Taking a walk on the wild side
In September I was 60 years old but I don’t feel it my bones yet. I have a full mane of hair and a semi-healthy state of mind. My oldest brother, Greg, is the real storyteller in the family. His exploits are many and are regaled around campfires in true oral history fashion as the “Travels of Seldom Seen Smith,” a river guide and adventurer who feels that the worse the weather, the better the journey. But this story isn’t about my brother. I just wanted to pay tribute to his spirit and dedicate this little story to him, as I think he would find it amusing.
My tale takes place in South Viet-Nam just after the Tet Offensive in 1968. My unit, the 515th Transportation Company, was located in Phu Bai, just south of Hue City in the northern province of Thua Thien. For a historical perspective, Hue City had just been retaken by elements of the Third Marine Division and 101st Airborne after being surrounded by more than 10,000 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong soldiers. It was a terrible street-to-street fight that destroyed the once-beautiful French capital city. As one can guess, the scene was typical of many cities besieged by hostile firefights and artillery as the city lay in smoldering ruin. The city had been built along the banks of the “Perfume River” which had gotten its name from the scent of sweet smelling tropical flowers growing along its shores.
The Perfume River
I was just barely 18 and had been in-country only a bit more than a month and really didn’t know much of the current military tactical situation in the area. If I had, I probably would never had experienced this episode in my life as a U.S. Army soldier. This is how my story unfolds.
The NVA and Viet Cong had been testing our perimeter defenses with small arms firefights and rocket and mortar attacks almost daily. Our Commanding Officer, Captain Ronald Ash, decided it might be a good idea to build fighting positions inside our company area for fear of being overrun and we all decided that just might be a very good idea as our hooches were just a few yards away from the perimeter of the camp. In order to do so we needed sandbags, lot of sandbags. A detail was organized of which I volunteered to join.
Getting out of camp and seeing the local sights was high on my list of things to experience. Seven men were selected in the early morn-ing just after breakfast to get on a five-ton truck and drive northwest a few clicks away, outside our camp to a place known for its high quality of sand.
The Battle of Hue had just ended; the seven of us, all truck drivers, were decked out in full combat gear. We wore helmets, carried M-16 rifles and wore bandoleers of ammo slung over our shoulders. We made a pretty sight, trying to look like regular infantrymen but we were just plain, old, everyday truck drivers out on a mission to get sandbags.
The ride out to the sand pits was uneventful. It was a nice, cool day and I enjoyed the ride in the bed of the truck because I could really see the countryside and the few villages we drove through. It was obvious that we were in a war zone, the general destruction could be seen everywhere you looked.
When we arrived at the sand pits I noticed a rush of mama sans and baby sans (women and children) toward us. They were screaming at us all at once and made quite a noise. They wanted food and water and looked to be in a pretty sad state. We didn’t have much to offer, as we hadn’t planned to be there all day and didn’t think we’d miss any meals. We didn’t see the need to bring C-rations with us. But someone found a can or two somewhere and we handed those out to the kids who were jumping up and down around us. There were no sergeants or officers with us that day; this was just a trivial detail to get sandbags. The highest-ranking soldier among us was a specialist E-4 who had been in-country the longest in our group. He was our de facto leader.
We started to unload the empty bales of sandbags and shovels. I didn’t like the idea of filling the truck with hundreds of 25-pound sand-bags, but a detail is a detail and we had to get the job done. At least it was still cool with a slight breeze. Just as I began to fill my first sandbag, I overheard the E-4 taking to another GI about a brothel he knew about in Hue City. Soon he had everyone’s attention with his story about this house of ill repute. I don’t know who said it or how it started, but someone said, “We should go there.”
What? Leave our detail?!
“Holy shit,” I thought to myself, “don’t you guys know that we’re in an active war zone?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. These guys were actually planning on walking to Hue City and going to this brothel. The E-4 said we could give the mama sans a few bucks to do our job. Heck, we’d be back before they could finish the job anyway, he explained. The only real problem he said, was that the place was on the “other” side of the Perfume River. I had a pretty good idea what he meant about what the “other” side meant, as I had been to on the very first (all volunteer) relief convoy to enter Hue City at the end of the battle. Our forces had one side of the city and the NVA and Viet Cong were still being rooted out of the “other” side of the river by the South Vietnamese forces.
It was decided; we were actually going to this place. Two or three guys who knew better, declined; someone had to stay and guard the truck anyway. I remember very well the feeling I had as we got our gear together. When I heard the first M-16 round being slammed into its chamber I knew this was not going to be an ordinary day. I was excited and scared to death, but I wasn’t going to miss out on this wild ass adventure and locked and loaded my own M-16 and put its selector switch on full automatic. Off we went, five truck drivers in single file, down the road toward Highway One and Hue City.
