This story was first written while I was still in Vietnam, and was included in the early versions of the manuscript that eventually became the novel SACRIFICES.
Photos by Dave Rittman, VHPA.
BUNKERS AT BAO LONG
by James Nathan Post
I was the first new replacement gunship pilot to join the Daggers after they deployed to Bao Long in the fall of 1967. They had come to Vietnam as a unit only a few weeks earlier, so they were practically green as I was. I had been wearing my new Warrant Officer bars less than a month, and my twenty-first birthday was only days behind me. I had graduated in the top five of my class in flight school, and my family had made a big to-do over my new wings and my coming of age, but I've got to admit I felt more like a boot the first time I actually set foot on Vietnamese soil than I ever had at basic training. I had more than one twinge of regret for dropping out of college to go fly helicopters for duty, fun, and glory in the 'Nam.
From the depot at Long Binh, I caught a ride with the company supply helicopter, one of my new unit's slicks, to the base at Bao Long, which lay in a natural bowl about thirty miles across, ringed by high hills and ridges. In the center of the bowl was a little village with a few modern buildings -- curiously, most were churches -- and a good-sized airfield with a steel-planked runway. The military complex lay on the opposite side of the runway from the village, and first impression of my new home was DUST. The entire area had been scraped clean of vegetation, leaving an ugly khaki-colored scar in the middle of the little green valley. As we settled to a hover at the approach end of the runway, on my left was a pile of boxes, paper tubes, and metal ammunition cans, and a crude rack with a stack of long green rockets which I recognized as the 2.75-inch high explosive rockets we had trained with in school. Beside this rearming pit were the gunships' revetments, L-shaped walls of sandbags sagging at the corners.
Two "Charlie-model" UH-lC gunships sat waiting for a scramble call, tubes loaded with rockets, and T-shirted gunners lying asleep under a poncho lean-to nearby. Halfway down the strip beyond the gunships' stand-by area, a few low shacks had been built by the Air Force around a steel-planked area on which sat a four-engined turboprop C-130 Hercules.
On the far end of the strip sat a cluster of drab, ugly GPmedium army tents, some of which had low walls of sandbags around them. It looked like a boot camp bivouac pitched in a dusty parking lot. When the rotor stopped swinging, I stepped out of the helicopter into a puddle of sticky black tar. "What the hell?" I squawked.
"Peneprime," the slick pilot informed me, stepping around the puddle. "They spray this shit all over the place to keep the dust down. The result is black, sticky dust....and puddles. You'll love it once you get used to it."
"Lovely," I said, wondering what it would take to put a parade shine on my boots again.
The Daggers tent was closest to the end of the runway. Though the day was quite warm, the sides of the tent were rolled down, and when I stepped into the dark interior, I felt a wave of hot fetid air. The space was cluttered, crowded with folding cots in two rows. From the light of a single bulb hanging from a wire near one end of the tent, I could see some of the cots had dusty bug nets stretched over them, and each had a duffle bag, box, or zipper bag of some kind stuffed beneath the foot. Each box and bag bulged with clothes, flight gear, and an assortment of personal items. On the two cots nearest the light, two men in jungle fatigues lay sprawled.
"Is there a place in here I can park my ass for about a year?" I asked them. One of them was asleep, but the other lowered his copy of Poonboy Magazine and eyed me silently. "I've just been assigned to the gunship platoon," I told him. "Is one of these cots empty?~~
"No." The stocky warrant officer spread wide stubby hands and shrugged, staring at me with eyes that seemed a little too blue for his dark face and frizzled black hair. "You'll have to sleep with Babycakes until somebody gets killed." He pointed to the man in the other cot.
"You're about half nuts, aren't you?" I asked him.
"Who are the sane here, I ask you?" The man chuckled and stood, extending a welcoming hand. "I guess you'll do. You've definitely come to the wrong place....you should have turned left at San Francisco. But, since you're here...." He prodded the redheaded warrant on the other bed with his boot. "Hey, Babycakes," he said. "New meat for the mill. Show him your peter."
Without taking his face from the pillow, Babycakes stuck out his hand. "I'm Willy Stockton, and you can take the cot on the end. You been flight checked yet?"
"No. Just got here this afternoon."
"Too bad. If you'd been checked already, you'd have gone on the counter-mortar stand-by team tonight, and I could get some sleep."
"Wow, that soon?" I asked.
"Naw, not really," said the freckle-faced Willy. "You'll probably get a few jack-off missions to get acquainted with the area before going out on the hot night stuff - - a couple of days or so anyhow."
"I'm Sparky Gilroy," said mad-blue-eyes, "and if you could get into it, I'll sell you a genuine American name-brand beer. You might as well get used to spending that monopoly money they gave you for your greenbacks, and unless you're after a shot of that good dink leg, you can't find a better buy than beer."
