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Part I

   This is the story of my year in Vietnam. Actually it was eight months and eight days in 1968. I arrived there just before the Tet offensive broke out and left Vietnam on my birthday. It is also the story of the war itself, the many men I met and came to know and the effect of the war on those men.  Like all war stories, it is also about violence, courage, hope, fear, love, despair, and compassion. It is about young men fighting for life and living each moment to the fullest. It is the story of men caught between duty and the truth. In fact, all of what follows is true.

                                         The Letter

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 about Vietnam at a later date.

“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 Fort Dix New Jersey. It wasn't so much the strain and exhaustion of those "Forced Marches" but the ridiculous situation that concluded each march. As we would stand there exhausted, catching our breath the drill sergeants would bring to the front of the formation any stragglers. Anyone who fell out of the march or couldn't continue, for any reason, was paraded in front of us. After the instructors identified these men, we were told to do so many push-ups for each one of the men. Of course almost everyone grew to resent any of the men who were regularly in that group. I guess that was the idea. I, however, felt that it was not these men but the instructors who were forcing us to do the push-ups. Some of those stragglers would be harassed, some would pick up the pace and others just were washed out of basic altogether.  It seemed a bit heavy-handed to me. I always felt they could have used a bit more compassion in basic seeing that many of those men were destined for Vietnam and some of those men were not coming back. Naturally, no drill Sergeant ever asked my opinion of how I thought things should be run so they remained the same. I do remember the day at the "Dead Hand-Grenade Range". That was where you got to throw several grenades that had no explosive charge in them. You would aim for a stake in the ground about 45 feet away. The stake was in a square box about three feet on each side   Since, I had thrown footballs and baseballs for many years, I had a pretty good score. I put all five grenades in the box and hit the stake three times. The drill sergeant was extremely impressed and told me that I should carry hand grenades when and if I go to Vietnam. I'm sure though, that he knew I was probably going there anyhow. I replied by asking him how far away I could effectively shoot an M-16 rifle. He answered approximately three or four hundred yards. I then said I wasn't planning on letting the enemy get within hand grenade range. It seemed I was always mentally sparring with my instructors. There was, however, one instructor who stood out from the others. He was quiet and seldom spoke to any of us. One day another drill sergeant told us that one American soldier was worth ten of the enemy. Shortly after that comment, the quiet sergeant spoke up. He informed us that one of the enemy was probably worth ten of us. Then he added, “How do I know? I been”. Soon after that comment we learned that he was the only one of our instructors who had served in Vietnam and that he had been wounded in combat. I never forgot what he said that day.


The Last Leave - Christmas Time

I got to spend a few weeks at home before going to Vietnam. It was Christmas time and perhaps one of my best Christmas holidays. I remember that one day that winter unusually warm weather hit the Boston area. My friends and I decided to play a game of tackle football. I did my best and played even harder than usual. I was well aware that getting a broken leg or arm in that game would have meant a long delay in my assignment to Vietnam. I played like a man possessed - throwing my body recklessly at runners, and colliding with tacklers I would normally have eluded. It was no use, I guess God was watching over me that day. I never was very lucky.

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 Logan Airport. My mother and my sisters stayed behind.

The Phone Call

My last stop before going overseas was Fort Lewis Washington. I was duly impressed by the sight of Mt. Ranier since I had never seen a true mountain before. The night before I left there, I called home to say my final goodbyes. I mentioned to my father that Canada was just outside the main gate .In the blink of an eye, both my parents were on the phone trying to see if I had had a change of heart. They told me that if I went to Canada, they would send me some money. It was at that moment that I finally realized I was not going to war by myself. There was no way of telling how much anguish they would go through while I was away. “They also serve who stay at home and wait”. I was truly touched by my parents’ gesture but once more, confirmed that I would see this thing out. As I walked back to my barracks, a light snow was falling and I gazed over at the gate to the outside world, Canada and safety. I only entertained the idea briefly. The next day, I would get on the plane to Vietnam. I would roll the dice and gamble my life. The chances of coming back alive, I felt, were fifty-fifty or maybe slightly better in my favor. I was young and healthy and an incredibly fast runner. That had to be worth something in battle. Such is the folly of youth.

