Sunday, July 15, 2018

..THE ROAD TO DUONG SON (2)-- An Essay by JC Langelle---(C) 2018 DUONG SON (2)

ENG 102-1105  Prof M Judd
University of Nevada, Reno  Spring 2018  2/19/18
James Langelle

Savoir Faire

“You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant.”
The opening line of Arlo Guthrie’s hit single released in October, 1967 personified Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco during the Summer of Love of that year.  There were hippies from all over the United States, spaghetti feed-ins at Golden Gate Park adjacent to the district, flower children, many of whom were underaged runaways. There were drug peddlers, hangers-on, groupies, girls from Boston, rich kids from Sausalito who wanted to be in the be-in. Psychedelics flowed in the streets along with heaps of trash, a guitar player huddled in every alcove and alleyway, tour busses passing by to give outsiders a glimpse of the the turned-on and dropped-out generation.. There were basements, freezing basements, to sleep in if one didn’t have the means for more comfortable accommodations.
As I waited for the jeep to pick me up following my PR, permanent release, from the Camp Pendleton Correctional Center on my birthday in October, 1967, I thought about the freezing basements and I remembered the words from First Sgt. “Top” Cassella,
    “They all come back when it gets cold.”
I was going to miss the girls from Boston but not the freezing basements. Upon my return from an Absent Without Leave, AWOL, visit to Haight-Ashbury, I was reduced to the rank of Private, given a forfeiture of pay and sentenced to four months in the “brig.” I did not have to serve all four months, however, and returned to the 28th Marines at Camp San Mateo where I was on duty as a radio operator. Needless to say, the release was related to the upcoming holidays and since I usually volunteered to take the married Marines’ duty so they could be with their families, my brig time was cut short.
    As holidays went, across the Pacific Ocean in Southeast Asia, the United States was currently in full-scale combat in Vietnam. At the end of January, 1968, a combined North Vietnamese Army-Viet Cong “Tet” (new year) offensive laid siege to the Marine combat base at Khe Sanh, while other units invaded the major metropolitan centers such as Saigon, Danang  and Hue city. The commander of the Allied military forces, Army General William Westmoreland urgently requested two-hundred thousand additional troops to counter the offensive. LBJ didn’t have that many in reserve, instead he sent the Army 82nd Airborne Brigade and the 27th Marines out of Camp Pendleton. Our radio unit at 3rd battalion, 28th Marines was detached, “chopped”, to join the mounting-out of the 27th.
    Having enjoyed plenty of liberty following my stay in confinement, and having met Patti Dell, a young blonde girl from Newport Beach, I was shocked to hear the news we were being deployed. My first instinct, like any good soldier who valued his life, was to drop my rifle and run for cover.  But then I thought of all the married men who had a lot more at stake than me; I thought of the battalion commander who signed the papers ordering my early release from the brig. Then I remembered all that stuff about duty, the flag and the Marines. It would have been too easy to say, along with the countless draft dodgers and protesters at Golden Gate Park,
    “Hell no, We won’t go..!!”
Instead, when I joined the formation out on the parking lot that early morning, as Patti Dell dropped me off and drove off into history, the Captain noticed me in the ranks and remarked,
    “Private Langelle, I didn’t expect to see you here this morning.”
Neither did the married Marines, they were certain I was out on Coast Highway, hitchhiking north, back to San Francisco.
    “I wouldn’t miss it for the world, sir,” I replied.
Call it discretion, the better part of valor, courage, or just plain common sense; it all fell into the category of “savoir faire”, meaning to do what was right.
    It didn’t take us long to pack up all our gear, join up with the 27th and be transported by truck and bus to MCAS El Toro, where we waited for C-141 aircraft to fly us to the war zone. Somewhere along the way, we picked up Corporal Danny Ledesma. We had Italians from Philly, whites from Alabama, blacks from Cincinnati and an Indian from New Mexico in our unit, but this was the first Hispanic, or Latino, or :
“Chicano” as they were lately being called. Nobody quite knew how to address Danny, most of the blacks like Keeton, Coulter and Dowdell were African-American; Henderson was a Native-American, whites like Rossi and Shepard weren’t really referred to as Caucasian. It just didn’t seem right, lacking any formal politically correct protocol back then, to call him a Mexican, so Danny became simply a “corporal.” Everyone had issues with Ledesma, but nobody really understood the context of the term “issue” as it is used today, he was simply a pain.
    We waited for several days following our drop off on Valentine’s Day as LBJ was scheduled to pay the regiment a visit and give us a send off. True to his word, the Commander-in-Chief arrived in a white Cadillac convertible, big cowboy hat; got out, made a speech, shook hands, inspected the ranks and watched us fly away. Two days later we were in-country, exhausted from being cooped up in the cargo hold of that big jet. That night as everyone finally settled in at some sideline barracks at Danang airfield, Ledesma assigned Private Dowdell, a wiry black from Cincinnati, and me to guard the radio gear in trucks next to the barracks.  Unknown to Danny, I had smuggled two marijuana joints and a bottle of Bacardi 151 rum from the states, or “Back-in-the-World.” Dowdell and I spent our first night on guard in the war zone high and drinking rum.
    A brief stop at the big WalMart type PX on base the next morning allowed my first glimpse of South Vietnamese women. Dressed in bright flower patterned dresses, loaded with makeup, nails painted and all smiles, these women were the epitome of cross-culture upbringing with Asian and French heritage. They were a variable  I hadn’t expected and one that would surely make life in the combat zone bearable. Fresh off the airplanes, we were already reconnoitering for possible R&R, rest and relaxation, opportunities, which included, but was not limited to, China Beach up on the other side of the sprawling Danang airstrip.
    Later in the day, we boarded trucks with our radio equipment, in full combat gear and ready for action even though the TAOR, tactical area of responsibility, had been secured for some time. Off in the distance smoke curled skyward, we were all certain it was the result from an attack in this notorious area known as the Rocket Belt, immediately north of Dodge City. We proceeded south across the Song Cau Do river at Cam Le bridge and eventually reached our destination, the 5th Marines regimental command at Duong Son (2). The 5th had moved on and were busy mopping up Hue city, ”chopped” to Task Force X-Ray, to take out the VC holed up in the Citadel. Modern Vietnam War historians mark the Citadel as the turning point in the war. It was ironic that the 5th had been given the task, it was the first Marine unit to set foot on Vietnam soil in 1966. They were replaced by the 27th, effectively the last Marine unit to be deployed in-country.

           (photo courtesy Charlie Bushnell, 5th Marines, a guard post at Duong Son (2))

    Shades, not the kind found hanging on the window in the living room. Shades, like the kind Odysseus encountered when he visited Hades in Homeric legend. That’s all any of those people are to me years later, looking back on all of it and to this day, still completely baffled as to how I survived. They’re all gone, out there guarding the gates of Heaven like it says in the Marine Corps hymn.  Rossi is still around, he showed up on my Facebook page one day asking if I still remembered him. We played guitar together in the war, I still have the reel-to-reel recordings, with Earl Keeton, the African-American, doing a Stevie Wonder version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Keeton is gone, Coulter, Henderson, the Southern whites, gone. And Danny Ledesma, never saw him again. All that stuff about reunions after the war, just movie stuff.
 If I could get anything I wanted at Alice’s Restaurant, it would be to have them all back again.

ESSAY NOTES: The 5th Marines may not have been the first USMC in-country at Chu Lai, the 9th Marines may have deployed on Red Beach in Danang before that. I am still checking the command chronologies.

I received an "A" for this essay from Professor Judd.

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