This is the story of my year in
I returned home one day in 1967 to find my father holding an open letter. He handed it to me with a disappointed look on his face. The letter was addressed to me and was a draft notification. I was a bit upset myself since I had planned on returning to college in the fall. That would have to wait. My father’s concern stemmed from the fact that he had lost his older brother to the Second World War. He was worried about losing a son in another war - a war that he had serious reservations about. His older brother Walter had been a door-gunner on a B-24 bomber. He was killed in a freak accident when he was struck by one of the propellers of the plane. He had died the next day having never faced the enemy. His brother’s death seemed to have had a serious and long lasting effect on my father. For many years Walter's picture had a prominent place on the mantle over the fire place in our home. One day it just wasn't there. No one seemed to know where it went and no one really spoke of the picture for many years. On occasion, my father would speak glowingly of his older brother's intelligence and good looks. It seemed, however, that speaking of Walter only reminded him of his great loss and its tragic effect on my father. Now I was off to the Army and I truly did not realize how hard it would be on him as well as me.
Basic Training - the First Night
My first night in the Army was, for me, a very lonely experience. As a
boy, I had always detested going away to camps. I missed my family and
my home. Those over-night camps invariably found me crying in my bunk
the first evening. It was only when I was too old to go away to camps
that I lost my fear of them. The first night in the Army, though, was
quite different. This was serious business. I was not a child whose
worries were mostly unfounded. I was now a man whose fears were very
real and based on some hard facts. I was a soldier in war time with
all the reservations that soldiers have had since the beginning of
warfare. Will I be wounded? If I am, will it be serious? Will I come
home? All of these thoughts raced through my mind as I lay in my bunk.
One of the gates out of the Army Base was only a few blocks from my
barracks. I could easily walk out that gate and be on my way as a free
man. Of course to do so in war time was desertion and a serious
offense. I fought the loneliness and doubts of my first night and
resolved to make it through the training. I would make my decision
“How do I Know? I been”
Basic training is, as
we all now know it - Angry and hostile Drill Sergeants constantly
informing you of your insignificance and stupidity while threatening
you with all manner of physical and mental abuse. It is an educator’s
nightmare but for some peculiar reason the Army believes it is a
system with merit. One thing that really bothered me about basic
training was those long marches in the hot August days at
The Last Leave - Christmas Time
I got to spend a few
weeks at home before going to
The last night before leaving home, I spent with a young lady I had recently met. She was pretty and sensitive and must have asked me out because I had planned to spend that time with my family. She was very concerned about my leaving for the war even though we had just met a few months earlier. We called it an early night and I wondered if her concern was a bad omen. I was beginning to think that I would be one of those young man who died in a war and people struggled to remember and who left little impression on anyone’s memory.
When I returned home,
most everyone had gone to sleep. I wished I had spent that evening
with my family. I went up to bed and wondered as I lie there. Would
this be my last night in my home? The next day my father and most of
my brothers drove me in to
The Phone Call
My last stop before
going overseas was Fort Lewis Washington. I was duly impressed by the
As I stepped from the
The Tet Offensive
When l lay down in my cot that night, I had no idea that my world was about to change forever. I would learn firsthand what war was all about. I would feel a new and terrible fear. I would be frightened and excited at the same time. I would even laugh out of total ignorance and then realize I had taken a gamble with my life where the odds were not as good as I had hoped.
It was dark out when
the first explosions occurred. We were under a mortar and rocket
attack by Viet-cong and North Vietnamese forces. The thirty or so
other rookie soldiers in the barracks stumbled into the dark night
outside. Rockets lit up the sky as we all jumped into a large ditch
beside the barracks. Confusion reigned supreme as we heard explosions
all around us. It seemed that most of the explosions were taking place
on the other side of our adjoining hill. Everyone in that ditch was
confused and frightened though some hid their fear better than others.
The explosions continued and I remembered I only had three bullets. I
thought how dumb that was.
A soldier from the wealthiest country in the world only had three
bullets. Such is one of the many ironies of war. From this day
forward, I would have access to as much weaponry as I needed. For now
though, I had just those three bullets. After about an hour of
the rocket and mortar attack, an event occurred that would
shake the foundations of our confidence as well as it would shake the
ground beneath us. The enemy had a target rich environment that night
and no target was richer than the ammo dump on the other side of the
hill. Eventually they hit it and an explosion then took place that lit
up the whole night sky. As we looked up, a shock wave ran across that
sky and sent a shiver up my back. Up to that point, I had been joking
around to lighten the mood in that ditch. I don’t know whether my
humor was an attempt to hide my fear or just my reaction to the
madness of the events taking place. After the huge explosion, I
terminated my weak attempts at levity. Somehow an immense mushroom
cloud was forming from the explosion and the sight of that cloud
sobered everyone in that hole. I actually wondered if we had dropped
the big one. We then began
to hear soft whooshing sounds from the sky, though in the darkness, we
could see nothing. The whooshing sounds were always followed by heavy
thumping sounds. Being rookie soldiers we did not know how to put
those two sounds together. Ignorance is bliss, for the next morning we
discovered the source of those mysterious noises. It was shrapnel from
the explosions of those many bombs in the ammo dump. After rising up
into the night sky they were falling back down to earth in huge jagged
chunks. Had they struck any of us, we would have been killed instantly
and it wouldn’t have been pretty.
