Sometime in June 1971, an incident occurred that completely changed my attitude toward the US Army. In fact, I was never the same again. It all began with Brother Bobby’s hooch maid Mai and a white GI that liked her. It seems that when Bobby was working at the Mess Hall, this white GI would come around his hooch to talk with Mai in the afternoons. Of course, Mai didn’t care too much for him and tried to avoid him as much as possible. But he continued to insist. He would show up with small presents for her and on several occasions asked her to come and work for him. But Mai repeatedly refused because she didn’t trust him. Now, Mai didn’t want any trouble so she kept the fact that this white GI was harassing her quite and never told Brother Bobby. Also, she was afraid that if she caused a problem, she could loose her job. Whenever any problem occurred between civilian personnel and the military, the military personnel usually received the advantage.
So, this went on for a while until one day, the white GI actually started putting his hands on Mai. Mai was extremely uncomfortable with this and eventually mentioned something to Brother Bobby in a round-about way. This caught Brother Bobby’s attention and prompted him to start coming home from the Mess Hall (he was the head chef at the Mess Hall) during the afternoons. This was his way of trying to find out what was really going on. One afternoon, all the forces for a major tragedy came together and there was an explosion. Brother Bobby came home one afternoon to find this unwanted white GI harassing Mai. He confronted him and the white GI sort of dismissed Brother Bobby. So, Bobby told him who he was and that Mai was his hooch girl and he was harassing her. So, they began to exchange words neither one backing down from the other. Until the white GI went ballistic. Without anyone really paying attention, the white GI had a hammer in one of his hands. When he brought it up and hit Brother Bobby in the head, people standing around watching this event, noticed it. Brother Bobby was struck hard and buckled in the knees a bit but didn’t fall to the ground. He stood up straight again looking at the white GI as if he was going to kill him. He slowly turned his back and walked away with his hand holding the wound in his forehead from the hammer. Brother Bobby walked straight to the armory across the company square and checked out his M-16 rifle. He walked backed very hurriedly arming, locking and loading his weapon. When he arrived at the side of his houch, he called out, the white GI turned and Brother Bobby opened up with his M-16. He shot him several times across the chest in a rapid automatic burst. It was all over. The white GI soldier that had repeatedly harassed Mai and disregarded Brother Bobby’s request was dead on the ground in front of us.
This incident would bring about the most serious consequences for Brother Bobby. And because of the the racial overtones, the entire company was divided along racial lines. This was very bad press for the entire brigade. Already, the 173rd Airborne Brigade was under scrutiny because of the rumors that most of the soldiers in the field were drug addicts or heavily involved in drug use and were no longer an effective military unit in the field. It was no wonder with all the hell that was going on in the Central Highland Mountains. But this particular incident brought much attention from the Office of the Commanding General. It soon became very clear that a pound of flesh had to be taken, someone had to pay for such outrageous behavior even in a war zone. Brother Bobby was arrested by two MPs that we had been very friendly with on many occasions. On many occasions, when we were sneaking down into the local village of Bong Son, these same two MPs would allow us to leave the base and return just before dawn without any problems. Of course, we would grease their palms with all sorts of goods, equipment, electronics or cash for looking the other way. But they were two white MPs we had a good history with on the base. It was a very sad event for everyone. Shortly after Brother Bobby had been taken to jail, a quite, solemn cloud descended upon the entire company. At one time, you could hear GIs walking through the company area, talking loud, laughing or just generally bullshitting around. All of that was gone. The entire company area was quite, ghostly, and in a state of shock. It seemed odd that in the middle of a war in Vietnam and with all the horrors that war brings something could happen that would shock some of the most battle-tested airborne grunts I had ever encountered.
