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A blog based on 170+ letters and photos sent home from the Vietnam War.

  • Joe Lex

#02 01-15 June 1968 - Settling In

Đức Hóa: a commune and village in Tuyên Hóa District, Quảng Bình Province

Bunker: defensive military fortification designed to protect people or valued materials from falling bombs or other attacks, mostly underground, compared to blockhouses which are mostly above ground

We had arrived and dug in late that night and paid little attention to the topography of our laager site. A laager site essentially means “circle the wagons.” It’s an old Dutch term from the Boer wars. It turns out we were on low ground. It was a shabby bunker built quickly to protect four people. After it was done, we were exhausted. As soon as it was built, we blew up our air mattresses and collapsed inside. A few hours after the roof caved in, I distinctly remember a weird floating sensation. That’s because I was actually floating – my air mattress slowly drifted outside the bunker shortly before sunrise. We laboriously rebuilt the bunker on higher ground, only to be told the next day that we were moving on.

Tan Son Nhut: A major air base close to Saigon. Our assignment was at the end of a runway.

Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was shot shortly after midnight on June 5th, 1968, PDT at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. I remember distinctly sitting in the track, playing cards, and listening to Armed Forces Radio (AFRTS – Armed Forces Radio and Television Service) and receiving the news. Earlier that evening, the 42-year-old junior senator from New York was declared the winner in the South Dakota and California presidential primaries in the 1968 election. He was pronounced dead at 1:44 a.m. PDT on June 6, about 26 hours after he had been shot. Vietnam is 15 hours ahead of California.

Class S: Funds placed in this program accrue interest at the rate of 10% per annum compounded quarterly during the time spent by personnel in an overseas command

Less than a month in country and already debilitated. In retrospect, this was probably a mild form of dengue fever, or “breakbone” fever. I recovered fully – eventually.

3rd Field Hospital: Probably equivalent to a general hospital in the United States. All specialties were represented, including neurosurgery, thoracic surgery, vascular surgery, and orthopedics. At its peak, it had 325 beds.

If you’re looking for Battalion Action Reports, there aren’t any that I could find. It may be because there wasn’t really any Battalion Action. What I did find was a puff-piece by whomever was helping write the history of the war.

I find the term “negative body count” almost amusing. To a civilian, ‘negative’ means ‘less than zero,” hereby implying that we raised some enemy from the dead. In the military, ‘negative’ means simply ‘zero.’ At any rate, it was a month with virtually no contact with the enemy. Pretty ominous after May.

Another phrase for undergoing colonoscopy / proctoscopy / sigmoidoscopy in those pre-fiberoptic days was “riding the silver stallion.”

Re “pregnancy” exam, I meant gynecologic exam, which I had never done; we only read about them in 91C school. The Labor and Delivery unit at Valley Forge General Hospital wasn’t very active and I do not think I ever got to see a delivery. While in medical school at University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio from 1982-86, we had live models on whom to learn pelvic exams. The models insisted that any male medical student be made to lie on his back on the exam table with his feet in stirrups. Only then would the model walk into the room and introduce herself. Even fully clothed, this made me realize the vulnerability of someone in that position. I made it a point throughout my career to never meet a woman patient for the first time when she was unclothed and in stirrups.

I had grown up in the south suburbs of Chicago and had never gotten my driver’s license, even after taking driver’s ed in high school. I took one test for the license and failed miserably – while parallel parking I backed up on the curb. I either walked or took the bus or train everywhere. High school was a few miles away: bus. Chicago Circle was 30 miles away: train by Illinois Central (or IC). I knew that I would eventually get a driver’s license but didn’t know it would be in a combat zone. I learned to drive in a quarter-ton jeep with a standard transmission. When I got back stateside, I converted the military license to civilian without having to take a test.

Combat Medical Badge (CMB): now one of my treasured possessions. The CMB is awarded to an individual who performs medical duties while simultaneously being engaged by the enemy.

Jeep: light, off-road capable, military utility vehicle, formally called the US Army Truck, The Truck, Utility, 1/4-Ton, 4×4, or M151.

PX: Post Exchange, a “general store” where you could buy – at deep discount – everything from toothpaste and McIlhenny’s Tabasco Sauce to a fancy stereo and even an automobile. The size of the PX depended on the size of the base where it was located. The largest for the 25th Division was at the Cu Chi base camp.

Even in 1968, I was a music buff, and a bit of a music snob. Armed Forces Radio-Television services, aka AFRTS (a-farts) tried to be something for everyone. If you seen the movie “Good Morning Vietnam” with Robin Williams, you can get an idea.

In 1968, Chicago still had four major newspapers: The Tribune and Sun-Times were “morning” papers, the Daily News and Chicago American were “evening” papers. We lived about 30 miles south of the loop and subscribed to the Daily News. The Tribune was very conservative Republican. One advantage of the Sun-Times was that it was a tabloid and more compact. It had a populist, progressive character that leaned Democratic, and was not part of the Chicago machine under Richard Daily. The Chicago American ceased publication in 1974, the Daily News ended its run in 1978.

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