PCS: Destination Vietnam

Be Prepared!
        
and other similar myths

"One of each??"

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Getting orders to Viet Nam after Operation Blue Light meant that you were 99% likely to be an “individual replacement” and not a member of a unit deploying.   Big deal, right?  Well, the units deploying were told….no, likely ordered…as to what they should bring.   But the individual replacements didn’t have a clue.   It was the "little things" that you might need that could drive you crazy. For example, would I need a year’s supply of toothpaste or not?  Who knew, for example, if we would ever see a PX during that year?  I had better plan on “living out of a suitcase” for a year and never having a chance to go to the PX or a store. The little bits of information we did get  tended to support the idea that we would have to bring everything we would need with us except for guns and bullets; we knew they already had a lot of those over there.  I still remember when DivArty, 1st Armored Division at Ft Hood sent a note to all battalions about underwear:  “You need to bring OD underwear with you when you depart CONUS. Appropriate dye can be found in the PX. Do not bring white underwear to RVN.” Sounded like inspections in Vietnam may be very personal.  

Now there are several messages in that communication aside from the need to dye white underwear OD. You can’t buy underwear in RVN.  Well, crap --- if you can’t buy underwear there, what else can’t you buy? The possibilities staggered me.  Bring it with you if you plan on wearing it! And if that were true, all of the other stuff we need or use for day-to-day existence probably should be taken, too. Socks, toothpaste, deodorant [Hell, what did I know then about life in the boonies?], shirts, shoes, stationary, pens, stamps [yeah, I know], handkerchiefs. Well, the list gets pretty big. And it all sounded necessary.

About a month before I was scheduled to get on that big bird, I started building a pile of the things I thought I would need. The pile began taking over our small guest room. A trickle of letters send home from guys already there  to girlfriends and wives began to surface, suggesting things I hadn’t considered yet.  A good waterproof flashlight and batteries. A portable radio.  And spare batteries. A couple of civilian outfits for those times when we might have to relax in a rear area. And it seemed like everyone else I knew who was headed there was going through the same process.

There were 5 of us getting ready to go from 1/73 FA; all 2nd LTs; all without a clue about what we would soon face. Unfortunately the other officers and NCOs didn’t know either. Same for everyone else in DivArty.  

We each began hoarding stuff we thought we would need sometime in the coming year and not be able to buy. I knew, for example, that I could probably find gin someplace and would have difficulties smuggling it into RVN. So gin had to be a commodity that I procured locally. It was the cocktail onions, a critical ingredient for a good Gibson’s martini, that became a ‘must have’ item for my growing mountain of essential supplies. Vermouth was not necessary – just the gin and the cocktail onions.   I went out and bought a case.  My family, not knowing that you could buy OD underwear at any Army surplus store, dyed a half dozen boxers and half a dozen briefs…..but they weren’t OD. It was something like mottled and splotchy pea green ~ not something I wanted anyone else to ever see. But it sure was a thoughtful gesture and waste of otherwise good underwear. A dozen t-shirts were destroyed the same way. In the end, when I actually began packing, I found an ideal use for the pea green underwear. They became the perfect packing materials for the case of cocktail onions I took with me. For each skinny little bottle, I drained the juice and replaced it with gin. Hell, preparations for leaving were beginning to become fun!

I have to admit that I packed some things that, even in my demented state, seemed frivolous. When Mom was dying the underwear, she so thoughtfully tossed in a couple sets of sheets for "emergency use".  So I had 4 sheets the right size for a military bunk bed and two pillowcases, all the same mottled and splotchy pea green as the underwear. Mom made me promise to take the sheets even when I protested that we would probably be using cots [like I knew something!]. After all, she reasoned, we wouldn’t be out tin the field all of the time and when in a rear area, wouldn’t I like to have nice, clean sheets from home? Now who could argue with logic like that?

When I began actually putting my stuff into suitcases, it became clear that mere suitcases would not be adequate to the task. I bought a standard issue foot locker and about half of my stuff was jammed into that wooden box. Next, I got my Army issue duffle bag. Between the foot locker and the duffle bag, I could get everything I thought I would need packed and ready to go. The standard, black, indestructible, 3 ¼” Samsonite  briefcase completed my traveling ensemble.  The footlocker weighed, according to Braniff Airlines, 73 pounds. The duffle bag added 58 more pounds. But I had everything I needed. Everything. Hell, I was packed for a PCS to Viet Nam.

But, so was everyone else on the plane. It was a horribly long, exhausting flight into Cam Rahn Bay. We landed at night and my first sense of being there became a jumbled blur quickly as we were whisked away from the airport and into some “repo depot”. I remember the OD bus with the wire over the windows driving through thick crowds of strange looking people.  I remember the strange smells of Viet Nam; the wood smoke that permeated everything but didn’t quite mask the smell of jungle and jungle rot. The smell of cooking strange foods was everywhere.

When we arrived at the repo depot, we were dropped off at a bunker line with instructions to dive inside in case mortars start falling. Then the bus drove off, leaving about 40 of us in pitch black. With no gear other than what we brought with us. One of the guys wandered around and discovered there was a mess hall about 1/10th of a mile away. A really pissed off Major who was a member of our little group of lost souls took charge, selected someone to guard our bags and sent the rest of the group to the mess hall. We had a feast of cheese and/or peanut butter sandwiches. When we got back to the bunkers I tried unsuccessfully to find my flashlight in the darkness, punctuated occasionally by flares popping about a half mile away. Some of the men saw the flares and thought we were under attack. They fled for the safety of the bunkers. I slept fitfully on top of my bags. They were just too heavy to move and I was too tired to do anything else. It rained. I couldn’t find my spare poncho in my bags.   Oh-oh…did I forget to bring one of those?