The Arrival

As I stepped from the plane in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam a blast of heat almost took my breath away. It was the hottest, wettest air I had ever felt. I wondered how we could fight in such weather. I was sent to a stationing area in Chu Lai before being assigned to my regular combat unit. There, I received my M-16. Rifle - a weapon I had never felt confidence in. It was late January 1968. I had arrived, as was my custom, at the wrong place at the wrong time, just in time. I remember the base at Chu Lai for its many diesel two and a half ton trucks called appropriately enough “Deuce and a Halfs”. The pungent black smoke they emitted melted into the humid Vietnamese air offending the senses. I was actually looking forward to getting out of there and to my field unit and into the clear air of the jungles and rice paddies.  Our barracks on the base were by the sea and not far from the ammo dump for the Air Forces’ bombs. The other soldiers and I agreed that there were hundreds of 500, 750 and 1000 Lb. bombs in that ammo dump. The only thing between our sleeping quarters and those bombs was a tall hill. We would soon find out if that hill was tall enough.

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 Human Wave Attack and Military Intelligence


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 South Vietnam and synchronized hundreds of similar attacks totally undetected by our intelligence agencies.  The Tet offensive was a total surprise and though it would eventually be described by the Military and the U.S. Government as a victory, it surely didn't seem like one to us. It was also described as somewhat of a sneak attack or cease-fire violation by General Westmoreland, our supreme commander. When I heard that, I had to wonder if he had ever heard of Pearl Harbor or Washington's Christmas day attack on the Hessians at Trenton New Jersey in 1776. The fact of the matter is this, as every infantryman knows- there are no holidays in war. I was now getting my first experience with the dubious workings of Military Intelligence. From that day forward, I took their reports with a grain of sand- no pun intended. As I departed the base shortly thereafter, I gazed at my handiwork- my sandbag bunker, and I knew it would serve my fellow soldiers very well in the future.



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 Duc Pho, South Vietnam in the I Corps area. At the time of my arrival, my platoon was guarding a bridge.

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 Custer of Vietnam. If that were going to be the case, I wanted to be Giovanni Martini, the Italian soldier who Custer had sent to get reinforcements and thus survived the battle of the Little Big Horn. After the lieutenant assigned me to my squad, I was pleased to meet some truly impressive young men. The squad leader - Sergeant David Fielding from Santa Barbara California, spoke fluent Spanish. One of his favorite tricks was to eavesdrop on the conversations of the Spanish-speaking soldiers who would often use that language when they preferred to keep their thoughts from their White or Black comrades. After a few embarrassing episodes, they learned to avoid David when gossiping. David was one of those guys you’ll occasionally meet in life who seems to have everything. He was smart, good-looking, funny and compassionate. I always felt that, of all his attributes, his compassion was most important to him. David was determined to get his squad through this war unscathed no matter how reckless the lieutenant or Company commander was. He was also determined to spare any and all innocent Vietnamese the horrors of this war. David was truly an exceptional young man. I was incredibly lucky to have ended up in his squad. There was another impressive young man in that squad too. His name was Jesse Palmer. He was a tall muscular black man from Houston, Texas. Carrying the machine gun was a natural job for him to get. Like David, he had a pleasant almost carefree attitude. Though I was getting known for my sense of humor and peculiar way of looking at the war and life, I could not help but be in awe of David and Jesse's pleasant and positive attitude. Over the next few months, I would come to know these two incredible young men as well as I have ever known anyone and that would be my privilege.



The First Ambush


One of the many dumb ideas the military had in Vietnam was the night ambush. This was a slight variation from the normal way we found the enemy - marching around the jungles and rice paddies ‘til we got shot at. In the night ambush, we would generally head out just before dusk and set up a so-called ambush by camping out near a well worn path or other probable enemy trail. One of the great problems with the war over there was that the higher ups never quite realized that it was an away game. In other words we were the visiting team. What I mean is, the enemy really knew the land and we, of course, being foreigners, did not. So it was, when David took our 12 man squad on our first ambush. We camped by a path and set out some claymore mines with trip wires. We then spent a restless evening very quietly by that path. You can imagine how trigger happy and neurotic twelve inexperienced soldiers can be on their first mission.  Unfortunately, some rodent or farm animal set off the trip wire of one of the claymore mines. The resulting explosion lit up the night and scared the hell out of everyone there. We were about to let loose with every weapon we had and inform any enemy soldier within miles as to our whereabouts, when David calmed us all down. By preventing us from firing into a night that, at that time, held no danger for us, he kept us from revealing our position and possibly facing a real attack from a human foe. We spent the rest of the night in a half sleep and returned safely to our Company in the morning. Another day, another lesson learned.



