by Ron Kirkwood
I was a twenty year old college graduate with a rank of second class petty officer in the US Navy. I had recently completed River Warfare Training, north of San Francisco when Uncle Sam called me away. I was leaving the safety of my home and country for a strange, hostile land. I didn't want to go, but felt the government knew best. Hardly knowing Canada's direction, I had no intention of hiding there.
I made the difficult climb up the ladder to the entrance of the long, cigar-shaped plane. Climbing it was not physically exerting, but more of a psychological drain. I was not alone as I entered the lengthy cabin. More than a hundred young servicemen and women on board were also going to Vietnam. Few talked in the hot cabin. Many looked out the small window by their seats. Some of them waved goodbye as if their loved ones outside could see them. For me there wasn't anyone outside to wave to. In those brief few moments, I felt overcome by loneliness.
It was an emotional time for each of us. A year had passed since the deadly Tet Offensive and some knew they wouldn't return to see their family or loved ones again. Nobody knew what lay ahead. At our young age everyone thought they wouldn't be the one killed. We were invincible. It wouldn't be any of us. I still couldn't help wonder which of us wouldn't grow older, but instead return in a black plastic body bag or cloth-lined coffin.
Was I just one more life? Many of my seatmates sat in their seats red-eyed or had tears running down their cheeks. It was extremely difficult to look at them. Somehow I didn't want to know them. It was easier to endure the thought of some of them not coming back when I had not seen them. It was like walking into a storm. All of us knew it would be difficult up ahead but we didn't have any acceptable choices. We had to go ahead. We had to go into that storm. Would I be one of those who would not return alive? Trying to be strong I forced myself not to think about it, having been taught that men shouldn't cry.
I made the long trip dressed in my hot wool Navy uniform, sailor hat, and glossy black shoes. The cabin was extremely quiet with little conversation. My thoughts during those long, quiet hours returned to another time, another place. I missed the simple things from puppy smells to the sounds of a child's laughter. Somehow those things were important to me now.
The trip seemed to take forever. We made an hour-long refueling stop in the Philippines and flew northwest to our final destination. We arrived on a stifling hot and damp day outside Saigon. Our destination was Tan So'n Nhut Air Base. As we taxied up, I could see military personnel everywhere. The base was surrounded by reconnaissance towers, barbed wire, coils of contina wire, and bunkers. Military planes painted camouflage green moved about on the field while others left or arrived. Helicopters were everywhere on the ground and in the dirty blue sky. I was in Vietnam, like it or not.
Saigon had a myriad of new sights, sounds and odors. Local people scurried back and forth despite the scalding heat, wearing light-colored coolie hats and dark pajamas. Everyone appeared to be in a hurry. A sickening sweet-fishy smell mixed with the odor of diesel fumes filled the gray air. Part of the foul smell came from a popular sauce called "nuoc-maum" made with rotten fish. My eyes burned from the foul smells and smoke of the many vehicles.
We rode in a drab green military bus from the airport to downtown Saigon. The windows had been covered with wire mesh to repel hand grenades and bombs. Horns honked from the motorbikes, cars, and trucks filling the narrow dirty streets. A Navy enlisted man drove our vehicle through the crowded hot dusty streets at a fast pace honking his horn, not caring about hitting anyone. He looked much older than his passengers and appeared awfully grumpy for such a young person. Residents walking and riding bicycles dashed for safety from the speeding bus. The driver cursed and yelled "Fu#%in' zipper heads" as he sped along the garbage-laden streets. Staring out the wire mesh window I thought, like him, they hadn't chosen to be involved in this senseless war either. They were mostly innocent by-standers.
Our journey through Saigon took us by bars, whorehouses ("Boom-Boom Boxes" we called them), small stores of every description, government buildings and several old elegant hotels built by the French. Off to the left, we passed a large racetrack. A big sign read, Phu Tho Racetrack.
We arrived at a naval barracks where two soldiers stood outside a guard shack checking papers. They were neatly dressed in freshly pressed military fatigues and flawless shiny boots. Each carried a rifle over his shoulder. It suddenly dawned on me, this was for real.
The colorless building had been a small hotel that was converted to a military personnel barrack with a tall fence topped with barbed and concertina wire surrounding the structure. Due to the intense heat and excessive travel, I felt sick. My appetite had disappeared and I found it difficult to sleep that night. I'm sure this was due to not knowing what lay ahead, as well as the unbearable humidity and unending sounds of honking horns outside. I was having difficulty adjusting to the new time. That night I lay in my damp smelly bed trying to shut out the rumble of motorcycles going up and down the street throughout the night.
