As Vincent Torelli stepped off the plane at Bien Hoa Air Base, South Vietnam, in June 1967, he was almost overwhelmed by the stench in the hot, humid air. Drafted into the armed forces five months earlier, he still can’t comprehend how he ended up in this place, now a Military Policeman assigned to the 557th MP Co. at Long Binh Post just outside Bien Hoa City.
His year-long tour of duty in Vietnam changes him from a somewhat naïve young man to a battle-hardened veteran. Through unlucky chance, Vince becomes involved in the ferocious ’68 Tet offensive, barely surviving the night. He sees and experiences things he could never have imagined before ending up in Vietnam.
This is Vince’s story…survival, coping with the hell he’s facing, the sorrow of lives lost, and the friendships he formed.
GENRE: Vietnam War ISBN: 978-1-920741-18-1 Word count: 86, 712
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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.
16 June, 1967 557th MP Co., Long Binh Post
Torelli and Satler were picked up by an MP jeep at 0700 hrs. the next morning and driven to the 557th MP Company HQ. The ride took about 15 minutes, and their driver, a very large and very black Spec. 4 by the name of Sanders, drove in silence, refusing to respond to any of Satler’s or Torelli’s questions. The route took them down Hwy 316, past fields once cultivated but now abandoned and barren of trees and bushes to deny the VC the cover he needed to carry out his terrorist activities. There was an occasional rice paddy, but most of the area had been cleared as a security zone for Long Binh.
At the main gate of Long Binh, they were passed through by MPs from the 615th MP Co., whose main responsibility was not only gate security, but Long Binh patrol duties. They saw a row of trucks being searched by the MPs, just inside the gate in a holding area. Vince saw the MPs had all the civilians out of the trucks, and were searching their bags and clothing, as well as the trucks. He later found out it was standard procedure to search all vehicles carrying Vietnamese workers onto the base. The workers were always searched unless escorted by American MPs. Since there were several thousand civilians working on the base, it was a necessary precaution.
The number of VC and VC sympathizers on the base was not known, but there had to be a significant number who were spying and gathering information for later use. The searches were done to keep sabotage to a minimum, by denying the enemy access to information, weapons and explosives. It was not unusual to find crudely drawn though accurate maps of key areas of the post hidden in the clothing or belongings of a Vietnamese employee. When the MPs found someone in possession of those items, they were taken away for interrogation by American and Vietnamese intelligence officers. Once the interrogation was over, they were turned over to the ARVN Military authorities for further “interrogation”, and nobody seemed to know what became of them. Mostly, they were sent to a P.O.W. camp outside Bien Hoa, usually with no trial. Some simply disappeared, their fate never being known, and U.S. military authorities seldom asked.
Though Vietnamese applying for jobs on post were screened as well as possible, it was not known where their true allegiance lay. It was a common practice for the local VC command to infiltrate as many agents as they could into the big American base. Every opportunity for sabotage would be utilized to frustrate and impede the American war machine. If the Americans could be hurt at their largest, most secure bases, it would prove that the U.S. and its puppet, the Saigon regime, was not omnipotent, and was ineffective and incompetent in administering the country. The people would see the true face of the Saigon Government, and would join the freedom fighters from the North in a “General Uprising” to overthrow the current government, and reunite north and south once again under a communist rule.
As they drove to the 557th Company Area, Torelli was surprised at the size of Long Binh. He had heard there were 20,000 Americans there, and he could believe it. Sanders pulled into the gravel parking area next to the CQ office, and parked by the front entrance. As they got out of the vehicle, Satler said, “been a real pleasure, Bro” to the driver, at which Sanders slowly turned his head and stared at him. The look in Sanders eyes made Satler shiver involuntarily. Satler got the distinct impression it was better not to antagonize Sanders, and said, “Hey, man, no offense, OK? Just tryin’ to be friendly.” Without a word, Sanders backed up and drove off.
“Whoa, T.J., that’s one scary guy!” Torelli said.
“Yeah, man. I get the feeling he don’t care too much for new guys.”
As Sanders drove off, a voice boomed from the open doorway of the CQ, “If you two are replacements, get your sorry asses in here.” The voice belonged to Sergeant First Class Burton Polachowski, known as “Ski” to those who knew him well.
