3 June, 1968 2127 hrs.
The sprawling air base at Bien Hoa was lit only by the runway lights which the controllers turned off as soon as the plane came to a stop. The only other lights were evenly spaced along the perimeter wire a half mile away, and the lights from the terminal building south of the runways. The pilot shut down the plane's running lights as a jeep arrived at the boarding platform placed at the forward hatch by the air base personnel. The door opened, and Sgt. Vincent Torelli saw the interior lights had not been turned off again.
"Shit, Sarge, when are those idiots gonna learn?" Satler said, shaking his head.
"Maybe, Corporal, when the VC drops a mortar round in his cockpit."
"Never happen, Vince. Those gooks ain't no good with them mortars. Can't aim 'em for shit, then they only fire two or three rounds before they run off. Never hit anything but open space anyway."
"What's the matter, T.J.? You forget so soon what can happen?"
Vince shivered as the memory of the terrible night five months ago flooded back. He could once again hear the explosions and the gunfire, could feel the pain of his wounds, hear the cries of the dying. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and forced the memories from his mind.
"I don't want to be around if they get lucky, T.J. That open door is shining like a beacon, and maybe ol' Charlie will use it as an aiming point."
Torelli lit a cigarette, inhaling deeply as he watched the soldiers walking down the stairs from the plane. "Hey, T.J., how many of these guys you think will be getting back on a plane a year from now?"
"I dunno, Vince. I guess it depends how lucky they are."
"Yeah," Torelli said under his breath, "or maybe how smart they are." He turned to T.J. and said, "Let's get these newbies to the 90th before Charlie wakes up."
Phoung watched the soldiers walking across the tarmac with the binoculars he had stolen from the American deuce and a half parked in front of Three Doors earlier that evening. He could not see the unit patches on their shoulders from where he was, but he could at least count the number for his superiors.
He thought, It does not matter how many come, we will prevail in the end. One year from now, maybe ten years from now, but we will prevail. As the last of the Americans entered the terminal, he put the binoculars back in their case, and crawled through the brush down the low hummock he had been using as his observation point.
Sgt. Vincent Torelli stood on the table addressing the newly arrived troops. "Welcome to paradise, gentlemen. You're probably wondering what's going to happen to you now. Well, from here you will be bused to the 90th Replacement Battalion where you will spend a couple of days while your paperwork is processed and arrangements can be made to get you to your permanent units." As he looked out over the group, he could see fear and uncertainty in their faces. Good, he thought, fear makes a man cautious, and a cautious man has a better chance of surviving here.
"From here on out" he continued, "you touch nothing that isn't government issue. You do not leave the friendly confines of the 90th until ordered to do so, and starting right now, consider every gook your enemy. You will be right most of the time. Trust no one who doesn't have round eyes, and be careful of some of them. If you keep your head out of your ass, you just might survive long enough to get back here a year from now."
Torelli knew it wasn't his job to lecture these men, but he figured the more they heard it, the more likely they were to take it seriously. "I wish you all luck. Now, head out to the buses, out that door", he said, pointing to the exit behind him.
Watching them walk out the door, Torelli's mind drifted again, remembering when he had first arrived at Bien Hoa. He, too, had been a green 20 year old PFC, scared of the unknown, wondering what the next year would hold for him. He had stood at the top of the boarding platform, squinting in the bright sunlight. The heat and humidity were like a damp blanket, covering him and trying to pull him down. Now, here he was almost a year later, still alive, though somewhat worse for the wear. He was a short-timer now, with less than two weeks left until he rotated home. He thought of the last year and how it had changed his life. He was no longer the naive, sheltered, middle-class boy who had grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He had matured beyond his 21 years, and his eyes had been opened.
15 June, 1967 1145 hrs.
PFC Vincent Torelli couldn't believe how hot and sticky it was. When he left Travis Air Force Base in California 16 hours ago, it was 55 degrees out and foggy. As he walked across the runway to the terminal, he felt as if he was walking through a thick, hot fog. It was almost a struggle to breathe, and the smells in the air made his stomach queasy. "God damn, Sarge, what the hell is that smell?" he asked the MP sergeant leading them to the terminal.
"Garbage, private, tons of rotting garbage, plus the water buffalo shit the gooks use to fertilize their fields. Don't worry, after a couple of weeks, you won't even notice it anymore."