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 Patton as well as a Bowie knife strapped to his waist belt. It seemed pretty impressive to a rookie soldier but as time passed, we learned that such gestures were meaningless in the real word of combat. There would come a day when I developed a strong resentment of this man. Our Lieutenant, armed with his peculiar style of speech, engendered respect in some of the soldiers, suspicion in others and for the most part indifference in the rest of them. Vietnam was a bit different than many other wars America had been involved in up to that time. One significant difference was the one year assignment to combat (13 months for the Marines). That aspect of the war undermined the commitment of soldiers to ultimate victory. The idea of staying alive for that year and returning home safely, was a lot more appealing than risking your life in such a confusing conflict, I believe many of the men operated under this assumption. I know that I certainly did. For that year, I would be constantly reviewing the orders of my commanders, especially after the fiasco at Chu Lai during the Tet offensive. If I were to be killed there, I wanted the order I followed to my death to have some merit in logic.


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.


The Trinity - Now I Understand


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 got to Vietnam my religious convictions were few and weakly held. The concept of the Trinity did arise once more in Vietnam in another way though. In our infantry unit there were three distinct groups. One group was comprised of the White soldiers, one was made up of the Black soldiers and the third was the Spanish-speaking soldiers. Each group, at first, generally associated with others within that group. Of course in combat all such social nonsense ceased and we were all brothers. By my fourth or fifth month there, almost all racial and social barriers had been torn down. Still it amused me that for the first time in my life, I had an understanding of that confusing doctrine- The Holy Trinity. We had one unit but three distinct parts to it. God works in mysterious ways or so they say.  Prior to my time in the army, I had very little contact with Blacks or Hispanics my own age. I was prepared to learn from  them  and they  wanted to show their cultural pride by teaching me. As time passed, I would move easily from group to group, taking something from each and hopefully leaving something of value behind. Of course, in combat, you like to know as much about your fellow soldiers as you can.  They, in turn, want to know you. This is as inevitable as death and suffering in war. That is how the mixing of the three “Colors and Flavors” began in our Platoon. It continued for as long as I was there and well after I left. It was an invisible force drawing everyone in. It was irresistible and unstoppable. We would be drawn together into one entity. Three families making one. One Family, One Spirit, One Platoon -a Holy Trinity. This was one you could truly understand and believe in.  And we all believed.



The Infantryman and America


The life of an infantryman in Vietnam was not an easy one. You had to carry a pretty heavy backpack and trudge many miles in search of the enemy. The stifling heat and seasonal rains didn’t help either. Infantrymen, commonly called grunts are the heart and soul of any army.  Many would accurately call them the guts of an army. Often, the infantry is made up of the lower and middle classes (economically speaking of course) of a society.  Socially and economically of low and middle rank but morally and ethically of the highest class. The college deferment kept many more affluent young men out of the war. That was a point of contention throughout the conflict for many Americans. Like the war in Iraq today, very few sons of congressmen ever found themselves in harm's way. While it is true that war brings out the worst in some men, it also brings out the best in others. As I look back, thirty years later, I now know the true merit of the young men I served with. They were supposed to be expendable- the ones that the “Great Society" could spare. They proved to be the soul of the country- the men America could not afford to lose. As the days went by, I got to know so many of them. Poor White kids from the south, Black guys from the big cities, and Spanish speaking men from the southwest. I don’t think they themselves knew how important they were to the country or how their loss would impact our society. I know that so many of them would have made great fathers, teachers and role models after the lessons they had learned in Vietnam. Lessons they could have taught their children- the value of life, of compassion and of understanding and friendship. Values that easily transcend race, color, religion or politics. Unfortunately, politicians, weapons dealers, and some misguided military people decided to prolong that war. The price of that extension was paid by young men who had no say in the decision. Fortunately, many of the men who made it out of Vietnam spoke up when they returned. They, along with the students, activists, and even some of the older generation forced our government to see the light. If it weren’t for such civil disobedience, there’s no telling how many more men we would have lost. So it turns out that the soldier became the pacifist and helped to stop war. I know for a fact that there is no such thing as a holy war but I believe, on a rare occasion, there may be a just war. I also believe it is the duty of true soldiers to refuse to participate in unjust wars- wars of territorial expansion, conquest, exploitation or holy wars. A true soldier would not fight in such wars. They desecrate those values he holds most dear- life, compassion, understanding, tolerance, freedom and liberty. Of course, one of the greatest tragedies of Vietnam was that so many young soldiers had to die before America came to her senses.  Today, America is a better country.  It is, because of those fifty-nine thousand young men who never came home. Fifty-nine thousand sacrifices, fifty-nine thousand heroes, fifty-nine thousand reasons not to go to war.




