My husband Richard Coote first met John McDowell when they were students at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Before graduating, both left college during the Viet Nam War and joined the military. Richard and John both made it back to college after
completing their military service, and they are friends to this day. John eventually wrote of his time during the war for his five children, but he shared the manuscript with us. After re-reading the account recently, I asked John if he’d allow me to post the story on my blog. He acquiesced, so with John’s permission, I share it with you. –Shari Coote, May 18, 2020
NO GUNS ON SUNDAY
A Reminiscence for My Children
by John McDowell
The bark of outgoing mortar rounds and clatter of automatic weapons fire shocked me awake. “Bad scene,” I thought, “Gooks in the wire minimum and probably inside the compound.” The sounds of the firefight came from all points of the compass. Illumination flares etched crawling rhomboids of milky white on floors and walls in their drift earthward. Red and green tracers colored the night sky beyond.
“Worst by far,” occurred to me as I rolled out of my rack in search of a weapon, flak jacket, steel pot and boots — in that order. “Relax, LT,” a calm but bemused voice announced from a shadow nearby. “It’s New Year’s Eve fireworks.” The fog lifted. This is New Year’s Eve 1970. My last night “in country.” These rear echelon assholes scared the hell out of me. In less than 12 hours I’d be airborne at 20,000 feet, on my way back to “the world” — aka, the U.S. of A., and definitely not Vietnam, Republic of – determinedly recognized by every G.I. in country as “not the world” or perhaps “other worldly.”
I didn’t have much of a plan for that return to the world other than to finish a college degree that had been left in limbo roughly 4 years before. Where that college degree might lead was decidedly indistinct, but I was sure that a degree was an essential cog on the way to something better and above all, something else. My last thought before returning warily to sleep that last night in country was that I was glad to be done with it and glad to have done it. The futility of my effort weighed lightly on my shoulders. The bean counters were in charge. This was a situation of their making, and there was no end in sight — at least no good end. The sacrifices of comrades briefly known during scraps of time weighed more heavily, but I and others had learned to cast those events on that pyre of “other worldly” experiences and move on. I think the expression was, “Don’t mean nothin’.”
“Glad to be done with it” is pretty much a no-brainer. Vietnam for me wasn’t out and out an everyday bad time, but it was a far piece from a good time. The reason I was, “Glad to have done it” is more complicated. Perhaps I was genetically hard-wired for a trip in olive drab — the U.S. Army’s ubiquitous color scheme. The military was the family business. My father hunted Nazi submarines in the Caribbean from an Army Air Corps base on Puerto Rico during WWII. His older brother, Uncle Bob, flew the Hump in the India Theater. My mother’s youngest sibling, Uncle Charlie, landed at Normandy on D-Day and survived a bullet through the jaw for his efforts.
Uncle Bob and Dad left the Army Air Corps at the end of WWII to try their hand at civilian life; but selling life insurance, in the case of the former, and working at a car dealership, my father’s exit to civilian life, lacked the urgency and variety they had experienced with the military. Before the outbreak of the Korean “Conflict” both were back in uniform.
I was a military “brat” from birth. My youth was spent at a succession of military bases in Ohio, Texas, California, Washington, Japan, the Philippines, and finally, Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. “Retreat” and “Taps” were not for me merely movie tunes punctuating Hollywood’s version of “Custer’s Last Stand” or the latest war flick. Those bugle calls were daily occurrences during which automobiles halted and men in uniform exited to salute the lowering of the American flag at sundown. American servicemen on military installations around the world marked the day’s end.
In my youth, I saw the twisted and shattered bones of concrete reinforced buildings still evident in Nagasaki in 1953 during my dad’s tour in Japan during the Korean War. A year later, the family had relocated to the Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines where I scrambled around and over the rusting hulks of Corregidor’s anti-aircraft guns and shore batteries and explored with youthful enthusiasm the dank and ghostly tunnels that housed the 70,000 American and Filipino fighters who later suffered and died along the Bataan Death March. Still later, my friends and I found delight in scavenging the wooded terrain of Otis AFB on Cape Cod, Massachusetts to find treasures of discarded ammo boxes and brass cast aside by lazy or calculating National Guard weekend warriors who practiced their part-time trade during the summer months at Otis.
Despite my mother’s “No guns on Sunday” dictum, playing war was virtually a daily activity. We scouted; we plotted ambushes, and, we eliminated the enemy. My baseball, basketball, and swimming coaches were active duty military men. The base bowling alley and movie theaters were populated by crew-cut, trim, and ofttimes uniformed, young men. Military Police patrolled the housing areas. Airmen and their senior officers flew their triple-tailed Constellation aircraft far off the eastern coast line of Cape Cod to protect the nation from Soviet attack, more than once as a final act in a life of military service. Even washing the dinner dishes concluded with an inspection and demerits to ensure that the performance met the standards expected. These were my role models and my environment. For better or worse, I carry much of that legacy even today. But, let’s begin at the beginning.
I was given a train ticket to travel from downtown Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to Fort Dix, New Jersey to start my four-year military odyssey — a path beaten hard by the boots of hundreds of thousands of American boys who embarked on a similar expedition around the same time. The date was May 16, 1967, the day after I had been sworn into the U.S. Army in a room filled with scores of anxious young men, pledged my allegiance to the United States, and promising to uphold the U.S. Constitution through thick and thin.
Dad delivered me to the train station early that day, and though I can’t remember whether he offered any profound words to mark the occasion, I was aware that “Red,” by now a career Air Force Master Sergeant, was both concerned and fatalistic about future developments. Vietnam was very much in the air, but like millions of others in his generation, Red McDowell and his kin had been to war and had risked all in more popular conflicts against the foes of democracy and the “American way of life.” So it was my turn to “serve,” however, he might have silently hoped otherwise. I don’t think he had much to say. It was man’s work and a man’s duty, so things just went unsaid.
A handshake and pat on the back and I was off to fight the despicable, expansion-hungry Communists who were threatening the American way of life around the globe but most actively in the jungles and highlands of an underdeveloped Asian nation that had been cavalierly ripped asunder at the end of WWII for political expediency. Never mind that that piece of geography encompassed one people and had been a political entity for many generations prior to its Western “enlightenment” or that numerous attempts over roughly a thousand years to subjugate those “slopes” had come to grief. But that’s another story well covered in scores of learned tomes. I was young; I was naïve; I was patriotic; I trusted my “betters.” But I didn’t exactly volunteer.
Actually, once I’d flunked out of Lafayette College midway through my junior year sometime in December 1966, the immediate future was pretty much ordained in those times. I admit that Lafayette College was fair in its assessment of my performance. I was majoring in poker and pool and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, the three “P’s.” Lafayette College didn’t accredit that major and somewhat belatedly (perhaps because I was an asset on Lafayette’s football squad) informed me of this miscalculation. Thus, I lost my student deferment and became prime, grade-A, military manpower. Not much later, April 1967 in fact, I opened an envelope and read that I was required to report to a military in-processing unit in Harrisburg on such and such a date to determine whether I was medically and psychologically fit to be inducted, i.e. drafted, into the United States Army.
Arlo Guthrie covered the broad strokes of that occasion in his recording, “Alice’s Restaurant.” I was tested, probed, and measured. I passed. Go figure. I learned much later to my suspicious surprise that many seemingly able-bodied young men of close acquaintance were deemed unfit for this activity. Most had been stalwart and athletic comrades on the playing field of Cape Cod’s Bourne High School. Why were they unfit to be my comrades in arms? I suppose they suffered from one of a myriad of real or imaginary medical or psychological deficiencies. Perhaps they shared the Group W bench with Arlo for some youthful indiscretion and ran afoul of John Law. Who knows?
- April 15, 1967 – Large demonstrations are held against the Vietnam War in New York City and San Francisco.
Entering the Army via the draft in 1967 carried a two-year active duty obligation and another four years of weekend warrior reserve duty. Coming into the Army as a draftee also meant that the Army had carte blanche to put you into any “job” it desired. I was naïve but not that naïve. I knew the Army was desperately in need of people to go out there stomping around to find the landmines and to haul the base plate of the mortar from place to place and to infiltrate behind enemy lines and things equally undesirable if not insane. So Red and I shopped around the military recruiting offices to see if I could sell my soul for a better deal.
We eventually settled on the Army Security Agency, a military intelligence outfit for enlisted men specializing in electronic eavesdropping, cryptology, and the like. It required a four-year enlistment, and I wouldn’t be going down the passive, “I’m-totally-at-your-mercy,” two-year route the draft represented. After all, we reasoned, those intelligence geeks wouldn’t likely be in foxholes, and it would be better to learn something useful during a four-year stint than “grunt” for two. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
The anarchy I experienced on my arrival at Fort Dix came to epitomize much of what I endured in the weeks that followed. A phalanx of noncoms (sergeants and corporals) surrounded us screaming well within saliva-punctuating distance, “Hurry up and line up,” “Hurry up and run (at a double time to somewhere or other),” and “Hurry up and wait– quietly, at attention, and no eyeballing.” We hurried up and got a basic issue of ill-fitting fatigues, olive drab; we hurried up and got hair cuts that today’s skin heads would envy; we hurried up for a battery of inoculations delivered from a pneumatic gun that injected the vaccine directly into flesh without the nicety of a needle. “Lean into it and don’t flinch,” we were warned. “It’ll slice you open if you move.” Man, we hurried up so much, though never enough to please those screaming hard-to-please noncoms, that we had plenty of time for that other principal activity of early Army life–waiting.
Before you could say, “Ulysses, By God, Grant,” we were formed into a company of roughly 160 raw recruits, divided into four platoons comprised of four squads each. Just as rapidly we began to distinguish left from right. That took longer than you might expect since we were slow learners and fast forgetters. “Left…left…left…right…left… get in step you moron!” “Column left. March–no, no, no! I said, ‘left,’ you imbecile.” You get the idea. Then there were all those things they wanted you to do with your gun, whoops, I mean rifle. Left shoulder arms, right shoulder arms, present arms, trail arms, inspection arms, port arms. Many recruits spent quality time demonstrating the difference between their rifle and their gun, usually by gripping each in turn while loudly announcing to all present, “This is my rifle. This is my gun. This is for fighting, and this is for fun.”
- June 1, 1967 – The Beatlesrelease Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, nicknamed “The Soundtrack of the Summer of Love.” It would be number one on the album charts throughout the summer of 1967.
Despite the near total regimentation enforced, there were moments when initiative and personal decisions mattered during Basic. Early on I fortunately arrived at my first good decision in the Army.
During basic training each Company was trained by a cadre of Drill Instructors (DIs) who attempted to impart to civilians the rudiments of what every soldier needs to know, i.e., how to perform as a combat infantryman. Given the material they had to deal with– attention-deficit-afflicted, didn’t-want-to-be-here-in-the-first-place young men, I believe the DIs did a good job. However, the nominal leaders of the Company, the Platoon Leaders and Squad Leaders, were selected from the ranks of the recruits themselves. In effect, a DI could now scream at a single Platoon or Squad Leader, who would in turn attempt to get his unit to perform whatever activity was required.
