My First Days In Country
“365, Let Me Count The Days”
This year, the last week in April, will mark the 35th anniversary of my arrival
in Vietnam. No matter how long ago, with rare exceptions, all of us who served
in Vietnam remember this benchmark date. It is so clear in my memory how eerily
quiet it was in the commercial Boeing 707 as it made its approach to Bien Hoa;
the quiet that comes from those who know what they are in for as they return for
another tour or are returning from leave or R & R to finish their tours. Those
of us who didn’t know what to expect, took our cues from those “veterans” and
remained quiet and strained against our buckled seatbelts to catch a glimpse out
the windows that might yield a clue as to what could be expected next. In the
early hours after midnight, not much could be seen and we had to content our
curiosity by listening intently to every instruction that came over the PA
For us FNG’s, our attention peaked when the PA monologue began to cover exiting the aircraft. Practiced instructions made it clearly understood that all efficiency should be taken to exit the parked aircraft as soon and as orderly as possible. Once on the black top, we should move to the open roofed area and get behind the blast walls to wait for our duffle bags to be unloaded from the aircraft and then we could move into the “terminal” area to wait for the buses to move us to 90th Replacement at Long Binh. The only time the tone of the instructions changed from a dreary, bored monotone to a more cheerful quality, was at the conclusion where the final remarks were more personal. “Gentlemen, welcome to Vietnam”. As those final words were spoken, we all stood, stepped into the aisle and shuffled to the door and upon stepping through we were met with the thick, humid smells of the war zone that would become so familiar.
The duffle bag recovery and midnight bus ride to Long Binh were uneventful and the arrival at 90th Replacement seemed a pretty routine movement of troops at night. At this point, my memory blurs and my next recollection is of an old, well worn wooden frame building used as transient barracks for us until we were assigned elsewhere. It was hot and the humidity stifled all attempts to get some needed sleep before the morning’s formation.
When morning arrived it found me exhausted from trying to sleep and having found no success, I simply rolled out of the bunk and took a cold shower hoping to find some relief from the heat. In the stark light of the showers, I could see how much of a meal I was for the mosquitoes. I looked into a mirror and thought to myself, “364 more nights to go”.
It didn’t take much to find the mess hall. It was the only building all lit up and noisy. The greasy aroma of the morning’s breakfast led me to the building filling with others who spent a miserable first night and those who had the sad misfortune of spending more than one night there. I had a cup of strong, aromatic coffee and I passed on the rubbery, reconstituted eggs and grease-drenched bacon. The toast had been out long enough to absorb the moisture in the air and no longer had the feel of toast but was more like a damp sponge. I went outside where it was cooler and sipped the coffee and had another cigarette and like everyone else, waited for the sun to rise and our first formation.
As the time approached eight o’clock the mass of OD green clad bodies began to file out of the barracks and form up on a large asphalt parking lot. At exactly eight o’clock an officer accompanied by some NCOs appeared with a megaphone and gave some garbled, barely understandable instructions that you knew he gave three times a day, five days a week, week after week. I could hardly understand him but I did concentrate to hear if my name was called. Named personnel were to report to vehicles for transport to their new units and the rest of us were left behind; to be assigned jobs to occupy our time until the next formation.
Three of us on the duty roster were to report to the Officer’s Replacement Company just up the hill from the paved area. After securing our duffel bags, we walked up the hill and reported to the Orderly Room. The senior NCO on duty made note of us reporting, then took the three of us outside and walked us further up the hill where the officer’s barracks bordered the highway close to the main gate. On the way, he secured an empty 25 gallon drum that had one end cut out and two lengths of 1” X 1” wood with empty C-ration cans attached at the ends to form crude scoops. We walked along the perimeter until we encountered a six inch pipe sticking vertically a couple of feet out of the ground.
On brief inspection we needed no explanation as to what it was and what it was used for. It was a “piss tube” and was fashioned from a 155mm artillery powder canister. Normally the “liquid deposits” would drain through the bottom but the ground beneath this one appeared to be saturated and the “golden deposits” had filled the cylinder and it was overflowing. Someone thought that floating a layer of diesel fuel over the surface would help to mask the odor but it only added to the offensive smell that assaulted our senses. The sergeant really didn’t need to give us much in the way of instructions because it was clear we were going to scoop the contents of the tube into the empty barrel, carry it and its new contents to a swampy area on the far side of the barracks near a guard tower, and dump it. To our chagrin, he pointed out that there were three more that needed the same attention. This was our only assigned task and we had three hours in which to do it.
