22. Journal, Vietnam (70-71)

Journal Entries, Vietnam — (Nov. 1970 thru Nov. 1971)

Thursday, 19 Nov 1970

My first combat mission! Ops and Intell brief 0830, Lt. Col. Bloomfield AC, Lt. Mikesell CP, Maj Graves Nav., mission fragged to 8B, over the fence in Laos. I’m going along as 3rd Pilot, primarily to get some time and also to learn a little of the mission procedures. We have an un-calibrated airplane, so won’t be able to fix any targets, just be copying in the back. The intell brief gives us several gun locations in our area, no new sightings and not much activity recently. We will go South from DaNang, below the guns on the Trail, turn West into Cambodia, then up into Laos – Steel Tiger!

We make our 1000 hrs takeoff and are in the target area by noon. The RO’s are getting a fair amount of copy, but no big deals. I am listening to the FM channel on Y-2’s panel. As I tune across the band, searching for enemy transmission, anxious to pick up on some top secret intelligence information of a terribly sinister and frightening nature, some evidence of the war that’s going on all around, suddenly I tune past what sounds like music! Back up, fine tune, there it is. Good grief – it sounds like – it is! “Put a little love in your heart…” Jackie DeShannon! But the DJ ain’t Dick Clark! According to the RO, it’s a Thai station, they listen to it frequently when nothing else is coming in. It’s at about 93 Mhz on the FM band. This war business is full of these little ironies.

Several hours later, we pick up Covey 531 on our Comm UHF radio – “Roger, Two, put yours about 50 meters before Lead’s.” – a FAC directing an airstrike by T-28s from Laos. We see the bombs bursting and the smoke about 10 or 15 miles away, every now and then we see a 28 pulling up from a run. Yep, there is a war going on down there! Occasionally, anyway.

We’re on our way home now. Maj. Graves is up front getting some seat time and has spotted something on the ground that looks like trucks. We circle around and pick out 5 trucks on the side of the road, and pinpoint their location on the grid. Col. Bloomfield is calling the control ship now – maybe we’ll see an airstrike. No, center says the trucks are old targets, already been hit. No excitement today. The remainder of the mission is uneventful, with a VFR landing back home at DaNang at 1700 hrs. I’m now a combat veteran!

Friday, 20 Nov 1970

My first actual co-pilot ride, again with Lt. Col. Bloomfield, fragged to 10B, also in Laos. An uneventful mission, just driving around for seven hours. The Mekong River is interesting. Similar to the Mississippi.

Friday, 4 Dec 1970

I’ve now been in-country for 24 days and have 10 months and 26 days more to go. The dominant feeling is futility; frustration at having to waste a year of life in this completely ridiculous situation, with not even the comfort of knowing it is necessary or right. For it could only be right if it were necessary, and no one seems to be able to show that it is necessary.

And the days flow by meaninglessly; a week is a forgotten concept, and days only have numbers, their names lost in the linear progression of meaninglessness and goal-less activity. Even months have names only as the barest vestiges of contact with reality back in the world. This is day 34 or D-331 as far as I’m concerned – nothing else has any relevance to my life now. It’s December fourth back home, though, so I try to remember that and keep in touch with it. But now even that has less and less meaning, for no letter from Suzanne is my constant tormentor… what if she never writes? Or if she writes to say, “Forget it, it won’t work, I’m tired of waiting…”? I’ll have no real reason to come home and even less to stay here and be honorable or dishonorable or whatever I’m being so that I’ll be able to go back free of whatever would keep me from her. And then if she does do that and I’m free of having to be free, what will I do? I still won’t be free, though, because of the other people I love. Love and Freedom – the two most important things in life. Why do they so often conflict, for me at least? I must be doing something very wrong. I can’t, just can’t, be real. I am not real. That’s the only answer. So how do I find realness (which is very different from reality) and what will I be if I should happen to find it?