The hill was just tall enough to shield us from the tremendous
explosion. Had it not been there, we might all have been decapitated.
Fortunately for us, shortly after they hit the ammo dump, the attack
ceased. When we returned to our barracks, I noticed that a beam from
the ceiling had fallen on my cot. I had to sleep on the floor, though
we all slept very lightly for the remainder of that night.
The next morning
brought the sobering realization that we were indeed in a war. Our
commanding officers informed us that we could expect a human wave
attack sometime that evening. They had gotten the word from Army
intelligence. As soon as I heard those words, I commenced to digging
my first sand bag bunker. The job of procuring more ammunition and
weaponry fell on my fellow soldiers. There has been a lot of
speculation as to how much time and energy, I spent on that bunker. I
will admit that every time I got tired I remembered the phrase, “Human
wave attack”. There I was
alone on the beach at Chu Lai, filling sandbags and stacking them.
Filling and stacking, pausing only for a brief drink or bite of food.
It wasn’t ‘til the end of the day that I felt satisfied that my bunker
was ready for the pending assault. When my fellow soldiers returned,
they were more than happy with the fruits of my labor. It has been
rumored that today that sandbag bunker houses several Vietnamese
families I will admit that it probably could have withstood a direct
hit from anything short of a nuclear bomb. It was at least four
sandbags deep on all sides and two or three sandbags high on the roof.
The size of a small vacation cottage, we had about twenty soldiers in
it that night. We all
waited nervously for the coming onslaught, wondering if that would be
our last night alive. As you might expect, there was no human wave
attack and hardly a peep out of the enemy. Intelligence reports had
failed us again. It seemed that the North Vietnamese and Viet-cong had
moved tons of military equipment and thousands of men all around
My Field Company and My First Lieutenant
I was assigned to
serve with B Company, First Battalion of the 20th Infantry
of the 11th Light Infantry Brigade in the Americal
Division. That’s just one more way the brass has of confusing their
soldiers. I’m sure it’s even more confusing to civilians and I guess
that’s the whole idea. They were based at
My first meeting with
my Lieutenant was a bit strange. He talked with a funny slur that was
half John Wayne and half Elmer Fudd. Since neither had ever been in
combat, I was a little unnerved by that first meeting. He seemed all
right but I sensed an over-abundance of bravado in him that I hoped my
fellow soldiers and I would not have to back up. As time passed, I
began to fear that he might be imagining himself to be the Colonel
The First Ambush
One of the many dumb
ideas the military had in
The Calm Before The Storm
The first few months
of patrolling the area around Duc Pho were rather uneventful. The
enemy was, as always, ever elusive. We did not get into any large or
serious fire fights. What we did was acclimate our selves to our
weaponry, strategies and surroundings as well as get acquainted with
our fellow soldiers and commanders. The time spent at our base camp
was almost always pleasant as it was a relatively secure area
Unfortunately, we would not be spending much time there. It wouldn’t
be long before we’d be spending long weeks out in the field humping
the hills, rice paddies and jungles in a vain attempt to corner and
defeat our tenacious adversary. We never really got to know our
Company commander very well. Our brigade commander, Colonel Henderson,
was known to wear a pearl handled revolver in the tradition of General
Charge - The First Assault
We had been humping the hills and paddies for weeks without any contact. It seemed the Viet Cong were just leading us on another wild goose chase. We stopped to rest momentarily when I heard the sound of gunfire and explosions in the distance. The call came to drop the backpacks and move forward. Maybe it was the exhilaration of first combat or the ignorance thereof. Maybe it was the weeks of hopelessly chasing the enemy. Maybe it was the thought of going to war and never meeting your foe. Maybe it was fear or folly or anger or frustration. Whatever it was, it carried me and my fellow soldiers in a reckless, cheering exuberant charge through the underbrush. We ran with total disregard for our own safety in a blind charge. We would finally close with our foe. We would meet and defeat him. We were, after all, American soldiers and we never lost. Onward we ran, through the underbrush and into the clearing of a hill above the enemy. We charged down the hill with no care for safety, I was carried away myself. I felt the sheer joy of the charge. Like the men around me, armed to the teeth with the latest and most fearsome weaponry yet developed. We were unbeatable. We were invincible. I felt momentary sympathy for the enemy beneath us. No telling how many would be meeting their maker today. As we roared down the hill and into the enemy’s camp yelling and firing our M-16s, we made a startling discovery. There was no return fire. The enemy was gone. All that was left were haunting reminders that they had been there. Abandoned bunkers, a few weapons, a smoldering fire and the knowledge that in the jungle around us they could be watching. Watching and waiting to make their own charge. This would be a familiar and repeated scenario over the next few months. We would have to get used to it. This was an away game and we were the unwelcome visiting team. It would also be my last enthusiastic charge at the ghost we called “Charlie”.
