How to Survive in the Nam
Frosty, Courville and I jumped aboard a C-130 along with sixty other soaked and sweating air cops – destination, unknown.
An hour later, we landed at a small army base on a beach. We all disembarked and filed off the landing strip to huddle in front of the Army NCO Club (Non Commissioned Officers) – by then, the sun was setting. The air was still hot and humid but a cool breeze was blowing in from the ocean. A welcome change from that stench at Tan Son Nhut, which I can still smell to this day.
The staff sergeant, who told us to pack up had also flown over with us. Beckerlong was a well-built dogface with a heavy Southern drawl but, unlike mush-mouthed Courville, I could understand him. He was a good-natured lifer, but when he spoke you listened. For the record, most of THE NAM sarges during my tour were decent guys, who had recently been jeeps themselves and now with the war in full swing “had greatness thrust upon em”. Screaming in a recruit’s face in Basic is one thing. Getting him to do what he’s told in a war zone is another. A good sarge protects his men as best he can. There’s no need to threaten them since that only creates panic and makes them hate him more than the enemy. So, for now, Beckerlong was our Mother Goose and we were his goslings.
Beckerlong called out his rank and date of rank then added,
"Anyone here got an older date or higher rank? Okay – that puts me in charge. First thang – I need a Quarter Master and a gopher. Someone who can get anything, any time, day or night. Any volunteers? Yew – come with me. The rest of yew – stay put. We’ll be back shortly."
And Beckerlong went off with his gopher. By now it was nightfall and no one had a clue as to where we were until a PFC (Private First Class) ambled by and got pumped for information. We had landed at Qui Nhon (pronounced “Kwee Non”), South Vietnam’s third largest city on the coast in the Central Highlands.
The PFC sounded bored – and looked it.
“The VC mortars us, now and then but most of the time, it’s pretty quiet round here.”
He saw some guys looking longingly at the ocean.
“Oh, yeah – there’s sharks out there so I wouldn’t go swimmin if I were you.”
– said almost as an afterthought. He ambled on his way.
We sat huddled on the sand, waiting for Becklerong to come back. What if we were attacked RIGHT NOW? We were out in the open without even a slingshot to defend ourselves. Sure, Courville had his bowie knife but the rest of us had squat.
The Army base was small but spread out along the beach, north of Qui Nhon City – a fence separated the two. And the base really was right on the beach – the only hard surface was its landing strip which resembled a heavy-duty chain link fence rolled out on the sand for small aircraft like our C-130. No way could a big-ass jet ever land on it.
Sergeant Beckerlong came rolling back in a big ton-and-a-half truck – the kind that comes with side slats to hold in cattle – only there were no slats on this tonner, not even a tarp over the back.
"Any yew guys hungry?"
A unanimous YES!
"I rounded up some C-Rats – they’ll be droppin em off soon."
Beckerlong was now holding an M-16 rifle and a standard .45 pistol. He held up the pistol.
"Anyone know how to fire one uh these?"
A few hands went up – Beckerlong tossed the .45 to an eager beaver, keeping the M-16 for himself.
I don’t know where we’re headed tomorrow but the 7th Air Force command knows we’re here, and they’ll cut our orders in the mornin. So y’all find a comfortable place to sleep, tonight.
The gopher arrived with the C-Rations. We all grabbed a box and got our first taste of what we’d be eating for the next year – canned leftovers from the Korean War. Hungry as I was, I didn’t eat all of mine since it tasted so bad but you either take what the military gives you or starve. Once my taste buddies were deadened, I came to love some of the canned stuff. I especially liked the free smokes, since I had run out of them along with money. I went around collecting all I could from nonsmokers and ended up with quite a stash.
By now, the beach was stewn with discarded C-rat cans and boxes. Once again, Beckerlong took control.