Tuesday, December 21, or is it Monday

Yes, I think it is, Monday, a grey drizzle-day, almost looks like winter out, except for the warm damp air. Has not been very December or Christmas here. Just sad and lonesome and no letter from Suzanne for a long time. The state of my mind is hard to figure – mostly I am terribly restless, and daily growing more and more bitter. At least I did hear from her once, about two weeks ago. I’ve written her once since – and I sent her flowers on her birthday. Maybe she has written – guess it really hasn’t been long enough to get a letter since then. Maybe tomorrow. But tomorrow never comes around here. Time is a meaningless flow – only two meaningful units of time: flying and not-flying. No matter how long it is between flights, it’s the same, with the same things to do – or rather, not to do. Boredom is the greatest enemy… I get so bored that I don’t want to do anything. There is nothing to stimulate or motivate. Nothing but the great overriding sense of futility. I’m afraid I’ll never find God here – he seems to have left this part of the world to its own fate. And worse, it seems things are just going to shit back in the states, too. Not only on the obvious level but the good spirit of the young people, the openness and spirit of unity seems to be dying in the face of persecution and repression. Paranoia is taking over the minds of the whole nation. What will there be to go back to 10-1/2 months from now? What will be left 3 years from now when I get out, when I finally reach that long-awaited goal of freedom? Will there even be nominal freedom for anyone then? It is all very depressing. Maybe I’ll find somewhere to go….

Tuesday night, January 12, 1971

Having finally checked out as a copilot and flown two operational missions as an actual, qualified air-crew member, I now feel something akin to a sense of accomplishment in this meaningless mess. But the terrible restlessness, the feeling of waste is still with me. I got back to the hootch about 2 p.m. and meandered around the room trying to decide what to do with the afternoon – and so ended up doing nothing at all. Everything seemed like a waste of time when I should be doing something.

I got another letter a few days ago – but it said almost nothing. It looks bad for me and Suzanne. She just doesn’t seem to be very concerned…. Maybe through all this, however it turns out,  I’ll learn what and how I really am; maybe I’ll be able to face the reality that is me…. It is only in rare moments of sanity that I see that most of my life is fantasy – even the fantasies are fantasies….

Early the morning of February third –

 I’ll just never understand myself. Here I am, sitting up until 1:30 studying my Dash-one because I have a transition ride tomorrow and I don’t want to fuck up… when really I don’t give a damn whether they think I’m a good pilot or not, nor do I really give a shit about upgrading to First Pilot or getting good OERs or any of their bullshit. The worst thing they could do is send me to ‘Nam in the ‘Goon! I should start a concerted effort to be a fuckup and maybe they’ll decide I should be gotten rid of permanently. But I can’t do that. I don’t know why, I just can’t. My instincts, or rather, conditioning just won’t allow me to function that way. I always have to be honorable and conscientious and at least appear to have the right attitudes, even when I know I don’t and don’t want the things that appearing to have the right attitudes gets… even when the goal-striving, indeed the goals themselves are something I believe against! …

So I just go on as usual, hoping something dramatic will happen to rescue me from this mess. Oh yes, we had our first real rocket attack since my arrival – hit a fuel dump, big fire. Eight rockets. Groovy.

February 21, 1971

Sunday afternoon is coming down this February twenty-first and I am depressed. But I will continue. Having been transferred to NKP, I should be happy. But things are not too groovy in many ways and I haven’t had any mail in several weeks and especially not from Suzanne and I don’t fit in here either and I hate the Air Force and I’m terribly depressed about the whole situation…. The depressing power of an empty mailbox is amazing. Think I will just go out and walk around. NKP is really nice, a neat, clean pretty base with no jets and no grunts and green grass and pine trees and lots of whores downtown. But somehow, the lack of austerity makes it harder to be away from those I love.

