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An Unforgettable Encounter in the Central Highlands: A USO Girl Remembers
By Suzanne Cogan
We were flown by small plane to an isolated base on a mountaintop. The landing was hair-raising. We thumped and jittered over huge potholes and uneven terrain that served as a runway. Looking out the window, I spotted the wreckage of several airplanes.
"This runway is actually too short for this type of plane," our liaison officer said. Now you tell me?
That day we gave two shows, the last at twilight. From the scaffold-like stage, I saw a tall column of black smoke, curling in the distance. What was that?
"A plane blew up during takeoff," we were told. "It happens sometimes."
There was a noticeable darkening of mood from everyone, soldier and performer alike. We ate a somber dinner in the Officers' Club; then went to the non-coms club to socialize with the men.
I sat in a quiet corner, sipping a coke. Hanging on the wall, I saw a dark wooden crossbow and a quiver made of tree bark. The non-lethal ends of the arrows were fitted with pieces of bamboo.
"Are you admiring the crossbow?" a male voice asked.
I looked up. A middle-aged staff sergeant (I could tell his rank from his insignia,) was standing near the crossbow.
"I like bows and arrows," I said. "Ever since I was a kid and fell in love with Robin Hood."
"Kinda unusual for a girl," he said. "Mind if I join you?"
"I'd like that," I said. The guy had a quiet, reflective energy that struck me as unusual in a non-com officer.
"Where are you from?" I asked, the requisite opening question.
"Oklahoma. And you?"
"New York." I smiled, thinking of home. "How long have you been over here?"
"Several years," he said. "I re-enlisted. This is my third tour of duty."
I didn't know whether to be impressed or to feel sorry for him.
"Do you have a family?" I asked, trying to stick to the suggested subjects.
"Divorced. Two kids. It's tough on them when you're away so long. Especially when you're working in the interior." He paused. Gave me a quizzical look, as if wondering how much to tell me. I must have passed inspection since he went on talking.
"I was a Green Beret," he said. "I lived with a tribe of Montagnards for several months. That's what the French called the non-Vietnamese. That crossbow was given to me by their chief."
We continued talking for most of the evening. Mostly he spoke about his life in Vietnam, his concern that the Viet Cong were more entrenched than ever, that we didn't seem to be winning the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people. When I looked around, I saw that many of our group had left.
"I should be going soon," I told him.
"Wait a minute," he said. "I'd like to show you something."
He removed the crossbow and quiver from the wall.
"Would you believe this very crossbow shot down a Huey?"
"They shot down a helicopter with that?"
"You bet. It takes two men; one to hold it while the other shoots. They have bigger ones for four men that shoot down full-size choppers. They make everything by hand—bow, quiver, and arrows." He pulled out a single arrow.
"See this? The tip is dipped in strychnine, in case the enemy is still alive. It's a highly effective weapon." He paused as if weighing the crossbow in his hands
"Here," he said, handing it to me. "I'd like you to have this."
"Oh, no," I protested. "I can't take it. It was given to you by a Montagnard chief."
"Yes. As a gift of friendship."
"This is the first time since I've been in this country that I've felt like a human being. Like—someone's friend. I want you to have it." He handed me the bow and quiver.
"Consider it a gift of friendship, from me to you. And besides..."
"I don't know if I'll make it back. But you will."
He smiled. "Take good care of it. And be careful of the arrows. They might still be poisonous."
"I'll be careful," I said, fighting back tears.
"Well—goodbye." He kissed me lightly on the cheek and left.
I carried the crossbow and arrows throughout Vietnam and onto the plane that brought me home.
It hangs on my wall today.
Suzanne Cogan toured Vietnam in 1967 with a USO production of Guys and Dolls, starring Hugh O'Brien. This is an excerpt from her soon-to-be published memoir: USO Girl in Vietnam: Then and Now.