The Great Terrible Shot
I normally carried an M-16 on patrol but one day I was given an M-79 Grenade launcher. This was a mildly effective weapon that shot a small grenade round for a few hundred yards. The explosive round was not considered by us to be a very effective way of causing harm or death. It was a means, however, of firing at targets that were hidden behind a hill or mound. That day we were on another march through the rice paddies when the Captain noticed a small group of Vietnamese hurrying away from us. He called me to the front and told me to fire around in their vicinity to stop their retreat. I was a bit nervous since I had never really fired the grenade launcher much before that day. I tried to steady my hands as I fired the M-79 aiming at a spot about sixty yards in front of the Vietnamese. I nearly collapsed from shock when the grenade round exploded about fifteen feet in front of them bringing them all to a screeching halt. I had almost hit them. To my amazement, everyone was cheering and congratulating me on my accuracy and marksmanship. I was shaking in my boots. The Captain said, “Hell of a shot soldier”. I nodded in assent and walked away still trembling. When we arrived at the now stationary Vietnamese we discovered to our shock it was just a family of six complete with children that I had nearly wounded. I never again fired at a target I was not sure of.
As a young boy, going
to Catholic school, I was taught the many doctrines of my faith. The
one most complicated was the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. As I
understood it, there was one God but he had three separate parts- The
Father, The Son and the Holy Ghost. They kept repeating that phrase-
“One God but three parts”.
Each part was another separate identity. I could never seem to grasp
that concept. I just couldn’t see how one person could be three and
then still one. When I proposed the theory to my father he said, I
think in a humorous vain, that it was like harlequin ice cream.
Chocolate, strawberry and vanilla. When you first buy it there are
three separate and distinct flavors and colors. When you mix them up
they blend into one flavor and one color. Of course my father was not
a religious man. A priest once told us that if we didn’t believe in
the Trinity, we just didn’t have the gift of faith. Since I didn’t
want to admit that I lacked the gift of faith that everyone else had,
I decided never to reveal to the nuns or priests my continued
difficulty with the concept.
As I grew older, I realized that it was simply a feat of mental
gymnastics my church professed. It was not much different than many
other beliefs proposed by any number of other faiths. By the time I
The life of an
One day while we were
taking a break from our morning trek, I made the mistake of sitting
with my back to the door.
All the men in the platoon were resting and eating inside the straw
huts that the Vietnamese called their houses. We would often seek
refuge inside these straw huts while the peasants either sat with us
or went about their daily chores. The door to these huts was actually
more of an opening. In the heat of that land any source of ventilation
was preferable to a closed door. As it happened, I was sitting there
with my back to the opening, eating with a few other soldiers. I
noticed the face of the man directly across from me grow pale. He
tried to speak but only stuttered. The noises he emitted I could not
understand. I did come to the realization that something outside was
frightening him but that he was totally unable to communicate what it
was. Reluctantly, I
stepped out the doorway. I emerged into the small fenceless yard that
many Vietnamese had in front of their huts.
I stared intensely into the terrain in front of me but could
not see any reason for alarm. To alert my fellow soldiers to the
possibility of danger, I softly called to them. Turning to the
adjacent huts I said, “Someone’s out there” though I was not yet
convinced that anyone was. The moment I spoke, three enemy soldiers
appeared from the undergrowth about twenty-five yards away. They were
each separated by about ten or fifteen feet and were now clearly
visible to me. It would be a contest of speed and I had one important
advantage- my gun was already up and my finger was on the trigger. I
would have to say my abject fear was also to my advantage. Without
hesitation and with no malice, I opened up on them. It was customary
to have twenty bullets in each M-16 magazine. We had learned that it
was better to just put eighteen bullets in so that the spring inside
the magazine did not wear down and thus not have sufficient force to
push the bullets up into the rifle barrel. It was also customary to
have a tracer round, which left a trail in the air, between every five
or six rounds. That way
you could see where your bullets were going.
Ever the cautious one, I had a tracer every four rounds. I
wanted to know exactly where my bullets were going as soon as I could.
