Authors: Richard Herman
© Richard Herman Jr 2015
Richard Herman Jr has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in 2015 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
Sheila Kathleen Herman,
a Suffolk lass who roamed far from home
and tended her gardens.
The Vietnam War that ran from 1955 to 1975 had many names and was a game changer for the United States. The North Vietnamese were fighting to rid themselves of the last vestiges of French colonialism and reunify Vietnam under communist rule. U.S. involvement started with advisors to what was then French Indochina but rapidly escalated after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. The war became increasingly unpopular stateside, and the turning point for the U.S. was the 1968 Tet Offensive, which was a military disaster for the North Vietnamese but a political victory. The war ended for the U.S. with the withdrawal of its forces in 1973. By the time the war ended in 1975, over three million people, including 58,286 Americans, had been killed.
The war changed the way the U.S. fought and the venerable UH-1 helicopter, the Huey, became the symbol of mobile warfare in Vietnam. However, the underlying reality of all warfare is logistics and the movement of personnel and material is absolutely critical. The North Vietnamese created the Ho Chi Minh trail, a marvel of logistical organization, primitive but effective, while the U.S. relied on airlift and truck convoys. The workhorse of tactical airlift in Vietnam was the C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft. It was an unglamorous job, hauling everything from toilet paper to visiting celebrities, and the aircrews were simply known as trash haulers.
Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam
“Please sign here,” the pretty staff sergeant manning the post office desk said. She shoved the thick registered letter across the counter and gave Captain Mark Warren a studied look. The return address was a lawyer’s office in Riverside, California.
“You see a lot of these?” Mark Warren asked. The sergeant nodded in answer and gave her hair a little flip, hoping to catch his attention. She had never considered challenging the Air Force’s prohibitions on fraternizing, but she liked the captain’s looks, and, well, this was Vietnam. She wanted to stroke his thick dark hair and decided he could stand to gain a few pounds – and she was a good cook. Mark Warren was attractive in an offbeat way. At five foot ten, the twenty-eight-year-old C-130 pilot had a slightly crooked jaw from a high school football injury, a pleasant smile, and friendly blue eyes. Suddenly, she felt sorry for him. Registered letters from lawyers were always bad news.
Warren scribbled his name on the return card acknowledging receipt and shoved it back across the counter. She glanced at a wastebasket and arched an eyebrow. Without a return receipt, there was no proof he had ever been served – just more fallout from the Vietnam War.
“Nah,” Warren said. “Send it. It was gonna happen. Just a matter of time.”
The sergeant nodded. For her, the captain was another casualty of the war, and, even from behind her counter in a remote post office, she had seen it too many times.
Warren shoved the letter into the calf pocket of his flight suit without opening it and headed for the exit. It was still dark and his new navigator, Captain David Santos, was waiting outside.
“O Club for breakfast?” Warren asked. Santos nodded and they made the short walk to the officers’ mess.
“No rain today,” Santos predicted.
“Do you think?” Warren replied. “Wait until next month.” The two men grinned. South Vietnam’s dry season ran from November to April, but ‘dry’ was a relative term. Warren broke a slight sweat as they walked but the tall and dark Santos seemed unaffected by the heat and humidity. “Don’t you ever sweat?” Warren asked.
“It’s my Latin blood,” Santos said. His mother was from Brazil, and his father, a career diplomat in the State Department, was a seasoned ambassador with White House connections. Santos had grown up in various capitals in South America and spoke Portuguese, Spanish, and a little Italian. Later, he had attended Rice University before joining the Air Force. He had trained as a navigator and that had led to an assignment with the 374th Tactical Airlift Wing flying the C-130 Hercules, the superb cargo airlifter made by Lockheed.
The Wing was based on Okinawa, and Santos had cut a swath through the single schoolteachers on the island. His amorous exploits had reached legendary status in the officers’ club stag bar, and, if the rumours had it right, included a few bored wives of his fellow officers. As a result, their squadron commander made sure Santos spent at least twenty-five days of every month off-island and in Vietnam, less than five hours flying time away. Warren was the last in a long list of aircraft commanders who had been charged with keeping the well-connected navigator out of trouble while in-country. The two men stomped their feet to knock the white dust-like sand off their boots before entering the mess. They called Cam Ranh Bay “The Sandbox” for good reason.
