Fifty-one years ago this week, I landed in Vietnam.
The wire mesh over the windows of the bus that left us at the 90th Replacement Battalion told us we were now, finally, in a war zone. Viet Cong sappers had thrown grenades at buses in the past.
This was one day before the first moon landing crew splashed down in the Pacific. Heard about it on somebody’s transistor radio in one of the transients’ tents.
Two other war zone tells – the sauna heat and the smells. Later, in a poem, I described them as the scents of charcoal, gasoline and urine quenching burnt peanut hulls.
As had been the case for the 191 days I’d already been in the Army, we followed orders. Shouldering our olive-green duffel bags, we trooped into a line and headed for a huge Quonset hut.
As we walked that way, another line of GIs approached us. They were on the way back to The World on a Freedom Bird. If we lived or survived wounds, we would be making that trip in a year. If we died or became crippled, we could go home sooner.
The soldiers taunted us as “FNGs” – fucking new guys. Our jungle fatigues were a riot of green compared with the faded uniforms they wore. Our shiny black leather boots stood out next to the muddy webbed boots the color of the jungle worn by these short-timers on their way home.
One guy, about as tall as my 6-feet 3-inches, veered over to me and said, “Wanna swap caps?” Mine was stiff with newness, flat-billed, a round crown. His headgear was grimy and looked like a Marine cap. Sure, I said, though I knew it was against regulations –or maybe because I knew it was against regulations. (I wore that cap for the rest of my tour. Sometime in 1970 I wrote “Lisa” on the front, the name of the Saigon hooker I was sweet on.)
The replacement battalion in Saigon was a chokepoint and checkpoint. FNGs and Nam returnees had to go through there to find out where they were going to be sent in-country. Those whose hourglasses were almost empty still muttered, “Don’t mean nothin'” – the mantra of Nam in 1969 – on their way to the homeward-bound airplanes.
While I was standing in line, sweating, doing the Army drill of hurrying up to wait, I thought about how I felt. I was pissed off and scared. Those two feelings stayed with me for the rest of my deployment. I was against the war. My draft board in Topeka couldn’t care less.
From the 90th Replacement Battalion, I was sent to II Field Force Vietnam, 23 miles northeast of Saigon. I wound up writing for an Army magazine, The Hurricane. During guard duty on our perimeter, I often wondered why some guy out there in the dark – who I’d never met – wanted to kill me. I thought that, outside a war zone, we could’ve sat down and had a beer.
Never got the chance to find out. As my friend and onetime colleague Joe Galloway (author of We Were Soldiers Once … and Young) puts it: “You don’t go to war and come back the same man you were going in.”
I came back. More than 58,000 American troops and 2 million Vietnamese civilians did not. I made a few lifelong friends. Because I was a war veteran, I got to cover six wars as a civilian corespondent. I learned about our best and our worst.
But I wasn’t the same man I was before the war.
That one I’m still trying to figure out.
A longtime foreign correspondent who worked for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Far Eastern Economic Review and US News & World Report, Mike Tharp currently writes a veterans’ affairs column for the Dallas Morning News.