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1966: Da Nang Air Base, Vietnam. N/E Perimeter, Marshland. Monkey Mountain in the background across the channel.

Night Convoy ...
Long Binh
to Biên Hòa

by: Forrest Brandt
© (1998)
 

Night Convoy, Long Binh to Biên Hòa Air Base, October, 1968 - The trucks were late getting into Long Binh ... problems with a crane on the Saigon dock. Now the convoy would move out at night, without the protection of the bright, friendly, sun. Major Gonzaldo and Major Zaremski (not their real names), my two nemeses in the office, amused themselves with my predicament, passing knowing glances at each other. I was sure they were expecting me to wet my pants in front of them while I strapped on my holster and flak jacket, adjusted my steel pot for the umpteenth time, then nervously made a final check of the call signs. They seemed to revel in the idea of putting me, their fresh-from-the-campus lieutenant, new asst. G/4 for transportation, for 1st Signal Brigade, HQ's, Long Binh, in harms way. Zaremski, the more antagonistic of the two, offered me the office's .45, the one without a firing pin, a Barney Fife joke of a weapon, to complete my combat gear. Oh, the .45 looked good in a John Wayne sort of way, but I saw it as a comment on me, as if he were suggesting that I was more of a danger to the men I would command with a real weapon in my hands than if I went out armed with a cap pistol. I turned it down, refused it, in as emphatic a manner as I could in the limited world of give and take between junior and senior officers. I insisted on taking my M-16 from the locked gun rack and in packing five full magazines. They could raise their mocking eyes all they wanted, but I wasn't going gently into that dark night---no way. I'd go ready for a fight or they could find another sucker.
      At last the vehicles were lined up outside our headquarters and the big chiefs came out to see me off. I took my seat on the right hand side, clipped the radio hand set to my flak jacket while my boots sought out a resting place on the uneven hardpacked tops of sand bags covering the jeep's metal floor. I rechecked the frequencies, my list of call signs and entered the net making sure my lifeline to back up worked. Satisfied, I ordered the driver to move out. Lieutenant Colonel Paperone joined Gonzaldo and Zaremski. Paperones face conveyed concern but the latter two waved me off, looking like parents placing an unwanted kid on the bus to summer camp; smirks still resting comfortably on their faces. I fought fire-with-fire, sat upright in the seat and gave Colonel Paperone a smart, correct salute, forcing the two majors to change their faces and return the military courtesy. It was all an uneven game between boys and men. I just wanted them to know I could play too.
      There were just four vehicles in the convoy: two MP Jeeps toting M-60 machine guns on tripods that would guard two duce-and-a-halves bearing the components of a long range radio set, the kind used to listen to the enemy deep in his interior or to burst compressed messages to our troops, I presumed, behind enemy lines; Sneaky Pete-Special Forces-beyond-the-DMZ stuff. It had just arrived in Saigon today and would be shipped to I corps, just inside the contested North-South border, on the next available plane. That's why I was being sent out at night. Someone wanted this thing yesterday.
      We only had to cover ten or twelve clicks (kilometers) of road between Long Binh and Bien Hoi Air Base, a well traveled, secure, road by day---but this was pitch-black night and I wasn't the only nervous soul riding toward the gate. We tentatively approached the guard shack, our jump off spot. The driver put the lights on dark out while I notified support that we were crossing our first check point. I could feel the tension in my stomach, sweat rolling down my back and arms, and the nagging sense of doubt in my mind. What will happen? I asked myself. I could not answer.
      We plunged into the dark world, headlights blazing a path in front of each vehicle, nothing subtle in our drive into the night. The cold blue floodlights of the base began fading into dots in our rear view mirror. Motors revved, gears clashed, the rising and falling whines of engines and transmissions and the constant whir of the tires on the pavement seemed to give an individual identity to each piece of our linked caravan---like moving ducks at a shooting gallery.
      My driver was agitated and impatient. I could feel his mind urging greater speed from the straining trucks behind us. We were stripped for combat: no top, no windshield, a wire cutter welded to the front grill and the antenna of the radio arcing over my head like a fly rod with a rainbow trout fighting on the line. The damp, hot air of Vietnam blew over me, rippling the sleeves of my fatigues, cooling my sweat, and deceiving me into thinking I was cold.
      I glanced back at the gunner, his hand gripped the handle of the machine gun, white knuckles, index finger rubbing the edge of the trigger, assuring himself that he was ready. All the while his eyes bounced from shadow to shadow on the horizon and the periphery, hoping, yet hoping not, to find a target.
      I fretted, wishing I could will us to the light-speed. I thought about how naked I felt in the front seat, a six foot two inch white man in a land of short, angry, yellow men, how thin my flak jacket really was, how little of my head was protected by my helmet, how long in combat-seconds it would take before the reaction team would arrive. I thought about my powerlessness in this world of war, my roll of the dice against the odds of coincidence and circumstance: wrong guy, wrong place, wrong time.
      A glow appeared on the horizon and the jeep aimed dead on the middle of it. We seemed determined to split the glowing globe in half. Each turn of our wheels brought the distant light into sharper focus, as if the prayed for light-speed had sharpened the target while blurred streaks whirled by our flanks. Now I could discern the outline of a small village sitting astride our route, strands of white and yellow light bulbs dangled in measured rows above the black top forming an eerie tunnel of light in the middle of a coal black horizon. My nose picked up the unmistakable scent of a Vietnamese village: Nhuc Mong, rotting garbage, human waste, and diesel exhaust.
      The drivers hit horns, their bleating adding to the cacophony of the engines, announcing our arrival and determination to plow through at full speed. I could now make out scurrying figures of villagers as they went about their business. What are they doing at night? I wondered. I was fascinated by the scene, the bare bulbs bathing everything in the orenge-red hues of incandescent lights, turning three-dimensional people into two-dimensional cutouts seemingly propped up in front of their homes and shops and frozen in place. I had expected the villagers to be in bed, but they were going about the place as if it were the middle of market day. Something doesn't jive here, I thought. I scanned the lengthening gray-black aisles between buildings and found running children, barking dogs, strutting chickens. I looked at the market stalls and saw old men and women. They paused briefly to stare blankly at me, a lifetime of war etched in wrinkled faces, and then went back to their haggling over ducks, sparrows, sugar cane and bamboo. Young girls in aoi dais, looked away, hoping to avoid the lusty glances of horny GIs. But where are the young men? I asked myself, suddenly aware of their absence, then answered my own question: Where do you think! The thought snapped me back into reality. Enjoying the surreal scene was one thing, but I was in a convoy in a war, in an area Charley could claim anytime at night. I forced my eyes back to work checking out windows, rooftops, doorways, and alleys, looking for the young men who might be looking for me.
      We roared through and out of the tunnel of lights and stick-figures. I turned around in the seat and stared back at the houses and the people, unwilling to turn my back on them, thinking I saw tens of angry faces vowing vengeance for our intrusion of their night. Maybe. Maybe.
      Convinced we were out of gunshot range, I returned my eyes to the threat ahead. We rolled on, the panic lessening in me as the lights of the air base appeared. My heart no longer seemed to thump against the flak jacket, my palms became dry again but I could feel the strain still present in the tiny muscles of my eyes. We entered the Bien Hoi gate, I slumped down into the seat and keyed the mike.

Sly Fox 6 ... this is Sly Fox 4 ... mission accomplished. Out.

 

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