The Caribou zipped over the coastal floodplain a couple of miles inland, nine of us packed inside along with a half-dozen pallets, nine footlockers and crates containing food and weapons. The tailgate was down. Already temperatures at ground level exceeded a hundred degrees; a mile above, cool air flowed into the craft. I lay near the edge of the ramp and watched the plane progress. The shadow of the aircraft skated across the shimmering ground. It seemed the plane was stationary and the land was slipping away.
To the right, the forests of the Annamese Cordillera appeared purple in the morning sun. Below, rice paddies scotched in berm stretched southward mile upon mile. Villages linked by a system of foot-worn roads and trails dotted the countryside, paradise except for the devastation—a bridge tossed aside like a bad poker hand; roads scored with bomb craters the size of swimming pools; charred skeletons of huts and a demolished church, its charred rafters a haunting message that Charlie rejected the religion as well as the presence of Westerners.
The plane veered west and turned up the mouth of a valley of back country unchanged for centuries—quaint hamlets, shimmering paddies, green hedgerows and tall palms. To the north, the Song Tra Bong wound lazily though the valley and the floodplain like a well-fed snake. A couple of miles up the throat of the valley, the plane took automatic fire from a weapon hidden somewhere in the forested slopes. A few green tracers trailed groundward just short of the craft.
Rich Norwood’s jaw knotted, relaxed and knotted again. He was our junior medic; his serious blue eyes and expression conveyed what I felt: We were at the mercy of bad shooting, but even a bad shot got lucky on occasion.
We flew over Camp Starlite, a Marine battery. Two of its 155-millimeter howitzers on treads pointed to the west, where we were headed. The other big guns aim toward Ha Tanh, the next camp to the south. The loadmaster tapped my shoulder and shouted for me to take a seat. The pilot dropped the flaps and the plane shifted. I strapped in as we passed over a string of tranquil-appearing hamlets ringed by rice paddies. Near one of those seven weeks before, two Australians, two Vietnamese, and four or more VC died in a firefight.
Farther on, the pilot dipped the wings and eased the craft into a soft glide. I glimpsed my camp for the first time. Shaped like a huge footprint, the heel pointing east, ball and toes aiming west, Tra Bong was encased in a triple row of wire and divided into three distinct compounds. Trenches connected the bunkers in each. The gun ports of the sandbagged caverns gazed out at the perimeter like half-buried skulls of one-eyed creatures. The camp’s defenders, some shirtless, some in full tiger stripes, some barefoot, stood atop the bunkers and waved. The Caribou tracked to the right of a landing strip that appeared far too short to accommodate it.
A jeep and a three-quarter-ton waited on the apron where a plume of purple smoke drifted northwesterly. The plane banked sharply and struggled with a crosswind as it crabbed its way to the ground. The instant the landing gear touched down, the pilot reversed props. We rattled over steel skid plates and, when we finally came to a stop, the plane’s nose hung over the sheer edge of an embankment that dropped some 20 feet.
The pilot wasted no time in turning the Caribou back through a wall of red dust. He feathered the props, ready to leave in an instant should the need arise. An airstrip in the boonies was not to be confused with a parking lot. I shouldered my gear, clutched my rifle, and waited for the tailgate to drop. I asked the crew chief if all the landings were like that.
“Just most of them.” He lowered the ramp.
The jeep and truck pulled to a stop under the tail wings. An Aussie officer swung down from his seat in the jeep and stood with his feet planted shoulder-width apart. Two other round-eyes in jungle fatigues and a half dozen Vietnamese circled the truck.
A shirtless American waited at the bottom of the tailgate with a cigarette dangling from his lips. He was thin, his chest sunken, face long and narrow, nose protuberant and riddled with broken blood vessels. As we deplaned, he extended a hand to each of us. When my turn came, he furrowed his brow and introduced himself as Fox, Doug, Master Sergeant. He wobbled slightly and pointed to his bare arm as if to indicate his rank. The smell of whiskey orbited him.
“Call me Top or Doug,” he said in a voice rough as asphalt. He squinted into the cargo bay. “Any beer in there? Been on water a week now.” When he saw the cases of Schlitz stacked on a pallet, a near-lewd smile formed in corners of his mouth.
Norwood and I exchanged apprehensive looks.
The Aussie commander was about business first. He didn’t bother with introductions or handshakes. Instead, he hustled Captain Fewell aside. Soon the captains mounted the jeep with Sergeant Fox in the driver’s seat. I wondered if it might not be preferable for someone more sober to take the wheel. Fox punched the accelerator. The jeep tires spewed dust.
We began unloading equipment. The air smelled of dung and dust and fecundity. The sun was high. Even in the shade of the tail section the heat bored into us. As soon as the belly of the craft was emptied, the loadmaster signaled with a thumb and the pilot throttled the engines. A fierce gust from the props stirred even more dust. The plane raced to the end of strip, dipped from view for a heart-stopping instant, then rose again, barely clearing tree tops as it passed over Tra Bong. It flew east, gaining altitude.
There, I thought, goes the only way out. I watched until it was a memory on the horizon, then looked around at this place where I would spend at least the next six months–or die, a possibility now worth considering.