For six long weeks, everything and everyone stayed damp or outright wet. No place was dry except the cockpit of the U-10. I would go and sit there alone and smoke a cigarette, sometimes joined by the pilot, who I discovered had been in his college’s chapter of my fraternity.
Then one morning in March, the rain simply quit. On that day, word came down that the brigade was pulling up stakes and moving more than 100 miles inland, over the mountains, to the 4th Division’s main base camp at Dragon Mountain, northwest, near the town of Pleiku. During the monsoon season, the communications system had worked only sporadically; now it was not working at all—all of my “twixed” queries about what I was supposed to do went unanswered. The brigade S-3 (operations officer), whom I reported to, said we ought to go along with the brigade to Dragon Mountain, which seemed like a much better idea than being left alone in the countryside.
The convoy of tanks, trucks, jeeps, artillery pieces, and personnel carriers was several miles long. We slowly wound our way along the coast, through many villages whose occupants were eager to sell us anything from Coca-Cola to dried monkey paws. In the evenings, we camped, with the nearby infantry shooting flare shells from mortars all night. I was still unsure why, but it certainly kept us awake.
We soon entered the steep and isolated passes of the central highland’s mountains, in which we came across the smoky villages of the Montagnard people, hill dwellers who lived in grass huts built on stilts. After several days, we arrived at Dragon Mountain, where the division was already in the early stages of Operation Junction City, a huge corps-sized effort to defeat the enemy in the central highlands.
It turned out, however, that I had made the wrong decision, and everyone back in Nha Trang was furious at me for going with the 4th Division. They had at last answered my twix queries by telling me to continue psyching out the communists from the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MACV) compound near Tuy Hoa—but by then the brigade signal section was packed up and convoying up the road with the rest of us, so I never got the message.
I returned to Tuy Hoa on a UH-1 Huey helicopter gunship and set up operations at MACV. It was an entirely different experience from being with the infantry. MACV had ice cream and hot food, and at night showed movies at an outdoor theater. I had my own room, with a bed, bathroom, and shower. Sometime during this period, I was promoted to first lieutenant, a distinction that signified I was no longer a complete and utter shavetail.
But what we were doing was still serious business, and I was soon reminded that the war was always with us. The compound was surrounded by a stone wall about six feet high, and one night somebody left his steel helmet on top of it. Right about sundown, the helmet suddenly flew into the air. Upon investigation, it was found to have a bullet hole clean through it. Since it was ruined, the next night someone placed it back atop the wall, and about the same time several of the men swore they heard a bullet pass through the air. Two nights later, the helmet flew off the wall again; the sniper had a clean shot. He also had an almost foolproof MO: he fired only a single shot; it was always right before dark. We knew he had to be somewhere in the line of trees across the rice paddy, but several villages with hundreds of people lived there. MACV sent out teams to get him, but he was never caught, and after a while the helmet looked like a piece of Swiss cheese.
One day I was summoned by the MACV commander and told to provide psychological operations assistance to an infantry regiment from South Korea that was operating north of Tuy Hoa. In particular, I was told that the colonel commanding the regiment wished for me to be his guest for a luncheon that very day. I put on a clean uniform and had my driver take me to the South Koreans’ headquarters; there, I was told that the luncheon was to be in the field where their troops recently had an encounter with the NVA.
While I was with the regiment, a Major Pak was to be my guide and interpreter. He had been educated “in your country, at UCLA.” Some distance from our destination, we began to see the results of the Koreans’ encounter. Bodies started to appear near the road and in the paddy fields. It must have been a running engagement, and the South Koreans hadn’t even collected enemy gear and removed their dead and wounded.
When I arrived at the colonel’s temporary headquarters, it became apparent that the luncheon would be al fresco: A long table had been set in a stucco building, the roof of which had been blown off. Across a field, dozens of bodies stretched into the distance. The Korean colonel was full of good cheer, partly because the battle had been successful and partly because he looked forward to a respectable meal. He seemed particularly proud that he could offer me a bottle of Coca-Cola—over ice!
The meal began appropriately enough with soup, served by stiff Korean privates who had clearly been told that if they knew what was good for them, they would be excellent waiters. At one point, I spooned up some broth that was filled with little grayish-white things like limp grains of rice, and asked Major Pak what they might be. “I believe in English you would call that toad larva,” he replied with a nod and a grin. The meal went on in that vein for most of the afternoon. There must have been at least a dozen courses, one of them an excellent roasted pig, which the colonel informed me had become collateral damage from the fighting. Same was true with the next course—duck breast on a wood spit with kimchi, fermented cabbage.