This essay was written by F Michael Bennett, who served in the 127th MP Company in 1967–68.
When I got home from Vietnam, there were no friendly cab drivers to take me home. No one was buying me drinks in local watering holes. I returned to the San Francisco Bay Area in June 1968, at the height of its anti-war fervor. I went back to college that fall and felt lucky to meet a good-looking blonde hippie girl on my first day on campus. When she asked what I had done over the summer, I told her I had just returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam. She replied, “I wouldn’t tell anyone that if I were you.” Such was the political climate in 1968.
I am not sure what I expected a year earlier when I flew out of Travis Air Force Base. I remember looking down at the California coastline, wondering if it were the last time I would see home. I tried to keep the beaches and sparkling blue water in view for as long as possible, but they quickly slipped away under the wing of our Braniff jet. Our first stop was Honolulu. It must have been someone’s idea of a cruel joke. Here we were, on our way to, God knows what, and they plunked us down in the middle of paradise. We were allowed off the plane as it was refueled. We wandered around the airport, filled with families on vacation and couples off for a romantic interlude. Everyone was having a great time. Everyone, that is, but us; we were off to war. Getting back on that plane was tough.
Our next stop was Clark Air Force Base Manila, where the terminal was jam-packed with military personnel, coming and going. As we stood in the sweltering heat, feeling the distance from home, the reality of what lay ahead began to sink in. From Manila, we headed to Ben Hoa Air Base. When the pilot announced our approach to the Vietnam coast, he extinguished the plane’s lights. The darkness got everyone’s attention. We flew in complete silence. The Captain beside me gestured for me to look out the window. I was surprised to see a jet fighter’s silhouette, close enough to make out the instrument panel lights. There was one off the other wing as well. Welcome to the war zone.
We landed at Ben Hoa at some ridiculous hour of the morning. It was about 85 degrees and unbelievably humid. The pilot kept the engines at high rev while the crew opened both doors. As we exited from the plane’s front, the guys going home were scurrying in the back. I remember thanking the flight attendant who was standing in the doorway. She had a hard time looking me in the eye, and when she did, the merriment that had sparkled there during the early phase of our trip was gone. She looked as though she had just sold her prize steer to the slaughterhouse, something she knew had to be done, but it made her feel fifty different kinds of shitty. She said, “Good luck.” What else was there to say?
The buses that took us from the airbase to the camp were waiting. There were grenade screens on the windows and headlights, so the driver had only a narrow beam of light to guide navigation to Camp LBJ. Was it merely a coincidence that LBJ stood for Long Binh Junction and Lynden Baines Johnson? I think not.
It was pitch black in the barracks. After stumbling over dozens of people and waking up more, I found a place to lie down. I spent a few miserable hours trying to sleep, using my duffle bag as a pillow on a bunk with no mattress. I was awakened at dawn by the whirring of helicopters. I walked outside to a scene frequently depicted in the pages of Life, Time, and Newsweek; choppers, dozens of them, loaded with dirty and tired grunts coming back from night patrol. The blades of the Hueys kicked up the fine brick-red dust creating a surreal tableau that I can see as clearly today as that June morning in 1967. I was in Vietnam. Suddenly the jokes about the war, rife with black humor, didn’t seem funny. There was no humor or bravado, only a bunch of scared, tired, and frustrated kids who wanted nothing more than to get home in one piece.
But my tour of duty was not all grim. There were many good times and goofy things like the pool table in the club that was so warped when you broke the balls they all rolled to the rails. Movies were provided for our entertainment. It was actually one movie, “Trunk to Cairo,” which was shown repeatedly. But one night, I was thrilled to learn that “Lord Jim” was playing. Ready to see anything without Tony Randall, I eagerly settled in but was so tired I fell asleep after 10 minutes. Oh well.
My first night on guard duty, I was sent to the farthest post, smack in the middle of a graveyard. I was utterly alone at about 3 a.m. when I heard a low moan and saw glowing eyes moving just beyond the concertina wire. I grabbed the field phone so fast I almost ripped out all the wires. On the other end of my call, the voice of experience told me the approaching creature was a black panther who regularly cruised the wire. He must have been hungry and smelled food from the mess hall. I was instructed not to shoot him because as long as he was out there, nothing else…or no one else…would be!
