Born: Chicago, Illinois, 1945 Served in Vietnam, U.S. Army 7th Battalion, 9th Artillery Firebase Bear Cat, Binh Son Rubber Plantation Xuan Loc, and Nha Be Artillery Battery Executive Officer, 105mm howitzers, 1968
From the Artist:
“Welcome to the Republic of Vietnam,” the captain said, greeting me. I saluted and handed him my orders. He quickly looked them over, then he told me there was a change. I would not be heading to Pleiku as my orders stated; instead I had a new assignment to a unit near Saigon.
“Why the change?” I asked.
“They need men down south. There’s a lot of enemy activity in and around the Saigon area. The brass think the VC are up to something. You will be leaving in thirty minutes, on that plane.”
He pointed to a C-1303 aircraft out his window, its four engines running. He looked me over, then asked me why I was still in my khaki-colored shirt and pants?
I told him my lost luggage story. He said to get some green jungle fatigues as soon as possible. “Here are your new orders, get over to the plane now.”
“Wait, before you go, here is a booklet on Vietnam. Read it.”
The book was a small, thin paperback. It had phrases and useful words to help with directions or making a purchase. The book discussed the monetary system in Vietnam; it said the U. S. military needed to keep our “greenback” dollar out of the Vietnamese currency system. It also gave a brief history of the Vietnamese people and their culture. The Vietnamese culture dated back thousands of years, and it said that we, as visitors to this country, should respect this culture. The booklet was well written and informative. I stuffed it into my attaché and ran to the waiting plane.
The pilots were peering out their windows, and they looked worried. The flight crew was unfriendly. I quickly boarded the plane. We were headed to Saigon.
Thirty men, including me, were crowded into a small rear-passenger cabin along with boxes of military equipment. We sat facing one another on nylon-covered metal benches. The plane taxied and then took off like a rocket, banking to the left over the South China Sea, then back over land. The flight was wrenching. The plane pitched to the left and right, and soon I was dizzy and lightheaded. The pilots set a course for Saigon’s airport, Tan Son Nhut. It took all my effort to keep from vomiting. I glanced over at the other men on the plane, and I thought to myself, They all look so young. At the age of twenty-two, I was probably the oldest on the flight. All the men on this flight had one thing in common—they looked frightened and worried.
Soon the pilot’s voice welcomed us aboard. “If there is any trouble, there are plenty of places to land along the way,” he said. “Don’t worry.” I wondered what he meant by trouble?
I turned my head to look out a small oval window. I watched as we flew over rice paddies, palm trees, and rubber plantations. The countryside was stunning; my eyes were filled with bright yellow-green foliage and dark shadowy blue greens, occasionally I saw a red tile roof. The flight was short and soon I felt the plane’s engines throttle down.
As we began our descent into Saigon, I glanced out the window and noticed thick black smoke rising from different quarters of the city. Soon the plane plummeted downward, spinning my stomach. The plane’s right wheels hit the ground with a slam, then the left wheels banged down rattling the cabin and the men inside. The back door began to open as the plane taxied to a sudden stop. Brilliant sunlight streamed into the cabin, and I saw a young soldier running toward the now open back door. He was waving and yelling frantically. “Run, run, get off the plane! Over there! Over there! Have your orders out, move, move! I ran off the plane to a mass of confusion.
The young private was pointing to another soldier with a clipboard. The soldier with the clipboard was glancing at our orders and then pointing at different locations on the tarmac. There was no reception area. This place was a madhouse. We were on the tarmac with planes, helicopters, jeeps, and trucks everywhere. They all had their engines racing. A fine red dust began filling my eyes. Almost immediately my eyes began to burn. I could hear the sound of small-arms fire, but I couldn’t see where it was coming from. There were explosions somewhere, but I was too confused to figure out where they were coming from. I instinctively ducked; smoke was rising out over a long earthen wall. After three nights without sleep and the jarring plane ride, I was bewildered and dazed.
The private with the clipboard grabbed the orders from my hand. He quickly looked them over, then using his finger, he pointed to a waiting helicopter. You could not hear voices clearly. Messages were given with a point of a finger, a shout, or a wave. I looked back at our C-130 aircraft as its four engines roared and launched it back into the sky. As it left it pushed a cloud of red dust into our faces. Again I was told, but this time with a scream and a pointing finger waving back and forth in my face. “Run.Move, lieutenant! The base is under attack and you need to get the hell out of here.”
I turned from the private and began a sprint to the helicopter only to catch my foot on a block of wood. I fell to the tarmac. My hands were stretched out to break the fall. My attaché went airborne, and my knee caught a corner of the wood block, ripping my khaki pants. The palms of my hands tore and now were bloody and filthy. I got up and collected my attaché and myself; I ran to the waiting Huey helicopter.
The helicopter pilot was at his controls, the blades pulsing. He watched as a few others and I ran to his craft. A second anxious private standing at the helicopter door glanced at our orders as we boarded the ship. He grabbed mine, then yelled to me, “Get off in Bien Hoa. It’s the first stop.” He looked me over and then asked if I had a weapon. I yelled back at him, “No.” With pity in his voice he said, “Well, sir, you better get one, and, sir, I would get out of those khakis. You look like a target.” He turned and sprinted off.
I jumped on the helicopter and quickly took a seat. The pilot rushed the engine. Our helicopter tilted forward, then it began a slow rise over the earthen berm separating the airport from the buildings of Saigon.
As we gained altitude I could hear more explosions, but I couldn’t judge where they were coming from. I listened to the sound of outgoing artillery. The few hours since leaving Cam Ranh Bay seemed a mass of confusion. Gaining elevation, we passed a thick cloud of black smoke rising from a burning vehicle. The young private’s words back on the tarmac resonated in my head. He said I looked like a target.
It was January 31, 1968, the first day of the Tet Offensive4 in South Vietnam.
The army had taken the doors off the helicopters to lighten the load. I was sitting on the end of a long nylon bench with a perfect view of Saigon under attack. I saw men, armored personnel carriers, tanks, and clouds of smoke fade into tiny dots as our helicopter gained altitude. It seemed peaceful up here, almost safe. I began to relax a little. I glanced at the palms of my hands—they were a mixture of dirt and blood and now sweat. I wiped them against my torn pants. The two other men on the ship were also going to Bien Hoa, only they had Army-issue green fatigues. They also carried M-16 rifles in their hands.
They both glanced at me with worried faces and quickly turned away. Soon we were descending, this time not to a tarmac but to a road just outside the front gate of the Bien Hoa Army Base. The Bien Hoa Airfield was under attack and could not be used.
All three of us jumped from the helicopter. Bags were tossed out the door by the crew chief ,and the Huey was off. As we stood there bewildered, we heard a voice from the base shouting, “Get your ass down!”
I fell to my knees, then to the ground in a prostrate position. I crawled through the front gate on my stomach while gunmen shot at us from a group of tin shanties across the street. I saw little puffs of dust pop around me as bullets hit the dry dirt. Now I was scared, but it was the voice from the bunker that struck fear in me. As we neared the front gate, we jumped up and ran to the sandbagged bunker manned by two sentinels. We began pummeling questions at the two soldiers posted there. They both looked terrible, tired, and dirty. One man never took his eye off the road or the tin shanties. He was hunched over an M-60 machine gun atop a tripod. “What’s going on?” I asked.
3 A C-130 is a four-engine turboprop military aircraft.
4 The Tet Offensive was a massive attack by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army against the United States and South Vietnamese forces on the eve of the Veitnamese lunar New Year, called Tet, January 31, 1968.