David Lee Thompson
David grew up in Bowen Creek, West Virginia. After serving his country during the Vietnam Era, he graduated from Marshall University with an M.A. in education. Now retired from teaching, he lives in Salt Rock, West Virginia, with his wife, Janet. They have two sons and two grandsons.
Why is it when we’re young, no contentment can be found? All our hope lies somewhere in the future, where things always look better. When I was in elementary school, I wanted to explore the world of junior high. Then, after the silliness of junior high, I could almost taste sweet sixteen. In the middle of my teenage years, I became impatient. I couldn’t wait to be out of high school. But these years passed swiftly, and before I knew it, I had not only finished high school but business school as well. I landed a job right away and was on my own. It didn’t take long, though, for me to yearn for something greater – something more interesting and with better pay.
In the spring of 1965, I worked as an accounts clerk for a food distributor in Huntington, West Virginia. At the end of one of my routine days, I drove home, pulled in the driveway, then got out and started across the road toward the house. Looking ahead, I noticed Daddy stepping off the front porch, making his way down the walk to meet me. When he got close, he pushed the palm of his hand forward, gesturing for me to stop. He placed his left hand on my right shoulder and said, “Marie’s upset.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“You got drafted to the army today.”
“Is she crying?” I asked, at the same time thinking, “She’s upset? What about me?”
Still, I didn’t express these thoughts to Daddy. I managed to keep my cool then continued toward the house. I hadn’t listened for Daddy’s answer to my previous question. I didn’t have to. I already knew.
Once inside, I found Mother in the kitchen cooking supper and crying. When she saw me, she cried even harder. I couldn’t stand seeing her cry, so I quickly tried to reassure her that everything would be okay. When things settled down, I asked Mother, “Where’s the letter?” She picked it up off the little telephone table in the dining room. When I opened it, I read:
The President of the United States,
To: David L. Thompson
Branchland, West Virginia 25506
You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States, and to report to Cabell County Court House, Huntington, West Virginia, on May 12, 1965, at 7:00 A.M., for forwarding to an Armed Forces Induction Station.
Once I’d read the letter, I folded it and put it back in the envelope. Then my mind reeled from the confirmation. An instant wave of nausea swept over my body. The Vietnam Conflict had begun to escalate, so I’d been expecting this special invitation from the President – especially, since a lot of the guys I knew had gotten their induction notice, too. But on the other hand, it all seemed surreal. We think about and accept unpleasant things happening to others but never to us.
I worked for a while longer then terminated my employment after being assured that I’d still have a job once I served my two years. I spent the next few days at home saying my good-byes to friends and family. Then, as requested by the President, I reported to the Cabell County Court House in Huntington, on May 12, 1965. My brother-in-law, Truman, drove me there, and Mother went along. It was difficult saying good-bye to Mother but knew I’d be seeing her in a couple of months – once basic training was completed at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I’d said good-bye to Daddy that morning before he left for work. He gave his usual barrage of kisses – not being the type to just give a little peck on the cheek. Daddy bathed our faces all over when he kissed us. He’d never think of leaving for work without pestering us awake and wetting us down with this display of affection. It didn’t matter who spent the night with us either. They got kissed just like the rest of us.
Despite the horror stories I’d heard about basic training, it wasn’t too bad. The worst part of the whole thing was sending my civilian clothes back home, knowing how Mother would cry and hold them to her bosom the way she did the day my brother, Kenneth’s, clothes arrived from Great Lakes, Illinois. The second worst thing I had to do was crawl inside a dumpster to scrub it down on KP. Even the mess sergeant apologized, saying, “I hate to see you have to do this, Thompson. It’s not my idea – just something that came down from the higher-ups.” It only lasted for a day, though. All of basic training was like that – just a series of irritating little intimidations that had to be tolerated. It was simply a matter of taking one day at a time until it was finished.
Once we graduated from basic, everyone received orders for their next duty station. Mine stated that I was to report to Fort Riley, Kansas. I wasn’t too happy about going there but had to accept what was doled out. Kansas was a lot farther from West Virginia than Fort Knox, so I wanted to make the most of my leave. After all, who could say how long it would be before I could come home again. I saw family and friends during my furlough but couldn’t get up the nerve to ask if I could see the one I wanted to be with most of all – Janet – the love of my life since ninth grade and the one who gave the best kisses in Cabell County. But my psyche overpowered me, making me think she’d turn me down, and I couldn’t risk rejection at that point in my life. So, I suffered the agony of defeat without even attempting to fight the battle.