The Shootout


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.  Hollywood, with the help of actors like John Wayne and Sylvester Stallone, would like you to think that men stand up and shoot at each other with rifles in duels and battles. You will note that neither of those courageous actors has ever been in combat. What really happens is this - whoever shoots first gets to stand up should they chose to do so. The people being shot at get to jump on the ground and wish they were moles or they can run.  It has been duly noted that screaming can increase your speed when running from bullets. Only in the movies do you remain standing and fire back at someone who is shooting from fifteen to twenty bullets at you.  Since I was doing the shooting they would be doing the running. It was a very wise choice on their part for as my rounds landed all about them, they made an escape that Houdini would have been proud of. I noticed one of my tracer rounds go between the legs of one lucky enemy. They ran with the speed of an Olympic sprinter though I must admit had the situation been reversed, I could have outdistanced them. The weapons that they were carrying did not slow them down one bit. Unlike in the movies, you don’t always chase fleeing soldiers. Should one stop after a safe distance, he may turn the tables on you.  If he has been hit, that scenario is a definite possibility.  My fellow soldiers emerged from their huts and we cautiously followed the trail of the three men. We found no blood trail, which was a relief to me. As I had said before, I was hoping to do my year without killing anyone. Later on when the lieutenant learned of my attitude, he expressed a desire to have me court-martialed for deliberately missing the enemy soldiers. That never got off the ground because soldiers can’t be punished for missing the enemy when shooting at them. It turns out that we are paid to shoot at the enemy not necessarily to hit them. Good marksmen and poor marksmen get paid the same. Still, I felt a definite sense of relief in knowing that those three men got to see another day. I’m sure that later that night they thanked their lucky stars they had survived the shoot-out with the lightening fast American. After all, I had fired eighteen bullets and they had not gotten off one shot.                                        


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.


The Taking of the Mountain


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 Vietnam. I persuaded the men to take that path. We all made it back to our base of operations and the Lieutenant and the other wounded were evacuated.  After he was gone, I realized that my hatred for him had saved my life. If I had remained under that tree, I might have been killed. Nevertheless, I was glad that no one was killed and hoped that the lieutenant would make it home O.K. There would no longer be a need to carry that hatred around. That was a good thing. What was bad, was that tomorrow we would be going up that mountain again. As for my brother, he was still back in the good old U.S.A. and no one else had heard any voices from the path we took. People who are into such things, believe my brother had somehow tried to save me by sending his voice across the ocean. People believe in a lot of crazy things. I felt that if my brother really wanted to save me, he would have done a better job of preventing me from getting on the plane to Vietnam in the first place. That night, our brilliant commanders thought it would be a great idea to camp out at the foot of the mountain. Of the many sleepless nights I spent in Vietnam, that was one of the most frightening. The enemy above us was tough, smart, and ready to kick ass and there we were right under his feet.  Why we were not attacked that night I’ll never know.   

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 Vietnam. As time passed however, like many others, I began to doubt his sincerity. We all came to the conclusion that he would not risk his life either in Vietnam or America fighting for any cause. After the battle, he would be threatened with a Court Martial for cowardice in the face of the enemy. He would argue that I stayed behind also, though the fact was that, I was ordered to stay back. Nevertheless, at that time, I realized that I was alone on that hill while the battle raged above me. At any moment retreating enemy soldiers could come charging down that hill and there I was with no one to help me but this reluctant comrade. After about an hour, the men returned and we all went back up to the top.  It would be my first time seeing large numbers of dead enemy soldiers. Actually, I counted only about twenty or so and wondered if some had managed to retreat down the many paths on the side of the mountain.  One disheartening fact was that it had taken four companies of soldiers, with artillery, jets and heavy weapons about a week to kick a handful of enemy troops off of that hill. The heroism of our adversary was duly noted by us as well as the courage of our own boys. As I walked around the top of the hill, I noticed deceased enemy soldiers with their personal items such as wallets alongside their bodies. I had to examine one wallet and was startled to see a photo of this soldier with his family. It was heart-breaking. He was dead and I knew of his death long before his family. It might be weeks or months before they would know. That reality hit me hard. Such is the tragedy and irony of war. Your enemy may mourn your passing before your family. Maybe this was the soldier who had fired on our jets. Maybe he was the crazed hero of the battle. Like many heroes before him, he would never touch his medals. As I looked at the photo of his family, I couldn't help imagining my own. It seemed I was always doing that- seeing my loved ones in the faces of the Vietnamese. I was not a religious man but I did say a prayer for him and his family.