The selection of these leaders occurred on about day three of basic training when the head DI asked for a show of hands to identify anyone in the Company with prior military training, ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) in college, perhaps. I had been in ROTC at Lafayette College and therefore knew the rudiments of drill, weapons training, etc. But in an instant burst of clarity I realized that acknowledging this would be a bad thing. I stood mute as other more eager trainees identified themselves. Once selected, they were each was given an important-looking armband designating their positions of “authority.” Thereafter, I stifled a smile as those poor lads caught twice the grief of the rank and file over the next eight weeks of Basic. That became my modus operandi throughout Basic–low profile and low maintenance.
All in all, basic training was not that difficult and some activities were even fun. Time spent at the rifle range learning how to “zero” your weapon (M-14s in that time) and fire it properly was enjoyable. Once the Company learned to set off on the same foot, the left, the marching about and the field parades were okay, too. We learned how to bayonet bales of straw successfully; we learned that gas masks were a good thing to wear in gas-filled buildings; and without much prompting, we learned how to embrace the ground with real feeling during a day and evening of assault training when live ammunition was employed, undoubtedly 15 feet above our heads.
- June 5, 1967 – Six-Day War: Israeloccupies the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai peninsula and Golan Heights after defeating its Arab
My only exposure to real danger during Basic was self-inflicted. The incident occurred during company training in the use of hand grenades. Most of the day was spent learning the proper way to toss that heavier than expected object (still unarmed) and practical suggestions such as, “Do not bounce that pineapple off a tree or it may end up in your lap.” Throwing a live grenade downrange was the grand finale of the day’s exercise. This was performed from a pit with an instructor standing alongside to make sure things turned out well. I pulled the pin on my grenade, let the spring-loaded handle fly, and gave the grenade a mighty heave expecting in my mind’s eye to see the graceful arc of a discus I had hurled to a Bourne High School record, or the trajectory of a 50-yard football spiral. Reality set in as the grenade thumped to earth about 15 yards distant. I became instantly mesmerized, both in disbelief of my meager results and because I wanted to see the explosion. That would be neat. As the instructor yanked me down into the pit, he “explained” in simple military terms that I was one “dumb motherf…er.” Apparently, watching a grenade explode is part of the enemy’s job description. I’m glad he was there.
The most taxing activity by far were the “forced” marches carrying 50 pounds or so of gear in a sadistically-designed backpack, wearing a steel helmet that seemed always to jingle when you jangled, and lugging an11-pound rifle. Did I mention the water-filled canteen banging against my hip every other step? It wasn’t so much that the marches were brutally long, rather it was that Fort Dix seemed to consist mainly of soft sand. The sand, combined with a mob of unencumbered Drill Instructors moving at the fastest walking pace possible, made each excursion a less-than-pleasant stroll.
The accordion effect seemed constantly in play on these marches. One minute you’d struggle to walk without stepping on the heels of the boy in front, and the next minute you’d be running to catch up. This was not much fun on soft sand in combat boots with the jingling and jangling, hip banging, poorly designed 50-pound pack digging into your shoulders and back, and lugging 11½ pounds of wood and steel around for 5 or 6 hours. And then there were these fresh looking DIs screaming into your face, guess what? “HURRY UP!!” Most, but not all, of us came out the other end, slept like logs, and wondered with some trepidation when another stroll would be on the agenda. I’ll bet the DIs had a good laugh over a six-pack of beer at the end of the day and began planning the next march over even more sandy terrain.
Most activities proved to be more tedious and tiresome than taxing, however. Kitchen police (KP) fell squarely into this category. Several times during Basic my platoon was assigned to staff a cavernous mess hall which served three meals a day to the thousands of recruits and training cadre who peopled Fort Dix. We certainly didn’t cook anything. That job was consigned to those who had specific training in producing the swill that was ladled out on the serving line. It wasn’t the kind of food that Momma made. That’s for sure!
One classic treat, for instance, was inspired by that old breakfast favorite–chipped beef on toast. Army cooks, however, had discovered that ground beef was easier to fry up in bulk, and why bother with the white sauce traditionally served, when a greasy, gray, semi-coagulated liquid would suffice? SOS was the affectionate, unofficial designation for this fare– shit-on-a-shingle. So cooking was out, but there were mountains of potatoes to peal, scores of industrial-sized greasy pots and pans to wash, gymnasium-scale floors to sweep and mop, tables to clean, etc. And then, of course, there were endless towers of slimy dishes, glasses, cups, silverware, and assorted cooking utensils to wash prior to the next serving. KP started around daybreak and seemed to last slightly longer than eternity. There was always something to do, and to do again because the first attempt just wasn’t satisfactory.
One lesson learned during KP was transferable–how to shirk and avoid work. Bathroom breaks were frequent and lengthy. Leaning on a mop in a semi-catatonic state became an art form. One kid was discovered sleeping in the garbage dumpster out back. Definitely Special Forces material, I thought.
Guard duty, likewise, fell into the tedious bin. To begin, trainees were positioned in some isolated location guarding something vital like a deserted stretch of road. After all, who would have a raw recruit guarding something valuable? Second, guard duty for recruits normally occured at night after a full day of strenuous physical activity when everyone wants nothing more than to sleep. Twelve hours of guard duty consisted of two hours on duty and two hours off, punctuated only by occasional rounds of calls from one guard post to the next to ensure that all are awake and alert. Pro forma visits by someone in authority punctuated the night. They were there to determine that you could bellow, “HALT, WHO GOES THERE?” loudly enough and to quiz you on the General Orders which must be memorized verbatim:
Army General Orders (For Boot Camp)
- I will guard everything within the limits of my post and quit my post only when properly relieved.
- I will obey my special orders and perform all of my duties in a military manner.
- I will report violations of my special orders, emergencies, and anything not covered in my instructions to the commander of the relief.
During one of my stand down periods I was approached by a sallow lad I knew vaguely. He had a letter in hand and said that he had just received his first letter from home. I allowed that that was nice and rolled over in my bunk, trying to get some sleep. He then asked me to read it aloud. I was cranky, tired, and generally out of sorts, so I said something to the effect that I wasn’t in the mood and that he should buzz off and read his own mail. He stood there looking depressed and finally replied that he couldn’t read.
I suppose I knew that in some distant hinterland in these United States of America there dwelt adults who couldn’t read, but I certainly had never knowingly come face to face with one. I’ll bet the team that found an intact Woolly Mammoth frozen in the Siberian tundra experienced similar emotions. I read the letter, all the while wondering how this lad could have met the Army’s requirements for entry. After all, there were multiple-choice psychological tests to be completed and another battery of tests to measure mental acuity as I recall. So how did this guy make it? Then again, when there’s a-stomping around for landmines to be done and base plates of the mortar to be carried, read n’ and write n’ might just be an extra burden. Don’t know what happened to that guy. I suspect foxhole. But in view of the insanity of the period, he may have been posted to a library in the Pentagon.
At the end of week six of Basic Training, the powers that be had decided that the troops needed some R&R, so the first weekend pass, 48 hours, was issued to those not restricted in some way. A couple pals and I decided this would be an ideal opportunity to visit the Big Apple, i.e., New York City. I had taken two or three road trips to NYC during my tenure at Lafayette College, so I became the leader of this small assault team whose mission it was to locate and penetrate as many New York City females as possible. Well, we were horny and arguably overly confident. One thing was for sure. Allowing for about five hours travel each way on a Greyhound bus, we wouldn’t have much time.
With no time to waste, on arrival we checked into the absolutely most sleazy hotel I have ever patronized, bar none. The choice of lodging was largely determined by the disposable income a Private E-0 earned in 1967 and my intimate knowledge of the price of booze in New York City. Rooms without roaches or more booze was an easy choice. But heck, sleazy digs didn’t bother us because we intended to spend the night at her place.
- July 12, 1967 – After the arrest of an African-American cab driver for allegedly illegally driving around a police car and gunning it down the road, race riotsbreak out in Newark, New Jersey. These riots last for six days.
- July 14, 1967 – Near Newark, New Jersey, the Plainfield, New Jerseyriots also occur.
- July 19, 1967 – Minneapolis race riots: 2 dozen injured and damages totaling $4.2 million.
The first inkling that we may have overestimated our desirability occurred shortly after we stormed the first tavern. Here we were, modern day Knights Templar, the hope of the Western World in its battle to halt the spread of Marxism, but the girls just couldn’t be bothered. In fact they rather clearly expressed their disinterest.
I eventually noted a contrast in our appearance compared to the long-haired, fashionably-attired males who seemed to be in play. Perhaps it was our baggy, green, Class A uniforms sporting only a name plate as adornment. Could it be the one-sixteenth inch of fuzz that adorned our bony skulls? Maybe it was the way we banded together on adjacent bar stools resembling, no doubt, those three well-known monkeys cautioning one and all to, “Hear no evil; see no evil; speak no evil.” Surely, we were just in the wrong place. The bartender, undoubtedly irked at our non-tipping ways, suggested a pub where “our kind” hung out. “That’s the ticket,” I reasoned, and we trudged the 10 blocks to the Promised Land.
At first blush the mood seemed promising. The Army was in town, and attractive women were in attendance. As the night wore on, however, and our limited cache of funds dwindled, it became increasingly apparent that while the girls weren’t openly hostile, their attention, moth-like, was drawn to tall, good-looking soldiers whose hair actually lay flat on their heads, whose uniforms were sharply tailored and ablaze with multi-colored ribbons and medallions of distinction, whose shoulders and garrison caps sported the emblems of one airborne unit or another, and whose trousers were neatly bloused into gleaning combat boots. On top of that, the competition seemed to have money to burn. We were out of our league and soon found solace in one after another bottle of Budweiser. It is at this juncture that memory begins to fail.
I awoke in that sleazy hotel room to the boozy smell of other unwashed male bodies. Since we had run though our funds, we hiked without breakfast the 30-some city blocks, beery perspiration staining our woolen uniforms in the mid-morning summer heat, to Port Authority to catch the return bus to Fort Dix. Sad to say, this was the first, but not the last, occasion during my Army life that I felt relief to be back among “our kind.” Thus I encountered my first personal recognition that there existed in the United States an unspanable, “us and them,” Vietnam-era divide. I hadn’t even picked a side. The side had picked me.
The days inched by, and days became weeks, and gratefully, eight weeks of basic training were nearly a thing of the past. Another period of advanced training, during which soldiers learned the nuts and bolts of their “specialty,” loomed on the horizon. Orders for advanced training were issued at the conclusion of Basic, and this was an anxious time for many, as, frankly, you never knew what dirty deed the Army had in store.
I came to that believe assignments in the Army had a lot in common with a carnival game that was once in vogue. This carny game consisted of an oval trough of circulating, murky water inhabited by small plastic fish, each fish embossed with a numbered metal disc. Prizes of varying value, numbered to match the numbers on each fish, lined shelving within the oval where a kindly operator held sway, extolling the virtues of his game and urging others to join. “Everyone’s a winner!”
