Our morale was high; we were as ready as we'd ever be. The three months of training at Fort Sill had been tough and we'd said our good-byes too many times. The awkward silences with girlfriends we knew weren't going to wait for us was unbearable. We had no clue that the wives and mothers would live a year of agony with every news report as they sat back in the World and watched the war with Walter Cronkite. It was time to go. We knew we were going to Vietnam but we had not been told our area of operation. There was talk of the Delta, Central Highlands, and even the DMZ. Demilitarized….why that didn't sound too bad. Our advance party, Col. Barnes, staff and support people had departed earlier, along with the guns and other equipment.
We flew to Tacoma, Washington where our cruise ship awaited us. We were going on a recommissioned WW II troop ship, the USNS Upschur. There were about 2200 of us Army types who provided amusement to the twenty or so sailors whose mission was to keep us from falling overboard during our voyage from Tacoma, Washington to the Republic of South Vietnam. I remember the bunks being stacked about 5 high. If you had an upper bunk it required a gymnastic maneuver to lift yourself in a horizontal position and slide your body into a very narrow space. Adding to the difficulty were the hull characteristics, (round bottom). Those with rank and weak biceps got the lower bunks, which later proved to be a mistake. After a three day storm in the middle of the Pacific our ship was appropriately renamed the USNS Upchuck.
As we steamed up Puget Sound past the San Juan Islands, we nervously laughed about the Strait of Juan de Fuca. "Mutha Fuca, I sho' hope I see this place again", exclaimed one of my FDC chart operators. He was from Mississippi and damn pleased we were at least fighting on the side of the SOUTH Vietnamese. I just don't think Parker could've stomached the idea of fighting for the North of anything. I took one last look and said goodbye, wondering if it would even be ethical for me to come back home alive. You see, I'd tried that, "I might not make it back" line on a few young ladies back in Minnesota. This usually happened late in the evening at one of the "this is the last time you'll ever see me" going away parties, which happened any time Sgt. Arena would give me a weekend pass in the two months before we shipped out. Coming home in a ziplock seemed a bit extreme so I decided to go for the shrapnel wound instead.
The days at sea had seemed like an eternity for the 8th Bn 4th Artillery as we rocked and rolled on the USNS Upschur. We had training, morning calisthenics, and lots of time to write letters to President Johnson to thank him for the opportunity to shore up the dominos in South East Asia. Things seemed better when we realized that this time on the boat counted as part of our tour, but after the food, saltwater showers, and the seasickness I think we all would have taken permanent duty on the half a 55 gal drum & diesel fuel duty. Anywhere in the Nam…even if we knew what it had meant.
I remember the day that we got our orders. We were all gathered on deck and our mission was disclosed to us. "Men", I don't recall who was the bearer of the news, "we are heading for the DMZ in support of the 3d Marine Division". This didn't seem to be particularly good news as I remember our battalion Chaplain started to tremble and appeared to have tears in his eyes. This was a bad sign. It seemed OK to me though. I grew up in northern Wisconsin and the kid next door had a learning disability with a tendency towards violent behavior. I figured I could handle the liaison with the Marines, no problem! Better yet, his name was Roger so I'd be a natural on the radio. The next announcement was we were going to stop in Okinawa in 2 days for about 12 hours and we could get off the Upchuck!! They actually set us loose on Okinawa. We could take advantage of the recreational facilities or go to the NCO club. Well it seemed that most of A Battery, 8th Bn, 4th Artillery, having had extensive training in Lawton, Oklahoma, chose the NCO club. There was one condition though; you had to give a pint of blood before you could enter. It put most of us at a severe disadvantage starting out a pint low as we bellied up to the bar. I don't recall much after that but as the story goes we were loaded up like cordwood on deuce and a half's and trucked back to the faithful Upchuck and our voyage continued. That is except for three members of gun 2 who decided to go into town to try out that "I might not make it back" line.
I woke up about 100 miles out to sea with what felt like a shrapnel wound to the head, at least the pain and body count of dead brain cells part. Our destiny was before us, no more apple pie, and no more baseball. The 8th/4th was goin' to the DMZ and we'd never make it back home. This I could handle but the thing that bothered me the most was that my "I might not make it back" line had never worked. I really didn't think it was right for the US Government to send a young man off to war and risk his life if he had never been laid! They could have at least asked. There should have been some kind of deferment or postponement. Shit.
The day before our arrival off the coast of Vietnam we got our final orders. We were going to anchor 3 miles off the coast and be brought ashore on Navy LST landing craft. The type they used at Normandy. There wasn't much sleep to be had that night for anyone and we awoke to the sounds and sights of Vietnam. We could see smoke billowing from numerous points on shore, (remember the half-55 gallon drums), and heard explosions in the distance. We'd all been issued one magazine for our M16's and it was time to go. The LST's came alongside and we climbed over the side of the Upchuck and down the big nets carrying all our gear on our back, duffel bags, our M16's with one magazine of ammunition. We hunched down in the LST's, with visions of Omaha Beach and D-Day in our heads. The three miles took an eternity and the sweat was running in rivulets down my back. You could smell an odd mixture of adrenaline and a weird sort of sweet diesel fuel in the air. I think most of Alpha Battery was in this LST. I figured we'd lose 30 to 40 percent of the battery in the first five minutes. Then it happened. The crunch as we hit the sand. Time stopped and then the front lowered and Sgt. Arena led as Alpha Battery stormed Red Beach. We only made it about 25 feet and stopped when several US Marines in their bathing suits started laughing hysterically as the 8th Bn 4th Artillery invaded the Republic of South Vietnam.
A Battery 8/4 March 67 - March 68