All the Way
On August 28, 1948, something happened to me that would affect my entire existence on this planet called Earth--I was born! Tulsa, Oklahoma, added me to its census that evening; my parents picked up another tax exemption.
Since I've been old enough to remember, adventure and excitement have always captured my attention. Westerns and war movies were my favorites, and I loved it when the Earps beat the Clantons to the draw at the OK Corral, and the Marines mowed down the Japanese human-wave assaults on Guadalcanal. It was the way of the warrior--the way it was supposed to be done.
I still remember Hopalong Cassidy mounted on the back of his snow-white stallion, Topper, as he passed by me during a parade down the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Because I got to see him in person, he was always one of my favorites.
There were also Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Davy Crockett, and Daniel Boone. They were all special to me--they were my heroes. John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd, and Randolph Scott were my favorite tough guys. Crockett, Boone, and Jim Bowie fascinated me, causing me to feel that I had been shortchanged at birth. I convinced myself that I should have been born during the early frontier days. Wearing my coonskin cap and carrying a rifle like Crockett's old Betsy, I would have wreaked havoc on the frontier.
For hours at a time, my childhood friends and I played cowboys and Indians; then we would switch to being combat soldiers during World War II, using sticks as weapons if guns were not available. Many battles raged daily through our neighborhood, and the good guys always won. It was about then that the series Combat was running on television, and it commanded most of my attention. I especially liked the theme song.
At an early age, my first BB gun was a constant companion, and then, on my sixth birthday, I was given the ultimate weapon--a single-shot .22-caliber rifle. After drilling me with an extended course in gun safety and showing me how to care for it, my dad taught me how to shoot. We spent many hours rabbit and squirrel hunting along the Arkansas River. Those times hold some of my fondest early memories.
My parents divorced when I was almost seven, and both remarried shortly afterward. I stayed with my mom and my stepdad, and when I turned eight, they moved us to Irving, Texas. We stayed there for six years before relocating again to Hurst, Texas, where I attended L.D. Bell High School.
Summer-league baseball and football occupied much of my time during my high school years. In addition, I swam, played a lot of golf, and fished. All those activities were fun, but my real love was hunting. I could hardly wait until the seasons opened in the fall. Quail, dove, rabbit, squirrel, and deer were my favorites.
After I graduated from high school, my career path seemed unclear. I considered coaching or being a government hunter or game warden, but nothing really seemed very appealing. I wanted to work outdoors, but everything I looked at seemed to lack the adventure and excitement I craved. I enrolled at North Texas State University at Denton in the fall. However, I suffered a thigh injury while playing touch football that put me on crutches for a while. The temporary disability didn't do much for my motivation, and after struggling to make it through the semester, I decided to return home and enlist in the army.
Right after I got back home, Steve Gerber, a friend from high school, came home from Vietnam on a thirty-day extension leave. He was in Special Forces (SF), and he was going back for six more months. After spending some quality time talking with him and reading a brochure about SF, I decided that it was just the challenge I had been looking for. Steve gave me a ride on the back of his motorcycle, and the two of us headed to Arlington, Texas, to talk to an army recruiter. It didn't take him long to convince me that the army was where I belonged. I enlisted for Special Forces and departed for basic combat training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, in October 1967.
I was in excellent physical condition when I reported for basic. That, and the fact that I had a very positive attitude, enabled me to come within one point of being the outstanding trainee of my basic-training cycle. Still, it got me a promotion to private E-2. After graduation, I was transferred to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, to attend Morse code school, a critical MOS (military occupational specialty), for Special Forces.
Two weeks before graduation, my dad was killed in an automobile accident. I went home on emergency leave to attend the funeral. By the time I returned to Fort Huachuca, my class had already graduated. Fortunately, one only had to send and receive thirteen words a minute to graduate from the course. Since I was already sending and receiving twenty-three words per minute, they gave me my certificate immediately.
