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2PKEIKU: Disparate Thoughts on a War
By John Crandell
Just like Daniel Ellsberg, I hadn't fired a single shot for nearly a year in country and when finally directed to go to the firing range across the river at An Khe, I simply propped the dusty M16 on my elbows and laid there yelling "blam, blam, blam" as others blasted away. I now ask myself what in the hell I aimed at that day in order to qualify for whatever degree of marksmanship.
Soon, no one accosted or spit on me stateside, not in the terminal at LAX or out on the sidewalk and I got out of those khakis as quick as I could and did not wear them around my home town in the San Fernando Valley. Eventually, Nixon and Kissinger proceeded to undermine, fuel the overthow of the Allende administration in Chile so that my partner's boss could get his mines back. At the height of the Pinochet regime I finally managed to get spat on one day, just down the street from the American embassy in Santiago. Yes, Johnny had long since surrendered his gun, was playing expatriate and made the mistake of wearing his US cavalry buckle in public in another country whose governance had begot American destruction, supposedly to save it. Horror: seeing men with gouged out eyes sitting and begging on sidewalks surrounding the city's central market.
I'd read David Halberstam's "The Making of A Quagmire,"absorbed the long, now-storied history of how he and his fellow journalists covered the war prior to the '63 coup-de-grace in Saigon, the degree of graft, oppression of Buddhists and most particularly, the careerism and ludicrous self deception among the American delegation in Saigon. And I'd read all of it in the month before I went there and when I arrived, so much was apparent that my Catholic illusions evaporated. Come April of 2000, the same journalist appeared at UCLA to note the 25th anniversary of the final collapse of Saigon and thereafter I watched him walk away—every step the stride of an incomparable legend. It was he who Madame Nhu thought ought to be barbequed in public. She volunteered to light the match and he soon was rewarded by a Pulitzer for refusing to be a "team player" while reporting for the New York Times. Off into the foliage he walked, through a landscape that I'd designed seventeen years earlier.
More than any other, the first night at Cam Rahn Bay was the most harrowing of our lives, reeling with anxiety over so many unknowns, having traveled so far. The sergeant who had sat beside me on the World Airways flight was beginning his second tour in the war zone. We'd just gotten off of the spanking new 707 and were standing in line for processing. He provided everyone within earshot a little of what had become the reality of our American involvement there. Seeing a Vietnamese woman happen by, he erupted with a vile stream of invective—the likes of which I'd never witnessed.
It hadn't been too many weeks after I'd arrived and given my silence, the captain got on my case, his seeing me as an outsider and as a result I was detailed to the east perimeter with a couple of other recalcitrants. The duty was to remove vegetation from the bottom of a swale that coursed diagonally across the northeast corner of Camp Enari, base camp of the Fourth Infantry. We were given a sythe, a hoe and a Hudson Sprayer filled with herbicide. The large macadam paved tarmac along that perimeter used for parking the division's light helicopters would be sprayed with a final application of Agent Orange that November with nary a warning to anyone, be they pilot, mechanic, 11-Bravo in any adjacent hootch or any of us REMFS who helped guard that side of the base.
A couple of grunts stood guard as we removed the trip flares and rows of concertina wire, hacked away the water plants and then sprayed the defoliant upon what remained. And I wore that pair of jungle boots for the balance of my tour. Ever since, the hair on my legs stops at a line right where the tops of those boots rubbed the skin of my calf. And a couple of weeks earlier the captain had had me shoveling mud into a wheelbarrow and filling sandbags due to a sales infraction. I slipped and fell trying to move the load of red clay and there beneath the not so sheltering sky I thought of all of the poor peasants toiling across southeast Asia, beset by a host of diseases and incomparable misery as compared to the life I'd known and the idea came to me—that all such misery was and is considered as a simple fact of life and "so what?" by those in power in Washington. But if such peasants should begin to get ideas as to bettering the common prospect or questioning the efficacy of their corrupt overlords, then watch the hell out.
