Sharp thunder in the night is incoming for a frightful second. The smell of perspiration is an infantry hump over hard ground. The touch of coarse cloth is the feel of battle dress.
My friend John Minco of Lakewood flew 35 bombing missions over Europe in World War II. At 85, grapefruit juice still brings back the tension of those flak-filled skies over Germany. It was the only thing Minco wanted to hold down before those awful flights.
It happens to me, too, only in a different way. I was a reporter covering Vietnam for The Plain Dealer in 1968. Fourteen correspondents, some my friends, were killed that year. It's worse in Iraq.
War always leaves a piece of it with you. Sounds, smells, sights, tastes, words all return at unexpected moments in the most deceptive way. Cold tap water is a joy if you once lived out of a musty canteen. A picnic in a wooded place causes anxious glances at the tree line. A passing helicopter revives the sensation of descending from cool tranquillity into the hateful humidity and feverish fear that lingers over the unknown jungle landing zone.
Once, in a bizarre moment that marks war, a helicopter loaded with infantry on the way to a hot landing zone skimmed over a French rubber plantation, where three women in colorful bikinis sunned next to a swimming pool with the bluest water I've ever seen. For a split second, the color blue can bring that moment back.
War is about the senses that keep you alive, and the constant reliance upon them hones an awareness that never leaves you.
Few speak of these experiences. Recollections are meaningless and silly to the uninitiated. But for those who have been there, they are real and haunting.
It's funny how it all comes back.
One recent Sunday at the end of the service at St. Dominic Church in Shaker Heights, Father Tom asked the congregation to acknowledge a soldier recently home from Baghdad. The congregation rose and applauded. The sudden ovation in the quiet sanctuary stunned me, and I was cast into such melancholy I could not stand. Besides, I knew the face -- I had seen it a thousand times in a hundred places.
My mind flashed to another time, another war. There were no parades, flags, or cheers. Returning soldiers suffered a sense of scorn, almost as if Vietnam had been of their making. Many thought of them as brute legions that roamed remote villages raping, pillaging, and burning.
I remembered Bravo Company, Second Battalion, 60th Infantry and a sergeant from Detroit, a big man who carried an M-60 machine gun. We were ambushed during a river crossing in the Mekong Delta. I was stuck in thigh-high mud when AK-47s erupted in their distinctive stutter, sending plumes of water skyward.
The sergeant pulled me to the safety of a rice-paddy dike. He muttered that I was an asshole, a tourist taking a very bad vacation.
Later that night, the sergeant laid down withering cover fire into VC positions, while the rest of us moved to a safer position.
The next morning grateful troops passed him pound cake from their C rations. It was a prized possession in the boonies, and the sergeant favored cake. The offering was a symbol of honor and respect that the man probably never felt again in his life. He honored me that morning too.
"Hey man, you won your CIB last night," he said. "You ain't no tourist anymore."
The CIB is the Combat Infantry's Badge, awarded to those who have seen combat.
A few days later he boarded a plane for Detroit. He would be home in 72 hours. His friends would not care where he had been or what he had endured. Some would look at him suspiciously, as if it were fun killing little brown people and dodging shrapnel.
He would strip his uniform as soon as possible to avoid ridicule and accusations of killing babies. He would not speak of Vietnam for years.
I often wondered what happened to the man. He was held in such esteem by those with whom he served. But when he returned, he found the country he fought for viewed him with contempt.
It's funny how it all comes back.
Two days after the church service, I was at Bravo, a restaurant in Beachwood, drinking wine and reading a newspaper account of the congressional debate over the war in Iraq. There was a lot of deference paid to the troops, but the focus was on ending the war.
The deference was only words. The same people who put troops in harm's way were scrambling to save their asses. Since World War II, Washington has failed at war the same way Detroit has with automobiles.
Across the bar sat a man and a woman. The man was talking about cigars and said that when he flew jets in Vietnam, he liked to smoke them in the cockpit. I thought this odd, but listened before I finally asked what jets he flew.
"F-4s," he said, smiling broadly. "The reconnaissance model."
I nodded and told him I knew the plane, asked where he was based and when he was there.
"Da Nang," he said. "1968 and '69"
"No, Air Force." He mentioned the name of the unit, but I didn't catch it.
"He was shot down twice," the woman interjected. This piqued my interest.
1968 was the worst year of the war. And one of the worst places to be was in I Corps, in the northernmost part of South Vietnam. They were up against North Vietnamese troops -- tough, well-trained men who were a match for even the Marines in this mountainous and misty killing ground.
Our advantage was that we owned the air. And our chief weapon was the F-4, a fighter jet that could fly at twice the speed of sound and carry more ordnance than the largest World War II bomber. The boys on the ground referred to it reverently as a "faster-mover." It saved many a grunt's ass with low-level bombing when they were under fire from some mean NVA who could shoot and scoot with the best of them.
