It looked so tranquil, green, lush, peaceful and inviting from my window seat on the plane. When we finally landed and began to disembark, those initial perceptions would abruptly change. There was nothing tranquil or inviting about this place at all. It was immediately jarring. It was excessively hot. It was pungent. It was noisy. Everything looked alien. My heart rate quickened. My breath felt labored. I was scared. I felt terribly alone. I wanted to go home.
“What the hell am I doing here,” I thought to myself.
“Move it gentlemen”, barked someone with a southern drawl, deep tan and sun-bleached jungle fatigues, as we were whisked away from the tarmac and herded onto awaiting vehicles.
It was beginning to sink in that this would be my home for the foreseeable future.
My first stop was the army replacement center at Long Binh. I was assigned a bunk. The next morning there was another set of orders telling me that I needed to be somewhere else. Six different bunks in six days. Didn’t really get much sleep in any of them. I would just get settled into another billeting area, and I would be off to a new destination. All these places had strange sounding names, and I wasn’t in any of them long enough to recall them now. What I do remember was that they all smelled the same.
It’s hard to describe the smell but it was constant and uniform. It was dank, rank and foreboding. The heat was formidable, a degree which I had never experienced before. Everything was wet or slightly damp. Sweat never had a chance to dry. One place was scarier than the next, especially at night, and my only hope was that I would eventually end up somewhere safe. Paperwork, checklists, lots of “sign this”, “the chopper leaves in a half hour”, “the C-130 is boarding right now,” or get moving soldier,” that first whirlwind week in early June of 1970. I was referred to as a newbie on more than one occasion. I would later learn that it was a back-handed term of endearment for replacement soldiers newly in country, whose fatigues were still bright green, and whose sense of where they were, even greener than that.
It is said that God created the world in 6 days. The Army must have borrowed from his divine plan. I reached my final assignment on the 7th day. But unlike God, there would be no day of rest. It was time to put my communication skills to task in the Comm-Center where I would spend 12 hours a day, six days a week for most of my tour. It was a small consolation, but I had finally arrived in a place where I could at last un-pack and settle.
The airfield at Cần Thơ occupied most of the area inside the base camp located in the southernmost part of the country. It was also the home of the 52nd Signal Battalion to which I had been assigned. My home for the next 358 days. It was a sizeable airport and the main operational base for all helicopters, gunships, transports and mechanized equipment supporting the Mekong Delta and surrounding areas. There was also a large contingent of Special Forces assigned there whose main job was to protect the airfield, aircraft and equipment. We would be responsible for protecting ourselves.
Most of the soldiers already stationed there had at least six or more months in-country. Faded fatigues were badges of honor; the degree of the fade a strong indication of the amount of time in-country and experience accrued. It was those men I was most interested in talking to. The more experience they had, the more advice they had to offer.
In a war zone, experience is still the best teacher. The experienced soldiers would gather around a bunch of us newbies in the hootch and let us know exactly what we could expect. There was considerable talk concerning mortar and rocket attacks that the Viet Cong inflicted on the camp from time to time. If their objective was to frighten us, they certainly did the job. I had been given some instruction on procedures and preparation when under such an attack in a classroom setting, but there are limits to what instructors can prepare you for, and you could never be sure of how you might react when confronted by the real thing. About a month into my tenure at the base camp, I received my first real test. School was out.
It must have been two or three in the morning. A succession of booming sounds jarred me awake. My roommate in the bottom bunk was already on the floor with his mattress covering him as we had been instructed to do in our training. I wrestled with the mosquito netting covering the top bunk as he shouted from the ground. Freeing myself from the net, I grabbed my mattress and joined him in the prone position on the floor of the hootch. I could hear a lot of commotion in the pitch-black hallway that led to the door of the barracks and could see small moving lights from either flashlights or zippo lighters and the blurry figures of men trying to make their way out the door to the safety of the bunker.
Should I follow them? I was frozen. Fear, pure and simple. It’s the helicopters they’re after; not a bunch of communication geeks, I tried to convince myself.
The explosions became louder and seemed a lot closer. A lull. I suddenly remembered my training. Wait for a lull. Then hightail it to the bunker. How long is a lull? That part I couldn’t quite remember. My bunkmate wasn’t much help either. He kept repeating “wait for a lull.”
I counted the seconds between the concussive sounds of the mortars as they slammed into the compound. The duration between the blasts remained consistent. We stayed put. I remember being very scared and thoughts like this might be it crossed my mind numerous times as I played out different scenarios in my head. Imagination has a life of its own. I had been blessed and cursed with a very vivid one. I had also seen too many movies. This was real.
I don’t remember exactly what finally motivated me to get the hell off the floor and make my way to the bunker. As the explosions continued to rain down on the compound, I knew I had to go. I needed to be with the rest of the guys. Nobody was going to make the decision for me. The hell with the lull. I got up and headed to the door of the barracks. My roommate followed my lead and was quickly on my heels. I ran into a couple of other guys with the same idea and there was a lot of congestion in the doorway. It looked like one of those comedy scenes where a crowd is trying to move through a revolving door at the same time.
As I finally got through the doorway, I got caught on a nail that was protruding from the wooden frame of the door and it tore a small piece of flesh from my upper chest as I made my way to the safety of the communal bunker. I pulled up a sandbag and sat down inside the bunker. The fear started to melt away. After a minute or two, I regained normal breathing. I was now surrounded by the rest of the guys and that gave me a sense of security. Strength in numbers. Camaraderie at its finest. The explosions were now fewer and further apart. There was that lull they were talking about. Maybe I should have waited after all. Hindsight. At that moment, I was very glad to be where I was.
The mortar attack eventually subsided. Maybe it was the helicopters or the Special Forces that had taken care of the situation. Or maybe the enemy had simply run out of ammo and decided to call it a night. Never did find out. Either way it didn’t matter to us. The sound of the beautiful quiet outside brought a sense of calm to all of us on the inside.
It was time for the war stories to begin. Everyone described their experience. Lots of different variations on the same theme. Individual accounts of where people were and how they eventually got to the bunker filled the discourse. Most, who gave their accounts injected some humor in the telling which helped to dissipate the fear and the tension of the situation. It’s funny how soldiers can find something to laugh about even under the gravest conditions. The important thing was that everyone was present and accounted for.
It seemed, as far as we knew at the time, that I was the only casualty of the evening. One of the guys noticed blood trickling down my chest. A small group gathered around me and started kidding me about the superficial wound. They even started fanning me with their shirts.
“Farley’s wounded, give him some air,” someone said.
“I’m ok, not so sure about the nail,” I chided back
“Purple Heart” someone yelled out.
While we waited for the all clear, I remained seated in the bunker, smiling faintly almost from the inside as I glanced down at my fatigue pants and noticed they were just slightly beginning to change to a lighter shade of green.