Going to Viet Nam? Seemed like a great adventure
from Jim Good
Going to Viet Nam? Seemed like a great adventure to me. I enlisted, and really would have been disappointed if I had gotten orders to go anywhere but Viet Nam. I wasn’t especially patriotic, or gung ho, it just seemed to me like the thing that young guys ought to do. More or less a part of growing up. Our grandparent’s generation fought in WW I, our parents in WW II, some of my schoolteachers and other middle-aged men in the community had been in the Korean War, and now it was my generation’s turn. I suppose that in a way I thought I might be helping the South Vietnamese people maintain their freedom and way of life. In hindsight that doesn’t seem to have been a realistic goal. You have to let some people fight their own wars, and decide their own fate.
At any rate, I learned of my orders to Viet Nam one afternoon in AIT. I think we were at a commo class. I seem to remember that we were on a break on the south side of that WW II vintage wooden barracks building that they used for commo classes at Fort Knox. One of the platoon sergeants called off a list of names and told us to gather around. He informed us that we had just come down on orders for Viet Nam. He was rather solemn and straight faced. I think that he was more upset to tell us that we were going, than we were to learn that we were being assigned to a combat zone. Hey, it was the fall of 1969, where did we think we were going? Disneyland? While we knew that some guys from most AIT classes got orders for Germany, Korea, or CONUS bases, the vast majority went to Viet Nam, so most of us would have been surprised to go anywhere else. We probably had two or three weeks left in AIT after learning of our assignment, and several of us also learned that we were to attend Sheridan tank school after AIT. Sheridan school was another 3 or 4 weeks I think, and more or less a “gentleman’s course” after BCT & AIT. We still had the standard Army discipline to adhere to, but much less of the B. S. that they put us through in boot camp. Following the Sheridan school, we also had a week of “RVN Training” or specific preparation for duty in the Republic of Viet Nam. By the time we got to RVN training it was November at Fort Knox, and I recall that one day while practicing response to ambushes it started snowing. Not much accumulation, but enough to make the ground white. The absurdity of the moment caught us all. We were jumping off 2 _ ton trucks into the snow to practice avoiding a V. C. ambush. Of course, a few months later while sitting radio watch on a tank in the flat, white sand north of Cua Viet with the cold, damp air blowing in off the Gulf of Tonkin, it seemed like we really were in snow in Viet Nam.
One of my clearest memories of departing for Viet Nam was getting on the airplane in Kansas City to fly to California where I processed in through the Oakland Army Depot. I’d been on leave at home, and my mother and stepfather took me to the airport. That was back when airports were not highly secured fortresses, and friends and relatives could accompany you basically to the door of the airplane. At that time, Kansas City did not have the passageways that extend out from the terminal building to the door of the airplane. Rather you had to walk out on the ramp, and then go up a set of portable stairs to the airplane. My parents walked to the foot of the stairs and we said our good-bye’s, and then I got on the plane. As it happened, my seat was on the left side of the airplane, and I had a window seat. As I looked out the window, my parents were still standing there waiting for a final glimpse of me, and my mother was crying. I was genuinely surprised to see her cry. My reaction was, “what’s she crying for, I’m coming home.” In hindsight, I now know that it was only due to luck that I returned in one piece, rather than in a body bag, but at age 20 I suppose that I felt bulletproof.
I arrived in California the day before I had to report in to Oakland. I really can’t remember if I had any specific plans for going a day early. Maybe I wanted to do some sight seeing. It could have been that we had to report in by a certain time of the day, and there may not have been any flights on the due date that would have gotten me there in time. When I got to San Francisco, I learned that there was to be a big concert at Altamonte Speedway that weekend. I think this was the Rolling Stones concert where they had Hell’s Angles acting as security guards, and one of the attendees was killed by a security guard. I thought briefly about going to the concert and just reporting for duty a couple of days late, but decided that probably would cause a lot more trouble that it would have been worth.
The next day I reported in to the Oakland Army Base. I remember spending hours waiting in lines to have my personnel and finance records audited, to get my jungle fatigues issued, and to do whatever other nonsense the Army figured that was needed prior to shipping out. I spent one night there in a fairly nice, but large and crowded barracks area. The next day was more hurry up and wait until enough of us to fill a chartered DC-8 were collected together and moved to a temporary holding area. There were cots in the holding area, but not much else for comfort or entertainment. While sitting there, several busses brought in a group of guys who had just arrived from Viet Nam after completing their tour. They were going through the reverse process of getting Class A uniforms, and doing whatever else was necessary before being sent home on leave, or being discharged. The group of veterans looked thin, dirty, and haggard. They tried to cheer us up by saying things like “you’ll be sorry” or “run now while you can.” At any rate, sometime after midnight we boarded busses for Travis AFB where we boarded our MAC charter aircraft. A real no frills flight, but at least it was a civilian airliner, rather than a C-130 or something like that. We made a scheduled fuel stop in Hawaii, where we all got to leave the airplane for an hour or so while they refueled the plane, cleaned it, and changed airline crews. That was my one and only visit to Hawaii. Then we took off for the Philippines, however strong headwinds forced us to make an extra fuel stop in Guam. Again we got a chance to get off the plane, stretch our legs, and partake of the gourmet luxury of the PX snack bar at the airbase passenger terminal. Then we went on to the Philippines, where I saw my first glimpse of Asian jungle. While on the final approach to Anderson AFB in the Philippines, I saw farmers plowing fields with water buffaloes pulling a wooden plow. I figured that I’d be seeing a lot more sights like that in the following months, and of course I did.
The flight from the Philippines to Bien Hoa AFB, Viet Nam was probably the shortest leg of the trip, and it was about midnight when we landed. I have no idea how long the trip took, between the fuel stops, crossing the international date line, and everything else it had probably been about 24 hours since we left California, give or take a day or two. We seemed to circle at a relatively low altitude for a while before landing, and finally the pilot came on the intercom and announced that it had taken longer than usual to get the artillery shut down across our approach path, but that we would be landing soon. When we got on the ground, an Air Force sergeant, with a pistol on his hip, boarded the flight, and said welcome to Viet Nam. He then told us to move quickly from the airplane to a covered area about 100 meters away. He then told us where to go to find bunkers if we started getting incoming fire while gathering there. Nice thought. “Welcome to Viet Nam, TAKE COVER!” Fortunately, we didn’t get any incoming that night, however a couple of days later after completing the in-processing at Long Bin, the airbase did get a couple of rockets while I was waiting for the flight to Quang Tri.
One of my memories of the short time that we spent in the Repo Depot in Viet Nam was when I went to the latrine the first morning to shower and shave. There were a couple of Viet Namese cleaning ladies there who were sweeping and mopping the place while naked GI’s were taking a shower. It didn’t seem to bother either the showering soldiers, or the women who went about their task like it was the most normal thing in the world to be mopping a shower building while it was in use by members of the opposite sex. Oh well, there was a war going on, so I suppose things just operated differently. Toto, we were not in Kansas anymore.