A Three-Part Account of My Experience
PART II: Hello Vietnam, I Really Must Be Going
At the completion of Advanced Infantry Training, three things were apparent. One, we were not advanced. Two, we were not trained. Three, we were going to Vietnam. Vouchers were distributed for flights home, and from home to Seattle. After that, next stop Nam.
The only friend I ever made in the Army was a fellow from San Francisco named George. We had met at MP School and went through A.I.T. together. I was supposed to switch planes in San Francisco and continue on to Seattle. Instead, I took a cab to George’s house. We decided to report in at Seattle a few days late. What were they going to do about it, send us to Nam?
George took me to a place called Fillmore West where a band called the Grateful Dead was playing. My Army uniform was all I had to wear — it was not standard attire for West Coast rock joints in 1969. None of the longhaired crazies hassled me, but I felt extremely out of place. Painted faces with wild eyes gawked at me. Getting more and more paranoid, I insisted that we leave. That was another one of those pivotal moments.
If we had stayed at the Fillmore, who knows what I might have consumed, or how I might have reacted? I might now be living on the streets of San Francisco or in the California Governor’s Mansion.
(photo, above: George and James shortly before shipping out to Vietnam)
When we arrived late at Fort Lewis, Washington, we were actually early. Most of the soldiers being sent to Nam didn’t show up until two or three weeks past their assigned reporting date. Like George and me, they kept thinking (hoping) the war might end at any moment.
We quickly observed a flaw in the operation: An NCO would come into the barracks to call the names of those shipping out that day. If they couldn’t find you, they just called your name the next day. So we started a little game. When the Sarge came in, we hid in an empty locker until he left. On the fourth day we were napping when the Sergeant came calling. It was all aboard for Vietnam.
(image, above: album cover from Grateful Dead at the Fillmore West, Mouse & Kelley, 1969)
We flew out on what looked like a commercial airliner, but with no first class. Before leaving home, I had been listening to an album by the Jim Kweskin Jug Band — in particular, a song called “MY GIRL.” For the first few hours of our flight I kept singing some of the lyrics over and over.
“I’ll be there in the morning if I live,
I’ll be there in the morning I don’t get killed,
But if I never see you again
Be sure to remember me.”
Showing great patience, the two soldiers seated in front of us waited until I hit the chorus for about the 100th time. Then they got up and stood looming over me.
“Stop singing that depressing song! You’re a shitty singer and that’s a shitty song. If we hear it one more time we’ll kill you before you get to Nam and we’ll be sure NOT to remember your sorry ass.”
That may have been the last time I ever sang in public.
(photo, below: Cam Ranh Bay Airbase)
At Cam Ranh Bay Airbase in Vietnam, we were welcomed with
open indifference and intense heat. We would soon learn to live with both, or succumb to the alternative.
While waiting to find out which lucky infantry unit would be granted our services, George and I celebrated our arrival in Nam by digging ditches. Filling up ditches. Digging more ditches. And washing pots and pans in the Mess Hall. (Apparently word of my skills at KP duty had preceded me.)
During my brief stay in Cam Ranh Bay, the most exciting event occurred one night on guard duty. Three of us new arrivals were placed in a tower on the perimeter of the base. We were supplied with really cool night-vision binoculars and all kinds of weaponry. I had the first shift. After being relieved by Private Winston, I immediately crashed and dreamt of a place far away.
Sometime in the middle of the night, I woke up choking and gagging. Our tower was filled with tear gas and all sorts of alarms were going off. All along our perimeter, searchlights scanned the barbed wire. Winston was screaming and firing a machine gun at what appeared to be the shadow of our tower.
By the time I was able to secure my gas mask, two officers arrived in a jeep and ordered us out of the tower. We were taken back to our barrack. I never did find out if we were under attack, or if Winston had set off a tear gas canister and panicked. I was soon to learn that friendly fire was the source of a surprisingly high percentage of casualties.
This was the third of five times I got gassed. The first two were during training exercises. The fourth was in the field. The fifth was during an anti-war protest in our nation’s capital.
