuse; some slapping around, but nothing exceedingly extreme. Everett had been the last person to be interrogated in the initial process. He was last the second time around as well. When he walked in the shack his eyes went immediately to the chalk board. He was shocked. Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse were already there. Everett could feel his blood pressure rising. He could feel his face getting flushed. He knew it was just an exercise, but he was mad. How could somebody break so quickly? He endured the questioning. He endured the slapping. The commandant excused him and the guard took him back outside.
As soon as he got a chance, Everett found the man that had been standing watch when they were captured. He had questions, and he wanted answers:
“What-the-hell happened? Did you go to sleep or what?”
“No way. One minute I was just standing there, then the next thing I know I’ve got an arm around my throat and a hand over my mouth.”
“But how could they sneak up on you like that? Every step you take in the woods makes a big-time noise; leaves crackling, stuff like that. How could they sneak up on you?”
“It wasn’t THEY, it was just one of ‘em. I was walkin’ the perimeter. I was walkin’ all around our position. I did that all through my watch. I’d take ten or twelve steps and then stop for a while. I’d look around. Then I’d walk another ten or twelve steps. Every now and then I’d hear a sound like the echo of my footsteps. I didn’t think anything about it at the time, but I think what this guy did was walk when I walked. He’d mirror my footsteps. Every time I’d take a step, he would, too. That way, his footsteps just blended in with mine.”
“Then, after he captured me, the rest of ‘em moved up one at a time. They came one at a time, taking ten or twelve steps at a time, just like I’d been doing when I was walking the perimeter.”
“Damn it! I can’t believe it was that easy to do. I can’t believe they got the drop on you like that. Damn it, damn it, damn it!
“Hey, don’t be mad at me. I didn’t do anything wrong!”
“I know. It ain’t your fault, it’s just dumb. If we were in Nam right now we’d all be suckin’ hind tit!”
Everett knew he was dealing with professionals. These guys had to be SEALs! THEY JUST HAD TO BE!
After the first day in the camp all but six of the enemy left. The enemy cadre then consisted of the six who remained and the commandant. They worked in shifts, and those not on duty were generally asleep in the guard tent. At any given time there was one guard inside the compound, one walking the perimeter outside, and one inside the shack to either interrogate the prisoners himself, or assist the commandant in the interrogation process. The commandant was always present during interrogations in the daytime. The guards took turns handling interrogations at night.
Over the next several days (and nights) life in the camp settled into a predictable routine. First thing every morning the prisoners were assembled in the middle of the compound and made to stand at attention. The roll was called to make sure no one had escaped. Then, the North Vietnamese national anthem was played and a Vietcong flag was raised on a flagpole just outside the compound. Any prisoner that was late in rendering a salute was beaten rather harshly.
The interrogations continued around the clock; they went on day and night. And each time the men were questioned the treatment got rougher. The prisoners were served two meals a day. The one served at mid-morning consisted of a handful of rice per man with small, unidentifiable chunks of meat mixed in. The evening meal was a broth that stunk to high heaven. Each man got a paper cup full of the stuff. At first, nobody drank the evening meal; they just poured it out on the ground. But by day two they were gulping and guzzling everything they were given.
Throughout the day and night the guard inside the compound would harass people at random. It was hard to get any sleep. You were either being aroused to go to interrogation, or harassed by the guard just for the heck of it. Nobody ever got more than two hours of sleep at a stretch. By day three the prisoners had totally lost track of time. No one was sure just how long they’d been there. Accordingly, they had no concept of how much longer the ordeal would last.
The interrogation process had gotten brutal, too. One afternoon a prisoner was forced to get inside the 55-gallon drum. The plywood cover was placed over the top and the guard began beating the drum with the baseball bat. The prisoner started screaming. After about a minute of this torture the prisoner was released. Everett was next. As soon as he walked in the shack his eyes found the chalk board. Just that morning there had only been four phrases posted. Now, every phrase but Nixon and Agnew were scribbled on the board.
There were two brothers in the group. That was highly unusual. Brothers could be in the Navy together, but there was a policy against sending two people from the same family to Vietnam at the same time. As it turns out, these guys had had to get special approval, through their congressman, to serve in Vietnam together. The brothers were highly competitive, and they were two of the toughest men in the group.
One afternoon the prisoners were all mustered in the center of the compound. The commandant came out and gave them a reprimand about how uncooperative they were being. Then, he sent a guard to pick out a man for interrogation. He picked one of the brothers.
The prisoner was led into the shack and seated on the stool across from the commandant. The commandant gave a nod to the guard. The guard acknowledged the nod and started pounding his fist on the plywood cover over the 55-gallon drum. He pounded very slowly. The sound was hollow and muffled. It had an echo to it. From outside it was hard to tell what was happening. Was the prisoner being hit? What was making that sound? While the guard was pounding on the plywood cover, the commandant placed the glass in front of the prisoner and filled it to the brim with ice-cold milk. Then, he grabbed a handful of cookies.
“I’m not going to ask you any questions today. I respect you. You’ve been one of the toughest prisoners we’ve ever had to deal with. To show you that I respect you, you have my permission to eat and drink your fill. Eat as many cookies as you want. Drink as much milk as you want. Go ahead, help yourself.”
When the commandant finished speaking he handed the cookies to the prisoner. The guard stopped pounding on the drum cover. The prisoner wasted no time. He stuffed two cookies in his mouth and chewed sparingly. Then he grabbed the glass of milk and chugged the whole thing in one swallow. Before he was done he’d eaten half the cookies on the tray and emptied the whole pitcher of milk. When the prisoner had had his fill, the commandant motioned to the guard and he escorted the prisoner outside.
