Is it possible to find humor in a war that polarized the nation? Much has been written about the combat soldiers in Vietnam. But there is another side of the war. This story follows Frank Prew during his tour of duty in Vietnam, and an odd assortment of friends he made while assigned to Company C 41st Signal Battalion, including Neil, a friend since radio school; Jake, self-described schlimazel; Hector, a germaphobic radio operator; and Castor, a walking encyclopedia. Together with their comrades, they were the Voice of Cam Ranh Bay. There are approximately eleven support soldiers required for every infantryman. Some of these men fought alongside the infantry, while others never saw combat. This is the story of those in the rear echelon. This is about how they coped with the war, finding humor and friendship even during the most difficult of situations.
Chapter 1-2 Sometimes a Sergeant
“BEWARE THAT, WHEN FIGHTING MONSTERS, YOU YOURSELF DO NOT BECOME A MONSTER … FOR WHEN YOU GAZE LONG INTO THE ABYSS. THE ABYSS GAZES ALSO INTO YOU.”
FLIGHT TO BIEN HOA VIETNAM
“This is the captain speaking. We are about to start our descent into Bien Hoa Air Base. Because this is a combat zone, we will be turning off the aircraft lights and making a rapid approach.”
The aircraft was a chartered Pan Am Boeing 707, no first-class section, packed like a cattle car, as many seats jammed in as possible. This flight had none of the extras like meals or drink service.
I looked around the cabin now that our arrival in Vietnam was about to become a reality, and observed that most of the conversation had stopped. Everyone seemed to be lost in thought, staring straight ahead, no doubt with the same dread I felt, questioning why we were here, not knowing what was to come, knowing that many on this plane would never return home. I looked out the window and could see flashes of light coming from below, illuminating the night sky. Neil, sitting next to me, looked like he was going to be sick. He started drumming his fingers on the table in front of him and then remembered he was supposed to put it up for landing. He did, then started tapping his foot on the floor.
“Damn, Buzz, do you think those are bombs?”
“I guess we’ll find out soon enough. Don’t worry Neil, we’ll get through this.” I hoped I sounded more confident than I felt.
When the lights in the cabin went off, the high-pitched yet soothing white noise of the jet engines went quiet, the nose of the aircraft pitched forward, and we began to drop rapidly. I heard a significant intake of breath throughout the cabin. I wasn’t sure that a great intake of breath was going to keep the airplane from crashing to earth, but I guessed it couldn’t hurt. I sure as hell hope he knows what he’s doing. I may have said this out loud, but I don’t know for sure, because my desire to live and having no control over this situation were currently at odds.
The engines screamed back to life, and the nose of the plane pitched upward, slowing the descent rate, setting the proper attitude for touchdown. It seemed like the wings strained to hold on—reminding me of a child with his arm thrust out the window of a speeding car, palm open to the wind, feeling the force wanting to rip his arm from its socket. Tires screeched, bouncing hard on the runway before staying firmly in contact. Engines roared as reverse thrust and brakes were applied, throwing us forward into our seatbelts before coming to a halt. The entire cabin erupted in applause, presumably because we weren’t dead. I’m not sure this was the proper way to respond. It may have been better if everyone could have just changed his skivvies.
The crew, wasting no time thanking us for flying Pan Am or telling us to have a nice day, hurried us off the plane and down the stairs that had been rolled up to the aircraft door. We headed for a line of buses that were painted the same olive drab as all Army vehicles—but with thick wire mesh screens covering all the windows. As one coach filled, it drove away, and an empty one pulled up in its place.
“Damn, it’s hotter than hell,” Neil said as we boarded the bus. “It must be 110 degrees, and it’s the middle of the night.”
Ground fog surrounded the area, making the relative humidity 100 percent. The mist created a primordial darkness that seemed menacing, and the humid air was laced with the smell of jet fuel and diesel. I was scared but excited.
As green recruits still in dress uniforms, we somehow seemed out-of-place, but we would be trading those in for fatigues and boots when we got to the 90th Replacement Center for in-country processing.
“Hurry and take your seat, do not open or adjust the windows, and no, this is not a prison bus,” the driver said. “The heavy-duty mesh is not to keep you in but to keep grenades out.” Everyone tried to make himself a little bit smaller by scooting down in the bus seats.
