A story by David Chessey from 1971
Mood in the USA from High School and College Students
Draft: The US Army needed soldiers to fight in Viet Nam and so they put 365 pieces of paper, each with a date such as January 4, March 22, May 15, September 5, December 3, etc (days of the year) in a bowl and started picking out the dates. The first date picked out identified men with that birth date as candidate number 1, the second date picked out of the bowl as candidate number 2 etc., all the way to candidate number 365. I had a low number, 81, so I knew that I would be drafted the day after I graduated from college. Full time students in college were exempt from the draft until graduation. Quite a few people went to Canada or Mexico to avoid “the draft.” I had cousins in Canada who volunteered to house me and get me a job if I went there (remember, I was a college graduate and could have found a teaching job in Canada quite easily) but I didn’t want to lose citizenship, lose the wild land property my dad planned to give me, or get caught up there, deported and jailed.
Fear: The news media was in heaven broadcasting the action in Viet Nam. Of course 99.9% of the broadcasting was action in “the bush.” Very few young men my age wanted to pull duty in Viet Nam unless they wanted to make a career of the Army. As it turned out, lucky for me, the only time I went into the bush was to deliver, with a pick up truck, two pallets of beer to the GIs at Camp Alpha which was a couple miles from Quang Tri where I was stationed! Obviously the driver and I got back without an incident.
Location: It didn’t make sense to me for the USA to get involved in a country like Viet Nam which had almost no technology, no industry, absolutely no international influence. When I was in Da Nang working in the Communication Center at Headquarters I was required to go to another Communication Center about five miles away from HQ where I worked in order to pick up a message or two. This happened only a couple times so it was out of my daily routine. One time, by mistake, I was issued a “Top Secret” message which accidentally was inserted into a “Confidential” message which I did have clearance for and needed in order to do my job that night. The topic and contents of the “Top Secret” message was: “Location of Nuclear Weapons in Viet Nam and their Destination Targets!!” Of course the next day I had a formal interview with a “Security Officer” who told me that I could not, under penalty of jail, tell anyone that I had seen the message or tell the contents of the message for ten years. Of course, I obeyed the officer!! It did confirm what I suspected, though. Prior to this incident I had asked Sergeant Shanks, in charge of the hooch I lived in, what his MOS was. He told me: “Nuclear Weapons.!” Then he stated that he didn’t have a clue why he was in Viet Nam. As soon as I read the topic of that Top Secret Message I had no doubt why he was in country!! Again I told no one what I knew.
My military experience prior to Viet Nam
Pre Military Induction:
When I was 11 years old I was too active in baseball. I played for Saint Patrick’s Elementary School and at the same time also played for the Dodgers of Little League Six. My left knee started to hurt so dad and mom took me to Doctor Monahan, a bone specialist. Dr. Monahan told me that I over exercised during a time in my life when my bones were growing. The result was bi lateral Osgood Schlaters’ Disease. He further stated that I might completely heal or I might have to live with the disability for the rest of my life. Time will tell. Ten years later I was drafted for the Army and so when I went for my “draft interview” I stressed the point that I had a knee condition that kept me out of “dry land” sports. I was allowed to swim competitively but excessive drills for starts and turns hurt me and continues to hurt me today. I was disqualified for the military draft at that time due to my physical disability. However, when they called me in for a second interview about three months later they qualified me without question and so I was drafted into the Army.
My Military Experience prior to Viet Nam:
According to my DD214 I was inducted into the military on July 27, 1970.
The United States Government transported me, along with a crowd of other inductees, via bus from Portland Maine to Fort Dix NJ. At Fort Dix we were measured and fitted into a couple sets of “Fatigue” shirts and pants, a couple new black work boots, a couple of summer weight gray semi formal uniforms, a single set of a “formal uniform” which included two formal shirts, one suit jacket, one long pants, and one pair of black shoes. We were also issued socks, undershirts, boxer type briefs. All this was done in minutes. The system was impressive and most of the clothes were of good quality. And there were women who sewed your name tag on all your shirts as well as men there who insured that your boots and shoes fit. A well oiled machine!
We stayed for one day in limbo learning how to march and on day two we went to our “Training Company.” At that point we became a military unit.
Basic training (Fort Dix, NJ) was the conversion from a civilian to a soldier. We learned how to march, how to address a superior, both officers as well as enlisted men, how to use the tools of war and most important of all how to survive in the Army. Everything was very organized. To this day I disagree with a few of the techniques used in “the conversion.” However, when you realize that in that group of trainees there may be college graduates, high school dropouts, and street thugs all mixed and all “equal.” I recall one guy telling me that he had the choice of going to jail or going into the Army. He chose Army!
Next was Advanced Individual Training, also at Fort Dix, NJ. The goal at this school was to teach us basic radio communication and Morse code. To pass the training we had to receive five letter word groups of Morse code at a rate of 15 words per minute. It wasn’t very difficult to me and so I passed it very quickly. Well, the Army being the Army when I received my grade for the test they told me that I didn’t pass. Morse code is something that you know when you pass and you know if you didn’t pass. Well, I had to stay another week on my own at the front of the class on a raised platform practicing the receipt of Morse code at faster rates, 17 words per minute, 20 words per minute, 25 words per minute and eventually 30 words per minute.
