I was in the air 20 minutes before I knew it because the plane shook so much. I still thought we were on the runway taxiing for takeoff.
After a deuce and a half truck ride from the Phu Bai Airbase, I arrived at Camp Eagle Headquarters Company of the 501st Signal Company, 101st Airborne Division.
As I got out of the truck with my belongings, I was greeted by a familiar face – Mike Checchia, who attended training with me at Fort Monmouth. He was a most welcome sight.
It was a little cooler up north in the highlands, but it was still hot. Since HQ was newly formed, there wasn't enough space for all the newcomers, so I had to be squeezed into an 8-man hooch which now held 10.
Luckily, it was Sunday so at the Mess Hall that meant steak. We headed up the hill to the mess for my first real dinner with my new company. The 501st consisted of HQ and “A” Company.
As time went on, we started to build more hooches. We were overcrowded because the Crypto officer, Mr. Thomas, a Warrant Officer, had been requesting replacements for guys who were leaving. Since he wasn’t getting any responses, he kept requesting and all of a sudden, his replacements came in. He tried to cancel his request but not until eight more, including me, arrived.
So, as we built our own place to call home, we had to set up a tent to house us for the week it would take to build and sandbag the place. We had to fill each sandbag by hand, enough so the eight man abode, (about 32' by 16'), had sandbags piled all around, four feet high. This was so shrapnel from an incoming mortar or rocket would be contained at a level above our heads if we were lying in our bunks.
After the hooch was built, we dug a huge bunker next to it with a backhoe and old telephone poles were used as a roof, also covered with sandbags. It was about 8' underground. We used it quite often. Each time an alarm sounded, we had to run into that bunker and stay until an all clear was sounded. Sometimes the rockets were close, sometimes not.
My first holiday in Vietnam was Thanksgiving. It wasn’t too bad. We had a traditional meal at the mess hall and got some time off from our 12-hour day.
Christmas was much more difficult. I made phone calls home but it was just not the same. My first call was to my fiancé and the modulation was so bad, it sounded like I was talking to an alien. Since it was over a Ham radio connection (MARS), whenever we were done, we had to say “over” so the radio operator would know to switch the handset to the other party. It was frustrating.
When I called my Mom and Dad the next week, the reception was much better and I could hear them clearly. I didn’t use MARS after that and didn’t hear voices from home, except on tape, until I got to Japan in August.
Christmas Day 1969: Bob Hope was coming to Camp Eagle. Because I was the last one in the shop, I was chosen to pull bunker duty during the show, even though there was a guy who was just given an Article 15 for insubordination and he was confined to quarters.
(An Article 15 is nonjudicial punishment. It refers to certain limited punishments which can be awarded for minor disciplinary offenses by a commanding officer, or officer in charge, to members of his/her command.
It's kind of a "mini-trial" conducted by the commander of a company when someone commits a punitive offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and the commander feels the offense is too minor to warrant a full-blown court-martial. ).
Anyway, here I was, thousands of miles from home, close to a legend who has been performing for the troops all over the world, and I was going to miss it.
It was a warm day as we trekked to the berm line to perform our duties. I sat with another newcomer on top of the bunker, making sure nobody decided to invade the camp while the show was going on. The only thing we saw was a Vietnamese family walking about 500 yards out with their water buffalo.
It didn't seem fair to miss this icon of military shows, but somebody had to. After we saw the Hope helicopter leave camp, we were relieved and could go to the mess tent for Christmas Dinner of turkey with all the trimmings -- a traditional holiday meal, but it sure wasn’t "home". Since we had been on guard duty, we were first to eat, so that was at least some consolation.
But before that, we had to carry the ammo boxes back to the ammo dump. I remember carrying the heavy box while balancing an M-60 machine gun on my right shoulder. The guy on the other side of me slipped and dropped his end. As I tried to hold up the weight of the box, I felt my shoulder give way and I was in immense pain for about three days.
For New Years, since I had missed the Hope Show, I was rewarded with a trip to an in-country R&R site at China Beach in Da Nang.
I left via Chinook on New Year’s Day after a night of partying the night before. We had celebrated with a bottle of Four Roses whiskey that my future mother-in-law had sent me, along with parachute flares that some of the guys had “confiscated” from the bunkers. It wasn’t Times Square but it was all we had.
