We just got back from a trip through Europe, see Rants and Yarns # 75. However the first time I took on the continent was with Joe Duckett, coming home from Vietnam in 1966.
Here that story as first told in my The Vietnam War Its Ownself
When the 1st Division rolled out from Fort Riley Kansas for Vietnam in September 1965, the1st of the 28th Battalion, “A” Company commander was Captain Jack Woolley. 2nd Lt Ray Ernst had the 1st platoon, 2nd Lt Joseph L Duckett had the second, I had the third, and my buddy, 2nd Lt Larry Peterson, had the 4th.
Woolley had an engaging, collegial attitude as a company commander. He brought us together and quickly made all his newly commissioned young subordinates part of a composite, coordinated team. We clicked as an infantry company from the start.
In Vietnam, the “A” company platoon leaders grew close especially during company operations separate from the battalion when we had to depend on one another. We came of age together, baptized by enemy fire.
The 4 of us would all be wounded within months of arrival in the combat zone. Duckett was first. Maybe it was to be expected.
He was a stern task-master. He told his men in that low rumbling voice of his that he expected them to get out there and fight. He pushed hard at the enemy whenever we had contact, and he was the last platoon leader to call in medevacs for his wounded.
He was tough personally… did not wear socks or underwear. This made his early weeks in Vietnam painful, but, after a short time, his feet and his crotch toughened up and he felt no discomfort from the lack of underclothing. He also wore a flak jacket he had picked up from a cavalry friend. Because he was Duckett, people did not question this. Most of us would not have worn a flak jacket if they were available. They were heavy and wore down the body. But, like no socks and underwear, Duckett got used to the weight of his flak jacket. He never left base camp without it and it eventually saved his life.
Early in a December 1965 sweep operation, he and his platoon were deployed some distance from the company in an area north of a village thought to be sympathetic to the VC. After dark he posted a two-man listening post (LP) among some rubber trees halfway between the village and the thicket where the platoon had dug in. Soon the listening post reported hearing movement off to their right. In a low whisper, they suggested that a small group of people might be moving from the village toward Duckett’s position. Duckett alerted the platoon, and everyone waited quietly.
A light rain began to fall. Suddenly out of the dark, a shot zinged in.
As the men tensed, Duckett’s platoon sergeant hissed loudly, “Don’t fire.” He thought that other VC might be waiting in front for the muzzle flashes to give away their positions.
He was right. The VC in front, soon tired of waiting, began firing at the platoon. Duckett called for mortar flares as his men returned the fire. Illumination rounds burst over the rubber trees, and the VC pulled back. Within minutes the listening post reported the VC running back toward the village.
Everything was quiet until early morning when the two men at the listening post reported hearing movement all around — the VC had returned. Duckett told them to calm down; it could be the rain dripping off the trees. They did not acknowledge his call but quickly, breathlessly reported seeing men maneuvering directly at their position. Before Duckett could answer, he heard small-arms fire to his front. The listening post yelled in the radio that they were pulling back to the platoon.
Duckett called down the line to his men, “Get ready, the LP is coming in. VC in the front. Be careful, don’t shoot the LP.”
The men lay silently in their holes as they scanned the jungle toward the rubber trees. Duckett, who shared a foxhole with his radio operator (RTO), ducked into the hole, called for more flares over the radio and drew his .45-caliber pistol. As he came back up, he aimed it over the top and took a deep breath. Woolley came on the radio and asked about the situation. Duckett bent down into the hole again to talk with Woolley.
The RTO saw movement in the front. He had a grenade in his hand. Men were running toward him. He pulled the pin on his grenade. The footfalls came closer in the dark. Gradually, but quickly, forms began to take shape into men, running headlong toward the foxhole the RTO and Duckett shared. The RTO pulled back his arm to throw the grenade when he saw the distinctive steel pots on the heads of the men. He stopped his motion to throw the grenade and yelled down the line, “LP coming in. Don’t fire. Don’t fire.”
The men from the LP were running as fast as they could in the dark, eyes wide, scared, afraid that VC guns would open up on them at any moment. They heard the RTO yelling.
A shot ran out behind them, and a round whistled through the trees over their heads. They put their heads down and ran harder. Another round zinged through the jungle. The men lunged toward the hole as Duckett came up after talking with Woolley. He barely avoided a head-on collision.
The radio operator ducked into the hole. As more rounds from the pursuing VC passed overhead, the two men landed on top of the RTO, the grenade was knocked out of his hand, and it fell to the bottom of the hole. The radio operator tried to get out of the hole, but the LP men forced him downward as they desperately sought cover from the enemy fire. The handle flew off the grenade and it was armed. The radio operator yelled and became frantic. The two men, also excited, continued to worm their way into the hole.