After the short walk to the terminal, Torelli's uniform was damp with sweat. The hour he had spent waiting in the un-airconditioned building only made him hotter and more miserable. By the time the buses to the 90th Replacement Battalion arrived, he was wishing for a shower and a cold beer, neither of which he would get this day.
As he boarded his bus, he saw they were painted the usual O.D. green and had metal screens welded across the windows. He sat next to a buck sergeant and asked, "What's with the window screens?"
The sergeant looked at Vince and grinned, shaking his head. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and offered one to Vince, saying, "Well, newbie, it's a favorite trick of the local VC to drive up alongside the buses on their motorbikes and toss a grenade or two in through the open windows. Those screens have saved a lot of GIs a lot of grief."
God, thought Vince, what have I gotten myself into now? He looked out the window, nervously watching the motorbikes as they passed alongside the bus. He was quiet the rest of the trip to the replacement battalion, busily watching the people and countryside they passed along the way.
He saw that the buses were escorted by two MP gun jeeps, with three MPs in each jeep. An M-60 machine gun was on a pedestal mount welded to the floor behind the front seats. The sergeant saw him staring at the jeeps, and, nudging him with his elbow, said "That there is an M-60 machine gun. Perhaps the most effective weapon in use at this time. It fires a 7.62 mm bullet, and is effective up to 1100 yards. It can fire at a rate of 600 rounds per minute, and uses tracer, ball, armor piercing, and armor piercing incendiary ammunition. It weighs less than 25 pounds, is light enough to be hand-carried and fired, and can be set up on a bipod, and loaded in seconds. The barrel can be changed quickly, and it is the backbone of the grunts' arsenal."
"You sure know a lot about that gun," Torelli said, grinning at the sergeant. He remembered the range training at MP school at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and how much he liked shooting the M-60. He remembered the feel of the gun bucking in his hands, and the sense of power it gave him.
"Yeah, and so would you if your life depended on it", the Sergeant replied. He turned away, looking out across the fields on either side of the bus, forestalling any more conversation. Torelli settled back, and returned to watching the landscape as it passed by.
It took them about 30 minutes to get to the 90th Replacement. One gun jeep led the buses, and one followed. The machine gunners rode all the way standing up, manning their guns, as the VC liked to ambush the newly arrived troops on their way from the air base as they drove through the old plantation and marshlands east of the city. They would fire an RPG or two at the buses, then open up with small arms fire or a light machine gun, then break off and fade away into the brush before a response could be organized. The MPs would always return fire, but the effectiveness of this was never known. A sweep of the area would always be conducted afterwards, but usually nothing was found except some empty cartridge casings. This day, there was no ambush, and the buses made it safely through the main gate of the 90th.
The 90th Replacement Battalion was the processing point for all troops arriving and leaving from the huge air base at Bien Hoa. A miserable few days was spent there when arriving in country, and a joyful, though nervous, few days when processing out for the trip home. The base was relatively safe, the only problems being a few mortar rounds or rockets fired into it a couple of times a week. There was little damage in these attacks, as the base was spread out, and there were rarely any casualties. These attacks were mostly hit and run night time harassment by poorly trained local VC, pressed into service by the provincial VC commander through threats and intimidation. During the day, these local villagers tended their small vegetable gardens or rice paddies, using tools and seed provided by the U.S. and South Vietnamese governments. At night they fired mortars, rockets, or small arms at the American and South Vietnamese military bases, using weapons supplied by Hanoi. Most often, they only wished to be left alone by both governments, to live their lives simply. They held no real allegiance to either side, and did not care who was in control as long as they could live their lives in peace.
The 90th was always crowded with troops, the new arrivals trying not to stare at the old timers with their dirty, faded fatigues and dusty, cracked boots. The shoulder patches of the old timers were varied, from combat to support units from all over the country. Once processing at the 90th was completed, the old timers boarded buses for the air base and flights home, while the new arrivals were shipped to their duty stations by bus, jeep, truck, helicopter or plane.
