Welcome to the eighth edition of Fellow Book Benders, a free monthly online newsletter about the ridiculous truth and historical tidbits of San Francisco and the Russian River. Can you spy a glimmer of your yesteryear from these tales? Hold on tight for a slippery ride down memory lane.
True Stories of Vietnam War Era (or so I've been told):
We had started out on a night ambush. Second squad led the way with their kill-anything-that-moves mentality, and my squad with our let's-just-get-home philosophy. We were out about ten minutes when I received a radio call about some old woman in the entrance to a hootch.
There she sat. She had seen the Japanese, the Chinese, the French and now the Americans. She looked like she had witnessed 100 years of world history, maybe even Genghis Khan. Then we got orders from second squad to snuff her out. No gun shots--just a quiet death in the sweat jungle--a knife to the heart would do. There sat the o'l woman, like an ancient lizard, knowing that if we cut her tail off she'd grow another. What was I suppose to do?
Billy, the second squad leader, came back and held out a knife for me. I turned down the offer, saying she wasn't a threat, but gung-ho Billy went ahead and killed her anyway. That was a rough day.
* * *
Six months in country and we get a new lieutenant, my third so far. We're working the Cambodian border and seeing a lot of activity. This officer tells me to get two men to set up a listening post (LP).
So we are off to see The Wizard with the louie in the lead. The problem is the lieutenant keeps going and going. Most LP's are 100 yards past the company perimeter, and the Tin Man has us out way past that. He tells us to check in every 1/2 hour and leaves.
It's about 2 a.m. when we hear some movement. Everything seems to be right next to you in the jungle. Another sound and then it grew quiet again. My mind took off and I prayed for it not to run crazy. Please don't let it run!
The branches quiver. Do they know we are here, can they smell us? Something in the bush. I threw a grenade. Boom! Then silence. Then more sounds and boom--more grenades.
The silence returned. It was so quiet you could hear the sweat run down your face. A song started. It was a Vietnamese lullaby. Someone was dying a lonely death in a sweaty jungle. But was he really hurt or was he just setting me up?
My brain started running again, thinking about my girl back home, about my '67 black Camaro. The sun began to rise and I gave thanks that I had made it through another night. I wanted to fly, but I felt so heavy I couldn't move. The song was over and I did not want to see it.
I was divorced and had a child but the draft still wanted me. In 1968 some 70,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. The U.S. needed bodies over there. When the Selective Service System recalled me to "update" my status, I took off with a buddy and we flew to Barcelona.
I had stuffed a thousand tabs of LSD into half empty boxes of red Dots candy. Airport security was minimal and we waltzed right onto the plane.
From Barcelona, we took a puddle jumper to the island of Ibiza and then hopped on a ferry to Formentera. My buddy and I met another guy on the run and the three of us set up housekeeping, staying below the radar.
I would use the acid tabs to barter for food, transportation, etc. Once that supply ran out, I visited Lebanon. The PLO (Palestine Liberation Army) and Israel were going at it, and you could hear rockets and explosions in the distance. After buying hashish, I would pack it into the cavities of motorcycle seats and mail the load back to a friend in the States in exchange for money.
In 1974, President Gerald Ford granted amnesty and I returned home. I don't regret my decision. I'd lost my best buddy to the war. No way I wanted that.
I was sent into Laos as a military advisor at a time when President Nixon denied any U.S. presence there. The anti-communist Hmong guerrilla troops were our allies from the province of Xien Khouong. It was a strategic outpost dealing with the influx of North Vietnamese regulars along the Ho Chi Minh trail. We were also fighting the Pathet Lao, Laotian Communists.
The Soviets had military advisors like myself in Laos as well. Basically, both countries were in violation of the Geneva agreements of 1956. So what. War is war, right?
Then one day in '69 North Vietnam moved the Pathet Lao forces aside and took over the fighting. They sent the 316th Division into our region the next year. The Hmong guerrilla troops wanted to flee our outpost and return to protect their families in the villages.
I had to make a stand. While Brigadier General Tiao Sayvong was talking to a 1000 men, I grabbed him from behind and held a pistol to his head. I told the troops that if they didn't stay to defend the post against the oncoming North Vietnamese, I would kill their commander. Luckily, no one called my bluff and everyone returned to their stations.
I was practically naked as I walked through a maze of medical checkpoints at the Oakland Induction Center. At each station nurses and doctors poked and prodded me before filling out my medical forms. At the end of the three-hour journey, I returned to the kiosk where I was handed my clothes. But no one collected my file. So I simply got dressed and walked out the door with all my paperwork.
I didn't hear from anyone so I took a little vacation to Europe. Shortly thereafter, the FBI came knocking on my sister's door wanting to know where the hell I was. I decided to return and enlisted in the Navy and served on the USS Excel minesweeper.
Previously the ship had taken part in Operation Market Time, intercepting gun runners from North Vietnam. While considered a success, it led to an increase use of the Ho Chi Minh trail. In 1971 the Excel was sent to its new port at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay and became a training vessel as well as my new home.
Born with anti-authority genes, the chief petty officer and I would often get into beefy discussions to the point where I made seven trips to the "captain's mast". Each infraction brought with it a punishment of some type, typically the cancellation of shore leave or pulling KP duty.
I got fed up with the whole thing and decided I needed a break and took off. Two weeks later I was returning to base and stopped in San Francisco at a gas station where I heard someone yelling my name. The chief petty officer was at a distant gas pump, saying that I was AWOL and that he was going to throw my ass in the brig. I shouted back, saying that wouldn't happen if I beat him to Treasure Island and reported first. And off we went, racing along the Embarcadero, over the Bay Bridge and through the two-lane streets of T.I.
Even though I arrived ahead of my superior, this did not seem to impress the captain. I was soon court-martialed and spent twenty-eight days in the stockade. Oh well.
I want to thank the individuals who volunteered their experiences during the time of the Vietnam War. To honor their requests, I have used aliases instead of their birth names.
Perhaps you have a story of your own you would like to share with Fellow Book Benders. Go to www.johnmccarty.org and click on "Contact" and tell all. The taller the tale, the more majestic.
Ifyou have enjoyed reading one of my novels, a short review with Amazon http://www.amazon.com would be appreciated. As Red Skelton used to say, "Good night and may God bless."
In January, we will return to the Vietnam War for additional stories. Stay tuned. For more information on my novels as well as Don't Stop the Music (to be released in May, 2017), you can go to http://www.johnmccarty.org.