February 14, Sunday afternoon
Dear Chaplain Miller,

What a night-or morning-I had! The war has become real to me. I’ll try to tell you about this happening as best I can.

I stretched out on my air mattress in Speedy's bunker after writing a short letter to you describing the going away party for LTC Anderson. I placed my steel pot beside my head. I covered myself with a poncho liner that served as a summer weight blanket.

I wondered to myself, “Would rockets be able to penetrate the top of this bunker?” Half dreaming, half-praying, confused about my attitude of this night, I realized that the custom of military protocol called for courtesy good-byes, regardless of the war going on. But then, who knows? So far, so good. Nothing seemed to be happening around the base. I was into my dream when Speedy awakened me.

"Sorry, Chaplain. I was playing cards with some guys over at A-company. You doing all right?"

"I'm fine, Speedy. Thanks."

"Chaplain, I wish you would call me Stony, I like that nickname better than Speedy."

"No problem." I said. "Stony, do you have a flash light I can borrow? I have to take a leak."

"Here." He handed me a small penlight. “The piss tube over by the dump,” he said as I took the light.

I slipped on my pants and boots, not bothering to tie them. Looked at my watch. 0235. I made my way out of the bunker and though the other dark mounds of neighboring bunkers to the piss tube. I stood looking down into the gully that was the firebase dump, there was a slight, pungent odor in the area came from the trash. It was pitch dark, with the exception a glow coming from the TOC. The cool night breeze had become a little chilly.

I made my way back into the bunker. Stony was still awake.

"That you, chaplain?" he asked.

I wondered who else he was expecting. "Yeah," I answered. I thought to myself, should I put my pants and boots on? I saw that Stony kept his boots on.

"Do you always sleep in your boots?” I asked.

"Most of the time. You never know what's going to happen out here." He answered.

So I kept on my pants and boots, but didn't bother to tie them. I crawled back again onto my air mattress. I was almost back into my dream. I could hear Stony snoring very softly.

Suddenly the world around us began to explode with vengeful force. Explosions were going off like strings of firecrackers only a hundred of times louder. I jumped up, reached down and tied my boots. My heart started beating so loud it seemed to be shaking the bunker.

Stony woke up and was sat up on his edge bunk area. "What in the hell was that?" he yelled as he started to mess around with his M-16. I pulled back the split sandbag sack that served as the bunker door and looked out across the firebase.

Blasts of deafening orange explosives shouted out their disruption like thunder and lightening coming up from the earth into the dark moonless night. Our mortar pits were glowing with flaming orange blasts. Flares filled the sky with fiery light. I could see most of the way across the firebase; I heard more explosive blasts coming from the artillery area of Blind Faith.

Stony kept saying we were being over-run. Then he started cussing about his M-16. "This damn thing may not work, I haven't cleaned or fired it for months," he said to himself and to me.

That's great. Just what a non-combatant officer needs to hear from his only hope of security. "Stay at the door. Don't go out or you'll get yourself shot by one of our men," I yelled at him. I did learn something from the Replacement Company training after all.

I heard AK 47 rounds going off and bursts from our own M-16's blasting though the night. I said a prayer. "Lord, take care of my wife and boys and watch over the battalion." I was scared, yet calm. I truly thought we were going to die. Little did I understand or know that the VC were not interested in a chaplain and a pad man when they had targets of a Commander in the TOC, mortar pits and 105 howitzer.

The command tactical operations center was as bright as a sunburst. Voices were calling to stay put. The smell of gun smoke filled the chilly air. This was no dream. It was a nightmare.

The attack lasted less than fifteen minutes, but to me seemed like an hour. Huey dust-off helicopters with their lights shining were illuminating the chopper pad. I wish there were words to describe the noise that the blades of choppers make. I could see the red crosses painted on the sides. What great response time!

A Cobra gun ship circled the area, shooting rockets into the bush. What mortars were not destroyed were still popping flares and explosive rounds into the jungle outside our perimeter. All three 105 howitzers, Amazing Grace, Blind Hope and Blind Faith, were standing silent and mortally wounded.

It was a chaotic, frightening, exciting, and fearful experience. When the small arms fire stopped, everything grew quiet except for the noise from the helicopters and mortars. I heard Captain Jones yell, "Chaplain! You're needed at the pad!"

I began to make my way to the Pad. The flare lights and the dust off chopper light gave the firebase a strange glow. Troops were moving about, doing their duty, securing the area. As I was making my way between the bunkers and got close to the Pad, I could see the Medics working on wounded GI’s. Our Battalion Surgeon was providing triage.

Near the last bunker I stepped on a wounded soldier lying between two bunkers.

"Hey" he yelled.

"I'm sorry, I didn't see you." I said.

"Who are you?" he asked. Then cried out, "I got it in the eyes and can't see."

"I'm the chaplain," I said quickly, crouching at his side a placing my hand on his shoulder. "I see the medics have taken care of you." He had a bandage around his eyes.

"Will you say a prayer for me, chaplain?"

"You bet I will. What’s your name?"

"Private Jamison, sir." After a pause he asked, "Are you the Catholic Chaplain?” he asked.

