“North Vietnam cannot defeat the United States. Only Americans can do that.” — Richard Nixon
**The following took place during my long-ago sojourn in the Vietnam War. The names of my colleagues have been changed, not to protect the innocent — none of us were that — but because after almost 50 years, I can’t remember the real ones. But I can see the faces that went with them, as clearly as if I’d seen them just yesterday. Dialog has been reconstructed.**
We weren’t surfers, of course. The association was a loosely knit menagerie of Signal Corps misfits and an infantry grunt who’d been temporarily reassigned to our theoretically safe and secure locale while healing up from a minor combat injury incurred out in the Bad Bush. But the name sounded cool, and the South China Sea was close by. So that’s what we called ourselves. Hang 10, baby.
Associates had no boogie boards, but we always had reefer and warm beer in the bunkers. And we had rats, red-eyed varmints infested with plague fleas. They lived behind the sandbags and weren’t scared of anything except incoming. Sometimes we had boom-boom girls. They were warm too, but not as warm as the beer. The local Viet Cong constabulary was holed up in the nearby mountains, not doing much of anything usually, and when the boredom grew intolerable, they’d fire a few rounds at us for entertainment, haring off before the counter-mortar batteries could get a decent fix on their position. It was about as idyllic as Vietnam was ever going to get. It wouldn’t last, of course. Charlie had his lifers, same as us, and the big brass on either side is never happy unless they’re hurling their underlings at somebody’s throat. Unfortunately, this time one of those throats belonged to me.
“C’mon, man. I really want ya to go.”
“Are you crazy? You guys got shot at as soon as you left the gate yesterday.”
“Yeah, but nobody got hit. C’mon. Volunteer. Don’t make me order ya. The other guys are goin’. It’ll be fun. The midnight ride of the South China Sea Surfers. We’ll cruise in, pick that fat bastard up, and di di mau back here. Easy, peasey.”
“Stan, the damn city’s still full of gooks!”
“Hey, I got yer back. Ya don’t wanna live forever, do ya?”
“That’s exactly what I wanna do! I thought you was my buddy!”
“I got my orders, dipshit. I gotta go get the sergeant-major outta his billet, and I ain’t goin’ into town with a bunch of friggin’ damn FNG’s who I don’t know when there’s live Charlies running ’round. Now, you gonna volunteer for this here detail or not?”
“Aw, fer Christ’s sake, Stan.”
“That’s Sergeant Stan, Spec 4 Mack.”
“Okay, okay. I’m in. But you get me killed, and I’m gonna haunt yer sorry ass. You happy now, you persuasive prick?”
“As a clam. Grab yer gear an’ fall in by the Orderly Room. I’ll pick ya up there in 15 minutes.”
It was the third night of the Tet Offensive.
72 hours. After that, you shouldn’t be trusted with a cap gun, let alone a military assault rifle. I was closing on 72. We all were. Sleep deprivation is as dangerous as any other enemy. It’s probably why Giacomo dropped his weapon when he stepped on the dead gook.
“What the f**k, Jack!”
“Sorry, man. Scared the sh*t outta me. Ya smell that? Jesus, this f**ker’s gettin’ ripe!”
At midnight on January 30th, the Lunar New Year had begun in Vietnam with fireworks and traditional prayers to the Jade Emperor and his heavenly cohorts for 12 ensuing months of peace, love, and universal concord. Mortars and rockets started arriving in camp shortly thereafter. Enemy sappers hit the compounds along the beach road, and by mid-morning, half the city was under the less than merciful administration of the North Vietnamese Army and its political action executioners. We spent the day preparing for a ground assault that we were informed would be starting sometime after dark. It never materialized. This was due primarily to some spirited work by troopers of the Korean White Horse Division, and command and control incompetence from one of the NVA support units, which never arrived on site. In the morning, the ROKs flushed a few forlorn infiltrators from the refugee shacks on the far side of the wire. Grinned happily, and beat the wounded one to death with sandbags. Xin lỗi, asshole — sorry ’bout that. Some of the F**kin’ New Guys were growing a bit anxious: “Is it always like this?” “Don’t worry ’bout it, rook. You get used to it.” Salty old liars, that’s what we were in the Surfing Association. I was the member with the lowest seniority, and I’d been in-country for six months. Sergeant Stanley was in the midst of his third tour. F**k the FNGs if they couldn’t take a joke.
“Two mags apiece,” Stan said. “Just in case. Gilley’s carrying the thumper.” Gilley was TDY’d from the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, and the thumper was an M-79 grenade launcher. We all wore flak jackets. Stan had a pair of frags on his. “In an’ out, boys. In an’ out. An’ remember: don’t shoot yerselves.” Signal Corps commandos and an out-of-work grunt. We piled into the jeep.
