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.
The Screaming Eagles
“It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.”...........Lewis Carroll
I was now a member of the famed 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), a Screaming Eagle. The division motto was, “Rendezvous with Destiny.” I wasn’t particularly looking forward to that rendezvous.
At SERTS we were assigned bunks in large tents that were erected on wooden platforms. Each tent was filled with double-decked bunks with little or no personal space. The mattresses were thin, mildewed, and full of sand. It was hot and humid, even at night. All I could think about was living for a year in this miserable filth and stink! The eight weeks I spent training in Missouri’s icy slush seemed a joke at this point.
SERTS was a one week, eighty hour, training course designed to acclimatize us to the weather and to learn about booby traps, patrols, and ambushes. In some circles it was referred to as the “charm school.” Training seemed to consist mostly of instructors pointing out the many ways one could be killed in Vietnam. If it was meant to impress us it sure worked on me. It didn’t matter whether your MOS was cook, clerk, grunt, or mechanic. Everyone was required to participate. We were taken on practice patrols in “safe” areas during which we took turns walking point (front) position. The instructor stopped each point man after he had walked a short distance and explained what he had missed and why he was now “dead.” When my turn came to die he told me that I had stepped on an anti-personnel mine hidden beneath one of the many thousands of leaves carpeting the ground. How could I have seen it? The whole experience felt like we were playing a game. Bang. You are dead. Go to the back of the line. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200. I had to keep telling myself that this was no game.
One important skill I did learn was how to cool canned drinks (beer and soft drinks) without ice while in the field. We would bury cans of Coke or beer in a hole under about a foot of loose dirt. Then we poured gasoline over the loose soil and lit it (nobody told me where I was to obtain the gasoline). Supposedly, the flames would suck cool air up through the earth, lowering the temperature of the cans. I doubt if it lowered the temperature by much more than a few degrees from the temperature of the hot air above ground. It was ironic. Only three weeks earlier I had watched man land a spaceship on the moon and now I was being taught to live like a cave man.
The instructors reinforced the brainwashing and our understanding that the Vietnamese were subhuman during the week of SERTS. The Vietnamese were constantly referred to as Slants, Gooks, Dinks, or Slopes. The goal, of course, was to dehumanize the Vietnamese people so it would be easier to kill them. It was almost impossible to tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys” because the VC did not wear uniforms. As I mentioned earlier, a common saying among the soldiers was, “Kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out!”
Next to the SERTS PX was a line of tin sheds housing small Vietnamese shops. I purchased a “booney hat” (floppy-brimmed jungle hat) to wear in place of the nerdy looking standard issue ball cap in one of these shops.
One night during SERTS training I was assigned to guard duty on the bunker line. The bunker line, or perimeter, was the first line of defense for the installation. There were four men, all “cherries,” per bunker. The bunkers were about 50 yards apart with miles of coiled concertina (razor wire) between and in front of the bunkers. “No-man’s-land” was a narrow strip of land completely devoid of vegetation on the outside of the wire.
Each bunker was constructed partially below ground with layers of sandbags covering a timbered roof. A front firing slit was above ground and ran the width of the bunker. The entrance was located at the rear and was “L” shaped to make a blast wall to prevent an outside blast from blowing straight in through the door. The weapons consisted of our personal M-16s, one M60 machine gun, and an M79 grenade launcher. Inside the bunker was a field telephone for communicating with the Officer- or Sergeant-of-the-Guard. Our orders specified that only two men were to be inside the bunker at any time unless we were attacked. This was to prevent all four men from being killed should a VC crawl through the wire undetected and toss a satchel charge into the bunker. We were also on 50% alert, meaning only two of the four men were allowed to sleep at any one time. Two men were supposed to be inside the bunker on guard, while the other two men slept on top of the bunker.
We each took a six-pack of hot Cokes with us to slake our thirst and help us stay awake. We weren’t allowed to light a fire to cool them so we would drink them hot. Things were going well until it got dark. Similar to our night training in BCT, there was no moon and the darkness was so thick that I could almost feel it. It was impossible to see your hand in front of your face. We had to do everything by feel.
It didn’t take long for us to forget about having two men sleep on top of the bunker. We remembered the marching song from BCT and did not want to be outside when old “Charlie Cong comes a creeping” up in the darkness to slit our throats. We would stick together and take our chances with the possible satchel charge that might be tossed into the bunker. We would also be on 100% alert. None of us planned on sleeping.
We had finished all of our Cokes by 0100 or 0200 hours (1:00 or 2:00 AM) and were so high on sugar, caffeine, and adrenalin we were vibrating, or maybe we were simply trembling in fear. That’s about the time we began seeing movement to our front. All four of us were certain of it. One of the guys quickly picked up the field telephone and reported our sighting. Within a minute mortars were firing parachute flares to illuminate the no-man’s-land to our front. Our weapons were “locked and loaded” (the magazines were in place and a round was in the chamber), the safeties were off, and our fingers were ready to pull the trigger on anyone out there. We soon realized that no one was really out there and the flares eventually died away. This scenario was repeated several times over the next couple of hours and all four of us, though not willing to admit it, were terrified. We were lined up at the firing slit; M-16s ready and trigger fingers itching. However, we hadn’t forgotten about the bunker entrance behind us. We had prepared for any VC who might attempt to slip up behind us by stacking all twenty-four empty Coke cans across the rear entrance to the bunker. In the blackness of the night we knew that no intruder would be able to see our “early warning system” and the resulting clamor would give us adequate time to turn around and blow the sons-of-bitches to kingdom come.
