Ralph Mattia

Prolegomena to Ralph’s Great Eastern Adventure

Sometimes you really dig a girl the moment you kiss her

And then you get distracted by her older sister

When in walks her father and takes you a line

And says, “You better go home, son, and make up your mind”

 

And then you bet you’d better finally decide

Say yes to one and let the other one ride

There’s so many changes and tears you must hide

Did you ever have to finally decide? (Lovin’ Spoonful, 1965)

On July 20, 1969, the whole world knew that Astronaut Neil Armstrong (Commander of Apollo 11) was a “decider”.  Armstrong had decided that he and not Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. would take “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.

While Armstrong and Aldrin were making history in the Sea of Tranquility, my life was anything but tranquil.  That Sunday, I was the guest of a very attractive coed at her swimming pool party.  Her older sister and her sister’s best friend joined us in my piece of paradise. Even the Chicago Cubs couldn’t misplay this opportunity.  As the Cubs earned two victories over the Philadelphia Phillies and Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon collecting rocks, I went home with baseball’s golden sombrero.

On my mind was my recently changed Draft Classification from II-S (registrant deferred because of activity in study) to I-A (available for military service).  I had just lost in a “can’t lose” situation.  What were my chances of winning in a “can’t win” situation?

I could try and appeal my reclassification; but, I was a resident of DuPage County, Illinois.  I was represented in Congress by Republican John Erlenborn.  Erlenborn believed that Agent Orange was to Viet Nam veterans what Black Lung Disease was to coal miners — a fraudulent means to get government money.  My chances of another Draft Deferment were as good as the Cubs holding on to their current lead over the New York Mets.

I had to finally decide.  Should I avoid the draft?  Should I allow myself to be drafted? Should I avoid the draft by volunteering for military service?  Going to Canada meant leaving friends, family, and the Cubs.  Going to jail was not an option.  Avoiding the draft would be more painful than my memories of that recent Sunday afternoon.

I could try and join the Illinois National Guard.

Some folks are born made to wave the flag

Ooh, they’re red, white and blue

And when the band plays “Hail to the chief”

Ooh, they point the cannon at you, Lord

It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son

It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no

(“Fortunate Son” Creedence Clearwater Revival 1969)

I could be drafted and spent two years in the U.S. Army; except, one out of every three draftees out of Chicago were said to be Marine Corp bound.  My friends, Warden and his younger brother John, had been Marines.  They served together in Vietnam. Warden had finished second in his Basic Training Class.  He proclaimed that when he became President of the United States, I would be his Secretary of War. Warden and John were murdered near the Arizona-Mexico Border victims of the Drug War.

I could volunteer.  My father, a decorated World War II veteran who served in the 9th US Armored Division and was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge, was opposed to my entering military service.  His best friend’s son, Private First Class James Thomas Cummings, Jr. (B Co, 4th BN, 39th Infantry, 9th INF DIV, USARV) was a radioman and was Killed In Action (after 47 days in country) on March 30, 1968, in Gia Dihn Province, South Vietnam.   He was 22 years old.  [Panel 47E Line 010]  Jimmy’s classmate, First Lieutenant Steven Robert Major (VFMA-115, MAG-13, 1st MAW, United States Marine Corp), was shot down in his F-4B (BuNo 150459) out of Chu Lai, South Vietnam, on September 21, 1968.  He was 22 years old. [Panel 43W Line 056]   My younger brother, Specialist 4th Class Terrence Lee Mattia, was station in Vietnam from May 1968 to May 1969 with B Battery, 2/20 Artillery, 1st Air Cavalry Division, both just south of the DMZ and 80 miles northwest of Saigon near the Cambodian border.  My father did not believe President Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkin lie any more than he believed that President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill knew nothing of Japan’s plans to attack Pearl Harbor and Singapore on December 7, 1941.  {When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked rule, the people groan.  (Proverbs 29:2)}

It was time to make up my mind.  I decided to take the giant leap and participate.  After all, who remembers that Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Michael Collins observed the moon walks from lunar orbit?

I could join the Navy:

We joined the Navy to see the world
And what did we see?
We saw the sea
We saw the Pacific and the Atlantic
But the Atlantic isn’t romantic
And the Pacific isn’t what it’s cracked up to be

I could join the Air Force:

Off we go into the wild blue yonder, 
Climbing high into the sun;
Here they come zooming to meet our thunder,
 
At ’em boys, Give ‘er the gun! (Give ‘er the gun now!)
 