The rest of the group was still mustered in the compound. The guard pushed the prisoner with so much force that he fell to his knees in front of his comrades. The rest of the prisoners took one look at the man and their jaws hit the ground. He had cookie crumbs all over the front of his shirt and a monstrous milk moustache on his upper lip. The prisoner’s brother went ballistic.
He bolted from the ranks and started beating the holy hell out of his brother. It took the guards and the commandant a full thirty seconds to separate them.
“But I didn’t do anything!”
“You ate the cookies, you son-of-a-bitch!
“But I didn’t tell ‘em anything!”
“You ate the cookies!”
“I ain’t lyin’! I didn’t tell ‘em anything!”
Everett was amazed. He knew the kid hadn’t talked. What a lesson in manipulation. There was no doubt in his mind that the Vietcong would pull stunts like this. And the ease with which it had been done was incredible. They’d let one prisoner have his fill of cookies and milk. The end result: The total collapse of trust and cohesion in the prisoner group.
The E-6 in charge of planning an escape had been slow to put a plan together. Everett kept pushing him to come up with something, but nothing he or his group could think of seemed workable. Every plan they came up with was flawed. Even if they could find a way through the wire, how could they avoid the guard on the outside? No plan seemed to be forthcoming.
Then, late one night, the guard inside the perimeter leaned his M-16 against one of the tent posts and knelt down to tie a boot lace. The E-6, seeing the opportunity, and without thinking it through at all, bolted from his cot and tackled the surprised guard. Another prisoner, an E-5, followed his lead and picked up the weapon. While the E-6 held the guard, the E-5 held the muzzle of the M-16 firm against the guard’s left temple. Then the E-6 started yelling:
The commandant and the rest of the guards came running. The off-duty guards looked really strange. They were brandishing their weapons, but they were still in their underwear.
The E-5 was livid, he was really mad. The whole situation had become overly real to him, and the opportunity that had presented itself had opened a floodgate of adrenaline.
“O.K., you bastards, drop your weapons. If you don’t, I’ll blow this sucker’s brains out!”
Everett bolted from his cot and ran to the center of the compound. He realized immediately that the guard was in danger. If that M-16 went off, even though it was loaded with blanks, the guard would be a dead man. The muzzle velocity; the blank packing material; the point-blank range; no doubt about it, if the E-5 pulled the trigger, the guard was going to die!
Everett’s instinct told him to order the E-5 to drop the weapon; a life was hanging in the balance. But an opportunity had presented itself. He hesitated. Then the E-5 yelled out again:
“I said, drop your weapons or I’ll blow this sucker’s brains out!”
To everyone’s surprise, the guards did as they were told. They dropped their weapons. There was a momentary silence; a strange stillness; then the reality of what had happened kicked in. They were free! The prisoners erupted in a tumultuous uproar.
“We did it! We did it!”
Everett’s mind kicked into overdrive.
“O.K. men, listen up. We’re gonna tie the guards up, gag ‘em, blindfold ‘em, all except the commandant, no blindfold for him. We’re gon’ march our fannies out of here, and he’s gonna lead the way!”
There was another tumultuous shout. All the men began to jump up and down. They began to hug one another. Everett turned to his left, and out of nowhere one of the men literally jumped into his arms. Before he could recover there was an explosive burst of gunfire.
When the second tumultuous shout had begun, the E-5 had celebrated, too. He’d taken the weapon away from the guard’s temple and raised it in the air. That was the opening the guard needed. He jammed his right elbow into the gut of the E-6 that was holding him and yanked the weapon out of the hands of the E-5. When the other guards saw what he’d done, that he was free and no longer in danger, they recovered their weapons and started firing into the air. It was over in an instant. The guards were visibly shaken, but they took no revenge for the incident at all. They simply gathered everyone up and put them to bed.
No one went to sleep right away, there was too much adrenaline pumping. As the minutes turned into hours the prisoners began to realize that something was different; something had changed. The interrogations had stopped. The harassment had stopped. By 0300 hours they were all fast asleep.
Everett was one of the first to wake up the next morning. The sun was just breaking over the tree line to the east. He forced himself off the cot and began to wake up the others. He whispered something in each man’s ear:
“When they play the national anthem, don’t salute. They can’t beat all of us. Remember, don’t salute the anthem!”
They followed the same morning routine. They slowly moved to the center of the compound. There, they stood at attention and waited for the commandant to step out of the shack. They knew when they saw the commandant that it would only be a matter of seconds before that damn anthem came on.
Out stepped the commandant. The guards all snapped to attention. They rendered a crisp, smart, right-hand salute. The prisoners didn’t. They heard the scratchy sound of the needle when it hit the record. Then they heard the music. But it wasn’t the music they’d expected to hear. Slowly, one or two at a time, the prisoners began to sing along:
“... what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming ...”
Old glory was going up the flagpole. The prisoners’ backs became straighter. Tears were flowing. Salutes were rendered smartly; not all at once; but slowly; until every man had his right hand to his brow. When the last line came, every prisoner’s voice could be heard. But they weren’t singing; they were screaming:
“... o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
The prisoners, still at attention, didn’t know what was happening. Finally, the guard in the compound lowered his weapon and walked out the gate. There, he met up with the perimeter guard and they walked together, weapons by their sides, toward the guard tent. The commandant spoke up:
“Gentlemen. Your SERE training is over.”
Pandemonium broke loose. Guys were screaming and hugging each other. Finally, the nightmare had come to an end. When the yelling and screaming subsided, the commandant continued:
“The buses will be here to take you back to Pendleton in about an hour. You’ll get a hot breakfast there, then it’s back to Coronado.”