Ski was the kind of soldier referred to as a “lifer” by the troops, a career soldier who went by the book. Most lifers were not well-liked because they tended to be too “regulation” to suit the draftees or four year enlistees. Even so, Sgt. Polachowski was respected and well-liked by the men in the 557th.
He had grown up on a farm outside Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, and had enlisted in the army at the age of 17, shortly after Pearl Harbor. The Japanese sneak attack had so angered him and stirred his sense of patriotism that he, along with tens of thousands of other young Americans, had gone to the local recruitment office and signed up. He had lied about his age so he could join, against his mother’s wishes. He told her he was determined to join, with or without her consent, and though she did not approve, she did not protest his decision.
Ski found he liked the strict regimentation of military life, and grew to enjoy the army, re-enlisting each time his commitment was up. Here he was, 26 years later, involved in his third war, and still the patriot, still serving his country.
He was a solidly built man, stocky and strong as an ox. Though he only stood 5’8″ in his boots, no one challenged his authority. With his crew cut grey hair and deeply lined face, he had the look of an angry bulldog that caused others to believe it was not a good idea to piss him off. Those who really knew him had come to realize his true nature was just the opposite. He was always willing to dispense advice, always good, and to lend a sympathetic ear to others’ problems. To him, the men in his company were his family, and he took it upon himself to guide them along. Wounded twice in World War II, he had earned a Bronze Star on Guadalcanal, and a Silver Star on Okinawa. He received his second Silver Star in Korea, along with his third Purple Heart. He nearly died that day in Korea from shell fragments that severed an artery in his leg. It was his good fortune to have a medic in the foxhole next to him when he was hit. He ended up at Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco to recover, then was assigned to a recruitment office in Madison, Wisconsin, not far from his Sun Prairie home. Three years later, he was promoted to Sergeant First Class, and re-assigned as the First Sergeant at the MP school, Fort Gordon, Georgia. In 1966, he was assigned as Company Sergeant for the 557th MP Company when they were deployed to Vietnam. When his first tour of duty was over, he extended, opting to stay another six months.
He had never married, though he had come close once. His bride to be had begun to pressure him to leave the army life he loved and settle down in one place. Three weeks before the wedding, he told her he couldn’t give up the army, that it was his life. She told him he had to choose, the army or her. Two days after that, he re-upped for the third time, and she said goodbye forever. Ski never regretted making that decision.
Torelli and Satler sat through the welcoming speech by the First Sergeant, which in reality was nothing more than a lesson in surviving the next year.
“Torelli, you’re new in country, and don’t know shit about this place. You got a rough education ahead of you, son, so pay attention. You understand me?”
“Yeah, Sarge, I understand.”
“Good. First of all, this place ain’t like nothing you ever imagined. It’s hot, it’s dirty, it smells bad, it’s filled with disease and death, and most of the gooks don’t care if you live or die. Never, and I mean never, put your trust in any of them, even those supposedly on our side. Old men, women, kids, the whores, none of them can be trusted. You never know where their loyalty lies. And let me tell you, they can be real creative in ways to kill ya.”
Turning to T.J, he said, “Now you, Satler, you been here a while, so you got a pretty good idea of what’s goin’ on. Only thing is, you ain’t in the jungle no more, boy. It’s a different kinda war in the city. You ain’t humpin’ the boonies now, so you pay attention, too. This country is the anus of the world. It’s worse here than any place I ever been, and this war is worse than the other two I been in put together. At least in those two, I knew who the enemy was, where the lines were drawn. Here, shit, anybody could be the enemy, and there ain’t no lines. Let me tell you, boys, I got a bad feeling about this one. I got three more months here, and a year left in this enlistment. If I make it outa here, I think I’ll be taking my pension then. I figure it’s time for me to quit. War is a young man’s game, now.”
“C’mon, Sarge, you’re startin’ to depress me,” Satler said, grinning uncomfortably.
“Sorry about that, but I get to talking, and sometimes don’t know when to stop. You boys need to know what it’s like around here. I’m going to have Corporal White take you to your hootch and get you settled. Your duffle bags should already be there. After you unpack your gear, go get some chow, then be back here at 1000 hours. Sgt. Anderson will get you going on some orientation. I’ll be back later this afternoon, and check on you then.”
