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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 8
The Routine

The armed forces gave a whole new meaning to the term boring. It could be almost maddening. The little things that were absolutely essential each and every day didn’t take much thought. After you’ve cleaned a rifle or machine gun a hundred times in basic training, there was not much stimulation in doing it again. There was other gear to take care of, but it too had been serviced countless times before.

The surrounding area was much the same, particularly where I was stationed. Even when I moved from the interior to the coast, the effects of the change only lasted a day or so. No matter where the location, the routine stayed the same.

The warm, humid conditions were perfect for bugs of all kinds. Bugs like lights, and the searchlights were on all night long. I’m sure during my tour in Vietnam I saw every specie of insect in Southeast Asia. There was one huge red beetle that flew at the lights like a raging bull. When it hit it sounded like a golf gall hitting plywood. After the impact they would crawl along the fender of the Jeep like they owned it. We killed them by hitting them with the butt end of a bayonet. It was almost like cracking a wall nut.

Our day ended in mid to late morning. We never got to sleep until well after day break because we manned the search lights all night long, either on an out post or on the area perimeter. After day break the equipment had to be cleaned, covered, and serviced.

If we were lucky enough to be in An Hoa we’d head for the mess hall for breakfast before turning in. Considering that we were in the middle of no where, the food was pretty good, a real luxury compared to the C-rations that we lived on the rest of the time. It was incredible how good bacon and eggs could taste.

Sleep was different. Apparently my mind adjusted to my surroundings and conditions. If, for example the 105 battery that was adjacent to our tent, ran a fire mission after we turned in, I’d sleep through it. Keep in mind that 105 howitzers are noisier than any firecracker that you’ve ever heard. However, if someone walked into the tent, I’d be awake immediately. I guess the 105’s were my security blanket. The same was true in the field. Big bore stuff didn’t disturb me, but small arms fire had me on my feet in an instant. This was particularly true after I was wounded.

I was hit in the arm, back, and leg by shrapnel fragments. I never believed I could be killed until I saw my own blood spilled. That, more than anything else made me choose to let the dragon have his way.

We’d only get a few hours of sleep a day. At twenty-one I didn’t need much. Once out of the fart sack (sleeping bag) the daily routine started. I’d check with the guys to see what needed attention. There was often something that needed TLC, and the work was normally assigned to the guy who found it. I can’t remember anyone not reporting a problem to avoid work. But, as I mentioned before, I had a great crew.

One afternoon while we were stationed on Nong Son I woke a little early. As I crawled out of the bunker for some coffee and C-rations I saw the Marines in full combat gear in the trench lines that surrounded our position. The mortar batteries were fully manned and ready for action. There were F-4 Phantoms (fighter planes) and Hue gun ships (helicopters) overhead. One of the helicopters was painted red on the nose, and in the red paint were three white stars.

The whole scene was ridicules. Grunts (combat infantry and support troops) never acted that way in the field. As I stood there trying to figure it all out the red nosed Hue landed on our L.Z. (landing zone). A short guy, armed only with a .45 (military pistol) stepped out followed by a planeload of field grade officers. He walked past the mortar batteries and Marines in the trenches, directly to my position. There were three silver stars on his cap that matched the white stars on his helicopter. This was Lieutenant General Krulak, commander of Marine forces in the Pacific.

Unlike the Marines I wasn’t in combat gear. My shirttail was out, my helmet was lying on the seat of the jeep, and my rifle was leaning on the front tire.

“Afternoon sergeant” he said.

“Good afternoon sir” I didn’t salute. Saluting officers in the field was like hanging targets on their backs, telling any snipers in the area to shoot them first.

“How do you like the Marine Corps?” he asked with a smile.

“It’s definitely different than the Army” I said, and we both smiled.

“Let me take a look at your equipment”

“Certainly Sir” I said as I turned toward the back of the jeep.

“No, no” he said, “ they’ll take care of that.”

I stood in amazement as a colonel and major uncovered my searchlight and radio. As they did, the general asked very good questions about how effective we were at spotting targets, and how things were going from my point of view. He knew what to ask; and answering his questions was easy. He was a man who understood war. I liked him immediately even though I never, and I mean absolutely never, got along with officers.

He was one of the generals who put me in harms way. He left me with nothing to do but fight. But, I immediately respected him. Somehow I knew that he was asking me to do what he had done many times himself. I saw in his eyes that he respected me for doing a dirty job that he believed was necessary. He was a man who received respect because he earned it. I also saw in his eyes that he wanted to do more. He knew that we were limited by the politics of this dirty little war. The eyes of this honest man read like an open book.

My commanding officer came to the field a few weeks later. It was the first and only time he visited me on Nong Son. As he inspected my logbook he came to the note about a general inspection.

He said, “who came to visit?”

I said, “General Krulak.”

He asked with wide, nervous eyes, “was the section in shape for an inspection?”

I knew where this conversation was going, and loved every minute of it. I said, “he only saw me sir, the rest of the guys were asleep.”

His voice got higher as he said, “why were they asleep during an inspection?”

