Preserve, Protect and Defend February 1968
The highway to Fort Lewis from the Sea-Tac Airport was covered with a thin film of water that reflected the lights from the oncoming cars. I leaned my head against the cold window. The air smelled clean, like fresh-cut wood. The bus ride was long, and I sat in silence.
Once we arrived at the base, we were greeted in the parking lot with friendly words from a well-starched drill instructor.
“Now get your sorry butts off my bus. Get down and give me push-ups until I get tired!”
George Ellis, my high-school buddy, muttered something obscene my way.
The fort was quiet except for the echo of the fifty of us counting out push-ups in the rain.
The next morning we shed our civilian clothes for olive-drab fatigues. The pants were too big, and the shirts were too stiff—and then to the barbershop, where zip zip, off came the hair.
The next few weeks of basic training were pretty rough. After the first week, our DI finally started to lighten up, even joked around a bit, although he never smiled. We had a theory that the drill instructors never slept. They had a nasty habit of pulling surprise inspections in the middle of the night.
We were all sitting in the corner of the large open bay of the 1st Platoon, A Company, 1st Battalion, 2d Brigade, building. Dave Smith had just punched Dumpy Drivold in the arm as our drill instructor, Sergeant Koffman, began his instructions on night watch.
Koffman said, “One of these nights you’re going to be walking on fire watch, you’ll walk into the latrine, and you might find someone masturbating.”
Everyone started laughing.
“Don’t turn the poor guy in. It will embarrass him, it will embarrass you, and it will embarrass the sergeant you turn him into.”
Everyone was really laughing by now.
I raised my hand—then grabbed Ellis and shouted, “Sergeant Koffman, what if you already caught someone?”
Ellis and I had played sports together all through high school and college; we were always playing jokes on each other.
“What? Not me!”
Ellis struggled to get free of my grasp. The more Ellis tried to explain, the harder everyone laughed.
After basic training, Ellis got a thirty-day leave and truck-driving school in Fort Ord, California. I couldn’t believe it! My orders were to leave immediately for AIT.
“I thought you volunteered for infantry school, like we agreed, right? Remember our pact?” I asked Ellis.
He shrugged. “I couldn’t help it, they asked me what I wanted to do, so I put down drive a truck.”
George was the worst driver in our high school class. The only truck he had ever driven was his brother’s old pickup, and he couldn’t park that without hitting something. George left for truck-driving school.
George stayed in the States and never left California. I headed across the base to report to Company E, 2d Battalion, 3d Advanced Individual Training Brigade. Our company commander was Capt. Boudewijn Van Pamelen, an ex-Special Forces A Team leader. His example encouraged me to volunteer for Airborne.
AIT went by quickly, and soon I was on my way to Fort Benning for Airborne training.
I walked up to the airline ticket counter and was told I would be flying military standby. The attendant handed back my ticket and told me to go wait in line with the others. I looked in the direction she indicated and saw what must have been two hundred GIs, who looked like they’d been camping in the airport for weeks. I turned back to the ticket salesgirl and asked, “Is there a bar in this place?”
We finally boarded the Boeing 707 jet, and I celebrated my twenty-first birthday on the long flight to Georgia.
I arrived late in the evening, the day before training. I picked up my bag, tossed it over my shoulder and walked down the hot, dusty road, which led to the only building left with an empty bunk.
No sooner had I closed my eyes than I was awakened by a short, squatty staff sergeant who told me to follow him down to the mess hall. I thought I could orient myself to the school, but instead I was greeted with a work detail. This was one detail I would soon learn to avoid at all cost—KP!
Once inside, he introduced me to a hundred-pound bag of potatoes and a potato peeler. I learned to never arrive early in the army again.
We began orientation by standing in formation on the open grounds in front of a large, white sign with huge letters that read jump committee, painted above a set of jump wings. Our instructor was a white-haired, wiry gentleman who introduced himself as Colonel Welch and then spent the next twenty minutes officially welcoming us to jump school. He told us that our training would last three weeks and while we were there we would observe a few rules. Attendance at all formations was mandatory, and we were to run everywhere we went. Because the training was during the hottest part of Georgia’s long summer, we were required every hour to roll through the specially arranged outdoor showers set up at every training station and to take a couple of salt tablets. We soon learned to love those showers and hate the salt tablets.
