<< 5: SERE Training || 7: Camp TIEN SHA >>
When the coastline of South Vietnam first appeared it was on the left side of the aircraft. The guys on the left side of the cabin, looking out the windows, expressed concerns about that. If the coastline was on the left, we were flying north. Did we want to be flying north? DaNang was in the northern part of South Vietnam. It wasn’t too far from the border with North Vietnam. If we were anywhere near DaNang, and we kept flying north, wouldn’t we be awfully close to North Vietnamese gun and missile emplacements? The cabin was silent; every eye was straining to get that first glimpse of a land at war. The silence was broken when one of the Marines got antsy.
“What-the-hell’s he doin’? He’s gonna get our asses shot at if he don’t turn this sucker around!”
Just moments later, as another marine voiced a similar concern, the pilot put the plane into a slow roll to the left and we crossed the coastline head-on. The plane continued to bank to the left and finally leveled off with the Vietnamese countryside below us and the South China Sea to the left. Now we were heading south, approaching DaNang from the north.
Earles and I were on the right side of the cabin. The plane was descending rapidly; much faster than when we’d descended into the other airports on the trip. The view of the countryside, at ten thousand feet, was awesome. I’d expected to see rice paddies. I didn’t see any. What I did see were incredible, jagged mountain ranges that seemed to just jut straight up out of the earth. And they were all covered in green; every color of green; from greens that were almost yellow to the darkest greens I’d ever seen, and every color of green in between. These jagged mountains seemed to be in ranges that formed a line of peaks, and every now and then, in the valleys between those ranges, a sparkling blue-green river would appear. The view was breathtaking; extraordinary; one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen.
The whole plane erupted in hysterical, nervous laughter when Earles, in his slow, lazy, southwestern drawl, yelled out:
“Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!”
The closer we got to the ground, and we were getting closer every second, the warmer the cabin seemed to get. And we were descending at such a rapid rate that our ears started popping profusely. The dramatic change in pressure, because of the fast rate of descent, gave everybody a headache.
At about two thousand feet, I noticed that we were flying over what seemed to be a very populated area. There were one-story buildings and lean-to shacks; people walking; people on bicycles; people driving little three-wheeled vehicles that seemed to be part truck and part tricycle; people in black pajamas with conical straw hats; people wearing turbans; people in Army fatigues; people in conventional western clothing, all moving like ants along straight, dusty, narrow dirt roadways. Suddenly, the populated area disappeared and there was a runway beneath the plane. In no time at all we were on the ground and parked on the tarmac in front of the 15th. Aerial Port terminal.
While we sat on the tarmac waiting for the ground crew to place the ramp in position, the cabin temperature began to rise quickly. The air conditioning was still running, but within minutes of coming to a stop the cabin temperature had risen to well over 80 degrees. Then, boom! They opened the door. Earles yelled out immediately:
“Jesus H. mother-lovin’ Christ!”
The flight attendant had been telling the truth. The guys wearing glasses couldn’t see anything; their glasses fogged up. The windows inside the cabin began to fog up, too. We all broke out in a sweat almost instantly. One of the guys up front yelled out:
“What-in-the-hell is that smell?”
“Nam,” a flight attendant replied. “Get used to it, it never goes away.”
The smell reached those of us in the rear just seconds later. It was nauseating. I’d smelled that smell before, but I had trouble remembering where or when. It was one of the worst smells I’d ever smelled; rancid; putrid; surely it would go away. Surely the flight attendant was wrong.
It didn’t take long to de-plane. Everybody was busting their butt to get out; maybe there’d be a breeze. Earles and I were the last ones off. There was no breeze, the heat just got worse. We were now exposed to the direct rays of the sun and the reflected heat that was bouncing off the tarmac. As we made our way to the terminal, I looked over at Earles. We were wearing our summer whites. His uniform was totally soaked. He looked like he’d just climbed out of a swimming pool fully clothed. I began to realize that I was totally soaked, too. Suddenly, halfway to the terminal, Earles stopped. He just stood there. I stopped when he did.
“Hey, why’d you stop?”
Earles didn’t say anything; he just looked at his wrist; he was staring at his watch.