Rumbling through silent streets as dark and empty as the black heart of an army recruiter. Even the Lambretta drivers were staying indoors. Sporadic chatter from faraway automatic weapons and the random thump of mortars. The pop of an illumination flare. Eerie, flickering shadows dancing malignantly over dusty areca palms and old French villas.
“This is some crazy sh*t,” says Booker. “We oughta let Charlie have that fat f**k. Nobody’d miss his dumb ass.”
Sergeant-Major Hodge. Career soldier, a lifer playing out the string. As past his prime as a quartermaster pork chop. Billeted in what passed for a hotel in what passed for a city in what passed for a country. RHIP. Rank has its privileges. But old Hodge had been trapped like any other no-account bunker rat when the NVA overran his neighborhood, and the Surfing Association had grudgingly left the relative safety of its tents to try and bring him back. Well, if Hodge was depending on amateurs like us for his liberation, he was in some deep sh*t.
Giacomo’s first out of the jeep. He rounds the corner and steps on the corpse. Weapon clatters to the ground.
“What the f**k, Jack!”
“Sorry, man. Scared the shit outta me.”
Stan hisses: “Keep it down, you sorry bastards!”
My heart’s trying to claw its way out of my chest. Jack Como, you slippery fingered friggin’ idiot, I’m gettin’ too old for this sh*t! (I’m only 19, but we’re always too old for this sh*t).
A pair of jumpy MPs are stationed in front of the hotel. “We’re here to get Sergeant-Major Hodge,” Stan tells them. “Everything quiet?”
“For now. You guys be careful drivin’ back. This area ain’t been fully cleared.”
Hodge’s door is unlocked. We knock once and barge in. The room stinks of body odor, whiskey, and stale smoke. The usual. He has an air conditioner, RHIP, but the power’s been gone for two days, and it’s stifling. A Coleman gas lantern is burning on an end table. Hodge is passed out, big whale belly rising and falling gently over his skivvies, sickly yellow in the feeble glow. Outside, the automatic weapons have started up again, but they’re not close.
“Lookit that,” says Booker. “He’s drunk as a damn skunk.”
“Sit him up,” Stan orders. “Let’s get him dressed an’ get the f**k outta here.”
Resuscitation proves difficult but not impossible. We get Hodge propped up, and eventually both of his bloodshot eyes stay open.
“Wha’ urr you men doin’ in my room?” Heavy slur, and breath that could deep fry an egg.
“We’re takin’ ya back to base, Sergeant-Major. It ain’t safe here no more.”
“Boo’ shit. Not goin’ t’camp ri’ now. Haf a drink.”
Gilley looks nervously out the window. “Man,” he whispers, “if he don’t get his ass movin’, I’ll shoot him myself!”
“There’s gooks all over the place, Sarge,” Stan informs him gently. “The city’s been overrun. We got orders to bring ya in.”
“Goos? Wha’ goos? Ish s’cure area.”
“He don’t even know we been hit,” says Booker incredulously. “F**kin’ lifers!”
“I vote to leave him here,” I say.
“He’p me get his pants on, Book,” Stan says. “C’mon, Sergeant-Major. I ain’t f**kin’ around no more. We gotta go.”
It’s like forcing two pounds of bratwurst into a one pound casing (I knew about such things — I’d served a year in Germany with Vee Corps artillery before volunteering for the Nam). Giacomo is checking out the Sergeant-Major’s stash. He’s jealous. Our ration cards only allot for beer and cigarettes, and the closest Class VI store is on the air base. “How come the lifers get to buy whiskey and we don’t?”
“‘Cause lifers don’t do sh*t but get drunk,” I tell him.
We get the Sergeant-Major on his feet. He sways like he’s being buffeted by a monsoon wind. “You boysh err takin’ care uh yer ol’ sarge, ain’t cha?”
“Man, I’d like ta throw him to th’ dogs,” says Gilley.
In June, the battalion holds an awards ceremony. Our battalion commander is given the Legion of Merit for exceptionally meritorious achievement during the Tet campaign (when he’d been in Australia on R&R). This is the first and last time I’d ever see him in person. Sergeant-Major Hodge receives the decoration too. The rest of us are issued certificates of merit signed by the Commanding General of the 1st Signal Brigade. Afterwards, the South China Sea Surfing Association effectively disbands. Stan had extended again, and transfers to Saigon. Gilley goes back to the 196th. The whites of Booker’s eyes turn yellow one day. He trudges off to the medical tent and is sent to a hospital in Japan. Giacomo becomes a doorgunner. His helicopter disappears during an operation in the A Shau Valley. He is listed as missing in action. I extend for an early discharge upon rotation back to the World. In October, I get my port call. My tour of duty is over. I’m going home.