9: The Monsoon
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I don’t remember what day the monsoon hit, but for weeks people talked about the exact day it would happen. An old boson chief said it was like the swallows coming back to Capistrano; the monsoon would hit on such-and-such a day - no doubt about it - and you could take that to the bank.
I remember that two nights before it hit there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. You could see all the stars. Yogi said we should all check out rain gear, but hardly anybody did. Rain gear was a rubber poncho. It had a hood at the top; came down to just above your knees and had slits on the right and left sides to slip your arms through.
On the ride to the piers in the early evening before the monsoon was due to hit the next day, I looked at the sky. It was overcast, but there were no clouds. Yogi suggested again that we all check out rain gear. Nobody did. At about 2 o’clock in the morning I was driving a forklift on the pier. One minute I could see Alpha Shack at the end of the pier - about 100 yards away. The next minute I could barely see the ship we were working - about 20 yards away.
It rained hard for 42 days and 42 nights straight - without a break. In the book of Genesis, in the Bible, it had only rained for 40 days and 40 nights. We would only see one or two days without rain until mid-December, and we were absolutely miserable until that day finally came.
On the last night of October, the night we were scheduled to work a double shift before rotating back to days, we were working a SeaLand container ship on pier one. Normally, we’d only un-gripe the stack of containers over the hole being worked, but Yogi had gone off to a team captain’s meeting. He wasn’t there to tell us not to, so we decided to un-gripe everything topside from the superstructure of the ship forward. That was four stacks with twelve containers in each stack. The lift operator on the ship was having trouble with his locking mechanism and he continued to have problems till chow time. When it was time to break for chow, we’d finished the un-griping and were sitting on the pier waiting for Yogi to get back. When he walked up, and saw that all those containers were unsecured, he went ballistic.
“Who in the hell told you to do that?”
“Un-gripe all those containers!”
“Then why’d you do it?”
“The hoist was down; we didn’t have anything else to do. What’s wrong with gettin’ ahead of the game?”
“What if a god-damn typhoon blows up? Or what if the V.C. start lobbin’ rockets in here?”
Goofy spoke up.
“We’d have to cut the ships loose. Right?”
“That’s right! And this baby would be floatin’ around in the South China Sea with unsecured containers! Damn it, people! You shoulda’ known better than that!”
Tweety didn’t like to be yelled at. He immediately began looking for a solution to the problem; one that would put an end to the yelling.
“We can gripe ‘em back up!”
Bullwinkle was in a bad mood; he’d been in one all day, and he took his frustration out on me.
“Let the god-damn newbie gripe ‘em!”
Most of the guys were sitting on the footers on the pier with their arms tucked inside their ponchos trying to keep them dry. Bullwinkle and I were the only ones standing. We were about three or four feet apart, and he’d looked me square in the eye when he’d made his comment. I felt my face get flushed. I felt a rage boiling up inside me. I remember Yogi saying something to the effect that his comment was uncalled for. Then I heard Bullwinkle lay into me again.
“Uncalled for, my ass. He thinks he’s better than everybody else. Well, he aint! He’s arrogant, conceited ...”
That’s all I heard him say. I saw his mouth moving; he was still talking, but it was as though someone had turned the volume down on a radio or something. He was still talking; bad-mouthing me; his eyes were all squinted up; his nostrils were glaring, but I couldn’t hear anything he was saying. Suddenly, for only the second time in my life; for the second time in less than two months, I totally lost control. I slid my arms through the slits in my poncho; I took one step forward with my left foot and drove my right fist, as hard as I could, square into his face. I caught him right in the nose; hard; it felt like my fist went straight through his face. I heard the bone crack when I deviated his septum. He went down hard, flat on his back, and there was blood everywhere.
I didn’t hear the next few words; the excited screams of the others, but I did hear Yogi when I saw his face just inches from mine just a moment or so later.
“What-in-the-hell’s gotten into you, man? Who-in-the-hell do you think you are?”
The others had all gathered around Bullwinkle. He was trying to sit up. The others were trying to help him. He’d managed to slide his left arm through the slit in his poncho and had his left sleeve, at the wrist, jammed up to his nose. His blood mixed with the rain running down the front of his poncho. The sight of the blood; the sight of Bullwinkle sitting there with a shocked look on his face; the sight of the others staring at me like I was a mad man; the sound of Yogi asking me the same question over and over and over again, it all brought me back to reality.
“Answer me, man! What-in-the-hell’s wrong with you?”
“I’m fed up with these people! I’m fed up with this newbie shit! I’m fed up with them staring at me when I leave the serving line in the chow hall; wonderin’ whether I’m gonna try to sit with ‘em or not; and goin’ on about their business, like everything’s fine, when I don’t! I’m fed up with ridin’ the damn cattle car by myself! Nobody on this team’s ever gotten on the same car I was on. Never! Not once! I’m fed up with them talkin’ their little private talk during muster! I know they’re talkin’ about me! And I’m fed up with it! And that ain’t all! I’m fed up with gettin’ crowbars dropped on my ass and gettin’ slammed to the ground by wire ropes, and not gettin’ any tape for it! I’m fed up, I tell ya’! All this bullshit stops now! My god-damn name is Powers! If any of you ever call me anything else, I swear to God, you’ll get what he just got!”
I turned and looked at Yogi. He was still standing just a foot or two away.
“And that goes for you, too! You shoulda’ put a stop to this shit a long damn time ago!”
I stormed over to a pier footer and sat down. My fist hurt like hell. I just sat there. I pulled my arms back through the slits in my poncho and propped my elbows up on my knees. I lowered my head. I just sat there and stared at the pier, rubbing my fist. Nobody said anything for the longest time. Yogi went over to a footer and sat down, too. He propped his elbows on his knees and assumed a posture similar to mine. Goofy was the first to get up. He walked over right in front of me and knelt on one knee. He was just a foot or so away when he started speaking.
“Hey, man. It ain’t been the way you thought it was.”
There was a long pause before he continued.
“And it don’t look like it’s been the way we thought it was, either.
“Hey, man. When you saw us lookin’ at you in the chow hall, we weren’t hopin’ you wouldn’t come and sit with us. We were wonderin’ when you finally would. We been savin’ you a seat since day one. When you saw us talkin’ during muster, yea, we were talkin’ about you. We wondered why you were avoiding us; why you chose to stand off by yourself.”
Tweety had gotten up and come over and knelt down beside Goofy while he was talking. He picked up where Goofy left off.
“The second cattle car is OUR cattle car, man. We’ve been ridin’ that damn thing for as long as I’ve been here. We’re the last team to board, man. Usually, we’re the last team out the gate and all the seats on the car are taken. It’s standing room only. But we’re hatch team Foxtrot, man. When we get on car two, guys who are sittin’ get up and give us their seats. They do it because we’re the best. We own that car, man. And that’s why we ride it. We’ve been wonderin’ why you didn’t ride it, too. From day one, they’d have given you a seat, too. From day one, hey! You were on Foxtrot! You’d have gotten a seat, newbie or not!”
Goofy spoke up again.
“The white tape is a team thing, man. The team decides who gets the tape and for what. But it’s a team thing. You’ve got to be a member of the team to get taped. You ain’t been on the team, man. You’ve just been here, that’s all.”
I was in shock. Their words burned into me like a branding iron to the heart. I didn’t know what to say. I thought I was going to come to tears. I freed my left arm from the poncho and raised my left hand up to cover my eyes. If the tears did come, I didn’t want them to see. There was a long pause. Then I felt an arm around my shoulder. It was Yogi.
“Booboo and I are senior petty officers. We don’t interact with you guys. As long as you’re doing your jobs, we don’t interface with you. We haven’t had our finger on the pulse here; we didn’t know things were this bad. I’m sorry. Honest. I apologize to all of you.”
I could hear feet shuffling. The guys were all getting up. They were all coming closer. They were all gathering around me. Tom broke the silence.
“What do we do now, Yoge? You want us to secure the containers?”
Yogi paused before he answered. He seemed to be deep in thought.
“No. First, go get some chow. Then I want you to board the ship, go sit up on the bow - behind the containers where nobody can see you - and I want you to make up for lost time. I want you to all get to know each other. Take the whole rest of the night. Hell, there ain’t nothin’ for you to do anyway. You done un-griped a whole week’s worth of off-load already.”
What he’d said was funny, and everybody chuckled - including me. Then he continued.
“If, by some stupid quirk of fate, the V.C. do lob a rocket in here, don’t leave the ship. If she gets cut loose for some reason, you guys start gripin’ that shit back down, you hear me?”
“All right, then. Get to it.”
A shadow crossed in front of me. There was something right in front of my face. I moved my hand away. There was a hand. The hand was reaching out. I looked up. It was Bullwinkle. He was still holding his left sleeve to his nose, but his right hand was reaching out to me. I took it. He pulled me up. I looked him straight in the face and apologized.
“I’m sorry, man. I shouldn’t have done that.”
Rocky spoke up.
“Yea you shoulda! He dropped a god-damn crowbar on your ass!”
Everybody started laughing. Bullwinkle smiled.
“I had it comin’, man. Honest. I shouldn’t have said what I said.”
“Yea you should. I was bein’ an asshole. I just didn’t know it, that’s all.”
There was more laughter. Then Bullwinkle and I embraced and everyone started clapping. Yogi broke up the love fest.
“All right, you squirrels. Go get some chow. Then get your butts up topside. And don’t let nobody see you fuckin’ off, please. We got a reputation to protect.”
The preconceptions I’d had about the team were all wrong. For one, I’d thought they were all older than me. Only Tom was older, and only two were the same age I was. Rocky was the youngest. He’d joined the Navy, with his parents’ permission, when he was 17. I would turn 22 on the last day of February. Rocky would turn 19 on March the 12th. He was only 18-years-old and had three strips of tape on his hard hat.
Acceptance, when it came, was total. We spent the whole rest of the night sitting on the bow of the SeaLand. There - tucked inside our ponchos and hiding behind the containers - we learned everything there was to know about each other.
