Thanksgiving was the second in a row I had to spend away from my home and family, in the service of Uncle Sam. I began the day somewhat less than thankful, but we had the day off since a one-day cease fire had been worked out with the North Vietnamese Government and that I did appreciate.
The highlight of the day was dinner. The mess hall crew really knocked themselves out preparing a special Thanksgiving Day meal, consisting of canned turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. They decorated with autumn colors, paper cutouts of turkeys and pumpkins. They even had a menu printed that listed the courses of the meal, along with a traditional Thanksgiving poem.
The efforts of the mess crew really neutralized a lot of the resentment I felt about being separated from my wife and new baby during the holiday season. Their efforts appeared to have the same effect on the other men and a festive atmosphere quickly developed which carried through the rest of the day and late into the night.
When the meal was finished, we shoved the tables to one side; broke out what looked to be a box car load of beer; turned on the music and began to party. Some men took advantage of the opportunity just to visit with each other. Some, after a few beers, decided to dance and still others, huddled to gamble with cards or dice and some were just there.
After dark, we watched a beach movie that was popular at the time, though it was impossible to hear the sound track, because of all the whistling and shouting when a pretty girl came on screen, which was every frame.
Finally, the movies were over, the beer was gone and I headed for my hooch to hit the rack. As I lay on the hard canvas cot, I at first started to complain to myself about my misfortune in not having an air mattress (I had sewn a button on my shirt and without thinking, stuck the needle in my air mattress), but then disciplined myself to think of some reasons to be thankful. I started with being alive and not wounded, not having to wade rice paddies, having a faithful wife and a new daughter. By the time I drifted off to sleep, the list was long.
When the 9th Division deployed from Ft. Riley, Kansas, they did so in three stages, each troop movement following the previous one by a month. The men who were in the first shipment began to rotate back to the States, after I had been there about six months.
As they left and their replacements arrived, I became one of the "short timers," at least to those who were just coming in-country. However, I had long ago quit worrying about the time I had left to do and started concentrating on getting through each day, as it came. To be sure, I could on a moment's notice tell someone the number of days until my rotation, as could any GI in Nam. But even at the half-way point of my tour, I had so many days left that it was depressing to think about it. Though I may have been "short" to those who had just arrived, I still felt as if I had a lifetime to go.
It did not take the new arrivals long to realize that I had some sort of special status, since I never seemed to work and spent a lot of time in the colonel's quarters. I, of course, enjoyed their curiosity and was very secretive about what I did, which heightened the mystery. Unfortunately, our new company commander also began to notice me and it did not take him long to decide to try to change my whole military career.
The captain was a professional football player who had run out of deferments and had to serve his time in the military. He spent the previous six months commanding an infantry line unit and had a real "attitude" problem with rear echelon troops. In his opinion, the only men who deserved to be called soldiers, were those in the line units. He thought, the rest of us were on a free ride and he was determined to work us long and hard to make up for our lack of combat duty.
My first personal encounter with the captain came as I was making my way to the mess hall one morning for breakfast. As usual, I was late getting up and had missed the morning formation. On this particular morning, my absence was noticed by our new captain who startled me by shouting my name, just as I turned off the company street, walking toward the mess hall.
I quickly snapped to attention as he approached and asked why I was not in the morning formation. I mumbled something about oversleeping, thinking he would be satisfied with any answer and go about his business. However, to my surprise he revealed he had taken a personal interest in me, found I worked for a colonel and assured me my days of special treatment were finished. He concluded by asking if my uniform had been altered and when I said "yes," he told me to go to the supply sergeant and get new regulation uniforms to wear.
Since it was common practice to have our baggy pants and shirts cut to fit, when I requested new uniforms from the supply sergeant, he told me mine looked fine. Although I protested that the CO had ordered me to get new uniforms, he still sent me away empty handed. I shrugged it off and headed back toward the mess hall for breakfast. Again, the booming voice shouting my name brought me to a dead stop in my tracks. "I told you to change uniforms" the captain barked and I could feel the anger in his voice. Quickly, I blurted out that the supply sergeant said mine looked fine. I watched his teeth clench and his eyes narrow as he turned and said "follow me."
