The road to Phu Bai
I don't know of any better account of the off-duty life of Jeff and his fellow linguists at Phu Bai than John Buquoi's magisterial poem following.
phú bài nights
for ralph, bill, jeff and peyton
phú bài was originally
to a small army security agency
unit known as detachment j, 3rd rru
phú bài, ‘the nam’, spring, sixty four
bill, a great gruff, bluff, comic walrus
our mustached brother holding court
one baleful eye, now crooked askew
manic hinted, perhaps of some
deep sadness, of a tale not told,
some wounded hurt held closed inside
or maybe not just impressions,
but reflections of the burden
weighted of the day’s black mission
escalated every day
how not enough killing in the south
more lives gone north not to return
the slaughter of unknowing lambs
(not really lambs, of course, but men
and boys too young to die their deaths,
unlucky ones to prison camps)
sacrificed to widening war
while watchers just as young as they
listen here, close by, listening,
listening, listening, waiting
until their faint transmissions end
bill’s tiny table’s pre-reserved,
the club’s packed, a nightly pirate
ship of fools and he the captain
‘hey-ho’ glaring from quarterdeck
lacking only eye-patch, cutlass
and, maybe, a worthier prize
than a ship on bottled label
they, now spirit partnered brothers
in their young generation’s war
pirates sailed along war’s dark edge
bu, sit down here, we don’t get up
until this quart of cutty’s gone
,you know i saved it just for us’
nobody else unless maybe
danny b, or ralph, brother jeff
or ex-pfc ‘johnny c’
if we need another bottle,
well, that’s okay, not a problem
there’s always more where this came from’
nightly ritual, bill the host
and they never quit ‘til all gone
and the world’s problems solved except
not for those death trapped, dying near
beyond the perimeter wire
or, not far north, the dmz
nor for those shadow haunted souls
in restless dreams and scotch soaked sleep
danny, drunk navajo
(‘near four corners, new mexico’)
passes bearing candy handouts
‘hey guys, look what I got from home,
a box of baby ruths, have some’
best candy bar god ever made
the navajo call them bear turds
but, they’re for sure better than that,
laughs ripple around the table
‘thanks for sharing, but think i’ll pass’
he staggers past, on toward the bar
looking for beer and anyone
who hasn’t yet heard his old joe
or the one about ‘coyote’
and the navajo sheepherder
marine matt, and his pfc
phú bài’s own war’s madness mascots
draw a crowd out near the door
as they burnt cork black their faces
prepping to go out through the wire
with their k-bars and swedish k’s
unauthorized, seeking ‘action’
or intelligence, ‘good luck, there’
no intelligence in these two
men boys playing at children’s sport
in a real bullet game of war
‘john fucking waynes without no brains’
macho fools who’d get off on death
but only if they can deal it
before it comes and first finds them
god spare innocents in their path
not enough useless death around
these fools now to go ‘get some’
how so wrong hope they not return
from their sought home-brewed valhalla
maybe best for the neighborhood
someone shouts, from across the room
‘hey, you guys, we don’t need this shit
we’re not here for no g.i. joe’
but there they go, out, gone again
ralph and jeff make
but ralph splits off after ‘hi guys’
and moves where he can watch the slots
jeff, distracted, tired, slouches down
and bill, in greeting sloshes out
a double cutty sark his way
jeff downs the shot but craves a beer
‘this place stinks and this war’s bullshit
we’re not fucking helping ‘em here
just makin’ some fat white guys rich
from people dyin’ on all sides
just war,’ my ass, there’s no such thing
not here anyway, least of all’
he wanders off across the room
he’d rather beer and fresh debate
a foil for fencing with himself
maybe the new guy by the bar
a conversation overheard
‘hey, that guy over there looks like
shit, it is, jeesus, raymond burr
goddamn, perry mason right here
in phú bài, what’s he doing here’
‘just hanging out, one of the guys,
he says, that’s all he wants to be,
hangin’ out mostly with big merle
but with anybody who cares
to sit with him and drink a beer’
'no shit, merle or anybody
well, i guess that’s right, with him and