The only faint movement of air came from the overhead fan. Feeling completely exhausted, several hours passed before I stopped watching the lights jumping on my wall and finally fell asleep.
Waking to the damp and unfamiliar smells of the morning, I put on my green fatigues and spike proof boots. The boots had steel soles to prevent injury from stepping on "pungee stakes," which were sharp posts of bamboo or wood stuck upright in holes dug and covered with camouflage. The enemy had put out these traps to injure Americans and South Vietnamese by covering the stakes with human excrement causing an infection when stepped on. In a way, this showed what type of enemy we fought.
We were later issued an M-16 rifle and transported to a ship or boat tender called the Benewah. The ship was located on a large river about sixty-five miles southwest of Saigon. This was called the Mekong Delta area. We were near a town called My Tho (pronounced my toe). The Benewah was anchored in the middle of a fast-moving red muddy river to avoid rocket or mortar attacks from the shore. On one side of the ship, a series of pontoons held twenty or so army green colored PBR (patrol boat river) boats and other boats tied side by side. PBR's were small, fast and maneuverable fiberglass boats with a powerful engine lacking a propeller but relying on a jet of water to propel them. Each had a machine gun mounted on the front with a crew of about three people.
In addition to the PBR's were "Mike" boats, a slightly larger craft. Each had a helicopter pad for quick evacuation of the wounded should the need arise. Mike boats did not have much firepower, so they mainly were used for troop transport. On many occasions, they dropped Army or Marine personnel on shore for patrols. There were also a few other riverboats tied up along side the PBR's. These boats we would see often in the coming weeks and those assigned to these boats were called River Rats. The ship was to be our base and we would come here again.
During our brief stay, there was an enemy mortar attack. It was difficult to believe anyone actually trying to kill us. The realism awakened me to the severity of it all. Within a few minutes, they brought an old Vietnamese woman on board for first aid for a bad injury to her leg. Seeing her with her leg almost severed, made me realize how close to death we all were. I'd never gone through this sort of thing. I was getting scared.
In a few hours, we were taken by drab green military truck to a location near our new boat. We rode down the powder-dusted tree-lined roads. Vivid green foliage contrasted with the bright red earth. Some of the local inhabitants worked in the rice fields while a small child sat on the back of a huge water buffalo. The countryside was beautiful. We headed north about forty miles passing a small town called Cu Chi (pronounced cu chee.) Cu Chi was considered a dangerous area. North Vietnamese and Vietcong had dug miles of underground tunnels. Unknown to the Americans, it was the North Vietnamese military headquarters. Hospitals, libraries and many other things were located in this underground haven.
A US army base had been built on top of this tunnel network after they thought the tunnel complex had been destroyed. In time, this theory was proven wrong. "VC," or "Vietcong", suddenly would appear inside the camp from time to time and cause havoc. After careful checking, our people discovered many more tunnels. The U.S. soldiers who crawled down into the underground burrows were called "Tunnel Rats" and climbed down those small holes with a pistol or knife in their mouths looking for the enemy. Many of these brave young men died. A person had to be somewhat crazy to go down those holes.
The last ten miles we rode on a PBR to our new boat. The area near-by was called the Orange Triangle. A young crewman stood at a 50-cal. machine gun on the bow, looking like a big kid playing a war game. He wore a sweat-soaked green tee-shirt with a bulletproof vest and helmet. He kept his focus on the treeline and the people in the rice patties. A 50-cal. machine gun was an awesome weapon; it could cut in half a large tree more than 500 yards away.
My attention was drawn to a human skull on the front mast. The crew thought it was "neat" but I was horrified at the sight of it. Despite the skull on the mast and the machine gunner, it was difficult to believe a war was going on. Along the river, the residents worked in the rice fields hardly aware.
Our boat was situated on a dirty red river across from a village called Go Dau Ha (pronounced go da ha) in the Tay Ninh (pronounced ta nin) province. We were located near an area they called The Parrots Beak. It was considered an extremely hazardous area where Cambodia extended into Vietnam. Many Vietcong or North Vietnamese Army troops traveled south on trails in the jungles of Cambodia and crossover to South Vietnam. Our job was to prevent this enemy movement into South Vietnam. My new boat was called "Zippo Five", located at a military base camp outside a small village near this vicinity. We had trained on a similar boat back in California so we were somewhat familiar with it. Six of us trained together and went on to Vietnam as a crew.
