My weekend was one to write a story about, after the statute of limitations has expired that is, and Jerry was undoubtedly correct in deciding to wait until Sunday to give me the map. I arose at nearly noon on that day and stumbled bleary-eyed down the stairway and through the gate, then out onto the sidewalks of Saigon. To my amazement, Jerry was waiting for me in a taxi. “You want a ride, man?”
“Sure” I replied. “Why not? I climbed into the tiny taxi in the usual way; by turning my back to the seat, sitting down, and then pivoting on my butt to put my legs in the car. “How did you know that I would be coming out this doorway at this time?” I asked.
“I’m a good guesser” Jerry replied with a grin.
“Yeah, I can see that” I said. We chatted about nothing in particular and when the taxi got us to Newport Jerry got out with me, carrying a small leather case.
“I thought we could have some lunch together” he said. I agreed to that and paid the taxi, and then led the way to the Newport mess hall. The fare there was the usual; bland but filling. I got something that looked sort of like pot roast and then carried my tray over to a table. I then went for some coffee while Jerry finished selecting his meal and taking a seat across the table from where I had set my tray. I returned with two cups of coffee and began to wolf down my meal. I always hoped that the food and coffee would smooth things down in my churning stomach and throbbing head, but they never did. At length Jerry finished his meal and after pushing away the tray he produced the leather case that he had been carrying
Jerry opened the case and said “Here. I’ve prepared a little something for you. This is a map of the route that your convoy will take tomorrow, and here are sixteen sites where there are tunnels that could house snipers or rocket men. I don’t know how many of these will be occupied, if any at all, and I don’t know what is on the other side of the road. I just know that these points on the map are all potential targets for you escorts.
“How in the hell did you get this?” I asked in amazement.
“If I tell you I’ll have to bite you” Jerry said with a straight face that lasted only a few moments.
“So you’re telling me that you did your dog thing and found this stuff for me?”
Jerry nodded the affirmative and said “I don’t have too many people who are even close to being friends, and if I can keep your randy ass alive I guess it’s worth the effort. I smiled and made a mental note to look up what “randy” meant, and then thanked him for the map. Jerry assured me that I was welcome to it, and after lunch excused himself. “I’ve got to get back to work. You use that map well, and good luck.
Monday morning dawned upon the convoy loaded and ready to go. The night crew had loaded the trucks and had them lined up with motors running by 0430. At 0400 I was awakened from my cot in the mail room and struggled to get my balance. I was only marginally successful until I had a plate of sausage and eggs and toast, and a couple of cups of strong black coffee down the hatch. I returned my tray and then fetched my steel pot and flak jacket, and then was issued my M-14 rifle and five magazines of bullets. I also brought the map. I went to the lead vehicle, which was a deuce and a half, and took my place in it. Today there would be the driver, a radioman, and me. At 0515 we started our vehicles and fifteen minutes later the gates swung open and out we went.
The first leg of the convoy wound through the edge of Saigon and past Tan Son Nhut. I wondered what Jerry was doing as we passed by and in my mind I saw him running on all fours and sniffing for VC snipers, and it startled me after a while to find that I was beginning to accept his story as at least possible. When we passed a particular intersection I noted the odometer reading on the truck’s dash. We couldn’t zero that device the way that Jerry had on his jeep, so I noted the milage and used that as my staring point.
The first two thirds of the route were not the most dangerous and I relaxed a bit, although I still kept my eyes open and frequently used the binoculars to scan the road ahead and the brush and tall grasses to either side. Winding tributaries of the Saigon River and occasional small collections of hoots which signified a tiny farming community appeared and then fell behind us, and I wondered how this country would look if the shooting would stop so that people could just go about their lives.
We didn’t talk much in the cab of the truck. At first the driver was a little bit chatty, mostly trying to relieve his own jitters, I suspected, but by the time we were twenty miles down the road it was all business. We were rapidly approaching the first marked point on the map and I stared into the binoculars looking for the crumbling hooch until I thought my eyeballs must be popping out of the other end. At last the hooch came into view.
“Tell the MPs to target two meters from the corner of that hooch” I told the radioman. The driver and I tensed as the radioman followed my instructions, and we stayed that way until we passed it by. A short distance ahead I pointed out the blasted tree stump. “Watch out for the base of that stump” I said. The word went out and all eyes were on the base of the stump until we passed it by.
