Chapter OneSailing to Vung Tau
The soldiers reported one by one and in loose bunches, straggling into Fort Lewis from late April to the end of May 1967, all carrying orders to join a unit called C Packet. Not brigade, battalion, or company, but packet. No one at the military base in Washington State had heard of C Packet until then. It was a phantom designation conceived by military planners to meet the anxious demands of war.
The early arrivals were billeted on the far northern rim of the army base in a rotting wooden barracks with flimsy walls known derisively as "the pit." Many of them checked in at night after long flights and bus rides from forts in Louisiana and Texas or home leaves in the Midwest, and for them morning sunlight revealed an ethereal vision. Out the window, in the distance, rose majestic Mount Rainier. But after gaping at the snowcapped peak, they had little to do. Some were attached temporarily to an engineering battalion, the 339th, but they had no duties. A captain named Jim George, trim and handsome, a marathon runner fresh from the Eighth Infantry Division in Germany, led them through morning calisthenics and long-distance running, which was a drag except for the sight of flaccid lieutenants wheezing and dropping to one knee. One lazy Saturday they organized a picnic at the beach club and grilled hamburgers but ran out of beer, so a young officer rounded up a squad of privates and marched them to the PX and back on a mission for more. It was perhaps the best executed training maneuver of their stay.
When they could, the bored enlisted men slipped across the border into Canada. Gregory Landon of Vestal, New York, who wound up in the infantry after dropping out of Amherst College, rented a car for the trip and paid cash, not even having to use a credit card. He thought it odd to be provided a means of escape from Tacoma to the sheltering north but returned as scheduled. Mike Troyer, drafted out of Urbana, Ohio, while working the graveyard shift at the Navistar truck plant, made his way to Vancouver with another weekend squad. Some soldiers got drunk and climbed atop a memorial fountain before being run off politely by the Canadian police. Peter Miller, drafted out of the assembly line of a Procter & Gamble soap factory in Quincy, Massachusetts, found himself in jail in Seattle following a dustup at the bus station.
After a few weeks of this military being and nothingness, the men of C Packet were told to get their wills in order, their teeth fixed, and their dog tags ready because they were being shipped to Vietnam as permanent overseas replacements in the First Infantry Division. Most of them knew what was coming, but some were taken by surprise, and the news provoked a round of concerned calls to the base from relatives, congressmen, and clergy.
"Morale of the men is fairly good considering the situation we're in, but there is an underlying gloom," Greg Landon wrote home to his parents. There had been no attempt by the military to explain the war, he reported, and he felt "relatively ignorant" about jungle warfare even though there had been a Vietnam focus to his advanced infantry training at the notorious Tigerland compound at Fort Polk, Louisiana. What he thought he knew was discouraging. "Vietnam seems to be a real hell-hole," he lamented, reciting a litany of horrors: Viet Cong (from Viet Nam Cong San, meaning Communist Vietnamese), poisonous snakes and plants, mysterious diseases, leeches, chiggers, ticks, tigers, contaminated water. With all that, he was shipping off to a war that from his "lowly Pfc's viewpoint" could not be won short of a miracle because the Viet Cong could "easily blend into the populace while the large American" could not.
The one certainty Landon confronted was morbid. "Sad to think that a certain percentage of people here are sure to die in Vietnam," he wrote. In a P.S. he confided that he could sense even then who would die and who would survive and that he had to "extricate" himself from the doomed so that he would not die with them. Mike Troyer had similar thoughts. The favorite epigram of a gruff Tigerland drill sergeant stuck in his mind: It's not your duty to die for your country. It's your duty to make an enemy soldier die for his.