“Heads up,” Warren warned. “Stanley Super FAC is on duty.” He shot a glance at Lieutenant Colonel Stanley Hardy, the C-130 detachment commander from the wing in Okinawa, who was standing inside the entrance talking to the wing commander. Hardy was the poster boy for a professional military officer, the rugged all-American West Point graduate with a firm jaw, straight teeth, and lopsided smile. In reality, he was a career-driven fast burner who had been promoted early to major and lieutenant colonel. The aircrews believed he was a man who used lower ranking officers for kindling as he slashed and burned his way to higher rank. They scooted by Hardy and worked their way down the cafeteria-style chow line. “Stanley Super FAC just doing his thing,” Warren said, “brown-nosing the heavies.”
Santos grunted in disgust. “Stanley Super FAC, my ass. Hardy Haemorrhoid, if you ask me. You must have loved being his co-pilot flying Blind Bat.” Blind Bat was the night flare mission the 374th flew out of Ubon Air Base in Thailand. The C-130s cruised the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos, kicking out two-million candlepower flares and looking for supply trucks. Once they found a truck, the aircraft commander became a forward air controller, FAC for short, and called in strike aircraft.
Warren was the most experienced Blind Bat pilot in the 374th and had been assigned as Hardy’s instructor pilot for ten days to check him out on the flare mission. The ten days had turned into twenty-five days, and Hardy had been rewarded with a Distinguished Flying Cross. Warren and the rest of the crew were each awarded an Air Medal, the lowest flying medal in the Air Force pantheon. The going joke among the aircrews held that an Air Medal and a dime would get you a cup of coffee unless you were on Hardy’s crew. Then the coffee cost a dollar.
“He’s a damn good pilot,” Warren said.
“Pilot, yes,” Santos replied, “but aircraft commander?” The aircraft commander was the pilot in command of the aircraft and responsible for the lives of all on board. “I don’t think so.” They walked in silence for a few moments. “He’s out to prove something,” Santos allowed. “Your navigator on Blind Bat said you saved their asses more than once.”
“He is aggressive,” Warren said. Hardy had twice ignored the compass headings their navigator had called for while chasing trucks and flown into flak traps. Both times, the night sky had lit up with heavy anti-aircraft artillery, and Warren had taken control of the C-130 to fly them to safety. The last time had resulted in an over-g that almost ripped the wings off the big cargo aircraft, but they had made it. It came as a complete surprise to Warren, and the crew, when Hardy took full responsibility for the incident. “He did take the heat for the over-g,” Warren added.
Santos snorted. “It’s not like he had a choice, considering your nav had tape recorded both incidents. That really pissed Hardy off, and he wants those tapes. The guy’s dangerous. He will blindside you. Count on it.” Santos nodded towards the far end of the room. “Boz is sitting in the corner.” They stopped at the coffee urns and filled their mugs before joining First Lieutenant Steven “Boz” Bosko, their co-pilot. Bosko was a cheerful, slightly over-weight, twenty-six-year-old from Florida. He was also a very promising pilot who wanted to jettison the Air Force for a job with the airlines as soon as he could make it happen. They sat down and attacked their food, not sure when they would eat next.
“Stanley Super FAC coming our way,” Warren said, under his breath. The three men stood as Hardy joined them.
“Seats, gentlemen,” Hardy said, remaining on his feet. “Gentlemen, you’ve got to cut me some slack here. I just spent ten minutes apologizing to the wing king for your military appearance, or lack thereof. Colonel Mace is of the opinion you look like ragbags, and guess what? He’s right. Captain Santos, you need a haircut, Lieutenant Bosko, trim your moustache or shave it off, and all of you, expose your boots to some polish. Captain Warren, make sure it all happens. Today.”
Warren came to his feet. “Yes, sir. If the barbershop is still open when we land.”
Hardy’s voice grew stern. “I’m not in the mood for excuses. Just make it happen.”
“Yes, sir,” Warren said. The two men stared at each other – hard. Hardy spun around and stalked off.
Bosko started to sing, loud enough for Hardy to hear, doing a rich imitation of the rubbery, plaintive wail of Eric Burdon’s
Santos joined in with gusto. Hardy paused for a moment, then pressed ahead without turning. He was fully aware of Santos’s father and family connections. Hardy made a mental note to mark Santos’s personnel file with a PI, for political influence.