"Sounds great," I said. "Can I buy the house a round?"
"Delighted." As I dug into my pocket and looked through my bankroll of the unfamiliar little military payment certificates-- MPC -- Sparky pulled the top from his styrofoam ice chest and produced three cans of beer.
The cold beer was refreshing, and reminded me I had missed breakfast. I was just starting to feel at home, looking forward to discovering the mess tent, when a sound caught Willy's and Sparky's attention, and they jumped into action. "Shit!" yelled Sparky, wrapping his towel around his neck and stuffing the ends into the front of his fatigue jacket. I looked wildly around, having no idea what had alarmed them.
"Grab that end of the tent flap and hold it down," shouted Willy. I hurried out of the tent, and looked up as I heard the lazy flatulent growl and the wheezy keening of turbine-powered paddle-bladed propellors being turned into the wind. On the end of the runway, a hundred meters away, the big C-130 Hercules cargo plane which had come in to offload supplies was lining up to make his takeoff run.
"Do you have to use the whole runway, you asshole?" yelled Sparky at the squat tube-shaped airplane as it turned its broad tail toward us. I watched in awe as the pilot ran his four huge turboprops to full takeoff power, while holding his brakes. Behind the aircraft an enormous whirling ball of dust rose up and came charging toward us. Like a wall of stinging surf it slammed into the side of the tent. It yanked my collar open and stuffed a shovelful of dirt down my back. It whipped my hair to a bristle and packed every pore in my scalp with ochre dust, fine as talc. I made a grab at my collar and lost my hold on the side of the tent, and as it flew up I heard a roar of profanity from Willy and Sparky.
The big airplane sprinted forward at a surprising speed, and popped up off the ground to climb steeply, having used only the first third of the runway. The cloud of dust settled around the tent like a big, thick, grimy, gritty, choking blanket.
"Asshole!" yelled Sparky after the departed plane. "You want to show off, start at the middle, you turd-kissing son of a snotworm! Yer mother eats it on a hotdog bun!"
Irubbed my hand across my neck and it came away coated with something about the color and consistency of butterscotch fudge. My tongue told me my teeth had a new coat of stucco, and I spat a mouthful of dirt. Willy sat grimly, trying to swat enough of the dust out of his bunk to get back onto it. "How do you like it so far?" he asked me.
"How the hell do you get clean in this place?" I asked.
My two new comrades gave me a long blank look, then Sparky picked up his magazine, rolled it into a tube and began to pace back and forth in front of the bunk, assuming a grave patronizing expression. "It's very simple, really." He tapped his palm with the magazine-swaggerstick and lifted his chin. "Procedures for adequate sanitation in the field are completely outlined for the benefit of the combat soldier in the Army's Manual for Field Sanitation. The Army takes care of its own, son. In the Army today, nothing is left to chance, and the instructions are written in words a six-year-old mongoloid baby could understand."
Willy raised his hand timidly, and when Sparky nodded at him, he asked, "Were they written by mongoloid babies, Sir?"
"Ah, harrumph. Very good question, Mr. Stockton. Young Babycakes wanted to know if the Army Manual for Field Sanitation was written by mongoloid babies. No, to answer your question, Mr. Stockton, it was not. The modern Army today employs a staff of highly-paid government-trained college graduates just for the purpose of writing such Field Manuals, because, you see, no expense is too great for our fighting boys, Our Boys Over There!"
Sparky looked from me to Willy and back with his piercing blue eyes owl-wide with fervent solemnity. He unrolled his magazine and began to pound on it with his fist like a stump- shouting double-knit-and-pompadour Bible-belt ree-vival preacher. He drew his stocky sausage-shaped body to its full five-eight and stabbed out at us with an imperious finger. "And here, gentlemen, is where it all comes home to roost. Here the buck stops, the chips are down, and the die is cast. This is the real ball game, this is not a drill, this is not a practical exercise, this is it! The real IT where you and the United States Army justify the money the taxpayer has spent to get you over here. Can I have an Amen? Can I hear an Amen, please?"
"Amen," said Willy, applauding. "Hallelujah!"
I raised a hand. "Uh, Reverend, Sir, I came into class late, my mommy kept me for slave labor, you see, and I missed the practical demonstration."
"A demonstration! The lad wants a demonstration." Sparky snapped to attention and barked out a command. "Demonstrator, POST!" Willy leaped to his feet and slammed his heels together. "Demonstrator, Forward, MARCH!" Sticking his chest out and goose-stepping, Willy marched out of the tent. Sparky gave him sharp flanking commands to lead him around a shallow hole behind the tent and directed him toward the company shower.