One morning during our second week, we heard that one of the holdovers killed himself. As we ran past the Animal Farm, the holdover barracks, we could see the outline of his body hanging just inside the doorway. Seeing someone dead made the training take on a more serious tone. Death had suddenly become a reality.
Later that night, as we ran back past the Animal Farm, his body was still hanging there. What possibly could have pushed this guy this far? Was it because he didn’t make it through jump school? I wondered how his parents would react and what they’d think when they got word that their son had killed himself.
By the third week we were in great shape. We ran everywhere, even to and from the mess hall. We were now ready for the real training to begin.
Down on the airfield, we boarded an old, silver C-119. She shook like hell as we taxied down the runway. It took forever for the plane to begin the climb. I became more afraid of the flight than the upcoming jump.
They called the C-119’s flying boxcars. They would take up a planeload of fifty paratroopers, fly us into Alabama, and dump us out over the drop zone.
Up in the sky, we sat nervously along both sides of the cargo compartment, waiting to stand and hook our static lines to one of the two cables which ran the length of the plane. It was very hard to be brave inside that bouncing plane, but I was trying. I had my eye on the two lights near the exit door.
One was red, warning us to get ready. The green one meant go.
The jumpmaster yelled, “Get ready!” He lifted his arms over his head, causing all of us to tighten up.
“Stand up! Hook up!”
It was just as we had trained. The jumpmaster, with his hands held high, crooked his index finger, the sign to hook up. We fastened our static-line snap links to the parallel cables running down both sides of the airplane. We checked our reserve chutes, then turned and checked the main chute of the guy behind us.
“Stand in the door!” the jumpmaster screamed. I shuffled to the open door. I was one of the first ones to jump. I tightly grasped the doorway and waited for the tap of the jumpmaster. I leaned back a little to see the red light on the side. A sick feeling washed over me. It was the same one I had when I watched the shower scene from the movie Psycho. I stood, almost paralyzed with fear. But this time I couldn’t go out to the lobby for a Coke.
The ground below didn’t look real. The green light came on. I tucked in my head, grabbed my reserve, and jumped! A blast of wind blew me back against the side of the plane. I started rolling as I fell.
My main chute opened—partially. I looked up and saw the shroud lines wrapped around each other. The chute was tangled, and I was spinning uncontrollably.
I reached up. I couldn’t free the tangled mess. Then I remembered the training. Run in place! There wasn’t much time before I would have to make a major decision. Cut loose the main or pull the reserve. I had maybe fifteen seconds before I would hit the ground. I ran like hell! With a loud pop! my main chute fully deployed.
As the wind whistled past me, I looked down. The earth was still coming up too fast! The instructors had explained ground rush to us during training.
“If you fix your eyes on the ground, you start reaching for it. You involuntarily straighten your legs out, and if you hit that way, it’s broken-leg city.”
I quickly pulled my head up, looked straight out at the horizon, then pulled down on the front risers.
Crunch! I hit with a jarring blow and rolled to the right. I lay on my back, looking up at the sky. I had done it.
The three C-119’s, off in the distance, flew back to Georgia.
“Welcome to Alabama, Private.”
One of the jump school’s cadre watching me hit laughed because I was just lying there talking to the sky.
“Yes, you’re alive, but you’d better give me five, troop,” he said as he bent over and held out his hand. When I reached out, he grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me to my feet.
“Better yet, make it ten.”
Then, still chuckling to himself, he walked away.
I uncoupled my harness, pulled in my chute and started doing push-ups.
“One Airborne, two Airborne . . .”
Later in the week, after our fifth and last qualifying jump, we all met back at the parade ground, and Platoon Sergeant Williams, our head instructor, awarded us our jump wings.
With a hard blow from his fist, the big NCO hammered the bare metal pins into our chests. My pride quelled the pain.
