This is the story of my first day after landing in Vietnam. The details are as accurate as I can remember them.
We landed at about 1 A.M. after a long flight across the Pacific Ocean from Anchorage, Alaska. Our trip had started from Fort Lewis, Washington and the Seattle-Tacoma airport and had stopped in Anchorage for refueling and perhaps a crew change. I remember us being in Anchorage only a couple of hours and the only thing I remember there was a huge stuffed polar bear in the lobby which was standing up and looked gigantic.
We landed in Vietnam at Ton Son Nhut airbase and since it was the dark, early morning hours there was nothing much to see. My most immediate impression was how hot it was. I was hardly off the plane before I began sweating profusely. There was a military bus waiting for us whose driver looked like he was either high or drunk or both and seemed like he could hardly keep his eyes open. We had to store our 3 large bags of gear in a cargo area under the bus and then formed a line to get on the bus. The surly bus driver was impatient with us and said “Will you hurry up and get on the f***ing bus?!” There was in the line a Spec 5 soldier whom I could tell was a veteran rather than a new guy and he told the bus driver “Hey, f*** you!” After that, nothing more was said and we all managed to get on the bus without any fights breaking out.
After we were all on the bus, the trip began. In the darkness I could not see much but I quickly noticed all the new smells and I could tell I was in another country. It didn’t smell like the U.S. at all. I also noticed the bus had metal mesh coverings on its windows. To keep enemies from throwing grenades through the windows, someone told me. Uh oh, not a good sign, I thought.
I had no idea where the bus was taking us but eventually we arrived at a military compound with lots of buildings. The bus pulled to a stop and we unloaded ourselves and our equipment. Somewhere during this time a sergeant had shown up and indicated a place where we were to form a loose formation with ourselves and equipment. After everybody was in place in our loose formation the sergeant mounted a podium and gave us a welcome speech. He said “Welcome to Vietnam! The temperature is 102 degrees and the humidity is 95 percent. Get used to it!” He then indicated some barracks buildings where we were to stay and told us where the mess hall was and a building to store our large equipment bags. He then told us to show up in the morning at the same place where we were at 7 A.M. so we could receive our orders or if no orders we would be given details to perform. Then he dismissed us to find a place to sleep. That was it! No bed or building assignments, just walk through buildings until you find a place to sleep. And how was I going to wake up at 7 in the morning? The sergeant hadn’t said. We were on our own.
I kept my gym bag with my shaving equipment and toothbrush and went looking for a bed. I looked for a long time and I could find nothing. Finally I came to a bed which did not have a mattress but I was so tired by that time that I didn’t care and resolved to sleep on the springs, using my gym bag for a pillow. I lay down on the uncomfortable bed and closed my eyes to get some much-needed sleep. I was very tired by then after the long plane trip. I looked at my watch and saw it was 3 in the morning. I closed my eyes again and quickly fell asleep but it seemed like I had not been asleep long when I was awakened by loud explosions and machine guns and rifles firing nearby somewhere. I looked at my watch and saw that it was 3:15 in the morning. I had been asleep for only 15 minutes! And now I was going to die. Or at least that’s what I thought. My first day and the enemy is going to kill me already! And me with no gun. We had not been issued any weapons.
I did not know what to do so I just ran outside with some of the other guys from my building who had also been awakened by the ruckus. Once outside I could see that there were half-buried culvert pipes covered in sandbags. These were our shelters. I went in the closest one and it did not seem like much protection should a mortar round impact directly on top of it but I supposed it was better than nothing. After sitting in the bunker for a while listening to the explosions and machine guns and rifle fire and expecting enemy soldiers to show up at any time and start shooting us somebody came thru the area and gave the all clear. Apparently the scare had been caused by a nearby military compound of Korean soldiers whose guards had opened up at shadows in the darkness. It was all about nothing! I got out of the bunker and went back to my uncomfortable bed.
I lay down and quickly went back to sleep. I somehow managed to wake up after a short few hours sleep and make the 7 A.M. meeting to see if orders had arrived. They had not so instead I and another guy were put on a detail raking sand around the compound. Makework, to keep us busy. We raked sand in the hot tropical sun all day long. I finally decided that the exercise was actually meant to help get us used to the hot climate. After the long, hot day I looked around some more and found a more comfortable bed to sleep on.
And so went my first day in Vietnam.