Odd Things Remembered and Not Yet Forgotten
by Dick Arnold
TALL TALE #20 "ODD THINGS REMEMBERED AND NOT YET FORGOTTEN"
By Dick Arnold
Note: The following are vignettes, true incidents and happenings too short to build a whole story around; but important just the same. A potpourri: some humorous, some tragic, some racy—but hey, that's how wars are. I hope you find them interesting.
(R) Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) at Fort Polk, Louisiana; the last stop before 'Nam. Nine weeks of tactics, weapons training, and PT. The tactical training was so-so, the weapons training superb, (I have always been amazed at the Army's ability to take men from literally all walks of life and make them reasonably proficient at shooting a rifle.) and the PT rigorous. We did endless hours of calisthenics and ran everywhere we went. In the best shape of my life and that conditioning had a lot to do with keeping you alive when the shooting started. From day one all we heard was, "You are going over there, absolutely, no doubts about it; so you had better pay attention." Had a guy in my platoon named Arnowitz, a Jewish kid from St Louis. Nice kid, very bright, folks got money—not sure exactly how he ended-up in This Man's Army—but he is here nevertheless. Short and pudgy, he is not suited for infantry at all—no coordination or athletic ability and training is rough for him. We have one week to go. They call a whole company formation. The CO gets up front and says, "O.K., do any of you sorry-ass wimps think we do not belong in Vietnam and that you should not be going?" Rhetorical question, right? Not meant to be answered right? Maybe deep down some of us felt that way—but no one has the balls to say so. Except one guy, that's right—Arnowitz. The Old Man goes ballistic and bellows, "Bring that little Communist s.o.b. up here!" Arnowitz gets chewed-on for about an hour and has extra duty the rest of training. When we finally graduate, we all get 30 days leave before going over—'cept for Arnowitz, he gets just 12. Coincidence? I DON'T THINK SO!
(R) A joke that made the rounds in 'Nam underscoring our frustration in dealing with the villagers playing both sides against the middle. "Why sure, it would be easy to pacify this place. Round-up all the friendlies and put them on boats in the South China Sea. Bomb the hell out of who ever is left—and then sink the boats!"
(R) A interesting bit of graffiti seen on a grunt's helmet cover: "God Bless Du Pont Chemical's Defoliant and Napalm"
(R) Hanoi Hannah, the NVA equivalent of Japan's Tokyo Rose. Said to be half-French, spoke impeccable English, and was a hoot to listen to! The Armed Forces Radio Network would carry her and occasionally when we were in the rear we would listen in. The lady only dealt in large numbers, "Soldiers of the 4th Division, you lost 500 men and 50 helicopters today. Why don't you go back where you belong?" We used to joke that if this kept-up the war would be over all right—'cause all 550,000 of us would be dead! However, occasionally she would hit close enough to home to make you realize that at least some of her Intelligence was pretty good. Anyhow, the Big Man enjoyed honing his debating skills by signifying on her—usually over a few beers. With his penchant for colorful language—you can imagine. "Sanctimonious yellow b----" was the nicest thing he said.
(R) Kid from the Arkansas mountains, something go wrong he would say, "Aw shucks!" So naturally, that is what we called him—"Shucks" Got a Dear John letter one day, but not the standard one. Seems like it was cold up in those mountains, 'cause his wife found comfort (some anyway) in the arms of another man. But she still loved him, just dropped a line to say that her pregnancy wasn't as far as long as what she had earlier told him, so it couldn't be his. "But honey, don't you ever, ever make me tell you whose it is." I thought, well the lady has style, I'll give her that. I mean, talk about putting the stiletto in and then twisting it—hell, in the small town they lived in—everyone would know but for him! Shucks is the strong, silent type; doesn't say anything but takes the letter, climbs on top of this high, bald hill and threatens to shoot anybody who comes up. It is broad daylight and the area has beaucoup NVA—a sniper will get him for sure. "Come on down Shucks, you are going to get killed. "She ain't worth it man, come on down before you get your ass zapped." Finally the platoon sergeant, "G—D--- Shucks, I am going to shoot your ass myself if you don't come down." He eventually came down, never said anymore about it, survived his tour, and went on home. But I have often wondered if there wasn't a murder later on in those Arkansas hills—maybe even a double one.