We were staring hard, trying to see through the blackness. We were afraid to blink our eyes, fearful that we wouldn’t see the VC sneaking up on us. Sweat was trickling down our faces and our sweaty uniforms were stuck to our skin. It was our first week in Vietnam and we knew we would be dead before daylight. All of a sudden there was a loud racket at the back door. The cans were being knocked over! I swung my M-16 towards the entrance, trigger finger trembling, and was beginning to take the slack out of the trigger when, a split-second before firing, I heard a very loud “GODDAMN, SHIT, WHAT THE FUCK!” in good AMERICAN English. It was the Officer of the Guard making his rounds to check on us and boy was he pissed! I was also quite upset myself.
I actually yelled at the officer. I shouted something like, “I ALMOST SHOT YOU!”
He then proceeded to chew us out because we hadn’t kept two people outside of the bunker as ordered. He should have been thankful that he wasn’t dead instead of jumping in our shit.
I completed the SERTS training on August 6, 1969 and departed Long Binh on an Army C-7 “Caribou,” a short-field takeoff and landing (STOL), twin turbo-prop utility aircraft. The flight would cover about 480 miles. Our destination was Phu Bai and Camp Eagle, the 101st Airborne Division’s large base camp, in Thua Thien province. Thua Thien was the second northernmost province in what was known in South Vietnam as the Northern Highlands. The capital of the Thua Thien province was the ancient imperial city of Hue. The northernmost province was Quang Tri and its capital city was Dong Ha.
Shortly after takeoff the aircraft developed an engine malfunction and we were forced to make an emergency landing at the 14th Aerial Port in Cam Ranh Bay, located on a peninsula overlooking the South China Sea. A sergeant met the aircraft as we exited and told us much the same thing we had heard when we exited the 707 at Binh Hoa. “You are now in a combat zone and subject to enemy action at any moment. If you hear the alarm, seek shelter immediately.” The sergeant directed us to the Quonset hut that served as the terminal. Here we were to wait until the engine repairs were completed.
This would have been a tropical ocean-side paradise if it were not in a war zone. I noted the weather was mostly hot and humid with clear skies as I walked across the tarmac. Having learned the hard way that it could suddenly rain, I checked the weather report, which was written on a chalkboard inside the terminal. Rain showers were forecast for the late afternoon and I wasn’t going to mistake them for enemy fire this time.
A sign above the entrance to the terminal building read, “Through This Aerial Port Pass More Men Who Believe in Freedom and Human Dignity Than Any Other Aerial Port in the World.”
I tossed my duffel onto a stack of others in a corner and found a bench where I could sit and wait. There was nothing else to do. I had been ordered not to wander off because we would be leaving as soon as the repairs were completed. I checked the weather report again. No changes.
About an hour later I was told the engine was beyond repair and required replacement. The replacement engine would be flown in but the repairs would not be completed until after dark so we were stuck in Cam Ranh Bay for the night. I would have to sleep on the floor of the terminal.
No longer forced to remain in the terminal, I decided to take a look around. I walked over to the base PX and as I was walking back to the terminal noticed casualties being transferred from an Army bus onto a USAF Military Airlift Command flight to either Japan or the US. At least these men weren’t going back in aluminum caskets as I had seen on my first morning in the country.
I returned to the terminal and settled in as best I could. I was still warming the bench and reading a paperback shortly after midnight, when I heard what I suspected was the distant rumbling of thunder (rain WAS forecast). I was determined not to look like a fool again by mistaking thunder for incoming (in-bound enemy rockets, artillery, or mortar shells). The sergeant wearing the faded fatigues and worn boots sitting next to me looked like he had been in-country for some time. He didn’t flinch at the sound and didn’t seem at all concerned. There was another thunder-like BOOM and I turned to the sergeant and casually remarked, “It sounds like rain.”
“That’s not thunder, those are mortars, but they are too far away to worry about” he answered.
No sooner had he said that than there was a very loud, building shaking, KER – BLAM!, and the sergeant jumped up, ran to the corner of the room where we had tossed our duffle bags, and began burrowing beneath the pile. Being a fast learner, I was right behind him making my own burrow into the duffle bags. A rocket had slammed into the flight line!
The explosions continued for ten or fifteen minutes, some closer than others. Finally, there was silence and the sergeant and I crawled out from our make-do “bunker” and went outside to learn what had happened. It was around 0100 hours (1:00 AM) on August 7, 1969.
VC sappers, reportedly numbering only six men, had cut through the perimeter wire at the northern end of the airbase and attacked the 6th Convalescent Center. They had raced through the hospital; tossing satchel charges into the patient wards. At that same time, a barrage of 107mm rockets along with mortar round hit the flight line.
It all happened very fast and the sappers were able to withdraw without any casualties. There were two U.S. KIA’s and ninety-eight WIA’s. Both of the KIA’s and fifty-three of the WIA’s were patients in the hospital.
Of the ninety-four buildings in the compound, four were totally destroyed and fifteen others were significantly damaged. The destroyed buildings included the hospital’s water tower and officer barracks in addition to two hospital wards. Eight more hospital wards suffered major damage. The closest impact to the terminal building and my duffle bag bunker was only about two to three hundred meters away. Several aircraft on the flight line suffered significant damage. Fortunately, ours was not among those and we would be able to complete our flight north after sunrise.
Continued in Chapter 24, I Arrive at Camp Eagle…