Arrival in Country

by Richard Dieterle

After my AIT, I got 30 days leave and orders to report to the Oakland Airport for transport to Vietnam. When my 30 days were up, my mother and father drove me down to the airport from where they lived in Novato, California, not too far distant. It was a somber but relatively upbeat good-by, as would be appropriate for a military family, without tears or other displays of emotion. I remember going into the terminal and reporting to some sergeant. He had gradually collected a bunch of guys, and we went off to an orientation room, where they would issue us some preliminary orders. We sat in a rather crowded auditorium with a plane-load of men who had completed their training and were headed out to their new Vietnam destinations. I did not know to what division I was to be assigned, but there were a great many who already had patches of their divisions displayed on their uniforms. Almost all of them belonged to the 173rd Airborne. The NCO in charge looked over this motley collection and remarked, "You can always tell who's taking it on the chin in the 'Nam by whose patch you see the most." Since the overwhelming majority of those present were headed for the 173rd Airborne, everyone laughed. Looking back, in truth it was not funny. After getting orders and whatever else they had handed out, we went to the terminal hoping to board our plane. We were now experiencing the traditional Army "hurry up and wait" syndrome.

We eventually boarded the plane, which was a regular civilian airliner. Fortunately it was a jet, a Boeing 707. We flew first to Hawaii. The all-soldier passengers behaved abominably: every time a stewardess walked down the aisle, they grabbed or slapped her ass. It was like running the gauntlet. I sat next to a guy who was going to be a medic. He was already adapting to his profession, as he was high on some kind of pills. He expressed the opinion that if he felt the slightest suspicion that Vietnamese civilians might harm him, he would "waste them." I debated the point in a civil manner, but he seemed to be governed by fear, an emotion seldom amenable to the weight of reason or dispassionate argument. We stopped in Hawaii, as I remember, without even leaving the plane, but when we arrived at Guam, we were able to get out and walk around the terminal. We finally completed the last leg of our journey, landing in Cam Ranh Bay, a thoroughly pacified area. Nevertheless, I had the impression that many guys felt that they were now at the point of danger, and that deboarding could present us with our first war experience. Nothing of the kind materialized, of course, and we debauched onto the tarmac, where we formed up and marched off to some orientation room. I can remember nothing of where we slept, although I do remember that it was still daylight when we landed.

The next day I boarded a propeller plane, possibly a Caribou, to fly off to Pleiku in the central highlands. Pleiku was the headquarters of the Fourth Infantry Division, whose patch was green with a white ivy pattern on it. The day was completely overcast, although it was not raining. I struck up a conversation with a guy standing on the edge of the landing strip, and asked him if there had been any action in the area lately. He remarked that they always sent out patrols and that they would sometimes run into something, but that it was pretty safe there. I was not really too concerned. We were later told that we were to be given some kind of orientation and receive our assignments to our respective divisions. Around midday, I and another man were assigned to KP. This turned out not to be too bad, as the worst job, pots and pans, was given to a group of Vietnamese women who did this for a living. This was my first acquaintance with the Vietnamese, whose straw conical hats had been familiar to me from my childhood, as my mother had some porcelain figurines, said to be Chinese, of people so attired. They also wore the ubiquitous black "pajamas" that had been so much commented upon in the news reports from Vietnam. Our interaction with them was minimal and conducted in a rough pidgin English. I had the impression that they felt somewhat bemused by us, perhaps because we lacked the bustling energy and clear purpose that the Vietnamese expected of adult and child alike. By comparison, we probably seemed lethargic and disoriented. I had never heard their language before, and they seemed to speak in an odd, high pitched voice, warbling unevenly through various tones. That was probably the strangest thing about them.

After the lunchtime KP, we went to an orientation, the contents of which I don't remember, as everything that they touched upon seemed a bit obvious to me. I expected that since I was at Pleiku, I would be assigned to the 4th Inf. Div., a prospect that did not fill me with enthusiasm. However, much to my joy, I found that they had assigned me to A Co., First Battalion, Eighth Cavalry, First Air Cavalry Division. At the time, this was one of the most famous units in Vietnam, not because of some singular achievement, but because their activities had been traced in a documentary for television. The name of this documentary was "I am a Soldier." When I was in AIT, the captain of our training unit (D-3-3), during an exercise in the field, had set up a projector and screen, and our company watched this film. Just before the film, the captain showed slides of Vietnam that he had taken, including wounded men. I remember his commenting on one slide which showed a soldier grasping his right hand in his left with his thumb pressed over the artery to his hand. Two of his fingers had been sheered off and there was a good deal of blood. The captain said, "This guy is doing the right thing, at least he has the presence of mind to stop the bleeding." After this, we watched the documentary. I was really impressed with this company, and I rather loudly proclaimed within earshot of the captain, "I wish I could get into that unit!" As it turned out, I may have been the only person in this training company who had volunteered for Vietnam. Consequently, it may be due to this fact that my wishes were actually acted upon. I remember that the captain used to say to people, "J. C. loves you, so and so," the underlying humor being that almost everyone was an atheist, and having ended up in this predicament, could not find such a pronouncement at all plausible. However, J. C. must have loved me after all, since I got assigned to A Co. 1/8.

Cam Ranh Bay — see these maps showing its location: South Vietnam, USAF Air Bases; Indochina, Air Fields.

Pleiku — see this map: Pleiku.