Deja Vu With a Twist
I am a New Yorker magazine junkie who as a longtime subscriber has the online access to its archive of all articles of this prestigious and venerable print and electronic icon.
Just recently my co-author Robert A. Toto and I have published our book titled “In Our Duffel Bags, Surviving the Vietnam Era.” In the aftermath of this publication I have delved into many of the writings of the Vietnam War more than forty years after I was in that war. From Bernard Fall onto a plethora of memoirs involving experiences of that conflict, I have made a thorough study of this war and its after-effects to the American society.
With this in mind, I entered into the database of the venerable New Yorker digital edition the phrase “The battle of the Ia Drang Valley.” Whereupon I was told that the New Yorker had printed five articles on that great battle. I scrolled down and found one article written by Mr. Neil Sheehan in the June 12, 2006 edition.
Mr. Sheehan’s article was titled Life During Wartime, Vietnam 1966. This recollection was written forty years later from a more mature perspective of contemplating the actions done during one’s youth. The story essentially describes the author’s trip as a war correspondent on a helicopter to hitch up with an infantry battalion of the 1st Cav Division. Mr. Sheehan was flying with two lieutenant colonels who were piloting the chopper. Much to the author’s chagrin these two wild cowboy chopper pilots were flying low and slapping the tops of palm trees much to their delight and the author’s terror. As anyone in Vietnam knows the UH-1 helicopter was a sturdy and very trustworthy aircraft. However in such a scenario at low level, there is no room for error and what these two pilots were doing was tempting fate and disaster. War in and of itself is dangerous enough; we need not tempt fate for no other purpose to as what the author noted that the pilots said of these antics are “to just have fun.”
It was at this point when this young war correspondent said “How long have you gentlemen been in the country?”
“About a month.”
“Well,” I said. “I’m in my third year in Vietnam. I’ve got a twenty-seven year old bride back in Saigon, and I’d like to live to sleep with her again. How about leaving the palm trees alone?”
“There was no response. When the next palm tree loomed, they pulled away.”
In writing our book the first efforts of this book was the chapter which I titled “Going My Way.” My recollections happened forty years after the fact just as Mr. Sheehan did in his article. My story happened over five and a half years later and to the north of where Mr. Sheehan was. The story happens on what Bernard Fall named “The Street Without Joy” which was Highway 1 along the Hai Van Pass.
Yogi and Boo Boo
Sometime in the third week of December, 1971, I found myself in my company’s orderly room, waiting the outgoing convoy making its daily run of Highway 1 through the Hai Van Pass. The first sergeant told me that the convoy wasn’t leaving until around noon, which to me was an extraordinary waste of time. I needed to get to my next duty station at a much faster pace, and the sooner, the better. The fun began when two MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) advisers walked into the orderly room I have long forgotten their names, so for this re-creation, let’s call them Yogi and Boo Boo. Relatively senior captains in their late twenties, one was an African American and the other a Southern Caucasian with a deep Southern drawl. The way they talked to each other, with one trying to be funnier than the other, would have made a great stand-up comedy routine, hence my Yogi and Boo Boo moniker.
Follow the Yellow Brick Road!
Yogi and Boo Boo were taking their quarter ton to Da Nang by themselves, and as second-tour Vietnam vets of the infantry persuasion; they had no need for a secure convoy. In all insecure impatience, I asked if I could come along, thus getting to Da Nang earlier. Little did I know that this scenic romp down the Hai Van Pass would certify Yogi and Boo Boo to be absolutely crazy, with different life goals and experiences than I possess.
These two characters would turn out to be the most memorable combat officers in my rather limited military career. I proceeded to get my duffel bag and put on my flak jacket. I grabbed my ancient snub-nose M-1 rifle and was ready to go. I was in the back of the quarter ton, with Yogi driving and Boo Boo riding shotgun. I immediately knew I was in trouble when Yogi gunned the jeep and we proceeded down the winding and hilly Hai Van Pass as if we were racing in the Daytona 500. As we settle in for our scenic coastal trip, both Yogi and Boo Boo talked about their previous infantry assignments and how they compared to their current combat assignment as advisers to the ARVN. They questioned me on my field experience and stated unequivocally that I needed a field infantry tour to get the real taste of what Vietnam was all about. In essence, they were true military lifers who were not only schooled and experience in combat but actually sought out more combat adventures
These guys were little kids in a large playground created for their entertainment. They were living out their fantasies in central Vietnam as a walking recruitment poster, fighting communism and preventing the dreaded domino theory. On the other hand, in little over two years in the army I can honestly say I had just completed my first honest-to-God true mission successfully, and I can say that it was the first time I felt I was a major contributor in a true military mission. Hence my sense of purpose and satisfaction were on the other end of the military spectrum of my two colleagues, who were going my way in a directional sense while I was going my own esoteric way.
A Sniper in the Hills
The weather seemed to improve as we moved south, and the sun was playing hide-and-seek as the mist from the South China Sea was starting to burn off the hills and valleys. Just as this was transpiring, the sound of popping noises started to emanate from the nearby passing hills. Yogi started laughing and accelerated the vehicle as it suddenly dawned on me that a VC sniper was taking aim at us. Boo Boo laughed saying this sniper couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Obviously, this was not what I’d signed up for, and looking back at the mad set of moments, I can honestly say that it was surreal—something that did happen but which I refuse to believe occurred. Yogi and Boo Boo thought it hilarious, I, on the other hand, took these actions rather seriously. It was the first and only time that someone deliberately shot a weapon at me.
Both stories show the same theme with just one twist. Mr. Sheehan made the same conscience choice as I did for travel arrangements. His confrontation with danger could be controlled when he had the temerity to confront his fun loving pilots and they stopped the shenanigans. I on the other had made a conscience choice to go with my fun loving captains; however I could not control them or that VC sniper. Mr. Sheehan made his own luck while I on the other hand was truly the really lucky one. In essence the prudent thing for me to do was to wait for the armed convoy on the street without joy! See what wisdom one gains from forty years of added experience.