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543rd Transportation Co, Thu Duc:
May XX, 1968 (date unknown but it was the day after Newport Bridge was blown) --
I was sitting around the orderly room with nothing much to do and one of the more likable lifers came in and asked if anyone wanted to ride down to Saigon in a jeep as a bodyguard for him (laughingly) while he picked up a truck part. I jumped at the chance and we took off on Highway lA for the big city, some eight miles away.
Just before we got to an arching bridge, the Newport Bridge, that the VC had blown up part of last night, we ran into a heavy traffic jam that forced the sgt to turn around and head back to the company. As a consolation, though, he took me through the downtown section of Thu Duc. It's actually larger than I thought, and we drove quite a ways doom the narrow street before we reached the town square, a wide area where three main streets come together. It also serves as the central marketplace, and the dusty ground is covered with flimsy striped awnings that are sprawled like a tent city on both sides of the street. Dozens of Lambretta taxicycles are parked in front of an Esso gas station on one corner, and little cardboard and plywood stalls line the street opposite, selling everything from pornographic pictures to blackmarket radios that have been stolen from the cargo ships at the Saigon docks.
All around sat wizened old mamasans with wicker baskets full of oranges or onions or bananas or pineapple or a curious green citrus that you see for sale all over the place, even on makeshift tables covered with the flimsiest of awnings along the highway. From the square we cut down one of the other routes, past a large open air cafe that reeked of nuocmam sauce, the national dish that smells like rotten fish and is actually made of fermented fish, and past an open air market that also reeked and had huge red slabs of meat suspended from hooks in the ceiling without benefit of refrigeration and with dozens of black specks that were flies crawling over them.
The shopping district consisted of a narrow sidewalk bordering the street, with open front shops lining it. The gutters and sidewalks were covered with litter and filth: old used cans, papers, little piles of slowly decomposing organic refuse, etc. And of course there was that perennial structure, the local Catholic Church. This was a large one, sitting on about a half-acre of parklike land, with a large carved stone grotto with a glistening white statue of Mary in it. A little farther on, up the hill and past the church, was a huge cemetery, packed with the ornate graves. Off to one side was a small group of people huddled together with heads bowed around a mound of dry red dirt, and the funeral coach, an ordinary station wagon with false sides attached to make it look like a huge red dragon, was sitting next to the road at the entrance gate to the graveyard.
May 19, 1968 --
There are two Vietnamese girls who work in the office, one as translator and the other as sort of a secretary/business manager for the local nationals who work in the compound. We call them our VC chicks, and their names are Sugar and Rosie.
I asked Rosie how she got the name Rosie, and she said her name in Vietnamese, Huong, "mean same-same rose, you know?"
Joe, one of the other clerks, was teaching Sugar some English idioms the other day and she pointed at me and said, "Nuts? Is that how you say... crazee?"
At one end of the line of hooches there is a small group of shacks that house the local concessions: an old papasan has a souvenir shop in one, another houses our locally-owned PX outlet, operated by an American driver they took in off the road for the purpose, and a third is occupied by our Vietnamese barber. For forty cents I sat in the chair and got a haircut with an ancient pair of hand-squeeze clippers that only pulled a little over the ears. For two dollars I could have gotten a tonsorial masterwork: haircut, shave, manicure, moustache trim, shampoo, and facial massage, not to mention a shoe shine.
Once in a great while we have hot water for showers. Usually all of the water is ice cold, whether for showers, for shaving, for washing, in fact, for everything except drinking. For drinking the water is hot. Leave it to the army.
I was the only person in my company who supported McCarthy's campaign for the presidency, and as a result got a little flak from the lifers and the higher ups, who didn't approve of one of the ranks marching out of step, as it were, with the rest of the war. They didn't like me posting "McCarthy for President" signs on the unit bulletin board all the time.
