The seven new assignees, including myself, were elated at our good fortune and spates of conversation concerning such unexpected luck filtered through our ranks as we marched to our new home. These feelings were generated because we were trained as infantrymen and most, fully expected assignment to an infantry field unit.
Two of the group had been in country for six months and had just been released from the hospital. They had been wounded in combat and were reassigned for the remainder of their tours. The 9th Division had a policy of rotating men out of the front lines to support areas after six months, if at all possible. This was to cut down on the combat fatigue that had been a real problem during WW II, and Korea.
The rest were OCS dropouts who happened to process through at a time when men were needed to work in finance. The sergeant leading us to the company area explained that the finance department had been shorthanded since the Division arrived in Viet Nam. Finally, after months of waiting for replacements that never came, the colonel in charge insisted on selecting men for his command, from the ranks of the infantry. Officers' Candidate School qualifications and a lot of time left to serve, were his primary criteria for selection. For an instant, I was almost glad I had a lot of time left to serve. In fact, had I been asked this was one time I would have gladly volunteered.
Most of the company street as it was called had a wooden sidewalk in the center that connected the orderly room (company headquarters), the supply room, the EM club (malt shop), the mess hall and rows of tents or hooches the men called home. Hand lettered signs hung on most of the tents bearing names such as "House of the Rising Sun," or the name of a city in the US with an arrow pointing toward home and the mileage. Some simply said "short" and listed the number of days the owner had left to serve, prominently displayed. That word was not so distasteful to me now that I had not been assigned to a line unit. After I settle in here, I thought, I will count the number of days I have left, if I can still count that high.
We arrived at the end of the company street, just past where the wooden sidewalk ended and were told the newly erected canvas castle was our home. The olive-drab canvas was draped over a wooden platform that served as a floor. Four folding cots were aligned along each long wall of the enclosure and on each cot was a mosquito net, a camouflage poncho cover, and a plastic air mattress.
The Spartan surroundings prompted someone to quip, "Why doesn't the sidewalk extend to the doorway of this hotel?" "You'll fix that right after you get the walls sandbagged," the sergeant answered smartly. I noticed as we approached that this was the only tent without sandbags stacked around the walls and I assumed that someone had not yet had time to finish the task. "When will they do it," I naively asked, realizing the necessity of the bags to protect us from flying shrapnel. "As soon as you have selected a rack put your gear on it and fall in outside," he barked to the small congregation, huddled together in the center of the wooden floor. "Haven't you heard?" One of the men who had been in the hospital asked. "The general has put everything outside this camp off limits and he doesn't believe in hiring nationals to do our work for us either. The only soldiers who go outside that wall are on patrols or official business and the only gooks that come in are the ones he's forced by a higher command to hire." I suddenly felt more like a prisoner than a soldier.
In my twenty-two years, I had been told by my elders on several occasions that I did not have sense enough to shovel sand but this was the first time anyone ever gave me written instructions on how to do it. The sergeant gave each of us a copy of the Army Regulations covering the filling of sandbags, pointed out a pile of empty bags and said he would return later to check our progress. Someone has said, "There's a right way, a wrong way, and the army way, to do everything," and you can believe there's an AR to tell you the army way. However, I still think the term "sandbag" was a misnomer. During the wet season they were "mudbags" and during the dry season they were "dustbags."
We worked on filling the bags and stacking them to build a wall around our tent until late in the day when we noticed the other men in the area heading for the mess hall. The day had been long, the work was hard, and we were hungry, so we did not wait for an invitation. We followed the crowd.
Inside the mess hall I was surprised to see a carton of milk on each table and I was eager to get through the line before it was gone. After filling my tray, I headed for the nearest empty table, not caring about the food but wanting the milk. I haven't had a glass of milk since I left Tulsa, I thought, as I poured the white nectar into a cup and lifted it to my lips. I was barely able to control my instinct to spit when I tasted what I thought was surely the juice from a water buffalo. It was worse. It was reconstituted milk made with the bitter water that was unpalatable to me.
Though I was really hungry, the food on the tray now smelled as bad as the milk tasted and I quickly left the mess hall for the malt shop. "Perhaps a beer or two will wash that rancid taste out of my mouth," I said to myself.
When I returned to the tent that was now my home, the night was no longer young and the darkness inside was like that in a cavern. I did not notice that there were no light bulbs in the tent when we arrived earlier that day. The other hooches in the area had at least one light bulb dangling in the center of them, powered by generators I could hear in the distance. As I listened to the generators it irritated me that the sergeant was more concerned about the sandbags than light in our tent. I felt more threatened by injury from a fall than from shrapnel, especially since I was having a hard time walking in a straight line.