Once my two-week leave was over, Mother and Daddy took me to Tri-State Airport in Huntington, where I boarded a plane for Manhattan, Kansas. It was difficult saying good-bye, and Mother cried again, just like I knew she would. This was my first time to fly. I was scared but didn’t let on – tried to be brave in front of Mother.
Although I was nervous about flying, I soon realized it was a great way to travel. Even the plane changes I made weren’t bad for a novice. As we taxied to the runway in Kansas City, I peeked out the window and saw tumbleweeds rolling by; then I took a deep sigh, thinking, “Oh my, Kansas looks so dreary and lonesome.” And it was. I was used to the green hills of West Virginia. Instead of leaving “… my heart in San Francisco,” I’d left it in the Mountain State with Janet, who wasn’t even aware of its presence. Kansas was way too flat for a hillbilly. Besides this was where Dorothy was swept away by the tornado in The Wizard of Oz. I never did like storms. But now, this big soldier – one afraid of storms – was heading in the direction of a region called Tornado Alley.
Finally, I arrived in Manhattan, where I hired a taxi to Fort Riley. The driver dropped me off at the Reception Station then sped away. I was apprehensive but went inside and checked in. Almost quicker than I could put down my duffel bag, I was ordered to buff the hallway. I followed orders and began buffing. I’d never used an electric buffer before, so it wasn’t surprising that I lost control and crashed it against the phone booth near the entrance. Its glass doors shattered into thousands of tiny shards – another little job to clean up before bedtime. So far things weren’t going well.
I spent the night at the Reception Station, then early next morning I was processed out for 1st Administration Company, 1st Infantry Division – The Big Red One – across the field from Reception. As I crossed the field, I noticed a company of soldiers engaged in morning PT exercises. I asked one of them, “Why’s everybody dressed in green underwear?”
His answer was in the form of a question too – “Man, you mean you didn’t know 1st Infantry’s headed for Vietnam?”
Well, no, I didn’t. And… why didn’t somebody tell me before now? And… will I have to fight my way on shore like they did in Normandy? And… when do we have to go? And… will I ever see my family again? And… why did I have to get drafted? And… why didn’t I go to college so I wouldn’t be drafted in the first place? And… how is Mother going to stand it when they wheel in my flag-draped coffin? And… why was I ever born? All these questions and more flashed through my mind in a matter of seconds. Since the mind can think faster than the speed of light, perhaps our life passes before us only nanoseconds prior to death after all.
Soon, I settled in at Fort Riley, accepted my fate of going to Southeast Asia, and was out every morning doing PT with the rest of the GI’s in my olive-drab underwear. I also discovered I wouldn’t be storming the beaches after all because I was assigned to the position of secretary to the division inspector general. What a relief it was to know I’d be working for the IG.
Although I could’ve gone home on leave before shipping out, I refused. I knew how Mother would react. Irving, the guy with whom I shared my cubicle in the barracks said, “You really ought to go home, you know – even if it’s just to kiss your mother good-bye.” He went home but didn’t tell his mother he was going to Vietnam. Since our overseas address was San Francisco, not Vietnam – and his mother couldn’t speak English – he said she’d never know the difference. But Irving didn’t know my mother. She’d find out somehow. He didn’t know how she’d react, having to say good-bye to me and knowing I was headed for Vietnam – perhaps never to return alive. I couldn’t handle that scene myself. No. It was better that I not go home. I wrote my sister, Pat, a letter and asked her to tell Mother and Daddy. I hated to burden her with this responsibility but felt it was the best decision for all concerned.
The division had to get ready for deployment in less than a month. In addition, I had to get my chauffeur’s license, learn how to drive a jeep, and even back it up with its trailer attached. Now, that was an interesting feat to master. How was I to know that, in order for the trailer to go the way I wanted, the jeep’s front wheels had to be turned in the opposite direction? Sometimes the military took it for granted that we learned everything through osmosis, just like a bunch of pickles soaking in brine. But the day we formed a convoy to load The Big Red One onto the train heading for San Francisco, my jeep and trailer were in the convoy, and I was the driver – regardless of my lack of training.