After the formation, a group of us went down to the small soda shop nearby to show off our new “blood wings.”
I told the guys about my high-school buddy, Dave Kranig, and how he’d volunteered for the paratroopers back in 1965. He ended up in the 101st and got shot up bad in Nam.
“Shot thirteen times, he spent fifteen months in an army hospital. He almost bought it. He tried to take out a VC bunker by himself, and a group of Vietcong ambushed him.”
Everyone listened intently. The whole place got quiet.
“His left arm was shot almost completely off. He rolled over on it to slow the bleeding with the weight of his body. The VC ran back and shot him three more times, but even that didn’t finish him off. He survived it all.”
Kranig had come back and visited me at college. I told the guys that shortly after being released from the hospital for bone-graft surgery, Kranig got into a fist fight.
“No way, man!” one of the guys said.
“It wasn’t much of a fight,” I said. “A peacenik gave him some lip, so he hit him with his cast.”
One of the guys said, “Man, that Kranig’s cool!” as we walked back to the training grounds.
We all got our orders the next day and left Fort Benning for a month of “good-byes” before we left for Nam.
The leave was over before it started. The next thing I realized, I was stepping off a Boeing 707 at Bien Hoa Air Base, Republic of Vietnam. It was nine in the morning when they opened the airplane doors. A blast of searing heat hit me. Before we walked halfway across the tarmac, my fatigue shirt was soaked with sweat. Nothing had prepared me for this.
“Move out!” one of the black-hatted NCOs shouted.
“Get on those buses. Move it now, troop!”
I climbed aboard and grabbed a front seat. I stared out the window at the Vietnamese countryside. Rows of palm trees broke up the flat, stark landscape. An occasional rice paddy or a Vietnamese farmer drew everyone’s attention. We passed an endless series of small villages with children playing in the streets. The driver seemed barely aware of them as they darted back and forth in front of our bus. The locals casually went about their business, as if unaware that a war was going on. ARVN soldiers lounged at every outside cafe we passed.
As we drove into the 90th Replacement Center in Long Binh, I noticed an above-ground swimming pool. One of the guys behind me yelled, “Hey, this doesn’t look too bad!”
The four buses stopped in front of an open parade ground, and we quickly filed off. A stocky specialist fourth class gave us a Welcome-to-Vietnam speech. He then told us to line up outside the administration building to process in and be assigned to our units.
This was my first introduction to REMFs—the guys in the rear. There was no glory in being support personnel. In many ways, their jobs were the worst. They probably found the boredom and constant stress excuse enough to bully the replacements.
In less than four hours, I felt more like I was starting a one-year prison sentence than fighting a war. We were told that everything but the building we were standing in was officially off-limits.
Those of us who were Airborne qualified were told that the 101st had just lost one thousand men up North, and would be needing “fresh meat.”
Fresh meat? I thought, I’m fresh meat?
Finally, almost begrudgingly, we were led to the mess hall to wait in an endless line for what we were told was food. It didn’t taste like any food I’d eaten back home. I was more thirsty than hungry and grabbed a second cup of lime Kool-Aid. I was told that this was a new record. I would come to hate green Kool-Aid. After sampling some interesting pound cake, we had a few minutes outside to grab a smoke. Instead, I found a meal-on-wheels conveniently outside the mess hall and grabbed a Coke. I gulped it down. Everything seemed so strange and different here, but Coke still tasted the same.
Later, in my bunk, I tried to rest but couldn’t. I guess it was a combination of jet lag and being treated like an animal. The hooch was hot, muggy, and noisy. The sounds of people moving in and out all night kept me awake. I couldn’t tell if they were on our side or the enemy’s. I tried to keep my eyes shut, but it was no use.
The next night, a hard-looking sergeant walked into our hooch.
“Hey, you three! Draw weapons and come with me. You’re on bunker four.”
“What do we do?” I asked. That question really pissed him off. Did he think we could read his mind?
He drove us to a sandbag-covered bunker, dropped us off, gave us some quick instructions, then stormed on up the berm to the next bunker.