Duckett was trapped on the side of the hole. As the three men wrestled beside him, he fired his .45 into the dark, toward the VC.
And the grenade went off.
The radio operator and one of the men from the LP were blown apart. The other man from the LP had shrapnel wounds over most of his body. Duckett was covered with bits of clothing, web gear, and flesh, but his flak jacket had protected him. Although he was not wounded, he was blinded by the blast and could not hear anything except a ringing in his ears. By morning, he had regained his sight but had lost the hearing in his right ear.
Duckett and the wounded LP man were evacuated, along with the remains of the other two men. After a night at the field clearing station, Duckett was sent on to a U.S. Army hospital in Japan.
Ernst was wound next and evacuated to the State. Pete and I were wounded a few weeks later – on the same day. My wound was treated in a Vietnam field hospital and I returned to “A” Company within the month. Pete had most of his left shoulder blown away and he was medevaced to the states where he joined Ernst in a rehab facility.
I was transferred from my 3rd platoon in the spring to work in the Battalion G-3, the operations center. We were in the field when our Battalion was ordered to the Michelin rubber plantation to support the brigade’s attack on a suspected VC command post. After getting our orders I was busy calling in the companies and coordinating how they would tie in around the battalion CP when a lone helicopter brought in replacements.
Jumping off the helicopter in their new uniforms, some held their rifles by the handles and bent over more than necessary to get away from the blades. When the chopper lifted off, I noticed a big man in old fatigues who had gotten off on the other side. Standing erect, taller than the rest, he started walking toward us behind the other replacements who were jogging our way.
Smiling, I stood up, and met him halfway. We hugged. I asked how he was doing and pointed at his bad ear. He said, “Say what?”
“How’s the ear?” I asked. “How you doing?
“Say what?” he said again, then he smiled. “I’m OK.”
I told him that it was good having him back, and we went to find the colonel, who told Joe that he would like to put him in a staff job, but we were low on platoon leaders. We were losing one a month. Only two officers, Woolley and Trost, my replacement, were left in Alpha Company. Duckett said that’s what he wanted… to work with Woolley again, wanted his own platoon back.
As we walked away I told Duckett not to be surprised if he didn’t see too many of the old guys around.
A couple of months later when we came in to the base camp from a field operation, Bob Dunn, who also worked in the Battalion G-3 shop, checked the calendar he kept above his cot. In seventy-six days we would be eligible for rotation, after being in-country for one full year. That night in the makeshift battalion officers’ club, I sat with Dunn, Duckett, and Bradley the Battalion recon platoon leader at a rear table. Bradley, a replacement, would be around for several more months. Duckett’s convalescence time in Japan counted toward his year, and he would rotate home with Bob and myself.
We were talking about what we would do when we got back to the States when Dunn mentioned that the battalion commander was returning to the States through Europe.
Bradley said we all could. Any active-duty person could book passage on a scheduled round-the-world U.S. Air Force charter called the Embassy Flight. It was used primarily by Defense Department attaches, diplomatic personnel, and couriers, but seats were available for military personnel with legitimate reasons for travel, like us. He suggested that the three of us try to go home on Air Force One, like our boss.
In our typical, grateful fashion, we told him he was full of shit. The battalion commander was a full colonel. We’re second lieutenants. There’s a little difference there.
“Fine,” he said, “don’t believe me. But the next time you’re in Saigon, go to the Travel Section at the U.S. Embassy, and ask about seats on Air Force One.”
Dunn, intent on getting back to his wife in California on the fastest plane going, had no interest in traveling through Europe. But Duckett and I liked the idea, we just didn’t think it was available.
Later that week we received in-country R&R and Duckett and I took off for Saigon to, among other things, check out Bradley’s rumors about Air Force One.
We stopped off at division headquarters on the way down and I sought out a friend of a friend at the Administration Section and we asked him about our exact departure-from-Vietnam date and orders.
“Ah,” he said, “the magic ticket. DEROS orders. The Date of Estimated Return from OverSeas orders. Very, very valuable. The keys to the real world. You don’t leave ‘Nam without it. I have yours here. I was told you were on the way and to look after you, so I have taken the liberty of running off a couple of extra copies for both of you.”
I was authorized to leave 13 September 1966. Joe was authorized to leave on the 14th. Signed, stamped, mimeographed, in duplicate, everything. Legal. Some people didn’t get their orders until the day they left and we had ours two months early.