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 Vietnam, I don’t believe our platoon spent more than two weeks in Base Camp. Our Base Camp was situated near the town of Duc Pho and we considered it a very safe place to be. On our first visit there we got a lesson in the dubious character of some of the support troops who inhabited rear areas. We had been told, while out in the field, that a rocket had hit the wooden building at the base camp where all of our personal belongings had been stored. Naturally, when we finally got back there, we wanted to see that building or what remained of it. We were very surprised to find it in near perfect condition. Clerks from the base camp showed us a hole in the roof of the building that was no more than seven inches in diameter. There was no sign of an explosion or fire that was supposed to have burned and destroyed our personal belongings. The hole in the roof, we knew, had been made by someone with a tool  such as a saw and not by any enemy rocket. The end result was that the personal items of the combat soldiers had been stolen by some low-life rear area troops. From that day on, we never trusted those guys in the base camp. It was during our first stay at the camp that I learned another character flaw of some of those rear area troops. I had gone down to the base bar to have a cold drink. Sitting at the bar, drinking ginger ale, I noticed the door to the bar open briefly. I thought I saw a fellow soldier from my platoon stick his head in the doorway speak to someone and then leave. When I asked the base camp soldier next to me what the man at the door wanted, he gave me a truly stupid reply. He said, “He wants to know if anyone wanted to play nigger handball”. I asked incredulously what that was. He answered, “You know basketball”. I said, “See you later I feel like playing some basketball”. I ran up the main road of the camp to catch up to the guys who were going to play.  I called to them and they stopped and waited for me. It was only after we arrived at the basketball court that I noticed I was the only white guy there. Nobody seemed to care and being a fairly good player, I was more than ready to show my stuff. Though the hoop was a little high and crooked and the floor was actually dirt, we had a great time. I knew that there were many other white guys from my unit who would have loved to have been there had they known about the game. My being the only one there did not go unnoticed by my black comrades. I think from that day on, they treated me as a friend as well as a fellow soldier. It was just one of many basketball games that I have played in my life but because of the location and circumstances, I remember it clearly to this day. Though we hated to leave the safety of the base camp, we never really missed those devious characters that stayed there. We never got reimbursed for the loss of our personal belongings and as we headed out into the rice paddies and jungles and danger, we were happy to be among true friends and fellow soldiers.



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 time in Vietnam. Over the next few months, we would become the target of many revenge minded enemy soldiers and I’m sure the friends and family of that poor woman. Innocent men would now pay for the sins of an evil one. That’s just how it is in war.


The Lost Poncho - Time Passes


One day I lost my poncho. A poncho was a long plastic cape, which, in Vietnam, doubled as a tent. It kept you dry in the rainy climate and could be combined with many other ponchos to make even larger tents.  That afternoon we made camp to wait out an unusually heavy rain. It just so happened that losing your poncho was a serious offense and I did not want the officers to know I had lost mine. I went to one of the large makeshift tents put up by some of the white soldiers. They told me there wasn’t enough room for me and it was indeed crowded. I moved on to a tent occupied by my Hispanic comrades and once again was told it was already too crowded. The next tent was occupied solely by black soldiers and it was also full. They however, made room for me. I don’t know whether it was because of the basketball game at the base camp or the incident with the Vietnamese man and the black soldier on the path but for some reason they decided to admit me. A few minutes later a couple of my fellow soldiers from the Hispanic and the “White” tents showed up looking for me. They had now found room for me. I politely refused and remained in the “Black” tent.  The singing was much better there anyhow. I got to hear all the Mo-town music I wanted to. They sang everything from the Temptations to James Brown and it was all good.  I felt like a very special guest.

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 America, no one seemed to be getting along. Here in the middle of a man made hell, men of different races, colors and religions were finding true friendship and brotherhood.