Most of the enlisted men in C Packet entered the military as draftees or volunteers for the draft. Few had attended college. Even fewer were from professional, comfortably middle-class homes like Landon, whose father, an Amherst graduate, was a lawyer for IBM, or Troyer, who had studied psychology at Urbana College and whose dad was a labor leader at the truck plant. They were working-class kids drawn from a handful of states scattered around the country: Landon, Peter Miller, David Halliday, and Frank McMeel among a group from New York and Massachusetts; Faustin Sena and Santiago Griego part of a cluster from New Mexico; Troyer, Bill McGath, Doug Cron, Terry Warner, and Tom Colburn, five of the large contingent from Ohio and Michigan; Michael Taylor from Alaska; Doug Tallent from North Carolina; and Jack Schroder in a group from Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Schroder was a quiet young man with reddish blond hair who had entered the army at nineteen after studying to be a dental technician at the Career Academy in Milwaukee. His aim was to own a lab and make false teeth. He had volunteered for the draft mostly out of a sense of duty and family tradition, partly from frustration. His girlfriend, Eleanor Heil, a nursing student, had become pregnant but at first did not feel ready for marriage. She feared that her father in the small northern Wisconsin town of Edgar would disown her if she tried to come home, so she chose to keep the pregnancy a secret until she could put the baby up for adoption. In early March, when her boy was born, Heil realized that she could not give him away. She felt instantly grown up and ready to marry Jack, who had gone off to the army a few months earlier and was finishing infantry training at Fort Bliss, Texas. Jack was elated by her change of heart. They got married on his first furlough and spent a few days together as a family before he reported to C Packet. When Eleanor learned that the packet was being shipped to Vietnam, she traveled to Fort Lewis to be with her new husband for his last few weeks stateside. They shared a mobile home in a trailer park near the fort with two other married couples. On her final day there, as she was saying good-bye, Jack blurted out that he would not come home a cripple.
Four days later, on the day after the Fourth of July, Private Schroder started keeping a daily journal. "Was woke up this morning at 0515, had Reveille at 0600 and chow following," the first entry began. "Had formation at 0800, the captain telling us that we had approximately 24 more hours till we leave Fort Lewis, Washington. He said to plan on leaving base at 0300 in the morning. There is a lot to do and a short time to do it in."
Schroder returned to his bunk and packed his large green duffel bag - four issues of khaki uniforms, still the stateside version, with heavier cotton than jungle fatigues, plus two pairs of boots, socks, and underwear. Then he walked to the post exchange with a pal to "get some personal items" he might need in Vietnam. After standing around while his buddy "called his 3 girl friends and took plenty of time to tell them good-bye," Jack phoned his parents. No one was home. He tried Eleanor. "But it seemed she wasn't home either, anyway no one answered, she and my son Lawrence Wayne probably went shopping in town." Mail call brought a letter from his mother urging him to be careful and have a "fast trip back to the States" at the end of twelve months.
That evening a posse of privates sat for haircuts, an outing described by Michael Taylor in a letter to his parents in Cordova, Alaska. "Everybody went haircut crazy.... Some guys got mohawks, some had rings going around their heads, others got polka dots. One guy had his look like wings.... Of course, we all have to have another haircut because the Old Man won't go for it." It was, if nothing else, another way for the young soldiers to express their conflicted feelings about the military before they departed for the unknown.
"Men are anxious to leave now," Schroder signed off his diary that night. "I don't blame them much." Officers included: at their own private going-away party, sixteen war-bound lieutenants emptied four cases of champagne.
The soldiers were mustered at one the next morning and ordered to turn in their bedding and clean the barracks before being divided into three groups for the bus ride to the air field. "It was a very cloudy rainy & dreary day plus cold," Schroder wrote. He talked to two stewardesses on the commercial flight to San Diego, but still it was "not a good trip," lasting "4 hours and some odd minutes." A charter bus brought them to the navy pier, where other replacement packets, some army aviators, and a vast contingent of marines waited to board the ship that would sail them all to Vietnam. It was the USNS General John Pope, an old bucket named for the Civil War general who was relieved of command by Lincoln after the second Battle of Bull Run.
The USNS Pope had made its first Pacific run in December 1943 carrying troops from San Francisco to New Caledonia and was pulled out of mothballs by the Military Sealift Command for Vietnam service. It was a General Class transport ship: 623 feet long, with a maximum speed of twenty-one knots and room for 5,289 men. When sunlight hit at certain angles, massive dents became visible in the hull. "Is this what the Reluctant looked like?" asked C Packet lieutenant Tom Grady, a graduate of Lasalle University in Philadelphia, when he caught sight of the creaky vessel. Grady was reminded of the hapless supply ship that Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon were stuck on in the dark World War II comedy Mister Roberts.