"No, I'm Protestant," I answered him.

"It doesn't matter, does it, Chaplain? I mean you can pray for me, too." His voice sounded excited.

I placed my hand on his forehead above his bandage and prayed, "Lord, bless this young man and see that his eyes receive the proper healing. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." I made a sign of the cross on his forehead.

I looked up and yelled, "Over here. Help me to get this one to the pad!" Some dark figure came over and we got him up to the pad and onto a chopper.

I heard a loud voice behind me. It was coming from Randy, the new XO that I flew out to the firebase with earlier. He was yelling at me but I couldn’t make out what he was saying.

"Randy, what happened?" I yelled back as I ran to his side.

"Welcome to the first of the twelfth. Boom!" He yelled even above the roar of the helicopters.

A medic was with him. "The Major has busted ear drums," said the medic. "He can't hear a thing."

"Can I do anything?" I asked.

"Captain Jones may need some help," answered the medic and pointed toward the pad where they were loading the wounded on the choppers.

I ran over to where Jones was leading a fellow who had a bandage around the shoulder. I noticed a dark stain covering most of it. "Here, Chaplain, give me a hand," said Jones. We got the wounded solider up on the chopper. There were four or five others already aboard. "Come on, Chap, let's get the Major on this one. He's the last," said Jones.

"How many of our men were killed," I asked.

"Only nine wounded that we know of. No one killed. We killed three Dinks. Don't know for sure how many attacked. The rest got away." Jones answered in a loud voice.

"How did they get in?” I asked.

"Sergeant Rechico said they came up through the dump. They started with dropping satchel changes in the TOC. That's where the Major got it. The CO's are fine. Nothing hit them. They were in the TOC with the door closed. The Major was outside having a smoke and the concussion blew out his eardrums. Next they hit the mortars and 105’s on their way out."

The dust off was finally completed. Relative silence fell on the base. In the distance I could hear the Cobras checking out the area. The mess sergeant brought us some coffee. After a hot cup of strong coffee, Capt. Jones suggested that we check in with the TOC.

The steel doors were closed. Captain Jones knocked. "Captain Jones, sir, and the Chaplain," he yelled out.

The door opened. "Come on in. Some night, huh, Chaplain?” Lieutenant Colonel Sterling said. "How was the Major doing?"

"He was dusted off last, yelling at the top of his lungs. The doc told me he busted both ear drums." Jones told him.

"Damn!" said Sterling. "I really needed him." He saw us looking around. "Anderson is walking the perimeter with the Sergeant Major."

CPT Jones commented, "We're lucky with only nine wounded. I thought by the noise and explosions and confusion, that we were really being overrun."

The CO said, "We would have gotten them all if we were able to have our weapons loaded while on base. That damn regulation, not allowing us to have our weapons loaded while on a f###in’ firebase is crazy. If some of the old-timers hadn't ignored it, we wouldn't have gotten any of the son-of- bitches. Sgt. Green of B Company blew two of the bastards away and thinks he might have wounded at least one more. I'm not sure yet who got the other f####er. That's not going in the report. As far as Brigade will know, we responded to a Sapper attack."

The radio began to crack out a message. The Personal Officer (S-I) operating the radio reported. "Sir, that was from Division. They want the change of command to go on as planned tomorrow. The Division Commander will be here at sunup. They did cancel the band, however."

"Good!" Said Sterling. "Chaplain, are you going to have a service today?" He asked.

"Yes sir."

"I'll try to be there, but with the General's coming out so early I may not make it."

"I understand, sir," I told him.

"One more thing. What's the weather going to be like today?" he asked with a grin.

I was a little surprised by his question. "I guess we will have to see if it will be sunny or overcast."


February 13, evening
Dear Chaplain Miller,

I am writing this letter from Speedy's bunker. I'm also writing under a single light bulb that gives me the feeling that I'm all alone, like a camper in the woods. I'm not sure where Speedy is, probably out having a beer with some other guys.

The big party is over. It's Sunday evening, almost Valentine’s Day. LTC Anderson is in the process of packing his gear and getting ready to leave the firebase after the ceremony tomorrow morning. My new CO, LTC Sterling, is in control and moved into the TOC.

I believe I closed my last correspondence, as I was about to go to a command banquet in the TOC. What a nice way to start my first field experience in the real war of Vietnam, with steak, wine and if I wanted to, I could have smoked a big cigar.

If it wasn't for the mortar's teams sending up illumination flares and a few explosive rounds just in case Charley was in the area, you might think we were at fancy steak house in San Francisco. Candles lit each table and several “volunteer” enlisted men served table.

When everyone finally arrived and the wine was poured, the new Executive Officer stood to give the first toast for the evening. "I propose a toast to the President of the United States." Everyone took a little sip of wine. Yes, even the Baptist Chaplain. Next came toasts given by other officers. They toasted everyone and everything, from the 4th Division, to the Red Warriors, to our new CO and XO and finally our departing commander, LTC Anderson.
When the last toast was given, the XO called on me to give the invocation. As I stood after the half a dozen or so official toasts, I thought of saying, "I drink to God, who makes it possible for all of us to go home." No guts, no glory. So I said a short prayer of blessing for the food and asked our Lord to bless our troops and officers and especially our departing CO and our new incoming CO.

