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  Revisiting Vietnam American RadioWorks
     
  Vietnam Scrapbook
     

J. Michael Orange, Vietnam veteran
St. Paul, MN, USA

A Study in Change and Motion (Excerpt from a work
in progress: "Fire In the Hole: A Mortarman in
Vietnam")


The 30-foot elevation of a guard tower in Vietnam
offered a long view: A view beyond the
bomb-cratered rice paddies that lay between our
perimeter defenses and the quiet little village
500 yards distant. A view beyond the two barrack
tents that housed my 81 mm mortar platoon and the
platoon’s four gun pits. A view that encompassed
the entire Marine fire support base in the middle
of Quang Nam Province, 120 miles from the
Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and half a world away
from my home.
Our firebase had seven towers. From my perch in
Guard Tower Number 2, I could see Guard Tower
Number 3 to my right and southwest about 70 yards
and, about the same distance to the north, Tower
Number 1 located adjacent to the camp entrance.
The three towers framed the curving eastern edge
of the firebase. The odd-numbered towers had two
guards with an M79 grenade launcher, an M60
machine gun, and, occasionally, an M72 rocket
launcher. The even-numbered towers had a lone
Marine and his rifle.
I had a good view of the village and its rice
fields. On that day, new rice stalks, less than a
foot in height, painted the paddy steppes in a
bright pea-green color that contrasted with the
dark earthen paddy walls. A water buffalo pulled
its plow and lone farmer through the muck of the
uppermost paddy. In the village, old women, teeth
blackened from chewing betel nuts, a few old men,
and dozens of kids lived in the shanties and
thatched-roof huts. I never learned the name of
the village.
Able-bodied young men were conspicuously absent.
No doubt they had already been conscripted by one
of the three branches of the Vietnamese military:
the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), our
allies; the North Vietnamese Army (NVA); or the
insurgent Communist forces of the National
Liberation Front, better known as Viet Cong, VC,
or Victor Charley.
The razor sharp edges of the double rows of
intertwining and spiraling concertina wire
glistened in the midday sun. I had strung what
seemed like miles of this stuff around our base
and had the cuts to prove it. More experienced
Marines had booby-trapped the perimeter wire with
trip flares and Claymore mines. Each mine packed
700 ball bearings imbedded in a plastique shape
charge designed to make mincemeat of intruders.
Inside the perimeter defenses and near the base's
entrance and Tower Number 1, some Vietnamese ran a
tailor shop, a barber shop, and sold radios,
toothpaste, film and other black market goods out
of a rickety shack. It barely offered shelter from
the sun’s penetrating beam and the incessant rain
of the monsoon season. Staff Sgt. Martinez, my
Chief Drill Instructor in boot camp, never told us
Vietnamese would be on the firebases or that
they’d cut our hair and launder our clothes.
Kids often rummaged through our trash for food or
cloth to repair the rags that hung on their little
bodies. A scrap of cardboard, wood or plastic made
their ramshackle huts a little more resilient. I
had never seen this degree of destitution. "Don’t
trust any gooks" Sgt. Martinez had warned us with
passionate disgust. He survived two tours of duty
in Vietnam so I listened to him studiously.
From my vantage point in the guard tower I
followed the movements of my fellow Marines below.
Only two things drove soldiers from the shade on
100-plus-degree days like this one. I chuckled as
I watched the unlucky ones fill sandbags and burn
shit. Empty 55-gallon drums cut in half served as
our septic tanks. When full, we pulled them away
from the bottoms of the outhouses, added diesel
fuel and toilet paper and then stirred the 25
gallons of gumbo gingerly for a few minutes to get
a smooth consistency prior to lighting it up. The
ever-present odor became the signature of base
camp.
Having completed a 360-degree visual
reconnaissance, I rechecked my M16 Armalite
assault rifle. Locked and loaded with 18 rounds of
high-powered ammunition with the 19th round
already in the chamber, selector switch on SAFE,
windage on the rear sight set on zero. Half out of
boredom, half for the sake of perpetual practice,
I swung it up and seated it deep into my right
shoulder. Right elbow high. I rotated my left
elbow into my rib cage and trained the sights on a
rock out beyond the concertina wire. "Bone
support" Martinez preached. "Be the bone
equivalent of a tripod." In boot camp, he taught
me to intertwine my rifle sling so tightly around
my left arm and wrist I felt the weapon had
grafted itself to my frame. After countless hours
in painful firing positions with an empty rifle,
the only reward was the repetitive dull "click" of
the hammer. The consummate experience of boot camp
was the rifle range. Firing live rounds at the
human-shaped silhouettes on paper targets engaged
all my senses and resulted in my marksmanship