A truck pulled up before daylight and the driver called out names of people who were supposed to go with him. I was one of the names he called. A couple of guys helped me get my bags into the truck and off we went back to the airport. The driver handed us a mimeographed sheet of paper that, when it got light enough to read, was a listing of our unit assignments. I was heading for 4th Infantry Division DivArty – Camp Enari – Pleiku.  "Upcountry", as the driver said, "where the Indians were always attacking the forts" More trucks appeared loaded with people from my group as well as other groups.

"Camp Enari !" someone called. "If you’re assigned to 4th Division or anything at Camp Enari, get your asses over here"! Other destinations were called out by other people. The group began splitting up for moving out. There weren’t many of us headed for Camp Enari   ~ only three. The other two guys were not FNGs. Their uniforms were worn and tattered.  Their "baggage" was just a backpack. They helped me drag the bags to a waiting C-123 transport aircraft.  

After a rough flight, we – I would really like to say "touched down" but that wasn’t what happened – slammed into the PSP runway at Camp Enari . The pilot brought the plane to a quick stop and turned it around. The door opened and the crew chief told us to get out. All three of us tumbled out, dragging my baggage as we left. We were out in the middle of the airfield, maybe a mile from whatever they had as a terminal beyond sight. The C-123 took off. The other two said that, if I waited, they would send a vehicle back for me and my bags.  And then they left. It was about 10:30 AM. Rain was coming. I waited for about 30 minutes and then decided to walk in the same direction as the two guys on my flight.

Then the fun began. I would drag the duffle bag 50 feet and put it down, returning for the foot locker. Being an official issue footlocker…..the wooden kind with NO HANDLES, dragging it across the PSP just wasn’t going to happen. Lifting it, as tired as I was, also wasn’t going to happen. I had to remove the tray from the locker and carry that separately. Without the tray, I could lift the end of the locker and drag it across the PSP.

So that’s the way it went: walk about 50 feet with the duffle bag and briefcase, drop them and walk back to get the footlocker tray and carry it up to the duffle bag, walk back and get the footlocker and drag it up to the duffle bag and tray and briefcase.  I felt like a contestant on “Beat The Clock”.

Remember when I said the "terminal" was about a mile away? I was pretty sure I was moving in the right direction…….50 feet at a time. But every 50 foot segment meant I was walking 250 feet with all of the fetching and dragging! That meant I would have 150 of those 50 foot segments before I got to the terminal. With each segment 250 feet because of the dragging back and forth.  And in the process would walk 5 miles with all of the carrying and dragging. It was gonna be a very long day! Being in the Central Highlands meant also that it would rain while my death march was in  progress – at least once.

I wasn’t out there alone. Planes were busy landing and taking off all the time. I waved every time one passed me, hoping that one of them would notify the tower that there was some crazy guy out on the runway with big bundles. Sometimes, the helicopters would slow up so they could get a better look. It must have been pretty obvious what had happened. From one look at my stateside khaki uniform, anyone could see that I had just teleported from CONUS into the middle of the airfield landing pattern for the 4th US Infantry Division. With bags.

I had gone about half the distance to the terminal…..i could actually see the tower…..when a small truck came flying down the runway. After the excited exclamations [“Are you plumb fuckin’ crazy??!!  Don’t you know you’re in the middle of the busiest airport in Nam??!!”], the driver and the guard, both armed for combat, allowed me into the back of the truck, with bags and they took me to DivArty. What an auspicious way to start the year!

A day later, I was in Duc Pho with the 3rd Brigade and was assigned to 2/9th FA, The Mighty Ninth. I had the good fortune to be there when Ed Thomas, a legend among the FOs, was in base camp. He saw me drag my bags into the small tent where I would spend the night, bit his tongue as hard as he could to keep from laughing, and offered good advice. "If you haven’t needed it by now," Ed said, "you probably won’t need it out in the field."  He knew I was assigned to C Company, 1/35th Infantry as the new FO – the "old" one had been killed. So Ed helped me pick a few things to take with me out to the field. He even made a special pack for me – a sand bag with shoulder straps. “Don’t take too much or you won’t be able to keep up with the company and may become a casualty yourself.” So I packed everything up, took the few things he picked for me into the sandbag and the next morning joined Charlie Company.   The difference was about 200 pounds…or so it seemed.

I didn’t see the duffle bag or the foot locker for more than 12 months. By then, anything that could support jungle mold had done so. Probably several generations of mold cultures had lived and died in my bags, each breeding a more prolific and odoriferous generation of mold. It was kinda like the Galapagos Islands where species became unique due to separation with the mainland. My bags became the birthplace for the smelliest molds ever!

You can bet I wasn’t going to drag that stuff across an airstrip!  

EPILOGUE: That was in September, 1968. I was back in January, 1971. For the second tour, I brought the [same] standard, black, indestructible, 3 ¼” Samsonite  briefcase and a small gym bag. It was all I needed and all I was willing to carry in case I got dropped off on the runway again.}

Lt Bert G. Landau

FOOTNOTE: Thanks to Lt Don Blankin, we know the final outcome of all that meticulous list preparation and tedious packing when it's time to DEROS.  Here's what you wind up bringing home after your "goods" have sat in some base storage locker for a year:

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