Well, a few of he soldiers had trouble passing the 15 words per minute test. Passing was important because without additional training one was qualified only to become a radio operator in the bush, probably in Viet Nam. However, if you passed you had a chance to become a Radio Teletype Operator which usually put you in a Headquarters building or a base with the skill to keep from going into “the dreaded bush.” Therefore, my buddies came to me during our “off time” and asked me if I would make “master sheets” for all the sets of tests at 15 words per minute. No problem. I had been receiving at 30 words per minute so the 15 word per minute code signals felt slow. I made a master sheet for all five of the tests! Needless to say lots of soldiers passed their next test and went on with me to Radio Teletype School at Fort Gordon GA!! No one ever found out and now it’s too late to do anything about it!! Win win for everyone!
Fort Gordon, GA
Advanced individual training is a step up in the life of a military trainee. The accommodations are far bigger, newer, and easier to clean. The mess halls, where you ate, served far better food, more of it, and you could go back for “seconds” if you wanted to. I always did.
One day I was talking about my “life before the Army” to one of the other trainees. When I brought up that I played Judo he responded that he heard that there was an officer who posted a note at the Officers Quarters, where they slept, requesting that anyone who played Judo contact him for a workout at the gym. I went to the BOQ and to my surprise the officer was Keith Savage, a former Judo friend from Portland Maine! They let me leave him a note at the BOQ. That same day, just before noontime at the “mess hall” in comes Keith Savage dressed in civilian clothes with a big smile on his face! He took me to one of the restaurants that only officers were authorized to eat. The place was “First Class.” I don’t recall ever being in an eating establishment as nice or as expensive. And when the bill came Keith took it. “Dave, on your salary there’s no way I would let you pay.” Later on he took me to a poker game at the BOQ, all of players except me being officers. When I look back I am sure that they, the officers, let me win a couple hands in order to have some money to spend on myself the next day. Nice bunch of guys breaking a relatively serious military rule – socializing with an enlisted soldier. I still appreciate what Keith and his buddies did.
My Personal Attitude prior to Vietnam
My dad would not have been proud of me a couple times before I went to Viet Nam because I did a few things that were both bold and almost stupid. However, I got away with them and can laugh about them now just as I have laughed many times telling people.
My first challenge to the Military: Upon arrival at Fort Dix, I asked to go to the Hospital because I told them my knee was hurting me due to the marching. Of course, because we were new to the Army they drilled us on marching more than I could stand (it did hurt a little. I figured that I knew so much about my condition that I could bluff even a doctor.) Guess what! I was smarter than they thought and so I was issued a “Permanent Profile” which read: “No running, jumping, stooping, crawling, prolonged standing or marching!!!” Of course the head drill sergeant, Whitehead, mocked me along with the other profiles every chance he could get. Nevertheless I had my profile, that’s all I wanted at that time. Now, when I reflect on this, I was not aware how that profile would keep me out of the jungle of Viet Nam, affectionately known as “the bush”. I think it would have if by bad luck my unit over there had to “go to the bush.” It would have been ignorant and dangerous to have me in the bush and not able to carry my belongings and walk in the jungle! I do believe that I would have actually been unable to do that after a couple hours of marching (or sneaking around in ambush maneuvers.)
Incident number one: At boot camp there was an extremely shy soldier from Hiram ME named Bob Stanley. Bob couldn’t learn fast enough all the marching techniques we were learning (to go anywhere in Boot Camp at Fort Dix, NJ was by marching) and so our platoon would be disciplined, usually with push-ups, quite frequently each day. One night in the barracks after a “bad day” Bob had marching a trainee came over to Bob’s bunk which was immediately below my bunk, and started shouting at Bob calling him stupid and reminding him that he was to blame for all the extra push-ups we had to do that day. Of course I and everyone in the barracks heard the whole thing. Immediately I jumped down directly in front of the guy leaned towards him and while staring square into his eyes I said: “To get to Bob you have to go through me!” The force in my statement scared even me. The fellow backed down because I was a little bit bigger than him and a confrontation was not what he was expecting. Next morning I made sure that my wallet fell from my pants pocket so that the contents would fall out of it on to the floor. One piece of identification I had in my wallet was my USA Judo card. Of course the Judo symbol and the Japanese writing were quite obvious. In bright light it landed face up for everyone to see. I couldn’t have planned it better! For a while the trainees left Bob alone and except for a couple guys I had befriended most trainees kept their distance even from me. I loved it.
Incident number two: One day we had to go to the rifle range in order to qualify with the M-16. They drove us there in a 40 foot trailer (no seats, standing only), the same kind of trailer that truckers use to deliver freight to supermarkets or wherever. To get back to our unit, however, everyone, except “the 3 profiles,” marched. Drill Sergeant Whitehead let us profiles walk back with one of the Sergeants. Of course we were late for the exercises and the Head Drill Sergeant (Whitehead), a tall thin African American in excellent physical condition about 35 or so years old, greeted us by having everyone, including the profiles, drop down for push-ups. Be reminded that at that time I was 22 years old and prior to my induction into the Army had been working out in Judo 3-4 times a week in what I would consider severe workouts today. A bunch of push-ups would be no problem. Well, when I looked up at push-up number 65 or so the only people still doing them were Drill Sergeant Whitehead and me. Everyone else was flat on their chests and exhausted. I did about 5 more with him and then collapsed. I could have done 15-20 more for sure but I had made my point and didn’t want to over do it!! By the way, Drill Sergeant Whitehead did nothing but take a long look at me. “A penny for your thoughts,” I said to myself!!