award. Alone in Guard Tower Number 2, I had
graduated to the next stage where both the rounds
and the targets were live and the reward was
survival.
I squeezed off an imaginary round into the
forehead of the rock and turned to Calculus and
Analytic Geometry, by George B. Thomas Jr., the
text for the correspondence course I was taking.
At that time, early in my tour of duty, I still
harbored the long-term view of a normal
post-Vietnam world for myself.
Calculus was one of the reasons for my being in
Vietnam. It was a requirement for the architecture
degree I was working on at Kent State University
in Kent, Ohio but I did so poorly in it I ended up
on academic probation and lost my college
deferment at the end of the 1967 school year. My
Cleveland draft board was about to reclassify me
as "Class I-A: Registrant available for military
service."
I did have choices. I could concentrate on my
studies or change majors (and dreams) if necessary
to dodge or at least postpone the draft.
(Ironically, this is what I did do after returning
to school upon being discharged.) Canada was also
an option. (Ten thousand U. S. draft dodgers
sought safe asylum there during the war.) Or I
could stay and fight the draft and risk a prison
sentence. (Nearly 250,000 young American men did
resist the draft laws during the War.) Declaring
myself a conscientious objector (CO) was not an
option because, at the time of my enlistment, only
Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses could get CO
status because both religions had long histories
of pacifism and consistent opposition to all wars.
Later, CO status was available to those who could
effectively argue that they weren't opposed to all
wars, but only the Vietnam War. (I even helped a
friend draft his application in 1971 after I
returned home. He was successful.)
I had choices, but in the summer of 1967, I was
still a patriot at heart. I was the product of the
hero myths of my youth. I had absorbed the
messages from my Catholic faith that condemned
"godless Communists" and from the Hollywood
formula movies that glorified World War II. When
President John F. Kennedy proclaimed during his
Inauguration Day speech in 1961 that America would
"pay any price, bear any burden" for freedom in
Vietnam, I, like so many others in my generation,
felt a deep stirring of romantic patriotism. "Ask
not what your country can do for you. Ask what you
can do for your country" is still the single most
memorable sentence of my life. In 1965, I argued
for increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam in a
high school debate. That same summer, I visited
the Lincoln memorial in Washington D.C. and wept
at Lincoln’s eulogy to the fallen soldiers at
Gettysburg, engraved on the memorial’s polished
white marble.
I envied the moral certitude of my parent’s world
that had been shaped by the "good war." Instead of
their black-and-white views, I faced an ambiguous
blur of contradictory concepts, events and
difficult questions: The Domino Theory;
containment of Communism; treaty commitments with
the nascent South Vietnamese government; searing
images of the Buddhist monks immolating themselves
in protest of the oppressive Diem regime, our
puppet dictator; the August 1964, Tonkin Gulf
incident. The political issues of the era nagged
at my conscience: Was this a war of national
liberation? Were we fighting on the wrong side?
Was it a civil war being used as a proxy for the
Cold War? Were North Vietnam and its allies waging
a war of aggression? Was Ho Chi Minh a nationalist
hero or a Southeast Asian Stalin? Was it wise to
step in where the French left off? How could
fighting, killing and risking dying be compatible
with my values and dreams? How would I prefer to
enter manhood: as a Vietnam vet or as a draft
dodger? I lacked the conviction and courage to
resist the draft and I couldn’t shirk my duty in
good conscience. Becoming a man meant becoming a
soldier.
I’ve long hated the concept expressed by the
phrase "fuck it." It presages a suspension of
reason and ethics and a personal surrender. In
Nam, otherwise normal people said "fuck it" and
opened up on automatic on any target. In the
summer of 1968, I said "fuck it" and joined the
Marines. The Marines promised to make a man out of
me and offered the shortest time in uniform—18
months of active duty. The thought of the GI Bill
to help finance school after the service sounded
very good. The mindless job in the military of
simply taking orders looked a lot easier than
working my way through architecture school.
I shaved my head the night before I shipped out
for six months of training: Boot camp at Parris
Island, South Carolina; Advanced Infantry Training
School and Mortar School at Camp Geiger in
Charlotte, North Carolina; and final training in
Fort Pendleton near Oceanside, California. By
March, 1969, I was in excellent physical shape,
brainwashed and ready to kill for my country. Then
my Commander in Chief, President Nixon, sent me to
Vietnam to practice my new skills.
Back in Guard Tower Number 2, the text on my lap
beckoned: Calculus, the study of change and