Down we dive, spouting our flame from under,
Off with one helluva roar!
 
We live in fame or go down in flame. Hey!
 
Nothing’ll stop the U.S. Air Force!

I might not be much in the water or on the land; but, in the wild blue yonder, I’d be Superman!

My friend Kenny was in the Air Force.  He was two years younger than I; and, I admired him.  After all, he had a very beautiful sister, Penny (who had been Steve’s girlfriend); and, he had dated a number of her equally attractive girl friends.  I sought his advice.  He said, “Join the Air Force and get ‘three hots and a cot’”.

Armed with this sage advice and my “Greetings” letter, I entered the Air Force recruiting office.  (It was conveniently located with the Army, Navy, and Marine Corp recruiting offices down the street from the Draft Board office.)  There I was greeted by a very nice man in a really neat looking uniform.  He politely asked how he could help me.  I told him about my I-A status, my letter from the President of the United States, and my passion for three hots and a cot.  He said that he understood my situation and informed me that three hot meals were certainly better than packaged C rations.

He told me that I was “Air Force Material” and advised me to take both the Officer and Enlisted tests to determine my Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC).  The Air Force Officer Qualifying Test had three parts: Pilot, Navigator, and “Academic”.  I crashed and burned on the Pilot Test; was lost on the Navigator Test; and, did summa cum lousy on the Academic Test.  Luckily, I aced the Armed Forces Qualifications Test (AFQT).  All of my AFQT scores initially qualified for any Air Force enlisted position.

Again, my inability to decide reared its ugly head.  What would I do with the next four years of my life?  Thankfully, the nice recruiter knew this Frat boy’s hot buttons.  He suggested that I become a Russian Language Interrupter. After Basic Training at Lakeland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, I would be assigned to the Defense Language Institute for 51 weeks of training at either Syracuse University in New York, or The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.  After the training, I would probably go to Germany.  After military service, a high paying civilian or government position would be waiting for me.

I had taken two years of high school German and two years of college German.  I was as much a success in foreign language studies as I was in the swimming pool.  However, Syracuse University was about a one hour drive from Rochester, New York, where a former girl friend lived and worked; and, even if she was no longer interested in me, one of her nurse friends might be.  The Monterey Peninsula offered greater possibilities.  The Beach Boys had often reminded me that California girls were “the cutest girls in the world”.  Besides, not one California girl knew me.

On Friday, September 5, 1969, I awoke at around 3:30 AM.  This was about the time my father was leaving for work.  He asked me if I was just coming in.  I told him that I was going out to join the Air Force.  He said something profound and probably very profane.

A friend of mine drove me 12 miles due west to the draft board office; so that, I could go 28 miles due east to the Induction Center.  The only thing that I remember about the Induction Center is the broad, yellow line that we followed.  I thought that it was the Yellow Brick Road from the Wizard of Oz.  From downtown Chicago, we travelled to O’Hare Field.  As I was boarding the airplane for San Antonio, Texas, I saw the score of the Chicago Cubs—Pittsburgh Pirates game (Pirates 9 Cubs 2).  {Not a problem.  The Cubs were still 4 games ahead of the Mets.}

I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. I did not know it was against me they devised schemes (Jeremiah 11:19)

We arrived at Lackland AFB, Texas, during the dark of night; and, we were greeted by some very loud men.  One of them asked, “Where are the ___ from Detroit and Chicago?  He verbally observed that we were trouble makers and would be the last to be processed.  We were processed, fed (my first Air Force hot) and brought to our barracks.   I was in the top bunk second from the rear.  Next to me was a man from Detroit.  All night long he spoke enthusiastically about the Nation of Islam.   The next morning, he was gone.

About one week into basic training, we marched to a large building where our career choices would be discussed.  I went to the “Defense Language Institute” room.  Our very large group was asked:  “How many of you were told that you would be Russian Language Interrupters?”  (I believe that almost every hand went up.)  “Well, we do not need this many Interrupters and we certainly do not need this many Russian Language Interrupters!” “How many Russian Language Interrupters were told that you would go to Germany?”  (I believe that almost every hand went up.)  “Well, you could go to Germany or Turkey, or Iran, or Northern Japan or Viet Nam!”  “We do, however, need Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian Language Interrupters.”  (Two rhetorical questions: why and where would we be stationed?)   “We, also, need English Language Instructors.  Your advanced training will be here at Lackland.  About half of you will stay here and teach officers from allied countries. The other half of you will go to Viet Nam and teach Vietnamese pilots and navigators.”