There was a lot of activity on the road. 101st Infantry troops were posted at small bridges and road intersections. They just looked at us as we walked by. We looked like every other “boot” on the road except for our shoulder unit patches. We wore the “1st Logistical Command Leaning Shit House” patch and merrily we walked, looking very much like any other infantry patrol to the outskirts of Hue City along the banks of the river.
The trip only took a few hours at a brisk pace. The “Perfume River” was anything but sweet smelling as the city was still smoldering from being blown to bits. It was like walking through organized chaos. Actual combat troops being rushed everywhere, speeding jeeps, civilians dragging carts trying to leave the city center. The scene was almost unbelievable, but no one seemed to notice us going in the wrong direction toward the other side of the river. I was amazed how easy it was.
But then, it was a war zone.
Our first real obstacle was getting across the river. In our own attempt to recon the area, we found the only bridge across the river was heavily guarded by the 101st Military Police. That way was closed to us for sure, as no one was being allowed to cross the bridge. The South Vietnamese Army was still fighting it out with the NVA and Viet Cong, but we were a determined bunch.
We backtracked a few blocks and came upon some fishermen in sampans who, for a few bucks, ferried us across the river. No questions asked.
Still, no one took notice of us. Five truck drivers infiltrated Hue City, paid some sampan drivers a few bucks and actually got over to the other side of the river undetected by the U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps, South Vietnamese Army, NVA and Viet Cong. What a hoot, I thought to myself.
We made it across the river in one piece, climbed up the high grassy banks and found ourselves in an old residential neighborhood. It was obvious to me that the area was deserted and that a pitched battle had been fought there very recently. It was eerie to walk the broad avenues, smoke drifting across my path and seeing many magnificent homes and French villas in utter ruin. We walked at least four or five city blocks before we came to our destination.
There it was: an old French villa with all the trimmings. A beautiful old building with pillared columns and colonial facade. We walked right through the front gate and simply knocked on the massive front door. To my surprise, and relief, an elderly matron greeted us at the door with a bow and bid us to enter. Imagine, five GIs in combat gear entering this old house as politely as we knew how. I was one of the first to go in and I was very impressed.
The main salon was huge with two-story-high ceilings. A grand staircase led immediately up the right hand wall to the upper floors. Only one problem, the back of the house had huge gaping holes where walls should have been; you could clearly see the back gardens. This house had seen a major firefight to be so heavily damaged. I remember wondering what was keeping that grand staircase from falling down. Anyway, we walked into the main salon and spread out on the divans, chairs and couches.
Someone had gone to a lot of effort to clean the place up as best they could, considering the circumstances. The matron immediately asked everyone if they wanted anything to drink, a coke or maybe some beer?
The mood changed from quiet awe to a boisterous laughter, as the guys and I took off our combat gear and started to relax. This had been quite an adventure so far and I, personally, was having a great time. Now it was time to get down to business and the reason we had risked our necks to get where we were: the ladies.
It was like out of an old time movie. The matron called out (in Vietnamese) and four of the prettiest Vietnamese girls I had ever seen walked into the room and lined up before us. Their black hair was nicely groomed and their clothes were fresh and clean in the typical Vietnamese style of the day. They simply stood there as the matron walked around them, offering them to us with hand gestures and smiles. (Mom, if you’re reading this, forgive me. I was in a war zone and didn’t know if I was gonna make it home or not.)
While the guys were just getting their beers and cokes served to them, I got up, picked the girl closest to that grand staircase and quietly climbed the stairs with her in polite tow. I know it’s rude to say, but I was going to have sex. Even if it was for only the second time in my life at that point, and I was going to enjoy it.
The staircase turned to the left and led down a wide hallway to a large and spacious bedroom. I remember stopping to look out one of the broken and crumbling walls to see an ancient building some hundred or so yards away across a wide open grassy field. I later learned that it was the Royal Citadel and was still occupied by remnants of the NVA and Viet Cong Forces.
I am way too much of a gentleman to describe the bawdy details of my sensual experience that late morning in early March; suffice it to say, it was way better than I ever expected. With that being said, just as I was adjusting my clothing (getting dressed), it all happened.
Hell breaks loose
Automatic gunfire broke the beautiful quiet of the morning from the villa’s front porch. I had immediate thoughts of my CO writing to my mother, sadly informing her that I was killed in a firefight in a brothel of all places. What a way to go.
