In mid-June, 1969, I no longer remember the precise day, I and 200+ other soldiers experienced a 15+ hour flight from Fort Lewis, Washington to Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, in the relative comfort of a Braniff Airlines (Boeing 707). Braniff was one of several U.S. commercial air carriers contracted to shuttle troops to – from Vietnam. For the most part, for the duration of the flight, the general mood was jovial and intertwined with various levels of (personal) self-assuredness and even bravado. This was emotionally necessary and what most rational persons would expect given the intense training and preparation that preceded boarding the aircraft for its flight to the war in Vietnam on that particular day.
However, following the necessary refueling and bodily function ‘pit stop’ at a U.S. airbase in Japan, the remaining five hour flight to Cam Rahn Bay (Viet Nam), there was substantially less talk among the soldiers seated in the aircraft’s cabin, for some, manifesting as trepidations about war and my soon-to-be role and responsibilities as an airborne infantry combat soldier serving with the 173d Airborne Brigade in Viet Nam’s central highlands, Bin Dinh Province. Arguably, many, including me, were suppressing our personal concerns about the hoped for quick passing of 365 days when our return ticket home would be punched.
Not unrecognized, were soldiers on the aircraft who characterized their presence as a ‘return trip’, i.e., their second or third tours in Vietnam. Many told ‘war stories’ for the replacements who cared to listen. At this point, I would not have known, nor did I have any reason to suspect some of those stories may have been embellished somewhat to fit their captive audience of replacements.
Surveying other soldiers (fellow passengers) within my limited view of the aircrafts’ cabin as a whole, left me with the impression that few were wholly immune – impervious to the onset of a reflective cocktail of thoughts, memories, and ‘wish I had’s’ about what the future may have in store for them. While I saw no conventional evidence, i.e., hands clasped, heads bowed, etc., I presume there may have been a fair amount of praying occurring periodically throughout the flight.
For those fortunate enough to win the ‘window seat’ lottery on the plane ride to Vietnam there was ample time to observe the blue sky, the blue hue of the Pacific Ocean, and the occasional cargo ship or island below, other aircraft in flight, and experience 13+ time zone changes, i.e., daylight, darkness. Throughout the flight, one’s sense of direction were muted, aside from knowing the plane in which we were all passengers and hopefully held return tickets valid 365 days hence, would eventually be landing in Vietnam which we knew was west of our starting point.
When the aircraft finally landed at Cam Ran Bay, Vietnam, each soldier was instantly immersed in the heat and humidity and rapidly immersed in the in-county replacement processing pipeline…usually culminating two days later, with arrival at one’s assigned unit, in my case, 1st platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 503d Infantry, 173d Airborne Brigade based in the Central Highlands where I was greeted with the unforgettable disdain as the ‘f…ing new guy’.
The greeting evolved, I felt at the time, from probably deserved bravado, laced with unsympathetic and unforgiving ‘one liners’ about what lie ahead for me. At that moment in time, as merely a replacement, I felt truly differentiated from all other creatures on earth.
The opportunities a replacement can avail themselves insofar as commencing – endeavoring to cross the unpitying and unforgiving chasm from civility to recognition as a responsible, dependable, and contributing soldier to his combat unit varied. Of course there are numerous variables, and even some hurdles, most of which come wrapped in one’s intellectual, emotional, and physical endurance, functionality, and resilience to war in general and indeterminate combat in particular
Of course there are acts and/or behaviors, should a replacement be attuned to recognizing them as unwritten and equivalent to a small culture’s expectations which have been established by the experienced ‘elders’ of a combat unit’s, irrespective of rank. For the astute replacement crossing the chasm may occur relatively rapidly whereas for the less astute replacement the ‘chasm’ can be unrelenting and take much longer, if it occurs at all.
Arrival at one’s combat unit the realization there are no opt outs, becomes operative, save for the obvious. This will become one of the most challenging ordeals one may ever encounter, that is, the enormity of responsibility to themselves and others and the anxiety that comes with it. Specifically, if mistakes or errors in judgment are made, particularly those with variously – potentially irreversible outcomes as judged through the myopic lens by other combat soldiers in the unit. Compounding circumstances-incidents like this, significant errors – lapses could shadow a combat soldier indefinitely in their combat unit unless – until relevant amends occurred.
Another distinctly combat related perspective that evolved very rapidly for some was the seeming randomness of combat outcomes, many of which were variously and wholly outside one’s sphere of control and/or ability to favorably influence. Usually, unless-until a combat soldier recognized the absolute necessity for sustained periods of complete sensory (mental, emotional, and physical) functionality, i.e., possess reaction transition time frames in the nanosecond realm and being fully acclimated to the suddenness and randomness which combat frequently occurred.
Michael D. Moberly March 29, 2016 St. Louis [email protected] ‘A blog where attention span really matters’!
This post represents some of Mr. Moberly’s writing about his experiences in Vietnam as a combat soldier assigned to the 173d Airborne Brigade in 1969.