Saturday, December 1, 2012

Do You Really Want to Go There? - a Vietnam War memoir

Search and destroy, Vietnam War, 1968 Photo by Mike Marcellino

Do you really want to go there?
By Mike Marcellino

“Do you really want to go there” the counselor said to me.  I had just told her a story that continues to haunt me of the night I went blank in 1968 talking with two soldiers filling sandbags in a wooded wasteland in the jungles along the Cambodian border northwest of Saigon in South Vietnam.

I’ve written hundreds of stories for newspapers and magazines, poetry and songs.  The past four years with musicians I’ve recorded and performed what I call poetry music, including songs about the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

This is my own story, a view behind the camera, pen and mic - behind the scenes of my life of a writer, photographer and folk music artist.  The story I find so difficult to write.

After the war as a newspaper reporter back in the states, I covered murders, fatal fires, bloody airplane crashes, a Brinks armed car robbery, and the most brutal business of all – politics.  I’ve interviewed presidential candidates, Hollywood stars, two of the longest held POW’s from the Vietnam War, acclaimed folk singers but most often the man on the street, aspiring artists, teachers, scientists, workers in factories and farms.  This story is personal and one I’ve never told, just alluded to in poems and songs.  It’s really the story of a life behind pens, notebooks, computers and cameras – my life as a writer and artist.

The U. S. Army bird colonel laughed as he looked at me just as I was jumping down from his Huey chopper.  I’m still trying to figure out what was so funny – maybe me with camera hanging from my jungle fatigues and only a jungle hat on and without a weapon.  Maybe he thought this story would make him a one star general.  One of the batteries of a battalion of the 23rd Artillery Group was firing in support Operation Yellowstone, our largest offensive at the peak of the Vietnam War when we had more than a half million troops in country.

I did ‘want to go there,’ find out what happened to me as the night was broken by continuous automatic weapons fire.  The lieutenant said we had mercenaries out there to defend the sandy dirt pile bulldozers had just carved out so the 155 mm self-propelled howitzers that look like tanks could slip in.  A barrel of one of the guns read “Alpha’s Angles” and maybe there was an angel out there over no man’s land that helps me survive.

Though the heat of the day I took pictures of the guns booming and the U.S. Army soldiers sweating.  I interviewed them, though I’m now not sure just how I did it as the guns never stopped firing.  Then I noticed the guns were silent and soldiers were stripping and taking cold showers from suspended canvas bags flown in by helicopters.

I didn’t get a shower.  I don’t remember eating anything either.  Then a wise –ass lieutenant walked up to me and told me I’d better start digging my hole.  Before the bulldozers stopped pushing huge piles of dirt over the corrugated half-moon steel roofs to cover the holes, I almost dug the hole - looking much like a perfect rectangular grave - too wide so the roof would have collapsed into the hole.

Sometime that night I walked over to my hole and found someone had put in an air mattress and pillow into my hole.  Were they pulling my chain or was it a sign of respect, or both?

To cool off I sat and talked with two bare-chested soldiers filling sand bags. The wooded perimeter looked like "no man's land" and automatic weapons fire was continuous. 

Suddenly bullets whizzed by.  And that’s the last thing I remember.  I have no idea how I got out of Firebase Ord along the Cambodian border.  My photographs and stories were published in Starts and Stripes and military newspapers.  I remember being told that Firebase Ord was overrun by a ground attack the next night.  I never have found out the fate of those artillerymen and engineers.

“Do you really want to go there,” the counselor said to me, adding that I was probably experiencing some form of traumatic amnesia.

Yes, I do want to know what happen to me that night.  I want to know what that war has done to me, to my fellow soldiers and to my country.  I want to know that some good has come from it.

Hundreds of stories later I still search for answers.  I wrote stories of a search and destroy mission in the rice paddies and an all-night helicopter mission they called “Firefly.” I photographed refugees in a new village we helped the build after destroying the one they had lived in for generations, bandaged children in darkened makeshift hospitals and scenes of utter destruction reminding me of photographs of World War II.

My return to the ‘world” as we called the United States, wasn’t easy either.

Near the end of my year tour of duty as a combat correspondent and photojournalist, I must confess, I was hiding out from the war in Saigon.  I decided to do a story on “rural electrification.”  With only days left until I was scheduled to leave country, they called it your ETD, estimated time of departure, I got a strong feeling that my number was up.  I thought that I was too lucky too many times as a covered the war from the Highlands, throughout III Corps and into the Delta, more than half of South Vietnam.

None new where I was or how to find me in Saigon. Hiding out gathering photos of how electricity was bringing work to the Vietnamese people almost led me to miss my “freedom flight” back to the USA.  I was unaware I had been given a “seven-day drop” or in other words I was getting out of Vietnam seven days early and I couldn't be found.

They finally found me as I had happened to meet an officer I served with in a Hawk missile command in West Germany before I volunteered for Vietnam.  (I found the Col War boring and had grown tired of of alerts in the dead of winter, giving me frostbitten toes and finger tips.

I did make my "freedom flight" home but remember nothing of it.

I do remember finding myself alone at five o-clock in the morning in my dress green U.S. Army uniform in the Denver airport waiting for a connecting flight back to my home in Cleveland.