From out of nowhere there was a question:
“Hey, how’d we do?”
The commandant chose his words carefully:
“In survival, evasion and resistance, you stunk!”
There was a moment of silence. Then another question:
“What about escape? How’d we do there?”
The commandant seemed uneasy:
“Let me put it to you this way. Nobody’s ever done what you did last night. Nobody’s ever gotten the drop on the guards before. I’ll have to commend you for that. But you failed to follow through. The guards recovered; they gained control again. If that had happened in Vietnam, you’d all be dead right now.”
“But we did good, didn’t we? Didn’t we?”
The commandant smiled.
“Yes. You did damn good!”
There was another tumultuous applause. Then, one last question.
“How’d we do on the secrets? You only got eight, right?”
The commandant’s smile widened.
“Good-bye, gentlemen. And good luck.”
He turned to walk back into the shack. Then he stopped. He turned around again.
“One last thing. If you ever run into president Nixon or vice president Agnew, please give them my regards.”
As the commandant turned and walked into the shack, the feeling of accomplishment, the feeling that they’d succeeded in the most important thing of all slowly faded into nothingness.
An hour or so later the buses came and took the group back to Pendleton. It was over! Thank God! It was finally over!
SERE TRAINING AT WARNER SPRINGS
The guys going through the Navy’s SERE program at Warner Springs had a totally different experience. There were orientation classes the first day where instructors outlined the training that would follow. They had all heard rumors about how tough it would be and they were under no illusions; it would be no Sunday picnic.
The first day or two seemed to be geared toward upsetting the blood sugar level of the trainees. They got nothing of substance to eat. Accordingly, they learned how easy it would be to become victims of an altered state of reality. The only nourishment they got on day one was water and coffee (coffee without cream or sugar). Parrish chose the coffee assuming that there would be more nutrients in it than in the water. It didn’t seem to matter. There weren’t enough nutrients in either to make much difference.
On Tuesday morning, Parrish’s group was taken to a sandy beach somewhere near the Naval Amphibious Base. The day was spent alternately hiking and running on the beach. They were told to hunt for crabs and mussels along the rock jetties, crabs and mussels would be a good source of food. But there were none to be had. After two years of SERE training, running weekly teams of fifty to one hundred people through the program, there wasn’t much of anything left - plant, animal or otherwise. Parachutes were provided as sleeping bags and they slept on the beach that night.
Early the next morning the trainees were loaded onto a bus and taken on a two hour drive east into the Manzanita desert. The trainees received instruction on the plant life there. Like the Pendleton group, they were given instruction on which plants were edible and which were harmful. They were told that the green Manzanita leaves made an excellent tea. But the brown leaves, when ingested, were a potent laxative.
On Wednesday morning, the whole group was taken on a hike. They walked for miles. The weather was very hot and the group didn’t have any cover. They were told that there were jackrabbits in the area, and if they caught any they could cook them up. Again, two years of SERE training had wiped out the jackrabbit herd.
Sometime in the early evening a truck rolled up loaded down with pots and canteen cups. There were a mess of dead chickens on the truck as well. The trainees were told to fill the pots with water. Then, they were told to build fires and prepare and boil the chickens. It took hours to get the water hot enough, but finally, the effort produced a weird-looking stew. The trainees took their cups and dipped them into the broth. Parrish’s cup came up with a chicken foot (with claw) sticking out. He didn't care. It was the first hot food he’d had in three days.
The groups slept out in parachutes on Wednesday night. They were taught how to roll the parachutes to make something that resembled a sleeping bag. It took a while to get the hang of it, but once they did it actually worked rather well. The trainees were rousted from their sleep by the training personnel several times during the night. The idea was to prevent them from getting any sleep.
On Thursday morning they took another hike. It wasn’t as long as the one on Tuesday. Late in the day, after arriving at their destination, they were put in trucks and driven to the top of a hill. Once they’d all gotten off the trucks they were instructed to get to the bottom of the hill without getting caught. Caught? Caught by who? They didn’t see anybody, so the order sounded simple enough.
It was now quite dark, and the whole group was tired, hungry and disoriented. At the bottom of the hill there was a house and a single light on a pole. The house was their objective. Some took the option of running as fast as they could. Most who took that approach were tackled by instructors who appeared out of nowhere. Once they were apprehended they were loaded onto a truck.
The group Parrish was in moved more slowly than the first group. Parrish was doing pretty well until he got to a clearing. He got nabbed crossing the clearing and got man-handled into a truck. When the truck finally had a full load of people, it pulled out and another truck took its place. Eventually, the trucks all arrived at a location a short distance away. It was a POW camp.
Again, the intent of the training seemed to be to maximize the effects of the sugar imbalance they were all experiencing due to lack of food. It didn’t take much to make the trainees believe they really were POWs.
The trainees were made to crawl through some entrance wire into the complex itself. Once inside they were all given prisoner numbers. They had been without sleep since Thursday morning. It was still dark, but there were bright lights shinning down on them in the compound. They’d been in the dark much of the night, and because they were tired and not used to the light, their eyes had trouble adjusting to the glare. They were assigned to cots and allowed to lay down. But they were routinely harassed and awakened throughout the night and mustered out for roll call and a count-off. During the count off, they had to yell out their prisoner number.
At first light, the camp commandant appeared and gave the men a lengthy speech on what would be expected of them. All of the camp personnel were dressed in dark green fatigues. They had red stars on their collars and caps. Many spoke with thick Russian accents. It was all quite believable.
