Fifth in a series.
Though my presence in Vietnam was apparently essential to the military, they weren't quite sure why. There was no job for me. Finally -- I had witnessed hundreds of soldiers passing through on the way to a job somewhere -- I received orders to report to the post exchange (the PX), where they gave me a job ordering stuff: just about everything you'd see in a supermarket or drugstore. I hated the place, and my sergeant, a real starched-brain dickhead, hated me.
One day I came in to find my Vietnamese assistant crying. She had serious scarring on her face from napalm; I think she must have been given the job as a token reparation. She said her brother, an ARVN, had been wounded and was in hospital on the base. I said "Let's go!" My sergeant wasn't there, so I told the folks in the office I was taking her to the hospital. We hopped in a Jeep and were off.
My sergeant was all over my ass when I got back. I'd taken a vehicle without authorization. I'd gone AWOL. I was in big trouble. He was going to court martial me, blah, blah, and blah -- not exactly a love fest.
That was it for me. In case you haven't figured it out –- I had –- sergeants run the army. In the end, it doesn't matter what any officer decrees, the sergeants make it work. They'll nod and say "Yes, Sir" and then go do whatever the hell they think should be done to obtain the desired result. If it works out, the officer gets the credit and a promotion. If not, the NCO's ass is in a sling. Usually, of course, it works.
I marched myself over to the division information office –- just about the only thing I had to do in the transient company had been to read the division newspaper, The Tropic Lightning News -- and found the sergeant in charge, a kind of managing editor. I told him that my talents were wasted at the PX and that I wanted to be an Information Specialist. They had a job opening, and he asked me about my educational history. He liked what he heard, but warned me that I would have to take photos as well as write. Did I have any experience in that arena? "Sure," I lied. He gave me a Nikon and told me to take a couple of days to take photographs around the base camp, then bring the film back to be developed. So I did. He must have liked what he saw, because a couple of days later, I received orders for reassignment to the 25th Infantry Division Administration Company. Report to the Information Office. Whew.
One of the guys took me over to the hooch that would be my home for the next nine months or so. While he showed me my cot, I noticed that my corner of the building -- actually, it was a screened-in tent with a wooden frame and a plywood floor -- was newer than the rest of the hooch. I asked about it as I was unpacking my gear. It seems that a mortar round had hit that corner and there had been "casualties." So that's why there were job openings.
I got into the job, and actually enjoyed most of it, becoming fairly proficient with the cameras. I wrote a few stories; learned my way around. Once I got my boots wet and got my war legs, I was fairly autonomous. I would tell them were I was headed –- I could always flash my press card and get transportation, usually by helicopter -- and be off. As long as I returned with photos and stories, they left me alone.
In typical subtle military soft-sell jargon, there is just one thing missing from the Army's official, peacefully-written job description of my position, "Information Specialist" the getting shot at part. They carefully avoided mentioning the related civilian occupations "War Correspondent" or "Combat Photographer."
From my first foray out in the field with the grunts, I decided that's where I belonged. Not because I was brave. It was the same infernal impulse that has propelled my life: I had to know what the fuck was really going on. I wasn't going to be at the war and not be at the war. I did the same thing at one time or another with just about every drug known to man. If you're curious, I can help you out here. None of them contains "The Answer."
I saw my first combat with the Wolfhounds, in an area known as "The Pineapple Patch," an overgrown pineapple plantation. I was just walking along with the infantry rifle team when all hell broke loose. Two men dropped in their tracks. Then a third was hit. We slid down into one of the water-filled irrigation ditches that ran between the weedy plant rows. Eventually, some soldiers threw a few grenades into the hidden bunker the automatic weapons fire had come from; a couple of Viet Cong, still alive, were extracted from it.
I became pretty good at my job. From June of 1967 through April of 1968, I spent much more time in the field than in the base camp, and most of the time, I was dirty. I was often out for a week or two, since there was a lot of actual war going on out there. You all may not be aware that it takes nine support people -- soldiers who never do any fighting -- to support one soldier in the field. I wanted to be with the 10%, in the action whenever possible. I was seeing it for myself –- up close and real personal. I spent much of my time with the 1/27 and the 2/27 –- the First and Second Battalions of the 27th Infantry, called "The Wolfhounds." These guys were hardcore, always looking for a fight; this, of course, was their job. Their daily gastronomic regimen included, for the most part, C-Rations.