About one hundred feet from the gunship pilots' tent, a fifty-five-gallon drum with a spigot on the bottom stood supported on a rickety frame of two-by-fours. It was propped up by a few short boards and poles and stood in a puddle of mud. Willy came to a smart position of attention standing on the low platform of boards under the shower barrel, and he pulled the chain hanging from the spigot. I watched in utter disbelief as Willy stood there in his jungle fatigues grinning like an idiot with a thin trickle of water splattering from the top of his head. Sparky was doubled over laughing.
Noting that the shower was also placed in the path of the dust wall from the runway, I asked, "Say, this looks like a prime setup for a mud bath. Whose idea was it to put this shower here?"
"Probably the same guy who decided to put all of our tents over there," replied Willy, stepping out of the shower.
"So who's responsible for that?"
"You tell me."
Sparky assumed his classroom shtick again and began to orate in stentorian tones, "Yes, gentlemen, we must stop the rising tide of Satan's commie horde wherever it raises its ugly sinful yellow-bellied and zipper-eyed little head, lest we soon be fighting the Red in the streets and valleys of our beautiful California. Yes, we must make the world safe for Sandra Dee and The White House Kid."
"Would you rather be doing it in California?" I asked seriously.
"Aw, horseshit," said Sparky.
"I would," said Willy, opening his fly and beginning to pee at Sparky's feet. "They've got flush toilets back there."
One afternoon Captain "Shaky Jack" Miller, one of the slick pilots, stuck his head into the Daggers' first section tent to announce that the world was coming to an end. "All right, you gunnies, listen up. I've just come from an intelligence briefing with Major Garrett and G-2, and according to the best available information, there is a battalion-sized unit of Viet Cong operating in this valley with us." He paused to look around the tent for a response.
Our section leader was a second lieutenant named Bud Petch. He was a commissioned officer rather than a warrant by virtue of a college degree in drama. Knowing a thing or two about how to balance the dialogue of dramatic moments, he fed the good captain the lead lines he needed to make his scene come off. "Sounds like we've got our work cut out for us. A search and destroy operation, Sir?"
The captain was pleased. "We'll be going after them soon enough, Bud. You and your boys will get plenty of action. But the Company Commander feels that our perimeter defenses are inadequate."
"Oh, boy," groaned Willy.
"Major Garrett has ordered me to see to it that every tent has its own bunker. We've got to dig in for a possible mortar attack. Intelligence indicates they've got mortars. And you can be sure if they have mortars, they have rockets too."
Willy reached for his boots, muttering grimly. "I got into helicopters because I didn't like fighting a war with a fucking shovel."
"Let's call a spade a spade, Ace," said Sparky.
"So I assured him," Miller went on, "and I told him, I said, that we were going to turn this unit's company area into a fortress old Chenges Kahn couldn't take."
"Right on, Sir!" said Petch.
"I knew it, I just knew it would be like this," said Sparky fiercely, bouncing to his feet and pounding one fist into his palm. "I've given the best years of my life to my country. Yes, Captain Jack, that's absolutely right. I've sacrificed my youth to come here and fight for truth, honor, the dignity of man, and the Great American Way. I'll say, I didn't come to dig holes to hide in, Sir, not to hide from the little yellow gook, Sir, but to kill him! I've come to halt the flow of demon Communism, and I want to do my duty to God and my country, Sir, to kill!"
The captain was stopped short for a moment speechless. "Say, that's pretty good, Sparky," said fat John Burdah, biting into a hunk of beef jerky he had received in the morning mail. "They ought to give you an Oscar -- or a commission." He cast a sidelong glance at Petch, who tried to ignore him and began making baseball gestures, tipping back his cap and testing the hollow of his palm against a fist.
"OK, fellas, we've got a chore to do. Let's get off our butts and follow the captain. It's got to be done, so we might just as well pitch right in there and we'll have this bunker built in no time." He peeled off his fatigue jacket and bounced back and forth in front of us warrants like a scrawny rodent- faced ball club coach. He passed a conspiratorial grin around the tent. "Yeah, and we maybe ought to just set an example for these slick drivers to shoot at."
"They shoot at me, I shoot back," said Willy.
"Sheeit," said Captain Miller, neatly picking up his cue, "you gunnies couldn't dig a latrine. Wait till you see the Bao Loc Hilton my slick platoon makes."
"Yeah," said Sparky. "When the big bad wolf comes to huff and puff and blow the house in, you and your little piggies will be safe, safe, safe in your house of brick."
Willy Stockton snapped his fingers. "Gee, Gap'n Miller, you know, when we get hit, the gunships' job is to get airborne. We can't be jumping into holes at a time like that."
Of course, eventually there was nothing we could do but to peel off our fatigue jackets and follow the captain out of the tent to make some show of digging. Since there were only two shovels and a pick available, we all stood around fumbling for a minute or two to see who was going to volunteer to start. Sparky reached over and tugged on John Burdah's scraggly chest hair. "Oh, Buddha-belly, I sure wish my old lady had tits like yours."