Ralph:  The War Years

All this happened, more or less.

(Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse-Five 1969)

At 10:00 AM, on Friday, May 1, 1970, I landed at Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base, Viet Nam.  Within a day or two, everyone from my training class was in country.  I was billeted at the St. George Hotel, Cholon/Saigon Viet Nam.  As I entered the hotel lobby, members of the 25th Infantry Division were leaving for Cambodia.

The 25th Infantry Division, aka the Tropic Lighting Division, was activated on October 1, 1941, at Schofield Barracks, Territory of Hawaii. On December 28, 1965, the 3rd Brigade was the first element of the 25th to arrive in Vietnam.  The 25th Infantry Division served gallantly for 1,716 days in Vietnam receiving participation credit for twelve Vietnam campaigns and being twice awarded the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm. Eight Tropic Lightning units were awarded Presidential Unit Citations and eleven received Valorous Unit Awards. 21 Tropic Lightning soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor.

There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware…

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking’ their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

(Buffalo Springfield:  “For What It’s Worth”)

One result of the 25th’s entering Cambodia was that four students were murdered at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, by Governor James Rhodes’ and General Robert Canterbury’s 1,000 member Ohio National Guard unit. Jeffery Miller was the closest to the Guard at approximately 270 feet. Allison Krause was 330 feet from the Guard. William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer were about 390 feet from the Guard.  The “brave”, fortunate sons of Ohio must have been too busy waving the flag to remember the First Amendment Rights to freedom of speech, and to peaceably assemble and petition the Government for a redress of grievances. How ironic.  While American Soldiers were dying in Vietnam in hopes of bringing freedom to the Vietnamese; at home, American Guardsmen were killing both American freedom and American people.  So much for the Second Amendments “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…”

I was a part of President Richard M. Nixon’s Vietnamization Plan that he introduced to the nation in a November 3, 1969, televised speech:

The defense of freedom is everybody’s business not just America’s business. And it is     particularly the responsibility of the people whose freedom is threatened. In the previous administration, we Americanized the war in Vietnam. In this administration, we are Vietnamizing the search for peace…. Under the plan, I ordered first a substantial increase in the training and equipment of South Vietnamese forces.
SOURCE: Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard Nixon, 1969, pp. 901-909.   http://vietnam.vassar.edu/overview/doc14.html

I had been trained for my service in Vietnam.  I fired an M-16 during basic training.  Because I scored 72 hits out of 60 shots, I was a Marksman.  The Air Force had what the U.S. Army calls “Survival Training”.  The Air Force called it “The Confidence Course”.  I had two chances to pass the Confidence Course.  If I failed both times, I still would pass the course.  I had one day of “Jungle Training” at an Army Post.  About midday, it began to rain and jungle training was cancelled.

My father rarely told “war stories”.  However, he once mentioned that one time (after a big battle); he received a 3 day pass and went to Paris, France.  I asked him what he did in Paris; and, he said that he visited the Cathedral and Art Museum.  I found this interesting; since, he had lived in Chicago and its suburbs for almost all of his life and I never remember him visiting Holy Name Cathedral, the Art Institute, the Museum of Science and Industry, or the Field Museum.  Well, I guess once you have seen Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris and Musee du Louvre, everything else was chopped liver.

I was now in the “Paris of the East”; and, I visited the Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica.  Upon further review, I, also, did a few things that my father must not have considered.

“Daisy Hill Puppy Farm” (Snoopy/Peanuts by Charles Schulz)

 

Here I was an English Language Instructor–AFSC 99128.  I was in the U. S. Air Force assigned to 1131 USAF Special Activities Sq, 1120 Support Gp (HQCOMD USAF), Ft Myer, VA 22211 With Perm dy at Det 11, Sq USMACV APO San Francisco 96243 (PAS PAVH9G)—in layman’s terms: ‘Nam.  We were called “Palace Dogs”; not to be confused with the “Battling Bastards of Bastogne” who had two options against overwhelming odds:  fight or die.  Our options were to teach or pretend to teach.