My Observations and Feelings about Viet Nam: The place, the people, the issues.
First Day Feelings--Muggy Hot and Dusty
Think of the muggiest, hot day in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, or anywhere in Southern USA and then add to it a fine dust almost always blowing at you by wind or by helicopter blades. This is a normal day almost everywhere I went in Viet Nam. An unusual day would be rain, wind blowing the rain mixed with dust sideways, of course, rather than straight down. And then, out would come the sun and a miserable oppressive heat. You’d be dry in 15 minutes. But the experience was not very much fun especially if you were carrying a gun which would have to be broken down and oiled and then put back together in order to use it. In the bush I heard that you always, always, kept your feet dry and your weapon in working condition. To this day I still maintain the cleanliness of my feet!
Fear of the unknown - During my life I lived as a child in San Diego CA on a Navy base. I remember the heat, a black widow spider I found in a cardboard box on the side of the road, playing on a hill across from the building we lived in. The hill took the water used by residents who “over watered” their lawns and directed it to a gully far down the hill. We children would make dams to catch and redirect the water. We would make quite the irrigation system for six year olds! Lots of fun for a little boy.
Most of my life I lived in Portland Maine and spent weekends with dad taking care of his uncles in Sebago. During the summer we would plow and harrow the garden, help Uncle Louis when he mowed hay in the fields, cut trees for firewood they burned in their stoves for heat in the Winter etc. They would reward me by letting me use a rifle, a 22 caliber when I was very young, around 8 years old, and eventually a 38/40 deer rifle when I was around 11 or 12 years old. Based on my experience with him and his uncles dad felt I was competent enough to handle a deer rifle. At that time I was about 12 years old. Mom went along with all this because she also grew up in Sebago, on a farm, and she was sure that dad and his uncles would teach me how to handle myself in the woods. By the way, when we were deer hunting together Dad would use a 30/30 that still at this writing has a defect in the safety. Rightfully so he didn’t trust me with that rifle.
Another reward would be fishing for hornpout, catfish, in Browns Pond at night. It was a hoot because we would walk quite a distance to the pond at dusk and return home in complete darkness using kerosene lanterns. We always caught fish! Remember, these men lived their entire lives there and knew every twig, every rock, and every aspect of the land. They were teaching all this to their grand nephew/son who was excited to learn all of it. However, Viet Nam couldn’t be more different and still be on Earth.
Underground Pet I had: In Quang Tri, a small base just south of the DMZ, Demilitarized Zone, which separated North Viet Nam from South Viet Nam, I worked in a bunker which was approximately ten feet underground with several layers of sand bags on top and a foot or so of cement on top of the sand bags. From the outside the bunker looked like a huge turtle. There were two entrances, one opposite the other, four wooden stairs, then you came to a 4x4 landing, turned 90 degrees and went down another four stairs. There were metal walls and ceilings. One evening I noticed this huge rat, probably 12 inches long excluding her tail, and a tail about another 12 inches. She came out every night to drink water from our water cooler. I had put a saucer under one corner of the cooler where water would drip on one of the 2x8 wooden planks we walked on. She appreciated the saucer of water! At first she startled me but I couldn’t shoot her because the walls and space under the 2x8s was steel. Any round would bounce all over the place. She never bothered me and only came out to get a drink. I figured if she didn’t bother me then I wouldn’t bother her. After all, this was Viet Nam and probably a routine situation! I didn’t know any different. I found out after I was transferred to Da Nang that she was big because she was pregnant! Glad I missed the delivery!
Other “pets” in Da Nang: I didn’t notice them in Quang Tri but in Da Nang you couldn’t miss the lizards crawling inside the hutch on the top of the inside roof. They didn’t appear to be a bother but one day I mentioned it to the Sergeant in charge and he said that they kept the insects and bugs out by eating them. I left them alone and after a week or so their presence stopped bothering me. Lovely place, Viet Nam!
Fun with Cock Roaches: Our pet lizards kept cock roaches out of the hutch but the roaches could easily be found in the barrels we filled with sand and stood up all around the hutch to protect us from rockets. For fun we would catch a couple, gently step on it just enough to break their shell and then with a stick flip them out onto the sand around the hutch. Ants would eat them. What a hoot! Thousands of tiny red ants would come out in a thin line and in ten minutes the roach would be completely consumed. All that would be left would be the shell.
Loach – Smallest, used to get closer to land to observe something of interest. Capable of 90 degree turns one after the other. It was difficult to follow them even from a long distance (quarter mile.) One day a couple of pilots were training over the water while I was on the beach. They were no more than 100 feet from the water. I had all I could do to keep them in my field of vision. I would lose them for a few seconds and then find one of them for a few seconds and then lose them again. They were taking 90 degree turns left, right, up and down. It was awesome to see and it made you proud to be an American with that quality air transport. It was impossible to follow them immediately above you because they were so fast and their turns were 90 degree one after the other. They were used to draw fire from a Viet Cong soldier because there would, by plan, be a Cobra Gun Ship high above the Loach. Immediately the Gun Ship would dive and shoot its mini gun located at its side or its 50mm cannon located under it’s nose. It would be a thrill to watch “the show” at night while you’re outside your hooch with a couple or more of your friends enjoying a cold beer or three and relaxing after a stressful day.