Zippo Five was originally a L.C.M. (Landing Craft / Mechanized) during World War II. The L.C.M. was used to drop troops on shores. In some ways it looked like the Mike boats we ran with. On this one, they had welded the front ramp up and inserted a deck at the mid-section of our boat. They had installed two tank turrets on the bow with a 30-cal. machine gun and flame-thrower gun on each. Inside were located napalm tanks and high-pressure cylinders for the two flame-throwers. In the mid-section of the boat was a 50-cal. machine gun with a 40mm. grenade launcher located on each side.
In addition to these weapons, we had two 30-caliber machine guns and a 20-mm. cannon mounted aft. Each 50-mm. machine gun had a round one-inch thick steel turret with a six-inch vertical slit. Both guns were located on each side. I was stationed on the port side (left side, facing forward) at one of these guns with my grenade launcher.
On the sides of the boat, the thickness of the armor was one inch thick to protect the napalm tanks inside. Outside the armor was installed sixteen-inch thick, green blocks of Styrofoam. Holding this foam in place, were reinforced steel rods located a few inches apart. This bulk and weight made us slow and unusual looking. Our top speed was only about twelve knots; a man could run that fast. Despite our slow speed, with all our firepower we presented a formidable and highly feared weapon.
We replaced a bloodthirsty and seasoned crew, "short-timers" as we called them. Most of them had only three weeks of duty in Vietnam remaining. Life didn't mean much to them. They would just as soon shoot someone as look at him. They reasoned, since it was hard telling the enemy from the "friendlies" all Vietnamese, "zipper heads," or "slant eyes" were the foe. That feeling or attitude seemed to happen to almost everyone who had been "in country" for a time. Kill or be killed, enemy or not. Like a prizefight, get them or they'll get you. Everyone had to forget the rules we had learned.
Each evening about sunset we put on our flak jackets, (which smelled like unwashed socks), donned our helmets and loaded a round in our machine-guns. We would leave our mooring spot on the pontoon heading north or south down the red river. As we left the base camp, a colored flare rose from the village across the river signaling the VC or North Vietnamese which direction we were going and what time. Of course, we didn't like this, but there wasn't anything we could do about it. The whole war was a waste of valuable lives and equipment. Everything here was so worthless and futile. It seemed like a guy winking at a girl in the dark.
It would be dark soon; another day was dying. Each person sat at his station worried about what might happen or who might be killed that night; it was an undignified way to die. No glory or parade for us.
The weather was often hot or rainy as we pulled away from the pontoon in a cloud of smoke and a roar of our diesel engines. The sun was setting; soon it would be slightly cooler, thank God.
We provided firepower to PBR's and prevented river crossing by enemy troops. Because we were loud and slow we left the ambush work to the PBR's. Whenever we headed north, the enemy was on my side of our boat. I had to be especially alert. Due to the river's width, we barely could turn around.
Each night I sat in my turret with my machine gun and grenade launcher ready to fire. I almost could hear myself sweat from the intense heat and humidity. Trying to stay awake, I spent long miserable hours wondering if a rocket would hit my mount that night and wondered what it would be like to die. I feared living in this hell more than death. Leaving this life didn't seem so bad.
We stayed out most of the night and usually came in around sunrise. During the day we cleaned our weapons, ate at a chow hall overlooking the pontoon, and tried to sleep in the intense heat and noise. The diesel engines were left running constantly. I never forgot those smells.
I became good friends with one of the guys on our crew, Nate. He was a small friendly guy who kept to himself and spent most of his free time on the bow of our boat writing letters during our moments of rest. Some of them were sent to his parents, but most were to his girlfriend back in Chicago. He often spoke of her. They were to be married when he returned home. His eyes were usually bloodshot as if he was about to cry. Being a machine gunner like myself, he was assigned on the starboard side. In a way, we were a lot alike. We both were quiet loners, had similar jobs and wanting only to stay alive.
My bunk was located on the port side in the middle area of the boat. There was a small locker at my head and near-by flack curtains protected the napalm and pressure tanks. Among our other duties, all eight members of the crew stood a three-hour "watch" regularly. Standing watch consisted of slapping mosquitoes, walking from the bow to the stern of the boat to check for anything that moved or swam. In the dark, the sound of chirping bats filled the long night.
We carried our M-16 rifles and were provided with a case of percussion grenades. Ever so often, we tossed a grenade into the water to prevent the enemy from placing a mine on the side of our boat. The noise from the grenades exploding in the water sounded as if someone hit the side of our boat with a sledgehammer.
In the day, whenever it wasn't raining, the sun beat down on the green steel deck above. Through the noise and heat I tried to sleep in my foul smelling bunk below. We lacked fans, so it was extremely uncomfortable lying there covered with sweat, trying to sleep in the heat for a short time before we left or stood watch again.
