Saturday, December 26, 2009


The Elephant

The supple flesh of her inner thighs. Her delicate firm breasts. The surprisingly coarse feel of her glossy black hair as it cascaded through my hands. How I wish the sensorial glories of my Okinawan paramour remained etched in my memory! But they don’t.

I’m making it all up.

What I do remember is the feeling of her hard little fist between my shoulder blades as she shoved me out her door and onto the pre-dawn streets of the village. She punctuated my ejection with her most sentimental farewell.

“Go away!”

With that soft murmur to comfort my low spirits, haunted by my dreams of Judy Vance, I wandered around lost. After a while Okinawan people began to emerge from their homes. I was able to employ my most useful Japanese phrase:

Takusi-wa doko desuka? (Where is the taxi?)

Following the gestures provided by amused villagers, I stumbled onto a main road and hailed a cab. In a stupor of fatigue and self-pity, I was conveyed back to the main gate at Camp Hansen. The MP (Military Police) on duty greeted me cordially. The conqueror returneth from his all-night victory!


At the barracks I showered and dressed in my most presentable uniform, which wasn’t saying much. I’d be lucky if some officer didn’t smoke me for my disreputable appearance. I shoved the wrinkled detritus of my few belongings into a sea bag.

Enough wasting time. Let’s get it on.

The transport chief, a gunnery sergeant, listened to my request for immediate passage to Nam. I couldn’t tell if he was amused or pissed off.

“You got another week until you have to report. Relax. Enjoy the last liberty you’re going to get for a year.”

“Gunny, please, get me out of here. I need to get to work.”

“God preserve me from Gung Ho FNGs.”


“You’ll find out soon enough.”

The gunny consulted a couple of clip boards.

“You’re slotted for transport straight through to Chu Lai at zero nine hundred on the twenty third. You sure you don’t want to hang around? You can have a lot of fun on this rock.”

“Gunny, can’t you get me an earlier ticket? I’ll take anything.”

The gunny scribbled something on a piece of paper.

“Davis! Take this war hero over to Kadena. Scramble! His flight leaves in 45 minutes.”

“Thanks, gunny!”

He snorted.

Wheels up. A few bumpy hours over the South China Sea. Crossing the Viet Nam coast line. Below, rice paddies to the horizon, then roads, villages, towns, a big city, Da Nang. The airplane made a steep bank to port and an immediate screaming dive bomber attack on the air base below. Teeth crunching smash into the runway, screaming brakes, heavy G deceleration as all engines reverse. Shuttering stop. Silence. Breathe.

We whistled and cheered. Viet Nam. The NAM. The Real Deal.

Returning vets brag about the nauseating stench and the blast furnace heat that assault you when you greet Da Nang for the first time. Both descriptions are accurate, but I leaned into the heat. Embraced it. It’s supposed to be like this. Yeah!

As for the stench? I closed my eyes and inhaled, giving my full attention to the delectable compounds that swirled through my nose. Fine subtleties of diesel fuel and jet exhaust harmonized with a smoky piquancy of cordite, the pungent nip of chemical toxins, and there . . . just a trace of sewage! From this complex assemblage of malodorous compounds, I began to arrange a fascinating bouquet of exotic stinkage. Then, beyond my smart-assery, the ominous martial fragrances, I detected something remarkable, something just beyond the wire, a foreign, dreamy aroma.


Fruity, fishy, earthy, spicy . . . Asia.

I loved it.

You should remember that I was traveling alone, not attached to a unit, just chugging along under my own steam into the theatre of combat. There was no one to tell me what to do, no sergeant barking orders to “get in line over there” or “report to the receiving depot.”

OK, I’m on my own. I figured I should get a look at Viet Nam before someone showed up to take charge of me.

I deplaned and wandered off down the runway toward a handsome formation of peaks that I would learn to call the Marble Mountains.

Marble Mountains

The Da Nang runways are long and it took me quite a while to hike to the end. It was worth the effort. I left behind the sounds or aircraft and generators. I found myself wrapped in solitude. I looked past the concertina barbed wire, beyond a no-man’s land of desecrated red earth, then past fields, paddies, little houses . . . Viet Nam.

I breathed and listened. There! Somewhere behind the Marble Mountains, I heard them. Far away, but unmistakable. Explosions. Our artillery giving it to somebody.

Yes! Deep and menacing, the crash of the Elephant moving through the bush.

The Elephant.

I was here.

At last.

After a while I heard a vehicle racing up behind me, a jeep with a couple of hard-eyed MPs.

“What the flat flying fuck are you doing out here?”

“Just having a look, Corporal.”

“Get your FNG ass into this jeep before someone blows it off, probably Corporal Stoneface (not his real name) here. He ain’t killed a dumbass FNG all week.”

Corporal Stoneface did not crack a smile. He wasn’t even looking at me. His eyes were flicking back and forth across the tree line beyond the wire.



“Oh yes, that would be me. Fucking new guy. Newest, greenest, dumbest, fuckingest new guy you’ll ever meet.”

Corporal Cop relaxed, just a bit. He almost smiled.

“OK, as long as you got that straight.”

As we hurtled back down the runway, the MP began my orientation.

“We’ll drop you off at Receiving. Find your gear, check in and show them your orders. They’ll give you a rack (bed) and help you find a hop (airplane) to Chu Lai. Then you’ll be on your own. While you’re waiting you can go into Da Nang City, but it’s not a good idea right now. Lotta shit going down. Charlie (Viet Cong) slipping in and out. One of our pet Mama-sans (proprietress of a bar or brothel) says NVA officers (North Vietnamese regular army) are setting up something big, maybe tonight. So, take my advice, Lance, stay out of the ville.”

