People have often asked me what we did in Vietnam for fun. Most people would assume that we could go places and do things just like we could in other countries, such as Okinawa where we stopped on our way over. I am sure that soldiers and Marines in Japan, Korea and Europe were able to travel, shop and see the sights. While we would see Vietnamese who worked in our camp, and would also pass them on the streets, we were not allowed to socialize with them under any circumstances. Nor were there any bars, restaurants or anything else that we were allowed to frequent. There were some very good reasons for this separation, not the least of which was that it was impossible to tell if a Vietnamese civilian was hostile or friendly. We were often faced with hostile forces called VC or Viet Cong and they may have been, indeed, the very same people that we passed on the streets or in the villages. We also were faced with mines and booby traps that were buried along the roads that we traveled by Jeep and truck and this made travel a little risky, too.
There were some very educated, professional upper class Vietnamese people. Unfortunately, we just never met them. Most of those that we met off base were involved in some kind of black market trade, were selling drugs or were prostitutes. We did meet some Vietnamese on our base and they were involved in providing services such as washing our clothes.
One day the First Sgt. came into our company office and thanked us all, there were five of us, for working extra hours and seeing that everything was humming along. He said that he had set it up so that the whole group of us including him and the 1st Lt. would be able to go to China Beach. This had been a destination resort before the war and, I am told, became one after. Danang had been built around a huge bay and the area that we were planning to visit was right on the bay. We were scheduled to go on the coming Sunday, very early, and would be coming home later that evening. Our work schedule would not be affected, as we did not usually have any office assignments this day. It was not a military base but was run by the military so it was an accepted destination for us. I was looking forward to this, as my usual routine on my day off was to simply read books and magazines, listen to the radio and write letters home. This would be a new experience for me!
The day came and the five of us in the office jumped into a deuce-and-a-half (2 and ½ ton) flat bed truck. The First Sgt and Lt traveled by jeep. We stopped at the PX along the way and bought a LOT of cold beer to bring with us.
The 1st Lt. brought a football as he had played in college and I guess he never let go of his balls? We divided into two teams and played on the beach, in the sand. We were pretty aggressive in our play but I think the beer may have slowed us down, just a little. I was trying to crash through the line and get the 1st Lt, who was the other side’s quarterback, and the guy on their line turned very quickly as I went for the tackle. I got a foot right in the eye. Since his foot hit right on top of my left eye socket, it split my eyelid and there was quite a bit of blood on my face and even in my eye. The omnipresent Corpsman was close by, adjacent to where we were playing, and I sat while he stitched me up. There were about 8 stitches and I had a smile on my face at the time as I had a beer in my hand as he ministered to me. I did not play any more football but continued with my other endeavor, which was drinking. We ate in a mess hall that was there and while it was run by the military, the food was pretty special compared to our usual fare.
As the afternoon wore on the First Sgt told us that he and the Lt. had to leave early and get back to camp as they had things that they had to do. We, on the other hand, could come back at our leisure. Three of the guys said they would hang around the beach a little longer and then hitchhike back. While this sounds a little risky there were so many military vehicles around that it usually worked fine. Any military truck would pick up any military person and we had all done it before. Our camp, while maybe 10 to 15 miles south of Danang, was on a main road so finding a ride was not usually difficult.
The guy that kicked me in the eye, Sgt Jim Riley, was a friend of mine and we decided that we would come back right away. He was from New York and we enjoyed visiting when we were in camp and not working. So, off we went. We stuck out our thumbs and the first vehicle that passed us came to a screeching halt. It was a military vehicle, a jeep, but there were two ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) soldiers inside not Americans. These were the official, trained, uniformed military of South Vietnam. They were our allies (or I guess, technically we were theirs). We were not supposed to take a ride from them. Jim said to me, “Aw, come on. It will be ok.” I did not want to get in but did not want to go back to camp without Jim, so I got in, too.
The very first thing that they said was that they had some girls that were really nice and they would stop so that we could meet them. If we liked the girls their service would be free. They would then take us all the way back to our camp. I said, “No.”
Jim said, “Aw, come on. We have plenty of time.”
I did not want to leave Jim alone, nor, did I want to have to go all the way back to camp by myself.
Our drivers drove us into a section of Danang, which was populated by Vietnamese, and we arrived at a very small one-room house. We entered and the two ARVN guys left. There were four people in the house, two women and two children. The older woman may have been the mother of the other three, but I was not sure. Jim immediately started talking to the younger of the two women, who I would guess was not over 18 years old but could very well have been 16. He walked out the back door with her and was gone. The two children were laughing and playing and watching as the older woman, maybe 40, dropped to her knees, grabbed the top of my pants and started pulling them down. I told the women that I was married and did not want anything from her. I went out the back door to see where Jim was and he was gone. I had no idea where. The ARVN guys and their Jeep were also gone.
What to do?
I was not on the main road anymore as we were in a Vietnamese area so I had to walk back to the main road. By the time I got there it was after 4:00 PM (1600 military time) and I did not see any military vehicle going my way. Even if there had been, it was extremely unlikely that one would take me the whole way to my camp. I would probably have to get four or five different rides. Maybe I would be stuck at a cross road waiting for a truck to take me the last leg and there would be no more trucks coming that night.
I found a jeep that took me to the very first Marine Base that we came to. I stopped and checked into the office and told them my predicament. They assigned me a cot to sleep on for the night and agreed to call my base camp and leave word that I was stranded but would be staying at their camp and would be back in the morning.
At 7:00 AM I was out on the street looking for a ride and I found one. It was a deuce-and-a-half and they took me most of the way back to my camp, but not all the way. There was a fork in the road and they went the other way. They said they were sorry, but could not take me any farther. Usually, there was a crew that came out in the morning to check for and clear any mines or booby traps that might have been planted that night and even they had not been through yet. I was standing next to three Vietnamese houses, adjacent to some large rice paddies, way out in the sticks; and I still had about 5 miles to go to get to my camp. We could never be absolutely sure who were friendly villagers and who were Viet Cong fighters and on this particular occasion I was just a little uneasy. As I looked over towards the Vietnamese houses I could see that there were two older Vietnamese men watching me. I was not on patrol, did not have any others with me and was just standing there watching and waiting. I think they were wondering what I was doing there by myself and so was I.
Finally, a jeep came by and took me the rest of the way. It was about 8:30 and I was back and I was safe. I checked into the company office and the First Sgt. rolled his eyes, as he liked to do, and said, “Did you have fun?”
I said, “Yes, I did but I had a tough time getting back and I am sorry that I had to stay in a different camp.”
All he said was, “Glad you’re back.”
I went to work that morning and talked to my coworkers. They had all made it back to camp on time. I asked where Jim was and they said that they did not know, as they had not heard from him. I asked if the First Sgt had told them where he was and they said the First Sgt had not heard from him, either.
It was three days later when I finally saw Sgt Jim Riley again. But, he was not Sgt Jim Riley anymore. It seems that he was now Cpl Jim Riley as he had received some kind of punishment for going AWOL (absent without leave). None of us ever asked Jim where he had gone or what he had done as I think we all had a pretty good idea and did not want to embarrass him. I guess that if we wanted to look at the bright side we could have opined that at least Jim came back, but I’m not sure that there was anyplace else for him to go.
I was really sorry but the First Sgt never took us to China Beach again.
By: John Oscarson