Nearing the airfield for the first time on the trip up, the impact of being among the last Americans in Vietnam was graphically driven home. Ours were the only four helicopters visible on the massive flightline. Acres and acres of PSP (pierced steel planking mat), once bustling with hundreds of aircraft, now lay forsaken. Hovering by a group of hangars, the gaping doors revealed only hollow shells, lit dimly by small windows and man-doors along their backwalls, giving each a jack-o-lantern grin. After shutting the engine down, I crawled out to stretch my back and legs. The dying whine of the jet turbine and soft whooshes of our decelerating rotor blades were all that broke the eerie silence of the once mighty combat base.
Even little Duc Pho had seemed more alive than this back in February, when we went south to cover the former Americal Division's AO after they went home too. Everybody seemed to be leaving but us. One of the last air-cav units left, we suddenly were in high demand by nervous base commanders all over I Corps, wanting us to check things out to make sure Charlie wasn't sneaking up on them.
An empty hospital was to be home during our stay. Last word we got, it still retained most of its amenities, such as lights, toilets and running water. Pilferage was a big problem in the wake of the U.S. pullout. When we'd arrived at Duc Pho, the place had been stripped of every faucet, toilet, and light fixture. Even the door knobs were missing. We had to have all our food and water hauled in, along with the substantial munitions our gunships required. The Wildcat Chinooks faithfully delivered a sling load or two of supplies every few days from Marble to keep us going.
With the number of rooms that was surely available in a former evacuation hospital, I figured we would each have our own at Ai Tu, but soon discovered our billets were confined to one large chamber, crowded with canvas cots and gear. It appeared to have been an operating room, but I couldn't be sure. It gave me the creeps anyway, as I imagined the floor awash in blood while the hospital staff worked fervently to stay ahead of the war during its heyday. But it did have a small club, maintained for the hand full of American advisors who stayed behind to assist the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN).
One evening, we gathered in the club that had quickly become an oasis of warmth in the cold, empty hospital. The men were a bit livelier than usual, but so far they had refrained from bursting into song. CW2 Guy Lafayette finally showed up after attending a debriefing with the base commander. Guy had been team lead on the recon today. His face was flushed as he downed a deep guzzle and belched.
"Some people are just natural born assholes," he said tipping the can again.
"What's got your goat?" Captain Overland, the scout platoon leader we called "White," asked. Guy explained that Colonel Borden, the Senior Advisor at Ai Tu, had ordered his team to recon into the DMZ.
"We reported armor movement up by the Ben Hai River before we turned back. Borden ordered us to engage! 'Nah, I don't think so,' I told him on the radio and brought the team back to QT. So the asshole grabs me by the collar at the debrief and says 'Look, Mister, I'm in charge here, and if I say engage, you engage!'"
"What'd you say?" I asked.
"Didn't say nothin'. Some visiting brigadier called the colonel off. Oh yeah, he asked him if he'd ever been on a recon flight with the cav, and when the colonel said no, the general told him to butt out of our business. Embarrassed hell out him!"
"That's great!" White laughed, as did the rest of us, hopeful the general's intervention had cooled the colonel's heels enough so we could do our job and get the hell out of this shit hole as soon as possible.
The rest of the pilots left together to hit the rack, but White and I, who were scheduled for standby the next day, decided to get plastered before the club closed at eleven. When last call came, we insisted on another round. After that, we decided we still weren't ready; so we bought a freshly opened bottle of Canadian Club whiskey, against the Vietnamese bartender's objections. White stuffed a purple MPC note (equivalent to $20) in the barkeep's pocket, which quieted him down, and we staggered outside to continue our party-for-two atop a sandbagged bunker.
Sometimes men got drunk. Sometimes they got drunk and crazy. What started as a screaming duet of every Cav song published in the semi-official "Fur Burger" songbook, punctuated by loud hooting at the moon, degenerated into a grade-school rock fight, with White and me stalking each other around the buildings, screaming "Incoming!" with every throw. Rocks were lobbed like grenades, bouncing noisily off tin roofs, as we tried to goad each other into revealing his position. After calling an uneasy truce, we tottered back toward the bunker and proceeded to tear all the sandbags off its roof, hurling them to the ground with defiant whoops.
We finished by trying to start an ammunition "mule," a flat-bed utility vehicle, to take a midnight joy ride around the base. After running the battery down without success, we got mad and pushed it into a deep, water-filled ditch, up-ending the vehicle. Taking the last swig, I hurled the bottle into the air and heard it crash loudly on the roof of a building somewhere in the compound. At some point in the wee-hours, we made it back to the "operating room" before passing out.