"What, with hair on them?"
"All right, guys," squeaked Petch, "come on, now. All right, uh, let's fall in over here." Willy stepped up to where Petch was standing with the tools at his feet, and picked up one of the shovels. I picked up the other, leaving the pick. Petch eyed the pick, then turned his back on the rest of us and addressed the captain. "Well, Captain Miller, we got them all out here finally. Now where do you want this bunker dug?"
"Sheeit." Sparky turned his back on Petch and began tossing pebbles at the shower barrel.
"The Major has pointed out at our command briefings that a strac company area has a lot to do with the combat morale of the soldier. So he wants the bunkers all lined up and dressed down properly." The captain marked off an area with the toe of his combat boot, about four feet wide by ten feet long. "That would put yours about here. The Major wants the bunkers at least three feet deep, and with good sandbag walls."
I was leaning on my shovel, enjoying the grab-ass and waiting resignedly for the work to begin. I found myself noting there was already a shallow hole in the middle of the area the captain had marked out, and that the weeds which grew in it were especially green and healthy.
"Hey, you guys, doesn't it look like somebody already dug some kind of hole there? How come those plants in the hole are bigger than the others around here?" I asked.
"Maybe they've been fertilized," Sparky suggested.
"Well, I'll be dipped in shit and French fried, Sparky, you're a genius," said Willy. "Somebody used to have a latrine here, and the captain thought he was going to pull one on us."
John Burdah looked solemnly at Miller. "That's one hell of a long way to go for a joke, Cap'n Jack."
Miller looked stricken. "Aw come on now. I wouldn't do anything like that to anybody -- not even a bunch of gunnies." Nobody laughed. "Look, I didn't pick this place. Really, the Old Man wants the bunkers all lined up, and this is just where it happened to come out. And it wouldn't be a latrine, anyhow. There haven't been any other troops up here before we came."
"Yow, that's right!" howled Willy. "It's got to be a gook latrine!"
Petch had been stepping on his toes with one foot and then the other, watching anxiously to see how far we could get away with it. "Hey, fellas, look. I don't think that's too likely to be an old latrine to start with. The weeds are just a little greener because it's a hollow place where the water collects, that's all."
"That's all, my ass!" Willy tossed his shovel down to clank on the pick at Petch's feet. "If you want to dig in shit because you think everything has to be done with straight lines and closed ranks, then you dig it."
"Mr. Stockton," said the captain, "the fact remains that Major Garrett says each section will have a bunker behind its tent, and they will be squared away. You just can't argue with that." He spread his hands in resignation.
Willy took a long slow breath. "Captain Miller, I lived through enough mortar attacks when I was a grunt last time I was here to know I need a bunker to get into once in a while. I've dug a couple dozen of them, and you might have noticed I was the first to pick up a shovel this afternoon. But there are a lot of things you can die of in this rotten place besides getting your guts shot out. Gooks put shit on bamboo punji stakes because they've got diseases over here we don't even have names for. I'm not trying to make trouble, Sir, but if you don't want to take responsibility for giving us permission to digour bunker a few feet out of line so we don't have to dig in that hole, I'll be happy to go explain the situation to the Flight Surgeon, and maybe he can explain to the Commanding Officer that straight lines don't always work over here."
Miller's hesitation to make a decision was embarrassing to Petch. "Sir, if you don't mind, perhaps the Flight Surgeon would be the proper channel to take a matter like this through. I'm all for a sharp-looking company area, but if there's a chance that hole is an old latrine, breaking it open could be a health hazard to the whole company. I think The Major would appreciate our taking every precautionary step, Sir."
The captain regained his composure and replied briskly, "I think you're quite right. I'd tell you to just dig your bunker a little past it, but there's probably a regulation for determining how far from an old latrine you can dig. I'm sure the Flight Surgeon would know. I'm sorry you men thought I was trying to put one over on you. It never occurred to me that little hole might be an old latrine. Well, uh, you want to come with me there, Lieutenant? We'll go check with the flight surgeon."
Petch snapped to action like a terrier, ready to dash off in all directions at once. "Yessir! Lemme grab my fatigue jacket." He darted into the tent, came out jamming his arms into his sleeves, and ran to catch up with Miller, who had already started toward the Medical tent.
"Well done, Mr. Stockton!" said Buddha Burdah. "Perhaps one could buy you a schooner of the king's ale?"
"Hear, hear! Ale all around," seconded Sparky.
"A pleasure, gentlemen, thank you. Pity the good lieutenant couldn't be here for the festivities."
"Isn't it though," I agreed. "We'll just have to sip one for him. For he's a jolly good smello and all that."
We had just finished a beer when Captain Miller came back, followed by Petch, the flight surgeon, and Major Garrett. The CO appeared to be in no mood for games. His uniform was fresh and his boots were shined, though he had flown a mission to insert a company of troops into a jungle landing zone that morning. We all wiped off the grins and saluted as he arrived.
