Sometimes it seems like life is a series of coincidences. We wonder why certain things happen when they do, and what the effect will be on us as we go through life. This is my account of a series of “coincidences” that happened to me during my time in the service.
I have a cousin named Danny that I grew up with. When we first started seeing each other at family gatherings, we didn’t get along very well. I guess it was a guy thing. But when we started going to school together, we had to get along. The older we got, the better friends we were. We eventually started staying at each other’s homes on weekends and just generally hanging out together.
The local draft board had our names, and due to the age difference, he was called to serve his country about 9 months before I was. I recall the weekend pass I got between my 7th and 8th week of basic training. Danny was home on leave before going to ‘Nam. We got together at my parents home and all the relatives that showed up were taking our pictures with the nieces and nephews. I guess they thought they would never see us again. It was a sad time, but it was also a happy time. Most vets can relate to this, I’m sure.
I left Ft. Leonard Wood for Ft. Sill the following week. Five weeks into my artillery training, I received word that Danny had been wounded on some firebase named Ripcord.
No one seemed to know how bad he was injured, but everyone feared the worst. I finished AIT, had a twenty-one day leave and shipped out from Oakland Army Depot, still not having heard his condition. When our flight arrived in Viet Nam, it was after dark and we were issued steel pots, blankets, the necessary “stuff” for a transient barracks stay.
The next morning as I was walking down the Company Street I heard someone yelling my first name. Danny had arrived back from Japan the day before and was awaiting transportation up North to the 101st. His reaction to my unit of assignment being the 108th Group was the first indication I had that I was in deep buffalo dung. We spent five days together in Long Binh, catching up on everything that had happened since we saw each other in the states. We left for our units when the monsoon lifted. We both made it home and we talk about the fact that we ran into each other by accident when there were still 500,000 troops in Viet Nam.
In April of this 2001, I picked up Keith William Nolan’s book "Ripcord" and read it over a weekend. On Sunday evening I decide to get on the web and see if there was an association or anything like that for Ripcord. It had never occurred to me to see if there was a web site for my old battalion in Vietnam, the 8th Battalion 4th Artillery. That is when I stumbled on to the web site for the 8/4th. I guess it is only fitting that I would find the 8/4th site by coincidence, and it is because of my cousin Danny that I am now reunited with my unit from Vietnam.
Like a lot of you out there, I was in the first draft lottery. My number was 41. There are some things you just never forget. I was working for Bettendorf-Rapp food stores in St. Louis at the time. I had a guy working for me part time that was a full time Army recruiter. When I got my reporting date, he convinced me to join the Army for 2 years rather than be drafted. He said I would be RA (Regular Army) instead of US (a draftee) and that I would be treated better. I guess Artillery instead of Infantry is a step up.
I reported for induction to the Mark Building in downtown St. Louis, on April 23, 1970. We spent several hours there being processed in before catching the Greyhound for Ft. Leonard Wood. This one guy showed up (Steve Lenk) to be drafted and they told him they couldn’t take him because he had two outstanding traffic citations, even though he swore he had paid them. The Sergeants kept insisting that he couldn’t go and he said he had to go because he had already had his going away party and he was not going home. They finally agreed to let him join the Army as an RA. He and I were the only two RA’s in our Basic Unit that had a two year enlistment. The other ones that were RA were the ASA guys. They had four-year enlistments. They were called A--holes that would Sign Anything.
Steve and I became great friends over the next 60 days. We were in the same platoon, the same squad, and the same room. One day, (I’m not making this up, I swear) he called a drill sergeant “Mam?” That was my first exposure to the “dying cockroach”. After Basic he went to truck driving school and I went to Fort Sill. We were home on leave at the same time and went to ‘Nam within days of each other. I eventually ended up on Con Thien in October of that year.
About a week after I got there, I was taking a constitutional, whatever the hell that means, in the crapper on the downhill side behind the guns. Some one had left a hometown newspaper there. I picked it up and started reading and on the second page, I think it was below the crease but I’m not sure, there was an article about Steve Lenk leaving for Viet Nam. Imagine my surprise. I started asking everyone where they were from trying to find out who received this newspaper. Because of people working different shifts, it took almost two months for me to find the guy from Troy, MO who the paper was sent to. It was Bobby Mashek, a cannoncocker from Gun #2. Turns out, he is a cousin of Steve’s. Because of the work schedule, and being on different guns, Bobby and I were never that close while we were in Viet Nam.
