Lighten Up

People sometimes do stupid things in wartime.  Count me – and some of my fellow Palace Dog English teachers – in that group.

As teachers in the US Air Force in Saigon, the capital of the Republic of South Viet Nam, all indications showed we were pretty well removed from the war front.  Some of us emphasized that to families back home to set their minds at ease.  Some of us emphasized the war’s porous front to gain sympathy and create a lot of machismo in our vanilla world.  Most of probably mixed the two portraits depending on circumstances in Viet Nam, those with whom we were communicating, and our moods at any particular time.

True, the Tan Son Nhut School in Gia Dinh where most of us taught had been in the path of the Viet Cong when they moved on Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive.  However, this was 1970, ’71 and ’72.  The VC presence as a military force had been pushed back out of the capital region.  We always heard reports of isolated terrorist (did we use that word then?) attacks and we could watch aerial bombardments on the horizon while drinking beer on the roof of our St George Hotel in Cho Lon, Saigon’s Chinatown.  All in all, though, Saigon was safe for us.

Nonetheless, we teachers carried a full load of LBE (load bearing equipment) while on duty to, at and from our schools.  The LBE consisted of a steel helmet, some kind of hard plastic helmet liner, a canteen to be filled with water at all times, an M-16 rifle, and a bandolier holding eight magazines with 21 cartridges in each magazine.

It was a heavy load.  True to the characteristics many of us Saigon Warriors, it was only fitting that we bore those heavy loads only in the short stroll to and from the buses that took us to school and back.  Tough life, huh?

We GIs, always working angles, sought a better way.  Now, I didn’t start this and I don’t know who did, but I slowly got on the bandwagon of lightening that burden of our LBE.  Two key elements were involved and both would have been abhorred by a combat infantryman in the bush, a grunt on a mountaintop firebase, or a sailor on a river boat on the delta.  First, we didn’t carry water in our canteens.  What the hell, we could always get a beer at the hotel or a bar.  Second, we removed 20 of the 21 cartridges from each of the eight magazines.  If inspected, we could always show that magazine with the single cartridge exposed at the top.  As long as we held onto this magazine, the weight differential would never be noticed by a noncommissioned officer inspecting us.

So clever.  So easy.  So cool.  So damn stupid!

To top it all off, we usually stored those removed cartridges in a paper bag in our flimsily built wood lockers secured with lightweight locks in the hotel rooms where we lived.  After we did the removal deed, we’d not look at that bag again until it was time to turn in our LBE when departing the country.  This meant that bag with scores of ammunition sat unaccounted for in a facility normally occupied by host nation personnel throughout the day.  Had even one of those folks chosen to go over to the other side, they could have so easily endeared themselves to the enemy by carrying thousands of rounds of ammo with them.

We were lucky in so many ways.

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