When I went into my hooch last night after a hard day of battling the lifers in the orderly room there was some strange guy watching TV. I asked him what was on and he told me, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I made a face and went toward my bunk. The guy jumped up, very upset, as though I had personally affronted him, and said, "You can say that! I've been here for 23 months!" (As though I were keeping him here against his will by not liking Voyage to the Bottom of the Seat) I asked him why he'd been here so long and he told me he'd had a twin brother killed over here in '65. I guess that it was supposed to make me feel like a heel, but the only thing I felt was pity for someone so stupid. You can bet that if I'd lost a brother, twin or otherwise, over here, this is the last place I'd be.
Every Friday, without fail, our mess hall serves burnt salmon cakes. They serve them even though Catholics are all allowed to eat meat on Friday now, and even though Catholics in the service have always been exempted from the ban on meat on Fridays. Just another example of the Army mentality. Like the Army Regulation that prescribes both a shaving brush and brushless shaving cream to be displayed in footlockers. However, the fish-on-Friday thing does have a useful purpose. The days all seem to run together and blend into a foggy hazy memory until one isn't at all sure what day of the week it is, since we all have to work seven days a week. Since we know that there are usually seven days to a week, and the Army always serves burnt salmon cakes on Friday, then Friday serves as a sort of control -- you can pro-rate the rest of the week into days called "Fish-day plus three," which would mean Monday...
I've also been picking up Vietnamese slang from our VC girls: Phonetically represented in converted English spellings, they range from "Choy-oy" which apparently is anything from "sonofagun!" to "oh boy!" Another favorite is "Sin Loy" which, although it means literally "escuse me", is used by the average GI to mean "sorry 'bout that, Mac." "Dinky-dow"means crazy, "Boocoo dinky-dow" means more so, and "Di-di mau!' means leave in a hurry, or get out. The VC chicks are always pointing at me and saying "Him Boocoo dinky-dow numbah one!"
June 13, 1968 --
The rock and roll bands seem to be getting better, or maybe it’s just because we haven’t heard an American band for so long that anything sounds good. The last band we had in had a pretty girl singer that, for once, didn’t muddle up the words into a different song and lead guitarist with obvious talent but no voice projection. It seemed like a pretty good band, and I sat there listening to them and they made me feel happy and sad and a little homesick, since I started missing the dances and the guitar and drum R&R bands of home. They sang a lot of current favorites, but the most popular among the GIs were oldies, like “I Wanna Go Home” and “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” brought the house down, and commanded a standing ovation from the crowd.
July 1, 1968
The nights are filled with sniper fire. Usually we pay no attention to it. Last night I was sitting on the back step of my hooch when a live tracer round zipped down between the rows of tents about four feet off the ground. Luckily no one was walking along there then or he would have been hit, like that guy walking of the mess hall that morning.
Charlie threw a hand grenade over the fence over in the Equipment Inc. compound, trying to blow up a truck or two I guess (on either side of the 543rd is a civilian trucking company, Equipment Inc. to the north and Philco-Ford to the south—they also run their own convoys using Vietnamese drivers and hauling supplies to the ARVNs out in the field; somehow these two companies have a deal with the Army to guard their compounds as well as ours, so we have guard towers surrounding their perimeters too) and the nearest tower opened up with his machine gun. The chorus was picked up until every tower was blazing away at the road and at the field on the other side of it. We had to roll out of the sack, dress up in our combat togs and turn out for the red alert.
Tonight I was at a party at the hooch next door and some black guy grabbed me and started in on some rap about how he wasn’t a hippie, wasn’t a soul brother, wasn’t anything except himself and he didn’t like people to try to fit him into a mold. So I said, Far out, I’m the same way, and then he started in trying to fit me into a mold, saying that I wasn’t free if I didn’t let the music move me to get up and spontaneously dance, or even absent-mindedly tap my foot to it. I told him that I found it very difficult to concentrate on doing things spontaneously. Or absent-mindedly.