"Well, where is it?" he demanded.
"Right there, Sir," replied Sparky Gilroy.
"That? What is this bullshit? Section Leader, what the hell is going on here?"
"Uh, Sir, some of the men suggested that there might be a health hazard here, and that we ought to take proper steps to check it out before digging into it, Sir," Petch squeaked.
"What kind of a health hazard?"
"A Vietnamese latrine, Sir."
"Proper steps, eh? Doc?"
"If that hole were a latrine once, how long would it have to sit there before all that shit decayed back to nice clean dirt?"
"Uh, that'd be pretty hard to say, Sir. If the drainage was good, maybe in a couple of years -- I'd say a good educated guess would be three to five years."
The major nodded and raised his almost-hairless eyebrows. "I see. All right, Petch, send one of your men down to the end of this row of tents so I can see how these bunkers line up."
"Yessir. Uh, Gilroy, double time down there and stand at the corner of the bunker."
"Sir." Sparky shuffled off toward the end of the row seventy yards away. The major sighted down the length of his arm, and confirmed the lines drawn on the ground by Jack Miller.
"Call him back, Petch."
When Sparky came puffing back, the major folded his arms and cast us a cool and patient gaze. "Very well, men, the panel of experts has been convened. It has been determined the bunker is positioned correctly, and there is no evidence at this point to suggest this is a health hazard. Now it's important that you understand something very clearly: we are going to have a proper company area here. We cannot convince the enemy that we are going to stay here, nor our allies that we can bring about order here, if we look and behave like a camp of refugees. We are going to have standardized bunkers. We are going to have wabtoc floors and sides for our tents, and we are going to have cleared walkways lined with white rocks. A trash heap like this tent creates slovenly thinking. Whoever started this... investigation is paying attention to details. I hope that zeal will extend to all the details. So, Bud, you tell your section to go ahead and start digging, and if anything shows up that looks like it used to be a turd, we'll make some other arrangements."
So the bunker was started, and to no one's great surprise, the hole turned out to be just a hole. The first foot was all roots, and below that only dark, rich, black soil, damp and clinging.
"Sure smells like shit to me," said Sparky, poking at the fertile soil.
Willy stepped out of the hole and made a big show of handing the pick to Petch. "Stick around a while, and you'll find this whole miserable country smells like shit. You may forget what it looks like, and what it sounds like, and if you're lucky, what it feels like, but you'll never get loose of the smell of this place."
After three hours of digging and stuffing sandbags, the section had a hole roughly rectangular in shape some three feet deep with a ring of sandbags two feet high around it. Second Section had the night counter-mortar standby duty so we had the evening off. The beer had flowed freely while we were working, and before the night was over, Sparky was found hanging over the edge of the bunker, rendering the interior less than fit for human habitation by turning his guts inside out.
The rumor prevailed that the world's best beer could be had in Vietnam by trading with the Australian troops, and the world's worst could be had by trading with the Vietnamese The latter claim was confirmed by a case of large bottles of Bamuoiba, the leading native product, which Sparky brought from the village.
"Does this stuff really have formaldehyde in it?" I asked, grimacing wryly. "It tastes like industrial cleaning solution."
"So who's Sparky looking for in the bunker? " asked John Burdah. "Sounds like he's trying to call somebody."
From the bunker, a ghostly convulsive groan, "Roy! Aauugh, Roooy! RooooOOOY!"
"Have another Bamuoiba, Sparky. Roy'l1 show up."
"You know what I think?" said Willy confidentially. "I think that hole out there is our destiny. We are going to get hit tonight. We're going to get a grand total of two rounds in the company area. Just two. At the first, we'll all go jump in that hole like a bunch of lemmings. Then the second round will plop right in there after us and blow us all to little bloody bits. And that, my friends, will show the utter futility of digging it in the first place."
"Show whom, Babycakes," I asked him.
During those first few weeks, things were pretty quiet for the Daggers. The Cong were keeping their heads down for some reason or other, and most of the unit's missions involved little more than following the slicks back and forth from one camp to another as they transferred troops and material. We got to fire rockets once in a while to prep an LZ -- landing zone -- before putting troops into it, and we drew enough small-arms fire to justify shooting up the jungle every few days. But for the most part, we had lots of time to spend hanging around the company area. Willy spent his time sitting on his bunk working on one of several correspondence courses he was taking. Gordie Storch, a quiet little guy with some kind of New England accent, liked to deal several poker hands and play them against each other, learning as he put it, "to get a feel for the odds." Sparky Gilroy had a peculiar passion for skin books and men's adventure magazines. He had a collection of such noteworthy tomes as "Suburb Passion Sinner", "The Secretary Game", "Duplex Body Exchange", and "Profession: Lust!" an indexed guide to those jobs which take one into the home of lonesome, sex-starved housewives, and what to do when one gets there. Buddha Burdah was a reader too. He had a Bible, a well-thumbed copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a leather-bound Koran, and books on the mythology of everybody from the Greeks to the Anasazi. He was, he said, cross-referencing them to a selected set of books on the occult, the psychic, and the mystic. Petch prefered to hang out with some of the other junior commissioned officers in the company, but when he stayed in the section tent, he talked, he expounded, theorized, pontificated, and elucidated some notion which had captured his attention, ad infinitum and ad nauseam, to anybody who happened to be nearby, none of whom could ever recall a single word he had said.