Fort Benning, Georgia, was my next stop. I had already made the decision to attend Airborne school as soon as I finished Morse code classes. The very thought of being a paratrooper excited me though I had always been afraid of heights. I arrived a few days before our class actually started, so I had the distinct pleasure of serving on KP, an experience not worth telling about. It was not an enjoyable episode.
Airborne training officially began on a Monday with ground week, mental harassment, and physical conditioning, which meant run, run, run, everywhere we went. Obviously, it was an attempt by the cadre to run the less committed trainees into quitting. A few did. We also practiced our PLFs (parachute landing falls) to make sure that if the fall didn't kill us, we could survive the landing. We also practiced exiting the aircraft properly. This was important because a bad exit could result in a number of major problems when a chute opens, any of which could result in a crash-and-burn arrival on the drop zone 1,250 feet below. The commands of "stand up," "hook up," and "shuffle to the door" were drummed into our heads over and over again.
Week two, tower week, consisted of training on the 34-foot and 250-foot towers. The first simulated the shock of the parachute opening, and the second gave us a taste of falling under a full canopy. They separated the men from the boys and gave us a sample of what we would be experiencing during an actual jump.
Finally, jump week was upon us, the climax to the previous two weeks' training. That was the week that would see us making five actual parachute jumps, the number needed to qualify for the coveted jump wings of a paratrooper. Quite a few guys washed out of the program during that critical week in our training, and our jump class was significantly smaller as we approached graduation day. What a rush it was to stand in the door and fling myself up and out into the prop blast! When the chute opened seconds later and I looked up to see that oversize canopy fully deployed, there was no thrill like it anywhere on the face of the earth.
When we graduated after our fifth jump, Colonel Welch, the Airborne School commandant, congratulated us and welcomed us into the elite airborne brotherhood. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I had been promoted to the rank of private first class (E-3) right after graduation.
I took the Special Forces battery test, a four-hour written exam, shortly after completing Jump School. I was informed the next day that my scores were acceptable and that I was off to Special Forces Training Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Fort Bragg was only a short distance out of Fayetteville, North Carolina, and was also the home of the 82d Airborne Division and the XVIII Airborne Corps. When we arrived, we were bused out to Smoke Bomb Hill and assigned to Training Group. I was excited that I would soon be able to wear the green beret and crest emblazoned with the motto, De Oppresso Liber--We Liberate the Oppressed, but we had to complete three separate and very demanding phases of training before graduating and getting our group beret flash.
Phase I was a mixture of physical conditioning, classroom training, and a survival exercise that involved a parachute deployment into a guerrilla-held area. The classroom training was interesting and germane to what we would be doing in the field. After completing the round of instruction, we were ready for the coming exercise.
The survival exercise was to be a lesson in military tactics, conditioning, and endurance. We would begin the exercise by making a night parachute jump into a small drop zone. While being pursued by aggressor forces for several days, we would be forced to live off the land while navigating through thick, heavily forested terrain. We would have to practice patrol techniques, immediate-action drills, and establish ambushes as we had been taught in the classroom phase of our training.
During the jump, my stick was the last one to exit the aircraft into the pitch-black night. Everything went well until I was about treetop high, when I was caught by a strong crosswind that turned my chute and hurtled me into the ground. I landed hard, flat on my back in the middle of an asphalt road with a full load of equipment on. The impact nearly knocked me unconscious. When I was finally able to gather my wits about me, I discovered that I suffered a numbing paralysis. My back was throbbing, and the pain was unbearable.
An ambulance arrived to evacuate me to Womack Army Hospital, where doctors diagnosed my injury as a lower lumbar back strain. They ordered several days of bed rest, followed by a period of physical therapy. My world was shattered soon afterward when I was informed that my dream of being SF-qualified was very much in doubt. If I could ever jump again, I would surely have to be recycled back through Phase I to start over again. However, my back continued to bother me even though I had decided to drive on.
