At 1300 military time, a crowd formed in the outer office of the headquarters orderly room for the daily show. Major Akio Tanaka was the executive officer of the 240th Intelligence Detachment and had just completed a generous lunch and settled into his swivel chair. Within two minutes he was loudly snoring.
“It’s like one of those medieval German clocks with dancing figures that regulate the lives of a small town,” explained Specialist Bernie Rodgers, the all-knowing unit clerk, to the gathering men. A large lock of hair fell over his forehead to merge with his prominent black GI-issue glasses, both of which he continuously adjusted as he looked up at the giants in the forest. He was only five feet two inches tall.
Peter Savory had just reported to the 240th and was conscientiously filling out forms when, without further ceremony the balding major fell out of his chair landing awkwardly with a loud thud. The spectators in the outer office then feigned other business and slowly evaporated having just seen another performance of “old faithful.”
Major Tanaka was a reserve officer who had a long career of placeholder assignments to fill out unit organizational charts and found himself in Vietnam for his last assignment before retirement.
“The major is like a boron rod in a nuclear reactor, he prevents meltdowns,” quietly offered volunteered Bernie after the major had reassembled himself.
Peter stepped outside of the headquarters with the clerk and surveyed his new home. The base area was called the plantation and was part of the American corps headquarters complex, which was part of the vast installation of Long Binh, the headquarters for the entire American army in Vietnam. A granular, red dirt blew through the streets between the many sandbagged buildings and living quarter-huts that made up this community. A complex odor-cloud of humidity, petroleum, human excrement, and mess hall food permanently sat over the vast base.
“Why do they call it the plantation?” Peter asked Bernie.
“I guess at one time there must have been trees here, but that was before Agent Orange and industrial bull dozers leveled everything. There is one area with green grass and a tree.”
“Lieutenant General (LTG) Burt Wacker’s house. Follow me and I’ll show you.” They walked up a small hill to the quarters. Perhaps this wasn’t part of the normal tour, but Bernie seemed to enjoy the time away from his desk.
LTG Wacker’s 3,500- square- foot house sat on a carpet of grass with a carefully watered single cherry tree, The 240th was attached to his headquarters. Peter guessed that the house was built to reassure him and the troops that there was still a connection to the real world. The house was dark and Peter wondered where the general was.
They walked back to the intel unit to a more extensive complex of huts with the pungent smell of burnt paper wafting from the rear of the building.
“What’s the smell?” asked Adam.
“That’s from the furnace in the photographic imagery interpretation section, which you’ll get to know, since you’re the new leader of the Imagery Interpretation section. ” Every day the Air Force flew photo intelligence missions over Vietnam. They were immediately classified Secret or Top Secret and multiple roles of film had to be burned and recorded after interpretation. Mostly, the reconnaissance missions showed the tops of triple canopy jungle, with no clue about enemy activity. The “secret” was that there was no intelligence from these missions.
“So this is a classified document crematorium?”
“Sir, I just work here, let me introduce you to the section.”
Peter walked into the hut, which was about five degrees warmer than outside, where it was 92 degrees Fahrenheit. The men were all assembled around benches stripped down to olive drab green undershirts and shorts, that were soaked through with sweat. Tables were filled with elaborate stereoscopic photographic viewing devices that had the appearance of giant microscopes. Rolls of film were carefully stacked along the walls. A Teac boom box blasted out the strains of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” Peter heard:
“When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars”
He mused it would take some very heavy acid to connect those lyrics with what he saw around him. He couldn’t quite see the Fifth Dimension making the trip.
Bernie introduced Peter to the men, and Jamie Sailor, one of two warrant officers in the unit. Jamie held this rank between commissioned officer and non-commissioned officer (NCO) and usually held by individuals with a technical skill. Jamie was deeply tanned, handsome, and young.
“Where are you from, Jamie?”
He replied in a slow, lyrical voice, “The low country in South Carolina. My dad was a commercial fisherman, and I was raised on red fish. I enlisted after high school and found my way to the Warrant Officer Academy and then to qualification as an aerial surveillance officer. In addition to working in this section, I’m an observer on an O1 Bird Dog reconnaissance aircraft.”His manner suggested a world of stately oak trees draped with Spanish moss. That world was a long way from Nam.
“You ever seen anything up there?” asked Peter.
“No NVA , but last week I saw an elephant family strolling through the bush, and once several months ago I saw an Asian tiger.” Jamie volunteered this with a little more animation.
“That’s an expensive naturalist adventure.”
Their conversation was abruptly interrupted by the noise of a speeding vehicle suddenly slamming on the breaks outside the hut. They both ran out of the building to see a jeep covered with camouflaged netting and a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a turret with a ribbon of ammunition. The driver was wearing a non-issue reticulated camouflage uniform with a matching bush hat. A leather belt had two .38 caliber western style pistols with ammunition carefully filling the slots. He was short, tanned and had a wild Teddy Roosevelt style mustache. Central casting could not have come up with a better Halloween costume. Most important and not immediately obvious in the shadow of the costume, there was a dead NVA soldier tied over the hood of the jeep in the style of a just hunted deer. The corpse had multiple gunshot wounds.
“What’s going on here?” asked Major Tanaka who hastily emerged from the headquarters as Jamie. Bernie and Adam watched in front of the hut.
“Well, Sir, I’m Sergeant Carney with the long range reconnaissance patrol, and we just bagged this slope. I thought you intel guys might want to check him out.” The LRRPs were rangers, attached to major combat units who led missions into the jungle for reconnaissance. The sergeant exhibited the demeanor of a Georgia hunter presenting a prize six-point buck at the state game station.
“Where did you kill him?”
“About ten miles from here in the bush. We got in a small fire fight. His buddies ran for it but we carried this hombre out.”
“Any documents or equipment?”
“No, just his AK47 rifle and a small bag of rice. No documents.”
The major pondered what to do. He mused that the good sergeant might be planning to take his capture to a taxidermist after the intel clearance. He could then augment a collection of horned mammals in a VFW lodge or perhaps the dead NVA soldier might be offered to General Wacker to mount in his office to further emphasize the importance of body count.
“Sergeant, take this prisoner off the hood and place him in a poncho in the back seat of the jeep. We’ve got to show respect for the dead, even NVA dead. Then take the remains to the hospital down the road about five miles from here. They’ll debrief you and put him in the morgue. And while we’re at it, why don’t you join the rest of the army and get out of that ridiculous costume?” The major could only say that because of his rank.
While this was going on, a group of ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) soldiers, who had been playing volleyball, gathered around the jeep. They were led by a tall Vietnamese major and had suspended their game to silently approach the scene. Their attention and concentration seemed out of proportion in a country where NVA soldiers were killed in large numbers every day.
Sergeant Carney smirked at the young man next to him, who was a slightly less flamboyant clone of the sergeant, slumped in the seat of the jeep, defiantly smoking a cigarette. The message was clear. What did he expect from rear echelon pukes who never ventured into the bush? They did as they were told and removed the body from the hood before racing off in a cloud of red dirt.
Peter’s personalized tour of the new neighborhood ended. He tried to digest the sights, smells, and people that had just raced in front of him. This was a long way from Manhattan and NYU. Major Tanaka walked, off shaking his head.