The Old Man on The Path
On another occasion, after our morning march, we were resting by a small path. As we ate and regained our strength, I noticed a black soldier on the path. He appeared to be stopping the Vietnamese peasants as they came down the path. I didn’t know the soldier well, but did know that he was in our platoon. It appeared, to me, that he was taking something from the peasants after he stopped them. Some of the Vietnamese seemed to be disturbed by his behavior. I walked over to see what was up. To my dismay, I saw that he was taking small amounts of money from them. At once, I began to question him on his activity. He was surprised and angry at me for my unwanted concern. We began to argue as other soldiers took notice of our confrontation. First some more black soldiers gathered near, then some white ones. We both were well acquainted with the men now gathering around us, but only mildly acquainted with each other. I had fully expected the black soldiers to investigate the dispute, thinking one of their own was being harassed. I was surprised to see so many white comrades coming to my defense. I guess both groups wanted to show their solidarity. At that time, some blacks and whites were still suspicious of each other. I felt that this was a result of ignorance as well as the racial prejudice of both sides. I was not really concerned with the hatred or prejudices of either group at the time. I was only concerned with the poor, frightened Vietnamese man between my black adversary and me. When the soldier finally admitted to me that he was indeed taking money from the people he was stopping, I said that he should give it back. Tension began to mount as he realized that I was serious. The group of soldiers around us began to swell to about twenty or so. Many of them were only beginning to understand what our dispute was about. The black soldier said, “What are these people to you? They’re just Vietnamese”. I replied that they were human beings and deserved our respect. He was unwilling to part with his money but I was not relenting. His fellow black soldiers probably were wondering if they would be drawn into a fight in defense of a thief. I knew that that gave them second thoughts. I put it as simply as I could to him. I said, “I’m no better than this Vietnamese man and you’re no better than me. That makes us all about the same”. My father had once told me that there is no honor among thieves but my words somehow reached the black soldier and he returned the money to the peasant. Slowly, the crowd dispersed. I think many were relieved at not being drawn into a fight with fellow soldiers of any color. It appeared that I had also won over some of the black soldiers. The fact was, that many years ago, I had been taught the stupidity of racism and I truly had no time for the morons who engaged in it. To me, there were never three or four distinct races but simply one - the Human Race. It could though, I believed, be divided into two distinct groups- those who care and those who don’t.
One day we found ourselves marching through an open valley when I noticed a rather large hill to our front. I supposed, by its height, that it was in that gray area between a mountain and a hill. You might call it a hill until you had to climb it. Then of course, it would be a mountain. Well, I had no way of knowing how much of a mountain it was going to be. This mountain would be the source of pain and suffering I could not imagine. We got a hint of things to come when we noticed an American F-4 Phantom jet diving down on that mountain. It fired its cannons and dropped some bombs on top of it, shaking the valley below. I felt the soil beneath me vibrate and couldn’t believe anyone could have survived that onslaught. To my horror and amazement, I saw tracers of enemy bullets immediately shooting back up toward the jet. A soldier on the top of that mountain was so courageous or foolish that he had quickly jumped out of his foxhole to return fire while the ground beneath him was still shaking. I figured he was either crazy or wanted to die a hero. It was going to be our unpleasant task to go up that “Hill” and kick him off. Such is the life of an infantryman. We all noticed that at least four companies were gathering to take the mountain. While we were waiting in the valley and assembling more troops, we noticed three American soldiers emerge from the jungle. They had the frightened and far away stare of men who had barely survived death and were still not sure they were truly alive. From what we could gather from their garbled words, they had left their unit to get water. While returning, they heard gunfire. They were horrified to see their outfit overrun as they watched from a distance. We were the first American troops they had seen since that terrible day. Though they were now safe among over two hundred American soldiers, they still had that faraway, frightened look on their faces. We would soon find out why.
Mother's Day and the First Assault
It was Mother’s Day
when we made our first climb up that “Hill”. I was near the front of
our platoon when we stopped to rest about half way up. I sat down
beneath a lone tree, which had a few leaves on it for limited shade.
Moments later, the Lieutenant, his radio man and a few other men sat
beside me in the sparse shade of that tree. By this time, he and I
were not really speaking anymore due to our mutual distrust. I stood
up and walked away from the only shelter for over a hundred yards and
sat in the boiling sun.
The sun, to me, was not as oppressive as the lieutenant.
