Tom “Buddha” Jones
“Get ready to low crawl, ” someone said as the men in khaki uniforms disembarked from the Flying Tiger airplane.
The men followed each other in single file towards the exit sign.
A stewardess with a forced smile stood by the door, and said, “Good luck, soldier.”
Some of the young men attempted to kiss the woman or cop a feel. She accepted their overtures stoically as she searched their faces for signs of fear.
For the most part the men walked quietly towards their fates. Occasionally, some made nervous jokes.
The men paused at he top of the stairs to breathe their first breath of Vietnamese air. It was hot and humid. They recalled what the sergeant on the plane had said. “There’s only two seasons in Vietnam. Hot and wet.”
The sergeant, returning to Vietnam for his third tour of duty, had spoken at length to the draftees. He pointed proudly to the medals on his khaki uniform. When asked why he was returning to the Nam, the sergeant tapped his chevrons, and said, “Only way to make rank fast.”
The sergeant’s words were a fading memory as the men formed their first impressions, and were lost in their own personal thoughts as they made their way through the Vietnamese evening to waiting buses. The men climbed aboard and those that could took window seats to obtain further views of their new environment.
The windows were surrounded by mesh wire. The brief ride ended before a large black and white sign which was painted “544th Replacement Company”.
“This is it,” someone said.
The men got to their feet and stepped off the buses.
“Pick up your duffel bags from over here,” a voice instructed them.
The men found their rectangular bags and lugged them to the designated area where a huge sign indicated 544th Replacement Company.
“This is the 544th Replacement Company,” a black sergeant said to the troops.
“No shit, Sherlock,” a sarcastic voice said.
“You’ll be here until you’re transferred to another outfit. There’ll be two formations a day. These formations are mandatory. If you miss a formation your ass will be grass, and I will be the lawnmower. Make sure you understand me. Now everyone has some paperwork to fill out.”
The paperwork to fill out was to identify the soldiers next of kin.
The men were processed further, and then they got a lecture.
“We don’t use dollars here, but MPC, military payment certificates. Don’t get caught with any greenback or you can be sent to jail. It’s contraband here. Another thing, I know you guys won’t see any American women while you’re here. Just some friendly advice. Don’t get too friendly with the natives. I know a lot of you are thinking that they have some razor blades up their cunts.”
The men laughed.
“I don’t know if this is true or not. Maybe they do.”
The men laughed again
“After a while you horny bastards will try and see. Let me tell you somethin’. There’s an island off the coast of Vietnam where any G.I. with venereal disease is sent. Everyday a pretty nurse comes in and works your rod until you get a hardon. Then they bring in a brush, and scrape the inside of your dick. It’s gotta be painful. Just keep that in mind.”
The men were assigned barracks for the night. They dropped off their duffle bags by their bunks and walked outside. Some of the troops lit cigarettes and made small talk.
“I hope I don’t get called to some hard core outfit like the 101st. A guy told me they collect ears.
“That’s what he said.”
The men returned to the barracks. Many of the men were asleep, and snoring.
“I can see I ain’t gonna get no sleep tonight.”
One of the men lay down on his cot and shot up in the air.
“What’s the matter?”
“There’s a snake in my bed!”
“A snake? Let me use my lighter.”
The zippo cast some illumination which revealed a small bananna in the center of the cot. The laughter helped ease the spirits of the men. They tried to get get some rest.
The morning formation was held after a visit to the chow hall. The men stood patiently while names of those soldiers assigned to outfits were called. For those who were not assigned this day, they were told to break off into groups of ten. A sergeant with a clipboard came up to each group and took their names before marching them off to their work details.
A deuce and a half truck drove by with soldiers stripped to their waists. Some of the men shouted, “Short!” as they passed to the groups of men on foot.
‘What the hell are they saying?”
“Short. They only got a few days left in country.”
“Wish I could be saying that.”
The men looked at the sparkling water as they walked to their work detail. The sound of heliocopters were omnipresent.
“Lots of helicopters.”
“That’s a hospital across the water there.”
“Not the one the sergeant was talking about?”
“No. That’s bullshit. This is for real. See the red crosses on the choppers.”
A closer look at the choppers revealed men on stretchers.
“We’re going to replace those guys.”
Somebody changed the topic.
“It’s not bad by the water. Wait til you get up in the mountains. Enjoy it while you can.”
The men saw some Vietnamese women approaching..
“Who are they?”
“Scrubwomen. They work on the base. Got to be out by sundown though. Do pretty good work unless a group of ’em gets together. Then they just cackle like a bunch of chickens.”
The women smiled and giggled as they passed the men.
“Here we are,” the sergeant said as they stopped at some decrepit bunkers. “You guys tear this bunker down. And when you get finished there down that other one there. Do a good job. I’ll be back to inspect you from time to time. Don’t fuck up or you’ll be doing this all day.”
The sergeant walked away.
“Why don’t he help us? The fucking lifer. They’re all alike. Get somebody else to do their work for them. I’m leaving.”
“He’s got your name.”
“Fuck him. Let him find me.”
The soldier walked off.
“I don’t want to get in trouble.”
“Me neither. They might sent you out to the front lines.”
“Look, if we work in shifts it won’t be so bad. Three or four at a time.”
“Let’s break up into two groups, and each do a bunker.”
“But let’s take our time.”
The men started breaking down the bunkers.
“Where you guys from?”
The men shared their stories.
The next day they were assigned to their units throughout Vietnam. Their stay in the 544th Replacement Company was brief.