“It’s only a short ride to the 90th Replacement Center. It won’t be any cooler, so you may as well get used to the heat.” He pointed toward a corporal standing next to him with an M-16 slung over his shoulder. “Once you get there, the corporal will escort you to your temporary quarters, where you will stay until you are assigned your in-country duty station. Your duffel bags will be delivered to the barracks.”
There was almost no traffic on the road. The visibility was poor, and the only light came from the headlights on the bus.
I sat next to a tall guy named Castor Brown whose knees had nearly touched his chin in the cramped quarters of the plane. His long legs were still a tight fit on the bus, but he was able to stretch out some. Castor was an African American, a little over six feet tall, slender but well-muscled.
Once we got settled, he turned to me and said, “Your name is Frank Prew, right? Why does Neil call you Buzz?”
Neil, sitting on the aisle across from us, said, “I’m the one who gave him that nickname. We had a contest to see who could hold on longest to a pair of field phone wires while a ringer was turned. He held on the longest, but he made some weird buzzing noise before he let go.”
“Hell, I couldn’t let go,” I said. “My fingers kept contracting every time I tried. When I yelled ‘Stop,’ It came out SZZZZZ. And thanks for that, Neil, since you were the one turning the crank on the ringer.
“How about you? Is Castor a nickname?” I asked. “I’ve never heard the name before.”
“You’re not the only one. My mother named me after one of the Gemini twins in Greek mythology—sons of Zeus. She didn’t know it meant that at six years old I’d get my ass kicked and be called Castor Oil or Castor Bean. I’m grateful she didn’t name me after the other twin.”
“His name was Pollox.”
“Kids used to call me Frankenstein. It never bothered me though. I just went into my Frankenstein walk, which made everyone laugh but my grammar school teachers.”
The bus rolled to a stop, and the door opened. “Welcome to the 90th Replacement Center. We hope you enjoy your stay in lovely Vietnam,” the driver said.
Great, it all starts with sarcasm.
Bien Hoa Air Base, in South-Central Vietnam, was about 16 miles from Saigon, near the city of Bien Hoa. The barracks consisted of two-story wooden buildings with screen doors and windows. There was a row of bunks down each side. A thin mattress sat folded at the end of each bed, with sheets, pillow, and blanket on top. Our bags arrived shortly after we did.
“What, no turn-down service?” I said.
“Not exactly what I expected.” Neil looked around. “Not that I had any idea what to expect.”
Neil Conners and I met in basic training. We had gone to the same high school in Southern California, but our school had over 2500 students, and our paths didn’t cross. Neil played in the school band, while I was more into sports. Neil was average in every way; his hair was brown, his eyes were unremarkable, and he was of medium height. In the Army, we seemed to be on the same career path. We went to the same radio school at Fort Gordon, Georgia, to become Multichannel Transmission Systems Operators. I finished number one in the class, and Neil finished number two. We’d worked hard to achieve this because the instructors told us that those who finished in the top of the class would remain in Georgia as instructors, and the rest would go to Vietnam. For all our demanding work, everyone in the top of the class—Neil and I included—were sent to Vietnam. A couple of guys who finished in the middle stayed as instructors, and those at the bottom were sent to Germany. I didn’t know if this was an outright lie or just the Army way.
“May I have your attention,” said the corporal. “You have each been provided a copy of the 90th Replacement Battalion Handbook. Read this. Pay particular attention to the last page, which contains procedures to follow in the event of an alert. You will be concerned with two types of alerts: yellow alerts and red alerts. You will be notified of a yellow alert by three short blasts on the siren or by an announcement over the PA. Go immediately to your assigned quarters and wait for further instructions. Notification of a red alert will be by incoming artillery, mortar rounds, or one long blast of the siren. The loud boom easily identifies the artillery and mortar rounds. You are to hit the ground immediately. If you are in the billets, crawl under a bed and cover yourself with a mattress. Remain where you are until the all clear is sounded. In the event of a ground attack, which is unlikely, stay indoors and keep the hell out of the way of those trained and equipped to handle the situation.” The corporal looked bored. He stopped talking long enough to light a cigarette. “At 0700 hours, you will assemble outside for assignment information or work detail. That’s all.” He held his clipboard in the air and waved it while he turned and walked away.