Hewey – Bigger than a Loach. It was the type of helicopter that transported me from my first location where I landed with the Jet airliner from USA to my first duty station in Quang Tri. It was the “work horse” of the helicopters. They were every where transporting soldiers, commanders, visitors, etc. When they were about to land the blades would kick up dust for quite a distance 50-100 feet. You had to turn your back and grab your hat and cover your face as the fine grained dirt would hurt as it was being blown by the propellers. The first time it happened to me taught me a lesson I didn’t need again! That is, turn around and hold your hat when a Hewey lands nearby!
Cobra Gun Ship – The scariest weapon you could imagine. The soldiers would paint an ugly face on the front of it, usually with a red tongue hanging out and blood dripping from the tongue. Eyes would be painted like they were looking at you with “bad intentions in their brain.” We all were glad they were on “our side.” All Cobra Gun Ships had a mini gun, the equivalent of 5 M-16s all mounted in a circle all shooting at once. The force of this weapon would actually move the Cobra to the side so that the pilot had to adjust his steering to keep on course. In Quang Tri we used to sit in a group of three or four, drinking cold beers just outside our bunkhouse and watch the Cobras circling around the post looking for movement in the bush. The gunship had a light on the bottom of the belly. When the light was green it meant that if you were flying a smaller helicopter, Loach, it was OK to fly under the Cobra. When the light was red it meant that immediately the “mini guns” would start to fire if they weren’t already! When they were in fact firing it would look like a red light shining down and sounded like the gunship was regurgitating! We would usually cheer and take another hit from our beer when we saw the light because someone down there was having a “bad night.”
– Something positive: The highlight of the day, usually in the morning was the distribution of incoming mail. It was always after breakfast. I would get out of work at 6:00 AM and get back to the living quarters in about ten minutes. Good deal as I would be one of the first to eat! There would be no rush yet so the cooks would make me something special if I requested it. I would be out of there before the rush of everyone else. Immediately after the mess hall closed for breakfast someone from the First Sergeant’s office would come with mail from home. Just about everyone in the unit would be there, except the officers. If you got one letter you were excited. If you got two letters it was usually a problem, probably a transportation issue with the military. That is, the one you should have received the previous day was delayed. If you got three letters, that was an exception. You were “king” for the day. One day I was standing there and the distributor said “Chessey – 15 (I don’t recall the actual number but it was big, very big.) Everyone looked at me like I had two heads! I was “the cock of the walk” that day. What happened was this: My cousin’s wife, Roberta Douglass, had her school children all wrote me a letter. I wrote every one of them back and had several of them write me again and again. It was a hoot! Everyone was so jealous of me and I was in heaven reading and responding. Of course, mom wrote me almost every day so I always looked forward to her “newsy” letters but to get letters from sincere curious children was very special.
Some “different” things that happened or were observed by me
Air Aid Signal – Shortly after we landed at a US Compound somewhere in Viet Nam all of the brand new solders were standing together wondering what to do next. All of a sudden a loud siren sounded. Experienced solders who worked there dove under buildings or ran to a shelter if they were close to one. Newbees like me were confused and unsure what was happening. A few seconds later one of the experienced soldiers came over and directed us to dive under a building. As it turned out it was a “test alert” but to us it was a “welcome to Viet Nam.” My heart rate was about 300!
Saluting an officer – In basic training we were told to always sauté an officer when you walked by him/her. Well, I did this when I was stationed at Quang Tri and to my surprise the officer stopped, and said: “Never salute an officer, you’re pointing out to a sniper the right person to shoot!” Later in Da Nang I was told that we weren’t “in the bush” and so we had to salute them! Who knew what to do and when to do it?
Real attack by Viet Cong – Later on, probably a month or so when I was stationed in Quang Tri sirens went off and so I ran to and crawled into a Culvert nearby. The culvert was about five feet high inside with about three or four layers of sand bags on top. While I was laying there in the culvert a guy crawled in and crawled under me in order to get deeper into the culvert. Last time I stayed at the entrance or exit.
Real American War Tactic at Night – While I was in Quang Tri for entertainment at night a bunch of us would break out some beers and sit together on chairs just outside our hooch in order to watch the helicopters draw fire from the Viet Cong. The ‘game plan” was this: A loach would be flying relatively close to ground looking for either soldiers whom they rarely found or a vehicle, obviously VC (Viet Cong.) The pilot in the Loach would radio the pilot in the Cobra Gunship, usually flying very high for anyone on the ground in the bush to hear or see. While informing the Cobra pilot the Loach pilot would be hurrying out of the way. There was a light in the middle of the Cobra on the bottom. When the light was green it would be OK for a Loach to pass under but if the light was red it meant that he was about to shoot so “stay away! On the ground while drinking beer all we were doing was following the green lights. There were always at least two Cobras up there and sometimes three. When a green light turned red we would hear what sounded like a giant in the sky regurgitating. We would see a red stream of light from the Cobra Gunship heading to the ground. What we were actually seeing was the light from every tenth bullet with phosphorous instead of lead in the tip. Next day if the location was quite close we sometimes went to see the area almost completely dug up by the bullets. It looked like someone was about to start a little garden there – no trees, a few bushes “worst for the wear and tare” mostly bare ground. It made us proud to watch 20th century US military tactics. Also it gave us something to do in our spare time!
