Sunday, July 15, 2018

"HELL NO WE WON'T GO"--Essay by JC Langelle--(C) 2018 DUONG SON (2)

ENG 102-1105  Prof M Judd
University of Nevada, Reno  Spring 2018
James C Langelle

“Hell No, We Won’t Go.”

History, if it does occur in cycles, can only be fully appreciated if it is possible to examine it through personal experience. A dry, antiseptic, scientific analysis does not give the culture a total understanding of, as the events unfolded, what happened to those involved. In “A Tale of Two Cities,” for instance, a social upheaval that parallels some of the greatest in mankind, although a fiction, still personifies the experience of the individuals swept away in the tide, pulled down in the whirlpool, of revolution. If revolution along with its counterpart, war,  is the quantum explosion that propels man into a new era, it indeed has shown cyclic behavior. Following those of the 18th century, similar events occurred in the 19th century.
    In the 20th century two major revolutions, the Bolshevik and the Maoist, brought Russia and China into the world theater as major international powers. One upheaval, one revolution and one war, led to another. Big wars led to smaller wars, in the middle of all of them the central player was the United States. In particular, a colonial war in Southeast Asia brought about the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Twelve years later, the 5th Marine regiment went ashore at Chu Lai in South Vietnam marking the entry of the United States in a new phase of that colonial war. The 5th Marines eventually moved north and set up camp south of DaNang near the small village of Duong Son (2).
    Three years later, in January, 1968, a combined offensive of North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong soldiers surrounded the Marine base at Khe Sanh, while others attacked major metropolitan centers throughout South Vietnam. It was known simply as “Tet.”
    “Back-in-the-World,” as Marines liked to refer to the United States, I had recently been released from the Camp Pendleton Correctional Center following disciplinary action related to an unauthorized absence. I was a Private in the United States Marine Corps, stationed with the 28th Marine Regiment at Camp San Mateo, near San Clemente in southern California. The unauthorized absence related to a trip to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco to join in the “Summer of Love ‘67,” where I slept in basements with hippies and girls from Boston. I ate at the “Diggers’” spaghetti feed-ins in Golden Gate park, eventually hitchhiking back to Camp Pendleton to face charges of UCMJ Article 86,  Absent Without Leave, popularly known as “AWOL.” Part of the punishment was confinement to the correctional center, also known as the “brig.”
    I was released on my 21st birthday in October, 1967. Back at camp, with liberty card in hand, I grabbed my guitar, found a pair of cutoffs, borrowed five dollars from CD Rossi, and hitchhiked to Laguna Beach. The Hatch Cover bar was my destination, on the ocean side of Coast Highway on the southern part of Laguna. A basic beach beer dive, it offered pitchers of draft for one-dollar. I could afford three and have enough left over for a pack of cigarettes, it had been a long dry spell in the brig.
    Sitting playing guitar and drinking beer, I went unnoticed or at least I thought by a group of beach ladies in the corner booth where a hatch cover served as the table. One of the ladies soon hopped, with coin in hand, walked over to the jukebox, dropped the coin in and selected a song, drowning out my guitar playing. I went over to the table, confronted her about interrupting my guitar playing and she apologized. She introduced herself, Patti Dell, from Newport Beach. Patti Dell became my girlfriend for the next few months, before our unit deployed to South Vietnam, very suddenly, in February, 1968, “Tet.” I never saw her again.
    At the White House in Washington, DC,  LBJ was surrounded by his advisors and high-ranking military men from all branches. The president had received a request from US Army General Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam, for two-hundred thousand additional troops to break the combined NVA-VC offensive. The advisors were at the moment more concerned with the rising tide of unpopularity of the war Back-in-the-World. At least one general wanted to crush the rebellion on the homefront, using any means necessary. Obviously this was not an option, neither was granting Westy’s request. Instead, LBJ opted for two units to go over, the US Army 82nd Airborne and another unit, a newly formed landing team  out of Camp Pendleton, the 27th Marines.
