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.


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