Mini Gun – Located on one side of the Cobra Gunship. When “in action” it sounded like a giant in the sky regurgitating a stream of light full of lead rounds. I heard that it was five M-16 barrels rotating on a shaft. All five barrels fired at once with every tenth round phosphorous rather than metal. A Cobra crew member I talked to told me that when the gun was firing it would actually move the helicopter to the side while going forward at about forty miles per hour! The pilot had to adjust his steering to accommodate the mini gun!
Real Viet Cong Attack – One afternoon in Quang Tri we had an alert, extremely loud sirens blasting from high telephone poles. Viet Cong were actually in the wire surrounding the compound. I was off duty in an air conditioned house trailer which was the local library. I used to go there just to get out of the heat and humidity but I did read while I was there! When I exited the library I heard the “Red Alert” sirens and so ran immediately to the communications bunker about 100 feet away. During an alert radio operators were required to report to the communications bunker. Inside was the commanding officer, another officer I didn’t know and one of our radio operators. Immediately upon seeing me the radio operator gave me a pad of paper and a pen (he had been very busy operating the radio and, being alone, writing notes at the same time.) ”Very busy soldier!” He said, very simply, “take notes.” The whole event lasted about thirty minutes. When the commanding officer stated that it was over he turned to me and said: “May I have those notes.” To this day I wonder where they are? The whole event lasted no more than an hour. However, because it ended OK it was quite a thrill.
Another “incident” occurred when I was in Da Nang. During my normal routine late at night one of my substations called me and said very simply: “Go outside and came back to tell me what you see.” I did. It was 1:00 AM and brighter than day. What happened? Someone, probably a VC soldier, got through our wire fences – multiple wire fences with claymore mines and other booby traps. Having made it through he went to a building in which we stored our flairs. He either tripped on one or set one off, no one will ever know. The result: the entire supply of flairs exploded. A bit bright and I heard also very, very hot.
The beach - In Da Nang I spent a good percentage of my time off (6:00Am to 6:00PM) at the beach. The sand was fine and clean, the water was so clear that you could be in it up to your shoulders, look down, and see your toenails! There would even be little fish swimming all around you. There was a bit of an under tow so you had to be careful but in general it was better than most beaches in USA.
One item we don’t see on our beaches or in the water is jelly fish. They had quite the presence when they were washed in after a storm or heavy wind. The ones I saw were round, white not like milk but more like clear jello. Of course, unlike jello, when you touched them it would burn you like a hot iron. If you were in the water the stinging would be quite a distance from the main fish. They drifted. A couple friends and I used some boards, 1 x 3s and picked one of them up and set it on the hot dry sand. It was about two to three feet in diameter! In about 2-3 hours it completely dissolved in the sand. Where it previously was located only dry jelly fish remains were there. If you touched it no stinging sensation occurred but if you put some of it back into the water it stung very bad. Believe me, I tried it, it stung. I didn’t have to go to the medical clinic as I immediately washed it off with some “drinking water” and was just fine in an hour or so. Didn’t even leave a scar!!
Medical Clinic - I got too much sun and so broke out with a rash on my shoulders. When I went to the infirmary I, like everyone else, had to sign in and record my problem. When I went to sign in about 10-20 soldiers had already signed in and were waiting for the doctor. All 20 were there for venereal disease. Busy night last night! I heard that VD was the major medical emergency!
Sunsets – Another superlative for Viet Nam. Never even once prior to viewing the sunsets in Da Nang and never even once after coming home to USA have I viewed a sunset that comes even close to the ones I used to see almost every night outside our Support Command building. There would be multiple layers of clouds with colors flowing like water falling from one layer to the next. There were reds, blues, greens, orange, pink, you name the beautiful color and it was there. A sight like nowhere back in USA. Half hour or more I would be lost in wonder. And this went on almost every night at sunset! Terri Barry and I would go out and simply not talk. We would be so impressed with the show Mother Nature was giving us. Then we would have to go in and resume “base defense on radio.” And, by the way, we were not stoned! Didn’t have to be!! Too early in the night for that activity!!
Dogs – BIG German Shepherds, US Army property, only one “handler,” stayed in a large kennel with a high fence around an open area for exercise and training. Calm when with handler unless threatened or commanded to attack via hand signals or voice commands. Dogs are let loose always at night and during the day when there was no one securing ammo in the ammo dump (location where ammunition was stored for future use.) We could hear the dogs bark when someone came close to the fence while they were “on patrol.” I heard them only a couple times when they were upset about someone near the fence. It was a scary loud bark with a growl that told you without question to stay away. Later in my life I owned a Rottweiler we named Tara. It was only a couple times that Tara was upset and “growled like a Rottweiler.” She reminded me of the German Shepherds on patrol in DaNang. In reality Tara was slightly more forceful with her growl but the German Shepherds “had a deep threatening voice!” Handlers did take their dogs “on patrol” in the bush. The handlers never talked about what happened but I suspect that it was not good for the Viet Cong solders when the dogs found them.
Coffee Pot I Cleaned: At the Support Command Signal office which included a big meeting room just outside the actual radio room, we had a large coffee pot, probably 20 or more cups. One night I noted the black crud on the inside of the pot so I grabbed some paper towels and cleaned it. One of the sergeants who worked with us saw me doing this and went crazy. “You’re ruining the pot. Don’t you know anything?” he screamed at me. He made me make at least three full pots and pour all three of the contents down the toilet. “Don’t you ever try that stunt again” he said to me. He was serious with fire in both his eyes. I doubt that the pot has ever been cleaned again!
