I'm in the coal storage room; my coal cart is nearly full of coal and dust. My nose struggles valiantly to bring in enough breathable air. God, how did a MOS qualified Combat Engineer end up in a boiler room two stories under Germany?
As I struggle to dump the dusty mess into the steam boilers I had tended for "12 hours on, 24 hours off" for an entire year, I think to myself, why me Lord? I wasn't trained for this crap! Was I going to be the only Florida native, born and bred, to get a case of Black Lung?
I was determined that this wasn't going to happen. A decision was steadily creeping into my psyche like a case of jungle rot. I had to go to Vietnam! I was 19, immortal, and stupid.
When I told the company clerk that I wanted on the Vietnam transfer list, he gasped, "Are you crazy?"
I said, "No, but I will be if I have to spend another winter in Germany!"
The only experience with snow that I had was in a cone with cherry syrup on top of it. Besides, I wanted to kill a "commie for mommy" like I had been pumped-up to do in Basic & AIT. I wasn't a boilerman; I was a Combat Engineer, ready to kick butt and take names!!
The long ride on Flying Tiger Airlines to Camranh Bay was finally over; but, as the last man's boots touched the tarmac, the pilot gunned the engines, and the backwash nearly knocked us off our feet...Welcome to Vietnam I thought!
Even at 0630 hrs the air was humid and heavy; but it was WARM, a climate I was used to after all. No more piles of snow up to my butt, I thought; no more steel gray skies. Just sunshine and warmth. This is MY element! And then the SUN came up.
God, I never had felt heat like this before, and never had I ever sweat in the shower before; but I can hack it
. While waiting for a unit assignment, I ran into this guy going back to his unit from a short recovery in the hospital. He carried the weirdest looking M-16 I had ever seen. It was a real short rifle, a "shorty" or Car-15, he called it.
"What unit you with," I ask.
"L Company Rangers," he says, "and I can't wait to get back 'cause I haven't killed anybody in 3 weeks."
He then goes on to regale me with stories of ear necklaces and body counts. I'm instantly impressed and ask how one could go about joining this "neat" unit. He says, "C'mon. I'll introduce you to the C.O."
The H.Q. of this unit was a crummy, wood shack with a corrugated tin roof, an architecture I would soon become all too familiar with! The C.O. smiled and stuck out his hand and said, "Glad to have you son!"
He would have been all too glad to have a fresh body to throw at Victor Charles, but the slight problem of not being 11B (infantry) qualified kept me out of L Company. My protestations to the contrary that 12B was a combat arms MOS and close enough, convinced nobody. It wasn't meant to be. No ear necklaces for me, I guess; and besides, the Army had a dim view of "war trophies" anyway!
The only trophy I wanted to get was a confirmed enemy kill; that was what I trained for for 16 weeks. That's what my country expected of me, and I wasn't going to let it or my family down! The "thrill" of the hunt, not some poor defenseless animal that couldn't shoot back, but a two-legged human in black pajamas with an SKS rifle. That's what I want to "bag!" That's "true" sport, I thought; but I'm still only 19 and still plenty "wet" behind the ears.
Camp Eagle, home of the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), was a sprawling place, a dynamic self-contained "city" of sorts. Its neo chicken-coop architecture was a familiar sight to me now; and A Company was where I slept, if lucky, when they weren't working you mostly seven days a week. The strategy is understandable--keep their minds and hands busy, and they won't have time to be scared. Trust me; it didn't work. I went to bed (when at Eagle) scared, and woke up in the same condition!
But Eagle looked pretty good after coming "home" from one of the Fire Support Bases or in the field. You know the saying: "Be it ever so humble..."
I came to Vietnam a Specialist 4 (E-4); and since "soldiering" was my chosen vocation, my squad leader, a Staff Sergeant, took me under his "wing." At his suggestion, I attended the Screaming Eagle Combat Leaders Course, Class 4-71, in preparation for getting a "hard stripe" or Sergeant's chevron. I never considered myself a "lifer" in the traditional sense. I figured I'd put in 20 and still be young enough for a second career!
A couple months after going "in country," I became aware of a career building "volunteer" mission in which an ARVN minefield was to be dismantled. At last I would be able to apply some of my training in mine warfare or anti-mine warfare in this case!
