|Reflections of the Mekong on this Veteran's Day
11/6/2013 12:39:40 PM
(Editor's Note: Navy Chief Journalist Jim French, USN(Ret.), was assinged to the innovative Riverine Assault Flotilla ONE?in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. His photo essays have appeared in the Purple Heart Magazine for Combat Wounded Veterans, and his unit was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation(PUC and he was presented the Vietnam Service Medal with Bronze Star and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal).
By Jim French
VUNG TAU, South Vietnam -- Although the dateline for this piece is a fiction, the remembrance of Vietnam came back with a rush as if the Fall winds were holding back the approaching chill. The memory of Vietnam came to claim me as if it had moved time from point zero to now, crossed the monsoon rains to Bear Cat and Cam Rahn Bay, passed through Saigon and found a frightened sailor waiting for a flight out of hell. I don’t need television to remind me of the grieving voices, to recollect how it was and how it is now.
After a while, the people vanish and their angular faces become vague and what they did to control the anxiety of death is gone. Even fear is as difficult to recall as pain once the suffering stops. It is then that a man appreciates my gladness of living. We all must carry our personal burdens and there are no porters anywhere to assist Vietnam veterans who are persecuted by private anguish. Even at this late date there is so much you take from a war that the memories evade you but, abruptly, it is clear as it ever was.
In my time I have worked all the news beats. I know the backrooms of police stations in the big towns and horrified villages ashamed of obscene atrocities in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. There have been worst human disasters than Mai Lai and other villages in that far off land that I rather forget, but can’t. There is the memory of a Viet Cong snapper squad soldier sighing as the last act of life happened in the lungs of a man already dead. I have seen the stomachs of young Americans, Black and white, holding their guts in their hands and a puzzled look in their eyes and asking why?
It is then that man appreciates the calmness of Colonial Lake, a late evening stroll down King Street or rapping with a tourist on a corner free of artillery fire. I know there is corruption in many places and many who are abused when seeking equality of life, but I have seen too many dead men in city streets and the rice flats of Vietnam not to welcome the reprieve of living.
We were in Dong Tam, Vietnam. It was a Charleston kind of day in another year gone by and the waterways, jutting like sprouts in a sugarcane field, was just as mean and dangerous as I-26 on a rainslick day. I had just grabbed a ride aboard a helicopter and caught up with a 9th Infantry Division platoon that was heading downriver at one a.m. and deep into Viet Cong territory over a watery highway dubbed “Route 66.” It was recoilless rifle fire and rockets that hit our navy armored troop carrier and to this day I always say a small prayer of thanks when I stooped to pick up my camera and tape recorder and a rocket destroyed the steel railing where I stood. I also wonder about how the parents of Seaman Albert Watson of Chicago feel this week as television replay the drama of that conflict, knowing that their only son was killed in a war never declared.
Will Kobe leave the lakers and how about St. Louis and the Patriots smacking up on the Texas Rangers! How many of you will remember that we have a new Burke High School, but what we didn’t remember was there would be few Black children living on the peninsular to attend, thus becoming a countywide school, to the extent that we were blindsided while we were holding Crab Cracks and minding the store of nonsense.
It was before the mortars came in. I was part of the press team and we lay in dusty barracks after chow and complained about the heat and the food. It was slop and garbage and they should have court-martialed the cook. The mess sergeant must have been working for the Vietcong, giving us stuff like that. “I thought it was beautiful food,” the kid from Kingstree said. He was a young man and enlisted as soon as they would take him. He was the only one in the outfit who thought the food was fine. Even C-rations tasted better, and I detest those portions.
Do you remember how the old-timers bored you on Ashley and Line when they talked about World War II? They won, didn’t they? My brother, Tom, sloushed across Europe. Old men were seized by reverie and dreamed about the senoritas of Naples. Wars were over, live it up, baby, you may be looking for a meal at The Crisis Ministry tomorrow.
We were in Da Nang and came out of the sandbagged tents after the mortars stopped. One of the soldiers talked to another and began to weep. He dropped his rifle and his helmet fell off as he shrieked with hysteria. “His brother got It in the last barrage,” a writer from Newsweek magazine said. There was silence. No words could feel the void we all felt.
On this Veterans Day remembrance do you think rap music is polluting the kid’s growing up? Why is there so much dope and so many juvenile delinquents? Who prepares for the next day in class when youngsters are popping a round ball through hoops past midnight? Kids don’t want to respect their parents anymore. Our way of life is taking their desire away from them. We've got all the modern conveniences, including a trip to the moon and beyond, don’t we? You want them to be decent and law-abiding, too?
It came again in Nha Be (Naw Bay). We didn’t have enough warm beer to go around the first day. There weren’t enough of anything. I went downriver that night aboard a armored hospital boat captained by a Black Navy boatswain’s mate first-class named Al Buster from Norfolk, Va. He laughed and joked and we spent the night on the portable flight deck rigged up to take helos with their dead and injured. It was a well-spread rumor that the Viet Cong would never attack a Navy boat If they saw a Black man in sight. You don’t sleep in the dark and musty darkness of the delta and we spent the jittery hours discussing family, sex and more sex. We pulled out the next morning about 5 a.m. and a gunboat crew, all-white, replaced us as we returned to our new position. The call came over the radio 40 minutes later to return to our former position to aid and pick up casualties. The crew has been nearly wiped out. You must be lucky to last. Being Black didn’t hurt.
So I sit here, safe in the community of Charleston, street lights frolicking in lucid reflections, and rejoice in a small way, because I still remember the river boats snaking up the Long Tau where I first heard the whining of a B-40 rocket. My notes are gone, but where is the chaplain who brought in the old Vietnamese farmer from his mortar-torn rice paddy? He was numb with fear and dumb with it and he shook and wept but this eyes were tearless as if he had used up all the sorrow left in the world.
All this I know and after Hussein it was supposed to be finished. But there are still Hussein’s on earth and kids must die and hurt because of their insane visions. Will President Bush’s visit to another military base solve or heal the pain? It was never over. When will it end? The statesmen argue in their elegant ways, following a protocol of nonsense. And then the young men die, one at a time, the world ending for the dead, who are forever beyond the help of science and treaty. I was never in Iraq but death is death anywhere, and were you ever in an aid station when the morphine ran out. I hope you are spared that.
We were caught in a river Inlet of the narrow expanse of Route 66. The foot soldiers were tensed for the battle sure to come. The silence was broken with machine gun fire and hand grenades tossed from the jungle-like shore. “Lay down,” a soldier said to me. “I’ll lay on top of you.” He didn’t know me, he knew I was scared. I was a stranger who had tagged along carrying a camera and tape recorder. No one has ever offered to do more for me. I lost my notes In the battle. I don’t know his name. I’ve never seen him again.
I tried, I think about him often and I wonder what that white soldier felt about protecting a Black sailor he had never seen before. To him it didn’t matter.
Who is concerned about the dead in the soil of Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and what about Pakistan? Who cares about what’s happening in this village while lilies cover the graves of fighting men in a foreign land? Blessed are the foot soldiers and Navymen of Vietnam. They are dead. You are living. Is there a difference as we maintain a spectator’s existence? Mercy.