Alone and Expendable
Dan Crummett


  The running lights beneath the tail rotors of the last lift platoon arched out across the darkness of the southeastern sky like the handle of the Big Dipper. Pulling them away from me were 10 main rotors pounding the darkness with a staccato roar.

My mind, numbed by fatigue and that hollow, pit-of-the-stomach twinge of fear, struggled to ignore the fact the sound was fading ever so slowly into the distance. Surrealistically, I was watching my life line slowly straighten into a descending arc disappearing toward the horizon.

Once the lights dimmed into the distance, there was nothing in their place but the stars.  A balmy, almost imperceptible humid night breeze chilled my neck as I gazed back to the light on top of the mountain and flared my nostrils at the pungent smell of marijuana.

I was alone.

My thoughts raced, trying to calculate how far it must be to the river south of Tay Ninh.  I had seen a lazy brown stretch of water many times from the maintenance ship on parts runs to Phu Loi.   From maps in the avionics shop, I knew the Oriental River (Song Vam Co Dong) was to the south, and it ran into the Red River which ambled on to Saigon.  The Oriental was there, but how far "there" was, was anyone’s guess as I stood straining so intently in vain to see my unit’s aircraft amid the stars. I’d always figured if I had to walk out of this place, I’d try to get to the river and use it to get back to Saigon. From there who knows?

I would get back, because I was going home even if I had to walk across the Pacific Ocean!

"Don’t get paranoid on us now Crummett, but we’re going to blow a few Js," Allgood announced, as he and a handful of others, whose names I don’t remember, prepared to light up to escape the night, the war and loneliness I had determined to face on my own.  Robert Allgood and I had worked on the flight line together swapping radios, navigation equipment and communications modules in the Hueys and Cobras flown by the 187th Assault Helicopter Co. A Texan from Fort Worth who had about six months left in country when I came to the Holy Land in June, Allgood acquainted me with life in the unit during my first few weeks. Although we had very different ideas on how to handle stress, he was a friend.

"Every sailor to his own grog," I absently replied, lost in confusing thoughts and apprehension. Still, I wanted to be as diplomatic as I could with the strangers with whom I might die before morning.  Or tomorrow.  Or next week.

We were the guards on the rearmament point at the north end of the airfield at Tay Ninh West, the bustling home—at least until earlier that evening—of the 187th which claimed 30-odd helicopters and about 300 personnel at full strength.  What remained after the exodus of the lift and gun platoons and the cadre of pilots and maintenance crews were a couple dozen soldiers, several Warrant Officer pilots and probably a Real Live Officer or two.  Also, there was a pair of three-quarter-ton trucks, one of those sorry "new model" Jeeps and a single AH1-G Cobra that could carry two people.

Our installation at the end of the runway was a sandbagged frame structure partially filled with aerial ordnance—mainly rocket motors and other flammables.  I couldn’t help but think of Texican William Travis, who at least picked a church building behind his line in the sand. Us?  We set up shop on a pile of explosives!

Pulling the ships out of Tay Ninh completed about 90 percent of the move of the 187th to new quarters down-country at DiAn just outside Saigon.  We were to take up residence in the old headquarters area of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division, which had taken its Big Red One colors elsewhere.

The move was ordered after sappers, under the cover of some fancy embroidery work by Viet Cong mortar crews, made a mess of several hootches—sent the M.P. detachment to the hospital—and blew up Col. Wittekind’s chrome-festooned UH-1H. In addition, that early morning raid July 23, 1971, saw several other slicks (a Huey nickname) damaged and a VC flag draped from the rafters of the 187th maintenance hangar. They blew a hole in the concrete floor of the hangar while numerous Hueys sat, untouched, outside awaiting inspections. I always figured someone told them to "blow up the maintenance hangar" and they weren’t smart enough to figure it was the helicopters that were the target!

The VC lost four half-naked camouflage-blackened sappers in that raid, one of whom lay for most of the next day at the north end of the hootch rows, his head nearly severed by machine-gun fire, and his bloated upper body still wrapped with satchel charges. I remembered his stench in the mid-morning sun as I photographed my first introduction to war. He couldn’t have been 18 years old. I was 23.

Wafts of fumes from "Tay Ninh Gold" joints drifted over the rearm point, while maybe 30 Americans, at most, remained at Tay Ninh West that night. All of us were aware of the talk of a buildup of VC forces near the compound, and we had personally seen what a handful of them could do with mortars and suicidal teenagers. And now, here I was, not a quarter of a mile from the banana trees which provided the cover for those mortars the morning of July 23.

I felt very much alone.