The steaks were cooked to perfection. The baked potatoes were wonderful, with plenty of chives, cheese and sour cream. There were fresh cooked carrots and a fresh green salad with what the chef called his "house dressing." Wineglasses were never empty.

One of the volunteer GI's, the one I saw rehearsing earlier in the day, was singing folk songs. I wish I had the words to the song he wrote. It sounded like a folk song off of Haight Ashbury in San Francisco. I was reminded of the Hippies who came over to the Baptist Seminary I attended in 1961 in Mill Valley, California, and sang their folk songs about "peace or protesting" to the accompaniment of guitars and tambourines.

The only line I can remember from the GI’s song went something like this, "It's raining now, it's snowing now and you know what that means, the lifers want a police-call to clean up the scene." As best I could tell, the officers all laughed and enjoyed it very much.

The SGM next to me seemed to especially get a good laugh out of the entertainment. However, he was a little bombed and forgot that he was a one of the "lifers."
At one point after the cigars were lit (No, Jim, I couldn't handle a cigar on a full stomach, at least that’s what I told the SGM when he offered me one) the SGM leaned over to me and in a slurring voice of over-indulgence said, "It’s the f###ing Navy."

I was taken by surprise, "What Navy?”

"What?" He seemed surprised, that I was surprised.

"The go###mn f###ing Navy caused us to be in this god forsaken country."

I was smiling and looking at the Lieutenant sitting across from him.

"What in the hell does the Navy have to do with our Firebase?" the lieutenant asked the SGM.

"Jesus," said the SGM. "Haven't you f###s heard about the Tonkin Gulf Resolution?"

I thought a moment. Tonkin, yeah, I heard about it in 1964. President Lyndon B. Johnson said something about that on TV. The VC attacked our ships in international waters off the coast of Vietnam and he got Congress give him the power to attack and bomb North Vietnam. As I remember, all but two of the congressmen voted to send more troops and spend more money on Vietnam. "I remember hearing something about it a couple years ago,” I said.

"You bet your ass you did," slurred TOP. "Those f###ing chicken s##t sailors couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper sack. Hell, they were whining because they feared for their damn asses. The VC boats were nowhere near their ships; they were running from their own f###ing wakes. I think it was some ship named Maddox or Turner Joy. They were running around in the fog like blind sons of b###hes and cried to Johnson and that gave him an excuse to draft more FNG’s and send them to his war with these go####n Dinks. I tell you, we’re here because the Navy f###ed up."

The top sergeant was getting a little loud, so I suggested that he needed to get back to his bunker before it got too late.

Lieutenant Colonel Sterling stood up and announced that his first order as the new CO was to make sure the perimeter was secure and for the rest of us to get some rest because he was going to hit the ground running after the ceremony tomorrow.

Everyone got up and went to their appointed duties. The Commanding Officer and the Executive Officer went into the tactical operational center (TOC). The Sergeant Major stumbled up the steps and another sergeant helped him toward his hooch. The enlisted volunteers began to clean up the dinning room. I sat by myself thinking about the night. I took a napkin and began to write my thoughts so I wouldn't forget.

Jim, I’m including those thoughts in this letter, just to have a record of that eventful night.

Candlelight flickers low, the candles are almost burned out. The tent walls cast dark shadows across the remnants of barbecued steak, salad and medium dry red wine left in some of the glass goblets. This is a Firebase saying good-by to its battalion commander.

Tables and benches made from ammo boxes are empty now where once sat officers, lifers, listening to folk songs about their need for a police-call. These officers understood better than the grunts that they were indeed 'lifers'. Lifers away from family, Lifers who live with the fear that death might extinguish the life-light of one of his men or himself.

This all happened on a firebase in this strange mountain terrain in the midst of a strange war with an even a stranger atmosphere. I ask myself, "Am I here because the men are here, or because the Navy screwed up?"

Situations like this tonight might bring tears if the men were lesser men. The mood of festivities dissipated as the CO went back to the ugly reality of war. There were still men in the bush, men in harm’s way, and men under the stars. If only the jungle cover would let the stars flicker on the hiding place of these men called grunts that wait in panic for enemy movement in the area.

So another day draws to a strange close. The GI waiters snuffed out the last of the candles. I hear a voice curse in the darkness. I utter a sigh that is a prayer. "See me safely through this night, oh Lord. My family is awaiting my safe return."

I made my way back through the maze of bunkers to Speedy'S place. On this dark and moonless night it was cool and quiet with the exception of an occasional "boom, boom" from the mortars. As I got close to the hooch, a lamination flare went off, giving the base an eerie glow. I slid down into the bunker. I took off my boots and decided to strip to my underwear.

Jim, this one bulb light is getting to my eyes, or it might be the wine. I’ll sign off for now and finish this tomorrow afternoon.

Sincerely yours,



I stayed around his office and met several more chaplains whose names I can’t recall. They gave me some advice about what to expect in Nam.