Eager youngsters paid their quarter and were given a sawed-off fishing pole with a short line, magnet attached, to capture the metal disc in the submerged fish. After much jostling for just the right position around the “fishing hole,” intent boys and girls slipped their lines into that foggy water with expectant glee and eventually “hooked” their prize. “I’ll get a good ‘un,” one would exclaim, “that matched set of metal cap guns with leather holsters!”
I suppose someone somewhere got those pistols, but everyone I knew reeled in a “catch” that was exchanged for a yellow rubber ducky or some similar “prize” worth a nickel. That’s the Army assignment process. You give the Army years of your youth, expecting and perhaps promised one thing, and you end up with a yellow rubber ducky. You just never knew precisely what prize was in the offing, but you were pretty sure you weren’t going to like it much.
Later on, a reenlistment officer would urge you to re-up because next time, for sure, you were going to get that coveted assignment that was circulating just beneath the surface.
- June 26. 1967 – Buffalo race riot begins, lasting to July 1: leads to 200 arrests.
With Basic now winding down to a precious few days, we were all eager to discover what lay in store during our next phase of training. I had completed a battery of aptitude tests at the outset of Basic to determine where I might best fit within the Army Security Agency (ASA) pantheon of potential duties. Remember, I had signed on for four years so my desires were important to the Army. What would be the confluence of my desires and abilities and the needs of the Army? Toward the end of Basic, once the tests had been evaluated, I was “interviewed” by an ASA representative, Specialist Smith, let’s say. Specialist Smith asked me to list my top three choices among those on offer. I don’t remember my listing exactly, but I think I chose:
(1) Photographic analysis — deciphering militarily useful information from high altitude photographs.
(2) Cryptology — that sounded cool.
(3) Electronic surveillance – also accomplished from a respectful distance.
Specialist Smith said, “Good” and “Good” to my first two choices but remarked that I had scored lower on the third category. In contrast, he noted, I had scored highly in languages.
The language test had measured in some manner how well you could muddle through in an artificial language when given some simple rules of grammar, a limited vocabulary, etc. Specialist Smith “suggested” I list languages as my third choice. “Besides,” he said, “You’ll get your first or second choice for sure anyway. After all, you enlisted for four years, so we’re just filling in the blanks.”
I was then asked to choose three languages. “German, French, and Spanish,” I replied quickly, knowing that something like 12 time zones separated the users of those tongues from Vietnam. “Sorry,” Smith responded, “You’ll need to select a least one ‘hard’ language.” We settled on Bulgarian, which qualified as a “hard” language and which was likewise far distant from Southeast Asia. Clearly, I was becoming less naive and cleverer by the minute under Uncle Sam’s tutelage.
On the final day of Basic, orders were posted and promotions were listed on the Company bulletin board. I learned that I had been promoted along with about one-quarter of the Company to Private E-2, thus vaulting over the E-1 rating one receives simply for completing Basic and entirely validating the strategy of “low profile and low maintenance” in my mind. Clever lad.
For onward training, this clever lad was assigned to Student Detachment XYZ, located at Fort Myers, Virginia for a 47-week course of intensive training in the Laotian language. Remember the fishing game?
Laotian = Laos:
- Which is certainly in the same time zone and borders Vietnam to the west;
- Which was fighting its own war against Communist forces — the Pathet Lao;
- Which was home to much of the infamous Ho Chi Mein trail — North Vietnam’s main route for infiltration and supply of their forces in South Vietnam; and,
- Which is where the CIA was placing advisors in isolated Montagnardencampments to assist in the fight against the Pathet Lao and to conduct operations against the Ho Chi Mein Trail.
I would have given anything for 10 minutes alone with Specialist Smith.
- July 23, 1967 – Detroit race riots: 43 killed, 342 injured,and 1,400 building burned.
- July 30, 1967 – The Milwaukee race riots begin, lasting through August 2 and leading to a ten-day shutdown of the city from August 1.
I reported to Ft. Myers following two-weeks leave to embark on the study of Laotian. Conditions weren’t too shabby. Several hundred enlisted men studying a wide range of languages were housed in WWII-style barracks, each with a private room. South Post, Ft. Myers, Virginia is adjacent to the Arlington National Cemetery and is located just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Officers were given a housing allowance to lease an apartment off-base.
Supervision was relaxed with about one inspection a month. Weekends and evenings we were basically free to do as we wished. Language instruction occurred in nearby Roslyn, Virginia in commercial office space. A recreation room was provided with several pool tables and a ping pong table, and nearby was a mess hall and a separate cafeteria that served watered-down beer and cheap grub. A movie theater on post showed the films of the day at reduced rates. Pretty darn swell for Army duty. I began to think I had come out darned well after all.
I was part of a group of six for Laotian language training — three Army Special Forces officers, a Marine sergeant, a Marine corporal and yours truly. The instructor was a young, likeable Laotian national. The basic drill consisted of memorizing a dialogue in Lao each day. After numerous rote repetitions of the day’s dialogue, the instructor would conduct variations using the vocabulary and phrases contained in the dialogue and those learned previously to imprint the lesson. A good approach overall.
That all did not go smoothly reflected first and foremost the differing aptitudes and attitudes within the group. Several lieutenants and the Marine sergeant were “slow learners.” Then there was my habit of attempting to memorize the dialogue on the ten-minute bus ride to class in the morning. So I wasn’t absolutely motivated. What can I say? Forty-seven weeks of seven hours a day studying Laotian with several hours study in the evening recommended just didn’t light my fire. This lack of preparation, varying aptitudes, and the group’s penchant for going off task during class time probably accounts for the Laotian instructor’s regular resort to real tears. I thought he was entirely too sensitive, but I felt bad once or twice.
- September 4, 1967 – U.S. Marines launch a search and destroy operation in Quang Nam and Quang Tin provinces. The ensuing four-day battle in the Que Son Valley kills 114 Americans and 376 North Vietnamese.
On the positive side, my pool and ping pong skills improved tremendously. My friends and I spent most of our off-duty time on the post because on my pay ($100.10/month), going out on the town was a once a month excursion. Besides, the girls in Washington, D.C. were as icy as those in NYC. We were representatives of policies and activities they abhorred. Nevertheless, I found kindred spirits among the ranks of the bright, irreverent young men consigned to language training. We had fun. The officers and senior noncoms seemed to have more difficulty in this regard, but most of those had career aspirations. We didn’t.
|· October 9, 1967 – Che Guevara is executed.|
This difference in attitude was illustrated during one of our monthly inspections. The captain and first sergeant would move through our wing, examining the appearance of each soldier and the state of our rooms and gear, usually with extra emphasis on one thing or another. Since failure to pass inspection could result in a loss of some freedoms and/or extra duty, we would listen as the inspecting pair moved through the wing, mentally noting items we had neglected to prepare properly and worrying that these might be discovered. Eventually the captain and first sergeant were standing to my immediate left, facing Private Owen.
Private Owen was a bright, acerbic, red-haired kid studying Arabic who had a wicked sense of humor. Since I was next to be subjected to inspection, I was particularly attentive, without overtly eyeballing. I heard the captain say in a disbelieving tone, “Private, why aren’t you wearing your nametag?”
“Bad move,” I thought, as I assured myself that I had certainly attached “McDOWELL” above my left, breast pocket.
Without a moment’s hesitation I heard, “Sir, Private Owen. I memorized it and threw it away.” The entire wing cracked up, including the captain and crusty first sergeant. Order was soon restored and nominal demerits issued. Private Owen became a living legend and inspiration. Wish I had said that.
- January 31, 1968 – The North Vietnamese launch the Tet offensive. Nearly 70,000 North Vietnamese troops will take part in this broad action, taking the battle from the jungles to the cities. The offensive will carry on for weeks and is seen as a major turning point for the American attitude toward the war. At 2:45 that morning the US embassy in Saigon is invaded and held until 9:15 p.m.
Language school became repetitive rapidly, and there are only a few real highlights to recall:
- There was the weekend road trip with two pals to the University of Ohio to attend the promised,“fabulous” Halloween festivities. Alas, the university was on break and deserted. Not a single Halloween party in sight. So we repaired to a local watering hole to drown our sorrow. However, when my inebriated friend passed another car on a double yellow line in the vicinity of the University of Ohio at 2:30 a.m, a traffic cop threw him in jail. Since we had only about $7.50 between us, it took some time and ingenuity to raise the $50 bail and get out of town.
|· April 4, 1968 – Martin Luther King was shot and killed by a sniper while standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
· April 6, 1968 – The Baltimore riot began two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Rioting broke out in 125 cities across the U.S.
- There was the part-time,evening and weekend job in the men’s furnishings section of Woodword and Lothrup’s Department store in downtown Washington, D.C. to supplement my meager earnings. That’s when I first learned that there was special underwear stored in the back room. “You know,” the customer whispered, “the kind that ties on the sides.” Frankly, I was confused, and a manager had to complete the order. He later schooled me on this variant of the birds and the bees.
- And then in the final months of my time in language training there were trips to Pittsburgh to spend time with my future wife, Carolyn. She’s still a sweetheart.
- March 16, 1968 – MyLai massacre: American troops kill scores of civilians. The story will first become public in November 1969 and will help undermine public support for the U.S. efforts in Vietnam.
- March 17, 1968– A demonstration in London’s Grosvenor Square against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War leads to violence; 91 people are injured, 200 demonstrators arrested.
At the conclusion of language training in July 1968, Carolyn and I were married. In addition, an opportunity opened up to attend Officers Candidate School (OCS) and earn a commission if I completed the training. With an Army specialty of O4B2L48, Language Interpreter, precedent suggested that my future in the Army Security Agency would in all likelihood consist of long hours listening to and translating radio broadcasts out of Laos, while situated in a sand-bagged bunker within radio range of Laos. That was the “best case.” Translating for an American CIA operative in a Montagnard hilltop base camp in the Laotian highlands was the “worst case.” Since I didn’t like either case, I applied for and was accepted into the OCS program, entering the 26-week Engineer OCS program at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, about 15 miles south of Washington, D.C., in mid-August 1968. If I had known at the outset what would transpire over the next six months, I truly would have reconsidered the whole venture.
Beyond my distaste of the likely outcomes of doing nothing, I can’t put my finger on the rationale that brought me to this decision. Equal parts ego and envy I expect. A year in a classroom with three officers forced me to compare their lifestyle and social activities with what my pay allowed. And I had always been encouraged and inclined to reach for the brass ring. Playing second fiddle left a bad taste in my mouth.
- June 5, 1968– U.S. Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy is shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California by Sirhan Sirhan. Kennedy dies from his injuries the next day.
- June 8, 1968– James Earl Ray is arrested for the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Engineer OCS: Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion — Class 7-69
Beanheads: August to mid-October, 1968
2nd Lieutenant Hamner greeted his new platoon of 40-some Officer Candidates, better known as “beanheads” at the outset for the obvious reasons, during the last week of August 1968 on a hardscrabble field adjacent to a two-story WWII-style barracks. That barracks was to become home for the next six months. It was incredibility hot and muggy as the Washington, D.C. area can be in August. Pretty brutal really and forget the air conditioning.