The chopper ride out to Observation Post Viper was thankfully uneventful! It was almost a "Sunday drive" of a flight over rice fields and countryside. It would have been even "comfortable" if not for having to sit on our steel-pots (helmets) so as not to incur any "voice-changing" injuries!!
OP Viper was a shaved-off hill in the middle of God knows where, with steep slopes and barbed wire surrounding the minefield. Because of the incline of the hill, when it rained, it got slippery; and people slid to their "destruction" down in the minefield. Our job, for the three of us, was to remove the minefield around the base, regardless of the protection it afforded from the "Cong!"
This job was made particularly more challenging because our South Vietnamese "allies" had just haphazardly strewn the mines everywhere, without a minefield diagram or plan as we normally used in the U.S. military. That forced us to be uncomfortably dependent upon the mine-detector and its operator, the squad coke (heroin) addict!
This guy, who also volunteered for this mission, was a three-cap-a- day man. What you might call a member of the "heroin-for-lunch-bunch!" I remember hoping that he had brought an adequate supply for himself, as I had seen guys in Nam go through the "jones'" before and didn't want to be near somebody "freaked-out" around all those mines!!
My responsibility, on this team, was to place and set the one pound charges of C-4 explosive next to the mines as they were located and "marked" by the mine detector. My squad leader was using a mine-probe, a needle-like instrument used to locate mines "manually;" and then we would daisy-chain a batch of mines together. Once the charges were set and armed, we would retreat to a "safe" distance, loudly yell "fire-in-the-hole" three times, and "blow" the mines up! Additionally, we had the "hairy" task of collecting unexploded "dud" mortar rounds into piles and similarly blasting them to "kingdom-come!"
All went well; and, on the second day of this mission, we broke for our usual lunch of C-Rats, which we often "cooked" using small pieces of C-4 explosives. During this meal, my squad leader showed me a letter with some pictures he had just received from "mail call." He showed me pictures of his children he got from home. He was a proud father and family man. I wondered if someday I too would have a family, but that was far from my plans then. I just wanted to get out of this minefield alive!
At 1300, we concluded lunch and went back to work. I emptied my 40 lb. satchel charge of C-4 and went to the ammo bunker for another full one to continue placing charges near mines. My sergeant was busily probing for mines by poking the probe "gingerly" into the ground. The other guy left the minefield to answer a "nature call" as we continued with the task at hand. Not much idle conversation was exchanged as we focused our concentration on our every step!
Apparently, a mine was "overlooked" and got behind our demarcation line, which for our purposes meant mines on that side, no mines on this side! I placed a charge next to a cluster of "bouncing bettys" and stepped back one step to reach inside the satchel charge for another block of C-4 when suddenly, Kaboom, I was flying up in the air.
I felt no pain immediately, and it seemed like I was floating in midair for sometime--kind of like "slow motion." When I landed, I could not see from my right eye. Damn, was I blinded? No. I wiped blood and soil from my eye and could still see, Thank God!!
As I lay there on the ground, taking a quick inventory of my anatomy, I suddenly thought, did I go straight up and come straight down or am I lying in the middle of the minefield now? A hasty look around reassured me that I was not.
I suddenly became aware that my squad leader was not standing near me as he had been only moments before. I called out to him. "Sarge, you all right? Sarge, you O.K.?"
No answer was ever going to come. The shrapnel from the mine blast had ripped through his heart. His war was over, and my legs were gone forever. By some quirk of fate, his name is on the Wall; and mine is not. The ensuing days saw me wishing many times that I could trade places with him, but that was not to be my destiny.
As a result, I had completely matured, no longer the "green" nineteen-year-old kid from Florida. War, it seems, has a profound effect on its participants; nobody comes back the same as they were, either physically, mentally, or even spiritually! That has been the tradition, and Vietnam did nothing to break it.
I guess it would have been better if I had matured "back-on-the-block," going to dances, meeting young ladies, drinking beer, etc...Even though I served only 1/4 of my tour, I still am proud of my service there and never have felt ashamed. I am defined by my life experiences-- many good, and some bad.
If I had to do it all again, with my naivete intact, I would probably still go to Nam, with some "minor" changes, of course. If I had been drafted, maybe I would have a different opinion, maybe not. For those of you who, like me, are too dumb to know when you're "licked," there is only one direction; and that's forward.
Drive on young man, drive on....