I taught during the morning shift from either 7 or 8 AM until noon six days a week.

The classrooms were very small and had wooden shutters for windows.  On the ceiling was a light fixture with one light bulb.  With the shutters closed, the door shut, and the light bulb missing, the students were able to get an extra hour of rest.  Built into the student’s day was a session in the tape recorder lab.  Some instructors would bring a tape recorder into the room for an additional “listen and repeat” session.  There were four two-week sections that I referred to as:  beginner I, beginner II, advanced I, and advanced II.  After successfully completing the eight weeks of class work, the students would test; and, the successful ones apparently went to the United States for additional English language training plus pilot or navigator training.  Students who failed were supposed to be sent back to their in-country units.  However, since time and money was being spent on these students (and the students were probably politically connected), they were given numerous opportunities to succeed.  Some very smart students (with families that they did not wish to leave behind) would some how fail the last examination and repeat the last four weeks over and over again.  (I think that this was a form of Vietnamese II-S.)  Perhaps, the most missed question on the tests was the meaning of “generally speaking” which they apparently thought meant “the General spoke”.

Since Vietnamization was about training a Vietnamese to do what an American was doing so that the American could go home, I asked if I could train a Vietnamese soldier to teach English; so that, I could go home.  One MAC-V Army Major did not fully appreciate the philosophical depth of my question.

A few words about the Vietnamese draft board:  A young Vietnamese man rides his Honda 50 down the street to where two Vietnamese Army trucks and beaucoup QCs (Military Policemen) are waiting to greet him.  The Honda 50 goes into one truck and off to who knows where and the young man goes into the other truck and off to the Army. Major corporations would later refer to this as “Just-in-time” supply chain management.

Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world.  (Beach Boys, 1963)

I had the opportunity to teach the only Vietnamese female Appellate Court Justice.

A Mercedes-Benz would pick me up and take me to a pastoral villa in Saigon where I would sip tea and eat French pastry while teaching her English.

I, also, taught many less judicious young ladies.  Rumor had it that the Army LTC who was in charge of our compound was a business partner with the lady who ran the local “Long Branch Saloon”.  “Miss Kitty Russell” was an interesting lady.  She looked more like South Pacific’s “Bloody Mary” (Juanita Long Hall) than Amanda Blake.  But, she was a very astute businesswoman.  She spoke Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Japanese, and English.  She was studying Russian.  She was an entrepreneurial “mother” to many foreign soldiers and local young ladies.  She “hired” me to teach the ladies English and to recruit customers.  Like many government job, the benefits were better than the pay.

 “Bobby, if you want to score the goal, you have to hit the net.”

(Montreal Canadian Maurice “The Rocket” Richard to Chicago Blackhawk Robert Marvin “The Golden Jet” Hull)

I had another part-time job that I really enjoyed.  I worked at the USO located at 119 Nguyen Hue (Street of Flowers) in Saigon.  I specialized in helping soldiers find what they were looking for.  I, also, had the privilege of working with Diana J. Dell—the author of “A Saigon Party (and Other Vietnam War Short Stories)”.   Perhaps the pinnacle of my time in Vietnam was eating lunch with her at the “Cock and Bull” Restaurant.  The restaurant was always full of unattached male Navy Officers; and, I was an Air Force three striper dining in the company of the most beautiful blond woman in Vietnam.  Life was good!

As a kid, I always enjoyed going to Riverview Amusement Park on Western and Belmont in Chicago.  My favorite ride was the Bumper Cars.  Cyclo racing was the next best thing.  A cyclo is a motorized tricycle with two wheels and a basket in the front and one wheel and a driver in back.  The passenger(s) sat in the unenclosed basket.  The race would be through the crowded streets of Saigon or Cholon.  The wining driver received a very generous tip.  In the race that I remember most, my driver’s vehicle died during the race.  I got out of the basket as he placed the cyclo on its side.  With his bare hands, he pulled the spark plug; scraped it on the street; reinserted the spark plug; and, resumed racing.  We lost; but, I paid him like the winner he was.  If I ever join the NASCAR circuit, I want him on my pit crew.