The next morning, after breakfast at the mess hall, we all lined up on the parade field, where a corporal called names of those who had been assigned a unit. Our names were not called the first day, so we were given a work detail. Neil and I were assigned latrine duty. The latrine was an outhouse designed to seat six, with no dividers, and you shared the toilet paper with whoever sat next to you. (Modesty was not something that concerned the Army.)
Cleaning the latrines included taking the cut-down fifty-five-gallon drums from under each hole to an open area for burning. We set out to accomplish this by grouping the cans in a circle, adding diesel fuel and setting it on fire, waiting for the shit to burn to ashes.
Neil was not a patient guy, as I had already learned. “It doesn’t look like it’s burning hot enough, Buzz. We need more flame.”
“OK, watch this.”
I took a full bucket of diesel and threw the contents over the fire. The fuel roared when it ignited, producing large flames and billowing black smoke.
“Far out!” Neil said.
We each, in turn, started throwing diesel a bucketful at a time to see who could make the biggest flame. Soon several helicopters came flying toward us. We assumed they were enjoying the show we put on.
A young lieutenant came running out shouting, “What the hell are you idiots doing? They think we’re under attack!”
On the bright side, it was the last time Neil and I had latrine duty in Bien Hoa.
The next morning, while we were waiting for our work detail, the corporal started calling names. “Castor Brown, Frank Prew, Neil Conners, grab your gear. You’re going to Cam Ranh Bay—lucky bastards.”
I turned to Neil and Castor. “Are we lucky bastards or is this more sarcasm? I don’t think I can tell anymore.”
“Who knows,” Neil said, throwing his hands in the air.
CAM RANH BAY INDUCTION CENTER
The short flight to Cam Ranh Bay on a Lockheed C-130 used for troop transport was even less comfortable than the overcrowded Boeing 707. We sat on the floor between cargo straps strung from bulkhead to bulkhead. Many of the fliers were sitting on their steel helmets.
“Corporal, why do you sit on your helmet?” I asked. “It doesn’t look very comfortable.”
“Use your head for something besides a helmet rack, Private. The bullets are coming from below.” Seeing my blank look, he added with a grin, “Protect your privates, Private.”
Castor, quicker on the uptake, was sitting on his helmet before the corporal finished talking. Neil and I quickly followed suit.
“Buzz, do you think they will actually be shooting at us?” Neil asked, as his fingers drummed a beat on the helmet he was sitting on.
“Naw, they’ll probably say let’s just let this one go by.”
“You’re really picking up on this sarcasm thing.”
The flight was uneventful. No shots were fired—not that we were aware of anyway. The weather was not any cooler in Cam Ranh, but the smell of jet fuel and diesel was replaced with the smell of the ocean. A specialist was waiting at the airfield with an M35 deuce-and-a-half cargo truck to pick us up and take us to the induction center. The truck had wooden fold-down benches down each side of the truck bed. That olive drab bus was looking much better now. “Can I have your attention? Privates Castor Brown, Frank Prew, and Neil Conners. Grab your duffel and hop on the back of the truck. We’ll be making a stop by the PX first. If you need anything, now will be the time to get it.”
“How far is it to the induction center?” Neil asked.
“It’s only a couple of miles. It’s at the base of Hill 184,” The specialist said, pointing at a rock face with a whole lot of antennas on top.
“I hope we get assigned to the same outfit,” Neil said.
The PX was a giant warehouse. “Damn,” I said, looking at the items on the shelf. “They have everything from soup to nuts. Look at the prices on the booze. Four-fifty for a bottle of the top shelf stuff: Crown Royal, Jack Daniels, Chivas Regal, Wild Turkey and Johnnie Walker. Let’s get something for tonight. We can come back once we settle in.”
“Did you know they have a store like this in Arkansas?” Castor said. “They call it Walmart. They sell everything, at low prices. I think it may be the wave of the future.”
The Cam Ranh Induction Center was nothing more than a few rows of canvas tents set up in the sand, with one building that housed the permanent personnel. Everything was sand in this clearing. It was like living on the beach without the benefit of water or margaritas. A stand of tall trees, more like a jungle, grew at the base of the antenna covered mountaintop the specialist had told us was Hill 184.
