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.
My New Home and Job
“We’re a long, long way from home. Home’s a long, long way from us.”..........Bruce Springsteen
Our battalion was fortunate to have a mess hall that normally served three hot meals a day. Very little, if any, fresh foods were available. We had powdered milk, powdered eggs, instant potatoes, and canned meats and vegetables. My favorite breakfast item was SOS (“Shit On a Shingle”), which was browned ground beef in white “sawmill” gravy on a piece of toast. The beverage most days was coffee, powdered milk, Kool Aid, or iced tea (without the ice).
The cooks did the best they could with what they had and it sure beat C-Rations. They tried to do a little better on holidays. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, a large roasted turkey and baked ham were displayed near the entrance to the mess hall for all to see as they entered. I don’t know who eventually got to eat the turkeys and hams, but it wasn’t me or anyone I knew.
Receiving food packages in the mail was always a special treat. Canned ham was one of the best food items to receive in the mail. A lot of ham came squeezed into those cans and it wouldn’t spoil during shipping.
The battalion often held “barbecues” for the men. The mess sergeant set up a large outdoor grill and served steaks, chicken, hamburgers, baked beans, and beer. All of the officers came and mingled with the troops, but they had their own table for eating. Everyone else stood or sat on the ground.
It was a good idea to keep a few boxes of C-Rations squirreled away in case you couldn’t make it to the mess hall or you had the midnight munchies. This wasn’t like home, where you could run to the refrigerator anytime you were hungry (even though some guys did have their own small refrigerators).
Each case of C’s contained twelve meals and four small, simple can openers (called a “P-38”). It was a good idea to keep one of these with you at all times. Most guys kept one on their dog tag chain so it would be handy when needed.
Some of the “entrees” you might find in your box of C’s included:
· Beef Steak with Potatoes and Gravy
· Spiced Beef
· Ham and Eggs
· Chopped Ham Slices
· Turkey Loaf
· Meat Loaf
· Beans and Wieners
· Spaghetti and Meatballs
· Ham and Lima Beans
· Boned Chicken
· Chicken and Noodles
Each box of C’s also contained an “accessory packet,” which included a plastic spoon, salt & pepper, instant coffee, sugar, non-dairy creamer, chewing gum, cigarettes (a 4-pack of Winston, Marlboro, Salem, Pall Mall, Camel, Chesterfield, Kent, Lucky Strike, or Kool), matches, and moisture resistant toilet paper (don’t ask).
Some C’s were better than others. Although not everyone agreed on which ones were the best, most guys agreed that Ham and Lima Beans (aka “Ham and muthas”) was the worst. A lot of trading usually went on after C’s were distributed. I didn’t smoke and could use the cigarettes from my C’s for trading.
The small cans of fruit in the C’s were extremely popular. The fruit might be applesauce, fruit cocktail, peaches, or pears. C’s also included snack or dessert items such as crackers and peanut butter or pimento cheese spread, a chocolate bar, fruit cake, pecan roll, or pound cake (my favorite). You might also get lucky and find cocoa beverage powder or jam (apple, berry, grape, mixed fruit, or strawberry).
It was rumored that many of the C’s were left over from World War II. Perhaps that is why they needed a little help in the flavor department. I quickly learned the taste of C’s could be greatly improved with a generous dash of Tabasco Sauce. In fact, Tabasco Sauce was so popular, that it’s maker, the McIlhenny Company, would send a free bottle of sauce plus a cookbook entitled, “THE CHARLIE RATION COOKBOOK or No Food Is Too Good for The Man Up Front” to any service member who wrote and asked for it. Brigadier General Walter S. McIlhenny, son of the second president of McIlhenny Company, was responsible for this idea after he served in Vietnam in 1966.
Some of the recipes contained in the cookbook were for dishes such as the following:
· Fox Hole Dinner for Two (Turkey and Chicken Poulette)
· Soup Du Jour
· Breast of Chicken Under Bullets
· Battlefield PuPu (Chicken with Peanut Butter Sauce)
· Tin Can Casserole
· Combat Zone Burgoo
· Rice Patty Shrimp
There were three clubs in our battalion. An EM Club (for enlisted men of ranks E-1 through E-4), an NCO Club (for enlisted men E-5 and above), and an O Club (for officers). I don’t believe there was a Senior NCO club (for E-7 and above) in our battalion area. The Army was a big believer in “rank has its privileges” and managed to keep the lower ranks separated from the “lifers.”