"Okay, listen up! Before we leave, yew will pick up every bit of litter that yew dropped on this beach. Every bit of litter left untouched aids Charlie in his fight against democracy. He’s a clever bastard, our Charlie – he don’t have planes and tanks like us but he knows how to make bombs. All kinds of bombs. And yew know what Charlie uses to make his bombs? American litter dropped by American boys. That’s right. Every beer bottle … soda can … C-rat can … cardboard box … anything dropped by American boys become bombs in Charlie’s hands. Charlie will take YOUR litter and make his bombs and plant em where yew or some other American boy can step on em and lose an arm … or a leg … or be killed, outright. So get into the habit of pickin up after yourselves – otherwise, yew’ll be helpin Charlie, NOT your country."
That beach was litter-free in no time.
After the sun had gone down, all the lights went out throughout the base and the night became very dark indeed. It was like electricity had never been invented – hell, not even FIRE. Since we all had to sleep in that huge open truck, I made sure I got in the cab up front. I was too quick, however, and ended up sitting in the middle which became uncomfortable around two a.m. – not easy to sleep sitting upright with nothing to lean your head on except your chest. Frosty had the passenger door side with his head half out the window which looked far more comfortable. I would’ve been better off in the back with the rest of the cattle.
After sunset, in came another constant that everyone will agree upon –
All kinds of BUGS – mosquitoes mixed with anything else that flies around to sting and bite. Charlie didn’t attack us that night but those wall-to-wall bugs did and we had nothing but our hands to fight the little bastards. That night, I learnt my first lesson in how to survive in Vietnam – if you kept a lit cigarette going, you kept the bugs at bay but once that smoke went out, they advanced on you again. I made a quick inventory of all my free smokes, separated all the menthol ones – definitely expendible! – and lit one up as soon as the last one went out. (Many a nonsmoker in THE NAM turned tobacco fiend for the same reason.)
This went on all night until the HOT but merciful sun started to rise and chased the BUGS away – I doubt I’d gotten a wink of sleep.
Breakfast was more C-Rations, eaten carefully – Charlie would get no bomb materials out of us! I collected another stash of smokes – I had depleted my inventory after chain-smoking all night long to keep from being eaten alive. Beckerlong disappeared again and returned with an old school bus painted Army green, complete with driver.
Our orders have been cut. We’ll be driving nineteen miles inland to a small airfield that will be our new home. The Air Force is buildin us a base there called Phu Cat.
(Snickers.) That’s right – PHU CAT – P-H-U-C-A-T. They just started buildin it, so don’t expect much in the way of comfort.
I sat in the very back of the bus – another wrong decision. The bus bounced so hard in back that whenever it hit a good-sized pothole it knocked me out of my seat – I tried standing but that proved even more injurious so I sat and held on for dear life. As we bounced through the streets of Qui Nhon, the locals stared at us – Honest-to-God VIETNAMESE. The adults all had dead faces but their kids were wild. They chased after the bus, throwing rocks, spitting, flipping the bird, you name it. If everyone onboard was thinking what I was thinking, it was, WHAT THE FUCK? – WE’RE HERE TO HELP THESE PEOPLE!
There were no panes of glass on the bus – all openings were covered with chicken wire, even where the windshield once was. I yelled out to the driver –
“Hey, how come no windows?”
“Took em all out cuz if someone tosses a grenade in, the glass would cut us to pieces. This way, a grenade bounces right back at em. But now the gooks wrap fishin lines with hooks round grenades. So if you see any grenades with hooks catch on the wire, give a yell and everyone hit the floor!”
“Looks like they don’t like us!”
From another part of the bus came –
“Why you say that? They ain’t shot at us – YET!”
“Course they ain’t shot at us – it’s ain’t nighttime!”
“Let’s hope their slant-eyes glow in the dark!”
Now I had to see who this joker was – he sounded friendly, not competitive. He turned out to be a tall, skinny kid from Pennsylvania. Wagner was his name – soon shortened to WAGGS. We began a running commentary, back and forth, like a comedy team just to keep everyone’s mind off grenades – “Why don’t gooks go to Disneyland? They’re too short to climb up on the rides!” – “Those gooks oughta get sunglasses – look how they’re squintin!” Shit like that.
Beckerlong and another staff sarge named Guerro sat among us. Guerro was a six-foot-five brother in his early thirties – he was a lifer on his first re-up and seemed sociable as far as I could tell. Next to them sat a three-stripe sarge named Newell. He was in his mid-twenties and hailed from Oregon – not fat but not thin, either.