They had some interesting laws/rules in Vietnam.  For one, we were not allowed to wear civilian clothes when we were off-base.  However, the American Military Police (MPs) did not have jurisdiction over civilians.  So the question was:  would an MP stop me if I was wearing civilian clothes and risk that I was a civilian?  Another rule was that the Vietnamese Civilian Police would assume that a young Vietnamese woman traveling with an American soldier in a taxi cab was a prostitute.  (Hence the term “Taxi girl”—one whose meter is running while you are riding.)

My favorite rule was said to be established by Madame Nhu aka the “dragon lady”—the official hostess of her brother-in-law President Ngo Dihn Diem.

  She accumulated vast wealth and power, but was reviled for her puritanical social campaigns and her callous dismissal of Buddhist monks who burned themselves to death to protest against the brutal rule of Diem and her husband Ngo Dinh Nhu. “I would clap hands at seeing another monk barbecue show, for one cannot be responsible for the madness of others,” she wrote in a letter to the New York Times. The world was stunned by photographs of monks sitting shrouded in flames; Madame Nhu simply offered to bring along some mustard for the next self-immolation. She later accused monks of lacking patriotism for setting themselves alight with imported petrol. Her often repeated motto was: “Power is wonderful. Total power is totally wonderful.”
(http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/26/madame-nhu-obituary)

Madame Nhu believed that it was not appropriate for Vietnamese in the city to have parties at their homes while Vietnamese soldiers were dying in the country.  But just like her law to ban padded brassieres, there were enforcement issues.  First, and foremost, she was “The Hostess” and she had to entertain.  So, there was an exception to the law:  if you are entertaining foreign quests, it was OK to party.

When the moon hits you eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore

When the world seems to shine like you’ve had too much wine, that’s amore

When the stars make you drool just like pasta fazool, that’s amore

When you dance down the street with a cloud at your feet, you’re in love.

(Dean Martin, That’s Amore.)

The English Language School had many young Vietnamese male officer/instructors, officer students, and two young, beautiful, female instructors.  If one of these instructors wanted to have a party, they need foreign guests.  “BINGO, look ‘e here” (Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant).

I remember one party right out of the Brady Bunch.  I was drinking American beer, dancing, and high-fiving; when, one of our two female instructors joined the party.  I thanked my partner for the dance, put down my beer, and said hell-o to the Vietnamese girl of my dreams.  We danced, talked, snacked, and strolled around the grounds.  When the hour became late, I held her hand; I walked her to her Honda; and, said good night.

Chantilly lace and a pretty face

And a pony tail hangin’ down

A wiggle in the walk and a giggle in the talk

Make the world go ‘round.

(Jiles Perry “J P” Richardson, Jr. aka “The Big Bopper”)

As I walked back towards the house, I heard a voice say, “I have been waiting to be with you all night”.  This long black haired beauty walked up and introduced herself to me.  We strolled around the grounds until we found a bench under a large tree.  As we sat in the moonlight, she told me about her life as a student in Minnesota, her American family, and her American brother–also named Ralph.  She told me how she knew about me from a mutual friend and that she had come to the party just to meet me.  “BINGO, look ‘e here”.

Life was too good.  As promise was becoming reality, our mutual friend (aka. the Vietnamese girl of my dreams) returned; and, like Marcia Brady, her nose was bent out of shape.  (Man was Thomas Wolfe wrong.  You can go home again!)

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
  (Carl Sandburg:  Chicago)

It is not an understatement to say that the War in Vietnam was unpopular both at home and with many servicemen in Vietnam.  Most men did not want to “go to Vietnam”.

Most soldiers in-country counted the days to they could leave.  Regardless, if you were in the Army, Navy, or Marines, you could extend your service.  For members of the Air Force, that option was no longer available.  So why did I want to stay?  Freedom.

A number of my colleagues wrote their Congressmen.  I wrote Wisconsin Democratic Senator William Proxmire (an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee).  I guess that I was not important enough for the man who married the great-grandniece of John D. Rockefeller to care.  So, I wrote President Nixon.  My rationale to both was:  There are people in the U.S. that do not want to go to Vietnam.  There are people in Vietnam who want to stay; but, can not.  Why not let the people who want to stay in Vietnam stay in Vietnam?

One Saturday afternoon, two MPs found me at “Long Branch Saloon”.  They took me to an office; and, while the “bad” cop confronted me with a number of questions, the “good” cop said that they usually have a couple of days to reply to Washington.  My case had to be responded to within 18 hours.  He asked me who I wrote; what I wrote; and; why I wrote.  They shook their heads at my answers and took me back home.