It was only a few seconds before two mortar rounds rocked that
tree and blew dirt into my face. I rolled over to see the lieutenant
and most of his men wounded. We all realized that we were in a bad
spot and quickly gathered up the wounded men and retreated down the
hill. Most of the hill was devoid of foliage from artillery, bombs,
Agent Orange or a combination of the three. We made good time down the
hill ‘til we came to the bottom. There, as usual, we found dense
underbrush. Two narrow paths were only slightly visible. From one, I
distinctly heard my younger brother Dan calling me. “Johnny come this
way”. I thought that he too had been drafted and was now in
By the time we were
ready to climb that hill again, our new lieutenant had arrived. He
seemed to be a bright and capable guy and was willing to listen to his
men. It wouldn’t take him
long to win over the soldiers under his command. He would prove
himself to be a very capable leader. The day we made our second
attempt at the hill, our new lieutenant stopped us within a few
hundred yards of the top. He ordered everyone to take off their packs
and leave them behind. We would be charging the summit carrying only
our weapons and ammunition. Then, to my surprise, he told me to stay
back with the packs. He never explained why he chose me but I felt
extreme relief at not being ordered up that hill. We all knew that the
crazy Vietnamese soldier who had fired back at the F-4 Phantom jet as
it pulled out of its bombing run was probably still up there waiting
for us. No one relished the idea of going up there and telling him he
had to get off of our hill. As they charged up the mountain gunfire
erupted. I felt safe back with the gear. Another soldier had refused
to go up the hill and he remained behind with me. He was a big strong
fellow but his comrades had begun to lose respect for him because they
didn’t believe he could be counted on in a battle. He was always
saying that he had no quarrel with the Vietnamese and that he would do
his fighting when he got home. I was one of the few soldiers who
initially understood his reluctance to fight there in
A few days later, we left that hill. I concluded that it was a hill coming down but indeed it was a mountain going up.
Back At Base Camp
During the eight
months I served in
The War Criminal - Our Vietnamese Advisor
When you wage war in
a foreign land, you often need an interpreter or advisor who speaks
both your language and that of the indigenous people. Unfortunately,
for us, our Vietnamese advisor was perhaps the most immoral man I have
ever known. He would torture prisoners, rape women and participate in
any other war crime if we did not keep an eye on him.
He wasn’t with us very long before we began to dislike him with
a passion. One day, an
officer told me to help him interrogate a prisoner. I was told to hold
the prisoner while the advisor asked him questions.
I was holding the prisoner when the advisor tied a bandana
around his face, covering his mouth. The next thing I knew, he was
pouring water down the prisoner’s throat and he began to gag.
Immediately, I stood up and let go of the struggling prisoner.
The Vietnamese advisor looked up at me incredulously. I glared back at
him in disgusted anger.
The prisoner, now free, continued to gasp for air. I told the officer,
I would not participate in the torture of a prisoner.
He excused me while the advisor and I exchanged hostile
glances. I walked away but the interrogation continued with the aid of
another soldier. I knew that if this man were allowed to run amuck
through the villages we passed and among the Vietnamese peasants and
prisoners, we encountered, we could have a serious problem. For most
of six months, he indeed was allowed free reign in our Company.
It was not far from our home base of Duc Pho, that the advisor
crossed the line of torture and rape and became a murderer. I was
sitting with a few of my squad members resting, as our Company
searched a village for weapons and Viet-cong. The relative calm of
that day was broken by the sound of a gunshot close by.
The noise came from the spot where the advisor was yelling at a
Vietnamese woman. Our worst fears were realized when we saw that he
had killed her. He had killed her because she did not have an answer
for one of his stupid questions. Many of us were enraged.
We threatened to kill the advisor. The officers were caught in
the middle of the mad scene. Their men were going to kill a supposed
fellow soldier for the murder of a supposed enemy.
They managed to calm us down, though I know a few of us were
now planning to “Frag” the advisor at the first opportunity.
Somehow the confrontation was brought to a tenuous stalemate
and the advisor was spared for the time. We all knew that his days
were now numbered but the damage had been done. Our Company had
harbored this war-criminal Vietnamese advisor for many months. We had
not taken the appropriate steps to control him. He had been allowed to
engage in the most heinous activities a soldier could engage in though
we had never, ever, considered him to be a true soldier. Because the
other Vietnamese, as well as the enemy, were probably aware of his
cruelty and barbarism, he was a marked man. Because he was one of our
Company, we were now marked men. I’ll always believe that the high
rate of casualties our Company took, was a direct result of our
tolerating this war-criminal in our midst.
It was a pure case of guilt by association. Since those
unfortunate times, I have always held that silence is, indeed,
consent. After that tragic day, we saw a lot less of that callous man
but his evil deeds remained with us. They followed us like demons we
could not exorcize and wounds that would not heal.
We now headed, unknowingly, into the most dangerous part of our
The Lost Poncho - Time Passes
One day I lost my
poncho. A poncho was a long plastic cape, which, in
As the weeks passed,
the men of our platoon became closer. This has been a curiosity of war
that has taken place for centuries. It is only natural for men who are
faced with a common enemy to do so.
It is especially true if that common enemy is trying to kill
you. All kinds of barriers
between us were breaking down. The white southerners were socializing
with black soldiers. The Hispanics were fraternizing with the whites.