"Don't take anything from the kids on the street; it might explode in your hand. Keep several extra pair of socks in your chaplain’s kit. Check with the PX every chance you get because they run out of tooth paste, shaving lotion, deodorant and beer the same day it comes in."

All very good advice I was to learn in the short time since I arrived.

The day dragged on with no news about when I could get out to the Fourth Division. That evening after dinner and an old western movie, I hit the sack, after making sure my gear was secured and safely put in my locker.

I felt someone shaking my foot. I woke up to see a sergeant standing over me.

"Wake-up chaplain, you're on the manifest to Pleiku."

"What time is it?" I asked.

"It’s time to move out now. 0130. The bus is out front, waiting to take you to the air field," the sergeant said.

I moved as fast as I could. I couldn't believe we were moving out at this un-godly hour. Holding my AWOL bag and duffel bag, I ran to meet the bus. There were about thirty sleepy soldiers in a formation standing beside an armored bus, waiting to get away from the replacement nightmare.

The sergeant in charge told all the enlisted personnel to turn in their fatigue jacket. "You're in Vietnam now. No need for excess baggage. Chaplain, you paid for yours so you can keep it if you want to."

"Thank you, Sergeant, I'll hang on to it," I said.

He read off each name and destination as we boarded the bus. When I went by the sergeant, I asked if we would get some coffee.

"They have a small canteen at the air field up there," he said. What he didn't say was that it wouldn't open until seven in the morning and we would be long gone.

The C-130 was waiting with its motor running. It ran and ran for over an hour before we were allowed to board. The men were patient and silent. Most of them were catching catnaps while we all waited for the orders to take off. Flying in a C-130 is different from flying in other aircraft. The seats are made of straps and we had to sit side by side as though we were going to bail out. The lights were red and dim and the smell of aviation fuel filled the air.

Finally the pilot arrived from someplace out of the dark. "Y'all ready?" he said as he entered the cockpit and took his place next to the other crew members.

I'm not sure how long we had waited on the ground. The roar of the motor put me to sleep. Suddenly, I felt a jerk. I woke up, thinking we were about to land. The troop next to me, whispered, "Relax, chap, we’re just taking off." I looked at my watch. 0700.

The plane landed at Camp Enari in Pleiku. Camp Enari was named after 1LT Mark Enari, a recipient of the Silver Star. Six of the packs (name for GI’s who were passengers) found out that they were at the wrong location so the sergeant had to make arrangements for them to get back to Bienhoa. In the meantime those young men without field jackets sat shivering in 45-degree weather waiting for their flight south. I was comfortable, but could have used a cup of coffee, but since we landed at 0830 we found out that the canteen was closed for the day for some unmentioned reason.

The 4th Infantry Division, 2nd Brigade, 1/12 Battalion, The Red Warriors had arrived in Pleiku in September 1966. I joined the Army Chaplaincy in September 1966 out of Fresno, California, heeding President Johnson's call to stop the communist aggression from taking over South Vietnam. Now four years later, I was sitting on the 4th Division air base, waiting for transportation to take me to 1/12 - my new assignment.

The 4th Division had been given the mission to secure the II Corps Area the Central Highlands. Some of the Units of the Division were deployed and scattered far to the south below Saigon. For the past four years, the Division area of operation was the western central highlands along the border of Cambodia. They also provided support around the coastal plains near Tuy Hoa. It was an extremely important mission and became increasingly so throughout the four years of fighting.

The area was one of the primary supply and staging areas of the North Vietnamese as they transported material and personnel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Cambodia and then into South Vietnam. One of the primary missions of the 4-Id was to find and eliminate North Vietnamese Army regular units who were operating out of the central highlands as well as to find and destroy the supplies and equipment that were cached in the rugged, under-populated terrain.

Unknown to me and I'm sure many other American soldiers throughout South Vietnam, 1970 was to be the year of draw-down. Plans were afoot to bring the division home by the end of the year. However my main concern now was for a cup of hot coffee and a long nap.

A jeep pulled up and a sergeant reported to the fellow in charge. "Sorry about the canteen,” he said. "We had a little trouble around the perimeter last night and everything is f###ed up. They should be down here in an hour or so." My ride to Division HQ arrived at the same time they opened the canteen. I had to put my coffee break on hold for a little while longer.

Jim, would you believe my driver dropped me off at the 4th Division Replacement Company? Another replacement company! I was told that I would have to take two weeks of special Vietnam combat training before I would be allowed to join up with the Red Warriors.

As hungry as I was, I called the Division Chaplain's Office. The Chaplain was not in as yet, but his assistant assured me that I was at the right place. Every new person had to take the training as part of his or her in-processing. Even Chaplains needed to know how to kill VC. He didn't say that but I thought that's what he was getting at.

After making the call to the Division Chaplain’s Office, I tried to find some breakfast for the troops and myself, but I was told that the mess hall was closed. It closed after 0800 hours.

I reported in to the new replacement company and told them I needed to see the Division Chaplain. They pointed out his office on a large map of Camp Enari hanging on the HQ wall. It was one of the hundred or so buildings that housed the Division and the 2nd Brigade and other attached units. Although a hot and humid typical afternoon of Central Highland weather, I looked forward to the two-mile walk to the Division Chaplain’s office.