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 Vietnam. As soon as I opened the box and everyone saw the football, we were ready to play. While some soldiers secured a perimeter, we chose up sides. As it turned out one team was composed of white guys and the other was black. By this time, almost all racial tensions had ceased but this was football and that’s important. No one wanted to be thought of as an inadequate football player. So it was that the game took on added importance. I remember most distinctly, Jesse Palmer, our muscular machine gunner lofting long passes of over fifty yards to the fastest guy I had ever tried to cover- Lafayette James. Jesse was from Houston and Lafayette was from Winter Haven Florida, which was, ironically the then, spring time home of the Boston Red Sox. The game was hard fought but clean and became just one more vehicle for knocking down the barriers between us.  I remember my amazement at Jesse’s passing skills I had never seen a black quarterback ‘til that day so I had just assumed that there weren‘t any good ones. Of course the truth was that most major college teams did not recruit black players and if they did it was certainly not to play quarterback. They were similarly surprised by my speed and quickness. They had never seen a white guy run so fast. I remember Steve Schwenn, a white kid from Washington state and the ferocity of his blocks. The black kids knew he was not hitting so hard out of anger but out of respect. The game turned out to be a tie - 12 TO 12. It was fitting, and no one really wanted to break that tie. There in that open field in Vietnam or wherever we were, we had for a brief moment in time stopped the madness of war. The enemy, I felt, was almost always aware of our position and strength. I had learned that in the few months or so I had been there. I was pretty sure that somewhere out in the distant jungle he had been watching us. He was probably wondering what manner of game we were playing. Why was it so fast and so rough? Why did we end up on the ground so often and why we did not seem to mind?  He must have felt we were as enigmatic as we thought he was. There was a clue for him in that game. He might have learned something about us by observing the contest. You see football is not about knocking people down. It's about getting up.  That's what Americans are about-getting back up. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese and Germans had learned that the hard way. The enemy should have seen that resilience of character in our American game of football. You can keep your soccer where the slightest physical contact evokes a dramatic, wailing collapse to the ground. It is usually followed by the player clutching at his leg as if he'd been shot. As soon as the official awards him the ball, the fellow makes an immediate and miraculous recovery. In football, you don't go down unless two or three hundred pounds of humanity are draped all over your body. Then you get up and go back for more. Football is an American game. Soccer is a foreign game. The Viet-cong might have seen it that day had they looked hard enough. Yes, you might beat us one day. You might win a skirmish or battle here and there. You may even win this war but you cannot defeat us. We will always get up. We will return. The enemy might have looked down and seen the black soldiers playing against the white ones and mistakenly assumed a division in the ranks. They should have looked closely at the faces of those same soldiers after the game. They would have seen the smiles on Jesse's, Lafayette's  and the others men's faces. They might have also seen the renewed admiration that we had for each other.  Each team wanted to win and prove its superiority but neither team could. We could only, once more, prove our equality. Most of all, we had proven the most important thing- that we would get back up. We would always get back up. Like a Phoenix we would rise again from the ashes. That is why we are never beaten. We just run out of time.

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 “Battle” from high above. I was surprised to find out that at that height figures on the ground were still visible. I doubt that even an S.A.M. (missile) could have brought that chopper down. Now I knew why the few enemy soldiers had kept us delayed for so long. We had been waiting on orders from our Brigade Commander. Still, the most alarming thing was that there on his hip he had strapped two most unusual weapons. He had, a la General Patton, what appeared to be a pearl or ivory handled revolver. On the other side he had a large Jim Bowie style hunting knife. Two weapons which could only be used by someone who planned to be in close contact with the enemy.  I seriously doubt that at the altitude he was flying his chopper, he would ever find use for those weapons. I guess he was planning on closing with the enemy at some future date. It truly seemed peculiar to me and I was talked out of asking him about those weapons by my friends. It was my first experience with our commander and it was not a positive one. Soon I would see how negative an experience with him could be.




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.


God’s On Our Side


It wasn’t more than a few months after arriving in Vietnam that I began to believe that we were making a big mistake there. We seemed to be getting nowhere and the enemy seemed extremely determined. Our allies the South Vietnamese appeared to be corrupt and their soldiers unmotivated. Occasionally, we would be marching toward the sound of gunfire while they would be marching away from it. When we’d pass on the street or trail, we’d wonder what the hell was up with them. Of course, if any of us had the least bit of knowledge of the history of Vietnam, we would have known what was wrong.  So many of them were uncommitted to their Government, their generals and their cause. It was plain to see even with inexperienced eyes. As soon as I came to the conclusion that we could be fighting for a lost cause, I knew I should make my feelings known. It wasn’t long after I came to that conclusion that I found myself in the chapel at our base camp. There I met with a priest who held a certain and contrary belief. He told me that he knew that God was on our side in this fight against the Vietnamese Communists. I told him I was not sure that all of the many Vietnamese out there shooting at us were communists. I added that I thought that they probably believed they were freedom fighters more than communists or atheists. He of course, appeared frustrated with me and my questions as well as my observations. To this day, I remember walking away from that chapel with a feeling of exasperation. I knew that the priest was wondering if he should report me to my superiors. That thought did not trouble me though. What could they do to me-send me to Vietnam?   