Before we left Fort Riley, they issued each of us an M-14 rifle. From that point on, it became part of us – until it was turned in at the end of our tour of duty. They were strapped across our shoulders on the troop train heading for San Francisco, and we even had to sleep with them aboard the USS Barrett during its twenty-one-day voyage across the Pacific and South China Sea. Why not? Our rifle was our best friend and protector. We needed to treat it with respect and give it the best care possible. We’d been sufficiently indoctrinated to think like soldiers. Above all, we had to call it either a weapon or rifle – never a gun. Once, in basic training, I heard a greenhorn call his rifle a gun. Big mistake. The drill sergeant first ordered him to stand on a garbage can with the butt of his rifle raised to chin level. Next, he was told to use his right index finger, alternating to where he was pointing – first to his rifle, then to his privates – while repeating, “This is my rifle, and this is my gun. This one’s for shootin’, and this one’s for fun.” Within an hour or so this dedicated soldier was properly indoctrinated in the purpose for each object.
The first days out to sea were exciting, but the bulk of our crossing was monotonous. There was nothing to do except stand on deck, play cards, grumble, and squint into an endless body of salt water, to observe the occasional dolphin or school of flying fish popping out of the water. Some of the troops were assigned KP, but for some reason, I had no duties at all during the whole trip. Although we showered daily, we did it in ocean water, making our skin dry and itchy. I spent the first eleven days in the same fatigues because my duffel bag had been thrown to the bottom of the heap in a compartment containing more than two hundred bags. By the end of day eleven, my clothes were gamy, but I didn’t attempt the test to see if they’d stand alone in the corner.
After a week out to sea, we encountered a raging storm – too severe for anyone to go on deck for the next four days. The ship’s bow dipped beneath the angry waters time and again. Since this was the place I was sheltered for the passage, it was a churning ride the whole time the vessel was pummeled about. When we’d cruised beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, I’d wondered if I would suffer seasickness. Luckily, I didn’t. They’d told us before we left, “Eat lots of crackers,” so I wandered about with a box of saltines tucked under my arm – like a little old lady carrying her purse. Following this advice paid off for me, but others failed to heed the instructions. I saw a few who couldn’t walk down the gangway unassisted. They took on a greenish tinge to their already ashen skin. I had plenty of sympathy for them but glad I wasn’t suffering as they were. Over the years, I’d endured nausea and vomiting from stomach viruses, but from observing my comrades, seasickness had to be far worse than anything that I had ever experienced. Once the storm passed, we were permitted back on deck, but the seas were still too rough for my liking. When I observed the swells beyond the stern, they billowed frightfully – emerged from the depths to several stories high behind us. These bulges appeared to chase us and looked as though each could open its monstrous mouth and swallow the USS Barrett in a single gulp – to satisfy its hunger for flesh and steel.
Finally, the seas mellowed, and we sailed nonstop through the Philippines. However, we dropped anchor for one last hurrah on the pint-sized island of Guam. It was Sunday, a few days prior to our arrival in Vietnam. Swimming in these pristine waters was a treat. They were clear enough that I could see my feet, while standing in water to my armpits. We were docked from early morning until ten that night. They treated us with a cookout of hamburgers and hot dogs, all the potato chips we could eat, and as much as we wanted to drink. Under normal circumstances, the army would never supply its soldiers with free beer. But for this occasion, I reasoned, their generosity rose from the fact that some of us would not return alive. Most ate and drank until satisfied, but some drank beyond contentment. For as long as I live, I will never see, nor hope to see, so many individuals drunk at one time. According to the ship’s newsletter the next day, 2,800 GI’s drank 17,000 cans of beer – an average of a little more than six cans per person. Of course, several guzzled more and a few downed less, but some sipped no beer at all – they just observed. Again, many were sick, but none suffered as they had with seasickness a few days earlier.
Halfway between Guam and Vietnam, we experienced engine trouble. For two hours the USS Barrett bobbed in the calm waters of the Pacific, draped by a heavy blanket of fog. Nothing was discernable in any direction, and each soul on board realized that miles of water lay beneath us. For safety precautions, we were ordered to put on life jackets. In the quietness of the fog, and with the delicate lapping of ocean water against the ship’s hull, the foghorn bellowed a most mournful tone – something I never wish to experience again. Its low-pitched warnings droned through the mist, letting other ships within our lane know our location. I was overcome with homesickness and longed for the safety of that little house on Bowen Creek and the protection of my aging parents. Although I wasn’t looking forward to our next stop in the South China Sea, I felt great relief when the engines were repaired, and we were once again on our way.
