was the summer of 1968 and I was a young, twenty-two year-
old buck sergeant being sent to Vietnam - a strange, faraway
place that few if any knew much about. I had already completed
an overseas tour in Korea assigned to a tank company stationed
south of the DMZ (demilitarized zone). This was different,
but still I didn't feel like I was going to war. Maybe
it would have if I had arrived in Vietnam earlier with
those troops who came over with their entire units. For
the most part, these early forces of soldiers and Marines
had taken the long ride across the Pacific on troop ships
surrounded by friends. By contrast, I didn't know a single
soul on my eighteen-hour flight aboard a chartered civilian
jetliner from the states. We were replacements for the
earlier troops who had either completed their tours and
rotated home or had become a casualty of the war.
flight from Travis Air Force Base in California to Tan
Son Nhut Air Base in South Vietnam had been uneventful
and long. The plane was packed with some 300 officers,
non-commissioned officers, and enlisted men with most
of the latter being in their teens and early twenties.
Even with short stopovers in Hawaii and Guam, eighteen
hours was just too long to be crammed in the confines
of those narrow seats. Our Class A khakis were badly crumpled
and looked as if we had slept in them which, as a matter
of fact, we had.
in-flight food was uninspired, but I don't think anyone
was thinking much about food. Nevertheless, I enjoyed
the steak dinner that was served by the attractive, mini-skirted
flight attendant. I wanted to remember the taste of every
bite knowing it might be a long time before I'd enjoy
anything that good again. After the plane made its bumpy
landing at Tan Son Nhut, which had become one of the world's
busiest airports, it seemed like it took forever before
we finally stopped and the exit door opened. The bright
sunlight filtered its way through the plane along with
the hot, humid, sticky air that immediately engulfed us.
I remember thinking, boy, will I be glad to get out of
this plane and outside. Maybe there'll be a nice cool
breeze to relieve this awful stuffy feeling!
little nervous and apprehensive, I said to myself, Well
Jack, the ride's over. There's no going back now! The
guys around me started getting up and gathering their
gear. I guess they thought that would somehow make the
long line move a little faster.
I looked out the window, I saw the ground crew pushing
a metal loading ramp across the steaming tarmac toward
us. I hoped it would take me away from this unbearable
feeling inside the cramped plane. By the time my feet
hit the bottom of the ramp, I had learned my first lesson
in Vietnam: there was no cool breeze. That hot sticky
feeling that had smothered me inside the plane surrounded
me on the ground, too. Welcome to Vietnam, Jack.
As soon as we deplaned, we were loaded on big blue Air
Force buses with wire screens covering the windows to
be taken to the 90th Replacement Battalion at Long Binh,
about an hour from the air base. The young soldier sitting
next to me smiled and asked the driver, "Why all the screens?
To keep us from getting out?"
The overworked driver replied matter-of-factly, "No, it's
to keep the grenades from coming in."
soldier's smile quickly disappeared as he turned to me
and asked, "He's kidding, right?"
won't go into great detail about my experiences over the
next few days other than to say I have never been in so
many small offices and long lines in my life. One for
filling out your will, the next to get paid, and another
to fill out your life insurance form. This went on for
two full days until I was finally given my orders to report
to the smaller Corp Replacement Center at Bien Hoa. This
was where we would complete our final in-processing before
being assigned to permanent units.
of us FNGs (fucking new guys), that's what we were called,
did a lot of talking and nervous joking about what to
expect from serving with the 11th Armored Cavalry, the
famous Blackhorse regiment. I learned, for example, that
the history of the regiment dated back to 1902 and had
served meritoriously in Vietnam since 1966 and as such,
was entitled to numerous unit decorations and awards.
