A Way You’ll Never Be

A Way You’ll Never Be

by: john harrison

There are few things as boring as sitting on an ambush all day. You can’t eat. You can’t smoke. The smells of each would alert the enemy. You can just sit there. That’s all. Sometimes watching the sweat bead up and then run down my arm was the most interesting thing around. So, we would read, or we would very quietly tell each other stories. We would do almost anything, that was quiet, to make the time pass.

Even for Vietnam that day was hot. Of course, that may be what brought the story to his mind.

“Well,” I heard a nearby troop begin a story, “Minnesota can get cold like you would not believe, but that never stopped anything. We had an oil pan heater, and a battery heater in the pickup, so that was no problem. And my mother had bought me this huge down coat that went all the way to my knees. That coat was so warm.

“So, I took the pickup and went to Julie’s to pick her up for the Prom. She was so pretty. She had a sexy strapless dress and everything.”

“My mom had bought me a corsage. The kind you pin on. Not a wrist corsage like I had asked her to get. She was smiling when she gave it to me.”

I said: ‘But mom, but, but, I’ll have to touch her, to touch her boob mom.’ My mom said it was ‘OK’, and that even her father would not object. Besides they were out of wrist corsages, so it was this one or nothing.”

“Man I was so excited when I got to Julie’s. I took that flower box and walked up to Julie in her living room. Julie smiled as I reached in to pull her dress out a little to pin the corsage on her, but all of a sudden I had to fart. I’d had tacos and refried beans for lunch. All at once it hit me so hard .”

“Her parents were standing there. They were smiling just like my mom had said they would, and I had to fart so bad. But I held it in. And I gently pulled the top of her dress out just enough and pinned the corsage just like my mom had taught me so it wouldn’t stick her. It was the first time I ever did that.”

“And then of course they wanted to take pictures. So I had to take my big coat off and I really had to fart by then, but we stood there smiling in front of their fireplace. They had a really big fire going too.”

“Then Julie took forever putting on her coat because of the flowers. Her coat was also a big down one like mine. And I was watching her, standing there on one foot and then on the other. Her dad sort motioned to me silently, kind of like asking if I had to go, but I shook my head ‘No’. I just wanted to get out of there. Now, right now. Please. It was all I could think about.”

“We finally got outside, and I put Julie in the pickup and then I walked around the back. Her parents went back inside as soon as I put Julie in because it was so cold. You have no idea how cold it can get in Minnesota. As I was walking around the back of the truck right after they shut their front door, I let that big fart rip. Man did that feel good. I just let’er rip.”

“I got back in the truck smiling big. I was so proud of myself. Of how I’d handled it all, the flowers, touching her boob, the fart. So adult and everything. Julie had sort of slid a little over to the middle after she got in. I thought, man this is going to be so great. My first Prom, my first date really. I had been so scared when I had asked Julie. I was so surprised when she said ‘Yes.’ It was all turning out so perfect. Better even than I ever thought it could be.”

“It was just a little later, we were not even out of her driveway when I smelled that fart easing its way out of my coat. I just ignored it. But man, it stunk. It was so bad. I mean, I am a farm boy and I never smelled anything like that. And that down coat had held it all in. Saved it up, and then sent it up, really. There is not that much room inside a pickup truck, so that smell filled it up pretty quick. The fan on the heater was going full blast blowing it around.”

“I was almost gagging. I was afraid to say anything. Julie had stopped talking. It seemed like she might have even stopped breathing.”

“All of a sudden, like we did it on a signal, cold or no cold, we both reached for those window crank handles at the same time. Man, we ripped those windows down. That ice cold, stink free, air filled that truck, but I yanked the zipper down on my coat anyway. There was still more of that fart inside. Julie started laughing and then pounding my coat to get it out, I started laughing too.

It had gotten absolutely silent as he told the story. Then, everybody was laughing at it. It was way too loud for an ambush, but worth it I thought. He got a little angry.

“Hey, that was the best fucking night of my life.  .  .  And, and all of it because of that fart.” Then, he too started laughing.

Two days later we were back at LZ Betty (Landing Zone Betty) on a short stand down. We had issued two beers and two Cokes per man. It does not sound like much, but it surprises a lot of people to learn that probably about a quarter of the guys, paratroopers and elite warriors all, did not drink, and a few more generally liked a cold Coke better than beer. In any event, everybody liked Coke. So, depending on the market, on a trade you could get one, or most times two, beers for each cold Coke.