Lt. Hamner, however, appeared unaffected by the heat. He radiated fitness, a middleweight boxer in pre-bout trim. He was outfitted in tailored, crisply starched, slightly faded fatigues and gleaming combat boots. His belt buckle surely glowed in the dark. He wore a black baseball hat bearing a single vertical gold bar as a designation of rank and position.
- August 20, 1968– The Prague Spring of political liberalization ends as 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 5,000 tanks invade Czechoslovakia.
We soon learned to fear that black hat and others as it announced the presence of a Tactical Training Officer. Lt. Hamner was our Tac Officer. It was his job, and the job of every Tac Officer, to make every Officer Candidate as miserable as humanly possible, both physically and psychologically, for as long as possible. When you saw a black hat, you knew trouble wasn’t far behind.
Standing tall in front of a gleaming, black, Mustang convertible, Lt. Hamner first put us in the push-up position with the command, “DROP!” arms extended shoulder-width apart, palms flat on the ground, back straight, on our toes, head up, looking forward. If I had been given a dime for ever “DROP!” command I was to hear over the next six months, I could have retired a wealthy man immediately after completing OCS.
Apparently we weren’t dropping fast enough for Tac Officer Hamner, and our push-up posture was just god-awful, etc, etc. I can only suppose that Lt. Hamner was sitting behind the door during high school physics class because he wanted us to DROP faster than gravity would allow. After about 20 minutes of, “Drop, Too Slow, On Your Feet, Drop!” I was beginning to think that this might not have been a good idea after all. How was this routine turning me into officer material? Then we couldn’t stand at attention properly, and we “worked” on that for some time. “Pull that chin in, beanhead, chest out, stomach in, thumbs along the seams of your trousers.” “Suck that chin in!” I wondered what I was supposed to do about my Adam’s apple.
Our first session with Lt. Hamner concluded with a lengthy monologue emphasizing what a sorry-ass bunch of beanheads we were, absolutely and surely the sorriest bunch ever in the entire history of the Engineer Officer Candidate Regiment. Disgust dripping with every word, Lt. Hamner concluded with a statement that was both prescient and etched in my memory. He said, “The number of you who will graduate from this program won’t fill the backseat of my Mustang.”
We were designated the 3rd Platoon of Hotel Company and occupied the third barracks in a row of four. A company headquarters building headed the row. The 4th Platoon, our “sister” platoon, resided in an identical building at the end of the row. Our upper class, 13 weeks our senior, dwelt in the first and second barracks. In total, 24 such barracks were crowded together in a tight geometric rectangle, comprising the Engineer Officer Candidate Regiment, housing Companies Alpha through Hotel (Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo). Each identical barracks had a large open bay on the ground floor and a second-floor levels filled with bunk beds, narrow metal wall lockers against the wall, and, wooden, olive drab-colored field tables to serve as desks. At the end of each bunk bed was a four-tier bookcase filled with scores of field manuals. A footlocker for each beanhead was placed under the bottom bunks. Four sinks, three naked toilets, and a multi-faucet communal shower room were the sanitary facilities. For privacy, there was none.
The beanhead phase of OCS spanned the first eight weeks, during which time the training emphasized small unit infantry tactics. The Tactical Training Officer focused on encouraging as many candidates as possible to quit. It was part of the winnowing process. Who wants it, and who can take it? The physical demands were onerous to say the least. A beanhead never walks outside the barracks. Run to class, run to the mess hall, run to the barracks, run, and run, and run. To be fair, sometimes you are allowed to do endless push ups, and sometimes beanheads were allowed to low crawl until strawberries formed on elbows and knees.
Between one run and the nex,t there might be calisthenics, just to add spice to the monotonous routine, but usually beanheads were running. Standing at attention in formation was no better as that was merely an occasion for the Tac Officer and upperclassmen to examine your posture and dress. Belt buckle scratched–50 push ups. Boots scuffed–50 push ups. Never mind that low crawling and push ups scratch buckles and scuff boots. “That’s your problem, Beanhead, figure it out.”
- September 7, 1968 – Mattel’s Hot Wheels toy cars are introduced.
Beanheads eat with upperclassmen, sitting on no more that six inches of chair, back rigidly straight. Beanheads need permission to take each bite, and the routine was usually a close approximation of the following:
- “Sir, Candidate McDowell, requestspermission to take a bite of potatoes.”
- “Give me an interesting fact, Candidate.”
- Beanhead McDowell offers an “interesting” fact.
- “Already knew that,Beanhead, give me an interesting fact I don’t know.”
- Beanhead McDowell offers another “interesting” fact.
- “Heard that one too, BTen minutes is up. Take a bite of your peas, lock and load the milk and get outside.”
Entire metal trays of virtually untouched food would go into the garbage bin, day after day, meal after meal, for weeks on end. Beanheads would attempt, usually unsuccessfully, to devour a couple of bites surreptitiously while in the disposal line and then pay the price in push ups. Fatigues sagged on leaning bodies. I didn’t defecate for almost three weeks at one point and once ate toothpaste. I’m not making this up.
The barracks were inspected daily and oft times more than once a day. Every item had a place and proper placement, and no infraction was too small to be overlooked. I can’t recall how many times we returned to the barracks from the noon meal to find nothing above knee high–bunks dismantled, thousands of field manuals in a heap, wall lockers overturned, foot lockers upended. Lt. Hamner would give us 15 minutes to put it right–field manuals sorted alphabetically, one each in every bookcase, mind you. “Impossible,” we’d think, and impossible it was, in the beginning. But gradually we learned to do things faster and better. We started to become a unit. A team would assemble bunks. Another team would sort the manuals and so on. “Cooperate and graduate,” became a way of life.
I can’t resist a short account of an incident that occurred on a Sunday morning, third week in. Normally, Sunday mornings were more relaxed, a time to put gear into shape and write a letter or two, even attend church. After all, even Tac Officers had to take some time off. But the past week hadn’t gone well, so Lt. Hamner showed up mid-morning on Sunday, full of piss and vinegar. He pulled us out of the barracks and announced that we would be going on a little run. “Ten minutes,” he said. “Put on full field gear including rifle, steel pot, gas mask, rubber boots over combat boots, web gear, full canteen, and back pack–the works.” We scurried off and did the best we could, surely exceeding ten minutes.
Outside again, Hamner announced that in consequence of our recent dismal performance we would be running in full kit until he decided otherwise. He told us to take a mouthful of water from our canteens and don the gas mask. “When we’re done,” he said, “You’d better still have that water in your mouth.” We set off and ran a brutally long time. The Tac wasn’t wearing any gear and certainly wasn’t breathing through a gas mask. I don’t know how far or how long we ran, but mighty far and mighty long, I tell you. We finally halted at the base of a steep hill, and Lt. Hamner had the platoon low crawl to the top where we were told to remove the gas mask and demonstrate that the water hadn’t been swallowed by spitting it out.
The wrinkle in my case was this; I had been using my canteen as a butt can so that I could extinguish my unauthorized cigarettes at a moments notice. My mouthful of water was a slimy blend of two-week old water, foul tobacco, and cigarette filters. There was no way I was going to swallow that slush, but I found other ways to dispose of cigarettes butts going forward.
The psychological screws would tighten particularly during those periods when a candidate occupied a leadership position, e.g., platoon leader, 1st Sergeant, squad leader, etc., and the pressure would come from both above and below. The Tac would often manufacture a difficult assignment on a moments notice, a night attack on the Vietnam village, for instance, and those in the leadership positions would have to organize the platoon and manage the operation. Naturally, people screwed up. Since mass punishment was the norm, the platoon soon learned to dread having certain individuals in leadership positions. It quickly became apparent that some individuals were cutting the mustard and some weren’t. These views were expressed informally during occasional flare ups in the barracks where plain and direct talk among and between the candidates became more frequent.
The group consciousness was revealed formally at the end of each rating period, i.e., at the conclusion of the 8th, 16th and 25th weeks, in the form of peer ratings, aka “bayonet sheets.” This exercise required each candidate to rank all other candidates in the platoon from first to last. The platoon’s ranking, combined with the Tac Officer’s ranking, was tabulated and each candidate’s position relative to all others’ was revealed. Interestingly and properly, the weighting of the platoon’s ranking relative to the Tac’s ranking increased at each rating period from 20% to 40% to 60%, respectively, so the views of peers became increasingly more relevant. I take some pride in the fact that I moved from 10th position at the first ranking to 4th and then to 1st in that progression of peer ratings, and 2nd overall with Russ Cesari capturing the brass ring when the peer and Tac ratings were combined. Russ was without doubt an outstanding individual and the best of us. He was the guy I wanted out front when the shit hit the fan. I think that he would agree that the respect and acknowledgement of men with whom you have endured significant and lengthy hardships is a gift that is not for sale.
The beanhead phase ended with a week-long field exercise at Camp A.P. Hill in Virginia, where we were to demonstrate proficiency in small unit infantry tactics. This was a relief in some ways as it reflected progress toward an eventual conclusion and because the difficulties of living in the open for the best part of a week were different from those involved in barracks life, in particular as upperclassmen were not on hand to fill in the gaps when Tacs were not present. We set up ambushes, attacked mock Vietnam villages, attempted to navigate dense woodlands with map and compass, got lost, dug and slept in foxholes, and washed in steel pots. Not exactly fun, but no one seemed concerned about belt buckles or shiny boots, and the Tacs seemed more at ease when they weren’t having fun tossing gas grenades into our midst.
The finale was an escape and evasion exercise on the last night in camp. The idea was to move from a drop off point through densely wooded and boggy terrain back to the base camp, while evading a large group of “aggressors” placed in the area. Those captured would be taken to a POW camp for a taste of that disagreeable experience. We were allowed a short period to study a map which identified our drop-off point and our destination and were then loaded sans gear, water, or any further means of navigation onto 2 ½ ton trucks. On arrival at “ground zero,” human nature kicked in, and most evaders set off in small groups as though there would be safety in numbers. This, I discovered, was a bad idea. Groups are easier to find than individuals, and since the aggressors were tipped off to the drop-off point, candidates were soon being rounded up in large numbers. I wasn’t out of the truck 10 minutes before I was captured.
I was kicked on capture rather sharply in the ribs by a (no doubt, resentful) enlisted soldier who surely enjoyed the opportunity to dish it out for a change. Boot laces were tied together to hobble us, and we were led post haste to the POW camp. Along the way, thoughts of escape paramount, I managed to break the boot laces with a sharp forward thrust in hopes of making a break for it, but the opportunity never presented itself, so I continued to feign the stumbling gait of the others.
I was led into an interrogation shack on arrival where I was asked questions I knew I shouldn’t answer, so I stuck to the name, rank, and serial number routine demanded by the Army’s Code of Conduct for prisoners. My interrogator was now satisfied that I knew the drill, and I was taken a short distance away and told to assume the dying cockroach position–flat on your back with arms and legs in the air–alongside a dozen or more others awaiting POW treatment. The sounds and atmosphere coming from the floodlight-illuminated POW camp were not encouraging. People I knew were crying out in real pain, and I learned later that several had suffered significant injury and rougher than imagined treatment.