Everyone was exchanging ideas, music, food, likes and dislikes. It was
a beautiful thing to watch. At home in
Mail Call - The Football Game
Mail Call has been an
important and enjoyable part of military life since the earliest days
of warfare. Hearing from home, family and friends is a tremendous
relief for combat soldiers. Happy is the soldier who receives mail and
forlorn is the one who doesn’t. I was lucky because I was always
getting mail. When you have eight brothers and sisters, somebody is
sure to have gotten the assignment of writing you that week. I would
often get packages loaded with soda, candy and other items my parents
felt I might enjoy. One day while we were in the field, I received a
box with an unusual content - a football. At that time, we were
encamped in a wide open area about the size of several football
fields. For once, the land was completely dry and flat. We had gotten
there by helicopter. It had taken us so long to fly to that spot that
some of us wondered if we were still in
I wasn’t allowed to keep that football out in the field and it was sent back to our base camp. There it was surely stolen by one of those base camp pseudo-soldiers who had taken our personal valuables in that imagined rocket attack. It had served its purpose for us, anyhow. It had brought our platoon together. Steve, Jesse, Lafayette and I often remembered that game, the fun and especially the joy in having stopped the war, if only briefly, for some good old American football.
General Patton and Me
Another day, as we walked through this
long valley, we were shot at by a few Viet-Cong. We had over a hundred
soldiers scattered in a long single file line through that valley.
It took us awhile to determine the location and severity of the
incoming fire. As it turned out there couldn’t have been more than two
or three of them but due to our scattered positions, we could not
bring a large amount of return fire down on them. We simply lay down
in place for about an hour or so while small groups of us attempted to
suppress the enemy’s occasional and ineffective fire. As I lay
casually on my back gazing up into the sky with little fear of getting
hurt, I noticed a tiny dot high above.
It was a puzzle to me. Was it a jet miles up in the air? Was it
an enemy craft? Was it a U.F.O. perhaps?
While I was wondering, the enemy sniping ceased and we began to
sit and stand up. As things got back to normal and each platoon began
to reassemble, I noticed that strange dot in the sky growing larger. I
was determined to find out just what it was and I would truly be
surprised when I did. The dot descended more and I began to make out
the shape. It was a helicopter. I had never known that a helicopter
could achieve such heights. It took almost a half hour to finally
touch down. Out stepped our Brigade Commander and I use the term
commander in its weakest sense. He was Lt. Colonel Henderson. It was
at this time I became aware of our severe handicap when confronting
the enemy. As it turned out, he had been directing the “
Not long after that day, we were passing by a rather large river and as usual we had been marching for quite a few miles. We were drenched in sweat and long overdue for a break. We were allowed to rest and some of us decided to jump in that river. As we swam in the fast moving water, I remembered that I had once heard that if a river’s water is moving it couldn’t be polluted. I was so hot and the swim was so exhilarating that I got carried away and must not have spit the river water out of my mouth. This was a big mistake. Within a few hours, I came down with a horrible case of dysentery. The most memorable symptoms of this disease are simultaneous diarrhea and vomiting. Words cannot describe the level of suffering one goes through with this ailment. I, and a few other soldiers, were forced to march several miles the next day to be picked up by helicopter. You can’t appreciate how difficult it is to march and vomit and relieve yourself at the same time. I was ecstatic when I arrived at the hospital and found out that the doctors not only knew what I had, but also had a cure for it. Of course the cure was not fast acting and I was in the hospital for about a week. For a few days, I couldn’t eat anything but then my appetite returned in a peculiar way. At first, I couldn’t even look at food. Then, gradually I began to long for a big meal. One day I went to the mess hall and loaded a tray with all kinds of delicious treats. Strangely, when I sat down to eat, I couldn’t even touch the food I had so ceremoniously assembled. I simply sat there staring at my overloaded tray of food. I was so alarmed I went straight to the doctor. He reassured me that I would soon be eating and a few days later I was gorging myself at the mess hall. Unfortunately, that meant I had to return to the field and combat. No time was wasted in flying back to my platoon.
The Dark Clouds of Dishonor
When I returned, I found my platoon had joined up with the companies in our Battalion on a remote darkly clouded hill. Something seemed ominous and disturbing about that hill. As I waited to rejoin my platoon, I sat near the Company Commanders. They seemed to be troubled and on edge. I had arrived by helicopter along with supplies. Many boxes of C-Rations had been stacked there at the command post and they had to be divided between the companies. Before they could be dispersed someone had to count them all. I watched, in amazement, as a few officers attempted to accurately determine the number of boxes. They had been stacked about twelve high about six deep and four wide. I couldn’t believe my eyes it appeared that these officers were going to count each box one at a time. I had to interrupt them. I told them to multiply the height of the stack by the width and then the depth and they would have their count. For some reason they refused to believe me and continued their addition. Exasperated at their stubbornness
I did the multiplication myself. I told them twelve times six is seventy-two and four times seventy-two is two hundred and eighty-eight. Now add the three boxes left on top and you have your count. They still refused to accept my number. It was only after another fifteen or so minutes that they finally relented. I just walked away to my platoon once more dubious about our leaders. I was looking forward to seeing Jesse, David, Lafayette and the rest of the guys. They were happy to see me but seemed somewhat troubled. I soon learned that they had recently been involved in a mission as a blocking unit. One of the other companies had entered a village as our guys set up outside to block the retreat of any enemy soldiers. Unfortunately, someone had given an order to kill everyone in the village. Somehow that order was taken literally by a few soldiers and a massacre ensued. The men in our platoon, though they had not shot anyone, were terribly upset and troubled. Everyone had a look of shame and anger on their face. I was glad to be back with my friends but I hurt for them. I knew what honorable young men they were and how troubling their experience had been. Dark clouds were still swirling around that ominous hill and I wondered if we would ever escape our own personal hell. I would learn years later that the village was named My-Lai.