One evening we headed north up the river while a red flare in the village signaled the enemy when and what direction we were going. There had been a light drizzle earlier that evening but it was raining harder now and the water soaked through my clothes. I started to shiver, wondering when this hell would end. The night came quickly, concealing a world in which anything could happen, at anytime. As I had plenty of time to think, my mind wandered; thoughts of people and things back home came and went missing the security and warmth.
Somewhere around two in the morning the rain finally stopped. I was beginning to dry out and found myself fighting desperately to stay awake when all hell broke loose. Anti-tank rockets, (which had a heat core that could burn through twenty inches of solid steel) recoilless rifle, and small arms' fire came from my side of the river. They threw everything they could at us. Explosions where everywhere. It was always difficult telling if a rocket had hit the side of our boat or the water near-by. None of us really had time to check, of course, we were a little busy. The enemy knew if they didn't get us first, we would get them with our flame-throwers. The beginning of every firefight was usually the worst. Everyone fought as if his life depended on it, and it did.
The NVA or Vietcong dug holes along the shoreline of the river. They would get in these often-flooded holes and fire their rockets at us. We called them "spider holes." They set up their rocket launchers on forked sticks and fired them as we passed by. If we opened fire, they dropped in the hole to avoid being hit. Whenever we were in a firefight, we fired our weapons at the river's edge. Soon they realized we would shoot at the source of the rocket fire and they set up their launchers differently.
They tied a string or wire to the trigger of the rocket launcher and strung the wire several hundred feet down along the river's edge. The idea was to pull the wire or string to fire the weapon as we passed and not be situated near the launcher. To counteract this, we were told to fire up and down the river from the source of the rocket fire.
Some of the rockets hit the water and exploded with a loud and large sound and produced a huge wall of water directly in front. They resembled a spectacular Roman candle fireworks display on the fourth of July as they came across the river, except were extremely deadly. If killed, that would be the last thing some of the guys saw.
Nobody knew how he would react under fire until the moment came. At that time, Glenn dropped to the floor scared to death. He said later, he'd never felt being so close to death during all his previous years in the Navy. He was mainly a World War II veteran who had been stationed on a ship and had never been so close to the enemy.
Everyone opened fire at the source of the incoming and the shoreline as our boat turned into the attack. The guys screamed and yelled over the headphones in total pandemonium. There wasn't time to worry about being killed. We were not fighting for freedom or democracy. We were fighting for our lives. We were fighting an enemy we never saw.
Our flame-throwers ignited with a pop. In a few seconds the black sky blazed with orange light. One flame-thrower aimed its deadly jet of fire at the shore's edge crossing back and forth. The other gun aimed at a 45-degree angle in the air crossing the other. Both flame-throwers shot out a one-inch rod of napalm about a hundred yards out. It was a phenomenal sight to see the guns light up the area and do their destruction. The deadly napalm floated on the water, burning everything it contacted and sucking up any oxygen. There was no escape. The flame thrower guns had a life of about two minutes before the napalm ran out and one-by-one they would sputter and suddenly go dark. Everything became deathly quiet except for the crackling of scattered fires. In the dark rice field a man was running totally ablaze. What a horrible thing the war was.
Whenever we came under fire, the captain was responsible to give our exact location and call in artillery. Soon the "105's" came in and exploded nearby with a noise like a thunderstorm. The 105's were large artillery shells that came from various strategically located firebases around the country. Our captain then called in adjustments to the explosions with relation to the enemy, and we'd get out of there.
If it were a major firefight, as this one, we signaled in aircraft (called Black Pony) or helicopter gunships with their miniguns. Miniguns were rapid-fire machine guns with six revolving barrels. They could fire 600 rounds per minute. Every tenth round had a tracer round, (bullets with phosphor) that lit a trail in the black sky so gunners could see where they were shooting. Red ribbons of bullets snaked to the ground from the helicopter overhead. A deep groan came from the gunship overhead as its miniguns peppered the jungle.
Unfortunately, Nate had been killed. Why did the rocket hit him and not me? We discovered the bloody body after the firefight when he didn't respond on the phones. Due to the noise and excitement, I never heard the rocket explode. He was only ten feet from me and was the first to die. When his mount had been hit with a rocket, he died instantly. No more letters, no more smiles no more winking at girls, forever nineteen. There would be others.
I hoped it would be raining when I had to hose off the small remains from the deck so the rest of the guys couldn't see me crying. I wonder, where do old tears go?
