Words by: Patrick G Rogan
All photos courtesy of the author
It was Vietnam, and it was 1967…
As the big Boeing tipped into landing position, you could see the beach, the sand hills, and the green of the land toward the mountains. A beautiful World Airways stewardess in a pink uniform and hat stood in the aisle telling us to buckle up for landing. She was like a rose in a garden of olive drab, for we were all in our dark green, newly issued jungle fatigues and combat boots – sure badges of being brand-new “incountry” and ripe for abuse. Below us, as we descended, were neat rows of Army buildings at Cam Rahn and plumes of dark black, oily smoke. (What is that?!)
Our reception was relatively subdued and civilized, a welcome contrast to the barking orders and in-your-face yelling that greeted us at previous basic training and AIT bases (i.e: “Hold your dicks and grab your shit and follow!”), and a short bus ride took us to the barracks for the transit and replacement companies. An ironic sign read: “ 444th replacement battalion THIS WAY HOME!” It would be a long 365 days and more before I would ever see that sign again.
The place is hot, a little humid … kind of the feel of Mazatlan or San Blas. Saw some waves from the plane and wondered, then I reflected on my transition from the real to the surreal. A forced conscript in your own country leading to a bizarre journey – flashes of doing the low crawl through the sand and scrub of Fort Ord with the ‘normal’ of Monterey in the distance, 5.30am calisthenics at Fort Hamilton within sight of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to New York, a subzero night compass course on Long Island Sound with the city lights shining bitter cold and a 10-minute leak in the damn army issued mummy bag. Always strange to be so near the “real world” yet held a prisoner, away in the draft time-warp. It had been one fast blur from the draft notice in my first year of law school to the inevitable “Greetings from the President of the United States” letter that summer.
John Milius was either at the skid-row South Broadway draft-board exam center or he had an eye-witness in Los Angeles report it all for him, because that scene in Big Wednesday was on the money. I brought the x-rays of my slipped vertebrae and hyperextended elbow from college football and pole vaulting. My surf knots from knee paddling were pretty gross, too. But …
“Turn around. You look okay. You pass!” I got the stamp of cannon-fodder approval.
The ear exam consisted of a guy walking down a line of hundreds looking through the ear device from several feet away, then ticking off the boxes: Pass. Pass. Pass.
The only guy that didn’t pass was this tall, skinny, zitty geek with droopy balls, who, standing with us in a nude circle of 20 around a doctor, when asked to “bend over and spread ’em” for the hemorrhoid check, bent over and put his fingers in the corners of his mouth, spreading his cheeks to expose his ratty yellow teeth.
Fort Ord soon followed. Previous looks at Monterey Bay had been gotten surfing Santa Cruz, and the warmth of looking down toward Steamer Lane from Jim Ritchey’s place up in Soquel. What a difference to be a prisoner in the chill Fort Ord dorms – windows open all winter, icy Monterey Bay foggy onshores blowing over thin Army blankets (meningitis control). The PT [physical training] part of Basic was like football practices but with sadists. Like drill practices – discipline in the form of holding an M-14 “at dress”: arms off the ground, held only by your left index finger from the front sight. As time progressed it cut deeper into the finger, numbing the finger then hand … asshole DI [drill instructor] the kind of guy who would be prosecuted nowadays.
Boxes of shrimp meant for chow seen going into the trunk of the Mess Sergeant’s car. One scoop after humping down to the sand dunes and back with a full pack would not do on my metabolism … I was starving. Went with my plate to the lieutenant’s office, endured the stare of the lifer First Sergeant to tell the First Looey that we weren’t getting a proper allotment of the shrimp. “Follow me!” A quick march back to the mess and an order to provide me as much as I wanted. The shrimp did not stop until the plate was a volcano of pink. I sat in
front of the dickhead mess Sgt. and ate it all.
Got a pass out of Basic by agreeing with the First Looey that he would allow me out early (wanted to get engaged to Rilla during my parents’ anniversary party) if I scored the maximum points on the PT competition for the battalion: timed low crawl, ditch jump, and figure eights around barricades, grenade throw… all much easier than the mile in combat boots in under seven minutes. Did it.