Last Stop at the Base Camp
On our last stay at the base camp at Duc Pho, I had a rather unusual confrontation. We were resting in our barracks when I was "attacked" by a fellow soldier. The barracks were about a hundred feet long by around thirty-five feet wide. Along each wall there were about ten cots and there was a narrow path down the middle of the building. I was standing by my cot when I noticed José, a Spanish-speaking soldier and a loose cannon if ever there was one, getting agitated. He was about five feet four or five and had a serious small man's complex. He was suspected of dabbling in drugs and was notorious for sleeping on guard duty. He was not very popular even with his fellow Spanish-speaking comrades. Anyhow. I caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye as he reached for his M-16. He began hurling threats at me as he took possession of his gun. I immediately leaped over my cot, grabbed his rifle and pinned him to his cot. As we struggled for control of his gun, I noticed that the business end of the M-16 was pointed down the barracks to my left. A group of ten to twelve fellow soldiers were huddled together there. At first they were amused by our confrontation but now that the rifle was pointed in their direction, they were getting very concerned. As I was wrestling with José for the gun, the barrel was moving up and down on his chest. The group of soldiers to my left was likewise moving or rather jumping from one side of the barracks to the other. Each man in the group was pushing and pulling comrades in a desperate attempt to get to the rear of the crowd while still remaining out of the direction of the gun barrel. It was kind of funny. It almost looked like a Three Stooges scene as they tripped and stumbled over each other while at the same time remaining somewhat connected to the group. I actually remember how humorous it seemed at the time. As they began screaming at us, I realized that I really should take the gun from José. I gave a hard tug and took the M-16 from him. I hoped that would be the end of it but sure enough José then grabbed his bayonet. Once again, I leaped over the cot and disarmed him. For some reason, he now appeared to calm down. Shortly after this confrontation, I left the barracks. As I was leaving, I noticed José taking a beating from his fellow Spanish-speaking soldiers. I think they were embarrassed by the fact that he had lost his rifle and his knife to a man who didn't have the decency to beat him up. I immediately felt sorry for him. I couldn't see beating up such a small man even though he had threatened me with his gun. The fact was that I never felt in danger throughout the whole confrontation.
It wasn’t more than a
few months after arriving in
As I had said before,
our days were often filled with long tedious marches through the rice
paddies and jungles in a vain attempt to find the enemy. While we
walked, we’d often think of home and remember many interesting events
and incidents from our past lives back in the “Real World”. The “Real
World” was what we now called
The Day The Aliens Came For My Brother
The most unusual
story I told my comrades was the one about my brother and the aliens.
My family had a custom of sitting around the kitchen table at night
and talking into the late hours. Though any and almost all subjects
were open for discussion, I believe my dad’s favorite was that of
intelligent life somewhere in the universe. He was sure it was up
there just as much as he was positive it wasn’t down here. Anyhow, one
night, my brother Adam stormed into the kitchen with a terrified look
on his face. He proceeded to tell us that he and a friend had been
followed by a spaceship of some kind. It seemed that a flying saucer
had followed their car all the way home. We could see by Adam’s face
that he was not kidding. Evidently something in the sky had truly
scared him and his friend. The look in his eyes told us he was being
totally honest with us. For the next couple of hours, all conversation
was of aliens, flying saucers and abductions. All of these topics were
of supreme interest to my dad. Eventually, we were all talked out and
my brother Adam went to his room, my brother Dan went out, I went
upstairs to the bathroom and my father stayed in the kitchen. There,
he did what he had done for many years and would continue to do for
many more years. He sat alone in the dark smoking
I fell down the stairway hitting every stair that my brother had skipped. I landed in a heap at the bottom of the steps still struggling to get my pants on. I had to get them on. I was not going into space without my pants. Everyone knows that it’s very cold in outer space. I looked over to my left and saw my dad and Adam alternately pushing and pulling on the back door. It seemed my father was ready and willing to meet the aliens but my brother was certainly dubious. My father said, “Let go of the door I want to see them”. Adam’s reply was more subjective and less scientific, “No they want to take me”. I watched in confusion and fear as the two continued their epic battle for control of the door. My vote was with my brother and safety. Let them take another family. My dad was thinking of the opportunity of a lifetime. He wanted out, he wanted to see the lights and he wanted it now. I was almost totally hypnotized by their frantic struggle but something caught my eye to my right. There in the kitchen stood my younger brother Dan without a trace of fear or trepidation befitting the moment. As a matter of fact he was just then raising his hand to his mouth in laughter. I thought this is not right. Finally, my father got out the back door. No one dared follow him. In a few moments, that seemed like hours, he returned to the house holding a broom and an automotive hazard light. Our friendly family flying saucer. By now Dan had broken into unbridled laughter. He was the culprit. After hearing Adam’s frightful tale, he had gone down the street to the neighbor’s house and retrieved the blinking hazard light and tied it to a broom and that to a barrel in our backyard. This was our spaceship. My heart began to slow down just as Adam bolted after Dan who was making his getaway out the front door. I believe that chase lasted as long as the one by Adam’s flying saucer. Slowly, I brought myself down from the frightening experience. I observed my father who, though terribly disappointed at his lost opportunity at space travel, was nevertheless proud of Dan’s creativity Adam was never again followed by strange lights in the night sky. Dan was henceforth suspect in any peculiar or inexplicable events around our house. I was totally relieved to remain on earth and my father continued his lifelong search for intelligent life somewhere in the universe.