“That tent is your home.” The corporal pointed to the second one in the front row. “Until you get your permanent assignments, you can take any available cot.”
“Where’s the chow hall?” I asked.
“You’re too late for lunch, Private. If you want to eat, be out here at 0630 for breakfast, 1145 for lunch, and 1645 for dinner. Transportation to and from the mess hall will be provided. You will also assemble here at 0800 for assignments.”
“I’m glad we bought some crap at the PX to snack on,” Neil said. “How the hell is it our fault we missed the lunch truck.”
The large tent smelled like wet canvas from the rain earlier that morning. The cots, five along each side, were canvas stretched across wooden frames. Three guys were already occupying the tent, and they introduced themselves as Jake Rosenberg, Ben Shell, and Fred Johnson.
“Wow, from nice barracks to a tent,” Neil said. “This move is a giant step back. I don’t even want to think about what our permanent station will be. Maybe we’ll have to share a cave with a bear.”
“They probably don’t have bear here in Cam Ranh Bay.” Private Brown grinned, then added, “but they do have tigers.”
Neil gave him a withering look and sat on his cot to sulk.
“Where’s the shower?” I asked. “I’ve been pouring sweat all day.”
The private who introduced himself as Jake Rosenberg pointed out the flap of the tent, “See those two giant water tanks? Those are the showers. Don’t use all the water.”
I knew before he told me that Jake was from New York—he sounded just like Jackie Gleason. He was only about five feet six inches tall with a slender build. He looked like he was too young to be drafted. One of those guys in basic training that they made shave every day even though he had no reason to shave.
I stripped down, wrapped myself in a towel, slipped on my flip-flops, grabbed my shaving kit and headed for the showers. The two enormous water tanks on a wooden scaffold must have held about three hundred gallons. There were six separate shower heads beneath the containers. No curtain, no walls. Two guys from one of the other tents were already showering when I got there. It was like we were drafted into a nudist camp. No hot water either, but in this heat, who needed it. Cool, catch some rays and shower at the same time. Sounded good to this Southern California boy. I stood naked on the Perforated Steel Planking (PSP), turned on a spigot to get wet, turned it off to soap up, turned it on again to rinse off. That was a military shower. They didn’t want to have to replenish those water tanks very often. The water drained through the PSP into the sand. A couple of mamasans, Vietnamese women paid to do cleaning and laundry, walked past while we showered. The other men paid no attention to them. It was like the women were invisible. And the mamasans chattered on to one another, completely ignoring us.
I heard a noise and looked up at the cross beams. “What the hell? There’s a monkey up there.”
“That’s Sherman,” the guy next to me in the shower said, without looking up. “He hangs out here looking for food handouts. Be careful. He’s a thief—and he’s quick. Somewhere he has a collection of sunglasses, pens, and whatever else he can carry away.”
I felt much better after the shower. However, within a minute of drying off, I began to sweat again. Walking back to the tent, I passed Neil and Castor, who were on their way to the shower. “Okay, you guys. I want you to be careful playing with the monkey up there—wouldn’t want you to lose anything.”
Neil said, “You’re one sick puppy, Buzz.”
“That was a macaque monkey,” Castor said when they returned. “They’re principally frugivorous, you know. We should get him a banana when we go to dinner.”
“What’s forgiverous?” I asked.
“Oh, sorry. Frugivorous. Fruit eaters,” He cupped his chin, looking thoughtful. “They also eat leaves and flowers. Some, such as the crab-eating macaque, include a diet of invertebrates.”
“Thanks, Castor, I was happy just knowing his name was Sherman.”
“That damn monkey stole my toothbrush this morning,” Jake Rosenberg said. “He came down out of the rafters and took it right out of my shaving kit.”
That first night, I thought we would have our first battle. The other three men in the tent had been flown in directly to Cam Ranh from their stateside locations. Ben Shell, who was from Chicago, was talking football with Fred Johnson, a New Yorker and an avid Giants fan.
“I think the Bears will go all the way this year,” Shell said.
Everyone looked at Johnson in surprise.
Shell responded with, “Well, fuck you too.”
Johnson stood. We could feel the tension mount when they looked menacingly at each other.
Castor Brown burst out laughing and pointed to the corner of the tent at a rather large lizard. “It’s a tokay gecko.”
“Fuck you,” the lizard said.