    One morning at the 28th Marine camp, at H&S company, 3rd battalion, word came down that the radio section was to be transferred to the 27th Marines for immediate deployment, mounting-out, to Vietnam. The first reaction was shock, we all had it made at the 28th; plenty of liberty, light duty, a field operation or two, we even had a beach landing off ships by landing craft and helicopters. It was all just one big training exercise. There wasn’t any time at all to recuperate from the shock. A few days later Patti Dell, driving her VW,  dropped me off in the parking lot, the grinder, where the section was in formation. As I fell into the ranks, the Captain at the head of the formation said,
“Private Langelle, I didn’t think you were going to go along.”
Pausing briefly as Patti Dell drove off into history, I looked at all the apprehensive faces in the ranks and replied,
    “I wouldn’t miss it for the world, sir.”
In the ranks were married men who didn’t want to leave their wives and kids, there were green recruits who didn’t know a radio from a flare gun; white kids from the farm, blacks from the inner city, surfers from the coast. In one sentence I had done what the Colonel, the major, the captains, the lieutenants and the sargents couldn’t do. None of them thought I would go over to the war. I would skip out, hitchhike back to Haight-Ashbury and sleep in basements with hippies and girls from Boston. They were wrong. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I gave them all a reason, the reason, for going. It was our duty, our time had come.
    Soon we were at the newly activated area for the 27th Regimental Landing Team (RLT). The entire radio section would be deployed together, making it less stressful since we knew everyone in the unit. That’s when Corporal Danny Ledesma showed up. We didn’t have any Hispanics in our radio platoon; we had blacks, they were called African-Americans by some. We had one Indian, called Native American by others.. But this was our first encounter with an Hispanic, a corporal no less. In those days nobody called anybody Hispanic or Latino, the word Chicano was about as close as we could get to describing them, otherwise they all fell into one big category of “Mexican.”  And Ledesma was a Mexican out of San Diego, who had already done one tour in Vietnam and was going back for a second time. Nobody could understand why anybody wanted to go back for another tour. All of the veterans we left behind at the 28th Marines wanted no part of another tour, but they were all white boys from Arizona who just wanted to go home. We didn’t know any blacks who did one tour and this was our first encounter with a Mexican, a newly promoted corporal already bucking to make sargent. It was quite a while before we settled Ledesma down and accepted him into our tight group of whites, blacks and one Indian. In the end, it was just easier to refer to Ledesma as “corporal.”
    Only Napoleon’s beaten army retreating out of Russia moved more quickly than the 27th Marines to its debarkation point at MCAS El Toro east of Santa Ana. We would fly in C-141s, the workhorse of the military transport division, as an entire landing team, becoming the first unit to be airlifted to the war zone, and subsequently the last. By today’s standards the speed at which the landing team was assembled and deployed is still to this day impressive, only the US Marines were capable of such a massive unrehearsed maneuver at a moment’s notice. By Valentine’s Day, 1968, the entire regiment was ready to board the aircraft, minus 1st battalion which would sail in ships to Danang. There was only one hangup, LBJ.
    The president decided he wanted to send the troops off with a personal farewell, he would travel to El Toro to inspect the unit and observe the deployment. We waited on the tarmac and in the hangers, squaring away our gear under the supervision of Danny Ledesma. The president did arrive, in a Cadillac convertible, wearing a big cowboy hat. He greeted the troops in formation, shook many hands, and issued numerous good lucks and well wishes. We were all very impressed by the president’s appearance, we weren’t the two-hundred thousand Westy wanted, but we would have to do, and the president knew it. In fact, LBJ couldn’t send two-hundred thousand because we simply didn’t have them. Boarding the aircraft for the flight, I could hear a haunting chant in the back of my mind, as if the hippies from Golden Gate park were hiding somewhere in the cargo webbing of the fuselage,
    “Hell no, we won’t go; Hell no, we won’t go.”
