What Was Vietnam Really Like (for me)?
by John Frost
In short, it was something else. My father served in the Marine Corp during the invasion of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. My grandfather served in the Army during the Spanish American War. I am sure ancestors in Europe experienced wars, military service and other upheavals. I was drafted right out of College to serve in the U. S. Army during the Viet Nam Era. I hesitate to call it a “war” as it was more of a “police action”. But, that’s another topic. My experience, as you will see, was something else.
After a basic training and intelligence analysis service at Fort Bliss, Texas for a year, I was up for a tour in Viet Nam (1968-69). I left my sweet wife, Lorraine, at Lambert Field in St. Louis on American Airlines to Denver, then on to Seattle, then on World Airlines to Anchorage and Yakoda, Japan and I arrived in the middle of the night at Ben Hoa Air Base, Viet Nam. I learned that the shortest distance between two points on a globe is not a strait line but a great circle. Check it out with your friendly navigator. There were no landing lights just little red dots in the pavement. The engines never shut down. The airline doors opened to the shock of the humidity and heat of Southeast Asia during the “rainy season”. We ran hunched over between a sandbag corridor to the Terminal. The Terminal was dark and troops returning home were lined up to depart. From the Terminal, we boarded a fast Isuzu bus to Long Binh Post, 90th Replacement Battalion, 381st Replacement Company, Hutch 4, upper bunk.
I spent two weeks in orientation and adjusting to the weather. I was introduced to the big orange malaria pill which we took every day for a week and thereafter once a week. I was issued jungle boots, several sets of fatigues and my M-16, bayonet, gas mask and mosquito net.
My unit was charged with processing Officers into and out of the country. I worked twelve hour shifts, seven days a week. At the time, there was a buildup in anticipation of the coming Tet Offensive by the Viet Cong (led by Chi-com troops). The incoming flights, sometimes two or three a night, brought “Butter Bar” 2nd Lieutenants, Captains, Majors and Light Colonels. Full Colonels and Generals arrived through a different unit. We outfitted them, conducted orientations and made sure they stayed out of the nurses quarters and took their big orange pills. Here I was, an enlisted man giving instructions to officers who seemed uncomfortable that we did not salute and had the use of the Officers Mess Hall for meals. The senior officers were billeted in air conditioned trailers, four at a time. The senior officers usually had specific orders to report to specific units for specific assignments, all pre-arranged but sometimes their orders were changed and I had my share of angry officers insisting that an error had been made or some snafu had occurred. I was good at threatening to arrange an interview with the Commanding General to discuss the matter of their assignment further. No one accepted the interview. So we shipped them out on their local units by jeep or bus and we used the same busses to Ben Hoa Airport that the new arrivals came in for duty “up country”. Later, I’ll detail the process of shipping them home.
There was a cadré of twenty to twenty four enlisted men and five officers. We lived in barracks which we called “hutches”. Each hutch had a “mama-san” and any number of “baby-sans” who saw to our housekeeping. The bedding was changed daily. Our uniforms were cleaned and pressed weekly and our boots were always shined. We paid them in Army Script. They nearly caused a panic when the Army Script changed the Series. The locals used Script instead of Piasters as their preferred currency and only military personnel could change their Script and some charged their “mama-sans” a fee (or ripoff) to convert their Scripts which she probably charged a fee for those from the village of Tan Hep for whom she was helping with their obsolete Script. I took no part in such shenanigans.
Long Binh Post was a huge complex. It had all sorts of facilities: hospital, theaters, enlisted and officers clubs and a special amphitheater with a big sound system, flood lights, ancillary helicopter pad, orchestra pit, stage and “pods” of TV and movie cameras. It was used for the Annual Bob Hope Show which was televised and recorded for posterity. There was The Man himself, the Gold-diggers, Jerry Colonna and the NBC Orchestra. Let’s not forget Ann Margaret, Raquel Welch and MM. The hospital ambulatory patients were all up front and us enlisted and officers were in the earthen shell which was boards on stair step earthen clamshell theater. (You get the picture.). Long Binh actually offered night school for anyone who wanted to take college level courses. I took a course in The American Constitution. Credits transferred to my M.B.A. at O.C.U. when I returned home.
