Me and My Third of an M-16
It was 1966. I was in the Air Force. I knew my draft number would be coming up and decided to join rather than be drafted. So I joined the Air Force to see the world.
I saw San Antonio, Texas, Wichita Falls, Texas and Amarillo, Texas. That was the world I saw in the first two years of my four-year enlistment.
We were fighting in Vietnam and my desire to get out of Texas and my natural curiosity of what was going on in Vietnam prompted me to volunteer. I wanted to see it for myself. And I didn’t get any argument from the Air Force.
To prepare for my tour in that war zone, I was ordered to report to the firing range where I was handed an M-16 rifle, which was deployed for jungle warfare in Vietnam in 1963. This was my introduction to this new weapon: I was shown how to take it apart and put it back together and then was given a cartridge of 20 rounds, which I fired at a target on the firing range. And there I was, an experienced M-16 rifleman.
Then it was off to Vietnam. The plane landed at Ton Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon July 21, 1966. As I stood at the top of the stairs looking down at the tarmac, I saw a flatbed truck loaded with silver caskets. Hello, Vietnam!
I had been assigned to Cam Rahn Bay Air Base north of Saigon. But it took a while before a plane was available for a flight from Ton Son Nhut to Cam Rahn Bay. I lived out of a duffle bag until the plane finally was available for the 185 mile flight to Cam Ranh Bay on July 27.
When I arrived on base, I was greeted by the lieutenant colonel in charge of my squadron, a wiry, red-faced man whose only advice to me that night was, “Beware of the sun.” I said, “Hell, I’m from California, I don’t worry about the sun.” Within a week I had one of the worst sunburns I had ever had and learned something about how the sun hits California and how it hits Southeast Asia.
I was also introduced to the squadron’s protection – a small wooden building that contained racks of M-16 rifles, cartridge belts and steel helmets. Enough for one-third of the personnel in my squadron. I was assigned to a team and instructed that when my team was on duty, if the base alarm sounded, I was to run to the rifle room, gather my rifle, helmet and cartridge belt and head out into the sand to a bunker surrounded by sandbags and await the enemy or the all-clear sound.
The other two-thirds of the squadron stayed in their hutches and hoped we knew what we were doing.
The one time I was on duty when the base alarm sounded, I ran to the building, gathered my M-16, helmet and cartridge with two clips of 20 rounds of ammunition and headed far out across the sand to a bunker. And I waited.
In short time the second lieutenant who worked with me in the base finance office approached my bunker. I looked at him while cradling my weapon. He looked at me.
Then he barked, “Why didn’t you challenge me?”
“Sir, I know who you are. I work with you every day,” I said.
“You are supposed to challenge me and ask for identification,” he insisted.
“Yes, sir,” I said, adding, “Then am I supposed to ask permission to load my weapon?”
He didn’t respond.
I had a loaded weapon once during my year in Vietnam. I was on a flight to an outlying base with a large box loaded with money to pay the troops. I remember being in the terminal with my back against the wall sitting on the box of money with a loaded M-16 in my lap. On the flight to the base, I U.S. Air Force jet flew in front of us firing two rockets at a target on the ground.
I had fear twice during that year. One time a large rat wandered into our squadron as we were hearing reports of bubonic plague. The other time a jet flew across the base almost scraping the roof of our finance office. We dove under our desks. Turns out our base commander had a warped sense of humor. It he who took off in the jet and buzzed the base.
I joined the base choir – the Cam Ranh Choraleers. It was the choir that kept my sanity in check. At Christmas time we sang for Billy Graham when he visited the base and we attended Bob Hope’s show on the nearby Army base. The choir sang for the troops and on Christmas Eve we hopped n trucks and sang for the military police guarding the base at its farthest outposts, then sang for the kitchen crews preparing Christmas dinner.
The Ed Sullivan television crew came to the base and recorded the choir singing in front of fighter jets on the tarmac with the mountains in the background. The segment appeared on the Ed Sullivan Christmas Show. I never saw it.
On Christmas Day we played host to a large group of Vietnamese orphans and then escorted them back to their orphanage. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those orphans were because of U.S. bombings.
That was Christmas 1966. I had eight more months and then I would say a third of a good bye to my M-16.