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 Oakland Repo Depot
“We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing themselves.”...............Lyndon Baines Johnson
On July 23, 1969 I was on a non-stop flight from Atlanta, GA to San Francisco, CA and the Oakland “Repo Depot” (Army Replacement Depot). A song was stuck in my head (not uncommon for me) and it was all I could hear for most of the flight. The song was, “If You’re Going to San Francisco” (be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair) by Scott McKenzie. He sang about the summer of love and San Francisco where it all began. It was summertime all right and I was going to San Francisco, but I damn sure wasn’t going to a love-in.
My orders included a phone number to call upon arrival in San Francisco to arrange transportation from the airport to the Repo Depot. The deadline for reporting was midnight on July 23. I was in no hurry to get there before midnight and stretched my freedom out as long as I could. I dialed the number around 2330 hours (11:30 PM) to request my transportation and was told something to the effect, “Well, you just did make it on time.” I couldn’t help but think, “What could they do to me if I was late, send me to Vietnam?” My ride soon arrived and I was delivered to the Repo Depo where I began standing in the usual “in-processing” lines. This lasted from about midnight to breakfast. I had been without sleep for 24 hours by this time and was beginning to tire. I hoped that breakfast might help me recoup some of my lost energy.
I was standing in the breakfast chow line and quietly minding my own business when a sergeant walked by, tapped my shoulder, and said, “Follow Me.” He had pulled me and several other guys out of line for a “special detail.” I was fed a quick breakfast in the kitchen before riding around all morning in the back of a laundry truck picking up bags of dirty linen and delivering them to the laundry in the basement of the Army’s Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco. The University of Georgia’s pharmacy school had not prepared me for this side of healthcare.
At some point (I don’t remember exactly when), during my brief stay at the Repo Depot I was issued new clothing to better suit the climate and environment of Vietnam. The dorky-looking ball cap was the same I had worn in AIT but the jungle fatigues were quite different. The olive green cloth of the jungle fatigues was a much lighter cotton poplin, which would be cooler and dry faster than our old fatigues. There were large pockets in both the “jungle jacket” (shirt) and the “jungle trousers.” The jacket was allowed to hang outside of the pants instead of being tucked into the pants, as required with our other fatigues. This uniform would be cooler and allow for greater and easier range of motion. Also, unlike the old fatigue shirt, the sleeves on the jungle jacket were rolled up above the elbow.
Our black leather combat boots were traded-in for the much more comfortable and lighter “jungle boot.” The pant legs of the jungle trousers were “bloused” at the top of the boots. “Blousing Garters” secured the bottom of the pant leg to the top of the boot, causing the pant leg to “balloon” out around the boot top. The boots had black leather toes and heels with green nylon-duck sides and uppers. They also had drainage eyelets in the sides to allow the foot to breath and allow water to escape. In the sole of each boot was a thin steel plate to protect the foot from Punji Sticks. These were sharpened stakes of wood or bamboo that were placed upright in the ground, usually in a shallow pit, in hopes that an American soldier would impale a foot on one of the sticks. Human excrement was commonly smeared on the sticks to insure infection, should someone be unlucky enough to step on one of these stakes.
We were also issued olive green boxer shorts, olive green T-shirts, and olive green boot socks. For the less common cooler temperatures, which were mainly during the rainy monsoon season, we received an olive green field jacket made of nylon cotton sateen (per the label). The jacket had a hood for cold and/or wet weather.
After handling dirty laundry all morning, I returned to the Repo Depot and after lunch was assigned a bunk, into which I quickly collapsed. I was able to nap for no more than an hour when the PA system’s loudspeaker interrupted my sleep. It called everyone to the second of three mandatory daily formations. I dragged myself outside and stood in the formation as names were called out. These were the names of guys being sent to the POR (Processing for Overseas Replacement) barracks, putting them a step closer to Vietnam. These formations were akin to torture. Hundreds of guys were required to get up, go outside, and wait in a formation while names were called out over the PA system, which could easily be heard in the barracks. Why was it necessary for everyone to come out for a formation? Why didn’t they just announce the names and have those guys go outside for formation? I guess that would make too much sense. Remember, this was the U.S. Army. They enjoyed making everyone do things the hard way. My name was not included in the list and we were dismissed to march over to the mess hall for dinner.
It seemed like things were going from bad to worse as I was once again pulled from the chow line for another “special detail.” I tried to explain to the sergeant that it wasn’t fair, but the Army doesn’t like whining. I was marched over to the “Vietnam Returnee’s Steakhouse” and placed on all-night KP duty. I didn’t have to work in the kitchen, although my assigned duty was not exactly pleasant. All night long I waited tables and served steaks to planeloads of GI’s just returned from their tour in Vietnam. I was forced to listen to their stories, laughter, and jokes. They were probably the happiest people I have ever seen in my life. Their time in hell was over and mine had yet to begin. I was not ready for this morale-killing assignment and was in a dark mood throughout the night. I was released from KP duty after breakfast and made my way slowly back to my bunk without being singled out for any more “special assignments.” I had been awake for 48 hours by this time and had no trouble falling immediately to sleep.
I had been sleeping soundly for about an hour the morning after my all night KP duty at the “Returnee’s Steakhouse” when that damned PA system came to life. They must have read my earlier thoughts because this time there was no formation called. Instead they announced the names of the guys who were to report to the POR barracks. My name was one of those announced.