“What the hell did they hire you for?” asked the driver, who was getting a little bit pissed at being wound up and then having to wind down. “What’s your beef?” I asked. “Would you rather somebody put an RPG up your ass? I hope I’m wrong all the way to Cu Chi and back, but I’m just calling what I see.”
“I don’t see you seeing anything at all” said the driver, now getting a little more testy.
“Quiet, both of you” said the radioman. “We can play together in the sandbox when we’re finished with this. Let’s focus.”
I went back to my map and saw that the third marker was coming up. This one was more vague: Three large bushes in a triangular pattern thirty meters off the road. At length I saw the bushes and also saw a small piece of broken glass that was shining not three meters away from them. “Jerry must not have been able to see that in the dark” I thought. I called out the target and again the MPs who were escorting us focused on that area. This time, as we drove parallel to the site, a brush-covered lid popped open and a figure with an RPG stuck his head out and began to aim his weapon.
The MPs were ready however, and fire from three M-60 machine guns mounted on jeeps converged on the point occupied by the head of the VC. His body and what remained of his head dropped down into the hole but the RPG, which was a longish weapon, was left sticking half out. The lid flopped down bur was unable to close because of the RPG. The MPs gave a cheer and quickly called for a nearby Armored cavalry unit to come and exploit this exposed hole. A tunnel rat would soon be crawling down that hole, seeing what information he could find to bring more of the fight to the enemy.
We continued to tool on down the road however. About a half mile further on we took fire from the other side of the road, but nobody was hit. I saw each one of the positions that Jerry had marked out and three of them besides the first produced a sniper. In each case heavy and accurate fire was either returned or initiated before the sniper could get his shot off. The MPs swarmed to where the lids hid the tunnel exits and found them in no time at all, one of them spattered with blood and brains. This was a windfall that the cavalry and infantry would greedily exploit, paying back for all of the sniper attacks that they had endured on this road.
At last we got to Cu Chi and the headquarters of the 25th Infantry. “How did it go?” hollered a local MP who began directing us into a marshaling yard adjacent to the supply dump. “Like a walk in the park” returned our driver, who turned to give me a thumbs up. We all squeezed into the yard and our guys unassed their vehicles in order to help with the unloading. The sooner the load was dropped off and one or two disabled tanks or other damaged vehicles were driven or winched onto the flatbed trucks, the sooner we could return to the relative safety, or at least familiarity, of our own base camp.
By 1400, or 2:00 PM, we were loaded and pointed south in the direction of Saigon. I was once again in the lead vehicle and began right away to scan the sides of the road for snipers, but we had hardly gone a mile before I saw that the sides of the road were crawling with American and ARVN infantry units that were exploiting the discovered tunnels, and were following others that were found out by close to a platoon of tunnel rats, or American G.I.s of small physical stature with gigantic balls of steel who would crawl through the darkened tunnels with just a .45, seeing what information they could obtain or how much hell they could raise. The presence of so much infantry made the drive home seem like a Sunday promenade up Highway 101 along the beach back home, and we pulled into the yard at Newport a little after three in the afternoon.
I left my truck and reported to headquarters, who thankfully had nothing for me to do, and then found one of my day shift buddies who could get away and smoke a joint with me. I was a wreck; I hadn’t had a shower in two days and the humidity and heat of Vietnam by itself was enough to make me a sticky, stinky mess. Add to that the sweat and strain of making the convoy run and pulling off of the trucks everything that we could by hand in order to get back to Newport as quickly as possible. Once Tom Farrell and I had climbed up to a high spot on a freighter that was unloading cargo, we lit our joint and smoked it in peace and security. I started shaking as the nerves in my body began to relax.
“Shit man, you going to be OK?” Tom asked. “Maybe we should get back down on the ground and get you to the dispensary. I don’t want to have to carry your skinny ass down those stairs”
I assured tom that I was cool, but really didn’t believe that one myself. I was not a hero, and the first time that I heard a bullet make its fluttering whistle sound as it sped past my ear I literally crapped in my underwear. Most people get used to this stuff to one degree or another, but it was only people who had crossed some kind of line into the margins of insanity who ever came to like it.
I did settle down however, eventually. We chatted up on that deck, or bridge, or crow’s nest or whatever the hell they call that part of a ship, for about twenty minute, perfect targets for any sniper but enjoying the cool breeze that was to be found at that altitude. After that Tom went back to work and I went to the mess hall, where I sat and drank coffee and waited for the buses that would bring in the night shift and take us home. At last they arrived and I was transported back to Long Binh where a shower and change of clothes, dinner, a cold beer and a more or less soft bunk awaited me.