I inched my way along the foot of the cots trying not to waken anyone, until I came to mine. In the darkness, it was impossible to hang the mosquito netting or do any arranging, so I scooped my duffel and other items on to the floor and flopped my tired body on the cot. In the distance, I could hear the explosions of war and I offered a prayer of thanks to the Lord for sparing me from that. He was watching out for me even though I did not deserve it, I thought.
I was awakened before reveille by the sound of helicopters taking to the air. Our tent was about one-half block from the heliport but the noise and flying debris, caused by their rotors, made them seem as if they were directly on top of us. Those guys start early, I thought, as I groggily stumbled outside to find a place to relieve my swollen bladder.
The urinals were small, three sided enclosures about four feet square built of barn tin that sat over a hole in the ground. The entrance was the open side and there was no door for privacy. A person merely stepped in and relieved himself in the hole.
Because the stench rising from the hole filled with urine that constantly fermented in the blazing sun caused one's eyes to water and since I was fearful that I might fall in the hole if I staggered in there in the dark, I decided to water the tree next to our tent. We eventually started referring to it as the "pee tree," for obvious reasons.
I located the water tank trailer, filled my combat helmet with water and carried it back to the tent. After securely placing my steel pot in a depression in the ground, I went back inside to rummage through my duffel bag for my shaving gear. The first light of dawn made shaving a lot easier, since I could then use my mirror. I had grown accustomed to shaving in the dark with cold water, but I had not become proficient at it and my face carried the razor nicks from my inexperienced efforts in previous days. Rinsing my face in the cold water had fully awakened me and as I pitched the water out of my helmet, I thought of my training, drill sergeant and chuckled to myself. He said he used his helmet for a cooking pot, bathtub and latrine. I wondered if he used it in that order to keep it sanitary.
I skipped breakfast and used the time to hang my mosquito netting, arrange my gear and write a letter to Annie. The whelps on my face and arms persuaded me to give the proper priority to hanging my netting. Also, since I was caught without light the night before and could not write, I wanted to tell Annie the news about my unit assignment and give her my address, so she could write to me.
After folding the letter, I placed it and the several books of postage stamps I brought with me in the envelope. I did not know until I arrived in Vietnam that the soldiers had free letter mailing privileges. Instead of using a stamp we wrote "free" in the upper right hand corner. Annie could use the stamps for her letters to me. Money was tight for us already and in a few weeks she would have to quit her job because she was so far along in her pregnancy. I was sending her nearly all of my monthly pay, but it was still less than $175.00. I did not know how she could make it if she could not work, especially after the birth of my "son."
It was very hard on our collective pride when she had to move in with her parents after I was drafted, but we had no choice. We had to rent out our home to have money for the payments and it was taking all we made to pay for the car and keep up with the other bills we had accrued. If I work hard, I thought, maybe I'll get a promotion.
After the morning formation and roll call the new men, including me, were taken to meet the Sergeant-major in Finance. Sergeant-major is the highest enlisted rank in the army. Sort of an enlisted general and I had never even seen one before much less had the opportunity to meet one. Frankly, I was a little awe struck and pleasantly surprised as he outlined our responsibilities because he was the first NCO to talk to me as if I were human since I had been in the army. He let us know that we were there on a trial basis and that the colonel stuck his neck out by selecting us. If we wanted to stay, he expected hard work; if not, then back to the infantry.
We were expected to be in the finance records area from 7:00 AM until 7:00 PM to help where needed. If not on an errand we were to be learning how to handle the pay records, and when payrolls came in or went out, we would go along as guards. In addition, we were to keep up with our duties in the company, such as filling sandbags, guard duty and KP. That meant filling sand bags after dark every night to fortify our tent, but I had tasted the alternative and I knew those bags would not shoot at me, so I was happy with the arrangement. Considering where I was, I felt it was the best of a bad situation and I still counted myself lucky to have this assignment.
The physical toll of the next two weeks was starting to tell on us when one of the guys decided to transfer to a line unit. He said he would rather take his chances with Charlie than fill sandbags and be someone's "nigger" for a year. Because I was the oldest man in our hooch, I tried to talk him out of his decision. The combat veterans also tried to tell him that it would not be any better in a line unit, but he would not listen to them either. I did the only thing left to do. I wished him good luck the day he left and asked him to keep in touch, but I never heard from him again.