(R) All things considered, especially their relative youth and inexperience, most of our officers were competent. But occasionally, a dud would slip through the cracks. Had a Platoon Leader in our Company like that—didn't cut the mustard. I mean, this dude was out there, a ways out there; not impressive at all. (Casey Stengel once said of a similarly-afflicted catcher for the "amazin" Mets—"He's 20 and in ten years has a chance to be 30") Favorite saying was, "Men I would not ask you to do anything I wouldn't gladly do myself." Said is so often that, of course, we started calling him Lieutenant Gladly. Me and Big Man reflecting on it one humid night over a cold beer, or two, or ten—who is counting? Big Man finally closes the book on the subject with, "There is no way, no G—D--- way, that the U.S. Army gave that sucker a Commission. He must have bought one at Sears and Roebuck!"
(R) July 13, 1967. Set-up at night on a small hill overlooking the South China Sea. Beautiful, moon-lit night, can hear and see the waves come crashing ashore. At 2:00 a.m. the VC throw some grenades in one side of the perimeter to distract us while they booby trap the trail on the other side. Bradley from downstate Illinois, super instincts on Point, is first down next morning. They have placed a wire across the trail attached to the pin in a grenade. Bradley trips the wire, hears the pin zing by his face, and thinks fast enough to shout "Grenade!" before jumping behind a rock. Phil Onkalo a FNG from Michigan's UP., just came out to the field the night before, is third in-line. He freezes and the explosion kills him. I think to myself—his first letter from here is probably not even home yet and he is gone.
(R) Late February, early March'68; guarding a key bridge at Bong Song and do very little patrolling—good duty. An old Vietnamese farmer lives right outside firebase, LZ English. Every time the choppers leave he runs out and waves, real friendly type of old guy. Has some bright red drawers a G.I. gave him and he is always showing them off. And flies an American flag. But some of the guys think a little too friendly, like he is counting the choppers as they go by. But we're not sure. Until the day when a very early morning patrol from the 1st Cav catches him coming back from the mountains with his rifle and pack. They kill him, take the flag down and run-up his bright, red drawers in its place!
(R) Most of the Vietnamese ladies fully lived-up to their reputation as the most beautiful women in the Orient. Many of them being amazingly full-figured for no bigger than they were.
(R) Most of our allies, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), were not good soldiers. They were underled, underpaid, and undersupported and I always thought maybe their hearts just weren't in it. Further, at times we suspected absolute collusion between them and the VC. Once again, the VC cadre were the heart and soul of the enemy effort. They collected the taxes, did the recruiting, and kept the villagers in-line; but they were slippery to get a hold of. One day our Intelligence guys get a hot tip. Many VC cadre were meeting nightly at a nearby hamlet—kind of a VC cadre seminar if you will. So, accompanied by an ARVN platoon to make it look good—my platoon leaves the firebase at 3:00 in the morning and cordons-off the hamlet. Lo and behold, our REMF friends have it right for once! Just before daybreak, a couple of VC leave the hamlet and walk straight for us. Now of course, we want to grab them without making a lot of fuss. But they see us and start running; we shoot them and at the sound of the first round, about 15 other VC bolt through a yawning gap in the ARVN side of the cordon and vanish into the early morning mists. No one even laid a glove on them. Sergeant Noels is absolutely livid; all this good Intelligence and careful planning gone down the drain. He is fussing and cussing as only a veteran NCO can—even Big Man couldn't match him when the Sarge got on a roll. At this red-hot moment, the officer in charge of the ARVN lets it be known that he can understand, and speak, a little English. For he says to the Sarge, "We no able to complete cordon, we no able to complete cordon." A big mistake. Sergeant Noels can not hide the Ugly American in him and replies mimicking the officer's pidgin English, "No close cordon, no close cordon? You sorry little bastards couldn't close a shoebox!"
(R) August 13, 1967. We're setting-up for the night when we hear that all-too familiar muffled explosion, see the black smoke, and hear the calls for "Medic." Yep, another booby trap, this one an infamous Bouncing Betty. Wounds two guys and the one that tripped it looks real bad—we are thinking that he won't make it. The other guy, Rodney Hoffman from Denver, walks under his own power to the Medevac. But he is such a macho guy that maybe he is hurt worse than he is letting-on? Surprise, the badly wounded guy recovers completely and even returns to the field. And Rodney? Goes into shock on the operating table and dies. Had three weeks left, go figure. His Dad sends us a very poignant letter.
