November 1970, DaNang Air Force Base, South Vietnam
DaNang is located near the center of the country we know as Vietnam. It is near the northern end of South-Vietnam-that-was, just south of the famous walled city of Hue, near the DMZ – the “de-militarized” zone that separated the two Vietnams. In 1970, the city was surrounded by supposed refugees from the fighting – fighting that was known in much of the world as ‘the American war in Vietnam.’ To most Americans, the word ‘Vietnam’ meant that fighting.
In that way that words have of separating us from realities, especially unpleasant realities, most of these names and terms were imaginary. Of course Vietnam was much more than those few years of fighting. The fighting itself was never a war. Vietnam was never divided into two countries. The DMZ was never de-militarized (in fact it was, at the time, perhaps the most militarized spot on the earth). Many of the “refugees” – like many of the friendly villagers – were active guerrillas.
Given all that, I don’t suppose it’s surprising that being in Da Nang felt so unreal to me. In my memory, it seems more like a dream than something I actually lived through. More like a movie.
Except wetter. — I remember being damp most of the time, and that’s not a feeling one often has in a movie theatre. I remember the days it didn’t rain, because on those days, we played volleyball. By jungle rules, which meant there were no rules, and the ball going back and forth across the net was sort of a secondary activity – body contact at the net was the main object of the game.
And more rockets. — Da Nang was known to us as ‘rocket alley.’ Rocket attacks were a major part of our entertainment. Once, they hit a fuel dump, and another time a C-141 sitting on the ramp. Big fires. We stood out on the fire escape outside the third floor of the ‘hootch’ – whatever we lived in we called a ‘hootch’ – and watched the fires. Laughing and joking and smoking cigarettes, cheering when there were explosions.
At some point in our training, the Air Force in its wisdom showed us captured films of the Viet Minh soldiers preparing for the attack euphemistically known as the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. It was more a massacre than a battle. Most of the soldiers on both sides died. The film showed hordes of small men in black farmer garb patiently dragging artillery up the mountainsides with ropes, stacking vast numbers of shells and rockets, assembling anti-aircraft guns and bamboo rocket launchers under the canopy, carefully camouflaging it all under netting, and eventually – over a period of many months, perhaps years – ringing the French installation in the valley with these armaments. Then one night the rockets began to rain down on the clueless, and defenseless, French forces, crippling them in a matter of days and effectively cutting off their air resupply efforts. Repulsing wave after wave of Gen. Giap’s soldiers, the French garrison held out for two months but finally fled into the jungle, where the Viet Minh followed, killing them all.
The French left Vietnam after that. Decided that the Vietnamese people would never abandon their struggle to be rid of foreign invaders. Perhaps even began to believe the stories in Vietnamese history relating that, over the centuries, they had repulsed every invader, even if the effort took one hundred years. Then we came in, confident that Americans could accomplish in a few years the job at which the French had spent a century failing.
When I was there, it seemed we Americans hadn’t really paid attention to the lessons of Dien Bien Phu. Though we were clearly surrounded by Viet Cong, we didn’t really worry much about rockets. I guess it was just that you never knew when they were coming or what they would hit, so there was no point in worrying.
It was just ‘incoming.’
Another one of those bland terms. But somehow, we always knew there was a rocket attack underway well before the sirens began. At Da Nang, there was always ‘outgoing’ – the artillery fire directed at the jungle in a futile attempt to suppress guerrilla activity in the surrounding area – as well as near-constant jet noise, so we were inured to noise. But there was something about the sound of the rockets – a little ‘pop’ maybe – that set them apart.
I remember waking up in the night sometime during the first month I was in Da Nang, sitting bolt upright in my bed, leaping to the floor and donning my flak jacket and helmet, and then wondering what I was doing on the floor, because I heard nothing unusual, and didn’t remember hearing anything. Then the sirens began. Even in my sleep, I could hear the difference between ‘incoming’ and ‘outgoing.’
The week after I left Da Nang for NKP, a rocket hit one of the hootches where enlisted men of our squadron lived. Word was, there wasn’t a lot of hanging out on the fire escapes during rocket attacks after that.
We were never allowed off the base on our own, but we would occasionally see field soldiers, Army and Marines, wandering through the base looking weary, dazed, and staring in wonder at the amenities we took for granted. I never found out why those guys were there. They looked lost. Chasing Cacciato maybe.
We did occasionally get to ride a battered old bus, which had heavy stamped steel gridding protecting its windows, over to China Beach, the Marine post, and hang out on the beach or in the big tent that passed for a bar. In my memory, everything there is rust-colored: the bus, the sand, the water, the sky… Like a movie with bad production values.
The biggest forms of entertainment were shopping at the Base Exchange and drinking in the O-Club. Many Asian electronics products, watches, cameras, and such were available at very low prices in the Exchange, and most of us loaded up on them. Not much else to spend your money on. Except drinking. That’s where the O-Club came in. We ate there most of the time, and it was always ‘the weekend’.
It was usually pretty controlled fun, greatly exaggerated stories of bombing runs and aerial maneuvering, bar tricks, dice games and such, but one night some jet jockey still in his flight suit got riled up about something, jumped up on the bar, pulled out his pistol and started shooting at the bottles lining the long mirror behind the bar. At least that’s how I remember it.
I spent a lot of time in Danang just lying on my bunk trying to understand why I was there – not in the sense of ‘for what purpose’ but more like, ‘how the hell did I end up here?’ It didn’t seem terribly dangerous or exciting, just incredibly boring and pointless. A lot of that was my depression and general sense of alienation.
There was a pervasive nihilism among most of us, a deep and profound “fuck it” sort of attitude. We partied as hard as any college fraternity. Some of the rooms were decorated in styles that would have fit right in at the typical frat house. Walking into Chipper and Alice’s room at night was like walking into a tiny speakeasy, complete with blue lights, a well-stocked bar, and cool music – Isaac Hayes was the current favorite during my brief months as a visitor. ‘Fuckin’ Chipper’ got divorce papers near the end of his year in SEA, so he signed up for another year – and he got drunk, very drunk, every night. But – thanks to his habit of drinking water in equal amounts to the booze consumed (his recipe) – he never missed a takeoff, and unlike a few of the old passed-over majors that I flew with, no one ever had to go get Chipper out of the O-Club and walk him to the morning briefings – at least not while I was there. What may have happened in that second year I don’t know. I got shipped out.
I don’t remember intentionally doing things to get pegged as a trouble-maker, but somehow, I got that reputation with the Colonel, or so I was told. I suppose my general attitude seeped through the clean exterior, and though he wrote me good ER’s – which I would later regret! – the Colonel sent me to the Detachment in NKP to get me out of his hair.