I didn't like staying in the dark, funky interior of the tent. I occasionally played a little gin with Gordie Storch, or Chess with Willy, and sometimes read through one of Sparky's books. Trying to sleep in the tent made me groggy, the games bored me, and the sex books left me frustrated. More and more frequently, I found myself taking walks alone, strolling aimlessly along the perimeter of the base, sitting beside the road from the village watching the passing Vietnamese, or walking down to the flight line. I enjoyed sitting on a revetment where I could watch the big C-130 come in without having to endure its dust, and enjoyed wandering around the flight area picking up shell casings and bits of shrapnel to look at and toss away.
Shortly before noon one morning, I was standing outside the tent peeling leaves from a switch, watching the sky go by, and daydreaming. Sitting up on the back seat deck of a convertible, I was riding down Main Street to the cheers of thousands. I was going to meet the President, who had flown in from Washington DC to award me the Distinguished Flying Cross. The Girl sat beside me. She was a variable factor in the dream, usually borrowed from among my classmates back in school. I looked down at her, and felt my body thrill to the promise in her eyes, and the ripe swelling breasts she presented to me so eagerly. I was brought back to Bao Loc by the hollow "choonk! choonk!" of a mortar being fired. I quickly located the tube. Wrapped in a loose cresent around the far end of the runway were the tents of the infantry brigade whom the Daggers supported, and beyond that, snuggled up against the crumbling shacks and hootches of the village, was the Military Assistance Command Viet Nam (MACV) compound, a holdover from the old "advisor" days. Somebody in the MACV compound was pooping off a few rounds, likely to show some of their Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) troops how to use the tube.
The rounds struck in a row of trees about a mile from the perimeter of the base. The ARVN troops were firing white phosphorous rounds -- called "Willie Peter" -- for spotting, and each round made a big chrysanthemum of white smoke, then a few seconds later, a fat, satisfying CFUMP!, like someone driving a very big fist into a very large, soft belly. Choonk! Pooft CFUMP! Choonk! Poof! CFUMP!
Seeing no return fire, nor any other indication there was a tense situation occurring, no siren nor signal flare, I waited and watched, whistling to myself and picking the leaves from my switch. Some few minutes after the tube quit firing, Captain Jack Miller came charging around the end of the tent yelling at the top of his lungs. He was wearing his steel combat helmet and his armor chest plate, and was trying to buckle on a web belt with a canteen on it while he ran.
"Alert! Alert!" he shouted. "Everybody in the bunkers!"
Nobody stopped to ask questions. Men started dashing from the tents and jumping into the bunker holes. Somebody fell down and started yelling about his ankle. They fumbled with the seldom-used infantry hardware, and packed themselves in a confused tangle into the holes. I ran to join them, and knocked two sandbags down on John Burdah's head tumbling into the bunker. There was a few moments' quiet, during which everyone held his breath and strained to hear that first round whispering through the air to herald the world's blowing up around us.
Down on the ramp the C-130 which had come in about an hour earlier cranked up one engine and sat with the prop growling lazily. One of the cooks at the mess tent dropped a tray of silverware, and yelled out a sudden obscenity. Everyone in the Daggers's bunker jumped at the startling jangle, then laughed nervously. After a few minutes, Willy stood up in the hole and peered around. "This is some kind of ratfuck," he said.
"Whadd'ya see, Babycakes?" asked Sparky. "Redcoats a' comin'?"
"Where the hell is that twitchy Miller hiding?" Willy muttered. "He's behind this shit." As he started to climb out of the hole to go investigate, the captain came charging out of one of the slick tents headed for the operations tent on the double. He had added to his outfit a black leather pistol belt with his issue .38 pistol on it, a shoulder holster with a .45 automatic he had bought from a Green Beret in Saigon, a vest of netting to which he had sewn two smoke flares and a survival kit, and a handful of .30 caliber banana-clips for the carbine he carried slung over his shoulder. He ran like a woman with two sacks of groceries, hugging all his paraphrenalia to his chest.