The regiment was made up of three squadrons each consisting
of one tank company, one artillery battalion and three
troops of armored personnel carriers.
was excited when I found out someone else in my group
would be going to the same company as I was. We talked
about where we were from and if we had volunteered or
had been drafted. It was interesting and a good way to
pass the time. We laughed about how we would probably
see each other again on the same plane going home. That
never did happen though.
after we arrived at the smaller processing center at Bien
Hoa, we were put through a really cool one-day jungle
course. It was filled with booby traps, hidden mines,
and all sorts of new things we would find as a life-threatening
reality in our very near future. While the instructors
did their best to make it enjoyable, they also let us
know it was deadly serious business and what we learned
today could save our lives tomorrow.
the end of the second day, we were issued our new Olive
Drab Blackhorse shoulder patches and told we would be
reporting to our assigned units later that evening. I
was assigned to M company which was part of the third
squadron. Like a good soldier, I rushed over to the local
seamstress, a weathered old Vietnamese lady, and had my
new patches sewn on.
was late when three of us new guys were dropped off at
the M company orderly room at nearby Xuan Loc, our base
camp and the home of the Blackhorse regiment. A sergeant
and two of his men helped us unload our gear. After we
had evening chow, they showed us to our temporary bunks.
I was exhausted by then.
was hard adjusting to the constant heat and humidity.
Everything in the 'Nam seemed to sweat. The canvas covering
our hooch was mildewed and the smell was overwhelming.
It was just too hot to sleep. It was like being in a furnace.
Even my lungs were burning.
fell on my canvas cot trying to envision what was ahead
for me. If only there was a fan to help push this thick
air around. Finally I fell asleep, soaked in sweat with
my uniform still on and my empty rifle by my side.
the next morning, about twenty of us new guys from different
companies were taken to the helicopter pad in the middle
of the camp. Our individual units were all in the field
and we would be going to join them. Different types of
choppers were taking off and landing all around us. We
were guided to a Chinook, one of the largest. By the time
everyone and everything was loaded, there were about thirty
troopers and three full pallets of supplies on board.
this group, less than a dozen were seasoned troopers.
We new guys sure must have looked green next to them.
They kind of grinned and asked us how many days. They
meant, of course, how many days did we have left to serve
I said somewhat embarrassed. They all laughed and one
yelled out, "Better you than me, buddy!"
most of them were younger than I was, they appeared much
older in their worn and tattered jungle uniforms. I'd
been a tanker for nearly five years and was on my second
hitch in the Army. I figured I knew my job as well, if
not better, than most guys. But now I was really nervous
and felt like a raw recruit all over again.
peeked into the pilot's compartment to see if by chance
my brother-in-law, Captain Ric Dickison, could possibly
be flying this bird, but I discovered he wasn't. Just
then, the twin rotors starting spinning faster and faster
and soon we were flying over what seemed to be a busy
long, we reached the outskirts of the city that was dotted
with rice paddies. I watched in amazement as the huge
water buffalo and local farmers worked the green fields
of new rice.
Within a matter of minutes, we were flying over what appeared
from the air to be peaceful jungle. Being naive, I thought
this was just too pretty a place for a war. The edges
were a light green as new vegetation tried to reclaim
the areas that had been cleared by local farmers for their
rice paddies. Then the jungle took on a darker green as
the younger trees mixed with the older taller trees forming,
in effect, a double canopy jungle.
we flew over even darker sections of almost black terrain.
Three layers of trees had formed together. At that point,
the foliage became so thick it was almost impossible to
see through it from the ground or the air. I learned from
one of the old-timers that this was called, logically,
a triple canopy jungle. It looked so beautiful flying
over that I couldn't wait to venture into my new surroundings.
had been daydreaming, but was jolted back to reality when
our chopper started to descend into a small clearing that
had once been covered with tall elephant grass. The huge,
fifty-ton tanks that formed a large circle around it had
smashed it completely flat. The chopper scattered dust
and loose grass everywhere as we slowly set down in the
middle of nowhere.
we climbed out of the helicopter, not knowing what to
expect, I was sure I'd be facing the enemy! That was not
to be. Instead, scared and nervous, we all scattered about
like baby chicks. A rather tall first sergeant raised
his clenched fist and called out, "All right, you FNGs,
assemble on me. On the double!"
gathered around him and he started calling names and telling
us where to report. Finally I heard, "Stoddard, Jack,
first platoon, M company," and he pointed to a small group
of five tanks one hundred yards away.
with excitement, I grabbed my heavy duffel bag, picked
up my new rifle, and took off in the direction of my unit.
