The first shot caught me just above the collar, on the right side of the neck. The next shot struck my right hand, before a multitude of shots hit me in the back and the cheeks of my butt. No, they were not rounds from an AK-47 or SKS, just BB’s from Daisy BB rifles and I was at Ft. Polk, La., not Cu Chi, Vietnam. I was in the middle of Basic Training, participating in a course that was affectionally named “Quick Kill”, designed to prepare you for a fire fight in a village in Vietnam. The BB’s stung like the devil, and helped bridge the gap from the abstract concept of dying to a realistic impression of just how it happens in combat. I have not been shot since, and owe the Master my heartfelt gratitude for my good fortune. For those who relate to numbers, America has lost about 651,000 military personnel in all of our wars, out of approximately 42 million personnel who have served in wartime. In Vietnam, we lost 58,220 of America’s finest….and today belongs to them.
Ft. Polk was a hot, humid sand trap in August of 1969, when I arrived courtesy of Trans Texas Airlines. It was a stormy night, and a number of the inductees on the airplane were otherwise occupied with filling up the little sacks conveniently placed in the seat back ahead of them. Beer, fear and a good deal of turbulence related to the pilot’s attempts at dodging the various storms along our route contributed to this rather unglamorous entry into the United States Army. I volunteered for this and was seriously considering my flawed life plans as we touched down. Basic Training was a character building experience. My veteran readers can identify with this unique happening, although I am focused on a different time and place today. For me, the next chapter began at Oakland Army Terminal a few months later, the beginning of my experience in a real war, where the BB rifles were replaced with far more lethal weaponry in the hands of either the Viet-Cong or the NVA.
We were delivered to what can be described as a gigantic warehouse, where literally hundreds upon hundreds of soldiers were housed awaiting their assignment to a flight to Southeast Asia. The lights were never turned off and you slept on any empty bunk you could find. The PA system interrupted what little sleep you could get with announcements that “the following personnel are to report to section A for final processing and your flight”. It was an Article 15 offense to miss your name, and we quickly formed buddy systems to avoid that unpleasant experience. The warehouse smelled of sweat, new jungle boots, uniforms and fear. It was chaotic and organized at the same time. Character building, again, comes to mind.
My flight, on Global Airlines, arrived at Tan Son Nhut air base, not far from what will always be Saigon to me, at 3:30 AM. When the cabin doors were opened we were greeted by a blast of humid and peculiar smelling air, and a young MP who provided instructions as to what to do if we received incoming fire. In short order, you were conveyed to an inprocessing center where you were then assigned to a combat unit, based upon your MOS (military occupational specialty). I was assigned to Division Artillery in the First Cavalry Division, in a scenic little village named Phuoc Vinh. I was trained to compute the data for the various artillery pieces, thus insuring that we place our devastating artillery capability on the heads of the enemy as opposed to anywhere else in your area of operation. This skill also earned me a trip to various fire support bases when a a fire control specialist was needed to fill the boots of a soldier that either rotated out, or no longer needed boots……I did my job, and had little time for the demonstrations and political considerations that brought this unfortunate war to an end. We fought for the man next to us.
I survived unscathed and returned home, able to walk off of the airplane in St. Louis and see my daughter for the first time. I was lucky, as were the other 9,000,000 or so military personnel, who served in Vietnam without being memorialized on the wall. To be sure, I was shot at and survived a ground probe or two while on a fire base, but we were ready and the enemy failed to grasp the significance of direct artillery fire when you are conducting that probe. Character building, yet again, comes to mind.
I write to honor those folks who arrived home a different way, carried in a flag draped container to their final resting place. I also write to honor those who served and survived, some scarred for life both physically and mentally, who still walk among us. Someday, just as in previous wars, our numbers will diminish, and the Vietnam War will be just another chapter in our military history, however; not today.
Brothers and sisters, bound by a shared experience with life changing implications. It is a fraternity that I am immensely proud of…
..and the initiation was hell.