Friday, February 15, 2008

Snapshot from 40 Years Ago

Forty years ago, in February I was a young one (19) on my first tour at a small base in Phu Bai provence. I was getting ready to go on my first LRRP (lurp). I had done my homework to get the older salts in a place where they trusted my skills to the point of being included on a job like that. My woodcraft, learned growing up on the rez, was a point of great admiration for them. I was a tracker of what they considered to be almost supernatural skills, to my thinking, and my experience, I was below average. My shooting was also something they thought was beyond training. I did have a natural talent for it, and, I had grown up where skill with a rifle was often the difference between eating and going hungry. More than that though, I was, and still am a listener, a reader, and a learner. I knew that the guys who had been there, out in the boonies for a tour or more were the guys that I needed to watch and learn from. They had the skills that would keep me alive.

I was only two weeks out of being a cherry. In my unit, until you had been wounded to a point of requiring evacuation, and then returned, or, until you have a proven kill, your name was Cherry. I made my kill while on a routine patrol. Being the junior guy, and the cherry, I was sent to a spring to fill canteens. While there, a Viet Cong cherry had been sent to the same task. I shot first. I shot straight. I shot, and I immediately went to ground. I found some dense cover and made myself scarce. I knew that there were bound to be others in the black PJs who, hearing the crack of an M16 would be coming to investigate. I had no idea what direction they would be coming from, I also knew that my guys would be right in the mix soon too. That move of mine, that I had the presence of mind to get myself out of any sight lines, impressed the grizzly old Master Chief. He was the one who tapped me out for the LRRP to come. We were going to be moving out in two days. I was already packed, had run my kit past a couple of the older members of the team to make sure that I was bringing enough of the things I would need, and leaving behind anything that would be dead weight. Fully assembled my ruck displaced about 85 pounds. Most of it ammunition.

With my gear rucked up tight and nothing really to do, I was hanging out in the doper's hootch. There were a couple of "recreation" hootches and the choices were pretty cut and dried. The doper's hootch was integrated and they played a lot of Motown. The lifer's hootch was lily white (even the African American who hung with the lifers was from Oklahoma City and talked whiter than me) and they played a lot of Merle Haggard. I was sucking down some warm ass beer, and blowing some killer thai one of our guys had scored from the locals. I remember vividly that Sam the Sham and the Pharohs were singing "Wooly Bully."

Out of nowhere, the world suddenly changed. Sirens and explosions began to sound right about the same time. Then, the loudspeakers for the base began to blare with a young voice that had dropped all pretense of decorum or military discipline screaming into the microphone: "Gooks in the wire. Gooks in the wire. Everybody to the line. Gooks are everywhere in the wire."

I grabbed my rifle, my web belt and a couple cans of ammo and ran to the nearest sand bagged rifle pit. There was incredible sounds. Shots and explosions, screams, and random flashes. I was in the act of swapping out the magazine on my rifle when I realized that I still had half a joint dangling from my lips. Since I smoked Camels I didn't think that anybody would really notice anything. The excitement, the fear, and my reaction to it all had pretty much burned off any stone I had working. Thing was, I couldn't quit singing "Wooly Bully."

The rifle pit I had jumped into began to fill up with a mixture of Marines, whose base it was, and a couple of guys from my team. I kept singing. I had my rifle on single fire. It was a convention of the team. Often we would be working and moving completely out of sight of each other. If we heard automatic fire that wasn't an M60, an easily identified report signature, we knew it wasn't us. We rarely used our 16s on "rock and roll." I noticed that I was firing in rhythm with my singing. It struck me as pretty funny.

Some of the jarheads were starting to look at me a little strange. They had spent most of the last several days complaining loudly about the "squids" who had invaded their little base. They thought we were arrogant and spoiled brats who strutted around in our tiger cammies and thought that we were in this war alone, and that it had been all started for our amusement. They thought that seeing somebody singing "Wooly Bully" and firing his weapon in rhthym to the song was pretty strange. I figured I'd give them something to really chew on.