Looking about (you bet I was eyeballing), I saw what I thought was a gap in the surrounding wire fencing. I scrambled to my feet, dodged several aggressors with some of my best open field running moves, and ran helter skelter through the perimeter into the surrounding forest. Running low and hard for some distance through dense woods and underbrush I zigged and zagged until the sounds of pursuit faded. Apparently, chasing motivated future officers through brush and bramble lacked the appeal of a swift kick in the ribs on a prone body.
I paused to collect my breath and to take stock. I wasn’t sure where I was or in which direction to continue now that the dash to freedom had momentarily succeeded. However, a near-full moon was occasionally visible, and I reasoned that, given my estimate of the time, if I kept the moon over my left shoulder, I could move in the desired direction, north, and eventually encounter a dirt road that would lead to base. Setting out again I soon came to the edge of a large meadow blanketed with waist high wispy grass. About 70 yards would see me across and back into the concealing wood line. Haste overcame good judgment, so instead of skirting the meadow, I decided to move quickly across it. Another bad idea.
Not halfway across, I heard the unmistakable sounds of men approaching. Crouching low, I spied two aggressors in conversation moving in my direction. Hoping that I hadn’t been seen, I dropped to the ground spread-eagle and held my breath. Chances were that they would pass some distance from my location. No such luck. “They must have seen me,” I thought as they moved closer and closer. There was nothing to do now but gut it out, recapture the likely outcome. Eventually, the pair passed by in animated conversation, one coming within inches of trampling my hand. I waited in silence until silence prevailed and moved on.
Some distance on I entered a low lying area of shallow ponds and bogs filled with the half rotten trunks of felled trees. As one direction seemed no better than the next in the gloom of night, I broke off a long limb and managed with the aid of the limb to scramble across these obstacles, moving from slippery tree trunk to isolated areas of marshy ground to tree trunk. Finally solid ground was regained, and eventually I encountered a dirt firebreak road bordered by a wide swath of grass on each side. This road appeared to head in the desired direction. Moving down the tree line so that I could duck back into the woods if someone came along, I finally came over a rise and saw to my relief that the base camp lay just beyond. Having started off at approximately 8 p.m., I sauntered into camp as the faintest evidence of daylight could be seen to the east. Mission accomplished, complete with the “Great Escape.”
White Tabs: Mid- October to mid-December 1968
Entering the second phase of OCS, Hotel Company’s beanhead platoon was issued white plastic tabs to place under the OCS insignia on our collars and a white stripe to circle the black helmet liner that was integral to the OCS uniform. This distinguished our class from incoming beanheads, and we wore these adornments with pride. We had come partially out of a black hole. “Candidate So-and-So” replaced “Beanhead” when we were addressed. Furthermore, virtually all of us had by now obtained a logistical support system which provided tailored fatigues (crisply starched and creased by a commercial laundry well aware of the needs of officer candidates), several pairs of jump boots (whose hard toes and heels succumbed to the magic of the spit shine), and helmet liners (refinished to a glossy patent leather-like black sheen). We each had a pristine belt buckle and boots reserved for inspection as well as those needed for daily use. Fatigue trousers were bloused expertly into immaculate boots. In short, we were beginning to take on the appearance of the upperclassmen and, indeed, the Tactical Training Officers themselves.
- November 11, 1969 – Operation Commando Hunt is initiated to interdict men and supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos into South Vietnam. By the end of the operation, 3 million tons of bombs are dropped on Laos, slowing but not seriously disrupting trail operations.
The platoon was also becoming increasingly adept at doing the difficult right away, while admitting that the impossible took slightly longer. Teamwork and organization and initiative became business as usual. The best typists churned out one memorandum request after another since no privilege was granted unless requested, for instance, longer hair or smoking. Artistically-gifted candidates would construct murals to impress the Tac and beautify the barracks. We had a crew now well-versed in the techniques of making a wooden floor glisten. We learned songs to sing while moving as a platoon from one activity to the next. When we belted out California Dreaming, a capella, we were even allowed to march instead of run on occasion. A platoon flag materialized from somewhere, and one day a snare drum appeared which amused the Tac for a week until it was banned. This was no great loss. Running with a snare drum sucks. Class work also improved as we were now involved in the business of learning the rudiments of construction engineering– road building, drainage, bridge building and so on, and mastering the Bible, the every-answer-you-will-ever-need, Engineers Handbook. And to the relief of one and all, we now ate.
These improvements aside, there was no relief from the physical and psychological pressure. More was demanded and more was expected, and mass punishment for missteps continued apace. Many by now had decided that the program wasn’t for them and had dropped out. Some who couldn’t seem to keep up were recycled to repeat the earlier weeks of the program, and more than a few where forced to withdraw. By week 12, perhaps half of the original 40 had gone for reasons listed above or, in some cases, for illness that required hospitalization. New faces appeared regularly. “Retreads” was the term used behind their backs. To some extent this was beneficial as the retreads had experienced what lay ahead and could warn us about pitfalls. Often, however, retreads were a burden and were excluded from what was becoming a smaller core group that had so far weathered the storm together. There was no mercy when “bayonet sheet” time came around. If someone was hurting us, we wanted them gone.
It was during this white tab stage that I had a dust up with an upperclassman that did much to cement my status in the platoon. At a time when most of the upper class had backed off, allowing that we were worthy fellow travelers on a ship in troubled waters, this fellow continued to pour it on. He had a deserved reputation for taking undue delight in tormenting and haranguing underclassmen, regardless of their company affiliation. No transgression was overlooked, no deficiency too minor to escape his cold and calculating displeasure. In plain words, he was an ass, though extremely capable and efficient, I’d allow, in terms of what was required to get by in OCS if you didn’t care about having a friend or two. Still more vexing, he was a member of our sister platoon’s upper class, not ours.
Nevertheless, during study period one evening he had come into our barracks and was roaming for no reason other than to see what kind of discomfort he could initiate. He spied me moving about with my hands in my pockets. Soldiers in general aren’t permitted to have hands in their pockets for any longer that it takes to put an item in or take an item out. During the OCS program, pockets were entirely superfluous. Candidates weren’t permitted to carry anything in pockets. I knew this, but hell, I guess I’m a natural born rebel. Well, either that or I simply had an absentminded moment.
In any case, he decided he was going to teach me a lesson and at the same time impress me and those around us with his authority and superior intellect. He got in my face and said he wanted to show me the dangers of having your hands in your pockets–an unforgivable offense. He asked for permission to touch because OCS regulations would not permit upperclassmen to touch underclassmen unless permission was granted. Upperclassmen could demand as many as 20 push ups at a shot to a maximum of 100 push ups per incident, but no touching without permission. I said in my calmest voice, “Sir, Candidate McDowell. No, sir.” This was study period. The entire platoon could see and hear what was going on. He was gob smacked. Granting a “Permission to touch?” request was pro forma. Denial simply wasn’t a real option, at least not in living memory.
“Drop for 20,” he demanded in an agitated tone. I knocked out the 20, an effort that barely registered on the push up scale at this stage of OCS. Back on my feet, he had me put my hands again in my pockets so he could help me understand the reason for the hands-in-the-pockets rule. “Sir, Candidate McDowell. No, sir,” I persisted. Another 20 and his face took on a deeper shade of red. Several more rounds in the same vein convinced him that I wouldn’t give him permission to touch come hell or high water. He stormed off, promising future reprisals. The platoon actually cheered, and I felt damn good. He knew, they knew, and I knew that I had won. He never graced our floor again to my knowledge.
There was one other incident during our white tab phase that I recall with a smile when I drift back to that distant landscape. When the day began, I was serving a term as platoon leader, meaning I was under constant observation and evaluation. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but something I did really irked Lt. Hamner. He ranted and raved about what a pitiful excuse for a platoon leader I was and, indeed, what a sorry excuse for a white tab officer candidate, whereupon he demanded that I strip off my white tab paraphernalia, and he expelled me from his platoon. I was persona non grata. I was forced to follow 20 paces behind the rest of the platoon. It was humiliating. No doubt other platoons moving about wondered what was going on with this beanhead straggler tagging along behind Hotel Company’s white tabs. I was pretty worried, not knowing what this would come to. Would I be recycled? Another retread?
Later that day, in the early evening’s twilight, Hamner called the platoon out to that now-familiar, hardscrabble field adjacent to the barracks to give us what for. We weren’t cutting it, he growled, and he’d had a gut full of the lot of us. At this point, the newly-appointed platoon leader committed some minor gaffe. Hamner came unglued. That platoon leader was dismissed, and we assumed the push up position for a lengthy period so that we could better concentrate on Lt. Hamner’s list of grievances. Finally he began shouting that he needed a real platoon leader, someone to take charge, and set things right. “Who’ll volunteer?” No one moved. Again, “Who wants to be a platoon leader?”
“What the hell?” I thought, and moved quickly to the head of the platoon alongside Hamner.
He gave me a look of unadulterated disgust and said, “Christ Almighty,” spun around on his heel and walked away. I got the platoon up and back in the barracks.
The next morning, Lt. Hamner waited outside as we exited the barracks for morning formation. I had replaced my white tabs overnight, not without some anxiety. When I took my place before the platoon, Hamner noted my “promotion” and asked who had given me permission to don the white tabs. I replied that I had taken the initiative because it was entirely inappropriate for a beanhead to lead a platoon of white tabs. He didn’t reply exactly, I think a snort was emitted, but he didn’t object, and life went on for me though the remainder of that term as platoon leader without mishap. The thing is, with Lt. Hamner I never really figured out how much was bile and how much was guile. But we got along pretty well after that.
The days and weeks passed, and just like that, 16 weeks had elapsed. The bayonet sheets were submitted and more candidates left and more retreads arrived. The platoon’s originals now numbered no more that eight, but we were turning “Red.” Ten weeks to go.
Red Tabs: Mid-December, 1968 – end-February, 1969
The Corps of Engineers colors are white and red, hence the white and red tabs. When we turned “Red” in week 16, life began to improve considerably. We now were upperclassmen with an under class all our very own to harass. Running became marching, and the Tac no longer accompanied us throughout the day, every day. The explosions were fewer and usually less volatile. Beyond that, we actually started to build. Through our physical effort, organization, and some technical advice as needed from a cadre of knowledgeable Sergeants, rough housing units, timber trestle bridges, and Bailey bridges stood at day’s end where there was only barren land at daybreak. By the way, Sergeants make the Army go round.
We broke ice on the Potomac River to launch pontoon bridges and operated heavy ground-moving equipment to grade stretches of road and gouge out rudimentary aircraft runways. Communications networks were constructed, complete with switchboards and miles of telephone wire connecting dispersed units. Even more fun, we learned how to blow up things. C4 explosive, dynamite, booby traps, and detonation cord entered our vocabulary and our daily experience. Various mines were explained, armed, disarmed and detonated. By now I knew when to keep my head down.
Academics also grew in importance because this too had to be mastered in order to graduate, and some of it was demanding. The winnowing out process based on physical and psychological pressures was fading, yet more of the originals fell by the wayside as academic deficiencies struck more forcefully.