Sometime during that firefight, I received a small puncture wound to my right hand, not being sure if it was from enemy fire or from my own grenade launcher or machine-gun detonation. Due to the excitement, I didn't realize I had been hurt except for the sticky blood and slight ache in my hand. In any case, it wasn't important.
There was only one other slight injury, my friend Bill. His machine gun had double loaded and we think a shell had discharged in the breech exploding in his face. He kidded about having a pierced ear but hadn't been seriously hurt. Other than the bloody ear, he looked as if he had black pepper under his skin. He later received a Purple Heart for that. Fortunately nobody else was killed or hurt. In a short while, things calmed down and we headed back to our base camp. We were out of napalm, anyway.
Later, back at camp, they found four Chinese anti-tank rockets stuck in the Styrofoam blocks on our boat that hadn't exploded. Fortunately for us, Chinese rockets were not as reliable as the RPG rockets (Russian rocket propelled grenades).
The morning came like a friend. On a sunny day the officer in charge of our operation came down to our boat. He congratulated each of us for a job well done and also said he would recommend a Silver Star for what we'd done. Hell, we didn't deserve a medal for what we did. We were just trying to stay alive. I said send the medals to Nate's parents and girlfriend in Chicago; they deserved the medal more than we did.
The young officer said the PBR's had checked out the area we had been in the previous night and had found many weapons. The abandoned weapons suggested the enemy were in a big hurry. They also found thirty-four drag marks. A body left a drag mark where the enemy pulled the dead or severely injured through the muddy rice fields. Vietnamese, whether they were enemy or friendly, believed in returning their dead to their homeland for a proper burial.
It took most of the next day to refill our compressed air and propane tanks and extract the four rockets. Because of that, we didn't have time to go out that night, which was perfectly okay with us. All of us looked forward to spending a "quiet evening at home" which consisted of sleep, letter writing and watch duty. I used to send cassette tapes home rather than writing letters.
One night I stood watch, recording a tape to my wife Pat. I was throwing hand grenades in the water when we came under attack. The cassette continued to run while it recorded the sounds of the bombs and small arms fire. Upon reviewing the tape, I decided to mail it anyway. My purpose was not to scare her but show what really happened because letters couldn't begin to convey my experiences. She knew it was dangerous here and I felt there was no sense in hiding the facts and felt not knowing could be worse than the real truth.
There was a small village across the river from our boat. The so-called entertainment for some of the guys was to sit topside with binoculars and watch the Vietnamese women go to the toilet on the opposite riverbank. Other villagers about twenty feet away bathed in the same filthy water. Although we were right on the water, nobody dared get into it. It was full of bloodsuckers and many diseases. We often got warnings to stay out of the water no matter how hot it got. I once saw a guy with red blisters from it.
One day there was a report that someone on a PBR had leveled a water buffalo with a 50-caliber machine gun. The crew was on ambush one evening and the gunner heard movement out in the pitch black. I'm sure the guy on the machine gun felt it was wiser to shoot first. . ., When I heard about it, the Navy was negotiating with an angry farmer about compensation.
Food at the chow hall tasted pretty good. I can recall eating steak and lobster several times. On the boat, we had freeze-dried food packaged in green pouches called "L.R.P.S" (pronounced LERP'S). We added water to them whenever we got hungry. They tasted fairly good. We also had the old C rations, which were not that great, which was "tin can food" from the World War II era. Some of my preferences for certain foods had diminished, probably because of the conditions and associations. Also, I lost some of my appetite. I was losing weight rapidly and becoming as thin as the multitude of the local children begging for food.
Everyone in our crew were told to take a malaria pill. The pill protected us from the dreaded disease but gave us diarrhea. Some men took their chances by going without it. I took it.
One evening it was raining as usual as we headed north. In a short while, the rain stopped. The sky was dark due to the remaining cloud cover. Late that night, as we navigated the narrow river, we ran into a huge tree located near the shore. We could almost hear the harassing we'd get back at camp. A boat hitting a tree would be difficult to explain. Our embarrassed captain was more concerned about the snakes. There was an extremely poisonous one in Vietnam called a "bamboo viper." In fact ninety percent of the snakes in Vietnam were poisonous. For the next hour we searched our boat with flashlights for any unwelcome guests. A man would die in about thirty seconds if bitten. That would have been ironic, to die from a snakebite here.
One morning on a typical hot, humid day we were ordered to transport twenty South Vietnamese soldiers down the river. We were instructed to pick them up at a slightly different location a few hours later. We also were carefully instructed to get them that afternoon before dark since they never considered going on patrol at night as the US. servicemen did.