On the afternoon of 2 July, we were standing in front of the Marine guard post by the main entrance to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Throngs of people were coming and going. We felt out of place. We looked out of place. Our uniforms, though clean, were not starched and tailored like others that we saw, and we were leaner than most military personnel on the streets of Saigon. Had scratches on our hands and neck. We had funny steel-pot tans — our forehead were a different lighter color from our tanned cheeks. And we must have looked unsure of ourselves.
The Marine said that the Travel Section was in a Quonset hut to the side of the Embassy building. Walking along tentatively, we stepped out of the way when busy Embassy people hurried by us. A Vietnamese receptionist in the front of the Quonset hut did not act surprised when we asked about signing up for the Air Force One flight on 14 September. She gave us some forms to fill out and a mimeographed sheet explaining what was required — DEROS orders, passport, military ID, uniform while traveling. Although I was authorized to leave 13 September, we decided that I would stay over in Saigon until the 14th so that we could leave together, if this actually was for real. We finished filling out the forms and were directed to an Air Force sergeant in a rear room. He said that everything looked in order. We nodded.
“What’s this going to cost?” I asked.
“Nothing,” the sergeant said.
“That’s it, then?” I said, still not sure that this was for real.
The sergeant looked at me hard, curious about my hesitation. “Let me see your DEROS orders again,” he said.
He examined the one I offered for a moment, shrugged, and said, “Everything’s all right. You two are the first signing up for the 14th and unless something extraordinary happens and you get bumped a day, that is when you’ll be on your way to Europe.”
We left the Embassy in a more confident manner.
We went to Tu Do street downtown Saigon and had some photos made for our passport applications. That night we practiced our international bar room skills. We liked the feel of being out together. Duckett was six feet four, and I was six feet two. Maybe it was the look in our eyes from our experiences in the field, maybe it was our size and our smiles, but people seemed to treat us with deference. When we walked into bars, people noticed. And we had Europe right down the road.
Hold on continent, here we come.
In the coffee shop of our hotel the next morning we heard that Tan Son Nhut airfield had been bombed during the night. Rockets had landed in the departure area and killed several soldiers from the 1st Cav who were due to leave country that day. After surviving a year of combat, they were killed in their sleep in the departure area in Saigon, the night before they left country.
“Fortunes of war,” Duckett said.
“Yea, and I ain’t staying one more night here than I have to, my friend. I’m leaving on the 13th. I’ll meet you in Bangkok or Europe or Philly, but I ain’t staying here one extra night.”
We went back to the Air Force sergeant and I made the change without problems. Duckett and I would meet in Bangkok, Thailand, 14 September; depart on Air Force One on the 15th for New Delhi, India, where we would overnight, and then go on to Afghanistan, Athens, and Madrid. We were on our own there to rent a car for a drive up to Germany where we could get a military hop to the East Coast of the U.S.A.
I left Vietnam afternoon 13 September and was in Bangkok that night. Joe arrived the following night, and I showed him some of the places that I had found. They compared with the Tu Do bars of Saigon and the harbor area of Hong Kong and Havana. For me, there was much to like about Bangkok.
The next morning we boarded Air Force One, a C-141, for New Delhi. Our overnight in the Indian capital was memorable for the filth, the cows, the people living on the streets and the smells.
We stopped at Kabul, Afghanistan, and Athens, Greece, the next day, and landed finally at Terrihone Air Base near Madrid, Spain. We went to a BOQ when we arrived and slept for ten hours. The next morning we ordered a rental Volkswagen convertible from a base concessionaire for drop-off in Germany, picked up the car and drove into Madrid. We got lost and ended up in the old town, where we rented a room in a hotel near several bars that featured flamenco dancers. The next day, we went to the bullfights. Several horses were gored and several bulls were killed, but we missed the point. Too ethnic, we decided. We bought some playbill posters and called it a day.
The following morning, we loaded our convertible and made Barcelona, Spain, by nightfall, then on to Nice, France, the following day. There, we checked into a pension and had a late sidewalk-cafe dinner with a couple of carafes of wine. Very continental. We felt conspicuous however; I looked up often to see French men and women looking at us.
I brought this to Joe’s attention…. that people seemed to be gawking at us. Joe shrugged.
A small group had collected off to the side and appeared to be talking amongst themselves as we finished our wine and left.
“Jooooeeee,” I said under my breath as we walked, “They’re looking at us.”
“It’s the eyes. They’re looking at my eyes. You’ve never noticed them, have you?”
“No,” I admitted. “I hadn’t ever really looked into your eyes. What about them?”
“The ladies,” he said, “like them very much.”
“How come so many men are looking at us, then?”
“Ah, the French. Quiem sa ba?”
