By November, everybody’s tour was almost over. Everybody being the guys who came into Alpha Company with me. The Army was giving all sorts of early out options and there were rumors that about cutting tours short. We’d heard that story from the moment we came in-country but we were still humping the boonies almost eleven months later so no one put much faith in the current version. Even so, we were all within six weeks of DEROS–date of expected return from overseas–that was real. In the meantime, coming up over Thanksgiving was in-country R&R at Vung Tau.
Every six weeks or so, Alpha Company would rotate through the First Cavalry Division R&R Center in Vung Tau, an old French resort on the South China Sea for a three day stand down. Clean clothes, hot meals, beaches and all the delights of a flourishing war time economy. The R&R Center had cots and tent housing but most of us opted for the local hotels with real beds and plumbing. The center included a beautiful stretch of beach exclusively for GI’s. Rumor was that the North Vietnamese Army also had an R&R center in Vung Tau. If they did, everybody was okay about it. I recall virtually no problems there except when our commanding officer was attacked by Cowboys (Vietnamese gang members) but he was an asshole and deserved it.
I had not been to Vung Tau since May, the last time I was with in the field with the company when it stood down. As company clerk, safely in the rear, I was on a more or less permanent stand down and was expected to maintain operations while the company R&R’ed. It was a fair trade off, especially the last time when the company took four mortar rounds and 30 casualties as they choppered out for stand down. This time, in November, I went. It seemed only right. I was a member of this class and shared much with them in the field and used my position as clerk to give them opporutnities and cover to stay in the the rear as much as possible. It would be the last time to party together in Vietnam.
The night before, I helped organize gear, clean clothing and mail. The following morning, I rode the supply chopper out to the company at a remote runway, distributed mail and clothing, helped tag packs and rifles as we waited on for the C130's that would take us to Vung Tau. During our wait, a small single engine white plane landed, dropped off a passenger and took off: Air America–the CIA’s private air service.
The first C130 arrived, emerging from the distant haze, its four turbo prop engines roaring as it landed and taxied to us. I joined my old platoon in the plane’s modestly cavernous belly. We sat on web seats along the sides, our gear piled in the middle. The flight was noisy but also uneventful. At Vung Tau, we filed into the R&R Center and almost immediately left for the finer accommodations in town. About 12 to 15 of us–my old buddies and newer platoon members–had a block of rooms which was our base for enjoying the town’s many fine restaurants and attractions.
First order of business was buying pot. We netted enough weed to keep everyone blissfully stoned for the rest of our collective tour. We immediately fired up our pipes and in that smoky haze the war disappeared. We were just a bunch of guys on holiday, partying happily. It was not quite a “victory lap”–we were still in Vietnam–but it was almost over. I knew I would make it home alive; there wasn’t much risk for me on the big Army base at Bien Hoa. I had just turned 24 and could reasonably expect to live more years. A year ago, I had every reason to wonder if I would ever see 24. November 1971 was a good month to see.
The three days followed a pretty simple routine. Breakfast, pot, beach, pot, lunch, pot, nap, pot, dinner, pot. I’m sure alcohol was also involved but not being much of a drinker and much more of a pothead, I don’t recollect. A few guys got laid but most of us had little use for prostitutes. The Vietnamese currency had just been devalued so our faux dollars (military pay certificates) bought even more. I recall a very fine little French restaurant that served a tasty beef bourguignon. Food was plentiful, good and cheap. One guy, though, refused to eat in any local food establishment (“Have you seen those kitchens?”), opting for the certainty of the R&R center mess hall. He missed a lot but at least that mess hall was very good–Army food but well done. This stand down included Thanksgiving day. Army mess halls typically do holiday dinners well, and this mess hall did Thanksgiving very well. We smoked ourselves into a ravenous case of the munchies that morning and repaired to the R&R center to feast, more or less floating through the meal in a delighted haze. The whole three days has a kind of Magical Mystery Tour feel to it. Man, we were going HOME.
Reality returned on the fourth day. The C130's took the company back to war. I returned to Bien Hoa in the company jeep with the first sergeant, supply sergeant and enough pot to keep myself and friends happily stoned until we all went home. The guys going back into the field did the same. They didn’t have long to serve; the drops started in early December. By Christmas, everyone was gone but me. I had put in an extension to leave the Army immediately upon returning from Vietnam–a six month reduction in my enlistment; for that I had to stay a little longer and got to see everyone off to The World. I left Alpha Company just before the New Year.