Remembering Home


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 America. It was an appropriate name for her because we were now certainly in the “Unreal World”. As we recalled these stories, we would remind ourselves to tell any one that might be of interest to our fellow soldiers that evening. I had a few favorite ones. Most of them involved my father because he was, I felt, an interesting person and I really missed him. The story many guys liked to hear was about the two Re-Po men. It went like this: At about the age of thirteen, I arrived home from school to find two large, well dressed but rather shady characters in my kitchen.  They both were probably at least six feet tall and about two hundred pounds. My father was only five-feet seven and perhaps a hundred and fifty. The two men were standing near my mother who was seated at the kitchen table.  They appeared to be asking her to sign some piece of paper. My dad was leaning on the stove with his arms folded. The stove was about five or six feet from the table. He was to my right and the shady guys were maybe ten feet to my front and slightly to the left. I’m giving you this information because distance and size changes in a peculiar fashion on occasion. This was one of those occasions. I looked at my father and for the first time in my life I saw pure unrestrained hatred in his eyes. Whoever these men were, they had brought out a side of my father I had never seen. I now know what those men were- repossession men. The men people and companies will often send out to retake property or get money owed them. Some regard these re-po men as a necessary evil. Some regard these men as nothing less than police officers. I now, like my father then, consider them to be one the lowest forms of human life. I could be wrong but that is not the point of the story. As the re-po men appeared to be making progress with their conversation with my mother, my dad rudely and deliberately told them, “You’re not taking that car”. I assumed he was referring to our family car. The unwanted guests replied that they might have to. “No you are not”, was my father’s immediate answer. And with his words I caught a glimpse of a look in his eyes that I had never seen until that day. His eyes and his whole face were filled with such contempt and hatred, I feared he might blow up that very second. I began to wonder if a fight was going to break out. I wondered how he at a hundred and fifty pounds was planning on taking out these two giants. I, myself only offered about a hundred and twenty pounds more. You could have cut the atmosphere in that room with a knife. The re-po men only briefly glanced into my father’s eyes before coming to the conclusion that discretion is always the better part of valor. They, without further communication with my mother, made their way quietly to the back door. As they gave my father a wide berth, I noticed that they somehow seemed much smaller. I moved to open the door but the ferocious stare shot at me by my father said don’t you dare open that door for them. I think he fully expected those two rats to crawl between the bottom of the door and the threshold. While it is true that the men seemed to be shrinking more and more as they skulked past my father, I knew that they would need to open the door. I stepped aside for them and they passed by me silently. I was reminded of a quote my mother used whenever any of her nine children threatened to run away or leave home- “Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out” I was very tempted to say it but I didn’t think any levity at all would have been appreciated by my father.  I was sure of that because he was in close pursuit of the two on their way out. I stepped to the kitchen window to see if anything would develop in the driveway. I watched as the re-po men made their escape without even a glance at our Ford Galaxie. They quickly grabbed their tails, hopped into their car and sped away. To this day, I believe that they thought my father was going to jump them in the driveway. We never saw them or their breed ever again at our home. When I would tell this story to my fellow soldiers, they would always get a kick out of it. Many of them, as I have said before, were Blacks, Hispanics and poor white kids. They were all familiar with these characters and held a similar low regard for them.



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 Salem cigarettes. We were all familiar with his shadowy figure in the darkness of the kitchen whenever any one of us would come home late. All that was visible was the light from the tip of his cigarette and his profile if the window shade behind him was up. He was just doing what he seemed to like most-thinking. Tonight he had something really unusual to dwell on.  As I sat on the toilet, reading the paper, I heard my brother Dan yelling from downstairs, “Hey Adam, Is that what chased you outside in the backyard?” Adam was up from his bed in a flash. He charged into the bathroom, reached over me as I yelled, “Hey I’m in here”. Adam was not interested in decorum or manners at this time. He threw up the blinds beside me to expose a view of the backyard. There, to our dual horror and amazement, hovered a blinking red and white light ten feet off the ground. He leaped from the window to the door and jumped from the second floor to the first without, I think, touching any of the twelve or thirteen steps. As he leaped he screamed, ”They’re here to get me”. At this point, I was frightened out of my mind. I stood up and stumbled to the door while trying to pull up my pants. All manner of thoughts were racing through my mind. Are they here just for Adam? Are they gonna take us all? Are they gonna kill us? Why us? Why me?