I tried to look as professional as I could but between
the weight of my shiny new flack jacket and my helmet
bouncing around like crazy on my head, I wasn't doing
a very good job. In fact, reflecting back, I must have
looked rather comical to say the least.
ran, then walked, and finally dragged my gear until I
reached the first tank in line. I asked where I was supposed
to report and one of the crewmembers who were lounging
on the back deck told me to go over to the third tank.
As I lugged my gear the short distance to Mike One-Four,
the platoon sergeant's tank, I overheard something about
FNGs and shiny boots.
First Class Edwards greeted me and informed me he was
the "main man" as the platoon wouldn't have an officer
assigned until next week. He instructed me to put my duffel
bag on his tank until he decided where to assign me.
twenty minutes later, a call came over the radio for the
platoon to move out. I quickly climbed aboard Mike One-Four
and found a spot to sit between the loader's and commander's
hatch. SFC Edwards was yelling over the radio for his
men to hurry up and finish loading the supplies that had
just arrived on the chopper. In five minutes word came
down and the five tanks of the first platoon were on the
we rolled out of the perimeter, all kinds of new thoughts
and questions filled my mind. Were we going to a major
battle? Back to base camp? I didn't have any ammunition.
When or how would I load my rifle? What am I supposed
to look for? Will I be a hero or will I want to hide?
I finally decided to just hold on and keep my mouth shut.
I'm sure that's what SFC Edwards would have told me anyway.
we moved further away from the safety of the perimeter,
the loader decided to ride inside the tank. That gave
me a little more room to sit and I was then able to hang
my feet inside the loader's hatch.
column of tanks moved off the narrow open path and started
cutting its way through the dense jungle to our left.
As we slowly forged our way deeper toward some site still
unknown to me, branches and tree limbs hit me. I tried
to hold onto a handle in front of the loader's hatch and
SFC Edwards glanced over and smiled indicating this was
jungle became darker and thicker with every minute that
went by. It seemed to me as if it was trying to attack
and swallow our tanks. I remember thinking, how could
anybody work all day in this unbearable climate? It was
only the middle of the afternoon and I was already soaked
to the skin and physically drained by the heat.
the tentacles of a giant prickly vine leaped out at me!
In no time, it was wrapped around my chest and was strangling
me in a quiet death grip. My first reaction was to scream
as loud as I could. "Wait a minute, wait a minute, I'm
being pulled off the tank!" but nobody heard me. SFC Edwards
wasn't even looking in my direction and because he was
wearing his tanker helmet, he couldn't hear me either.
the tank wasn't moving very fast, but the monster vine
was still tearing at me, pulling me further off the back
of the turret. I yelled again, "Wait a minute!" as my
legs flew uncontrollably up in the air past the platoon
sergeant. I heard him yell to the driver to stop as I
was falling to what I feared was certain death. The tank
ground to a halt and with one fell swoop, SFC Edwards
cut the huge vine away from me with the largest knife
I had ever seen.
big, burly black sergeant was laughing as he pulled me
back on top of the turret. "Welcome to Vietnam, kid. You
just met your first wait-a-minute vine," he said. He had
just saved my life and he thought it was funny! Boy, did
I have a lot of learning to do. However, I hoped there
would always be someone around like him to help me through
the rough spots.
company medic cleaned the blood off me, doused me with
some smelly antiseptic ointment and then put bandages
all over my wounds. I was to be medivaced to the rear
area aid station so the stickers could be removed from
around my eyes. Did I ever feel dumb!
that notable and embarrassing exception, I had survived
the first day with my new unit. It really wasn't so bad.
In fact it turned out to be pretty good. A lot of the
guys came over to check me out and said good things like,
"You look pretty bad!" And, "Wow, that wait-a-minute vine
sure did a number on you!" We even joked and smoked until
the dust-off chopper arrived. I was already beginning
to feel like one of the guys. Just think, only 359 days