“LIGHTS ON” ( A Short Story )
day in late July, 1969
of South Vietnam
The C.O. was only
three days late in keeping his promise to rotate me back to the
permanent Signal Site at Camp Crockett, Nha Trang, Republic of South
Vietnam. I had been
assigned as N.C.O.I.C. of a small signal site called “West Nha
Trang,” 22 miles in-land from the coast.
I and three operators manned and maintained the command
control and artillery circuits for a Headquarters and Headquarters
Company of a Korean White Horse Battalion. The seemingly endless
days of subsisting on C-ration stews, rice and kim-shee, of burning
our own excrement , and of eating the dust stirred up by the chopper
comings and goings were history, I thought to myself, as I bumped
down the hill in our 5-ton truck for the last time.
I reported to the Company Orderly Room, the clerk promptly whisked
me into Top’s office where I was genuinely welcomed by him back to
the main garrison at Camp Crockett.
He introduced me to my newly-arrived-in-country Platoon
Sergeant who looked mighty sharp in his starched jungle fatigues and
spit-shined airborne boots. I
don’t think I made too good a first impression on him, however,
since I was still wearing my usual uniform of the day which
consisted of dusty jungle boots, Korean Tiger Marine Fatigue pants,
no shirt, flak jacket, and steel pot.
I was very militarily informed by my new boss to get
“squared away” and to report for the 1900 to 0700 hour’s shift
at the Commo Site the next evening.
reluctantly turned in my M-16, that had been my constant companion
for the past six months, at the company Arms Room and trundled over
to the wooden and screen barracks which I would call home for the
next three months. I
was to bunk in a two-man room with another E-5 named Pete (his last
name escapes me) who was three days short.
The bunk beds in our room had the new 5-inch thick mattresses
that were now being issued to the support troops and the thought of
a quick nap before chow was awfully tempting, but right now the
luxury of a hot shower took precedence. As I flip-flopped to the shower room building, I wondered
what culinary treat awaited me at the Mess hall.
I didn’t give the mama-san cleaning the shower room a
second thought as I lathered and rinsed over and over until some of
the accumulated red dust finally started oozing from my pores.
After showering, I dusted off my boots and dressed in my
least wrinkled set of jungle fatigues and made a beeline for the
“brothers” in the mess line were greeting each other by
“dapping” and it amazes me to this day how they remembered the
sequence of this hand-shaking ritual that, by the way, varied from
unit to unit throughout the country.
I stood almost in awe of this spectacle as I shuffled toward
my first “A” ration meal in along time.
I must admit that the long awaited meal of gristly Salisbury
steak, watery instant mashed potatoes, canned green beans, stale
sheet cake, warm cherry bug juice, and rubbery Jell-o tasted pretty
good when compared to my recent fare on the hill.
I didn’t even take the time to pick out the flour bugs,
which were baked into the bread.
I figured, “What the hell, they’re dead, well-cooked, and
a little extra protein wouldn’t hurt."
As I was leaving the mess hall, I passed the First Cook and
thanked him for the excellent dinner. Just as I reached the door his thunderous retort to my
compliment caused every head in the mess hall to turn our way. As I remember it went something like this -- “Yo Sarge, I
got 28 and a wake-up and I don’t need no #%$* from you."
strolled over to the newly constructed company concrete basketball
court and watched a while as the teams enjoyed a spirited, but not
too well played game. The
court lights came on just as I was leaving and I thought, “Man,
these guys back here have really got it made."
The rest of the evening was spent writing a letter home to
Mom letting her know that I was back in the relative safety of our
main garrison and listening to Pete ramble on as to his plans back
in the “World” after he E.T.S.’d.
It had been a long day and the 2200 hr. curfew came none too
soon for me. I X’d
off another day on my naked lady short-timer calendar, eased into my
bunk onto that beautiful mattress, and quickly dropped into a deep
and comfortable sleep.
struck me as being very odd that a shining white milk delivery truck
was passing by right in the middle of our annual 4th of
July parade in Chester, Pennsylvania.
It really seemed out of place sandwiched between a blaring,
strutting high school band and the Mayor’s red, white, and blue
decorated float. Even
stranger still, why was it bucking and backfiring through the
exhaust like that? “That
booming and belching of smoke is ruining the whole parade," I
thought. I was still
trying to figure out the reason behind this eerie happening when I
was jostled out of my dream by Pete who was yelling,
answer to my puzzling dream immediately clicked into my now
wide-awake brain. Mortars
were raining in on the company area and I had incorporated their
booming into my dream. Things were happening fast now as Pete and I dove for the
floor dragging our mattresses on top of us.
We knew not to run for the bunkers while they were coming in
and I had a helpless feeling realizing that our cover here was no
real protection from the shrapnel that was thwack-thwacking into the
planking of the wooden walls and zing-zinging through the screening
which ran from waist high to ceiling.
Some twenty or so rounds later the shelling stopped and we
scurried from the building and ran to the arms room where the
armorer was already passing out weapons and ammo for defense against
a possible ground attack, which never materialized.
After the situation
calmed down a bit, everyone realized what had happened.
Two G.I.’s had suffered serious shrapnel wounds (they tried
for the bunkers during the attack) most probably caused by the fact
that the departing basketball players had left the court lights on
and Charlie had used that light source to zero in on our company
area. I never heard of
any disciplinary action being taken on the soldiers to blame.
This was just another unfortunate event during the course of
a regrettable and unnecessary war, recorded by some long-forgotten
officer on his After Action Report that is probably buried in the
archives, wherever such things are kept.
And, God bless you, Pete, wherever you are.
It don’t mean nuthin’, man.
W. C. Moore, Oct 1997
of terms and abbreviations used in this story
Officer in Charge
red pepper and cabbage ( a Korean dish )
rank of Buck Sergeant or Specialist 5th Class
juice --- Kool-aid
and a wake-up ---
29 days left in country combat zone
time of separation from military service
Cong soldier or North Vietnamese Regular
--- A hand
shake greeting ritual done by black soldiers in Vietnam.
indigenous personnel hired by the military to do chores on the Base.
“World” --- Back home, the U.S.A.