I said, “he didn’t let us know he was coming. He seamed like a nice guy. We talked for quite a while.”

He said, “were you ready for inspection?”

I said, “well sir, I did the best that I could, but ya gotta understand, I just got outta bed.”

He was speechless. The man was definitely different than First Sergeant Brown who always knew exactly what to say at a time like that. He wanted badly to chew my ass. He wanted to make me understand how important a general’s visit really was.

Maybe he read my eyes. If he did then he understood that I didn’t give a damn about generals or battery commanders. And, I definitely didn’t give a shit about what he thought was important. Maybe my eyes were as honest as the general’s were.

On a typical day I’d head for the command bunker as soon as my guys were lined out. I tried to collect as much detail as possible because “who was where” made a difference. For example, some guys were good at being in the right ambush position after dark and some weren’t. If we picked them up with the infrared lights in the wrong spot they could be considered targets.

Our searchlights were extremely powerful. When set to produce white light they could illuminate a wide area at great distances. When the infrared filter was rotated over the bulb the light was still powerful, but images couldn’t be seen without special, infrared sensitive binoculars. Everything appeared as green shadows. The detail wasn’t as good as it was with white light, but movement showed up very clearly.

We would pick up this movement when we switched for white light to infrared. White light caused anyone in the beam to freeze, and they wouldn’t move as long as they saw the light. When we switched to infrared it appeared to them that the light was off, and they would move again.

We actually opened fire on two of our guys one night because they were in the wrong place. We intentionally fired high because we were pretty sure it was them. It probably saved their lives. One of the ass holes was actually mad at me the next morning for lighting him up. I told him that the next time I’d just blow his ass away. Actually, I understood why they did what they did. A two man ambush after dark is a very dangerous way to spend an evening. The place they picked was safer than where they should have been.

I often found projects to brake the monotony. One that took more time than I’d have ever believed possible was teaching one of the guys to back a utility trailer. It’s a simple process that involves pushing, rather than pulling, a light weight, two wheel unit that turns very quickly. The trick is to chase the trailer with the jeep. If you want to back up straight, and the trailer begins to turn, you simply match the direction of the trailer. If it veers left, turn left, if right, turn right. In order to make it turn lift, steer right. Once it begins to turn in the desired direction, chase it in that direction so that it doesn’t jack knife. It’s very simple, but he just didn’t get it. We spent hours going over the same drill.

I honestly looked forward to our sessions with the trailer. As much as I griped about how much time it took, it was the high point of my day, kind of like picking on a little brother. It was OK for me to hassle him about his trailer skills, but heaven help anyone else that mentioned it.

Waylen Powel was the champion of the monotony breakers. The guy could find entertainment in nearly anything. We were doing a routine river crossing on our way to hill 300. As we waited for the rest of the unit to close up, a Vietnamese kid walked by with some papers in his hand. Waylen said something to him in a way that made the little guy stop immediately, and come over to talk. It was different than the China Beach crew. The kid wasn’t trying to hustle us. He wasn’t looking for anything at all. He just stopped to talk to Powel; and in no time there were five or six more gathered around.

The papers that he was carrying were part of his homework. All of the kids had examples of work that they had done. The penmanship was beautiful, and the work was done in three languages, Vietnamese, French, and English. They were especially proud of it for good reason. It was incredibly well done for youngsters who were no more than twelve or thirteen.

It was great seeing that kids could still be kids, even in a hellhole like Vietnam in the 60’s. Even there they managed to find reasons to smile. One of them packed a pet lizard around like a puppy dog. The damn thing didn’t do anything, but seemed to enjoy the kid’s company. The boy would hold it up by the tail, and the lizard would hang there, looking around like it was its favorite spot.

The little guy that I liked most was one who would come to see us at Namoa Bridge. He’d be there regularly doing what kids do when the weather is warm, and they have a chance to spend time by the river. I’d let my guard down, and allow myself the luxury of talking to him. He reminded me of me at that age when I’d find an excuse to sneak off, and hang out with the guys.

He was an independent kid, always alone; but, he never looked lonely. He wasn’t interested in what we were doing, and didn’t ask questions. He always had something on his mind. It might be fishing, the weather, or some animal he’d seen. We’d take a few minutes to talk about it, and he’d do most of the talking.

Those moments didn’t last long. When they were over it was back to the same old shit. The army has a procedure for everything. If you looked hard enough I’m sure that you could find one for wiping your ass. And, regimentation doesn’t come naturally to young men in their early twenties. My natural tendencies were toward “doing my own thing”. I was torn between that and being a twenty one-year old “crusty old bastard”. I chose being a crusty old bastard because I was responsible for other people’s lives.

We spent a lot of time on care and maintenance of weapons, particularly the new M-16’s. I cleaned and oiled mine daily. They had a terrible reputation for failure. The first models were very lightweight, and much less durable than the M-14’s that we’d trained with. During the rainy season I’d spend even more time on mine, breaking it down whenever I could.

