THE NEXT OF KIN of every 9th Infantry Division casualty received three letters: one each from the unit commander, the division chaplain, the commanding general. There were probably others, but these were the only ones for which I was responsible.
During the six months that I was the division casualty reporting officer, only one letter reached me from a unit commander to be sent to the next of kin of one of his men who had been killed. It was beautifully written, but badly handled. I had it retyped and personally carried it back to the commander in the field for his signature. I also made sure that commanders at every level were aware of it.
Personal letters written by unit commanders were highly unusual because of the nature of the Vietnam War. They were in combat 240 days out of each 365 day tour of duty versus only 40 days for soldiers in the South Pacific during World War II. The mobility of helicopter and riverine transport made the difference.
Similarly, I can excuse the Commanding General for not writing his own letter of condolence inasmuch as he was responsible for combat operations spread out over several thousand square miles of the Mekong Delta. However, unlike other forms of official correspondence and documents, he insisted on personally signing each letter of condolence. I cannot make any such excuse for the division chaplain. I had to sign his letters as well as write them. I even had to find a non-denominational biblical passage to include.
Several years ago, my family visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, and, about midway through the tour, my wife found me weeping in a corner. I had been listening to a recording of Reagan speaking about his love of his ranch where he vacationed as President and entertained notable visitors including the Queen of England. He said that the vista there reminded him of his favorite biblical passage:
“I will lift mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord, which made the heaven and the earth”
– Psalm 121
It was the same verse I had chosen to include in the chaplain's letter of condolence.
Every letter had to be typewritten perfectly. Erasures were equally forbidden along with errors. We feared that the next of kin might interpret any error as evidence that we could have made other mistakes, such as misidentified the remains, and that the person in the casket might not be their loved one. Of course, we frequently sought to discourage them from viewing the remains, inasmuch as battle casualties often suffered traumatic amputations and mutilations.
Interestingly, my best typist was a young man who seemingly should never have been drafted or recruited. His mental acuity was severely disabled. However, he was diligent in his duties, never distracted, and rarely made an error let alone allow one to reach me. I wish I had more like him.
MY MOM WAS a telephone operator in the days before direct dial long distance calling. In those days, you dialed “0” (not “o”) for Operator and told her the city and telephone number you wanted to reach. She plugged a cord to connect you with the city you wanted using a “trunk” line and placed the call for you. If you specified “person-to-person,” she waited on the line with you and asked for the name you were calling. She didn't begin timing your call until that person came on the line to speak, but you paid a higher per minute rate than you would for a simple “station-to-station” call. Actually, she wouldn't be too lost had she been running a switchboard for the Army in Vietnam.
U.S. Army Field Phone (click to enlarge)
The Army had direct dial long distance calling long before it was available in the civilian world. They called it AUTOVON. It was a worldwide network and had an added feature that never appeared in the civilian counterpart. If the caller's message was especially urgent, such as notice of an imminent attack, they could press the “Flash” button on their phone and the call would be routed immediately, bypassing all other callers, even terminating their calls if necessary to make the connection.
AUTOVON connected to major headquarters in Vietnam, but all other phone lines connected to field phones much like those used in World War II and Korea. Even those of us who had desktop telephone instruments like the ones found in homes and offices in the United States had to request help from the operator to make a call anytime, anywhere. We had dials but not telephone numbers. Most often, the instruments at the other end were field phones, with a crank handle attached to a magneto to generate an electrical pulse to signal the operator that they needed help with a call.
We picked up the phone and waited for an operator to assist us. Some whistled and shouted into the instrument when they got tired of waiting. They believed that the operators could hear them. In truth, no one could hear them until the operator plugged a cord into the circuit of the person placing the call. The caller named the military unit they wanted to call and waited for the operator to find a circuit to connect them.
Telephone circuits generally followed the chain of command. For example, if I wanted to talk to someone in Company B, 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry, the operator would begin with a connection to the 60th Infantry. If all circuits to that regimental headquarters were in use, they might call another regiment and see if they had an open circuit to the 60th. From there, another circuit was used to connect to the 3rd Battalion, and another from there to Company B. We had to rely on the ingenuity and perseverance of the operator to get our calls through.
Radio tower, popularly known as the "Aiming Stake," at Camp Bearcat (click to enlarge)
Most of the calls that came to the Casualty Reporting Branch of the Adjutant Generals Office, originated in the S1 of a battalion headquarters. Just as division commanders, major generals, delegated responsibilities to a general staff (G1 - Administration, G2 - Intelligence, G3 - Operations, and G4 – Logistics), regimental commanders, colonels, and battalion commanders, lieutenant colonels, delegated responsibilities to staff officers (S1, S2, S3, and S4). Battalion S1s were responsible for notifying division headquarters of battle casualties: KIA (Killed in Action), MIA (Missing in Action), and MEDEVAC (Medically Evacuated).