Torelli handed his records and orders to the personnel sergeant, received his temporary billet assignment along with directions to his bunk area and the mess hall, and was told to check back in a few hours to see if transportation had been arranged to his new unit. He knew his orders assigned him to the 557th MP Company, Long Binh Post, but he had no idea where Long Binh was. He made his way to his billet, and saw it was an open-sided, canvas-covered area with rows of portable canvas bunks inside. About two thirds of the bunks were occupied. He dropped his duffle on an unoccupied bunk, took out some paper and a pencil, and began the first of many letters to his fiancee back home in San Lorenzo, California. Writing to her made the loneliness he felt all the harder to bear. They had planned to be married this year, but when he received his draft notice, they agreed to change their plans. Vince had resisted the temptation to have the wedding before he left for Nam, as he didn't know if he would ever return to her alive, and in one piece. He couldn't bear the thought of returning crippled, of being a burden to her the rest of their lives, so he convinced her to wait until he returned, giving her other reasons for the delay.
Their last night together was an awkward, difficult time for both of them. Each tried to be in good spirits for the benefit of the other, and each failed. There were many tears shed, and the sadness of parting was an awful burden to bear. Torelli still felt the weight of that burden, as he had only said goodbye four days earlier. He kept his letter lighthearted, not wanting her to know how miserable he really was.
Three hours later, he walked back to the processing point, and was told he would be picked up at 0630 hours the next day for transport to his new company. Torelli went back to his bunk to get his duffle together, and saw that the bunk next to him was now occupied.
"Theodore Josiah Satler, though nobody dares call me that. T.J. will do. So, who are you?"
"Vincent Torelli, lately of San Leandro, California. Call me Vince. Where you from, T.J.?"
"From a little town called Riggens, Idaho. Right along the Salmon River. Best steelhead fishin' anywhere."
Vince saw that T.J. was no more than 19 years old. He had a smooth, pinkish baby face, bright blue eyes, and a thin mustache. He was about 6 feet tall and thin, but looked wiry. Vince thought he would be stronger than he looked.
"So what brings you here, T.J.? You on vacation, or you planning to settle down."
"Just a little vacation, all expenses paid by the U.S. Government."
"Yeah, me too. Where're you stationed?"
"I'm being transferred to an MP company at Long Binh. Used to be with the 25th Infantry at Cu Chi northwest of here, but I got hit for the second time, so I'm gonna be an MP for the rest of my tour."
"Oh, yeah? I'm going to the 557th at Long Binh. Maybe we'll be in the same unit. You know where Long Binh is?"
"Yeah, you're next to it. I'm going to the 557th, too, so it looks like we'll be serving together. I heard this is a pretty secure area, not too much enemy activity."
"I guess if we have to be here, this isn't too bad a place. Sure glad I'm not going to be out pounding the bush somewhere."
"Yeah. Being a grunt is the shits. Humpin' the boonies all day, never knowin' what surprises Charlie has set for you, sittin' in a foxhole all night hopin' the sneaky little bastards don't shoot your ass or cut your throat, then back to humpin' the boonies again the next day, fightin' the heat, bugs, and snakes."
"Doesn't sound like my idea of fun," Vince said.
"Well, it certainly ain't been the highlight of my life! Actually, I'm glad I've been reassigned. Been wounded twice, now, and they say the third time's the charm. Sure don't want to press my luck."
"I don't blame you. If you don't mind me asking, what happened when you were wounded?"
"First time was about, oh, three and a half months ago. I'd only been in country a few weeks. We were on a two day sweep of an area south of Cu Chi. There'd been some minor contacts during the previous week, so our C.O. sent my platoon out on a recon. We was supposed to look for signs of enemy buildup or activity.
"We choppered in, and durin' the first day, we found lots of signs of enemy movement, like camp sites and stuff, though it didn't seem to be too large a force. Maybe company size or so. We struck a trail a couple a' hours later that showed signs of real recent use, and the L.T. decided we should follow it. We moved off the trail a couple a' meters and started forward. We hadn't gone too far, maybe a couple hundred meters, when Jennings, walkin' point, signaled a halt. He heard some voices up the trail, so we all hunkered down and waited. Sure enough, here comes these four VC walkin' down that trail like they was out for a Sunday stroll. The L.T. passed the word to let them get close, then to open up on his signal. Now, I didn't think that was such a good idea, 'cause we didn't know how many others were in the area, but the L.T. was a new guy, and kinda spoilin' for a fight, and he was the boss, so we open up and drop all four of 'em.