Ronnie Spratt from North Carolina was a piece of work. This guy sounded exactly like Gomer Pyle. He took a fancy to Corcorans, airborne boots that some of us wore. They were hard to come by in Vietnam, so Ronnie had a custom pair made at one of the shops in Qui Nhơn. His were about half again as high as ours. He loved those boots and dubbed them his “boo-coo” boots. Boo-coo was a corruption of the French beaucoup meaning many, or in this case, BIG. He loved those boots and spent countless hours polishing them. For the first time in his young life, Ronnie had a little too much to drink one night. All right, a LOT too much to drink. In a drunken haze and seeking somewhere to drain his bladder, Ron stumbled out onto the balcony of our barracks. Thinking he was in the latrine, he let fly and, in one of those rare moments that you only see in movies. Ronnie pissed all over our commanding officer, Capt. Corey.
Uncle Sam cared about the troops’ nutrition and comfort, but sometimes supplies were, shall we say, misdirected. That is why every company had a scrounger, someone capable of redistributing goodies to deserving enlisted men. Our scrounger was Steve Poling, a master at his craft. It was an honor to tag along as he cajoled, charmed, and bamboozled cooks, supply clerks, and anyone who could make our lives more comfortable. One night he convinced a gullible guy at the supply depot that they had been high school classmates. At the end of that faux reunion, we carried away so many delights we could barely fit them all in our jeep. After Steve rotated home, a fellow named Gene Young took over the position, doing his best to correct the Army’s supply chain errors.
The mess halls were our favorite stops on patrol because we would score bags of fresh hot donuts and coffee. One afternoon one of our more skilled scroungers liberated cases of steak and lobster. Just as we fired up our makeshift BBQ to prepare our feast, a group of officers strolled by. Sports that we were, we invited them to join us for dinner. They declined, explaining they were on their way to a fine dining experience at the officer’s club. Half an hour later, they were back. The steak and lobster specially ordered for the brass had mysteriously disappeared. Go figure.
Tet was the end of fun and games. On January 30th, 1968, we were awakened in the middle of the night and told to head to the Provost Marshal’s Office in Qui Nhơn. We were told there was “some trouble” downtown. Everyone thought we were hearing fireworks and the ARVN’s firing their weapons to celebrate Lunar New Year, but it was gunfire. The enemy had chosen the biggest celebration of the year to launch attacks throughout Vietnam. But that early morning, all we knew was that we had to settle some holiday trouble downtown.
We discovered a massive contingent of Viet Cong blowing up everything in sight. We spent the predawn hours running around trying to make sense of the chaos. Explosions and automatic weapons fire filled the air. Some of us made it onto the front porch of a house just off of Vo Tanh street. It was very dark, but we could see an armored car the ARVN’s had parked in the middle of the intersection. They were exchanging fire with VC down the street near the QC station. Larry Cremeans and Ronnie Orlando had not made it to the porch. They were still near our jeep when suddenly Cremeans started yelling that Orlando had been hit. Ronnie was only 19 and had a new baby back home, a son he had never seen. We dragged him up to the porch and shone a flashlight on his shoulders and head. He had a hole in the back of his head the size of a golf ball. It was still smoking. He’d been shot through the neck, and the bullet exited near the base of his skull. He was screaming and then suddenly went limp. We figured he was gone, but a quick check of his pulse told us otherwise. We scrambled to get him to the 85th Evac Hospital, no mean feat because of all the action surrounding us. By the time we got to the medics, Orlando was soaked in blood. The expression on their faces told us everything we needed to know about his condition. But it wasn’t his time. You hear that trite phrase tossed around a lot, but if you’ve ever been in combat, you know it is true. For no discernable reason, some people make it and some don’t. The bullet that blew a chunk of skull off the back of Ronnie’s head missed all of the nerves and major blood vessels. He spent time recovering in hospitals, but he made it home to meet his son.