Night turned into day. We were pulling double duty because of the transition to days and we continued to work the SeaLand. The hoist operator finally got his locking mechanism to work and we began the off-load process at about 8 the next morning.
There was one piece of unfinished business; I didn’t have a nickname. While we were standing by on deck, between lifts, the guys began trying to come up with one.
Bullwinkle insisted that they call me Pepe for Pepe Lepue, the cartoon skunk character that was always trying to court the female black cat that had accidentally gotten a white line painted down her back. His reasoning, of course, was that I’d stunk to high heaven after I got pissed on the night the V.C. blew up the fuel bladder and Covered Storage.
Several other nicknames were suggested, but Pepe seemed to be the front-runner until Rocky got his brainstorm.
“Hey, guys. I got it! I know what we can call him!”
“Yea. Like ... you know? Wiley Coyote!”
“Hell, man. In every episode that damn coyote gets knocked off mountains; anvils land on his head; he gets blowed up with dynamite, but he always comes back. You can’t kill the son-of-a-bitch! It’s just like what Jellystone’s been trying to do to Powers. He got knocked off a ship by a load of butter; Bullwinkle dropped a crowbar on his ass and he fell 15 feet; landed on his god-damn head and his heels. Then that damn wire rope tried to cut him in half! He’s just like Wiley Coyote, man! You can’t kill the son-of-a-bitch! It’s perfect!”
The whole group started laughing. I started laughing. The name WAS perfect! The vote was unanimous, and from that moment on I was Wiley.
When I woke up the next morning, the second morning we worked day shift in November, the first thing I did was check my hard hat. And there they were; two new strips of white tape. I was ecstatic! There was a strip of tape inside the hat with my name on it, too. Wiley!
There was a small post office facility inside the warehouse at the piers. Every shift, during chow, Yogi would go over and pick up our mail if we had any. We felt extremely fortunate if he came back with something more than three times a month. When we did get mail, more often than not, the pickings were slim; a couple of letters to one person, or a box of cookies from someone’s mom that were broken all-to-hell. But every now and then he’d come back with a box load. Those were extraordinary moments, and we took a longer than usual chow break when that happened.
A letter from home did wonders, it didn’t matter what it was. Sylvester hardly ever got anything. One day, he got a delinquent phone bill from the phone company in San Diego. He’d lived off-base with another sailor before getting his orders for Nam. He read the thing over and over again. The long distance charges weren’t his; the calls had been made by the other sailor, but he went and got a money order the very next day and paid it anyway. Before he mailed it, he enclosed a note asking accounts receivable to write him back and acknowledge receipt of the payment. That way, he’d at least get another letter out of the deal.
I got my first mail after the monsoon had started. Yogi came out of the warehouse looking like a pregnant woman; he had a box load, and he had it tucked up under his poncho so it wouldn’t get wet. He didn’t pass it out during chow. He took the box back to the ship, still tucked under his poncho, and asked the third mate on the ship to look after it for us - in their galley - until quitting time. When the shift ended, Yogi went back and got it, tucked it under his poncho again, and kept it there during the ride back to Tien Sha. Once we got back to the barrack, we all gathered outside Yogi’s berthing area and he distributed the stuff.
The first time I got mail I got three letters and a package. One of the letters was from Carol Ann; the other two were from my mom. The package was from my mom, too. It contained a small, reel-to-reel tape recorder, a condenser microphone and two small reels of tape. Mom had bought her a reel-to-reel, too. One of the reels of tape contained a recorded message from my family. The other was for me to use to record a message to them.
I listened to the tape from home after I got back from the chow hall. I got homesick big time. I recorded a message to them later in the evening.
The letters from mom indicated that she’d been writing me at least once a week. One was postmarked almost a month after the other. I immediately wondered where the other letters were.
The letter from Carol Ann was only one page long. She wished me well and said she hoped I’d write her every chance I got. I wrote her a letter; wrote one to mom, then I wrote one to Tom Baxter, one of my fraternity brothers back at Auburn. The letter to Tom was just to let him know that I was in Nam and what my mailing address was. I also mentioned how much it meant to get mail, and I encouraged him to respond and to get the others to write as well. I remember mentioning how much the other guys on Foxtrot enjoyed getting mail from their girlfriends. When I got through writing the letters, I mailed them - along with the tape I’d made for my family - and then hit the rack.
Sometime around the first of September a rumor started going around that all the marines in I Corps were going home. Nobody ever paid much attention to scuttlebutt; nine times out of ten nothing would come of it. But there was something about the marine rumor; it wouldn’t go away, and the officers and petty officers weren’t denying it. The officers would always deny a rumor when they knew it wasn’t true. They weren’t denying the stuff we were hearing about the marines and that just added fuel to the fire. We finally decided that the rumor couldn’t be true when we were still off-loading marine equipment as late as the end of October.
On the third day back on day shift the boson asked all the hatch teams to remain in formation after hole assignments. He had a message he wanted to share with us.
“Gentlemen. I’ve just been informed that during the month of October you off-loaded more tonnage than the port of Baltimore back in the states. Before you go sayin’ ‘big deal’ there’s another little tidbit of information I want to share with you. The port of Baltimore is the third most productive port in the states; only New York and Oakland load or off-load more tonnage in a given month than they do.”
There was a brief moment of silence.
“Well damn, people. Give yourselves a hand!”
Nobody clapped. We just stood there staring at the boson.
“Well, it’s quite an accomplishment whether you think so or not. I’ve talked it over with the commanding officer and he’s given me the OK to put you in for a commendation. I’m recommending all of you for a Meritorious Unit Citation. Now that don’t mean you’ll get it, but there’ll be a notation in your service records that the recommendation was made. That’s all. Turn to.”
The boson went back inside Alpha Shack. The teams just stood there for a moment pondering what he’d just said. Then, we went back to work.
One night, early in November, I lay in my rack and thought about all the things that had happened the month before; the explosion across the harbor; the incident at the fence; getting knocked overboard by a load of butter; getting nailed by a crowbar; getting decked by a wire rope; finally being accepted as a member of the team. Then, humorously, I began to calculate how many strips of tape I’d have at the end of my tour if every month I had left to serve was as accident-prone as October had been. The figure I came up with was 33. It would be 44 if you counted the fence incident. Suddenly, I realized that I’d been in the Navy exactly one year on October 28th. I’d missed it! The date had come and gone and I’d missed it!
On any given day we never knew what day it was; Monday; Wednesday; Friday; Sunday - we never knew. With no days off, one day just ran into another. We knew when it was the first day of each month - that’s when shift change happened. But three or four days later we’d have no idea what the date was. And God bless ‘em, most of the guys who’d been there for more than four months didn’t even know what month it was. Time was definitely an enigma at the piers.
One evening at chow, after an especially hard day, Bullwinkle asked me a question that took me by surprise.
“That night the V.C. blew up the fuel bladder, if you didn’t piss in your pants, who did?”
The others started laughing. I didn’t really want to go into it, but Bullwinkle just wouldn’t let it go. I’d been adamant that I didn’t wet my pants, but I’d smelled of urine, and Bullwinkle wanted to know why. Some of the others did, too.
“If I told you what really happened that night, you wouldn’t believe me.”
“Yea I would.”
“Yea we would. Tell us.”
“OK. I will.”
I told them the whole story; I told them everything that happened. When I finished, Goofy was the first to speak.
“Do you know who any of ‘em were?”
“Yea, just one. The guy who pissed on me.”
“I can’t remember his name, but he’s got a heavy New England accent. He’s a third class; works on hatch team Bravo. He rides cattle car number one. The night after the incident I heard him talking on the cattle car and I recognized his voice.”
“Would you know his name if you heard it?”
“O’Malley? Third class boson?”
“Yea, that’s him!”
“Damn! You just laid there while the son-of-a-bitch pissed on your ass?”
“Literally. Hey. I didn’t see where I had much choice.”
They all just laughed and shook their heads. There was no indication that they believed me, but none that they didn’t, either. Suddenly, Bullwinkle changed the subject.
“Hey, guys. Rama’s playin’. It starts in ten minutes. Let’s go.”
I had no idea what he was talking about.
“‘Rama, King of the Jungle’. It’s a bad B-movie they play every now and then over at the theater. It’s a hoot!”
“Yea, come on Wiley, go with us. You’ll laugh your ass off .”
We left the chow hall and ran to the theater.
Bullwinkle was right; it was a very bad B-move, but it had become a cult classic with the troops. The place was packed. We got there just before it started and sat in some of the last available seats in the back. By the time the opening credits began to roll it was standing room only; late-comers began sitting on the floor in the aisles and lining up - standing - three and four deep against the back wall.
The cult nature of the film was evident right off the bat. Most of the guys in the audience knew large chunks of the dialogue, and at key points in the film they’d recite the lines along with the actors on the screen.
The film was set in deepest, darkest Africa. The main character in the drama was a great white hunter named Rama, but the character that stole the show was Rama’s black man-servant. I don’t recall what the servant’s name was, but his interplay with Rama was the height of comic genius.
At key moments in the film, when the bad guys were up to something and the man-servant would find out, he’d go running into the room Rama was in and yell:
Every time this happened Rama would ignore him. Not only would he not respond; he’d act as though he didn’t even know the servant was present. Accordingly, the servant would be forced to yell out again:
It was only after the second ‘Rama’ that Rama would respond, and he’d do so in an irri-tated, aggravated way.
“What is it? What do you want?”
The servant would tell Rama whatever it was he had to say and Rama would respond with great surprise.
“My God, man. Why didn’t say so? We’ve got to do something to stop them!”
This scenario played itself out four or five times during the film. The man-servant would run into the room, and before he could say ‘Rama’, the guys in the audience would be yelling ‘Rama, Rama!”
Before he could get the second ‘Rama’ out, the audience would have yelled ‘Rama, Rama!’ four or five times. Bullwinkle was right. The movie was a hoot!