I flipped my selector to "Full Auto." I kept singing, but much more loudly now. I reached the part of the song, right before the guitar solo where the singer shouts "Now Watch Him, Now Watch Him Now, Here It Comes!" I stood and emptied an entire magazine out into the perimeter. Then I dropped into a sitting position howling with laughter. The jarheads were saucer eyed and speechless. The two guys from my team who were there started to sing "Wooly Buuuuulllllly! Wooly Bully. dum da dudda dum da dut dut da da dumpa dum"

After about half an hour the assault was broken off. The closest they had come to our lines was about 150 yards. Quickly after they broke contact the mortars and rockets started to slam into us. Master Chief Norr came around to check on who was where and was making deployments. The first thing he said was "You kids need to quit smoking that shit, it makes you stupid." Then he looked at me and said "I want you on the CP hootch with the .308. Take Barney with you on the big eyes (high power binoculars). When they come again, it will be right behind a break in the shelling, we're going to pop some star shells (illumination rounds) and I want you with the rifle and Barney spotting, you see anybody looks like a sergeant, or an officer drop them fast. If they look like a leader, take his fucking head off. Got that Tonto?" I said "You betchum Red Ryder."

The siege lasted a little over a day and a half. We finally were able to be resupplied and covered from the air.

Tet, had begun.



Blogger somewaterytart said...

Nothing to do with this post (which admittedly I did not read) but I am thinking of truffles at this moment. I am drunk and thinking of truffles. Just FYI.

12:39 AM  
Blogger Sherry Pasquarello said...

thank you for this. i have friends that speak among themselves but rarely to others that were not there.
they do tell me some things and are surprised after they do, i guess, not sure. i tell them that(truthfully)people, even strangers, have always told me things even when i was a kid, and then were surprised, but always felt better when they did.
vietnam vets tho, you guys are pretty closed to most. the WWII vets tho, they tell the most. i think they need to tell people before they go.
anywi ramble, but i want to thank you again. it gives me a feel that i need.

7:52 AM  
Blogger Maheanuu Tane said...

Ah Tet.... I remember it well. I was riding on a beat up YFU taking shit up to Hue in support of the Marines and having to shoot our way up and then back down to Danang..

I was a lifer, a Chief at the time and had been introduced to he miracles of Mary Jane a few years earlier.. At the time it was not being tested for, and no one said anything if you were using it off duty and didn't bring it on base/site..

That time was the coldest, wettest, most miserable time in my life..

Thanx for the memories..

9:08 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Amazing--I can picture this is slo-mo, or speeded up, I'm not sure which. It is your own movie. Thank you for sharing with us. I am eager to read more. I hope you will share how you moved through the hell of Tet, and what followed on...

12:49 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This particularly touching for me because I just spent an hour working(massgage) on a young man who arrived home from a 15 month tour (his 2nd) in Bagdad last night. I told him that my generation had hoped that we had put an end to this kind of stuff with Nam but I guess all we got rid of was the draft. He said that at least that was good, in a way. Of course, we watched a lot of what you just described in our living rooms in full color. I know that no one who was not actually there has a good handle on it but the evening news had the war in our living rooms so at least we had a idea of the suffering that was happening. Not like it is now when everything we see has been censored. We got enough that young guys and their families knew that it could be them in that bag in a year or two and raised enough rukus here to make the government listen. Of course nothing happened to get us out of that one until after there had been death at Kent State.

1:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I missed Tet by 7 months but thanks for jarring the gray matter. I can almost still smell that place.

12:37 AM  
Blogger Rez Dog said...

I missed Tet by three years. By then Nixon was pulling out US troops to make it look like a Vietnamese war. Of course it wasn't and we still lost about 200 dead a month--way down from the peak casualties but real enough if it was you or your buddy.

The weed WAS good, though, and my platoon had a fine party hooch at each of our firebases with only the occasional incoming. That was the same year Nixon declared the first war on drugs but they only tested for heroin. If they'd nailed all the potheads, the war would have ended immediately.

Glad you made it back. Keep on singing.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Deborah Newell said...

Superb storytelling, as always.

Would that all war stories were just that: stories. As opposed to the telling of truth.

Not, you understand, that I don't want truth, or that I think we don't need truth--I do, and we do.

It's just that I wish with all my heart that the violent tales of man wounding and killing man on behalf of his government could be relegated to a distant past--that our species would evolve a bit and turn its collective sights to what we can build rather than what we can destroy.

The telling of truths like yours is so important. Realizing the message within this truth, learning its lesson--those things would seem to be, eternally, far beyond the reach of most of us lowly humans, huh.

2:14 PM  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...

There is a military lesson here. A cherry boy can be sent for water, but he should've had a "slack man" to cover him while filling the canteens.

All water obstacles are danger areas and the old-timers were complacent to send only one man. And a cherry, to boot.

(Of course, this is no longer a military concern since the troops have bottled water provided by contractors.)

10:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Was Barney, Bruce Barney...he did 6yrs there as a Lurp, He doesn't have much time left...Agent Orange.

11:42 PM  

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