Most S1s were platoon leaders who had survived six months or been relieved of command for leading combat patrols poorly. In either case, they were not administrative experts which is why I hitch-hiked on helicopters to visit them and brief them on their duties, especially those relating to casualty reporting. Having been infantry-trained myself, I knew that they were ill-prepared for their duties.
Soon after taking over command of the Casualty Reporting Branch, I decided one day to take a few calls to see what my men were having to cope with. I took a blank form in hand and my pen when the telephone rang and took a report for a KIA, cause of death: Traumatic amputation of both legs when he stepped on a mine. It rattled me, but I completed transcribing all the information and confirming its details.
The Army tolerated no errors in casualty reporting. No excuses were allowed for the primitive communications that we were forced to work with any more than they cared for our personal sensibilities. The horrors we faced dealing with the dead were nothing compared to those who faced death.
IN CONVENTIONAL WARFARE an infantry division is deployed with two others in a Corps. Their combat elements, infantry, artillery, and armor, are deployed in a line of battle, and their support elements, logistics and administration, are arrayed behind in an area known as the rear echelons. Their combined front line usually faces an enemy similarly deployed and the two opposing forces maneuver and engage each other seeking victory. We didn't fight the war in Vietnam conventionally. We had neither front lines or rear echelons. We were all scattered about the countryside attempting to hold out against the enemy like a man trying to hold down scattered papers in a windstorm.
9th Infantry Division Tactical Area of Operations (click to enlarge)
We lived and operated out of base camps. Our division headquarters together with the headquarters for several of our support battalions were based at Camp Bearcat. We had three brigades, the 39th, the 47th, and the 60th Infantries, each with its own base camp. Each brigade had multiple battalions with multiple companies, all, with few exceptions, having their own base camps. Platoons and artillery batteries frequently operated from separate fire bases.
You have to see this picture clearly in your minds to understand all that follows. Unlike World War II, we couldn't have convoys of trucks rushing supplies from ports to the front lines. In most cases, supplies had to be airlifted over enemy strongholds to scattered units. Communications had to be relayed between microwave antenna towers located at each base camp or by wireless radio. Landlines were vulnerable to any man with a pair of wire cutters.
Those of us who served in Vietnam often reflected that life inside the base camps, surrounded by earthen berms and barbed wire, was like living in a prison camp. The enemy were our prison guards. They shot anyone who ventured outside. Given the opportunity, they also shot those who remained in their cells.
In the coming days I will explain how we not only coped, but also waged war effectively against an enemy that lurked in the midst of the civilian population we were attempting to protect. Mine is neither the majority nor the popular view. However, you may find it amusing.
Every war is steeped in politics, even the popular ones. Take World War II as an example. Almost no one regrets our involvement and yet, the vast majority of Americans were opposed to becoming involved in it. Franklin Roosevelt was elected President on his sworn opposition to our country becoming involved in another “foreign war.” Of course, immediately after making that promise he turned to his advisers and asked, “It's not a foreign war if we're attacked, is it?” Just how prescient was that?
Every war is fought with words as well as guns and bullets. Take for example, the War on Terror. I hope that President Obama will forgive me for writing that. He has forbidden the use of that phrase in his Administration. Yet, here we are fighting a war with terrorists regardless of what we call it. Regardless, the most important battles are being fought in the court of public opinion.
The same was true in Vietnam. There we fought an invasion, but were never allowed to name it as such. We called it a “counterinsurgency” as though we were trying to protect an established government from discontented rebels. In truth, we were fighting a communist invasion sponsored by the Soviet Union abetted by Communist China. Unfortunately, we had no will to fight that war. We preferred to let it remain “cold.”
How do I know this? It's a long story. It will take several weeks and months to tell, one posting at a time. Feel free to disagree. Most people do. However, the truth is in the history, not in the news media, not in our schools, and definitely not in our political posturings.
Ultimately, you may ask the same question I have come to ask: Should we have fought the war in Vietnam more conventionally? I hear some of you saying, "Isn't the more important question whether or not we should have fought it at all?" Hopefully, when we're done, you'll learn that the answer to that question was answered long ago, and the answer might not be what you expect or agree with.
MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with a latrine was during my first trip to Boy Scout camp when I was about eleven years old. One look, one smell was all it took. I held it in all week. Seriously, all week. My father had to exercise the plumber's helper vigorously after my first visit to the bathroom when I got home. Fortunately, I outgrew my aversion to primitive privies by the time I got to Vietnam. There's no way I could have abstained for thirteen months.
Oh, come on now. Get over it. I had to broach this subject sooner or later. I know you wanted to know. How did we attend to the routine functions that are common to all of us, regardless of race, religion, or rank? Yes, even generals do it. In fact that reminds me of one of the more interesting stories that circulated around Vietnam during the war.
A sergeant was seated upon a throne at USARV Headquarters (United States Army, Vietnam) in Saigon when someone entered the stall next to him. After a few minutes the sergeant began fanning the air with his newspaper. A few moments later he began commenting aloud, “Damn, what the hell did you eat!”
He continued commenting on the smell rising from the stall next to him using more colorful language until his neighbor made ready to leave. He was startled when the door to his stall was yanked open and he was face-to-face with an angry gentleman wearing two stars on his collar. “Well, you don't smell like no bed of roses yourself, sergeant,” the general exclaimed and left.
At least the sergeant and the general had the benefit of modern conveniences in Saigon. I doubt if they would have noticed each other had they been in a base camp where we all used latrines.
We had urinals scattered around the camp. They were simply barrels sunk into the ground and filled with stones. A three-sided shed with a galvanized tin roof provided some degree of modesty from observation by helicopters passing overhead and anyone else except those directly behind you. Fortunately, there were few women. There were a few and I remember feeling some discomfort whenever one walked past as I was relieving myself.
Generally speaking, you are no more vulnerable than when you are using such a facility. It is difficult to react, to run, or to defend yourself when you're relieving yourself. One of my clerk-typists learned this lesson when the casing from a poorly aimed illumination round dropped inside our base camp. It fell beside him while he was in mid-stream. He began to run without pausing to stem the flow or secure his equipment. Even worse, he ran in the wrong direction – into the urinal.
Our thrones sat atop sawed-off barrels that were accessed from a hatch at the back of the latrines. The “shit” detail made the rounds regularly, exchanging empty ones for full ones. The full ones were taken outside downwind of the base camp. The soldiers added fuel oil and ignited them. Truthfully, those latrines weren't as bad as the ones at Boy Scout camp. Indeed, they were better maintained than most port-o-potties that I've seen.
Which all brings me to the story of Shit-for-Brains. Sorry, that was the name we used for it. It was a monkey, the pet of a major who shared our hooch. I'm pretty sure he called it something else. We didn't care.
I don't know where the major got it, but the animal was getting on in years, and monkeys tend to get surly with age. We complained about the damage he caused but his “master” was the senior officer in the hooch. However, even he “lost it” one day when we returned to find everything turned over or spilled out, and our mattresses torn apart. At first, the major defended it while we complained. The major refused to get rid of it until the monkey defecated on his shoulder. I don't know which made him more angry: The monkey's feces on his back or us laughing at him.
Before you accuse me of being insensitive to cruelty, please remember the degree to which we were provoked. We laughed as he grabbed the varmint and knocked it senseless with his fist. He shouted a few obscenities and carried the limp primate to the latrine and tossed it into one of the barrels. We sensed that something remarkable was about to happen, so we grabbed chairs and arranged them to be prepared for the next act.
A chief warrant officer (who shall remain unnamed for decency's sake) made his way unsteadily from the officer's club where he had been drinking, to the stage. Newspaper in hand, he entered. He must have been too focused on his mission to notice us.
The door closed.
All was quiet.
Then came the shout.
Next came the warrant officer bursting from the door. His pants were around his ankles. The monkey was hanging onto the only handle he could find in the dark.
I didn't know a man could run that fast bow-legged while straddling a snarling ape.
Men in the field had to squat wherever they could, whenever they were reasonably secure from attack. Interestingly, it was never a good idea to relieve oneself near a defensive position or when they were waiting for the enemy in ambush. Because of our radically different diets, the waste of Americans and Vietnamese have different odors, making it easy to smell your enemy at great distances. For the same reason, we also had to use soaps, shampoos, shaving creams, and deodorants without perfumes of any kind.
Although I didn't spend much time in the field, I was happy to pick up a can of G.I. Talcum powder. I didn't care that it was odorless. I only cared that it kept me dry at night. I spread a liberal amount between my mattress and my sheet when I made my bed with fresh bed linens each week. Then, just before I climbed in, I would pluck the sheet and a cloud of talc would filter through the sheet and keep me cool and dry all night.
I'm sure that after reading this, some grunt is going to hate us REMFs even more.
