Thurman P. Woodfork

WATCHING THE WAR

So, there I was in Vietnam. After eleven years in the service, I had finally wound up in a war zone. I arrived fresh from radar installations in northern Montana – Cut Bank and Lewistown, to be precise – not fully knowing what to expect. My presence in War Zone C had almost as much to do with boredom as it did with patriotism. Cut Bank Air Force Station, for example, was forty-four miles from the city of Cut Bank, a bustling metropolis of some two thousand citizens and one stoplight. It was a great place for a city boy like me to be stationed. All my hunting and fishing had been done in concrete canyons.

Prior to leaving the States for ‘Nam, the Air Force gave me a two-week course in California on the M-16, hand grenade throwing, and some other stuff that I don’t remember now. Then they sent me on my merry way to the Land of the Ao Dai. Combat trainin’? What combat trainin’? I was a radar repairman; I didn’t need no stinkin’ combat trainin’! And I didn’t get much, either. The Special Forces guys had to take me in hand once I showed up in their camp.

After all, I wasn’t supposed to be doing any serious grunt-type fighting; that’s what the Army and Marines were for. I was a technician. The SF troops did a better job of teaching us, anyway. We learned how to use all the weapons in camp, from mortars and the BAR to the venerable .45 automatic handgun. Oscilloscopes and multimeters make piss-poor weapons when somebody is intent on killing you.

Initially, I found myself in an interesting situation on Trang-Sup; I was in Vietnam, but the war was on the periphery of my existence; it was something happening off somewhere else to somebody else. Except for obvious things like sand-bagged walls, barbed wire, mortar emplacements, and mine fields, I could almost have been back on one of those remote Montana radar sites. I got up each morning, greeted Nui Ba Dinh brooding in the near distance, and went to work on the radar. In the evenings, I hung out in the little club or around the barracks.

Oh, and the heat; don’t forget that – or the smothering humidity. Northern Montana never even dreamed of heat like that. I was told that the camp itself was an old French fort left over from the days of French Indo-China. The towers at the corners of the camp, plus the one in the center, also served as grim reminders of where I was and what I could look forward to in the future.

The most dangerous thing I’d had to worry about in Montana was accidentally electrocuting myself, or maybe surprising a grumpy bear on an evening garbage can raid. The dangerous creatures here also usually waited for the dark of night to begin their activities, only they were far more deadly than the bears. Not to mention better armed. Besides, the foraging bears weren’t deliberately hunting people with malice in their hearts. I wasn’t in much danger from them unless I was careless enough to get between a mother and her cubs.

For the first few weeks, life went along uneventfully as I became accustomed to the camp routine. Sergeant of the Guard was occasionally diverting. The Vietnamese counterpart would appear on the hour to accompany the American on his inspection trip around the perimeter. The night was livened up when we found somebody asleep, which was often enough. The little Vietnamese NCO would sometimes proceed to do a tap dance on the offending troop. After the first time, I pretended not to notice anything unusual about an NCO routinely kicking the shit out of a subordinate.

The perimeter guards were usually dressed in black. I had thought only Charlie was supposed to wear those black pajama type outfits, but here, even the Americans sometimes wore them. The GIs usually wore the black PJs more for comfort while in camp than for anything else.

As I said, those first weeks at Trang-Sup passed almost without incident. At night, we sometimes sat on a sandbagged wall and “watched the war” off in the distance. The far away rumble of detonating ordinance pointed up the flashes from explosions and tracer fire. The tracers looked like distant fireflies dancing about in the darkness as aircraft pressed the attack. Flares washed the tracers from the night, and then slowly sank below the horizon like a descending stage curtain while the lights went down and the scene faded to black as the attack ended.

Two West Virginians – an Airman named White and an Army Special Forces guy named Larry Moore – sometimes brought their guitars out and we would sing along as they played. Being an indifferent pianist, I had to admire their skillful musicianship. Once, when I had trouble singing ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone,’ because I didn’t know the words, a helpful lieutenant obligingly fed me each line. He jokingly said that I sang much better than he did anyway. It was all rather surreal. There I was, perched on sandbags in Vietnam and singing protest songs, the lyrics of which were being supplied to me by an officer. Fantastic.

Then, one night, I awoke in the humid darkness to the chunk of mortars exploding outside and the insistent sound of the alarms. A rather sickly siren and a loud, strident ringing like an angry, uninterrupted, old-fashioned telephone bell were announcing that the war was no longer just beyond the horizon; the vacation was over. I had, instantly and permanently, switched from interested observer to active participant. As I ran to my machine gun, I heard odd buzzing sounds, which, I realized with a shock, meant that bullets were passing unnervingly close to me.

Once inside the pitch-black machine gun bunker, I strained to see out the gun port. My companion muttered, “I wonder if there are any snakes in here.” I considered throttling him; I hate snakes and I had not been in the bunker at night before. The war, without warning, had suddenly moved up close and personal. It was now crouching just on the other side of the sandbags, watching me. And the song it was singing was not about protest; it was about Death.

Photo ©Copyright 1966/1967 by Thurman P. Woodfork
Photo ©Copyright 1966/1967 by Thurman P. Woodfork