We were also warned not to leave anything loose on the outside of our boat, because they would steal anything they could get their hands on and found this to be true. Later we found there was a bucket, soap, damp shirts and socks missing. Several hours later, we went to the predetermined location on the river and waited. Upon arriving, the soldiers looked as if they had been on a shopping trip rather than a military patrol. They brought all sorts of stuff, including clothes, food, live chickens and ducks.
We thought we had gone over everything to ensure nothing would again be taken and somehow one of them found underwear left drying on the deck as well as another bar of soap. This time some of our crew were furious. I was becoming concerned that one of our seasoned crewmembers might open fire with his rifle and kill them just to get the soap and the underwear back. It was sick to think they would kill someone for such small things.
This time our boat captain would not let the Vietnamese soldiers get away with it again. We sat in the middle of the river for almost a half-hour before a Vietnamese officer returned our things. We knew time was on our side, since it would be dark soon and they wanted to get home by nightfall with their loot. I don't think they realized how close they came to being killed for a simple thing as underwear and soap.
One day we were ordered to burn the foliage around the perimeter of our base camp. The weeds were getting deep and provided cover for the enemy. We pulled close to the shore and sprayed our napalm on the green vegetation outside the barbed wire. Across the river, the residents in the village must have been watching what our flame-throwers could do because after they saw us burning the foliage, it was over a week before we were attacked again. Somehow the word got out to the North Vietnamese as to what our capabilities were.
We often made burns in the daylight to clear areas where troops had received enemy gunfire. Once we went south about ten miles to a major bend in the river where part of a small house stood where we fired up our flame-throwers and cleared the jungle. I stood up on the front deck fascinated by the awesome scene. In a way, it was similar to the suicidal moth attracted to the flame. Though there was danger, I found it difficult to leave. I hardly could stand the intense heat as we sprayed the jungle. Ammunition cracked and snapped as if someone were popping corn. There wasn't anything in the building except for some enemy small arms.
One night our boat headed north up the river. As usual, a flare in the village signaled our departure and direction. All tried to stay awake as we slowly rumbled up the muddy waterway. Often the waiting was worse than the fighting. Sometime in the early morning, those of us situated near the bridge took turns looking through a "starlight scope" to see down the river. A starlight scope was a device we used to see in the dark with nothing more than stars or moonlight to illuminate the area. On this night there was a bright moon shining on the river. Looking through the scope would give someone a headache after about thirty minutes of use. On the screen was a green phosphorus image. Bill, looking up ahead along the riverbank with the scope spotted a dugout canoe with what appeared three people in it. They were trying to cross from the Cambodia side to Vietnam. Over the loudspeaker we called out "lai-dai" in Vietnamese, instructing them to stop and come here quickly. They continued to head for the other bank.
Since I had a better view, I was told to fire a warning burst over their heads from my 50. They continued at a faster pace, Jim told me to open fire. I promptly pulled the trigger and peppered the area as a ribbon of tracers pointed the way. As we approached closer, I saw what I'd actually done. Having a terrible feeling as the light beam illuminated the partially sunken canoe, the best I could tell, there were three N.V.A. bodies in the boat, two men or boys and a woman. In the bottom, thick blood mixed with the water and puddled among the three bodies. It was a horrible sight. I didn't feel heroic or like some conqueror. I felt sick and weak. Until now I had not realized what my weapon could do to living human beings and never had seen its destruction up close. I suppose I'll never forget the fact I'd killed someone, let alone a woman. As a local resident might say, I felt as they called the worse, number ten.
Back at the base camp one day, someone had put a body of a small oriental male on the pontoon by the water's edge. Apparently, it was a North Vietnamese who had been killed in an ambush by one of the PBR's.
The individual had been hit in the head with a grenade and the man, or what was left dumped on the pontoon with the top of his head from the eyes up missing. The body lay beside our boat for about two days as the local women did their wash alongside. After a couple of days in the heat, the body swelled and smelled dreadful. Our boat was tied up nearby. We had to eat in the chow hall not far away. Death was all around us. That horror is a main ingredient to my memories of that terrible time. I guess it was easy for someone to become so bloodthirsty here. Life didn't mean much to some of them, neither did death.
It was the fall of 1969, the U.S. was trying to get out of Vietnam and we supposedly were training the Vietnamese to take over the fighting. On our boat we took on a young Vietnamese man to train. He was not popular in the eyes of the American crew since they wanted someone they could depend on and he soon proved unreliable. Everyone was crucial as to whether we lived or died. On our next firefight, he was found on the floor. Later he "jumped ship" and deserted. He was found a few weeks later in Saigon and returned. After that, the rest of the American crew definitely did not like him.