We didn’t stay for the whole flick. After about an hour - after all the ‘Rama, Rama’ lines had been said - we got up and went back to the barrack. When we stepped up onto the stoop and split up to go to our berthing areas, one of the guys yelled out:
I responded instinctively:
I’d heard the phrase ‘Rama, Rama’ on a number of occasions right after I first got to the piers, but I never knew what it meant. After seeing the movie, I realized that ‘Rama, Rama’ - like ‘it don’t mean nothin’ - could pretty much mean whatever you wanted it to mean. To this day I still find myself responding to rhetorical questions with the phrase, and I get the most extraordinary looks when I do.
On the second morning after watching the ‘Rama’ movie I got up and got dressed as usual. I grabbed my hard hat, went to chow, ate with the guys, then we went back to the barrack and boarded the cattle car. I remember that they were all staring at me; smiling. I didn’t know why they were staring and smiling, but I had a sneaking suspicion that something was up.
When we got to the piers, we fell in and stood muster. Then we made small talk while Yogi went in to get our hole assignment. All during muster, and all during our chat waiting for Yogi, I still had the feeling they were staring at me; smiling at me.
When Yogi came out of Alpha Shack he made team work assignments before he and the others headed off toward the ship we were working. He sent me and Tweety to get two Hyster forklifts and we broke off from the group and headed for the forklift yard. During the walk to the yard I asked Tweety for an explanation.
“Hey, man. Why is everybody staring at me?”
He broke out in a big grin and chuckled a response.
“Somebody starin’ at you, man? Who’s been starin’ at you?”
“You, for one.”
“Me? Naw, man. I ain’t been starin’ at nobody.”
With that, his grin widened as he scampered on ahead of me at a run. He looked back over his shoulder a few times, and each time his grin got even wider.
When I got in line to check out my Hyster the guys ahead of me moved to the side and let me go first. That was extremely odd. I’d never seen anybody do that before.
When I got in line to top off the fuel the same thing happened. The guys at the front of the fuel line moved their units off to the side and motioned for me to go first. There were three forklifts ahead of me, and they all moved out of the way and let me drive right up to the pump. That had never happened before, either.
As I was driving the lift to the pier I had a strange feeling that everyone was looking at me. Every group of guys I passed would stop and look up at me as I drove by. When I finally got to the ship I pulled up in front of the hole we were working, parked the Hyster and jumped off.
“All right, guys. What’s goin’ on? Why is everybody starin’ at me?”
“Have you looked at your god-damn hard hat this mornin’?”
“Take off your hard hat and look at it.”
I took off my hard hat and looked. There was a fourth strip of tape.
“What’s that for?”
“Bullwinkle went and talked to O’Malley. He told him everything that you said happened. When he started replaying their conversation to him - and especially when he got to the part about that idiot tryin’ to fire his weapon at you - O’Malley started beggin’ him not to say anything to anybody. He was afraid they’d get in trouble for that. And when he told O’Malley that he’d peed on you, geez ... he almost went bonkers!”
“Well I’ll be damned!”
“Hell, man. You’re lucky to be alive!”
Nobody had ever gotten four strips of tape before. For the next few weeks I was treated with an extraordinary degree of respect by the other hatch teams. But the adulation didn’t last long. By the end of November things had returned to normal and I was just one of the guys again.
Early on at the piers I’d noticed that there was an American Indian on one of the hatch teams. I asked some of the guys about him and found out that he was from New Mexico and that he was a full-blooded Apache. His real name was something like Joe Little Eagle or Joe Little Feather, I can’t remember exactly, but everyone just referred to him as Injun Joe.
I had heard that American Indians weren’t treated well in the military; that they were ostracized, and that certainly turned out to be true in Injun Joe’s case. He‘d been at the piers for some time when I got there, and by the time I’d been totally accepted on hatch team Foxtrot, he was still being shunned like a newbie by everybody; especially his own team.
I felt sorry for Joe. I knew, to some degree, what he was going through. I’d spent a longer than usual amount of time in that newbie never-never land and it had almost driven me crazy. Joe was still going though it, and for him it would never stop. He’d always be treated that way just because of the color of his skin.
Joe was an alcoholic. When we were working days, he’d head for the E.M. club as soon as we got back to the base and he’d stay there till the damn thing closed. I don’t know where he got his liquor when we were working nights - the E.M. club wasn’t open in the mornings - but he was getting it from somewhere. He always had alcohol on his breath.
One day in early November a new group of newbies reported in, and lo-and-behold, there was an American Indian in the bunch. And somehow, the new Indian got assigned to Joe’s hatch team. I’ve never seen anybody as happy as Joe was that day, and he and the new guy became instant best friends.
The newbie Indian was a full-blooded Sioux from South Dakota and for the first week or so after he came aboard he and Joe were inseparable. After-hours, away from the piers, they did everything together; everything, that is, except go to the E.M. club. I don’t know how he did it, but Joe just stopped drinking cold turkey.
Then, sometime in late November, the boson told the newbie to stay after muster. He never reported to his team that day, and when we reported for muster the next morning he was gone; he was nowhere to be seen. He’d been transferred. We were told that there was a policy against letting two native Americans from different tribes serve together. I don’t know whether that was Navy policy; DaNang policy; the personnel policy of the commanding officer at Deep Water Piers, or the boson’s policy, but whoever’s stupid policy it was, it almost killed Joe. He hit the bottle hard after that, and he started showing up for work so zonkered he could hardly stand.
Like I’ve said before, there were moments during my time in the Navy when I was downright ashamed to wear the uniform. Seeing the sign regarding the Lloyd Bucher inquiry back at Coronado was one of those times. Seeing what the piers did to Joe when they re-assigned his newfound friend was another. Sometimes, there was no rhyme or reason to Navy policy and procedure; no rhyme or reason at all.
One morning at muster, in mid-November, the boson made an announcement; the Third Marine Expeditionary Force was going home. In effect, that was every marine in I Corps. They’d be leaving on troop transport ships from the piers, and we’d be back-loading all of their equipment, too.
The Army was taking over all ground combat operations in the northern part of South Vietnam. Primarily, it would be the Americal Division, but there were other Army units operating in I Corps as well. Since the Army was taking over, and since our primary job at the piers had been to support the marines - and all the support elements that supported them - we were about to begin a transition process that would turn the piers over to the Army. Halle-damn-mother-lovin’-lujah!
One day, quite unexpectedly, I got about twenty pieces of mail at mail call. It was one of those funky days where I was the only one that got anything, and what I got was extraordinary.
Two of the letters were from mom and one was from Carol Ann. The rest were from the sisters of Alpha Gamma Delta sorority at Auburn. It took me the longest time to figure out why the Alpha Gams were writing me, but as I read between the lines the reason became obvious.
In the letter I’d written to my fraternity brother Tom Baxter months earlier, I had mentioned how much the other guys enjoyed getting letters from their girlfriends. Tom had mentioned it to Julie Moore, an Alpha Gam sister who was our current fraternity sweetheart, and she had decided to turn me into a pledge project. For the remainder of that fall quarter back at Auburn each Alpha Gam pledge had to write me at least once a week.
That night, back at the barrack, I read each of the letters one at a time. They were clumsy and disjointed. Some of the girls wanted to know who I was and what I was doing in Vietnam. Some told me about their boyfriends. One asked me to send her a picture of myself; like I’d just happen to have one laying around in the Nam. It was a dumb request; ridiculous; but the next day, as soon as we got in from the piers, I went to the PX and bought a camera so I could have someone make the shot. It was an Asahi Pentax Spotmatic; Single Lens Reflex; a professional model. It was the beginning of my interest in photography, and once I’d sent the picture to the young lady, it was the end of a romance that had never existed to begin with.
One day, right after muster, Yogi came out of Alpha Shack with a big smile on his face.
“For making E-4.”
“February 15th., the last increment.”
Bullwinkle couldn’t resist the opportunity.
“You must be one, dumb son-of-a-bitch to make it on the last increment!”
I couldn’t resist.
“Dumb or not, come February 15th. I’ll be an E-4 and you’ll still be an E-3.”
Everybody started laughing; Bullwinkle included.
Sometime in the middle of November the entire Third Marine Expeditionary Force showed up at the piers. I don’t know where they were headed, whether they were going back to the states, or whether they were being re-assigned somewhere else in the orient - like Guam. But I did know one thing - and they did, too - they were leaving! I’ve never seen a happier bunch of marines in my life. There was a joy on each face, but each face was pale and gaunt; each set of eyes had some semblance of that thousand-yard stare embedded in them. It was a look you only saw on the face of a seasoned combat veteran; a look that told you - in no uncertain terms - that the man had been to hell itself; and that his eyes had seen the place; had seen Satan himself; up close; in person. Their eyes were all large - much larger than normal - but yet there was a pained squint that showed in the corners. It’s hard to explain; you’d have to see the look to recognize it.
It took two or three days, and two or three troop ships, to load them all and get them on their way. It would take a month or so to back-load their equipment.
Americans weren’t the only foreigners fighting in Vietnam. There were troops from Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, too.
There was a contingent of ROK marines in I Corps, and like the American marines, they were going home as well. R.O.K. stood for Republic of Korea (South Korea) and ROK marines were mean as hell. The enemy in I Corps had been deathly afraid of them. This particular ROK contingent had not been in a firefight in over six months. The enemy was so afraid of them that they had moved completely out of their A.O. (Area of Operation).
ROK troops were not only mean to the enemy; they could be downright ugly to each other.
One day, while a company of ROKs were standing in formation waiting to board a transport ship, their officer-in-charge decided to hold a surprise inspection. He called them to attention and started walking down each row assembled on the pier. He checked each man thoroughly looking for the most minute infraction of cleanliness or dress code. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the officer started beating the holy-livin’-hell out of one of his charges. The guy remained at attention throughout most of the beating, but finally, after about two minutes of relentless bludgeoning, lost consciousness and collapsed in a heap at the officer’s feet. The officer continued the inspection as if nothing had happened and no one came to the beaten man’s aid until most of the troops had boarded the ship some fifteen minutes later. When help did come, it came from the last two men to board. They simply walked over, grabbed him by the arms and dragged him onto the ship.
