Edison 64

From the book “Edison 64: A Tragedy in Vietnam and at Home” by Richard Sand (2019), pp 50-53.  Reprinted with permission.

Ghost Job

I came from a military family.  My father was in the Army in World War II, as was my uncle.  I was in the Boy Scouts and Civil Air Patrol before I enlisted in the Army.  My two brothers who lived with me on the 2800 block of Marvine Street, were in the service also.  My older brother was in the US Army in Korea and Europe, and my younger brother served in the Navy in the Mediterranean.

My best friend from Stetson Junior High until Edison, which he dropped out of, was Mark Smith.  He was what you called “happy go lucky,” and came from a family of 9 kids.  We had a great time playing stickball and so on until he enlisted in September of 1965.  My best friend died in Vietnam on May 18, 1967.

When I enlisted, the country was tearing itself apart over the War and those on my family’s side of the argument were saying that the enemy was just laughing at us while we were having to fight a war with our hands tied.  And, no way were we baby killers or anything like that.

I was always pretty responsible and had jobs at Albert Einstein Hospital Dietary Department and then at Strawbridge and Clothier department store.  In addition to being in the Scouts and Civil Air Patrol, I played football in high school.  So, I was confident when I discussed enlisting with my father.  Like I figured, when I did ask him, he said that was my decision because I was “of age.”

After I enlisted, I was sent to Fort Jackson which was in Columbia, South Carolina, and then I was sent to Fort Gordon.  My AIT or Advanced Infantry Training was back at Fort Jackson where I was trained to be a truck driver and supply clerk.

The guys around me said it was a “ghost job,” that it was easy, but I knew from my father about “The Red Ball Express” which he was in.  Folks said it was a “do nothing” job and that it was all black truck drivers.  No way was that true.  About the truck driving, it really didn’t matter because soon I was in logistics as a supply clerk, but I volunteered to be a paratrooper.  I felt that if I was going to be in Vietnam, I wanted it to be in a unit that trained to fight, and I would jump into enemy territory where it was all about survival.

I was in the 173rd with George Bernbischew and Del Younger and then went to Fort Benning on a new adventure.  I was ready to take on the world.  When I was ready for my qualifying, I stepped out of line to double-check all my equipment and then I was right next to the door and the next thing I know, I’m out into the sky because my sergeant said, “Go!” and I could see everybody else coming out.  It was beautiful.  Then when we had all landed, we got into formation and marched over to the ceremony where we got our wings.  It was very gratifying.

I didn’t call home to tell my folks, but after, I got transferred to Fort Bragg, which was when I got my first leave.  I came home for Mother’s Day.  I had all my airborne gear on.  My dad said, “Your mother’s going to have a fit!”

“Hi, Mom,” I said when I went inside, “I’m home and I’m a paratrooper!”

“What’s that?” she said.  “I didn’t give birth to no fool!”

Besides that, all went well; even when I told them I was going into combat, which is what we all did from Bragg, meaning to go to war in Vietnam.  First, they flew us to Oakland and then we were on ships for 21 days, stopping only at Manilla.  About then, I was wondering whether I was in the Navy rather than the 3rd Battalion.  It was October 1, 1967.

Paratrooper or not, I never put a parachute on my back during the nine months I was in the field.  It was more like putting myself in a cesspool, which is what a rice paddy is and us sitting in the dung of water buffalo, sitting there for hours and sleeping in it.

I didn’t actually remember the names of all the different firebases I was at, although many were near Pleiku or Dak To.  We’d set them up, resupply and before long, we’re breaking them down.  There were lots of encounters with the enemy.  One engagement, I’ll never forget.

We were to set up an ambush and I was to position a 50-caliber machine gun.  However, I made the mistake of not bringing extra ammo.  We opened up on the enemy just fine, but before long, our base load was exhausted, and we were out of ammo.

As the NCO in charge, it was my fault and we had to pack up and retreat.  Things could have gone bad for us, but we were lucky and made it back.  I have lived with that and replayed it for more than 40 years and it will probably last forever.

What I will also never forget is how hard the last three months were.  Those 90 days, we called it “short time,” were the most terrifying of all the time I spent “in country” and nothing at all is like that fear I felt.

What also will stay with me forever is the camaraderie, the bonds I formed with the guys I served with, all the way back to Fort Jackson and Bragg.  Like when I was the only person in the barracks and my old classmate, George, comes in and we both yell, “Edison!”  It was the same way my buddies from the service, Rodney Janner, and Doug billings, yelled “Airborne” when we met again, decades after the war.

My coming home when my tour was over was quiet, even though I might have been happy because I was able to get my discharge fifteen days early.  The first thing is I’m “back in the States” and landing in Seattle.  The next thing I know, I’m on the subway at Broad and Snyder.

I just wanted to get home to my parents.  They had moved to Mt. Airy and I remember walking down the street from the corner.

I had received news that my father was hurt on the job and had trouble standing and could hardly walk.  My god-sister was sitting there with her hand on him.  But when he saw me, he stood straight up and faced me.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked.

“She’s in the kitchen singing, Near the Cross,” he told me.

I could smell the cooking.  I went to her.

“What’s for dinner?” I asked.

She turned around and dropped the dish she was holding, and she started saying, “Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus.  My son is home.  My son is home.”