The post-basic training timeout melded into Fort. Hamilton, New York; Fort. Dix, New Jersey (“Pretend that the snow all over the piney woods is jungle, men! Jump off those trucks and roll into firing position!”), and then over to ’Nam.
Slim hopes for an alternative (five-percent chance of an assignment in Germany) disappeared when the Vietnam orders glared out of the duty jacket. I looked at the date to report to ship out from Fort. Lewis, and it was only ten days off. WRONG! I was certain that assignment to ’Nam entitled you to at least 15 days’ leave, plus travel time to the jump-off point. I pointed out the discrepancy to the Sgt.
Major who had shoved the orders at me. I asked him politely to correct the mistake, and he told me to “get lost.” A more pointed request elicited a GTFOut dismissal.
Action was required, and I had a few contacts. Called the Pentagon from a pay phone. Knew the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (family connection). Got through. Quick explanation of problem and request for help … described the order number and the name of the Sgt. Major. Told to return to same office next afternoon for requested change.
When I arrived at the door leading to the office, the big, bulky, black Command Sgt. Major was clearly aware of my presence and purposely ignored me for some time. He was like the giant American footballer “Refrigerator Perry” in uniform, and he had every stripe possible for an EM [enlisted man], including one of those diamonds within all the stripes and hatches of five-year marks on the sleeves. Shit had obviously rolled downhill on my orders, otherwise there was no reason for ignoring me.
“Sergeant, I understand you have corrected orders for me?” He lumbered out of his chair and pounded across the room. As I reached for the orders, he threw them over the counter at me and roared, “I hope you get your ass shot off when you get over there!”
My Irish temper did not simmer… it exploded without thought. Even though I was a private and the guy outweighed me by at least 75lbs., I reached across the doorway, grabbed him by his well-starched shirt, and pulled him down to my face, yelling a challenge to step outside so I could kill his ass … then an adrenalin-assisted shove sent him tottering backwards on his heels, crashing into the desk, pulling the tin in/out boxes to the floor with him as his wheeled chair spun away.
A sideward glance at two officers, a Major and a Captain, and their eyes acknowledged where the fault lay. They did not move or say a word as the fallen man confirmed with a glance their lack of support. My last words to him: “I’ll be outside.”
Orders in hand, I decided to boogie for the airport … glances behind, but no repercussions. Had a few last surfs in Laguna Beach and stored my Bing and Hansen under the Chiquita house. Later learned my friends surfed and abused them to oblivion at Rock Pile (pre-leash days).
How da fa?
Watching the World Airways “ticket to the world” roar away from Cam Rahn … there were vague whumps of artillery. Incoming? Outgoing? Nobody moving with any alarm … so … must be okay.
You could smell the beach at Cam Rahn with the onshores, but a change of direction brought aromas from the messes and the sticky, thick smell of the shitters. Each day we assembled on a metal gridwork laid out on the sand for roll call and our orders. If they didn’t read your name, you were assigned to various duties. Mess hall was only slightly better than shitburning duty – learned about the latter and ducked it … they can draft me, send me to ’Nam, but I am not burning shit! The oily black plumes I’d seen from the plane were explained: the cutaway 45-gal. oil drums filled with shit, slopping over, carried across the road – two men, heads diverted, to the drum – to be doused with fuel oil and ignited. Afterwards, returning the empties to the flip-up doors on the outside of the latrines. Great duty to avoid.
Sneaking out to the beach at Cam Rahn revealed a wide, long beach. Probable that a river fed the place with a strong north to south current. Good beachbreak at the north end.
Mmmm! A beach center run by “Special Services” – lifers who once guarded swimming pools at flatland bases. I discovered they had a steel shipping container filled with surfboards, some sailfish dinghies, volleyball court posts and nets … a treasure trove! I asked the pricks if I could use a board for a go-out in the three-foot beachbreak. Got a solid “No!” despite my recitation of the Laguna-Malibu-Trestles-Mazatlan-Hawaii surf resumé.
