from I Was A Kid When I Was A Kid, copyright 1997 Tom Fowler
arrived in Hoa Air Base (near Saigon) around noon on April
12, 1969, and arrived back in the U.S. on March 31, 1970.
I was with left Travis Air Force Base, near Oakland, CA, around
3:00AM on April 10. While waiting to leave, a plane arrived
with a group of soldiers returning from South Vietnam. A deeply
tanned fellow came up to me and said, "Going to 'Nam?"
I said, "Yes." He handed me a 10 and a five cent
military scrip, (no regular U.S. currency was allowed in Vietnam
or other parts of Southeast Asia because of Chinese black
marketers), and walked away before I could reply. I thought
he was being a smart aleck and perhaps he was, but I was glad
I had that 15 cents after we arrived "over there,"
as I was thirsty for a cold drink and had no other scrip in
in Hawaii and the Philippines, we arrived in South Vietnam
around the time stated previously. However, when returning
home almost a year later, we took off from Cam Ranh Bay at
12:00PM, March 31, and, after a stopover in Japan, arrived
back in the United Sates at Fort Lewis, Washington, at 11:45AM,
March 31. There is a 14 hour time difference between South
Vietnam and Central Standard Time here in the United States.
Even though I realized this, it was somewhat surrealistic
to travel 10,000 miles and arrive, by the clock, 15 minutes
before leaving! I was in the Tokyo airport for an hour and
a half. It was enough time to buy two Japanese silk prints
that are hanging in my bedroom to this day.
to my arrival. As our plane taxied into Bien Hoa Airbase,
my first impressions of what would be my "home"
for the next year came quickly. I observed, from my window
seat, Vietnamese civilians walking and bicycling unhurriedly
around the airport terminal. It seemed odd to me that things
could seem so peaceful, so normal, in a land ravaged by war.
I thought, If things are like this, what am I doing here?
This thought stayed with me as we departed the plane after
taxiing to a stop. However, this line of reasoning left me
quickly as I walked through the side door of the airplane
and the first rush of tropical air hit my face.
it was partially overcast, the air was hot as a blast furnace.
If you have ever stood outside a home or building by an air-conditioning
unit that is blowing hot air on your face, then you can imagine
what my first experience with tropical heat was like. Only,
in my case, the air was not moving, just unbelievably hot,
and it would take several days for me to get used to it. Indeed,
my first week in country, while I was in transit to my
permanent unit and getting processed in, I pulled KP duty
in the officer's mess hall in Bien Hoa. It's a good thing
I was 19 years old and fresh from several months of rigorous
training, otherwise, I would not have made it. (A few weeks
later, the 299th Engineer Battalion, the unit I was assigned
to, moved into a place known as Bong Song. Bong Song is a
few miles inland from the South China Sea, in approximately
the middle of what was South Vietnam. The day we arrived there
was miserably hot, with the full brunt of the tropical sun
bearing down on us. Somebody had a thermometer and told us
it read 118 degrees. Nobody asked if he took this measurement
in the shade. Nobody cared. Hot is hot!).
my first few days in country getting used to the heat and
attempting to get suntanned without developing a painful sunburn,
something which was not as easy to do as you would think.
In Vietnam, the sun burns hotter and brighter than in North
America, and a person with pale skin can over expose to the
sun's rays very quickly. I experienced sunburn, but not as
seriously as several of my peers. (I was surprised to learn
that even the darkest skinned black soldiers could experience
sunburn). The standard uniform over there at that time was
jungle fatigues, which were loose fitting military green trousers
& shirt, with the sleeves rolled up past the elbows. This
baggy, but comfortable, uniform was designed to dissipate
heat, and the jungle fatigue uniform was as comfortable as
anything could be in that climate. However, riding in the
back of an opened-ended five ton truck en route to my permanent
unit in Kontum caused me to develop the dreaded sunburn on
my arms and neck, as it didn't take the tropical sun long
to burn my lily white skin, even though I thought I was paying
attention to what I was doing. The next day, we continued
our ride, again in the back of the opened-ended truck, and
this time I rolled my sleeves completely down and wore my
collar up as far as I could get it. However, I had torn my
sleeve on a sharp edge shortly after it was issued to me,
and I was unaware that a 1" x 1 1/2" spot on my
left arm was once again exposed to the sun. I got a secondary
burn on this small spot and, were it larger, would have created
a serious problem for me. It was my first lesson in what would
be a very important concept in a war zone: Pay attention to
the small things.
few weeks were spent in Kontum, a place where the French had
located years earlier. When I arrived there, one of the first
stories I heard from the "old-timers," (GI's which
had anywhere from one month to several years in country),
was of a nearby minefield which had been abandoned by the
French before being defeated by North Vietnamese General Vo
Nguyen Giap's elite troops. History repeats, as, not long
before I arrived, some South Vietnamese Regulars, (Regular
Army of South Vietnam, similar to our Regular Army of the
United States, of which I was a member), had gotten overrun
by NVA, (North Vietnamese Army), had panicked, and retreated
hastily on foot through this old minefield. You probably can
guess the rest.
item of interest was the day I received my field gear from
the 299th supply warehouse. I was issued a brand new M16 rifle,
steel pot, canteen, flak jacket, and various other items needed
for field duty. What makes this notable is what happened to
the man in front of me in line. There were half a dozen of
us "newbies" receiving our gear. The rifles were
new, but the other items were not. Among the gear the poor
fellow in front of me received was a used flak jacket with
blood on it. The poor guy got very agitated and the supply
sergeant had to help calm him down.
after I arrived in Kontum, I got to use the flak jacket that
was assigned to me. One night, the air raid siren went off,
which meant incoming rounds were detected. Soon, we would
be under attack. It's amazing how quickly one's mind focuses
when danger is imminent, and the fear I felt was the most
intense I had ever felt until that time. Funny thing about
fear, it either paralyzes you or prompts you to quick action.
(I knew spit and polish "crack" troops who were
useless in an emergency, and slovenly, alcoholic marginal
soldiers who were at their best when the chips were down.
Go figure). On this occasion, I was ready for action, but,
not having been through this before, did not know what to
do. As it turned out, it was a false alarm and things quickly
returned to normal. The experience was a good one, though,
as I and the other newbies got our first taste of what the
war really was without anyone getting hurt.