Mastery of those engineering lessons was tested in the 24th week with a week-long field exercise. We established a company compound somewhere in the wooded expanse of Fort Belvior, and for six days and five nights in January, the two platoons of Hotel Company officer candidates took on the guise of a combat engineer outfit. Well, it wasn’t really much fun. The rains came on a daily basis in bucket loads. The Engineer Company basic vehicle, a five-ton dump truck, churned the compound into ankle deep mud which would freeze overnight and return to a glue-like state each day. Manning the perimeter from swampy foxholes by night to repel aggressor attacks was interspersed with frequent excursions both day and night to build bridges, clear roads of mines, etc. Leadership positions were ladled out frequently to test the technical expertise and leadership qualities of one and all. Sleep, the little there was of it, was attempted in two-man pup tents that only theoretically repelled the rain. Sleeping bags were drank in the cold water that pooled atop genetically, defective rubber mattresses which invariably deflated in a matter of minutes. Despite all efforts to the contrary, wet and muddy bodies quickly converted “sleeping bags” into objects of torture. Before long you just slithered in, fatigues, field jacket, and all. And then, just when you had brought that moist cocoon up to body temperature and fought yourself to sleep, someone or other would fling open the tent flap and announce that you were needed to help do this or that. We were wet, we were cold, we were exhausted, we were miserable, we persevered. On our return, the barracks never looked so inviting.
- January 30, 1969– The Beatles give their last public performance on the roof of Apple Records. The impromptu concert was broken up by the police.
The end approached, and Hotel Company class 7-69 took on Battalion duties in the penultimate week of our training. I was appointed 2nd Battalion Commander. The final week, as the next class to graduate, saw us in the Regimental chain of command. This duty allowed me to call the entire OCS Regiment to attention for morning formation throughout that week. Kind of special actually, though I suspect you had to go through the wringer to appreciate the moment.
I also felt secure enough during the Red Tab phase of training that I engaged in a prank directed at His Holiness, Lt. Hamner. For background, candidates were assigned company duties during OCS. Some assisted in the Company’s supply room, mail room, etc., and duties were rotated from time to time. I suppose the rationale was to expose us to the everyday activities involved in Company operations.
I had been assigned from Day 1 to clean Lt. Hamner’s office at the end of each day, but somehow I was never rotated out of this chore. Six days a week, for 26 weeks, I cleaned his office at the end of the day if we were on post. Several negatives were attached to this endless duty. First and foremost, this meant that I entered the Tac Shack, a two-story WWII building filled to bursting with the open-doored offices of dozens of dreaded black hats, virtually every day. There was no “Enter At Your Own Risk” sign over the portal, but there should have been. The hallways were normally chockablock with candidates standing rigidly at attention against the wall awaiting “counseling,” candidates pounding out push ups, and candidates in the dying cockroach position. The din in the Tac Shack was often ear-splitting as Tac officers voiced their endless demands, desires, and disappointments, while candidates shouted aloud the number of push ups completed. Any beanhead or white tab passing by was fresh meat for a momentarily idle Tac officer. I worked hard on becoming invisible, ninja-style, but all too often I became part of the fun.
The cleaning itself wasn’t that difficult, except that Lt. Hamner insisted that his office floor be polished and buffed regularly. Thus, every other day for 16 weeks, I collected a 45 lb. buffer from the Company office, slung it over my shoulder, and jogged (no walking, remember) the quarter mile to and from the Tac Shack. During the 10-week Red Tab phase I walked, and the black hats normally laid off, so that aspect of my existence did improve.
At one point during our Red Tab stage, Lt. Hamner became dissatisfied with the overall appearance of his office. I arrived one Thursday evening to clean only to find handwritten messages taped to walls, floors, the ceiling, windows, doors, etc., demanding “Fix this” and “Repair this” and so on. I sized up the situation, and the following Sunday I enlisted another candidate, obtained several gallons of Engineer Red paint, and the two of us plastered holes and painted his ceiling, walls, doors, woodwork, et al, in an uninterrupted scheme of Engineer Red. It was very, very red. Then I closed the office door and waited for Monday.
Hamner arrived at morning formation on Monday with a tight smile and allowed that this was “Pretty funny, Candidate McDowell.” I am sure that his office was the scene of amused attention among the Tac Shack crowd. Of course, two weeks later he had me repaint the office in a more sedate color scheme, but it was worth the trouble.
During this final week, the top three in the class were taken to the Pentagon where we talked to representatives from the various branches of the Army. Top three graduates are permitted to select their branch of service and their first assignment. Other Engineer OCS graduates were commissioned as Engineers without options. Now we’re getting somewhere, I felt, options and choices. I spoke with four or five different branch representatives: Finance, Judge Advocate, Quartermaster, and the Corps of Engineers included, trying to determine which branch would offer the coziest and safest duty. I settled finally on Military Intelligence. After all, I reasoned, those intelligence geeks wouldn’t likely be in foxholes.
Graduation day, February 20, 1969, arrived, and a proud Senior Master Sergeant McDowell, Mom, and Carolyn attended the ceremony. Only four of the 40 originals walked across the stage (Russ Caesari, Bob Anderson, Steve Percell and John McDowell) and tossed brand new 2nd Lieutenant headgear into the air to celebrate the passage. Some others who had been hospitalized or recycled did come through later, to their credit. I don’t know if four of 40 was the normal attrition at that time, but I had to admit that Lieutenant Hamner was pretty close to the mark when he warned at the outset that the backseat of his Mustang would be sufficient to carry away the graduates among the beanheads he faced 26 weeks before. I would have complimented him on his acumen, but he had already been shipped out to Vietnam, Republic of.
The OCS program was the most taxing, long-term effort I have ever encountered. The physical, psychological, and academic strains were simply enormous. I emerged, however, with a large measure of self confidence in my ability to succeed in future endeavors and a renewed faith in the credo promoted by my parents that hard work and perseverance will be rewarded. Of course, these ideals would be bruised and cracked in the years of real-world experience that followed, but I’m stuck with those beliefs and today preach much the same malarkey to my youngsters.
First Assignment as an Officer: February 1969 – January 1970
Following a couple weeks’ leave, during which Carolyn and I settled into a nice second floor unit at a garden apartment complex near the Post, I took up my new duties. Guess what. I was a Tactical Training Officer in the Engineer Officer Candidate Regiment, assigned to Company A, 1st Battalion. I had become the enemy. I can’t remember the thought process that brought me to that decision. Remember, I was permitted to select my first assignment. Best guess is that Engineer OCS was familiar territory. I knew what was expected and was confident that I would be good at the task. In addition, Carolyn had a good teaching job nearby, her parents lived in the area, and my family was only 1½ hours north in Pennsylvania.
This was an enjoyable period. The money wasn’t much but sufficient on two incomes to do the things young, recently married couples like to do. For several months I worked alongside an experienced Tac to learn the ropes from the other side of the equation. Then I was given a platoon to train solo–class 23 Alpha. The hours were onerous, exceeding 100 hours per week at the beginning. Now I had an inkling of why Lt. Hamner often seemed in a foul mood, though I believe that I did not lay it on quite as thick as I had experienced. Frankly, while the pressures were necessary to determine who could and who could not function when the times got tough and who had the underlying determination to see the program though to completion, I felt that too often capable men dropped out because of the rinky-dink measures employed. After all, how many push ups and how much low crawling was required to determine whether an individual could demonstrate good judgment in an anxious situation? In any case, the attrition rate in my platoon was far less than that experienced by Hotel Company, Class 7-69. One thing for sure, I tried to avoid tactics that merely humiliated an individual.
- June 28, 1969– The Stonewall riots in New York City mark the start of the modern gay rights movement in the U.S.
As the year was basically a flip side of the previous year, I won’t go into great detail. Two events are perhaps worthy of retelling.
The first occurred during a tactical training field exercise I arranged midway through the platoon’s white tab phase. The platoon was to move through wooded terrain at night using compass and topographical maps and then attack their objective, a mock Viet Cong village. The normal snafus accompanied the movement phase–difficulty in maintaining unit cohesion and several communication breakdowns. As the attack phase of the operation began, I popped numerous cans of gas to hinder progress. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that a well-used road passed only several hundred yards away. The breeze that night blew the gas directly over the road. Soon sounds of distress could be heard, but from passing motorists rather than officer candidates. Fearing consequences for this piece of bad judgment, I quickly gathered the platoon, and we vacated the scene at a double time. I subsequently resisted the urge to use gas indiscriminately.
- July 20, 1969– The lunar module Eagle lands on the lunar surface. The world watches as Neil Armstrong takes his historic first steps on the Moon.
The second event was a more positive effort. During the platoon’s 20th week, Fort Belvoir conducted its base-wide track and field meet on the weekend with honors going to individuals across the full range of track and field events. Special emphasis was accorded to winning the unit citation given to the best team. Since I had participated in track and field during high school and with a unit of young men now in the best physical shape of their lives, I couldn’t help but think this could be both fun and an opportunity for the platoon to employ the organizational skills honed during training. I “suggested” to the platoon about a week prior to the event that they enter. Of course, my “suggestion” carried rather more weight than it might have in civilian life.
I received a very positive reaction, including a request from our sister platoon to be included. We entered as one, Company A, Engineer Officer Candidate Regiment. The competition was stiff. Fort Belvoir was a large installation, and the commanders of various units vied with one another each year for “bragging rights.” No other outfit from the OCS Regiment had entered, and none had done so in recent memory, so we were certainly a wild card. We won, by a single point. The candidates really got into it and took great glee in the victory. Since I earned one point in the discus event, I was later able to claim, with some humor, that I had pulled their fat out of the fire. The candidates and I received kudos and some notoriety for this achievement.
- August 9, 1969– Members of a cult led by Charles Manson murder Sharon Tate, who was 8 months pregnant, and her friends
- August 15–18, 1969 – The Woodstock Festival is held in upstate New York, featuring some of the top rock musicians of the era.
The year shortened amid pie-in-the-sky hopes of a European assignment, but these hopes proved to be false dreams when orders arrived assigning me to the Military Advisory Command Vietnam (MACV). I wasn’t terribly upset on receipt of these orders. This was the path most trod in those days, and even during those visits to the Pentagon as a top three candidate, I had been forewarned that my second assignment as an officer would be a tour in Vietnam. I suppose a scattered few landed elsewhere, but I never really expected anything other than the Vietnam experience.
- November 15, 1969– In Washington, DC, 250,000–500,000 protesters stage a peaceful demonstration against the war, including a symbolic “March Against Death.”
I was ordered to a West Coast, Oakland, I believe, embarkation point for my departure to Vietnam in early February 1970. Carolyn and I flew to Las Vegas together as a send off spree, and after a few days of marital bliss, I travelled onward to Phoenix to spend parts of two days and one night with my high school chum Kim Olson. Kim at the time was an Air Force pilot. He followed my route only four or five months later.