“Sorry, bud, nobody uses that stuff.”
The reason, apparently, was that if someone was hurt in the surf or, if they were too scared of the overhead stuff, they would be at risk of being busted or not promoted … bad stuff for lifers. Memory banks were engaged about their treasure.
Next day my head snapped as my name was called. The green order jacket opened with some trepidation. Cam Rahn? Pleiku? Vung Tao? Saigon?
Jargon: “For further asmt 5thSPFGA, NTG.” Nothing else written that gave a clue. Three of the guys wore the Special Forces green berets, so I asked one for translation. “Mmm, you
lucky d’boy. That mean you be goin’ to Nha Trang – 5th Special Forces Group, to be exact.”
Me: “Holy shit … this has got to be a mistake!”
Ordered to grab my duffel and report to the bus for transport in 15 minutes … to a C-130 at the airbase – no windows and no seats … flopped on the rucksacks with the John Wayne
guys, except they were all Okies … and for several this was their third rotation to ’Nam. Even when the plane landed and I bumped over the dirt road into 5th Group HQ, I had no clue
where I was. Mountains were thick and unending on the far side of the rice paddies, and there were a few peaks on the opposite side of the camp, too. I soon learned those were the
offshore islands of Nha Trang Bay.
The replacement company at Special Forces was right out of a B movie. “Keep your shit with you at all times – the ‘yards’ (Nung and Montangnard mercenaries) do not believe in private property, they’ll steal you blind.”
Turned out the swarm of little brown guys playing volleyball inhabited the replacement barracks. I begged to share a hooch with the chaplain’s assistant to escape the yards, until I got to know where I was, which was … in even deeper shit. This base was the HQ for the Special Forces in II Corps. and a rear staging area for further assignment to the Special Forces A-camps in the jungle problem areas. Oh, great!
I decided to take some personal time prior to checking in for the reassigned duty – three weeks to be exact. When I did, I found out I was only two klicks from the beach. Hitched a ride to the Air Force PX and on the way back passed IFFV (First Field Force) headquarters, an old French resort hotel occupied by Gen. Peers and his staff and HQ company in the former hotel grounds, now walled and concertina wired.
I visited IFFV at the first opportunity to attempt to wrangle a way to extricate myself from the Green Berets to join IFFV on the beach. The lone California guy at IFFV said he might be able to work me in as a replacement in the G2 Intelligence unit or as Chaplin assistant. “You have to get the orders cut by Special Forces … I can’t do it.” Great … how da fa do I do that?!
Out of my desperation, an opportunity presented itself. I heard the supply guy at 5th Group complain that Col. Rualt was demanding that the asphalt tile floor he ordered be installed in his hooch. How hard could that be? I lied and said that I used to install floors and could he ask Col. Rualt to allow me to transfer in exchange for the work? Dicey, but it worked, sort of.
First, I took quite a bit of time learning how to cut the tile, inverting it for proper fit and other logistics. Then, halfway through the job, I realized that spreading the thick black adhesive evenly beneath the tiles was a big mistake. Weight on the tiles resulted in the primordial goo rising between the tiles to stick to bare feet or the colonel’s boots. I did the rest of the floor okay, and my parting comment to Col. Rualt and the NCO was that the humid climate might affect the cure time. Rualt would be furious when he discovered the shit would never stop oozing. Fortunately, by that time I was gone to IFFV.
I soon learned that Rualt was the guy (as reported in Time magazine) that “interviewed” captured VC for other locations by taking a bunch for a ride in his chopper. He would
question several and, when they gave unsatisfactory answers, boot them out at 2,000 feet for a chuteless trip to the South China Sea. After that, the others usually answered his
questions … or got the same thrill ride. (Rualt was the model for Marlon Brando’s role in Apocalypse Now.) I made it a point to stay away from 5th Group and always worried he’d inviteme on a chopper ride.
IFFV was right across the road from a shoreline reminiscent of Oceanside: long, wide, sand beach, periodic good little beach-breaks that could hold up to about three to four foot.