The Meal, Combat, Individual, is designed for issue as the tactical situation dictates, either in individual units as a meal or in multiples of three as a complete ration. Its characteristics emphasize utility, flexibility of use, and more variety of food components than were included in the Ration, Combat, Individual (C Ration) which it replaces. Twelve different menus are included in the specification.
Unofficially: awful stuff, though I must say they were often better than some of the food available to the rear echelon troops in the base camps. (Of course, it was entirely possible for a base camp troop to go through its entire tour without coming into contact with C-Rations. This was strictly field-troop cuisine.)
And there was some really bad stuff in those cans.
C-Rations came in a case of 12 meals. Everything was in olive drab containers with the contents printed on them. There were three groups: B1, B2, and B3. B1 had a couple of premium items -– peanut butter and fruit cocktail. B2 contained one ostensible "meat" main course that couldn't be given away: the universally despised Ham & Lima Beans.
Each group contained an "Accessory Pack," which may well have been the most important item in the case. Officially, again:
Gum, 2 Chiclets
Cigarettes, 4 smokes/pack
(Interrupting here: not all the above cigarettes were in every case: brands were serendipitous)
Matches, Moisture Resistant
Not mentioned is the most important item in the case –- the P-38. This was a small, flip-out can opener with a small hole in it; we wore them around our necks on our dog-tag chains. The C-Rations were inaccessible without this essential tool. (I wear mine on my keychain to this day).
There was a final olive-drab-wrapped item: a block, about a foot long, of C-4 plastic explosive. This was how we heated the C-Rations: Break off a small chunk and set it on a rock. Open a bread can (wider than it was tall -– and dry inside) with the P-38 and dump the bread. Perforate the unopened end of the can with a church key. Light the C-4 with a Zippo and set the bread can on top. Cook. The old hands found it endlessly amusing to watch the look on the FNG's (Fucking New Guy's) face as they explained they were lighting C-4 on fire. Unless he was a combat engineer, the FNG didn't have a clue how C-4 was detonated. In usual circumstances, you needed det (detonation) cord, but pressure could also detonate C-4. It wasn't a good idea to stomp on the fire to put it out.
The best meal I ever had in the field I cooked myself. We'd marched all day without drawing any fire. When I went out with an infantry unit, we'd usually make a series of eagle flights, and if we didn't stumble into some action, Hueys would swoop down and spirit us off to another location. Not this time. As we went through the village, I bought a chicken, a duck and some rice from a farmer, and carried the two birds – still alive -– on my belt for a few kilometers. Id bought a couple of pounds of peanuts --they were for sale everywhere. I made a fire that evening and cooked the birds with the rice and the peanuts in my steel pot (helmet to you rookies,) seasoning the stew with salt, pepper and Tabasco from the C-Rations. We had a couple of watermelons we'd bought from the same farmer.
Beer was the beverage of choice. Cold beer was best, but any beer would do. (Ice was like gold. We traded for it.) We knew it was sterile and had some carbs. It also helped one swallow the chloroquine-primaquine tablets with which we were dosed. I don't know if it was these pills or constant exposure to shigellosis, salmonella, etc., that caused the constant diarrhea, but I got to the point where I seriously mused about having a spigot grafted onto my asshole. When I'd been assigned to the PX, I ordered pallet upon pallet of beer. Dozens of pallets were stacked in the yard at the PX, under tarps, baking in the sun and rusting. Yes, rusting, in steel cans: nothing but the very best for our troops. (Another example of that would be C-Rations; they were often dated in the 50's. We got leftovers from The Korean War.)
The shantytowns that sprang up by every base camp in Vietnam were rife with thin-skinned hovels whose walls were sheets of steel stamped with brand names of American beers. In Cu Chi my favorite watering hole/whorehouse was emblazoned "Girls Beer Bazaar Car Wash": Warholian walls with thousands of flat Budweisers everywhere one looked. Interestingly enough, these places usually didn't serve American beer. Biere Larue was the most common beverage offered.