One night on the way back to my barracks, riding in a Jeep, the countryside next to the road took artillery shells. It turns out it was “friendly fire” and I was more frightened by the Jeep going 90 miles an hour than the distant blasts. This errant barrage didn’t last long. I’ll bet that Artillery Company personnel had some “splaynin’” to do.
We had a separate compound for the female military personnel who processed through our unit. Most were nurses or doctors. Their facilities had a big wall around it and they had air-conditioned hutches and a hot shower facility. There were MPs at the gate 24-7. During the Tet Offensive, when rockets were hitting our base, I had to actually enter their compound to hustle them into the bomb shelter. Talk about wide-eyed, white faced panic as I pulled one or another from beneath their bunk to evacuate to the bomb shelter. These nurses seemed more frightened of me than the prospect of being blown up by an errant rocket. These nurses were very modest and cooperative. The senior women took care of their own.
Outside the Officer’s Mess was the local tailor, barber shop and gift shop. It was like a mini strip mall. There was nothing like getting a haircut and finishing with a little “papa-san” kneeling on my lap giving me a chest massage with karate chops and strong fingers on the neck, shoulder and arms. However, one day, a big cargo plane (C-130) flew over our compound and sprayed an orange liquid over the rubber trees. That was the devastating Agent Orange you have heard about. Next day, every leaf had curled up and fallen on the ground leaving the trees a bright orange and naked. (Our compound was once a Michelin rubber plantation.). But it revealed several “spider’s nests” near the Officer’s Mess-hall. A “spider’s nest” was a canister filled with explosives, glass and other metal objects. It was hidden in the rubber trees but now that the leaves were gone, the wires and the booby traps were revealed. The troops followed the wires to the local telephone poses and eventually ot thelocal village. The troops neutralized that situation. I never had any ill efect from the Agent Orange.
We had a mechanical staffer in our unit. He was like Radar O’Reilly from MASH. He arranged to build a hot-water shower which was heated by a kerosene (diesel fuel) heater and could accommodate up to eight people. You know, there just happened to be a few stinky, sweaty officers who wanted to pay us for a nice hot shower before they shipped homeward or to their local units or up country. That money went into a pot which was used to “divert” a pool table and a movie projector to our “reck-room”. We had already built a “reck-room” hutch and “borrowed” an air conditioner from one of the Senior Officers trailers. (Of course, it worked perfectly well but had to be sent out for repairs and the trailer got another air conditioner by requisition from the Supply Sergeant.). After my twelve hour shift, I played cards, chess with Sgt. Mendenhall, and got to be pretty good at Nine-ball Pool (but not anywhere as good as Efren Reyes) or Eddie, the Token from Chicago, who reminded me of the movie “The Hustler”.
While on the topic of infrastructure in Viet Nam. We had running water but it was not drinking water. If you drank it you would get Disentery. A potable water truck made rounds each day filling up hanging canvas water bags. It was supposed to be safe to drink but most everyone opted for bottled or canned soda or beer (after hours, or course).
Along the highway outside our Camp, there were no filling stations, no Quick-Stops, no restrooms. The road was filled with petty cabs, motorcycles, bicycles, and people. When nature called, the people just moseyed off to the bar ditch and did their thing, pulled up their pajamas and joined the flow. There was no embarrassment and no recriminations, just the faint, ever-so-common oder of human habitation. I admired the Vietnamese people so very much. The men were skinny but strong and could outwork any westerner. The young girls were beautiful even though they would become shriveled and gaunt as they aged from all their hard work and onerous living conditions.
There were no flush toilets in our compound and human waste was collected in the bottom half of 55 gallon drums and taken to the swamp by “granny-sans” who wore rubber gloves, masks and several layers of clothes and the product was burned using kerosene which made huge black clouds which hung close to the ground and, if the wind were blowing in the wrong direction, these clouds would settle over our compound.
One day, Sgt. Hudnall (married with a wife and five children on his fifth tour of duty in Viet Nam so he could support his family with the Military Allotment which bonus-ed up with hazardous duty pay) fell into one of the urine latrines up to his waste while he was trying to rescue by extracting the metal and wire mesh frame which kept the mosquitos and other critters out. You can imagine the sight of this man dripping from accumulated urine and lime. To punish everyone, he perched himself on our sandbags with a “joint” and a bottle of Matose Rosé wine (about $1.75 a half gallon from the PX). He reeked of the most foul odor, so we ganged up on him and dumped him in the shower. Some felt like using the kerosene to put him out of his misery. For this, he was busted. He had been busted so often he used velcro to attach his sergeant stripes to his uniform.