(R) Summer of '67, some free-lance photographers/correspondents visit us off and on. One of them is Sean Flynn, son of Erol Flynn the famous Hollywood actor. Much bigger then his father, but just as striking looking and smart as a whip. They make us nervous at first 'cause we were scared of what some of our senior officers might do for a little publicity. You know, "Correspondents, fine, damn fine, let's fire-up an operation and get some folk killed." But once we got used to them, we enjoyed them and, as they made the rounds, they would share gossip from the other units. The Americal Division came to 'Nam that summer and were hapless. Thrown together at the last minute, no training-time together—in the first six months in-country they lost more men to jeep wrecks, friendly fire, etc. then they lost to Charlie. Sean would always come back from visiting them with a new horror story. Like the one about the Colonel who demanded that all his REMF's, clerks, drivers, etc., go on patrol occasionally. So one night he looses all his cooks in an ambush. Sean's final statement on them was, "There is no way that they can be part of the United States Army—General Mills is actually sponsoring them." Sean and his colleague Tim Page vanished while covering the American invasion of Cambodia in 1971 and have never been heard from since.
(R) The delicious feeling of waking-up the first morning on R&R on clean sheets with a warm body next to you.
(R) Dusk on the evening of November 9, 1967. We are crawling out of that infernal rice paddy after being pinned-down since early morning. We are keeping as low as possible because of fear that deadly sniper is still around. He already has killed three guys—two from the tracks and Quinn Tichenor. Me and my asst. gunner Don Burkhart are directly behind CO Chaplinski and his radio man, Don Holke from Burton, Washington. Don is having trouble keeping the mike on the radio out of the mud and is constantly readjusting it on his shirt. The Captain kids him by saying, "You better be careful, you are way too big for me to drag out of here." No sooner are those words out of his mouth, then one sniper round goes cracking directly over Burkhart and I and hits Holke in the back of the head. He leaves a little girl at home who he has never seen. In spite of our grief, we still have respect for the sniper—a fellow craftsman like us as it were. An incredible shot from several hundred feet in the gloaming; we finally decide he must have had an infra-red scope for that last one.
(R) LZ Ross, a 1st Cav firebase in the Que Son valley. We are there recuperating after our fight on November 27 ("Big Man Sees The Elephant"). NVA/VC hit it one night in early December. On one side of the perimeter it is touch and go for awhile, but finally we fend them off. The Cav is suspicious, the first NVA mortar rounds had directly hit the Command and Control bunkers, damn fine Intelligence somehow. We find-out why the next morning. An enemy body is found in the wire with a detailed map, including distances, of the base. Turns out to be the camp barber, former barber anyway.
(R) The long, hot summer of 1967, endless patrols along Highway One. Some kids and some women occasionally tag along which we don't mind, for several reasons. As long as they hang around you know you are probably safe because they won't go in areas where they know you might encounter VC. The kids are pedaling Cokes, .50 for a hot one and a buck for a cold one. They were bottled somewhere in the Orient with not much Quality Control 'cause when you held them up to the sun you could often see particles floating. But, hey, there's nuthin' like a cold Coke after a hot day at the office. Of course, the women were pedaling something different but let us not cast aspersions here. Most of us found them repulsive, but a few didn't— stress relief is stress relief and also, as they say, one man's meat is another man's poison. And what did they charge for their wares? More than the kids, but not a hell of a lot more at that. Some of the guys were so scared of venereal disease that they would use two condoms, and I thought, geez with the accompanying lack of sensitivity and all, why bother? But to each his own. Now, the chopper guys enjoyed amusing themselves on slow days by finding a couple "in-action" in the bushes and, flying low, letting the prop wash blow all over them. Destroy a man's concentration to say the least. We had a guy named Fuentes, fancied himself a Latin Lothario, and partook frequently. So one time he is off to the side of the highway with a lady-of-the-night, actually of-the-day in this case, and a bored chopper pilot spots him. We are on the other side kicked-back in the shade when we hear a loud string of Spanish curses followed by pistol shots. We jump up to see a very comical sight—Fuentes holding-up his pants with one hand and firing warning (we hope) shots at the chopper with the other. Now, what would you put in your After Action Report to explain those holes in your chopper?
(R) Some Grunt Truisms
Tracers work both ways
If the enemy is in range—so are you
If the attack is going real smoothly—you've probably walked into an ambush
Not all firefights are up hill and in the rain, it just seems that way
Incoming fire always has the right of way
Don't look conspicuous; it draws fire
The easy way is always mined
Try to look unimportant, they may be low on ammo
Professionals are predictable, it's the amateurs that are dangerous
Teamwork is essential; it gives the enemy someone else to shoot at
Don't draw fire, it irritates the people around you
The only thing more accurate than incoming enemy fire is incoming friendly fire
When in doubt empty the magazine
If it is stupid but works, it isn't stupid
Never share a foxhole with anyone braver than you are
Anything you do can get you shot, including doing nothing
Make it too tough for the enemy to get in—and you can't get out
Five second fuses only last three seconds
(R) We're flying along in a big Chinook one day, a couple of thousand feet up and motoring right along. Suddenly it sounds like someone is beating on the outside of the chopper with a big hammer. It tis our little friends using one of their 51 cal. machine guns. We eventually fly out of it, no one is hurt, but you got to wonder—how in the hell do they manage that?
