I leaned forward, reached into the seat pocket in front of me and rummaged around, searching for the unopened deck of playing cards. I let the elastic pouch snap shut, tore the cellophane off the deck, and flipped the top card over to find the joker card mocking my anxiety. The wild card. Figures, I thought to myself. Anything can happen in a game where the Joker is wild. I penned May 17, 1969 on the face of the card and made a mental note to write my departure date next to it, if I made the return flight home. Turning the playing card over again, I studied the Flying Tigers logo for a moment before placing the Joker into my wallet for good luck.
Twenty-two hours had passed from the time I left my home, to our final approach in Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam. As the plane descended for touchdown, the engine pitch wound higher and higher, and through the small window, I watched the wing flaps protract and drop into position. With a jarring bump the plane landed and a final roar rose from the engines as the pilot immediately reversed thrust and applied the brakes. A banging vibration shuddered through the aircraft, throwing us forward in our seats. The brakes held and the plane slowed, coasting to a stop. Moments later, we began to move again as the pilot gently throttled up the engines and eased the airplane forward, turning it carefully off the runway. Lumbering unevenly across the bumpy tarmac, the aircraft pulled to the edge of the crude airstrip then came to a halt. The turbines whined in resignation as the captain shut down the tired engines.
His soft voice came over the intercom. “Gentlemen, on behalf of Flying Tigers, I’d like to welcome you to Cam Rahn Bay. Hope to see you on the return trip.”
The pretty blonde stewardess stood facing us with her back to the cabin door of the 727. She wore a navy blue uniform with a round, matching cap that held her upturned, carefully pinned hair in place. I leaned forward in my aisle seat, trying to get my first glimpse of Vietnam. Silent apprehension hung in the air as we quietly surveyed the landscape through the small, oval windows. The stewardess moved to the hatch, raised the long metal handle, turned it to the left ninety degrees and jerked back hard with both hands. Pulling the door open, she stepped aside and waited for us to deplane. As we moved down the center aisle toward the front of the cabin, I could see her standing still with her hands behind her back, her eyes filling with tears.
I drew closer and watched as she stood rigid, her gaze fixed on the open door, refusing to make eye contact with the fresh troops as they filed past. As each man left the plane, her tears flowed all the more, spilling down her cheeks. When I reached the door I took one last look at her pretty face, wet with tears. I was hoping for a return glance–a sliver of assurance. In a moment of weakness, she relented and our eyes met for a brief second. Everything that I needed to know about Vietnam was in her eyes. She quickly looked away toward the sun-lit doorway.
I hesitated, then turned and stepped out onto the steel platform into a solid wall of heat. Struggling to breathe in the hot, heavy air, I descended the portable stairs to the tarmac below and joined the others. We were now standing in the breath of the Dragon.
It was not an easy climb. Halfway up the hill, the ascent was nearly vertical. Jim Glenn and the rest of Alpha team, were gradually inching up the mountain above me, carrying their rifles in one hand while pulling themselves upward with the other hand, grabbing fistfuls of grass and shrub. I paused, wrapped my arm around a tree and shifted my footing in the soft, fern-covered soil, tearing the delicate ground cover and causing a miniature landslide as the dirt gave way under my weight. My feet dug for traction until I found solid footing on a rock just below the surface. I rested, waiting for the company of men below to catch up. The lieutenant led his winding column of soldiers up the hill toward me, following our freshly made trail. He stopped and looked up. The second we made eye contact, I moved on, climbing upward.
I caught the team near the top, and sat down to wait for the infantry soldiers to close the gap. Loud voices, breaking branches, and loose rocks clattered down the hillside. Jim asked with a look of wonder, ‘Why don’t we just send them an engraved invitation?’ I shrugged my shoulders in agreement.
