After a few weeks’ leave at home, I reported to Oakland Army Base in California for shipment to Vietnam. I heard that they only shipped troops on weekdays, so if you arrived on a Saturday, you would end up on two days of KP or other work detail. I decided to report two days late in order to avoid a weekend. When the processing officer asked me why I was late, I replied "No excuse, sir" in my best OCS voice. I knew the game – “never explain, never complain”. He couldn’t argue because I didn’t give him some phony excuse, so he just signed my form and processed me without a hassle.
The flight, on a chartered commercial airliner full of troops, took 22 hours with stops in Anchorage, Alaska and Yokota, Japan, where we were allowed off the plane briefly.
I arrived at Bien Hoa, Republic of Vietnam on 22 May 1969. When we emerged from the plane at the Bien Hoa Air Base late at night, we were met by a blast of heat that was our introduction to Vietnam. Across the terminal, we saw a group of happy soldiers waiting to take our "Freedom Bird" back to the world after their tours of duty. We then drove through a civilian area, full of strange sights and sounds, to the Army base, riding in buses with chicken wire over the windows to prevent a VC from tossing a grenade at us. Almost every Vietnam novel or memoir I've read records these three experiences as a soldier's first memories of the war.
From a letter home:
Everything is new and exciting; I can hardly believe I'm here. Last night, amidst the heat and humidity, I was lulled to sleep by the distant ‘thud’ of mortarfire.
I was posted to the 90th Replacement Depot at Long Binh (near Saigon) along with hundreds of other newly arrived soldiers awaiting their assignments. One night, I was put on guard duty along the base perimeter. We were told to be particularly alert from large rockets that the enemy fired at the base from time to time. In the middle of the night, I saw long thin streaks of red light coming down from the sky about a mile away, and wondered if these were rockets. When a sergeant came around to check on us, I asked and was told that the red streaks I saw were the tracers being fired by Cobra gunships against an enemy position some distance away. I felt stupid, but everything was so new to us.
I was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile). I was impressed by the fact that the 101st Airborne was the only unit in Vietnam that wore its full colour shoulder patch, not a black-and-green subdued version. Following in the path of the 1st Cav, the 101st Airborne had become the Army’s second “Airmobile” division, with 420 helicopters to give it the mobility it needed to fight a war in Vietnam's terrain.
From a letter home:
For better or worse, I've been assigned to the best, hard-fighting unit in the Army, the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), the ‘Screaming Eagles’. The division is taking on a lot of replacements because of heavy casualties on Hamburger Hill in the A Shau Valley. I'll be up close to the border between North and South Vietnam. It could get hazardous depending upon what battalion I'm in, but at least I'm in a good unit. Don't be remiss about bragging; unit pride is about the only compensation I will get.
At first, I was posted to the Screaming Eagle Replacement Training School (SERTS) at Bien Hoa (near Long Binh and Saigon), where all newly assigned troopers for the 101st Airborne went through an orientation and training program for several days. I was then flown north to Camp Evans (on Route 1 near Phong Dien, north of Hue), the home of the 101st Airborne's Third Brigade. When I reported to the 2nd Battalion of the 506th Airborne Infantry, the processing officer took me aside when he saw that I had been to OCS, and he called the Recon Platoon Leader to interview me. The Recon Platoon Leader offered me a slot in Recon because of my OCS training. Each Infantry battalion had four line companies (each with 3 platoons) plus a Recon platoon of 20-30 guys. Recon offered the advantages of membership in an elite unit, a camouflage uniform instead of the standard solid green uniform, a special shoulder tab, and a boonie hat to wear in the field instead of the heavy steel helmet. I’m a sucker for being elite, and avoiding the hot steel helmet was a great argument, so I joined.
The 2nd Battalion, 506th Airborne Infantry, known as the "Currahees" (from the Cherokee word for "Stand Alone"), was one of the units that jumped as part of the 101st Airborne on D-Day in 1944. The three battalion units (Recon, Mortars and Radar) formed Company E. This Company E ("Echo Company") is the descendant of the Company E, 506th Parachute Infantry portrayed in Stephen Ambrose's book and TV series "Band of Brothers".
In his book "Nam-Sense", 2/506 veteran Arthur Wiknik gives this impression of Recon: "Echo Company [Recon] was a collection of gung-ho warmongers who got their kicks by going on long-range recon and ambush missions in six-man teams. Their patrols disappeared into the jungle for up to two weeks at a time, rarely moving and laying in wait along VC trails until they made enemy contact or ran out of food. Echo was the Marines of our battalion, usually being the first to land and establish initial lines of defense." That's a Hollywood description of Recon, but I like the idea that it was our image among the other soldiers of the battalion.
Within a day or two of joining Recon, the platoon came in from the field. They were an impressive group, most with a lot of time in country. I particularly remember two very impressive American natives: "Chief", an Oglala Sioux with the rank of sergeant, and Squirrel, a Comanche. Squirrel was very quiet and a little scary. Chief was more open, but also a little scary at first. Chief has just won a Silver Star for some distinguished feat in combat, and he got drunk the first night, sitting on his bunk and holding his Silver Star. I think he somewhat mocked it as Army bullshit but he also knew he had earned it by his skill and bravery.
My first squad leader was Sergeant Jones, a "shake-n-bake" or "instant" NCO who had received his rank directly from the Army's NCO academy. Instant NCOs had a poor reputation in the army, as they did not have the experience that their rank implied. However, Sergeant Jones was an excellent leader - one of the best I met in the Army, which demonstrates that what really matters is a person's character, not the rank on his sleeve.
Everyone in Recon spent a couple of days learning how to rappel out of helicopters. We trained by jumping from a 35 foot wooden tower. I was really scared on top of the tower, but I looked down, saw the other Recon guys, and knew I had to rappel or else get out of the unit now – so I did it. Then a chopper landed ... first time I’d ever been near one of these intimidating machines. My first time up in a chopper, and I had to jump out 60 feet!