“That, ironically, is its mating call.”
“How the hell do you know that?” I asked.
“I researched the indigenous flora and fauna for Vietnam when I found out I was coming here.”
“Really? You looked all this shit up?”
“My good man,” he said grinning, with a sweeping flourish of his arm. “I am a student of knowledge, and I know many things.”
“Well thank you, Professor Brown,” I said with a bow. “You have successfully averted the first major battle of Cam Ranh Bay.”
“Tomorrow is probably going to be another long day,” Neil said. “I’m going to get some sleep.” His yawn was contagious. The rest of us followed suit.
“Goodnight, everyone,” I said.
The next morning, after breakfast, the occupants of all the tents gathered outside for assignments. We were more like a mob than a formation. A sergeant started calling names and destinations. Johnson and Shell were told they were going to Bien Hoa, where Castor and Neil and I had just come from. Most of those whose names weren’t called started walking back to the tents. A few of us stood around looking at each other waiting for work assignments. None came.
“If your name was called, be back here in one hour for transport. There will be no more assignments until tomorrow.”
I looked at the others, shrugged my shoulders, and said, “Back to the tent, I guess. Next challenge is to survive lunch.
“I’m surprised that we got no assignments,” Neil said. “Not that I’m complaining.”
Shell said, “We’ve been here a couple of days, and no one else has been given a work assignment that I know of.”
“In Bien Hoa, where you’re going, Neil and I had latrine duty on our first day there. Try setting a huge fire. They seem to like that.” Seeing the puzzled look on his face, I told him the story.
Shell said, “Why the hell didn’t the Army fly us into Bien Hoa and you guys into Cam Ranh? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“You said it. The Army—they definitely have their own way of doing things. Good luck, you two. Keep your heads down and sit on your helmets when you fly.” I had to explain that one, too.
The Professor, as we’d started calling Castor, suggested we take a hike through the section of the jungle to the rock face of Hill 184. “I’d like to get a first-hand look at the plants and trees in the rainforest.”
“I’m in,” I said.
“Me too,” Jake jumped up. “Maybe I can get my toothbrush back from Sherman.”
“Moron,” Neil leaned back on his bunk. “What the hell are you going to do with your toothbrush if you do get it back from the monkey?”
“I’m gonna swap it with yours.”
We started walking into the forest just beyond the water tower. It felt like we were taking a field trip with our very own professor. In the high humidity, the smell of the damp forest floor was almost pleasant. The forest brimmed with life at all levels, and a cacophony of sounds assaulted our ears. High in the trees monkeys chattered when we passed. The Professor pointed out distinct types of monkeys; Jake and I agreed that they were all monkeys. We also spotted hares, deer, and squirrels. We didn’t encounter anything dangerous, but the Professor assured us it was a possibility.
“Between 50 to 90 percent of life in the rainforest exists in the trees, above the shaded forest floor,” the Professor explained. “Primary tropical rainforest is vertically divided into at least five layers: the overstory, the canopy, the understory, the shrub layer, and the forest floor.” He pointed to each level as he described it. The Professor smiled like a kid on Christmas morning, not knowing which present to open first. “Each layer has its unique plant and animal species interacting with the ecosystem around them. The overstory soars 20-100 feet above the rest of the canopy.”
“Damn, Professor, I don’t know why you’re a radio operator,” I said. “Some of this shit’s actually interesting.”
“I’m glad you find this entertaining, Buzz. Maybe next time I’ll teach you all about photosynthesis.”
“Let’s not get carried away. I’m also easily bored.” I looked up at the rock face. “This is amazing. I bet we can climb it.” So we did.
When we reached the summit of Hill 184, we surprised a group of five soldiers who were sitting outside their radio vans taking a smoke break. From the top of the hill, the canopy looked like shrubs.
“I’ll bet this is where we’ll be working,” I said. “Neil and I are 31M, Multichannel Transmission Systems Operators.”
“Me, too,” said Jake. “I thought I recognized you from Fort Gordon, but you were in a different class.”
“It’s unanimous,” the Professor said. “I’m also a 31Mike.”
“Hey,” Jake asked the other guys, “Is there a better way down?”
“Sure, try the road,” one of them said, pointing behind the radio vans. “You guys are crazy.”