151st Transportation Co, TC Hill, Long Binh:
September 9, 1968 --
A couple of the night drivers rifled through their load and brought a bunch of t-bone steaks up to the orderly room, in exchange for future favors, I guess, and a bunch of us from the barracks-myself, the two other clerks, L--- the old man's jeep driver, J--- the commo man, and one or two others went behind the day room, which is the last hooch in the second row, in the alley between the companies, and charbroiled the steaks in a couple of makeshift barbecues made out of aluminum foil and ripped-off window screen.
We gave one guy, M--- a steak, but there wasn't enough room on the grill to cook his at the same time as ours, so he was wandering around the company with it in his hand until J--- told him if anyone saw him they'd wonder where the steak came from and we'd all be up a tree, so he stuffed it in his fatigue pocket and went in to watch tv.
September 30, 1968 --
J---fixed up a pair of walkie-talkies someone had left at the commo shop and we wandering all over TC Hill making up screwy call signs, like "Whipoorwill Snapper Two-Eight" and "Cowboy Quickstep Six", and talking back and forth as though we were out on a mission, but we kept breaking in on the frequency of an ARVN patrol somewhere outside the wire and they were getting pissed at us for screwing up their radio - they'd jabber heatedly whenever we came on with a call sign. We probably fucked up their whole patrol.
October 17, 1968 --
J---, S---, W--- and I went in to Saigon to Ton Son Nhut, to Camp Alpha, to pick up a guy coming in off R&R, in the middle of a rainstorm, with only one poncho (mine) and one M16 (J---'s) between us in the open jeep. We sneaked out the main gate into the middle of a fast-moving night convoy into Saigon, with W---'s portable radio hanging from the machine gun post in the middle of the jeep and the rifle and J---'s camera underneath me since I had the only poncho.
The rain whipped around us, the radio wailed "Fire!" and we zipped across the bridge and past the docks and into downtown Saigon. J-stood up and braced against the pole taking pictures of everyone and everything he could see, despite the fact that it was dark out, and we parked in front of a lighted bar downtown milling with GI's and whores and Vietnamese conmen while J--- fumbled around trying to change film, and a ten-year-old kid hung around trying to pick our pockets until W--- threw a handful of wadded up MPC on the sidewalk, and S--- zoomed off into the night toward Ton Son Nhut to pick up H---, the guy from R&R.
We told the kid we were VC in disguise and would blow him away if he tried to pick our pockets, so he started yelling "VC! VC!" at the top of his voice as we pulled away. We finally got H--- and got back home in the middle of another monsoon, with the old signs of the war nowhere around. Even the night sky of Saigon was noticeably lacking the orange glow of flares.
October 24, 1968--
One of the drivers from the 352nd Trans Co ran over a Vietnamese civilian on a motorbike and killed him and for the last two days The Lieutenant and I have had to run around getting statements from witnesses and MP's and whatnot, but no statements from any Vietnamese witnesses. The Lieutenant's been really shitty about it, calling the Vietnamese a stupid gook who deserved to get hit and they'd all be better off dead, etc ... Anyway, the upshot of the whole thing was that since all of the American witnesses stuck by their buddy and there were no Vietnamese witnesses, the driver was exonerated and the dead man's family was paid about a hundred bucks in piasters and the whole thing was forgotten. Except by his family, I suppose...
At eleven o'clock at night I finished typing up the last form of the report, put it in on The Lieutenant's desk and went for a shower -- which was cold of course, since our water heater hasn't worked for two months. On my way back through the company toward my room HK caught me and told me to call Sl because they had some special typing on something the colonel had dreamed up. I went to my room and pulled on pants and shirt and went back to the CQ desk in the supply room and called Sl to find out what the deal was. They told me to come right down because it was a rush job. I asked how long it would take and they said about three hours. Thinking fast, I told them W--- was scheduled to go on convoy the next morning and there would be no one in the orderly room because I wasn't about to stay up until two and then be up in time to go to work at six. After I rang off, I called down at operations to see if W--- really was on convoy, but the dispatcher told me he had strict orders from The Lieutenant not to send clerks or the commo man on convoy. I went to bed hoping that CPT P--- of Sl doesn't called to check up on me.
