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Old G.I.s and Sleeping Dragons

By Doug Francescon

Author Biography



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Copyright Doug Francescon 2004


In Honor of:

Waylen Powell

Joe McCurry

Arnold Palmer

And all the guys who left a piece of themselves in Vietnam


Chapter 7
Living in a Hole

Humans are as adaptable as any species We fit ourselves into our surroundings with chameleon like versatility. We find a way to survive under the harshest conditions, and can tolerate incredible hardship. Wild animals are given too much credit when compared with us. When it comes to survival, we're the champs.

We have risen to the top of the food chain in every area of the globe, and we inhabit its most remote corners. We even find a way to survive on and under the great oceans where we are at our greatest disadvantage.

We're undoubtedly the most intelligent of all creatures, but that alone doesn't fully explain our ability to cope. There are other factors that are much harder to identify and explain.

Much of the time my guys and I lived in bunkers. They were nothing more than holes in the ground with re-enforced roofs, covered with sandbags. They didn’t keep out the rain, cold, bugs, or the many creatures that called Vietnam their home. For a part of the time that Pete Torrones and I lived in one of these holes we were surprised that we weren’t bothered by mice, rats, or other creatures that like dark, damp places.

One day when Pete was coming out of our bunker, he knocked over a few of the sandbags that lined the entrance. The accident uncovered a Bamboo Viper that had been living with us the entire time we'd been on the hill. That was the reason we hadn't been bothered by the local wildlife.

The Bamboo Viper is one of the world's deadliest snakes. If one of us had been bitten we'd have died long before help arrived. Even with immediate care it's doubtful that we'd have survived. Living with this snake was like keeping a Cobra in the house, and allowing it to roam freely through out every room.

I have no idea how he avoided us or we him. Intelligence had nothing to do with it. We didn't even know he was there. We survived, but he didn't. Pete killed him with an e-tool (a small shovel).

Civilized man in much of the world has become used to basics such as hot and cold running water, electricity, heat, and plumbing. These are conveniences rather than necessities when humans are in the basic survival mode. We lived without them for our entire tour of duty, much the same way soldiers have throughout history.

We were provided some of the innovations of the twentieth century such as C-rations that we lived on while we were in the field. They’re individual packets of various canned delights like scrambled eggs, beef stew, and ham and lima beans (known to every G I as ham and mother fuckers). My all time favorites were the B-3 unit, a can of cookies that actually tasted like cookies, and a small tin of peanut butter which, when the oil was poured off, fell from the tin like a cookie. At one time long before we ate them they were actually food. Problem was they were canned over twenty years before they were given to us.

When I left the states I was a slightly overweight 235 pounds. My in shape weight was 225. When I returned from Vietnam I was 168. The Marines said I was lean and mean. Actually, I was closer to starving and desperate.

A few times while we were away from base camp, they actually brought us real food. The best of these meals was steak and ice cream which was packed in cooler type G.I. containers, and delivered by helicopter.

The ice cream was half melted, a kind of cold lumpy soup. I believe that one of the mess sergeants made it from scratch, God bless him. It was delicious, the best I’ve ever had. It was just plain old, half melted vanilla, served in a mess kit to guys who had been eating out of twenty-year-old cans for months.

The steaks were delivered raw, and we weren’t set up for a barbecue. But, there was no way that we were going to send them back. Someone found an old piece of galvanized roofing material that we laid over a small fire pit. As it heated up the zinc coating began to burn off producing toxic gas. This smoke is a real problem when galvanized metal is used to fabricate parts in manufacturing plants and on construction sites. But, apparently it didn’t effect barbecues because the steak, like the ice cream, was delicious.

For GI’s in the field, cleanliness wasn’t next to Godliness, it was next to impossible. When it wasn’t raining and muddy, it was usually hot and dusty. Because of the sweat, mud, and dust, clean cloths only lasted a few hours. And, once they were dirty, washing them was a problem. My laundry tools consisted of two five gallon cans of water, a garbage can, and some type of detergent (Cold Power worked the best). The washing process went like this:
Place three pairs of dirty jungle fatigues, socks, and underwear in the garbage can,
Add three gallons of water and a hand full of detergent (don’t use all of the first five gallons or there won’t be enough for rinsing),
Stir with a stick until the water looks like thin gravy,
Dump the gravy, and wring as much out of the cloths as possible,
Put them back into the garbage can, and add half of the remaining water,
Stir until more gravy forms,
Dump, wring, and rinse one more time,
Lay them over the Jeep to dry.

Showers were also tough because of no running water. Someone found a wing tank off a fighter that actually didn’t leak. They mounted it on a make shift wooden frame on the steep side of the hill where our outpost was located. We’d pour in five to ten gallons of water, wait for the sun to heat it up a little, and enjoy. It worked great until the spring monsoon washed the whole thing down the hillside. After that, we’d simply rinse off out of whatever would hold soap and water.

I only shaved when my beard became uncomfortable. Haircuts had to wait until I rotated back to base camp, and that could take months. Our longest stay in the bush was three months. By the end of that time we looked more like South American bandits than soldiers.

Continued next week


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