Worry, doubt, confusion, isolation. Fear of an invisible foe. The sad reality of these Covid-19 times? No. A night of guard duty during the Vietnam War.
A moonless midnight on a rock-strewn Chu Lai beach. Except for the rhythmic lapping of ocean waves, there was silence. And danger. I was 30-feet above the razor-wire lined cove, in a wooden, thatch-roofed tower, walled with mildewy sandbags. My arms cradled a locked and loaded M-16 rifle. A steel pot helmet was upon my head. Bandoliers of ammunition magazines crisscrossed my torso. I was taut and alert for what might come. But I didn’t know what. And I didn’t know when.
The night breeze was clammy and cold. I zipped my field jacket higher and cursed for not buttoning in the quilted liner before taking my post. We were three in the tower. We’d each do two watches of 2 hours on, four hours off from dusk to dawn. The night would feel longer.
In daylight, local fisherman plied their trade in the cove we guarded, throwing nets, hauling shrimp, squid and small fish from their iconic round basket boats. During the day, we had boo-coo contact with local Vietnamese on and around the Chu Lai base. The grandmotherly “mama sans”–the hootch maids who cleaned our barracks–were chatty, giggly, smiley through their beetle-nut stained black teeth. Skinny old men in baggy shorts, rubber shower shoes and sleeveless white undershirts were our barbers, cooks’ helpers, waiters and bartenders in enlisted-men and officers clubs. Their duck-clacking voices, singsonged through a blue haze of ever-present cigarette smoke. Beyond the base gates pot-bellied baby-san children begged for GI handouts. Pretty school girls rode by on bikes in their ribbon-fastened conical hats. Their silken ao dai tunics and long dark tresses fluttered behind them like a following breeze.
But when night fell, the world changed. Likewise, our attitude about the Vietnamese. The young, virile Vietnamese men we never saw during the day owned the night. They were unsmiling. They were silent lethal warriors. They had one purpose, and it was not good. I was trained to fear them, to hate them, and commanded to kill them before they killed me. We guarded against an unseen, unknown and potentially lethal enemy.
A short time before sundown, a ton-and-a-quarter Jeep rolled up to the tower with evening chow. It was a meat sandwich. Hard to say exactly what meat. Some kind of pot roast, dried out, slapped between two slices of inexpertly baked bread that crumbled to meal at the slightest touch. There was Kool-Aid for our canteens. Snacks from the PX for those who were smart enough to bring them. That was it for the night. Not good. But something.
We had radio commo in the guard tower but were instructed not to use it unless attacked. Interspersed between two or three towers manned by amateur warriors like me were command posts where MPs, presumably soldiers who knew what they were doing, were in charge. At a suspicious noise or movement or just a hunch, the MPs launched illumination flares over the ocean waves. The beach twinkled briefly in the sputtering light. In that minute, the shaky shadows provoked a gut-knotting fear. Thumbs slid closer to our rifles’ safety switch. I literally held my breath. We shivered and hoped the radio stayed silent. The fear was real and constant. The enemy was invisible, but not unreal.
We smoked, even though we weren’t supposed to. We cupped the end of our cigarettes to hide the glow. We muffled the snap of our Zippo lighters when we fired up. Some guys got high. Some guys were always high. It relieved the anxiety. But it was dangerous. There was always the danger of a sneak attack by sapper commandos like the one at Firebase Mary Ann. None of us had any trust in the official Army way. Each GI was starting to believe the best way to ensure their safety was to take matters in their own hands. “Gotta take care of my bod,” was our mantra. Take care of your bod, and make it back to the world.
Vietnam was not the world. It was a temporary and horrid time and place that we endured, and hopefully survived, until we returned to the world, that place we left, that place we knew, that place we were sure awaited our return. Even at it’s worst—racially unjust, generationally insensitive, politically divisive, economically uneven—the world was home. We knew how to navigate it. We had some modicum of control. But in the guard tower, isolated on watch, it was different. We were defensive and at risk. If the Viet Cong attacked, for many of us it would be a ball of confusion, doubt, worry and fear. Almost certainly, a series of deadly missteps. The threat was unseen, invisible in the night. But it was real and lethal. To survive, you had to know that, even if there was little you could do about it.
There was a guy in the tower from Elmira. “Oh. I’m from New York too,” he said when we played the requisite GI version of Jewish geography. “Elmira’s upstate. You probably never heard of it. Famous for a state prison; nothing else.”
Indeed, I hadn’t heard of it. But years later, when I was a reporter for the Elmira Star-Gazette, I often thought about that lonely scary night and the guy from Elmira whose name I didn’t remember, but whose face I never forgot.
As the night wore on and we rotated sentry, we ran out of things to whisper. It was almost impossible to sleep. Still, it was good to shut down, close my eyes, be still and daydream. Always about the same thing. Being back in the world; inventing the future. I put in place each brick of the life I intended to live if I got through the war. I used the mortar of infinite detail to smooth and perfect my vision: the color of the car I’d buy. The places I would go with Natalie. The courses I would take at school. But my nerves were coiled like a hairspring. I kept an ear tuned for any foreign sound that posed a threat. There was only one job at hand: make it through the night.
First light dawned around 6 am. The thung chai boats and their fishermen returned to the surf. The sergeant of the guard made rounds to the towers, collected and returned us to our usual posts. There was morning chow and fresh coffee in the mess hall. With luck, some hot water remained for a shower. I had the rest of the morning off. Mama-san in our hootch cooked up her midday lunch on a portable braizer and shared her smelly nuc maum soaked rice. It was a good time to write Natalie a letter, catch a nap in my cot. No one infiltrated the wire where I stood sentry that night. I survived to see another day.