R&R at China Beach

by Richard Dieterle

In 1968, I think in April of that year, I took in-country R&R at China Beach. I can remember very little of the rest and relaxation part.

At the landing strip I went inside a building where they actually had a latrine, which seemed a bit exotic, since in the infantry we use the great outdoors for that purpose. It was large and crowded. I rarely had a chance in the field to wash my hands, so I took advantage of the opportunity. They had a long ledge of stainless steel on which to set things, so I took off my watch and washed my hands. I then wandered out and got about ten paces beyond the door when I realized that I had forgotten my watch. So I immediately turned around and went back to get it, but when I went to where I'd left it, I discovered that it had vanished. Total elapsed time: about 15 seconds. I figured that it was some rear echelon guy, as I never heard of theft in the field. I was pretty put-out, as watches are essential in the field so that you can tell when your guard shift is over.

We had a barracks in which to sleep, and I selected a bunk. The occupant the next bunk was a tall, thin guy from the Fourth Infantry Division. He told me his experiences, including a firefight in which he said that his position was overrun by the NVA, and he had to play dead. At the time I believed him, although such a course of events is pretty bizarre. The guy in the other neighboring bunk was extremely hostile and spent a good deal of time glaring at me. I must have said something condescending about the rear echelon, whose personnel were jealous of, and prejudiced against, infantry, stereotyping us as idiots not smart enough to get a better MOS. The whole atmosphere of the place was hostile. The next day I got into some kind of line, lines being ubiquitous in the Army. At the front of this line were about 20 guys from the 101st Airborne Brigade. They pointed their figures at the others while yelling, "We're the best! We're the best!" This made people feel both annoyed and uncomfortable. After running that gauntlet, I passed a major whose insignia indicated that he was a pilot. He said, "Good morning!" I said nothing at all, and did not salute. That made him angry, "I know you don't have to salute while you're on R&R, but there is no need to drop all military courtesy!" I raised my eyebrows as if to say, "Oh yeah?" and went on without a further word. I think I did my part in spreading the atmosphere of comradely good cheer and high morale.

I had one really important mission to fulfill, and that was to resupply our grass. The last time I was in the rear, I failed miserably in that task, and people were quite disappointed. So this time, I was determined to succeed. Somehow I got out into the adjacent town, which seemed pacified. I walked from house to house — they were not really much more than hooches — and kept asking, "Tuöc-la den kai dau?" Many people probably considered it an impertinent intrusion, but I had developed a pronounced lack of concern over public opinion. Finally, I did run across someone who had a supply. I bought a really large bag of pot, but I considered that I might get all I could, so having acquired his entire supply, I went on from house to house with the same inquiry. Finally, I reached the entrance gate, which was nothing fancy by stateside standards, but it did have a gate and a guardhouse of modest proportions. The MP was a black guy and very strack. He stopped me and asked what I was doing wandering around the town. I told him that I had been out in the field and hadn't seen a town in some time; then I said that I would be moving on. But he wouldn't hear of that. He insisted I stay put until he got a lieutenant down to his guard station. I expressed indignation, but it didn't do me any good. I was thinking to myself, "Now I'm going to get nailed but good." So when the lieutenant and his driver showed up in a jeep, I decided that the best defense was an offense. I was surprised that this lieutenant was an Air Force officer. I promptly expressed indignation at being stopped, and told him that I was a field soldier and didn't know much of anything about whatever regulations that they had at such a place as this. He stuck up for the MP, but didn't get hostile, fortunately for me. After satisfying himself that I was not a threat to public order, he let me pass, missing a golden opportunity to make a big bust. It was certainly a close call.

With my "stash" secured on my person, that night I reported to the hanger where I was to await a flight out. This hanger had row after row of polished, oak benches so that it would have looked more like a church were it not for the bare concrete floor and the ubiquitous corrugated aluminum construction. There were perhaps a hundred men there of all branches of service and of different nationalities. I was sitting a few feet away from an ARVN ranger who wore a red beret. While we were sitting there in an advanced state of boredom, suddenly off a little in the distance we could clearly hear, "Bam! Bam!" Incoming mortar rounds. I thought nothing of it. They were notoriously bad shots, mainly because they fired by simply holding the mortar tube and angling it at the declination they thought might do the trick. As a result, they rarely hit much of anything. In any case, I thought that with hardwood benches, if a round did hit the building, I could just slip under the bench. A siren went off, and much to my surprise, everyone headed for the exit with some measure of excitement. All, that is, except my ARVN ranger colleague, who had made the same calculations that I had. Neither of us budged, and after watching the last of them squeeze through the exit to the bomb shelter, he and I exchanged a chuckle, then resumed our immersion in the boredom that seemed to come with this place. The rear echelon types probably recorded this event in their minds as a narrow escape from death in a harrowing dash to the bomb shelter. As far as I could see, the greatest danger was in being trampled.

By now I was looking forward to getting back to the field so I could get some rest and relaxation.