Into The Darkness
Phu Cat Air Base
Joseph Barbarise
© 2008

Into The Darkness

It all started farther back than I'd like to remember....

I graduated high school and had a mundane job.  The country was heavily involved in a faraway place called Vietnam.  My friends and I were all what you would call, regular kids.  We all loved our country though it was not generally a topic of discussion…until now.  Several of us were talking and worried about the draft, the military in general and Vietnam.  We all knew the name of the place, but were hard pressed to locate it on a map.  My best friend is Vinny DeGuilio.  Since that time he has come to be called Vince instead.  We talked about the draft and decided to join the Air Force instead.  Talk about scared.  To the recruiter, to Lackland in Texas, then straight to Vietnam. WOW.

Vince and I trained in Security Police, then as K-9.  We thought it was better to have a dog, a German Shepherd, as a partner.  When the orders came through, while in K-9 school, others were assigned all over the country, while Vince and I volunteered for Nam.  Smart or stupid?  We knew our country needed help, so we went.  Wound up in a place called Phu Cat, on the east coast, in Central Highlands area. 

K-9 worked at night here.  A team was assigned an area to guard that was "outside" the base perimeter fence line.  Let me briefly explain something.  The base, the perimeter guard bunkers and towers, all manned and armed by nervous, heavily armed young men (kids?), were behind us..  In front of us were Viet Cong along with many animals, reptiles, snakes and insects that did NOT want us to be there.  If we got into a firefight with the enemy, they would shoot back of course.  But the bunkers thought the enemy was shooting at them, so they returned fire.  K-9 was stuck between them both, taking fire from front and back.  And we volunteered for this job.

We were put out on post after dark.  Me, my dog Prince and a bucket of gear including rain poncho, C-rations, slap flares, ammo, etc.  We had to walk our post in a grid layout looking for the enemy, tunnels, etc.  I would sit on my bucket a little while, look and listen.  Until this point, I mistakenly thought I knew what the word "dark" meant.  I was very wrong.  If there was no moon, the darkness was almost overwhelming.  You could not see your dog at the end of a 5 foot leash, hell, you could not see your hand in front of your face.

That first night, darkness took on a whole new meaning.  "What was I doing here?"  "Am I crazy?"  "I can't do this?"  "How will I make it until morning?"  "Am I going to die here?"  The thoughts run through your mind.  You think of things.  There is a lot of time here to think.  Too much time.  Prince and I got very close.  We talked to each other every night.  He was a good listener.  We learned to trust each other.  We had to.  We were all the other had.  I depended on him to keep me informed as to who and what was on our post or coming our way.  He depended on me to do my part to keep us both alive until dawn.  A K-9 team was just that….a TEAM.  Our lives depended on each other. 

The posting truck made its rounds dropping off all the K-9 units around the base.  Prince and I got off at our post and did our normal radio check.  As the truck drove off, we turned and walked into the darkness.  We had been on our post about 30 minutes, long enough to find a good spot for our bucket, which would be our home for the evening, then began to walk our post.    I could not believe the darkness.  We all think we know what darkness is, but I assure you most do not.  I did not, not until my first night alone on post.  I always thought darkness was simply lack of light.  It is much more.  The darkness in Vietnam took on an almost life form of its own.  I could feel the darkness all around me, touching me, allowing me to pass through it.  There were no stars or moon that night.

When the posting truck drove off, it took whatever light existed in my little world that night.  I could see the trucks lights being absorbed by the night.  I have never felt more alone then I did that night.  If I looked carefully, I could see a faint skyline where the night sky met the earth.  It was faint, but after 20 minutes, my eyes started to adjust to the darkness.  Watching that skyline was my only way to be somewhat sure where I was walking, at least I thought it did.  Prince was at the end of a 5 foot leash in front of me. It was so dark that I could not even see him there, I had to feel through the leash what he was seeing and smelling.   Prince was a Sentry Dog, he was trained by the old school where a dog had one handler only.  He was trained to attack and kill anyone at all that came within striking distance or anyone I told him to.  We had to trust each other completely….totally.  Period.

We walked the post, first from the downwind side to give Prince a chance to smell whatever may be out there.  I could feel him checking the air for intruders.  This was a new post for us.  I never saw it during daylight.  It was like walking in the jungle with your eyes closed.  "How did they expect us to do this?"  "We never trained in the dark."  "Can we do this?"  "Will we live another night?"  "I'm scared."  "I have to trust Prince, he can do it.  It was so easy to panic.  The endless darkness, tigers, panthers, cobras, bamboo vipers (Krates), VC, NVA, booby traps, punji sticks and many other ways for me to get killed.  Panic would be so easy. Stay calm.  Listen to what Prince tells me through the leash.  We walked.  I followed exactly behind him.  I did not vary from his path at all.  Over 45 minutes, or was it a lot longer, we walked like that..  All of a sudden Prince stopped in his tracks.  I told him to go.  He would not.  I shook the leash, he was froze.  I touched him with my leg in the darkness and I could feel him hunker down and back up slightly.  He would not move an inch.  I was stumped as to why.  Even though I had a red lens on my flashlight to preserve my night vision, the last thing I wanted to do was to turn it on and send an invitation to every VC in Nam as to where I was.  I had to.  I turned on the light for a second for a quick look.  MY GOD, where was I?  It looked like the Moon's surface.  We had walked on a very jagged piece of land no more than 18 inches wide and at least 6 to 7 feet high.  In the dark, it looked like 25 feet high.  It had ended suddenly and that was why Prince stopped, he had no place to go.  Trust him.  Trust him.  Trust in God, trust your compass and trust your dog.

They say God protects children and fools.  I was 19, so I guess I did not qualify as a child, but I was 10,000 miles from home, in the dark, alone with a dog, protecting people I did not know, who spoke a language I did not understand, in the middle of at least several thousand people wanting to kill me…so I guess I do qualify as a fool.  Back we walked.  Now I knew if I did not follow Prince closely, I would fall off this dike into who knows what.  The fear factor was raised quite a bit.  Fight the feel of panic.  Do not panic.  We CAN do this.  The darkness, that dam darkness, does it ever end?  We cleared the post.  It was free of VC, at least for the moment.   WAIT…what's that noise?  Prince alerts.  Here we go again.

It was approaching 6 AM.  I could see the first hint of light on the horizon.  We had to be more careful now not to form a silhouette with the approaching dawn.  It would make an easy target for any VC for sure.  We ease our way to the pickup point. Need to be ready for the posting truck as it may slow down, but never stopped.  We had to throw our gear and dog into the truck while it was still moving, 3 seconds tops, and it was roaring off again.  At the kennels, check your dog, clean your weapon, then try to sleep in the stifling heat so we can do it all again tonight…..back into the darkness.

Joseph Barbarise