At the time, no one really knew that this incident would signify the beginning of the downfall of the 173rd in the Central Highlands Mountains. The divisiveness resulting from the polarization of black against white throughout the ranks of the battalion spread from unit to unit. The worst thing about it was it only added to the already existing suspicions that the battalion was ineffective because of high drug use among the soldiers. No one knew that the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) would soon lunch an invasion to take back the Central Highlands. No one would have thought that the VC in the area would organize themselves enough to assist in the assault effectively. Nor did anyone suspect that the Rocks (the North Korea Army allies of the US) would sustain heavy casualties from a series of pointed attacks by the NVA on their bases. It seemed that all of a sudden, the enemy had organized themselves, stepped up their attacks, and over ran several base camps. I remember hearing officers discussing the different assaults and their surprise that the enemy was victorious in many of the stories. Soon after, Brother Bobby faced a court martial and was sentence to life imprisonment for killing the white GI. They transported him to Cam Ranh Bay and then to Fort Levinworth, Kansas. I never saw him again.
For a while, after the incident with Brother Bobby, the entire company was fixated in a sort of surreal state. Things went on as usual but with a slow, sluggish kind of everyday pace. The company area was deserted most of the time and things in the company had become really tense because of the overall racial implications of the incident. Brother Mike, a brother from Baltimore who worked in the the arms room was very close to Brother Bobby too. We spent many nights running down to the village, hanging out in the gambling houses and whore houses until late. Unfortunately for Brother Mike, he never seemed to find just one steady girlfriend among the women from the village of Bong Song. So, he was sort of a third spoke but was always at every event with everyone else. During the time prior to the incident, Brother Mike was also aware of the white GI who had been harassing Brother Bobby’s hooch maid Mai. He was also very upset about the whole thing but did not on any occasion interfere with the situation. There were many discussions between the two of us about the danger of that kind of situation knowing Brother Bobby and the kind of temper he had especially when it came to Mai.
One strange night, I had a dream that something bad was going to happen to me. I can not for the life of me remember all the sorted details but I awoke with a feeling that some kind of impending danger was coming my way. Also, I remember having some kind of difficulties with police in the dream. Perhaps, this was because of the incident with the MPs we were friendly with and how they turned on us. I thought that maybe this was the thought behind the meaning in the dream. Not too much later, I received a white GI as my room mate, Brian. He was a hopeless junky. This guy got high almost every minute of every day and he did not just smoke weed, he shot heroin, he shot liquid hash, he drank, smoked cigarettes, marijuana and never washed his damn ass. He would have our entire hooch smoked up with weed smoke. With the front door of my hooch facing the open company area, it was not hard to tell which hooch the smoke was coming from. This guy would get high off of anything that he could lay his hands on and it never seemed like enough. After a few warnings from our first sergeant which Brian ignored, the first sergeant arrived with two GIs and took the front door of our hooch off the hinges and left the hooch open to view from the outside company area. I was furious but there was nothing I could do to over ride the first sergeant’s decision. Not only did we loose all of our privacy but any passerby could look into the hooch and see what we were doing inside. I was outraged with my junky roommate. As a result, I started to get testy with the first sergeant – argumentative and questioning him on every turn. Of course, he was embarrassed and made a point of letting me know who was in charge. Still, whenever I had an opportunity to show off my knowledge about the Army Regulations, I would put him to shame. That was a big mistake!
One day, the first sergeant arrived in my hooch and told me that I was being transferred from Headquarters Company to a rifle platoon. He stated that I would be assigned to one of the platoons that was humping the Sui Kai Mountains. At that particular time the Sui Kai Mountains were the most dangerous area of operations near LZ English and many platoons had encountered heavy resistance from Viet Cong guerrilla fighters. It was not until later I found out that the VC were trying their best to hold the area because they were waiting on a large regiment of NVA to meet up with in order to launch a heavy offensive. My immediate reaction to the first sergeant’s telling me that I was being transferred was swift and insubordinate. Already he knew that I only had 60 more days in-country – that I would soon rotate back to the United States. His way of punishing me for my insubordinate attitudes was to set me up. Clearly, he knew that the area was far too hot and even the most experienced LURPs (recon units) were skeptical about moving about at that time. Without any sort of excuse, I told the first sergeant directly that I was not going into the field – I flat out refused! He knew full well the taboos about most GIs being killed within the first 60 days in-country or the last 60 days before leaving the country. In effect, those that did not know any better and those that knew better for some reason became careless and ended up dead. He was surprised and later turned angry. Then he commenced to state very slowly and very clearly that he was giving me a direct order. Again, my response was that I would not leave the unit with only 60 days in-country and report to a rifle platoon that was active in the field. Finally, he stated that I would be brought up on Court Martial charges for disobeying a lawful order.
