Unexpected things happen in life, that’s about all I’ve learned. Some events are positive – others are negative. I’m about to see my 60th birthday as I write this story. It’s the autumn of my life and as good a time as any to look back.
Like most people, I prefer to look back to the good rather than the bad – but the good is always embedded in the bad and vice-versa. It’s also the case that stories can’t be told in a vacuum, so I start this story with my processing “in country” at the 90th replacement center in Long Binh, Vietnam. I’d performed poorly in my first year of college. 1968 was a bad year to flunk out of college. I was outfitted with flack jacket, helmet, poncho liner and M16 rifle in Xuan Loc, assigned to a tank battery at Phu Loi, and deposited into my assigned tank section in Phuc Vinh – in proximity to a region called the Iron Triangle.
My fatigues were bright green, not having had time to fade into the colors of the uniforms worn by the old-timers who knew the score. My boots were shiny, no time to wear into scruff. My skin was pale and soft - all beacons defining the looks of an FNG – fucking new guy. Like FNG’s before me and after, I was avoided with disdain by everyone except other FNG’s.
Two tanks per section, five guys per tank – commander, driver, gunner, two ammo loaders. Tanks were 26-ton relics from world war two, called dusters - two 40 millimeter pom-pom guns protruding from a washtub-like turret. Everyone but the driver sat on top – inside was a steel coffin where death came from land mines or rockets. Tanks were worthless. The Viet Cong (VC) in the Iron Triangle had long since figured them out. Whether protecting, ostensibly, a convoy – or accompanying a platoon of infantry in random jaunts through the jungle – tanks made two things, a bunch of racket and a ripe target. The VC could hear tanks from miles away. They knew how to hide, which is easy in the jungle, or simply blow the tank up with a land mine or a rocket propelled grenade. An incessant air campaign gave the VC a steady supply of ordinance for land mines in the form of bombs that failed to explode. The Russians and Chinese gave the enemy plenty of rocket propelled grenades. Tanks were worthless.
I didn’t know these things – or much of anything else pertinent to survival. Old timers did. Lots to learn, 99% being on-the-job. Take your daily prophylactics for malaria and have a steady case of the runs. Skip them, get mosquito bit, get the fever, and get choppered to the 93rd evacuation hospital. Sticking with acumen for the shortcut, I chose and enjoyed/suffered the latter option.
A Cajun from Louisiana commanded the tank, a strapping guy from rural Washington was the gunner, a black guy from Georgia was the driver. Jimmy Poole – another Louisiana coon ass – joined me as an ammo loader and FNG partner. Our only other companion was a feral dog – tank mascot – Sam. For army guys, the tour of duty was one year. The Cajun tank commander had been in country nearly that long, just about as hard-bitten, just about as far from FNG status as a draftee could get. The driver and gunner were somewhere in-between – Poole and I had a whole year in front of us.
The feral dog had been with the tank for three or four years. Soul was a better description of Sam than mascot. He’d seen 3 or 4 full rotations through that one tank – seen FNG’s rotating through the cycle over and over and over. Sam and the tank were the constants, the rest of us just transients. Sam’s master was Jordan, the easy-going tank driver. Sam, unlike the old timers, showed me no disdain. He’d look me in the eye and not avoid me. As you’ll see, Sam had magic.
The first six months went fast. My FNG status was resolved a month or so into the tour. The tank crew had to make a run into a jungle fire support base (FSB) being clobbered, had to bring them a transmission for a broken tank that needed fixing before the shit-hole could be evacuated. We flipped a coin, lost the call – meaning our tank had to lead the rescue convoy (the other tank of the section won the coin flip and ran slack at the rear of the convoy). Our destination was FSB Dacus, named after an infantryman killed in a stay-behind ambush earlier in the war. We headed out of Phuc Vinh up toward highway 14 and veered off at Dong Xoai onto a logging road leading into the heart of War Zone D.
Troops at Dacus had spilled the beans to local villagers that the towel was being thrown in – the FSB would be evacuated any day. The VC were connected and resourceful. Anticipating withdrawal, they set up an ambush on the jungle road several miles outside of Dacus. They buried a land mine where a culvert bridge spanned a stream, put bunkers backed up into the jungle on either side of road. First vehicle over the stream gets whacked by the mine, convoy stops - pinned in on either side by the jungle, ambush chews it up.
The luck of it was that the VC didn’t know that one of the tanks at FSB Dacus was busted. Our rescue convoy approached the ambush from the wrong direction. Rumbling down the jungle road, our tank crew saw a stick protruding from a puddle – paper note impaled atop the stick. We got a Kit Carson scout (VC turncoat) to read the note – “beware Vietnamese civilians, do not use this road today” – spooky. We called this up to the colonel flying round and round above us in a command and control helicopter, sage advice – keep going.
A mile or two up the road we came upon the stream and culvert where the VC had buried the mine. Infantrymen walking alongside our tank saw bunkers on both sides of the jungle road just beyond the stream. Get that tank up here and blow those bunkers. We loaded up the pom-pom guns, rumbled over the culvert – boom – we’d sprung the ambush from the wrong direction. People, rifles, ammo, dog flying up in the air. I landed upside down, dazed – ran into jungle. Helicopter gun ships firing, the screaming firefight was over in no time. VC were smart, bolted – they had no purchase on an ambush sprung from the wrong direction. The convoy limped into Dacus that night sans one tank. I was hurting, it rained all night and I slept in a foxhole filled to the brim with water. Next morning we put a new transmission in the broken tank, abandoned Dacus by backtracking out of the jungle. No longer was I an FNG, action/wounds trumped both innocence and limited time in country.
