I have not thought much about Vietnam since leaving there forty-five years ago. And it is only now that I am reading for the first time the many letters I sent home to my mother. What I remember is spotty and doesn’t fall into a cohesive narrative of any kind, but I have retained a number of vivid memories.
Two months into my time at Sherry we had to go on a convoy to Phan Thiet for supplies. A couple things are still vivid in my mind from that convoy. We had our flak jackets on and went out the back gate down that dirt road running east. We went through that little town where you had to make a right turn to get on the road going south to Phan Thiet. There was a huge bolder in the middle of the road at that intersection. That was not a happy situation. Two things happened. First one of our guys from one of the guns, who was a nice kid, stupidly forgot to bring his flak jacket. I was a little upset with him but I gave him mine. It did not make me very happy, but there we were. Second, because of the rock in the road we had to halt the convoy. I remember this as the day I got out with a bayonet and dug around in the dirt for landmines. Fortunately we did not find any. We were lucky the boulder was just to make life difficult for us, and not part of an attack.
Lt. Varat was in more danger than he realized. At that location one year earlier, almost to the day, a mine explosion had killed Paul Dunne and seriously wounded Jim Kustes.
I remember the two times I felt the most alone in Vietnam. The first was during monsoon season. I was on my midnight-to-three shift going around to the towers and guns. We were under a torrential rain and it was so black you could not see a foot in front of your face without a flashlight. I was out between the inner and outer perimeter doing my rounds slogging through water up to my knees. Thousands of miles from home, in the pitch black, walking across a flooded area up to my knees – I felt really alone. I have to admit I was also thinking about snakes at the time.
Then there was the week between Christmas and New Years. I was on R&R and had just arrived in Saigon on my way to Sydney. I picked Sydney for R&R because I wanted to see and speak English to western women who might like me, not girls I had to buy. I had Christmas Eve dinner in Saigon at our Army base there. I had a perfectly decent dinner, but I was literally by myself, sitting at a table at a Saigon Army base. I am Jewish but not real religious, so it wasn’t the significance of Christmas as a religious event. Americans celebrate Christmas as a holiday no matter what religion you are. Christmas Eve I always did something. We were the only Jewish family in my small town, so I would go out with my Christian friends. For me the loneliness was a social thing. I felt: Oh my god it’s Christmas Eve and here I am by myself in a strange place I am never going to be in again. I arrived in Sydney on Christmas day, and I was fine once I got there. I met a nice young lady, we hung out and celebrated the new year. I even went back in the spring to see her. It was that one lonely meal in Saigon that really sticks with me.
A Field Court Martial
I remember the court martial we held right there on the firebase. One of our guys was accused of raping a local villager. I was not involved in the case, but as one of the officers on the base the logistics for the proceeding were within my responsibilities. Because I was a lawyer in training it was of particular interest to me. I remember a white sheet was put up as a curtain to create a separate space for the proceeding. Hearing officers came in from the rear and we brought witnesses from the local village to the firebase to testify. After a proper examination the soldier was convicted.
What I remember most vividly is the testimony of one of the witnesses. He was asked the question, “Where do you live?”
He said, “The village nearby.”
He was then asked, “How far is that?”
His answer was, “Three klicks.”
I thought to myself: Why is this guy talking about “three klicks?” which happened to be just within mortar range of the firebase. I put two and two together and thought: This is not good. They know exactly the distance to our base.
Two Proud Moments
I became the full time Fire Direction Officer in December of 1970 when Bob Christenson became XO. I also remained the motor pool officer.
I remember two proud moments from that time.
We got a call in FDC to fire in support of ARVN forces who were in a heavy firefight. During the adjustment phase of the mission I asked the guy on our radio to hold on for a second, even though they were under fire. There was something wrong with the adjustments we were getting from the forward observer. It took me a minute to figure it out. Their forward observer was not adjusting our howitzer fire from the standard OT line (observer target line). He was doing it backward, from the target to the observer line. I was glad I hesitated, because if we had fired his adjustment we would have gone in the wrong direction and walked the fire back on them instead of the target. After that firefight was over, the general in charge of the group we were supporting came to our base and started to chew me out because we were so slow getting rounds out. I pointed out to him that if I had not hesitated there would have been a lot of dead ARVN forces. I explained that I had to take a minute or two to figure out the problem. I said I could understand they were under fire and needed the support, but it’s one thing to want support, and another to be blown to smithereens. I can’t remember that he backed off, only that he did not pursue the matter any further. Afterward I thought, Maybe I’ve done something in this war that’s a good thing.
This one involved Top, the First Sergeant. One day there were some women getting within mortar range of our perimeter. It looked like they were maybe collecting firewood, or maybe doing bad stuff. Top wanted to fire on them; he thought they were about to fire off a mortar. I just did not want to do it. We had a bit of a stand-off and I said: No, we are not going to fire on them. It turns out they were indeed just collecting firewood. It was one of those moments you’re not sure and you just had to make a judgment call, even though it ran against a more experienced first sergeant. It was the one time I really did pull rank.
Early in my tour I was in a hooch out by the guns, maybe with Bob Christenson. I remember standing in front of my hooch one morning and hearing a shot on the base. That’s not good. I was on my way to see what had happened when someone came over and told me they had just shot a cobra. I continued over to have a look. It was a BIG snake, one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen in my life.
Once I became full time FDO I moved into the little room at the back of FDC. In case I was needed for a fire mission I’d be on duty. I remember I had a Make Love Not War poster on the wall some girls had sent me. I am a very heavy sleeper, very little wakes me up. But one night I wake up thinking: What is this? I look down and there’s a huge rat running across my leg. That made for my least favorite night at Sherry.
I’ll never forget the cockroaches, how big they were. I joked that one day I took off my steel pot helmet to kill one, and it started pulling on the other end.
A Catch-22 Story
I always thought Catch-22 was a joke of a novel. Until I went to Vietnam.
New people were typically helicoptered into Sherry with their gear and duffle bags. We had to search their duffle bags to make sure there were no drugs, no knives and no guns. But drugs made it through in other ways. Some people had girlfriends who sent letters with LSD on the envelope or on the letter paper, with the spot marked “Lick Here.” The drug issue was so serious we had to send some guys back to the rear, because you could not rely on them. It was frustrating to me and to lots of other guys that somehow the guys doing drugs got the reward of going to the rear where it was safer. But what could you do?
We got one new guy with a serious addiction, who was now on our base without access to drugs. In the middle of the night in one of the hooches he went into withdrawal and was having seizures. I ended up sitting on his chest and holding down his arms to keep him from harming himself or anybody else. A very vivid memory. I asked the guys to call for a Medevac. They called and were told unless we were under attack they could not send a Medevac. I thought, I cannot sit on this guy’s chest all night. He was in an extreme situation and dangerous to others. I did the Catch-22 thing. I said to our guys, “OK, wait ten minutes. Then call back and tell them we are under attack and they need to send a helicopter.” No questions asked and we got our helicopter. And that’s how we got rid of this guy.
Cri Du Coeur
Letter home dated February 24, 1971
Not much new here. Colonels and generals are impressing me with their stupidity more each day. I cannot wait to be free again. Not all prisons are wrought of stone or iron. Some are in green cloth and bordered in barbed wire.
I wrote that in response to the time a general came by and wanted to do an inspection. He particularly wanted to inspect the paperwork in the motor pool. He found it wanting and chewed me out. I was really pissed, not because I was chewed out for the paperwork, but because at the time our requests for ammo were being ignored. I thought: You got to be kidding me. You care about the motor pool paperwork, even though all the necessary work is being done and the motor pool is doing fine. But you can’t get us the ammo we need.