Warren sipped at his coffee, now lukewarm. Bosko caught the look on his face as he stood. “I’m going for a refill,” he said, “need a ‘fresher?” Warren handed him his mug and thanked him. Santos stood and said he would meet them at the C-130 operations shack near the flight line. Warren’s eyes followed the navigator as he made his way to a table where two Donut Dollies were quietly having breakfast. The Donut Dollies were Red Cross civilian volunteers who brought a tender smile, a listening ear, and an endless supply of silly games to help build morale. Warren arched an eyebrow, fully aware of what Santos had in mind. He stifled a smile at the stricken look on Santos’s face. “Shot down in flames,” he said to himself, relieved that he would not have to deal with any fallout from that venture. Cam Ranh Bay was a fighter base and fighter jocks are an aggressive breed both in the air and on the ground. Bar fights were common enough, especially when women were involved.
“Looks like Dave struck out,” Bosko said, setting a steamy mug of coffee in front of Warren. The lieutenant smiled broadly, enjoying Santos’s failure.
A quick survey of the room confirmed that the two pretty girls had raised the morale of every other man with their easy rebuff of Santos’s lustful intentions, and Warren’s respect for the Donut Dollies went up another notch. Without thinking, Warren pulled the registered letter out of his calf pocket and used a table knife to slit it open. As suspected, his wife had filed for divorce and a separation agreement was attached with a letter from her lawyer, written in nasty legalese, claiming the terms were more than equitable and generous.
Equitable and generous meant she got the house, the car, 500 dollars a month alimony, and half his retirement – if he made the Air Force a career. He got the bills. Losing the house in Riverside California was especially painful. It was his family home where he had grown up, and he had lived in the bachelor flat over the garage when he attended the Riverside campus of the University of California studying electrical engineering. After graduating in 1961, he had joined the Air Force and gone on to pilot training. Later on, it had been his refuge when home on leave, and he had inherited the home when his parents were killed in a car accident. He decided that giving up the old Victorian was a non-starter. Warren groaned when he read the paragraph dictating he pay all legal costs, including the lawyer’s fee.
“Been served?” Bosko asked.
“I’ve been expecting it,” Warren replied. He gave himself a mental kick for ever dating Chandra, much less marrying her. She was a beautiful natural blonde with a model-thin figure, and everyone said they were perfectly matched. But the reality was much different and Chandra defined the term ‘high maintenance’. “She wants everything. Unfortunately, I am a California resident, which means she will get it.”
“No kids, right?”
“Chandra said she wasn’t ready.” Chandra was one of the first women liberated by ‘the pill’.
Bosko thought for a moment. “Mark, she does have a reputation.”
Warren felt his face flush. “Santos?”
“No.” Bosko shook his head for emphasis. “Dave’s got a bum rap. He’s never hit on any wife, but he has turned down a few offers. Anyway, that’s the word among the wives. The rumour of the day says that Chandra’s got the hots for General Clearly’s son.” Clearly was the senior ranking Army officer on Okinawa, a four-star general, and the military governor of the island. “The kid is a real asshole, a long-haired hippy creep. Big in the anti-war movement with big bucks on his mother’s side of the family – soup, ketchup, and mustard. Word has it that Chandra wants to marry him, the sooner the better.”
Bosko leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Look, my dad is a lawyer and he can delay a divorce for years under the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Relief Act. He can get you registered as a Florida resident in a heartbeat, and if Chandra wants a quickie divorce, she’s got to be reasonable and negotiate. Call my dad on MARS.” MARS was the Military Auxiliary Radio System that patched telephone calls through amateur radio operators in the States. “I call home all the time and I’ll give him a heads up.”
Warren nodded. “I’ll give him a call.” He stood up. “Let’s go. We got time to make the Huck and Judy show at wing headquarters.” The Huck and Judy show was the morning intelligence briefing by two very talented and intelligent Air Force captains who spoke Vietnamese. They had a better sense of the situation on the ground than anyone at higher headquarters. The tall, and very attractive, Judy, and the diminutive Huck had been assigned to the intelligence section at Military Assistance Command Vietnam headquarters, or MACV for short, in Saigon but were banished to Cam Ranh Bay for not pushing the party line in their briefings to the brass. That, in itself, would have been tolerated except they were seldom wrong – and that was totally unacceptable.
“Best show on base,” Bosko said.
The Laotian-South Vietnamese Border
The early-morning dark still held the mountains captive, casting a surreal sense of calm over the rugged landscape. Shadows moved quickly in the night, blending together then moving on as a stream of heavily-burdened men and women moved out of the valley and followed narrow trails up the mountain only to disappear into the numerous caves that pitted the mountainside. Occasionally, the clatter of equipment, the crunch of a footfall, or a softly spoken command broke the silence. Finally, the moving shadows tapered off.