Chapter Thirteen

 

Camp Eagle

 

 The DTOC was a fortress within a fortress, a huge mound of wet, gray plastic sandbags surrounded by coils of barbwire.  M-60 machine guns covered the approaches from the north and south.  The structure stood only about ten feet above ground, masking the bulk of the interior which was dug as many feet down into the rise on which it sat.  The area around the DTOC for some forty yards was free from obstructions.  The Canadian Army defined such an area as a "killing ground," that is, one deliberately cleared for the machine guns‘ field of fire.  What, I wondered, were they expecting in the middle of a division base camp?  We trudged by the DTOC’s sodden sandbags, our ponchos wet on the outside from the misty rain and cold and slimy on the inside. The rubber felt like a frog’s skin against my cheek. We slogged through the puddles in the rusty gravel, silently stumbling toward the mess tent’s noon offering.  The U.S. flag and General Barsanti’s two-star pennant hung listlessly in the drizzle over the poncho’d MPs guarding the little compound.  They watched us as we passed.

    A sodden line of soldiery was strung out before the mess tent.  We got in the line behind the others, cutlery clanking and ponchos dripping.  We edged forward lost in our thoughts as other troops stumbled out the other side of the tent.  They balanced steaming mess tins and canteen cups as they hurried down the slope into the shelter of a second tent.  The “dining facility” was comprised of three tents: the first for preparation and delivery of le menu du jour.  Two GP-Medium tents nearby were dedicated to the consumption of whatever the cooks had concocted: one for officers and senior NCOs and one for the rest of the army.  Within the serving area, three Puerto Rican cooks in green T-shirts and greasy fatigue pants stood ready behind cauldrons and trays of fodder.  They wielded great stainless steel spoons and ladles with smiling detachment.  When my turn came, I stuck out my mess tin Oliver Twist fashion (“Please sir, may I have some…”).  The first server in line plopped imperfectly mixed instant mashed potatoes into my mess tin over which paste the second poured a brownish, nondescript stew.  A third all too happy looking fellow stood by with his ladle poised over an aluminum pan of what were once tinned pears. Like dead fish, they floated belly up in a pond of stringy, gray syrup.  I passed on the pears.

    I grabbed some bread and poured steaming brown fluid that I hoped was coffee into my canteen cup.  I then headed out into the drizzle to follow the others headed for the enlisted mess tent.  Inside, a dozen picnic tables were allotted for the dining comfort of the hundred-plus peons of Headquarters and Headquarters Company.  Not surprisingly, all the tables were full.  Troops were jostling each other, trying to eat from under ponchos, trying to keep the dragging rubber out of their food.  Soldiers were sitting on the ground around the tent walls, canteen cups wedged into the gravel and carefully guarded from the passing of muddy boots.  In spite of the unappetizing fare and sorrowful surroundings, I was starved.  I sat cross-legged on the ground with the others and shoveled in the warming chow, scouring the last of it from my mess tin with coarse unbuttered bread.

    Outside there was another line, this time in front of three garbage cans filled with water.  Small kerosene-fired heaters were clamped to the cans, their fireboxes immersed in the water like outboard motors.  Smokestacks projected skyward from each to add smears of kerosene smoke to the dreary mist. The idea was to spear the tableware, which had holes in the handles, with the handle of the mess tin, then to attach your mess tin lid, which served as a second plate, for pears for instance, to the whole affair.  With luck, you could dunk it all without scalding yourself into the solution boiling away in the garbage cans.  A toilet cleaning brush was wired to the first can in which a bubbling soapy solution hosted swirling bits of corn, meat and boiled flies.  First a dunking and then a good scrubbing in that soup with the toilet brush; then to the second cauldron.  It offered fewer floating food bits and a second dunk pre-rinse.  In the third can: semi-clear water on which a thin film of grease shimmered.  The blue-green film brought back a flash recollection of spilt motor oil on an Ontario lake many summers ago.