The C Packet troops waited three hours before they were allowed aboard. They marched up the plank to the huzzahs of a brass band, but once they reached deck, there was another delay before chow, because twenty-seven hundred marines ate first. The next morning Schroder hustled to the breakfast line before the mob of marines. The ship was scheduled to leave port at one that afternoon, but the loading took several hours more, which seemed providential to the men. "All day there were young women & girls here at the dock trying to get the GIs to whistle and talk to them and they did," Schroder noted. "Some even missed chow because of the girls. I don't know what they are going to do when they get a leave in December for R.R. (Rest & Recuperation)."
Not long after they shoved off, there was an abandon-ship drill and another meal. The food was not bad, Schroder wrote touchingly, as if he had been living in domestic bliss for years, but "not anywhere near the cooking at home I get from my wife Eleanor." For Michael Taylor and Bill McGath, two C packet troops assigned KP duty, the comparison to home cooking was beyond imagining. One of their jobs was to help navy chefs prepare scrambled eggs for breakfast, which involved climbing up a metal ladder to crack 122 dozen eggs into a massive kettle. They staged contests to see who could crack the most eggs at once, with shell shards flying unappetizingly into the mix. McGath noticed from the crates that the eggs were not fresh but had been in cold storage for fourteen months. What struck Mike Troyer most about breakfast service was that meals awaited them on prestacked trays: eggs that were stuck to the bottom of one metal tray would be scraped onto the plate below.
The enlisted men were also stacked, floor to ceiling, row after row, seven berths high. The first few nights at sea were all rocking and rolling. Troyer's bunk felt like a stomach-turning amusement park ride. His feet would rise above his head, then his head would rise above his feet, up and down, all night long. "A lot of the men was sick during the night. The sea got plenty rough last night and has been almost all day," Schroder's July 8 entry began. "After chow almost everyone has been hanging over the sides vomiting." Doug Cron, from an Ohio dairy farm, had never been on a boat before. He felt queasy as soon as the ship left port and stayed sick most of the way, spending more time on deck than in the mess hall. Santiago Griego discovered danger at the rail. His first time there he looked up barely in time to duck vomit streaming down at him from a deck above.
Seasickness was what passed for excitement. The daily routine grew so tedious so quickly that Fort Lewis seemed hectic in retrospect. The soldiers went to movies, read paperbacks, prepared quarters for inspection, sunbathed when the weather turned hot, peeled their skin, began taking malaria pills, did more calisthenics, attended Vietnamese language classes, or skipped them, went to Bingo Night on Tuesday and Thursday, and jostled with the scruffy, tattooed marines. "Everywhere you go there are Marines, most of them are good men but there are a few that could stand to be thrown overboard," wrote Mike Troyer. They also played poker in the latrines, organized boxing matches, wrote letters and notes in journals, talked endlessly about what they would do on R&R or when they got back home, and slept. Lieutenant Grady, who under normal circumstances prided himself on the ways he could avoid physical exertion (he was one of the winded officers during the long-distance runs at Fort Lewis), became so bored that he started looking forward to physical training twice a day.
The only good part of the voyage, Grady told the troops, was that time aboard ship was subtracted from the one-year Vietnam tour. "Hey, look, it's not that bad," he often said, trying to raise spirits. "That's three weeks you don't have to spend there." With his gregarious nature, and without rigid regard for rank, Grady, who volunteered for the draft and was commissioned at officer candidate school, often talked freely to the kids in the packet and made friends among them. He grew especially fond of Michael Farrell, a nineteen-year-old draftee from New Orleans, who had a "bubbly and optimistic nature." Farrell was the sort of young buck who thought he was invincible. He confided to Grady that he wanted to be a machine gunner in Vietnam. "Why in God's name would you want to do that?" the lieutenant asked.
On the twelfth Jack Schroder wrote in his diary: "Well, today
is my birthday, and what a place to be spending it out on a
ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean miles from nowhere."
Private Landon, who also kept a diary of the voyage, described
the atmosphere that day as "battle ship gray all the way." He
had been pulling guard duty on deck since they left port five
days earlier and had "yet to see another ship." On the
thirteenth, as they crossed the International Date Line, he
spotted a small whale three hundred yards away.