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.  In Vietnam, there were poisonous ones as well as huge pythons that squeeze the life out of animals before they swallow them whole. And that is the real reason so many people hate snakes- their disgusting eating habits. It's bad enough dying from the excruciating toxins in their poison or being suffocated but then to be subjected to their gross table manners. That's just too much. People never needed the fable of the Garden of Eden to hate snakes. We would have hated them anyway. In Vietnam there was the "Braided Krait" snake that we were told no one had ever survived the bite of. That was until one had bitten an American soldier who was lucky enough to be near a helicopter. It seems they just made it to the hospital in time to get the anti-venom into him. One day while on bridge duty I saw a huge black snake swimming rapidly across a large puddle between the bunkers. I immediately sprayed him with rounds from my M-16. As the water splashed about him he sprinted into the underbrush. I have always considered myself a compassionate man but I honestly did not sympathize with that animal. I remembered what my father had said about men who hunt animals for sport. He said that sport hunters kill out of jealously, stupidity or callousness. They are jealous of the animal's beauty. They are too stupid to see there is no challenge in shooting an animal with a gun or arrow or they lack the minimum amount of empathy to be considered human. That is why you'll never see a smart or handsome or compassionate hunter he explained.  I guess you could say that hunters were right up there with re-po men as far as he was concerned. I believed him entirely but I forgot to ask him about killing snakes. A few months after the episode at the bridge, I along with a fellow soldier was sitting on a rice paddie dike eating our C-Rations. All of a sudden right there in front of us appeared a two and a half foot snake. I did not know if it was poisonous or if it was indeed a braided krait. I couldn't shoot him because he was too close and the bullets might have ricocheted off the ground and struck us. I had to take the M-16 by the butt and pound the barrel down onto his head. Luckily my first swing stunned him enough that he couldn't strike back. A few more smashing blows and he proceeded to snake heaven. I have to say this though, I did feel sorry for him. Still if I were absolutely forced to kill any animal it would be a snake or a leech. I had never even seen a leech 'til I arrived in Vietnam. Leeches are dark, often black, blood-sucking snake like creatures. They ranged in size from an inch or two to over a foot. They have suckers on each end of their bodies and use both for locomotion. They, I think, can only use one end to suck your blood.  When you pass by them they try to attach themselves to your clothing then slowly make their way to your skin. There, they somehow numb the site of the incision so you don't feel it. They then commence to suck your blood 'til they are absolutely engorged. Filled to the gills they then drop off. Our most useful deterrent to these obnoxious critters was the insect repellent that was issued to us. It came in clear plastic bottles about four or five inches tall. We used to attach them to the side of our helmets for ease of access. One spray from this repellent would quickly incapacitate the leech. I think the best part about the repellent was that had the leech taken any of your blood he was abruptly forced to regurgitate it. There was something about that that seemed to please many of my fellow soldiers and I have to say I felt the same way. Anyhow one day as we were marching along, we passed through a stream. As we walked through the stream, I observed the leeches swimming toward the men in front of me. I was sure that as I left that stream, there would be at least one leech on me. Of course I saw three of them clinging to my shirt as we emerged from the water. Since I was carrying a lot of equipment that day I asked a fellow soldier to brush them off. He did. I thought that I saw only two leeches fall to the ground. Perhaps I was mistaken, I thought, and proceeded on our march. I forgot the incident until that evening when we stopped to make camp. After I dropped all of my gear, took a big gulp of water, and loosened my clothing for better ventilation I felt something strange. Upon closer inspection I discovered, to my horror, that a leech had attached itself to a very personal part of my anatomy. I pulled out my insect repellent. Immediately and without hesitation or thought, I did what any one would do. I sprayed that disgusting bastard. He quickly fell to the ground vomiting the blood from my most precious organ. I was immensely relieved to say the least. I thought nothing of it once the hilarious laughter of my comrades died down. That was until about fifteen minutes later when the numbness set in. To my horror, the repellent was now killing the nerves of my organ and I could no longer feel it. In shock I rose up from the ground and hysterically informed my friends to their continued enjoyment. Things are always funnier when they happen to someone else. I was now beyond reason as the numbness spread.  After thirty minutes no sense of touch remained in my groin and everything else in life lost its meaning or importance. I feared I would never be able to have children or enjoy sex or live a normal life in the way a twenty-year-old man might. I began to jump around and shake hoping that somehow it would bring back feeling. My compatriots thought it was all just hilarious. It got so bad that I actually struck myself there in a vain attempt to at least experience pain in that part of my body. It was all in vain. I remained numb. For the next hour or so I lay incapacitated, on the ground. I wondered how this could have happened. Why me? I groaned. As I lay there, I remembered that I had once entertained the thought of becoming a priest. Was this God's distorted way of recruiting me? I certainly hoped not. I thought of a lot of things lying there. The war had somehow lost its urgency. To say the least, I was a little distraught. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the feeling, ever so slowly, returned to my organ. With eternal gratitude, I stood up and relieved myself just to make sure it was fully functional. I thanked God with all of my heart and soul. Sufficiently traumatized for that day, I cautiously lay down to sleep. I would never again use the repellant on any sensitive or precious body parts.

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.

 Part II


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We Regret To Inform You
By John Olivere
Copyright © 2007