January 1969-Oakland Army Base to the Republic of Vietnam
My orders were to report to Oakland Army Base on the 1st of January 1969. My flight got called on the 3rd. We took off from Travis AFB, refueled in Honolulu and, in the morning, refueled on Guam. Next stop was Vietnam. When we dropped out of the clouds I thought I was looking at the moon. There were bomb craters everywhere. Filled with water, they reflected the sky like mirrors. I don't know where that was geographically, but that was nothing like anywhere I was to go in Vietnam. Everything looked deceptively calm and peaceful. Were the VC lurking in the shadows just waiting to pop one of the new guys? How do we get off the plane? Do the incoming guys get off the back while the outgoing guys enter the front, take their seats and away they go? I really expected to run into slit trenches as mortar rounds impacted around us. When the plane stopped, we casually deplaned. Everyone was just standing around; didn't they know there was supposed to be a war going on? From Bien Hoa Air Base, we went to Long Binh. Was the wire mesh on the windows of the bus to keep us in or to keep the bad guys out? Checked my watch -1:30 pm 5Jan69. We were called outside for formations at several times during the day to read off duty assignments for those who received orders. They'd call out "4th Infantry Division"- no I don't want to go to the Highlands-too cold. "64th Evac Hospital"- ok, that sounds nice and cozy. "First Air Cav"- nope, I'm afraid of heights. "First Infantry Division"- no, please, not the infantry, I don't want to walk. The trucks for Di An left Long Binh in the late afternoon.
Di An and the Big Red One
We arrived at dinner time so we ate right away then later had a briefing with an E-6 who told us what we'd be doing in Di An for the next few days- getting processed into the Big Red One and receiving our individual unit assignments. When finished he asked if there were any questions. One new guy raised his hand and asked, "Is it true that two infantry companies got wiped out near the Cambodian border over the holidays?" The SSgt answered, "Yea. So, all you 11-Bs can count on taking their place, all you medics will be walking behind them and all you cooks and mechanics will be walking behind them." This was not what I wanted to hear. I was so bummed out that I went right to bed. That was the longest night of my life. "Well, I asked for it. I may just as well make the best out of what is to come. There is a lot more people who make it through this than don't. From what I've seen, it doesn't take a superhero to survive the Nam, so I'll just make do with whatever comes along."
Dale Sprague, another guy from my former unit at Ft. Lewis [the 551 Med. Co. (Amb)] had also gone to the 1ID. In fact he was on the plane in front of mine all the way from the U.S. On the next day at Di An he got stuck on KP, so I went through processing before he did. While waiting, I picked up some orders that were left on the floor. I found Dale's assignment- the 1/5 Field Artillery; he didn't have to walk! At lunch I gave him the good news; still no word about me. That afternoon I found orders with my name on them: Aid Station; First Squadron, Fourth U.S.Cavalry! At Ft. Lewis we had the 12th Cav. All they did was drive around, make noise and raise dust. Neat, I don't have to walk!
The First Squadron, Fourth United States Cavalry; Prepared and Loyal
The Aid Station at Di An was located near the mess hall. Behind it was our hooch and to its side a bunker. Beyond the bunker was a brick building under construction. The Vietnamese doing the brick work would keep piling row upon row of bricks with no regard to the leveling of the rows. Once near the top they built up the mortar until the top row was then level. Not how we would do it in the States, but I guess the Vietnamese knew what they were doing without my input.
Nothing much happened during the first couple of weeks in country. I worked on my tan doing details around the perimeter. All us new guys had to go to training class. At the end of the class we went on a short patrol outside the wire. I traded my 45 for a machinegunner's M-16. We were approaching the Tet holiday and everybody was getting nervous with what had happened the year before. Nothing happened on the patrol, but the M16 got heavy and, knowing what I know now, I should have kept my load light with the 45. The war seemed remote until a trooper came into the Aid Station from one of the line Troops. An ACAV (Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicle-a modified M113 Armored Personnel Carrier) had hit a mine and part of the driver was still in the driver's compartment. One of the older guys volunteered to scrape it out. I got to spend time with some of the older guys, Mims and Hiem had both been out with A-Troop. They suggested that I get to know everybody in my platoon so as to make an assessment of whether they might go into shock if they got hit. I was also advised in advance not to make any friends. The emotional stress of putting one of your friends in a body bag was a risk not worth taking. Now I really wondered about what I'd gotten myself into. The DIs at Ft. Lewis would call us "Boxey." At some point during my stay in the rear I finally found out that those guys weren't calling us "Boxey" but rather "Bac Si"-Vietnamese for "Doctor." Doc Mims let me read one of his books about 7th Day Adventist medics. The many different levels of conflict struck me. There are, of course, the "We verses Them" "East verses West" and "Communism verses Democracy" conflicts. There's the interpersonal conflict of getting along with new people and becoming accepted by the men in the unit. Then, there's the conflict of what will we do when the shooting starts? Do I have the inner recourses of courage needed to stand and fight or will I cower and run? On a deeper level is the internal conflict between a person and his own set of values, character, and conscience. In an occupation like ours, the decisions we make affect the well being of others and live with us (and them and their families) for the rest of our lives, for better or for worse. It was now getting close and I hoped I was prepared for the task at hand.