Not all libations were potable. Nowadays, whenever I find myself drinking some Rumpolian plonk, I hearken back to the day we'd been lost for most of the day on an S&D and had run out of water. Not good. Hyperthermia is not a pretty thing. Some guys were vomiting and most were cramping. We hadn't seen the sky for hours, and the Hueys above couldn't find us to drop us water, despite the several smoke grenades we'd set off. Then, there it was -– eau de vie. We stumbled out of the jungle into a rice paddy. Like everyone else, I plunged face-first into the sludge and drank deep. These paddies were fertilized with just about every kind of mammalian excrement: Chateauneuf du Poop. Parasite Paradise. It didn't matter in the least. There are priorities. Let's just say that today I'm tolerant of corked bottles of wine.
I also went on what were called "Civic Action" missions. They comprised a combination of medical, military and PR purposes. While the villagers were being fed and examined by medics, soldiers would be looking for arms caches or signs of the enemy. I don't believe the chow served on these missions had a healthy effect on the "hearts and minds" of the locals. Hell, they didn't like our rice. Invariably, the stuff found in the infamous rice caches was American rice. They considered this stuff starvation rations: in case of emergency A. Break Glass B. Eat American Rice.
We often ate with the village chieftain on these excursions. I learned not to be in the least picky. These people were, after all, sharing their food with us: most often, some small amount of grilled or fried meat (learned not to ask what) or poultry, with a plate piled high with greens, some dipping sauces, like nuoc mam, and a pile of softened bahn tran (rice paper rounds). You wrapped everything up in the rice paper like a tortilla and dipped. Bahn tran: I didn't know what the hell these were when I first got to Vietnam. They were everywhere! Bamboo racks were covered with these round white things. Sometimes we had bowls of noodles, too. I became fond of Vietnamese food.
I took a shine to ethnic Hawaiian food. Typical of my luck, when there wasn't a skirmish going on somewhere on the planet involving the American military, the 25th Infantry Division was stationed in Hawaii. In Vietnam we had the good fortune to be planted firmly atop the largest complex of hand-dug, inhabited tunnels the world has ever known.
Ethnic Hawaiian food is not the stuff that is fed to tourists. The one food probably consumed by more Hawaiians than any other single foodstuff is Spam. I'm not talking about the stuff you find your inbox crammed with every morning. I'm talking Hormel lunch meat, used in every conceivable culinary concoction -- that three-dimensional rounded rectangle of minced chicken and pork with ascorbic acid. It prevented the Russians from starving during WWII. When we had a barbecue in Vietnam the center of the plate item was usually Spam. At the PX, I'd ordered literally tons of Spam. I grilled a lot of Spam. (I found out that Hawaiians did eat other stuff when I spent my R&R in Hawaii with Suzan.)
Our cookers were 55-gallon drums, cut in half longitudinally. These drums were ever-present in Vietnam, and I still see them for sale today. (It would have been a good idea to avoid those with an orange stripe around them –- they had contained Agent Orange. I don't remember using one myself, but I'm sure many did.) They were used to cook the food -- and served as the final receptacle for the remainders. When cut in half latitudinally, drums were slipped under the holes cut in the boards that made up the latrines: screened-in hooches featuring one step up to a long board with maybe a dozen ass-size holes cut in it. Nothing like communal dumping. Kinda intimate.
Every morning great plumes of black smoke rose from all over the base camp; contributing, I'm sure, to the pollution that made the early evening sky so many pastel shades of beautiful. Ode on an American commode –- in shit, beauty. These were the shit burners at work. They poured gasoline on the excrement, tossed in a match and stood back. When their day job was done they went home, put on their black pajamas, headed out to the jungle and lobbed mortar rounds into the base camp. You can see which career path offered the most opportunity.
I hope this serves as a segue -– getting me from Indiana to California. I can't see how, though. It is just what it was and where I was and what I did for a year of my life. Maybe it explains some part of my brain I'm not able to elucidate in another manner. Much has already been written about Vietnam, and much of that by those who were there. None of my scribblings will add significantly to that oeuvre, because war can't be described with words to those who have not been privy to the experience. Folly, waste, carnage and idiocy do not do it justice. Wars are always fought by the young with no power on behalf of the old who have something they want to keep or get something they don't have. All other reasons are mere lamination.
Joseph Carey, aka ChefCarey, is the author of Creole Nouvelle: Contemporary Creole Cookery and Chef on Fire: The Five Techniques for Using Heat Like a Pro. He cooks, teaches and writes in Memphis, Tennessee.