The grunts (infantry type Marines) claimed that they never had one jam as long as they used Remington ammunition. I heard it from several guys in each of the platoons that we were with. It’s an example of one of the little things I paid close attention to during each day. My clips were always filled with Remingtons. I don’t know how much difference it really made, but my rifle never jammed.

Another part of the routine was “fan firing” our weapons every day. We’d fire one or two clips, eighteen rounds per clip. It was a way to keep the ammo. fresh and find any problems before nightfall. It also gave us a chance for target practice. The M-16 was different from most other military rifles. It was only 23 caliber instead of the usual 30. The rounds were very small which made it possible to carry much more ammunition. The rate of fire was high, so each unit had more firepower. But, the small, lightweight rounds were unstable. They would ricochet off almost anything. They were also less accurate at long range. So, I practiced on targets at three hundred yards. It was much tougher at that range than with the old M-14’s.

As maddening as the routine became, it was absolutely essential in the military. The machinery and weapons were extremely dangerous. An M-16 round had such high velocity that a single shot could take off a hand, or mangle a leg so that it could never be repaired. Grenades and Clamor mines could kill and cripple dozens at a time. And, artillery and aerial bombardment if dropped in the wrong place could kill hundreds. So, to make sure that all of this high powered stuff was handled correctly, the military said practice, practice, and more practice. And then, do it again. It was crude, but effective.

I kept a log of my sections activities. It included entries on condition of the equipment, a breakdown of nighttime operations, and reports on our daily routine. There was a detailed spreadsheet that showed what areas we covered with the lights, and what we saw in those areas. I included registration points that pinpointed important locations such as river crossings, trails, and areas where we’d seen movement after dark. Registration points were important to artillery units. They were spots that could be hit with concentrated fire at any time that it was needed. They could also be used as reference points to locate other targets.

The kind of activity that we saw was amazing. One classic example was the boats that would cruise down the river right under our noses. They’d come into view, slowly pass in front of us, and sail out of site. We were told that they were fishing boats, and we were ordered to leave them alone. I’ve done a little fishing; and it was always my practice to return to the same place where I’d started from when the trip was over. These guys never did. Gee, maybe they weren’t really fishing. What else could they be doing? You don’t suppose that THEY WERE HAULING SUPPLIES TO THE V.C. AND N.V.A. If no one else reads this, I hope it finds its way to the idiot that gave the order to leave the boats alone. I’m sure that the Vietnamese that manned the boats are still laughing about the stupid Americans on the hill. If they read this I want them to know that the guys on the hill weren’t stupid, but just following orders given by a jackass. They should also know about the countless times that they almost died, only because it shows how vulnerable people can be during a war. The dragon would have killed them, orders or not. A big part of my days and nights were spent keeping him in check. I’m still doing that.

Boats or not, the nights, like the days, went slowly. Imagine if you can in this day and age no ball parks, television, movies, nightclubs, restaurants, or public gathering places of any kind. The only relief was conversation, which in the service was called bull shitting. In its basic form, it was nothing more than the sound of another human voice. Even when that voice was telling a story that had been told a hundred times before, it still provided relief.

On the other end of the bullshit spectrum were the guys who make it an art form. They handled exaggerations, fabrications, and out right lies the way Da Vinci handled a paintbrush. They broke up the tension and boredom, and made the hours move by. The following is one of my favorite “bullshit gems”.

Maniac in the Morgue

This guy on the ship with us took a summer job in the morgue because there was nothing else available. He asked himself, how tough could it be? It’s not like anyone was going to give me a hard time. They’re all dead.

He was responsible for moving bodies on carts from place to place and cleaning up a little, pretty easy money. The only draw back was the guy he worked with. He’d been working in the morgue far too long, and his habits were unusual. For example, he saw no need for a refrigerator because his lunch stayed fresh in the refrigerated drawers with the bodies; and he didn’t have to worry about anyone stealing his pie.

One night “Mr. Lunch In The Drawer” took a new arrival and arranged his right arm, hand, and middle finger so that they were wedged tight against the top of the drawer with the middle finger extended. He then found our buddy, and asked him to check on the new arrival for proper identification.

A little after mid-night the poor guy opened the drawer just fast enough for the new arrival to flip him the bird. He said he didn’t remember going through the door, or hitting any of the steps on the way out. His first memory was of himself standing in the middle of the parking lot, looking in all direction, trying to make sure that the new arrival wasn’t following him.

The absolute best of the monotony breakers were the letters and packages from home. They made me believe that there would be an end to living in a hole and eating out of a can. They gave me a reason to let down my guard and think of better times and places. They allowed me to remember the people that I loved.

Even the packages that were damaged were great, one in particular comes to mind. My folks remembered that I was crazy about fresh tomatoes, and there were none better that those grown in the mid-west. So, they took a half dozen of their best, boxed them up in real pop corn for safety, and shipped them to me half way round the world.

When the package arrived it actually dripped a little. The box wasn’t square anymore; and when I squeezed it the drip became a stream. One of the guys suggested that we squeeze it into a canteen and save the juice. As much as I love tomato juice, I passed on that one. Instead, we buried what was left hoping for a new crop of our own.


Continued next week


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