Bullwinkle and I were working the pier when the beating took place. We watched the whole thing in amazement. When it was over, and while the beaten man was being dragged onto the ship, I turned to Bullwinkle and managed an excited utterance.
“Did you see that?”
“Did he just beat the shit out of that guy, or what?”
In late November, after we’d loaded up the last of the marines, we got a strange request from the boson. We’d started the day unloading rolling stock from a Lykes ship on the port side of the center pier; the starboard slip was empty. The boson showed up around 1:30, just after chow, and asked Yogi if we could do him a favor. A Navy D.E., a destroyer escort, was going to be pulling into the starboard slip around 3 o’clock. The boson wanted us to tie her up, but that’s not all he wanted us to do. He wanted us to round up some beer and ice it down in some empty 55-gallon drums he’d found. It was a really strange request.
Yogi agreed to the boson’s request much to the dismay of the rest of the team. Bullwinkle was really annoyed.
“Tie up a ship? Round up beer and ice? We ain’t gonna get no tons doin’ that! Why, Yogi? Why?”
Yogi’s answer put a whole new light on the matter.
“Gentlemen. The guys on this tin can have been at sea, just off the coast of North Vietnam, for more than eight months now. They haven’t had a liberty in nine months. They haven’t even tied up at a pier in eight months; they’ve been at sea the whole time. They’re about to go back to the states, but their C.O. asked permission to tie up here for a couple of hours so the guys could have a beer party.”
“No shit! These guys ain’t had a liberty in over nine months. You can’t drink on-board ship, so they haven’t had a beer in over nine months, either. Whadaya say, fellas? Let’s cut these guys some slack.”
“Oh-hell-yea! Jesus! No liberty? On a tin can? Oh-hell-yea!”
“No problem, Yogi. What do we need to do?”
“Wiley. You and Tweety take the lifts; go get the two 55-gallon drums sittin’ in front of Alpha Shack, then take them over to the Small Craft Facility next door. You’ll have to go out the front gate and drive down the main highway to get to the entrance to their compound. See the lieutenant; he knows you’re comin’. They have an ice machine and he’ll show you where it’s at. Load those suckers down and get back over here pronto.”
“Bullwinkle. You and Tom go check out two more lifts. There are twenty or thirty pallets of beer over by the main gate. All of it is damaged stuff, but some is in pretty good shape. Find the best stuff over there. Don’t get none of that weird shit - those off-brand mother-fuckers like Jax. Search through the stuff and find some name brands - Bud, Miller, Pabst, Schlitz - 3 or 4 pallets ought to do it.”
“You got it.”
“OK, guys. Turn to. Let’s do it!”
And turn to we did. By the time the ship pulled in, and we tied it up, we had almost two thousand cold ones waiting on the crew.
Once the ship was tied up, some members of other hatch teams went aboard and took over the watch assignments of the men who had duty. Every member of the crew got to come ashore for the party.
The crew was really wobbly at first; they looked like they were drunk. But they weren’t. It just took a while for them to get used to walking on a deck that wasn’t moving under their feet. They all headed to the cold ones right off the bat. Yogi had come up with a large box of P-38 can openers and he poured them out on the pier where the guys could get to them.
Some of the guys brought baseballs and gloves ashore with them. When they finished their beers, they started playing catch. Two guys brought a football ashore. They started playing catch, too. But most of the guys just sat and drank. It was such a simple pleasure, but it meant so much to all of them.
The guys on the watchbill only got to have one beer apiece; the rest of the crew got to drink their fill. And drink they did! There were only twelve cans left when the party ended. Twelve cans out of almost two thousand!
Once the crew had access to the beer, there was nothing for us to do except stand by in case they needed anything. When all seemed to be going well, I asked Yogi if it would be OK to ask permission to board the ship. I’d never been on a Navy ship and I wanted to look it over. He said it was OK with him if it was OK with the captain. I searched out the captain and asked for permission to board. He granted my request.
The guy standing temporary quarterdeck watch was a member of hatch team Echo. I saluted the flag on the fantail of the ship when I got to the top of the gangway. Then I asked the guy from Echo for permission to board.
“State your purpose for coming aboard, sailor.”
“To whip your god-damn, ugly white ass!”
“Come on, asshole. I just wanna see what a tin can looks like.”
“I’m not sure it’s OK.”
“The captain said I could.”
“Well, hell! Why didn’t you say so? Come on.”
I wasn’t onboard the ship for long - just ten to fifteen minutes - but it was long enough to convince me that I never wanted to pull sea duty.
The D.E. wasn’t very wide at all. I don’t know what the actual width was, but it couldn’t have been as wide as a tractor-trailer truck was long. And there wasn’t much to the length, either. I knew immediately why they called it a tin can. In rough seas, no doubt about it, the damn thing probably just bobbed around like a tin can in a mud puddle.
Going aboard brought me to a stark reality. In the future; during the rest of my time in the Navy, I would do anything and everything to avoid duty at sea.
Before the last ship full of marines had pulled out of DaNang harbor the rumors started flying fast and furious. Since there were no marines to unload cargo for, we must be going home. The ‘going home’ rumor spread like wildfire, and everybody hoped it was true; everybody, that is, but me.
I didn’t want to go home. Going home meant going to the fleet. I didn’t want to go to the fleet; I didn’t want to be on a ship. If the only shore duty I could get was in Nam, then so be it - I’d stay in Nam. I immediately began checking out my options. What would I have to do to guarantee that I could stay.
After work one day, toward the end of November, I went to see the personnel clerk at receiving to ask him what my options were. He told me that if I extended my tour for a minimum of six months he could almost guarantee that I wouldn’t get sent home - even if the others did. And there was an incentive for those who signed up for an extension. If you extended for six months or more you got a free, 30-day paid leave anywhere in the free world you wanted to go. And you became eligible to take your leave midway through your extended tour. If I extended for six months, I’d be able to go home on leave - all expenses paid - after nine months in-country. That meant I could go home in May.
I didn’t even think about it. I just did it. I filled out a chit and requested a six month tour extension in Nam.
You had to give a reason for requesting an extension on the bottom of the chit. I just wrote ‘To serve my country.’ When the personnel clerk read what I’d written he grinned and looked up at me.
“You didn’t have to smaltz it. Unless you say something like you wanna stay and kill the cong, they’ll approve any extension request they get.”
“Why wouldn’t they approve a request from someone who wanted to stay and kill V.C.?”
“Are you kiddin’? Anybody who’d wanna do that is crazy!”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Yes it does. They don’t want crazy people over here!”
I just looked at the guy. I was waiting for him to smile and let on that he was kidding, but he never did. For all I know he was serious as sin. I didn’t understand his rationale; it sounded stupid, but all-in-all I really didn’t care. As long as I got my chit approved he could think whatever he wanted to think.
Some of the marines had operated in an area right on the demilitarized zone (the D.M.Z.), an imaginary line that ran along the border that divided North Vietnam from South Vietnam. As an extra measure of security, the marines had installed an electrified fence that ran along part of their A.O. When the Army took over the marine A.O., they decided they didn’t want to keep the enemy out, they wanted to engage, so they wanted the fence taken down. Since the fence belonged to the marines - and they’d gone home - and since the marines and the Navy are sister services, the fence became the property of the Navy. Accordingly, somebody in the Navy had to take the fence down. That somebody turned out to be hatch team Foxtrot.
It took six days to take the fence down. We were taken up to the D.M.Z. on trucks. We were berthed in tents inside an Army compound about a half-mile from the border. When we got there, the Army had already disconnected the power to the fence; all we had to do was take it down. We only worked during daylight; we didn’t work at night; it was too dangerous.
The enemy at the D.M.Z. weren’t Vietcong; they were hard-core, North Vietnamese regulars; members of the North Vietnamese Army (N.V.A.). The N.V.A. didn’t wear black pajamas. They wore uniforms, and they were considered to be top-notch soldiers. From day one back at Coronado we’d been taught that the N.V.A. were some of the best fighting men in the world. You didn’t want to tangle with them if you could help it. The Vietcong were just a bunch of rice farmers with guns. But the N.V.A. were something else. They were a worthy adversary; and when they had the advantage they’d fight you to the death.
The Army provided us with a security force. They had armed patrols that went up and down the length of the D.M.Z., and that force was beefed up slightly in the area we were working in. They also had a contingent from the K-9 Corps that was with us the whole time.
The K-9 Corps was a dog platoon. The platoon was made up of dog handlers and each handler had his own dog, usually a German shepherd. The dogs had been trained to sniff out explosives, and they’d home in on the smell of the Vietnamese, too. All races have distinctive odors, at least that’s what the dog handlers told us, and their dogs could home in on a Vietnamese in a heartbeat - especially one that hadn’t bathed in a week or so.
The dog handler that was assigned to work with us was a guy named Roger. I don’t remember what his dog’s real name was, but we just called him Wilco. Roger/Wilco was a term that was used in war movies a lot in the early days of film. Saying ‘Roger/Wilco’ in the movies was something akin to saying ‘over-and-out’ when one was talking on a military radio. I don’t think ‘Roger/Wilco’ was ever really a form of military jargon, but we got a kick out of referring to Roger and his dog that way. Needless to say, Roger didn’t think it was funny, and Wilco would growl whenever we called him that.
It was a Tuesday; I don’t know how I knew that, but I did, but there was nothing special about the date or time; it was just another day in the Nam. It was almost dark. The sun was going down fast and we were just starting to secure for the day - picking up our tools and loading them on the truck that had come to pick us up.
The D.M.Z., in the area we worked, ran along the southern height of a rather steep ravine. The ravine dropped off at about a thirty degree angle and emptied into a gully about 100 yards below us. On the far side of the gully there was scrub brush that ran all the way up to the northern height on the other side. About 500 yards further north, the scrub brush merged with, and became absorbed into, a modest jungle undergrowth that ran on for as far as the eye could see.