"Well, after the firin' stops, we wait a couple 'a minutes, then when nothin' happened, the L.T. tells me and four other guys to go out and check the bodies and take any papers and weapons. We went out onto the trail, and found those four gooks shot to shit, deader'n hell, so we start searchin' the bodies and collectin' their weapons. We're just startin' to move back into the bush when we start takin' fire from up the trail. I seen Johanson go down, shot through both legs. Smitty takes a round in the neck, but he makes it off the trail. I dive into the bush, and can hear the other guys movin' further off the trail. I can see six or seven gooks movin' down the trail towards me, so I figure it's about time to get my young ass outta there. I fired a burst from my 16, and started runnin' back toward the platoon. Johanson had crawled about three meters off the trail, and was layin' there, one leg broke and the other with a hole in it. He ain't movin', so I grab ahold of his collar, and start pullin' him along with me.
"Them gooks musta heard me 'cause they start layin' down some serious fire, shootin' up the jungle. Man, there was bullets flyin' all around me. All of a sudden, somethin' hits me in the back of my leg. Jesus, it felt like I'd been kicked by a mule. I went asshole over elbows onta my back. I can feel the blood pourin' outa my leg, but it didn't really hurt, at first. About this time, the rest 'a the guys came up, firin' at the gooks. Doc slapped a bandage on my leg, then went to check on Johanson and Smitty. The rest 'a the guys came back a few minutes later. They'd chased the gooks a couple hundred meters up the trail before losin' 'em. Killed two more in the process, but Youngblood took a round through his hand.
"The L.T. calls for a Medevac chopper, and we move to a clearing a little ways away. When the chopper arrived, me, Johanson, Youngblood, and Smitty are loaded up and flown to the 93rd Evac Hospital just a short ways from here. Me and Youngblood were the lucky ones. Neither of our wounds was very serious. The bullet that hit me went through the muscle 'a my leg a few inches above the knee, and come out the front. Didn't hit nothin' goin' through, so it's as good as new now, except for the scar. I spent four weeks on light duty with that one, working around the base camp, doin' all the shit details before I was sent back to the bush. Youngblood recovered o.k., too, but Johanson got a free ride home. I heard from one 'a the guys he's stationed at Fort Ord for the rest 'a his time. Smitty, well, he wasn't so lucky. Never made it outa the bush alive."
"Jesus, T.J., I'm really sorry about your friend. I didn't mean to stir up any bad memories."
"That's o.k., Vince. Smitty wasn't close to anyone in the company, kinda kept to himself. Still, it's tough to see someone you know get zapped. Kinda makes you feel real mortal, if you know what I mean."
"Yeah, I can understand that. Listen, you want to get something to eat? I'm kind of hungry."
"Yeah, that sounds good. All this talkin' has made me hungry, too."
Torelli and Satler found the mess hall, and after getting their food, made their way to an empty table. The food this day was basically the same as every day. There was some sort of meat, though most of the time it was hard to tell exactly what kind, and mashed potatoes, the dehydrated kind that is like wallpaper paste, along with a vegetable, and bread. There was always some sort of dessert, either a yellowish pudding of unknown origin, or what was supposed to be cake, and the ever-present Jell-O. The army liked to be creative with its jello, always putting something in it. If they were lucky, it would be fruit. If they weren't, it could be celery, carrots, or rice, which not only looked bad, but tasted as bad as it looked. The soldiers learned not to look too closely at their food, though, because it was that or nothing, and the discriminating eater often went hungry.
Torelli and Satler kept to themselves while they ate. When they were done, they bused their table and started to walk back to their bunks. Torelli lit a cigarette, offering one to Satler.
"No thanks, man, never use the stuff."
"T.J., I sure hope you don't mind me asking, but I don't really know what to expect here. You've been in country for a while, so maybe you can help me out?"
"I know how you feel, Vince. I'll be happy to help, much as I can."
"You said you were wounded twice. What happened the second time?"
"That was no big deal. Just got a gash along my ribs from some shrapnel. It seems ol' Charlie didn't take to us settin' up camp in his territory, so one night he dropped a few mortar rounds on us. I was on watch along the perimeter when the first round hit. One 'a them was pretty close to our hole. My flak jacket kept it from bein' worse, but it took 9 stitches to fix me up. Just got 'em out a week ago."