After the first roll call of the morning, the men were assigned tasks. Parrish was assigned to a detail that had to wash all the mess kits and hang them out on a line. As soon as they’d boiled the bowls and hung them out to dry, a guard came by and shook the line. The mess kits all fell to the dirt and they had to start all over and wash them again. The other groups, doing their chores, were harassed in the same way. This ‘task harassment’ went on all morning.
Routinely, guys were being called out and taken away for interrogation. When it was Parrish’s turn all hell broke loose. It seems that Parrish didn’t respond fast enough when his prisoner number was called, so the guard grabbed him by the collar and lifted him off the ground. He was physically lifted and carried across the compound. The guard was screaming in his face the whole way. The guard had a thick, phony, theatrical make-up scar on his face. Parrish knew it was a fake, but the scar, phony as it was, made the guard look very ominous.
Parrish was thrown in a box with about fifteen other prisoners. They were packed in like sardines. The heat was bad enough out in the compound, but it was hell in the box! It was like an oven! The men in the box were questioned, one-at-a-time, about their activities prior to their capture. It was hard to determine what the guards wanted to know. The men tried not to answer. They’d been warned that if they collaborated they’d be made to go through the program again. They didn’t want any of that.
After the initial questioning, they were folded into very small individual boxes. The boxes had lids, and the lids were closed and locked. The boxes were painted black; that made them absorb the heat, and the heat inside each box was stifling. The guys that were claustrophobic went bananas almost immediately. Parrish wasn’t claustrophobic. He was just tired, so he fell asleep. The guards would come along occasionally and bang on the boxes. They’d demand that the prisoners shout out their prisoner numbers. Again, Parrish didn’t respond quickly enough. The lid was yanked open and he was jerked out by his belt loops. He’d been folded in two for so long he couldn’t stand. After a severe reprimand, Parrish was released.
The guards had a thing they called the stress position. When ordered to assume this position, the prisoners had to kneel down and lean back as far as possible. In the process, they had to extend their arms as far forward as possible for as long as possible. Parrish kept falling over backwards. That was grounds for another trip to the box, and a beating on the way.
In the afternoon the men were assigned more tasks. This time, Parrish was in a group that had been ordered to move a woodpile from one location to another. About the time they’d get it moved to one place, the guards would change their minds and make them move it to another.
In the evening, Parrish was placed on a detail that had to boil water for the evening meal. The meal turned out to be a thin rice gruel. The prisoners didn’t realize it at the time, but their stomachs had shrunk considerably. One cup of gruel was almost more than they could keep down. They all lined up with their cups and marched passed the pot. The gruel was ladled into their cups as they passed. Once they were served, they returned to their muster position in the compound. There were more than a hundred men in the group, so the serving process took a while. Once they were all served, and just as they began to imbibe, a guard yelled out from the rear:
"This is slop!"
It was all planned, of course. When the commandant heard the remark the search was on for the prisoner that had made the comment. At first, the prisoners didn’t understand that it was a guard that had said it. The men were harassed to find out who the guilty party was. Naturally, none of the prisoners came forward. Eventually, the guards took the officer in charge of the prisoners and stuffed him in a large tank of water. Then, when he was soaking wet, they tied him to a fence post. He got slapped around mercilessly. While this exhibition was going on, other guards began walking through the ranks and knocking the prisoners’ cups out of their hands.
"So it’s slop, huh?”
They went hungry again.
During the hottest part of each day the prisoners were pushed out of the sun and into the shade of their dugout bunk rooms. The signal to move to the bunk rooms was an air raid siren. The guards were really trying to avoid heat stroke among the prisoners. But they even used this drill, as necessary as it was, to teach the prisoners a lesson. The stated purpose of the drill, according to the guards, was to hide the prisoners from U.S. planes that might be flying overhead. The Vietcong and the North Vietnamese would employ this same tactic if the men were ever captured for real.
In just a matter of one day the men had totally lost track of time; they had no idea what day it was.
One morning, very, very early, the prisoners were told to fall into ranks. Some of them were so tired they didn’t notice anything different. But some began to detect a subtle change in their environment.
For one thing, there were no more men in dark green uniforms. Then, a ceremony was quickly performed. It began when the single star ‘Liberation Army Flag’ was lowered and the American flag was run up on the flag pole. The commandant, with no other fanfare, informed the group that they’d been liberated. They were no longer prisoners of war.
On Friday, August 15th, 1969, while we were ending our SERE training at Camp Pendleton and Warner Springs, hundreds of thousands of other young Americans were beginning a weekend in Bethal, New York that would define our whole generation. It was a ROCK CONCERT, and it came to be known as WOODSTOCK.
Woodstock was a hippie artist community just down the road from Bethal. Some guy named Max Yazgar owned a farm there, and the concert promoters talked ol’ Max into letting them use his farm for the event.
Woodstock had gotten a lot of press, the greatest rock groups of the day would be performing and the promoters were excited. But because the location was so remote, way out in the county, the promoters had only anticipated a crowd of 100,000 or so. They misjudged the attendance miserably. More than a half million people showed up, and there was nowhere to park all the cars. People literally abandoned their vehicles on the highways nearby and made their way to the site.
Woodstock was the coming together of the ‘Hippie Nation’. The hippie movement in America came of age that weekend. But who were the hippies? And how did the movement begin?
In the fifties, another counter-culture movement had begun in the United States. I don’t know how or why it began, but by the late fifties it seemed to be centered in the Greenwich Village community of New York City. The purists in the movement were known as beatniks and they congregated in the jazz clubs in the village.