For the next three hours, we stood around inside the hot, humid bunker, looking out through the narrow slot in the sandbags. I never took my eyes off the two claymore mines just in front of the coiled concertina wire, less than twenty feet from our position. We had been told the Vietcong would sneak up in the night and turn the claymores around, face them back at us. Then they would sit back and make a bunch of noise to get us to blow ourselves up. I was determined that this was not going to happen to me, at least not on the first night.
After a while, it appeared that no one was going to tell us anything more. We split into shifts and took turns pulling watch on top of the fortification.
None of us could sleep. Every time a flare went up, it made a loud pop!, and we’d all run back inside the bunker to wait for the enemy to attack.
The next day I had to pull bunker guard again. This time I was a little more confident, and lucky for the Vietcong they didn’t attack. I knew their claymore trick.
Flares went off all that night, like an endless celebration of the Fourth of July. They burned slowly, under small parachutes, as they drifted back to earth, casting long shadows across the open fields.
I began thinking that maybe I’d made a mistake coming here. I was really feeling homesick.
One of the guys on the guard was Lennie White. He was from Kansas City. One of his friends had told him the boonies was like living in hell for a whole year.
“Man, look at the faces in the mess hall tonight. Watch for the blank stare. When you see a guy with that stare, you know he’s been in the boonies.”
I was starting to hate this place, and I’d only been here two days.
It was all very confusing. It was as if I’d stumbled into some kind of weird movie. Those were the hardest five days I had ever spent. And they called it “adjustment.”
Soon I received orders for the 101st Airborne Division, which had its rear area nearby.
We packed up our gear, jumped into the back of an army deuce-and-a-half, then drove to Bien Hoa. As we pulled into the flat, dusty, army base, we passed a sign that read, serts (Screaming Eagle Replacement Training School) the 101st airborne division.
After in-processing and completion of a five-day training program, we would be shipped north to join a combat unit as replacements. The school’s mission was to get us ready to survive in real combat.
The 101st Airborne Division believed that the treatment a soldier received during this first contact with the division was crucial to his attitude for the remainder of his tour. So the cadre at SERTS was better than the REMFs had been at the 90th Replacement. They worked us much harder, but there seemed to be a purpose behind it.
My initial processing included a records check, getting paid, and the opportunity to visit one of the many “swinging” night spots that Vietnam had to offer. And I never even had to leave camp.
Besides providing time to adjust to the tropical heat, the school offered a refresher course in all the subjects we’d covered back in basic and AIT. We received day-and-night training under the watchful eyes of handpicked, combat-experienced NCOs. There was a realistic enemy village and a jungle trail, complete with mines and booby traps. There were classes in first aid, field sanitation, and sometimes unscheduled, simulated mortar attacks. Sometimes there were rocket attacks too—and they were not simulated. You had to be on your toes.
The second day was hotter than the first, as our group practiced counterambush drills. We had just walked past a jungle trail when our black-capped instructor yelled, “Ambush!”
I jumped to the side. I hit the ground, then looked up. Dust was flying everywhere. I felt something moving under me and felt a burning pain, like my skin was on fire. I raised my bare forearm to look. Hundreds of half-inch-long ants were clinging to the skin on my arm. Fire ants! The shock of feeling and seeing all those nasty-looking insects biting into my flesh sent me jumping back away from the trail.
As I tried to remove the remaining ants, the instructor yelled in my ear.
“You are dead meat, son! I don’t care if you got razor blades up your ass, you don’t jump up in an ambush, you cherry—drop and give me twenty-five!”
I was now certain that coming here was not a good idea.
That night we were gathered together to listen to a recruiter for an all-volunteer, special-operations unit called the LRPs. I was interested, but I didn’t know what a LRP was.
A guy named Lennie White filled me in.
“The LRPs are some bad dudes. I knew one in the 173d. They work in six-man teams behind enemy lines at night. If the NVA caught them, they all got wiped out. The gooks even had a bounty on their heads. They are some bad dudes,” he repeated, shaking his head. “Bad dudes.”
