The engines of the great Pam Am commercial jet roared as we approached Saigon International Airport. It was early spring and the United States was now half a world away. Daylight was just beginning to break through. Looking out the window of the aircraft, flashes from huge artillery guns firing into the jungle could be seen far below. I wondered if the other guys on the plane had a lump in their throat, and if they too felt a quickened heart beat as I did. No doubt, for we were all at the windows, craning our necks trying to catch a glimpse of what was happening several thousand feet below. Another gigantic flare. U.S. gun we thought. We stood there, mesmerized. It was like a scene from a Rambo movie, but with a surrealistic touch: fireworks piercing through the heavy foliage surrounded by a sun streaked morning sky. Yet the only sound we heard was the roar of our plane’s engines. We snapped back to reality. The scene below was no Sly Stallone or Schwarzenegger movie; it was real, and it was war. And in just a few short days, I would find myself in the thick of it, many miles from Saigon.
My assignment to Camp 213-Red Dragon would take me to CaMau, a remote little village in An Xuyen Province which lies at the southern most point of Vietnam. It is an area of rice paddies and swampland, and infested with snakes, mosquitoes, and leeches. A land where the stifling heat, relentless and constant, is made worse by the oppressively high humidity. It was frustrating, often to the point of anger. Returning from daily patrols, my clothes would be soaking wet with sweat.
It was on those patrols that I learned about the jungle, the tidal canals, and the rice paddies. We traveled through the jungle on foot. On the canals we used sampans which we borrowed (commandeered, really) from the local farmers. The rice paddies were larger than those I had encountered during my brief tour in Korea. And they were deeper; I sometimes sank to my waist. The jungle was thick and swelteringly hot, as there was no breeze. Insects were a torment.
Added to the physical discomfort was the more grave and threatening matter of nightly mortar attacks. These attacks were sporadic and could be of two rounds duration or two hundred rounds. This God-forsaken hellhole, the jumping off place of Vietnam, would be my base of operations for twelve months. I wondered how I could survive one entire year in such an ominous and alien land. Nevertheless, within a week after landing in Saigon, I had a feeling of excitement as our military transport, the big Huey Cunship helicopter set down inside Camp-213-Red Dragon near the village of CaMau in An Xuyen Province. I was glad finally to have reached our destination. I was ready to ge on with the work I had to do in This Man’s Army. But I’m getting ahead of my story.
The captain made the announcement to fasten seat belts, and the landing gear sounded as it locked into place. A myriad of thoughts began to race through my mind. I thought of home, loved ones, friends, happy times. The muscles in my back and neck stiffened as I recalled stories I had heard coming out of Vietnam, and my mouth went dry with the taste of fear: the greatest of all fears, fear of the Unknown. How would I act and react in combat? What if I''m wounded, maimed? Would I make it back home? Resolve. I was here with a job to do. I would do that job to the best of my ability. And with God''s help, I would return home.
The plane touched down on the runway and eased to a stop. There was only the distance of the plane between my feet and another world. As I waited for the door to open, I was again impacted with reality, and I felt a twinge of anxiety. My stomach did a half turn. "What have I gotten myself into? What the hell am I doing here?" I almost said aloud. I stepped from the plane into blistering heat and humidity that hit me like a steamroller. It was going to be a hot day in Saigon. Before taking that last step from the plane onto the tarmac, I turned for one last look at the plane, which I unconsciously seemed to regard as the last vestige of the world I knew. Then I set my foot down on Vietnam soil. It was
W. C. Garrett, Jr. enlisted in the United States Army on 15 September 1959, and retired from active duty on 1 October 1978. His tours of duty include Panama, Korea, Mexico City (American Embassy), Honolulu, Hawaii (Joint Command), and Vietnam. He was also stationed at Ft. Bragg, NC; Ft. Gordon, GA; Ft. Sam Houston, TX; Ft. Monmouth, NJ; and Ft. Hood, TX.
His meritorious service decorations include the CIB (Combat Infantry Badge), Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal (2), Joint Commendation/Army Commendation (2), NCO Medal w/5 device, Cross of Gallantry w/Bronze Star and Cross of Gallantry w/ Palmdevice, Good Conduct Medal, 6 other medals and numerous awards. He retired as Command Sergeant Major of a Military Intelligence Brigade. He is married and has two daughters.
Lynn Vickers is twice retired, first from a career of public service in education, then from security work. She is a graduate of Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky with graduate studies from the University of Houston, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, and the University of Saint Thomas, Houston, TX. She has traveled on six continents serving as counselor to students and adults. She now works full time as a therapist. She has two grown children.