When I arrived, Col. Chaplain Kelly greeted me. "Congratulations. Don. You’re on the Major's list."

"Thanks. The chaplain at Bienhoa told me, when I met him," I said.

"It won't affect your assignment. I was able to place you with the 1/12. They will be getting a new CO in February. A friend of yours, LTC Noble –(I believe you were his battalion chaplain in Okinawa) said you wanted to be assigned to the Infantry. The 4th Infantry is one of the best."

"So I've been told," I said. "Let me ask you, sir, do I have to go through that special combat training at the Replacement Company?”

He gave a big grin. Jim, he has biggest teeth I have ever seen. "I'm afraid so. It’s all part of in-processing for the 4th. The General wants all officers to go through the program and evaluate it to see if it is appropriate. It's his new project. I'm sure it will be helpful to you and that you’ll find it appropriate."

I didn't say what I was thinking, but replied instead, "Maybe you can get me out early. I understand Chaplain Iverson, whom I'm replacing is due to DOURS this week, and I would like a chance to meet with him before he leaves."

"He's a great chaplain. I hope you meet him before he leaves. I'll see what I can do about shortening your time at the replacement company."

"Thank you, sir."

Well, Jim, to make a long story come to it’s ending, I finally made it to my unit. That is, I met my CO today. The training at Division was phony. I took training in Okinawa that the Green Berets gave and that was far superior. Chaplain Kelly was able to get me out of the second week of training. I did meet Chaplain Iverson; in fact, I stayed in his hooch for a couple of weeks before my company moved to Camp Radcliff. My experience in Enari and Iverson's hooch is something I'll share later on.

It took me a while to finally get out into the field and to this firebase; today is my first day and will be my first night in the field. I met my outgoing and incoming commanders this afternoon. I had my first field service and now I’m waiting for a change of command party in the middle of the Vietnam jungle. What a war!



I finished writing my letter to Jim. I got up, put my journal aside and headed down to the TOC. The sun was almost gone, only a red glow came over the mountains. It was beginning to cool off and the air was fresh and crisp.

When I got to the TOC, I noticed some changes. A large tent was erected in between the two-conx hooches. The sides were rolled up to let the air flow through. I saw eight or nine tables with white tablecloths set up with plates, silver and wine and water glasses.

An enlisted GI sat at the back table tuning a guitar. Two half-barrel BBQ grills with bright red coals smoked. A few officers I hadn't met yet milled about. The SGM came up behind me and said, "Come on, Chaplain, let’s go on down and join the party." He was wearing a clean set of fatigues, his boots had a fresh spit shine, but his breath told me he had a head start on the festivities.


February 13 late evening
Dear Chaplain Miller,

I have about an hour before I go to the command dinner for my CO. I understand it will be wine and a thick rib eye steak with all the trimmings. Some war! I had my first service today. I only had ten in attendance, but using communion as a separate service, I can send the Chief an attendance of twenty. I thought Baptists were bad about inflating figures. Seems to be a Vietnam syndrome.

With this letter, let me get back to my first week in Vietnam. I told you about the flight from the States and my feelings as I arrived in Bienhoa. Well, things got worse as I headed for the Replacement Company. The caravan of olive drab buses finally pulled up out in front of the sheet metal terminal. The Cadre started shouting their commands at us. You would think we were prisoners of war instead of replacements. On second thought, maybe we were prisoners of this war.

They lined us up according to rank and we shuffled on the buses. The first thing I noticed was that the windows of the bus were covered with heavy hurricane screen fencing. One of the cadres told us that the screens were “to keep the Vietnamese from throwing rocks, grenades and other s##t in on us." Protecting us from those whom we came to protect. What a war! What a nightmare! And it was just beginning.

I began to feel like a stranger caught in Paradise Lost. Rolls of barbed wire lined the road, like someone had strung out a barbed wire slinky between the curb and the small business huts along the way. Squatting and standing behind the wire were a mixture of strange looking people of all ages. There were tired, old women whose faces looked liked hound dogs, with a cigarette sticking to their lips. They were wearing worn, dark ao dresses and conic straw hats. They stood silent like old statues observing the hustle and bustle around them on the dirty Bienhoa street.

Naked small children wearing only conic hats and sandals were yelling out as the buses went by, begging for food, cigarettes, or whatever we could give them. Of course we could throw nothing out of the window because of the fencing covering them. Most of these kids had cigarettes propped in their tiny mouths as well. Their anxious dirty faces were shining with sweat. Every once in a while I spotted a youngster wearing a baseball cap or a U.S.A. soft fatigue hat.

Plenty of sleek, shapely young women waved and gestured for us to come on in. They wore bright blue, orange, black and traditional brown ao dai dresses that were split all the way from the hem to their tiny waists revealing tight, form-fitting white pants. Some were westernized enough to be wearing mini skirts that gave a welcome message as well. I understood that there were over 300,000 prostitutes in Vietnam and that prostitution, though officially illegal, was allowed as a trade that thrived in the presence of the American GI.

