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VIETNAM: MY EXPERIENCE

Lee Bishop - Army

"Give me another one of those beers, Lee."

"Here ya go, Walt, but the party's almost over. There's less than a case left."

Walt grimaced and asked, "Wonder if this old guy knew he'd party more after he was buried than he ever did while he was alive?"

Walt Smith was blonde, medium height, blue-eyed and heavily muscled. A real American golden boy. How a corporal in the 101st Airborne's elite Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol and a Vietnamese linguist in America's elite Army Security Agency became close is something even we hadn't figured out. We just enjoyed each other's company.

As usual, we were partying with a dozen other guys in the sand around North Air Field a mile inland from Tuy Hoa and the coast of the South China Sea. Our favorite drinking spot was a solitary gravesite. Vietnamese graves are interesting in that a low masonry wall surrounds the individual burial plot. We would sit on the wall, legs straight out into the sand, and trade stories, some from the war, but most from civilian life. This grave was kind of a boundary at the foot of a sand hill. Patrol was at the top of the hill, and, since officially there were no Army Security Agency units in Vietnam, our “Radio Research Unit” sat at the bottom.

BANG!

More than one partier asked, "What the heck was that?"as we reached for our weapons.

"No problem," someone shouted, "Lt. Castleman just tripped over his own feet again. He was running with his .45 cocked because he heard us partying and thought Charlie had broken through the wire."

Walt said, "Hey man, let's go to my hooch. I've got almost half a bottle of vodka and some more beer up there."

And so we departed the august company of our fellow revelers to start a night destined to live in ASA and LRRP infamy.

We trudged on up the hill, entered Walt’s hooch, and started on the vodka. That stuff must have been watered down because it disappeared pretty quickly. Then we started on the few beers he had.

Very carefully Walt placed two beers on the table.

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” Walt replied in a tone that sounded like he meant exactly that. Walt was very serious about his drinking. He flipped the chair around and sat down John Wayne style. A three-day patrol had left him with sunken hollows beneath his eyes and a patchwork of insect bites on his neck and face. Sort of an old man’s face set on the compact and muscular body of a 19-year-old athlete.

Sweat rolled off his sun-reddened face as he threw his head back to drink. Most of the beer went pretty near his mouth. I laughed.

“So, all you do is sit in your hooch all day long and listen to your radio?”

I nodded. Walt laughed silently.

“Must be a real important part of the war effort.”

“It is, Walt. I report directly to Gen. Westmoreland. It’s not my fault the VC haven’t learned to use radios yet. Anyhow, tell me about the 14-year-old you captured. You guys raid the Ho Chi Minh nursery or what?”

As if he’d suddenly discovered a great truth, Walt said, “This place really sucks!”

Of course he was right. North Field was a hole. The GP Medium I was living in was always hot, smelling of stale sweat. I ran into some extraordinary officers in Vietnam, but the MI officers we reported to were proof positive that “Military Intelligence” was an oxymoron.

And after a year studying Vietnamese at Defense Language Institute, pretty much all I was picking up in my intercept work was static.

“Let’s go to Papa San’s,” Walt urged. It didn’t take much urging on his part. Beer LaRue, I think, was the official French name.

Now Papa San’s was outside the wire on the west side of North Field. Walt was pretty sure he knew where the machine gun positions were, so we headed to the perimeter. I could just barely see him ahead of me running easily in the dark, half crouched with his arms at his sides.

The ground rose up, and I fell. Walt stopped.

“Nice going,” he said sweetly.

“I don’t do much of this when I’m sitting in my hooch,” I spat back.

Walt laughed and helped me up. “You OK?”

“I’m pretty sure both my kneecaps are broken.”

Walt was deeply concerned. "Let’s go.”

We crawled into a drainage ditch and moved to within 50 meters of the first machine gun position. Walt said to wait, climbed out of the ditch and moved to the position. The ditch started spinning, and I closed my eyes.

Walt came back and said, “I know where we can get through the wire.”

“And we’re not going to get shot, right?”

“Probably not,” Walt said over his shoulder. I climbed out of the ditch and followed him. This was actually starting to feel like fun.

We crawled to three more foxholes to alert them that we were going through the fence to get a few brews.

Trip flares occasionally lighted up the sky, but that was typical so it was a pretty uneventful trip. We got a couple of what appeared to be quart bottles, found a comfortable place in the dunes, leaned back and enjoyed the first cold beer we had consumed in nearly an hour. Unfortunately those were our last cold brews for awhile because they were the last two that Papa San had.

Mission accomplished, we went back in the way we came out only to realize that our internal clocks were announcing that the party was just getting started. Walt asked, “Why don’t we go for a little Rest and Recreation downtown, Lee?”

“Right, Walt. Where do we go for our evening passes? I’m sure they’re going to let us bust curfew.”

“No, man. We don’t need any passes. We’ll go out the north side of the perimeter the same way we went to Papa San’s. Nobody’s going to do anything. All we have to do is dodge the MPs.”

“I don’t know, Walt. People with security clearances aren’t supposed to be as adventurous as you LRRPs."

“To hell with that! Put on your party face, buddy, because we’re going to get drunk and get happy all night long!”

There must have been some magic words in there because I shook my head and said, “Let’s do it to it, Walt.”

And we were off.

Again, Walt maneuvered us through the barbed wire and concertina as well as the machine gun positions so that we were able to exit the perimeter on the north side. Now we had to get across a blacktop road, through an area of tin hooches occupied by Vietnamese, and down a country lane about a mile to Tuy Hoa.

As we crossed the road we saw jeep headlights coming straight at us. “MPs!” I yelled, and Walt and I sped into the hooch area hoping to lose them. I got the bright idea of ducking into one of the hooches and was greeted by the timid stares of an entire Vietnamese family. Walt was right on my heels.