Corporal Andrew White sat at his desk outside the First Sergeant’s office listening to Ski brief the new guys. He had heard this speech, or rather several variations of it, many times in the eight months he had been serving as company clerk. Most of the time it was given to replacements for the guys that rotated home after their year’s tour was up, but sometimes it was given to replacements for guys wounded or killed. When that happened, Cpl. White knew, the replacements heard Ski’s “anus of the world” speech, as these two had. He entered Ski’s office on cue, and led the two new guys to their hootch.
“Here’s where you guys will be bunking,” Corporal White said, pointing to two empty bunks. “Make yourselves comfortable. Get your gear stowed away, and get something to eat. Mess hall’s out this door and three buildings down on the left. Just follow your noses. Meet me back at my office in an hour and a half.”
“Hey, Corporal, where’s the showers?” Torelli asked.
“Out that door and to the left. All the way down. It’s the last building on the right. Don’t expect any hot water, though. We’re lucky to have showers. See you in 90 minutes,” he said, leaving the building.
Torelli and Satler started unpacking their uniforms and gear, placing them in the footlockers by the end of the bed. Vince saw that about half of the bunks were occupied, most of the men sleeping, having worked the night shift. As Vince and T.J. unpacked, they saw that the last bunk by the door was occupied by the driver of the jeep that had brought them to the company area. He was reading a book, and seemed oblivious to them as they got settled. Torelli stripped to his shorts, grabbed a clean towel, a pair of undershorts, and his soap, and headed to the showers. As he passed Sanders bunk, Sanders lowered his book and watched him walk by, his face expressionless. Vince grinned at him, and said “How ya doing?” Sanders nodded, then raised his book and continued reading. Vince saw the title was “Journey to the Center of the Earth” by Jules Verne, which surprised him, as Sanders did not seem the type to be interested in that kind of novel. Vince walked to the showers, and found that the hootch maids were washing their laundry at the far end. Figuring it was no time to be modest, he stripped off his shorts, and took a quick, cold shower. Though the walk back to the hootch was short, he was sweating by the time he got back.
Satler came back from the mess hall while Vince was dressing.
“Food ain’t too bad here, Vince. You hungry?”
“Nah. Besides, we gotta be back in a little while for orientation.”
Orientation for the new guys usually lasted a week. The first day, they were issued their weapons, an M-16 rifle and Colt .45 pistol, along with their web gear, steel helmet and MP helmet liner and arm band. The helmet liner was fiberglass and painted black with a 1″ white band and 1″red band around the bottom. MP was painted in white 3″ letters on the front. On the right side was the double axe in gold with a green sword between them, the 18th MP Brigade insignia, and on the left side was the 8 point green and gold star insignia of the 95th MP Battalion. The arm band was black vinyl, and had the 18th MP Brigade patch sewed on it above the 3″ white MP letters. It was worn on the left shoulder
They were given a tour of the company area and of Long Binh, then spent some time filling out pay forms, signing for their equipment, and picking up their bedding and other gear they would need during the next year. They were allowed to go to the PX to buy some essentials, then were assigned work details for the rest of the day.
During the rest of their orientation, Torelli and Satler were schooled in Vietnamese customs, the layout of Long Binh, the makeup of the surrounding countryside and Bien Hoa City, and the type of duties they would be doing. Often their time was spent learning the fine art of filling and stacking sandbags around the ammo bunker.
A couple of days later they spent the day at the firearms range, being checked out on the weapons they would be using. They fired their M-16 rifles, .45 pistols, M-60 machine gun, and M-79 grenade launcher. They were also instructed in the use of the .50 caliber machine gun. It was unlikely any of them would ever have the occasion to use one, but if one thing had been learned, it was that it paid to be prepared. Their instruction included the proper use of each weapon, how to field strip and clean them, how to clear malfunctions, how to maximize the firepower of each, and their limitations. Much time was spent on the importance of proper and continuous care. In a climate such as Southeast Asia’s, rust and corrosion could start forming after only a few hours. Weapon failure was a real problem with a firearm that wasn’t properly maintained. They were told that each weapon in their care would be inspected every time they turned it, and they were to strip, clean, and oil each weapon before turning it in to the arms room.