“Bob? Hey, man. Why’d you stop?”
Again, he didn’t say anything. I just stood there for a moment watching him as he looked intently at his watch. It was as though he was timing someone in a race. Suddenly, Earles got an evil grin on his face.
“Now,” he said.
“Come on, let’s go back to the plane. I think I forgot something.”
His smile got even bigger.
“Didn’t you forget something, too?”
I knew instantly what he was up to. He’d been calculating the two minutes the flight attendant said would be required for them to strip to their bras and panties. He bolted for the plane, but at the same moment we heard a shout. It came from someone in one of the groups that had gathered at the terminal entrance.
“Hey, sailors. We’re waiting on you. Get a move on.”
Earles was comically frustrated.
“Damn it. A guy can’t even get a cheap thrill anymore.”
We ran toward the terminal entrance laughing the whole way.
There were military personnel waiting for us on an asphalt apron just outside the terminal. When I hit the asphalt my shoes began to sink; it was so hot that the asphalt was liquefying.
The people who were there to meet us were all wearing olive drab uniforms. It was hard to tell which branch of the service they were in. The only way to tell was by the caps they were wearing. The marine’s wore Marine Corps utility caps that had been starched. They had a Marine Corps emblem sewn onto the front. The Navy personnel wore the same type cap, but they were floppy, not starched, and the marine emblem was missing. The Army personnel wore standard issue Army caps. I hated those things. They were olive drab and rigid as hell. The air force guys were bare-headed. They were smart. It was too damn hot to wear a cover of any kind.
The people that were there to meet us were holding up signs to identify the groups they were with. One of the Navy guys was holding a sign that said ‘Naval Support Activity, DaNang’. The largest crowd formed around him. Once Earles and I joined the group, he led us into the terminal.
The temperature inside the terminal was almost as high as it was outside. We formed a long line at the currency exchange counter. There, we exchanged all of our U.S. currency for this funny looking play money called MPC. MPC was short for Military Payment Certificate. All of the money was paper, there was no coinage; there were even MPC notes to represent nickels, dimes and quarters. The denominations, including those representing coinage, were printed in different colors. Some were red, some were blue, some were green and some were purple and all were smaller than conventional U.S. bills. When the dispersing agent changed our money he gave us the riot act about holding greenbacks in reserve.
“If you’re caught in-country with any U.S. currency you’ll be court-martialed. It’s a federal crime to hold U.S. currency in Vietnam. You must change all U.S. money into MPC.”
He also instructed us not to use MPC to purchase anything from the Vietnamese.
“The Vietnamese currency is the piaster. If you ever need to buy anything from the Vietnamese, or pay for a service, exchange MPC for piasters and do business that way. Exchange your money at a military exchange facility. Don’t ever exchange money on the street. The exchange rate fluctuates daily, and these street hustlers’ll rip you off big-time.”
At another counter we were issued a plastic credit card. The card had information specific to the bearer imprinted on it. It would be used anytime we accomplished any unusual transfer of funds, like sending money home after a payday, or ordering anything of substantial value - like electronic equipment from the Pacific Post Exchange in Japan. That way, the military could track every financial transaction made by any serviceman, both to and from Vietnam. Each time a transaction took place, your financial transfer paperwork would be stamped with the card and a copy of that paperwork went in your service record. The amount of money you exchanged coming into country was entered in your service record as well. God forbid if you left country and your financial transaction record indicated that you were in possession of, and/or had transferred home, more money than you’d drawn in pay plus the amount you’d come in-country with. The sergeant issuing the cards explained that their use was an effort to curtail illegal gains acquired through theft, gambling or drug trafficking. Mostly drug trafficking.
When we’d completed the check-in procedure inside the terminal we were taken back outside to collect our bags. There, we found row after row of baggage trams lined up side-by-side. The trams were all loaded down with identical, government-issue bags. To the air force and Army they were duffle bags; to the Navy and Marines they were seabags; but no matter what they were called, they all looked the same. It took more than thirty minutes just to find the trams that contained our gear.
