I followed the buck sergeant down the dark muddy aisle of the Da Nang Hilton, tripping into back packs and other field equipment strewn all over. I’d tucked my flight bag under my bunk, for whatever security that might provide. My watch was my only valuable possession. At some point I knew, since I was a Marine, everything I needed for whatever reason would be assigned to me — if I could just get to the point of distribution where the stuff was issued. The buck sergeant was kind enough to stop, once he was across the plank spanning the benjo ditch, to direct his flashlight back so I could make the crossing in relative safety. Full dark had overcome us, although the light rain continued. The falling drops were more of a sticky mist than real rain and provided no relief at all. In spite of the unending moisture, the sergeant and I walked upon relatively hard ground toward wherever we were going in the dark. The sergeant’s flashlight bobbed up, down and all around, revealing nothing. It only took a few minutes for us to arrive at the side of a dimly lit concrete wall.
“Headquarters,” the buck sergeant said, turning out his flashlight. “Door’s on your right down the wall,” he pointed. “Just go in. The others are already there.”
I wanted to ask the buck sergeant who the others were but he was no longer there. He moved quieter than I thought possible for a Marine wearing field utilities and combat boots. There had been enough light at the wall to see that he had the new cloth-sided boots, the one’s I’d heard about in training with the special triangular metal strips running the length of their soles. Punji sticks were a common hazard, or so I’d heard — little pits with sharpened sticks covered in human excrement. Regular boots, especially those like mine that had been regular issue back in WWII, did nothing to stop them. I needed a pair of those boots, a set of jungle utilities and a gun. But most of all I needed an assignment.
I found the handle to the door and went through into a different world. I actually smiled as the door closed behind me. I felt that all my questions were about to be answered and my problems, solved. I was finally experiencing the real combat conditions that the Marine Corps was all about.
I stood at the end of a short hall in real air-conditioned air. I didn’t move, just took in the cold dry feeling. At the end of the hall I saw a water bubbler. I made for it. Hitting the handle, I stuck my face down and let ice cold water pour into my mouth and over my face. I drank until I thought I’d burst.
“Over here,” a voice said from behind me.
I let go of the life-giving bubbler and turned in the gently blowing cool air that seemed to emanate out through a set of wide open double doors. I could see Marines inside the room.
“Welcome to the Nam,” a Marine attendant by the door said.
I nodded. No ‘sir’ here either, but then I wore no rank because I hadn’t thought to dig my bars out of my bag in the dark muddy misery surrounding my bunk. I noted that the floor was made of rough dirty concrete, the only dirt visible in the place. A line of concrete extended through the doors leading to what resembled a cartoon illustration balloon on the floor inside the room. A vibrant blue, luscious and thick rug outlined the cartoon balloon area. Five men stood on the dirty concrete, none touching the clean rug. They stood side by side, not at a position of attention but not really at ease either. There was a space at the right end and I guessed it was for me. I walked to where I thought I was supposed to be.
In front of us a raised dais, covered by the same blue rug material, set at least three feet off the floor. A wooden desk rested imposingly atop the dais, with a lectern to its left. A uniformed colonel, wearing short-sleeve Class A attire, stood at the lectern with his hands gripping the top edges, a look of impatience on his face. The other man sat facing sideways behind the desk, his highly polished, black regulation shoes, crossed at the ankles. His ankles sat up on the edge of the same desk. He leaned deeply back into his swivel chair and worked at lighting a long cigar with a Zippo flip-top lighter.
“Glad to see you all could make it,” the Colonel said, displeasure evident in his tone and a quick glance toward where I stood. For whatever reason, I was late to an appointment I didn’t know I had.
“If I don’t miss my guess, you’re Strauss. You, person at the end,” the Colonel said, staring straight into my eyes. “You don’t seem to have a rank, little Strauss.”
I hadn’t been referred to as little anything since I’d been in high school. There, I’d been five-feet tall in my senior year, the smallest male in my graduating class. I’d grown nine inches as a freshman and sophomore in college. Now as tall as three of the other five men standing in the concrete balloon, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The public disparagement by the Colonel was just the last frosting on a brutally disgusting and bizarre day. I said nothing, however. I’d reply to a direct question but nothing more.
“Move on,” the big man at the desk with the lit cigar said. I presumed that he was our regimental commander and I was attending a welcoming briefing before receiving an assignment. The desk man blew smoke rings. Each ring was carefully generated thru his pursed lips, and then sent out over his crossed legs and past the tips of his spit polished shoes.