Compared to the C-130 ride, the Chinook CH-47 was noisier and slower. Our only defense was two machine gunners. The US lost about 200 of these aircraft during the Vietnam War.
China Beach was one of several areas in Vietnam for short times of relaxation for the troops. It was a beautiful area and would have been a lot nicer if not for the concertina barbed wire strew along the beach. Today, it is one of the most visited beaches for tourists visiting Vietnam.
The “resort” was filled with drinking establishments, a bowling alley, and many other recreational areas including the beach, which was only open during daylight hours. I missed that sign at first and was almost shot by an MP enjoying the peace and quiet, walking on the moonlit beach, after several twenty-five cent rum and cokes.
Even with the peace and tranquility of the area, the local VC decided to lob a few mortars at us on one of the nights and I spent a couple of hours in a bunker. So after three nights of watching “round-eye” shows, (a term we used for shows not given by the locals but by American or Australian groups), it was back to duty at Eagle.
One of my duties as a Communications Security support person was to deliver secure communications equipment to several firebases in the 101st Area of Operation.
(A firebase is a small area in the middle of nowhere that has artillery units on it for air support of the infantry units in the field).
One of the ones I visited with another guy was Firebase Bastogne. Many of the Firebases operated by the 101st Airborne were named after cities they served during WW II.
Another was a smaller area called a landing zone. LZs were used because of the widespread use of helicopters, which were usually the fastest method of transport in Vietnam. As such, Landing Zones needed to be established for the helicopters. LZs allowed troops to be moved to closer positions near the front.
While many LZs were temporary, being little more than a clearing in the jungle or a clearing made using defoliant bombs, which cleared everything in a diameter of 150 feet; many others were either permanent or semi-permanent.
I also went to Camp Carroll way up near the DMZ. It was off Highway 9 and was a Marine base. It was one of nine artillery bases constructed along the DMZ and had 80 artillery pieces, including 175mm guns from the US Army. We flew to these places in choppers like the UH-1 (Huey) and the Light Observation Helicopter (Loach OH-6A).
Bunker duty was also a part of our duties. All E-4's and below served on this guard duty about two nights a week.
One night, I was sleeping on the top bunk and felt something go across my chest. I reached for my flashlight and turned on the red lens to see the biggest rat I ever saw in my life -- I stayed awake the rest of the night.
On another night, it was raining. Usually the carrier of the M-60 machine gun will set up outside on top of the bunker. Well, this night it, was raining and he didn’t want to have to clean the weapon in the morning before turning it in so he stayed inside.
It just so happened, on that night, a lot of activity was sighted to the front of us, so the Command post asked us to open fire. Well, firing a machine gun inside the most acoustic-unfriendly structure, a bunker, was NOT a good idea.
After about 20 rounds, I had to get out of the bunker. Sound bounced off those sand bags and affected my ears so badly, I could not hear for two days. My ears still ring to this day because of that.
Another memory I have of guard duty was funny, yet scary.
When you first arrived at the berm line, you had all kinds of set up to do. The hand grenades had to be placed for easy access, the ammunition cans had to be distributed, and the M-60 machine gun had to be set up. Finally, the claymore mines had to be put out about 50–100 yards to the front of the bunker.
The directions were quite simple. We set them out correctly, I am sure of this, because we always backed ourselves up by double-checking the position. The mines were connected by wires back to the bunker and there was a trigger that had to be clicked several times to set the mine off.
Well, that night we heard a lot of movement to the front of us. We called the Command Post to see if we could open fire and they said there was no word of any possible activity in the area, so we couldn’t even send up a flare to see if anyone was out there. We heard a ruckus all night, but we couldn’t do anything about it.
Morning came and when we went out to retrieve the claymores, I saw that the ones we put out were all turned around facing us. The VC had moved them and they made all the noise so we would set them off and all the shrapnel would have been sent our way. We called the CP and he said ‘Oh, I guess you guys really did hear something last night.”
Once I got into the flow at Eagle, I traveled around a bit, going into town with the laundry to deliver it to the orphanage where the French nuns and staff would wash our stuff.