We collected our seabags and were led to the front of the terminal where there were a line of buses waiting. The buses were gray, and they had ‘U.S. Navy’ painted in black on the side. Bob and I stuck close together and boarded the same bus. As soon as we took a seat Bob noticed something peculiar.
“Geez, look at that.”
Bob was pointing at the wire mesh that had been installed over the windows. The bus driver noticed our curiosity and offered an explanation.
“That’s to keep the grenades out.”
Bob and I just looked at each other. We didn’t say anything, we just looked at each other.
Finally, all the buses were loaded and the drivers began cranking their engines. In no time at all we were moving. The long, gray bus caravan left the confines of the 15th. Aerial Port and began moving through the streets of suburban DaNang. The streets were swarming with people, and there were a lot of strange looking vehicles.
Most of the people on the streets were Vietnamese, and most were walking. But every now and then people of other nationalities could be seen. There were a number of Indian merchants; the turbans the men wore and the red marks on the forehead of the women made them stand out even at a distance. Those that weren’t walking were either on bicycles, or were riding in, or driving, a vehicle known as a Lambretta.
Lambretta is a French vehicular trade name like Ford or Chevrolet, and there were a number of different Lambretta makes and models. The little ‘half-trike, half-truck’ things I’d seen from the air were Lambrettas. The typical unit had a seat with handle bars up front and a small truck bed attached at the rear. They made excellent taxi cabs; I never remember seeing a Lambretta in Vietnam that wasn’t loaded down with passengers.
That ghastly smell was still there. Every now and then it would actually intensify.
The windows on the bus were open. The dust from the road began to fill the passenger area, but nobody ever considered shutting the windows; the heat was just too intense. Suddenly, we passed an open-air market and ‘that smell’ began to get worse. In an instant I knew what it was.”
“I got it.”
“I know what the smell is.”
“It’s meat. Animal carcasses. It’s what it smells like when animals are slaughtered.”
“How do you know?”
“There’s a Southern Foods slaughterhouse just down the street from my dad’s business. In the summertime, when there’s a breeze, the wind blows that smell toward my dad’s building.”
“Maybe the airport’s close to a slaughterhouse.”
“I don’t think that’s it.”
“If the smell’s a slaughterhouse smell, then that’s got to be it.”
“No. I think the whole damn country is a slaughterhouse.”
“You’re not sayin’ what I think you’re sayin’, are you?”
“No. It ain’t got nothin’ to do with the war. But they don’t have refrigeration over here; at least the average Vietnamese doesn’t, so they have to kill their meat when they want to eat it. Either that, or they go to an open-air market and buy it on the day they want to eat it.”
Our conversation was interrupted when the guys up front started shouting.
“Oh, man! That guy’s dead!”
The bus began to slow down dramatically. We were barely moving when the scene finally came into view.
An American military jeep was over-turned. It was on fire. Just to left of the jeep, in the road, there was an American G.I. His skull was crushed and there was brain matter spilling out on the highway. He was dead. There was another G.I. sitting on the ground on the other side of the vehicle. He was cradling his right arm in the elbow of his left. His right arm was broken. There was blood coming out of his nose and mouth, and there was blood all over the front of his green utility shirt.
An American MP (military policeman) was directing traffic and we slowly made our way around the carnage. Everyone had an opinion about what had happened.
“They got hit by a rocket, man! Probably a B-40!”
“No, they just had a wreck. It was just a traffic accident.”
“Bull! Where was the other vehicle, then? That wasn’t no wreck!”
We never did find out what happened, but the Vietnam experience began to become surreal almost immediately. Just moments after we passed the burning jeep, we passed a Vietnamese school. There were children out front; laughing; joking; playing soccer. The two divergent images just jumped out at you. A burning jeep; a school. A dead American, his brains spilling out on the highway and Vietnamese children; laughing; playing soccer.
In no time at all the bus became very quiet. A young, frail-looking sailor in the back mustered the courage to say what he was thinking.
“I wanna go home.”
“Hey, man! We all do.”
His voice was quivering when he responded and he almost came to tears.
“No, I mean it. I wanna go home. Now!”
Nobody responded. In fact, not another word was spoken until we pulled up in front of the main gate at Camp Tien Sha (pronounced Ten Shaw).
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