When I arrived in Oakland, I was surprised and pleased to be greeted by several of my former candidates from 23 Alpha. As fate would have it, a number of the 23 Alpha crowd had been assigned to the Oakland processing unit and other units in the area. The word that I was on my way filtered through the system. They showed me a wild night on the town in San Francisco, replete with numerous alcoholic libations and a vision of dancing girls who left nothing to the imagination. I suppose I wasn’t too tough on them after all. Following a few hours of much-needed sleep. I was delivered early the next day to my Trans Caribbean logoed aircraft which would deposit me in Saigon 16 or so hours hence. I remember wondering whether a “Trans Caribbean” aircraft was up to a trans-Pacific crossing as I settled into the seat and buckled up for what turned out to be a somber and subdued journey for the Vietnam-bound collection of soldiers on board.
Vietnam: February 1970 – January 1971
Saigon’s Ton Son Nhut Air Base arrived in a rush as the aircraft spiraled tightly downward. No long, flier-friendly, United Airlines glide onto a runway here apparently. The implications were not comforting to this 24 year old 2nd Lieutenant who was already feeling more than a little edgy about the uncertainties lying ahead. A sea of deep green vegetation dotted with isolated swatches of fortified reddish earth confirmed that we were entering a war zone. The corkscrew approach ended with a sudden leveling, and the wheels touched down. Jet fighters of some nomenclature flashed by, each parked in individual, bermed enclosures, as we slowed to a stop. I alighted on the tarmac of Ton Son Nhut Airbase, Saigon on February 5, 1970. I was “in country.” It was not a wholesome feeling.
Over the next several days I collected my M-16 rifle, flack jacket, and other gear issued to new arrivals. I also reported to MACV Headquarters in Saigon where I learned that I would continue my travels, flying north to the I Corps MACV headquarters in Da Nang where I would receive more specific information about my situation.
I Corps was the northernmost of the four Corps areas in South Vietnam and therefore the closest to both North Vietnam and Laos. I wasn’t thrilled with this information. I Corps had the deserved reputation of the most active combat region, often involving regular North Vietnamese units as well as the Viet Cong. Neither, however, was I enjoying the short sojourn in Saigon which was a frenzied and confusing big city maze filled with armed Americans and Vietnamese drowning in a sea of rickshaws and scooters and hucksters looking to make a buck. It just didn’t feel safe, though scuttlebutt suggested that a good time could be had and that duty in Saigon was the softest available. It wasn’t my cup of tea. I was glad to leave, and soon I was flying to Da Nang, in Quang Nam province, I Corps. Da Nang turned out to be a Saigon in miniature.
Eventually I made my way to MACV Headquarters (HQ) in Da Nang and learned that I was assigned to Advisory Team 15, which supplied advisors to seven or eight districts throughout Quang Nam Province. (In U.S. terms, provinces could be thought of as states and districts are counties within the state.) HQ for Advisory Team 15 was located in Hoi An (see Attachment 1), an historic and bustling small city of about 80,000 residents at the time, located on the Thu Bon river near the coast and about an hour and a quarter drive south of Da Nang on Route 1.
I was placed in Hieu Nhon District on the coast, about 5 kilometers south of Hoi An. The District Team consisted of a Senior Advisor, an Intelligence Advisor (yours truly), a medic, and a radioman.
When I arrived, the compound housed the District Advisory Team and about 60 South Vietnamese soldiers who, in my view, took a rather leisurely approach to the situation. The Vietnamese unit was part of the so-called Regional and Popular forces (Ruffpuffs) which were roughly the equivalent of National Guard units in the U.S. Ruffpuffs were intended to maintain local security while the regular Vietnamese army was theoretically out there winning the war. The Regional and Popular forces were not very well trained and were not well supported either logistically or militarily. So there we were, four Americans and 60 rather casual Vietnamese militiamen, in an isolated 100 x 150-yard compound some distance from the nearest U.S. support, and that “support” consisted primarily of administrative staff. Da Nang and “unsafe” Saigon suddenly became very attractive alternatives.
When I was told on the day I arrived that the Buddhist shrine erected six paces from the American team house commemorated losses incurred the previous year when the compound was overrun, I took a moment for solemn reflection on my devotion to the three P’s – poker, pool, and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. A silent prayer followed, during which I promised to be good from now on if only He would get me through this. Sometimes, apparently, begging works because some months later a Marine detachment which worked with the Ruffpuffs in providing local security moved onto the compound. I can’t say for sure that He was answering my prayers, but I was extremely pleased with this development. Marines are good company in a firefight and lousy poker players.
Alas, those lousy poker players also provided a potent reality check not long thereafter. A small Marine unit was ambushed on their return to the field after collecting supplies at the District compound. All hell broke loose as a reaction team was quickly assembled. I joined the react force and came upon a scene of carnage. Several Marines wounded and one killed in action (KIA). Bits of skull and grey matter littered the road. The resupply unit had been hit with a claymore mine initially, and the VC had completed the job with small arms fire. I got mad. Damned mad. I also realized that the skull and grey matter belonged to a kid I had “suckered” into raising into my full house not a week before. I had seen casualties before, but this was an American kid, not some unfortunate, unknown Vietnamese chap. Sounds racist, I suppose, but after that I was fully imbibed with the realization that “This could happen to you!” The abstract set of odds and probabilities I had imagined took a dramatic shift. An intellectual concept had been replaced with a distinct possibility.
As the District’s Intelligence Advisor my official function was to help my Vietnamese counterparts to identify Viet Cong operatives, to track their location, and to determine the strength of regular North Vietnamese units in my area of operations. From the outset, I took this task with a grain of salt since I “guessed” that the locals who had been engaged in this activity for many years already just might have a better handle on the situation than a junior officer fresh off the streets of Fort Belvoir, Virginia. In the main, this “guess” was in the ballpark. After all, I (and I assume most other first-time District Intelligence Advisors) was remarkably ill-prepared for the task. I had never worked in an intelligence gathering and analysis capacity, and I had received only a couple weeks of last minute training in some of the more basic techniques involved.
- April 29, 1970– The U.S. invades Cambodia to hunt out the Viet Cong; widespread, large antiwar protests occur in the U.S.
Furthermore, the information on hand at the District level was collected on 3 x 5 cards written in Vietnamese by Vietnamese clerks who spoke virtually no English. I couldn’t speak or read Vietnamese. I was assigned a young Vietnamese interpreter/translator who couldn’t bring himself to convey my words verbatim if he deemed my questions somehow too direct or challenging within his cultural scope of decorum. It was laughable. All I really brought to the Intelligence Advisor equation was willingness and common sense. These attributes couldn’t overcome the inherent hurdles. Remember, this was a war zone in the year 1970. There were no credit card receipts, no cell phone records, no “follow-the-money” bank account transfers, no DNA profiles, no CSI – Quang Nam Province, Republic of South Vietnam.
- May 4, 1970– Four students at Kent State University in Ohio are killed and 9 wounded by Ohio State National Guardsmen at a protest against the incursion into Cambodia.
I did give it the “ole’ college try.” Several times each week I would roust my translator/interpreter, strap on a sidearm, and we would move randomly from one village or refugee camp to another to interview village elders and locals in an attempt to develop information and to identify the “bad guys.” In retrospect, this effort too was laughable, and it should come as no surprise that the approach came to naught. I arrived with my probing questions in the bright light of day and spent my nights in an armed compound. At nightfall, the “bad guys” often took up residence in those same lightly protected villages, probably visiting with friends and family over the evening meal. Why would anyone tell me anything? Vietnamese who showed any sign of cooperating ended up dead. I took the pictures of the bodies to prove it. Taking such pictures was also in my job description I discovered.
- May 9, 1970– In Washington, D.C., 100,000 people demonstrate against the Vietnam War.
My real function was to call in artillery and air strikes when the shit got deep and to bring in Medivac helicopters when the shit got deeper. I accompanied my counterparts on numerous police and combat operations we ran throughout the District. There was not much enthusiasm on the part of the Ruffpuffs for these operations, but about every second week they could be cajoled or shamed out of the compound. It also proved to be difficult to coax the Senior Advisor out. So most times, the radioman and I were the sole representatives of the advisory team on these operations. Sometimes I put the radio on my back and went alone. I figured we couldn’t do much advising from the confines of the team house.
Police operations consisted generally of cordon and search activities. That is, we would surround an area, usually a village, and then send in troops to check identification documentation to determine who belonged and who didn’t. Those that didn’t have a bona fide reason to be present were questioned, sometimes harshly, to determine their motives, etc. and detained if their answers were inadequate. Since I was philosophically opposed to some of the techniques employed during the questioning, the use of electric devices, for instance, I maintained a thin veneer of self-respect by absenting myself once the Q and A sessions passed the name, rank and serial number phase. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I did not object or attempt to stop the more inhumane practices. It all became another of those “if I don’t think about it, then it don’t mean nothin’” charades.
- October 26, 1970– Garry Trudeau’s comic strip Doonesbury debuts in approximately two dozen newspapers in the United States.
Combat operations usually involved a sweep of an area where the Viet Cong (VC) were active with the intention of capturing or killing the VC we encountered. In Hieu Nhon district, Cam Than Island was by far the most interesting operational area. Cam Than was a free-fire zone, i.e., shoot personnel on sight, and aircraft were encouraged to dump any unexpended ordinance on Cam Than at the end of their missions elsewhere. Unfortunately, the Viet Cong would find any unexploded U.S. ordinance (duds) among the many rounds of artillery and other ordinance fired onto the island. Then those devious lads would turn that same ordinance around on us by rigging booby traps. Cost effective and costly, I’ll allow. In any case, Cam Than was reputed to be one of the most heavily booby trapped locations in South Vietnam. Virtually every time we paid a visit, some poor soldier would trip a booby trap and lose a body part if not his life. Then the “bad guys,” given half a chance, would shoot up my Medivac helicopter. I was pleased to respond to this courtesy with a broad swath of napalm if I could get fixed wing aircraft on station. Delivery of a six-pack of 250-pound bombs was a close second choice.
Cam Than also provided several personal “pucker” moments. Once I was next in line when the Vietnamese Lieutenant 10 feet in front of me tripped a rigged 155 mm artillery round. It sizzled and smoked but didn’t explode. He and I hustled along and then shared a nervous giggle. Then, too, there were those moments when the unmistakable and unpleasant sound of passing lead produced a “DROP” reflex. Lt. Hamner would have applauded.
- October 30, 1970– The worst monsoon to hit Vietnam in 60 years causes large floods, kills 293, leaves 200,000 homeless, and virtually halts the Vietnam War.
Cam Than also figured in another somewhat unique adventure. This event occurred when I was well into the second half of my tour, and the region was in the midst of a horrible weather pattern. The compound was knee deep in water, the rain wouldn’t stop, the river was well above flood stage, and the nights were black as ink. A call came in over the radio late one evening notifying us that a U.S. advisor leading a small operation on Cam Than had stepped on a booby trap and was in a bad way. What he was doing out in that weather, I don’t know. Unfortunately, the weather was so bad that helicopters weren’t flying so there was no way to get him out by air. Since the situation appeared to be critical, i.e., get the guy out or let him die, Marine Lieutenant Rob Johnson, Marine Corporeal Gonzale,s and I hooked up, drove a jeep into Hoi An by memory as the roads were awash, located a Boston Whaler and outboard motor, and launched the boat from the middle of the town.