Rivers at the ends.
As I became acclimated to Nha Trang and the areas to the north, when traveling to artillery bases and MACV camps with my colonel, I was able to check out the spectacular coast and a number of obvious surf spots … some just out of Nha Trang. It was then that a loose conspiracy of surf-hungry guys formed at the air base.
Kind of like Costa Rica
Nha Trang fronts a long, curving beach contained by mountains, like arms, to the north and south, rocky islands a mile or so offshore. I discovered the village to the north with scores of the high-prowed fishing boats, eyes painted on them to guide or guard against whatever spooks them … rich fishing grounds as evinced by the catches laid out on the concrete wharf. No regard for proper cleaning of the catch… tree saws cutting through marlin without gutting … but the red fish looked good. No way to persuade our dumb-ass cooks to fix anything we might bring back. See that those wide-pant black ou zais serve a purpose… the mama sans just squat with their baskets on the poles, pull a pant leg and pee right in the street.
Pulled guard duty. M14s issued, five ammo clips. Rumor is that they are giving the ARVN [Army of the Republic of (South) Vietnam] the new M16s. The Tet holiday is on us … no particular word of any shit to worry about. Warm, balmy night, random “whumps” of mortar fire. Incoming?
The sandbagged bunker 10 yards down with the LRRP [Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol] guy in his tiger suit. Someone said they pulled him back in for psyche assessment … enjoyed it too much in the bush … a killing machine with dead eyes. Grunts, does not talk.
An ARVN company walking in semiformation down the broad street with the moon dappling the French cobbles with shadow. He says ‘heads-up” as he closes the top of the M60 machine gun, bumps it engaged on the feed of bullets from the ammo box, pulls the slide chambering the first round, points at the ARVN company now 50 yards away …. and proceeds to blow them away. Raking right and left, a mama san screaming and running … blows her away too … turns out she had satchel charges in the baskets … they’re shooting back and hell is breaking loose. Tet is here, and the offensive showed even there in Nha Trang.
We asked the LRRP later how the hell he knew that the ARVN company were really VC [Viet Cong]. “Uniforms were okay, but I did not dig it that they were wearing VC-type sandals, not shoes.” Guy got a bronze star, went back to the bush. Never heard from again.
Got a chance to see some of the country courtesy of Air America, traveling in de Havilland Canadian Otters – rugged, propped, tail-wheeled bush planes. Land and take off on rutted, muddy, wild-ass runways near MACV [US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam] and Special Forces A camps. Started taking trips in Hueys [Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters] to remote artillery batteries in II Corps … had to watch newbie warrant officer pilots in new green fatigues trying to read the map to spot the battery 20 klicks out, when I could see the friggin’ place and could see from the haze and the high-speed specks whipping past that we were in a fire mission heading into flying rounds … pounding on the back of the co-pilot, yelling: “Hey, dumb-ass, you’re flying right into 155 rounds! Get us on the deck!” They later apologize … rare for those dicks.
Your tax dollars at work: Visiting the battery with the colonel to award a unit medal for the one millionth round fired! While they’re giving the awards I shared some C-rations with the battery grunts. Yeah, it’s all BS. It’s all H&I [harassment and interdiction] fire.
We pick some coordinates where Charlie might possibly be, and if he’s there the H&I fire would be a bother. A stack of used 175mm rifled gun barrels lie like logs outside the concertina… “Yea, after a couple of hundred rounds, the rifling wears, and they have to be re-sleeved. But, there’s no way to get them back, so we let the gooks take them for scrap. Each barrel is at least $250k, the rounds themselves go for $500 … a million fired with no confirmed kills … expensive way to cut down trees.”
Next stop: Special Forces A camp … good lunch … see a guy with a patch from the artillery battery 40 klicks back … “Yeah, I’m the FAO [ forward artillery observer] for the battery … no fucking way I’m staying out in the jungle, although they think I am. Every couple of days I’ll pick out some coordinates and call in a fire mission … keeps ’em happy, keeps me away from the punji stakes, snakes, and all that shit. You’re cool with that yeah? Don’t want someone ratting and fucking up my deal here.” Yeah, no problem.