"Has everybody got their helmets?" he hollered. "Everybody got his weapon?" He stopped by the Daggers's bunker, where we pilots stood leaning against the sides of the hole gazing at him coolly. Sparky, Willy, and Storch had grabbed their helmets on their way out of the tent. Petch had his chicken-plate (the heavy armor chest protector we pilots wore), his .38 in a black Vietnamese-made Hoppy belt, and because his steel pot was packed so neatly and securely in his locker, his flight helmet. John Burdah had picked up his camera. He stood solemnly and began to take pictures of Captain Jack Miller Sparky took the earphone connection plug hanging from Petch's flight helmet and stuck it up his butt, and Buddha-belly John took a picture of that.
"My helmet was packed too securely for an emergency, Cap'n," said Burdah. "I'll put it where I can get it next time we're attacked."
"Me too," muttered Petch lamely.
"Well, how about you, eightball? What's your excuse?" The captain pointed an accusing finger at me. "I know you missed our drills on this kind of emergency, since you missed in-country training, but...."
"Sir, I haven't been issued field gear," I told him.
"What? Didn't you bring it with you?"
"No, Sir. They said I'd get it all from unit supply."
"Well, then why didn't you?"
"Because everybody else in the unit got it back in the States before you came over here together," I said. "Supply's got to get some more from Battalion first."
The captain muttered darkly to himself and looked anxiously toward the operations tent.
"Sir," I said, "perhaps I could borrow one from one of those guys." I pointed toward the tents of the infantry troops which had been set up around the camp perimeter. The troops were all standing around waiting for chow. A few had already lined up in front of their mess tent. Miller stared at them in confusion, and seeing his discomfort, Willy pointed toward the Air Force area where the C-130 had started its other three engines and was taxiing ponderously toward the far end of the runway to take off into the midday breeze.
"Captain Miller, what the hell is going on?" asked Sparky.
"Mr. Gilroy, we're under attack, that's what the hell is going on! They're firing at the north end of the field. We're being mortared!" He looked wildly from one to the other of us.
"Aw, bullshit," said Willy. "Anybody hear mortars?"
"Just the usual background violence -- somebody's always blowing something up," said Sparky.
"I saw some mortars being fired about ten minutes ago," I told them, trying to be helpful.
"Where?" The chorus was unanimous.
I climbed out of the hole and pointed to the line of trees where I had seen the spotting rounds fall. "They shot about four Willie Pete rounds into that treeline from the Mac-V compound."
Miller looked disappointed. "You're sure they were from Mac-V?"
"Yessir. You know how the shock from firing the tube kicks up a little ring of dust, like a smoke ring, around...."
Miller had already left, headed for the operations tent hanging onto his helmet with one hand and trying to keep all of his gear from flopping around with the other. A few minutes later one of the enlisted troops from operations came down to tell us that the alert was over. "All clear," he said, looking bored with the whole routine. "All clear."
"I guess we won," said Gordie Storch.
"Call Army Times," said Sparky. "Estimate a VC company wiped out."
"If there's no peach pie left, I'm going to feed that twitchy Miller my boot," said Willy.
"Good old Shaky Jack," said John Burdah. "Two gook whores in a backfiring taxi, and he's ready to call in the B-52's."
"Well, there is nothing wrong with watching out for trouble," said Petch.
"You better watch out, yourself, Petch," said Willy. "According to Miller, these VC have heat-seeking missiles that can home in on the hot air coming out of the back end of a beaneating water buffalo -- or the front end of a second lieutenant. If he's right, we'll be pouring the juice out of your boots and sending them home in a rubber bag real soon."
Some time later the decision was made by somebody to move the company's quarters off the hill at the end of the runway. Delighted, we loaded our gear into a truck, collapsed our tents, threw our trash into the bunker, and left. As soon as we had departed, a crew with a small bulldozer came in to push down the sides of all the bunkers and cover them up so old Victor Charlie couldn't use them as places from which to shoot at us Good Guys.
Unit supply managed to lay hands on a truckload of lumber, so we Daggers were able to build floors for our tents. Some pipe and a five-hundred-gallon water tank showed up in the company area, and an enclosed shower with four heads was constructed. One of the mechanics in the maintenance section was an artist with a welding torch, and he turned two 55-gallon drums and the guts of a kerosene immersion heater into a water heater that would burn helicopter fuel to produce an almost limitless supply of hot water.
The new location, closer to the village and about the midpoint of the runway, freed us from the daily dust storms created by the heavy aircraft traffic, but demanded of us that we build new bunkers. After a few days of digging and goof mg off, we had a hole about two feet deep. Nobody was losing any sleep worrying about getting hit.
Then one night about two in the morning there was a quick flurry of flashes and bangs, some shrapnel buzzed and poked holes in a couple of the tents, somebody fired a burst of tracerfire, and the company area was in general pandemonium for some ten minutes. We Daggers leaped from our beds and grabbed flight gear, certain we would be called out in seconds. Somebody from operations came running from tent to tent, instructing us to "stand by". We did, and though nobody got much sleep, the night passed without further incident.