November 3, 1968 --
I got a call from our personnel section out at Bien Hoa from SP4 L--- our personnel clerk, that he had a man in our company who had been held for a court-martial that had never occurred. We had kept him past his DEROS, but when The Lieutenant dropped the charges and let him clear, he had gotten his ticket home and everything but battalion had a flag on his records, so he couldn't leave after all. So what I had to do was go to battalion and get a 1049 to release the battalion flag so the guy could catch his plane, which was leaving in about an hour.
I raced down to Sl and got the form and W--- and S--- and I zipped out to Bien Hoa just as it was starting to get dark and got the guy all cleared and raced over to the airbase with him just in time. We waved goodbye to his grateful little ass as it climbed up the boarding ramp and then pulled out of the gate into the night. We went back toward personnel rather than drive through the village at night, and then cut off on the new highway across the open country where vast stands of rubber trees used to be, back to the junction of 1A, past 90th Replacement, and into Gate 3 of Long Binh Post. Home free, or so we thought.
The MP on duty, a loudmouth PFC probably just over from AIT, started pitching all kinds of shit on us, telling us how stupid we were to be out on the road -after dark and not believing our story about the guy hurrying to process. We told him to call our company and ask The Lieutenant or whoever was there, but he wouldn't have any part of that. Finally I guess he just got tired harassing us and let us go, but W-- yelled "Fuck you." back at him as we pulled away.
"Now you've done it," I moaned as the PFC jumped into a jeep with two of his MP buddies and came tearing after us. W--- told S--- to outrun them, but he stopped and the PFC jumped out and threatened to kick W---'s teeth in.
"Come on, Spec four, take me on," he kept taunting.
W--- pointed in the back of the jeep at me. "He's a Spec 5. You wanna take him on?" The PFC looked back at me. "Where's his rank? I don't see anything."
I held up my collar and the SP5 insignia pinned to it. "It's right here, PFC," I said in my best cold imperious voice. The rank and the voice kind of took him aback and he backed off. But by that time I was pissed and I said "I wonder what the PMO will have to say about your attitude, PFC? Let's go over there, S---." And S--- took off leaving the PFC standing there looking at us and his buddies craning their necks around to watch us drive away.
But they had a radio in their jeep and by the time we got to the Provost-Marshal's Office, no one there knew anything about any PFC on Gate Three.
November 29, 1968 --
J--- got a package from the Cleveland Salvation Army, and in it was a Thursday edition of the Plain Dealer about two weeks old, a copy of War Cry, a nice little cheapie package of toiletries, and a bandolier of Dentyne gum. J--- went beserk, ripped it up into little pieces, crying, "What? No food?!!" He said he was going to wrap it all back up and send it back with a note saying "I was hungry and you fed me not."
December 3, 1968--
I got a call from battalion to come down there with the total dollar amount given out on payday in the 151, but to do that I had to wait until The Lieutenant came back into the orderly room to unlock the safe and get out the pay vouchers so I could take them down to the adding machine at battalion and total them up. While I was waiting, I got another call from battalion asking where our Incentive Award recommendation was. I told them I didn't know anything about it, and they told me that the colonel had told the company commanders to submit, in letter form, the recommendation for a person in the company to get an incentive award, someone that deserved it. I told The Lieutenant about it when it came in and he told me to submit a negative report. Okay, I said, and got the vouchers and tripped merrily down to S1.
But when I got there I happened to read a recommendation that the ---th TC had sent over on a do-nothing E7 and it burned me up to think that some god damned lifer was going to get an incentive award, so I sat down there at one of their typewriters and wrote, right off the top of my head, without a draft or anything, a recommendation for J--- to receive the award, signed The Lieutenant's name to it, and handed it in. Even though he was my good friend, I still felt he deserved it more than some getover E7 whose whole life centered around pushing the EM around; whenever any other company on the hill had a CMMI (Command Material Maintenance Inspection, a real bitch to pass) or an IG, they always called on J--- to come over and get their commo into shape.