Another battery further up toward Pleiku – thick, oozy, orange mud, slime, mold. Brush not cut far enough out, concertina in too close to the tracked 155s, guys dirty and depressed… overrun and chopped up bad recently with five dead. The lightly wounded get patched and put right back. More serious and you get Medevaced to Nha Trang or Cam Rahn. Really fucked-up and maybe to Japan or the Philippines. These guys realize that they each have a narrow chance of making it back to the world unmarked. And that is just the physical part.
The chopper lifts us away from the mud and back to the sea along the central highland coast. Beautiful. River valleys with rice paddies… sandy, river-fed beaches … wooded headlands – kind of like Costa Rica. Small rivermouth and occasional pointbreaks. Making mental notes of it all on the way back south to Nha Trang.
Determine that there are enough surfers and willing co-conspirators to get some boards. In Cam Rahn there are surfboards! We decide to get some volunteers together from Nha Trang for a Cam Rahn mission. We arrange with the Catholic chaplain, Maj. Fracasso, to grab two deuce-and-a-half trucks and a couple of MP jeeps for escort. We load Caritas refugee relief food (50-lb. sacks of rice and tins of cooking oil) for delivery to a refugee village that left the Cambodian border for relocation inland from Cam Rahn. A few random pot shots at us traversing the old Michelin rubber plantation – weird … the sound of bullets shredding leaves above your head.
We deliver the food at the refugee village and stay for the requisite “banquet” of chicken and warm Coke, then turn to the real mission: Stop on the road and repaint the serial numbers on the front of the trucks to Cam Rahnconforming ID, and pull the earlier prepared “Periodic Maint. Inventory and Repair” orders to be served on the beach Special Service
“lifers” at Cam Rahn. We drive up, hand out the orders. “No, Jack – you take all your shit out of the Conex containers – surfboards, umbrellas, masks, snorkels, fins, Sunfish – and YOU load it in our trucks!” You will get it back when the 43 Maintenance Battalion finishes with the inventory and inspection. We made them load all the boards and beach equipment, gave them a set of the orders and made a quick di di [go go] back to the highway for Nha Trang.
“Are those friendlies?”
The birth of the South China Sea Surfing Association was celebrated with silk-screened shirts for all. We kept the boards at my hooch. The Hawaiian guys usually just got to use them at the beachbreak in front of IFFV HQ. When the surf started pumping during the monsoon season, the need for further surf quests north out of town overrode the nascent concern over
being in an active war zone.
The ROCs (tough-ass, no-nonsense, strack [starched and creased], spit-shined Korean SOBs) were in charge of Nha Trang security following Tet and nobody fucked with them… or, really, us. Also, we had ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’, which would work the valley out back at night on occasion. With its Gatling guns, the Puff C-130 would rasp and a stream of trickling red would come pissing down – tracers every tenth round, eradicating anything that lived below.
I was required to “maintain” the colonel’s jeep. Sending him to inspect the artillery sites or on an overnight to Pleiku or Ban Me Thout gave me access to a surf vehicle, and I could let the surfing brothers know when a surf could happen.
First we ventured to the rivermouth at the north of Nha Trang – nice 2-5ft rights and lefts … couldn’t be any dirtier than Malibu. As the months went by, we started heading further out of town on Route 1 North. Man, did we get the double takes. Escorted convoys coming into town, wide-eyed stares and hoots from the trucks and the guys manning the quad-50s as we passed in the jeep with four longboards on the roof, wearing trunks rather than helmeted in flack jackets.
Maybe we got a little too bold. At one of the spots, a nice right point/reefbreak, we parked the jeep in the sand just outside the jungle canopy. Late in the session, Jamie, the little Hawaiian guy from the Air Force, paddles up and asks, “Are those friendlies squatting on the beach?”