    Our first stop was Hawaii for refueling and by that time the reality of the day was slowly sinking in. The recruits were acting more like Marines, checking out their gear, inspecting and servicing their weapons. Nobody cared about Back-in-the-World anymore, many would never see it again. Their wives would write, their girlfriends wouldn’t; they’d be down at the Hatch Cover in Laguna Beach drinking cheap beer before we even touched down in-country. The next stop was Guam for refueling.
    We landed in Danang in the afternoon and spent the rest of the day unloading gear from the planes, zombie like, ten thousand miles from the World. I lit a cigarette on the tarmac and a Captain came running over hollering and pointing at a sign that read “Aircraft Fuel, No Smoking.”
    “Put that damned cigarette out, you want to blow up the airstrip!!”
    I snuffed the cigarette but didn’t care one way or another if the airstrip blew up as Country Joe’s song ran through my head,
    “Well it’s one two, three what are we fightin’  for, ain’t no time to wonder why, we’re all gonna’ die..”
    That night, exhausted, sleepwalking and shell-shocked even though we hadn’t yet been exposed to a single incoming round, we were billeted in some barracks overnight for transport to our Command Post, CP, south of Danang in the morning . All except Private Dowdell, Turk Dowdell, a wiry black from Cincinnati, and me. Ledesma placed us on guard duty of the radio gear in the trucks next to the billets and given real ammunition to load into our M14’s. There weren’t enough M16 rifles, a signature item of the Vietnam War, to go around, so we deployed with the weapons we had at the 28th Marines. Unknown to Danny, I had smuggled a couple of marijuana cigarettes and a pint of Bacardi 151 rum  from the States. Turk and I celebrated our first night in-country high and drinking on guard duty, which would also become signature items of the Vietnam War.
    We weren’t immediately deployed to our camps south of Danang but were allowed to pay a visit to the PX located in the sprawling Danang air base. This exchange was the size of a modern day Walmart and had everything from radios to musical instruments to clothing. Any currency we had needed to be exchanged for script to use in the PX. The first thing I noticed in the store were the Vietnamese women; gorgeous, in full makeup and wearing designer Southeast Asian style dresses and clothing. We had first noticed some women upon arrival but they were the poor ones, scrounging around the base and its outskirts for whatever they could find in the various dumps or doing some menial task related to upkeep or maintenance of the various facilities in the Danang complex. I had seen and known Asian women in the United States but nothing compared to these beauties, many having a mixed heritage of Asian and French. The PX ladies were fluent in English, very friendly and a sight for sore eyes after having been cooped up in the cargo hold of the C141, staring at anxious and angst ridden Marines, breathing jet exhaust that crept into the aircraft.
    By then, everyone was anxious to get to the command perimeter. We ate chow at a rather modern mess hall serviced in part by Vietnamese and the food met with approval by the platoon. Following some last minute checks on the condition of the gear that had been transported halfway around the world, we loaded onto the six-ply trucks that were the workhouse of logistics in Vietnam for the Marines. By mid-afternoon, we had moved out down a dusty, dirty road south past cardboard huts that served as quarters for the less fortunate refugees and transients surrounding the base at the gates. The convoy crossed the Son Cau Do at the Cam Le bridge, observing quietly the rising black smoke off to the west in the distance. Naturally, being rookies in-country, we all thought it was some camp that had just undergone a rocket attack, but more than likely it was just another smoking garbage dump.

      (photo courtesy  Charlie Bushnell, 5th Marines,  perimeter at Duong Son (2), looking SE)

    We arrived at our new destination which would become the headquarters for the regiment, the 5th Marines camp at Duong Son (2).  War was full of paradoxes and ironies, this was yet another one. The 5th Marines, at Duong Son (2), was the first combat unit to arrive in Vietnam three years earlier. It was being replaced by the 27th Marines, the last combat unit to arrive in Vietnam.

ESSAY NOTES--This was the first draft for the essay submitted for the English 102 assignment. There are some redundant sections that were included in the final submission. Note the part about the 5th Marines being the first unit in country at Chu Lai. It may have been the 9th Marines at Red Beach in Danang, I am reviewing the records although the information is probably readily available on the internet.

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