The F-4 played a big role in saving the combat base Khe Sanh, which was surrounded by the North Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive, a drive that broke Washington's spirit the same way it's now being broken in Iraq.
To be an F-4 pilot there was to witness some memorable events -- and accrue some terrible flashbacks. The only thing more hazardous was flying into downtown Hanoi.
I always liked fighter pilots. Their humor was cynical and understated. When their day was done, they liked to drink, sing, and not particularly dwell upon tomorrow.
Once, in an officer's club, I saw a pilot raise a toast to his friends, down the drink, then eat the glass. Fighter pilots always spoke derisively of their colleagues who flew transports or cargo planes. They were just trash-haulers, they'd say.
While Marine, Air Force, and Navy pilots all had distinguishing characteristics, their common bond was that they flew incredibly dangerous aircraft to fearful places. There was always a squint about their eyes. I couldn't determine if it was from the sun or the sheer stress of kicking the tires and lighting the fire, as they liked to say.
While I never flew in an F-4 in combat, I logged missions in other aircraft. One afternoon we responded to a troops-in-contact call while flying a World War II vintage A-1 Skyraider, a propeller fighter. You could hear them crying for help over the radio.
As we dove into a valley, enemy tracers arched lazily toward us, flicks of fire that seemed to reach for you in a mesmerizing beckon. One of those arcs hit the plane, then ricocheted off the wing root and into the air. The round just missed the pilot, who was flying his final mission.
I never put my seat belt on in an airliner without remembering the shoulder harness in that fighter, and how your thumbs had to push up and then down to unlock the harness from the ejection seat.
It's funny how things come back.
So across from me, drinking vodka, was a man who talked of the unrelenting strain of high Gs in a turn and the pucker factor of being shot at in the sky with no place to hide.
The man's name was Barry, and he lived in Gates Mills. He noted his small stature, pointing out that cockpits were not made for big men. He said he was a Case graduate. The woman next to him had recently gone through a divorce. Barry confided he was just keeping her company.
I told him I had been at Khe Sanh, where F-4s dropped napalm on the bodies of dead NVA soldiers hanging in the barbed wire. They'd been killed during an assault on the camp, and the tropic sun raised such a stench from the bloated bodies that air strikes were called in to kill the smell.
"Sin Loi," he said grinning.
I had not heard that Vietnamese word in years. Loosely translated, it meant "sorry about that" or "tough shit" -- whatever fit the moment. Words in war are malleable, designed to fit all occasions, the most famous being "fucking-A, man."
The woman urged Barry to tell me about being shot down.
He told me that his radio call sign was Houdini and his back-seater was Merlin. "We had to punch out once, and the other time I crash landed it," he said.
Now I was really interested. Crash landing an F-4 was not recommended in the owner's manual. It had the aerodynamics of a rock.
"We got hit by a SAM missile and Merlin was wounded," Barry said. "I was hit in the back. We got down OK. I got the Air Force Cross for that. In fact, I have two Air Force Crosses."
The Air Force Cross is just below the Medal of Honor, and it takes an extraordinarily courageous feat to earn one.
"Tell him about having to kill those three Viet Cong," the woman said, peering up from her vodka.
Barry cleared his throat, took a sip, and nodded. "Yeah, I shot one at about 60 yards."
Most pilots, other than Marines, are notoriously bad when it comes to using their sidearms. The standard procedure when shot down was to simply hide and use a survival radio to call for help. The reasoning was that a .38 was no match for an AK-47, but an AK was no match for a pair of A-1 Skyraiders loaded with fragmentation bombs and napalm, and accompanied by one of those Jolly Green helicopters.
"That must have been something," I said.
"Yeah, you should have been there to write about it."
"I'm glad I wasn't. Too scary for me."
It was time to go. I finished my wine and begged my leave.
"You know," Barry said, "my family is all about fighter pilots. My father was an ace in World War II, and my grandfather was an ace in World War I."
"Man, you are a movie," I said
A few days later, I was at Bravo again. Barry and the woman were there drinking vodka. I nodded and walked to the far end of the bar, away from them. On the television set, CNN was bannering news of the war.
I watched Army medics load a wounded soldier on a helicopter. There was something timeless about the scene. I was always surprised how quickly they took the dead from the battlefield. It's funny how it all comes back.
Barry was talking to the woman. No doubt talking about flying.
I did not have the heart to tell him that I checked Chris Hobson's Vietnam Air Losses, a compendium of the air war between 1961 and 1973. Barry never won the Air Force Cross or crash landed an F-4 or shot it out with Charley. And I did not have the stomach to hear more.
He may have been in Da Nang those terrible months, but he did not do any of the above. It seemed important that the woman think of him as more than a slight man from Gates Mills, sipping vodka in a Beachwood bar.
It's funny how it all comes back.
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