What is wrong with us? Why do we react to every problem, every crisis with the same plaintive cry: Government ought to do something! President Obama was elected under the banner of “Yes, We can!” Well, it must be clear by now that “We” (the government) can't, which is why John Stossel proposes a new rallying cry: “No They Can't!” His new book No They Can't
explores our perverse nature to hand off problems to a government despite the fact that it has never once proven that collective action can solve our nation's problems.
Like many of us who are reborn small “L” libertarians, John abandoned liberal and conservative, right- and left-wing, ideologies as well as Republican and Democrat politics, when he was “mugged by reality.” Unfortunately, the vast majority of people have their pockets “picked” by government without ever suspecting the true culprits. Whenever their favorite leaders fail them, they are distracted by propaganda assuring them that “it's the other guys fault.” No, actually it's our own fault for putting our faith in people who pretend to by wiser but, in truth, do not have sufficient knowledge to make all of our choices for us. Furthermore, if they make mistakes (which invariably they do) they are not held accountable for them. Again, it's the other guys fault, it's the other party's fault, it's the other ideology's fault.
I highly recommend that you spend a few hours with John's book. Preferably, a few days. Give yourself time to absorb what he is saying. Discuss it with friends and family. Okay, maybe not family. No one in a family likes someone who insists on making them uncomfortable talking about politics. Just go annoy a few friends. They expect it.
Don't expect No They Can't
to answer all your questions. Be careful reading it. John doesn't get everything right. Indeed, I was somewhat disappointed in the video of the interview with John on Uncommon Knowledge, that he wasn't prepared to respond to Alan Greenspan's error. “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of... banks... [was] such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders... That the loan officers of those institutions knew more about the risks than... even our best regulators. A critical pillar... to free markets did break down... that shocked me... I still do not fully understand why it happened.”
– Alan Greenspan testifying before Congress, 2008
What doesn't Greenspan understand? Clearly, that “critical pillar” collapsed because it was undermined by government incursion into the housing market. The government promised to shield the banks from loss by subsidizing risky investments for political gain. What brought the economy to its knees was the fact that the government made good on its promise by covering the losses with borrowed money - trillions of borrowed cash. Inasmuch as that money was not based on real value, consumer confidence – and business confidence, too – fell and the economy ground to a halt. Even the most unaware consumer intuits that government spending is a poor substitute for real wealth generation.
Click to purchase on Amazon
I suppose this is where the author and I disagree. The theme that binds his book together is that intuition is leading Americans astray. That intuition inspires them to respond to every problem and crisis by saying “The government ought to do something!” I believe they have been programmed
to say this even though their intuition
tells them it is wrong.
Take a look for yourself. Read No They Can't
and tell me who you agree with, the author or me. Despite this one point, I believe that John is “spot on” in the rest of his book.
WE ARE WELL into another presidential election cycle and it's begun. The airways are full of campaign rhetoric. Neighbors are growing surly and minor encroachments on their property and their ideology are no longer being tolerated. The postman is groaning under the weight of mountains of campaign literature. Children are biting dogs. Really! I saw that last one at a picnic yesterday. The problem is that I'm a writer, and writers have opinions. How should we express them without hurting ourselves commercially?
Mark Twain taught us to laugh at politicians, but we seem to have lost the skill. We need a more contemporaneous author to remind us. That man is Andrew Klavan
Andrew is the author of such popular selling thrillers as The Identity Man
, The Truth of the Matter
, The Long Way Home
, The Last Thing I Remember
, True Crime
, and Empire of Lies
. His most recent screenplay was 2008's A Shock to the System starring Michael Caine. He is the the recipient of multiple Edgar and Anthony Awards.
Andrew appears regularly on PJTV
Internet television espousing conservative causes. However, he does it with humor. His popular series, Klavan on the Culture, receives hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube.
It's interesting to compare his humor with that of comics who attempt to inject humor into political discourse. Bill Maher, for example, seems to prefer the Don Rickles approach of insulting his audience.
“The people are too stupid to be governed.” – Bill Maher
“The people...” - that's you and me he's referring to. I don't find that particularly funny, do you?
I'm sure that liberal politicians won't find Andrew funny or humorous. They'll probably take offense. Then again, Andrew is in good company. Many politicians were offended by Mark Twain when he spoke out against the Spanish-American War. I remember reading some of his comments in a Twain anthology, A Pen Warmed-up In Hell.
“I left these shores, at Vancouver, a red-hot imperialist. I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific. It seemed tiresome and tame for it to content itself with he Rockies. Why not spread its wings over the Philippines, I asked myself? And I thought it would be a real good thing to do.