It turned out that some gook with a burr under his tail had fired three or four B-40 rockets -- a rocket-propelled grenade like a small bazooka -- at the gunships' parking area. No damage was done, and the enemy got away, but nerves began to tighten. Two days later a small ARVN outpost only seven miles away was hit and very quickly overrun. The place had been fairly well defended, but Charlie had taken out a sleepy guard with a stealthy knife, blown the barbed concertina wire perimeter with a homemade bamboo Bangalore torpedo, and had swept in to kill every man in the place, strip it of ammunition and supplies, and to disappear before a reaction force could arrive.
The little .38 pistols issued to the pilots began to look pretty puny, and some of the men began keeping M-16 rifles beside their beds at night. The business of building bunkers became a more serious matter. The Dagger pilots stole a large metal pallet from the Air Force area to use for a roof and spent two days humping sandbags from the old area with a truck. The result was squat, ugly, and most reassuring, with a tripod on top for mounting one of the M-60 machine guns used by the door gunners on the gunships. When it was finished, they sent me to notify Major Garrett that we had prepared a demonstration for him.
A row of chairs had been set up in a spectator's position, and when Major Garrett arrived, followed by several of the other senior officers and me, Lieutenant Petch saluted and directed them to their seats.
"Where'd you get that pallet?" asked Garrett.
"Well, Sir, that was scrounged from the Air Force. We traded it for a couple of Mountainyard crossbows one of the C-130 drivers wanted," said Petch, as though he were reading for a part in a high school play.
''I see. Very well, carry on.''
"Yes, Sir." Petch stood dramatically a moment, with both arms raised over his head. In one he held a stopwatch, and in the other, a whistle When he blew the whistle, the tent erupted with action. Storch and Burdah ran out clambering into their fatigue trousers as though they had been caught sleeping. They each had an M-16 and a steel combat helmet, and they took positions crouching with rifles ready at the entrance to the bunker.
Willy appeared in flight gear, and paused to yell, "Alert team ready, Sir!" to the CO before dashing into the bunker
Then Sparky Gilroy came out of the tent, in full battle gear. He had front and back armor plates, his helmet, two belts with pistols around his waist, one pistol under each armpit in shoulder holsters, an enormous hunting knife strapped to each calf, loops of belted M-60 ammunition draped over his neck, and the M-60 in his hands. Staggering under the weight of it all, he roared and shouted, then stopped in front of Major Garrett and yelled, "On Daggers! Forward! Kill! Kill! Kill!" Then he clambered clattering to the top of the bunker, raised the M-60 over his head, and assumed a victorious pose.
"Twenty-eight seconds, Sir!" said Petch.
"Yes, Sir!" Sparky bellowed from the top of the bunker. "We have done got our shit together!"
"I had wanted my bunkers all standardized and dressed down," the major said. "I believe uniformity is good for discipline. But I am prepared to recognize that in the case of you gunship drivers, a certain amount of individuality is an asset. So you may keep your bunker. But....you will see to it that it is properly manned at every alert. Carry on, Daggers!"
"Onward, Daggers!" yelled Sparky from the top of the bunker. He snapped to attention and attempted to execute a spin-drill present-arms with the M-60, whacking himself on the side of the head with the clumsy weapon and falling with a howl to land in a clattering heap at the major's feet.
A few days later we were all sitting around sucking up the brews and taking the day off for a Vietnamese holiday of some kind called Tet. It was just after dark things suddenly took a very different turn. We heard a couple of explosions a little way off, a siren start wailing, then another explosion, a lot closer. The counter-mortar standby gunship fireteam was launched, and the company was quickly blacked out. A runner from Operations came stumbling through the dark to inform us that some kind of major offensive was on, and we were all on standby. Then the perimeter of the base cut loose, and the dark sky was full of tracer fire, streaking in all directions. We grabbed our flight gear and ran for the bunker. Suddenly it felt pretty puny as we crouched there in the dark, smelling the wet sandbags and each others' fear as we listened to the mortars and rockets come crackling in to shake the ground and wrench agonized groans from us.
All in all, our introduction to the serious business of war was relatively easy up at Bao Long, and most of us got to come home. But that bunker was a classroom for some very important learning in the lives of that bunch of sweet American boys we were. I know what kind of man I am. I didn't pee my pants in that bunker, but I was afraid, and I damn well knew it. And I knew just how precious one more day of life can be, even in a mudhole in the jungle. If things get tough around the home front these days, I can let a lot of it just slide right past me. Hey, if I'm not being shot at, and the chow is good, it's pretty hard to complain about the small shit. And if the buttheads start trying to get on my case, hey, what are they going to do, send me to Vietnam?