A slim, goodlooking Mexican boy named Martinez (“Marty”) was shooting the shit with Beckerlong and popped out with –
(Marty) “ … yeah, got married the night before I left for here…”
We all groaned – Marty stood a good chance of getting a Dear John letter.
I always get least one love-struck clown who gets hitched just fore he leaves but yew take the cake, Martinez. Night before, huh? Hope yew got some cuz that’s all yew’re gettin from her!
(Marty) “No way, Sarge! She’s hot for me and no one else!”
(Waggs) “Wanna bet?”
"Did yew put her down on your life insurance policy?"
(Marty) “Course I did!”
(Waggs) “Oh, honey, write my name on this line, pretty please. I wuv you!”
We all laughed – Marty included. But then I got to thinking about Brenda – would she be waiting for ME for a whole year? No doubt the others were thinking the same thing about THEIR girls, too …
Once we got off the bumpy roads of Qui Nhon and away from those rock-throwing kids, Vietnam opened up into lush, emerald-green countryside. Most of the guys on the bus had never traveled far from home and now to be passing under this big tropical canopy – I never saw anything so gorgeous. If it weren’t for the war …
We passed locals on bicycles or walking along the side of the road – I’d seen poor people in Mexico but these people redefined POOR. They looked like scarecrows – rag-covered skin and bones. Some lived in mud huts with dirt floors, others in thatched houses of sticks and metal sheathing held down with rocks. Most of the elderly had dark spit drooling down their chins. They were chewing and spitting, chewing and spitting.
“They chewin tobacco or what?”
“Naw – some kinda bean. Pretty, ain’t it?”
We stopped at a Check Point Charlie to stretch our legs. A few MPs were wilting around a small shack propped with sand bags. Being right off the bus (!), we pumped them for information, too.
(MP) “Our job’s to check all the traffic that comes by – real quiet during the day but at night we get hit all the time.”
Huh! Good thing I joined the Air Force instead of waiting for the Army to grab me.
The bus driver made a sudden left turn up a dirt trail filled with ruts – it had been forged by numerous vehicles passing back and forth over it. Finally the bus rattled to a stop and the driver yelled EVERYBODY OFF. We slowly filed off, all wobbly after being knocked about forever in that old tin can. A technical sergeant approached – crewcut, five stripes and sweat. He spoke with firmness and authority. Men, welcome to Phu Cat Air Force Base.
We looked around – WHERE? Rows of tents … a few shacks … some jeeps … a Red Horse division painting a large wooden bay building in olive-drab … foundations for future barracks … that was Phu Cat.
To answer your first question –
Crewcut pointed to some banged-together outhouses.
– the latrines are over there. Next, you need to get settled in before nightfall.
Crewcut pointed to one of the larger tents.
Get yourself an Army cot from supply and find a spot for yourself in your temporary quarters.
Crewcut pointed to the bay building – apparently he and his own men were occupying those rows of tents.
After that, report back here.
Some guys saluted on reflex – the rest of us knew you never saluted noncoms, only officers. Crewcut walked away without saluting back.
Beckerlong took charge of us again, doing what the pecking order told him to do while awaiting his own assignment. Crewcut had told us to get settled in before nightfall, and Beckerlong saw that we did inside that bay building which was just a large wooden box with screen windows, as basic as they come. Frosty set his cot down next to mine … we threw our duffle bags on them … everything smelled of new wood and fresh paint … Beckerlong loaded us all up on half-ton trucks which drove us to a bulldozed area in the midst of thick, thick jungle. Crewcut was waiting for us, along with other sergeants, techs and bucks . Various weapons were laid out in demonstration. A few jeeps were parked nearby.
Crewcut stood while we sat on the ground.
Men, welcome again to Phu Cat Air Base. We are situated in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, midway from Hanoi, Communist capital of North Vietnam, and Thailand, one of our allies. Phu Cat was created as an intermediary landing base. The Air Force has lost too many B-52’s in bomb runs over North Vietnam – many crashed up North or into the China Sea.
