A Year To Kill


Cass was the first of my close buddies to rotate back to the States and several of his friends, including me, decided to send him off in style. The plan was to give him a going away party in Bien Hoa the night before his departure. Cass would have a pass, since he was leaving country, but because all non US Military facilities were off-limits, the rest of us had to do some serious scheming to arrange to be there.

The division trash dump was a huge hole outside the berm filled with constantly smoldering refuse from inside the base camp. A detachment of guards surrounded the pit, both to provide security for soldiers who dumped the trash and to keep the Vietnamese from rummaging through it.

Keeping the Vietnamese away was an impossible task. Although the guards were armed, pilfering trash is hardly an offense punishable by death, so the best they could do was chase them away, individually. However, while a guard was occupied with chasing one person away, three or four other Vietnamese would jump into the heap to select their treasures. Therefore, as a rule, the only time the guards tried to scatter the Vietnamese civilians who constantly milled around the area was when they were bored or when one of the division's high ranking officers made an inspection tour.

The only things of interest, to most who shuffled through the trash, were food items, which made the guards reluctant to chase them away, since they realized the people were hungry. Whole families, mothers carrying children, fathers, young sons and daughters, could be seen pilfering through the heaps of refuse. They would occasionally find a whole piece of fruit, or bread, or some other edible, and joyfully shove it into a sack, to later share with other members of their family. It was a pitiful sight to see the dirt-streaked face of a young child break into a grin, when he found such a cast away item. How miserable life must be when one finds joy in a partially rotten apple or half-eaten banana.

The area also abounded with prostitutes and dope peddlers who hoped to trade their misery for GI dollars. The guards generally tried to dissuade doing business with them but for a few bucks would turn their heads, while some GI walked behind the bushes with a girl on his arm or traded piasters for bags of white powder. The dump was undoubtedly the source for much of the "clapp" and drug addiction that infected the troops in the division base camp.

Since Sut had a military driver's license, he checked out a deuce-and-a-half truck from the motor pool under the pretense of hauling a load of trash to the dump. The rest of us simply loaded a few trash barrels and climbed aboard with them. At the main gate the guards paid little attention to a load of trash since it was such a routine thing and common for soldiers to be hanging all over a truck going to the dump, taking advantage of an opportunity to get outside the berm.

After a brief stop at the dump to empty the barrels, we removed our division shoulder patches, so as not to be readily identifiable as 9th Division Troops. We then turned toward Bien Hoa, boasting to each other about our great escape, from the security of "Bearcat."

Bien Hoa was like every other town in Vietnam, a beehive of activity with cars, bikes and people running around with no apparent sense of direction. Our truck melded into the throng and we were just another Government Issue that no one paid particular attention to, in the endless moving mass.

Not familiar with the town and not caring where we were, only that we wanted a place to party, we turned on a side street out of the main stream of traffic and parked the truck. As a group, the six of us sauntered down the street joking and laughing with each other, while we fended off the onslaught of begging kids who surrounded us. We were in high spirits. One of our group was going home tomorrow and the rest had for the moment, beaten the system. We entered the first bar we found.

It was mid-morning and since we were the first customers of the day, we were greeted quickly by a group of "tea girls," who were eager to get their day's income started. "Tea girls" were Vietnamese women who would sit and listen to a GI tell war stories or reminisce about home or anything he wanted to talk about, as long as he bought her tea to drink, at highly inflated prices. They were masters at separating a soldier from his paycheck and many a novice awakened the next day wondering how he could have been fleeced so easily. We were not interested and when we spurned their advances, they sat across the bar with arms crossed, glaring at us with pursed lips as they pouted at their failures to cash in on their obvious charms.

For me, and I suspect the others, the thrill of being outside the berm, away from the regimentation of the military, in fact, AWOL in a war zone, produced a high beyond anything the alcohol we drank could do. However, I drank my share to continue the euphoria and sense of not caring I had come to expect from alcohol. By the time we left that bar I was feeling very mellow and unconcerned with my situation.

We next staggered into a supper club type of place, where we ordered steaks I am sure were intended for consumption by military personnel, but were diverted to the black market. After finishing our meal, a couple of the men took a greater interest in the "tea girls" and spent most of the evening on the dance floor paying for dances while they dreamed they were with their girl friends back home.

A 2200 curfew was in effect for all military personnel and when the time came we were invited to a hotel next to the club, by the "tea girls" that danced with the men. This open solicitation was eagerly accepted by the guys whose hormones were racing from the night's activities. Cass and I, primarily because we had no other place to stay the night, reluctantly agreed to go along. Neither was interested in staying with a woman. He was going home the next day and I was just back from R & R with my wife. We sat down at the head of the stairs as the others paired off and went into rooms.