Our orders arrived all too promptly. George and I were separated and I never knew what outfit he got hooked up with. Although totally unqualified, I became a member of the legendary 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles.
There is little or no truth to the rumor that I single-handedly lost the war by leading our troops into Laos or China. And although I was a better soldier in the field (I’d give myself a “C-plus”) than in training (a “D”), the Viet Cong did not tremble at the mention of my name.
During my military career, there were three areas in which I excelled: washing pots and pans, digging ditches and firing a rifle. The Army gave no medals for the excellent washing of pots and pans. In fact, there was little or no need for that skill out in the jungle. Many of our meals were C-rations (cans of mystery meats, unidentifiable “puddings,” “breads” and “vegetable products”). These were eaten cold and required no cleanup, just a ditch to bury the cans. I never heard anyone propose a toast before a meal of C-rations.
(photo, below: delicious packages of LURP)
A slightly more appetizing meal was The Long Range Patrol Ration referred to as a “lurp.” The lurp was a freeze-dried, dehydrated food item in a plastic packet. It was lighter to carry than a can of C-rations, and it came closer to being something someone might actually want to eat. Water had to be added to the lurp. This was no problem in the jungle where we frequently crossed streams and were rained on almost daily. Parasites in the water posed a problem, but we had two ways to combat the invisible monsters — purification tablets and boiled water. To boil water during a monsoon storm, we would slice off a small piece of C-4, which could easily be ignited by a cigarette lighter. We all carried several bars of C-4, a plastic explosive that could
conveniently be molded into any shape. It could only be exploded by a detonator, a gunshot or being dropped on a hard surface.
The third consumption of nutritional units, to which we were occasionally “treated,” was the Hot Meal. At supposedly regular intervals — no more than once a month — three or four choppers would meet us on a hilltop or in a large open area in a valley. They would deliver two Army cooks, two propane grills and “fresh beef.” The meat may have been fresh, but we all doubted that it was beef. Most of my learned colleagues speculated that it was water buffalo. Whatever it was, it was tougher than the material used to make our boots. We assumed that a Mess Sergeant, or officers back in the rear, were getting rich selling the Army beef to civilians while they supplied us with massive slabs of gristle. But these choppers also delivered cigarettes and beer, so we looked forward to their arrival.
The 101st Airborne was banned from entering any major population area.
We had a bad reputation.
(photo, below: 101st Airborne patch)
We were told that what the enemy feared most was our outfit‘s Screaming Eagle patch. One of our officers would always make sure the patches were well distributed wherever we had wreaked havoc.
One day when we had taken a prisoner (miraculously, nobody shot him before he could be interrogated), I decided to verify the Cong’s fear of the 101st. I had our guide/interpreter ask him what most scared his troops. He quickly answered, “The B-52 bombers.”
I also asked the interpreter to teach me one phrase in Vietnamese. I wanted to know how to say, “I surrender.” Chieu Hoi.
The 101st Airborne was banned from entering any major population area. We had a bad reputation. During those rare times when we were loaded into the backs of trucks and driven through large villages, I caught a glimpse of how that reputation was earned. The villagers would line the side of the roads, cheering and clapping for us. Meanwhile, some of our more belligerent comrades would throw cans of C-rations at them like the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale flinging a fastball at a batter’s head. Occasionally someone would lob a smoke grenade into a shop. All the while racist insults would be shouted at the folks we were supposedly liberating. I must point out that only a small minority of our company conducted themselves in this manner — but
no superior ever indicated they should stop. The hearts and minds of the Vietnamese were certainly not won over in such moments.
For me, and I am sure for many others, going into a combat zone meant having to turn off all emotions. It wasn’t just the horror of battle we had to deal with. The tedium could be overwhelming. Ninety-percent of the time we were just walking cannon fodder, wandering through a strange and hostile land until someone decided to attack us and we could call in an air strike. In some ways, we became Dead Men Walking. What combat soldiers later discover is the difficulty in finding the “on” switch to your better emotions after they have been allowed to atrophy.
