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1969, Vietnam: While Waiting For Nixon's Secret Plan
By John Crandell
A mission out west to LZ Meredeth had occurred from Fourth Division basecamp on August 29th. After riding fifteen miles out to an old French tea plantation known as Cateka, also the third brigade's field headquarters, we boarded a flock of Huey's accompanied by a twin-bladed 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 watershed. The triple canopy was broken only by boiling red rivers carrying laterite soil in suspension, rapidly descending towards the distant Mekong. We hadn't anticipated having to spend the night there near the border 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 zone. Sleeping quarters for the infantry were fashioned out of half-sections of corrugated steel culverts buried beneath sandbags. Latrines, pissoirs and a shower were rudimentary in nature. One's ablutions were conducted in full view of the surrounding terrain and vice versa. An individual's privacy lay only where he slept. The experience was sobering—blank, somnambulant expressions on men's faces—gone past fear, past resolution or dependence or caring save for that hoped-for day of departure for another world.
As dusk fell into night and not knowing where we could go, I and the personnel specialist plus the finance specialist crawled under a tarp supposedly protecting food rations. Abandoned mosquito nets made for makeshift bedding. Rats didn't bother us but they climbed all over breakfast, lunch, and dinner supplies. Outgoing artillery erupted all night long a few hundred feet distant. Ears dented; the sonic impact far more extreme than back at Camp Enari. The nightly monsoon descended and at dawn, the place had become a more reflective hue of mahogany, surrounded by every shade of green known to mankind.
Come my twenty-first birthday I was on another mission, by land instead of air. Along a narrow road, we sailed southward through the highland jungle as fast as that deuce-in-a-half truck could fly, foliage snapping as we passed. And we found the perimeter at Plei Mei completely abandoned. Supposedly we were to rendezvous there with troops needing a money order, to mail a letter or submit paperwork. Not a military sound was heard. No one came for admin service. Sheer emptiness with three of us there alone at a guard post, the site of the siege of the Army's special forces camp four years earlier. Mud had risen near to our knees between truck and bunker. That was twelve miles east of Chu Pong Massif where the First Air Cav had encountered the first regiments of NVA regulars in the Battle of Ia Drang—the first incident of northern forces standing and fighting against Americans.
In recent years I've wondered whether or not the three of us had been specifically selected for treatment. All that we had for defense were our rifles. Was it intended that we sit there and contemplate our fate thoroughly exposed in distant isolation? Had there been a miscommunication—or had we been held as recalcitrants? Had command tried to tell us something that day?
Five-plus decades of life since then, the composted social tea of intervening years informs me that that day was not a military maneuver, that something larger was at issue, that all that we are told is not open to question, be it gossip, stereotype, meme, moral or social standard—that individualism only applies to appearance, to one's material and monetary acquisitions. Be accessible, relate, and get on board whatever realm one is surrounded by. To hell with the essential effect of the French Revolution. Now, to sit and watch a video of the storming of the US Capitol causes wonder over things having gone into reverse.
One does not at all recall that any of us three spoke to one another in those hours alone at a place once used by a very effective element of the American military. We were hollow young men. Yes, those years were the seeds of our present condition. Oh, what we supposedly did for our country and what our country folk are now doing to us all.
John Crandell clerked under the cantankerous "Sergeant Looney" with the Fourth Army postal unit circa 1969-70. Lately, he's discovered that several of his ancestors were among the rebel barons who forced bloody King John to abide by rights established via Magna Carta in 1215. Looney was famous for sniffing out porn amongst the division's incoming mail. A hootch maid once made off with his plastic love doll and there was hell to pay.