It was a weekly ritual for awhile and we took the kids candy and toys sent from home. It made us forget the war for a few short hours each time I was lucky enough to go. Little did I know at the time the effect these visits would have on me and eventually, even bring me back to Vietnam 39 years later.
I was up for promotion in April and had to go before a board to qualify. Our shop boss was not happy about some of us getting promoted so soon and tried to stop the process. In fact, he sent some of us to the field after the board had reviewed us.
I spent a month at Camp Evans, near Quang Tri, a bit farther north in I Corps. While there, we were hit almost every night, so we spent a lot of late nights in a bunker. I received orders that I had been promoted and headed to the local PX to have my stripes sewn on. I didn‘t get the normal camouflaged stripes, but the regular gold stripes that are worn in the States.
When I returned to my shop at Camp Eagle and the WO saw me, he was so upset that he had me transferred to another Radio shop in the Company. I stayed there for about two months and then, when the mail clerk was going home, I was asked by the Captain if I would be interested in taking over.
Mail clerk was probably the best job in Vietnam or any Army post. From July until I left in October, I worked about two hours a day. I wasn’t exempt from guard duty, but as an E-5, I was no longer just sitting in a bunker. I was the Sergeant of the Guard and had to constantly visit each bunker throughout the night to make sure everything was OK.
One night, the officer of the guard was Mr. Thomas from my Crypto Shop. He still was upset about not being able to stop the promotions, so it was an uneasy night and I had to be on my toes the entire shift.
In August, I finally decided I would take an R&R. We were eligible after six months and I decided that it was time for me. I wanted to go to Hong Kong, or Australia, but because I waited so long to apply, I had to settle for Tokyo. The Philippines and Hawaii were available but I liked Japan so much my first time there, I wanted to go back.
I had to find a replacement to take over the mail room and take the post office test and then I was ready. I went with my friend, Jackie Madden, from Tennessee. Jackie was a true mountain boy. Whenever anyone asked him how he liked his coffee, he said, "Just out of the pot. It ain’t coffee, once you Yankees put all that s--- in it.”
We left for Tokyo through Da Nang, so we had to catch another flight via Chinook to get there. This bird was so noisy -- you had to shout to be heard, once airborne.
When we got on the plane to Tokyo, it was great. We had a steak dinner on board, but a weird thing happened as I started to eat. After being on Camp Eagle for nine months eating with plastic utensils and paper plates, when I went to pick up my metal fork, the first one I had seen in months, I dropped it. The shock of its weight in my hand was startling, but I got used to it real fast and enjoyed the dinner.
We landed in Japan and were taken to a reception center where we selected a hotel. Jackie and I chose the Shikubu which was right outside of Tokyo for about 35,000 yen a night, or $11 at that time. The yen was not as valuable as today and the exchange rate was 360 yen per dollar.
Japan was so different this time. We had six nights and we spent most of them eating, sightseeing, and shopping. We went to the Imperial Gardens, rode the bullet train and shopped.
I bought a tailored double-breasted suit with two pair of pants for $25.00, a zoom lens for my camera for about $60.00, and many souvenirs for everybody at home. We cruised the Ginza at night, visited many bars along that famous strip, and toured the Sony factory.
We rode in a cab a few times and with the steering wheel on the right side. It was a weird sensation and the Japanese cab drivers drove like maniacs. We had several close calls going back to our hotel.
The Ginza was amazing. Tokyo has so many people, walking the Ginza was worse than a crowded night in New York City. People were everywhere but the flow was smooth and everybody seemed to know how to handle it.
I was able to call home without the interference of a radio. At that time, it was very expensive to make an international call, about $3.00 a minute.
So after six days of fun and relaxation, we headed back to Camp Zama to catch a flight back to Vietnam. I had about two months left before going home, it was a good feeling.
The last two months went by quickly. I spent most of my time getting a tan. The mail clerk job only took two hours or so of my day. The Captain knew I was a short-timer, so he didn’t bug me either.
A lot of the guys were getting their orders early. My date to leave was October 21st; I got orders around October 1st that I would be able to leave by the 15th. It was only six days, but it was better than nothing.
I prepared by packing all my gear and sending other stuff home. I had my replacement, I was ready to go. It had been a long year. I was lucky. I had two friends get blown away because they replaced two others who had gone on sick call that morning and were replaced by my friends.
