My R & R to Hawaii, to see Annie and our daughter who was now three months old was to begin in a couple of days. I waited until my tour was nearly over to take an R & R and it seemed the time would never come. Tet would also begin on the same day as my R & R and there had been rumors circulating that the VC had something big in store, but I didn't care, I was going to Hawaii.
My bag was packed and I arranged for a chopper ride to Saigon the next day. Therefore, I figured a little celebrating was appropriate before leaving, so with one of my buddies, I stopped at a beer bust taking place down the road from our hooch.
A lot of empties were on the ground and people were beginning to get a little rowdy, as they generally do under those conditions, when a guy who had been in-country only a few weeks began arguing with my friend.
Now, Sut was a small man with a big mouth, who often became very sharp tongued when he was drinking. Most every one knew he was mouthy and generally ignored his remarks and mannerisms, especially me, since he talked so fast I could not understand half of what he said, even when we were sober. My standard response to nearly everything he said was, "Huh." The result was that every time he spoke to me he had to repeat himself. On the other hand, when I spoke to Sut, he acted as if he thought I would never finish a sentence because I spoke so slowly.
Sut probably started it and probably deserved it when the guy punched him but because he was my buddy, I jumped in the middle of the big man who had him on the ground. Sut immediately scrambled for safety and left me to face the monster of a man, who at that moment had the demeanor of a mad Grizzly.
Realizing I was outsized by a considerable margin, I quickly began firing my best punches, hoping to gain the advantage, in the early going. However, my best shots only had the effect of further infuriating him, as he repeatedly charged me in football tackle fashion. I knew as he did, if he ever managed to knock me down, his tremendous weight advantage would allow him to finish me.
I had a lot of street fighting experience from my school days. Where I grew up, black leather jackets, duck tails, dog chains and the willingness to fight for any reason, were ways of life. Consequently, my experience and quickness allowed me to hold my own and though I lacked the knockout power to stop my opponent, I was stinging him with punches and kicks as he continued to try to tackle me.
Though I had not taken any punches, I was tiring from throwing so many and dodging around. The sudden exertion had caused the alcohol to go to my head and I felt myself stagger occasionally. My opponent, though cut and bleeding was still charging as a raging bull and I stepped back to try to kick his lowered head. I missed and the momentum of the missed kick caused me to fall backward to the ground.
He was on me instantly and though I kicked and squirmed I could not escape his vice-like grip. Shoving my hand in his face, I felt my fingers in his nostrils and I pulled upward on his nose with all my strength. As his nose tore from his face, he let out a scream of rage and began to pound me with his fists. His weight advantage soon wore me down and he sat with his knees on my shoulders, beating me senseless.
When I came to, we were encircled by a group of GI's who had apparently pulled my opponent off me. He was sitting beside me, holding his nose in a handkerchief, trying to stop the flow of blood while he watched to see if I would awaken. He must have thought he had killed me and I caught his slight look of relief, as my eyes focused on his face. My head felt the effects of being used for a punching bag. My knees and elbows were raw, impregnated with gravel and dirt from scrubbing them on the ground. I doubt that I would have felt worse if a tank had run over me.
We were helped to our feet after a few minutes and decided we both better go to the field hospital for repairs, so together, we staggered to the hospital. We knew we would be in serious trouble for fighting each other, so on the way we concocted a story about being jumped, by a truckload of Korean soldiers.
I arrived at Ton Son Knut air base the next day, bruised and swollen, with my knees and elbows so tightly bandaged I could barely bend them. I really did not want to bend them though, since they hurt so much. The more people asked me about my injuries, the more foolish I felt and I wondered what I was going to tell Annie, when I arrived in Hawaii. I hoped my immobility would not ruin her vacation.
My flight was scheduled to depart at 0500 hours the next morning, so I hit the rack early, both to try to rest and because I was in so much pain when I bent my knees and elbows.
The holding billet for those awaiting flight departures was a large metal building containing rows of bunk beds barely 18 inches apart. Bunk numbers were assigned at the time of arrival and I had drawn an upper berth, which was extremely painful for me to climb into, so once there, I decided to stay.
Shortly after midnight, the first rounds of combat, pierced the night and the metal building where I was sleeping. Instinctively, I rolled off the edge of my bunk and fell to the floor, screaming in pain at the added torment to my knees and elbows.
Because the bunks were so close together, I landed on a black soldier who bunked beneath me and he immediately ordered, "Get off me, white boy." "Just move over, I'll be glad to get on bottom," I responded, as another blast of shrapnel tore through the metal siding on the building. "No way, man," he said, as we both scrambled to get closer to the floor.
The attack on Ton Son Knut lasted five days, during which we were confined to the billet, unarmed, depending on the Saigon Warriors to defend us. I dreaded the possibility the VC would discover we were unarmed and charge the compound.
The first two days were spent without food and when the C-rations finally arrived, even I was glad to get them. The confinement, not knowing how long it would last, whether or not we would get to go on our R & R's, and hundreds of other questions each man had, took a mental toll. Arguments and fights began to break out as tempers flared because of nerves worn thin. I, however, did my best to avoid everyone because my injuries were constant reminders to keep my mouth shut.
Finally, the enemy offensive was sufficiently suppressed to allow flights to resume and as I boarded the airplane, I wondered if Annie would still be in Hawaii. My worst fear was that she had given up and gone home.
As we readied to deplane in Honolulu, we were a motley group. We had not showered or changed clothes in over six days, our faces were unshaven and body odors rank but our loved ones did not care. For them, as well as the men on the plane, the suspense of war was over for a few days and a cheer rose up from the crowd as the door of the airplane was opened.
The airplane captain's voice on the intercom, advising us that we were starting the descent to Ton Son Knut, awakened me from my light sleep and my thoughts immediately focused on the past week of R & R.
Annie was in the crowd, just as she and others waiting for GI's did daily for a week. They were given no information other than our flight had been delayed indefinitely, but that first moment of greeting at the airport made the long wait worth it.
As I walked down the ramp, people were pointing at my bandages and whispering to each other probably thinking I was wounded in combat. It was embarrassing to tell Annie what had happened.
We had a great time in Hawaii and I was proud of my daughter, even if she did seem to cry a lot. However, the time had gone so quickly, and it was very hard to get back on the plane for Nam. Only the knowledge that I was nearly through with my tour, kept me from flying to the States with Annie.
We were just about to touch down, when I saw an explosion along the edge of the runway. Suddenly I was slammed against the back of my seat by the G-force as the pilot goosed the plane and stuck its nose in the air. It was amazing how much thrust that airliner had when pushed to its limits. Nothing had changed while we were gone. "Charlie" was still trying to get an airliner.
We circled for an hour or so and finally landed without incident, though everyone was apprehensive during the entire time. No one wants to be hit on his way back from R & R.
As I stepped out of the airplane the sickening stench that was uniquely, Vietnam, hit my nose. Over the past week, I had forgotten how bad it was. As I approached the terminal building, a large rat ran along the edge of the building, looking for his point of entry. A fitting welcome back to the dung heap of the world, I thought, only in ninety days I'm leaving here for good.
A Year To Kill © 1989
Other Content © 1999
by James F. McColloch