Others were not so lucky. Lt. Dingus Banks was a nice guy. He liked to play basketball with the troops and was well-liked. He hadn’t been in-country very long when Tet exploded. I can still hear the radio crackling and Cpl. Stevens’ voice asking for help. “Mike papa’ down.” Stevens sounded very shaken, and we knew the situation wasn’t good. I was told that Banks kicked in the door of a building and took a blast of AK-47 fire in the chest. The medics did their best, but they couldn’t save him.
Later that day, we got tagged for a mission down Vo Tanh street and across from the sports arena. A group of civilian contractors, possibly CIA, had been out partying the night before Tet started. Many years have passed, and the details are hazy, but I know for sure the VC had commandeered the radio station and were broadcasting appeals to civilians, urging them to rise up and join Uncle Ho. Their recruitment efforts failed, and the Cong were trapped in the building. I think the ARVNs had set up a roadblock to keep people away from the battle raging outside the radio station. I have been told that the civilians ignored the ARVN’s warning and drove through the roadblock. They were killed in a hail of machine-gun bullets. When we tried to retrieve the bodies, we were immediately pinned down by automatic weapons fire. Vo Tanh street was a scene out of Dante’s Inferno. You couldn’t walk without stepping on bodies, mostly Vietnamese, but some Americans too. The ARVN armored car was in the middle of the intersection of Vo Tahn and Tang Bat Ho. ARVNs were blowing the hell out of the radio station, the VC were returning fire, and there we were. I’d always heard that bullets whizzing by sound like bees buzzing. They do. Somewhere I have a slug I dug out of the ground about an inch from my leg. Bob Wizorick took some shrapnel in the arm dragging a Cam Sat out of harm’s way. When it was over, we counted the bullet holes scarring a jeep that belonged to two other MPs. I can’t remember the exact number, but it was something like 86. The driver, Phil Crittenden sustained a leg wound but survived.
That afternoon the Koreans arrived. So did the Montagnards, the indigenous people who lived in the mountains. Every year the VC would raid the Montagnard’s villages, absconding with their food, leaving just enough for survival. Understandably the Montagnards hated the VC. The Special Forces trained them to fight and equipped them with a fantastic collection of armaments. They were short and wore loincloths as they proudly marched into town, carrying weapons almost as big as they were. When the VC saw the parade of fierce warriors, they tossed their weapons and identification into garbage cans, changed clothes, and took off. It was amazing. The Koreans spent the rest of the day and that night ferreting out the stragglers. Occasionally, for a few weeks following Tet, a Korean jeep would drive to the front of the PMO and dump a couple of VC bodies. Each corpse had one ear sliced off.
Things were not the same after Tet. Qui Nhon never felt safe again. There was occasional sniper fire, sappers got into the ammo dump, and we went tactical. No tops on the jeeps, sandbags everywhere, and we were on yellow alert more nights than not, at least that is the way I remember it.
Shortly after Tet, I was transferred to ship duty. It was almost like being on vacation. We stayed on the merchant ships in the harbor and pulled guard duty. We slept in bunks with clean, crisp sheets, ate great food, and could do our laundry in real washing machines, instead of a muddy stream. It was heaven. The Army had other plans for me; after a month or so on the ships, I was transferred to the 66th MP’s in Phu Tai. We ran the highways to the north of Qui Nhon. But that’s another story, for another time.
Eventually, my tour of duty came to an end. I packed my gear and made my plane reservation to Cam Rahn Bay. It did my heart good to tell the clerk at the airfield that the flight’s purpose was “deros,” military jargon for rotating back to the States. I was going home. The flight over had been one big party. The flight attendants had worn green berets and the Special Forces troops wore the attendant’s little pink caps. It was nuts, so I anticipated an even bigger party on the way home. After all, we had made it. We were the survivors. But that flight home was the quietest plane ride I’ve ever taken. Except for the whine of the engines, you could have heard a pin drop. I looked around to see everyone staring straight ahead, stunned to leave finally. The flight attendants were kind and solicitous, but most offers of blankets, pillows, magazines, food, or drink were politely refused. We didn’t need anything else. That plane ride home was more than enough.