It was downstream to Cam Than, so the passage was relatively swift and uncomplicated. We were assisted on the downriver run by illumination rounds fired from an 80 mm mortar located in our compound which I directed via radio. This allowed us to steer clear of obstructions and keep in the river’s flow. We were in radio contact with the patrol in the field, and once we neared the rendezvous point we used strobe lights to pinpoint the location of the patrol and the injured advisor. He was unconscious but alive when we loaded him into the boat. The booby trap had badly mangled his left foot, but it would have been far worse if the explosive hadn’t been knee deep in water when it detonated.
The return passage upstream highlighted a couple of flaws in our plan. First, the supply of illumination rounds from our compound was exhausted which meant that we were groping our way upstream on a pitch black night. In fact, several times we grounded on now submerged islands, and I had to exit the boat and push us back into the river’s flow. I guarantee you that I kept a death grip on the boat while I pushed and shoved before scrambling back aboard.
Second, the outboard motor, which provided good steerage in a flooding downstream current, proved barely sufficient to buck the current upstream. We were making headway measured in feet and inches. The 20-minute outward leg turned into a tense 2½- hour return trip. All the while we were concerned that some “friendly” unit located adjacent to the river might mistake us for the enemy and open fire on us because river traffic was banned after sundown. Eventually and gratefully, we finally sighted lights coming from Hoi An and literally motored into the town. We took the advisor to a medical facility and passed him to the care of a physician who patched him up temporarily. He was evacuated to a hospital in Da Nang the following day. Adventure over, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and found a bottle of scotch. The Army brass decided I deserved the Bronze Star for that little escapade, thus validating the Army adage: The more screwed up things become, the more medals are distributed.
Not all was blood and guts. I found time to water ski behind that same Boston Whaler, played poker with Marines into the wee hours of the morning, ate things I couldn’t identify at the roadside cafes in and around Hoi An, played a million checker games, and read Shakespeare. I played ping pong until my arm fell off. I was the best ping pong player in the Province, I reckon. After I had licked all comers, American and Vietnamese alike, the Vietnamese Commander apparently got the word. He sent a subordinate to invite me to play at his private table in the Headquarters building. He was pretty good, but I beat him fair and square. I was never invited back. It was bad form I suppose to whip the Commander on his home court.
- December 13, 1970– The government of Poland announces food price increases. Riots and looting lead to a bloody confrontation between the rioters and the government on December 15, and martial law.
I was also given pretty much carte blanche to come and go as I pleased, With this freedom, about every three weeks or so I would drive up Route 1 to Da Nang, past Marble Mountain, and would spend the day scouring the post exchanges for goodies to buy, a good stereo component, a camera, etc., with an obligatory stop at the soft ice cream stand on Da Nang Air Force Base and the equally obligatory re-supply stop at the Class VI (liquor) store for beverages to lubricate the nights back in Hieu Nhon.
I swam naked in the ocean off China Beach and ogled the round-eyed American nurses and Red Cross girls (not while I was naked) who had their pick of GIs in such safe and secure rear areas. Occasionally, I would spend the night in Da Nang and eat a huge steak at one of several Officers’ Clubs available for the care and feeding of Da Nang’s large American officer contingent. I wondered why so many were required and at times envied their relatively posh accommodations and strikingly attractive, native, female attachments. This proved to be a two-edged sword, however, since I was twice reprimanded in Da Nang’s Officers, Clubs by spit-shined, senior, rear echelon officers over the state of my jungle boots and overall appearance. Like I was concerned about shoe polish! I ate and left.
I was approached on several occasions while “in country” by senior officers urging me to consider converting my commission to Regular Army and to make a career of the military. I had that option as a result of graduating in the top three of the OCS class. At a different point in time, I might have seriously weighed this offer. I was pretty good at Army “stuff,” and after all, I had grown up around that environment. There were, and are, many positives to a life in the military. But the political and social climate in America was so poisoned during the Vietnam era that I never really gave this option a second thought.
The corrosive atmosphere concerning Vietnam and Vietnam veterans is hard to imagine against the current backdrop. Today’s Middle East veterans are respected and lauded by virtually one and all regardless of one’s position, vis-a-vis the U.S. government’s decision to send troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. The rancor against the Vietnam war in the 60s and early 70s was all too often made personal. Most Vietnam vets I knew slipped quietly into town on their discharge, put their uniform in a cedar chest, if they kept it at all, and kept their mouth shut. I applaud the reception given the current crop of veterans and the veterans themselves, and I am ashamed to admit, I envy them.
Mostly, I observed. I observed the back-breaking labor of the Vietnamese peasant toiling daily in the fields to eke out a subsistence-level living. I observed the dirt-floored, woven straw, cardboard and corrugated metal structures they called home. I observed the purple mouths of the elderly who chewed betel nut to allay the pain of inadequate dental care. I observed their sense of community and quiet dignity, and certainly futility while the world around them stank of napalm and reverberated to the sounds of air strikes and incoming artillery.
And I remember one young, maybe 12- or 13-year old, slim Vietnamese girl especially. She inhabited a shallow doorway in a dilapidated brick building on the outskirts of Da Nang. I would see her standing in that doorway, a backdrop to a squalid, bustling roadside market, on my drives into Da Nang. She was always standing quietly, her clothes and face smudged and soiled–uncared for. I wanted to hold her hand and take her away. I wanted to wash her and clothe her and tell her it was all just a bad dream. But I didn’t, of course. I always looked for her, and she was always there, and then she wasn’t.
Once again, the days and weeks and months passed in various hues of excitement and activity, of trepidation and resignation. I entered the realm of the double-digit and single-digit midget as GIs termed the count down to liberation. I was “short.” To my surprise, I received orders to depart country in early December 1970. I knew these orders were a foul up. The departure date was 30 days too early, but I decided to just go along and feign ignorance. I got all the way to Saigon before some clerk spotted the error and told me that this was a typographical glitz. Hell, I knew that. I was offered a month in Saigon, but I didn’t want that. Then I was offered a month in Da Nang, but I didn’t want that. I went back to my compound in Hieu Nhon. That’s were I belonged.
A month later I departed for real, and that takes me back 1325 days to the start of this stumble down memory lane. Following that fright on New Year’s Eve in Saigon, it was onward to the world. onward to classes on macroeconomics and a cozy apartment down the hill from Lafayette College, onward to a full refrigerator and civilian clothes and frat parties. Thirteen hundred and twenty-five days chock full of personal growth and discovery, culminating in military futility that accomplished nothing. I was glad to have done it and glad to be done with it. So why am I sad? Don’t mean nothin’.
Attachment 1 – Background on Hoi An
Attachment 2 – South Vietnam: Charlie Changes His Tactics; Far Eastern Economic Review, August 6, 1970
Attachment – 1
A view of the old town
Hội An is a city on the coast of the South China Sea in the South Central Coast of Vietnam. It is located in Quảng Nam province and is home to approximately 120,000 inhabitants.
The city possessed the largest harbor in Southeast Asia in the first century and was known as Lâm Ấp Phố (Champa City). Between the seventh and 10th centuries, the Cham (people of Champa) controlled the strategic spice trade and with this came tremendous wealth. The boats still used today in Hội An probably have the same hull shape as those used by the Champas for ocean voyages.
The former harbor town of the Cham at the estuary of the Thu Bon River was an important Vietnamese trading centre in the 16th and 17th centuries, where Chinese from various provinces as well as Japanese, Dutch and Indians settled. During this period of the China trade, the town was called Hai Pho (Seaside Town) in Vietnamese. Originally, Hai Pho was a divided town with the Japanese settlement across the “Japanese Bridge”(16th-17th centuries). The bridge (Chùa cầu) is a unique covered structure built by the Japanese, the only known covered bridge with a Buddhist pagoda attached to one side.
The town is known to the French and Spanish as “Faifo,” and by similar names in Portuguese and Dutch. A number of theories have been put forth as to the origin of this name. Some scholars have suggested that it comes from the word “hải-phố” (海浦) meaning “sea town”, while others have said that it is more likely simply a shortening of Hội An-phố (會安浦), “the town of Hội An”, to “Hoi-pho” which became “Faifo”.
In 1999, the old town was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO as a well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port of the 15th to 19th centuries, with buildings that display a unique blend of local and foreign influences.
Hội An attracts a fair number of tourists, also being a well-esTablished place on the backpacker trail. Many visit for the numerous art and craft shops and tailors, who produce made-to-measure clothes for a fraction of the Western price. Several Internet cafés, bars and restaurants have opened along the riverfront. Hội An is famed for its centuries old cao lầu noodle. The town is also famed for its unique lanterns.
The early history of Hội An is that of the Cham. These Malayo-Polynesian peoples probably came from Java around 200 B.C. and by 200 A.D. created the Champa Empire which stretched from Huế to beyond Nha Trang. In the early years, Mỹ Sơn was the spiritual capital, Trà Kiệu was the political capital and Hội An was the commercial capital of the Champa Empire – later, by the 14th century, the Cham moved further down towards Nha Trang. The river system was the transportation for goods between the highlands, inland countries of Laos and Thailand and the low lands.
Hội An was founded as a trading port by the Nguyễn Lord Nguyễn Hoàng sometime around 1595. The Nguyễn Lords were far more interested in commercial activity than the Trịnh Lords who ruled the north. As a result, Hội An flourished as a trading port and became the most important trade port on the South China Sea. Captain William Adams, the English sailor and confidant of Tokugawa Ieyasu, is known to have made at least one trading mission to Hội An (around 1619).
In the 1700s, Hội An was considered by Chinese and Japanese merchants to be the best destination for trading in all of Southeast Asia, even Asia. Japanese believed the heart of all of Asia (the dragon) lay beneath the earth of Hội An. The city also rose to prominence as a powerful and exclusive trade conduit between Europe, China, India, and Japan, especially for the ceramic industry. Shipwreck discoveries have shown that Vietnamese and Asian ceramics were transported from Hội An to as far as Sinai, Egypt. However, the importance of Hội An declined sharply at the end of the 1700s because of the collapse of Nguyễn rule (thanks to the Tây Sơn Rebellion – which was opposed to foreign trade). Then, with the triumph of Emperor Gia Long, he repaid the French for their aid by giving them exclusive trade rights to the nearby port town of Đà Nẵng. Đà Nẵng became the new center of trade (and later French influence) in central Vietnam while Hội An was a forgotten backwater. Local historians also say that Hội An lost its status as a desirable trade port due to silting up of the river mouth.
The result was that Hội An remained almost untouched by the changes to Vietnam over the next 200 years.
Today, the town is a major tourist attraction because of its traditional architecture and crafts such as textiles and ceramics preserved and exploited for visitors’ benefit, as well as the proximity to the beach and the city of Đà Nẵng. Many bars, hotels, and resorts have been constructed both in Hội An and the surrounding area. The port mouth boats are still used for both fishing and tourism.
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