December 4, 1968 --
LT F---, the new Adjutant, called me up and told me it had won first place, J--- was getting the award, and now I had to work up a recommendation for ACM for him.
He also said I should consider a career in forgery after I got out of the service.
That afternoon I tried to get The Lieutenant to proofread a draft copy of an Operational Report, but all he said was, "I know your writing talent, Mansker. I'll trust your judgment." Which proved that he wasn't pissed about me writing that recommendation and forging his name to it. Which doesn't surprise me, because J---'s award is almost as much a feather in the cap of the CO as the awardee. The whole thing is nothing more than a publicity stunt anyway; the General is going to present the award to J--- with about a dozen photographers around snapping pictures to put in the Army Times (and you can bet they'll crop most of J--- out of the picture).
J--- says he's going to laugh his weird laugh (it is unbelievably far out and cracks everyone up who hears it) in the general's face and call him a sucker for believing all that crap about a proficient commo man when the phones don't work and all of the wiring in the company is shot and the buildings are about to burn down.
December 12, 1968 --
W--- and I took a truck out to personnel in the afternoon to get some information from personnel files, talked with [our personnel clerk] for a while, and when we came out we discovered our truck missing.
At first we thought someone in the company had taken it, but we called there and no one had seen it. They sent another truck out to get us and when we got back The Lieutenant, the first shirt, all the NCO's, everyone was laughing and shouting at us, telling us that a deuce-and-a-half cost eight grand and we'd be in the army thirty years paying it off. We were really getting nervous until the MP's called and told us they had the truck and we had to come after it. So we got in an open truck with another driver who wandered blindly through the village, through the airbase, and finally we found the MP station, got the truck and a lecture, and finally got back to the company at nine, drenched, (the only night it had rained in a month), and with rusty rifles that we paid the armorer two bucks to clean for us.
December 19, 1968 --
One of our drivers was killed on convoy up at Tay Ninh, a guy who'd just gotten into the company a month earlier. He had been driving, and his shotgun was wounded so bad that they medivacced him to Japan right away. Anyway, the guy who got killed, his buddy -- with whom he'd gotten drafted out of the same home town, with whom he'd spent BCT and AIT and then had the luck to get stationed together over here -- his buddy was in the truck right behind him when his truck got blown up by a mine and he freaked out. He was rattled for days after that and refused to go on convoy and was ready to laydown his clothes and everything. I could sympathize with him, but the first shirt kept saying all he needed was hard work, "the best thing for him" and kept sending him out on convoy -- or trying to, at least, with the idea that he should face his fear and overcome it.
But the guy flatly refused to go and there was no way they could make him. The Lieutenant was forced to threaten Article 15's and courts-martial, but he wouldn't go. Finally they threw up their hands in resignation and gave him company duty and that ended it all.
But I still had to type up reports on the dead guy, write letters of condolence to his wife and parents, and get depressed on my own.
December 21, 1968 --
The long-promised Vietnamese secretary showed up, a really cute girl who by her own admission didn't speak very much English -- "I speak English ti-ti." But at least she brightened up the orderly room, and I put W--- to work teaching her what to do. When lunch time came, she had no food and no place to go since Vietnamese aren't allowed in military mess halls, so she just sat there looking nervous until I took pity on her and gave her a can of peaches out of my refrigerator.
I got back a morning report from Sl with a buckslip attached telling me that the entry I had used to report a man going on special leave was incorrect and that I'd have to type it over, but I looked up the entry and found that it corresponded to the morning report regulation, so I put another buckslip on it and said I had too much to do and if they wanted it retyped to do it themselves, since that was the way I had always made the entry and no one had sent it back before.
