CAM RANH BAY “Welcome to Vietnam”
Now, with eight months in the Army and following a 30-day leave to home, it was time to go. I had a chance to spend some time with my family and friends while on leave, and I spent as much time as possible with Diane. We discussed getting married, but what was the point? I would be away for a whole year, and certainly had no guarantee that I would ever be returning home again. We decided that it would be best to wait.
I remember at least one of my friends reminding me that it wasn’t too late to go to Canada. I never even considered it. I think I matured somewhat as a result of going AWOL the first time, and I wasn’t about to make that mistake again. As I was saying my goodbyes to my family and preparing to leave my parent’s home to go to the airport, I remember my mother crying, my brothers and sisters were too. I remember my dad’s words of wisdom; “Don’t come home in a box boy!” And then Mum cried even harder. I hugged and kissed Diane at the airport and boarded the flight to Seattle, Washington. That is when it hit me hard, not only did I have that homesick and lonely feeling again, but this time I was scared also. It seemed unreal that I would be in Vietnam in a few days. I couldn’t help wondering if I would ever come home again. I forced those thoughts out of my mind while trying to sleep during the flight.
Once I arrived at Fort Lewis and found McGrory, I was okay after that. The long flight and being alone was the hardest part. We were at Fort Lewis for only one day of processing. The Army provided a steak dinner for us at the mess hall. The next morning a couple of hundred guys boarded the jet to Vietnam. I was surprised to see that the flight crew was civilians, and they even had female stewardesses. Talk about long flights, though! McGrory and I sat together for nearly 20 hours on that seemingly endless flight from the U.S. to Vietnam. I slept as much as I could, but it wasn’t easy. We had two stopovers, one in Alaska and one in Japan. It was ironic that I finally made it to Japan, where I had hoped to serve my overseas duty, but all I saw there was the airport for about an hour. The plane became eerily silent as we approached for landing in Vietnam; no one was saying a word. I detected no feelings of excitement, no machoism, no adrenaline, maybe a little bit of fear, but mostly there was a solemn and somber atmosphere taking over the plane. Not knowing what to expect as we landed, I remember thinking to myself, “Why haven’t our weapons been issued yet?” I wondered if we were going to have to run and duck and take cover while exiting the plane. Why were we going to land unarmed? That just shows how naïve I was. We landed at an airport that looked like any other airport. I noticed that nobody on the ground was armed either. We exited the plane, walked down the stairs, and walked across the tarmac like any other airport. The intense heat and humidity immediately struck me.
At Cam Ranh Bay, we eventually ended up in a processing center, where they welcomed us to “The Nam,” and if all goes well, you will be coming back through here again on your way back to “The World” in 365 days from now. They told us that other than the occasional mortar attacks, this was a safe place to be. Most of the action is farther north. The farther north, the worse it is they said. You won’t be here long because we are just a replacement company that receives you “in-country.” You’ll stay here temporarily until assigned to whatever units need replacements, which could be anywhere in the country. In the meantime, we pulled night time guard duty while waiting for our assignments to a permanent station. A week or so later, most of the guys had shipped out. But not me, once again, I was a holdover. At least McGrory was held over with me. As it turned out, the duty at Cam Ranh wasn’t too bad. We had guard duty most nights, but then we were off during the day. McGrory and I had some good times at Cam Ranh. We frequently went to the EM club where we could drink beer and listen to the Vietnamese or Philippine bands playing live music. It was unreal. So far, Vietnam was nothing at all like I had expected.
Cam Ranh was the first place that I had any interaction with the Vietnamese people. The Army hired a lot of Vietnamese civilians to work on the base. They worked in the mess hall kitchens, cleaned barracks, did laundry, hauled trash, and just about any work that was needed, which was great because those were jobs that we didn’t have to do ourselves.
Vietnamese workers hired to fill sandbags and build a bunker for us.
I never learned their language, but I soon became familiar with some of their lingo. They used some of the same phrases over and over when communicating with us:
• Number One G.I. (a compliment if they liked you.)
• Number Ten G.I. (if they were angry with you.)
• Beau Coup (a lot.)• Ti Ti (a little bit.)
• No Sweat G.I. You can do!
It didn’t take long to discover that I didn’t like the Vietnamese people, and I certainly didn’t trust them. As a result, I was never friendly with them, so it was not unusual for them to call me “Beau Coup Number 10 G.I.” and that was fine with me.
Guard duty was pretty easy duty, but long and monotonous as the time dragged on slowly at night out there, all alone on the perimeter. I once read a Vietnam tour described as 365 days of complete boredom interrupted by moments of insanity and terror. Fortunately, so far, it had been all boredom. I had lots of time to be bored and to think and also to pray. There were occasional rocket fire and small arms fire at night, but it was always off in the distance somewhere, so I wasn’t worried about that. I never felt like I was in any real danger at Cam Ranh, so I’m not sure why I felt the need to pray to God at that particular time, but I did. Out there all alone on guard duty is where I met God and spoke to him personally one on one, or He spoke to me. I’m not sure how all of that works, it wasn’t anything verbal or audible, but I felt a direct-link communication and understanding. That is where God communicated to me that everything was going to be okay and that I was going to survive this tour. It was an amazing, unforgettable, enlightening spiritual experience that comforted me then and still comforts me today.
I was worried about my mother and prayed for her a lot too. At some point while at Cam Ranh Bay, I bought a large sized Bible to send home to Mum, hoping that reading it would help her cope with the problems she was facing at home. I don’t know if she ever read that Bible or not back then, but many years later, I inherited the Bible after she passed away and saw that she wrote the names and birthdates of all of her children and grandchildren and also the names of her parents inside.
While McGrory and I stayed at Cam Ranh, we did everything together, just like we did in AIT back at Fort Jackson. We pulled guard duty there for about five more weeks, and then we both received orders on the same day to report to Nha Trang, not far north at all, only about 30 miles. They said that it wasn’t too bad there. McGrory and I had become great close friends. He told me that he was glad that we were staying together and I know that I sure was too. We were only in Nha Trang for two days before they reassigned me to an infantry unit farther up north at a base named Tuy Hoa. As far as I know, McGrory stayed in Nha Trang. Before leaving, we shook hands and said goodbye, and I never saw or heard from him again.