Because it was hot and no wind in prospect, I wore only light slacks and a cotton shirt. We flew at dusk and very soon I found myself freezing. Puff is not a quiet ship, her door is open, her gun ports open, her engines loud and everything on her rattles. I did not wear a headset because I wanted to move about, so one of the flare crew, a big man, had to offer me an extra flight suit and he said it in pantomime. I accepted with chattering teeth and struggled into it and zipped it up. Then they fitted me with a parachute harness and showed me where my pack was in case of need. But even I knew that flying at low altitude, if the need should arise, there wouldn’t be much time to get out even if I were young and clever.
Forward of the guns and aft by the open door were the racks where the flares stood, three feet high, four inches in diameter. I think they weigh about 40 pounds. Wrestling 200 or 300 of them out the door would be a good night’s work. The ship was dark, except for its recognition lights and a dim red light over the navigator’s table.
They gave me ear plugs. I had heard that the sound of these guns is unique, so I put the rubber stoppers in my ears but they were irritating so I pulled them out again and only hoped to get my mouth open when we fired.
There was a line of afterglow in the western sky, only it was not west the way Puff flies. Sometimes it was overhead, sometimes straight down. Without an instrument you couldn’t tell up from down but my feet were held to the steel floor by the centrifuge of the turning, twisting ship. Then the order came and a flare was thrown out and another and another. They whirled down and the brilliant lights came on. We upsided and looked down on the ghost-lighted earth. Far below us almost skimming the earth, I could see the shape of the tiny skimming FAC plane inspecting the target and reporting to our pilot. We dropped three more flares, whirled and dropped three more. The road and the crossroads were very clearly defined on the ground and then there was a curious unearthly undulating mass like an amoeba under a microscope, a pseudo-pod changing in shape and size as it moved. Now Puff went up on its side. I did know enough to get my mouth open. The sound of those guns is like nothing I have heard. It is like a coffee grinder as big as Mt. Everest compounded with a dentist’s drill. A growl, but one that rocks your body and flaps your eardrums like wind-whipped flags. And out through the door I could see a stream, a wide river of fire that seemed to curve and wave toward the earth.
In May 1967, Steinbeck returned to the United States and told President Johnson what he’d seen. A second debriefing, to Johnson’s cabinet, is archived at the Department of Defense. Steinbeck returned to New York and on December 20, 1968, died of heart failure.
Copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967 by John Steinbeck; renewed Elaine Steinbeck and Thom Steinbeck 1993, 1994, 1995. Reprinted with permission of McIntosh & Otis, Inc. “Vietnam War: No Front, No Rear,” “Action in the Delta,” “Terrorism,” “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” from America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction by John Steinbeck, edited by Susan Shillinglaw & J. Benson, copyright © 2002 by Elaine Steinbeck and Thomas Steinbeck. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.