merle so damn much alike, both big
and heavy and all, an’ like that’
'well merle’s got the beer cooler key
and ol’ ‘perry’ does like his drink
not just the beer but anything
‘cept, it’s not just merle, like i said
anybody can join an’ drink
hell, this morning we had some beers
with him outside, back in the shade,
and he’s going to call my mom
whenever he gets back to the states’
you’re shittin’ me, calling your mom’
'he asked did i want him to call,
like i said, a regular guy
says he’s here ‘til they drag him out’
‘shee-it, perry fuckin’ mason’
‘and, man, he can put it away
nobody here’s gonna match him
at suckin’ it down can by can
sixteen hours a day, nonstop
last night still out in the bunker
after midnight, watchin’ the flares,
and he’s still not even wasted
yeah, after drinkin’ beer all day
nah, he’s just a regular guy’
fuck me, perry fuckin’ mason
out drinkin’ on our goddamn wire
and now, look at him over there
even laughin’ at danny’s jokes’
‘there it is, a regular guy’
jeezus, perry fuckin’ mason,
an’ right here in fuckin’ phú bài
kiss my ass, one regular guy
i’m gonna get an autograph,
maybe he’ll offer to call mom’
ralph smells ‘jackpot’
(that’s nothing new),
goes to the slot, drops one thin dime
and scores a twenty dollar pot
a weekly think just like clockwork
'yo, ralph, how the fuck’d you do that’
‘just good luck, bro’,and clean livin’
and through the door he’s out and gone,
our dark brother ralph’s not talking
at least not while the magic lasts
(listener ralph, he’s of few words)
'ya’ know, with him a black ‘lingy’,
little kids think that he’s a ghost
like the spirits they’ve heard about
that maybe come to take their souls,
but how the hell does he do that,
he just watches and then he knows
the fuckin’ payout’s coming due
i’m just sayin’ that’s scary shit’
‘maybe the fuckin’ kids are right’
'shit, go get us another drink,
this place is makin’ us all nuts’
jeff, at the bar has a
a fool enough to take him on,
phú bài’s favorite socrates
debating the war’s ‘morality’
'i’m tellin’ you, this war’s bullshit
and we’ve got no business here
we’re not here to help these people
we’re just gettin’ lots of them killed
then’ll come american kids
we’ve sure got better things to do
than kill and be killed here over
this fucking lyndon Johnson war
I’m tellin’ you, this war’s bullshit
we need to get out while we can
what if it was your own brother,
‘cause that’s the shit that’s comin’ next’
and the right could last forever
later, last call passed,
so with a case, two, sometimes more
st. pauli girl, chilled black label
he, bill, jeff, the last dogs un-hung
continue on out at the wire
closer there to the nearby war
jeff recreating his debate,
dismissive of his rival’s stance
predicting, boy cassandra like,
disastrous outcomes from the war
‘sure, jeff, you’re right, we hear you, man’
it’s not certain they yet do as
peyton joins them, a beat poet
philosopher, weaver of spells,
young kerouac still on the road
the sandbag bunker full of drunks
but none too drunk to miss the stars
moonless clouds of constellations
laced above their no ending war
again, this night
there’s death outside,
not far, it seems not ever far,
cordite’s smell hangs faint on the cool
night breeze that brushed them, chilly now
distractedly silent, watching
the slow descent of fireflied lights,
flares arcing not so far distant,
casting challenges at the stars,
close by the foothills to the west
on hell’s own field of red green fires,
(‘it looks like fucking Christmas eve,
but that sure ain’t no santa claus’)
tracer streams mark death’s fiery path,
bright brilliant sky bounced ricochets
laser signposts to this night’s hell
an outpost there under attack,
maybe an ambushed night patrol
(two guards foxholed outside the wire,
pray for no part in this night’s show)
they’ve all seen it more times than once
this guerrilla war’s dance of death
grim watched even from their distance
by dawn the post’s gone, overrun,
or ambush team left mopping up
whomever living left to mourn
their fresh dead brothers, fathers, sons
on both sides, both sides of this war,
this brother killing brother war
sometimes there’s a dead
found among the battle’s bodies
who’s known to them, one a driver,
another time a cook, and one,
an ancient coolie laborer