Some RFPF (pronounced “ruffpuff” for “rural force popular force”) South Vietnamese didn’t have regular uniforms, and some of the VC that had Chu Hoi’d and been converted by the ROCs still wore black Pjs, but … these guys squatting on the beach had curved banana clips in their rifles, cone hats, and just the dull black PJs of VC … shit! They were VC!
We sat outside, ignoring them … kept surfing … while they watched … for a good 20 minutes … and then … they disappeared back into the jungle. We stayed out till we got cold, and we were risking a dark trip back, then we paddled in, jammed the boards sideways into the jeep, and blasted back to the highway. No problem! We surfed there a good five or six times more before returning to the world.
Hamburger Hill and Luau Pig
I was able to wrangle two separate R&Rs to meet Rilla in Hawaii. I did not give surfing a thought. There was a need for that soft skin, those beautiful brown eyes, the little smile. We later bought a condo near the old Waiohai on Kaui where we reconnected … and I can still look up from the break at Poipu and time melds back to the balcony where we spent our respite from ’Nam. The break is the same except for the reef that hurricane Iniki turned upside down and ruined off the Kiahuna plantation.
Back in ’Nam … more trips upcountry and seeing all the shit in II Corps. There was definitely a war going on. Hamburger Hill went down, wasting scores of the proud Screaming Eagles. When they were all chopped up, a few that refused to run the hill for the third time against the entrenched machine guns and torrents of grenades were tagged for general court-martial. Really fucked up, since the CO (General Brigante) was the one who should have gotten the court martial and his troops the medals. As usual, the Army got it ass-backwards.
The end of monsoon season ended the surf, but the cessation of rain quieted the mud flow from the rivers, causing the South China Sea to morph from dull gray and brown to an azure blue. When we could get a day off, the surf crew would go to the fishing vil and bargain to get a papa-san fisherman to take us to the islands for spear fishing and ripping through six packs of Bud. Got a giant fluted clam one time … took it back to the hooch and put it on an ant pile to clean it. Came back, and it was gone. Interrogation of the mama-san maid revealed she had helped herself, gesticulating and rubbing her tummy and saying “beaucoup good!” Knew she realized the shell was worth big bucks, which is why she bagged it.
Thievery was a prominent way of life. You couldn’t take anything to the beach … cowboys on mopeds would blast up, grab your shit as soon as you were too far to run them down, and take off. Saw my silk-screened South China Sea Surfing Assn. T-shirt on an old papa-san two days after one rip-off. Said he bought it for 5 pi at the market … and I let him have it. Judging from the smell, he probably hadn’t bathed in a month.
Almost got the clap, too. I was in the EM [enlisted men] club… dark night with just the small TV throwing splashes toward the bar. I asked the guy smoking next to me for a light and as he flicked his Zippo open and held my cigarette hand, I realized it was Leroy L, who had contracted every STD known to man. He’d been restricted to the compound and had taken to paying the skuzziest whores to let him fuck them through the chain link fence. Episode required an immediate hand scrub and disposal of the Marlboro.
With the downturn in the surf, we decided to gather the crew and see if we could arrange a luau. The idea spread to all the Hawaiians and wannabe surfers – Air Force, Marines, hospital nurses, and some of the Alaska Barge and Transport contractors (they built bridges, wharfs, etc.). It really got crazy as the planning expanded. A requisition by the Air Force guys resulted in several pallets of Primo beer, lava rock, leaves for lau-laus, and other ingredients getting flown in from Hawaii.
The doctors at the MASH unit went to the MACV model pig farm in one of the vils up north, picked out a pig, tested it for trichinosis and anything else nasty. I don’t know how they wrestled the huge fucker into the Huey or how they kept it for the week before the luau, but it was managed.
MPs from our little conspiracy cordoned off a section of beach, saw to the installation of concertina fencing and a security gate. A stage and bandstand were provided, and the Hawaiians and I helped dig the imu and line it. Oh yeah, keawe wood was also brought by the airlift, and we built the usual pyre to heat the stones, scattered them hot, lowered the butchered pig (wrapped in chicken wire), putting the hot stones inside as well as out (Hawaiians are handy!) into the pit, and covered it with ti leaves, then layers of burlap, then tarps and finally a thick layer of the beach sand. Proper cooking takes 20 hours or so, so a crew stood guard and tested the beer overnight.