It is my firm belief that this incident became one of the excuses the Brigade used to eliminate several GIs that had challenged authority and ended up on a black list of undesirables. For months prior to these incidents there were stories circulating that the complete Brigade was being called back to the US. There were several different suspected reasons for this deployment. One of those reasons had to do with the number of addicted soldiers in the Brigade and how their performance had diminished the Brigade’s “effectiveness in the field.” Of course this was true. The number of GIs in the different units that were stationed at LZ English were saturated with strung-out GIs. This included many of the auxiliary combat units as well – like the 1st Cavalry Helicopter units. I had many friends that I visited on base in their respective company areas. There were also engineering units, military police units, medical units, all had a large number of GIs that were using heroin. In those days, many smoked heroin mixed in tobacco cigarettes – we called it DXing a cigarette – that is, removing a small portion of the tobacco just enough to sprinkle heroin into the cigarette and smoke it. There was never a problem with supply for heroin, marijuana, hashish, or different types of pharmaceutical drugs like speed. Another reason was the Brigade had done a fine job of cleaning up the Central Highland Mountains and it was time for it to be redeployed back to the US – job well done! Many of us knew that reason was just a cover up for what was really happening in the Brigade. Fortunately, I left the Third Herd and returned to the states before it was redeployed back to the US at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
Soon, there were a huge number of Court Martials. Black and White GIs were being busted purchasing drugs, considerable quantities of drugs at that, arrested down in the gambling and whore houses, and GIs were being detained and turned over to the MPs when trying to leave the base at night. There was a complete sweep throughout the entire Brigade to do away with the undesirable element. In effect, they were cleaning up their game. In a few isolated cases, there was a little push back from some of the GIs that were setup and railroaded into criminal charges just so their units could get rid of them. And, it was this kind of situation I found myself in with my first sergeant – he was simply trying to get rid of me – permanently! Also, during this big push throughout the Brigade, a lot of brothers and those white GIs that were very close to some of the Brothers (actually it was a white GI that saved my life – but I will get to that in more detail below) were kept apart so that they could not congregate together – as we did before. Many of us knew what was going on and did our best to find ways to get around it and still see each other from time to time. But, we were not allowed to meet among ourselves like before.
One night, I was selected for the usual rotation of guard duty on the perimeter. However, when I arrived at the bunker on the helicopter pad where I was assigned, I witnessed almost all of my old friends – the very same ones the company had been trying so hard to keep separated from each other. For some reason, we were all pulling guard duty and it seemed like almost all of us were assigned to three consecutive bunkers. Among the group of undesirables, there was one white GI by the name of “Flip.” We called him Flip because his last name was Wilson and Flip Wilson was a very popular comedian back in the states. Flip was always with us. He was the only white GI we trusted and allowed to hang with us. He was the kind of white GI that would defend black GIs whenever another white GI made a racial slur or did something that was disrespectful to any of us. Flip was as much one of us as any of us. I noticed that to our left was Brother B-More, Flip, Brother Buddy, and Brother Biden. In my bunker was myself, Brother Washington, Brother Jack, and Brother Riley. To the right of us was Brother Middleton, Brother Wooten, Brother Doc, and Brother Homey in the last bunker. All in all, there were twelve of us close friends defending a 45 degree angle of the base’s helicopter landing site. In terms of logistics, many of us thought that because the entire base camp had been built slightly above ground level and the helicopter pad was mostly flat and open space, it would be a difficult place to attack. Any attacker would have to scale the land between ground level and the chopper pad, get through the concertina barbed wire and still was at a disadvantage because we held the high ground and there was no cover.