“I said to myself, here are a people who have suffered for three centuries. We can make them as free as ourselves, give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American constitution afloat in the Pacific, start a brand new republic to take its place among the free nations of the world. It seemed to me a great task to which had addressed ourselves.
“But I have thought some more, since then, and I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. . .
“It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”
– Mark Twain writing in the New York Herald, October 15, 1900
I often wonder how those words reflected on the sales of Twain's books. Remember, the Spanish-American War was mighty popular at the time. Twain was taking a chance speaking out so strongly against it, wasn't he?
So here we go again. Another election, probably more heated than the last. It's going to get dirty. Feelings are going to be hurt.
Keep an eye on Andrew and me. We'll try to keep you chuckling to the bitter end.
JOHN RADIN STOOD in the foyer, befuddlement playing in his expression, his children tugging at his pants leg, and his wife tapping her foot behind him. “I told you to call first,” she admonished him, impatience putting an edge in her tone.
“But...” John stammered.
The hostess waited, her smile becoming forced. “Sir?” she prompted John. “I asked if you had a reservation.”
Collecting his thoughts, John's eyes focused on the pretty young woman talking to him. “A what?” he asked.
“A reservation, sir.”
“You need a reservation for... for this place?”
The hostess arched her eyebrows and nodded in the direction of the dining room. “As you can see, sir,” she explained, “we're very busy.”
“I didn't think...”
“Very busy,” she repeated emphasizing “very.”
“I didn't think...”
“You never do,” his wife goaded.
John frowned at his wife and turned back to the hostess. “Is this some sort of special occasion?” he asked.
“Everyday is a special occasion, sir,” the hostess responded cheerfully. “This is the Birthday Place.”
“Daddy, daddy, can we go see the donkey?” Johns children chanted in unison, tugging at his pants leg even harder.
“Uh, no, children...” John began, but his wife stepped between him and the hostess, and interrupted.
“We'll wait,” she said. “How long?”
The hostess checked her seating chart and the waiting list on a nearby clipboard. “At least an hour,” she replied. “Maybe more.”
John took his children's hands and began to turn them away. “Come along,” he said with a glance at his wife. “Let's go to McDonalds,” he added cheerily.
“No, we wanna stay here,” the children whined and tugged towards the dining room.
“We'll wait,” John's wife informed the hostess.
“Your last name?” the hostess asked with her pen poised over the waiting list.
“Radin,” John's wife replied. “R-A-D-I-N.”
“Party of four?”
The hostess added their name to the end of the list and smiled at Mrs. Radin. “The children can play while you're waiting,” she announced. “There're lots of games for them.”
“They all look like birthday games,” John observed with a mild look of displeasure playing on his lips.
“Of course, sir,” the hostess responded, ignoring his annoyance. “This is...”
“Yes, yes,” John interrupted. “The Birthday Place.”
The hostess smiled, again ignoring John's reactions as she explained, “Where everyday is a birthday party. It's someones birthday everyday, isn't it?”
John forced a brief smile and led his wife to a seat by the door.
“Daddy, daddy,” the children shouted, hopping in front of their parents. “Can we play?”
“Go ahead, children,” John's wife answered for her husband. “Have fun.”
The children disappeared into the dining room where games were interspersed with dining tables before the last words left their mother's mouth. Their first stop was a giant statue of a donkey with tails attached all over it with stickum.
John and his wife sat quietly for a few moments. John kept his eyes straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with his wife who was glaring at him.
He knew what she wanted to say. She knew that he knew. Still, she said the words. “You could have invested in this.”
John pretended not to hear her.
Another mother sitting next to John's wife exclaimed to no one in particular. “Isn't this wonderful?”
John's wife turned in the woman's direction. Before she could say anything, the woman continued, “It's like this every night.”
John's wife turned back to glare at her husband and shook her head. “Genius,” she said with contempt.
John finally met her eyes. “How was I supposed to know?” he asked pleadingly, with a shrug of his shoulders.
His wife harrumphed and turned to look for her children.
The woman sitting next to John's wife turned to her with a child's smile. “And, do you know what they serve for dessert?” she asked.
John's wife smiled and the woman answered her own question. “Birthday cake!”
John kept his eyes straight ahead, staring at nothing. “Wonderful,” he murmured to himself. “Just wonderful.”
John's wife patted his arm. “Don't worry, dear,” she said with a sly smile. “You won't be getting any. Not tonight.”