The POR barracks was a huge windowless warehouse filled with thousands of GIs. Once inside, the only way out was by boarding a bus for Travis Air Force base. Signs were posted cautioning that photography was not allowed inside the building. Bunks were stacked three high. Lights burned around the clock and the PA system continuously blared out names and assignments. Meals were boxes of C-Rations tossed from a passing cart. There was no way to tell day from night without a watch. We were quarantined from the world. On July 25, 1969, The “Nixon Doctrine,” advocating U.S. assistance to nations around the world fighting communism, was made public, but those of us in the POR barracks never heard about it.
The POR barracks was the last place for any “out-processing” to occur before being bussed to the airbase. This included a last minute check to make certain all of your records were in order, especially the shot record. Missing or incomplete shot records meant multiple injections would be administered in a very short time. I had clung tightly to my shot record, but I did observe at least two soldiers receive multiple injections in both arms because they had lost or forgotten their shot records. I’m sure they were sore and probably sick as hell shortly thereafter.
I finally managed to find a phone booth and make a quick call to Carol Ann. By then I was going on three days with almost no sleep and had reached the point of exhaustion, making it impossible for me to control my emotions. I broke down and cried in the phone booth as I related to Carol Ann what I was going through and how tired I was. I hadn’t slept more than an hour or two in the past three days and I was leaving for Vietnam with no idea how I was going to maintain my sanity. If I couldn’t hold myself together while still on U.S. soil how would I find the strength necessary to endure the coming year? I said a last goodbye to Carol Ann and reluctantly went back to my bunk and waited. There was nothing else I could do. It wasn’t long until my name was blaring from the loud speakers. I headed to the final checkpoint before boarding the bus.
On July 26, 1969, dressed in my newly issued, bright green, stiff jungle fatigues and jungle boots, I grabbed my duffel bag and was herded aboard a bus for transport to Travis Air Force Base. I remembered how faded and soft the fatigues of the GI’s in the Steakhouse had looked. I couldn’t wait until my shiny new fatigues were dingy and faded.
The latest Gallup poll reported that 53% of Americans approved of President Nixon’s new war strategy. I was going to his war and didn’t even know what the new (or old for that matter) strategy was.
Out on the highway it all began to sink in. I was really on my way to Vietnam and a real shooting war. My head swiveled almost continuously, letting my eyes drink in as much as possible through the bus windows. I would not see the USA again for twelve long months, if ever, and wanted to remember as much of everything as I could.
The bus took us right out on the tarmac and parked close to a chartered AIRLIFT INTERNATIONAL Boeing 707. We “dismounted” (Army talk for “unloaded”) the bus and boarded the Boeing 707. There were no first class or business class sections. The entire aircraft was configured as economy class and approximately 260 of us were packed in like cattle.
I was very surprised to discover real “stewardesses” (they were not yet liberated and thus were not called ‘flight attendants’) welcoming us aboard. For some of the men this would be their first time in an airplane and these stewardesses were the last American girls they would ever see.
We flew the Great Circle Route that took us first to Alaska and then Osaka, Japan for fuel stops before reaching Vietnam almost 9,000 miles and 20 hours later. There was very little sleep on the airplane. Everyone was both excited and frightened at the same time. Some men talked and laughed loudly as others attempted to concentrate on reading or playing cards. There was no alcohol served on board but there was plenty of food and beverages available during the flight.
We were not allowed to deplane the aircraft in Alaska, but we were allowed to get off and stretch our legs in Osaka while the aircraft was serviced. I don’t remember the time of day; only that it was a hot and humid night. I was surprised at the seeming lack of security or customs officials around the airport. I walked off of the tarmac, through the airport terminal, and right out the front door where I stood on the sidewalk and looked at the neon lights of the city. I could have just walked off into the darkness had I wanted.
After departing Osaka, we flew south, skirting Red China and North Vietnam. The closer we got to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), the quieter the cabin of the airliner became. You could tell there was a lot of thinking going on. I have often wondered how many men on that airplane made it home alive.
I pulled out a small notepad that I had brought with me and began to write. A GI sitting next to me asked what I was doing.
“Starting a journal to document my year in Vietnam.”
“You can’t do that! It’s against regulations.”
“Because if you are killed or captured the VC can use that for propaganda. They could call or write to those back home whose names you put in the journal. They could tell them a lot of bad stuff about you being a prisoner or how they killed you.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that” I said and put the notebook away. I never did keep a journal or diary in Vietnam. I wish I had been sitting next to someone else and had never heard what he said. It would have made writing this memoir much easier. But I was a “by the rules” kind of guy.
It was still dark, around 0300 or 0400 hours (3:00 or 4:00 AM) local time when the captain’s voice came over the intercom instructing us to turn off all cabin lights and lower our window shades. He turned off all of the airplane’s exterior running lights and explained that he would be making a steep spiraling descent in order to present less of a target to anyone on the ground. “Jeez,” I thought. “You mean there is a chance we could be shot down?” He wasn’t joking; the descent was very steep and the aircraft was banked in a tight spiral. It was like sliding down a giant corkscrew. It was obvious that he wanted to get the aircraft on the ground as quickly as possible. Against the captain’s orders, I raised the shade an inch or two and peaked out into the darkness. Off in the distance I could see red tracers arcing up into the night sky. I was going into an actual war zone for the first time in my life, which was both exhilarating and terrifying. We had arrived in the Republic of Vietnam and were landing at Bien Hoa Airbase on the outskirts of Saigon. I have since heard many Vietnam vets talk about how much fun they had in Saigon. For me, Bien Hoa was as close as I would ever get to the city.
Continued in Chapter 22, Good Morning, Vietnam!…