"How long you been here, T.J.?"
"Almost six months now. Only six to go, then it's back to the world for me."
"I envy you, man," Torelli said. "I'm just starting my tour. Only been here about seven hours, but it seems like seven days."
"Yeah, I know, but the time will go fast enough. Let me give you a little advice my platoon leader gave me when I first arrived in country. You can never, ever let your guard down. If you want to survive this place, you always got to be ready for the worst. Never trust any gook, anytime, anywhere, even our ARVN counterparts. You got to look out for yourself. Be smart, man, and the chances you will make it outta here in one piece are pretty good. Be dumb, and you'll still make it outta here, except you may be in a box when you go."
"Thanks, T.J. I appreciate you telling me this stuff," Torelli said, yawning. "I'm about ready to call it a day. It was a long plane ride, and I'm really beat."
"Yeah, me too. Let's go, Vince."
They walked back to their bunks, talking about their homes and lives back in the world. They realized they did not have a lot in common, coming from such different backgrounds. Each wondered why they liked the other, and felt they could trust each other, that he was someone who could be relied on.
When they got back to their bunks, Torelli grabbed his kit, and made his way to the latrine where he stripped to his shorts and washed as well as he could, since there weren't any showers for the new guys. He felt better afterwards, and put on clean undershorts and a t-shirt, though by the time he finished, he was sweating profusely, as he was not yet acclimated to the heat and humidity.
After he shaved and rinsed his face, he looked at himself in the mirror. He saw a good-looking, olive-skinned 20 year old with green eyes. His 175 pounds filled out his 5'10" frame, though he had very little body fat. His shoulders were broad, and his waist was slim, his chest and arms well-muscled.
As he stared in the mirror, his thoughts turned back to the day he had gotten his draft notice. He was surprised when his mother handed him the brown envelope with tears in her eyes. He did not realize what it was until he opened it, and saw it actually did say "Greetings from the President of the United States." Vince couldn't believe he had been drafted. He thought he still was exempt with the student deferment he'd received a year and a half ago when he started college at San Francisco State University. He turned to his mother, and took her in his arms, hugging her tightly.
"It'll be OK, Ma. Don't worry, it'll be OK" he whispered to her as she sobbed softly into his shoulder. He dreaded having to tell his father when he came home from work. A World War Two veteran, he had been wounded in Sicily while a grunt with the Big Red One, and knew firsthand the terrors of war. Those were terrors he did not want his sons to experience, and had many times expressed his fears they would end up in "that funny sounding place, having to fight."
He arrived at Fort Lewis, Washington, one month later for basic training. After ten weeks, he received his orders to MP school at Fort Gordon, Georgia. Ten weeks later he graduated and caught a bus for Atlanta where he had a flight home for a two-week leave. He carried orders with him assigning him to the 557th MP Co., Long Binh, South Vietnam.
Sighing deeply, he pulled his thoughts back to the present and went back to his bunk. Covering himself only with the sheet, he lay on his back, staring at the canvas roof. He was very tired, but found it difficult to sleep.
"Still awake, Vince?" Satler asked.
"Yeah, can't seem to get to sleep."
"I know. I don't think I've had a decent night's sleep in the six months I've been here."
"You have much family in Idaho, T.J.?"
"Just my folks. Got one sister, but she moved to Boise 2 years ago, and got married. Don't hear from her much. Got an aunt and uncle and 3 cousins livin' outside St. Louis, but I haven't seen them for 10 years. One thing I know for sure is I won't be goin' back to Riggens to live when I get out. Town's too small. No work unless I wanna get into mining or be a hunting and fishing guide, and that ain't for me."
He was silent for so long that Vince thought he had fallen asleep.
"I miss my Ma mostly," T.J. said, quietly. "Never was too close to my Dad. He was always workin', never around much, and when he was, he was usually drunk. Used to get mean when he was drinkin'."
"Doesn't sound like he was much fun to be around when you were growing up."
"Naw, he wasn't, but we never wanted for anything. Just wish he treated Ma better."
Torelli and Satler talked long into the night, and by the time sleep overtook them, they knew all about each other, and had become firm friends.