Raw discharge from Mess Hall: As I mentioned above I used to go to the beach almost every day after having “a nap” while off duty in the morning. To get to the beach I would walk about 200 yards on a dirt road. On one side of the road, right when you’re on your way to the beach, was a deep ditch, probably three to four feet deep and quite wide, approximately five feet at the top. We Americans used the ditch to drain the discharge from our dining facilities (mess halls in military talk) to the ocean. Nice way to treat the environment by a visitor. A result of the nourishing “mess hall waste” was rich, green foliage. Another “nice way to treat the environment buy a visitor” was the spraying of the foliage. No one every discussed the issue but the odor of the spray was not very healthy. Agent Orange? I’ll never know. What I do know is that no more than a couple of hours after the spraying of the ditch the lush green vegetation was dark black and limp on the ground. I once heard that in Russia they had a nuclear leak which exposed several square miles. It was said “You haven’t seen death until you see the result of a nuclear leak.” Well, I saw quite a sight of death for several weeks on my way to the beach in Da Nang Viet Nam. Sad, very sad.
French/Vietnamese Women: Maybe it was the absence of women in the military, maybe it was my age at the time. Who knows? I thought that most of the “female nationals” were very, very attractive. They all were quite small, none taller than five feet, and I doubt that any one of them weighted more than one hundred pounds. They worked very hard and appeared to be happy, sometimes humming a tune, always with a smile. Of course, they earned more than 99 percent of the population there and as a result their families ate well if nothing else. Why shouldn’t they act happy? Terri and I concluded that the French occupied Viet Nam during and for a while after World War Two. I’m sure that many Vietnamese women conceived a child if not more than one during that French occupation. When I was in Viet Nam these French/Vietnamese babies were late in their teens or early in their twenties, a time in life when women are usually very attractive, especially to a soldier away from home and away from “significant others.” By the way, for the record, I was a “good boy!!”
Older Vietnamese Women and Men: It appeared to me that most of the older Vietnamese men and women chewed a black substance that looked like gum. Quite a few times several of the hooch maids got together in order to eat and socialize under the overhang just outside my hooch. I observed them from a distance, I know that they knew I was there, as they gleefully passed this black substance to each other, ripped off a piece, and started chewing. It reminded me of my uncle Louis who used to chew tobacco. I asked the sergeant in charge of our hooch about it and he told me that the black substance was a mint flavored numbing product used to relieve the gum pain due to missing or heavily decayed teeth. Enough on that topic!
Meeting with Louie Aceto in Pfuby: Quang Tri was a small, but relatively safe, US Military Compound in the very north of South Viet Nam. I recall looking at a map of Viet Nam the day we landed from USA and pointed out to my buddy and eventually my “best man” at Joan’s and my wedding, Terri Barry, that the dot which identified Quang Tri actually went into the demilitarized zone which separated North from South Viet Nam. “Good place to stay away from” was my comment to him.” Little did I know!
The Commanding Officer at Quang Tri sent his messenger by jeep to Pfuby frequently, at least once per week to hand carry reports and messages the two COs didn’t want to transmit by radio – neither location had Radio Teletype capabilities. The driver was always looking for someone to accompany him so one day I made arrangements for Terri and me to go with him. It was an eight or ten hour drive, the roads were two lane and sometimes you would get involved with a convoy which drove slowly due to the loads they carried, everything from food to weapons.
By the way, we did meet up with a convey going the same direction. The driver stated: “Good, we’re now safer than in our mother’s womb.” I hadn’t noticed that high above us were both Cobra helicopters, several of them, as well as fixed wing aircraft, probably F16 fighters. How many of each I couldn’t tell because the F16s were quite high and maneuvering all over the place making it tough to count or even follow. The Cobras were not so high but also maneuvering, and some times buzzed us close enough to get our attention but not so close as to blow us off the road. To say the least, it was a neat demonstration of US Military presence.
When we arrived, the first priority, of course, was to “get a beer.” Remember, the temperature was no cooler than 90, probably closer to 100, and the relative humidity was 99.99%. We were ready for something to drink and water wouldn’t do! Straight into the bar we go and as soon as I stepped in I heard this voice say “David Chessey!” I looked more closely and there he was, Louie Aceto, a classmate of mine at Cheverus High School in Portland ME!! I ran over to him just in time for the bartender to hand me a mug of beer. Terri came over, another mug appeared and off we were jabbering about everything from women we left back home, including our mothers, of course, to how miserable it was in Viet Nam. He had just come in from the bush! An update on Louie: he did get injured, not completely crippling but definitely keeps him out of sports, he played basketball and football at Cheverus, and lives here in Portland. I’ve seen him several times and he recalls with a smile the meeting mentioned above.