We stayed in the Cu Chi area, sometimes making burns or running patrol up and down the river. A few more of my friends were killed. More were injured during the coming nights. Throughout the whole period, I came away unhurt. People might say, I was one of the lucky ones who lived, but I don't necessarily consider it lucky.
Soon we headed south to our boat tender for brief repairs and then on to our next duty station. Since this was a hostile area, we stayed at our guns the entire trip, except a short time where we stopped about halfway to our destination. Several Vietnamese boys were playing in an old dugout canoe along the river's edge. They came over to our boat while we were stopped. I gave them each a box of LRPS and quickly got my Polaroid out and began shooting pictures giving each a photo. I then proceeded to get in their dugout for a picture by one of the crewman, Leslie. Concerned, our boat captain yelled out to get away from them.
The boys looked innocent enough, but Jim was worried one might have a grenade or bomb hidden on him. Many GI's were killed doing exactly what I did. As we started to leave one small boy who could speak a little English said, "Hey, Joe, you numba won" and each proceeded to gave me a big hug. I smiled back as we pulled away and thought what a shame we could not even trust the innocent looking kids. At least I could say, I did something good that day.
After several hours, we arrived at the Ben Wah. Glenn had been transferred here after the episode he'd had in the firefight. He was now the chief petty officer in charge of the pontoon at the tender. Glenn's replacement was another petty officer. He was killed soon after being assigned to our boat.
Shortly after we arrived, we heard about our sister boat, Zippo Four. It disappeared in The Black Forest area south of us. A known enemy-controlled area. Both of our boats were supposed to exchange locations and fortunately for us that never happened. Rumor had; Zippo Four had been ambushed or sunk by the N.V.A. Intelligence confirmed that the enemy might have placed claymore mines in the trees and set them off as the boat came under them. The enemy knew we had absolutely no protection from above. Claymore mines were moon-shaped devices that fired shrapnel in one direction only and were filled mostly with scrap metal or ball bearings.
On a hot sunny day, on the pontoon in My Tho, Bill received his Purple Heart. In the small ceremony, a few other men also received the award. One more crewman on our boat also received the medal. I cannot remember his injury, but it must have been minor or they would have taken him to a hospital to treat his injury. We had been in such a hazardous area a ribbon was the farthest thing from our minds.
We stayed on the pontoon for a short time and headed out to our next duty station on the outskirts of Saigon. Our trip took several hours since our top speed was so slow. I sat outside on the bow in the warm sun looking at the sights as we headed for our destination. Despite the usual humidity, the sun felt good. Along the way, we passed a multitude of sticks standing up in the shallow reddish-brown water.
Local natives had placed these sticks in the mud to direct fish into their traps. Everything looked peaceful and didn't appear as if a war were going on. The water peacefully slapped against the sides of the boat. About halfway, off in the distance we passed an island resort called Vung Tau with snow-white sandy beaches.
Somewhere about an hour from our destination we went through a defoliated area near a village called Nha Be. The area had been sprayed with a defoliant better known as Agent Orange. This was a strange world where everything appeared lifeless and barren without a tree or plant standing except for a few tree stumps jutting out in the muddy terrain. It appeared as if someone had dropped a bomb and killed everything. Only red dirty mud remained. It seemed to appear a flame-thrower had cleared an area about three miles in every direction.
In later years I discovered this chemical to be a carcinogen (cancer producer). A child's poem, "sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you" (except if the name is Agent Orange) now haunts me. If I had known better, I probably wouldn't have stood out on the deck of my boat as I did. Years later, my doctor now thinks that thirty-minute exposure caused me to contract brain and skin cancer. In some way, I felt I died up there on that deck and I didn't even know it. Like all of Vietnam, I never saw my killer.
We saw a lone boat, similar to ours. On it was mounted a looped piece of pipe instead of flame-throwers. The water cannon looked like a large green curly French Fry. It shot a high-pressure jet of water into the spider holes along the river's edge to destroy them.
Soon we landed at our base camp in Nha Be, south of Saigon. For the next few weeks, we went out on patrol in the area. Days and weeks passed quickly.
One day after arriving in the Saigon area for more patrols, I was in my mount cleaning the machine gun when an officer came up to the boat calling out my name. Taken by surprise, I couldn't imagine what he wanted. He remarked my father had cancer and wasn't expected to live for more than a year. He said, you're going home. My father was in Vermont and Dad had requested I take care of him. I was the only one in the family close to him. Despite the physical distance's being great, we were always close in our thoughts and feelings.
