Thursday, November 26, 2020

Lost Orders and a Lucky Thanksgiving




I lucked out, though I didn’t know it at the time.

I flew into Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport on October 26th in the early afternoon. A convoy of trucks and gun jeeps drove us a short distance to the old 90th Replacement Center, the entry and exit point for G.I.’s coming in-country in 1966, the early days of the war. I was 19 years old.

Unluckily, I got chosen for guard duty and had to spend the night, while, after a few hour’s break, my friends continued on to the new, larger replacement center in Long Binh, twenty miles from Saigon, leaving me behind.

It was the first time I’d ever pulled guard duty with live ammunition and the realization that someone on the other side of the frail wire fence wanted me dead.

The only instructions I remember a young corporal giving us before heading out to “walk the post” was, “Stay awake, and don’t let the dink vendors come up to the fence and try selling shit. They ain’t all vendors.” When the sun rose, I began to understand the fear I would feel every day for the next 364 days.

At noon, I boarded another convoy headed to Long Binh to meet up with my friends. I was assigned to a group of about 20 guys waiting for their orders. We slept beneath a large canvas tent, plywood floors, and flaps for walls, not much protection from mortars or artillery attacks.

Each day, guys lined up to get their orders and ship out to their permanent duty stations. So, I waited. Two weeks later, I was still waiting. The Army had lost my orders.

Long Binh was miserable, a barren, hilly, dry, dusty place, bad food, rationed water, no laundry (not for us, anyway), terrible duty, mostly pouring gas on human waste in large metal barrels and burning it. Later, there was nothing else to do but sit around, wait, and sweat.

When my orders still hadn’t arrived, and we were nearly halfway into November, they gave me a choice, stay here and wait, or go to Cam Rahn Bay and work with the engineers building the enormous new military complex and wait for my orders there. They said it was on the ocean. Raised five miles from the Pacific, that’s all I needed to hear. I was in. Other guys decided to wait in Long Binh.

Thanksgiving rolled around. My orders still hadn’t arrived. Probably, I wouldn’t have remembered any of this until one day a few years ago as I rummaged around through some old files, I found my military documents, and inserted in the papers was a Thanksgiving Day menu, compliments of General William Westmoreland.

That’s why I was lucky. I got to spend Thanksgiving Day in Cam Rahn Bay with the engineers, who had the best of everything. Had my orders arrived as they should have, I’d have been out in the field some place with the 101st Airborne’s 1st Brigade, probably eating turkey from C-rations for Thanksgiving, or, at best, turkey slices and mashed potatoes served in our mess kits from warm metal containers.


I know this because my orders finally arrived in mid-December. By the 25th, they called an Xmas Day cease fire. I was with the Brigade operating in Kontum province. On the 26th, we made the first large parachute jump since WWII. Around the 28th, we were dug in at fire base and in the mountains outside Duc Pho, and one night, during a "probing" I was wounded by grenade shrapnel. Whether it was ours or theirs, who knew? On the 29th, a Huey whisked me off to a field hospital in Pleiku, but my mind still had me swimming in the warm South China Sea waters of Cam Rahn Bay. How lucky was that?

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