When I reported to work the next Monday, I was greeted by an Army Captain. “Captain America” reassigned me to duty with the Vietnamese Army Privates who were responsible for sweeping the floors with Vietnamese brooms that were operated from the squatting position.

After a couple of days of my playing “Cool Hand Luke”, the Captain came and told me that my extension had been approved.  He, also, reassigned me to the school’s front desk. I was now responsible for ringing the bell and making sure that there was a teacher in each classroom.  I was told that the clock that I would use to identify when the bell was to be rung was a Navel clock accurate to one ten trillionth of a nanosecond.  I was not told about the door on the back of the clock that allowed it to be adjusted.  Our daily tour ended at noon.  We were usually back at the hotel for lunch around 11:45 AM.

Because of my extension, I was named “MACV Training Directorate Outstanding Serviceman” in July, 1971.  I was chosen by a panel of four officers one from each of the four branches of service.  I bested a Soldier, Sailor, and Marine.  I wonder if I won because one of my high school buddies was an Academy football teammate of the Naval Officer.

When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder
I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall

(Paul Simon: Kodachrome)

My extension, also, provided me with the opportunity to perform guard duty for my first and only time in a war zone.  First, I had to clean my M-16.  {The M-16 had made a great container for my classroom chalk.}  I reported for duty at MAC-V Headquarters and was issued a radio that I was told to use only in the case of an emergency.  I was taken to a field with a large circle on it.  I was told that if the Viet Cong attack MAC-V, General Creighton W. (Abe) Abrams Jr. would meet his helicopter here and be flown to safety. General Abrams was a great military officer.  General Abrams commanded the 4th Armored Division in General Patton’s 3rd Army.  My father had been a radio operator in the 9th Armored Division assigned to the 3rd Army.  Both fought at the “Battle of the Bulge” in Bastogne, Belgium.   It was Abe’s tanks that broke the German encirclement of the 101st Airborne at Bastogne and his Commander, General George S. Pattern Jr., once said: “I’m supposed to be the best tank commander in the Army, but I have one peer – Abe Abrams. He’s the World Champion.”  Abe was a warrior with a helicopter and I was a Marksman with an M-16.  It would have been the start of a beautiful friendship.

“What a revolting development this is.”

Daffy Duck and Chester A. Riley: The Life of Riley

The commissary was a short walk from the hotel.  You could always tell when the good stuff was in stock; because, the Korean jeeps would be lined up in front of the store.

At the same time, the Koreans would have personnel at Newport Harbor identifying incoming merchandize.  Over 300,000 Koreans served in Vietnam.  {Why did the U.S. Army have troops in South Korea and the South Korean Army have troops in Vietnam?}

We had ration cards.  Basically, you could buy:  one television, one refrigerator and one fan during your tour.  You could buy a couple of cases of beer, bottles of booze, and cartoons of cigarettes each month.  The Vietnamese ladies who punched the cards would often under-punch an American’s card and over-punch a Korean’s cards.

The Vietnamese could work at the commissary; but, they could not shop there.  A good source of extra income was buying goods at the commissary and selling them to the Vietnamese on the “black market”.  If one understands “turf wars”, one understands the animosity between many American soldiers and Korean soldiers; and, one might understand why some Korean soldiers would occasionally tear gas American soldiers’ billets. Tear gas was to my eyes what the smell of Kimchi was to my nose.

Some of the Korean soldiers were students at the compound.  While we were teaching English to the Vietnamese, they were learning Vietnamese from the Vietnamese.

Although we shared a school and hotel, we were “prohibited” from riding in the same military bus.  One day the Koreans’ bus did not arrive on time.  The Koreans got on our bus.  I asked them to leave in English.  I asked them to leave in polite Vietnamese.  I asked them to leave in not so polite Vietnamese.  After one Korean soldier “suggested” to another that he should not point his loaded M-16 at me, they left our bus.  As we drove off, I heard, in perfect English, how I should occupy myself that afternoon.

This is the day which the LORD has made;

let us rejoice and be glad in it.  (Psalms 118:24)

One morning, a Vietnamese officer asked one of our instructors whether he visited a certain bar.  He suggested that he not visit it that night.  The next morning we learned that the bar had been bombed.

