The memoir/autobiography class that I was a part of ended in the middle of May. During the class, I began a memoir about my year in Vietnam. It is about half done. Below is the opening scene that depicts a pivotal incident in my year of war.
It was late April or early May of 1967 and late at night in the hold of the USS Benewah, a barracks ship and our base of operation anchored near the South Vietnam city of Vung Tau. Our infantry company had just begun patrolling the Rung Sat, a tidal swamp and “free fire zone” a few kilometers outside Vung Tau in the Mekong Delta. Anyone we came upon in this area was enemy. I had been with the men of B Company in the second squad of the second platoon since August of ’66. We had trained together at Fort Riley, Kansas and we sailed to Vietnam together arriving in that country on 28 January 1967. I was close to a number of men in my fifty-man platoon. I felt particularly close to the twelve men in my squad. We knew each other.
Our platoon had not seen major combat nor had it any combat related injuries since arriving in country. However, we knew that the enemy was near because our sister units had taken some casualties, mainly from booby-traps. We had stumbled on one or two VC base camps during first few operations in the Rung Sat. Moreover, we had taken rifle fire during at least one incident while walking through one of these camps. The day before our unit had returned from an uneventful three-day mission. It was somewhere near 0200 as I lay awake in my top bunk. I hadn’t been able to sleep. At 0500, we would move out on Navy landing crafts that would land us for another three-day patrol.
This night, lying awake I prayed in the semi-darkness of the Benewah’s hold. Colored lights, red or yellow, set at the exits of our below board holds cast an eerie and faint yet distinct glow over the whole barracks area. I looked around at the sea of upper bunks and the men in those bunks who each lay over the bunks of two other men. My parents had brought my two brothers and I up as Roman Catholic and from early on I had taken my faith and spiritual life serious. Prayer continued to be important part of my life before and after being drafted into the Army. This night my prayer became especially important. Anxious, I lay on my bunk talking to God. At first, I don’t remember that I asked for anything specific; however, it is easy to conceive that I prayed for my safety and that of the people in my squad and platoon. By then a prayer for a successful mission killing the enemy was definitely not part of my existence. However, as I lay there I drifted into a deeper and more tranquil prayer that, in a short time, became extremely intense and emotion filled. At that point, I had received a gift of prayer; my prayer focused away from myself. It focused on the lives of my companions. In an intensity that took my focus off of my life and drew my focus to my friends I begged God to give me the courage to risk my life even to the point of dying for the other men in my unit. My focus converged on my squad; however, later in my tour God answered my prayer in an expanded manner. God’s focus, I would come to find, is not so parochial. I continued to pray that night and quiet reigned as I rested until our platoon sergeant rousted us and we finished packing our gear. After putting on our gear that included an M-16 assault rifle, three grenades, ammunition, food, water, a protective flack vest, and possibly a can of machine gun ammo or a radio, and various other things that we needed, we walked up the stairs that led to the main deck. Reaching the deck, we walked down a gangplank to a pontoon floated dock and boarded a landing craft that would transport our platoon into the Rung Sat swamp and another three days of patrolling. We were off to another mission that we realized could mean contact with our then enemy. We felt a certain excitement and dread that goes along with the threat of wounding and death.