Boots: An Unvarnished Memoir of Vietnam
I was at 35,000 feet. War was looming on my mind. Knowing someone on the same flight had not been foremost in my thoughts. Seeing that it was Lieutenant Ed Mello was not a bonus. Mello, a former classmate in the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, was a likeable, fast-talking, street-smart kind of guy from Boston. He always flashed a big, white-toothed smile while talking some kind of shit. It had been a mistake to rent him my car.
A few weeks before our graduation, I had bought a new car, a 1967 Chevy Camaro, but kept my old 62 VW Beetle rather than trade it in. It sat unused in a parking lot near our barrack and when Mello found out, he asked if he could rent it.
He had met a woman in town and wanted a quick way to get back and forth from base during our sparse free time. Her husband was in Vietnam. I didn’t share his idea of good fortune in finding a woman, but as a favor to him, I agreed to whatever he offered to pay. It wasn’t much, but when it came time to pay, it was always ‘I’ll pay you later’. We lived by an honor code, but it only went so far with him. He never paid. I never forgot the lesson learned. It was nothing like the many lessons I would learn in the year to come.
My orders arrived in October, 1967. I was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, known as the Big Red One; the shoulder patch was an olive green background with a large, embroidered red one in the center.
In February1968, Mello and I jumped off a truck at the 90th Replacement Company at Long Binh, Vietnam where we waited to be picked up by another truck that would take us to our base camp. There I was, in a real war zone for less than an hour, already checked in at our transit headquarters, when Mello says, "Hey Park, I’m going to shoot some pool. Come get me when we’re ready to leave." He was off to find a pool table. I didn’t bother to respond. It was inconceivable that anybody’s first priority in a war zone could be to play pool.
There were about a half-dozen of us going to the First Division. A clerk wielding a clipboard with the manifest list announced, "Transportation will be here soon, so don’t wander off."
There was no sign of a war going on during my first hour on the ground. The 90th was a gathering place of incoming and outgoing personnel jumbled together, yet easily recognized as two distinct groups: The outbound, mostly tanned and looking relaxed; the inbound showing the February paleness of the stateside winter. It was a place without real activities, soldiers in limbo, going one direction or the other, names on lists waiting to be called. Purgatory for some, it was a perfect time and place to move around, ask questions, glean any useful information. The ultimate goal was learned quickly: be back here in twelve months as a member of the outbound group.
As told, the truck was there within the hour, and every man was onboard except Mello.
The driver yelled, "Truck to the 1st Division is leaving!" His words relayed through the company area.
Mello came running, breathless and climbed on, "Why didn’t you come and get me?" He was indignant.
"I didn’t know where you were," I told him. True, I didn’t know, but it didn’t matter. I owed him no favors and would have left his ass there to catch the next truck.
As the truck rolled toward our base camp in DiAn, Mello resumed his usual style of constant chatter. He had already planned his return to the states, a long year away.
"You know what I’m going do when I get back to the states? After I land in San Francisco, I’m going to Seattle, buy an Austin Healey and drive back to Boston. I’m going to drive back home, cross-country."
It was a good enough idea, something that could be done by a single man, which he was. I thought, ‘Personally, I wouldn’t be able to get across country quick enough.’ A year was a long, long way off.
We were assigned to the same battalion but different companies. Once dropped off in my new company area, I never saw him again; he didn’t return to the 90th Replacement Company or drive cross-country in an Austin Healey. Lieutenant Mello was killed in action less than three months later. I was sorry to get word when it came through the grapevine. War never cared about the future.
War was a disappointment. It was that simple. I sat around battalion headquarters two or three days, read our operations manual and listened to random radio chatter that meant nothing to me. I made friends with clerks and talked in my sleep, evidence offered by the battalion doctor who repeated my nocturnal rambling. I slept on a ceramic tile floor in a small room along with another eight or ten men.
The morning dawned for me to meet my platoon. I grabbed my gear, ready to venture into the boonies. It turned out that the platoon was only a two- or three-mile jeep ride away, another disappointment. Delta Company was set up at a new, modern water filtration plant on the edge of Thu Duc, a large town a few miles northeast of Saigon.
The plant was as contemporary as any stateside installation. Inside were showers and toilets, and in my impatience for war, I would fail to appreciate those luxuries. I recently left those small things taken for granted, but I wouldn’t see such comforts again until R&R six months later. My indoctrination was too safe; I was anxious to see the war, to live the stories I had listened to since my induction.
