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© Copyright 1999, Jim Loy
I spent two years in Vietnam. My first year was spent in Phu Bai. Then I signed up for two six month extensions, in Vietnam, so I could get out of the Army early. My second year was spent in Danang.
Danang seemed like a fairly large city. I didn't see much of it. I stayed on our base, at XXIV Corps, across the river from most of Danang. The base was surrounded by coils of barbed wire. There was one gate, guarded by MPs. The gate opened onto a busy street. Vietnamese people on bicycles, and in three-wheeled trucks, continually drove by. Opposite the street was the Danang River. Long canoes with tiny outboard motors moved up and down the river. Next to the river was a helicopter pad. Various Generals had their helicopters there.
We lived in two-story barracks. The wind blew through the walls, which were metal screen with wooden louvers over them. There was a stairway at each end of the building, on the outside of the building. We lived downstairs, in our barracks. I had a cubicle, with a bed, a small wooden cabinet (containing books, a chess set, and toilet paper), a foot locker, an electric fan, a record player (and speakers) and a refrigerator (full of Coca Cola). I kept toilet paper, because we ran out a couple of times.
The skies were usually overcast. But, I remember seeing the Southern Cross once. That is a constellation that is a ways from the South Celestial Pole. It is on the flags of Australia and New Zealand. The Southern Cross points to the South Pole. There are no bright stars closer to the South Pole. Vietnam is, of course, north of the equator. So, you cannot see the South Pole from there.
We no longer had guard duty. And, I don't think I saw my rifle for almost the whole year. In fact the only strong reminder that we were part of the war was that we wore green clothes. The only shooting we ever heard was during Tet, that year, which would have just been the equivalent of fireworks, except that an occasional bullet dropped out of the sky and hit our aluminum (steel?) roof. So, we stayed indoors that night.
There were two handball courts and a squash court. Next to these were two tennis courts. I tried tennis a couple of times, but I didn't really learn to play until after I got out of the Army. I got fairly good at handball. I never tried squash. I worked on my chess. I decided that I wanted to learn to win quickly, and spectacularly. If my opponent lasted longer than 30 moves, I considered that a loss for me. That did improve my game. I played much more decisively than I had played before.
One day, I was walking down the street, and (in the distance) I saw a soldier walking toward the tail rotor of a helicopter. I realized that there was nothing that I could do to save this man. He was about to be chopped up by the helicopter. He stopped; it seemed like he was inches from the whirling rotor. I suspected that I knew what he was feeling.
We played some softball. I hit a high fly to center field. I was rounding second base as the center fielder dropped the ball right against the fence. I scored on that error. I was a good outfielder. But, my old little leaguer's elbow flared up. Our team captain was our Lieutenant, because he was the only officer. He was the pitcher, because he was the only officer. We played some volleyball, too. I was no good, as I didn't know how to hit the ball properly. Nobody else did either.
There were very very few American women in Vietnam. That was a little upsetting. Since I almost never left our base, I didn't see Vietnamese women either. There was a cute Vietnamese girl who ran a tiny bookstore on our base. I wasn't brave enough to get to know her. A friend of mine, sneaked out every night to visit his girl friend. That would have scared me.
I had to salute a lot, as the place was crawling with officers, many of them with stars on their collars (these were Generals). We also had to keep our boots polished, and our jungle fatigues pressed and cleaned. But, we got extra pay, combat pay, hazardous duty pay, whatever. And promotion came much faster in Vietnam. Those were some of the reasons for extending your tour of duty in Vietnam. I was a Spec-4, by then. I would eventually become a Sergeant. There was lots of pay for being a Sergeant. And I had no way to spend money, either, except on very inexpensive camera and stereo equipment from Japan.
I experience a very cold winter. We attached clear plastic to the walls, so the wind couldn't blow through the barracks. It rained every day, and the wind blew, and I had to wear a heavy jacket under my rain gear, and my ski gloves, every day.
We had a tiny library. I read all of the chess books, there were two or three. The librarian was in the Navy. He said that he had been attached to a Marine unit. He said that there were no libraries in the Marines, because Marines don't know how to read.
I began taking a correspondence course in programming COBOL. I wanted to get straight 100s on all of the assignments and tests. After a couple of 100s, I got a 98. So, I decided to get straight A's. Soon, I got a B, and dropped the course.
I became Crypto Clerk. I kept Secret Crypto code books and encrypting/decrypting equipment locked up. And, I distributed these to our sub-units which needed them for teletype communication. I sent the a month's worth of code books to them every month. And I replaced the code books, with other code books, if the old ones were suspected of being compromised (if somebody lost one). The Army code books were used to set up electronic encrypting/decrypting equipment, for scrambling teletype or voice. The navy ones were an actual code dictionary. There were lots of forms to fill out, for every secret document that I dealt with.