On arriving in the port city of Vung Tau, Vietnam, everyone was squeezed into army trucks for transport to the Reception Center in Bien Hoa. When we arrived in Bien Hoa, there was a sea of pup tents – the home to GI’s processing to various locations throughout South Vietnam. In the boiling heat of mid-afternoon, we set up our own pup tents for the night and for what time we’d be in Bien Hoa, before being processed out to our different units. My first meal was C-rations – the first time I’d eaten them since basic training. I wasn’t hungry because of the sweltering heat, so my appetite for C-rations was diminished even more. This Spartan meal in my new home was tasteless, just as I remembered it.
My first night in Vietnam was unforgettable. When I was younger, camping was always a fun-filled experience. Back then, we slept beneath the stars and enjoyed nature to the fullest; however, my first night in this foreign land was altogether different. First, it rained. Next, it poured. Then, the sky opened up, and the rain came down in buckets. To say we got drenched in our pup tents would be an understatement. Water flooded inside my tent, saturating what little bedding I had beneath my body, and leaving me to spend the rest of the night in misery. Where were the Viet Cong when I needed ‘em? Why didn’t they just storm this deplorable place and deliver me from all suffering? This event was number two on my list of terrible experiences in Southeast Asia. My number one most miserable hour was yet to come.
After three days of withstanding culture shock, I was transported to what was home for the next year – Di An, Vietnam – a small village twenty miles northeast of Saigon. Once our caravan sped through Di An, we then took a dirt road two miles north to our compound, passing through an MP checkpoint before entering the compound itself. The sandbagged MP bunker near the entrance was heavily fortified with M-60 machine guns. Several rows of rolled wire ran along the perimeter of the compound, and the barbed wire itself stretched through a field of land mines. As my eyes surveyed the site, I noticed the entire area lacked vegetation of any kind. It had been defoliated by an herbicide – what we later learned was Agent Orange – something harmful to humans and their offspring.
From my September arrival until after Christmas, I lived and worked in the same tent with Lieutenant Colonel Hayes, Inspector General of The Big Red One. This situation was highly unusual – in fact, it would’ve been intolerable Stateside – an officer and enlisted man living in the same quarters. Col. Hayes, however, allowed these special privileges until his assistant, Major Butler, arrived in January.
We drove into Saigon often, particularly to the Cholon area where the military Post Exchange was located. Of course, I always drove the jeep; no officer would ever chauffeur an enlisted man. But I enjoyed driving, even if it meant I chanced being shot by some Viet Cong sniper as we traveled through the crowded community of Di An or along the busy highway to Saigon. We were subject to having a grenade tossed into the jeep or stood the chance of running over a land mine while traveling to or from our compound. It was guerilla warfare, and no one was safe.
Although working for the division IG exempted me from KP, I was not excluded from guard duty. All enlisted personnel below the rank of sergeant had it every thirty days. Foxholes that held two men and a folding cot were situated at fifty-foot intervals along the compound’s perimeter. The men alternated throughout the night – two hours of staring into blackness then two on the cot. Sleeping instead of scanning the perimeter for Viet Cong was a serious offense, but staying awake was nearly impossible, too. Sometime during the night, the officer of the guard made his rounds. Military procedure was vital for security. The guard was first to speak, saying, “Halt!” Once the officer stopped, the guard continued, “Who goes there?”
“The officer of the guard.”
“Advance to be recognized,” the guard countered, allowing the officer to step closer before repeating, “Halt!” Again the officer stopped. At this point, the guard whispered the secret word for the night, and the officer countered with the secret response. If the officer failed to respond but continued to advance, then the guard was compelled to shoot.
One night an MP at the compound’s main entrance followed this procedure when he heard a rustling in the bushes. This unknown intruder didn’t stop. They opened fire with an M-60 machine gun. Next morning, they discovered a disemboweled water buffalo close to their bunker. Since he was born and raised in Vietnam, he was unable to understand English, tragically ending his life.