Another great source of revenue was our movie projector. Everyday, a different movie was available. Our favorites were the Clint Eastwood “Spaghetti Western” Series (The Good, Bank and Ugly, A Fist-full of Dollars and A Few Dollars More), the James Bond flics, The Graduate and M.A.S.H. These “butter bar” officers were so generous. Of course, refreshments were made available at a price.
There was a more memorable form of entertainment of a more serious nature. Whenever the weather would permit, we witnessed a light show on the horizon. At 35,000 feet, each night during the Tet Offensive (1968-69) a Squadron of B-52s, this is six really big bombers, dropped their load of 500 pounders (left over from Korea and WW II) on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The bomb bursts were referred to as rolling thunder. Literally, the earth shook! The blasts would light up the sky with yellow fireworks. Every once in a while, a much bigger blast would occur as a truck in the convoy carrying rockets or artillery shells or ammo would explode. General Bowden gave credit to the French Military for geo-locating the roads and bridges along the HCM Highway so their pinpoint bomb runs with six “thuds” (what we called a Squadron of B-52s) dropping their load would surely strike something instead of creating big craters in rice paddies.
Christmas was really special for me. I was pulling guard duty at the bunker on the edge of “The Swamp” when a Jeep carrying the Commanding General, two Nurses and Jerry Colonna, as the driver, approached. We challenged and he knew the password. I don’t know what I would have done if he didn’t know it. Anyway, he passed out eggnog spiked with Jack Daniel Whiskey. We chatted for a bit and he headed off to the next bunker. This was the beginning of the Tet Offensive which coincided with the rainy season. The rain was so heavy you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. “The Swamp” became a small river whose water level rose above the barbed wire fencing and was often used by “sappers” to infiltrate the Base and cause havoc. However, these Viet Cong were usually “dope heads” and one night, three of them floated into the swamp and as the water receded they decided to relax with a “joint” i.e. marijuana cigarette. We spotted them from our bunker and called in a Huey for an air strike. The 50 caliber machine gun did it’s job and we collected the bodies in the morning. R.I.P.
I am forever thankful to the Army for R. & R. I was able to spend a week with my wife at the Ilikai Hotel on Waikiki Beach next to the legendary (in the movies) Royal Hawaiian Hotel (featuring the Song Stylings of Don Ho backed up by a bevy of native hula dancers, his Island Wahini). In those days, you could rent a car for $19.00 a day. I hear it is $800 a day now. The single troops went to Thailand or Taiwan.
The saddest duty I performed was the exit shakedown of officers going home. They were ordered to gather in this one building with elevated tables with everything they wanted to take with them as they would be leaving that building by bus to the airport and home. The widows were flaps propped open with broomsticks, the MPs were stationed inside the front doors. When everyone was settled, the doors were locked, the slats were dropped and I began the briefing. They were given 15 minutes to rid themselves of items which were not permitted. I uncovered a billboard with the list. There would be no questions asked and no punishment if they surrendered the contraband peacefully. Then our crew inspected their baggage. I won’t go into the many items which were surrendered or the items I discovered. Suffice it to say, these war weary officers had collected some strange items they thought they wanted to keep. At times, it was tense but peer pressure kept everyone in line. It was a real awakening as I compare and contrast the cheerful eagerness of the new arrivals with the sour faces, gaunt bodies and hollow look of those officers a year later after one tour or many tours as they headed home. The back-stories of lost friends, lost wives, lost limbs and lost innocence would fill volumes. It was sad.
As yet, I was happy to be able to whisk them away to good old America.
I will be forever grateful to President Nixon who ended the “police action” and got us out of there with an “early out” evacuation. After all, you cannot lose a “police action”!
Later, I used the G.I. Bill to pay my tuition at O.C.U. to complete my M.B.A. I have lost track of all my friends in our unit who promised to keep in touch but were soon forgotten as we went on with our lives.
As I reflect on Viet Nam, I have recently come to the conclusion that ever since Korea, Viet Nam, and now Taiwan and Hong Kong, we have been fighting the Chi-Coms all along. When and how will it ever end?