At first, jazz was the beatnik music of choice. But jazz was just music; there were no words. Without words, the music was one dimensional. As the movement grew, beatniks became obsessed with self-expression, and to express themselves in words they turned to poetry.
The coffee houses in the village offered a great venue for poetry, so the ‘beat’ crowds moved from the jazz clubs to the coffee houses. At about the same time, folk music was becoming popular, and groups like Peter, Paul and Mary, The Kingston Trio and The New Christy Minstrels began to dominate the music charts. At first, the songs they performed were old, established ballads that had been around for years. Then, out of nowhere, newer songs began to hit the charts; songs that glorified the labor movement and other left-wing causes. The transition was subtle; most Americans didn’t even realize what was happening, but the music began to take on a political tone.
The beatniks fell in love with left-wing folk music, so the owners of the coffee houses began booking folk artists to perform at their establishments.
The beatniks in the counter-culture lived a very bohemian lifestyle. They dressed very slovenly; the men wore their hair long and they had beards and goatees. The women didn’t shave their legs or underarms. Appearance wise, they seemed to be trying to make a statement against normalcy. They were nothing at all like the typical youth of the day.
In the late fifties and early sixties, America’s youth, my generation, the Baby Boomers, we were all clean-cut and very idealistic. The boys kept their hair short and neatly trimmed, and all of us, boys and girls alike, went out of our way to be well-dressed and well-groomed at all times.
To say that we were idealistic was an understatement. After president Kennedy said, in his inaugural address in 1961, “... ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country ...”, the older kids in my generation, those who were just graduating from college, volunteered for community service by the thousands. Kennedy had formed an organization known as the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps was made up of volunteers who went overseas to help people in third-world countries improve their lives and their environments. So many young people volunteered that they had to close down the application process in only a matter of months. In other words, the typical young American back then had nothing in common with beatniks. But those same young people had adopted folk music; the same folk music that had been adopted by the beatniks. I count myself in that number. The first record I ever bought was a Kingston Trio album.
The youth of the day wanted to hear their favorite folk groups perform live. The groups were being booked into the coffee shops in Greenwich Village. So, that’s were the kids went. It was a culture clash! The clean-cut youth of the sixties sitting at tables next to long-haired, smelly beatniks wearing clothes they’d been wearing for days.
For the most part, the idealistic youth didn’t copy the ways and dress of the beatniks. But by being with them, mixing with them, they were exposed to the concept; the concept of counter-culture.
From 1961 through 1963, the youth of America remained idealistic. They continued to dress conservatively. They continued to volunteer for service in their communities. They continued to volunteer for service in the Peace Corps.
In 1953, after the French were defeated by the Vietnamese at Dienbienphu, the French left Vietnam and America took up the cause. President Eisenhower had continued president Truman’s policy on protecting Asia from communism and he sent advisors to train the South Vietnamese army.
In 1954, at a United Nations conference in Geneva, Vietnam was partitioned into two separate countries: North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh was the head of the government in the north, and the U.S. installed Bao Dai, a descendent of the old Vietnamese imperial dynasty, as the head of the government in the south. The conference in Geneva had established a timetable for free elections which were to be held in 1956. If Ho Chi Minh won the election, Vietnam would be unified under his rule. If Bao Dai won, he would lead a unified Vietnam. When it became apparent that Ho Chi Minh would win the election, the U.S. convinced Bao Dai to pull out of the election process. Needless to say, Ho Chi Minh was not pleased. And with that announcement, that America had advised the South Vietnamese to pull out of a legal, free, and honest election, America became a participant in the Vietnam war.
Ho Chi Minh began a guerrilla war in the south almost immediately. Eisenhower sent more advisors to help the South Vietnamese army fight against Ho Chi Minh’s guerrillas, the Vietcong. But Eisenhower was uneasy about the situation. He’d been a general. He’d been the commander of all allied forces in Europe during World War II. He knew that it was not in America’s best interest to become involved in a protracted land war in Asia. Advisors, yes. He’d send advisors. But he was not in favor of sending U.S. soldiers to fight South Vietnam’s war.
When Kennedy became president, he sought advice from both Eisenhower and General Douglas McArthur. McArthur had been the commander of all U.S. Army forces fighting in the Pacific during World War II. From a hospital bed at Walter Reed hospital in Washington, he’d warned Kennedy not to commit U.S. forces to fight in Asia. No one knows what Kennedy would have done in the long run. Would he have pulled U.S. forces out and left the fight to the Vietnamese? Or would he have sent forces in to fight, not just advise? No matter what he would have chosen to do, he continued to support policy initiatives that were intended to stop the advance of communism in Asia throughout his short time in the presidency.
After Kennedy was assassinated, in 1963, Lyndon Johnson became president, and he not only continued Kennedy’s policy initiatives, he stepped them up a notch. Johnson slowly increased the number of advisors, and in 1964, after he received a report that North Vietnamese gunboats had fired on two U.S. destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf, he asked congress for permission to send thousands of additional U.S. combat troops to Vietnam. Congress agreed to his request, and in March of 1965 America became a true combatant in the war.
When America began to fight the war in earnest, more and more troops were needed for the armed forces. To meet this need, the Selective Service began to increase its requirements and more and more young men were drafted.
America’s young people didn’t understand the war in Vietnam. And by-and-large they didn’t want to go and fight there. But more than anything else, they didn’t want to be drafted; they didn’t want to be FORCED to go and fight there! The hippie movement didn’t just start up overnight. Slowly, pockets of resistance to the draft began to gain momentum at northern colleges and universities. At first they didn’t seem to be getting anywhere; they were still dressed conservatively; they still wore their hair short, and their fellow students were reluctant to join and support them. The beatniks had always gotten press, even when they didn’t want it, because of their outlandish dress and appearance. Some in the anti-draft movement began to adopt an outlandish appearance as well just to gain attention. And suddenly, they got press attention and began to have some success.