I was able to learn photo developing and printing; I was fortunate to come into contact with an orphanage that I will never forget; I flew on three different kinds of helicopters and learned to drive a stick shift ¾ ton truck. I experienced the heat of Vietnam and the cold of the mountains. I experienced monsoons and walking in two-foot-deep red mud.
When it was raining and cold, it felt like it was going to snow. It was 50-60 degrees, but after 110 during the day, it felt very cold. Our hooches had only screens as windows and no heat source, so it was unbearable at times. That is when I knew why the supply sergeant handed us sleeping bags on our first day. It really did get cold in the North.
I experienced things that no one can ever imagine. Most of my friends were stationed near Saigon and I was very jealous at first, but I would never give up the experiences I had while living in this area of Vietnam with no electricity that wasn’t self–generated, no plumbing, having to use a 1920s style outhouse to do your thing, no air conditioning on the hot day,s and no heat on the cold nights.
I met many people, although I cannot remember their names, who had been a part of a most significant part of my life. I lost two friends who were victims of two very selfish individuals. I hope they have lived with the guilt but somehow I feel they made peace with themselves and saw it as a stroke of fate on their part.
I left Cam Rahn Bay on Flying Tiger Airlines and as the plane left Vietnam airspace, a resounding round of cheers and applause was heard in the plane. We were going home. I was getting back the day I lost as we crossed the International Date Line.
We landed in Washington state, and after about six hours, I was processed, had a new uniform with all of my medals and 101stAirborne patch on my right soldier (showing that I had served with them in Vietnam. It was on the left when you were in Vietnam) and off to the airport.
I had made reservations from the post for a flight to New York, landing at 1 p.m., for either bussing to Philadelphia, or waiting for a later flight. When I got to the airport, I saw Eastern Airlines had a flight to Philadelphia, leaving in 45 minutes. I booked that one immediately. It would stop in Portland, Oregon, St. Louis, Missouri and finally home. I did not have to deplane at all.
When I got to Philadelphia, it was an eerie feeling. I entered the airport terminal to try and find a phone and this little old lady said something to me and then spit at me. “Welcome Home” was not as I expected. I was the only soldier to get off that flight, but there were others in the airport. I didn’t see or hear any other incidents but I wasn’t there very long.
I was home. After a year of wondering if I would come home whole or not at all, I was home.
It was Thursday, October 15th. We were getting married November 7th and I was to report to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, on November 20th. I hadn’t told anyone yet. My first stop in the cab was at my fiancé’s and then off to my parents' house. I had called each of them from the airport and they were all surprised since I was a week early.
I started looking for a car with the money I saved the past year. I found a 1970 Ford Torino Coupe for $2881.00, my first ever brand new car.
While home one day, I visited some of my friends from Allen Street. As I was talking with some of them, one guy I played ball with for many years and thought of as a very good friend walked up to me with a blank look on his face. He stopped, looked my way and said four words I will never forget because they were the last four words I ever heard from his mouth. He said, “Welcome Home, Baby Killer.”
We were all in shock. He turned and walked away and I have never seen him again. He was always the different guy in the group with different views on life, but I would never have expected to hear that from him. It still bothers me to this day.
I was aware of the protests that were going on in the states but never thought they would be in my own backyard. The lady at the airport was an aberration, or so I thought. To come home to my neighborhood and experience it was sickening and unbelievable.
In the next few weeks, I got married, drove to Arizona and reported to my new duty station with my new wife. We spent nine months in an on-post two bedroom house, far away from family and friends. We became friendly with Doug Dunham and his wife Kathy.
I went through COMSEC School with Doug at Fort Monmouth and it was good to see a familiar face. Doug and Kathy were married on the same day as us and we enjoyed a visit from them to our home in Pennsylvania in 2004. Kathy recently passed away from cancer.
So, the nine months went quickly and on Friday the 13th of August 1971, our car was packed and we were headed home to start our civilian lives together.
It was three years of service at a time when many were crossing borders to avoid it. I am proud to have served my country and would do it all over again.
In my next posting, I will tell about my recent trip to Vietnam, why I went back, and the circumstances around how it came to be.
[Bob Staranowicz is a Vietnam veteran and a member of the Doylestown Post 175 VFW. He lives in Buckingham.]
“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