Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
The Viet Nam Generation Big Book
Volume 5 Number 1-4
This text, made available by the Sixties Project, is copyright (c) 1996 by Viet Nam Generation, Inc., or the author, all rights reserved. This text may be used, printed, and archived in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. Copyright law. This text may not be archived, printed, or redistributed in any form for a fee, without the consent of the copyright holder. This notice must accompany any redistribution of the text. The Sixties Project, sponsored by Viet Nam Generation Inc. and the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, is a collective of humanities scholars working together on the Internet to use electronic resources to provide routes of collaboration and make available primary and secondary sources for researchers, students, teachers, writers and librarians interested in the 1960s.
Attack! Part II
I heard the unmistakable snick and clack of Zippo lighters as a couple of the soldiers set the dry grass ablaze. In less than a minute the half-acre was engulfed in flames. An air force fire truck dispatched a couple of men with hoses to prevent the flames from spreading to surrounding buildings. Carefully walking into the smoking and still burning grass, the soldiers carefully poked and probed. Evidently they found no enemy sappers and soon they departed. A few weeks after I returned to the World, Al would witness the crash of a Huey in this same field.
Faithfully, I preserved the burning of the grass field with my movie camera. When I finished the roll I proudly popped it out and added it to my growing pile of undeveloped film. I didn't know it but I should have saved some of that film. A hell of a lot more was going to happen before the day was over.
About an hour after the fire was extinguished, a rumor started that a prisoner had been taken after all and was being interrogated nearby. You can imagine what a stir this caused. A chance to see a real live Viet Cong!
On the other side of the still smoking field was a Quonset hut storage building enclosed with chain link and barbed wire fencing. In front of this building an officer was angrily shouting questions at a small man in black clothing, standing defiantly a few feet in front of him. A dozen or more soldiers were standing there, watching intently. Suddenly the officer reached over and grabbed an M-16 from one of them and, at waist level, pointed it threateningly at the man before him. He shouted once more, hesitated briefly, then the weapon bucked in his hands. The black figure reacted exactly as though struck violently in the abdomen by a battering ram. His feet literally lifted a foot off the ground as he was propelled backwards several feet to flop, crumpled on the ground like a discarded rag. The pop, pop, pop sound of half a clip fired on automatic reached our rears. This was different than killing an unseen enemy with bombs or rockets. This was not kill or be killed. This was on a more personal level than that. As observers, we reacted by casting searching glances among ourselves. Finding nothing more than mirrored confusion we silently wandered away. A lot of us found ourselves approaching a level of maturity for which we had not been prepared.
The first sergeant came by later to see how we were holding up. He reassured us that we would be protected and made a casual inspection. He unlocked the twelve-foot metal Conex container outside our barracks and checked inside to make sure all weapons and ammunition were secure. We told him we wanted our weapons but he refused. He reminded us that although we had weapons training, we had not been instructed in warfare tactics and therefore had to leave that part up to the experts. True, we probably would have shot each other to pieces, but it's still comforting to have a loaded weapon within reach of an outstretched hand.
Disappointed, Al and I returned to the sanctity of our cubicle. I popped the top off a cold bottle of Ba Muoi Ba and as I raised it to my lips, I heard the damnedest sound I have ever heard in my life. It was the prop wash from an A1E roaring directly over the barracks. Helicopters flew close overhead all the time, but never an airplane, and never at an altitude of forty feet. I set the bottle on the desk. We stared at each other in stunned silence when a shock wave hit the barracks and the floor jerked sideways at least a foot! The bottle lurched over and a foaming mixture of hops and formaldehyde formed a puddle at my feet.
A boom resounded at the same instant and immediately we thought the building had taken a direct hit from a 122. We looked around and were relieved to see ourselves still standing and the barracks in one piece. That same old this-one's-got-my-name-on-it wave of total panic washed over us. When it subsided and we could think coherently, we rushed outside to where a crowd was gathering. Everyone was gaping down the street toward the perimeter fence. Just then we heard the roar of another plane and looked back over our shoulders to see a second Skyraider approaching. A bomb fell tumbling over our heads, followed by a tremendous blast. A huge column of billowing dirty brown smoke emerged from the bowels of an already shell-pocked house. The cheering was spontaneous. What a wonderful sight to behold. The enemy that was forever harassing and blasting away at us was getting paid back. Actually, they probably felt they had come here to pay us back, but whatever the case we cheered the planes onward as they continued to make their bombing runs directly over our heads.