Dusk was falling and a lightning storm was drifting around Dragon Mountain a few weeks onward. I'd just learned of the death of a neighbor back home and had rushed out to guard call. Unfortunately, I managed to get assigned to a watchtower next to the creek where I'd sprayed herbicide. Two groundpounders and I climbed high into the crow's nest as the storm moved downslope. Unbeknownst to us, static electricity set off blasting caps embedded in the claymore mines and wham! The perimeter fronting us was suddenly aflame. The entire line opened up with M79s, M50s, M60s and M16s. My ears began to ring (and still resound). Tracers flew like mad. A brilliant green flare shot up from the command post, a supposed signal that Charlie had broken through—just as an ambulance screamed to a halt. Seeing the flames, I surmised that the NVA had managed to secure Napalm through the rampant black market. Then the command post called with orders to abandon the tower for the bunker below. So we loaded ourselves down with the machine guns, our rifles, flack jackets, steel pots, ammo, etc. and clambered down the ladder for the safety of the bunker. Having just set ourselves up, the command post called again with directions to move back up into the tower. So we grabbed everything again and climbed upward. And that's when the fun started. Someone yelled gas! gas! gas! and everyone dove for their gas masks—putting them on far quicker than when we'd practiced in boot camp. Three guys in the tower across the creek had already gotten stoned and immediately became catatonic. All we could hear was groaning, moaning, a scream or two, coughing and an occasional "wow man!"
Finally, all the shooting stopped and we discovered the enemy was nowhere to be found. As the claymores detonated, their shrapnel hit fifty gallon drums of gas half buried amidst the concertina, which brought the explosions and flames. Well, us admin rangers mowed down nearly all of the vegetation bordering the eastern perimeter that evening. In all of the nine months I spent there at Enari, Charles didn't once come close. Some nights out there were terror. With the intensity of the monsoon you couldn't see anything, no incidental light whatsoever. A few bunkers ranged around the southeast corner would be inundated knee deep.
A mission out west to LZ Merideth had occurred on August 29th. After driving fifteen miles out to an old French tea plantation called "Cateka," also the third brigade's field headquarters, we boarded a flock of Hueys accompanied by a Chinook. Sitting next to the floor hatch of the latter I gazed wide-eyed right between my boots, thousands of feet down into the headwaters of the Ia Drang. The vegetation was broken only by boiling red rivers descending towards the Mekong. We hadn't anticipated having to spend the night out there and the animosity towards our motley collection of rear area commandos was distinctly felt.
The only structure of sorts was a heavily fortified command post at the center of the LZ. Sleeping quarters were fashioned beneath half sections of metal culverts buried under sand bags. Latrines, pissoirs and showers were rudimentary in nature and the only privacy for the men was where they slept. The experience was sobering: blank, somnambulist expressions on men's faces—gone past fear, past resolution or dependence or caring, save for that hoped-for day of departure.
As dusk fell into night, not knowing where we could go, I and a few others crawled under a tarp protecting the food supply. Abandoned mosquito nets made for makeshift bedding. Rats didn't climb on us but they crawled all over those supplies. Outgoing artillery blasted away all night long a few hundred feet away, it's impact far more extreme than at Enari. The nightly monsoon fell and at dawn the place was an eternity of rust colored mud
Come my 21st birthday I was on another mission, by land instead of air. We sailed southward through the highland jungle as fast as the Deuce-n-half could fly, foliage snapping as we passed and we found the perimeter at Plei Mei abandoned. Supposedly we were to rendezvous there with troops in need of a money order, to send a letter or submit paperwork. No one came. Sheer emptiness with three of us there alone half the day at a guard post, the site of the siege of the Army's special forces camp four years earlier. Mud rose near to our knees between truck and bunker. That was twelve miles east of Chu Pong Massif where Air Mobil had encountered the first regiments of NVA regulars at the Battle of Ia Drang.