Roger and Wilco had been walking the D.M.Z. boundary line all afternoon. They were still walking the boundary as I took ten to fifteen steps down the side of the ravine to retrieve a hammer that I’d dropped earlier in the day. Just as I kneeled to pick up the hammer I heard Wilco start barking very excitedly. Roger and Wilco were right behind me at the top of the ravine. I turned and looked up at Wilco. He was straining at his leash trying to get away from Roger. It was all Roger could do - holding the leash with both hands - to keep Wilco from dragging him down into the ravine. I turned back toward the gully to see what Wilco was barking at. What I saw was incredible! I literally did a double-take. I turned my head to the side, held it there for a moment, and then turned back for a second look just to see if what I’d seen to start with was still there. IT WAS!
It was an N.V.A. soldier. He was standing in a crouched position. He didn’t have a rifle, but he was holding a knife in his right hand. He wasn’t looking at me; he was looking at Wilco; he seemed to be trying to entice the animal to charge him.
Wilco was going crazy. It was all Roger could do to keep him from breaking free. Roger had an M-16, but it was slung over his right shoulder; he couldn’t bring his weapon into firing position and hold Wilco back at the same time. Roger immediately began yelling commands to Wilco and instructions to us at the same time.
“Sit, Wilco, sit! Sit, boy! Somebody go get help! Get a patrol up here now! We’ve got a live one! Easy, boy! Easy! God-damn-it, people! Go get some help!”
Tweety started running in one direction and Tom started running in the other. Both were yelling at the top of their lungs, “N.V.A.! N.V.A.!”
I wasn’t paying much attention to Tweety and Tom. I wasn’t paying much attention to Roger and Wilco, either. My eyes were fixed on the enemy soldier. I had the hammer in my hand; I was still in a kneeling position; my knees had gone weak; my heart was racing 90-to-nothing; I’d never had an adrenaline rush like that before!
I couldn’t take my eyes off the enemy. It wasn’t fear that I was feeling, it was shear, utter amazement. What I was seeing just didn’t make any sense. I wasn’t suppose to be eye-to-eye, 100 yards away from an N.V.A. soldier. And it seemed especially strange to be eye-to-eye and 100 yards away from an enemy that seemed to be totally indifferent to my presence; that seemed to be baiting a dog; trying to entice the animal to charge. Why? Why-in-the-hell would he be doing that? Nobody in his right mind would do that!
Wilco got wilder and wilder. Finally, he got to be more than Roger could handle and Roger let go of the leash rather than get dragged into the ravine. As soon as Roger let go of the leash he started crying. He was crying like a baby.
“Oh, no! Oh, no! They’re gonna kill him! Oh, my God! They’re gonna kill him!”
When Wilco broke free he went flying down the side of the ravine like a bat out of hell; barking like a wild banshee the whole way. When the enemy soldier saw him coming he turned and ran into the scrub brush like a wild jackrabbit.
What followed was like a scene out of a Saturday morning cartoon. I stared in amazement as I traced the movement in the brush. The path taken by the N.V.A. soldier could be seen most distinctly; the top of the brush bending and twisting in a winding, serpentine pattern. The path taken by Wilco was identical. The brush didn’t bend and twist as much, but the bending and twisting that Wilco was generating began to quickly catch up to the bending and twisting being caused by the enemy.
Suddenly, Wilco’s frantic barking became an aggressive growl. Then, almost immediately, that growl was followed by a whimpering whelp. That’s when Roger lost it.
“Oh, God! They killed him!”
I stood up. I turned and looked back at Roger.
“Whadaya’ mean ‘they killed him?’”
“They killed him! They baited him and killed him!”
Roger was so distraught he just ran off. I don’t know where he was headed, but he just ran away, crying like a baby. Just as Roger ran away an Army patrol arrived. The Army patrol and the hatch team guys were all standing at the top of the ravine. I looked at them and pleaded for an explanation.
“What-the-hell just happened? Does anybody know what-the-hell just happened?”
An Army lieutenant walked down and stood next to me. The others followed him the ten or twelve steps down the side of the ravine and we stood there, as a group, staring at the top of the scrub brush. We watched as the brush started bending in a straight line; a straight line that headed off toward the treeline at the edge of the jungle about 600 yards away. When the bending brush merged with the jungle, the lieutenant turned and answered my question.
“Dog is a delicacy in Vietnam. Those son’s-of-bitches are gonna be eatin’ good tonight.”
Just as we got on the trucks to leave, about fifteen minutes later, we saw the smoke from a cooking fire rise up out of the jungle about a thousand yards away.
Sometime in early December my cousin Lon came for a visit. He was just days away from going home. He’d already completed his tour in Vietnam and he’d caught a ‘mail run’ flight from Vung Tau to DaNang just to see me.
Lon had been in Vietnam since January of ‘69. When he’d first arrived, shortly after completing Ranger training at Fort Benning, he was supposed to be a platoon leader with the 1st. Infantry Division, but his orders were changed and he was re-assigned to Mobile Advisory Team 19 (MAT 19).
MAT 19 was a South Vietnamese National Guard platoon (Nia Phum Quong) and Lon was the American advisor for the group. After a couple of months with the Nia Phum Quong, Lon was assigned to a district level, company sized unit known as a Dia Phum Quong. Toward the end of his tour he was re-assigned to the 42nd. Ranger Battalion.
It was early December; we were working nights; we’d just completed a particularly gruel-ing shift and had gotten back to Tien Sha at the usual time. When I stepped off the cattle car, there he was.
“Come on, let’s go somewhere and talk.”
“Uh ... can we do it later? I’m zonkered.”
“Yea, I guess so.”
“Let me get a shower, some chow and a couple of hours of sleep first, OK?”
“Come on. I’ll show you where my quarters are. Come back around 1 o’clock and wake me.”
“That sounds good. Then I’ll take you to lunch.”
I showered, ate and racked out for five hours. Then, at 1 o’clock sharp, Lon was kneeling over my bunk; shaking me.
“Come on, Bob. Wake up.”
I got up and got dressed. Then Lon led me out of the barrack and we started walking.
“Where are we going?”
“The officer’s mess.”
I stopped dead in my tracks in the middle of the street.
“I’m taking you to eat at the officer’s mess.”
“I can’t go in the officer’s mess. I’m an enlisted man.”
“Enlisted man or not, you’re my guest.”
There was no arguing with Lon. He’d made up his mind that I was going to have lunch with him in the Tien Sha officer’s mess and no manner of protest was going to change the outcome.
When we entered the mess we seemed to draw little or no attention from anyone. There were a few awkward glances, but they seemed to be directed at Lon, not at me; he was all decked out in ‘tiger’ camouflage and was wearing a crimson beret. Ranger garb wasn’t something anyone in DaNang saw on a regular basis.
The officer’s mess wasn’t quite what I’d expected. The tables were all covered with elegant white linen, the place settings were an exquisite fine china, the utensils were ‘Buttercup’ sterling silver and the glassware - including pitchers - were all crystal. A mess steward met us at the door and escorted us to a table. He handed us a menu and retired while we read it over.
“You get anything you want, Bob. It’s on me.”
“You Navy guys really eat good. I got in last night. I checked in at the B.O.Q. (Bachelor Officer’s Quarters) and then came over here to eat. The chow is extraordinary. I haven’t eaten this well since I’ve been in-country.”
“Yea. Navy food’s always good, no matter where you go.”
The steward returned and I ordered roast beef with beans, corn and mashed potatoes. Lon ordered the same thing. We both had tea to drink. I couldn’t help but notice that the food the officers were eating was no better than what we got in our chow hall. That was a comforting thought.
It was good to see Lon again; it was good to be able to spend some time with him, but I wasn’t prepared for the conversation we were about to have.
“So, how long you been here?”
“And what do you do at the piers?”
“Bummer. You’re so close; you’re here; you’re in Vietnam; but you can’t take advantage of it.”
“The great opportunity. To draw down. To draw down on the enemy. To get him in your sights. To kill him. War is legalized homicide, you know. Only a handful of generations ever get the chance; but we have it! Don’t worry. You still may. You still have most of your tour left.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No. Bob, I’m serious! You haven’t had a chance to do it yet, so you don’t know what I’m talking about. But when you do - when you do finally get a chance - you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. The rush can’t be described. You draw down on a human being; a life; a beating heart. You pull the trigger. They go down. It’s incredible! It’s absolutely incredible!”
“Did you hear what you just said?”
“No, it’s not. It’s not like they don’t have the same opportunity. They do; and that’s another part of it; another part of the rush. While you’re drawing down on them, hell, somebody on the other side - geez, man - they’re drawing down on you! Let me tell you about my first firefight, then maybe you’ll understand.
“I was in Tra Vinh province. We’d spent most of the day in a blocking position. Another unit was engaging the enemy and we’d taken up a blocking position in the rear - to block their retreat. Like every other day in the Nam it had been a long walk in the sun. We were in the process of crossing a paddy. We’d just gotten to the opposite side and I’d just entered the tree line when I noticed that some of my soldiers were sprinting past me. I was curious as to why, so I walked back out in the open; out of the tree line. My RTO ...”
“I’m sorry. RTO. Radio/telephone operator. Anyway, I walked out of the tree line and my RTO, Nuyen, followed me. I heard some popcorn noises. I turned to Nuyen with my hand outstretched to take the handset. Suddenly, there were explosions all around. Then I heard this sound; a really loud sound - like the sound of a bat hitting a baseball for a home run - and that sound was right next to me. All at once my eyes became clouded; it was difficult to see. I wiped them clean with my sleeve. I turned to look at Nuyen. He was falling. His expression had become distant and he fell like a tree. I looked at my sleeve and it was pink. It was then that I realized that it was Nuyen’s brains that I’d wiped from my eyes. I ran twenty feet. Then I stopped, turned around and ran back to Nuyen. I grabbed him by the right arm and pulled him to the tree line. I remember watching the radio handset bouncing on the ground as I dragged him. Once inside the trees I knelt down to check him over. The bullet had entered his chin, went around inside his head a few times, and come out his forehead. Big friggin’-ass exit wound! Needless to say, he was dead.