That was enough for a very relaxed mood for everybody except my new Platoon Sargent, SFC Manfred Fellmann. As a former member of the German Wehrmacht in World War II at eleven years old and a holder of the Iron Cross no less; he did not just like beer; he loved beer. So he always made his own, more extensive, arrangements.

After the beer and a barbecue, we were at the company headquarters building that evening. Tom Gaffney, the Alpha Company CO (Commanding Officer) and I were sitting in our office drinking when we heard the first of the three mortar rounds hit up the hill, near the Battalion Headquarters.

hq-building

This was the battalion headquarters building. The roof was holed in several places. The front of the building was partially blown in even though it was not facing the explosions. Although old, the building was solid concrete block and steel reinforced concrete construction but it still partially blew apart. Photo by Jerry Berry 3/506th PIO.

We had not even heard the thump when the mortars were fired, but we sure heard the little explosions when they went off. By the time we got outside we could hear Tiger Shark, our gunships, already winding up their engines on the tarmac getting ready to go mortar hunting. It was easy at night to see the flash when the mortars fired, and gunship pilots  loved hunting and killing mortar teams.

After the mortar explosions there was a fire burning up just beyond battalion headquarters that we could see the light from it in the dark sky, but the first few secondary explosions were not much. Then, a big one detonated.

Tom started yelling to set up a perimeter around the company headquarters. He was worried about VC sappers infiltrating the LZ Betty’s perimeter in the confusion. He was standing in the Orderly Room doorway, yelling, but still holding his fifth of Jack Daniels Black Label open in one hand. Then we heard the blast from the next explosion that was even bigger than the last one.

I got my platoon digging their foxholes and connecting them with 1st and 3rd platoons positions. We made a large company perimeter around our HQ building entirely inside the LZ Betty perimeter. When I finished setting the troops’ positions, I walked back along my line as they dug in.

The next explosion was simply unbelievable. There are some sounds that are so loud that you cannot hear them. You feel them instead. I immediately dropped down in a foxhole beside of one of my troops, who had also dropped down in his half dug foxhole as the sound waves shattered the night above us. After the explosions died down again, I got up and continued to walk my line. I had taken only about three steps when there was an even bigger explosion. It was like nothing I had ever heard. It was so large, so loud, so powerful, but first, it lit the entire night sky like day.

When I saw that, I dove back to my troop’s foxhole, landing on his back with a thud and digging my steel pot into his back. We actually felt the explosion’s sound as it rolled over us in violent waves of perfect noise, and then we felt it again as it rumbled though the ground underneath us. The concussion made you feel dizzy like you had been drinking.

Initially I felt really bad about hitting him so hard in his back when I had landed on him, but I needed that cover too. It turned out that I had hit him hard enough when I had landed on him that he had farted. I hadn’t heard it, but I did smell it.

Then, I realized that the troop I had just landed on was also the one who had told the story at the ambush, and I remembered that he had really emphasized the shear power of his farts. The smell seemed to be trapped down in the foxhole, just like it had been trapped in this coat. He was right. It was bad, really bad. So, I started laughing. Explosions still pounding us and all, and I was laying on top of him, trying to crawl entirely inside of my steel pot, laughing.

After the big one, there were secondary explosions going off, some quite large as well. So we stayed down and waited. Some of them were even going off in the air after they had been blown there up by another explosion, shrapnel was flying everywhere and there I was, laying on this soldier’s back, giggling about a long ago fart in Minnesota. I could not stop laughing. His farts did have real staying power I thought, and then I started giggling again.

When the explosions finally died down some, he asked if I was all right. I told him I was and I apologized for landing on him so hard. He said that was all right because he was glad to have me, or anything really, on top of him for cover, and then he started laughing too. I was glad to know that my body, being at least as useful as a couple of three or four sandbags as overhead cover for him had made up for the way I had arrived as far as he was concerned.

Then, there was another big explosion. So we both ducked back down again. When that had ended he asked:

“What were you laughing at Sir?” he was looking at me a little strangely when he asked the question. We were sitting facing each other on opposite sides of his foxhole. We were mostly reading lips in the bright moon light. Our ears were shot and we were still too dizzy from the explosions to stand up.

“That story you told about the magnificent fart.” I said and I giggled a little again thinking about it.

“Oh, that. I had thought that I was plenty scared then too, particularly when I asked Julie to go to the Prom. But back then, back then I really didn’t know nothing about what real scared could be.” he looked around, and then he began to dig again.