Incident en route to Pfuby: About half way on the way to Pfuby, we came to congestion on the road. We hadn’t become part of that convoy I mentioned above so we had to handle it “on our own.” We came to a complete stop and Vietnamese children surrounded us trying to sell us cold drinks or other food. We had been warned to not drink Vietnamese liquids due to the poor quality of water they used in making the drinks so we kept saying “no.” Well, Terri had told me that back at Quang Tri he had signed for a crypto device that he was supposed to give to the communications officer in Pfuby. Terri had it in a small envelope near the handle for the emergency brake between him and the driver. I was sitting in the back seat all alone. All of a sudden I noticed the arm and wrist of a Vietnamese child in the jeep and his hand on the envelope containing the crypto device. Before I could respond Terri had taken his M-16 rifle and brought it down on the child’s wrist. The sound of a bone being broken is unique and never to be forgotten. Of course the young boy ran away and there was no other action which occurred. The congestion immediately was cleared up and we were on our way. Terri told me that he was noticing that boy focus on the crypto envelope and was just about to grab it and put it under his butt but the boy’s hand was suddenly there and he had nothing else he could do. He felt bad about the damage but…
Miss America at the USO Club in Da Nang: When I look back at my military career I note that as bad as it may have been nevertheless a few “good” things happened. Believe it or not what I record below is fact and Terri Barry will be happy to confirm it.
While Terri and I were stationed in Da Nang the US Army made arrangement for Miss America and her entourage to visit. Needless to state the excitement was sky high. Be reminded that, except for a nurse or two at the hospital and the couple of civilian women who worked at the USO club across from HQ Command where I worked, we American men had lost contact with American women. And women the caliber of Miss America made her visit even more special.
The hour of her arrival approached and Terri and I started getting anxious like everyone else. We were looking at the USO club, it was only 20 – 30 feet from Support Command, and we noted that at the side door (of the USO club) there were a couple benches. I don’t recall who, Terri or I, suggested it but we agreed that the front entrance would be mobbed by soldiers so we might get a better look if we stand on the benches at the side door. We did. As Miss America approached the front entrance her guides directed the group of women to the side entrance exactly where Terri and I were standing. They were so close that with no effort we could have reached out and touched them. Of course they were being protected and a touch by us would have cost us more than it would have been worth, but the one thing they couldn’t prevent was the smiles we got from several of the women. I almost melted on the spot. Those women were gorgeous!
Bob Hope Show in Da Nang: In addition to Miss America Bob Hope was also invited to entertain the soldiers in Da Nang. For some unknown reason the military initiated procedures which were far too complicated for most soldiers in Da Nang who wanted to see him. The result: hardly anyone requested a free ticket! In the end the military had to bring in a large number of soldiers “from the bush” in order to have a big enough audience for him. When I reflect on this we “headquarters” or “big base” soldiers would gladly give up seeing anyone, Miss America, Bob Hope, Rolling Stones, anyone so that the grunts in the bush could get a break from what they were doing. After all they were protecting us where we didn’t want to go. In the end the Bob Hope Show was a win for everyone, we in the base camp didn’t care so much and the guys in the bush were delighted.
Communication inspection: One day when at HQ Support Command in Da Nang, I appeared at work with Terri and Captain Bower. A General officer was standing in the radio room. He was definitely not our Commanding General. Captain Bower had warned us that soon we would be inspected due to a jurisdiction issue with the big bridge that separated Da Nang East / Monkey Mountain from Da Nang West. We were in Da Nang West. I just sat down at the defense radio when the General Officer came over and told me to do a communication check with one of the substations. This was a routine we did each hour. At the end of the routine I stated “Tango Yankee” which is radio talk for “thank you.” The General came over to me and asked what Tango Yankee was so I replied: “thank you.” He looked at me like he was irritated and then commanded: “Do a correct radio check with a different sub station.” Rather than irritate him any more I immediately did another radio check with a different sub station omitting the Tango Yankee part. He turned to me, stated “much better” and then stormed out in a huff. My first thought was: Pack your bags, out to the bush you go! On the contrary we heard the next day that we were commended for having the best radio communications in the entire Military Region One. Our reward was control of the bridge! My signal officer was in heaven due to the commendation we received and our Commanding General received something in his record for this whole affair. The big brass was happy and we little guys got more to do but at least we stayed out of the bush. Win win for everyone.
Typhoon: Similar to a hurricane a typhoon in Viet Nam was special in that the buildings aren’t anywhere as sturdy as one in Maine and there were many, many airplanes and helicopters for us to secure. We filled sand bags by the thousands, added at least 50 more to each of our roofs in the compound and gave the balance to the guys who were protecting the helicopters and fixed winged aircraft, B52 bombers and F-14 fighters. Sandbags were put on flat bed tractor-trailer trucks, usually two trucks for each fixed winged aircraft, and one tractor-trailer for each helicopter. The aircraft were then tied with ropes and cable to the trucks. During the typhoon I saw the entire roof of one building get lifted off its walls and come down crashing all over the place. The building was an office and the contents were scattered everywhere, nevermore to be found. I heard that not a single fixed wing nor a single helicopter was damaged. Of course “war” was temporarily on hold as I’m sure that the Viet Cong also took shelter somewhere.
Another focus on the typhoon was our communications bunker at HQ. A couple months before the typhoon struck a change in Communication Sergeants occurred. This new fellow, only a couple years older than I, was a career soldier, and showed up with no advance notice. He had been stationed in Germany and without any notice was transferred to Viet Nam. Not a happy man but an obedient and good soldier. The first thing he did was upgrade the “radio room.” No one noticed that the radios and their battery back-up packs were all stacked on the wood floor. He complained to everyone, our Signal Captain, our Company Captain, the Captain in charge of Base Defense, just about everyone except the Commanding General himself. No one cared. In disgust he went on his own to secure some 2x4s and plywood. On his own he cut them up and built excellent shelving in the Radio room for all the radios and all the back-up battery packs for each radio. Along came the typhoon. Guess who was one of the few radio locations in the entire region capable of transmission during and after the typhoon. The Sergeant got a Bronze Star for his work and deserved it.