I once played the pre-Greg Norman Saigon Golf Course.  This is the only golf course that I have ever been on that had bunkers protecting the greens and machine guns protecting the bunkers.

I took a trip to visit Kenny.  I believe he was stationed at Phan Rang Air Base.  What I remember is that I flew stand-by on Vietnamese cargo planes.  I sat on a nylon webbed bench seat surrounded by Vietnamese women and their upside-down hanging chickens.

Kenny worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week repairing bullet holes on American jet planes.

One of my college buddies, Bob, was training at the United States Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, GA.  He wrote and told me that he would soon be arriving at Cam Rahn Air Base and suggested that we get together.  I told him to call me when he got in country.  I told an Army E-8 Supply Sergeant friend of mine that I had recently come into possession of an extra refrigerator and that my friend Bob was headed for the jungle.  I was told to report to the Master Sergeant’s office for a telephone call.  Bob told me that he was at Cam Rahn and that his orders had been changed.  He was now a base Supply Sergeant.  My Master Sergeant friend told me that I could bring him the refrigerator tomorrow morning.

It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to

Cry if I want to, cry if I want to

You would cry too if it happened to you.

(Leslie Gore:  It’s my party.)

It was time to go home.  Before I left, I was asked if I would like a dedication played on Armed Forces Radio.  I said that the most appropriate song would be Robert Goulet’s C’est moi from the musical Camelot:

C’est moi! C’est moi! The angels have chose
To fight their battles below,
And here I stand, as pure as a pray’r,
Incredibly clean, with virtue to spare,
The godliest man I know!
C’est moi!

 

My “Dream Sheet” had requested an assignment in Illinois, Florida, or Texas as a Load Master. My orders had me leaving at the end on November and reporting to Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, as a Chapel Management Specialist (AFSC 70150).  I questioned my orders and was told that I got what I requested.  (Alabama was centrally located to all three states.)  I asked how a Chapel Manager was the same as a Load Master.  I was told to consider myself a Load Master for God.   What was missing from my orders was a 4 day delay in route to Tokyo, Japan.

On December 8, 1971, 30 years after Pearl Harbor, I left Vietnam for Tokyo.  I traveled to Tachikawa Airfield to visit “Freaky” Fred.  We ate at McDonald’s on the Ginza Strip; toured the neighborhoods of Shinjuku; posed for pictures with the Great Buddha in Kamagaya; and, were escorted out the Imperial Palace basement by Japanese Palace Guards.

We also visited the “’Free’ The Army” tour starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland.  All I remember about “Hanoi Jane” were her extremely long fingers and her desire to speak only to the women.  Sutherland was cool.  I asked him why he was not in the military and he replied that he was Canadian.   I spotted a man in the room.  I stared at him and he stared at me.  He asked were I was from.  I said that I was from Elmhurst, Illinois.  He said that he was from Chicago. I told him that I went to college at Loyola University in Chicago.  He told me that he had delivered pizzas to my dorm room. He invited Fred and me to travel with them.

On December 17, 1971, I boarded an airplane, loaded with United States Marines in full dress uniforms, headed for San Francisco, California.

Lead NASA Flight Director for the Apollo 11 & 13 missions, Gene Kranz, said these words the day after the Apollo 1 disaster,  “From this day forward, Flight control will be know by two words:  ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent’.  Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do.  Competent means we will never take anything for granted.  After 1 year, 7 months, and 19 days of Foreign Service, I was finally becoming tough and competent.  And, just like Jackie Robinson in the first game of the 1955 World Series, I was safely stealing home.

Thanks be to God 😉

Comments

  • Spokanesman  On May 9, 2012 at 8:44 am

    O. M. G! I just love this Ralph. So much I recall and recall of you. Yet, your narrative told me so much more of your times, activities and you. We lived together for so long in such a small room, yet I knew so little of your life. The morning and afternoon shifts at the TSN Annex created two worlds for us.

    Thanks for taking the time and effort to lay all this out. I bet you enjoyed the lookback as much as I enjoyed it.

    Rod

  • Bill Jackson  On July 1, 2016 at 11:00 am

    Same same scenario including writing Congressman only guy to get base of choice when we rotated. Nailed E-5 in under five years and it makes a big difference. I still correspond with my St. George hotel roommate to this day after a slight gap of 30 years!

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