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Part 3 of n: Zero Week in Nam. And now for something completely different!

Written by Jeff Drake
4 · 22 · 24

It’s strange how some memories are so completely buried that no matter how hard you try, you can’t recall them. I’m sure the journey from Duluth after my final day of furlough to Long Binh, South Vietnam, had to have been somewhat interesting, but they have been wiped from my brain it seems.

Oh wait, I can feel a memory trying to make an appearance! Got it! I somehow found myself in Washington DC, another soldier waiting to deploy to Vietnam. There were hundreds of us! Antiwar sentiment was very strong, for those of you who can remember. As a result, the government didn’t want to advertise that they were still sending lots of troops to war, so we were all kept inside a huge building and then had to march for a long time to get to a place where we could be ferried out to awaiting planes. What made this interesting is that the long walk we did was all completely underground! This is when I learned that there are miles and miles of tunnels under the streets of Washington DC. And there are public tunnels and secret, governmental tunnels. The military was making sure the public didn’t catch a scent that we were all on the move, heading off to fight an increasingly unpopular war.

Again, no memory of the plane ride to Vietnam. I can only imagine what might have been going through my head on that journey. Excitement, curiosity, and some concern, I’d guess. I’m sure I was feeling a bit relieved to be back from my 30-day leave and going somewhere new. Although I enjoyed my time at home with family and friends, I had been fully militarized by then and felt that civilians were a bit hard to take in large doses. LOL.

After a very long plane ride, we finally landed in Long Binh, a base used to transition soldiers into and out of the country. Looking out on the airfield, we could see rows of pallets being loaded into other aircraft. Each pallet had a number of bundles on it, each wrapped in what looked like large garbage bags. I didn’t realize it until someone told me, that we were looking at pallets of dead soldiers! So many! Taking their last ride on the “Freedom Bird,” heading back to “the World.” I’ll admit being shocked and a bit scared when I heard this.

I remember getting hit in the face with a wall of humidity as we left the aircraft. It felt like a physical force! It was so hot and humid!

I vaguely remember spending a lot of time in a hot building filling out endless paperwork. The Army was an expert in creating paperwork. Somehow I got through it all and ended up in an area where they kept all the soldiers coming into the country. According to military lingo, I was officially in “zero week.” I was familiar with the concept of zero week, as the Army pulled this shit with us when we went to Basic Training. Zero week, I felt, was a trick the army used to force you into spending more time doing something, but not getting credit for it. It worked like this – if you are only supposed to be in Vietnam for one year, or 52 weeks, well, guess what, your first week doesn’t count! That’s why they call it zero week. So in this scenario, you’d end up spending 53 weeks in Vietnam, not 52.

Already I was beginning to get a bit nervous. I had already had the recent experience at Fort Bragg where my orders got held up and I became a holdover. Suddenly I found myself facing the possibility that it might happen again, and I worried about that. At least in Vietnam, the locals all worked for the military and did all the kitchen chores like washing dishes. So, although KP wasn’t going to be happening, the threat that I might end up an Army cook was frightening! .Still, I did not want to flirt with becoming a holdover again, so I anxiously awaited orders.

Being young and fit didn’t exempt any of us from jet lag, sadly. Combine jet lag with the heat (100+F) and humidity (98+) and the barracks they put us in, and it is no surprise that hardly anyone was able to sleep.

I remember going into the barracks and claiming a bunk. I had to brush off the sand from the incredibly flat military-grade enlisted man mattress. I laid down to try and sleep but was unsuccessful. I just remember thinking that the heat and humidity had to be at unhealthy limits. LOL.

Giving up on sleep, I opened my eyes. Above me, dangling on a very long silk strand suspended from the roof of our building was one of the biggest spiders I had ever seen! I think I levitated out of bed! Holy shit, it freaked me out so badly! I knew they had big spiders here, but that spider was friggin’ huge! I bailed on getting any sleep and went outside for some air.

