A Year To Kill


The shower room was a concrete slab in the middle of the holding company's area, surrounded by a canvas curtain, suspended on a pipe rail. The top of the curtain was about seven feet off the floor and the bottom of the curtain was a foot short of reaching the floor. Above the makeshift room, bomb containers were mounted that were periodically filled with water from tank trucks. The shower heads were suspended from the bomb containers and had a length of chain attached that when pulled, delivered water--if the tanks were not empty.

Inside the shower Outside the shower

It was humorous to watch the legs and feet of men showering, I thought, as I approached the shower room. They looked as if they were without bodies, dancing around in some mindless ritual. One foot might lift and disappear above the curtain, then reappear so the other could take its place. Then, both would rise on their toes or rock back on their heels, followed by a circling shuffle, maybe a stomp or two and then finally exit the imaginary stage with very definite steps. I surprised myself that I was able to find something humorous in this sinkhole of the universe.

The cold water sent chills down my spine and caused me to hunch up when I first pulled the chain. But after this initial reaction, I breathed a sigh of relief for the water to wash away the grime of the previous night's patrol. I had made the trip to the shower a time or two in days past, only to find the water tanks empty and once, after I had lathered with soap, the tanks went dry before I could rinse. Today, I was lucky. There was water. Not that it really mattered, no one cared how bad you smelled, they smelled just as bad.

The cold shower rejuvenated my tired body and I decided to go to the malt shop for a while before I crashed. The patrol I had been on the night before was the hot topic of conversation. Apparently, the news had spread across the base like wildfire. It was unusual to make contact with the VC so close to a supposedly secure area and the garrison troops, or "Saigon Warriors" as the infantrymen called them, were rattled because enemy activity was so close. By the time I heard the stories that were circulating, the body count had tripled and rumors were flying that a whole division of Viet Cong had moved into the area. I casually mentioned that I had been on the patrol and immediately began receiving offers to buy me a drink. All right! I could tell war stories as long as they could buy. The unexpected attention and company felt good and I stayed far longer and drank far more than I should have.

Reveille the next morning sounded as if I was getting a personal performance by the bugler, six inches from my ear. I rolled to a sitting position on the side of my cot, with my elbows on my knees and my hands holding my throbbing head. Except for my shirt, I still wore clothes from the night before and I felt as wrinkled as they looked.

After a while, the other men started for the chow line, but even the thought of eating the reconstituted slop they called breakfast turned my stomach, so I decided to skip the trip to the mess hall. As I tried to clear the cobwebs, I determined to back off the booze a bit, though it did numb my sensitivity to my surroundings, the mornings after were hell to pay. I pulled on my shirt, lit a cigarette and stumbled outside, hoping I would feel better if I moved around. I did not.

At the morning formation, I was given orders that assigned me to the 9th Infantry Division, home of The Old Reliables. While I expected assignment to an infantry unit, I hoped in the back of my mind, for something in a secure area. Therefore, I was mildly disappointed when I read my orders, but at least I was on my way to an address where I could receive mail from home.

I had tried not to think of home the last few days and was getting good at changing the subject of my thoughts whenever home did come across my mind. However, the thought of an address and receiving mail quickly penetrated the fortress of my mind and I began to make up for lost time in my imagination. I was so homesick and had so much to tell my family about this strange war-torn land and its people. I did promise myself that I would not write in detail about my field experiences. My wife and parents had enough concerns for my safety without hearing war stories.

Those of us assigned to the 9th Division were, in typical military fashion, packed like sardines into the back of a "deuce-and-a-half" truck, for the trip to camp "Bearcat," the home of the 9th. The 9th Infantry Division had deployed from Ft. Riley, Kansas, to the Republic of Vietnam about six months before, in late 1966. The 9th's area of responsibility was the Mekong Delta, the rich bottom land of the Mekong River. A fertile area where the majority of Vietnam's staple crop of rice is grown. It is a patchwork of inter-connected rice paddies and untamed jungle, laced with a system of tributaries and canals that provide water to the flooded fields.

Mekong River

The Delta became a gridiron of misery for the foot soldier because of waist deep water and knee deep mud, not to mention the two inch leeches and mosquitoes that could lift a combat helmet. It was also the area of South Vietnam most desired by Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader of North Vietnam. He had expressed his desire for the area clearly when he said, "A grain of rice is worth a drop of blood." He had also stated his determination when he said, "You will kill one hundred of us and we will kill one of you, yet in the end, we will win."

Mekong Delta

Again, my concerns about my destination were overshadowed by my curiosity as we rolled toward our new assignment. The road we traveled, though unpaved was obviously new. For a hundred yards on either side of the roadway, the vegetation was dead, no doubt the result of spraying with agent orange. Dead timber had been shoved together and occasionally we passed the smoking embers where one of these woodpiles had burned.

Beyond this man-made sterile zone, the tropical jungle of strange plants looked impenetrable for man or beast. The canopy trees were well over a hundred feet tall and the undergrowth was a twisted mass of vines, branches, ferns and fronds. No wonder Charlie has such an advantage, I thought. One person who is familiar with that maze could confound a hundred strangers. Such was the plight of the American soldier in Vietnam.

The farther the truck traveled, the more the jungle gave way to the flatland paddies of the Delta and the more my jostled kidneys ached for relief from the bouncing truck ride.

Approaching Bearcat on the ground, it was impossible to see over the high earthen wall or berm that completely surrounded the newly built military city behind it. The vegetation had been cleared and the area dozed smooth for about a quarter mile in each direction. Rows of concertina wire, fences and land mines blocked any unauthorized approach to the wall and neat guard bunkers stood on top of the huge berm at regularly spaced intervals.

The front gate was heavily fortified with artillery pieces and armored vehicles. I could not help thinking how formidable all this must look to the VC. To attack this place without heavy artillery or armor, to me, would seem like "mission impossible." Charlie apparently saw it differently. The Viet Cong seemed to thrive on impossible odds because they did attack on several occasions.

Bearcat Berm & Gate

Inside the berm was an olive drab microcosm. Men and equipment were moving in a seemingly endless procession much like a colony of ants. The sounds of construction were everywhere and rows of tents that were home to thousands of men stretched as far as I could see. The area inside the protective berm seemed at least a mile square and I was awe-stricken with the size and activity. This was the US Army at its finest, working to establish a stronghold in the heartland of the area Charlie wanted most. If Ho Chi wants this place, I thought, he had better pack a big lunch, because it looks as if the 9th plans to be here for a long time.

Processing in the Division was an ordeal of paperwork and more waiting. Travel vouchers for transportation from my last Stateside duty station, a review of my pay and dependent status, and confirming my life insurance amounts, were some of the mundane activities involved. I was not impatient to complete the process. I figured the more time I spent processing, the less time I had to spend in the field. While some of the clerks were rather smart mouthed, they were not shooting at me and besides waiting in line paid just as much as waiting in an ambush.

Finally though, the big moment arrived when I received my unit assignment. My mouth surely must have dropped open in disbelief, as I read and re-read my orders. Under the statement, "ASSIGNED TO 9TH ADMINISTRATION COMPANY," was my name. I felt like laughing aloud and jumping for joy at the same time and when someone shouted, "fall in for the 9th Administration Company," I was first in line.

From the moment I arrived in Viet Nam I felt as if I was under the death penalty, but now the great weight of that feeling had been lifted. I could hardly wait to write to Annie and get a few beers, to celebrate.


A Year To Kill © 1989
Other Content © 1999
by James F. McColloch