"Wake up, Austin, and explain to me just what the hell this is about!" My eyes squinted through the stuporous oppression of hangover-hell to see a pair of shaking hands holding a neatly typed, very official looking piece of paper inches from my face.
"Good, my DEROS papers finally arrived," I said closing my eyes again. I didn't know who was shaking my cot, but if he didn't stop, I was going to come up off it and hit him squarely in the face.
"DE... DEROS my ass! Now, goddamnit, tell me what you guys did to deserve this scathing letter!"
I recognized the voice now as Captain Scott's, our Operations Officer. But the events of the previous night were only an alcoholic blur. I wanted to tell him to fuck off and leave me alone until I woke up of my own accord but knew better even in this deteriorated state of mind. He snatched the paper away as I groped blindly for it.
"I'll save you the trouble and paraphrase it for you. It's from Colonel Borden. Let's see, there's 'Conduct unbecoming... wanton destruction of U.S. government property...' and a few choice adjectives like 'dangerous, maniacal,' et cetera. Oh yeah, this part about 'shattering a whiskey bottle on the roof of my quarters' was a fucking class act, I must admit. He ends with, and I quote, 'The two individuals involved in last night's incident are to be placed on the first available flight back to Da Nang, NEVER TO RETURN TO QUANG TRI.'
"Get dressed. Fast. I've got to hide you two from a full-bull who's walking around the compound right now, ready to see heads roll for keeping him up all night. To make it worse, his wife was visiting from the Philippines, and he was probably so mad he couldn't even get it up. If you and Overland weren't half my team, I'd..."
Looking at White snoozing comfortably in his bunk, I laid my head back and closed my eyes hard, hoping the bad dream would pass.
My body jolted at the shout.
"Why, I've got half a goddamn mind to grant your stupid wish after all, and put you on the ground with the grunts," referring to a request I once made to spend a week on the ground to see what it was like, which he flatly refused at the time. "And if it was up to the colonel, he'd have your ass inserted north of the Z!"
Whiskey bottle. Bunker. Mule. It was all coming back now. I stood uneasily and started to dress.
In moments, White and I were bouncing along in silent agony in the back of a deuce-and-a-half truck, belching great clouds of diesel smoke as it raced across the airfield. I didn't even know wives could visit a war zone in the first place, I complained. She must be in the military too, we decided. Probably a nurse. No way did we want to be caught by two crabby, sexually frustrated senior officers. The truck headed toward a group of our men standing around the aircraft, waiting for the call to crank their engines. For some reason, the mission had been delayed. Overland and I quietly dismounted and walked toward them.
"You gotta' be some kind of bad asses to actually get kicked out of Quang Tri," third-tour gunpilot John Morrison said, after hearing our reason for being here on our day off. "What do I have to do to deserve such special treatment, besides make a complete horse's ass out of myself and piss off the base commander and his lovely bride." The men all had a good laugh at our plight, but we were feeling too hung over and sick to care. As the naked sun began to get uncomfortably hot, we migrated into the shade of one of the nearby hangars.
"Hey, check this out," Lieutenant Donnelly said, pulling his .38-caliber pistol from its holster and aiming it almost straight up. Bam! The piercing echo made my head feel it would explode. A bat fell dead on the concrete slab, almost hitting Morrison. I looked up and saw hundreds of the furry critters hanging upside down from the roof trusses. Soon, everyone was shooting at the sleeping creatures, who barely stirred during the slaughter. Sherman grabbed a 12-gauge riot shotgun from his slick and was bringing down four or five at a time with each shell he pumped into the chamber. M-16's joined in the din, firing on full-automatic. After thinning out the overhead group, the men began shooting at another cluster near the back wall. I pointed my pistol toward a small bunch hanging in the eaves and fired, dropping one like an apple from a tree. Splat. Splat. Bats were falling like rain.
"Stand aside!" shouted Donnelly's gunner, PFC Kribbs, as he entered the fray, carrying the M-60 machine gun from the "loach." A long strand of linked-ammunition was slung over his shoulder. Seeing the big gun brought us to our senses and we called a halt to the craziness before he could commence firing.
A jeep wheeled up in front of the hangar and two American military policemen jumped out, walking briskly to the door. The MP's stopped to look at the carnage of bloody bats on the floor, letting their eyes trail upward to the hundreds of holes in the hangar roof, then back down to the heavily-armed group of smiling men. Overland and I were already in trouble again. My stomach churned to think about getting another of Scott's ass-chewings just before he threw us to the lions. Or in this case, the pissed off colonel and his wife.
"Who's in charge here?"
"S'pose I am. What can I do for you, sergeant?" replied Overland, who was ranking officer.