(R) Sgt. Jerry Ruiz. Hardscrabble guy, had a tough upbringing; but like a lot of other Latinos and Blacks—the Army offered him a chance to better himself and escape. In Jerry's case from the barrios of San Antonio. Good man, hell of a soldier. But he had one flaw—an irritating habit of exaggerating a tad with regards to how many enemy were lurking about. Now it is no secret, we sometimes had trouble staying awake on guard duty. What's that you say? How could you clowns nod off with the bad guys all around? Well, all I can tell you is: you hump a machine gun and a 70 lb. pack around all day in 100 degree heat and see if you are exhausted come nightfall! Now the senior sergeants knew this, so they would often make-up rumors of impending disaster. You know—an NVA/VC squad, platoon, company, battalion, whole damn army (take your pick) has been seen in the vicinity, best keep your eyes opened! However, Jerry preferred to deal in numbers—50, 100, 500 of them have been spotted, so on and so forth. Well one night he is making the rounds and stops at my machine gun position. "Arnold, a chopper pilot spotted 163 NVA nearby just before sunset, make sure your guys stay awake!" Perhaps I had experienced a particularly bad day, or perhaps I just decided—enough is enough. Whatever, I replied reasonably sweetly, "Sgt. Ruiz, if they had time to count them, why didn't they just shoot the little bastards." He stares for a minute and then said, "A real smart-ass aren't you Arnold," and then stomped-off but at least he did not try that line anymore!
(R) One last booby trap story, I promise. Early February, 1968. New lieutenant in another platoon. Real gungi, "let me at 'em" and all that stuff. Would not stay where he belonged, always wanted up front with the point. Once his point guy spooked a VC and the lieutenant pushed him down so he could get some shots in himself! Captain Chaplinski was always on his case, "Keep your ass in the middle of the formation if you don't mind please!" But he wouldn't listen, snuck back up front every chance he got. The inevitable happened. One day his point tripped a massive booby trap, the kid lost both legs but lived. The lieutenant who was right behind him as usual? A piece of shrapnel entered through his throat beneath his voice box, went cleanly through, and hit his spine—he was paralyzed for life. Interesting side story, his brother also served as an officer in 'Nam and was also wounded and paralyzed for life! What are the odds of that?
(R) O.K. Enough doom and gloom, let's close on a high note. This last one is hilarious and true although my modest skills as a writer can not really do it justice; Hemingway probably could have made a whole short story out of it. Had two guys in the platoon who had very high opinions of themselves. First one was a good soldier, always calm, cool, and collected. Had a rakish blond mustache and was constantly regaling us with stories of his sexual exploits. In fact, we'll call him "Ladies Man." The second one's family had some money and he wasn't shy about letting you know it. Very full of himself, let's call him "Popinjay." November of 1967 and Ladies Man is on his way home. Now Popinjay is married to the most sexy woman in the world to hear him tell it. Not only sexy, but madly in love with him; and how could she not be considering what a catch he was? Still, there is that nagging doubt about her fidelity, for he has been gone awhile now. And who better to do some reconnaissance for him then the smooth-talking Ladies Man? So these two egotistical low-lives concoct the following scheme. Ladies Man is to visit her, say something like, "your husband just wanted me to check on you and say hi," then hit on her and report back the results via letter. Now Popinjay thinks they have a gentlemen's agreement to just see if she would, not do it with her; I mean, being comrades-in-arms and all. There's only one problem folks, Ladies Man ain't no gentleman and don't give a damn about no comrades-in-arms. For he fulfills his part of the deal, ahem, right-up to the hilt so to speak, and not just once but several times. Eventually he sends the promised letter to Popinjay describing the affair in painfully exquisite detail. Now, being so arrogant and sure of himself, Popinjay has widely bragged about the trial balloon and has promised that all interested parties can read the letter with him. Well finally the long anticipated day comes, and us fellas are all crowded around Popinjay, voyeuristic adolescents to the core. He starts reading and as he turns page after page—his face gets redder and redder. Nearly speechless, he finally sputters, "I told that s.o.b. to just send me a letter, not a whole G—D--- book! Of course the moral of this story is, "Don't ask."