We were well trained and prepared for combat duty in Vietnam. After spending six months in boot camp, ITR (infantry training regiment), Staging Battalion (more combat training and the last stop before Vietnam) and a rather lengthy stopover in Okinawa, I thought I was prepared for whatever was to happen.
The last stage of the flight from California to Danang was aboard a charter 707. It seemed surreal, there we were; a whole plane full of young Marines going to war and there was a stewardess serving peanuts and cokes, just like we were going on a vacation. We all felt that a worse fate awaited us, as the airplane was the last representation of civilian culture that we were apt to see in a year. There was a great sense of foreboding as the flight progressed and most of us were very quiet on the long trip. Many smoked cigarettes and I was dizzy as the air was constantly re-circulated. Many others slept for a good portion of the flight as it seemed that the flight was going to last forever.
We were all wearing the solid green uniforms that we had worn all through training and not civilian clothes. We had been allowed to bring along one sea bag, which contained all the additional uniforms that we had been issued as well as just a very limited number of personal items as space was limited, both on the plane and, we were told, at our destination in Vietnam.
I had brought a 35mm camera with me, as I wanted to document my experiences, so I began to take many pictures from the plane. There was not too much to see but I took a few pictures of the wings of the plane and some of the clouds visible from my window. Finally, we were told via the intercom on the plane that we were approaching Danang and that it had become one of the busiest airports in the world based on the number of flights. I was watching out the window and took more pictures of the mountains and the China Sea. Danang was adjacent to this area and I could see some buildings as we approached the airport.
Our plane came to a stop near the terminal. As we all departed the plane I felt like I needed to duck for cover as I thought that there might be some kind of hostile fire. Instead, I found two guys in a small jeep waiting to transport me to the base camp of the 3/26 Marines. Though I had trained in California, I felt overwhelmed by the heat and humidity. We retrieved my sea bag and other gear and loaded it in the back of the jeep. I crawled in the back part also and we began our journey to my new camp. I was really surprised as I did a visual survey of the airport as we were leaving and, while there were many runways and many planes, both military and civilian, there was only one small terminal. Because 99% of the air traffic was military I assumed that the baggage handling and other service things that we are accustomed to were just not needed.
In all of our training and talks regarding Danang I had the impression that it was a very large city. We were told that it was the biggest city in I Corps, which extended all the way north to the Demilitarized Zone which separated what was then North and South Vietnam. Danang was also the area where most of the Marine camps and bases were located, though there were also camps and airstrips spread through out I Corps. While there were other branches of the US military in I Corps it seemed to me that the Marines were the predominant force. The Army had a big presence in the South and down towards Saigon but I never saw that area.
I still had my camera with me and took pictures as we went along and I kept thinking, where is Danang? The roads were mostly gravel and narrow and as we drove along we passed one military base after another. There were Airbases and Marine camps and more of the same. I felt like we were going through one small Vietnamese village after another but I kept looking for the large city and did not see it. Since it was my first time to see these areas I took pictures as we passed. Most of the Vietnamese houses that we passed were small, single story but some were two story and also had balconies and I saw some Vietnamese women standing there and waving as we drove by. I was also very surprised to see that some of the girls that were waiving to us were black. I asked the two Marines that were transporting me where the black girls came from and they explained that some of the French fighters prior to 1954 had been North Africans fighting for the French Foreign Legion. It seemed that some of these girls were descended from some illicit relationships with Vietnamese women and since these girls were completely ostracized by the Vietnamese the only means of support for them was for them to assume the roles of prostitutes. My new friends pointed out an area with some bigger buildings and a few larger houses and said, “That is the old city of Danang”. It was bigger than some of the villages but was not a large city by my definition. It was also close to a spot on the China Sea and there were some US military ships parked directly adjacent to the area. The whole area that we were passing through was quite flat while I could see mountains surrounding us in the distance.
We had over ten miles to go to get to the base camp, I was told. As we were driving along I kept wondering what we would do if we were attacked as there were no other vehicles with us. I saw quite a large number of Vietnamese walking along the roads as we passed but they were all dressed in civilian clothes, so I thought that I did not have to worry about them. As we traveled further along towards Hill 55, which I was told was the base camp of the 3/26 Marines, the area became more open with many rice paddies and open areas. As we passed many Vietnamese I noticed that several of them were squatting along side the road, in plain view, relieving themselves. My new companions laughed at my shock. Then, just as we were leaving another village, I spotted a rather attractive young lady with a very long dress and one of those hats that always reminded me of a lampshade. When we about 100 feet away she waived at us and I was a little apprehensive as my drivers slowed down. When we were no more than 20 feet away she reached down to her ankles, grabbed the hem of her dress and lifted it completely over her head. She had nothing on under her dress.
My new friends were busy laughing as we drove by and while it would have been interesting to document my first day in-country, I was too stunned to use the camera that I still had around my neck.