The explosions kept coming almost all night, some big, some little. We found out later what had happened. One of the three mortar rounds had hit the ARVN’s Binh Thuan Province Ammo dump just outside and on the other side of the hill LZ Betty was on. It had started a fire in the ammo dump and that was what set off the explosions. Some of the explosions were so huge that people had heard, watched and some had even felt them for miles around LZ Betty.

Bravo and Charlie Companies, out in the field, had seen them. They had thought that LZ Betty and all of us were just gone. They could not see how anyone could live through what they had seen, and Bravo Company at least had also heard the explosions as they watched them light up that night sky. After they found out that we were all right, I don’t believe there were any American fatalities, they all said that LZ Betty blowing up had really looked spectacular. By unanimous agreement, it was the most incredible fireworks display any of them had ever seen. At that point I always replied that my eyes had been squeezed shut tight, most of that night, and that I would have much preferred to have watched it from their perspective.

The front gate of LZ Betty was near the ARVN ammo dump. It had started the night with a sand bagged watch tower set on four big telephone poles and then down below, a steel reinforced concrete bunker built by the French to protect the gate.

6802983 - Ammo Dump Destruction - Version 2

This is what was left of that steel reinforced concrete bunker built by the French. Even though it was low to the ground because it was partially dug in, it was still destroyed by the explosions. It only stood about 3 or 4 feet above the ground on the side facing the ammo dump. As you can see it was not hit by anything except repeated shock waves from the explosions, but it was still essentially blown apart. There had been a triple sandbag thick fighting position built on top of the bunker before the explosions, and two rows of sandbags stacked in front of the bunker. They were gone in the morning. Photo by Jerry Berry 3/506th (ABN) PIO.

When I walked over to the front gate the next day to look around I could see that the watch tower was gone too. It had been completely obliterated by the explosions. There was not even a trace left. I had already heard that the guards in the tower had just jumped down after the first small explosions. The tower had been about 40 feet tall. Then, they ran into the concrete bunker below.

After the first big explosion they decided that even steel reinforced concrete was not enough so they and the guards from the bunker had just started running. It was well they did because a later explosion, perhaps the next one, had wrecked the concrete bunker as well. The power of the explosions was just incredible.

phanthietgate 6801824-entrance-gate-at-lz-betty

These are before and after pictures of the front gate, and importantly the picture on the right is after the engineers had cleaned up the road and bulldozed the road and area around the gate. You can see the debris pile in the back. The gate on the left is actually the repaired gate, but that is about what it had looked like structurally before the explosions. The building in the center of the left picture is about where the French blockhouse used to be, commanding the entrance to LZ Betty. Photos by Jerry Berry 3/506th (ABN) PIO.

In a very real way the two tower guards were lucky that they were paratroopers. The landing might have killed a leg (non-Airborne), but not jumping, or being incapacitated by a hard landing, would certainly have killed them when the next explosion detonated.

PhanThietMap

Map showing LZ Betty and the length of the runway.

For just one example of their power, the explosions had blown artillery shells all the way to the other end of the air field and scattered them all along its length, including some 200+ pound 8″ howitzer shells as well as 155mm shells and lots of 105mm shells. All those artillery shells were now considered to be unstable. According to the engineers, just walking up to them could possibly send enough of a vibration through the ground so that you risked setting them off and if one went off, others would surely follow.

On the other hand the runway had to be cleared and cleared fast. The ARVN needed an emergency resupply of ammunition. The engineers went to work. They soon had enough of the runway cleared that they were landing and unloading Air Force C-123s one after the other. At first, even before they had cleared the entire runway, these planes would hit the top of the runway and then go into a full emergency stop mode. That was interesting to watch all by itself. It seemed that those planes could land and stop in little more than their own length. This went on all day. Those Air Force pilots were real pros.

We went back out to the field the day after the big explosion, our stand down cut short. In the field, I put my CP near the troop’s foxhole a few times hoping for another good story, but all he talked about was cows.


Author’s Note

No, after almost 50 years I do not remember which troop it was that told the story. I wish I did. If someone can identify who it was, I’ll put it in. To me it is almost Holden Caulfieldish of Catcher in the Rye fame.

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24 thoughts on “A Way You’ll Never Be

  1. Dennis McQuistion

    I laffed I cried I almost peed my pants ! Damm that was funny ,yet dramatic..’ I’ll be first in line when your collection of short stories comes out !

    Reply
  2. Thomas Pickens

    I was there in 67 with the 458th Trans Co. (LARCS) we hauled fuel for the 2/7 air cav. This must have been after I left.

