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Rescue & Recon 1/9th Cav Style

by Tom Criser 'Cavalier Blue India' 1969-70

November 11, 2000

 

It didn't seem like it was real! It was more like it was part of a movie or something I read in a book. Maybe it was because I grew up two blocks from some Hollywood studios. Or maybe it was because my first job in high school was working around movie stars. But my entire Vietnam experience never seemed like it was for real.

My first job was doing deliveries for an interior-decorating store called the Staircase. It was partially owned by the wife of George Axelrod, the writer and producer, who was responsible for the movies Up the Down Staircase, (henceforth the name) and How to Murder your Wife. I did get to meet people like Natalie Wood, Jack Lemon, Angie Dickerson, and on and on. So, like many who live in that kind of "tinsel-town" environment, I had a surreal outlook.

When I received my draft notice in April 1968, I never doubted that I was heading for Vietnam. I stepped off the plane in Saigon on February 13, 1969, and smelled the humid air that seemed filled with a sent of gunpowder, military machinery, and an unknown stench that I learned to hate. Some said it was the smell from the human fertilizer the Vietnamese were rumored to be using. Others said it was the smell of 'Crispy Critters', a term I had never heard before. Even with all that, I still didn't feel this really was happening.

The first assignment Freeman 'Duffy' Daugherty and I received was two weeks of KP in an officer's mess in Saigon. Duffy and I had been together since basic training at Fort Ord, California and managed to stay together through A.I.T. and special weapons training at Hunter Ligget, Calif. He and I would hang together when off base. Naturally, as young men, the only thing we had on our minds was to meet some nice local girls.

 

We both had orders to leave for Nam on the same flight from Oakland to Saigon. The Major who was in charge of the flight, which had layovers in Seattle and Tokyo, was apparently very upset at us for accidentally delaying the take-off in Seattle. Duffy and I had met some Stewardesses, as they were called then, during the three-hour layover and missed last call to board the plane. The plane was at the end of the taxiway before they got the word that we were not aboard and had to turn back to pick us up. Truthfully, the only thing that saved us from being considered AWOL was that the airport was under construction and two others also didn't hear the call for our flight. When we heard that we got KP, we smiled thinking that it beat being in the jungle.

The two weeks on KP went too fast. The duty was really not bad, except for having to be up at 4:00 a.m. each morning. Beside, by ten o'clock we were higher than a kite. Apparently, unbeknownst to us, the Vietnamese pot scrubbers who worked in the kitchen always took brakes and smoked Hashish. Duffy and I got high just from the fumes. Additionally, we usually were done with our job by noon and spent the rest of the day in the NCO Club drinking beer.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to keep the fun KP job and both were soon off to the jungle. My poor friend Duffy got the worst deal. He ended up with a hard core 'bush unit' that stayed out in the jungle for three to six months at the time. He was wounded three times and came home having served with great honor.

I, on the other hand, landed with the Blue platoon, Charlie Troop, 1/9th Cavalry, which was the core of the 1st Air Cavalry. We lived in hootches, with hootch maids to keep them clean, had weekly free laundry, and got to watch movies on weekends. A real sham assignment, or so I was told by a chopper pilot just returning from R & R.

The reality was that the 1st Air Cav was assigned to stop the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong from penetrating and attacking Ben Hoa, 30 miles north of Saigon, and Saigon itself. The 1/9th was based in Phuoc Vinh, 30 miles west of Ben Hoa, and as I very quickly found out, the 'Blue Annihilators' were the rescue and reconnaissance arm of the Cav. Our two functions meant that we were in choppers every day looking for the enemy or going out after downed-birds (crashed choppers or airplanes). We were the ones first on the ground of a crash and responsible for putting the mostly burned bodies into bodybags, or with the kind of sick humor that war brings, as some called it bagging 'Crispy Critters'.

 

It took 12 years, after coming back on April 1, 1970, to start talking about being a Vietnam Veteran. The first thing I wrote about being there was a poem called Vietnam Remembered and I would like to share with you.

I can't remember most of the names and all the faces are a darkened blur.
I can't remember all the strange places, but the smell of death is forever there.

(After more than ten years of trying to forget that I was there, it was hard to remember those whom I worked with daily, and the names of the places were just bizarre.)

I can't remember the empty laughter or the jokes we told to ease our minds.
I can't remember why we were all there, but the fear takes me clearly back at times.

(The demonstrations on the home-front were having their effect on those who were in Nam and even though we tried to keep our spirits up with jokes and humor, we were in the middle of a war zone. After coming back, sleepless nights made reality set in about being there.)

I can't remember the Sunday I turned 22, but I think I killed a shadowy enemy that day.
I can't remember why I shouted "he's still alive" when my friends last breath past away.

(We were walking down a trail where our scout helicopters had seen enemy movement earlier. We were sent in to see what we could find. We found a firefight. Several days later we were on another trail and shots rang out. Spec 4 Roger Carroll caught a bullet in the back of his head, I called for our medic not knowing it was his last breath I heard.)

I can't remember the hootchmaids name who read in our cards who was to die.
I can't remember why we nervously laughed, but my nightmares know she didn't lie.

(Staff Sgt Richard A. Dornellas only had two months left when she said he would die in Nam. He did go home and we all sighed knowing that her cards were bunk. Dornellas returned to Nam several months later and while serving with another unit, was killed in a tank.)

I can't remember the FNG who took my place while my R & R took me on an Australian high.
I can't remember the number of tears I spent when I heard it was he who took my place to die.

( Spc 4 Daniel Wright, a Funny New Guy (FNG), took my place as platoon RTO for the week I was on Rest and Recuperation in Australia. He was killed while helping to rescue some LRRP's who where in a heavy firefight.)

I can remember yesterday my son asking me, while dressed in green with his toy gun.
I can remember the gleam of excitement in his eyes when he asked,
"Dad, was getting those medals in Vietnam fun?"

 (Kids always end up finding things that are put away in the attic. My son was about five and was playing war with his friends. He found the medals I had received.)

Now, thirty-some years later, there is the reality that I was in Vietnam. The reality, though, is being shared with many of those who served in Old Charlie Troop 1/9th. Now, we have again found each other on the Internet (http://cavalier44.tripod.com ) and are sharing stories and memories. We are honoring those who didn't come back.

Sometimes I'm asked about how I feel about having served in Vietnam. It took me until just a few years ago to realize that those who fought and died there didn't do so in vane. It took a long time to realize that Vietnam served a very important part in our history. This country is forged on "Freedom of Speech". Vietnam tested our rights to that freedom and I believe because of that we have become a stronger nation. We survived that test. We are stronger now than ever before in the belief that it is our right to disagree. We, as a people, are stronger. We know we can disagree and still survive as the best nation in the world. For me, it's taken awhile for reality to set in; the reality that I'm proud to be a Vietnam Veteran.

 

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Submitted July 2001