I knew something about how he felt since depression and homesickness were constant mental foes and physically, I had been losing weight from the time I arrived in country because I was unable to force myself to eat the food we were served. I was existing primarily on beer and the few snack foods I could scrounge up, so my body weight had dropped to under 115 pounds, which made me look like a POW. The late night sandbagging was becoming increasingly difficult as I battled fatigue both from lack of nourishment and lack of sleep. I often lay awake during the night longing for home, thinking about my wife and how much I loved her and missed her but I was determined to hang on to this assignment. I figured the only shortcut out of this nightmare world a combat unit offered was a trip home in a box.
A light was finally installed in our tent and we began staying up late playing poker. I won nearly four hundred dollars in cash and had taken several markers before my reputation spread through the company, or everyone ran out of money. I didn't know which, but after a while I seemed to be the only one interested in playing cards. The money I won would have been a small fortune to me in the States, but in Nam it really had little value. We were not allowed to have US currency in our possession, so we were paid with Military Payment Certificates or MPC. Each denomination was a different color, which coupled with its size made it appear more like Monopoly money than legal tender. It was worthless outside Vietnam and each man could only convert $200.00 to greenbacks when leaving country. The purchase of "big ticket" items at the Post Exchange was limited by the use of personal ration cards that had to be shown when purchasing a camera, recorder, whiskey, or a number of other things. The item purchased was punched on the card and that was it, for that item. The result of these controls was that most men sent the lions' share of their monthly pay home as allotments to wives, or parents or to a savings account.
The system was intended to control the "black market" but I'm not sure if it had any real effect. When it was announced that the USS New Jersey was being taken out of "moth balls" and prepared for action in Vietnam, the standard joke was that after 30 days in country, Uncle Sam could go to Saigon and buy it back. (I remember the sergeant-major requisitioned military padlocks for the payroll officers' money bags and after not receiving them for several weeks, he went to Saigon and bought them from a street vendor.) It was said that for a price, a person could get anything in Saigon, and some men who got more than they wanted had to take shots for what they got.
Cass was one of those guys. He enlisted in the Army prior to being drafted and was trained as a finance clerk. His recruiter told him he would probably go to Germany for his overseas duty. Cass was foolish enough to believe him and enlist. Not only did he feel betrayed, which caused him to have a basic "don't care" attitude, but he was never able to accept being sequestered behind the earthen walls of our base camp. It seemed that every six weeks or so he would get his fill of confinement and have to leave for a recharge, or whatever.
We became good buddies and I asked him how he managed to get outside the wall since the gates were constantly guarded by the MP's. "Simple" he said, "I just go to the heliport and wait for a chopper to land and unload passengers. After they unload and are preparing to take off, I run out and ask for a lift. No one expects that I'm fool enough to be going AWOL, so they generally say, 'hop in,' and away I go."
During the portion of his tour that was common with mine, he was formally charged with AWOL three times. But no matter how much extra duty he was given, or how large his fine, when the wanderlust struck, he was gone. Consequently, he had to forfeit most of his pay each month and in rank he was a perpetual private, E-1. "So what?" He said. "What else are they going to do? Send me to Vietnam."
I had a lot of respect for Cass because he could not be broken. He was like a wild mustang that if tied up short will accept the saddle, but give him his head and look out, he's gone. Once, when he was given extra duty at the motor pool, the sergeant in charge issued him a five-gallon bucket of olive-drab paint along with a brush and ordered him to paint the beds on the trucks. The sergeant's big mistake was telling Cass to hurry because he had a few other chores for him to do before Cass could go. When the sergeant checked on him a few minutes later, Cass had poured the paint in the beds of the trucks and was swishing it around with a broom. "I'm just trying to hurry like you wanted," he told the sergeant.
Another time, he was given aluminum paint and told to paint the single strand barbed wire fence that surrounded the officers' quarters. Every time an officer would walk by, he would flip the brush across a strand of the wire, which would spatter paint on the officer's pants. He would keep his head down in diligent pursuit of his painting and never crack a smile if one of them upbraided him for being so careless. He would feign contriteness and offer to wipe the paint off, which normally resulted in making matters worse for the pants.
His antics resulted in most of the NCO's thinking he was more trouble to watch than what he would accomplish was worth, and normally when he was assigned to one who had that opinion, he was asked to simply stay out of the way. Since he clearly did not respond to the disciplinary actions available and since they could not ship him home, no one knew what to do with him, or to him, or about him, or for him, except the medics. They knew to give him shots for whatever it was he sometimes had when he came back from one of his private sorties.
A Year To Kill © 1989
Other Content © 1999
by James F. McColloch