Ain’t Released Me Yet
Memoirs of a REMF
Copyright© 2016 by Robert B. Martin, IV
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission from the copyright owner, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal. I have attempted to recreate events, locales, and conversations from my memories of them.
Good Morning, Vietnam!
“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.”.....Rudyard Kipling
It was early morning on July 27, 1969 when the aircraft touched down. President Nixon, himself, would be landing here in only 3 days for a visit with South Vietnamese President Thieu. It would be his first, and only, visit to Vietnam. The sun had yet to rise but the airbase was a flurry of activity. The pilot wasted no time in bringing the aircraft to a stop. He reversed the engines and stood hard on the brakes as soon as the wheels touched the runway. It seemed as if the door was being opened before the plane even stopped rolling. Once it was open you could taste, smell, and feel the hot, thick, humid, air that began violating the interior of the aircraft. Oh, how it stank! How would I ever get used to this horrible smell?
A sergeant appeared in the doorway so fast that he must have been running beside the airplane with a ladder. As soon as he came through the door he grabbed the cabin intercom and immediately began reminding us that we were in a combat zone and would have three minutes to exit the aircraft after he finished telling us where the trenches and bunkers were located, how to get to them, and what to do should the air base come under attack. Then he hung up the microphone and began moving us quickly off the aircraft.
He led us away from the aircraft at a jog. I looked over my left shoulder and saw a long line of GI’s in old, faded, well-worn jungle fatigues waiting to take our place on the aircraft for their flight home and and their meal in the Vietnam Returnees Steakhouse, with which I was so familiar. They were smiling and yelling at us. They called us “Cherries,” “FNGs” (Fucking New Guys), and “Fresh meat.”
A little further on, at the edge of the flight line, was a sobering sight that burned an image in my mind that I can never forget. Under a tin-roofed shed, shiny aluminum coffins were stacked on flatbed trailers waiting to be loaded onto a transport plane for the long ride home. None of us wanted to go home that way.
I didn’t know it then, but by the end of my first week in Vietnam, 6,933 American servicemen had been killed in action since the first of the year. During that same seven months another 50,058 had been wounded. Since the first American was killed in Vietnam in 1961 there had been a total of 37,459 killed when I arrived at the end of July 1969. The war was supposed to be winding down and yet another 17,000 would die before it was all over.
As of 31 July 1969 there were 537,000 members of the Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy, and even the Coast Guard stationed within the borders of South Vietnam with another 32,600 off shore (Navy and Coast Guard). American strength in Vietnam had peaked in April 1969 with a total troop level of 543,400 American military personnel. It didn’t seem to be winding down to me.
We passed the coffins and continued at double-time to a large, open shed. It was simply a large tin roof supported by wooden poles. There were no walls and it had a dirt floor. It was filled with wooden benches on which we were instructed to sit. It was still dark, I was in a strange country that smelled bad, and I didn’t know where I would be assigned or what was going to happen to me. All of a sudden there was a tremendously loud noise. “KA - WHAM”! We all hit the ground as we had been instructed and tried to cover our heads. We still had no weapons. We had been “in-country” for less than ten minutes and knew that we were about to die. I waited for another salvo, wondering if it would find us and end our very short tour of duty. Instead of being blown away we heard the sound of heavy rain pounding on the tin roof along with the sergeant’s maniacal laughter. We had just experienced our first tropical monsoon rainstorm. It happened that fast, no gradual build-up. Just the “WHAM” of thunder accompanied by the pounding of heavy rain on the tin roof.
Shouting over the noise of the rain, the sergeant explained that we were to board buses for a ride to the 90th Replacement Depot, another Repo Depot, where we would await assignment to our units. There was to be more in- and out-processing. As we boarded the olive drab army bus I noticed chicken wire covering the windows.
“Is it supposed to keep us from jumping out?” someone asked the sergeant in an attempt at humor.
“No,” the sergeant answered. “It’s to keep the locals from tossing hand grenades through the windows as we ride through the villages.” That was just great to hear. And we still had no weapons.
