With all the violence in the world and the ever growing movement of mankind toward more violence, it appears there is always a war somewhere in the world. It occurred to me that since ancient times politicians always create wars, generals manage wars, and soldiers fight them. Now, setting aside the economic advantages of war or the political justifications for war, in my opinion, there is no single event more horrible in the human experience. In fact, war is the unleashing of the powers of hell upon the face of the earth. Over the next few months, this blog will feature a series of short stories about war.
It was the end of the summer, 1970, and I had been sent to Vietnam from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. Already I had been at Fort Bragg about a year and had settled into life in the barracks. Now, I found myself on a transport airplane landing at the airport in Bien Hoa, Republic of South Vietnam. I did not know anything really about war or how to survive in that kind of environment. Sure, I had been through boot camp and advanced infantry training but I was as green as they come. In fact, at that time, new arrivals were called newbies or cheeries. The first thing I noticed was how hot the weather was and the dust that was blowing across the tarmat (landing strip). It was like stepping into a sauna bath, hot, sweaty, and you could hardly breathe. Of course, all newbies had to carry their own duffle bags with their new issue of jungle military uniforms, boots, socks, underwear etc. The minute you put one of those uniforms on, everyone around you knew you were a cherry. Often, you could see GIs walking by snickering and laughing or making remarks about fresh meat.
As we lined up and filed off the back of the C-130 airplane, all you could see was flat land. There were no mountains just straight out flat land and jungle. The dust was blowing up making it hard to see in front of us. Most of us had to shield our eyes just so that we could see where we were walking. In front of me, I could see a large building made of what looked like aluminum – the whole building – one story and large enough to contain a few hundred people. The closer I got to the building, I could see that it was tin – a thick, sturdy kind of tin with a yellow, tin roof on top. There was no glass in the windows just a screen to keep out the insects. Later, I would find out just why there was no glass in any of the windows – anywhere.
When we started to enter the building, we saw MPs (military police) standing with their batons ushering us one way or another. At the front of what looked like a big auditorium were officers with chalk boards and pointer sticks. The center of the building was filled with folding chairs – rows and rows of metal folding chairs. All of us were directed to enter the rows and put our bags in front of us. The building was a lot cooler and it was a welcomed relief to the hot climate outside. As I found a chair, we all had to remain standing until given the order to sit. Other officers entered the front of the building and we were ordered to come to attention and then at ease and sit down. The program seemed to be a welcome to Vietnam speech with all the cautions about the local people, traveling the roads and highways, health precautions, and the importance of taking salt pills to adjust to the heat. Also, they talked about the Monsoon season and the rains and how important it was to avoid crouch rot or jungle foot. One officer after another took the podium and gave his speech about what we needed to know in order to survive. Also, they told us about sending mail back to our families in the states and some of the privileges such as the PX (the military department store where you could buy things).
Just as I was beginning to relax and pay closer attention to the lecture, all of a sudden I heard really loud sirens going off. Immediately following the sirens, I felt what at first seemed like a small earthquake and a tremendously loud sound. I could not quite make it out because I had never heard a sound like that close up but it was sort of deafening. Suddenly, the officers ran up to the microphone and ordered everyone to get down on the ground in front of our chairs. There was all kinds of confusion. People were falling, chairs were falling, people were running, the dirt jumped up and then would slowly settle down again, and then it would jump up again. I could see the MPs running, other people were crying, others were huddling down with a tremendous look of fear in the eyes. I began to notice that the sounds were those of bombs going off and they seemed to be coming closer and closer to the building. It was as though someone was firing the bombs, then readjusting their sights, firing another one a little closer, then adjusting again. And just when it seemed like the next one would hit the building, the sirens started to wind down and all the commotion began to subside.
As I looked around me, I could see GIs crying, shaking, disoriented and some walking around in circles as though they were lost. Then, I began to smell a terrible stink. Apparently, some of the GIs had lost their bowels and shit on themselves. No one was laughing and no one was criticizing anyone for the manner in which they handled the situation. It was at this time, I felt something cold on my leg. When I looked down, I saw that I had pissed myself. Soon after, one of the officers appeared and ordered everyone to calm down and get back to their seats. Also, they asked if anyone was hurt and if so to inform one of the the MPs and they would assist them. Then, an officer informed us that the base had just been hit by a mortar attack. He went on to explain how the Viet Cong walk their mortars up to their target because they do not have pinpoint accuracy. Also, he explained that is why we did not see any glass in the windows. Mortar attacks were a common, everyday occurrence at Bien Hoa Airport. That was my first day in Vietnam.
Unpublished work: Vietnam – Untold Short Stories by Neil Turner (2018).