I grabbed my gear and M-16 and raced down that staircase and was first on the scene. The E-4 had the wisdom to make one of our guys play lookout on the front porch. I found him crouched behind one of those splendid columns, spraying rounds down the street to my right. I could hear the sound of AK-47s not far away and tried to locate the direction and fire of the enemy, but I couldn’t find a clear target. Whoever was shooting at us was at least two blocks away down the street.
Our guys came rushing out and spread out on the front porch and lawn, and took up firing positions shooting wildly in the same direction of our lookout. I still couldn’t see a target, but we were sure under fire, as plaster from the building was popping all around me. It was time to get the heck out of Dodge!
Someone yelled, “Let’s get out of here!” and that’s all it took.
One other guy and I laid down suppressive fire while the others ran down the street in the direction we had come. They, in turn, gave us covering fire as we ran past them. We did this tactic block after block as we retreated back to the river. Whoever was shooting at us was getting way too close; I was sure we were all going to be killed.
All five of us were on the ground firing away when the strangest thing happened.
Out of nowhere, a jeep driven by a single GI came screaming around the corner and slammed to a stop not 10 feet from us. The driver yelled for us to get in and we did just that.
I got in the front passenger seat while everyone, literally, piled into the back seat (which normally fits two very tightly) and off we went. It was like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland.
I looked at the driver, a young Marine by his uniform. He had no rank insignia and was in terrible need of a shave and a bath. I yelled out and asked him where he came from. He only said that he was a deserter during the battle and had been hiding out not far from us when he heard the firing start. He yelled back that he could take us only a few more blocks to a major bridge that crossed over to our side of the river and that he had no intention of going back and being arrested. I could hardly believe what was actually happening.
A Marine deserter came to our rescue, dropped us off at a corner near the bridge and hightailed it back deep into enemy-held territory. The deserter asked me if I knew who was shooting at us. When I answered “No,” he just laughed.
I heard him say, “You guys were in a whorehouse controlled by the South Vietnamese Army. It was they who were shooting at you!”
Crossing back to our side
No sooner than we had said “Adios” to our rescuer, we saw the MPs running down the street yelling for us to “Halt!” These guys seemed really pissed off. I knew then that I was going to the stockade for deserting my post and for dereliction of duty. My ass was the grass the CO was going to mow. It was a terrible feeling to be marched across the bridge at gunpoint from our own boys. We all knew we were in terrible trouble and fell into a silent, head-down march of shame. The MPs had even taken our weapons from us.
Not far from the bridge was the MP and MACV headquarters where we were taken and told to wait while someone determined what to do with us. Some arrogant, and obviously very tired, captain came out of his office and demanded to know our unit’s name and location. He scolded us for being in “off-limit territory” and went back into his office. My seat on the bench in the hallway was closest to his office door and I could hear him talking to a switchboard operator, calling our unit and asking for our commanding officer.
Oh great! Get out the firing squad, I thought to myself.
“What do you want me to do with your men?” I heard the captain ask my CO over the phone. “Okay, no problem. Will do.” I heard him answer.
The captain came back into the hallway and yelled at all of us for a good five minutes before ordering a couple of MPs to escort us to the edge of the city and make sure we were all put on the first 515th truck they could find that would take us back to Phu Bai. They did just that.
Facing the music
In less than an hour we pulled up in front of the CO’s tent, back in the company area and were met by our first sergeant and our platoon sergeant, SFC Shomo. We were in the proverbial “bucket of shit.”
We were lined up and cussed out over by each of them. Then, one by one, we were told to go see the old man, our CO, Captain Ash. I was the last one to enter his tent. I could hear him screaming at the top of his lungs at each of the four other drivers, and then saw them run out the back of his tent. At least we weren’t going to be dragged off in chains, I thought.
Then, it was my turn.
Captain Ash had me stand at attention in front of his desk. “PFC Smith, reporting as ordered, Sir!”
And the yelling and cursing began. Courts martial and the stockade! Shame and dishonor! I’d be lucky to see daylight for years! He yelled and yelled at me. Red-faced and out of breath, he sat back down behind his desk and calmed himself, looking not at me, but down at his desk. With a heavy sigh, he looked up at me with a really strange smile on his face.
“Well, did you have a good time?” he slyly smiled and winked me.
“Sir, yes Sir!” I replied.
With that, he again screamed at me at the tops of his lungs to get the f**k out of his office. I ran out the back of his tent, as had my other four compatriots.
Nothing was ever said about this adventure again. There were no courts martial and the five of us didn’t even brag about it one bit, not even to each other.
I have often wondered whatever happened to that Marine deserter who saved our lives in Hue, and if he ever made it home. Somehow, I have a feeling he did.