Saturday, May 7, 2011
What I Really Did In Vietnam -- Part 2
For all of us, our bodies had to adjust to the jet lag and the first day after arriving was pretty much uneventful as we slept that day into non-existence. The second day, we were marched over to the mess hall for morning breakfast.
We were paraded past bus loads of troops heading home. All very anxious to leave. Some were wild with anticipation. Some drunk or high after smoking too much jungle weed. But a few looked scared as though it were all a joke. In their minds, the plane crashed before it took off and betting on the body bag. Two or three were still wearing bandages like a red badge of courage.
But all of them every last one of them including the bus driver was very willing to let us know how much we were the “cherries”.
364 and counting, I thought. Just 364 days to go and I’ll be gone.
As we walked through the door of the mess hall I was met by a pleasant surprise. It was the first time in my life that I saw not just a Warrant Officer a CW4 and one that looked like he had been in for 40 years. He had whitish silver hair.
Since no one was telling us what was going to happen next, I walked up to him, looked him dead in the eyes and said, “When, Sir”.
After a few seconds, he spoke.
He said, “Tomorrow. You’ll go to Bien Hoa, M-80s and trip wires. Watch your back.”
“Thank you Sir.”
You start building fake friendships quickly so the kid from New Hampshire asked, “So, what was that all about?”
“Wanted to know when SERTS training starts and he told me we’re going tomorrow. He also said it won’t be here but at Bien Hoa. They’ll be waking us the next day with M-80s and to watch out for the trip wires.”
“So another do nothing day?”
“Actually two,” I said.
“Boring,” he countered.
“Perhaps, for you,” I argued, “I’m going flying. And if anyone asks where I am, I took a dump.”
Two hours after breakfast is was over at the refueling point waiting for an UH-IH “Slick”. One finally came in. This one had short timer written all over it.
You could tell the attitude of a short timer front seat every day of the week by his fast approach and skid sliding landing. So, he landing and the crew chief jumped out and started working on filling up the chopper with the straw sweet smell of JP4. I approached the right side of the helicopter and asked if I could hitch a ride.
I also noticed 21 with a circle around it. He nodded his head and I moved back away until the refueling was done.
The crew chief walked up to me, pulled up his visor and said, “He told me to tell you to salute him the next time.”
I walked up to the side of the helicopter where I was about to jump in and returned the salute I should have done previously. Got in, sat in the middle of the seat just behind the transmission bulkhead and buckled the seat belt around my waist.
The crew chief pushed up his mike and yelled, “The Captain wants to know if you need to get dropped back off here.”
“Tell the Captain, yes Sir. And thank you.”
The slick hovered a bit, backed out of the refueling point, turned and headed back the way it came.
All choppers have a story to tell. And this one was no different. Generally, they smell of JP4, hydraulic fluid and hot burnt charcoal. Some carry the smell of wounded soldiers. Others, the body odor smell of being scared shitless.
This one tingled the senses with a bit of all the above.
Moments later we were at 100 feet in a tight turn around an unsuspecting duck about to be target practice for the door gunner. Watching the rounds hit around the duck, I figured he was either a bad aim or missing the fowl was on purpose.
Either way, after 25 rounds were fired we flew away and headed for a rubber plantation landing zone.
There, the signs of a real war hit home. There was a C-130 on the side of the strip with the farthest wing partially burned off. Burnt metal doesn’t fly real well. Temp buildings talked of being overrun and their contents blown to kingdom com. It was a sobering tapestry of war stories.
Right now, the C-4 rations needed to be off loaded. I went to volunteer to help move the boxes but the crew chief motioned for me to stay put.
Five minutes later we were back in the air. The last part of my quick tour of Nam from the air brought us along a roadway where we followed a convoy of trucks ran into an ambush. We pulled pitch and climbed to a safe height. There was some quick scrambling for a terrain map.
The crew chief handed me a headset. And the pilot talked to me.
“These guys just came under attack. I’m going to call in some friendly air support. We have no business here and I have 21 days left. We need to get out of the way. We’re taking you back to your pickup point.”
I said “Yes, Sir. Thank you for letting me tag along, Sir.”
By the time we turned and moved out of the target zone, two F-4s came screaming past. And for some reason at that moment and at that time, I actually felt good about being in Vietnam.
In less than an hour, I was back where I started from. I walked away from the chopper, turn, went into a formal posture and saluted the officers. And as I watched them once again fly out the way they came in, I did a little keep him safe for 21 days prayer.
I looked at my watch, 4:30 pm. I thought, I have plenty of time before the 5pm march over to the Mess Hall.
New Hampshire was reading a comic book.
“Just in time for chow,” he said.
“Yep,” I agreed. “We’re having Roast Beef as a chaser for Malaria pill the size of the Empire State Building.”
“Remember what they said back in the states about sign for the pill and then not having to take it?
“Well they lied. You take the pill in front of them and then you sign your name.”
I shook my head. “I wonder what else they lied about.”
The rest of the night, the flight on a C-130 to Bien Hoa and the settling in for SERTS training was pretty uneventful. I looked for the locations where they would drop the M-80s, took a four hour snooze, and waited for them to rudely wake us up.
Day two wasn’t much better.
The funny thing about all of this -- looking back -- is, little did I know that when SERTS training moved up near Camp Evans that my future battalion would be doing what I was about to see from the ground on day two of the training program.
And on one of those days, I would be in the front seat of a Cobra taking pictures of the mini gun, 40 mm grenade launcher and rockets going down range.
That unit would be 4th Battalion, 77th Artillery (ARA). The images from the cockpit will be some of the best images I had ever taken in my life.
But right now, for the next three months, I would have to deal with A Company, 5th Transportation Battalion.