My arrival was not the only thing happening in the company at that point. The place seemed to be turning upside down. I was introduced to Lieutenant Mel Brav, third rifle platoon leader; it was called November platoon. Instead of numbers, all platoons used phonetic alphabet names: Lima and Mike were the first and second rifle platoons and Oscar, the fourth, was the weapons platoon - three 81mm mortars. I was Lieutenant Brav’s replacement.
"Grab your gear and come on," he said. It was my first full official act in war as far as I was concerned. "I’ll take you to your bunker."
Even the thought ‘I have my own bunker?’ was exciting at the moment. I tried to not look too wild-eyed.
Lieutenant Brav’s time was up to rotate out of the field to become the new company Executive Officer (XO), a base camp job assignment. He was big and burly, black hair, heavy black-rimmed glasses, and wore what I thought was a permanent scowl on his face. Periods of humor were short, as his own life there was in turbulence, between my arrival and the captain leaving. In his defense, I soon realized a full-time scowl wasn’t an unusual facial expression for anyone in the field.
There was no need for more than a quick introduction to Captain Carden, the company CO. He was also packed up, leaving the field for a new assignment. It was a busy day. As soon as he left, Lieutenant Brav would be acting CO until a new one arrived. I didn’t know that at the moment, but it could have explained Brav’s mood.
Out front of the water plant, a new four-lane highway passed connecting Saigon to the right, Bien Hoa to the left. Heavy traffic on the highway was another bit of unpleasantness as far as I was concerned.
Providing protection for the water plant from saboteur’s attacks was a critical assignment. It had been attacked during the Tet Offensive a few weeks earlier. My new company had been dispatched to Saigon during the major Tet battles in Saigon, and the men were content with the security assignment. For them, it meant short daily patrols, sitting around in the heat and dust, playing cards under makeshift shade.
Captain Shaw, my new company commander, rolled in two or three days after me. I hadn’t anticipated an inexperienced CO, one less experienced than myself. He smiled all the time and looked like a rosy-cheeked mama’s boy who didn’t get much sun; I chalked it up to fair skin. He was knock-kneed – impossible not to notice – and gave the impression he needed corrective boots even when he stood still. His entire look appeared effeminate; odd for a grunt, I reckoned. I imagined he would be uncomfortable beating the bush walking like that. There was nothing about him that said he belonged in the field.
He reminded me of an unpleasantness I had in completing the Jungle Operation School in the Panama Canal Zone two weeks before I left for Vietnam. We were broken down into four-man teams for an Escape and Evasion exercise; our team leader was a Captain who sat behind a desk in Germany the three previous years. Unable to read and understand a map, he insisted we could walk around a swamp. It was an impossibly foolish idea. We wasted so much needed time that we got caught in dangerous rock-ledge mountainous areas with sheer drop-offs, late in the night. Fifteen hours later, we were the last team to finish the course.
There was nothing about my new CO that instilled confidence in me.
The initial two weeks in county felt like a period of acclimation with a distinct lack of danger. We patrolled the minimally populated landscapes around the outer edges of town and once or twice, parts of the town itself. I generally amused myself by observing aspects of the new culture where I found myself.
On patrols through town, it was impossible to follow the straight-line compass directions we were given; we were passing through an abstract maze of city streets and alleys. We zigzagged our way.
On one of the more memorable days, we walked down an unusually narrow alley edged by a row of crudely constructed buildings. A lone teenage boy stood ahead of us, carrying a large, bulky box fastened on each side by a strap worn around his neck. Instant alert; I knew the stories about kids carrying booby-traps to detonate in groups soldiers. Our approach from behind slowed to a stop.
I walked up to him to check the box, giving it a good once over, looking for trip switches or wires. He opened the top. The box was insulated and partially filled with frozen treats on sticks. The kid was their version of the neighborhood popsicle man.
One tiny kid suddenly sprang out from behind a loose board in the side of a building. Without a word of common language, he managed to get a free treat with my compliments. The vendor was happy to take our military currency script, not a problem to use on the Black Market - money was money. That single purchase sent out a signal. In a matter of seconds, we were swarmed by a half-dozen chattering kids jumping around. Donations were taken from the platoon until each one had received something to eat before they ran away. I wondered if any of them would remember the event when they were old men - the day that American soldiers bought them treats. It was a good day of war.