Strange-looking motor vehicles of every conceivable size and shape crowded the narrow streets, each well-filled to over capacity, with all the drivers and riders smoking cigarettes. Motorbikes were weaving in and out of traffic with sometimes four or five people hanging on. It seemed to me that traffics death and cancer deaths would produce more destruction to the Vietnamese people than the war itself.

The sun was setting and my heart was sinking into my first hot, humid, smelly night in Vietnam. Pogo, is reported to have said, "I have met the enemy and it is us,” or something along those lines. It certainly seemed to me that the war began in the Reception Center and Replacement Company.

I was not treated like scum, but I observed the lower ranking FNG’s being treated like something less than human. The Cadre, who managed the new arrivals, yelled down at the incoming replacements. It reminded me of "hell week for basic trainees."

Though as a Captain I was ignored, as a Chaplain, I attempted to interfere with the program when I suggested that the men were tired and maybe giving us a break and a cup of coffee would be a nice thing to do.

"Chaplain," said an E-6 who was obviously tired and didn't want to get into any conflict with a captain, "they need to get with the program and we need to get them out of here as soon as we can."

I made a mild protest, but I must confess I, too, was too tired to fight an internal war with the cadre. I chose rather to pray that we would get our traveling orders to our assignments and be on our way to our individual units.

What took place was a series of briefings. We got a little information about the culture of Vietnam and a little more about the war itself. A great deal of time was spent on the dangers of using drugs. There was an amnesty program in Vietnam for GI’s who wanted to give up drugs, but if they failed to turn themselves in, strong penalties would have to be paid.

The negative approach continued with the dangers, as one doctor so classically warned, "don't f##k the Dinks." I agreed that warnings needed to be given so the fellows would not take home something that they didn't need. I was taken aback at the raw negative manner in which such advice was given to new replacement troops.

Standing in the back of the lecture room watching the troops that were able to stay awake, I saw one lean over to his buddy and whisper, "I'd just as soon die with the clap as with a VC bullet." One of the cadres taped him on the shoulder and told him to shut his damn mouth and pay attention.

When the classes were over, we stood in line to receive our TA-50, combat clothing and supplies to include tents, ponchos, boots, canteens, mess kits and other equipment. The supply sergeant apologized for being out of soap and towels but said we could make a trip to the Post Exchange (PX) and buy them later. However, before anyone received their TA-50, the supply officer came into the supply room and told us that we would have to wait until tomorrow morning to be issued our equipment because they were short on duffel bags that were needed to store our equipment in. He hoped to have them by morning.

We were assigned a bunk in our various buildings. I went to the safety of the officer’s billets where about fifteen other field grade officers were billeted. I can't remember what time it was, but it was late and I, like the rest of the troops, was beat. I put my AWOL bag under my bed, hung my fatigues on the bed rail, and said a prayer for my family and the new arrivals in Vietnam. Soon I became a chaplain sleeping with my own dream.

At five in the morning, we were awakened and told to report to the mess hall. I must say the food was excellent and plentiful. The coffee could have been less strong, but later I found out I would need all the caffeine I could handle to get though the day.

I sat on the edge of my bed and pulled out my bag to get my shaving gear. Would you believe someone had stolen my black Army dress shoes? They took nothing else, only my shoes.

I mentioned it to the sergeant at the mess hall and he said, "Welcome to the 90th Replacement Company. You see, Chaplain, some of your fellow officers are heading back to the world. We are told that we should not travel stateside in our uniforms so the civilians won't spit on us. So, maybe someone figured he needed shoes that weren't too military-like. Did he leave his canvas boots?" he asked.

"I didn't see them, but I have a pair," I said, thinking to myself as I sipped my coffee, what's going on with this war when an officer will steal a pair of shoes, which he could have had if he only asked. What is going on in America when a soldier can't travel safely in uniform after serving a year in Vietnam?

After breakfast, I reported to the supply room to receive my TA 50. The good news was that they had found the duffel bags. There was a long line of enlisted men and officers shuffling along various stations, receiving and signing for each item that was being given to us.

First of all, we got a duffel bag to hold the pillow, sheets, blankets, steel pot and camouflaged poncho liner and various and sundry pieces of equipment. Then we reported to finance and had our money exchanged for script. Most of us went to the PX to purchase bath towels and soap, both of which the supply sergeant said they were fresh out of. After a shopping spree at the base PX, we made our way to the much-needed showers.

I’ll tell you, Jim, that shower was a very, very refreshing moment even if there was no hot water. To stand in a cold shower with fifteen other fellows reminded me of those old school days after a physical education class.

They gave us a couple hours of free time so I went over to the replacement HQ to see when I would be departing Bienhoa for Pleiku where I was assigned. My name did not appear on the manifest and no one knew why I was not picked up. So I faced the prospect another day with the 90th. I was really anxious to get to my assignment, to get to war. In this dream, I was going crazy.

The rest of the holdovers and I were requested to attend another short orientation in which we were told how lucky we were to arrive in Vietnam after the monsoon season. We were excused to go to chow and face a rain that was so hard, we couldn't see the chow hall that was only fifty feet across the road.

