Welcome to the War—Welcome to Vietnam
Fifty years ago I left the Navy. Seems like a good time to reflect.
* * *
My first memory of Da Nang is walking into the squadron’s Administration office and seeing lemonade in the water cooler.
“This place might not be so bad,” I thought.
It was hot, and I was thirsty after the long flight from Japan. The air was thick, warm, and heavy. You didn’t walk through it. You wore it. Like a sweater.
The Admin office had a fan, but all it did was redistribute humid, suffocating air.
While my fellow sailors were checking in, I walked to the lemonade cooler to get a drink. Nearby were those cone-shaped paper cups that don’t hold much, just enough to wet your mouth. I filled up my cone, flicked my wrist toward my face, and waited for the cool, bittersweet drink to splash onto my lips.
But it wasn’t sweet. It wasn’t bitter. It wasn’t even cool. The mystery liquid tasted like warm, gritty water. I studied the cooler the way you look for fish in a murky aquarium. The water was yellow, all right, but not from lemons and sugar. Floating in the cooler was sand. Fat, beige sand.
“Welcome to Vietnam,” I thought. “Welcome to the War.”
I’d arrived in-country in the spring of 1970, after the Tet Offensive, but well before the Fall of Saigon.
At the time my wife, Bunny, was involved in the peace movement. She’d told me that I should refuse to go to Vietnam. Make a statement. Take a stand. Problem was: When I joined the Navy, I knew Vietnam was a possibility. How could I suddenly claim to be a conscientious objector?
According to Navy records, I spent 11 months in Vietnam. That means I received hazardous duty pay 11 times. But if you add up the days, you’ll find I only spent about seven months in-country.
This was no accident.
I was on rotation from my home base in Atsugi, Japan, sometimes ending up in Guam, sometimes the Philippines, sometimes Da Nang. (Atsugi, by the way, is where Lee Harvey Oswald was stationed in the early 1960s. It was a nest for spy planes, like the U-2. My squadron, VQ-1, a reconnaissance outfit, was based there. Big planes. Long flights. Secret missions.)
The duty rotation was devised in such a way that the squadron ferried us to Da Nang just before the end of the month, which meant we’d each get a month’s worth of hazardous duty pay ($55 as I recall) even if we were only in-country three or four days.
My suspicion is that someone in the Pentagon came up with this arrive-early approach for morale purposes. A low-budget perk. And it was a great incentive, at least it was for me: Fifty-five dollars goes a long way when you don’t have to pay for food and board, and cigarettes cost just 15 cents a pack. At those prices, I smoked three packs a day. Mostly Pall Malls, non-filtered. In the red package. I wasn’t worried about my health. I figured a Viet Cong rocket would take care of that, and I could just sit back and enjoy life.
Excerpted from "Orange Socks & Other Colorful Tales."