Sitting outside on the steps of our barracks, several soldiers gathered to try and cool off, or like me, escape their bunk area. A young black soldier sat down next to me and was shaking like a leaf. I asked him what happened and he told me that he’d been sleeping on his bunk when suddenly a rat jumped onto his chest from the rafter above him, waking him and scaring the shit out of him! I told him about my spider encounter and we both sat there for quite a while, ruminating on just what the hell had we gotten ourselves into.

Later that day I had another spider encounter. I had to take a shit, but could not locate the latrine, so I asked a group of soldiers near my barracks. One guy said, “Oh sure, they are over here and pointed to a building that looked like one of the group out-houses the Army liked to use. So, in I went, happy to find a spot to do my business. There were seats enough for around 8 people. I thought it looked rather unused in there. Thick layers of dust everywhere. “Hmm,” I thought, “Is this place not used?” That’s when I looked up at the roof of the outhouse. “Holy shit!” The ceiling was alive with spiders! There had to be hundreds, if not more, in all shapes and sizes! This helped with the shit part of this adventure, that’s for sure! I left that building, rocket-propelled, hearing all the guys laughing their asses when I got out. Yes, the Army had their share of assholes.

Zero week is also where I met my first Vietnamese bar girl, too. Her name was Kim (go figure) and she was so pretty! I ate lunch in the bar every day I was there. By the end of the week, she was asking me for money. LOL! “Nice try,” I told her. I didn’t hold it against her, as I’d been cautioned about the bar girls. Vietnamese girls were known for their beauty, yet Kim stood out as exceptionally pretty. I say this because I actually ran into Kim again one year later, as I was getting ready to fly home for another 30-day leave before returning to carry out my 7-month duty extension. Not being a face you’d forget, I recognized her immediately when I saw her in the airport. She saw me looking at her and looked nervously in the other direction. Why? Well, it probably had something to do with the soldier she was next to. You see, he had married her and was taking her home! I had never danced the light Fandago with Kim, but I’d heard such a thing was possible for the right price. I hoped Kim would enjoy her green card and for his sake, not run into any other soldiers back home who would remember her.

I was fortunate, I guess, to not have a girlfriend when I left for Vietnam. I did actually have a girlfriend back in Duluth, Sandy Pederson, right up almost to the day I left for the war. Sadly, she did not want to have a long-distance romance with a GI and broke it off with me. I was really hurt at the time, but later happy for it as I liked not having any strings attached. I had actually dated both Sandy and her sister, Sue, which was kind of weird, lol. Both nice girls. Their mom was a real sweetheart, too. Sandy and her mom are both gone. Sue is a minister somewhere in Iowa, I think.

So, at the end of my zero week I found myself in Long Binh, footloose and fancy-free, as the saying goes. Where were my orders? A bit panicky, I kept asking what was going on with my orders. I finally got hold of someone who told me my orders had come in, but they were still puzzling over the location of the place I was being sent to. No one had ever heard of it! In what was perhaps an act of desperation, I was told to collect my things as I was being sent to another unit located in Nha Trang where I would get a ride to my final destination – wherever that was!

My next memory is of being in Nha Trang and spending the night occupying an empty bunk in a barracks full of men who flew gunships, those high-powered Huey helicopters that we soldiers depended on so much. This was memorable because of what happened that night.

As I lay there in the heat and humidity, sleeping, suddenly the night was pierced with a horrible scream. It was so loud and close that I sat up in bed, wondering WTF? It was one of the sleeping soldiers having a bad dream. Getting back to sleep, several more screams would be audible from others as the night progressed. Closer to morning, there were more screams again, but these screams were in anger, loud enough to wake me. Some men had just returned to the barracks after a night of supporting the various firefights taking place outside the perimeter of the ville. One soldier was yelling about someone else in their chopper who had been shot and killed. There were cries of grief and anger going on. At the same time, someone else was accusing another soldier of not properly cleaning the chopper, resulting in a mechanical failure that almost got them killed. They almost came to blows before someone broke it up. Given the heat, the humidity, the screams, the crying, the sound of gunships coming and going, it was all so surreal!

