Thursday, July 3, 2008

Happy Independence Day

10 May 68: I'd been in Vietnam for a month and six days, and things were beginning to shake out; I was assigned to the Interrogation Section of the Detachment, because of my language training, though I'd had no formal training as an Interrogator. Hence the assistant OIC (Officer in Charge) of the section, a stocky young black man, was to show me the ropes. After the evening meal, we had returned to the Stockade, instead of showers, volleyball, and beer, to get me started with my first enemy soldier.

The Stockade was just a bulldozed area, surrounded by barbed wire, with a corridor through the middle and several sections covered by a tent on either side. We "drew" the POW from one, under the supervision of the MPs, and took him to another with a table and maybe a chair or two.

Em tien gi? ("What's your name?") And the answer, the Lieutenant showing me the steps and having me do them, the POW graciously helping us out. Several more questions, and answers.

Then a sound they both recognized, but I didn't, a kind of whirling whistle, then a sound "SHUMP!" They both "move out smartly" the Lieutenant taking me and the POW, who doesn't need any coaxing, straight out the front gate beyond the compound to a hole in the raw red earth: 2 feet wide, maybe six long, and about five-six feet deep, the three of us: the Black officer, the North Vietnamese soldier, and me at the bottom of the hole. We wait, and there are more whirling whistles, maybe three or four, then SHUMP, then no more for maybe five minutes. It's an odd place--MLK has just been shot, and I'm in the bottom of a hole with two men of color who know what's goin' on, and I don't, yet, in some sense-- the brotherhood of those being shot at--we are together, and politics is irrelevant. Then the Lieutenant decides there's been enough training for the night; it's almost as if he and the POW know this, or have decided this, and are letting me know.

It's nearly dark now, and we go back to our tents, the Lieutenant and I, and wait for maybe an hour, or a little more. We begin to hear an occasional fireworks like sound from the distance: "Maybe a probe at the perimeter." says the LT. Shortly the guys who were taking showers and playing volleyball start showing up; the rockets (Soviet 122 mm. Katusha) had hit the ammo dump just across the airstrip maybe 200-300 meters away from them. People were scrambling, soapy, wet, and naked, over the wet pallet floors for cover. The Club NCO had broken out the hard liquor (unheard of in I Corps!). After a little while, they had decided to come back.

I still had some booze I had brought from the rear back South in the Highlands, which was consumed as we sat on top of the bunkers, listening to the automatic weapons fire (we thought) and the small explosions of mortar or rocket fire (RPG: a different sort) until the small hours. Then, about 1 or 2 am, there was an enormous fireball from the direction of the airstrip; the sounds of gunfire/ explosions having increased steadily all the while. Within another hour or so, another, similar explosion; each was 10,000 gallons of gasoline exploding, surrounded by three days' worth of artillery rounds, rockets, ammunition, grenades, mortar rounds, and other assorted very lethal stuff for a 23, 000 soldier unit. We waited for another hour or so after the second big bang, then drifted off to our bunks.

The next morning, about five hours later, with some rounds still "cooking off" (exploding because of heat), I wander up the hill to take a piss, passing the bunker we'd been sitting on most of the night a few meters to my left. In the grass, just off the path to the piss tube, I noticed a jagged piece of metal, maybe 9-10 inches long, four wide at most, and a little less than 1/2 inch thick: jagged and razor-sharp on every edge; it weighs maybe three or four pounds and is still hot from the explosions. Twenty feet to the left and one of us would have had no skull worth taking notice of.

Civilians insist on shooting off fireworks to "commemorate" our Independence, even though it is often illegal; perhaps you can understand why I neither want nor need such reminders.


Nan said...

Thank you for sharing this very powerful memory, and for giving a new perspective to the idea of fireworks. Peace.

it's margaret said...

Thank you (and I hate fireworks too).


johnieb said...

And thanks for the visit, Margaret. I'm glad we have such cool clergy in our church! Or is it our church which makes the clergy cool?

We got our eye on ya.

FranIAm said...

Oh Johnieb, oh Johnieb...


Thank you for sharing this, thank you.

Ed said...

Franiam directed me here. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I'm unable to see fireworks without thinking about what those sights and sounds actually represent, or how so many people in the world have first hand knowledge of the reality.

johnieb said...

Any friend of Fran's is welcome here.

And I'm glad someone thinks of us; it surprises me a little to hear that, but it's good to know. And now my next entry, thanks to you.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Johnieb, I don't much like fireworks, and I have never been in a war. Deliberate noise for nothing. Why do we want that?

After that night, I guess you were broken in. The "jagged piece of metal" was a reality check, which I doubt that you needed after the rest of that night. Your words about the war are fine writing, my friend. I hope they exorcise a few demons.

Ken said...

A friend who served in Vietnam with the Marines...toughest man I know, except on July 4. He can't manage to deal with fireworks and pseudo-explosives and starts bawling when they go off within earshot.

Indeed we have an odd idea of what constitutes a patriotic display.

janinsanfran said...

Thank you for this story.

For my partner, it is the sound of helicopters. And sometimes fireworks; they are too much like mortars. She traveled the war zones of Nicaragua taking testimony/witness from the war of torture and murder the US paid for and denied in the mid-1980s.

For years we had to go far into the country for July 4. As folks come back from Iraq, what will they do?

johnieb said...

Choppers, too, but they only fly over occasionally here: loud unexpected noises in general are upsetting.

Some--too few, in part because of the official denial of the prevalence of PTSD among Iraqi/ Afghan vets ("Take another Zoloft, and suck it up, soldier!)--are getting help much sooner than we did. And Vets Centers, if not the entire VA system, are working on treatments that have been tested for two generations; yoga, which is sponsored by my center and is part of a recent Boston VA study and colloquium, is helpful to me in perceiving and coping with mind-body-spirit interactions.

Max Cleland, Vietnam Vet, multiple amputee, former DVA Sec., and U S Senator, is among those of us who have returned because of the current political climate, according to an interview recently published by McClatchyDC. And that seems to me to be the primary obstacle to effective treatment: the current administration and the Republican party, not to put too fine a qualification on it, although it's increasingly hard to find a Democrat worth the name.

pj said...

"…the brotherhood of those being shot at--we are together, and politics is irrelevant."

This should be the lesson of war. Unfortunately, those at the top never seem to learn it.

johnieb said...

That's because they aint never bein' shot at: duh! Colin Powell was a Divisional Staff Officer finding no reason to investigate the massacre of close to 600 people, and even he got it.

Thanks. I liked that insight.

David said...

A friend of mine served in the Marine Corps during Vietnam and one thing he said several times always struck me.

He said that he found the country to be quite beautiful - except that people were shooting at him. And he was, and is, quite sane (well, as sane as any of us ;)

johnieb said...

It is a beautiful country; I think it may be good to return, as many have done.