We moved into the large conference tent. About eighty of us sat down on the benches in front of the SERTS instructor.
“A-ten-hut!” We jumped up.
This recruiter looked different. He wore a black baseball cap with a Recondo patch on it. His jump wings were pinned above the patch. His shirt was starched, and he had jump wings and a Combat Infantry Badge (CIB) above his left pocket. On the right side of his shirt, he wore another Recondo patch. I wondered what it stood for. Even his jungle boots were polished, though there was not much leather left on them.
His look was intense. He didn’t have the blank stare of a boonie rat. He looked normal—well, almost normal.
“Good afternoon, men! I’m Sergeant McDougal, F Company 58th LRPs.”
Some of the guys nudged each other.
We had already been warned about the LRPs by our SERTS instructor, who told us, “They’re the long range patrol. No support, some way-out crazies. So don’t go and volunteer unless you got a death wish.”
But this guy seemed okay. Like a breath of fresh air in a place that smelled of burned shit.
I listened to his spiel.
“Our unit is better trained. Everyone is a volunteer and a paratrooper. We have the highest body count per man in the division. We work in six-man teams, and we are as far from friendly ground troops as we can get. Our primary mission is reconnaissance, but occasionally we’ll snatch a prisoner or pull an ambush.”
Everyone laughed at his emphasis on the word occasionally.
“If you volunteer and qualify, you will get more training and have more privileges than in a line unit. You might even get an extra R & R; plus, you won’t have to live in the boonies. We just work there. Usually a mission lasts three to six days, followed by a two- or three-day stand-down in the rear.”
Some guy in the back cracked, “If you live that long.”
Some of the guys laughed nervously.
One hand went up.
“Yeah, Sarge. I have been hearing about different life expectancies, you know, for different duty assignments. Like, the life expectancy for a door gunner in combat is five seconds, and an infantry second lieutenant is twenty seconds. What’s the life expectancy of a LRP in combat?”
The salty NCO frowned, then a sly smile came over his face. In a low voice he explained, “LRPs don’t have a life expectancy in combat. If you find yourself in combat, either you started it—in which case the gooks die. Or they start it, in which case you die. We don’t make mistakes. We don’t let them start fights.”
The spec-four who asked the question fidgeted nervously in his chair as if he wanted to leave now. Without any more explanation, McDougal asked for any volunteers to stand up.
This was the first guy who had truly impressed me since I had joined the army. He seemed pretty squared away. I thought, if the other guys are like this, it won’t be so bad.
I felt that if I walked away, I would regret it for the rest of my life, so I stood up.
Everyone looked at me like I was nuts, especially Wallace, our sergeant. Wallace was a line NCO from the O’deuce—the 502d Parachute Infantry. He looked at me and whispered, “You’re steppin’ on it now, boy! I’m glad it ain’t my ass. I’ve only got twenty-nine days and a wake-up.”
The next afternoon, I was notified that I’d been accepted. I would be going to the LRPs as a replacement.
I would be going up north to Camp Eagle, near the ancient imperial capital of Vietnam—the city of Hue.
I was apprehensive about what I’d done. But, what the hell! If there were only six guys working alone, then everyone would be more careful. Maybe these guys were okay. Besides, it sounded like the kind of unit my dad was in during World War II.
In more normal times, these special unit assignments were hard to get. You had to sign up and wait forever to get into them. But this was war, and the lines were a lot shorter.
Not many others shared my drive and enthusiasm, but I had something to look forward to now. All that the other ground pounders had to look forward to was humping the boonies for 360 days with a line company.
Three days later I had my orders to F Company, 58th Infantry, LRP, 101st Airborne Division. Airborne! I wondered what it would be like. I knew I didn’t want to be just a ground pounder. I heard that LRPs flew in helicopters everywhere they went—even had choppers specifically assigned to them! It was their mission to gather intelligence for the whole damn division.
Excerpted from Recondo by Larry Chambers. Copyright © 2003 by Larry Chambers. 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.