I came to Vietnam from Okinawa, but even in that tropical climate, I never faced a rain that was like water coming from a bucket being poured out over such a large area. I thought to myself, so much for clean boots. Soaking wet, we made it to the mess hall. By the time we finished our meal, the sun was out and sopping up the humidity from the tin roofs and muddy puddles. Within an hour I was dry, except for the sweat pouring down my face and staining my soft cap.

I still had some free time so I caught a ride over the Chaplain’s Office of the replacement detachment. I can't remember the chaplain’s name but I do remember his greeting.

"Chaplain Fowler, congratulations. The Major's list came out today and you're on it and so am I. Of course, it may take several years for our names to come up for promotion, the way promotions are going."

I remember asking, "Will that effect my assignment?”

"Not in the least,” I was told.


Signing off on my letter, I took up my Living New Testament and began to plan for my first worship service on Firebase Warrior.

I turned to Ephesians, the fourth chapter, and the first and second verses. Paul was writing from prison. He didn't want to be there. He had done nothing to deserve being there. He didn't steal, lie, cheat, murder, take or sell drugs, burn his draft card, or run to Canada. It was as though he was drafted among the early Christians to be a leader that would have to go to prison. Yet in spite of the situation in which he found himself he could still write these words of blind faith and encouragement:

"I beg you - I, a prisoner here in jail for serving the Lord - to live and act in a way worthy of those who have been chosen for such wonderful blessing as these.
Be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each others faults because of your love." (The Living New Testament, Ephesians 4:1-2)

Difficult words for difficult times in an Artillery Gun Position with a 105 Howitzer sitting like an icon titled Blind Faith. How can this be a "wonderful blessing”? Reaching out to each other, covering one another's backsides and having some buddy willing to risk his life for you could be construed as a "wonderful blessing."

Finishing my thoughts, I began to make a tour of the Firebase on my own. Stopping by each bunker and hooch and getting acquainted with these men, inviting them to attend the worship service was a wonderful blessing for me. I must have answered the question a dozen times, "Chaplain what in the hell are you doing out here?" My answer never changed, "I'm here by choice, because most of you didn't have a choice."

My service was over in fifteen minutes. Some chaplains sing hymns, but with my voice and without accompaniment, I went on without singing. Only ten GI's showed up. But since I had a separate communion service I was able to report a "head count" to the Chief’s Office at Division of twenty in services.

I’m really uncomfortable with keeping count of attendees at worship, but choose not to fight that war. I told myself, that somewhere, someplace, chaplains were trying to prove we were needed.

I talked to several of the men after the service. We shared information about each other. Where we were from, back in the world? What church did we belong to? How long did we have left in the country? Stranded, get-acquainted questions in a war zone.

They asked questions about what was happening in the world. I told them that President Nixon was trying to find a way to get the United States out of Vietnam and let the ARVNS fight the VC. As to the Americans getting out of Vietnam, their response was, "Ain't gonna happen in my lifetime."

We talked some about the protesters. "Yeah,” said one troop. "Those f####rs [sorry, chaplain] living it up in Canada and my butt is on the line here." Several heads nodded in agreement.

Someone asked me if I was planning to spend the night. They all knew about the change of command that was planned for the morning. They were told to shine their boots and put on a full uniform. The place would be running over with Highers.
I asked, "What is a Higher?”

"You know, Chaplain. An Officer from Brigade and Division," they told me.
They also knew that the CO had rib eye steaks for all them tonight at chow. One sandy-haired GI, who looked like a high-school football player, asked, "It is true that the Division Band is coming out here tomorrow, too?”

"I guess so. That's what Top said. Someone at base camp told me they would be here in the morning," I answered.

"Crazy,” was his only response as he turned and walked away shaking his head.

I still had about an hour before the command dinner. The sun had made its way down behind the trees and the evening was cooling off. There was still plenty of light and except for the images of war scattered about the base, it looked peaceful, calm and restful. The scenery was beautiful as I looked out across the mountain and saw the clouds turning a light orange against a deep blue background.

I walked back to the hooch with Speedy. He didn't say much. As we came up to his hooch, he turned to me and said, "Thanks, chaplain. It was a good service." Then he said, “I’m going to the pad and clean it up for the night. See you later." I got out my journal and continued my letter to Chaplain Miller.


I am one of the FNG’s taking time to write to my family and friends every chance I get. I joined the Army Chaplaincy in 1966 when then-President Johnson was building up the armed forces here in Vietnam. When I finally arrived in January 1970, President Johnson had quit his job as Commander-in-Chief, refusing to run for president for a second term. That should have been a hint to me that this war might not be winnable.

February 23, Late afternoon
Dear Chaplain Miller,

I'm starting off to war in a dream. At least I feel like I'm dreaming. I'm watching Chaplain Fowler as he says good-by to his wife, Gwen. This is not so much of a nightmare, more like floating between sleep and reality. Gwen has left to go home.

The plane is before us on the runway. The bus that took us from Oakland's Space Available Depot to the San Francisco airport drove us to where the plane was waiting. We had no band to send us off, no young women to kiss us good-by. Not even a song like, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, Hurrah. Hurrah." No cheerleaders were present waving pom-poms. Only the dark end of the airport waited.

