Occasionally even after over 40 years now something triggers a memory of how my life became entwined in the war is southeast Asia, and how it changed me forever.
I guess it must be a similar story just like hundreds of thousands of very young naive boys of my generation,I was fresh out of high school and just beginning to spread my wings in life,starting a career on the railroad,trying to learn from a new flood of input just what my life’s direction might be,I was and had been flooded by conflict about my own gender,and not really even close to imagining how that would play out in my life.
Of course it was a time in our nations history when the young men who turned 18 years of age had to register for the draft,a selfish political invention of my generation that continuously fed young boys as cannon fodder to the war machine,back then we were heavily indoctrinated toward love of country and duty to it. This knowledge was ever present on the minds of the kids in my generation as we all knew there was a better chance than not that we would be drawn into this,I can remember some of my friends who were even looking forward to going to war as the violence and chance at killing other human beings seemed a thrill they couldn’t wait to experience,while I didn’t at all have this as a dream for my life I did feel a great sense of patriotism toward my country.And then too were the ones whose family urged them to quickly get into college in order to be deferred from the draft rolls,I guess I was too busy thinking about how my life would play out that I just didn’t give the whole thing a lot credence and just wasn’t worried about it too much.
Then came that day when I received that letter from my dear uncle Sam,I opened it knowing just what it was and this set into motion a new and very long set of events that would transform my life for decades to come. I told my mother and I think she began to tremble from that day until I did finally return to her alive,I always knew it must have taken years from her dear and wonderful life I guess that war did that to a lot of moms and dads. We discussed how best to deal with this circumstance and I took my mothers advice,quickly threw the draft notice in the trash and went to see the Navy recruiter the next day,I was a hostler on the Railroad at the time,and operated the locomotives that came in and out of the main rail terminal to get maintained in the locomotive shop,with this equipment operating skill as these locomotives weighed 272,000 pounds each and I sometimes operated them in multiples of two or three,the recruiter said I qualified to get into the Seabee’s on the direct procurement petty officer program,he said if I could pass the tests I would be sent to a school and get out of it as an E-4 which would give me a decent pay scale and I would likely not have to go to Vietnam,that turned out to be a big lie on his part in the end but the whole thing seemed more appealing than just being a ground pounder in the Army Or Marines so I signed up never realizing at the time I would end up attached to the Third Marine Division as a support group for my entire tour in Vietnam
Within a very few days hardly enough to get my civilian affairs in order I and my paper work were on a bus to Indianapolis were the main draft center in my state was was as I waited there on the benches to be processed out to my duty station I saw rows and rows of draftees come in and get their assignment to service,they were lined up in long rows and the military Sargent’s would walk down the rows point to each of them saying Army Marine Army Marine,I thought to myself that could have been me. Finally my paper work was processed and I was assigned to my duty station to join my battalion in Gulfport, Mississippi.I would receive my basic training and my advanced training with MCB-128,along with some side trips to Camp Lejeune in the the Carolina’s for hand to hand combat training with the Marine Corps,and a trip to Fort Polk Louisiana for jungle warfare training. Finally after a lot of schools and training I was ready to graduate be assigned my unit get 2 weeks leave and report back to be sent off to Vietnam and begin my tour of duty.I drove my car home and had my last visit with family and friends for a very long time to come,my stepfather God bless him drove me all night back to Mississippi,in the next few days we began being processed for our trip abroad we received what seemed like an endless number of vaccines and last minute instructions before we boarded an aircraft owned by the CIA (Flying Tiger Airlines) and just like that we were bound for Da Nang In Vietnam,a long long flight with stops in LA,Fairbanks AK,Yokosuka Japan,Subic bayPhilippines,and finally we were IN COUNTRY as they said in those days. I spent the night in Da Nang and was sent by C-130 cargo plane the the Air taxi of the Vietnam war a scary aircraft with an open fuselage where you could see the cables that operated the plane moving as you flew along we soon landed on a metal landing mat in Quang Tri which would be my rear base when I wasn’t out in the field,this was a heavily contested combat area along the countries main north south highway surrounded at most times by about 18,000 NVA,it was a compound with about 10,000 American troops from many battalions moving in and out,we deplaned and were loaded onto a cattle car behind a semi trailer and transported to our unit as we passed by the surgical hospital I could see through the cracks in the car dead bodies stacked in body bags in the hot sun like cord wood 283 of them,and I remember thinking oh my God what have I gotten into will this be my fate!
Within about an hour I stowed my gear in a hooch I was assigned to put on my helmet and flack jacket and was sent to the motor pool to go to work,when I arrived there the man said get take that White tractor and a lowboy trailer and go to the dock in Dong Ha and pick up a load of cement in bags.I replied I just got here Sir I don’t know where Dong Ha is,he said get on that road out there as he pointed and head that way you will find it,I hadn’t even been there long enough to get my rifle yet and I was going off the compound into the country unarmed,I was scared as hell just then but off I went,I did indeed find the dock and got my load and started back then is when things really got scary my White tractor was very old a rehabbed model from the second world war and lacked enough power to get the 22 tons of cement going at times more than 12 miles per hour as i was going down the road Vietnamese people were jumping a board the trailer opening the cement bags and stealing it in what ever containers they had available and still others jumped on the running board of the truck looking me right in the eye jabbering in their language and scaring the living hell out of me,I just kept the petal to the metal hoping I would hit a down hill stretch and get going fast enough to scare them off the truck,I managed to make it back with what was left of my load and cursed the man like hell for sending me out like that with no weapon or protection,He just laughed and off to my hooch I went, this was my first real day “IN COUNTRY”
See you again in part two.