Trip to Đà Nẵng
by Richard Dieterle
Not long after I was asked to write a Medal of Honor citation for Pvt. Thompson, which I refused to do, I was given the generous assignment to try to find his body back in Đà Nẵng. (See the story, Medal of Honor.) We were not sure where we should look, but it was suggested that we try the Marines, in case there had been some mix up as to his branch of service. I was pleasantly surprised that the CO chose me to go, and told me that I could take someone along with me, as it would help to have two people present to identify the body. This was some unexpected R & R. I picked Mike (I think that was his name), a new guy who was keen on seeing Đà Nẵng. Most of our guys had "seen the elephant," as they used to say in the old days, when we had first come to I Corps, and weren't that enthusiastic about an encore. So we had some orders drawn up and were ready to go. I believe that this was in early May, 1968.
By this time I was getting extremely short. I was coming down with a disease that I termed "short-osis." I was getting short-tempered with everyone, and acting a little crazy. I remember too many stories of guys who got short only to be killed, some on their very last day. There was a guy, I believe from Charlie company, who had reached his last day, and was saying good-bye to his friends in the field as the helicopter landed. The chopper idled as the door gunner leaned on his lowered machine gun. Just as the man was strolling to the chopper to board, the door gunner shifted position and accidentally leaned on the butterfly trigger of his gun. The result was that the gun went off. The recoil combined with the surprise caused the barrel of the gun to sweep upward and cut the soldier in two. Killed on his last day in the field! I had such stories in the back of my mind, which did nothing towards turning me into Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Unlike the guys who told me that they had a mystical intuition that nothing would happen to them in the Nam, I was beginning to get the opposite feeling.
There we were in the A Shau Valley, without a lot going on, and with my shortosis mood disorder, the CO was probably glad to get rid of me for a few days. I don't remember the chopper ride out, but when we arrived at our preliminary destination, we got on a convoy heading out. So Mike and I, as I recollect, jumped on a truck going to Đà Nẵng. We passed through the HQ of the 101st Airborne Brigade at Phú Bài. There everyone was wearing the screaming eagle patch, and it was rather like being in a foreign country within a foreign country. I knew they were more or less on our side, but it was the "more or less" part that made me feel a little uneasy, like an Armenian visiting Turkey. Then we packed off to Đà Nẵng. Along the way we saw the wreckage of a tank and other pieces of equipment off the side of the road. Someone told me that the Marines had been ambushed there.
When we pulled into Đà Nẵng, it was like entering another world. There were paved roads and concrete sidewalks; movie theaters and restaurants — every amenity that one could ask for. It was like we were back in the World. Later in the day, Mike and I were walking along on a paved sidewalk rather aimlessly strolling towards where we were supposed to be for the night. We passed by actual buildings with manicured lawns. This contrasted with our own appearance, dressed as we were in jungle fatigues which had turned pale from being saturated with dust and de-saturated of color by constant exposure to the tropical sun. We had the magazine clips to our M-16s inverted in the magazine chamber, for fear of unintended discharge of the weapon. This was SOP for Đà Nẵng, since apparently the only way anyone could die there was by accident. As we were strolling along under our steel pots with our castrated M-16s, we saw a group of 5 or 6 guys approaching us. They were one of the wonderments of Đà Nẵng, all dressed in brand new civilian clothes as if they had entered this place via the Twilight Zone from some small town back in the World. They were Air Force enlisted men, off duty, a term that has no meaning in the infantry. As they passed us, they laughed and made jokes and muttered things. They viewed us as being bums who were blighting their fair sidewalks with our presence. I was really indignant. I thought I might put my magazine back in order, and make them "dance" like they did in the old West. But I thought better of it, recalling the line from Shakespeare,
Shortness doth make cowards of us all,
or something like that. I remembered engineers in the Army having a similar prejudice, although not so pronounced. I rather thought of myself as a Masai, and these as little cherries who didn't quite measure up. After all, when is the last time you saw a movie about airplane mechanics? I suppose these poor bastards had to over compensate for the complete lack of glory that their efforts would harvest them. Fortunately for everyone, I suppressed a fatal attack of shortosis, and we went on our way.
The next day, I managed to find a Marine ambulance driver to take me to their morgue to see if Thompson's body had been sent there by mistake. On the way I conversed with the driver. He told me that becoming an ambulance driver was a great way to get out of the field. Then he went into a long description of some of the worst cases. He said that he had body parts rolling around in the back, and that at times he had to scrape guts, blood, and other carnal debris out of the back of his ambulance. He seemed like he actually enjoyed the thought of it all, as the carnage was an exciting element in his tour of duty. This guy, I concluded, was a complete ghoul. After I checked with the Marines, I had to return empty-handed.
In fact, we never did find Thompson's body, although I understand that it was located later. If his body had never been found, there is no telling what kind of crazy lie the Army would have concocted to cover their incredible folly.
Đà Nẵng — a map of the city: Đà Nẵng.