Even for people who lived it, the past squirms around and tries to avoid close examination of how things looked going in, compared to how things appeared later.
It’s not easy for the mind to put itself into a time when Vietnam wasn’t a name anyone would recognize. But in 1962 when all the enlisted men in my unit in Massachusetts were required to attend counter-insurgency training the first session required an explanation: “Vietnam is Indochina. Next to Laos.”
Everyone had vivid recollections of a ‘brink of war’ incident in Laos a short while earlier. And Everyone remembered the daily news reports from a few years earlier of the French getting themselves soundly booted out of French Indochina.
Counter-insurgency training turned out to be the pointee-heads in the US Army feeling around for soldiers interested in one of two particular types of duty. ‘Special Forces’ units were being organized, mainly for people who’d already gone through Airborne and Ranger training. Some were already serving in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. “Sneaky Petes” they were dubbed.
The other type was the Military Advisory Group. MAG. Regular troops stationed in remote areas with Republic of Vietnam units to provide advice, which we Americans were already good at giving a lot of without following it ourselves.
We went through the training, but nobody from my unit volunteered for either of those duties. But within a couple of months three of us who’d attended the training were levied for overseas, to Military Advisory Groups in Vietnam. May, or June, 1963, we’d arrive there.
In those early days a soldier, even an enlisted one, had a number of options regarding assignments, despite the initial levies, if he played his cards right. Sitting down with a friendly Sargeant-Major early in the game and asking advice was the first step.
Vietnam and MAG duty was considered a ‘hardship’ tour, as was Korea, and at that time, Alaska. It wasn’t combat duty. It was just one of the particularly lousy places a troop could be sent in the service of Queen Jacqueline Kennedy.
“It’s a tough call.” Sargeant-Major Griggs had served all over the Pacific during WWII and afterward. “Korea’s colder than hell in the winter. It’s the reason we call it ‘Frozen Chosen’.” He held up his hand showing me the finger he’d had shot off while he watched the Chinese coming across the Yalu River during the Korean War.
“But unless you want to take a chance on getting Malaria, you might be better off in Korea. All that crap down in the South Pacific is a mosquito hell. If you’d like me to I can call the Sargeant-Major of the Army in the Pentagon and see if we can get you a tour in Korea instead of Indochina.”
So, after kicking it around a while, I asked him to make his call and find me an assignment in Korea. May, 1963, I found myself on the USNS Sultan with around 2000 other GIs headed for Frozen Chosen.
We had a wild old time on the Sultan. The cruise was a long one because every few hours they’d shut down the engines and lower some kind of sensor to the ocean bottom as part of an ongoing undersea research project. The sea was generally calm, almost glass most of the way, porpoise and flying fish cutting the surface, sometimes banging themselves against the side of the ship.
Below-decks fortunes by enlisted-man standards were lost and won in 24/7 poker, gin, and rummy games. So long as there was no fighting nobody cared what went on down there.
We reached Pearl Harbor and everyone got shore leave for a few hours, preceded by dire warnings about HASP. Hawaii Armed Services Police. “Don’t mess with them. Do what they say or you’ll end up in the stockade or back here on a stretcher.” But 2000 GIs with cabin-fever were too many even for the HASP to keep in line. “Be back on board by midnight. Anyone who isn’t checked in here at midnight is going to wave us goodbye from the stockade.”
Hotel Street briefly had all the usual suspects of merchant mariners, US Navy, and enough wild-assed drunk youngsters off the Sultan to satisfy the most discerning needs of the community. At 11:30 I was standing in line at a tattoo parlor waiting to get a tattoo on a dare. The guy in front of me was getting a cherry tattoo with the words, “Here’s mine! Where’s yours?”
As the artist finished up someone shouted, “We’ve got to get back to the ship. We’ll be lucky if we make it!”
Luckyluckyluckylucky. Back on board as everyone began sobering up the head was full of GIs trying to wash off tattoos. One guy had “In Memory of My Mother” with a rose vine wrapping itself around a tombstone on his bicep. “She ain’t even dead. What the hell did I do that for?”
More endless days at sea, a brief stop in Japan for half-dozen of us toughees to get the socks whipped off us outside a bar by three Australian Merchant Mariners, and on to Inchon.
13 months later the trip home on the USNS Breckinridge was a different matter entirely. The sea was rough, pervasive odor of vomit on all decks. Discipline severe, pecker checks every few days to ferret out the multitude of VD cases. I’ve sometimes thought those troop-ship pecker-checkers might have found the sorriest job a human being could have. Imagine hitting the floor in the morning knowing you’re about to have to watch 2000 of those things milked down before breakfast.
And everyone suddenly knew exactly where Vietnam was. Rumor had it anyone who was going stateside reassignment would be going there in a few months.