Harry Harvil

by Richard Dieterle

SEPT.–DEC., 1967— When I was in Language School, one of the first things I found myself doing was not studying Vietnamese, but slaving away, building a bunker. The Army hated idleness, and would prefer to see men digging a hole and filling it back up again than to sit around with nothing else to do. As I was handing up sandbags to a man who was putting them in place on the bunker wall, I thought to myself, "Jesus, this guy sure does look stupid!" I eventually engaged him in conversation, and before long we were talking about philosophy, music, and history. This is how I met Harry Harvil, who far from being the idiot who I supposed him to be, was in fact a genius. He was an Engineer, and his unit was stationed right there on LZ English, but while he was in Language School, he bunked with us in the grand canvass tent, a tent surrounded by a little wall about three sandbags tall. The "wall" was the usual precaution against a mortar attack, but its construction was very nearly a wasted effort.

Back at this circus tent pavilion we now called "home," we continued our conversation. Harry Harvil was indeed strange. He was from Texas, although his last address was New York City. While in his native Texas he had converted to Islam. I myself was a confirmed atheist since about age 18, but none of this seemed to make any difference. He related his experiences in the faith. He had actually completed his Hajj to Mecca. He had somehow gotten himself to Istanbul, and from there he rode a bicycle all the way to Mecca. He had an incredible knack for picking up foreign languages, and could speak Arabic with impressive fluency. As he bicycled through Syria, he came to the tent of what, by American standards, would be a poor man — no doubt a Bedouin. He had a small flock of sheep in his care. When Harvil told him that he was on his Hajj, the man insisted that he accept his hospitality for the night. Without hesitation, he slaughtered one of his sheep, and they dined in style. The host thought his visitor might be Saudi, judging from his accent, and was amazed to learn that he had come from far away America. That night, according to the old time conventions, he got to sleep with one of the man's wives. Harvil commented that he particularly liked the more round-faced Arab women to the rather narrow-faced northern European types more common in America. After this impressive example of charity and good will, he bicycled on to Arabia. In Mecca people vied with one another to give hospitality to such pilgrims. He engaged in all the activities of the other pilgrims, and left with a feeling of profound satisfaction with the whole experience. Having lived in Turkey myself as a teenager, I was quite impressed with someone who would cross that country on bicycle with no knowledge of their language.

The next night, Harvil took me to visit a friend of his who had his own bunker where the Engineers were set up. This sojourn was inspired by a conversation about music, in which I let it be known that I was a Beethoven partisan. Harvil's friend had a large collection of Beethoven records and a good stereo on which to play them. Harvil had, I believe, played the French horn, and knew by rote the whole of the 2nd Movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and proceeded to prove it by humming it in its entirety as we walked to his friend's "hooch." When we got there, we lit up a pipe of grass, since no music sounds so fine as it does on a marijuana high. We then "tripped out" on every Beethoven symphony except the one that we came to hear. After the concert at this quasi-subterranean hall, we stumbled back to Language School rather late at night.

Harvil picked up Vietnamese with great speed, and soon could hold basic conversations. He had taken several trips to Bồng Sơn, the town a couple of miles outside LZ English. He would visit a place where a number of young women were working sewing machines. One of these he considered to be his "girl friend," although as he explained, the girls who worked there were very proper and were not free with their favors. He took me there to meet her, and she was in fact quite charming. My Vietnamese was essentially non-existent, but Harvil had reached the point where he could translate what they were saying without too much difficulty. They were all busy at their sewing machines, but it was not a sweat shop, and they were free to converse. Our mere ability to be there was a testimony to the fact that Bồng Sơn was a "pacified" area, completely under American control.

Having, in due course, left Language School to return to my unit, I had not seen Harvil for sometime. After the firefight of Dec. 7-9, 1967, my unit was given some time at LZ English as a reward for our performance in the late action at Đai Đong. One of the first things I did was to look up Harry Harvil. By then it was late in the afternoon. He lived in a large canvass tent, but each man had his own area. Harvil's was singular in having a small Persian rug and some shelves for books. There I ran across a person who was quite an anomaly in Vietnam: a Palestinian in the US Army. He was a very agreeable fellow, and told me that he had been drafted. I was surprised that the United States had the temerity to draft visiting foreigners for its wars, but here again shame was not seen as a formidable obstacle. He was short, and since being an Engineer was not too perilous a duty, he probably survived to tell the tale.