    Reply
  3. SAL

    Was at LZ BETTY 3/68 A Bat 4/60 Arty ( DUSTERS/QUAD FIFTIES), Snipers used the mentioned Cemetery to snipe at us, then moved 15mi north on small fire base which was set up behind a small school in a soccer field,then moved 10mi north of that to what was called the “TOILET BOWL” The surrounding Mts were shaped like a toilet , always moving. We were part of Task Force South w/ 3/506 101st, 3/503 173rd and various Arty Batteries. Went to Di Linh and Bao Loc with 3/503rd .

    Reply
  4. JohnEHarrison Post author

    Greg Talbot wrote, “I was with the 1st. Of. The 50th inf. at Phan Theit I had just become an advisor staying at a tiny mac. v compound about 2 clicks out past the grave yard. There was about 16 or 17 of us and all we could do was watch and hope you guys would be okay.”

    Reply
  5. nordrof

    We had all been drinking that night and had to sober up fast.I can still see that Gone With the Wind vision the background glowing from the ammo dump exploding Captain Gaffney standing there with a bottle of Jack Daniels dangling from his left hand his right hand pointing and shouting orders for us to dig in and set up a secondary position and be prepared for a full scale attack.When the large explosion happened it sucked the air out of the night and then the unexpected happened it was raining unexploded artillary shells.The sound of those shells turning in over end falling to the ground was terrifying..Ellison took a direct hit in the back from a large chunk of one Ed Bassista and I and several others carried him to the aid station were Doc Lovy and his medics had taken shelter in the basement.We banged on the door Doc Lovy took Immidiste action and went to work.I would say that that may have been the largest single explosion ever in VN certainly the largest we had ever seen.

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      You should write it up too Ron. You remember they called Ellison “Road Map” when he came back from the hospital because of all the purple and red scars tracing lines all over his body? I forgot about the sound the artillery shells made–you are right.

      Reply
    2. JohnEHarrison Post author

      BTW perfect metaphor, Atlanta, burning in the background in the movie, “Gone With The Wind” was exactly what it looked like before the explosions started. After that happened I didn’t look so much at anything except the dirt on the floor of a foxhole or two..

      Reply
  6. nordrof

    The day I was getting ready to ETS I was turning in my gear and Ellison had been sent back that day from the hospital.He was picking up gear to go back to the field.He took off his shirt and showed me his scares, unbelievable.He told me they cleared him for field duty I got so pissed off I couldn’t see straight the guy couldn’t even stand up straight.I heard later he went out and they sent him back in and gave him a job in the rear.

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      I gave him a job in the rear. His muscles were still so torn up, no way he could hump, much less hump a full ruck. He had keloid scars, the big purple ones and they are very sensitive. That was another reason to keep him back.

      When did you ETS?

      Reply
      1. JohnEHarrison Post author

        I don’t remember that, but I am glad you made it back. That was about the time I went back to the field again for a month or two I think with 1st Platoon. I remember discreet events with certainty, but I cannot put them in order or even in a time frame.

  7. Shaun Darragh

    Great story, and great writing. Congratulations! Make sure you let the 101st Abn Assn. know when it’s published, and you may want to make the Florida Snowbird convention to push it. Also, schedule a signing through the Fort Campbell PX near a major holidy when they’re in from the field, Just ideas.

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      No book yet Shaun, sorry. I keep telling people if I write a book fewer people will read these stories. We need to tell our story now, before we are gone because the one they wrote when we were there is just wrong. Thanks for the comment, and the suggestions.

      Reply
  8. Edward Solin

    I was a Marine stationed there from May 70-Nov 70. I worked with 1/50th going to the bush and calling in naval gunfire and artillery. We had a hootch near the cliff and the old french bunker. In Decenber they moved us to an old hotel in downtown Phan Thiet.

    Reply
  9. JohnEHarrison Post author

    Bob Leach, 192nd AHC: “I was in my helicopter wearing only a flack jacket, underpants, and shower clogs waiting for another pilot to get in when the ammo dumps first big explosion went off. Later in the morning we still had to be escorted from our revetment because of all the unexploded ordinance.”

    Reply
  10. JohnEHarrison Post author

    John A Barber: “We (Charlie Company) were about 4 klics north of LZ Betty when we saw the explosions. I swear the biggest one looked like a tactical nuke. Best firepower demonstration ever. but it forever ruined 4th of July’s for me.”
    John A Barber: “We thought LZ Betty was wiped out!”

    Reply

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