Smoking on duty without being spotted by the enemy was difficult, but I was skilled at doing it and had the habit, so I risked the effort. Squatting in the foxhole, I put a poncho over my head and lit the cigarette. I placed the lighted end inside a pop can and then removed the poncho. Holding the cigarette with my thumb and index finger, I cupped my hand around the opening. I could then puff away without fear of the enemy detecting the glow.
Not only was I not exempt from guard duty, I was also expected to perform ambush patrol – a frightening experience in this foreign land. Once my name was posted, I had no choice but to obey orders. On the day of patrol, we met after our noon meal in front of the CO’s tent. Everyone wore camouflage fatigues and helmets, and each warrior had an M-14 strapped across his shoulder. I was handed two twenty-five-pound ammo boxes of M-14 shells and two strips of M-60 machine gun bullets to strap across my upper torso. My knees nearly buckled from the weight of all that ammo. We blackened our faces, loaded our munitions and ourselves onto trucks, and were transported to a prearranged drop-off site outside the compound.
Once we got off the truck, we entered a thicket, heavily armed. By then, it was two in the afternoon. The sun was brutal and the humidity insufferable. At one time, I was fifty yards ahead of the others – point man with a machete – cutting a path for those following me. Not even the air had the strength to stir in the tightness of the underbrush. As I breathed the hot, tropical air, sweat flooded from my pores, quickly depleting each cell of its life-sustaining liquid. I wasn’t a highly trained infantryman – one whose training specialized in withstanding this brutality of nature. I prayed: Please, God, deliver me from this awful place! Let me dip my hot body in the cool, refreshing waters of the Guyandotte River of my childhood. When I realized I could take no more, something happened inside me that I’d never experienced, nor have I encountered the same since. I came to terms with my own mortality. At that moment, I was not afraid to die. My misery was so intense that I welcomed death from the hand of our enemy – the gooks of the jungle: something the GI’s called them. But as soon as we stepped out of the humid, suffocating thicket into a clearing, life became bearable once more. A slight breeze cooled my sweat-soaked body, and my breathing became less labored. At that moment, I knew my God had delivered me out of the jungle’s sweltering heat and from an agonizing death.
We walked on, passing artillery-formed craters created by our own forces. The nightly pounding outside our compound discouraged the enemy from coming near. Finally, we reached our campsite. The rains came, forcing us to endure more misery throughout the night, but it was no match for our hellish afternoon in that wretched jungle – the worst experience of my life. Next morning, we returned to our compound, more appreciative of its relative safety and comfort from that day on.
On Bowen Creek – where I was born – I always looked forward to mealtime, but not in Vietnam. I lacked an appetite because of the unbearable tropical climate and also because of the unappetizing food in our company mess. There was little variety. For breakfast they served powdered eggs, powdered milk, floppy bacon, toast, grapefruit juice, and coffee. At noon, we ate either ham or meatloaf, some variety of potato and vegetable, bread, powdered milk, and coffee. For supper, we ate whichever meat we didn’t have for lunch, some type of potato and vegetable, bread, powdered milk, and coffee. The next morning breakfast was the same, but lunch and supper were reversed from the day before. Finally, I reached the point where I could hardly stand the smell of ham or meatloaf – especially meatloaf. It was too firm, too brown, and contained filler that smelled like the dairy feed we fed our cows back home. In fact, I preferred the smell of dairy feed. I survived on canned foods from the PX – tuna, Vienna sausage, deviled ham or clams, and crackers. My daily intake of V8 juice also helped sustain me, but I lost fifty pounds in the process.
We ate from mess kits that we washed in a garbage can filled with hot, soapy water. They were then rinsed in a can of steaming water that turned sudsy after numerous douses down the line. Eventually, Vietnamese women hired by our government did KP. None spoke English, so the GI’s had them saying everything imaginable – gutter language at its worst. When everyone laughed, the women laughed, too, not realizing what they’d said or what they were laughing about. These words were crude, but at the time it was happening, I confess that I, too, found humor in hearing them mimic the vulgar American slang with their Vietnamese dialect.