I thought the door was coming off its hinges as he shoved it open with the full force of his six feet, six inch, two hundred forty pound frame and the walls shook as he shouted for the supply sergeant at the top of his lungs. The sergeant who was napping, jumped as if he had been shocked and quickly stood at attention. "Did this man request new uniforms?" Asked the captain. "Yes sir" came the sergeantís reply. "Then see that he gets them," said the captain, as he turned for the door, leaving me to face the obviously angry, supply sergeant.
"So you need uniforms, well here they are," said the sergeant as he tossed me a bundle of olive drab. Without comment, I grasped the clothing and walked outside, feeling fortunate to have my body intact, not to mention the new uniforms.
As I unfolded the uniforms, I realized the sergeant had his revenge for what he supposed was my snitching on him. The uniforms would have looked like a tent on a man as large as the captain and I was not close to his size. However, I had been given a direct order to change clothes, so I put on the uniform.
The shoulder seams hung almost to my elbows and the ends of the sleeves were about even with my knees. The pant legs were a foot too long and the waist would have circled three bodies the size of mine. When I cinched my belt, the gathered material around my waist looked comparable to the top of a pleated drapery and the crotch of the pants was just above my knees. Determined to follow orders, I rolled up the excess sleeve and leg material, put on my headgear, and for the third time headed to the mess hall.
When I entered the building a wave of silence swept over the room followed by a few audible snickers and finally uncontrolled laughter at my appearance. "Do you plan to eat enough to fill that uniform," someone shouted. "No one could stand that much of this crap," came a response from among the roar of laughter. Other remarks such as "Maybe daddy's uniform will fit after you grow up" and "that's his uniform someone just kicked all the BS out of him," fueled the uproar, making me wish I could somehow disappear. Suddenly, someone shouted "attention" and the laughter ended more quickly than it began.
From across the room the CO shouted, "What have you got on?" "My new uniform sir," was my weak reply. Wagging his head in disbelief and trying hard to suppress his own chuckles, he ordered me to put on my old uniform and report to his office immediately.
"We both realize you were just following orders," he said with a definite air of sarcasm, "but maybe a week on the "shit-burning" detail will improve your sense of duty." "Yes sir," I responded, at once thankful I had missed breakfast. I saluted and departed for the motor pool to start work on my new assignment.
The rest of the unfortunates and I loaded into the back of a deuce-and-a-half that was numbered 007 and left the motor pool to start our appointed rounds. As the truck rumbled across the dirt roads toward the other end of the base, we were tossed about like rubber balls as we fought to maintain our balance and continue standing. Not one of us desired to sit in the bed that contained the leftovers from hundreds of previous details.
The latrines were built similar to a rural outhouse except they were not placed over a hole in the ground. The receptor was a fifty-five gallon steel drum half, placed under the toilet seat, equipped with cut-out hand holes to facilitate removal and loading on the truck known as 007.
In the course of a normal day, these containers would each accumulate about twenty gallons of human excrement that had to be emptied into a larger barrel soaked with fuel oil and ignited.
Over the entire base literally hundreds of gallons of this raw sewage often containing vermin such as maggots and drowned rats, had to be collected and disposed. Two men would grab each barrel half and heave it into the back of the truck, where two other men would consolidate the contents, then throw the barrel to the ground for placement back under the latrine.
The putrid gruel would slosh out during collection and transportation to the burning site and we, as well as the truck were covered with it in a very short time. The dayís monsoon rain provided a welcome washing of men and truck.
At the burning site, the black smoke boiling from the burning human waste stuck to the skin and clothes like tar and had an indescribably horrible smell that attracted flies in great swarms. The men who kept the fires burning looked like blackened demons as they probed and fueled their respective infernos.
The retching normally subsided after an hour or so, as one became accustomed to the odor and dedicated himself to finishing as soon as possible. One good thing about the detail was that when the job was done, the workday was finished. Another was that a man quickly learned not to bite his fingernails.
A Year To Kill © 1989
Other Content © 1999
by James F. McColloch