GI'S IN VIETNAM referred to shelters as hooches – a spelling variation of hotch, meaning booze or alcoholic beverages – but having no apparent connection to the hotchy-kootchy, a sensual form of a belly dance. During my tour of duty, I spent some nights in bunkers or sleeping in a ditch. Unlike the front line grunts, I spent most in a somewhat comfortable shelter. None of thehooches we occupied were in any way sensualbut most were supplied with hotch.
9th Admin Company Transient Officers' Quarters (click to enlarge)
After checking in with the Adjutant General, the AG Sergeant Major escorted me to the 9th Admin Company orderly room where I received a flak vest, steel helmet, and an M16 rifle. I was also fitted for jungle fatigues and boots.
I was then shown to the mess hall and officers club. The last stop was my first billet.
My first shelters in Vietnam, both at the reception center in Long Binh and the 9th Admin Company Transient Officer's Quarters at Camp Bearcat, headquarters for the 9th Infantry Division, were wood frame buildings built on concrete slabs. The walls were simple frames covered in screen and overlaid with widely spaced slats that provided some semblance of privacy without blocking the breeze. The roofs were corrugated, galvanized steel.
On my first night at Camp Bearcat, I unpacked my bags and used a horizontal member of the building's frame as a shelf. Shortly after taps, a nearby 8” howitzer battery went to work. I dove from my cot to catch a falling bottle of after shave lotion – yes, I took after shave to Vietnam – and succeeded despite being wrapped in mosquito netting that I dragged with me.
The building seemed to breath – its walls expanding and contracting – with each salvo.
The sound of rain on a galvanized roof can be very loud, especially during a monsoon. It was like living inside a metal drum. I remember shouting bids to my partner while playing bridge during a storm. Even the howitzers firing nearby could not compete with the noise of rain drumming on the roof.
Wabtoks (click to enlarge)
I moved from there to a wabtok that I shared with five other officers. A wabtok is an interesting structure having a wooden floor elevated atop metal shipping cases for large caliber artillery shells, resembling sections of sewer pipes. A flimsy wood frame covered in screening to keep out insects forms the walls, and a tent – GP (General Purpose) Medium – serves as the roof. The walls of the tent are stretched out on all four sides to serve as awnings.
The Division Adjutant Generals offices were also housed in wabtoks. They were arranged in pairs, end-to-end, along a road near the division headquarters building, close to the wabtok that housed the office of the division G1, the division's chief administrative officer. Unfortunately, the canvas tents rotted quickly in the tropical climate and were threadbare by the time the monsoon rains began. They sagged with puddles and I sent an enlisted man with a broom to empty them before the tent collapsed. Unfortunately, he used the stick end of the broom to try and push the tent up where it was sagging. The broom handle burst the puddle like a balloon and the poor lad was drenched. I couldn't stop laughing long enough to be angry.
The division had arrived in country en masse about four months ahead of me and construction of more permanent facilities was well underway. The division's Finance Offices were already completed – a row of the single story buildings similar to the transient officers quarters. It was a clear indicator of who was considered more important.
View from second floor balcony of an AG Office. Black streak is warplane bombing a target outside the berm (click to enlarge)
However, when the engineers finally got around to building our permanent quarters – about six months after my arrival – we were treated to two-story versions of the type of building that the Finance Corps worked in. We felt truly honored until we saw how quickly the termites could gnaw their way through a 2x4 – about a boardfoot per day. Also, it was unsettling when we realized that our new offices extended well above the base camp's protective berm and we were sitting targets for snipers. At night, we exited using the door away from the base camp perimeter even though that forced us to retrace our steps on the ground to reach the urinals (fodder for a later posting).
When the two-story company grade officers quarters were constructed, each of us was provided an 8' x 10' room with a screen door exit. However, each room shared an open doorway with the one it backed up to so that we would all have at least two exits – in case of fire or attack. CW2 (Chief Warrant Officer) Ray Cimbalnik and I had adjoining rooms and decided to share one as a bedroom and the other as a living room. We requisitioned four risers and stacked our cots as bunk beds. I slept on the upper one and only regretted the choice on one occasion when 144 mm rockets slammed into our base camp. It was about three months following the Tet Offensive of 1968 and hadn't heard a shot fired in anger until North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units reached the Delta and were able to resume the war that the Viet Cong had failed to survive. Ray and I both awoke sitting on the edges of our beds. The first rocket had awakened us. We didn't realize why until we heard the second explosion. Ray began to rise from his bed and my knees became hook over his shoulders and he dragged me with him This wouldn't have been a problem except that my mattress had slipped below the edge of the metal frame of the cot and my family jewels were hooked. I grabbed Ray by the ears and dragged him back. He didn't have enough hair to serve as a handle.