I was to return home with a two-week emergency leave and return back to this horrible life in fourteen days. Orders in hand, I packed up minimal things, closed my locker, and said goodbye.
In those few months in Vietnam, I had felt what it feels like to live in fear. I had felt the miseries of war and what it was like to kill someone. I hated it all, from the miserable heat and rain, the pain, the sounds of dying, to the black body bags. During the course of my tour, I lived through more discomfort than I had ever thought possible. Two tasks I'll never forget, stuffing the dead in body bags, and cleaning the remainder with a hose. More important, seeing many of my friends die needlessly on the deck of our boat. Why had I lived while others died. I've always felt guilty about leaving. Why was I going home as I was, why me, why not me?
1 That night I headed for someplace to spend the evening in Saigon before my flight home. Everything had happened so fast. I hadn't had much time to think about it. I was leaving with mixed emotions. Dad was dying of cancer, but just the same I was happy to be leaving. I was trading one hell for another.
That night I spent a restless evening in a Saigon hotel, eating only a hamburger. I wasn't hungry and feeling similar to the time when I arrived. At the hotel I couldn't sleep, it was early. I was curious about the loud music that came from upstairs. I found a club located on the top floor. Upon entering, I noticed a few guys with Vietnamese girls sitting beside them. A pitiful example of rock and roll music came from the band on the neon-lit stage.
The dim room was as smoky as a downtown jazz bar. Off to my left was a table with five or six whores chattering something in their native tongue. Each wore heavy make-up, which made them look like off-duty clowns at a convention.
As I walked in, one of them quickly jumped up, came over, and asked me in mediocre English if I would buy her a drink. I promptly told her I was looking around and not interested. She cursed me in Vietnamese and went back to her table.
Spending the evening with her was the farthest thing from my mind at the time. I walked over to the bar, sat down and had a drink. Later in my room, I lay in my bed thinking of Dad and some of the things we'd done together. In those brief moments, we were fishing on a pier in Florida. Tired and feeling lonely, I finally fell asleep.
Around midnight, I heard a knock on my door. Awkwardly, I stumbled toward a chair for my clothes and managed to get some pants on. As I made my way, I could not imagine who might be knocking at this hour. Upon opening, I saw a Vietnamese girl about fifteen or sixteen with long black hair. She asked, in broken English, if I wanted a companion for the rest of the evening. Again, I explained I was not interested. I cannot say I wasn't tempted, because it had been a long time since I had been with a woman, but this definitely was not what I needed. She reluctantly gave up and left.
The next morning, I took a cab to Tan So'n Nhut Airport for my 12,000 mile flight home. While waiting at the airport, I went into the men's room, as dad would say, " to see a man about a Pekinese dog." While standing at the urinal I happened to glance to my right and noticed a Vietnamese woman squatting and going to the bathroom. Of course, I was extremely startled and quickly ended my business. When walking out, I found the same restroom had two entrances, one for men and another for women. Both entered into the same bathroom. The Vietnamese evidently thought nothing of it. Boy, I sure did.
Soon I was climbing the ramp for the first of many flights home. The puffy white clouds reminded me of my home in Oklahoma.
Looking out the window, I realized things appeared similar as they had when I had first arrived but somehow they appeared more attractive. It was not the smoky blue sky now. As the plane taxied to takeoff, I silently said goodbye to a miserable time in Vietnam and prayed I'd never return.
After a refueling stop in Japan, we headed east toward the United States. Our flight took us on a polar route and we later landed in Anchorage, Alaska. The date was early winter and the sun was low on the horizon. As I stepped off the plane, it felt like a crispy cool morning back in Vermont. I noticed the faint scent of pine trees and the sounds of the jet planes. We had come from a hot and rainy area to this cold climate. None of us had a coat, but I don't think it mattered much. We had survived. No plastic body bags for us. All of us had seen enough killing.
The mountains on the horizon with their purple tinged snowy tops were a sight to behold. I couldn't help wonder if the others felt or saw what I was experiencing, or maybe they only thought about reuniting with their families.
Everyone on board had his own experiences of the past year. Happy to have mine behind me, I wanted to forget most of what had happened. After receiving a full load of fuel, we took off in an hour and headed south.
As we touched down at Travis Air Force Base near San Francisco, everyone gave out a big cheer. We had made it. As we pulled up to the hangar, my thoughts returned to simple and unsophisticated things, home at last! God bless America.
While boarding another plane for my long flight back to Vermont, I could hear a child laughing in the distance.