When we returned to the states Bobby and I was stationed at Ft. Carson in the same unit for a couple of months. We then became good friends also. We spent a couple of weekends in Leadville visiting Tommy Joe McAuliffe, from HHB. I haven’t seen Bobby for a few years, but the next time I’m in Troy, I’m going to make it a priority. He is one of the good guys.
During Lam Son 719 I went home on emergency leave. I had to wait in Dong Ha a few days for all of the paperwork to come together, then had to fly out to where the Bn. was located near Khe Sahn to get the Cdr’s signature, then it was off to Da Nang to catch an Air Force flight home.
While I was waiting for the flight, I just sat around the airport waiting and watching what was going on. After a couple of hours, I was approached by a Vietnamese in a military uniform who had been watching me and figured out that I didn’t smoke. He made small talk for a couple of minutes, then asked if I had any stamps left on my ration card for cigarettes. He said, “I go to Khe Sahn, you know. How about I give you money and you buy me cigarettes?” I figured what the hell, I’ll get him 3 cartons of Marlboros. He seemed very grateful.
I boarded a C-141 with six other guys, one of them some kind of scientist that made a big deal about the exotic plants and bugs he was bringing back. He paid no attention at all to the rectangular stainless steel boxes that was the main load. I think the loadmaster said there were 240 of them. The longer I listened to this guy, the madder I got. When we got to Okinawa, they took two of us off the plane and made us wait for another flight. It was then the usual trip home. McCord, Ft. Lewis, SeaTac, St. Louis.
I had been told to apply for a hardship discharge due to my parent’s condition, so I did and was eventually turned down and given orders back to Viet Nam. The trip back is a story all by itself, along with some “coincidences” that I will get into at a later date. Eventually I ended up in Da Nang waiting for a flight to Quang Tri. I’m sitting in the airport when this Vietnamese in a military uniform who had been watching me and figured out that I didn’t smoke sat down beside me and started making small talk. He then said “I go to Khe Sahn you know. How about I give you money and you buy me cigarettes?” Does this sound familiar? It was the same guy from 60 days earlier. Guess he missed his flight. I was pissed to say the least. After some conversation regarding his parents, his wife, his kids, his water buffalo and his dog a couple of QC came over and wanted to know what was going on. I gave my side of it and they took him away. I’m sure they let him go as soon as they were out of sight.
It must have been April or May of ’71 when a call came down to the CP that two guys were needed to go to Da Nang and help ten other guys pick up six brand new jeeps. This started a typical military operation of moving and waiting. Helicopter to Dong Ha, truck to Quang Tri, C-130 to Da Nang. We actually went to the dock where they were unloaded and picked up six brand new jeeps. By this time, it was late in the day and we had to stay at Camp Horn for the night and drive back to Dong Ha the next day.
When we arrived at Camp Horn we were told that we had to turn in our weapons and steel pots as they were not allowed in the compound. We were then told that we had to have a cover on. This created a bit of a problem because none of us had brought any type of head gear except our steel pots. The sergeant in charge of our group said “Wait here”. He and one of the drivers left for about 30 minutes and returned with a dozen hats of different kinds, sizes, and colors. The one I got was a brown ARVN tanker beret. I guess they just drove around Da Nang and took the hats off of the cycle riders going by. Works for me.
By now it was time for the evening meal. We all get in line and they have a guy there with a box taking up a collection to pay for the wood used to BBQ the steaks they were having. Needless to say, he didn’t get any cash from us.
Dinner is over and some of us retire to the transient barracks to spend the night. Others go to the club to partake of liquid refreshment. As I’m climbing the stairs in the barracks, there is a guy sitting on the stoop strumming a guitar. About that time a wagon selling snacks comes by and the guy made a comment that he would like to get something, but that he hadn’t been paid for over a month. I asked him why and he said it was because he was away from his unit, down in Da Nang testifying at a trial about a fragging incident up in the 5th Mech. I gave him $10 in MPC and told him that if we ever saw each other again, he could pay me back. If not, forget it. I get in the rack and go to sleep. Sometime later, I was grabbed by the head and thrown from my rack by a big, drunk, Native American who told me that I was in his bunk. About that time, the guitar player shows up, grabs the Indian and runs him out the door and off of the second floor stoop. Best $10 I ever spent. MP’s show up and the guitar player gave them his version of what happened and they take the Native American away and I never see either one of them again.
Next day, we take off in the 6 new jeeps for the trip back to Dong Ha without incident. What a life we lived for a short period of time. When we were there, we wanted to be here. Now that we are here, I would like to back there.