A sign reading “Welcome to Vietnam” greeted us to the 90th Replacement Battalion, located in Long Binh. Unlike World War II and wars since Vietnam, soldiers did not train and deploy as a unit. A soldier sent to Vietnam went first to a Repo Depot to wait until an Army unit requested a replacement. If the soldier had the proper MOS he was sent to the requesting unit, probably to replace another GI who had gone home, been killed, or was medevacked (medically evacuated). He would be the new kid in the unit, the “Cherry,” and not know anyone in the unit. The “old timers” would tend to avoid him until they decided whether or not he was an OK guy. This “willy-nilly” replacement by a newly trained, wet-behind-the-ears GI could limit a unit’s esprit de corps or cohesiveness, if it had any to begin with. The veterans didn’t always trust the “cherry” and it could take weeks or months, if ever, for the new guy to feel accepted.
The army installation at Long Binh, just outside the city of Bien Hoa and about 20 miles north of Saigon, was called Camp LBJ (for Long Binh Junction, not Lyndon Baines Johnson). A nearby military stockade was also called LBJ, Long Binh Jail.
We filed out of the bus and were assigned bunks where we stowed our gear before standing in yet another formation. This time, the in-processing included a welcome and orientation by an officer. We were told not to “fraternize” with the Vietnamese women because they all had a strain of incurable venereal disease and if any of us were to catch it we would be sent to live on an island in the South China Sea for the rest of our lives and our families would be told that we were Missing in Action (MIA)! During World War II soldiers only had to watch a movie about venereal disease and the use of condoms. We weren’t told about condoms, only the supposedly incurable venereal disease. I recognized bullshit when I heard it.
After the welcome speech we were herded into another building where we turned in all of our U.S. money. In exchange we were given Military Payment Certificates (MPC), which looked like “play” or Monopoly money. It was all paper and issued in denominations of $.05, $.10, $.25, $1.00, $5.00, and $10.00. The notes were about half the size of U.S. paper currency and printed in just about every color except green. There was no way of mistaking it for U.S. currency. American Dollars were in big demand in Vietnam because the country’s currency, the Dong (or Piastre, called “P”), was not recognized in foreign trade. The use of MPC instead of U.S. dollars was supposed to prevent the buying and selling of U.S. currency on the black market. We were paid in MPC and could use MPC at all U.S. installations. At the end of our tour, or when going on R&R, the MPC would be exchanged for U.S. currency (or local currency in the case of R&R).
Although MPC was for use only by U.S. military personnel, much of it still ended up in civilian hands. Many Vietnamese would accept MPC in place of Vietnamese currency. The Vietnamese could use them to purchase goods on the black market. MPC on the black market was worth more than its face value and was favored over the local currency. The potential problem for the Vietnamese accepting MPC was the possibility of it suddenly becoming worthless. MPC banknote styles were frequently changed to deter black marketers and to reduce hoarding. The conversion day, or “C-Day” would be a closely guarded secret. These days usually occurred at least once a year, but actual dates were randomly chosen. On the morning of a C-Day, all U.S. installations would be closed and all U.S. personnel were restricted to base, preventing soldiers from helping Vietnamese civilians convert their MPC to the new series. No Vietnamese would be allowed inside the gates on C-Day. Officers would setup tables and exchange the MPC of military personnel for the new series. This was the only day that MPC could be exchanged. The next day, only the new series had any value and the previous series was worthless.
We were finally able to get some sleep after the in-processing. As a matter of fact, about all we did at the 90th Replacement was sleep, eat, and stand in formations for assignments. I had been there for about two days and was standing in a formation when I could have sworn that I heard my name called, assigning me to the 101st Airborne Division. Surely, I must have heard wrong. I wasn’t a paratrooper. I didn’t jump out of airplanes. When the formation was dismissed I walked up to the Sergeant who had made the announcements.
“Did you really call my name, Sarge?”
“Yes, I did.”
“And I am assigned to the 101st Airborne Division?”
“Yes, you are.”
“But, there must be some mistake.” I said. “I’m not jump qualified.”
“Nobody jumps out of airplanes over here.” said the Sergeant. “They just need bodies.”
“That sounds just fucking great. Where is the 101st located?”
“Up near the DMZ, in Northern I (pronounced EYE) Corps.”
I began to worry about the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) being the only thing separating me from North Vietnam. I had also heard the VC (Viet Cong) had placed a $100 bounty on the heads of 101st Troopers. That was big money in a country where people would work for $1 a day. In the event there was a bounty, all villages were off limits to 101st troopers.
I gathered my gear and made ready for another move. This time I was being sent to the Screaming Eagle Replacement Training School (SERTS) near Bien Hoa.
Continued in Chapter 23, The Screaming Eagles…