Four empty trucks arrived late Sunday afternoon from Hill 52. We also received orders to break camp on Monday and return to Hill 65. My job was to retrieve the Claymore mines and trip flares from the wire around our perimeter, but I wasn’t allowed to start until after sunrise.
I spent much of the night taking down the canvas shelter half and packing my rucksack. I left the bamboo framework in place. My final C-rat breakfast was “Ham and Eggs, Chopped.” The steaming white bread transformed the meal into fluffy breakfast sandwich bites.
The Claymores and trip flares were secured by 0900, and I began the task of bunching the accordion-like concertina wire into 50-foot bundles. We weren’t taking the wire with us, it would be picked up later by the Special Forces unit.
The job of dismantling the Medical tent was fairly easy with everyone helping. It was folded and secured in a truck for future use at Hill 65. All the cots were broken down and stored with it as well.
We were finally ready to mount up and leave the compound by noon. The 155mm guns were tracked vehicles and could travel fast, but the dust cloud they generated was thick and created vision issues. Aside from the lead vehicle, everybody was driving blind and eating dust. The three miles to Hill 52 went quickly (less than an hour), but the deep sand next to the river bogged down our progress.
The most dangerous stretch lay ahead. The eight miles to Hill 65 was a very narrow passage, susceptible to ambush. All of us were on alert as we slowly moved through the dense growth on either side of the road. The final mile of the trek was more open terrain, and we could see clearly into Arizona territory on the other side of the Song Vu Gia River.
My wristwatch was caked with dirt which I brushed off — it was 1600 when we entered the Hill 65 complex. With my pack over my shoulder, I walked down the slope to the mess hall, and Sumo greeted me with all smiles, “Glad you’re back, we missed you.” I unloaded my gear, dropping it outside (not wanting to bring all the dirt into the hooch). I wanted to shower first so I undressed and went inside to get a towel and soap. When I came into the hooch naked, Reb was just getting up and he said, “Damn Sarge, you’re a mess!”
We laughed as I reached for the Dove soap . . . it had been opened and slightly used (I wondered who would do that?). Then I noticed $50 in greenbacks where my movie camera had been stored. Reb said, “We sold the camera like you wanted.” He made a quick exit and left me to my shower.
The water was warm and felt clean compared to the river. As I scrubbed down and rinsed, I noticed some graffiti-like letters written on the wall of the galvanized aluminum siding . . . “MERCI”.
After I was dressed, Top Culverhouse knocked on the hooch and said, “Sit down, we need to talk.” From the sound of it, I thought I was in trouble.” He gave me a handful of letters as well as a package and offered some polite small talk. Then he said, “There was an incident while you were gone.”
He went on to explain: A patrol from India Company returned from a week in Arizona territory, and they brought a woman into the compound with them. She was an Associated Press photographer. Captain Robb turned her away, leaving her nowhere to stay for the night. Being filthy, needing new clothes and a shower, Culverhouse ushered her to the cooks’ hooch which was secluded. He ordered Sumo and Reb to give her privacy and keep her presence a secret. The woman was issued new clothes and spent the night in our hooch, sleeping on my cot. The next day she left on the convoy to Da Nang. He ended with, “Sumo and Reb had nothing to do with this.”
After Top Culverhouse left, I read Jenny’s letters and opened the package from my grandmother * (seeds, herbal tea and shortbread cookies). Sumo came in with a tray of Udon noodles and spicy beef tips which was his delicious specialty.
Sumo’s version of the woman photographer was more graphic. She was young (our age), very short and French. After she cleaned up in our shower, her old clothes were given to Mama-San who got rid of them. The photographer was interested in my Super 8 movie camera and had paid for it with the greenbacks.
She wanted some photos of Captain Robb and had maneuvered her way (by helicopter) to join the India Company platoon in Arizona. Apparently this woman thought that staying with the platoon would eventually lead her to Captain Robb. Her plan worked, but Robb would have no part of it. The press credentials were worthless to him.
In the process of putting Jenny’s letters away, I noticed someone had opened my old mail. I had them arranged a certain way, and they were now out of order. She had read my mail! This revelation set me off, and it took some time for me to cool down. It was disrespectful for someone to come into my space and read my personal letters. This affected my attitude, and I felt my privacy had been violated.
Reb offered his take, “I brought the French lady pastries in the morning, and she said I was an artist.” I told him about her reading my letters and he said, “I think she was lonely and homesick.” She talked about her parents back in France and not seeing them in two years. **
During my tour of duty in Vietnam, this woman photojournalist remained a mystery. She was just another blur in my memory of the war. I have since forgiven her for reading my letters; loneliness is painful.
* See previous “The Apple Tree” published in Mid-December