Where’s The Movie Theater?
I turned 19 in October of 1968. My Mom died a week later, a few weeks before Thanksgiving. I hardly had a chance to digest that, with the demands of deployment. A few weeks later, on Christmas Day, I’m sitting at the bar drinking a Hamm’s beer on Bien Hoa Airbase. I was 19 and able to drink beer; I was thrilled.
I was such a dummy. I thought, Bien Hoa isn’t so bad. They said, well this isn’t where you’re staying. Then we went to Nha Trang, and wow! They had movie theaters and stuff; a nice airbase. I thought, OK, I could stay here. And they said, No, no – you ain’t staying here. And then we took a jump to Phan Rang, which wasn’t as nice, but still OK. And I thought this isn’t so bad. But they said, No, no, this ain’t the last stop for you. You’re going to B Battery.
In Phan Rang, we got all our gear and weapons and got ready for the field. There were a bunch of us that came in together. Judson, Kaufman, and me were all assigned to B Battery. We’re sitting there when a guy named Conn (?) came in, who was a battery runner, or a carrier (someone who runs between all the batteries with messages to and from the rear). He said to us, “Man, you guys are going to B battery out there at Sherry. It’s been quiet out there. You lucked out.” We looked at each other and said, Wow, we’re getting a break.
We went right from Phan Rang to B Battery, because they needed replacements right away, so we got all our stuff and prepared to leave. They told us about LZ Betty where our forward command post was, but said you’re not staying at Betty, you’re going right out to the field because they need replacements. So we thought, OK. And then we got a look at LZ Sherry, and WHOA. What happened here? Ain’t no movie theaters out here!
There was a sign at the helipad that said WELCOM TO LZ SHERRY. There was another little sign on it that said, WHAT SHADE OF PURPLE DO YOU LIKE? Implying that everybody that ever went there left with a Purple Heart.
First Day at Sherry
The Chief of Smoke, Sergeant Certa, met us on the chopper pad. When the chopper took off we’re standing there and he says to Kaufman, “Gun 1”. He says to Judson, “Gun 4”. And to me he says “Ammo Section”.
I looked at him and said, “Ammo section? I’m a gunner.”
He said, “We need someone in Ammo and that’s where you’re going.”
I was kind of upset about that because I was tenth in my class at Ft. Sill and I did well enough at sighting the guns that I got sent to Self Propelled School (artillery mounted on a tracked vehicle, similar to a tank). Right after AIT the top 100 guys in the graduating classes all went to SP school, and I was in that group, so I was miffed about getting assigned to the ammo section.
“Sergeant, you are not using my skills,” I say.
“Son,” he says, “Let me tell you how it works around here. You go where we need you, not where you want to go.”
The Ammo section chief was a hillbilly sergeant from North Carolina named Bowman and he could not say my name. He called me Johnny Cash all the time I was there.’’
He said, “I don’t know how to pronounce that, but ya’ll gonna be Johnny Cash.”
I said, “it’s Kach.
He said, “Its Cash”.
I complained to him too about my skills not being used in the Ammo section, and he said he couldn’t do anything for me. He said, “You’ll have to talk to the First Sergeant. He makes the assignments.”
And then to my surprise he looks at me and said, “Do you know how to drive a truck, Johnny?”
I looked at him and said, “Uuuh……No. The only thing I’ve every driven is a 1962 Dodge Dart with a push button transmission, where you push the D button and it goes.”
He started cracking up and says, “Well Johnny, Corporal Bagemore over there is going to take you around the battery area for about 20 minutes and teach you what you need to know.”
I said, “I don’t know nothing about trucks, or shifting trucks, or anything like that.”
He said, “Well you got 20 minutes to learn, because you’ll be on that road convoy going to Betty. You’ll be getting ammunition for them guns you wanna shoot so badly.”
I thought, “Are you kiddin’ me? Can I take two minutes and write home to tell them you’re killin’ me my first day here?
We drove into Betty and I was so stupid about military vehicles or any vehicles, for that matter. My truck got loaded with ammunition but we had to refuel before heading back to Sherry. They told me to go over to the motor pool and fuel the truck. So I drove over and down into this well where the refueling was done. I put gas in the tank, then found out it was a diesel truck. That’s how much I knew about the truck. So now I have the truck fully loaded with ammunition, stuck in the well, and it wouldn’t start. Bowman was mad because I did that. He had a five-ton truck, and he slammed into the back of my truck and pushed me out, cussin the whole time. But they knew what to do. They had to put so much oil in the gas, because it was a multi-fuel engine, and we got it going again. But I’ll never forget that because it was traumatic for me.
Back at Sherry after all the ammo was unloaded I went to see First Sergeant Farrell. It was getting dark and he was sitting under that parachute canopy he had over a picnic table outside his hooch. I walked up to him and said, “I don’t want to be in the Ammo Section. I want to be on one of the guns where I can do what I know how to do.”
He sat me down and set me straight. “We put you where we need you. I got 80 gunners here who can do what you were trained to do, and they do what we tell ‘em to do. We need you in Ammo and that’s where you’re going to stay.”
That’s when I finally got the drift of how the military works. They don’t give a damn what your MOS is, or what you’re trained for.
That night Sergeant Bowman sent me to the beer tent to arm-wrestle with Sergeant Smith, I think was his name. Every new guy had to do it his first night. If you lost you had to buy a case of beer for the battery.
I looked at him and then at my pipe stems and I thought, No way. So I said, “How much is a case of beer?”