After a few minutes, the company closed ranks. We continued on, leading them toward the hidden complex. Breaking through the brush, we discovered a familiar footpath. Wally wasted no time and headed down the hard-packed trail, cutting across the face of the hill in an angled descent, as each soldier stepped out of the brush to follow him. Flowing down the hillside like a long green snake, we focused in search of our prey. At times I was sure I recognized the landscape, yet most of it felt uncharted–two square miles of jungle had been pounded relentlessly for three days with B52 strikes and heavy artillery barrages in preparation for this search-and-destroy mission. The bombardment had reshaped the landscape, shearing the trees off at the base, replacing hills with craters, and shredding the once-lush foliage to pulp. Read More
The ten man killer-team filled two birds. We sat inside the noisy choppers while the pilots flipped on the switches and adjusted their helmets. They throttled up and we lifted off–the air rapidly cooling as we gained altitude. Flying high over the heavily wooded countryside, the pilot headed deep into the jungle, further than we had ever been. I watched the trees pass beneath us in a blur, changing gradually from light green to varying hues of dark green foliage until finally, they appeared like a black veil, draped over the hills. I began to sense the forbidden border between Cambodia and Vietnam, and wondered if we had already crossed.
The temperature continued to drop as we flew through thin clouds that obscured the jungle below. Before long we were flying in the soup, and the wipers batted furiously at the rain, pushing the droplets into windswept streams that trailed from the corners of the windshield. I became increasingly edgy. While the thick fog concealed us from the enemy, it also provided us with the opportunity to fly directly into the side of a mountain. Read More
We squatted against the river bank with the two POW’s. They huddled against the dirt embankment behind us, eyes wide with fear, the father cradling his young son. The old man’s skin was leathery and shriveled and his teeth were stained black from chewing on beetle nuts. I judged him to weigh about a hundred pounds at most. The boy looked to be about nine or ten.
We had no intention of harming the peace-loving Montagnards and only needed them for information they could provide on the status and location of the enemy. Living in the mountains put them squarely in the path of the war and as a result, they knew information that could prove valuable to both the Americans and NVA. Because of this, they made great POW’s. Before walking into our trap, this pair of gentle souls had been living among their people–their only mistake was walking down that trail, that day, that hour. And now, after an exhaustive three-hour run to the river with the NVA in closing pursuit, they had been carted off to the only possible place of extraction. Flanked by ten fully-armed soldiers in camouflaged fatigues, they waited obediently at the water’s edge, hoping for deliverance, fearing the outcome.
We could hear the choppers approaching as Sonny talked them toward our location. A minute later, the Hueys rounded the bend in the river, flying twenty feet above the water. I pulled my signal mirror from my pocket, sighted in the lead helicopter through the hole in the center and wiggled the glass back and forth, reflecting the sun into the windshield of the chopper. Read More
I measure my chances of survival on a one-year scale. One year didn’t seem like much time in summers past–driving my hot rod down Federal Boulevard through the warm night air–wasting time like it would never run out. One year passed and another came, like they always had.
But now twelve months seem impossible, and time grinds slow to an excruciating crawl. Each day stretches before me like a week, every hour is a day, and every minute is an hour. And as each second clicks grudgingly forward, it’s no consolation. In this land, the angel of death can show up in less than a heartbeat, and each day brings ample opportunity for me to die. The odds are stacked against my survival, and I still have over twenty-three million danger-filled seconds left. What will fate decree–am I to live, or die? With the persistence of a black cat scratching at my door, the question claws at my heart.
Sam and I ambled into the clubhouse for a cold drink. My back ached and my hands were blistered from filling sandbags and stringing razor-sharp concertina wire along the outer perimeter of LZ English. We trudged past the empty pool tables and dropped our sweaty bodies onto the barstools. I pulled off my worn leather gloves and tossed them onto the counter. Greg Deperio was behind the bar, stacking boxes.
He stopped, straightened up, and cracked, “Hey! No shirts, no service!”
“Boyson, how’d you get such gravy duty?” Sam questioned. “You should be out hangin’ tin cans in the wire, while me and Stamper stay in here and shoot pool.”
“Gee I wish I could, but I gotta keep the beer on ice and the tables dusted,” Deperio laughed.
“Dog,” I said. “Gimmee a beer.”
Sam grew up in Georgia and had a laid-back, easy-going way about him. It was his fourth month with the Rangers, and though we were on different teams, we were becoming friends. We had the next two days off while Top reshuffled the teams again. Losing an experienced team member like Jim Glenn meant moving three or four men around in order to get the right mix. And losing half of Golf team meant even more changes. The challenge for Top was to spread the newer guys around evenly without weakening the existing teams, and shifting experienced men to the weaker teams to balance things out. It usually disrupted cohesiveness, but I didn’t mind Top’s latest change up–Sam was to join our team and I had plenty of confidence in him. Read More