My company spent the better part of the spring of 1969 jumping out of helicopters into areas of Southeast Asia where we were not well received by the locals. Every day we sloshed through rivers and streams in a valley, before slogging to the top of a hill (inevitably in a pouring rain). Every night our ring of foxholes established a perimeter on the top of the hill. Five of us were to alternate guard duty at each foxhole while the others slept. Like most GIs, I have joked about all the digging we did. But after you’ve once been under fire, you’ll realize no ditch or foxhole is ever really deep enough.
And you never know what you might dig up. I have dug up earthworms a foot long and as thick as a banana. Others in my platoon discovered spiders the size of a Frisbee, unidentifiable insects and poisonous snakes. I don’t know who to credit with the old saying about snakes in Vietnam: “There are 100 snakes in Vietnam … 99 are poisonous and the other one will crush you to death.” Whoever came up with that, knew exactly how our soldiers felt.
(photo, below: American GI holding a Vietnamese centipede)
The scariest creature I ever dug up was a centipede. I’m not really sure how large the creature was before I frantically chopped it to bits with my entrenching tool. In my mind it will always be as long as my belt and wider than my arm.
One evening all of us in my squad were awe-struck by the magnificent sunset. A soldier from California produced a joint which we happily passed around. The next thing I knew, I was waking up to the sound of distant gunfire.
After grabbing my rifle, I looked around at my fellow sentries. Everyone was asleep. Nobody was on guard duty.
Once everyone was fully awake, and we established there was no immediate danger, I issued a proclamation. “If I ever again see any of you boys smoking pot on guard duty, I will shoot you.” None of them doubted my sincerity — I alone doubted the strength of my commitment. From then on I was looked at as a crazy man (not a bad way to be viewed in the Army), and never had any real friends. That was the way I wanted it. Being a dead man walking seemed preferable to being a dead man in a body bag.
At one time the Company had consisted of 130 men. Now, due to illnesses, wounds and fatalities we were down to 80 to 90 exhausted troops. In late May of 1969, our Company was sent to cool off a hot spot in the infamous A Shau Valley. Basically, we jumped out of our choppers into the middle of the notorious Ho Chi Minh Trail.
At this point we had not yet heard of Hamburger Hill but we were not far from it. Hamburger Hill was referred to by the Vietnamese as Dong Ap Bia (“the mountain of the crouching beast”). During the assault to capture the hill, 72 Americans were killed and 370 wounded. Right after it was taken, the hill was abandoned. It held no strategic importance for our forces. What was left of our forces there simply moved on.
A new recruit named Tillotson was assigned to my squad. Tillotson and I hit it off right away. He was from a small town in Texas and shared my passion for blues, basketball and barbecue.
Tillotson had a plan for going home early. He had arranged for his wife to start sending him letters that were less than loving. At some point she would send him a Dear John. When he read it, Tillotson would go berserk, firing his weapon haphazardly in the air and generally freaking out. I would then tackle him and hold him down until the medic arrived and shot him up with something to calm him down. He assumed he would be declared unfit for combat. I wasn’t completely sold on the plan. He told me to give it some thought.
(photo, below: American GI with Vietnamese children as their village burns)
The next day, our trek through the jungle took us to a tiny village consisting of 12-15 grass huts. The village appeared to be abandoned, but we knew better. In two of the huts, we found entrances to tunnels. A smoke grenade forced the villagers out of the tunnels.
Before us stood ten women, approximately twenty children and a couple of ancient men. No men of fighting age. The leader of the group appeared to be an old woman who, between her sobs, shouted at us in a strange Vietnamese dialect. Our interpreter had vanished.
Sergeant Grant alternated shouting at the woman in clumsy Vietnamese and English. “Where are the men? Where are your f**king men!” She obviously did not understand and shouted back more loudly. Grant then shouted even more loudly.
The children cried. All the other women cried and joined the shouting. Sergeant Grant grew more and more frustrated.