All uneaten food from mess kits was tossed into garbage cans. When the local garbage trucks arrived on pick-up day, it was a sight to behold. Workers brought along different-sized containers for separating the discarded food. They rolled and pushed their shirtsleeves to their armpits then jammed their arms deep into the food mixture, bringing forth selected items to place into the separate containers. This procedure was repeated time and again until all vessels were filled. Several families would eat well that evening, with a diversion from their scant Vietnamese fare. I witnessed firsthand, people from another land gleaning to eat what we wasted, food I could no longer stomach. I thought to myself, Americans are so blessed. We all take everything for granted, and I’m afraid it will always be this way. I feel ashamed, and I’m ashamed for my fellow countrymen as well.
Because of my job, I traveled a lot with Col. Hayes. We commuted in the general vicinity of Saigon by jeep, but our journeys outside this sector were usually by helicopter. It thrilled me to ride in them, especially when their sliding doors were pushed back, creating the effect of a breezeway. The air was wonderfully cool. What a reprieve from my daily experience on the steamy surface below. Sometimes we skimmed near treetop level, but mostly we flew at a higher and safer altitude, above the firing range of the Viet Cong. Once, we traveled to Da Nang, close to the border separating South and North Vietnam. This time we flew in an army Caribou with its cargo door left open. After we gained altitude and leveled off, Col. Hayes crawled to the back of the plane, leaned his head over the edge of the cargo door and aimed his camera to take a picture of the panoramic view far below. He asked me to hang onto his feet in case he started to slide. During our return flight, the pilot took us to treetop level, just as the helicopter pilots had done on other occasions. And it was even more thrilling than before.
On Christmas Day, I was down in the dumps. I was afflicted with a severe case of homesickness. While walking along the main road of our compound, a C-130 transport plane flew low overhead. Above the roar of its engines, I distinctly heard “Silent Night,” which intensified my loneliness. My eyes welled with tears, but I quickly brushed them away. I didn’t want anyone witnessing my moment of weakness. Still, I yearned to be home with my family and to see Janet. Christmas was my favorite holiday, and I missed everyone more than I knew was possible. Later in the day, however, my burden was lifted. I was privileged to get to see “The Bob Hope Christmas Show” – live. The show was great, but the two-hour wait in humid, ninety-three-degree heat was miserable. To entertain us, Bob brought guest singers Jack Jones and Anita Bryant, actress Carol Baker, comedienne Phyllis Diller, and Les Brown and His Band Renowned. He also brought singer Kaye Starr, who threw her white glove into that sea of GI’s. A friend of mine caught it and walked around the rest of the day sniffing his perfume-laden trophy – a piece of memorabilia worn by a redheaded beauty dressed in a green-sequined gown.
For the holiday season, I decorated a one-foot, artificial tree and opened gifts of candy and cookies from home. My sister, Margaret, sent one of my favorite foods – a box of Snyder’s potato chips. I opened the wrong end and somehow scattered the contents onto the ground. No problem. I simply scooped them back into the box and shared them with my friends of 1st Admin. Company. I told them where the chips had been, but no one seemed to mind. They were all eaten except for the smidgen left on the ground for the Vietnamese ants.
During daily mail call, I received more letters than anyone in my company. On December 28, 1965 – Mother’s birthday – our mail clerk handed me the following:
My Prayer for Today
Make our soldier boys strong – strong to endure the
heat, the cold, the rain, the snow, and the horrible
sights of war. Stand by them, O Lord, and help them
to be kind to those who serve with them. Help them to
keep a clear thinking and a sane mind. Give them
courage. Thou knowest each one by name, and give
them courage to do the things they must do and
contribute his full part toward turning the light of
peace to the people of the world. Give them faith for
the future and strength to endure the present. Let
them know in their hearts that we love them and are
praying and thinking of them each hour of the day.
O Lord, if it be thy will, help them to complete their
mission, and bring them safely home. Amen.
I don’t know where she found this lovely prayer – perhaps she’d written it herself. What I do know is – I have cherished it from the moment I received it and will treasure it until the day I die. From 1965 until 1994, I carried it in my wallet, where it became tattered almost beyond recognition. In 1994, Anthony, my son, sneaked it from my billfold several months before Christmas, and Cheryl, his wife, cross-stitched the words onto an off-white fabric. She stitched other items onto the fabric as well. Near the top is a golden eagle between two red, white, and blue hearts. Along the bottom are the years 1965-1966 in gold lettering and between two American flags. After Cheryl completed her part, Anthony and my nephew, Jody, triple-matted the finished product in red, blue, and gold then put it in a frame they’d made from white ash. Anthony and Cheryl gave it to me for Christmas that same year. When I opened it, I was speechless – could do nothing except cry. It now hangs in our family room, where guests can see it immediately as they enter the front door. The original prayer, in Mother’s handwriting, is in a special envelope attached to the back of the frame. I can’t find words to describe its value to me – none other than “It’s priceless.”
