It was December 15, 1969 and I was graduating from Crew Chief/Door Gunners school at Fort Rucker, Alabama. My company commander stood in front of my graduating class and said, “Okay we need volunteers to go to South Vietnam.” We all laughed because we knew the Army never asked for volunteers to do anything. They were a dictatorship that sent you where you were needed or where they thought you were needed.
Me and another “smart ass” raised our hands. His name was James Dennis and I have no idea where he is at today.
About 4 hours later as we were standing in line to check out of Fort Rucker a clerk came by with our orders. Out of a class of 40 guys … 30 were going to Germany and other parts of Europe, 5 were going to Okinawa, 2 were going to Alaska, 1 was going to Hawaii (he happened to be from Hawaii and was in the National Guard) and 2 were going to South Vietnam … me and the other “smart ass” that raised our hands.
I also felt it strangely rude (or perhaps “Karma”) that everyone in line got a 30 day leave before reporting to their next duty station except for James Dennis and me. We got a 15 day leave over Christmas and was to report into Fort Dix New Jersey for departure to South Vietnam by not later than midnight December 30, 1969. How about that … 38 people going to “free-zones” getting 30 days of leave and the two “brave-hearts” who volunteered for most certain death only got 15 days. I guess Uncle Sam wanted to give us less time to back out and potentially go AWOL (Absent without Leave).
I went home with a “chip on my shoulder” and tried to make the best of Christmas with the family. The Morning of December 30th I was taken to O’hare International Airport by my dad. There were two cars of people that went. Mom, Dad, Ed and I were in one car and my sister, Sandy, her husband Larry and daughter Debbie (who was about 4 at the time) was in the other car.
As I was boarding my plane I remember that everyone except Eddie, Debbie and I were in tears. I remember laughing at them all and making some comment like “Hey you have no need to worry I am about twice the size of those little people so they can’t hurt me,” but inside I was scared to death.
I boarded my plane and headed for Philadelphia Pennsylvania where I would be meeting up with James Dennis at that airport and from there the military had arranged a cab to get us to Fort Dix New Jersey. I was already lonely and pretty sure as we pulled away from the gate that my vision of my family standing at the terminal window waving goodbye would be the last image I would have of them. They could not see me in the plane … but they were their waving in any event.
Once I landed in Philadelphia I only had to wait about 30 minutes to meet up with James. He and I made a quick decision to have the cabby drop us off downtown so that we could “see some sites” and we would get to Fort Dix on our own. We paid the cab driver out of our pockets and held on to our military vouchers for the later trip of about 50 miles to Fort Dix. We had dinner at some downtown upscale restaurant … went on the prowl looking for women (but could’t find any), had a couple of drinks at a local bar … then waived down a cab about 9:00 PM and headed to Fort Dix.
We were stuck in New Jersey for 3 days. Since we were FNGs (pronounced Fuu-noo-gies and stood for F**ing New Guys) we got stuck with KP and Garbage detail for those three days. I remember saying as we first walked from our barracks to the mess hall in blinding freezing snow wearing summer jungle fatigues we’d been issued, “If the Damned Army did not need us for 3 more days … why the hell did they send us here so early.”
James just laughed and said, “Because they can! They say jump and we reply How High Sir.” He seemed to never get mad or upset about anything.
Finally our time came at midnight the evening of January 2, 1969. We were sent to a local airfield with hundreds of other GIs to board one of two planes headed for South Vietnam. It was here that James and I were split up. He got on one plane and I got on the other. We have not seen each other since that cold night in New Jersey and I have no idea if he made it out or not. With today’s technology and social services … I may try to look him up sometime. I know he was from Pascagoula Mississippi and I was from Chicago and we made an odd pair. Now that I am in Mississippi and retired … he or his family should not be that hard to find.
For the next 24 hours I set on a plane next to a couple of guys that were going back to South Vietnam for the second or third time (their choice). I remember how it seemed to be dark for 20 of those 24 hours. This was my first experience the the international date line. You see, Vietnam is about 13 hours ahead of us in time. So it is 11:05 AM here on December 22, 2018 as I write this … it is 12:05 AM on December 23, 2018 in South Vietnam. Because we gained a day flying over it was like we were in that damned airplane like sardines in a can for two days.
As we were making our final approach into Bien Hoa Air Base in South Vietnam images such as the one below were running through my head … thanks mainly to what I’d seen on the news and the two vets I was sitting next to for the last 24 hours:
I just knew that if we made it to the ground safely, before being shot out of the air on our final approach I needed to duck my head and find the newest shelter because I had not yet been issued a weapon. If you are old enough to remember it … this was the first war America fought that was brought into our living rooms and kitchens during the evening news hour on television.
This is how our final approach appeared out the window (which the Vets did let me sit next to since it was my first time in country and they’d seen it all before):
Yes, I was already picking out potential places to hide.
We landed in Bien Hoa incident free and I thought, “Man are we lucky. Thank you God!”
Then, they opened the airplane door and the hot air came inside like a heated hurricane and my next words was, “What the hell …..” It was like an oven in seconds in that airplane. By the way it was a commercial Pan-Am airliner which should have been my first clue not to worry about being shot out of the air … but I was rather “young and dumb.” For those of you who do not know, PanAmerican used to be one of the largest International Airlines in the world.
We got off the airplane and onto a “hot as hell” bus. Little did we know but we were headed off post to another post in Long Bien South vietnam.
It seems like it took us an hour or more to get there but it was only about five or six miles away:
Once we got to Long Bien we were checked into the 90th Replacement Battalion where many people go to receive final destination orders. I bold and underline FINAL because in many cases it was their FINAL orders before being sent home in a flag draped box.
This place was nothing but a bunch of barracks, a very large mess hall, a PX and a couple of beer joints.
Again, I expected to meet up with James here … but never saw him.
I spent the next 7 days pulling KP duty and cleaning up around the barracks (mostly picking up cigarette butts off the ground) as did all the FNGs waiting to get final orders. The Vets returning got to do whatever they wanted to and go wherever they wanted to until it was time for them to return to their units, which in most cases was only a day or two … and sometimes they had transportation waiting for them when they checked into the battalion.
I could not even write home because I did not have a permanent overseas military address yet. I was really ticked off. I came here to be a “hero” and as of now I was not even issued a weapon and it would be weeks before my family knew if I was dead or alive. And, to think, I volunteered for the U.S. Army on my 18th Birthday when I’d signed up for the draft before I even graduated high school. “What a Dummy,” I thought! You wanted to be a ‘Hero’ but you are nothing more than a ‘Zero’.”
Finally, about 7 days later, I got my orders. I was headed to Base Camp Phu Loi South Vietnam. Where the hell was that? What would I be doing there? Would I make it out alive? I guess I did, but was not sure I would at the time.
I was headed for one of these … Tune in for the next chapter later …
Jerry Nix, FreeWaveMaker, LLC.