That afternoon our first sergeant got a call from the battalion sergeant major and the two of us had to march down to battalion headquarters for the sergeant major chewed up my ass for being a smart ass clerk who had just made E5 and who could lose it just as fast if he didn't watch his step, and then he chewed up the first shirt's ass for letting me do something like that, and then we were dismissed.
The first shirt didn't say anything all the way back to the company, and I didn't either, but then when we got back to the OR he looked at me and laughed. I was relieved because I thought it was my turn to get chewed out by him, but he was good-natured about it, probably because I had presented my side of the argument when we were down there to the SGM and I guess it sounded good to M--- even if the SGM didn't buy it.
December 23, 1968 --
When the story of the ambush hit the Pacific Stars and Stripes, true to expectation it was garbled almost out of recognition. They said the convoy was enroute to Tay Ninh from Dau Tieng instead of the other way around, and they said eleven were wounded and none killed, when actually five were killed and sixteen wounded. They sure played the thing down, just like we've always suspected; this is the first time we've actually had proof that they've been printing false reports and shading the news they print. But, as I say, it doesn't surprise us any.
It sure doesn't seem like Christmas, not even with buying Christmas cards to send home to The World and planning the big company Christmas bash.
When the Bob Hope show came to Long Binh, everyone in the company except me and the first shirt and one guy down in maintenance go to go. It pissed me off to have to stay there while everyone else had to go, but when they all got back they said I hadn't missed much. They flew a bunch of Chinooks in from the boonies with guys from the field who got the choicest seats, and carried in all the wounded from the hospitals and laid them around on stretchers in front of the stage, and all the support troops got to stand around outside the amphitheatre and listen to it on the loudspeakers. J--- said he climbed up on a pile of sandbags, but even before he had time to take a picture three guys dragged him down and began to fight each other to get up to the top.
L---, since he's such a short timer, stayed in the company, too, since he could see it on TV when he got home so he and I climbed up the new tall guard tower in front of our company and took pictures of the company area and the view in four directions from sixty feet in the air. Down at the corner where the road to Vung Tau intersects with Hwy lA there's another sign of American progress: a new Shell gas station is going in.
February 27, 1969 --
Just after dark J--- and I were sitting in the orderly room talking when it suddenly sounded like we were having a ground attack on our perimeter -- there was a rapid burst of fire and then four tremendous explosions, followed by a burst of fire from all of our guard towers. We doused the light and did the low crawl out the door (right into the teeth of the battle). I ran to my room to get my flak vest and helmet and all the while it sounded like an instant replay of the battle of Iwo Jima outside the fence about fifty meters across the road. J--- came running from his room with his gear on and we went to get the jeep from in front of the orderly room and that's when the four explosions came, right together and so close that we thought we were being mortared. We hit the dirt behind the jeep and stayed low. There were flashes over behind the trees across the road, in the area of a tiny hamlet -- actually only three or four houses --and we ran back to the command bunker to set up the alert radio and wait for word of an attack. J--- had seen incoming tracer rounds down our perimeter and as far as we were concerned the Hill was under attack.
We called battalion S3 but they didn't know anything and told us to go back to bed, it was our imaginations. And they refused to call an alert. It was only later were able to piece together what had happened:
Conclusion: one or more VC operating in the vicinity had fired on our perimeter and then had retreated or had been forced to retreat by our returned fire and the grenades. Anyway, nothing more happened that night and we could sleep soundly.
March 3, 1969 --
I finally shipped my hold baggage, including two field jackets (only auth. one) and a brand new pair of jungle boots, not to mention a jungle fatigue shirt stuffed in the lining of one field jacket, and all my movies. The sergeant in charge of shipping held up the movies and asked me if there were any skin flicks or pornography. I told him no, I didn t even have a pornograph. but he didn't get it, checked the form, he signed it, I signed it, and the Vietnamese workers nailed the lid on the crate. I could have sent home an M16 and a gross of grenades for all they searched my baggage. I could even have sent home ten pounds of dope and ensured myself a steady income over the next year.
© 1968, 1969, 2002 Dennis Mansker