At about the same time, a young folk singer began writing his own lyrics and performing in the coffee shops of Greenwich Village. His lyrics weren’t all necessarily anti-draft or anti-war, but they described a counter-culture viewpoint. His lyrics challenged the conventional party politic and encouraged American youth to resist; to refuse to become like their parents; a generation that seemed to be sitting idly by while their children were being subjected to perceived injustices like the draft. That folk singer’s name was Bob Dylan and he became a legend, an icon, and the spokesman for a movement that soon became way of life.
President Johnson sent the Marines ashore at DaNang in March of ‘65. In less than two years, the hippie movement was firmly entrenched on college and university campuses throughout the north and northeast. Taking a cue from Dylan, and others, the hippies transitioned from clean-cut to bohemian, a look much like that of the beatniks. Drugs had been a part of the beatnik culture, marijuana in particular, and the hippies, who years before had sat clean-cut and well-groomed at tables next to the beatniks in the village, began to emulate them in their use of drugs as well.
Freedom became a by-word. Freedom from the draft; freedom to take drugs if they wanted; freedom to dress like they wanted; freedom to wear their hair like they wanted. The word ‘FREEDOM’ became the hippie battle cry. And with easy access to birth control pills, ‘Free Love’ became a battle cry, too.
From 1965 through 1967 the hippie movement was innocent enough. There were some radical groups, but by-and-large, the movement as-a-whole wasn’t radical. But that all changed after the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive in February of ‘68. American and South Vietnamese forces were caught totally off-guard during Tet, and thousands of young Americans lost their lives in the savage month of fighting that followed; especially at a marine base called Khe Sanh.
In August of 1969, at Bethal, New York, on a farm owned by a gentle farmer named Max Yazgar, at a rock concert called WOODSTOCK, under a burning sun that blistered the skin, through a driving rainstorm that turned farmland into mud, the hippie movement became an institution. The young people who were there, smoking dope and dropping acid, became the HIPPIE NATION, and the way my whole generation would be remembered, even those of us who volunteered to serve our country and go to Vietnam, would be associated forever with that crowd, that place and that time.
I left Coronado on August 22nd. I caught a Delta flight at Lindbergh Field in San Diego and was home, in Columbus, Georgia, by supper time.
I had missed a payday while I was at Camp Pendleton and standing in line at the dispersing office in Coronado would have made me late for my flight. I’d been told that I could get paid at any military base, so the first thing I did on my first morning home was drive out to Fort Benning.
I was dressed in a summer white uniform and got a lot of strange looks. It was obvious that the soldiers at Benning weren’t used to seeing Navy enlisted men. I went to the dispersing office, handed them my service record and got paid.
I got a ton of money; way more than I expected. At first I thought they’d made a mistake. But they hadn’t. Besides my regular pay, the Navy had authorized a travel voucher. It turned out to be more than enough money to cover my air expenses to and from home. I appreciated that. And it became more and more obvious that the Navy had intended for us to use the travel time we’d received to go home and see our families.
After I got paid, I went to the Benning PX. I bought five pair of olive-drab uniforms, some olive-drab skivvies, olive-drab socks, and two pair of jungle boots. I took the shirts to a tailor shop on-base. I waited while they embroidered my last name, with black thread, on some olive-drab name tags. They embroidered me some tags that said ‘U.S. Navy’ as well. Once they were done sewing the tags over the front pockets on the shirts and the rear pockets on the pants, I went home.
I decided I’d be a civilian for the rest of my stay at home; I’d wear civilian clothes instead of my Navy uniforms. But when I tried to put on my civvies I was in for a big surprise.
I knew I had bulked up some during UDT/SEAL training. I knew that my chest was bigger, that my thighs were bigger, but I had no idea as to HOW MUCH BIGGER. Nothing fit. Nothing even came close to fitting. Mom got a measuring tape out of her sewing basket. Prior to reporting for BUDS my waist had been a 36; now it was a 30. My chest had measured 40; now it measured 44. My neck size had been a 15; now it was an 18. I don’t know what my biceps and thighs had been, but both were a good 3 to 4 inches larger than they’d been just two months before.
Navy uniforms fit loosely; that’s why I hadn’t noticed how much I’d bulked up. I didn’t want to wear my Navy uniforms, but buying new civvies didn’t make any sense. I was only going to be home for a couple of days and it would be at least a year before I’d wear them again. By then I’d probably be able to get in the stuff I couldn’t get into now. I decided to just go with the flow and wear my Navy gear while I was home.
I called Carol Ann Jordan. Luckily, she was still at home on summer break. She had a week or so left before she had to return to school at Belhaven College in Mississippi. We made plans for that night.
Carol Ann and I saw each other every night I was home. We had a blast. She wanted to know about BUDS training. I told her all about it, and she laughed like crazy when I told her about Bug Man.
The night before I left I had a ‘last date’ with Carol Ann. We went out and ate, then we went somewhere and just talked. When I took her home she gave me a really passionate kiss. Before I left I just stared at her for a moment. She was just standing there, smiling, in the soft glow of the front porch light. I’d never realized just how beautiful she was before. She promised she’d write. I promised I would, too.