Because of a mistaken entry on a sales report, I was ordered to travel fifty miles by Deuce-n-half overland to the new division basecamp at Camp Radcliffe. Originally, that had been the base for the First Air Cavalry during its initial foray into the central highlands prior to the Ia Drang. Along the way we passed assorted Montagnard settlements characterized by thatch, bamboo, flattened beer cans and corrugated tin. From there it was up over the fabled Mang Yang Pass and on through mountainous country to the new quarters outside of An Khe. Particularly memorable is the exotic and pungent smell of burning sandalwood. There it was to behold, through every village.
This was the road traversed only a month before by the entire division enroute to its new home. Back at Enari we were later to hear of various antics which occurred during the postal move. Since he had been in country, the captain had somehow managed to acquit himself with a civilian bedstead: frame, wooden headboard, and box spring mattress. Due to a lack of cargo space his nightly respite was placed atop one of the already overloaded Deuces for the trip east. He rode in another truck aways behind that which carried his furniture and as the first truck neared the pass, the damned bed fell off.
Afraid of suffering a "Din Bin Foo" ambush, the driver refused to stop for a retrieval. Shortly thereafter, the captain rode by, saw the wreckage and fell into a fit. After arriving at the new quarters, he and First Sergeant "Looney" went into a rage, screamed all the while as the crew unloaded the heavy equipment. Hearing of it, I imagined that every square inch of the place was dusted to the max, swept spotless to atone for the demolished bedstead.
After straightening up the money order snafu, I flew back to Enari to gather up my belongings for transfer to Radcliffe. I left for An Khe on March 25th after a last walking tour around the camp. It was sobering with everything deserted, so many ghosts of war. Griff drove me down to the base airstrip in the three-quarter. And I glanced back at the APO as we drove away; so many memories, those lines of men strung out the door, eight to five every damn day, with monkeys, boonie hats, bandoliers and misery in their eyes. I piled my gear into the twin engine Caribou along with about thirty others for the flight. It was all right, until we flew past the coastal range of mountains. Now was the winter monsoon and we descended into a tropical whirlpool. With the cloud cover, we didn't have to corkscrew on a vertical axis as at Enari. The radar at the airstrip beneath us had gone black; air control couldn't guide us. So the pilot kept us circling above in the midst of the storm. The inside of the plane was like a cement mixer. I thought we were going to plow into nearby Hon Kon for sure. Clinging for dear life, I kept swallowing, holding my bile. Our eyes closed upon the firmament that day. Finally, the pilot decided to make a go for it and managed to avoid impaling us into the mountain.
Camp Radcliffe was another world compared to Dragon Mountain with its huge perimeter encapsulating Hon Kon, occupied by insurgents in a subterranean labyrinth. They'd regularly been in the habit of descending the slopes to attack the field hospital and blow up a few helicopters. This side of the Mang Yang had more jungle amd lots of mountains intermingled with savannas on the flatlands. Much more hot and humid then the central highlands had been. At the end of April, Nixon ordered the Cambodian invasion and most of the division departed for the west in a combined operation with a battalion from the Screaming Eagles. Charlie hit us every night at midnight for a full week. They'd break through the eastern perimeter and head for the Golf Course while the northern part of the base would be bombarded with mortars. Soon we were accustomed to spending our nights in the bunkers and ol' John Calabrese had himself all prepared before the sirens went off. In a neat pile he placed a ratty old chaise lounge, a blanket, a pillow and his steel pot. So one night, many of us were packed in the makeshift EM Club watching a movie. King Arthur touched Lancelot's shoulder with his sword and all hell broke loose. Tables overturned and chairs flew as everyone rushed out the door, another mortar barrage, another night in the bunkers. And upon arriving, who should we find but The Brese all stretched out on his chaise lounge voicing the inevitable: "Well what took ya so long?"