After six months of boredom punctuated, infrequently, by violence – Jordan – Sam’s master, rotated home. Sam chose me to replace Jordan. It’s 1970, American involvement peaking in 1968/69 had begun to decline. Our unit was shut down. We drove the tanks back to Long Bihn and petrified them in cosmoline for use in a future war. Poole, Sam and I got reassigned to a new unit. Irrespective of Nixon’s benevolence in “Vietnamizing” the war, we still had to finish out our tour of duty.
Poole, Sam and I loaded up in the bed of a duce and a half with a ragtag crew, departed Long Binh – headed west through Cu Chi and Go Dau - genuine “Indian country”. We veered away from highway 22 at Tay Ninh (rocket city) then headed west till dead-ending at fire support base Blue, smack on top of the Cambodian border. I’m guessing it was a 6 hour ride with twists and turns, who could have cared – someone else was driving the truck. The mood at Blue was mean, it had been overrun a month earlier by VC sappers – tanks and guns blown up, a bunch of GI’s killed.
The hardscrabble character of Blue was embodied in Mutt, the mascot of the artillery unit occupying the fire base. Never seen a meaner looking dog – adorned with a face scarred by a life of fighting. As we hopped off the truck, Mutt tore into Sam with fury. The local GI’s cheered Mutt on while Poole and I watched helplessly. Lo and behold Sam whipped Mutt. Poole, Sam and I dug a hootch and settled in for the night as unwelcome guests.
Next morning Poole and I were sent out on some worthless recon mission. Upon returning I started hunting up Sam – no luck. Some lifer gunnery sergeant told me that he thought he saw Sam being loaded on a resupply truck heading back to Long Bihn to pick up more ammunition for the big, eight inch guns. I tracked this story up to the captain of the artillery unit – yes, he told me that one dog was enough on FSB Blue – yes, he’d ordered Sam to be shipped out on the resupply run and abandoned along the way. I went flame-throwing mad, told the son-of-a bitch that I was going to kill him – dove at his throat and tried to choke him to death.
Got pulled off and calmed down enough to explain what Sam meant to me and all the guys who’d preceded me back on that rumbling tank blown up earlier in my stay. The artillery captain agreed to let me take off on the resupply run the following morning – drivers showed me where Sam had been kicked off. It was Go Dau – legitimate Indian country. They dropped me off and continued their way back to Long Binh for resupply, I spent the day searching the environs of Go Dau for Sam – lone, stupid GI with his M16, flack jacket and helmet looking for an abandoned dog. No luck by the time the resupply truck picked me on their way back to Blue – three or four hours of zig-zagging our way through jungle roads we rumbled back into Blue. Although I’d reconciled myself into letting the cock sucking captain live, everyone at Blue knew the story and the score. Sam had kicked Mutt’s ass, the captain – while I was on recon – had sealed Sam’s fate. I still had Jimmy Poole as my best buddy, but I’d managed to lose Sam – what a fucking bummer.
Two days later Poole and I were sitting in a bunker with a couple of other GI’s, settling in for the first watch of perimeter guard duty for the night. The bunker happened to face east, back towards Long Bihn. Not believing our eyes, here came Sam trotting right back into FSB Blue. The news spread over the firebase like wildfire – how could that dog, having spent less than a day at Blue – find his way back through 50 kilometers of intersecting jungle roads! No more fights with Mutt, Sam was the accepted “King of Blue”. Other than the birth of my kids, and the time my son made a spectacular interception in the Texas state high school football championship game, no time of my life compares with the sight of Sam trotting up to my bunker at FSB Blue.
The next three months slogged on in an uneventful manner, and it then came time for the artillery unit at Blue to be shut down. Knowing that Poole and I were to be assigned to a machine gun unit in the Central Highlands for the final months of our respective tours, and knowing that Sam could not join us in that setting, I convinced the captain to let me go back to Saigon to find a way to ship Sam back to the United States. Got him the shots and papers, paid two months of wages to Pan Am to fly Sam home, saw him off, and shipped off with Poole on a helicopter taking us up into the Annimite mountains for our final duty. The Army lost track of both Poole and me, so we had no mail for those final three months. The joyous day of departure finally came – boarded a flight out of Cam Ran Bay and made it home safe and sound. First call to family broke the news – Pan Am had let Sam out of his travel cage in San Francisco and lost him.
I’ve been haunted ever since. Would it have been best to leave Sam in Vietnam where everything was unraveling and he had no tank and crew to call his own? Or was it better that he be given the opportunity to find his way in a foreign land unforgiving of his skills. San Francisco airport is a bleak place, but Americans don’t eat dog. I, too, wonder whether the best of me was left in Vietnam – a place where neither ambition nor politics meant anything – a place and time where life was lived close to the bone – a place where one got to meet the likes of the King of Blue.