Steinbeck’s Dispatches From Vietnam
In 1966, the author of The Grapes of Wrath met a new working class: Hueys, Hercs, and Spooky.
- By The Editors
- Air & Space magazine, August 2012
University of Virginia Press
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson asked John Steinbeck to visit South Vietnam and report to him personally on U.S. operations. (Steinbeck’s third wife, Elaine, and Lady Bird Johnson had been friends at college, and the Steinbecks were frequent visitors to the White House.) Steinbeck was reluctant to go to Vietnam on behalf of the president, but when the Long Island daily Newsday suggested that he travel throughout Southeast Asia as a roving reporter, he accepted. By that time, his two sons were serving in the Army. Between December 1966 and May 1967, Steinbeck wrote 86 stories for the newspaper. Those columns—collected in a book by the University of Virginia Press titled Steinbeck in Vietnam—were the last work to be published during Steinbeck’s lifetime.
December 31, 1966, Saigon: Remember how the lordly jet cuts its engines at 35,000 feet and floats gently toward the earth like Mark Twain’s polyhedron on lonely pinion? Well, that’s not the way you land in Saigon. Your friendly pilot pulls the plug and scuttles down like Walter Kerr leaving the theater or water making an exit from a bathtub. I guess he figures that the quicker he gets in, the less chance he has of taking a hit from a [Viet Cong] crossbow.
[Ca. January 1967/Vietnam]
Did you know that the airport at Saigon is the busiest in the world, that it has more traffic than O’Hare field in Chicago and much more than Kennedy in New York—Well it’s true. We stood around—maybe ten thousand of us all looking like overdone biscuits until our plane was called. It was not a pretty ship this USAF C-130. Its rear end opens and it looks like an anopheles mosquito but into this huge anal orifice can be loaded anything smaller than a church and even that would go in if it had a folding steeple. For passengers, the C-130 lacks a hominess. Four rows of bucket seats extending lengthwise into infinity. You lean back against cargo slings and tangle your feet in a maze of cordage and cables.
Before we took off a towering sergeant (I guess) whipped us with a loud speaker. First he told us the dismal things that could happen to our new home by ground fire, lightning or just bad luck. He said that if any of these things did happen he would tell us later what to do about it. Finally he came to the subject nearest his heart. He said there was dreadful weather ahead. He asked each of us to reach down the paper bag above and put it in our laps and if we felt queasy for God’s sake not to miss the bag because he had to clean it up and the hundred plus of us could make him unhappy. After a few more intimations of disaster he signed off on the loud speaker and the monster ship took off in a series of leaps like a Calaveras County frog.
Once airborne, I got invited to the cockpit where I had a fine view of the country and merciful cup of black scalding coffee. They gave me earphones so I could hear directions for avoiding ground fire and the even more dangerous hazard of our own artillery. The flight was as smooth as an unruffled pond. And when we landed at Pleiku I asked the God-like sergeant why he had talked about rough weather.
“Well, it’s the Viets,” he said. “They have delicate stomachs and some of them are first flights. If I tell them to expect the worst and it isn’t, they’re so relieved that they don’t get sick. And you know I do have to clean up and sometimes it’s just awful.”
January 7, 1967/Pleiku
In my opinion the chopper is the greatest invention since the wheel. In eight days I have covered areas and put down in places it would have taken many months to visit on foot and that would be the only way to travel since there are few roads, and many of these are impassable, and what railroads there once were are cut and mangled by the fighting. I think I have traveled in every kind of chopper we have save one, or rather two. There is a single-place bubble I’ve missed because I can’t fly the thing, and I haven’t been on the giant Sky Crane, which looks like a huge dragonfly or praying mantis and which can take in its arms anything it can grip. It has transported a complete operating room with surgery continuing during flight. Eventually, when we have enough of them, the Crane will be of major logistical importance.
January 7, 1967/Pleiku
I wish I could tell you about these pilots [10th Cavalry, Huey helicopter]. They make me sick with envy. They ride their vehicles the way a man controls a fine, well-trained quarter horse. They weave along stream beds, rise like swallows to clear trees, they turn and twist and dip like swifts in the evening. I watch their hands and their feet on the controls, the delicacy of the coordination reminds me of the sure and seemingly slow hands of [Pablo] Casals on the cello.... You will gather that we are now in V.C. country, where every tree may open fire and often does. Maj. Thomas dips into a stream bed cascading down a twisting canyon and you realize that low green cover you saw from high up is towering screaming jungle so dense that noonday light fails to reach the ground. The stream bed twists like a snake and we snake over it, now and then lofting like a tipped fly ball to miss an obstruction or cutting around a tree the way a good cow horse cuts out a single calf from a loose herd.
February 2, 1967/Saigon
Soon after I arrived in South Vietnam, I became aware of the constant presence of slow, low-flying, fixed wing, single engine airplanes that coast and cruise about, circling and quartering. And it wasn’t long before I began to hear about the F.A.C. or Forward Air Controllers. They are among the bravest and the most trusted and admired men in this shattered country, and to the enemy, the F.A.C. must be about the most feared. I had heard many stories of their duties and their accomplishments and just a day ago I was allowed to fly with one on three separate and different missions, and it was an experience I will not soon forget.
As usual it was an early trip through the roiling traffic of Saigon to the 120th Helicopter Operations at Tan Son Nhut Airport. It gets light late this time of year. At 0710 it was still dawn. Then there was the quick and businesslike chopper trip to My Tho in the Delta district. At breakfast I met my pilot, Maj. William E. Masterson, called “Bat” of course, the Forward Air Controller for the Seventh ARVN Division, a strong good looking officer with a very knowing and humorous eye. He was a B-52 pilot who volunteered for FAC. Indeed, I may be wrong, but I believe all FAC pilots are volunteers.