Spotlights gave an eerie glow, shining through the San Francisco fog. I felt as if I was going on some secret clandestine mission. No terminal bright lights and coffee and donuts waited for us when we unloaded our bus. No USO worker could to be found.

The bus came to a stop, and the doors opened with a sliding swish of air that woke up those passengers who were trying to catch a nap. The passengers were strangely quiet as we disembarked into the fog and marched single file across the black top airstrip and up the steps into the plane. I was one of sixty passengers who now joined the other waiting passengers already aboard waiting to be one of President Nixon's and General Westmoreland's FNG’s.

We entered the plane from the ramp, stepping into the long body of a DC-8. We were greeted for the first time by two rather conventional, yet pleasant looking young ladies, dressed in mini-skirted uniforms with Buster Brown hats. Rows of seats, three-deep lined both sides of the aisle, with no first class seats available.

The men began to fill up the open seats slowly, quietly, like pallbearers at a funeral. It was like entering a cathedral, where no one dared to speak above a whisper for fear of breaking the holy moment. I suspect like me, most were praying. Some would not be coming back. I thought to myself, these poor guys. They're just kids really. I asked myself, “Are they ready to become men?” Soon, all too soon, they would have to be men, like it or not.

Time seemed to stand still in flight. I found myself thinking again, this is all a dream. See that fellow over there, he looks like me. His fatigues are starched; his name is in black letters above his shirt pocket. The cross and bars and canvas boots all look like they belong to me, but they must belong to someone else.

"What's that?” a voice said from someplace on the plane.

I'm awakened. Two eager teenager's faces are peering over at me, yet past me, trying to get a look at the land below us. We were getting our first view of Vietnam.

"You fellows anxious to land?” I asked.

"No sir! We almost came this close,” they said holding their fingers an inch apart, “to bailing out when we stopped at Guam."

"Look, Chaplain, those fires, reckon they’re from bombs?” one of the fellows asked.

I know now that they were fires set by the rice farmers who were clearing their fields. But as an FNG, I had no way of knowing that, and like the two fellows looking at Vietnam for the first time, I felt a little apprehension as our plane began its decent.

The wheels hit the runway and the plane sped past stationed planes of various shapes, sizes, war colors and camouflage. My feelings were causing gyrations in my stomach like butterflies with an itch. I had tension and felt anticipation of childish waiting for Christmas and a spanking at the same time. I saw myself fumbling in my dream, wondering, will they rush us off the plane, hand us an M-16 and have us double-time to a safe bunker. What is on the other side of that door?

The pilot announced over the intercom. “Welcome to Vietnam gentleman; please keep you seat belts fastened.”

"I hope I can for the next twelve months,” said a young voice from the rear.

We came to a slow, easy stop. GI's began to chatter nervously. I went off into my thoughts. Who will be the first to fall? When the door opens, what will happen? Dumb, that is what my thoughts were, dumb. Nothing so dramatic was about to happen yet.

I stepped out on the ramp landing. Before me, lay Bienhoa military airport.
Only ten years ago, Bienhoa had been a calm village in the midst of rich rice paddies, according to Stanley Karnow, a historian who visited that city in 1959.

The Americans had only eight advisors stationed there to assist the French in their struggle with the Vietminh. While six of those advisors were watching a movie, "The Tattered Dress" they were attacked by Vietminh guerrillas and slaughtered by automatic weapon fire. They were not the first Americans to lose their lives in Vietnam but became among the early causalities.

Who would have suspected back in 1959 when I was planning to graduate from a small Baptist college that I, as an Army Chaplain, would be stepping off a plane in a changed, strange, Vietnam society in January 1970?

The pretty stewardesses were standing like a minister at the front door of his church after the services, shaking hands with departing parishioners. "Good-bye and good luck," they said to each of the young bewildered faces that passed them by.

The young man in front of me held onto one of the stewardess' hand long and firmly. "I want to remember how a beautiful woman feels,” he said to her with a big grin. A great line, I thought to myself, too bad she is flying back and he's going to war.

This just has to be a dream. Here I am marching off to war. Here I go in a long olive drab green line following the orange markers that guide our path to war. No sound of guns, no boom of cannons, no bunker to run into, only a sheet metal building crowded with empty chairs.

Another long green line of olive drab troops, going toward an awaiting plane, they're part of the 140,000 troops that would be withdrawn in 1970; all of them yelling and cheering. "Short, Short," holding up their fingers in the V sign and shouting "YEHOWEEEEEE!” Pointing over to our line as we come off the plane, they shout out to us, “Welcome FNG’s."

It's funny now; I had no idea what they meant. As I watched these fellows load their “Freedom Bird” for the real world, I thought, thank God, some do get to come home.

Now I find myself in a dream state again, but this is reality, waiting for a bus, standing in formation, only the sergeant shouting at the new arrivals to stay straight, don't break formation. The bus is forty minutes late. My fear turns to frustration; anxiety to anticipation. What in the world, am I doing here? Waiting for a bus to go to war. Lord; please wake me up from this dream.




Blogger Templates by Blog Forum