As the brothers began to discover that we were all assigned to nearby bunkers, we began to visit from one bunker to another. At each bunker brothers were smoking weed and taking speed to stay up all night so that no one would fall asleep while on guard duty. It is a well-known rule to keep your weapon with you at all times and once again, I left my weapon in a place far away from me. This time, I left my weapon in the bunker I was assigned to and walked over to Brother Buddy’s bunker with B-More, Flip and Brother Biden. With my boots unbloused (not stitched) and no shirt (still had my T-shirt on), I was walking back from Brother Buddy’s bunker to my own when all of a sudden – all hell broke loose! Bullets were flying, mortars were coming in hitting the helicopter pad, flares were being popped, sirens were going off, the helicopter pad was being hit. Later, we would discover that a simultaneous attack happened on the exact opposite side of the base camp thus making it difficulty for the Brigade’s commanders to decide where to send reinforcements – which side of the base camp would be supported first. When all this happened, I found myself at least 10 yards from Brother Buddy’s bunker and still a good 20 yards to my own bunker. In effect, I was caught right smack in the middle with no cover, no weapon, and no way to defend myself. Immediately, I hit the ground and began low crawling as fast as I could. I could hear the sound of bullets wizzing pass my ears on each side of my head. However, because I started low crawling so fast, I soon became tired and started to slow down. The bullets were coming even closer and I realized that there were VC or NVA snipers in the trees and they saw me. They were trying to get a bead on me but I was constantly moving and it was difficult and night time. At this particular point, I remember seeing my life flash before me. I remember seeing a swimming pool and a John Wayne movie. For some reason, the thought came into my mind to stop crawling, push myself up, and run to the bunker. But the moment I went to push myself up, I could not move. It was as though a heavy weight was on my back. This frightened me even more and I began crawling even faster until I reached the dug out around our bunker. During the time I was crawling, I could hear Flip yelling, “where they at Brother T – where they at? I knew it was him because I recognized his voice. I began shouting while crawling “in the trees – in the trees.” The rules of engagement were not to fire until you could see the enemy or were fired upon. But without any regard for those rules, Flip began firing like a madman. Soon, the rest of the GIs in his bunker began firing into the tops of the trees. When I finally entered the trench, I saw Brother Washington from NYC, crying with his M-16 in his hands. He was balling like a woman and I immediately got mad at him for not firing back at the snipers. I grabbed my M-16 and two cannisters of magazines and began lighting the trees up. I put hundreds of rounds in the tops of three trees and could see the snipers starting to descend out of the trees by their muzzle flash. When I stopped to open the other cannister of magazines, I asked Brother Washington who was still crying – why are your crying? He looked up at me with a bewildered and amazed look on his face. Then he stated, “I tried to fire because I saw something crawling toward the bunker but I couldn’t – I don’t know why but I couldn’t fire my weapon.” It was then that I realized it was me crawling toward the bunker and if he had opened fire, he would have killed me. Later, half tracks, army jeeps with personnel, MPs and reinforcements drove up onto the helicopter pad and joined in the fight. The firefight lasted for about a half hour before everything calmed down to normal again.
In the aftermath of the attack on the base, it became clear that the VC and NVA were stepping up their assaults. They were serious about taking Bong Song and that region of the Central Highland Mountains. After the attack, it seems the units on the base took on a more serious and concerned attitude about their predicament. It seemed as though there was truth to the rumors that a large, well-trained regiment or more might be moving into that region. This was particularly alarming to the command’s management. In effect, this meant that there was probably going to be a push to take back control of the entire Central Highlands by the NVA and VC guerrilla fighters. It was a very dangerous, nervous time.
Unpublished work: Vietnam – Untold Short Stories by Neil Turner (2018).