May 24, 1971

Monday – Much has passed unwritten, and must remain chronicled only in my mind. After the initial depression upon arriving here, I began to enjoy things here pretty well, and felt good about the whole thing – but that didn’t last either. Actually, I still like it here, and probably it is better than most stateside assignments, and the ‘danger’ involved in the combat missions is something I never think about. But it’s just the separation and doubt and wondering what’s gonna happen that gets to me. Plus the fact of the Air Force and my total dissatisfaction, frustration, and sickness with and of my being in it. It’s warping my perspective of everything else in my life. And buried deep down beneath it all, hidden away in my rationalizations and carefree attitudes, is the spirit-destroying knowledge of my participation in this sick, evil war when I really don’t think I should. Weakness, fear, and lack of a principle/rational opinion base, are the reasons I’m here and the reason I stay.

Tuesday the 25th

 – things are still going badly. Woke up late, almost missed my briefing, didn’t make the MARS call home about the R&R that I meant to make this morning… We blew the IG inspection and I think Col. Smith suspects it was my fault. Gave me an RBI because I forgot to pay my club dues! Too fuckin’ much.

Sept 21, 1971

Since I wrote here last, a new star of hope has arisen on the horizon and I have hitched my wagon to it. We’ll see where the ride takes me. If I don’t make it out the door, I may have to go over the wall. They say the wall has gotten a lot of good men… an’ the last guy tried, well, his cell buddies all said it was obviously suicide and not a break at all. Guess you reach that point after a while. Even in desperation, it’s hard to do. Even walking out the front door is hard, dangerous and risky. They say the hard part is on the outside, though. How do you make it to safety and peace and freedom after you get out? Do you dare walk down the street? Can you survive in that jungle, that war? So what do you do? You just press on, hope they decide to let you out easily, and if they don’t you just keep moving, punching lightly ‘til you break right on out. If they do, God bless Gen. Ryan’s nasty little heart! See what develops. Right now it’s too soon to know. Pray for 36-12!

October 5, 1971

Probably not much here about the important events of the last few weeks… but I have made my decision, and I’m following it out, whatever it leads to. I have to do it for my own self-realization. Whatever that may mean.

9 Nov 1971 1500 Zulu

Riding home in the 141, reflecting back over my year – give or take a few days – in Southeast Asia, three months at DaNang and nine at Nakhon Phanom. It’s been a shitty year; the only good thing about it, as I said at the H&F party, has been the good people I have known. In DaNang it was ‘Fuckin’ Chipper,’ who could drink more whiskey and still get up sober and fly than anybody I ever saw – which he claimed was because before he went to bed he drank water equal to the amount of liquor he had drunk that night, – Ron and ‘Alice’, Chuck and Mike, Hernandez,  little Annie and Bat and the other crazy hootch mamasans.

The best times and friends were at NKP –  Davis, who’s probably still in Thailand, and Esposito, who kept me sane through it all. Breen and his crazy ‘parrot’ taught me more about flying than anybody. Lucas and Lough, big Tim, Neelis, Schwartz and Comfort, God, too many great guys to remember. And the great Thai girls who took care of the hootch, Toy in the hootch bar, and Ba, our other bartender, who so kindly taught me to respect Thai customs like not pointing the bottom of your foot at someone (“No do!” and a pat on the foot) and told me “Buddha say, not too much, not too little, just enough!”  and then I knew I was a Buddhist too – they made it possible to live under the conditions we found ourselves in there.

Then there was the 94th – Brodie the Super-rapper, Skeeter, and X-wray; and the guys on the line: Frank Bright, who saved my ass downtown (maybe more than once!), Willie, Bell, the Joneses, Davis and his haircut! What a group. Washington the mail guy, the Zoomies: Rob and his cards, Young and Foster, the Nails, and of course, John Ryan, also a Nail, the only guy we knew who died in the war. In Cambodia. And Nixon says there’s no American troops in Cambodia.

Good times in town, much of which I don’t remember, the Wan Pen, Pulley’s Cultural Center, Hong Kong sword movies and trips to the countryside, Mekong whiskey and Thai weed. Nit and ‘my-mee nu-ut”, samlak rides and hot pepper. What a scene!

And the greatest thing of all, here I am going home, finally, alive! It’s hard to believe it’s over.