Their duty shift would start each day at either 0600 or 1800 hours by standing guard mount in the company area. The day would end twelve hours later.
There was plenty of time during their orientation when their “training” consisted of filling and stacking sandbags around bunkers and hooches, cleaning weapons from the arms room, loading magazines and ammo belts, and raking the gravel in the company area. Torelli and Satler’s real orientation began after their duty hours, when they could talk to the others in the company. Their real school began then, and they learned what it took to survive in a war with a hidden enemy, where there seemed to be no rules, and the enemy was everywhere. They learned that death awaited them with open arms around every corner, just behind each door, in every bush, and along each stretch of road. No one could be trusted except the people they worked with. They listened carefully to the stories the others told of their day.
“Wild Bill” Hickok told of how he and his partner, Jackson, had to stand by with two dead bodies found floating down the Dong Nai River. One of the PBR’s found them and hauled them onto the bank, where an Army ambulance called the “meat wagon” would pick them up. During the three hours it took for the meat wagon to get there, he and Jackson had to stand guard over them. Hickok said the bodies were most likely peasants or village officials from up river, murdered by the VC as part of their terror campaign to keep the villagers in line.
“Chances are they’ll never be identified,” Hickok said. He described in detail how the bodies had been mutilated by the VC, and said they had been in the river for several days. The ambulance from Long Binh would take the bodies to the ARVN III Corps Compound in Bien Hoa, and turn them over to the Vietnamese Military Police, the Quan Canhs. Vince was surprised to learn that a dozen bodies a month were pulled from the river. Most were Vietnamese civilians, though sometimes they were NVA or VC soldiers. Occasionally ARVN soldiers floated down, and once in a great while the body of an American soldier, who had been murdered while on some “unofficial” business, like black marketeering, running prostitutes, or drug running was pulled from the river. These soldiers were always listed as killed in action to avoid any embarrassment to the military or the soldier’s family.
Renfro told of sitting on a checkpoint in the city with the Quan Cahns and a Cahn Sat, a Vietnamese National Policeman, called “white mice” because of the white uniform shirts they wore. They had set up in a vacant lot along Hwy 1 just around a bend in the road. Renfro was the jeep driver, with “Andy” Anderson riding shotgun, and “Booger” Baines as machine gunner. They met their Vietnamese counterparts at 0800 hours, and began conducting random checks of people and vehicles traveling through the city, looking for contraband, weapons, and undocumented civilians. If a civilian was found without proper papers, it usually meant that they were draft dodgers, deserters, VC or NVA. Renfro told Vince and T.J. they sometimes would find weapons or explosives headed for the local VC cadre’s use against the ARVNs or Americans. In particular, they concentrated on men and women 10 to 40 years old, as they were the most likely to fit one of the categories of people they were looking for. “Booger” Baines job, as the machine gunner, was to remain alert at the gun whenever a random check was being done on a vehicle or person. Renfro and Anderson provided cover with their M-16’s for the QC’s who did the actual inspections.
These checkpoints were somewhat effective in finding contraband of all types being transported to the Saigon area via Hwy 1 from enemy supply points northwest of Bien Hoa. This contraband, usually consisting of arms, ammunition, or explosives, was destined for the VC that operated in the Saigon-Bien Hoa area. Never were any hard core VC or NVA captured, as the drivers were only sympathizers recruited by the VC to make the deliveries. Though thoroughly interrogated by Vietnamese and American Intelligence officers, they never provided any useful information, simply because they were not told anything other than where to pick up their load, and where to drop it off.
Parker and Gilchrist told of a traffic accident between an ARVN deuce and a half and a civilian Lambretta taxi. Three people were killed when the Lambretta driver tried to turn left in front of the truck, and was struck broadside. Two women and an old man were killed, and the driver slightly injured when he was thrown clear by the collision. Parker said they waited over an hour for the Vietnamese Accident Investigation Team to arrive. In the meantime, they treated the injured and got them off to the dispensary at the III Corps Compound, cleared the roadway, and placed the three dead along the shoulder of the road, covering them with a poncho. Gilchrist couldn’t get over the fact that no one seemed to care that three people had just been killed. They merely went about their business, walking around the bodies.