motion. As I had done at Kent State just months
earlier, I again struggled to calculate the
distance between two points via a series of
estimates of the halfway point. The more numerous
the estimates, the greater the precision. Even
though the dichotomy of mathematics’ exactness was
in stark contrast to the War’s uncertainties, the
calculus technique of getting from point A to B by
multiple halfway measures seemed ironically
consonant with the series of decisions I made,
each bringing me halfway to where I was sitting at
that moment.
My mind wandered again and so did my gaze. About
50 yards directly to the west, two boys were
rummaging in a garbage can located next to one of
Charley Company's barrack tents. It was unusual
for Vietnamese to wander this far from their shack
by the base entrance. The boys looked about eight
and ten years old. They were both frail and
emaciated. Our garbage was their feast.
With a start, they raced away from the garbage
can back towards the base entrance. In a couple of
seconds, a crunching, bone-crushing explosion
punched my tower. The blast and the shrapnel it
fashioned from the garbage can shredded the
barrack tent's wooden platform floor and contents,
and heaved the burning mass into the air atop a
dark sphere of smoke that rode a core of yellow
flame. The shock wave knocked the two kids to the
ground momentarily. I quickly surmised they had
planted a home-made bomb but had used too short a
fuse.
Instinctively, I traded tools, dropped Calculus
and Analytic Geometry, and grabbed the pistol grip
of my M16. I thumbed the selector off SAFE, past
SEMI and all the way over to AUTO as I shouldered
the weapon, oblivious as to whether the target was
another paper silhouette from the rifle range or a
young boy. The constant drills by Staff Sgt.
Martinez came alive in my head. "Snap in. Aim in.
Breath control. Focus on the front sight post, not
the target." Only on the rifle range did the DI
ever use a soothing voice. His coaching was as
meditative as a Zen centering exercise. "Keep it
to three-round bursts. The up-and-left pull of the
M16 will waste the Marine Corps’ fourth round."
Through the circular rear sight, I saw the target
do a running dance between the front sight post
and the left edge of the front sight as I led him.
I recalled the firing range adage: aim low when
firing down. My chest muscles had already halted
their bellows action. "If you’re squeezing that
trigger oh so slowly," advised Sgt. Martinez, "you
won’t know when the hammer is released. Learn to
make that moment happen between your heartbeats or
you’ll never get off my rifle range." His
relentless training had set me on the same
automatic fire as my weapon.
A three-round burst erupted from the machine gun
to my north in Tower Number 1. The gunner had a
clear shot at under 30 yards of the two boys as
they ran directly towards him. The fine dust
danced a three-step toward the taller and faster
boy. The next burst ripped through his right
thigh, belly and chest and sent him reeling. An
instant later, after a minute adjustment by the
gunner, three more lead slugs, rocketing at Mach
3, bore clean through the chest of the smaller
trailing boy. He collapsed abruptly in a heap not
more than three feet from the other boy. Then the
other machine gunner in Tower Number 3 opened up
even though he was nearly 70 yards away. A moment
later, I heard the higher-pitched cracks of M16
fire and the small area around the boys became a
free-fire zone.
In boot camp, Sgt. Martinez described in detail
how the 5.56 mm M16 round was designed to be just
enough off-balance so it would tumble after
entering soft flesh. I had studied the complex
trajectory of an imbalanced object as a practical
example in my calculus course. In the textbook
case it was a tossed hammer. Now I was observing
this equation in terms of hot metal tossed through
little boys.
The two boys came apart in the firing frenzy.
Sound reverberated from all directions for an
interminable time period as the metal opened them
up, exploded their faces, and spilled their
intestines onto the reddening sand. They no longer
looked human. More like freeway road kill when the
evisceration is so severe you can't identify the
species. I stared, but could not fire. Targets no
longer, I saw only dead children.
I don't remember what happened to the boys'
bodies. I don't remember what happened to the
three Charley Company Marines who were resting in
the hooch before the explosion. I vaguely remember
hearing low moans and cries for a medic, seeing
blackened and bleeding bodies. A medevac chopper
probably arrived within minutes to whisk them to a
hospital ship moored in the South China Sea, but I
can't be sure.
I do remember wondering how parents could allow
their children to embark on a suicide mission.
Their mission succeeded. Days later we learned
that two of the wounded Marines had died. I
realized the Vietnamese were fighting for their
land, for their next meal, for their lives. For
them, war was a life-long, inter-generational,
noble endeavor. For me, the War had
   

 

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