During my stint in Vietnam, I made an effort to be a devoted soldier, citizen, and son. I took care of my body as well as I knew how. After all, I was a GI – Government Issue – so I was obligated to take care of myself. I didn’t always pick from the four basic food groups at mealtime but did the best I could with what I got from the mess hall and the PX. I tried to maintain good personal hygiene, too. I went to the communal shower each evening to scrub in cold water then shaved and sponge bathed each morning outside our tent. I changed clothes daily and had them washed often at the Chinese laundry on the compound. Each time I picked up my clothes, I suffered embarrassment over my laundry number – sixty-nine. The lady who waited on the customers would say, “Yora raundry numba, prease.”
I’d mumble, “Sixty-nine,” hoping no one would hear.
Then she’d scream to one of the workers in the back and all across Asia, “Sisty-nine!” All the GI’s picking up their own laundry would look at me and laugh because of the sexual connotations associated with my number. But this, too, I learned to tolerate.
As with most situations, my life in Southeast Asia became routine over time. In addition to eating and maintaining personal hygiene, I had my hair cut regularly by one of the Vietnamese barbers visiting the compound. I polished my boots often, but it was only time wasted, especially during monsoon season. They became mud-caked from daily rains that arrived like clockwork. Then at night, they molded from the persistent humidity. I wrote Mother nearly everyday and corresponded with other family members and friends as often as possible. I didn’t grumble about using the outdoor latrines. Although I was used to the outside toilet on Bowen Creek, this was different. They afforded no privacy, and the stench was terrible. Since there was no place else to go, this became our only recourse – even if it meant sitting in close proximity with three other GI’s—almost touching the sides of someone’s thighs and hips and smelling excrement other than our own. No one said a word. Each person looked straight ahead and stared at the blank wall, avoiding one another like passengers on a crowded elevator. At least we didn’t have to empty the waste containers. Vietnamese workers did this job, which, we heard, they used in agriculture. Rumor had it that this was the reason they were so successful at growing the large heads of cabbage seen at the local market.
The American soldier in Di An never knew what thoughts lay in the minds of the local citizenry. The Vietnamese who worked with us during the day could laugh and pretend to be our friends. On the other hand, they could put on another face at night to become our Viet Cong enemy, firing at us from outside the compound. We were always subject to unexpected adversity from the hands of traitors. Most frightful situations seem worse at night, but for some odd reason, I felt safer in darkness than in the brightness of day. There was a constant barrage of mortar rounds from our own military, strafing the area beyond the barbed wire of our perimeter throughout the night. The skies were well lighted most of the night with flares descending toward earth, each slowed by tiny parachutes that automatically deployed while floating downward. Helicopters secured the perimeter, bombarding the enemy with M-60 machine gun fire. The rhythm of lighted tracers guided the gunmen’s volley to their targets. Yes, it was during this nightly activity that I slept best. On dark, quiet nights, I lay on my cot in a cage of mosquito netting, wondering if this would be the night the enemy would go on a suicide mission, overrun our compound, and massacre an army of soldiers before our leaders could summon help.
During my experience on ambush patrol, I welcomed death. In a couple of other incidents, however, I wasn’t so hasty to embrace the thought of my possible demise. My first escape from being shot was the day after a night of guard duty. We always had the next day off to sleep. I wanted to rest during the coolness of morning but needed to sponge bathe outside our tent before lying down. I had laid out the essentials for bathing and shed all my clothing. Then, I wet down my body and lathered myself thoroughly. When I was completely soaped from chin to ankles, bullets began peppering the leaves of the tree I stood beneath. Immediately, I bellied to the ground, slithered inside my tent, and then pulled clothes on over a layer of grit and suds. The shooting stopped. Again, I undressed and proceeded to bathe, but there was a repeat of the first scene – like instant replay in a ballgame. I waited awhile before trying again but finally met with success on my third attempt.