“The trees weren’t offering a lot of protection, so I relieved Nuyen of the radio and ran back out in the open. I sought cover behind a paddy berm. I got on the radio to call in the contact. Suddenly, some dirt flew up in front of me; six to eight feet in the air. I continued talking and more dirt flew up. I remember thinking to myself that they were both close hits. When the ground flew up for a third time I realized that I was being shot at by an enemy sniper. It became obvious that his gun sight wasn’t zeroed; it was low and slightly off to the left. It also became obvious that he was firing at me and no one else. Let me tell you, it was a hollow feeling being the only target.”
That’s all I remember hearing. Lon kept talking, but I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying.
Lon talked about other combat experiences all through lunch, but I didn’t hear much of what he said. All I could think about was what he’d already said. I kept wondering if everybody that had been in combat felt the same way he did; if they took the same pleasure, or excitement, in sighting down on another human being? And if I were in combat, would I feel the same way? Was that feeling just a hidden emotion that no one ever talked about, but felt just the same? Or was Lon different; a sick kind of different?
What Lon had said surprised me, but the fact that he told me - with such honesty - didn’t surprise me at all. Lon and I had always been incredibly close, so it was no surprise that he’d shared his thoughts with me.
Officers had to pay for their meals at the officer’s mess. When we finished eating, Lon got up and went to pay the cashier. A minute or so later I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and looked up. It was a Navy ensign.
“Sailor. What-in-the-hell are you doin’ here?”
“Eatin’ lunch, sir.”
“Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but this is an officer’s mess.”
“Answer my question, man. What are you doin’ here?”
Just as I was about to answer, Lon walked up.
“Do we have a problem here, ensign?”
“Yes sir. This enlisted man’s in the officer’s mess.”
“And he’s not supposed to be.”
“Yes he is.”
Lon was irritated, and he all but yelled his response. When he did, every eye in the room turned toward our table.
“He’s my guest, mister. Now why don’t you go wave your Annapolis class ring somewhere else.”
I hadn’t noticed that Lon had made first lieutenant until I heard the ensign call him sir. I looked at his collars and, sure enough, the bars were silver, not gold.
Lon put a tip on the table and every eye in the room stared at us as we left. We didn’t say anything when we got outside; we just started walking toward the barracks.
The most basic tenant of good order and discipline in the military is the requirement that all personnel of a lower rank render honors - or a right-hand salute - to any officer of a higher rank. That tenant is applicable to all branches of the service, but sometimes - especially in a war zone - the Navy will relax the rule so that the enlisted ranks can concentrate on their jobs. The rule had been relaxed at Camp Tien Sha and at the piers.
Lon did not know that the rule had been relaxed and as we walked back toward the barracks four sailors approached us from the opposite direction. When they got within six to eight feet of us, Lon brought his right hand to his brow to return their salutes. The problem was, they had not saluted him; Lon had returned four salutes that had not been rendered. He stopped dead in his tracks and immediately went ballistic.
“Halt, damn it!”
He turned around. The men were looking back at him, but they had not stopped.
“I said ‘halt’, god-damn-it!”
The men stopped. Their eyes were wide open; their expressions were priceless; they were scared half-to-death! Lon was quite the imposing figure in his camouflaged tiger suit. The crimson Ranger beret was intimidating as well.
The men all snapped to attention.
“Right-hand ... salute!”
The men all rendered a sharp, crisp, right-hand salute.
“Now, why didn’t you do that before?”
Nobody said anything. They didn’t know what to say. They knew that the rule had been relaxed, but they also knew that Lon wasn’t Navy. They didn’t know what he was, but they knew he wasn’t Navy.
“I ought to put all of you on report!”
Still, nobody said anything. Lon yelled and screamed at them for well over a minute about the requirement for good order and discipline. When he was done, he yelled ‘right-hand salute’ again and they saluted. He returned their salutes and then excused them. As we turned to continue the walk to my barrack, Lon began blessing me out for their indis-cretion.
“Why didn’t they salute me? God-damn-it, I earned these bars!”
“Lon, the rule has been relaxed here.”
“The rule has been relaxed. I don’t know why, but we don’t have to render honors at Tien Sha or at the piers.”
“Jesus! The one place you don’t want to relax the rule is in a war zone! You Navy people are all fucked up!”
When we got back to the barrack, I went inside and got my camera. I came back out and suggested that we get somebody to take our picture. Lon wasn’t too excited about the idea at first, but I finally talked him into it. We started walking; looking for someone we could stop and talk into taking a picture of us. Just as we got to the Snoopy sign we ran into Bullwinkle.
“Hey, Wiley. What’s up?”
“This is my cousin, Lon.”
“Hey, man. Good to meet you.”
Bullwinkle didn’t salute. He just extended his hand anticipating a handshake. It didn’t come.
“Hey, how ‘bout taking a picture of us.”
Bullwinkle was a little taken back when Lon didn’t shake his hand, but he agreed to take the picture anyway.
“Sure, man. No problem.”
Bullwinkle took our pic in front of the Snoopy sign, then we walked a block or so and he took one of us standing in front of the sign just outside transient barracks; the one that said ‘Welcome to sunny, scenic DaNang, RVN’.
When Lon found out that the Navy had relaxed the ‘honors’ rule in DaNang he began to treat me differently. He kept referring to me, and the Navy in DaNang, as rear echelon.
The phrase ‘rear echelon’ was a derogatory term in a war zone. When one who served in combat referred to one who worked in the rear areas, away from the fighting, as a ‘rear echelon type’, it was a slam, and that’s what Lon was doing; he was slamming me. The second time he referred to me that way I let him know I didn’t appreciate it.
“You rear echelon types don’t understand good order and discipline.”
“Let me ask you a question.”
“How many times have you actually feared for your life over here?”
“Everyday I fear for my life!”
“No. How many times have you been in a situation where you thought your life might end at any moment?”
“Everyday I feel that way!”
“No. That’s not what I mean. Let me put it another way. How many times have you felt that way in a combat situation?”
“I don’t know. Six! Seven!”
“You’ve been here for a year and you’ve only felt that way six or seven times. I’ve only been here for three months and I’ve almost been killed four times.”
“I got knocked off a ship by a cargo net full of butter once.”
“A cargo net full of butter?”
“One of my crew mates dropped a crowbar one day and it knocked me off a ladder. I fell about 15 feet; landed flat on my back; knocked me out cold!”
“You fell off a ladder?”
“Got knocked off.”
“Excuse me, you got knocked off?”
“Right. Then one day a wire rope broke on the pier. The damn thing nearly cut me in half. It hit me just below the knees and ripped my pants off from the knees down.”
“Ripped your pants off?”
“Bob! That’s not the same thing! That’s nothing like combat! What you’re talking about is stupidity, not the dangers associated with fighting in a war zone!”
“It is the same thing! And if you say my name and the words rear echelon in the same sentence again, you and me are gonna tango. You understand?”
“Officer or no officer, you call me rear echelon again and I’ll whip your ass!”
He didn’t answer, and for the longest time we just stared at each other.
Not all red alerts were the real thing. At least once-a-month we’d have a drill just to keep everybody on their toes.
More often than not Yogi would get the word when a drill was scheduled and he’d let us know about it. When we knew a drill was scheduled we’d just disregard the damn siren. If we were working at the piers we’d just keep humpin’ cargo. The other hatch teams would look to see what we did. If we kept working, they kept working. If we broke for our battle stations, they’d break, too. If we were asleep back at the barracks we’d just stay in our bunks. Again, the guys on other teams would look to see what we did. If we stayed in our bunks, they would, too. If we ran to the bunkers, they were right behind us.
There was a red alert drill scheduled for the last night Lon was in DaNang. We were workin’ nights at the piers, so when the siren went off at around 2 a.m. we just worked right through it.
The next morning, when we got back to the barracks, Lon was waiting for me. He was blatantly favoring his right arm; as though it had been injured.
“What-the-hell happened to you?”
“I fell running to the bunker during that rocket attack last night.”
“The one here! Last night! The red alert siren went off around 2 or so and I couldn’t remember where the bunker was. I ran outside and tripped over one of those white picket fences trying to find it.”
“Rocket attack, huh?”
“Yea! Rocket attack! Didn’t you guys go on alert down at the piers?”
I was still mad at Lon for referring to me as a rear echelon type. His question offered me an opportunity to get back at him, and I took advantage of it. I put on my best poker face and answered him with a serious tone in my voice.
“The siren went off at the piers, but we kept workin’. Usually, if the rockets don’t land within twenty or thirty feet of us, we keep workin’. Now when they get close, within’ twenty or thirty feet, we start headin’ for the bunkers then.”
The look on Lon’s face was priceless. There was no indication that he suspected that I was joking with him. That being the case, I thought I’d take the whole thing just one step farther.
“Did you hear the explosions ... when the rockets hit?”
“And you got out of bed?”
“You ran to the bunker and you didn’t hear any explosions?”
“Yea ... along with everybody else!”
“You mean the other officers in the B.O.Q.?”
“Well, that explains that.”
“That explains what?”
“They’re a bunch of pussies! Officers always run, whether there’s anything in-coming or not.”
“And you don’t?”
“HELL NO! We don’t stop unloadin’ cargo for a silly-ass rocket attack! If we did that, you front-line motherfuckers wouldn’t have anything to eat; no beer to drink; no scotch to sip! Unless they’re within twenty or thirty feet, no, we don’t run for the bunkers!”
Lon immediately knew that I was slamming him, but he didn’t respond. Neither of us said anything for the longest time. I was filthy-nasty; smelled like hell and was bone-tired, but later, when we were on speaking terms again, he insisted on taking me to the officer’s mess for breakfast. He was leaving in an hour or so, flying back to Vung Tau, and breakfast would be our last opportunity to be together for God-knows how long.
We didn’t say anything during the walk to the mess. We didn’t say anything at the table while we waited for the steward to come take our order. It was a good five minutes later, after we ordered, before Lon finally broke the ice.