The sounds of bedroom activity emitting from behind the closed doors were a source of humor to Cass and me, as we sat at the top of the stairs, laughing and nipping from the bottle of whiskey we brought with us. The guttural sounds soon subsided and we were left alone in silence to continue nursing our whiskey bottle and reminiscing.

With no warning, an MP appeared on the landing below us, heading our direction. He did not notice us sitting at the top of the stairs until Cass leveled his rifle, which had been across his lap, and shouted, "Halt." The MP who was off duty and interested only in finding a girl, was so shocked at seeing a rifle barrel in his face that he stumbled backward and fell against the wall of the landing.

At first, I thought Cass was just yanking the guy around a little, until I noticed the hardened glare in his eyes. "I'll kill you before I'll let you take me in," Cass muttered between clenched teeth. His alcohol numbed brain was convinced the MP was after him, even though the MP quickly realized the gravity of the situation, and was begging for his life. "Let him go Cass," I interceded, not nearly drunk enough to be a party to murder.

For a long moment that surely seemed like hours to the wide-eyed MP, Cass stared at him over the top of his rifle and then slowly and deliberately, as if reserving the right to change his mind, lowered the rifle to his lap and picked up the whiskey bottle. As he leaned his head back to gulp from the bottle, the MP leaped down the stairs and ran out the door.

I first breathed a sigh of relief as I watched him make his escape, then I realized the place would be crawling with MP's, looking for us in a very short time. I ran down the hallway knocking on doors and shouting, "let's get out of here," to the other men as they appeared in the doorways, in various stages of undress. No one questioned my orders to leave and within moments we were collectively staggering down the street as they buttoned shirts, hitched up belts and tied boots.

It had been a long time and many drinks since we parked the truck and now we had no idea where to find the vehicle. In the darkness, all the streets looked alike and even if we had been sober, I doubt we could have found the truck. The burst of adrenaline we each felt as we broke from the hotel had faded and the reality that we were lost hit each of us about the same time.

We instinctively walked single file down the dark street, gripping our rifles, eyeing each doorway and window of the buildings we passed. There was no activity, civilian or otherwise. It was as if all life had ceased to exist and we began to wish we had not left the hotel so hastily. For no reason, other than one direction is as good as another when you are lost we turned at the first intersection and proceeded cautiously through the silent darkness.

We saw lights come around the corner at the intersection ahead of us and block the road. We froze in our tracks as spotlights from our rear bathed us in brilliance, casting our long shadows forward, adding to the eeriness of the moment.

Frankly, I was relieved to hear an American voice pierce the stillness, instructing us to lay down our rifles and raise our hands.

The trip to the Long Bihn Jail or LBJ as it was called by most soldiers, was short but uncomfortable, riding in the back of a jeep with my hands cuffed behind my back. When we arrived, the desk sergeant ordered us locked in the holding tank, where we joined several other men who had been picked up during the evening.

I first leaned against the wall of the cell, not wanting to sit in the filth of the floor, but slowly slid down the wall to a sitting position with my head on my knees, too exhausted to care any more. One of the soldiers, who was still very drunk, kept shaking the bars on the cell door and complaining that he needed to use the toilet.

The guard paid no attention to his request, but would whack the man's fingers with his night stick, when he grabbed the cell door to shake it. Finally, the soldier drained his bladder on the guard's walkway outside the cell, which provoked two of the guards to enter the cell and beat him until he was unconscious. They then dragged his limp body out of the cell and locked him in a conex container.

The conex containers were originally used for items transported aboard ships. They were constructed of heavy gauge metal with a door for loading and were designed to pack neatly into the hold of a ship. They made excellent isolation pens for unruly prisoners, since they had no openings other than the door that when closed, let in very little light or air. Sitting in the tropical sun the container became an oven, sufficient to sweat the meanness out of a man. I sure hoped I did not have to pee anytime soon.

The next morning we were released to our first sergeant, who had been called to retrieve us and the truck we had driven to town. Fortunately for Cass, the sergeant arrived early enough to get him to the airport in time for his flight home. We thought they might delay Cass for a court-martial or other punishment but I guess they were so glad to get rid of him, they decided to let him go on home.

The four men, other than myself, who were involved, were each reduced in rank and fined by our CO, but I never heard anything about our escapade, even though I was the senior participant.


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