Our living room contained four chairs, a card table covered with a woolen Army blanket, and a counter containing a small refrigerator, a hot plate, and a small TV. We covered the end walls with pin ups extracted from Playboy magazines. A 3” x 5” ad hidden among the photos asked, “Had any lately?” We could always tell when someone examining the photos found that sign.
Most Vietnamese hooches in the countryside were walled with wood or wattle and had thatched roofs. The floors were packed dirt and mama-sans swept them daily with palm fronds. They separated the fibers of the leaves so that they were finer than any straw or plastic broom. Many had walls clad with flattened beer and soda cans. It was amazing to see what they could fabricate from the trash heaps that we accumulated at our base camps – including weapons.
Vietnamese Hooches (click to enlarge)
City homes were mostly built of clay bricks or cinder blocks. Most used bamboo for structural support in the same way that we use steel. It didn't rust and was impervious to termites. Although the Vietnamese could not build higher than a couple of stories using bamboo in place of steel girders, their buildings were amazingly strong and long lasting.
One of the most common phrases heard came from new arrivals when seeing a Vietnamese hooch for the first time. “I wish my mom/sister/wife/girlfriend could see this.” Yes, we all came back appreciating the homes we had in America, no matter how poor.
ALL REPLACEMENT OFFICERS were welcomed to the 9th Infantry Division by Colonel Bell, the division's G-1 – the division commanding general's staff officer in charge of personnel, discipline, and administrative matters. His NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge) laid my 201 (Personnel) file on the desk in front of him as I saluted and reported for duty. He opened the file and looked at the top sheet attached to the left inside cover to find my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty). It was the only thing that interested him. He found just what he was looking for, 1542 – Infantry Platoon Leader. Platoon leaders were in short supply and many platoons were led by junior grade NCOs (Non-commissioned Officers).
Wabtoks with sandbag revetments (click to enlarge)
As soon as I saw his smile I knew the mistake he had made. “Sorry, sir,” I corrected him and pointed out the entry on the next line. 2210 – Personnel Officer. I have beaten myself up for more than forty years for opening my mouth. Had I remained silent, I might have been sent to one of the combat battalions and, by the time anyone and figured it out, I would have been dead, wounded, or cured of the survivor's guilt I have carried all these years. Then again, as my wife is quick to remind me, I might have also missed the joys of marriage to her, our children, and our grandchildren. Of course, she's right.
Colonel Bell's smile faded and he replied politely, “Of course, the Adjutant General has been expecting you.”
With that he had his NCOIC escort me to the 9th Infantry Division's Office of the Adjutant General and my fate was sealed. A short walk took me from the G-1's wabtok to a row of similar structures housing the offices of the Adjutant General.
A wabtok is a tent stretched atop a wooden floor set a couple of feet above the ground. A simple frame covered in screen provides a barrier to insects without impeding the flow of air. A screen door front and rear provide the only means of access, however, it wouldn't take much to burst through the screen in case of an emergency. Standard issue gun-metal grey desks lined both sides of a clear aisle through the center. Other wabtoks, separate ones, served as housing for enlisted men and officers. They served their purpose until the monsoon season began and we discovered that the canvas tents had rotted away in the heat and humidity.
I was introduced in quick succession to the Adjutant General, Lieutenant Colonel Traylor, his deputy, Major Reed, and the Chief Administrative Officer, Major Rome Smyth. Next stop was my first desk: Chief of the Casualty Reporting Branch. With an NCO and six clerks, I was responsible for the administrative processing of battle casualties for the division: Notification of the next of kin and initiating requests for replacements. We also had to prepare letters of condolence that would be sent to the next of kin on behalf of the division commanding general, Major General Julian J. Ewell at that time, the division chaplain, and the casualty's unit commander. Every letter had to be perfect. No erasures were permitted.
My office was next to the Adjutant General's, in the same wabtok. I guess that he liked to keep a close watch on new second lieutenants, especially those who had been trained as infantry officers inasmuch as he had problems with my predecessor.
I spent my first few hours there getting to know my men and their responsibilities and watching the workflow as the first casualty report was telephoned in from the field. It seemed surreal sitting at a desk, just like the one I had left at Social Security, surrounded by clerks, again like Social Security, in the middle of a war zone. I felt completely out of place. The survivor's guilt hadn't set in yet. It was lurking in the future.