Later, soon after returning to the States, I was introduced to the antiwar sentiment I'd heard so much about. A party was given in honor of my safe return from Vietnam. I was repeatedly asked to share my war stories with the guests and I sensed they were disappointed because I couldn't replay those dramatic television news scenes they had all watched in the comfort of their living-room battlefields. I couldn't shock or enthrall them with tales of hand-to-hand jungle fighting. No hair-raising rescues from a downed helicopter in the delta. No bailout over North Vietnam. No tales of a Purple Heart.
Technically, I suppose I qualified for one, but it would have been as fruitless to explain why I didn't want a Purple Heart as it would be to explain why I cheered with enthusiasm each time a particularly beautiful bomb blast disintegrated commies. I described the scene of the bombing attack outside our barracks that day, how we cheered. I told them of the happiness and glee we felt as we watched (admittedly from some distance away) jets dropping napalm on VC that had infiltrated the base and were trapped in the ammo dump on the outskirts of Tan Son Nhut.
Two girls in their late twenties (one was a good friend whom I had known nearly all my life, the other was a girl I had just met) turned on me with anger and were disgusted that I had cheered while men died. The only thing I could say in my own defense was that they simply couldn't know what it was like unless they'd been there. They thought this was a cop out. But to see the truth behind death and pain and horror--you simply have to be there. There's no other way. You have to have personally crossed that threshold. After that, it's a matter of intensity. There are individuals who have never suffered more than a minor traffic accident or a hangnail and they will never believe this. On one hand, I'm glad they've never had to endure the anguish and pain that soldiers throughout history have shared. On the other hand, it both frustrates me and pisses me off that people can be so self-righteous and goddamned narrow minded. Reality dictates repeatedly that people kill people, either for God, politics, or some other excuse. Such is human nature, like it or not. Unfortunately, sometimes, just for an instant, it's fun.
Sorry I got off the subject there for a minute. That particular discussion twenty-four years ago has bothered me for a long time and it sometimes helps to get those feelings of past frustration out in the open.
Anyway, here we were watching these two South Vietnamese-piloted Skyraiders, and what a fantastic sight! They came in low and fast just barely skimming over the rooftops of the buildings. We could see the pilots' faces through their canopies as they approached.
One of several 250-pound bombs would suddenly release from a wing and fall, wobbling directly above our heads, not twenty feet up! Al and I stood gripping the railing on the top stair landing. We could almost reach out and pat them as they sped by.
My recordings of these bombing activities are perfect up to the point of the explosions. Our barracks actually rocked back several inches and jarred the recorder so violently that the sound was badly distorted. After each bomb exploded there would be perhaps half a minute of relative silence, then the falling shrapnel would strike the heavy corrugated tile roof. Some of these shards penetrated and struck inside the building.
With each pass, the sound of the engine would change from a roar to the undulating whoosh of propwash. There was a brief pause while the bomb rushed to its target, then boom! The whoosh was our cue to hit the deck, just in case of a near miss, or if any of the shrapnel decided to head our way.
It was during these tense moments that I became eligible for a Purple Heart.
For an American soldier to be awarded the Purple Heart, he must be physically or mentally injured during the course of enemy activity. Practically any injury would suffice in some cases. Fortunately, a rash from shitting your pants didn't count! This is not to discredit individuals who suffered serious injuries (diarrhea notwithstanding). Stubbing one's toe during a rocket attack was, for instance, one way to get one. Frankly, I feel that if a person wants to wear a medal of any kind he should at least earn it.