It was about nine o’clock and the cool of the morning was rapidly giving way to the stifling heat and choking humidity of the day. The three of us began the task with a great weakness in our stomachs and with every caution observed to minimize the inevitable spillage. We tried our best to stifle the gag response but when the occasional whisper of a breeze wafted the odor our way, at least one of us would start to gag and quickly we were all gagging. This went on for about an hour and a half and involved two trips to the swamp to empty the drum. When we were finished, we washed up as best we could and smoked several cigarettes to try to get the stench out of our nostrils. We spent the rest of our time loafing till noon and then we went to have lunch.
Needless to say, the lunch was unappetizing whether from the fatigue, the heat or the memory of the smell of ripened urine. I only drank Kool-Aid for lunch and made the noon formation on time and again, my name was not called. I was fortunate not to draw any duty for the afternoon and that meant I had the luxury of having the afternoon off. The heat made attempts to sleep out of the question and besides, the mosquitoes were still occupying the dim barracks and would feast on anything warm-blooded. So I just sat around outdoors and smoked a lot of cigarettes, made small talk with other FNGs killing time, and waited for the final formation of the day.
I was beginning to lose the apprehension and fear of being assigned to a “grunt” unit. I was tiring of the “wait” part of “hurry-up and wait”, which characterizes the jerky movement of the Army’s method of processing anything. I was hoping that the late afternoon formation would relieve me of the boredom of the “wait” and get me out of that place and on to any kind of unit. I stood the final formation of the day and once again, no luck. I was assigned to the Officer’s Replacement Company as a CQ runner. Oh great, another obstacle to my efforts to try to get some sleep but when you’re an FNG, you just do as you’re told. I did my best eat some of my dinner and then I made my way up the hill to the officer’s replacement company and reported to the CQ.
I must have looked like a wreck because the NCO in charge, after hearing what I had done earlier in the day, gave me a single task of emptying just one rubbish can, then showed me to one of the unoccupied officer’s quarters and told me to sleep the rest of the night. If there was something for me to do, he’d come and wake me. Now, I thought, this was going to be a better chance for me to finally get some sleep. I couldn’t remember when I last slept - maybe 40+ hours ago.
I had the entire building to myself and the bunks had mosquito netting to keep the flying pests away from me and that alone was a big plus to help me sleep. No such luck. After more than an hour, I still couldn’t nod off so I gave up trying and went back to the CQ’s office to kill the time before sunrise.
An officer had joined the NCO as OD and from the faded condition of his uniform, I could tell he had come to the end of his tour and was killing time; now assigned innocuous jobs while waiting to go home. He saw how much of a wreck I looked and told me to follow him. He led me to another room whose windows had been covered and in which there was a large projection screen. It was the audio/visual room used for new officer orientations. Behind the screen was a cot and blanket and he offered me the use of the cot for the night. I jumped at the opportunity and I knew that this was going to work, because the room was air conditioned. I thanked the Lieutenant and he snapped the light off as he left the room. I vaguely remember lying back after removing my boots and the next thing I remember was the NCO shaking me awake so I wouldn’t miss the morning formation and a chance to get out of there.
I had the first good night’s sleep in nearly two days and I thought I could really get used to that duty as a permanent assignment. Man, 363 more days to go. I couldn’t even see the light at the end of the tunnel. I made it down the hill with a new spring in my step and even had some breakfast at the mess hall before the morning formation. The rest that I got must have had the effect of a good luck charm because my name was finally called and a small number of us were assigned to II Field Force. Soon I was riding in the back of a ¾-ton truck bound for some place called “Plantation”.
As I sat in the back of the ¾-ton and watched the front gate of 90th Replacement get smaller in the distance, I wondered if it could get any worse than the past couple of days or was the journey worse than its beginning. We’ll see . . . 363 MORE DAYS TO GO!
Footnote: I not only did the 365 day tour but extended my tour 45 days to get a 179 day drop and Early Out on my remaining active duty time. I ended up doing 410 days in- country.
|155mm Powder Canisters on left. Go Back|
|Photo from: Artillery Vietnam, A Publication of the 23rd Arty Group, Vietnam, ca 1969-70.|