“Be cool, Sarge. Be cool.” I was certain he was about to open fire on the helpless civilians. It had been a year since the My Lai Massacre. Was this going to be a reenactment?
Just in the nick of time, our Commanding Officer appeared. He had two men lead the civilians to a shady spot just outside the village and ordered a thorough search of the huts.
Sergeant Grant was still shaking from his face-off with the villagers. He tossed me a flashlight and a .45 pistol.
“We best clear them tunnels. Medlin. Crawl down there and make sure no VC motherf**kers are hiding.”
“With all due respect, I’m not doing that, Sarge.”
(photo, below: American GI emerges from a cleared Viet Cong tunnel)
That was the first and only direct order I ever outright disobeyed. Being somewhat claustrophobic, and harboring a perfectly rational fear of booby traps, lurking Viet Cong and poisonous vipers, there was no way I was going to crawl through that tunnel. After we argued back and forth for a few minutes, Sarge said he would shoot me for disobedience under fire if I did not clear that tunnel.
“I don’t think so, Sarge.” His eyes followed mine as we looked at the members of our platoon. “Who you going to send down after you shoot me?” Every soldier looked ready to blast Sarge. If he couldn’t get me to go down, none of the others were likely to either. In an act of foolhardy bravery, Sarge cleared the tunnel himself. After entering the tunnel under a hut on one side of the village, he emerged a few minutes later in a different hut. He found nothing.
When he came back up, Sarge sent Tillotson and me to establish rear guard. We positioned ourselves about 100 yards in back of the village. We were relaxing in the shade when we smelled the smoke and saw the flames. Sarge burned down every shelter the villagers had constructed. We moved on.
C orporal Dunn, one of the finest soldiers in our unit, was walking point as we trudged through the jungle. When two shots rang out, we all hit the ground. In a few minutes we were given the "all clear" and continued walking. Turned out that Dunn had encountered two black leopards and shot them both. It’s strange how, in the middle of the destruction of human lives, one can feel so moved by the killing of beautiful animals.
The next morning we continued our journey to some godforsaken hilltop. “Get down!” The cry sent the company hitting the ground with such synchronicity, we might have all been parts of one animal. I spotted the danger very quickly. A nice guy (but a general f**kup) named J.C. had managed to accidentally fire his grenade launcher. The grenade had hit Brownlee, the man in front of J.C., with enough force to knock him down. Brownlee sprawled belly down on the jungle turf with the explosive resting perilously on top of his pack. We all waited for the grenade to explode. We continued waiting. We waited some more.
(photo, below: GI with grenade launcher)
After minutes that seemed like hours, Corporal Dunn eased the pack off Brownlee’s back without disturbing the grenade. He very gingerly walked down the slope beside the trail and placed the pack and the grenade on the ground behind some trees. We moved out with appropriate speed. As far as I know, the grenade and Brownlee’s pack are still there.
J.C. received a severe tongue-lashing from our Captain. But what was he going to do, send him to Nam? We moved on.
On June 6th, we came across two bunkers at the bottom of a hill. The bunkers were really just fairly wide holes dug into the side of a hill and reinforced at the front with rocks and hard-packed sand. But sometimes these openings could lead down to a large cavernous area at the center of an elaborate system of tunnels. After firing several thousand dollars’ worth of ammo and explosives into the bunker, we discovered that these two were merely skillfully constructed foxholes. Two dead VC were pulled up from the rubble. One of the dead men was missing a foot, and a Sergeant we called “John Wayne” found it. He and some of the boys used it as a football in a game of touch pass.
Soon we were ordered to make camp at the top of the hill, so we moved on. Many of us shared the feeling that the day’s skirmish was just a warning of what lay ahead. Only a few of us hoped that was true.
End of Part II.
Coming up next week — Part III: A Grenade, A Chicken, and The Bird Home
James BigBoy Medlin © 2019
James BigBoy Medlin was the sports writer for the original Austin Sun. His column was called "Why Not?"