Each time a bomb fell, we'd lie on the floor and listen for the shrapnel to stop pelting the roof. To me, the metallic rain sounded like loose earth falling into my open grave, hitting my coffin. Once, a loud thump came from directly above my cowering form. A fist-sized piece of jagged metal had pierced the thick asbestos roof and struck the plywood floor less than a foot from my helmeted head. It missed my left hand by two inches. As I lay there, partially covered with roof fragments, I stupidly attempted to pry the object out of the floor with my bare hands. Like a damn fool I hadn't stopped to realize that fragments from a 250-pound bomb were bound to be extremely hot! Had it hit me of its own accord and burned me I'd have been out there looking for the meat wagon (and a Purple Heart) in a flash. All I had to show were a couple of burned fingers and a red face. Another opportunity presented itself a month later, but that's another story.
The high point of the battle came when an army Cobra gunship suddenly joined the fray.
The AH-1G Huey Cobra is an effective death-dealing helicopter. It has the same 1100 horsepower Lycoming T53 engine as its predecessor, the UH1 Huey, that is so often associated with the Vietnam war. Head-on it resembles a guppy, but its bite is deadly. It's a narrow two-seater aircraft. The pilot and gunner sit in tandem, gunner in front. It has a top speed of 220 miles an hour and an initial rate of climb of 1580 feet per minute. The turret mounted directly beneath the nose can carry either twin mounted 7.62mm six-barrel miniguns that each fire at a rate of up to six thousand rounds per minute, or a pair of 40mm grenade launchers with up to three hundred rounds. Its stubby wings can carry multiple rocket pods and.50 caliber machine guns or 20mm Gatling guns, each capable of firing a barrage of ten shells a second. The Cobra was the first helicopter to successfully perform a complete loop in flight. It can even do barrel rolls.
As the Cobra sped directly toward us it suddenly twisted right, then left, apparently avoiding ground fire from the target area. It was actually flying lower than the A1Es. While performing these maneuvers, the whirling rotor blades nearly pointed straight down and passed between the rooftops of the barracks.
It didn't fire during this strafing pass. At the last second the pilot chose a different tactic. He circled and came at the houses from another direction. I don't think he was aware of friendly troops so close to the target. He couldn't have seen anyone until he was right on top of us. Thank God he delayed his attack. A few hundred empty 20mm shell casings ejected from the spinning barrels of those miniguns traveling at over two hundred miles an hour would leave a devastating path of destruction.
He made several attacks on the ruins left by the Skyraiders and as a grand finale he unleashed his entire salvo of rockets in one gushing stream of hissing white smoke. Twenty-eight rockets, in rapid single file, homed in on the enemy and exploded in a staccato of sound. I had to replay my tape recording at least a dozen times before I could accurately count how many were fired in that one barrage. He must have seen one hell of a target. After that, he and the A1Es left the vicinity.
The battle had wound down and a few guys actually made it to the chow hall. Al and I sat around bullshitting about the day's activities and compared notes. We didn't feel like going to the chow hall, even though the food was good most of the time, though a guy gets tired of washing it down with Kool-Aid. We had recently talked a couple of cases of C-rations into falling off a truck, and whenever we felt the urge we'd whip out our trusty government issue P-38 knuckle scraping can openers and shred the lid off a can of "whatchamacallit," and chow down. It wasn't always in the best of taste (let "Ham and Lima Beans" be my witness) but it sure as hell beat standing in line for over an hour. In this manner, I went from a skinny 145 to a scrawny 127 pounds.
Everyone was getting hungrier and hungrier and Al and I got richer and richer as we finished selling the last of our hidden cache of C-rations. Well, those things were always falling off trucks anyway, weren't they?
Since his discharge from the Air Force in 1968, Nick Boldrini returned to college to finish two years of study in electronics. During the 24 years since his service in Viet Nam, he has enjoyed part-time self-employment as a general contractor, plumber and salvage diver. He has entertained as a singer and guitar player in cocktail lounges from Oregon to Alaska. He has two patents pending and copyrights on a song or two. He has been employed by Xerox Corp. as a service technician for the past nine years. He married in 1983 and has a six-year-old daughter.