What a blast! A totally unauthorized giant luau feast, all word of mouth, with every Hawaiian and California guy from every one of the services. This included officers who went along with the program in the spirit of ohana (family). Nice touches were the women from the hospital, nurses, doctors, and who knows where. Ukes and guitars and some rock helped the Primo put everyone in a swirl of the surreal … drunk or drunk happy mood … singing … dancing. Then the pig and trimmings came out of the imu and the feast went on. You could see the jeeps and Deuces [gun trucks] on the perimeter road slow and stare, wondering what the hell they were missing and why they had heard nothing. Party folded without incident, and none of the brass or ass noncoms could figure out what had gone on.
Back to the world
I extended in country for four extra months to avoid a reassignment for six months at some Nike missile site in the US. It was a risk, but enabled me to start school again in September rather than miss another year. With about three months to go, I acquired the requisite “don’t even think about fucking with me” short-timer stick [literally, a swagger stick, often made with a 50-caliber machine-gun-shell handle with a wood shaft and a M14 or M16 bullet tip … really cool ones were ‘bull dicks’ – the significance is that if you are a ‘short-timer’ soon to be rotated back to the US, you carry the stick, and supposedly the NCOs and brass weren’t supposed to give you dangerous or dirty assignments since you’d been there and done that and survived]. Told the colonel I wasn’t going with him to the remote vils on the chopper, and pushed my replacement into all the spots I declined. A bunch of beach days, a few surfs on random windswell days, and finally off to Cam Rahn for rotation back. It was May of ’69.
Required to dump everything out for inspection. Confiscation of photo prints or slides that the Army felt too graphic or embarrassing, personal searches, then back on what seemed like the same World Air 707 for the return trip. Amazingly, some of the same guys from Basic on the flight. Chris Spencer somehow missing the pat-down on the tarmac, the expando pockets of his fatigue shirt and pants bulging with his fine crop of Pleiku MJ. Not a worry about it, even though I asked him, and, holding to his luck, they searched the shit out of his duffel as he stood in line at Fort. Lewis in Washington, but they didn’t give a thought to his two kilos of personal baggage.
They delayed our departure from Fort. Lewis until we’d been subjected to more petty Army BS and a very irritating rah-rah speech by a chubby West Pointer. Finally back to LA, to my honey… strange suffocating feeling … realized my lungs had been purged of smog for so long I felt like I was taking a drag of a Camel when I was just breathing. Strange brew in line for a movie… long hair on the guys, super hippy girls in strange clothes… time warp… came up in a new era. Holy shit. Went to the ’Bu and not a longboard in sight! First Point was being slashed by a swarm of shortboards. Just watched… felt I had surfaced from a long, nasty sleep.
Down to Laguna, down to Thalia Street, greeted by Randy, Chip, Burton, and Marinello. “Rogie, you back for good? Heard you were in ’Nam. Hey, sorry about your boards … heard someone ripped ’em off from under your mother’s house while you were away. Probably thought you wouldn’t make it back.”
Well, 55,000 of us did not … many multiples wounded, in mind if not in body, by the experience. Most memories suppressed… triggered on occasion with regard for those who sacrificed all in their prime … the Vietnam Memorial on the Washington Mall brings it flooding back any time I see it in person or no.
Each served in his own way, based on the hand that was dealt. It was something you owed yourself and your country. Y’never know … if you dodged, you could probably never be in politics. (Ironic now, when you realize Bush and Cheney dodged and then helped dishonor the only hero who ran.)
Life is what you make of it … and a good surf makes the most of it. No more a beautiful feeling than that.
Pat Rogan served from 1967 to 1969 with the US Special Forces in Nha Trang and First Field Forces, receiving the Army Commendation Medal. A past president of the Malibu Surfing Association and married to Rilla since ’67, he lives in Malibu, where he surfs in longboard contests and practices law, primarily as a trial barrister.