For me, Vietnam was better than a poke in the face with a sharp stick. I got a lot out of it. I grew there. However, not knowing this ahead of time dampened my enthusiasm so that when it came time to go, I didn't, at least not right away. Earlier there had been more eagerness in my effort. I didn't like the giant global monolith that was communism and, like the hawks in our government, I believed in former president Eisenhower's domino theory. If one small country in Southeast Asia fell to the Red Menace, the others would soon follow suit, falling like a row of dominos and then everyone involved would be miserable.
Wanting to do my share, I volunteered for the army. In what can only be described as a monumental attack of nearly terminal stupidity, I enlisted only after being guaranteed an assignment to an infantry unit. My misguided fear was that the few Cs and Ds that I had managed to earn in classes at Long Beach City College might get me a clerical job or some other behind-the-scenes position. That wouldn't do. I wanted to see some action.
In Gone with the Wind, a bunch of ignorant and naive southern boys rode off from Ashley Wilkes's plantation, Twelve Oaks, to join the Confederate States Army when war is declared between the states. As they ride off they are all hollering rebel yells in excitement and anticipation of the glories of combat that will surely soon follow. Like them, I didn't want to miss the war, to let it pass me by. I had joined the infantry so that I would see combat. Such was the state of my adolescent mind. It was not a well thought-out plan.
After four months of basic training and advanced infantry training, the army was beginning to seem more real. My departure date for assignment to a combat unit interfered with my earlier sophomoric brain patterns and made me slightly less enthusiastic about leaving exactly on time. As it turned out, the impending proceedings were temporarily interrupted by my sister. She had acquired student tickets to the Rose Bowl, which was on my departure date, New Year's Day 1967. There we saw Purdue defeat Southern California.
Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl was worth going AWOL for; that couldn't be missed. My thinking was that the army was so desperate for fresh troops that they wouldn't dare lock me up. The worst they could do was send me to Vietnam and that was already happening. When my bus arrived at the Oakland Alameda Naval Air Station no one even mentioned the fact that I was three days late.
There were thousands of GIs stationed there awaiting transportation. For a few days we were housed in giant warehouses with nothing but rows of metal bunks and chairs. It was frightfully boring. Most of the stay was an exercise in the time-honored military tradition of "hurry up and wait."
We did, however, get our immunizations updated while walking a medical gauntlet between two rows of army medics carrying air-powered vaccination guns. They simultaneously blasted us numerous times in both arms as we passed by. When it was over my shot card showed that I was then up to date for typhus, influenza, bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, tetanus, and yellow fever. How could people live in a country with this much sickness? Who would want to?
The vaccination guns made a loud hissing noise when fired and left a visible welt that felt like a jellyfish sting. The experience was slightly unnerving. One guy flinched so wildly that he got one injection in the armpit. We all howled with laughter.
After processing we were sent to Travis Air Force Base outside Oakland, California. So many planes swooped in and out of there in those days that soon, like the dingy gray seagulls that were everywhere, you just didn't notice them anymore. Like most servicemen headed for Vietnam we traveled by commercial airliner. My flight was a Continental Airlines seven something seven, complete with stewardesses and a meal. There were no civilian passengers and there was no movie. The flight was so boring and so long, more than twenty hours, that a single movie would not have saved us. That would have taken at least the entire Cannes Film Festival.
After a number of hours of flying we landed to refuel in Honolulu, where we were allowed off the plane for forty minutes to stretch out legs and walk around in a restricted section of the airport. It was sad to be in paradise without being allowed to experience it. I didn't see any of the tourist spots, sample their seafood, or even have a drink. It was pathetic. The highlight of my trip to Hawaii was shooting down a fly in the urinal of an airport restroom. However, from then on I could answer in the affirmative if anyone asked me had I ever been to Hawaii. Just don't ask to see my snapshots of the trip.
Halfway between Hawaii and Vietnam, the pilot came on the intercom to give us the cheery news that the local Viet Cong, in celebration of our arrival, had blown up the runway at Pleiku, our destination, with mortar fire. Accordingly, our flight was being temporarily diverted to the Philippine Islands. We were going to Clark Air Force Base near Manila to wait until the runway was repaired.