Once we went to Marble Mountain, a huge rock south a short distance from Danang. It was a Buddhist shrine, with many "Buddhas" (statues, not all of Buddha himself) carved from the rock. There were steps carved all the way up the mountain. There was one large naturally domed room, with a hole in the center of the "roof." There were plants, with flowers, growing on the outside. We climbed around the statues, and took pictures. There were several worshipers around. I wondered if they were silently upset with us. Anyway, it was a beautiful place.
After a year and a half in Vietnam (the end of my first extension), I again flew back to Kalispell and then back to Vietnam. At Ft. Lewis, Washington, a Sergeant decided to pick on me and make me work every minute that I was there. Because of a mixup in the duty roster, he thought I was a loafer. On the way back to Vietnam, our plane landed in Anchorage, Alaska during a big blizzard. They had shut down the airport, but let us land anyway. We apparently landed at an angle, as the plane pulled to one side, sending pillows and carry-on luggage flying, when our wheels touched down. Some people got instantly sick. The news on TV said that a couple of small planes, which were tied down, were destroyed by the wind. We stayed at a hotel in Anchorage for a couple of days, with nothing to do. Everyone was happy, because they would be spending less time in Vietnam, the longer the storm lasted. I had contracted to stay in Vietnam for an entire two years, in order to get out of the Army early. So, the longer the storm lasted, the longer I would spend in the Army. So, I was in a hurry to get to Vietnam. Besides, I was up for promotion to Sergeant. And I thought I might already be a Sergeant. And I wanted to find out about that. As it turned out, I had many more months to wait for my promotion.
We went swimming, and played football and frisbee, at a beach. We had a chicken and steak barbecue almost every month. One day I fell asleep on the beach, and couldn't sleep at all that night because of the sunburn. I spent the entire night in the shower, because of the itching. The next day, the doctor informed me that many years previously, a soldier could be court marshalled for getting sunburned.
One day the Sergeant, who was the only person who knew the combination to our huge safe, left Vietnam without telling us the combination. A Warrant Officer was sent over to crack our safe. He looked and talked like my uncle Kenneth (who talks something like Johnny Carson), and he smoked a pipe. His job, in the Army, was to crack safes. He listened to the clicking of the tumblers, as he turned the knob. And he opened the safe in about 5 minutes.
Once, my feet hurt so badly that I could hardly walk. The doctor looked at my feet and said that those were the flattest feet he had ever seen. He asked how did I ever get into the Army. I replied that they had noticed that my feet were flat, and had drafted me anyway.
I had an "opportunity" to be the General's door gunner, on his helicopter. They wanted somebody who knew how to set the Secret Crypto scrambling codes, and who could operate the radio. It sounded interesting. But, I didn't like being around a General. I figured that I would spend most of my time saluting officers and polishing the helicopter. Most Generals dream of commanding in battle. And they will take their helicopters into a fire fight with the hope of earning another medal. I knew that wasn't very smart.
One day a young man walked through our barracks with a large sack. He was stealing things. He was caught by one of our Sergeants, and a fight broke out, in my sleeping area. He hit me in the back of the head. The MPs took him away. Nobody ever looked in his bag. I testified at his court marshall. I found that the court does not like flippant humor. He was found not guilty, as there was no evidence that he had stolen anything. And arguably, the fight was not his fault.
I visited Monkey Mountain once. We had a unit up there, right next to highway 1. It looked scary. The jungle came right up to the fence. I could imagine being overrun and killed, at night. I didn't stay there overnight.
I was promoted to Sergeant. I remained Crypto Clerk. I just got more pay. And, I now had people working for me, instead of the other way around. It was much easier to do the work myself, instead of telling people what I wanted done. So, I wasn't much of a Sergeant. One of the guys that worked for me was resting on a cot, and a Vick's inhaler filled with heroin fell out of his pocket. I gave it back to him. One day I was walking down the street, and I saluted a Major, and said, "Afternoon sir." He said "How's it going, Sarge?" I knew I didn't want to be in the Army, then.
When I was getting out of the Army, I had a lot to do. I had to clean my rifle. I had to send my stereo stuff home to my parents. I had to pack. I had to fill out forms. I began to think that I would never make it. Eventually, I was driven to the Danang airport. There, F4 Phantoms were taking off all day and all night. They are very impressive at night, with the flame coming out of the tail being longer than the entire plane. I waited there for a night and a day. Then I got a flight to Cam Rahn Bay. There was an enemy rocket attack, while I was waiting, the first blatant sign of war that I had seen in almost a year. I could see huge blazing fires, in the distance. Then I got a flight back to Ft. Lewis Washington. There I again had a lot to do, fill out forms, take a drug test, trade my jungle clothing for a uniform. I didn't know if I would make it. Then I got a cab ride to Sea-Tac Airport. I flew to Spokane, and then to Kalispell. And I was done with the Army, forever (I was in Inactive Reserve, which meant no meetings, for two years).
See My Bronze Star.
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