It was Christmas Eve and it just so happened that I pulled guard duty. The post I was assigned to was a 30-foot tower that stood facing toward the Bien Hoa Airport. At night, you could see the large flood lights and the air traffic controller tower clearly from that position. I had pulled guard duty in this tower once before and was familiar with the layout to the extent that I could sit outside the tower booth on the aluminum roof with my hand radio and M-16.
Just on the other side of the concertina barbed wire fence, you could see Highway One. Now, this highway ran the entire length of South Vietnam and was one of the most dangerous highways in the country. Often, truck convoys were attacked by gunfire or mortars while traveling this highway. Many of these convoys were accompanied by gun jeeps and heavy security because of the likelihood of attacks. On the other side of the highway, it was pitch black – you could not see a damn thing. The road dropped off into a ditch on both sides which provided a good place for VC to hide and launch attacks. The guard tower had been built just for the purpose of providing elevation in order to see into the ditch on the other side of the road. The only problem was the road was totally dark at night and it was hard to distinguish anything.
On this particular night, Christmas Eve, you could see colorful fireworks going off over at the airbase. So, I sat watching the light show and generally trying to make the best of the situation as possible. I did feel loneliness and a yearning for Christmas festivities back home but tried hard not to think about it. The more I tried not to think about home, the lonelier I began to feel. Sometime later, I needed to take a piss. As I was trying to stand up enough to climb back into the tower with my M-16 in hand, I fell from the tower. I plunged at least 25 feet very fast and hit the ground on my right side with my M-16 breaking the impact to my right hand. However, the impact to my left hand along with the rocky surface of the ground gashed my hand wide open. Blood was pouring out of my hand. Of course, I knew I had to get to the aid station for medical treatment to stop the bleeding. So, I got on the radio and called the Duty Officer and explained what had happened. I told him I needed to get to the aid station quickly. Instead of approving my request immediately and sending someone to substitute for me while I was at the aid station, he told me to wait that he would call me back. After about five minutes, he still had not called and the blood was still streaming out of my hand. It was at this time that I left my post and made my way to the aid station to get medical treatment. When I returned, about 30 minutes later, I found the Duty Officer, his jeep driver, and another GI at the tower. He immediately started yelling at me and told me that I had deserted my post in a combat zone. Also, he told me that he was going to file an Article 15 and process a court martial for leaving my post without authorization. There was a lot of confusion and there was nothing I could say to defend myself other than explain to him that I waited for him to call back but he took too long. Of course, I had to finish out my guard duty for the night and reported to my company area as the sun was coming up the next morning.
As I mentioned earlier, working for the IG (Inspector General) gave me an in-depth knowledge of Army Regulations. When I received the first documents concerning the Article 15 and court martial, I realized that I had a way to escape being punished. Since I was already an airborne trooper, sent to Vietnam from the 82nd Airborne Brigade, and along with my knowledge of the ARs, I realized that I had the right to transfer out to an airborne unit anywhere in Vietnam. The only problem was there were only two airborne units available at that time – the 101st Airborne Division (Screaming Eagles) or the 173rd Airborne Brigade (the Third Herd). Both of these units were located right in the middle of the war over 200 miles North in the Central Highland Mountains. This area contained heavy, heavy fighting and loss of life. It was the eye of the hurricane. The only other area worse than this was where the 5th Marines were operating near DaNang and the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). Before the court martial was processed, I contacted the JAG (Judge Advocate General) office and informed them of my decision. It was accepted and I was transferred to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Phu Tai. I had no idea of the consequences or danger that lay ahead of me as a result of that decision.
Later, I was transferred to LZ English at the front line of the 173rd’s area of operations (AO). It was just about this time that I was sent out to a military base on the top of a mountain. I had been deployed with a group of grunts returning from the rear. We were inserted on top of a mountain artillery base camp called LZ John Henry. By this time, I had been assigned to a helicopter company that was part of the 1st Cavalry Division. Because of my small physical frame, they wanted me to be a door gunner for one of their copters. But, I refused because I thought it was too dangerous. It was here that all my training and experience working for the Inspector General in Bien Hoa came to fruition. During that time, I had learned much about Army Regulations working for the IG. In fact, I could recite many of them from memory. So, I used that knowledge to find an excuse to get out of being a door gunner and landed a position as a combat correspondent working for headquarters company in the Information Office. It was our job to keep the soldiers informed through articles, photos and stories in the Stars and Stripes newspaper. I learned the entire process from getting the stories, taking and developing photos with 16mm film strips, to paginating, printing and distributing the newspaper. One of my special duties was to see that a paper was always placed on the Commanding General’s breakfast table each morning. So when I arrived at John Henry, I was surprised because the base camp was at the very top of the mountain. Apparently, the engineers had completely flattened the very top of the mountain range and built a field base camp. What was so surprising is the helicopters had to fly through clouds to get to the top of the mountain. When on the base camp looking down, you could see rings of clouds beneath.