As soon as we landed, two sourpuss MPs came onboard to tell us that we could sit on the plane or get off and stand in a hanger. "There's no smoking," the taller of the two barked loudly, "and no goddamn wandering off because we don't want to have to come and look for you." Descending the metal stairs, it was impossible not to see the sleek, majestic A-12 Blackbird spy plane parked next to us. About this time, the taller MP added, almost an afterthought, "And no picture taking, because that plane doesn't exist, so we don't want any goddamned photographs of it." This was immediately followed by a chorus of clicking cameras so numerous that it sounded as if the crickets had come out.
Four hours later, we took off for Tan Son Nhut Airbase. They had not been able to make the Pleiku airstrip serviceable for commercial jets in such a short time. We were headed for III Corps in the Saigon area instead of II Corps in the central highlands. This was disappointing. I had hoped to be in the 1st Cavalry and II Corps was their area. The 1st Cavalry got all the glory. They were always on the news and in the newspaper. It was not to be. Just like that, a few VC (Viet Cong) with a mortar tube and nothing better to do on a Friday night had changed our fates and futures forever, in ways we could not even begin to fathom. It was possible that those amongst us who had been destined to be killed or wounded or see very little combat had all been changed because of this night that we would all soon forget. It was fitting to start off with such a whimsical event, a harbinger of the capricious nature of the year to come.
It was almost dawn when we landed in Vietnam. Air that was too wet and too hot met us at the exit, forcing me to hold my breath for a second and wonder if I could actually breathe this atmosphere. This place was going to be about as comfortable as a steel mill. The people on the ground acted as if it was normal and they were quite used to it. Thoughts of no air conditioning for a long time unless General Westmoreland invited me over for dinner crossed my mind.
At the bottom of the ramp, the stewardess with her shoulder-length blond hair encouraged us on, "Hurry up, boys, hurry off to war." Her comment seemed slightly flippant. She was old for a stewardess, maybe thirty, but she was also friendly, cute, and really stacked. She should have been given combat pay for all the antics and comments she put up with during the flight without smacking anyone's face. I already had a crush on her and secretly wished that she was coming with me.
Tan Son Nhut was the busiest airport in the world in 1967, with more flights per day than anywhere else. Activity was visible everywhere, with commercial airlines and military transports hauling in fresh loads of cannon fodder and taking home the old. Sleek air force jets zipped in and out, which was exciting to watch. It was also surprising to see an F-100 Super Saber take off right next to us with a ten-foot cone of fire coming out of its rear that was so close you could have roasted marshmallows as it passed. I thought we had stopped using the F-100 after the Korean War. I had read in a magazine that the war was costing a million dollars an hour. The sight of all those jets and jet fuel flames made me think that maybe that amount was correct. The rest of the airport that wasn't claimed outright by fixed-wing craft was peppered with helicopters. They seemed to behave like butterflies and land wherever they pleased.
From the tarmac we were herded onto faded yellow buses that were dustier than a frontier stagecoach. Our driver sat so motionless, giving his steering wheel such a blank stare, that it appeared as if he had died before our arrival or was bored literally out of his mind. He would not have noticed if the Radio City Rockettes had danced onto his bus. He said nothing. Such was his year in the combat zone. I didn't realize it yet, but over half of the military men involved in the war had behind-the-scenes jobs that would put an insomniac to sleep.
The air inside the bus was ancient. Thick chicken wire fencing over the windows didn't help. In theory, this was to keep locals from throwing anything into the vehicle that might hurt us before we could get signed in as official participants in the hostilities.
Suddenly, a figure wearing black pajamas emerged out of the darkness and raced up the dirt embankment toward me and the bus. The person's head was covered by one of those white cone-shaped hats that I knew all too well from the news on television. The situation alarmed me. Near panic set in. The hair on the back of my neck stood at full attention and my heart raced. Before I could cry out a warning, the attacker reached the tarmac just outside my window. There, I could see that she was carrying a double load of laundry balanced on a pole over her shoulder.