“Hey, I was out of line with all that rear echelon talk, OK.”
“No hard feelings?”
“No hard feelings.”
There was a brief moment of silence. Then I asked him a question I’d been meaning to ask all along.
“So ... have you gotten any medals?”
“Yea, a few.”
“Just the regular Mickey Mouse shit. National Defense, the two campaign medals and the Bronze Star.”
“You got a Bronze Star?”
“Bob. I don’t wanna bust your bubble, but every officer in the Nam gets a Bronze Star. It’s a warm body ribbon for the officer class. If you show up and do twelve months without fuckin’ up, you get one.”
“No. It’s a warm body ribbon. Honest. If you’re an officer and you do your job, you get one. Show me an officer who served in Nam who DON’T have one, and I’ll show you an officer who fucked up during his tour.”
“What about enlisted men?”
“Show me an enlisted man with a Bronze Star and I’ll show you a genuine, god-damn hero. They don’t give enlisted men shit; they earn everything they get.”
“Hey, did I tell you that dad’s over here?”
Lon then spent the whole time we ate breakfast telling me about uncle Louie, his family and the U.S.A.I.D. program.
Lon’s dad, my uncle Louie, had retired from the Army Reserve and had taken a job as a civilian contractor working for U.S.A.I.D., the United States Agency for International Development. His office was in Vung Tau and he’d moved my aunt Edna George and the kids - Stanley, Bunny and Ricky - to the Philippines. It was a perk that went with the job - having his family in Manila - and once a month or so he got to catch a plane and spend a long weekend with them.
The word SNAFU is an unofficial military term that originated in-and-around the Pentagon sometime in the middle of the twentieth century. In no time at all it was adopted by the American civilian population as well, and, loosely translated, it means ‘a problem’. The loose translation is one thing. But the literal military meaning is, and always has been, much more descriptive. SNAFU is actually an acronym. Its real meaning: Situation Normal, All Fucked Up!
When Lon told me what uncle Louie’s job was; when he told me what U.S.A.I.D.’s purpose was; when he told me the scandal they’d been involved in just a year or so before, I almost died laughing. It was a typical example of just how inept the U.S. Congress can be when it gets involved in foreign affairs.
Congress had formed U.S.A.I.D. for the sole purpose of shoring up the economy of South Vietnam. And how did they plan to do that? Simple.
South Vietnam was the world’s rice bowl. More rice was grown and harvested in the Mekong Delta than anywhere else in the world. The way Congress had it figured, the more rice the South Vietnamese could export, the more money they could make. The more money they could make, the less dependent they would be on U.S. resources. So! Congress formed U.S.A.I.D. to make that happen.
Back in the states the U.S. government was paying Louisiana rice farmers a premium for their rice. The government then turned this Louisiana rice over to U.S.A.I.D. who bagged it and shipped it to South Vietnam. The U.S.A.I.D. officials in South Vietnam then distributed the Louisiana rice to the South Vietnamese in pretty white sacks with a clever little red, white and blue logo on one side. The logo revealed two hands, one holding the other in a handshake, and above the hands were the words: ‘Hands Across The Sea’. Below the hands were the letters, ‘U.S.A.I.D.’
The Congress thought its plan was ingenious. U.S.A.I.D. would give the Louisiana rice to the Vietnamese. Having the free Louisiana rice to eat would free up the Vietnamese rice which the South Vietnamese could then sell on the open market. Aside from the fact that it was totally ridiculous, on paper the plan appeared to be a congressional stroke of genius. But there was one minor problem. American rice was inferior to all Asian grains, es-pecially the Vietnamese variety, and no self-respecting Asian - Vietnamese or otherwise - would eat American rice. The Vietnamese wouldn’t eat it, but that didn’t stop them from exporting it.
U.S.A.I.D. took over the job of paying the Vietnamese rice farmers for their rice at harvest time. Besides PAYING them for THEIR rice, U.S.A.I.D. GAVE them a set amount of American rice in return so they’d have something to eat. In theory, this would free up every grain of Vietnamese rice for export. In actuality, the Vietnamese would get paid for their crop, take the free portion of American rice they’d been given back to their villages and cut open all the sacks, then they’d team up with some other farmers and dump the Louisiana rice into one of their sampans and go back to the U.S.A.I.D. station and sell it back to the Americans like it was Vietnamese rice. Over and over and over again they did this. Eventually, American-grown rice started going out to other Asian markets packaged as Vietnamese rice. When the rice factors in those markets discovered what had happened all hell broke loose, and the Vietnamese government had a world-wide credibility problem that took years to correct.
Throughout the whole fiasco the South Vietnamese rice farmers had held enough of their own rice in reserve to feed their families. It had never been their intention to eat American grown rice. NEVER!
The whole time we were eating; the whole time Lon was telling me the story, we were laughing at the stupidity of it all. I could just picture the farmers filling up their sampans with the American-grown rice and then taking it back down-river to get paid for it again; and getting another load of free American rice in exchange which they went back and unsacked prior to coming back down the river again to get paid for it a third time; then a fourth; then a fifth. Then it hit me! It hit Lon at about the same time, too. I spoke first.
“Wow! I wonder how many of those South Vietnamese farmers were V.C.?”
There was a long, quiet pause. Then Lon spoke up.
“I wonder how many AK-47s they bought with all that money?”
My next question was quite innocuous and I didn’t really expect an answer.
“I wonder when they started that program?”
A look of horror came over Lon’s face. Then he answered my question.
“The last harvest season of ‘67. Just before Tet in ‘68.”
I suddenly felt cold and empty inside. Drained. I cringed just thinking about the U.S.A.I.D snafu. I thought about those assholes back in Congress. Somebody ought to kill a handful of those bastards; blow ‘em up; poison ‘em or something! They were absolutely clueless, and people were dying as a result. No doubt about it. Nam was just one big cluster-fuck! That’s all it was, one big, giant cluster-fuck!
I don’t know who was more eager to part company, me or Lon. I know he’d had his fill of the Navy - what with our lack of good order and discipline - and I’d had my fill of his ‘combat vs. rear echelon’ perspective on the war. After we finished eating, he checked out of the B.O.Q. and I walked him to the front gate at Camp Tien Sha. There, we said our final good-byes and he caught a ride to the 15th. Aerial Port to catch a plane back to Vung Tau. I went back to the barrack and hit the rack.
I had joined the Navy on October 28, 1968, just six months after Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine motel in Memphis, Tennessee. From kindergarten through college I had never been in a class, in elementary, junior high, high school or college, with a black student. Schools, by-and-large, weren’t integrated back then, and wouldn’t be for another four or five years. There were still separate water fountains and rest rooms back home for whites and blacks, and there were still areas, especially in the south, where blacks couldn’t eat in restaurants or stay in hotels or motels in spite of legislation that had been passed on the state and national level guaranteeing such rights.
The racial problems that existed in America at that time spilled over into the military as well. It wasn’t overt; Truman had fully integrated the armed forces shortly after he became president in 1945, and full implementation of his ‘Military Integration Plan’ had started in earnest during the Korean war. Again, it wasn’t overt. On paper, the military was fully integrated, but anyone with eyes could see that racism not only existed, it was being practiced, to a great degree, with extreme prejudice.
In boot camp, we’d received the Navy’s conventional lip service on racism. In essence, we were told that racism would not be tolerated. Then, upon graduation from boot camp, we went to our next duty stations and saw the beast - on a daily basis - rear its ugly head. For example: Filipinos, with few exceptions, were only allowed to serve as mess stewards; few, if any, ever served in other rates. Blacks, for the most part, were placed in rates that involved manual labor. They were primarily assigned jobs as cooks, vehicle drivers, bosons mates and bilge duty. Few were ever assigned to rates that involved ‘A’ School training. In fact, the only blacks I ever saw in ‘A’ School classes at Great Lakes were enrolled in Snipe training; classes that prepared them to work in the bilge, the filth and grime of an engine compartment in the bowels of a ship at sea; jobs that most whites didn’t want to do.
White-on-black racism in the military was bad enough. Couple that with the way Injun Joe was treated - the Filipinos and the Hispanics, too - and it got down-right ugly at times. But that was nothing compared to the way American servicemen (of all races) treated their Vietnamese allies - military and civilian.
Americans constantly referred to the Vietnamese as gooks, slants (for slant-eyes), slopes (for slope-heads) and fish head eaters; and they’d call them these names right to their face. Even some of the black sailors would refer to the Vietnamese this way. The Vietnamese would just smile and act stupid when the name calling was going on, but I could tell they didn’t appreciate it. Right from the get-go I remember thinking that if I’d been a Vietnamese, and my American allies had referred to me that way, I’d have been motivated to align myself with the enemy. I’m sure that happened, too. I’m sure there were members of the Vietcong that took up arms against the government just to have a chance to even the score with a bigoted American or two.
The cultural differences between the Americans and the Vietnamese were many, and the gulf between us was massive.
We Americans were aloof and seemed to view ourselves as both intellectually and physi-cally superior to the Vietnamese. Physically, we WERE different. The average American in Vietnam was 5’ 10” tall and weighed in at about 165 lbs. The average Vietnamese was 5’ 3” and weighed about 130.
Intellectually, if the truth were known, the Vietnamese were way ahead of us. I don’t know much about the formal education they received, but schooling in Vietnam was taken seriously, and the average Vietnamese could not only speak multiple dialects of their own tongue, they were fluent in both English and French; and many could manage a conversation with a Cambodian or a Thai if they had to.
The most crucial factor in U.S./Vietnamese relations was probably the childish nature of the Vietnamese people as a whole. They had an innocence about them. Even the adults would interact with each other - and with us - in much the same way teenagers acted back in the states. They tried to find humor in everything; they were slow to take even the most stressful situations seriously, and they were perfectly willing - or appeared to be - to let themselves be the brunt of any joke we Americans might feel compelled to play on them. But that was just their nature. The way they acted was not a real indication of their heart, their stamina or their overall resolve as a race or a people.