The dirt road was filled with potholes and ruts from water runoff, but it was a lot easier than the climb up. We got to know Jake pretty well on the walk, because he liked to talk and didn’t seem to hold anything back. He seemed like a happy-go-lucky guy who was always ready to try something new. We learned that he’d grown up in Brooklyn and he bragged that he had street smarts.
It was definitely time for another shower and a nap by the time we got back to the tent.
After we returned from dinner, I pulled out a deck of cards. “Poker time!”
Everyone had a deck of cards; it was practically mandatory. Our games were usually penny ante, but they passed the time, the one thing we seemed to have plenty of.
“Professor, you’re a smart guy,” I said shuffling the cards. “I would’ve thought you’d be in college and have a deferment.”
“I was in college—but I had a conflict. My mother’s an English professor at Cornell, where I received my bachelor’s degree in entomology, but my father was an Army surgeon in Korea during the war, a career man. So, instead of going to West Point like Dad wanted, I went to Cornell. And instead of getting a deferment like Mom wanted, I volunteered for the draft. Now they are equally pissed and proud. I’ll get my master’s and doctorate when I return.”
“How the hell did you already get a bachelor degree? You’re about the same age as I am.”
“I skipped a few grades,” he said, with a shrug of his shoulders.
“If you’re from New York how come you don’t have an accent?” Neil asked.
“Yeah. I noticed that too,” Jake said.
“We live in New York now, but being a military brat, I’ve lived all over.”
I passed the deck to the Professor to deal, “I don’t know if we should play cards with you,” I said. “You probably have a system developed.”
“Not yet. However, according to the statistics—”
“Just deal, Professor—this is my area of study,” Jake said.
“Maybe Jake’s the one we should watch out for,” I said. “After all, he admitted that he is street smart.”
While the Professor reshuffled the deck that I just finished shuffling, I asked Jake, “Where did you fly into Cam Ranh from? Neil and I flew into Guam from LA then into Bien Hoa.”
“I flew in from LA, and into Guam too, then into Cam Rahn Bay,” Jake said picking up his cards and sorting them.
“I thought you were from New York,” Neil said.
“Well, yeah, but I was visiting my brother in LA. He’s attending UCLA and has a college deferment. Ma told me I should go right to college, but I wanted to take some time off after high school.” Jake mimicked his mother’s voice. “She said, ‘God knows, if you don’t register for school, you’re going to get yourself drafted and go to Vietnam.’ I hate when she’s right. It didn’t take Uncle Sam long to notice that I wasn’t doing anything productive. Now I have a lifetime of I-told-you-so’s from my mother.”
The Professor studied his hand. “The Army flew me to San Francisco from New York, then into Guam and I ended up on the same plane with Buzz and Neil going to Bien Hoa. Growing up an Army brat taught me not to be surprised at anything the Army does. Two pair, aces and eights.” He dropped his cards on the table and dragged the coins to the pile in front of him.
“Jesus, it’s the dead man’s hand,” Neil said, referring to the hand Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was murdered. “Gives me the creeps.”
“Eating at the mess, that’ll probably kill us all,” I said.
“Listen, it’s raining again,” the Professor said. “It’s really loud beating against this tent.” He stood up and touched the tent ceiling above Jake’s cot.
“Don’t touch . . .” I said, too late. Water began to drip onto Jake’s cot.
“Never been camping before, right Professor?” I said.
He placed Jake’s helmet to catch the water. “Capillary action where I touched the tent has caused it to leak—fascinating. I won’t make that mistake again.”
“Yeah, mesmerizing,” Jake said, swapping his helmet with the Professor’s and moving his stuff to another cot.
The next day we were transferred from the induction center to our new home in Cam Ranh Bay, Company C 41st Signal Battalion. Neil got what he hoped for—we were all assigned the same unit.
While we were packing and getting ready to go, two new recruits came in with their duffels. They threw their stuff on a cot, claiming their space.
“Don’t touch the tent canvas or it will leak,” the Professor said.
“Every idiot knows that,” one of them said walking back out of the tent.
The Professor walked over and ran his finger the full length of the ceiling above the man’s cot. Jake and I looked at each other and smiled while exiting the tent.
“You have a devious, malicious side to you Professor,” I said when we boarded the truck for our new home “I like it.”
It started raining again.