Chapter 5: Arrival in-Country; Hello Dali
An Excerpt from Waiting for Westmoreland
This extended excerpt from John Maberry’s memoir provides text not seen on the internet before now. Why? Eagle Peak Press will reduce the price of both paper and eBook editions this spring. Also coming for the first time—a Kindle edition. If you have visited the Waiting for Westmoreland site or read the book, you may have seen the first two paragraphs below. Look for updates on availability here and other sites. If you haven’t read it yet, don’t buy it now–wait for the spring price cuts.
On the ground at last, after the long flight from Guam, the plane taxied past sandbag-clad heavy steel revetments surrounding bombers and fighters on three sides. As we rolled to a stop, the flight attendant popped the door, allowing the cool cabin air to escape. Tropical heat—asphalt-softening, frying eggs on a sidewalk heat—washed in like a sunny surf, carrying unfamiliar smells. It was Saigon in late September 1967. A throng of cheering khaki-clad soldiers in loose formation waved and beckoned to us from the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut. They laughed and shouted as kids on a playground, all the while looking about as secret service agents do during a presidential walk on a crowded street. A year later, I would better understand their uneasy excitement. Barring a last-minute attack, they had survived their year in Vietnam. They would fly back to “the world” in the plane we exited.
Wasting no time assembling here, we went straight from the ramp onto a prison bus. At least it looked like one. The kind of bus that hauls convict work gangs around some places in America, guarded by shotgun-shouldered Bubbas in Smokey hats. Only we weren’t the criminals. The bars and mesh covering the windows were there to protect us. How odd, I thought, we were here to protect the Vietnamese but we must be protected from them. Yet, on the busy streets we traveled, other military personnel walked freely about or rode in jeeps while Vietnamese civilians sped about on mopeds and bicycles. Other locals fearlessly shopped at the colorful stalls crowding sidewalks along the narrow streets. It was the first of many incongruities, in a year filled with them.
Wealth and poverty, filth and beauty fought for my attention along the 16-mile route to Long Binh for in-country processing. Shacks of wooden ammo crates topped by rusty tin roofs stood next to trash-strewn alleys plied by scavenging birds and occasional cats. Nearby, women emerged from stone buildings of faded grandeur, wearing brightly hued pastel ao dais, snug from neck to waist but billowing in the breeze over their black silk pants. People of all ages carried huge loads on bent backs—bags from the market, bundles of straw or wood. Nearing a river away from the city, workers with conical straw hats strapped under their chins and pants rolled to their knees waded in muddy rice paddies. Further on, we passed the lush green of a rubber plantation, its opulent mansion only slightly tarnished by this or previous wars.
I don’t remember at all, the afternoon arrival at Long Binh. So much of military existence is filled with an unremitting and unremarkable sameness. Hurry up and wait. “Assemble in a column of twos. Close it up ‘til your buddy smiles!” I do remember that first night in-country bunked under the cover of a circus-sized tent. Intermittently throughout the night, bright flares fell from the sky on parachutes, illuminating the nearby countryside as they swung to and fro. Muffled sounds of rifle fire, far away artillery and other ordnance unfamiliar to my ears rumbled through my head. Adrenaline-fueled wariness overcame weariness, shorting my sleep. Later, I would learn there was no fighting nearby and the flares were just routine. On the first night, however, fear filled me with dread.
It could have been worse, I suppose. I was not among those selected for KP, awakened at 4 a.m. to set up the trays, utensils, garbage cans and washing barrels. Nor was I among the still more unlucky ones selected for shit-burning detail. For toilet facilities in non-permanent bases like these, three or four-seater wooden outhouses were built. Under the holes were the bottom third of 55-gallon drums, cut off and half-filled with diesel fuel. When 2/3 full, the drums were removed through a door at the back of the outhouse and the material burned. It is hard to say which smelled worse—the unburned fecal-fuel blend or the thick black smoke of the burning mix.
Fortunately, for all us new arrivals, the mess hall was upwind from the stench. I had a couple hours’ wait after an unappetizing breakfast, before getting a ride to my unit, the 7th Battalion, 9th Artillery, 54th Artillery Group. The E-5 sergeant in charge of the radio repair shack met me in Long Binh. From there, another private, like me, drove us to Bearcat, a base camp our battalion shared with the much larger 9th Infantry Division. Upon our arrival, much to my surprise, I immediately spotted Sam Jackson, my former radio school classmate and fellow Ft. Meade parade participant. I knew that he too was heading to Vietnam when he left Ft. Meade, but I hadn’t expected to see him again here. Jackson’s orders had come two days before mine and he had arrived in the unit two days ahead of me. He knew I was coming from his first day there. From that knowledge, despite the friendship I thought we had, my problems in Vietnam began. The E-5 introduced me to Master Sergeant Seagram, Chief of the Communication Section. Seagram greeted me with what I would soon recognize as his trademark, bushy-mustachioed grin.