Later, after Gilchrist left, Parker told Vince and T.J. that Gilchrist was having a hard time adjusting to being out on the road. He was nervous all the time, jumping at shadows, and had begun talking to himself. He kept his M-16 locked and loaded all the time, set on full auto. More than once, for no apparent reason, he pointed it at groups of people as they drove. He wore his helmet and flak jacket all the time, and refused to allow Parker to drive off the main roads while on patrol. Parker said he was worried about how Gilchrist would react if they got in a dangerous situation. He doubted his stability, and planned to talk to SFC Polachowski again the next day and ask for another partner. Vince decided at that time to keep a close eye on Gilchrist, and avoid being teamed with him if at all possible.
That night Vince and T.J. were at the EM Club to celebrate the completion of their orientation. They were scheduled to begin training on town patrol the next day, and were looking forward to getting off post. Vince had been assigned to a gun jeep with Sanders and Hickok. Normally, being the junior man would mean he was the machine gunner, but for the next few days, he would be riding shotgun. T.J. was assigned a checkpoint with Jackson and Gilchrist, along with two Quan Cahns and a Cahn Sat.
Vince ordered a hamburger and fries from the EM Club’s kitchen, and another round of beers for Parker, T.J., and Jackson. When he came back to the table, he saw the three of them talking quietly. As he approached, he heard Parker saying “… about to lose it, man. I mean he’s real shaky. He could go off any time now, and Ski won’t take him off the road.” Turning to T.J., he said, “You and Jackson got to work with him tomorrow. You guys better keep a close eye on him. He’s ready to break, and when he does, there could be big trouble.”
T.J. said, “You said Ski knows all about it, but won’t take him off the road? Why not?”
“Well, actually it’s not that he won’t, it’s that the LT won’t let him,” Jackson said, lowering his voice even further. “We’re shorthanded, and activity seems to be picking up a bit lately. Until you new guys are trained, we need all the bodies we can get on duty. There’s been a lot of talk lately about increased enemy activity around An Loc and Loc Ninh, too. Seems the VC are gettin’ bolder. Even been some reports of NVA regulars showin’ up in the area. I heard from some grunt friends from the 199th that they had some contact with a pretty good-sized enemy outfit north of us three days ago. They said they found NVA bodies after the firefight, and they all had new uniforms and equipment. He said it’s a bad sign, and he thinks something big is comin’ down.”
Parker snorted, saying “I don’t think so. I think the gooks are just sending replacements. They’ve been hit pretty hard over the last few months, and I’ll bet they’re just trying to replace their losses.”
Vince sat down in the empty chair. “Of course, I don’t know, being new here,” Vince said, “but from everything I’ve been hearing lately, I would agree with those grunts from the 199th.”
“O.K., newbie,” Parker said, laughing, “now that you’ve graced us with your wisdom, you can pass out those beers.”
Vince and T.J. had a couple more beers, then made their way back to their hootch. As Vince was sitting on his bunk writing a letter, Sanders walked over and said, “Listen, newbie, tomorrow we’ll be workin’ together, so you watch, you listen, you learn. You don’t do nuthin’ I don’t tell you to do. You can ask questions all you want, but if and when I tell you to do somethin’, you do it with no question or comment, and without hesitation. If I tell you to shut up, you shut up. You see anythin’ that don’t look right, you tell me. Understand?”
“Yeah, I understand.”
“Good. I’m drivin’ tomorrow, you ride shotgun, and Wild Bill’s the gunner. Get some sleep.”
As Sanders walked to his bunk, T.J. said in his best John Wayne voice, “Ya got that, Pilgrim?”
Vince laughed, then said, “You know, in spite of how he comes off, I think I’d rather be working with him than anyone else. He seems to really know what’s going on, and how to handle himself. I think I got lucky being assigned a jeep with him. Anyway, I better get some rest. See you in the morning, and watch your ass tomorrow, T.J.”
“For sure, GI. ‘Nite, Vince.”