The Vietnamese did act in a childish way, but the best example of their resolve, in spite of their childish behavior, happened at the piers in December of ‘69.
One day, midway through a day shift cycle, one of the Vietnamese women on a female hatch team went into labor. A number of them were pregnant at any given time, but they continued to work, and they’d work right up till it was time to give birth. The woman actually had the child in the hole of a ship. The boson had his driver take her and the baby home after the delivery, but she was back at work the next day, and she carried her weight; she did not draw light duty, nor did she ask for it.
The Vietnamese men working on the hatch teams were game workers, too. Some would receive debilitating injuries on the job, but they would only accept the most basic treat-ment, and it seemed to be a dishonor for them to have to leave their posts before the end of a shift. On more than one occasion I saw Vietnamese men complete a shift after breaking an arm or dislocating a shoulder just an hour or so after reporting for work. And, broken arm badly set, or dislocated shoulder poorly slung, they would be back at work the next day, and they would complain vehemently if their hatch team captains tried to give them light duty assignments or send them home to recuperate.
In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that we ever thought we could win a war against these people. It may well be that the North Vietnamese had even MORE resolve than their brothers and sisters in the south; the difference in the two being that the North Vietnamese weren’t fighting to prop up a government mired in corruption, scandal and political intrigue. It’s hard to get motivated to support a government like that, and obviously, the South Vietnamese never did.
Many job classifications in Nam were pretty much all black; transportation for example. Most of the truck drivers and bus drivers were black, and when new guys reported for duty they seemed to be accepted, totally, almost immediately. The blacks didn’t seem to put much stock in the ‘newbie’ game. They trained their new guys on the dos and don’ts, they didn’t just sit back and wait for them to screw up and learn the hard way. And the black sailors were a fraternal bunch. I mean that literally. They had these complicated fist-slapping routines that identified the groups they were with. The transportation guys had one. An all-black security detail that I saw in action in the chow hall had one, too. There seemed to be one basic fist maneuver that they all knew, but each group had a move that only the members of that group used. The fist-slaps were very much like fraternity handshakes; sometimes it would take 20 to 30 seconds just to complete the routine.
Blacks and whites pretty much kept to themselves. What little off-duty time we had was spent in total segregation. There were some black hatch team members at the piers. Tom was black. As a team, we didn’t socialize much after work. We’d go see ‘Rama’ when it was playing, and every now and then we’d go get a beer at the E.M. club after work, but most of the time we just hit the rack and went to sleep. Tom would go with us when we went out together, but most of his free time was spent with the all-black security detail. They even welcomed him into the group as an honorary member and taught him their fist routine.
White-on-black prejudice wasn’t blatant, but you could really see it at work in the chow hall. When the black sailors would sit together at chow they’d execute their slaps as each man came and sat down at the table. Each man already at the table would rise and the new arrival would execute the routine with each man already there. It would take minutes sometimes, and invariably, no sooner had they welcomed him than another would walk up with his tray. Then the whole routine would start over again.
Some of the whites would often taunt the blacks while they were executing their slaps. Tempers would sometimes flare, and words would often be exchanged, but more often than not that would be the extent of it.
AFVN, the Armed Forces Vietnam Network, was an AM radio station that was run by the military and it could be heard all throughout South Vietnam 24-hours a day. The powers-that-be were very selective in the songs they allowed to be programmed for air-play. For the most part, the music played on AFVN was mundane and trivial. No self-respecting D.J. back in the states would have programmed the stuff AFVN played. The 18, 19 and 20-year-olds in Nam thought the station was a joke. If you were into Led Zeppelin, Cream, Van Morrison or The Doors you weren’t gonna hear any of their songs on AFVN. The songs the military programmed were all by teeny-bopper groups like the Cowsills and the Monkees. Songs with candy-coated lyrics like:
Cheer up, sleepy Jean
What does it mean
For a daydream believer
and a homecoming queen
AFVN didn’t play hard-core rock-’n-roll, but there was another station in Vietnam that did. There was a radio broadcast that originated out of North Vietnam on short-wave. A lot of the guys went to the PX and bought short-wave radios just so they could pick the station up, and their favorite program was hosted by an English-speaking Vietnamese female known as Hanoi Hannah.
Hanoi Hannah was something else. She spent half of her program dishing out propaganda and the other half playing current, top-ten rock-’n-roll hits from the states. We knew her propaganda was just that, and nobody really paid any attention to that part of her show. But the music was great; it was like being back home and hearing the groups and the songs we all wanted to hear. No doubt about it, the servicemen loved her. But our military powers-that-be hated her with a passion. I was told that our military tried to jam her broadcasts shortly after she started on the air, but the North Vietnamese kept finding a way to get her signal through. Eventually, the military just gave up and Hannah became a fixture; an institution; perhaps the most popular radio personality in the world at that time.
By late 1969, Hannah had developed a reputation for knowing what was going on at certain military installations throughout South Vietnam. The military began to get upset when she started describing certain events on certain bases in real time. She’d make announcements that certain things were happening ‘as she was speaking’, and, lo-and-behold, those things would be happening, just like she said. At first, they were innocent things like blood drives. She’d announce that a blood drive was going on at a certain MASH hospital, but that not many people had participated as of 3 or 4 o’clock, whatever the current time might be. And, sure enough, she’d be right. It wasn’t a big deal, really. But it irritated the senior officer corps. How did she know that? Nobody seemed to know how she knew, and the generals and admirals in Saigon spent some anxious hours, and a lot of manpower and money, trying to find out.
One day, early in December, we were eating supper in the chow hall. Everybody on the team was there except Booboo and Tom. Booboo had a really high fever - 104 - and Yogi had made him report to sick bay. Tom had walked to the infirmary with him just to make sure he got there OK. The black guys in the transportation group always sat at the table right next to us. A boisterous group of whites from Bridge Ramp were sitting at the table on the other side of the blacks. This particular group of whites enjoyed taunting the blacks when they’d do their fist slaps, and on this particular occasion their taunting was more blatant than usual. At one point, one of the whites said something like:
“God-damn niggers. Don’t they know how silly that shit looks?”
The blacks heard what he’d said, and they all stopped what they were doing and stared at the whites for a long, tense moment. Eventually, the tension eased, but every now and then, when another black guy would walk up and the fist slaps would start anew, one of the whites would say something about it; loudly; wanting the blacks to hear; wanting to intimidate them. Again, the blacks would stare them down.
One of the blacks had a portable short-wave radio. In an effort to drown out what the whites were saying, he turned it on and began turning the dial searching for Hanoi Hannah. He knew instantly when he’d found the right frequency; ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida’ came blaring out of the speakers. The military leaders that ran AFVN would have had a conniption fit if ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida’ had ever originated from their transmitters. But, according to Hanoi Hannah, it was her ‘most requested’ song, implying, of course, that she took requests from American servicemen. I have no reason to doubt her. I don’t know how she might have managed that, but for all I know, she probably did. And judging from the reaction of those within earshot of the radio, she was right. There was a tumultuous round of applause when the guys heard that sound, that unmistakable, driving, pounding ‘da da dadada da da da da dada’.
The radio wasn’t turned up very loud. Only the guys sitting two or three tables away could hear it, and no one who could complained. I wasn’t a big rock fan, but I hadn’t heard much of anything since my first days in-country when I’d checked out the Lightfoot tape at the tape library. I rather enjoyed hearing the music, even that song, and when Yogi pointed out that it was probably Hanoi Hannah’s show, I got excited. I’d heard about her, but I’d never heard one of her broadcasts.
When ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida’ finished playing, I heard Hannah’s voice for the very first time. She spoke perfect English, and what she had to say hit home. REAL CLOSE TO HOME!
“It has just come to my attention that right now, as I speak, there is a race riot underway at the Camp Tien Sha chow hall in DaNang ...”
She kept talking; describing the incident in detail. According to her, black and white sailors were fighting each other at that very moment. Everybody within earshot of the radio was just sitting there; stunned. Slowly, we all began to look around. We were sitting in the Camp Tien Sha chow hall; we were there, right slap-dab in the middle of it, and what she was describing wasn’t happening. Yogi turned to me and said:
“The old broad blew it on that one, didn’t she?”
I smiled and answered him:
“Yea. I guess you can’t win ‘em all.”
Suddenly, one of the black sailors stood up and yelled:
“By God! Sounds good to me!”
Then he bolted toward the table where the Bridge Ramp sailors were sitting.
“Come on, honkies! Let’s see just how god-damn tough you are!”
In an instant everything she’d been describing on the air; everything she was still describing on the air, was actually happening. The black sailor jumped the first white sailor he came to. Two white guys jumped up to pull him off their friend and three or four more black guys laid into them. In no time at all there were twelve to fifteen people rolling in a mass of swinging arms and legs on the floor.
The cooks in the chow hall were mostly black, and some of them had been listening to Hannah on a short-wave unit in the kitchen. One of them had just casually popped his head out of the service door to see if what she was saying was true. The fight had started just a moment or so before he stuck his head out the door, and for all he knew it had been going on the whole time she’d been talking - at least that’s what he told the guys from the Criminal Investigation Division.
The fight didn’t last long. Sailors from all the nearby tables broke it up quickly. We pitched in, too. Bullwinkle and I managed to pull some of the black guys away, but we did so gently; carefully. We probably worked harder to protect them from blows than we did in trying to discourage them from swinging themselves, and they knew it. Bullwinkle and I were white, but they knew we weren’t taking sides. They even thanked us for stepping in when it was over. And we acknowledged their thanks honestly and sincerely.
There was a full scale investigation of the incident in the weeks that followed. The Navy was convinced that the fight had started BEFORE Hanoi Hannah had reported it; that somehow she’d gotten the word from inside the camp that the fight was going on and that her report had been in real time. Only those of us within earshot of the radio knew that it had happened the other way around. Tensions had already been running high between the blacks and whites at those two tables. Hannah’s words had been nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. Her words had been nothing more than a spray of gas on a flame that had already been burning for some time.
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