The EM Club was where I would go for a beer until I was promoted to SP5 (E-5) and could go to the NCO Club. Even after making SP5 I often went to the EM Club because most of my friends were E-4 or below. The EM Club was probably the only building in the battalion area made of concrete blocks with a concrete floor. If I remember correctly it was small, about half the size of a hooch. A short wooden bar with stools and several tables with chairs furnished the club. There were a couple of “Coca Cola” drink boxes (the kind with a hinged top) behind the bar and a radio that provided music courtesy of AFVN (Armed Forces Vietnam Network).
The O Club was next door to the H&HB CP so I was able to see the club’s interior. It was a hooch that had been converted into a club. The officers made a few alterations in an attempt to make it more comfortable and to allow them, I suppose, to pretend they were somewhere other than Vietnam. They even managed to obtain a window air conditioning unit, which seemed like a foolish idea. Hooches were screen, plywood, and tin with absolutely no insulation. Putting an air conditioner into something like that would be totally useless. But the officers covered the screens with sheets of thick polyethylene and used plywood to add interior walls. They filled the area between the interior and exterior plywood walls with Styrofoam “peanuts” from the crates of artillery shells as insulation. The air conditioner did actually cool the club down by a few degrees, especially if the officer stood directly in front of the unit.
My first day at Camp Eagle was a hot one so that night I visited the EM Club looking forward to a cold beer. I ordered a PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon). The bartender opened one of the Coca Cola boxes, pulled out a can of beer, and sat it in front of me. I picked up the can and was startled and disappointed to discover that it was hot.
“Hey, this beer is hot!” I said.
The bartender then told me the Coca Cola boxes were only used for storing the beer and soft drinks. They weren’t refrigerated and there was no ice available to put in them. Those boxes hadn’t actually chilled anything in years.
One night when I was in the EM club we were visited by a couple of Donut Dollies. Donut Dollies worked for the American Red Cross Supplemental Recreation Overseas program. These were young women with college degrees who spent one year in Vietnam as morale boosters for the GI’s. That night they divided us into two teams to play a quiz show type of game. I remember one of the categories was “Drugs and Disorders,” which seemed kind of strange for a group of GI’s. My team won handily (being a pharmacist didn’t hurt). I believe that was the only time I ever saw a Donut Dollie.
The more common beer brands in the EM club included Hamms, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Budweiser, Carling Black Label, and Falstaff (lite beer had not yet been invented, thank God). I had always been a PBR man so I was happy. Black Label was not considered a very desirable brew, especially when hot and it should come as no surprise to learn that Carling Black Label beer did not sell very well. Therefore, it was often the only beer available before the monthly resupply was received. After the new supply came in the club would hold back the new beer until all of the remaining Black Label had been sold.
Fresca was the soft drink equivalent of Black Label. If you thought hot Black Label beer was awful, you would probably agree that a hot Fresca was the worse tasting soft drink ever made. If any Fresca was still in stock at resupply, it too would have to be sold before any of the new supply of soft drinks was sold.
One of our monthly re-supply shipments of beer and soft drinks was delayed because of a VC attack on the antiquated Vietnamese train used to haul many of our supplies from the port in Danang. Most of the beer and soft drink cases were badly shot up, leaving us only with Fresca and Black Label until the shipment could be replaced. War was hell.
The Vogel Amphitheater was located next to the EM club. It was named after a former Battalion Commander who was KIA prior to my arrival. The amphitheater had a wooden stage with a large back wall painted white on which movies were projected several nights a week. Benches were constructed by nailing boards across the tops of posts that had been driven into the ground leaving a couple of feet of the post above ground. The benches were in rows that formed a semi-circle in front of the stage. The hill provided a natural incline for the benches and gave the amphitheater somewhat of a “theater-type seating” feel.
The amphitheater played host to USO shows that featured bands with go-go dancers performing the latest hits from the US. Most of these groups were Filipino, Korean, Asian, or occasionally, Aussie bands that did a pretty good job covering British and American rock groups.
Continued in Chapter 26, Red Alert!…