“Jackson here says you were one of the best students in radio mechanic school.”
“Well, I did OK,” I said, unprepared to provide a more sensible answer. As it turned out, no answer would likely have sufficed to avoid the fallout from this.
“No Sarge, he was really tops,” Jackson helpfully added, in a respectful tone very different from the one I was accustomed to hearing from him when addressing white NCOs. Whether sincere or calculated as a setup, I soon learned it would be difficult to live up to Jackson’s buildup.
Since we had no radios to work on at Ft. Meade, I hadn’t seen the inside of one in six months. Not only that, but the radios here were newer models on which we had received very little repair training. Seagram had a good laugh at my expense, asking me to look over one of the radios before letting me out of his sight. I didn’t have a clue about the radio. I doubt that Jackson did either, but he had one big advantage over me, he had arrived two days before I did. As I learned more than ten years later from my study of Buddhism, there is no such thing as chance or coincidence when it comes to the timing of human events. When I arrived in Bearcat, I knew none of this. I had no clear idea then what the significance was of the sequence of events or my first exchange with Sgt. Seagram, but I had a bad feeling about it nonetheless. I didn’t have time for idle speculation then, so I pushed the feeling out of my mind. I needed to find my bunk and unpack my stuff. I needed to find out about Bearcat, the place I would be spending the next year of life.
Someone told me that Bearcat was about 22 miles due east of Saigon, five miles from the village of Long Thanh. Over the course of the year, the assurance that this was a relatively safe location to be in Vietnam, turned out to be true. Because of its location on the eastern side of the country, north of the Mekong Delta, Bearcat was free from heavy Viet Cong activity, supply or transportation routes. Still, no place in a country at war could be completely safe. That is why a few feet out from the walls of our hooches lay a stack of sandbags, offering some protection from mortar or rocket attacks and a convenient place for hiding a dope stash, I would later learn.
Having been in the army for a year already, I was used to sleeping in barracks. In lieu of barracks, troops at Bearcat (and at similar base camps) slept in “hooches.” They were wood frame buildings walled by screens. They were a step up from the large tents some units had and definitely better than a foxhole in the field. For the first four feet up from the ground, wooden slats sloped down at a 45-degree angle, covering the screen much like permanently open jalousie windows. More secure bunkers were available should we ever be under serious attack. My bed for most of the next 12 months would be an olive-drab canvas-covered cot, topped by an air mattress. Like a mini four-poster bed in jungle chic, a framework of dowels held up mosquito netting surrounding the cot. Soon after arriving, I sent Gloria a letter, covering only the bare details of my Bearcat existence, that I slept indoors and wasn’t out in combat.
When I arrived, the hooches were still relatively new. Without electricity, flashlights provided the only light at night. A couple weeks later, our platoon sergeant led a “midnight requisition” on a supply depot a couple miles away. We liberated enough solid core copper wire to brighten our nights. We powered up the hooches per the staff sergeant’s directions by running the wire between simple porcelain sockets nailed to the trusses under the tin roofs, and on out to a utility pole connected to a nearby generator.
Once the lights were available, evenings became a strange odyssey. For some it was rereading letters from their wife, girl friend or mother back home and then crafting a message to send back—thanking them for “CARE packages” of cookies or other edibles and asking for more. For others, it was listening to tapes from home and recording their own to send back. Playing cards, usually Hearts or Spades, sometimes Gin, but rarely Poker, took care of most evenings for myself and three or four other guys.
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Only a Salvador Dali painting could do justice to life at Bearcat. It was that surreal. Eating, sleeping, showering were all so different even from the austerities of military bases in America. Jungle foliage surrounded the hard-packed mud/dirt of the base camp, kept at bay only by tractor blades and defoliant. Much more peculiar was the human environment. These were people whose language and culture I did not understand—not the Vietnamese as much as my fellow soldiers. We were in a hostile, very foreign place, most of us for the first time in our young lives. Partially freed from the constraints of military discipline applicable on American soil and with drugs and alcohol readily available to assist, suppressed quirks and previously hidden subcultures came out in the open. Vietnam was a crucible, heating and compressing psyches. Necks got redder. Drawls got longer/slower. Moonshine making/drinking possum hunter/eaters were a puzzle to Down East lobstermen or Windy City slickers, and vice versa. Open discussions were mumbled in my midst about Toms, Jemimas and Oreos. My friend Jackson’s name never came up among the accused, despite his transformation.
Since I had seen him at Ft. Meade, barely a month before, Jackson had shed the guise of Huey Newton. Now he played the role of Rochester, Jack Benny’s man. Instead of the “Yass, boss,” that Rochester always said to Benny, it was “Yass, sergeant” from Jackson. It was accompanied with a happy hop-to-it attitude, instead of the sneer common to earlier times. What the hell had happened to Jackson? Later on, I would see the wisdom of his change in behavior. This was a cloak of compliance, shielding him from harm …