The Colonel went back to talking. He said we’d be given our assignments in the morning, go to supply for our stuff and then be transported out to our waiting units in a matter of days. He talked about military pay currency and why we would be issued some in lieu of U.S. money. I’d never heard of MPC but was surprised that the Marine Corps would give out cash of any kind. The Marine Corps prides itself on being one of the cheapest run outfits in the world. The Colonel launched into a speech which he titled the “Revolutionary Development Doctrine.” It was a ten minute talk about how the U.S. was winning the war by converting enemy soldiers to become allies by joining the South Vietnamese Army. Right after the speech he told us about Chu Hoi passes, which we should be aware of because they were free passes to safety being dropped behind enemy lines by air. Any enemy soldier could use one to cross over to the allied side at any time while out in the field. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard about any of what the Colonel said back in training. Nothing. It was like I was in a different world.
“Chu Hoi my ass,” the big man sitting at the desk intoned quietly, before blowing little circles of cigar smoke through the big rings he’d already generated..
The Colonel ignored him and finished his introduction. He concluded by telling us that the special photo contour-interval maps we would be getting would all have to be specially marked with magic markers. All north/south coordinate designations sent over the radio combat or artillery net would be referred to by the names of popular toothpastes. All east/west coordinates would be named after different kinds of chewing gum. This last part of the briefing stunned me. How could the enemy fail to quickly find out about such a ridiculously easy and stupid code, and then use it to our disadvantage?
“Questions,” the Colonel said, looking up from his notes for the first time since he’d met my eyes at the beginning. He slapped his file closed after only a few seconds, as if the meeting was over.
“That’s it, sir,” he said, turning to face the back of the man sitting at the desk.
“I have a question,” I said into the silence. The Lieutenant next to me elbowed me in warning but I ignored him.
“Oh really,” the Colonel replied, turning back to the lectern.
“When I was in Quantico they constantly beat into our heads that we were to take care of our men first,” I said. The big man slowly brought his feet down from the desk and turned to look at me. I saw the single star on each side of his collar.
I was talking to the division commander. “I arrive here to what?” I continued undaunted. “A muddy concrete walkway leading into a special place in your plush blue rug. An ice water bubbler in the hall. Air conditioning. Electric lighting, for Christ’s sake! What’s going on here? I’m living in that shithole over there with the rest of these guys. What happened to taking care of your men first?”
Nobody moved. I don’t think anyone breathed, least of all me. I could see the Colonel’s name tag. It read “Stewart.” The General’s read “Dwyer.”
It took half a minute for everyone to recover. The Colonel leaned down and whispered in the General’s ear. The General nodded, staring at me with a deadpan expression. The Colonel stood back up.
“The rest of you are dismissed. You can stay,” he said, pointing at my chest.
The other men got out of there so quickly it seemed like they simply disappeared. I stood in front of the two men, not knowing what to expect.
“You’re assigned tonight, right here and right now, so you’ll never spend another minute in that ‘shithole’ over there,” the Colonel said, with flecks of spit coming from the sides of his mouth. “You’re going to ‘Mike’ Company and you’re going tonight.”
“Get him the fuck out of the General’s sight,” the Colonel ordered, looking past me at the Staff Sergeant I’d seen when I entered the room. “Get him his field gear, and then get him aboard an airlift right now, General’s orders,” the Colonel concluded.
“Come on, sir,” the Staff Sergeant said, using the word sir to me for the first time since I’d been in country. The baleful look on his face scared me more than the instant assignment I’d just been handed. I expected to be assigned and go to the field and into combat, but there was likely to be more to it from looking at the Sergeant’s expression.
I followed the Staff Sergeant to a nearby tent at which point everything went like it was supposed to. I got a full pack with everything, a .45 Colt, rations and even an E-Tool. All by the table of organization book and all crisply delivered. The utilities were Korean War issue but I didn’t argue for the new stuff they were all wearing. The old-style combat boots would also have to do.
They wouldn’t let me even go back for my flight bag. They said they’d get it for me and hold it for my return, but I knew it was a write off. I got aboard the waiting Huey. I didn’t realize that helicopters flew at night in the war but, as with almost everything else about Vietnam, I was wrong. I rode in silence except for the ear splitting noise of the chopper’s blades and the awful high-pitched whine of it’s turbine. Nobody offered me ear muffs or plugs, and it was too loud to ask for anything. There were no doormen and no guns on the doors on the chopper. I was in a ‘slick,’ a helicopter used solely for transporting. The crew chief sat directly across from me, staring at nothing in the near darkness, like the zombies I’d never gotten to sleep with in the shithole.
They’d issued me a waterproof flashlight and there were maps in my pack, but it was too dark and windy to take them out and read them. My combat watch said it was just about midnight. How and where we would land I had no idea.