January 1, 1970When I joined the Army, in May 1962, a popular song on the radio was “Soldier Boy.” The Cold War with the Soviet Union and China seemed about to explode. World War II and the Korean War were still fresh in people’s minds. American troops were stationed in dozens of places around the world. Wherever that sweetheart soldier being serenaded was headed, he was being sent off with a light-hearted pledge of love and allegiance.
Oh, my little soldier boy…
Take my love with you
To any port or foreign shore”
Straight out of basic training and radio school—and just weeks after the military face-off in October with the Russians in the Cuban Missile Crisis—I was shipped to Southeast Asia. I went happily off to chase a distant, intriguing rumor of war, the holy grail of warriors, with the seductive strains of “Soldier Boy” dancing in my head. In short order, I was in an Army aviation unit that flew Special Forces teams to remote locations in jungle-covered mountains on reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines, and then got them out again. The only communications for these remote rendezvous was by radio. My job was to keep the radios working. I was 19 years old and turned 20 learning to do this job.
I was too young to realize the enormity of responsibility for other people’s lives casually handed to me by a slightly older soldier I was replacing, who was headed home now that his tour of duty was over. With no training in aviation radios (I was trained in infantry radios), I was abruptly in charge of what this man had been doing for a year. The fate of the Free World hung in the balance in Vietnam, our esteemed leaders in Washington said. At 19, it did not yet seem odd to me that the fate of the Free World was held in the hands of a thin olive-green line of youngsters who were not old enough to be trusted back home to buy an alcoholic drink or to vote. Yet, with minimal training and no experience, we were given the power of life and death in another part of the world. We could wield that power with guns and with boneheaded dumbness.
The absurdity of the situation was evident the first time I pulled night guard duty. I was sent to guard a fuel tank depot situated in a sandy wasteland near the tents of the 8th Field Hospital. I was instructed to keep my rifle unloaded, unless attacked. Then I was left alone for four dark hours. Less than 100 yards away was a perimeter fence for the airfield, beyond which was the elusive enemy we were there to fight.
How quickly could I whip a clip of bullets out of my pocket, ram it in my rifle, work the bolt lever to slam a bullet into the firing chamber, and shoot a stealthy Viet Cong who leaped at me out the dark? And there was another problem. If I paced back and forth, as we did when pulling guard duty stateside, I was silhouetted in the lights at the hospital complex, a sitting duck for a sniper.
That was just the beginning of the absurdity. We were instructed to not load our rifles while on guard duty in a war zone, I learned later, because the officers were afraid of soldiers shooting them. A story circulated among the enlisted men that a disgruntled GI pulling night guard duty had done just that—taking a pot shot at an officer he disliked.
The flip side of this bizarre situation is that GIs were given free reign to shoot anything that moved while flying over the countryside, large tracts of which were designated “free fire zones,” meaning we were free to open fire at anything we deemed suspicious. There were GI stories about that, too—elephants shot for sport, farmers shot in their fields (“If he ran, he was Viet Cong; if he didn’t run, he was a well-disciplined VC,” someone would laugh), villages bombed and napalmed.
The first combat story I heard, the first night I was in Vietnam, was recounted by two helicopter crewmen joking in the chow line about burning down a village somewhere outside Saigon. “Made some more Viet Cong today!” one proud and loud GI chortled to the other. That was just before Christmas 1962. Back home, no one knew their soldier boys were having such rambunctious fun out there on the Ramparts of the Free World.
So, as a young soldier not long out of high school, I was handed a lot of potentially lethal choices. Should I load my rifle while on night guard duty and shoot at a moving shadow—which might be a Viet Cong sneaking up or an officer checking the guard posts? Should I shoot that black-clad figure out there in a field and bag a suspected VC or a local farmer? Should I get drunk, as many GIs did, and then try to fake it through the next day and maybe make a mistake with some vital cog in the military machine, causing a snafu in which other soldiers died?
I took my cue from the big boys and dove headlong into drinking, flying and trying my greenhorn best to do my job without killing anybody.
Our role models were veterans of Korea and World War II, who treated a tour in Vietnam like a rolling fraternity party. By day, they flamboyantly flew outmoded helicopters and airplanes until they crashed, or directed long-range jungle patrols until they ran out of supplies or luck, and then expected the radios to work to call for a rescue mission. At night, they partied hearty and slept soundly, while a few of the least experienced troops guarded scattered bases deep in Viet Cong territory.
None of us had a clue that the other side was preparing a far more serious campaign, to fight for as long as it took to convince the Americans to pack up and go home. Instead, the war grew bigger, fiercer and more deadly. And America kept shipping over fresh waves of green recruits, heads full of the siren call of songs like “Soldier Boy.”