As I tried to get back to sleep, again I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

The next day I was told that someone finally figured out where I was supposed to go – a mountaintop located in the Central Highlands! I was to become part of the Security platoon for the mountain, a member of the 194th MP Company. One reason the Army staff were having trouble finding the location of my final destination was that this mountaintop was labeled “Pr’Line Mtn,” and no one knew what or where that was! It turned out that “Pr’Line” was an abbreviation for “Primary Line.” Soldiers had Orientalized the abbreviated name, “Pr’Line,” to sound like, “pray-leen.” This was the name given to the largest Signal installation in South Vietnam. All communications going from the north of South Vietnam to the south of South Vietnam and vice versa, had to go through this communication site. It was located about 20 kilometers from Dalat, the old French capital of South Vietnam.

The next thing I knew I was whisked off to board a C130 aircraft for the flight from Nha Trang to Dalat. It was an interesting flight, for sure. First, the door of the airplane was missing, as in there was no freaking door! There were no seats, either. Instead, there were strings of hammocks, net-like chairs that you could sit in. The seat I had looked right out that open door. There was no door on the cockpit either. This, I found it interesting, as I was able to watch the two pilots do their thing, although I was a bit shocked when we finally landed at the runway in Dalat, which was a temporary runway made from laminated metal slats that were all hooked together, like legos. As the plane screeched, bounced and finally came to an abrupt stop, just a few feet from the end of the runway and a hill that descended downwards, I watched as the two pilots shook each other’s hands at the successful landing. They looked so happy! LOL!

Having arrived in Dalat, I awaited a truck from Pr’Line, sent to pick me up.

The deuce-and-half truck that I was told to climb in the back of, had wooden bench seats along the sides. They were hard, of course, especially with the roads being so rough. A jeep accompanied us and led the way back to the central part of Dalat. In the back of the truck with me were two soldiers, Murphy and Calloway. They each had M16s. I asked if I was going to get a weapon and was told that wouldn’t happen until I got back to Pr’Line. In the meantime, one of the guys in the jeep handed me a 45-caliber pistol. Having used a 45 many times during MP school training, I figured I was supposed to beat the Viet Cong to death with it, since hitting a moving target with a 45 is just wishful thinking. LOL. I was nervous.

Eventually, our two vehicles rejoined a convoy of vehicles ready to head back to the mountain after picking up supplies. I was blown away by the sights and sounds of Dalat. It was such a beautiful city! I could see the French influence in the architecture everywhere. The road to Pr’Line from Dalat was narrow and windy, with lots of curves. All around, on either side was mostly mountain forest. I worried about being so poorly armed.

On the road to Pr’Line, suddenly, as if someone had queued up the cast of Monty Python to all start chanting, “And now for something completely different!” both Murphy and Calloway started shooting their M16s at something. I jumped up saying, “What’s happening? What’s happening?”, but was told by Calloway not to worry about it, as they were “just target shooting at farmers.” As I looked into the distance I could see several farmers tilling a nearby field. Someone in the cab of the truck eventually yelled at Murphy and Calloway to stop shooting, and they did, but I was rattled by the experience. I thought, “Should I tell somebody about this?” “This can’t be legal or accepted behavior, can it?” In the end, I decided to not say anything since there were soldiers with higher rank than me who knew what they did. I figured I’d let one of them file a complaint. No one ever did, of course. Target shooting at farmers? No one gave a damn. They were locals, “gooks,” as they were called by us soldiers, and their health and well-being was not a concern of ours, so for people like Murphy and Calloway, they were fodder for target practice.

Finally, our convoy arrived and I was able to see my future home, Pr’Line Mountain. It didn’t look like much, but it was going to be my home for the foreseeable future. I didn’t realize then that I would live there for 19 months. Hopping off the truck, I was introduced to a few soldiers who invited me to head down to the enlisted men’s club (the EM) and have a few beers after I put my stuff away. And so began my life on Pr’Line Mountain.

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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.