On the morning of the 26th, mom and dad took me to the airport in Columbus. We said our good-byes and after a whole mess of hugs and more tears than I’d seen in 21 years of living, I boarded the plane. I watched my mom and dad from a window seat. They were waving good-bye. My dad was holding a handkerchief to his eyes. I watched them as the plane taxied. I kept my eye on them as the plane took off and gained altitude. I watched them until I couldn’t see them anymore.
I changed planes in Atlanta and caught a Delta flight to Los Angeles. The flight landed at LAX late in the afternoon. I picked up my seabag at baggage claim and hailed a taxi. I told the driver to take me downtown. I found a really neat restaurant and had a delicious steak supper, then I hailed another taxi and told the driver to take me to Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino.
I got to Norton around 9 or 10 in the evening. The first person I saw was Grover. He looked like hell, and it didn’t take long to find out why.
When Grover went home on leave, and his girlfriend saw the tattoo, she immediately called off the wedding. By the time he left they weren’t even speaking to each other. I tried to console the son-of-a-bitch, but what do you say to a guy who gets a tattoo, with his girl-friend’s name on it, when she’s told him, in no uncertain terms, ‘DON’T GET A TATOO!’ I couldn’t help myself. I started laughing; and I told him exactly what I was thinking:
“Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I tell you this would happen? Didn’t I?”
I was sorry I’d said it as soon as I said it. The bastard started sobbin’ like a baby.
A lot of the guys from Coronado were already there when I arrived. Most of us arrived a good 12 to 14 hours before our flight was scheduled to leave. As the group got larger, guys began to pair up with people they knew.
The seven-day Pendleton SERE group was like a fraternity. Those guys greeted each other like they hadn’t seen each other in years. Then, they began talking about what they’d been through in training. Their stories were extraordinary and I sat close by throughout the night listening in awe as they relived the experience.
Earles got there early the next morning, about 30 minutes before it was time to board the plane.
I don’t know what we expected; I guess we expected the worse. I mean, it was early in the morning on the 27th and we were sitting on our seabags in a big hanger at an Air Force Base waiting to catch a plane to Vietnam. What would anyone expect? I think I expected that we’d all climb on-board some military aircraft, sit on a bench and strap ourselves into harnesses attached to the bulkhead.
When they announced our flight we all stood up. We grabbed our seabags and walked out of the hanger into the early morning sunlight. We were all surprised. Instead of some big, ugly-ass military transport, there was a Delta Airlines jet just sitting there pretty-as-could-be. An Air Force enlisted man directed us toward some baggage carts. The carts were attached to tram engines and had been positioned just outside the hanger. We loaded our bags on the carts. Then it started: that long, slow, lonely walk across the tarmac to the plane.
Earles and I sat together. We picked out two seats side-by-side toward the rear of the plane near the restrooms. The Delta flight crew were really friendly; the flight attendants went out of their way. We assumed they knew where we were headed and that’s why they were being so nice.
The Coronado crowd wasn’t the only group on the passenger list. There were twenty or so Marines, a handful of Army and air force guys and almost two hundred of us. In no time at all we were in the air.
It was a hollow feeling. As we crossed the California coast and headed out over the Pacific everybody tried to look out the windows. Guys in aisle seats stood up and looked over the shoulders of the guys sitting in window seats. Everybody wanted to see that last glimpse of the shoreline. We all wanted to remember that last sight of the states. Most of us wouldn’t see that shoreline again for a year. Some of us would never see it again, period! When the shoreline finally disappeared the cabin got really quiet.
Aside from the fact that it took 24 hours to get there, and it never got dark the whole time, the trip to Vietnam would have been unremarkable if it hadn’t been for the meals.
Twenty or thirty minutes after we left Norton the flight attendants served us breakfast. It was good; eggs, bacon, biscuits; we even got all the milk and coffee we wanted.
Our first stop was Hawaii. The main reason for the stop was to re-fuel, but for some reason we got a new flight crew. When the re-fueling was done and the new flight crew was aboard, we took off again. We were headed west, that meant we were losing time; running from the sun. Accordingly, when it was time to serve us a meal, the new flight crew served us breakfast again. We weren’t too excited about it, about eggs and bacon on top of eggs and bacon, but nobody said anything. These girls were going out of their way to be nice, too, and we didn’t want to hurt their feelings.
Our next stop was Guam. Again, we had to stop to re-fuel. And again, we got a new flight crew. When it came time to serve us a meal again, we started taking odds on the chances. Surely there was no way we’d get breakfast again. Finally, somebody jokingly asked one of the attendants:
“Hey, sweetie, we ARE getting eggs and bacon, right?”
The flight attendant stopped us cold:
“No, love. We don’t have any eggs and bacon. I hope you like pancakes.”
We thought she was kidding, BUT SHE WASN’T! When the attendants started taking the covers off the trays and the smell of pancakes filled the cabin, that was it! The flight crew had a mutiny on their hands. We finally settled down when one of the attendants promised that the captain would radio ahead and make sure we got steaks on the last leg of our journey.
Our last re-fueling stop was Clark Air Base in the Philippines. We took on fuel, took off, and sure enough, when it was time to eat we got steak.
It took exactly 24 hours to get to Vietnam. Because we’d left Norton just as the sun came up, and the sun was chasing us the whole way, not one minute of the flight had occurred in darkness. That was strange. THAT WAS REALLY, REALLY STRANGE!
Just minutes after I finished eating my steak, I dozed off. All of our internal clocks were totally screwed. Most of us had been awake ever since we left Norton. We were sleepy, but it had never gotten dark. It was hard to convince the mind that it was ‘sleepy time’ while the sun was still shinning. I finally got so tired that I couldn’t hold my head up any longer. I closed my eyes, reclined my seat as far back as it would go and just lay there.
