When Joe DeFrancisco left in March of 1970 we made do without a captain. Bob Christenson was the battery XO, a 1st lieutenant and senior to me, and as I remember we ran the battery together. We were sufficiently experienced that at battalion level they felt they could leave the battery in both our hands.
I was in that role only a short period and then went to Phan Rang as battalion adjutant.
A Field Guy at Heart
From two letters home shortly after arriving in Phan Rang
I am fine and have a new job at battalion headquarters as adjutant. It is really a captain’s job, but with my time out in the field and my supposed qualifications of the academic variety I was recruited. I would have rather stayed in the field for a while where there is less paperwork and more meaningful responsibilities.
I will try to explain my job to you. As adjutant I am on the battalion commander’s staff as S1. This staff position has to do with personnel, where they are assigned, their personal affairs, the trouble they get into, and in general their health, welfare and morale. Also in most things I act as an executive secretary writing correspondence for the commander. A lot of paperwork but sometimes interesting. At least I can see that guys in the field get mail and other little comforts.
Because I had been in the field I knew how much guys looked forward to getting their mail. I personally escorted the mailbags every day to the helicopters.
As battalion adjutant I was able to take a jeep occasionally. When I heard that some of the guys in the field wanted to play ball, I took a jeep up to Nha Trang to our supply depot in order to get baseball equipment. I got bats, gloves and balls, which I made sure got distributed to the battery. This was really in the waning days of the battalion, but the guys were still out there. One of the people working the rear area really appreciated that too. He became my main guy to make sure that the men in the field were looked after.
I had a couple of interesting exchanges with the Korean officers. One was an unbelievably chiseled kung fu kind of guy. He looked like the toughest guy I had ever met in my life. Falling into a conversation with him it turns out the Koreans were still very wary of and terrified of the Japanese from WW II. It was a leftover cultural thing that the Japanese were the meanest SOBs on the planet. It struck me how these attitudes pass down through the generations.
Free Ride on a Medevac
I experienced a personal incident that had nothing to do with the war. I was still on duty to make rounds on the perimeter. There was not much going on around Phan Rang, but you had to do it. At that point it was only once a month because there were so many officers around. You made two rounds, one at night and one in the morning, and you slept in a special building for that purpose. I made my night rounds, and then got up for five o’clock morning rounds. I step out of bed and there is a sharp pain in my right lower abdomen. I am a guy without problems generally so I think, OK, I just slept funny. I take about three steps and it is not going away. I literally cannot walk without shooting pain. They decide to Medevac me to Cam Ranh Bay. The doctor who sees me says: You probably have something called retrocecal appendicitis and we’re going to have to take your appendix out.
In retrocecal appendicitis the appendix is located behind the cecum portion of the intestine. Even deep pressure on that portion of the abdomen may not elicit pain, and for that reason it is called a silent appendicitis.
Another doctor comes along and says, We’re just going to wait a little bit. We’re not going to give you medicine. I know you are in some pain, but I don’t want to mask the symptoms. I want to see what’s going on here. He turned out to be right. I still have my appendix to this day. As best they could tell I had something called pleurodynia. (I have no idea what that is.) They put me in a bed and had me inhale from oxygen tanks for a couple days and it just disappeared. And then I went back to battalion headquarters. So I had the experience of being Medevac’d in Vietnam, without losing my appendix unnecessarily.
A Human Connection
I worked really hard as battalion adjutant. The battalion commander and his XO, not so much. They piled a lot of stuff on me because they figured they could. Still they were both decent officers. The S3 Operations major there, an African American, was in my opinion the best officer at battalion.
I did not mind the hard work, it actually made the time go faster. And I still had time to go out on special trips and do the good things soldiers did as part of the pacification program. On one particular trip we went to a Vietnamese village where Dr. Muss, who was a really good guy, was giving inoculations to the kids. We spent most of the day there seeing people come in and get good treatment. On the other side of the Vietnamese village, “across the railroad tracks,” there was a Hmong village (mountain people, also generally referred to in French as Montagnard). The were treated more poorly than the Vietnamese treated themselves. As if these villages were not poor enough, they treated the Hmong like dirt.
We came across a Vietnamese woman whose husband had died. She had children from that husband, and then she had remarried and had children by the new husband. The cultural thing was you did not pay much attention to your old children if you had new children. At least that is how I understood it. We saw that the children from the former husband were really malnourished. A group of us decided that one of them, a little four year old kid, would probably die. We just could not leave him there, and did something we were not supposed to do. We smuggled him back onto the base. I held this four year old child in my arms for several hours going back. He had the warmest body. I mention this because it is one of my most vivid memories. In the middle of the craziness there was a human connection. Dr. Muss took care of him and fixed him up. I do not know what ultimately became of him. Nor do I know what became of those two kids who worked at LZ Sherry for us, “Grace” and “Slick” as we called them, although I’ve often wondered, because I fear the worst since they were associated with Americans.
Calling It What It Is
Fragging incidents were serious, and common enough throughout the battalion to worry people. At some point we wrote a letter saying we’ve got to stop calling such incidents fragging. We have to start calling it what it is, which is premeditated attempted murder. You use the wrong language and people get a little cavalier.
In July of 1971 B Battery left the field and brought all of its equipment and howitzers to Phan Rang, as part of a general deactivation of the 5th Battalion. At this time the ARVNs took over LZ Sherry.
I left for home on July 18. I was asked to escort the battalion colors home to Ft. Lewis as well, but I cannot remember that I did so. By this time I had worked out an arrangement to be stationed at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, about an hour from the University of Pennsylvania, which would allow me to return to law classes in addition to my military duties. Writing home, a few weeks earlier, I let loose a little:
Vietnam is really getting old. We have no real mission. If we did it would not be a pleasant one. The amount of purposelessness and nonsense here is too monumental for words. The whole affair is slapstick; I need to get away before it gets overbearing.
Going home I remember having to wait a couple extra days at Cam Ranh, and that was really unpleasant. I was dying to go home. They searched my duffle bag for drugs. I understood it, but still was irritated that after spending all this time subject to enemy fire they were worried about whether I was bringing drugs back to America. They were right, I understand that, but it was annoying. I also was really annoyed because they took my Ho Chi Minh sandals. I really wanted those things.
The one thing I brought back from Vietnam that I did not want was the sound of helicopters. It’s the only sound I do not like. I did not have traumas or nightmares coming home, but helicopters still bug me.
I bought an MGB Roadster through the PX a few months earlier. I always liked to say that it came from England, I came from Vietnam, and we met in New York.