    After "doing the dishes" we hurried back through the wet to the weather tent for our own chlorinated C-ration instant coffee with a touch of rum.  A good splash of rum makes almost anything drinkable.  It made the good news better and the bad news less depressing.  The good news was that Koestler had exchanged some of the booze I’d brought up for several cases of C-rations and some sweaters.  We had enough C’s on hand to allow us the luxury of avoiding the company dining facility for weeks.  The sweaters were rough O.D. and pure wool.  They smelled like mothballs and plastic-wrap and were cozier than eiderdown in Vermont.  HQ41, however, had also been "traded," temporarily at least, for a jeep.  The trade also included dibs on a deuce-and-a-half and some miscellaneous lumber yet to be delivered.  There were two bits of bad news: Somebody had to go further north to support 2d Brigade and even worse, there was talk of billeting us with the 501st Signal Battalion.  Captain Clarke and Lieutenant Bussell were already forced to live with the army junior officers in a tent more luxurious than ours only by dint of a pallet walkway down the center.  While Clarke, Ferguson and Koestler debated who to move to 2d Brigade, the ramifications of "trading" vehicles and the uses to which our imaginary lumber might be put, I began my first operational tour of duty, after seven weeks in-country.

    Apart from reading the rain gauge at 6-hourly intervals, there proved to be little necessity to leave the relative comfort of the tent to observe the weather.  The drizzle continued unabated, the temperature remained a constant fifty-seven and the wind direction remained steady from oh-three-zero (north, northeast).  While I’d slept that morning, the troops had lashed a Bendix anemometer to a two-by-four outside.  They wired it to a jury-rigged meter inside so that all you needed to do to determine wind speed was toggle a switch.  To determine direction, however, you still needed to see the "weather vane" part and estimate how many degrees of angle it made with the two-by-four it was lashed to.  The board was supposedly oriented to true north.  Just poking your head out the tent flap did the trick.  There were none of the usual calls coming in for weather information that you’d have to field on an airbase.  There was no teletype or fax machine to monitor and thus, no paper to process.  A sixty word-per-minute teletype was supposedly maintained for us in the communications center, a bunker-like hole in the ground similar to the DTOC some one-hundred yards away.  Due to paper shortages and unreliable maintenance, we relied on its data only a few hours a day when scheduled analysis and forecast bulletins were expected.  The most difficult part of the job, it turned out, was trying to get a call through to Da Nang to get my observations transmitted over long-line teletype.

    I ended my shift with six observations recorded, two transmitted, and the temperature fading with the dismal daylight into the lower fifties.  Not looking forward to a replay of the midday dining experience, I opted for a C-ration dinner of pork slices.  Newman showed me how to heat them up over an incendiary “heat-tab” within a jury-rigged “stove” itself just a larger, empty C-ration can.  Afterward, still suffering from "convoy lag" or perhaps beach withdrawal, I headed back to my rack rather than hold up my end of the swing-shift pinochle game.  Too tired, lazy or depressed to move my cot into the tent from the bunker, I stood by the entrance warming my hands with the dying embers of my pipe and sipped the last of my coffee.

    An air strike was in progress on a small mountain just a few miles to our south.  A break in the lower cloud cover was allowing the jets just enough space to drop their ordnance and clear the terrain before re-entering the dirty scud that obscured the higher peaks.  The jets screamed in, dropping out of the clouds from the southwest, then they loosed their bombs and banked sharply over the hillside only to disappear again into the clouds to the north.  Although used to the thud and crump of distant explosions by now, I had never seen this kind of action close-up.  Violent, fiery eruptions and the blazing streaks of rockets were bringing a deadly daylight to the hillside.  The earth shook.  Smoke from the fires and explosions drifted horizontally to mix with the ragged clouds.  For about a quarter of an hour the planes circled, alternately blasting, rocketing and then strafing the bad guys in the bushes.  Then they were gone.  After they left, artillery from some anonymous firebase continued to sporadically blast the area, like earthquake aftershocks.  When it started to rain again I ducked inside.

    A series of ear splitting cracks, totally unlike outgoing artillery, jerked me out of a sound sleep.  Before I could cautiously sit up I was joined by my five fellows who slid, rolled and tumbled through the doorway in a pile of profanity.  There wasn’t much room in there for all of us, particularly with the cot all set up.  As we jostled for space, flashlights sending beams at odd angles in the cramped little cave, a second series of crashing explosions, closer than the first, brought dirt down from the ceiling.  Someone needlessly offered, "Rocket attack."  And then it was over.  No yellow alert, no siren, no big deal, just "rocket attack."  Roodben stuck his head out the door and announced that he could see no damage.  It seemed impossible that such air rending explosions and so much concussion would result in no visible damage.  Could it be that the VC on the hillside survived the air and artillery attacks I’d witnessed to retaliate so soon?  After more rum and coffee we returned to our private thoughts and clammy cots, chilled by the damp and the reminder of sudden death’s proximity, physically warmed by our new sweaters and hot rum.