The author puts into words what many soldiers thought and might have experienced during their first days in Vietnam. It’s a whirlwind of events and everything is not as he was told or imagined.
By Keith Nightingale
He was 19, inexperienced and anxious to understand where he was. He was an 11B (infantry) and had already spent a year at Ft Benning before being ordered to Vietnam-a place he had seen on the nightly news and in the casual conversations with returning vets. He was both afraid and anxious as to his future.
Everything was so exotic, it was hard to register any single image or thought. He had deplaned after a more than 24-hour flight with three stops. It had been almost impossible to sleep other than very fitfully. The cabin was filled with cigarette smoke, sweat and bad breath. His previously starched Class B was sweaty and rumpled beyond any recognition as an inspection dress. The stewardesses, old and surly on the charter, had run out of everything and had retreated behind their curtain.
On a window seat, he had fixed on the sea below with occasional passing ships. As they drew nearer to Vietnam, he could see glimpses of the land with its deep green, the hint of villages and many more ships transiting the coast.
When he landed, the windows had instantly fogged with condensation with the effect of the extreme heat on the exterior of the fuselage. The plane had a hard landing, rolled to a parking spot on the tarmac where a convoy of busses had stopped. The windows were taped in crosses and several men in TWs with clipboards in hand waited beside them. Cardboard signs on the front windows said FIELD GRADE OFFICERS, OFFICERS, NCO’S, EM. Behind them were several open trucks for the luggage.
When the door opened, there was an almost instant explosion of heat, humidity and blinding sunlight. Then the smells began to take effect-a mix of JP 5, burning garbage and the sweet sour odor of wet straw. It was totally overwhelming,
He followed the line and went to the EM bus. His mind and eyes raced to absorb it all. Nothing had prepared him for the sensory overload of it all.
He went through processing as an assembly line with several warrant officers and NCO’s mechanically managing his paperwork and drew his TA 50 in a large gymnasium-like building. This was his first opportunity to see Vietnamese and he was intrigued by their features.
The women were uniformly dressed in black silk pants and white shirts. Their Asian features so different. He noticed their flip flop feet with wide spread toes and battered nails. Some, the older, had betel nut-stained teeth and spit a red juice on the floor. However, they expertly embroidered his name tag and sewed them on his new issue OG 107’s.
Another line, managed by a wound recovering NCO, stamped out dog tags, issued jungle boots and the other paraphernalia of the war. In less than an hour, he had his entire issue. Fully loaded, he emerged into the blinding sunlight and followed another NCO to the mess hall.
Chow was standard Army fare in a large WABTOC building. The food was cafeteria style. Each item was manned by a Vietnamese who mechanically poured the contents onto the brown plastic tray. The end of the line was Kool Aid, water and lemonade.
He took the tray and the plastic glass and sat at a picnic table covered in plastic gingham. The table had a carousel of hot sauce, BBQ sauce, salt, pepper and sugar. The sugar was tropical in hard crystals rather than the fine grind he was used to it. More impressions to absorb.
He moved to his assigned hootch-B23- and spent his first night in Vietnam. As directed by the hootch sergeant, he assembled all his gear, boxed his Class B’s, shoes and items he would not need in the field, labeled it and placed it on a pallet. He attempted to write a letter, but was stymied by all that raced through his mind. He put the stationary down and attempted to sleep.
That night it had rained the hardest he had ever experienced. Lightening sent brilliant flashes with accompanying crashes of thunder he imagined as artillery. The tin roof shuddered with the downpour, shaking a film of rust on everything below. The noise was overwhelming. He just lay in his cot and absorbed it all.
The next day, he was directed by the admin NCO to get on the lead truck. It would take him and other replacements to the airstrip where a helicopter would take them to their unit. The truck drove to the strip in a combination of red dust, blinding sunlight and humidity. He was filled with anxiety as his brain processed it all. The conversations were muted. He drew on a cigarette, one of his first, to calm his nerves and immerse himself in it all.
In that he was one of only five assigned to his unit, he was directed to a UH1H on the strip. He and his comrades, put on their rucks, trudged in the now almost liquid atmosphere of burning jet fuel, shit burner smoke and the sour smell of festering garbage. The crew chief directed them to both sides of the aircraft to load. The doors were open and he slung himself on the floor with his feet dangling over the edge. He grabbed a floor ring with his index finger as an extra piece of insurance.
In less than five minutes, the bird ignited its engine and began a slow ever quicker rotation of the blades. Without warning, the bird did a sudden full power lift off, rose over the airfield, turned and ascended to five thousand feet.
For the first time, he was able to actually absorb the land and its configurations. The now cool wind blowing was regenerative and he scanned the scene in his own personal IMAX theatre. He was over Phouc Long Province though he didn’t know the name.
Gazing out, the Man-Boy took in an endless landscape of mountains, meandering rivers and rolling hills covered with dense evergreen vegetation, bamboo thickets, and triple-canopy tropical broadleaf forests. The forbidding wilderness had an odd virginal beauty. It was also one of the most dangerous places in South Vietnam. All this was unknown to him, but he would soon learn.
This sparsely populated highland plateau, nestled along the Cambodian border some 65 miles northeast of Saigon, had long been a North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong stronghold. Its isolation offered them a safe hideaway where food and equipment could be replenished while units rested, trained, or prepared for future operations in the III Corps Tactical Zone. None of this was known to him.
In time, a red slash of ground appeared with a tangle of discernible roads-all busy with trucks, jeeps and APC’s. The ubiquitous red laterite dust constantly trailed in the wind. The bird did a rapid drop in altitude and airspeed pointing directly toward the slash. With a rapid blood-rushing descent and firm grip on the load ring, he was slammed into the ground. With full turning of blades and a blinding cloud of dirt, he was directed to the ground.
He landed with both feet, ruck climbing on his neck and sweat now forming on his neck. Before he could fully stand, the bird ascended in more dirt, coating his now wet skin with a fine red dust. This was his first day at war.
Keith Knightingale is a former US Army Colonel and served in Vietnam with the 1/502nd Screaming Eagles and the 75th Ranger Battalion. He has submitted several other articles for this website. If you are interested in reading more of his work, direct links are provided below:
NOTE: To return to this page after reading an article, please use the “back arrow” at the upper left of this page.
Hill of Angels: https://cherrieswriter.com/2022/03/26/hill-of-angels/
Fort Benning during the Battle of the Ia Drang: https://cherrieswriter.com/2018/10/29/fort-benning-during-battles-in-the-ia-drang-guest-blog/
A Night in the Jungle: https://cherrieswriter.com/2021/02/27/a-night-in-the-jungle/
A Day Trip to the Ville: https://cherrieswriter.com/2022/11/26/a-day-trip-to-the-ville/
My book review of his published book, “Just Another Day in Vietnam”: https://cherrieswriter.com/book-reviews-titles-i-m/#s6
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