"Sharing can be a way of healing. Grief and loss can isolate,
anger even alienate. Shared with others, emotions unite
as we see we aren't alone. We realize others weep with us."
~Susan Wittig Albert

Through our writing, we walk out of the darkness into the light
together, one small step at a time, recording history, educating
America, and we are healing.
~CJ/Todd Dierdorff

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Jesse Gump: Looking For Love

... In All The Wrong Places

It was late in my tour of duty in Vietnam and I was stationed with the Korean 9th ROK Infantry in Ninh Hoa. I had never taken an R&R and that bothered my superiors. They ordered me to take an R&R right away. Whether I went someplace in country or out of country wasn’t important, as long as I went somewhere. If I recall correctly, I had ten days of leave. I selected an “in country” R&R and was going to Cam Ranh Bay. I had heard good things about Cam Ranh Bay.

I was to depart for Cam Ranh from Tuy Hoa which meant I had to travel from Ninh Hoa to Tuy Hoa to begin my R&R. It wasn’t far, maybe 100 klicks (kilometers) or so north on Highway 1. I don’t remember how I got to Tuy Hoa but I made it nonetheless.

Somewhere between Ninh Hoa and Tuy Hoa we stopped at a small Korean outpost. I don’t know why we stopped because I never asked. I suspect it was to drop mail or some supplies. A truck was parked just outside the perimeter. In the bed were several dead bodies. They wore no uniforms. Flies swarmed. I remember wanting to look away but my eyes stayed glued to the scene. I wondered if they had been killed in combat or if they had been murdered like the POWs in Ninh Hoa. The image of those dead bodies lingers in my head.

I spent the first night of my R&R sleeping on a vacant bunk in Tuy Hoa. The next morning I was escorted to the air field for my flight to Cam Ranh Bay. There I was introduced to a young Lieutenant who was also going to Cam Ranh for R&R. We were directed to our military plane and we were off for a few days of rest and recuperation. Unfortunately we were put on the wrong plane and we ended up in Nha Trang, less than thirty miles from Ninh Hoa where I had started the previous day.

After asking around we learned that we would have to go back to Tuy Hoa the next day to catch our flight to Cam Ranh. The young Lieutenant was livid. He said that if I wanted to take my R&R in Nha Trang it was okay with him. I was familiar with Nha Trang so I said okay. He went back to Tuy Hoa; I stayed in Nha Trang.

First I went to the bachelor officers’ quarters and caught up with one of the pilots who flew forward air control for the US bombers supporting the Korean infantry based out of Ninh Hoa. His name escapes me but he allowed me to store my rifle in his locker. I knew from past visits to Nha Trang that I wouldn’t need my rifle in the city. I hitched a ride into town with a couple of airmen and headed straight to the La Fregate restaurant. I had eaten there before and the food was good. A very welcome change from kimshi and other strange things the Koreans ate.

Afterwards I stopped at a Vietnamese bar that catered to American servicemen, had a couple of beers, flirted with the bar girls, and then headed back toward the base. Before I got to the main road, a female voice called my name. It was a young woman named Yvonne. I’m sure that wasn’t her real name but that is what she called herself. Yvonne had once been the girlfriend of a marine stationed at my home base in Ninh Hoa. His name was Josh.

Josh had an arrangement with Yvonne. He would give her money each month and when he was in Nha Trang they would have sex. Josh paid money to keep Yvonne for himself and from what I witnessed it worked. I got to know Yvonne when I traveled with Josh and others to pick up white phosphorous rounds for the forward air controllers in Ninh Hoa. Josh had rotated back to the states a couple of months earlier and I hadn’t seen Yvonne since that time. 

In any event I stopped to say hello. Over a couple of drinks we talked about Josh and we talked about Yvonne’s current life. She now had a new boyfriend who was a military policeman. He was good to her but sometimes he got drunk and was physically abusive. Today he had been sent to Saigon for a week and she seemed glad he was gone. I told her about my misadventures with my R&R and she thought it was funny.

I didn’t realize how much time had passed until I looked at my watch. It was late and there was no way I could make it back to the base before curfew. Yvonne said I could stay at her house for the night if I wanted. Considering that curfew was only minutes away, staying at Yvonne’s for the night seemed like a good idea. I gave her money for beer and food and then spent the night with Yvonne. Actually I spent the next three nights with Yvonne and her friends. It was all good.

Then on the fourth night everything changed. Yvonne and I were asleep when we were awakened by a loud knock at her door. I was groggy and not thinking clearly. “It’s my boyfriend,” she said. “He’s home early. I can’t let him know you are here. He’s very jealous and carries a pistol. He could be dangerous.” She pointed toward a small dresser that had a mirrored closet door on the left side. “Get in there.”

I did as I was told and she threw my boots and clothes in with me. The closet was barely big enough to cram myself inside. I heard her open the room door and talk to her MP boyfriend. I couldn’t hear all of their words but I understood that she was bribing him away from her house with an offer of cold beer. Apparently it worked because suddenly there was silence.

The cramped closet quickly became a torture chamber. I wasn’t sure what to do. I wondered how long the oxygen would last. My body was taking up most of the space in the closet and there was little room for air. Minutes ticked past as I decided what to do. I had images of her MP boyfriend pointing his weapon at me, and pulling the trigger because I was with his girlfriend. This wasn’t how R&R was supposed to be.

Then I heard a noise in the room. I just knew it was Yvonne’s boyfriend. There was going to be a confrontation and I was unarmed. At that instant I knew how the Korean POWs in Ninh Hoa felt. I was going to die, but not in combat.

In a moment the closet door came open and my heart stopped. I looked up expecting to see a .45 pistol pointed at my head. Instead there stood an old Vietnamese man waving frantically for me to follow him. As I extracted myself from the cramped closet my left knee banged hard against the door and it fell from its hinges. It hit the floor with a loud crash and the mirror shattered. I held onto my boots and fatigues and ran through the doorway and away from Yvonne’s house. Behind me I heard a man yelling in American English and Yvonne shouting in her pidgin English. A shot rang out as I darted down a side street and then everything became deathly quiet. The only noise was my heavy breathing and my heart pounding. I put on my clothes and spent the night hiding from the friendly patrols as well as the Viet Cong that roamed the less glamorous parts of the city.

The next morning I caught a ride back to my post in Ninh Hoa. There I was greeted with a message that I had taken my R&R at an unauthorized location and I was confined to my base for two weeks. I didn’t care.

I don’t know if the shot I’d heard that night was meant for me, or Yvonne, or for no one, but before I rotated back to the US I returned to Nha Trang to make sure Yvonne was okay. She no longer lived in her house and her friends I’d met during my R&R were no longer neighbors. I never found if she was alive and well or if she was dead. There was no closure to the events of that night. Someday I’ll return to Nha Trang. Perhaps I will learn what happened that night; or maybe not. I only know I have to try. It’s something I have to do. For me, going back to Vietnam has become an obsession.


“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do, and by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale

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