The Boys of Battery B
Before I leave Ernie’s home he gives me a stack of stories he has written about his Vietnam experiences. They are the products of a course in creative writing he teaches at a local college.
He says, “Whenever I give an assignment to my students I do it myself to give them a model. That’s my training as an officer; I don’t ask them to do anything that I don’t do.”
This story is my favorite, here published with permission.
Cinderella in the Rain
I saw a pop-eyed, disbelieving expression on the pilot’s face as he looked out through the canopy of the jet fighter screaming over the rice paddies at what seemed like a shoulder-high altitude. He was on final to drop his bombs a few hundred yards east of our position. We were being attacked by mortar fire almost every night and the Air Force was finally getting around to a strike we had requested a couple of days ago. As the F-104 hurtled towards his target I turned my attention from the movie, “Lord Jim,” playing on the white bed sheet handing from the ammunition truck in the center of the howitzer position. In the blackness of night, the pilot could see the moving images on the illuminated projection area of the makeshift screen.
I imagined him asking himself, “What kind of war is this when I’m bombing and strafing while the troops I’m supporting are watching a movie?”
The answer was, “It’s that kind of war!”
It was June 1966. We were in a Vietnamese graveyard in the middle of a vast area of rice paddies just west of Tuy Hoa in Phu Yen Province on the central coast. “We” were a battery of six 105 mm howitzers from the 5th battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment in direct support of the 320th Airborne Infantry Regiment of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. In this relatively flat piedmont, between the shimmering white sand beaches along the South China Sea and the foothills of the heavily vegetated jungles and mountains to the west, almost all the area was cultivated in rice paddies. It was difficult to find suitable terrain to emplace a cannon battery when each weapon weighted almost 5000 pounds and there were many other large and small vehicles and equipment. The graveyards were the only available firm and dry ground. So long as we were respectful to the ancestors, we were allowed to use them.
Occasionally movies were delivered to our tactical field locations in a pathetic and fruitless attempt to improve the morale and welfare of the troops. The movies were a link to normal life back in what soldiers termed “the world.” The “world” being any and every place outside of South Vietnam. Thus, Vietnam was defined as not of this world. In the soldiers’ mind, there was the nightmare place called Vietnam and then, there was the world. Movies were delivered when they became available, regardless of the title, content, weather, or enemy action. The decision to play the movie was left up to the local commander. It would take a cataclysmic event to preclude the showing of a movie, any movie that finally made it down to the combat units in the field.
You might be thinking that this is about watching a movie in the middle of the rice paddies in the middle of a war. That may be true, but it’s not the whole story. There are two key elements that must be understood. The first is the weather. In Vietnam, there are two seasons: hot and rainy. The rainy season is called the monsoon and lasts about two months. During this time it rains nearly every day. The rain is usually heavy and the large pelting drops bounce off the soldiers’ protective steel helmets, echoing in their ears like a waterfall on a tin roof. The ponchos and the rain suits become saturated and leak like sieves. There is no place to escape from the wetness. Everything is always wet. Mildew and rot are everywhere.
Another aspect of the soldiers’ life is soldier language; the vernacular, the argot, the slang, blue language, cussing, whatever you want to call it. There is that certain F-word used by any soldier worth his salt at least once in every uttered sentence and in every grammatical form of the English language. It is used interchangeably as a noun, a verb, an adverb or an adjective, and can be declined, conjugated or modified to meet any grammatical need. With those insights on weather and language, here’s what happened one day in 1966.
The Huey helicopter skittered and yawed across the rice paddies and flared over the landing pad engulfed in billowing red smoke. The red smoke grenade was thrown to mark the site where helicopter should discharge its cargo. The doors slid open and the door gunners heaved out the bright international orange mailbags followed by the olive drab film-shipping container. It had been three weeks since the last movie. During that time the battery had been attacked by Viet Cong mortars twice, resulting in one man killed and several wounded. It was high time for some recreation and the movie was a welcome prospect.
Once darkness fell, the gun trucks would be driven into a semi-circle at the center of the battery to form a small, enclosed area that would contain most of the diffused light and allow the movie to be watched in as secure an environment as possible. As the day wore on the monsoon clouds gathered, and the rain began. There was no question that no matter how hard it rained, nothing would interfere with watching this movie.
I slipped my .380 caliber Beretta pistol into its black leather pocket holster and shoved it into my soaking wet rain jacket. I never went to the movies in Vietnam without it. Donning the rest of my equipment, including my steel pot, I grabbed my M16 and crawled out of the damp, heavily mildewed, but relatively dry protection provided by my badly leaking Yukon hexagonal tent. I made a mental note to dispatch my supply sergeant on an Air Force cargo plane from the Tuy Hoa air base with instructions not to return without replacements for our worn out, nearly useless tents.
Looking forward to the movie, I walked to the area of our makeshift cinema. Most of the battery, about 100 soldiers, was already there. Some were sitting on empty wooden ammunition boxes; some perched on metal fuse cans that doubled as water tanks for our homemade showers; some on folding chairs plucked from various elements of the battery operations or from visits to the villages in our area of operations. Others were sitting or sprawled on the wet ground. All were huddled under their ponchos or bundled up in their cumbersome, rubberized rain suits, and all seemed to disregard the torrents of rain hammering down on them. The excitement of seeing a movie was palpable allayed any discomfort.
When we had a movie, a chair was reserved for me in the best location, and the movie did not start until I was in that chair. It was traditional and respectful homage to the battery commander. The old comic adage, “It’s good to be the king” was never as true or meaningful as when being the commander of a small unit conducting independent field operations in combat. The shorthand expression was RHIP, “rank has its privileges.”
I sat on the wet, cold metal folding chair, and looked at the scene around me. The huddled soldiers seemed like a living tableau from a Bill Mauldin cartoon of Willie and Joe on a misty, rain-soaked, muddy battlefield of WWII. There they were in their camouflage ponchos and olive green rain suits. The rain was pinging off their steel helmets.
I leaned forward and asked a soldier slumped on the ground in front of me, “What’s the movie?”
He slowly turned and looked at me. With the rain splashing in his face, he plucked a dripping wet cigar butt from his mouth and bellowed out the answer, “Cinder-fucking-rella.”
His contempt for whoever had sent this movie was clearly as great as his utter disgust over having to sit in a monsoon storm to watch it. That profane, but magnificently expressive answer to my question has since that time typified the humorous eloquence and indomitable spirit of the soldier, and Cinderella in the rain became an avatar for my Vietnam experience.