It’s incredible that through the first several months in a combat zone I could
have made so many mistakes and stayed alive. I am sure beyond any doubt there
is a God because there is no way that I got through it on my own. There was so
much to learn, and much of it was by trial and error. The smallest, most
insignificant detail was often given priority over things that could mean the
difference between life and death.
I learned quickly to respect my elders. They were the NCO’s (sergeants) who
had been through war before. It was a humbling experience because these were
the same guys that I’d looked down on as a civilian. I regarded them as those
who were living off the government because they couldn’t make it in the real
world. But, in 1967 Vietnam was the real world, and they knew the best ways to
survive in it. They made the first order of business staying alive because a
dead hero makes a lousy soldier. By watching them I learned when it was OK to
relax a little, and when it was essential to stay sharp. I learned to judge
people based on their character and values. Most important, I learned whom to
trust. I owe my life to those crusty old bastards.
When I think of them, one stands out among all of the others, Sgt. Williams.
He was a career soldier on his second tour in Vietnam. One night after my
section was overrun I talked with him about the war and our situation.
I said “God damn it Sarge, my whole section was killed along with most of the
rest of the platoon, the mortar sections, and the medics. By the time it was
over we killed, wounded, and scattered an entire company of North Vietnamese.
By the next night we were back on the hill, and nothing had changed. What the
fuck did we accomplish?”
He looked at me and quietly said “Man, don’t you think I’m scared too.”
In that short sentence he summed up the whole miserable situation. There was
no logic, no reason, and no justification. He told me I was a fool for looking
for them. He said my primary responsibility was keeping my men and myself
alive. He said I should quit thinking like a schoolboy and start dealing in
reality. He said all that in just seven words.
At first I judged too quickly, and gave my trust too easily. An example was a
Vietnamese engineer at a mine not far from a position that we occupied for a
while. He was educated, articulate, pleasant, an all around great guy. I
trusted him because I took him at face value and didn’t look any deeper. All
of the things that I’d been taught to respect in civilian life, education,
wit, confidence, and assertiveness I saw in him. He disappeared after we were
overrun, probably because he was working for the North Vietnamese.
There were others who simply said what I wanted to hear, or acted the way I
thought civilians in an occupied area should act. They lived among us, shared
our company, helped us build bunkers and observation posts; and turned all the
information they gathered about us over to the North Vietnamese. They didn’t
carry riffles. They didn’t declare their opposition to our presence. The
“crusty old bastards” never gave them their trust, and kept them from doing
serious damage. Thank God for “crusty old bastards”.
We constantly had problems with the jungle. It grows faster than any weeds
I’ve ever seen. One morning I decided to cut back the area in front of our
position to improve visibility. As mentioned before, the wider the kill zone,
the better the chance to react.
When in the bush, the rule is to stay sharp, pay attention, and think! I did
none of these. Instead, I waded into the green surroundings with the machete
flying. The jungle was falling all around me, and I was on a roll. As I
stopped for a break, I happened to look down, and saw a wire about a foot from
my boot. It was stretched tight, and had been placed there for a reason. That
reason was so that an idiot like me would hit it, causing one of the mines in
the field that I was in to go off, blowing my dumb ass away.
Like I said earlier, there is definitely a God because there was no way that I
got out of that minefield on my own. I’m sure that one of his angels, assigned
to protect the young and stupid, was working overtime that day. Once out of
the minefield, I tried hard not to be a fool. There is a limit to what even an
angel can do.
One afternoon it began to rain. I slipped on my poncho, slid under a piece of
canvas, and waited for it to stop. If you’ve never been in a country that has
a monsoon season, you can’t appreciate how ridiculous “waiting for it to stop”
really was. It never stops, night and day, hour after hour, it just keeps
raining. By the end of the first night, I gave up on staying dry, and
concentrated on finding ways to stay warm. The mark of a veteran was one who
didn’t waste time pursuing comfort, but focuses on survival.
My first encounter with the local culture came right after we arrived in
Vietnam. We were in an assembly area just outside DaNang unloading our gear,
and getting ready to head for the field. I was in the latrine enjoying a
mid-morning shit when Mama San (an elderly Vietnamese woman) walked in with
her broom, bucket and mop. My first thought was “my God, I’m in the women’s
toilet”. But I quickly realized that Mama San was the only woman within five
She paid no attention to me, but simply started sweeping and mopping. I
remember wondering what would be appropriate at a time like this. Should I
shit, wipe, or tip my hat and say good morning? It really made no difference.
Any one of the three would have worked just fine because in that part of the
world, at that time it just didn’t matter.
There were younger women in the DaNang area, particularly at China Beach. Some
were very attractive and extremely available. They were called “skivie girls”,
or in good old American street terms, hookers. They were part of the China
Beach full service program. It included a whole gang of Vietnamese who would
fill a 2 ½ ton truck with sandbags while the skivie girls gave blow jobs in
the front seat; or, would provide more relaxed services behind the sand dunes.
The price of the package was two cases of c-rations and a couple of cartons of
Salems. They were crazy about menthol cigarettes.
While in DaNang in late July, I was asked to come along on a sandbag-filling
trip to China Beach. It was always best to take extra firepower along because
guys had had their throats cut behind the dunes. I was more than willing to
go, but not because of a chance to do the happy dance behind the sand dunes.
The thought of mixing sex with choking on my own blood didn’t appeal to me.
Beside, they had varieties of venereal decease in Southeast Asia that they
hadn’t even named yet. I looked at it as a chance to get away from our base
camp for a few hours, and break up the daily routine.
While the locals were filling sand bags I was sitting in the front seat of the
Jeep. Suddenly, one of the girls, whose specialty wasn’t sandbags, walked up.
She was wearing a pair of hot pants and a tank top that looked like it had
been painted on. She would have been considered beautiful anywhere in the
world. She was not only a knock out, but also the pushiest bitch that I’ve
ever seen, and not used to being turned down.
After the third NO she pulled up the tank top, leaned inside the Jeep, and
shoved a condom in my face. I made my move in one motion. I pushed her out of
the Jeep, chambered a round into the M-16 that had been propped against my
leg, shoved the muzzle under her chin, and hollered “if you don’t back off
I’ll blow your fucking head off”. The only one more surprised than her was me.
After she backed up I realized that the safety on my rifle was off and my
finger was on the trigger. I had only been a few ounces of pressure away from
killing her. That was the first and only time that the dragon surprised me. I
slid back into the Jeep, snapped the safety back on, and tried to understand
what had made me snap. The only thing that explains it is the fact that I was
cornered and completely surprised.
Two younger girls who had been filling sandbags walked up to the Jeep. One of
them pointed at the hooker who was walking back to the road and said :
“Skivie girl number ten” (as low as it gets).
“I no be skivvie girl”.
“I work hard”.
“V.C. (Viet Cong) number ten”.
“They need to go back home”.
“We don’t need V.C.”.
“We don’t need anybody”.
I asked her what she wanted, what would make things better for her and her
She said, “Everyone needs to go home. Everyone needs to leave us alone.”
I talked with her for about ten minutes. The conversation made me feel as
relaxed as I’d been since I left home. She told me that she wanted to continue
to go to school. Someday she wanted to have a family, and grow old watching
Suddenly she looked into my eyes, put her hand on my thigh, and said in a
deep, sexy voice “Do you care for me GI”?
I looked at her in amazement and said “Is every female in this country a
whore”? She smiled a smile that didn’t fit her baby face, and walked away.
That was my first step to becoming a crusty old bastard. I began to believe
that there wasn’t one single Vietnamese that I could trust. I didn’t look at
them as people anymore. They were simply the enemy.
Continued next week