Harvil told me about a friend of his. This guy had been sent to LBJ for some reason or other. Harvil said that they made things there deliberately rough so that it would not function as a haven for people trying to escape the field. He had lately returned from there, and in the morning one day, they were standing in their reveille formation, when all of a sudden, a rocket streaked across the perimeter and blew up nearby. He was killed. This was told in a voice of great gravity and with a sense of tragedy that is seldom met in the Infantry. I said something like, "Yeah, that's too bad," which no doubt sounded insensitive, but in the Infantry, such occurrences are all too common. I was a little surprised that their casualties were so light that this was considered an extraordinary event. Somewhere else at a later time, I encountered an Engineer who told me gravely that they were in as much danger as those in the field. "You know, we were mortared, and some of our guys were killed!" My response was, "So what?"

However, every now and then, the Engineers did see some action. I met Harvil's lieutenant, who had actually been at Đai Đong the week before. Harvil told me that his lieutenant had come upon a bunker when Bravo Company (1/8) had been advancing. Suddenly, at the entrance a rifle appeared. Instead of dashing to the nearest cover, the lieutenant rushed up and grabbed the rifle, snatching it out of the gook's hands. Very impressive, and not something I would have done. However, my positive feelings for this guy quickly evaporated. He proceeded to tell me that my unit had failed in its duty. The colonel, he declared, sent Bravo Company to the field because Bravo Company was the kind of unit that he needed at the point of danger, and by contrast, Alpha Company was better suited to the rear. I became quite angry at this suggestion, and pointed out the failures of Bravo Company in the late engagement. He then complained that the problem was that A Company had not helped them by taking the enemy in flank when they had met such fierce resistance on their part of the field. I angrily pointed out that we had taken our objective, and had started to roll the enemy up a little at a time, when Bravo Company appeared with great tardiness and with a ridiculous quantity of Amour to finally take their own objective, which, I added with the hope of inflicting emotional injury, was no more fierce in its resistance than the suicide squads whom we had overrun. By this time, Harvil was sweating bullets, and managed to break us up before his own position became compromised by his friend's insubordination. However, the lieutenant wasn't the sort of guy to fall back on such lame official retaliations, and parted without much more ado.

Harvil invited me to a nighttime briefing which I was given to understand was a regular affair every evening. I considered this to be an amusing divertissement. It was quite interesting. I now found myself miraculously transported back to the stateside Army. The affair was held in a large canvass tent, and began with the usual "Atten-hut!" and "Take your seats!" The podium area was lit with light bulbs strung from a generator such as one might see at a construction site. There was a large map of the local province and adjacent areas. After a brief rundown of recent events, the officer in charge proceeded to what had been discovered through "intelligence." I could hardly keep from laughing. As was said back in the World, "Army intelligence ... an oxymoron!" He reported all kinds of things just as if they were true. Since it was "intelligence" it was almost certainly false, and even guaranteed to be false. All the intelligence that we had ever gotten had proven to be perniciously errant, and this was not surprising at all, since it was to the enemy's advantage to have us traipsing all over the countryside to no effect. My respect for the Engineers declined even more, seeing that they were taking all of this seriously, and even bothering to worry about what the enemy was doing. After this broke up, I said my farewells, and walked out the gate.

Apparently, the Engineers took themselves and their little fantasy world more seriously than I thought. There was a guy up in a guard tower facing, oddly enough, towards the road inside the perimeter. This was the main gate. As I walked through the gate my inner voice was busy congratulating myself for not being an Engineer, when my developing sense of being one of the Immortals was rudely interrupted by a shout of "Halt! What's the password?" I thought of turning around and shouting back, "Bullshit!" but I thought that would lend too much dignity to the moment. So I kept on walking. "Halt, or I'll shoot!" he yelled. He didn't look that impressive, so I ignored him on the firm conviction that he wasn't going to shoot anybody. A number of Engineers came running out to see the crisis develop, but as the reader may appreciate, since I lived to write about this, nothing happened, and I arrogantly strutted away.

That was the last time I ever saw Harry Harvil, a fact for which he was no doubt grateful. It is pretty safe to assume that he survived the war.