[Previous installments from Michael’s book, 363 Days in Vietnam, appeared in Copper #84 , #85, and #86—Ed.]
Our mission at Tra Bong was never clear – it seemed like the powers that be were simply keeping us busy. A couple days after we got there, we folded our cots and returned to LZ Buff. The other half of Delta Battery didn’t return – apparently, their mission hadn’t been completed. So our contingent at Buff was at half strength.
I was, temporarily, the only guy in my bunker/hootch – the others were all part of the second half that hadn’t returned.
It’s another perfect day in Vietnam – crystal clear, deep blue skies and moderate temperatures in early May. I’ve just returned from lunch at the mess tent and was marveling at how nice and peaceful it was with half of us somewhere else when a black rat scurried towards me at full speed in the open, sandy area in front of my bunker.
Before I had the chance to think ‘that was odd’, a six-foot long, thick, black snake came into view close on the heels of the rat. Then, the rat made a hard right turn before he gets to me and . . .
PROCEEDS DOWN THE DIRT RAMP INTO MY BUNKER!
THE SNAKE FOLLOWS HIM!
I’m thinking ‘HOLY SHIT!’ as Corporal Dowdy wanders into view on my right.
Sometimes I’m quick-witted and sometimes I wonder if there’s something wrong with me, but on this occasion I instantly hatched a plan that would have made Tom Sawyer proud.
Corporal Dowdy was a gung-ho, young dude from Texas – only 18 or 19-years old. He had just been promoted to corporal. I don’t like snakes – this was a job for a young Texan with something to prove.
Me: “Did you see that? A big snake just chased a rat into my hootch. Do you want to kill him?”
Dowdy: “You bet!”
Me: “What are you gonna use?”
Dowdy (finds an entrenching tool): “This!”
I let him lead the way down the ramp into the bunker – the only way in or out. As we headed in I told Dowdy:
“Let the snake catch the rat before you kill it.”
Once inside we spotted the rat under my bunk. He was either saying his prayers or had gotten distracted by a crumb of food. The snake slithered up behind the rat, grabbed it with its mouth and wrapped its coils around the rodent in one continuous, rapid-fire movement as we watched.
A few minutes passed and the rat stopped moving. The snake’s mouth opened tall and began ingesting it.
When it all was in, I looked at Dowdy, “NOW!”
Dowdy commenced chopping with extreme prejudice.
He cut the snake’s head off and proudly carried the wriggling carcass out by the tail while I used the shovel to remove the head from my premises.
I’ll bet Dowdy’s told that tale at every bar he’s ever visited since this day – not to mention to his kids and grandkids.
I was pretty pleased with myself, too. I conned him into doing it, but considering the heroic story he got out of the experience, I’d say we were even.
A few days after being overrun we had gotten back into our work routines on LZ Buff. This was another hot day of ammo humping for me – I needed a shower. It was close to sunset when I climbed the ladder, poured five gallons of water into the barrel above our open-air stall, removed my towel, lathered up and locked eyes with an attractive, American woman in a light blue outfit as she walked by.
Up to that point, the existence of the ‘Donut Dollies’ was a rumor I’d never confirmed. Her unfazed expression remained cheerful as she and her partner ‘Dolly’ continued towards the 1/52nd side of the hill. Apparently, the sight of a naked G.I. showering wasn’t all that unusual.
Conversely, she was the first American woman I’d seen in over ten months. If there had been a memo regarding the Dollies’ visit, I didn’t get it. I was completely surprised and more than a little annoyed though outwardly my reaction wasn’t different than hers. I earned that shower and this was my turf. If the sight of me was a problem, it wasn’t my problem. I finished taking my shower.
As I’ve mentioned, there were zero American women in combat in Vietnam. On bases like Buff lacking access via roads, there weren’t Vietnamese women, either. Consequently, privacy was not a consideration for toilets or showers or whatever. Our phone-booth-sized shower was doorless.
The ‘Donut Dollies’ were female, Red Cross volunteers who served in Vietnam. Their mission was to provide emotional support for us troops – a touch of home for the boys, a reminder of the girl next door, the sister and even the mother – cute, friendly and caring, not sexual, but there had to be guys who tried anyway. They traveled in pairs to fire support bases and brought with them games, snacks, soda, juice, donuts and most importantly, smiles.
They were specifically on Buff to perk up the infantry – those guys had lost their commander and twenty-seven of their buddies as a result of the recent attack.
I had a different take – I needed perking up as much as anybody, but I didn’t want to be reminded of someone I couldn’t be with by some surrogate/tease who would be forever gone a few minutes later.
Apparently, there were guys who felt like they benefitted from those visits, but I couldn’t see how it would (benefit me) and (I) made no attempt to visit with them.
Regardless, those two Dollies must have now believed they knew why it was called LZ ‘Buff’.
By now I’ve hooked up dozens of loads to both Huey’s and Chinooks, but I haven’t completed the trifecta – I haven’t hooked up The Flying Crane. The ‘Crane’ is Uncle Sam’s biggest, ugliest, baddest chopper, but it’s used sparingly on an ‘as needed’ basis and we hadn’t as yet needed one.
Today, we’re shipping a deuce and a half truck – the only chopper that can lift it is The Crane. Yep, I’m gonna get to cross that bad guy off my list.
I was expecting a bigger wash from its propellers as it approached, but not the hurricane force winds that nearly knocked me down. The down force of those blades was awesome!
When it was overhead, I clamored into the truck bed, stood still and held the noose high like always, but the crane’s shape prevented it from descending to the normal level. It hovered a few feet higher as the hook was lowered by a motorized winch – that made the hook a free-swinging, 20-pound, steel pendulum. I had to adjust my technique on the fly and avoid getting clubbed by that thing.
It wasn’t the first rodeo for the Crane’s crew and they made me look like a pro as I lassoed the hook and dove for cover.
Trifecta complete, Sir!
[You can find Michael’s book, 363 Days in Vietnam, on Amazon here.—Ed.]