It was Valentines Day, Saturday, February fourteenth, 1970, the day of love in Vietnam. I was waiting on what was called the "Golf Course." No U.S. Open would be played here, no Riders Cup competition, no Masters Tournament. This was no Cypress Point or Pebble Beach. I was not there to play golf. It was the name given to the helicopter landing area at Camp Radcliff in An Khe, South Vietnam, 277 miles north-northeast of Saigon.

Brigadier General Jack Wright, who decreed that the landing area would be cleared by hand, instead of using heavy equipment, which would strip the area of its protective grasses and bushes, named the landing strip, the Golf Course. Without the grass and bushes to anchor the soil, the area would be a dust bowl during the dry season when the helicopters landed and a quagmire during the monsoon season. General Wright declared that by cleaning the area by hand it would be "as clean as a golf course." The name stuck and even appears on topographic maps of the facility. It was a grand idea. Too bad he didn't have an air-conditioned clubhouse to go along with the course.

I was sitting in the hot Vietnam sunshine breathing the heavy humidity, sweating profusely as I rested on several cases of beer with my feet on one of the half dozen or so wooden ammunition boxes. There were several cases of coke, two full bags of mail, and various other supplies to be forwarded to Firebase Warrior, where my Infantry Battalion Commander LTC. Anderson was to have his change of command ceremony on Sunday.

I was alone, except for the guard that was sitting in a little tin-sided shake at the far end of the dozen or so helipads. Even at a distance I could see a big, boldly painted "peace symbol" on the open door. Next to one of large gas fuel tanks nearby was another hand painted sign in bright red letters that read: "Super Shell with Platfermate will get you places you don't even want to go." I thought to myself, right on!

I took off my steel pot with its camouflage cover and adjusted the little black cross on the front. The cross was a symbol that told the soldiers that I was an army chaplain. I remembered being kidded by one of the officers in our base camp, that I should have my captain’s bars on the helmet, that way the VC wouldn’t think it was a sloppy x to mark the spot.

I took another look into my chaplain’s kit, to make sure, for the tenth time, that I had all my necessary supplies. The silver crucifix to place on any makeshift alter I could find while conducting services. My communion kit, a chalice that came in two pieces and screwed together to form a cup with a heavy base, and my little container, about the size of a snuffbox, that held the wafers. And of course, my little vial of wine, in which I dipped the wafers before placing them on the participants’ out-stretched tongues when giving the Lords Supper.

I thought as I looked over the kit: my, oh my, what if my Baptist friends could see me now, calling the Lord's Supper, communion, and dipping the unleavened wafer into real wine, not grape juice! I wondered what they would think? I was not sure what the long piece of black cloth with some holy words inscribed on each end symbolized. A shawl, you were supposed to put it around your neck when conducting services. I decided to just ignore it as too formal and priest-like.

I grabbed up my rucksack. A far cry from the seventy pounds that the average grunts took to the field. Mine contained a rubber air mattress, a change of underwear and a jungle uniform. There were two or three cans of sardines. I had packed three pairs of socks, my soft hat, my Bible and Stars and Stripes Newspaper, writing supplies, and of course, shaving gear and deodorant. I also had my daily log and notebook to keep track of the number of services I held each day and a head count of the number of attendees. Nixon wanted a Viet Cong body count for the record and the Chief of Chaplains wanted a GI head count for the religious record. I was beginning to understand that this conflict was a war of numbers.

This was to be my first visit to a firebase since I was in the country and assigned to my battalion, the 1/12 Infantry, the Red Warriors. It was a unit of the Fourth Infantry Division. A forward firebase was one step behind what served as the front line in the Vietnam War. Only there were no lines. It was more like circles. All throughout the II Corps and other U.S. Corps in South Vietnam, they used the same basic configuration. Base camp was where the division was located with all its various brigades and battalions.

Radcliff was such a base camp. It was named in honor of Major Donald Radcliff who was the first man killed in action when the 1st Cavalry Division arrived in the area around 1966. It was a sprawling base surrounded by a perimeter defense known as the Green Line.

The firebase was also subject to mortar attacks or infiltration by the VC. From the base camps battalions would go out into the jungle and clear a round area of two or three acres and set up a perimeter of defense similar to base camp, but on a far lesser scale. When the firebase was set up, the various battalion companies would go into the jungle and bush to carry out search and destroy missions. That was as forward as you could get unless you were on a long-range reconnaissance patrol called (LURRP's) or a squad point man "breaking bush."

Since 1969, the Fourth Infantry Division was in the midst of a new operation and policy, called "Vietnamization." It was an attempt to turn over the major fighting of the Viet Cong known as the VC to the Republic of Vietnam Army. The RVNA's were the South Vietnam army. The concept gave some hope that the combat troops were heading for the real world, home in the U.S.A.

In the meantime the war had to continue. The battalion would build a firebase that offered support for the various battalion combat companies to go out into the jungle to fight, if they could find the enemy. Firebases such as Warrior's, where I was headed were closer to population areas around Radcliff to protect them from the VC.

So far my first month in Vietnam had been rather peaceful, with the exception of Thursday, January 23.


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