We were only in the base camp a short while after the insertion, when all of a sudden all hell broke loose. It seems that the base camp was receiving mortar fire from below. Somehow, the VC had ascended the mountain slope close enough to send in mortars. The sound of the mortars hitting and shaking the ground was deafening. At times, I could hear my ears ringing. In an attempt to retaliate, the base starting firing mortars while they were prepping their Howitzers – the big artillery canons. It seems that at the same time of the attack, a fire mission had been called into the base. People were running around shouting out instructions to one another and suspected locations of where the mortars were coming from and without knowing it, I forgot to put my fingers in my ears when a GI shouted “fire in the hole” and was knocked to the ground by a fired Howitzer and became completely deaf for a few minutes. Once my hearing slowly started to return, I looked around and saw a blond-haired, white GI, he looked like one of those California hippy types, a medic, administering first aide to a bleeding GI. It seems that a considerably large piece of shrapnel had penetrated his back and puncture his lungs. I got closer to see what was going on and watched the medic take action. Once he realized that the GI was drowning in his own blood that was flowing into his lungs, he knew that he would have to perform a field operation – right there on the spot. So, he found a spot to lay the GI down as flat and even as he could, took out a huge but beautiful, big-bladed, Bowie knife with a white handle and made a small incision in the GIs neck and performed a tracheotomy. Then, he stuck a straw down the soldiers throat so that he could breath without obstruction. Once I realized what he was doing, I took a few pictures and stepped back out of the way.
After a few days, I was transported back to LZ English in Bong Son. I cannot express the relief I felt when I stepped off the risers (helicopter landing gear) to the ground back at the LZ. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. It was almost as though, I had left a surreal fantasy world and returned to reality. But this particular surreal world was too real and unforgivingly deadly. At any moment, from any unforeseen event, you are here one minute and gone the next. It was like stepping out of a mist back into the real world. When I returned to base, I had enough of the field and started looking for another job. Of course, I had to fall back on the ARs again.
The rest of the crew was sad to see me leave but I found a job working at headquarters company, 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Division, 173rd Airborne Brigade (Third Herd) in headquarters as a clerk. Again, there was a difficult First Sergeant. He didn’t like me from the first day he set eyes on me. And, he never stopped harassing me. Also, they gave me a hooch close to the office. Actually, you could see my hooch from the window of the front office. I felt like I was living in an open prison. My roommate was a white junky. He had been a “fuck up” for so long that the company was only tolerating him to ETS out and return to the rear. He was a severe junky – he got high off everything and almost everyday. He smoked pot, drank, shot and smoked heroin, smoked cigarettes, smoked hash, drank beer, everything. One night, our hooch was raided by the First Sargeant. He did not actually catch my roommate doing anything but he could smell it in the air. As a result, he took the door off of our hooch. This was so that anyone who walked in front of our hooch could look directly in on us. We lost all sense of privacy. All of our activities were scrutinized.
It was not long before I became accustomed to the way of life at headquarters company. And, it was not long before I found where Bro. Stephen had been re-assigned – a close friend I lost touch with when transferred to the forward LZ. Actually, I started hearing rumors about a black GI from LA that had stopped talking. He did not talk to anyone and many thought that his mind had snapped and they were just waiting for him to explode one day. When I started hearing some of the things that were going on, I became curious and decided to find out exactly who everyone was talking about. As a result of my job in headquarters, I discovered that the GI was in Dog Company. So, I made a trip up to their company area and found out that it was Bro. Stephen. He was glad to see me and smiled but never said a word. He had hooked up with an old buddy from New York City, Bro. Bob. These guys knew each other from humping the bush together before and both extended their stays in the Nam but ended up in trouble and were sent back to the infantry to hump the bush again. He was a very cool brother both intelligent and a well-seasoned grunt. He had a big beard and liked to listen to music. Still, Bro. Stephen never said a single word to anyone. His company had him on sick leave so he did not have to go out into the bush. He basically stayed in the company area the entire day going to the medics and being psychologically evaluated and taking medications. But still, he never said a single word to anyone. He would just stare directly into your face and understood everything you were saying but never uttered a sound.
After a few months, his company decided to send him back out into the field. He returned to humping the M-79 grenade launcher. I continued with my daily routine at headquarters company. Within a few weeks, I heard that Bro. Stephen’s platoon of just 22 men had contact with over 200 NVAs. Almost everyone was killed or severely wounded. The lieutenant, first sergeant, platoon leaders, almost everyone. Only four GIs were saved from the Sui Kai Mountains that day. There was a Puerto Rican GI I met on a few occasions, the GI on point who carried the M-60 machine gun, one of the other enlisted NCOs and Bro. Stephen. The Puerto Rican stepped on a mine and his entire foot was blown off. And the other two were wounded several times. I was shocked when I found out that Bro. Stephen had been shot several times in the pelvis and was rushed to Qui Nhon Hospital where he was castrated in order to save his life. Then, they air lifted him to Camp Zama Hospital in Japan. I never saw one of my closest friends in Vietnam ever again.
Unpublished work: Vietnam – Untold Short Stories by Neil Turner (2018).