“Roger that, Corp.”

“There’s a slop shute (chow hall), a barber shop, you need a haircut, and a flick (movie). Keep it wired tonight, huh?”


The other MP, Stoneface, never said a word. His eyes never stopped moving. His hand never left the butt of his forty-five. These MPs were strung tight.

Well-fed, spiffy hair cut by a tiny Viet Namese barber, showered (cold), and feeling squared away in relatively clean clothes, I sought out the Enlisted Club and launched a one-man assault on a formidable line of warm beers. The E-club consisted of a long bar and an expansive deck of picnic tables, mostly open to the sky, with a white-washed plywood movie screen at one end. Very cool. Sit out under the stars, sipping suds with your brethren, watching an old black-and-white movie. I’d like to tell you what the movie was, but you have to remember that I had been traveling for almost a week with too little sleep and too much booze. I was fried. I didn’t make it through the movie. Somehow I found my rack and passed out.


That’s what it was like. Hell. The world had turned a demonic red. Sirens were screaming like the tortured souls of the inferno. For a moment I thought I had died and been plunged into the underworld. I jumped off my cot, tripped over something, and fell on my face. Marine warfighter at his most impressive. Men were running everywhere and yelling. I gathered my wits about me, aided by a flood of adrenaline rushing into my chest.

We were under attack.

The crimson hell-light was from dozens of red flares floating down in their parachutes. What should I do? I stuffed my feet into my boots and chased after a squad of armed Marines. I had no rifle, no gear of any kind, not even a helmet. Fortunately I had passed out in my clothes so I was not running around naked through the attack.

I followed the squad, sprinting out to the base perimeter. We tumbled into the trenches of the defensive emplacement. Panting. Big eyes. After a while, a sergeant came down the line.

“Where’s your weapon, Marine?”

“Just came in-country yesterday, Sergeant.”

“You should be hunkered down at Receiving. What are you doing out here?”

“Seemed like a good idea.”

He laughed.

“OK. Keep your eyes open and your head down. If Charlie gets one of us, pick up a weapon and get into the fight.”

“Roger that.”

“You OK, Marine?”

“I’m good, Sergeant, real good.”

He patted me on the shoulder and continued down the line.

We waited.

And waited.


After a while I saw movement down the line. One of our patrols was coming in through the wire. I heard passwords and responses exchanged. The Recon guys ambled in to the revetments and immediately lit cigarettes. These men were the stuff. Recon Marines. Experienced, hard core, infantry vets. The professionals. I crowded close, hoping I could inhale some of their bravado.

“Just more bullshit,” a Recon sergeant was explaining to one of the officers, “nothing to it.”

“Fuck me,” yelled one of the staff NCOs, “Alright, Marines, stand down, light ‘em if you got ‘em.”
The Recon guys were chatting amiably, so I sidled up and asked one of them what had happened.

“Who the fuck knows. Some water buff sets off a claymore. Some sleepy rear echelon motherfucker has a wet dream and starts lighting up some pissant gook hooch. Everybody shits their pants and they send us out for a little stroll through Da Nang.”

“How close is Charlie?”

“Charlie? Hey, the NFG wants to know how close is Charlie?”

They laughed.

“Well, Marine, Sir Charles is right over there."

He pointed out into the darkness.

"Sir Charles is everywhere. But Sir Charles does not have the nads to pick a standup fight with the goddamn Marine Corps in the fucking middle of our turf. Sheeeee-it”

“Sheeeee-it” I echoed.

“You’ll be OK, Marine, but . . . “


“Get some fucking gear. You look like a goddamn tourist.”

I followed the men back in to headquarters, eventually found my hooch, and dropped down on my rack. Dawn was sliding over the horizon. When was I going to get a full night’s sleep?

Da Nang transport was even more casual than Okinawa. I hung around the air terminal until I could hitch a ride 60 miles south to Chu Lai. I wanted a chopper ride so I could see the sights, but I got a cargo plane. As it was my first ride in a C-130, I decided it would be a minor adventure.


Sitting alone in the cargo bay along with a full load of helicopter parts, I listened to the engines begin to whine. At the last moment, group of ARVN, South Viet Namese Army soldiers, climbed up the ramp and grabbed hold of the cargo straps. Some of them were still smoking cigarettes. They looked like Boy Scouts, but I was respectful. What did I know anyway? They had seen a lot more action than Lance Corporal Jenkins, FNG.

We rumbled down and down and down the runway. Will this behemoth ever get off the ground? Finally we got lift and slowly, slowly began to climb.


Five machine gun rounds pinged into the undercarriage of the plane. Oh shit. We’ve been hit! The big plane banked hard to starboard, engines roaring. We held on to the webbing of our side-facing seats and waited to crash. But the plane kept banking and climbing.

“Are we circling to land back at Da Nang?” I yelled at the ARVN troopers who ignored me.

After a while, one of the Marine flight crew clambered down from the flight deck and made his way over to me.

He yelled, “You OK?”


“See any damage?”

“Uh, nossir?”

He looked around, then walked down the cargo bay and back up the other side, climbed the ladder way to the flight deck and into the cockpit.

I guess we’re not going to crash. The Elephant has a sense of humor. Ha ha.

The plane continued to gain altitude. After a few minutes it leveled out, and then in a few more minutes began to descend. Another hard bank to starboard, the plane leveled out, and delivered a neck-snapping slam into the runway. Guy at the stick thinks he’s a carrier pilot. The C-130 bounced along the tarmac, then came to a brake-screeching stop. The engines wound down. The ramp lowered. Impossibly bright sunlight poured into the bay. A member of the ground crew strolled up the ramp, looked over at me. Grinned.

“Welcome to Chu Lai.”


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