I DIDN'T SEE another officer at the Long Binh Reception Center until my second morning there. A captain was sitting at the breakfast table in the officer's mess when I walked in. I joined him. I glanced at his branch insignia as I sat down and saw that he was a doctor. That helped explained the fact that he was muttering to himself in self-diagnosis as he took his own pulse. A glimmer of awareness grew in his eyes and he picked up the salt shaker. After removing the top, he poured a healthy dollop on the side of his hand and ate it – the salt, not the hand. He smiled and offered some to me. “It's for the heat,” he explained. “We're dehydrating.”
Long Binh, South Vietnam, 1967 (click to enlarge)
Speak for yourself, I thought to myself. I was already acclimatizing. Indeed, I became so acclimatized to the heat after thirteen months in Vietnam, I nearly froze when I was reassigned to Hawaii.
The truth is that I was becoming concerned about my status. The sergeant in the office hadn't heard anything about me other than the message he delivered when I arrived that I wasn't going to the 185th Military Intelligence Company as stipulated in my orders. Furthermore, I hadn't seen another officer since I left Oakland two or three days previously. It was hard to account for the time. We had been in the air almost a full day and we had crossed the International Date Line. Whatever day it was, I knew that there was a plane arriving every 20 minutes after ours. Twenty-four hours. Three planes an hour. Maybe 300 troops in each plane. Where were the officers?
By the time the doctor arrived, I had been anxiously scanning the area for officers. As ridiculous as it sounds, it was beginning to look like they had sent me to Vietnam to command American forces. Yes, it not only sounds ridiculous, but also is ridiculous. Of course, I didn't expect to command the Army in Vietnam. It was just nice to find another officer even if he was only a doctor. It was nice to have someone else to talk to.
Unfortunately, we didn't even have a chance to finish breakfast together. The orderly came and told me that the sergeant had my orders.
I later learned that a lieutenant serving in the Adjutant General's office at the 9th Infantry Division had sufficiently annoyed the AG until they had him reassigned. He was sent to fill my post at the 185th and I was sent to replace him at the 9th Infantry Division. As it turns out, I too annoyed the old man for what turned out to be approximately the same reasons. We were both trained infantry officers who had little respect for “serving in the rear with the gear.”
Generally, platoon leaders who survived six months in combat were reassigned to staff and support duty in the rear if they could be spared and a replacement was available. They rarely were. It seemed that most had “burned out” in that time. Sure, enlisted personnel could expect to serve their full twelve months in a combat role, however, they didn't carry the same responsibilities as platoon leaders. It's one thing to face death. It's quite another to face death and be responsible for sending others in harm's way.
Interestingly, there was a safety valve for enlisted men, too. Those twice-wounded would be reassigned to staff and support positions in the rear again with the same qualifiers – if they could be spared and replacements were available. Once the Army in Vietnam built up to about a half-million men, the flow of replacements could be diverted to this purpose more often.
But, I digress... (I always want to write that). The sergeant handed me new orders and asked me to hop on a truck full of replacements headed for the 9th Infantry Division Headquarters Base Camp. It was waiting outside and the orderly already had my duffle bag loaded on board. As the only officer, I was invited to sit up front with the driver.
The first thing that I noticed was that everybody in Vietnam wore flak vests and steel helmets all the time. They carried weapons wherever they went. The replacements on the truck, including me, still wore our khaki uniforms with the starch already leached from them by the heat, humidity, and our own sweat. I don't know about the rest of them, but I felt my lack of armor and armament as soon as we passed out through the gates of the Long Binh perimeter.
The 9th Infantry Division Headquarters was located at Camp Bearcat, about twelve miles east of Long Binh. Most of the road was packed clay. Some of it was paved with asphalt that had worn away at the sides leaving a track too narrow for vehicles traveling in opposite directions to pass without grinding along the rubble-strewn shoulders. This was especially true for military vehicles. Civilian traffic seemed to be comprised mostly of bicycles and three-wheeled motor scooters carrying families and cargo. An occasional French-built Citreon DS-19 whizzed past giving me a new respect for these durable vehicles.
Rubber plantations flanked the road near Camp Bearcat (click to enlarge)
Most of the countryside was filled with rice paddies in those first miles after leaving the Army base camp and the town of Long Binh behind. However, as we drew nearer to Bearcat, we were flanked by rubber plantations on both sides of the road. What little comfort I had been able to achieve during the ride evaporated when I realized that the foliage could easily conceal an ambush in waiting for us.
Rubber trees are planted in long rows to facilitate their maintenance and harvesting the sap from pots at the base of each tree. I discovered that my neck was beginning to spasm because I was attempting to look down each row for hidden enemies as we passed at about thirty miles per hour. I flushed with embarrassment as I glanced to my left and spotted the driver smirking. There was no way he wasn't enjoying himself at the lieutenant's discomfort.