Dad Puts Out the Fire
As I have said before, my family often sat around the kitchen after meals talking about many things. One time during a cold spell, several of us were sitting around the kitchen table. My mother was leaning against the stove with the door open so heat from the stove would circulate through the room. My father was seated at the table. While we were talking, my mother let out a scream and began to shake her dress. Her dress had caught fire and she was hysterical. I, along with my siblings, was frozen by the sight of our mother on fire. Just then, my father leaped past all of us and grabbed my mother and twisted her around. He then quickly put out the fire with his bare hands simply by clapping them together on her dress. He had extinguished the flames before anyone else had even moved from their seat. My mother hadn't even been burnt by the flames that had destroyed most of the lower back of her dress. Like many married people, my parents had their fair share of arguments and difficulties but for the next few weeks things were pretty peaceful around the Olivere household. I was a bit disappointed with the fact that I hadn't even moved an inch during my mother's moment of need. My father had quickly risen from his chair, passed by several of his kids and put out the fire before I had even thought of what to do. I never told this to my fellow soldiers since I did not want them thinking that I might freeze in any dangerous situation. I was reminded of this incident in my family's kitchen on our first helicopter assault. It was relatively early in our time in country and I was looking forward to my first helicopter ride. We formed up in a large open field waiting for the choppers to arrive. Soon, about twenty of them descended to pick us up. They looked so graceful as they slowly dropped to the ground. We hopped in and sat by the door openings with our legs hanging out. It was exhilarating when the helicopters slowly rose from the ground and leaned forward. To our surprise, it was almost impossible to fall out of the chopper for as it leaned to the left or right, you were held fast to it. Most of the guys thought it was centrifugal force that kept us from falling out. I wasn't sure if it was that force along with gravity or some other unnamed power that kept us put. Anyhow, we remained seated throughout the flight though the chopper twisted and turned in the sky. As I looked out over the beautiful land below, I felt perfectly at peace with the world. I loved flying and often dreamt of flying myself simply by waving my arms and slowly flapping them like a bird might. It's the same kind of dream that many other people also have. I briefly allowed myself the luxury of enjoying the view before I returned to present time and spoke to the door-gunner. I enquired as to what would be the procedure when the helicopter landed. He quickly replied, "We ain't landing this chopper". At that point, I realized that they were going to hover over the landing zone as we jumped off. His reply was also an answer to the next obvious question-“Is the L.Z. hot?” I answered the question myself. It could be. As I did, I turned to David who had the solution to every problem or dilemma. He had heard my question and gave me this piece of advice, which I retain to this very day. He said, “Hit the ground running". As soon as that chopper stopped and hovered over the L.Z, I was out the door and on the ground and running. The leap was only a few feet and did not slow me down one bit. Fortunately the L.Z. was not hot and we soon gathered up and moved out. Like that day in my kitchen, I was beginning to learn to take immediate action without hesitation. As my father had showed me and David had told me- don't hesitate- hit the ground running.
Snakes, Leeches and Other Parasites
Some of the most
unpleasant animals we would encounter in the field were snakes,
leaches and mosquitoes. Now, officially, snakes are not considered
parasites. In my mind, however they’re just as distasteful.
I have to say that mosquitoes though, were our most persistent pests. In the open fields of rice paddies, we could avoid them but in the jungles or in the evening they ruled. I don’t remember how many nights I would cover every exposed part of my skin with the insect repellent except my eyelids only to wake up from the noise of a mosquito buzzing there. There’s something mildly disturbing about crushing a mosquito only to see your own blood splatter out of the insect and onto you. Still the fact remains that those tiny pests kill more people each year than snakes and leeches combined.