I quickly told the family that we were being chased by the military police and asked if they would help us. They got big smiles and told us to stay as long as we wanted … which wasn’t very long because we were definitely wrapped up in the idea of more beer and meeting some ladies.

When the coast looked clear, we were off. The moon was bright and full so we could see pretty well as we walked down the dirt lane that led to Tuy Hoa and the objects of our affections.

The lane into Tuy Hoa was dusty and rutted from the daily traffic of trucks and jeeps. On either side of the road the jungle edged in with tree branches bending far out over the side ditches filled with stubby cactus. In the daylight, from a distance, the jungle could be beautiful in endlessly intricate patterns of differing shades of green. Up close at night it was simply black.

Tuy Hoa was off limits at night so Walt and I pretty much had the road to ourselves. Still, we stayed close to the edge remembering the sniper fire we’d experienced on other trips. There was a jungle trail that paralleled the road that was known to have considerable Viet Cong traffic.

I pointed it out to Walt.

“Every jungle trail in the whole damned country has considerable traffic,” he whispered back.

We came into town on the far west side. The lane we were on was bordered on the left by the backs of various shops and on the right by about a six-foot drop-off into what looked like sand and vegetation.

We heard a jeep coming up behind us.

“MPs!” Walt croaked in a whispered shout as he shoved me over the embankment and jumped himself.

“We’re in a patch of cacti," I said. "This is killing me!” And then I started laughing.

“Be quiet, you dummy! We’re going to get caught if you don’t shut up. Don’t move and don’t say anything until the MPs are gone.”

So we laid there, choking off our laughter, convulsing in silence and wanting to scream, not breathing another word as the MPs’ open jeep slowly drove by.

We struggled up the shifting sand of the embankment, wanting nothing more for the moment than to stop the pain. We pulled spines out of each other’s backs and butts for several minutes, and then it was off to partake of the pleasures of the flesh.

Suddenly we didn’t care about the cacti, the snipers or the MPs. We started laughing and talking out loud. This was our own private little battle, and no one else was invited.

Except the women, Walt solemnly reminded me.

As we headed east down the road we fell in behind a Vietnamese girl. As we got closer, it turned out to be a friend of mine named Huong. Huong was respected because she dated an ARVN assigned to work with us. Beh was a good guy, and he and the other ARVN support person, Vi, helped us through a lot of tight spots. However, while we were in the field at Phuc My, Beh told us that he was no longer dating Huong because she had been dating GIs.

Anyhow, I had no more than said hello to Huong than Walt yelled: “MPs, run man!” And we took off through the alleys. But they were really on us this time, so we split up. I dodged into a couple of different stores with the same story I had used in Tin Town and got the same supportive reaction. After losing sight of the MPs, I circled back. No Walt, but Huong was still in the vicinity.

I told her what was going on so she took me to her grandparents’ home, telling me that the MP’s would be doing a house-to-house search for us. Her grandparents hid me under their bed until the search was over. I thanked everyone and meandered through town looking for Walt and downing a few Cognacs and Coca-Colas.

I couldn’t find Walt, but I was feeling no pain. I was, however, cognizant enough to know that I’d better get my tail back inside North Field before dawn, or I’d be living with some consequences that I did not want. Or the VC would nail me, and I wouldn’t be living at all. So I started wandering back up the country lane toward Tin Town at a less than a steady pace.

Not far into my new quest, three schoolboys surrounded me and started yelling, “You teach me English! You teach me English!”

I said, “I can’t boys. I’ve got to get back inside the compound, or I’m in big trouble.”

They offered me a deal. “You come my house, teach English one hour, and we get you back inside. No problem.”

At this point I’m thinking, “Nothing from nothing leaves nothing, so what the hell.”

“OK, boys! I’m your man!” And off we went to their house.

After meeting their mom, dad, an aunt, and grandpa and grandma, I sat down with a book the boys provided and gave them what I suspect was the worst English lesson of their lives.

But, true to their word, they escorted me back to the east side of North Field. By this point, the rains had started, it was kind of foggy, and, with the moon behind the clouds, it was very dark.

I was facing an eight-foot high tornado fence, reinforced with a pyramid of concertina -- big, round roles of razor wire set in a row three deep, topped by a row two deep, topped by a single row. I figured things weren’t looking too good. At the same time, I couldn’t see much more than 10 yards in front of me and knew the guards couldn’t see any better.

One of the boys whispered, “You come here, GI. Here is a hole. You crawl through.”

And in my stupor I’m thinking, “Jeez, I’m not even old enough to legally drink hard liquor yet, and here I’m probably going to die because of it!” But there were no viable alternatives. In I went, it was an easy crawl, and I was snug in my sleeping bag within 10 minutes, never having received a single challenge.

With even the kids knowing how to get into a supposedly secure position, I did have some questions about how protected we were. Of course, that was a question that I had to keep to myself, since I would have been forced to give the whole story and that would have gotten me court-martialed.

Walt found me the next day and asked how I’d fared. I gave him a general rundown and asked, “Where did you go?”

“Oh, man, I thought I slipped them when I ducked up an alley. Except it dead-ended against a wall. The MP Jeep pulls up to block the only way out, and an MP captain got out with his .45 drawn and shouted, “Come out of there soldier! Right now!”

“I figured he knew what he was doing, so I walked out, cold-cocked him and took off running like the devil. I found an all-night pleasure house. Man, you should have stayed with me. I had a hell of a good time, Lee!”

So now you see how a little rest and recreation became a lot of escape and evasion.

Several months later, after some training in Phu Bai on the DMZ I heard that Walt bought it in a firefight. Losing friends was always difficult. I’m glad we had our adventure together.



 


 



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