Steinbeck’s Dispatches From Vietnam

In 1966, the author of The Grapes of Wrath met a new working class: Hueys, Hercs, and Spooky.

Though he originally supported the war, Steinbeck “changed his mind totally about Vietnam” during his stay, said the author’s wife in an interview after his death. (University of Virginia Press)
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“Well, there are so many things I don’t know where to start. Too many water plants torn loose. Lines in the mud on the canals or the riverside where boats have landed, trails through the grass that have been used since yesterday. Too many people in one place or not enough people where they should be. We spotted a flock of Charleys because one pair of blue jeans was hanging on a peg in a house where there shouldn’t be blue jeans. Sometimes it’s too much smoke coming from a house at the wrong time. That means they’re cooking for strangers. I can’t begin to tell you all we look for. But sometimes I don’t even know what it is I’m seeing. I just get a nervous feeling, and I have to circle and circle until I work out what it is that’s wrong. You know how your mind warns you and you don’t quite know how.”

“Like extrasensory perception?”

“Yes, I guess something like that,” he said.

We followed the river down to the sea and then moved along the beach south and eastward to where the Marines had recently landed. Their beachhead was manned and we turned inland and swept right and left until we found the advance force moving painfully through the flooded muddy country, all mangrove swamp and nastiness. Masterson talked to the ground. “I can’t see anything up ahead,” he told the weary command. “But don’t take my word. You know how they can hide.”

“Don’t we just!” said the ground. We swung back toward the river quartering the country like the bird dog we are named for. On a canal ahead, a line of low houses deep in the trees was slowly burning, almost burned out. “Ammunition dump,” said Bat. “We got it yesterday. Must have been quite a lot from the secondary explosion we got. Have to go back to refuel now. We’ll have a bite of lunch and then we’ve got a target, I think a real good one.”

Not very long afterwards we dipped down on the little airstrip as daintily as a leaf and taxied in. I handed the pins out the window and the ground man stuck them into the holes that disarmed the rockets. And then we drifted to a fueling place and I edged my way out of my seat. The ground was a little wavy under my feet.

February 25, 1967/Saigon
It was my last night and I had reserved it for a final mission. Do you remember or did I even mention Puff, the Magic Dragon? From the ground I had seen it in action in the night but I had never flown in it. It was not given its name by us but by the V.C. who have experienced it. Puff is a kind of crazy conception. It is a C-47—that old Douglas two-motor ship that has been the workhorse of the world since early on in World War II.

The one I was to fly in was celebrating its 24th birthday and that’s an old airplane. I don’t know who designed Puff but whoever did had imagination. It is armed with three six-barreled Gatling guns. Their noses stick out of two side windows and the open door. And these three guns can spray out 2,800 rounds a minute—that’s right, 2,800. In one quarter-turn, these guns fine-tooth an area bigger than a football field and so completely that not even a tuft of crabgrass would remain alive. The guns are fixed. The pilot fires them by rolling up on his side. There are cross hairs on his side glass. When the cross hairs are on the target, he presses a button and a waterfall of fire pours on the target, a Niagara of steel.

These ships, some of them, are in the air in every area at night and all night. If a call for help comes, they can be there in a very short time. They carry quantities of the parachute flares we see in the sky every night, flares so bright that they put an area of midday on a part of the night-bound earth. And these flares are not mechanically released. They are manhandled out the open door by the flare crew. I knew the technique but I have never flown a night mission with Puff. I had reserved it for my last night in South Vietnam. We were to fly at dark and hoped to be back by midnight.

I went by chopper to the field where the Puffs live, met the pilot and his crew and had supper with them. Our mission was not general call. A crossroad area had been observed to be used after dark recently by Charley, who was rushing supplies from one place to another for reasons best known to Charley. We were to be directed by one of the little F.A.C. planes I spoke of in an earlier letter.

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