My last conscious thoughts before going to sleep were about just what the next twelve months held in store. What would I be doing in Nam? What would the everyday living conditions be like? Would I be in danger? Would I see combat? And if I did, would I measure up? Would I be a man; brave, strong and worthy of respect? Or would I be a coward? You think about things like that when you’re going in harm’s way.
My thoughts then moved to the decisions I’d made in my life that had brought me to the predicament I presently found myself in. Why was I on a plane to Vietnam while my fraternity brothers, the ones I’d pledged with back in ‘66, were about to begin their senior year at Auburn without a care in the world? Why hadn’t I realized the importance of choosing a field of study in college? Why had I just up and dropped out of school like that? Why had I opened myself up for the draft; a move that forced me to join the Navy to stay out of the Army and a guaranteed trip to Nam? In doing so, I’d avoided a TWO-YEAR obligation in the Army by giving the Navy a FOUR-YEAR piece of my life; and I WAS GOING TO VIETNAM ANYWAY! Was I stupid, or what? The whole thing didn’t make any sense!
Then, out of nowhere, I began to think about my father. Had he been thinking similar thoughts when he was a soldier on a troop ship bound for England in the summer of ‘44? I was thinking about my dad when I finally dozed off.
I don’t know how long I managed to sleep, but my journey into la-la land came to an abrupt end. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a flight attendant tapped me on the shoulder:
“Sir, we’re making our final approach into DaNang. You need to raise your seat to its complete, upright position.”
I was immediately wide awake. I was in the aisle seat; Earles was next to the window. The attendant leaned over me and started tapping Earles on the shoulder. He’d apparently gone to sleep, too. He was unresponsive. As she kept tapping him on the shoulder, she leaned further and further forward. All of a sudden, her right breast was pressed against my left cheek.
“Sir, you need to wake up now. We’re making our final approach into DaNang.”
Earles didn’t respond. She continued to tap.
“Sir, you need to wake up now. Sir!”
For well over a minute she tried to wake Bob up; her breast was pressed firmly against my cheek the whole time. Finally, she stood up and moved on. When she was two or three rows away, Earles opened his eyes and grinned an evil, nasty grin.
“You owe me one, asshole.”
“You sly dog.”
“Them was some big badoogies, weren’t they?”
We both started laughing hysterically.
As soon as the flight attendants secured the cabin, they went to their jump seats and made them ready. But before they sat down and strapped themselves in, they performed an impromptu burlesque show.
All of the girls were wearing blue skirts, blue vests and long sleeve, white blouses. The vests came off immediately. Then each girl began rolling up their blouse sleeves. Then, to the total amazement of those of us who could see, they hiked their skirts and began removing their pantyhose. They didn’t try to hide what they were doing at all. They were all wearing white bikini underwear, and those of us who could see what they were doing were completely and utterly enthralled. None of us said anything. There were no cat calls. I guess, subconsciously, that we were afraid that if we made even the slightest noise they’d stop, and we didn’t want that to happen.
Once they’d removed their pantyhose, they sat down and buckled themselves into their jump seats. One of them, as soon as she’d secured herself in her seat, looked up and saw Earles and me staring at her with googly eyes. She just smiled a petite, innocent smile, pulled her legs together, brushed a wrinkle out of her skirt, held her hands together and then let them come gently to rest on her lap. Now, still smiling, she looked so innocent, so demure; like a shy, scared wallflower at a junior/senior prom. Earles and I kept staring at her. She was just across the aisle from us in the rear of the aircraft. Our stares began to make her uncomfortable.
“What’s wrong? (pause) Why are you staring?”
We didn’t say anything. We didn’t know what to say.
“Surely you’ve seen a girl in her panties before.”
It took a few seconds, but Earles managed to speak.
“Don’t happen every day, mam.”
“Well, I guess you deserve an explanation.
“We’ll be on the ground in about ten minutes. It’s late August, the hottest time of the year in Vietnam. The captain just told Julie, the lead flight attendant, that the ambient ground temperature in DaNang is 110 degrees. The humidity is 85 percent. Now the ambient temperature is the temperature in the countryside. The temperature on the tarmac will be more like 130 degrees.”
“Yea, geez is right! When the ground crew opens that door up forward, that 130 degrees is gonna come pouring into the cabin. The humidity, too. The windows are going to fog up and there’ll be a fine mist; it’ll soak everything in just a matter of seconds.
“DaNang is an intermediate stop for us, and because of that we can’t de-plane; it’s a war zone, you know. We have to stay in the cabin the whole time we’re on the ground. It’ll take over an hour to refuel. Then, we’ll take on passengers for our return trip to Clark. We have to shut down our engines while we’re refueling, so we won’t have any power. That means no air conditioning. And while we’re refueling we have to leave the doors open so we can get out in case there’s a fire.”
“We used to wait till all the guys were off before we took off our pantyhose, but by then we were completely soaked from the waist down. Two trips ago we started taking them off before we landed. It’s much more bearable that way.”
“Why do you wear pantyhose to begin with?”
“The station chief in Clark makes the rules for flights departing from there. If he says we leave Clark wearin’ pantyhose, we leave Clark wearin’ pantyhose.”
“Why don’t you just take everything off?”
“Hey, as soon as you’re all off, we will. We won’t have anything on but bras and panties two minutes after the last one of you leave. The pilot, co-pilot and navigator will be in their skivvies, too. If you’re a prude, male or female, a troop charter to Nam ain’t a hop you want to make.”
“Mam, thanks for the show. I’m gonna remember that for the rest of my life!”
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