Post Typhoon Situation at the Radio Room: The day after the typhoon was over I came to work as usual at 6:00 PM and was shocked to find a large crowed of people in the radio room. The reason I was shocked is this: A base defense radio room has an extremely limited access list and strict adherence to that list. The list is posted on the only door to the room and it is signed by the Commanding General himself!
Immediately I went to everyone and started ushering them out of the room. One Major, a rank above my Captain, actually resisted me. I couldn’t believe it and was just about to pull out my 45 pistol when my evening duty officer, Captain Bower, came in and cleared out the mob. They were checking out the cabinets as their communication bunkers were down due to water damage and they heard that we were up. A little excitement at Head Quarters, Support Command!! By the way, the only person who talked to me about the unauthorized mob was Captain Bower who became a much closer friend than we were supposed to become (enlisted verses officer.) He loved it that I was making an issue about the unauthorized access. It was nice to have someone support you when you’re just trying to enforce the rules.
The Captain Bower Incident – One day, probably in the morning immediately after eating breakfast, a soldier I didn’t know, approached me in order to get me to contribute to the “Captain Bower Fund.” The purpose of the fund was to pay an American Grunt, a soldier who spent most of his time in Viet Nam in “the bush” hunting both the Viet Cong as well as the North Vietnamese Army, to assassinate Captain Bower! I was shocked to hear this. I told the soldier that I worked closely with Captain Bower every night as he was the Officer in charge of base defense for Danang North and not only was he an excellent officer in what he did but also he was an excellent person. Whoever started the assassination was either wrong or deserves it himself!! My final statement to him was “If Captain Bower dies I will find you and so also will you die.” I was serious when I made the statement and I am sure he saw the intent in my face. I noted that the color left his face, he wouldn’t look at me in the eye, and he meekly walked away. Of course I saw Captain Bower later that morning at the beach and told him about the incident. His response to me was: “Stay away from me during the day for a little while, a few days or so, until this incident becomes history. We will be able to talk about it at night on the job at Support Command.”
Captain Bower survived the incident, I survived the incident, and except for the excitement, very few people knew that it happened. I did tell Terri Barry but no one else.
The trip home
Prior to preparations for leaving all the enlisted men during their last year had a “Short Timers Calendar.” It consisted of a picture broken into 100 numbered parts, each of which the owner would color every day until they left. There were quite a few different designs. One could select a great big hand with the middle finger extended up. You could get one with Uncle Sam USA. You could get one with a beautiful woman with or without clothes. You could get one with a landscape (lake in the mountains, picture of a major city, etc.) Mine was “the finger” and I hope that I saved it.
Actual Flight to USA – Talk about excitement. Everyone had pleasant thoughts running through their heads and broad smiles while waiting for the plane to taxi and get ready for us. The instant the wheels left the runway there was a spontaneous cheer from everyone. No prompting required, simply the instant everyone had been longing for as long as they had been “in country!”
As always there was something missing – the attendants were men! I’m sure that the organizers felt that women attendants would have been too much for us to maintain control. Nevertheless, we stayed happy during the trip.
As always the Army doesn’t think everything through. Where did we land? Fort Lewis, WA. What time of year? Dead Winter. Where did we come from? Tropical Viet Nam. Did we notice the temperature difference? Definitely.
The first morning after having landed at Fort Lewis we had to meet a bus outside our heated barracks. The temperature was single digits, or at least it felt that way. We all were shivering with our summer weight uniforms when out from the building came a custodian. He pointed to the door and said: “would you fellows like to warm up? Come with me to the boiler room, I’ll wait and hold the bus for you.” No doubt in my mind that this man, when he died, went straight to Heaven. Simply a nice guy helping some grateful soldiers.
On the flip side of the coin was the Sergeant who actually processed us. He was definitely from the old school. That is, he didn’t care about anyone or anything except himself and he made it well known during his speeches. He actually stated something like this: “Look fellows, if you can’t sit up a little straighter and look like you’re listening I can just stop now and you’ll end up spending another day longer in the army.” One of the guys I didn’t know while serving in Viet Nam turned to me and said: “I would have no problem putting this jerk out of commission. I’ve killed so many men in Viet Nam what would one more mean to me – nothing.” He did not follow up on that statement. I am sure that there were a good number of others who felt the same way!
The final flight home: They bused us somewhere near Fort Louis WA to a commercial airport where we caught a flight home. I went to Logan Airport in Boston MA. Of course it was Winter but the cold didn’t bother me. All I was interested in was seeing my young woman friend and eventually my family.
Note: The only negative thing about coming home was this: No one was interested in hearing about my experiences! I reflect back now and realize that they were probably “full to the teeth” with the news media and their version about Viet Nam and didn’t want to hear about it any more. Whatever the case I was not prepared to be ignored. Eventually I got over it.
Nightmares: More than a few times after I came home to Sebago ME I would wake up during the night, look at the wall of my bedroom and be confused where I was. I would actually be afraid for a minute or so and then realize that I was safe and sound. Then I would go back to sleep again. It took several months to wean myself from this but everything is OK now!!
Thank you for your effort to get through reading about all these experiences. Hopefully you will never experience the bad ones and have repeated experiences of the good ones.