"You are to order these men to cease fire immediately, sir. You have the airfield fire department pinned down in the hangar directly behind you!" With that, they marched back to the jeep and sped off toward the firemen's hangar. We had mistakenly assumed all the buildings were abandoned.
"Nice of 'em to let us off like that," I said, relieved.
"They were outgunned is all," White grinned.
"Crank!" someone yelled from the parking area. The mission was finally on.
The men dispersed to go to their aircraft, leaving Overland and me alone in the hangar, wondering how long Scott was going to keep us tucked away out of sight. We walked out to watch the team depart. Sherman coaxed his slick out of the revetment and lined up behind Donnelly's Cayuse on the taxiway. After Morrison made a clearing turn with his Snake to check the downwind pattern for traffic, he started the take-off roll to lead the team out.
Donnelly's loach rocked in the turbulence of Morrison's rotor-wash as he nosed the OH-6 over to follow, skimming the PSP in front of the hangar. I heard a loud metallic pop just as the aircraft's nose lurched so violently that I thought the loach would somersault right there on the flightline.
"Oh shit!" Overland shouted as Donnelly jerked the nose back up hard, narrowly averting the crash. After regaining control, he brought the ship to a shaky hover and started slowly back in our direction. The left skid hung down at a forty-five degree angle, torn away from the front strut when the toe snagged a loose piece of PSP during the take-off run. Donnelly lowered the hover as Kribbs leaned out to survey the damage, finally unplugging his helmet and jumping to the ground.
White and I jogged over to the aircraft to join Kribbs, who was standing with his hands on his hips, looking bewildered about what to do next. Donnelly couldn't set the ship down on the broken skid, that much was certain. Both White and Kribbs then grabbed the loose end and tried to pry it free from the rear strut, causing the small helicopter to see-saw as Donnelly did his best to hold the hover. The skid would not break loose. By now the rest of the team had circled back for landing, and more men gathered around the crippled ship.
"Got an idea," White said. "Start pulling sandbags off that revetment and let's pile them up to give him something to set down on." A brilliant suggestion, we all agreed. While Donnelly hovered in growing embarrassment, we constructed a small pyramid, carefully interlocking the bags so it wouldn't collapse under a sideways load if the aircraft shifted while sitting down.
After kicking the front of the skid inward to keep it from interfering, Kribbs knelt down to watch the belly of the loach while he guided Donnelly into position. As the pilot started to set down, we could see the other skid would be left too high off the ground, causing a dangerous lean in the ship. The gunner waved him off so he could remove the top bags. Donnelly moved back and expertly planted the stub on the stack, lowering the collective slowly while he moved the cyclic stick around in quick, small circles to check stability in every direction. Finally, he dropped the collective lever and rolled throttle to flight idle.
"Guess you'll be going back to Ghost Town to pick up another ship," White said, as Donnelly got out to look things over. Ghost Town referred to our troop's flight line area back at Marble Mountain, our permanent base. The twenty-minute hover exercise had given the lieutenant time to get over being shook up and he shrugged it off. "Tupper's making an admin run this afternoon so be on it," White added. "And have them throw on another skid, and the tools to fix it here. We're not about to sling it all the way back to Marble under a Hook."
Informed by company radio about the incident, Captain Scott rushed over in his jeep. The Vietnamese from the fire department had bravely ventured out as well, and stood pointing and talking excitedly, probably saying the American assholes deserved whatever trouble came their way after shooting at them like that. Scott first looked at White and me as if we might have had something to do with it, then shook his head with a just-what-we-needed-to-happen-all-the-goddamn-way-up-here look on his face.
Finally, he turned and told White and me to come with him. The colonel had agreed to give the matter "further consideration," provided we cleaned up and rebuilt everything we had torn down. It was time to pay penance for our night of merriment. I rushed White to the jeep to get underway before Scott discovered the mess in the hangar as well.
We worked shirtless in the hot sun for hours, grunting as we lifted the heavy bags and climbed the sides of the bunker to drop each into place. Memories of summer-vacations spent bucking hay bales for extra money as a kid came to mind with exhausting effect. Sure as hell went down a lot easier than it was going back up, I lamented, as I stopped to grab my tee-shirt and wipe the sweat pouring from my face. A graying, burr-headed officer stood comfortably in the shade watching with stern eyes. It was Colonel Borden.
"Fuck him if he can't take a joke," White said under his breath, struggling with another bag. "Just glad the general wasn't around this time," he added as we finished crowning the bunker. Then we walked over by the ditch where we plopped down on the hot sand. The mule was half-buried in mud and stagnant water.
"Just what the hell are we supposed to do with this thing? It don't even run!" White said with disgust.