Years later I realized the final exit off the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran through Cambodia from the north down the western border of South Vietnam, entered Tay Ninh Province within several thousand yards of the base of Nui Ba Den (The Black Virgin Mountain). The mountain loomed 3,200 feet from the relatively flat terrain to our northeast and became an isolated landmark and visual icon to anyone who worked at Tay Ninh or flew in the area. Given the proximity of the Communists’ main supply line from North Vietnam and China to the VC, and the lack of U.S. Air Force B-52 activity in the area since the politicians in Washington D.C. deemed it unwise to "bomb helpless Cambodia," it was not unlikely that our predicament was well known to regulars of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Fortunately, I wasn’t aware of this situation at the time. Ignorance is bliss, they say, but the presence of the VC was certainly more than enough to make me want to stay "straight"—in case I did have to walk out! (In 1971, "straight" meant not drunk, "stoned" or "strung out" on drugs.)

The charge left to those of us who remained was: By day tear down the compound and stack it neatly for our hosts, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), and by night, hold the airfield from Viet Cong sappers who might try to take advantage of the situation. We were told we had a "free fire zone" on the airfield—that meant shoot to kill anything or anybody that didn’t belong there. Now, where that order came from, probably no one knows—or would admit it. Still that was the word from the NCOs that shared our fate as "remainders."

With the exception of the ordnance on the remaining Cobra, which didn’t offer much comfort to those of us living between mud puddles on the deteriorated asphalt of the upper end of the runway, we were "very light infantry" indeed! There was one, maybe two M-60 .30 caliber machine guns among us, and at least one M-16A1 per man. The NCOs and the Warrants carried .38s but the military issue cartridge for those pistols was pathetically impotent!

I carried four magazines of 20 rounds each—a tracer loaded every fifth round—for my M16. What the others had, I had no idea. I do know I was never issued ammunition my entire tour.

What I had, I had to scrounge. And, scrounging had been good to me. There was a pair of CS gas grenades, two fragmentation grenades and a lensetic compass—just in case.

The Colt-manufactured M-16A1 I carried sported two new fore-end halves and a new sling—all of which I had to "weasel" from the armorer as if they were his own prized possessions. The rifle was spotless inside and out, a far cry from what it was when it was issued to me by that same armorer—a professional whose responsibility it was to maintain small arms in satisfactory working condition. I had taken special pains with the rifle when I got it. In fact, I spent an entire afternoon cleaning and inspecting its parts and demanding (as much as a newby Spec. 4 can demand of a company armorer who has been in country for nearly a year) enough new parts to ensure its dependability and accuracy. Ultimately I got what I wanted, assembled it and zeroed it at about 50 yards.

As evidence of someone’s long-forgotten bureaucratic record keeping project, the number "177" was painted in thin white letters about three inches tall on the stock of my rifle.

I always figured "177" might just be the ticket home someday, and its presence there across my lap in the quiet, fear-chilled night air, was a comfort.

Hours passed. The others were either asleep or stoned. Those still awake were talking quietly among themselves. I looked up into the stars, trying to remember how comforting the sound of a flight of helicopters would be.

I remembered nights camping on the sandbars of the Arkansas River back in Oklahoma when the damp air felt much like it did that night. The stars were the same, only they twinkled at a different angle. Polaris was much lower in the sky, but I knew where "North" was. It was right there, just to the left of the lights on "Rocky Top," the radio shack staffed by Americans on top of the mountain. Such things are comforting in times of fear and uncertainty, but Damn!, it was a long way back to Oklahoma—at least 10 and a half months and God knows how many thousand miles! And I still had to get through tonight!

I thought of my beautiful wife, Jerrie. How we’d been married about two weeks when the draft notice came. How she had been devastated the following year at the news of my assignment to the "90th Replacement Battalion" with an APO number and the letters RVN following closely behind. How we only had about three month’s time together before I left for Fort Leonard Wood after enlisting under a "delayed entry" program. How our first anniversary had passed as I worked late into the evening on the flight line a half mile from where I now sat. How I longed to see and touch her again—someday.

It was about that time I remembered the beginning words of the 91st Psalm…. "He who dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty…"

My mother had sent me a copy of that chapter of David’s writing about three months earlier, while I was finishing my avionics training at Ft. Gordon—right after the "scatter sheet" came down announcing my assignment to RVN. I took comfort from its words… "He shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence…" At the time I received the passage, Vietnam seemed far away, but a meat grinder no less. A place, fittingly like that scene I had watched at dusk from the window of the Seaboard World DC-8 as we flew into Ton Son Nhut in early June—a dark, sinister-looking mysterious landmass of purplish gray, shrounded by stratus clouds which glowed from above with the sunset.

As I pondered what I could remember of the Psalm, I grasped for the words… "Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day, nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee…"

"Nigh" seemed uncomfortably close that night.

Dan Crummett

Copyright 1998



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