Word soon filtered down to Training Group that 5th Special Forces Group needed more personnel in Vietnam. Several of us volunteered to terminate Training Group and go directly to Vietnam in hopes of getting into 5th Group. After a thirty-day leave, I flew out of Dallas's Love Field for Oakland, California, on the first leg of the journey to Vietnam.
Flying on a commercial airplane for over twenty hours gave me plenty of time to reflect on my past and consider my future. Having just turned twenty years old a little over a month before, I had nearly two decades to look back over.
Family, school, sports, friends, mistakes, and achievements flooded through my mind as I stared out the aircraft window. Below us was the bright blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean. I saw an occasional ship plying the surface en route to some distant port. Inside the plane, everyone seemed lost in thoughts of home and what lay before us. It was hard to focus on anything but that strange, distant land called "Vietnam." What would the future hold for me? Would I survive the next year? After a period of time, I got tired of trying to answer the unanswerable and drifted off to sleep.
We landed at Tan Son Nhut Airport near Saigon. When I stepped off the aircraft, I was greeted by a terrific blast of heat that made me gasp. The strange smell of diesel fumes and a mixture of other noxious gases nearly overwhelmed me.
We boarded a string of olive-drab military buses for the short but scenic ride out to Bien Hoa, and then on to Long Binh, where we were turned over to the confusion and frustration of the 90th Replacement Center. We were awed by the sights and sounds of urban and rural South Vietnam. Poverty, perversity, pain, and suffering were evident wherever we looked. A country at war is a terrible thing to witness. But it was something we would get used to as we became a part of its scenery and participants in its fratricide. Guard towers, sandbagged bunkers, roadblocks, concertina wire, military vehicles and personnel were everywhere. If there was any doubt before that we were in a war zone, it was quickly erased by the martial aura surrounding South Vietnam's capital city. I developed a sudden lump in my throat that was not there when we landed a short time before. It was all quite sobering to a twenty-year-old soldier whose combat experience had been limited to books, movies, and childhood play. Vietnam was the real thing. I wondered what kind of mess I had gotten myself into. I knew that I would likely find out in the very near future.
The first night in country, we received a special welcome from the locals outside the perimeter. Mortar rounds began falling inside the compound. Monstrous explosions filled the night as shouts of "Incoming!" echoed through the night. Everyone ran for the nearest bunkers, where we cringed fearfully in the humid darkness, hoping that we would live to see the next day. Welcome to Vietnam!
The next day, we received orders assigning us to our units. The sergeant who called my name announced that I was being assigned to Company F, 52d Infantry (LRP), 1st Infantry Division. I listened proudly to the muffled comments of those around me, and the long, negative sighs of pity. I had already discovered that Special Forces was no longer in need of additional personnel so I had volunteered for duty with the long-range patrol company, or LRPs. It was what I had trained for . . . hoped for . . . it was what I wanted. It was small-team warfare at its finest. Recon, ambushes, pilot rescues, POW snatches--all the things I had dreamed of were finally coming true.
Each infantry division and independent brigade in Vietnam had a LRP unit attached to it to serve as the eyes and ears of the parent unit. There were even two additional LRP companies, one each attached to I Field Force and II Field Force. The LRP units were made up of volunteers, for the most part Airborne-qualified, who had already earned a reputation in country for daring, resourcefulness, and problems with conventional military authority.
My orders assigned me to report to a base camp out in III Corps at Lai Khe. It was the home of the Big Red One, the legendary 1st Infantry Division. I boarded a C-130 Hercules transport and flew out to Lai Khe the next day. When we landed, I discovered that Lai Khe lay in the middle of a huge rubber plantation, surrounded by an endless expanse of single-, double-, and triple-canopy jungle. Lai Khe had been nicknamed "Rocket City" for a very good reason; the enemy used it as the terminal point for hundreds of rocket and mortar attacks directed to demoralize and destroy American forces in the area.
Excerpted from War Paint by Bill Goshen. Copyright © 2001 by Bill Goshen. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, 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.