Furtively, I glanced around to see if anyone had noticed my reaction. They hadn't. I tried my best to look tough. It's hard to look tough while sitting on a bus. My first brush with death, an old laundry lady on her way to work nearly had me crapping in my pants. Even if she had tried to bean me with her bundle of laundry the wire mesh over the windows would have saved me. Now it seems silly, but it was unnerving at the time.
A bumpy bus ride delivered us to Long Binh, a massive military complex about fifteen miles northeast of Saigon that was our largest base in Vietnam. We were told that every inch of the road we traveled was secure, that there was no enemy threat in the area. It made me wonder why we were escorted front and rear by jeeps with mounted machine guns.
The first order of business once we became temporary members of the 90th Replacement Battalion at Camp Alpha was, of course, paperwork. There were clothing forms, meal forms, vaccination forms, and change of address forms. We were all given a color postcard depicting a burly GI standing with a bayoneted rifle next to a globe of the world and preparing to stamp out a fire that covered Southeast Asia. We were ordered to write our mothers with the encouraging news that we had arrived safely and all was well, as if the plane flight had been the most hazardous part of our tour, and it was all downhill from there.
As soon as the cheerful postcards were collected, we turned our attention to the casualty-reporting forms. Those were the who-do-we-notify-when-you-get-your-balls-blown-off forms.
To my surprise, I was the only one in the group who checked the box indicating that no one was to be informed if I were wounded. In my mind's eye, there were visions of my poor mom receiving a notice saying that her baby had been injured but not indicating the nature or severity of the injury or even where I was recuperating. She, of course, would then call the Pentagon and deal to the point of exasperation with no-name clerks who would say they had never heard of me, or if they had that they weren't authorized to release any information without a release of information form that I had to sign if they could find me. I couldn't put her through such an ordeal.
The sergeant in charge tried to dish me up a plate of grief over my decision not to panic and notify the entire world the minute I got shot in the butt with a peashooter. "Come on now, you need to put somebody down there," he remonstrated. He couldn't grasp my point of view, which I tried to carefully explain, and scolded me with a warning, "Well if you end up in a coma or dead or something we're going to tell your next of kin whether you like it or not." The sergeant had not made me change my mind but had given me a headache. It was a relief to be finished with this guy and his paperwork palace.
They also took away our American money, and replaced it with paper currency that we called Monopoly money. They were two-by-four-inch multicolor bills that felt like real dollars but were labeled as military payment certificates, or MPC.
All denominations featured the same anonymous female face with short blond hair and pearl earrings striking a pose like Queen Elizabeth on a Canadian dollar. No one recognized her. She was probably just a local Washington, D.C. chick who happened to be screwing someone at the Bureau of Engraving. The twenty-five-cent MPC was an unusually gaudy red, white, and blue piece of work that looked like a ticket to a circus or a rodeo. They didn't seem right but we got used to it. They also took away our American coins. Now we couldn't even lag for pennies or quarters when we were bored.
Besides greenbacks, I had a bunch of American Express Travelers' Checks. They made me cash those in also. In retrospect, it seemed kind of stupid to take travelers' checks to a war, just the type of goofy thing that an American would do. We had also been given the option of trading in some of our cash for local currency. Their monetary unit was the dong. That's what was printed on their bills, but everyone called them piasters. I never figured that one out. At the time, there were 118 piasters to the dollar.
Most of us took half and half. Our military stores accepted only MPC. Vietnamese merchants wanted piasters. However, most would accept MPC after feeling it carefully, holding it up to the light and wondering what it would be worth if the U.S. military ever skipped town.
After the paperwork came three positively brutal days, brutal, as in boring with a capital B. We lined up in formation four times a day so that the names of those assigned to various units could be announced. Those people would then depart for their new duty assignments.
Other than that, we just sat and waited. Sitting in a tent for three days of waiting is no picnic. I wouldn't wait that long for the second coming of Christ.
Excerpted from Blood Trails by Christopher Ronnau. Copyright © 2006 by Christopher Ronnau. Excerpted by permission of Presidio Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.