He was a major in the medical corps at Enari. His hands were shaking as he tried to pull money out of his billfold while buying money orders at my window. He'd just come from an operating table at the medical detachment. He'd been in-country nearly a year, was near the end of his rope, haunted by all of the horror he'd seen but couldn't quite express it. From what I'd heard, they all eventually would start suffering fatigue, particularly the field medics. You'd know they had it when they'd come up to your window with yellow I.V. tubes and shiny instruments dangling from their fatigues. These were hemostats, stainless steel clamps to stop the hemorrhage of blood. And it was always the same thing, they'd be buying money orders to accompany their applications to med school back home. They had this extraordinary religiosity, this air of intensity about them...
On Enari's eastern perimeter as twilight fell into night behind us. It was always so quiet at that time. Those on guard usually would split apart and reflect by themselves while gazing out at the fading sea of green. Banana Mountain was off to the right with it's sparse stand of hardwoods covering a lush understory of emerging banana leaves. It held quite a magnetic attraction for me, sitting out there so inviting and exotic looking in the early evening light. Back at Fort Harrison, Captain Weiss had warned me not to volunteer for any forward mission. He'd been wounded on one of his own. My number soon came up and for myself I went forward and saw what had become America's nightmare. Nobody, not one single bastard of this world can ever take that away from me.
One night on the side of Hon Kon, up in the jungle behind me an animal is prowling. I'm not sure what it is and stand ready to blast away at the vegetation, my throat clutched with fear and heart throbbing, I call the command post and am told not to open fire. Dawn arrived after eons on suspense waiting there expecting Charles to come charging through the vegetation. The exotic view of savanna, hills and mountains captured me and the paranoia evaporated. Soon the truck came; that was the one and only time that I stood guard on the north side of the mountain.Yeah, life was so much more intense then. Now, it's like living in a long slow shadow, having been high on that mountain - knowing you'll never be up there again. And unfathomable horror on young men's faces, how I felt coming around that mountain for the last time, trucked back to the compound along the storied Green Line. Such feelings didn't last, didn't survive past the freedom flight back to America.
A few more days and I sat beside the pool at my father's house below Camel's Back Ridge east of San Fernando. One sat on the long wood plank, leaned back against the block wall at the deep end and covered his ears trying to keep from hearing the strains of "God Bless America" broadcast from the Fourth of July parade along the town's single commercial drag. He's hated that song with unrelenting passion ever since, vowed right off to never again recite the Pledge of Allegiance or sing this country's national anthem. And I haven't. Instead, I saw the ad for VVAW in Playboy and bought a money order, for my first year's membership. And early one evening nine years later I found myself running full bore along Weyburn Avenue near UCLA hightailing it after Jane Fonda. One glance at the picture of her at the gun emplacement in North Vietnam told me that she'd made a very big mistake. Yet I very much wanted to express my appreciation—for how she had ventured so far out on a limb in her anti-war effort and her work in assisting veterans coping with life in the aftermath of their experience on the other side of the world.
Courtesy of NPR, Terry Gross speaks with John Kerry as I write this. He speaks of swift boats and Swift Boaters and the late John McCain. The two veterans once stood together in the latter's cell in the "Hanoi Hilton" and found common ground.
Years ago I'd occasionally become melancholic, would feel deja-vu for two or three days. And those images of pain and despair lined up in front of me front and center. I began to think they would always haunt me; but no, I gradually turned corner after corner, kept packing up and moving on. But still I dreamt, was on guard duty—back behind the concertina again, tracers flying and all of the astonishing green vegetation. Illumination was drifting into eternity mist—south of Dragon Mountain. Night again, folks. Always night
John Crandell was regular Army, volunteered for three years in a useless attempt to avoid southeast Asia, served with CONARC, with the Fourth Infantry and First Cav post Vietnam. Now retired, I keep fit doing horticulture and managing "The Farm" outside Sacramento. This morning I found out that Jane and Peter Fonda are my tenth cousins.