My second close call came the night we were absorbed in a movie in our mess tent. Whenever the division artillery fired rounds over our compound, an explosion followed a whistling sound. As we gazed at the screen, a round passed overhead, making a whistling sound quite different from all the others. The moment it struck, the ground quaked, and the noise was deafening. Since most of us were in our underwear, we scattered from the mess tent in all directions, heading to our own tents to throw on our clothes and ready our weapons for attack. Along the way, I yelled to a fellow standing in the entrance of his tent, “What’s goin’ on, anyway?”
He screamed back, “We’re bein’ attacked!” His hands shook as he tried to put the clip of his M-14 in upside down.
We soon discovered that division artillery had fired a short round into 1st Signal Company located beside us – killing two of our men and wounding eleven. With this incident and another one where a cook from our company fired a round through the top of his tent one night, we had no need to fear the Viet Cong. It was our own military we had to keep an eye on.
One day, Col. Hayes received some disturbing news. He was summoned to go north for an investigation, so I went along to take notes. Once we arrived, the commanding officer of the field unit being investigated laid several pictures across his desk. What I saw in the pictures was gruesome and barbaric. Several infantrymen had participated in the act of decapitating a North Vietnamese soldier they’d killed earlier in battle. They took turns posing for pictures while holding the severed head by its hair, like some kind of trophy. These men even toyed with the head by placing it beside an outdoor urinal—a six-inch casing placed diagonally into the ground. They used it to frighten others who went out at night to urinate. Once the unsuspecting victims arrived at the site, these deviants surprised them by shining a light on the ghastly object. I couldn’t understand how our own men could be hardened to the point of such cruelty. I was proud to be serving in Vietnam, but this act sickened me, and I was ashamed of the ones who performed this atrocity. Once we returned to Di An, I typed up the report, then it was classified confidential and filed away in a steel safe. There it lay, to be seen only by the eyes of the four individuals who knew the safe’s combination: Col. Hayes, Maj. Butler, Sgt. Azeltine, and me. Case closed.
In spite of the hardships of war, time passed quickly. Monsoon season changed to a period of dryness, and the helicopters’ blades stirred the dust like typhoons. It settled thick on everything around, and we breathed it deep into our lungs daily. I was gettin’ short – referring to the time nearing my rotation back to the States. It was common that anyone getting short was frightened to leave the compound. We were afraid of being killed by some sniper hidden in the bushes along the dirt road to Di An. What a tragedy to be shot, with visions of home so near.
One evening, Col. Hayes and I had a serious talk. He’d gone to Bangkok for a week of rest and relaxation. He enjoyed it immensely and wanted me to experience it, too. It took some persuasion, but he finally convinced me that a period of R&R was what I needed before heading home. Besides, he needed me to pick up a few things for him that he’d forgotten while he was there. We also had a discussion on a topic of greater importance. I confided in him that I’d been in love with Janet since ninth grade. He said, “Then why don’t you write to her?”
“I can’t. I’m afraid she won’t answer.”
“How will you ever know unless you write? Just do it, and sign it Dave.”
“Do you think so?”
“Do it and see.”
I did what he said, but I signed the letter David, for she’d never called me Dave. Much to my surprise, she answered. Needless to say, my heart beat wildly with joy. During the few weeks I had remaining in Vietnam, we wrote often. She didn’t know it, but I had plans to ask her out as soon as I got home and could get to the nearest telephone.
Finally, my day arrived. As the jet ascended and the landscape of Vietnam faded away, that episode of my life was already becoming yet another memory. It had been another of life’s hurdles to overcome, but God had helped me through it all. He had protected me from seasickness, gave me food when I could no longer eat what the government offered, provided shelter from the monsoon rains, gave me clean clothes to wear and clean water to bathe in, guided enemy bullets around me, delivered me from the heat of the jungle on ambush patrol, and brushed away my tears when I was lonely. Now, before the next day passed, I would once again gaze upon the hills of West Virginia and my home on Bowen Creek – there to embrace the ones who’d missed me as much as I had missed them. I was still young but much wiser than a year earlier. My dreams had been put on hold, but now I could look to the future with new hope. And with luck, Janet and I would someday grow old together.
©Copyright December 2002 by David Lee Thompson