He let that sink in – death … mortality … WAR.
So if a crippled B-52 can still fly some distance, it can now land at Phu Cat rather than crash and burn.
Another dramatic pause.
An Air Force base is protected first by its own personnel. Then the Army sets up a defensive perimeter then the Marines form theirs and in some cases the South Vietnamese Army will add theirs … but here things will be different. The Army has informed the Air Force that it cannot afford the personnel to provide security for Phu Cat as they are already stretched way too thin – the Marines have said pretty much the same thing. So the 7th Air Force Command has decided that Phu Cat will be the first Air Force base to be solely protected by its own personnel. Three months ago, a specially created group called the 1041st Safe Side was brought over from Hawaii to establish and defend Phu Cat Air Base. Their mission is nearing an end but is far from over. Before they leave Vietnam, Safe Side will train you to do everything the Army and the Marines would’ve done. First off, forget everything they taught you at Lackland. This is not the war of our fathers … here there is no front line … no visible enemy … but Charlie’s out there even if you can’t see him. Now, we’re going to have you all practice with the weapons you will be using at Phu Cat. What weapons you will be assigned depends on how well you do with them. So line up behind any of those weapons there and familiarize yourselves with them all.
My bad luck never stopped – I had joined the Air Force to stay out of harm’s way and, thanks to the Army and the Marines, I would now be in the thick of it defending my own base. AIR POLICEMAN – bullshit!
And who were these SAFE SIDERS? Those pussies had it soft – trained in HAWAII and now closing out a six-month tour in THE NAM whereas I was stuck there for a YEAR.
I should have been a SAFE SIDER.
I went over to the M-60 line. Six empty 50-gallon drums had been set out as targets 100 yards away. I fired an M-60 and did pretty well. I did even better with the M-16. I went over to an odd-looking rifle with a massive barrel that cracked open like a shot gun but took a big-ass shell.
“Hey, Sarge – what’s this?”
An M-79 grenade launcher.
The buck showed me how the sights worked and told me to fire a round at the middle barrel of the nearest group. I fired and nailed that sucker dead on. The buck told me to fire again using Kentucky windage. I did and nailed that barrel again. All around me were POPS and BANGS and BLOOPS as everyone was taking his turn in this weird, weird shooting gallery. I hoped the Safe Siders were guarding Phu Cat’s perimeters because Charlie could’ve heard us miles away …
One lone target-barrel had been placed way, way out past the others.
"Try hitting THAT one without the sights.
BLOOP – got it."
"Who fired that one?
The buck pointed at me."
It’s yours, airman.
Good – I liked the M-79. Nice and light to carry – simple to operate …
The afternoon began as a shooting gallery and ended up as a tropical Christmas – we all huddled afterwards like kids at Christmas – “What did YOU get?” “What did YOU get?” We forgot all about crash-and-burn B-52’s – we bad-asses were ready to take on Charlie with our brand new toys.
I was always listed as EXPERT MARKSMAN out on the firing range. I rarely missed a target, although I wasn’t all that great with a hand gun. I was also an EXPERT GUNNER with the M 60 machine gun but all you had to do was point the M 60 in the right direction and squeeze the trigger. It didn’t take much of a squeeze on an M-60 trigger to go through a hundred rounds. I first tried the M-60 on the range and became so adept I could squeeze off a round at a time. I’d then practice out on the fence line – I’d remove the tracer rounds and fire off a round here and there in the dark. The M-60 belts were set up every fifth round was a tracer round ¬– some were blue but most were red. Charlie used green tracer rounds – and tracers could kill you just as swiftly as bullets.
I went over to the payroll tent to set up my pay allotment. I continued to be paid once a month and had everything put into a savings Bonds account except $12 per month for pocket money. It would be tough getting by on so little but if I ever got out of THE NAM in one piece, I wanted enough money to grant me time to decide what I wanted to do with myself – sure, I still liked to party but I had my future to think about, too. Therefore, R & R in Australia or Tokyo was out – couldn’t afford them. I had to make do with Qui Nhon down the road and I could always bum beers and smokes from my buddies. I dug in for the long run.