“What the fuck is that?”
“French. Means ‘Who knows?’”
“No, it don’t. You don’t know French. Sounds like Spanish anyway.”
“The French would know it means ‘Who knows.’”
Later in a smoky step-down bar not far from the beach, we were nursing beers when a group of locals came in. In the middle of the group was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She was tall and buxom, with blond hair and a deep tan. Her white blouse was tied under her bust to show off a flat, tan stomach above the red skin-tight toreador pants that encased sculptured legs. And her face — strong, yet soft, exotic, sexy. In the half-light of the smoky bar, she appeared to be perfect. She looked at us as her group walked toward tables in the rear.
[If this description of the lady seems a little over the top, it is honestly the way I remember her. So there.]
“Oh, my God, Joe, I’m in love,” I said, my mouth agape.
The chattering from the group continued as they walked along, punctured occasionally by laughs. The woman held our gaze as she walked, quietly distant from her friends.
Turning on my stool I saw her sit down so that she faced back toward us at the bar. The others fell into chairs around her. She lit a cigarette and when she inhaled the glow lit her face, her hair shining in the dark.
“She is absolutely the most gorgeous woman in the world. The sexiest. She is a goddess sitting over there. I have to meet her. I have to have her.”
“Not your type,” Joe said nursing his drink.
“I know what my type is, my friend. And that lady, that wench is what I’ve been looking for all my life. Oh, my God, she’s coming this way.”
She came up and slid between Joe and I on our bar stools and said something to the bartender in French. Her perfume was musky. She turned to look at me — her eyes wanton, smoldering, intense, like an animal’s. Her breast rubbed against my arm.
“HellohowyoudoingWhatsyourname?” I mumbled as I slicked my short hair back with my hand.
She didn’t respond but examined my face closely. Then suddenly, she looked into my eyes.
Those eyes! They had no shame. They were predator’s eyes.
Finished with me, she turned and looked at Joe.
“Bon jure, madomessel,” Joe said in fractured French. I couldn’t see his face because the woman was between us. All I could see was the back of her beautiful head.
She put one arm around Joe’s neck and turned his face and body toward her with the other hand. Then, with both arms around his neck, she leaned in and kissed him. A short, but full lip-to-lip kiss.
For “bon jure” he gets this?
Had to be something more than “‘bon jure.”
Later, Joe said it was his eyes.
We went on to Monte Carlo. The first night there, we put on our tailor-made clothes and went to the casino. Because we didn’t have much money and didn’t know how to play any of the games except blackjack but we weren’t so sure how to play it in French, we decided just to get some chips, say $100 worth each, and walk around the gaming tables and look smart. After much dickering with the French bank teller, we managed to get the two $100 chips, which he initially offered us, broken down into ten $20 chips. We wanted something that we could shuffle together as we walked about looking smart. It was such a simple transaction, we thought, and we became frustrated when the Frenchman didn’t cooperate. Plus a long line collected behind us. Finally with our five chips each, we walked through a collecting small crowd into the gaming room.
Jingling the chips in a way we hoped looked practiced we walked over to a baccarat table where a guy had a paddle. We stood behind a velvet rope and watched, but we had no idea what was going on. But when people turned and looked at us, we smiled knowingly. The club was not unlike the Tropicana in Havana that I had visited as a youngster, but it was more reserved, cleaner, and quieter. The women were dressed the same, but the men were whiter, more haughty than I remembered from Havana. There were more sideways glances, more appraising looks.
We were having drinks at the bar and looking over the crowd when a woman at my left asked, “Are you a spy?”
“Pardon me?” I asked.
“Are you actors, the two of you, or the real thing?” she asked and smiled.
Duckett and I looked down at her, not sure what she was talking about.
She continued, “You look like the characters in a new U.S. television program,” she explained, “I Spy. You are Americans, aren’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
“And you know about the program, I Spy, don’t you? It began last fall.”
“No ma’am. We’re just coming back from Vietnam. We haven’t watched much television lately.”
“Oh, this is almost as good. We thought – see the people looking – that you were the I Spy pair, but Vietnam veterans, that is something. Will there be many of you coming back this way?”
“I don’t know. What is the program I Spy about?”
“Two Americans, a black man like you,” nodding toward Joe, “and a white man,” nodding towards me, ”traveling the continent, spying for the U.S. A very dashing pair. Like the two of you.”
Later Joe said, “I was pretty sure it was the Salt and Pepper thing all along. But then, I Spy… not too bad…. ”
We just got back from a trip through Europe, see Rants and Yarns # 75. However the first time I took on the continent was with Joe Duckett, coming home from Vietnam in 1966.