the one that hurt, the old woman,
dead, shredded by a claymore blast
‘hell, she was someone’s grandmother’,
they knew her from the mess chow line
‘she served up our fucking breakfast’
mac-v guy brought in their badges
‘dead on the wire, not coming back’
tonight, who knows whose
number is up
as they watch and listen to those
staccato bursts, mortared thunders
killing the near, stalking the far
a nightly carnival of death,
a made in u.s.a. produced
extravaganza, ‘step right up’
the flash of fires and
death’s music played beneath the stars
a fearsome ragged rhythm beat
now bass line riffs for the sweet song
of peyton’s tonight ‘talkie’ poem
his tale, performed but only once,
a wistful heart-soft jazz improve
prayed impromptu to a hushed house,
motion pictured without pictures,
beyond peyton’s story deep drawn
in imagination’s colors
the audience now respectful,
pete’s entranced hitchhike companions
on his painful, long night’s journey
toward the day, a lonely transit
through a black frost southwest desert,
‘yeah, lit by those same stars as these,
but so cold i was sure i’d die’
as he, so hungry, exhausted,
so desperate for a ride, and
near unable to continue
from past the point of no return
yet, to his own still shocked surprise,
chose not to thumb down the eighteen
wheels of roaring on-rushed power,
lest he miss the bright tornado,
of its night passage, and instead
‘only this once, this magic scene,
no way i could bring myself to
thumb it down and just stop the run’
stood by that roadside shouting cheers
at its coming, it’s here and gone
and standing thrilled, alone and awed
losing himself inside the night
truck’s dragon roar, all fire and heat
twin smoke stacks spewing spark and flame
‘just way too beautiful to stop
well, yeah I guess,’ he whispered soft,
‘yeah, you just had to be there, man’
he, dream lost hypnotized alone
in hot sand wind that blasted him
as it exploded through his night
and drunk on such beauty passing,
laughing at his own foolishness,
still chilled but for his vision’s fire
and here, ten thousand miles away
those who heard the tale felt the heat
of that truck’s hot midnight passage
and dusted sand from mist damp eyes
as the tale stilled conversation
listeners humbled, now silent
at the poet’s one time told tale
each seeks his own lost memories
in the echoes of the story
the distant fight
the dead just dead, forever gone
the living, not yet dead, move on,
lives reprieved by un-tolled fate
bill lost now in deep
bleary-eyed, sleepy jester priest
toasts a final benediction
and calls it done, for all a night
the first dim wash of
dawn mists up
pale pinked orange and gold pastels from
over east’s south china sea, and
beyond, those places once called home
J Buquoi, snapshots from the edge of a war (2015)
The book is available in e-book, Kindle, and hard copy.
#1 To be stationed at an ASA post other than Saigon early in the war meant an austere after-hours life.
Motorbikes to China Beach
In Danang the major entertainment was riding motorbikes out to China Beach and swimming, surfing, cooking out, and sun bathing. The 3rd RRU departed Danang and relocated to Phu Bai where there was nothing at all in the way of off-duty amusement with the exception of a ping pong table for which we seldom had balls. We did have occasional movies.
The area was nothing but sand hills and scrub land. We were allowed to hike around the area outside of camp as long as we went with someone else and we were armed.
#2 Craig Walden was a combat Marine in Nam. Grievously wounded, he returned home to Chicago after considerable surgery and became co-editor of Vietnam GI following Jeff’s death. However, before that he sat for an interview for the last issue of Jeff’s tenure -- about his last combat experience, a fiasco due to bad intelligence from command.
Sorry ‘Bout That
VGI: How did you get hit over there?
Cpl Walden: I was with Bravo company of the 1/3. We were sitting across the Qua Viet River last May [‘68], and we got a call there was a platoon of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) – a platoon of theirs is approximately 40 men at most – building up in this village, Dai Do. We were sitting on the other side of the river so we got a couple of amtracks, amphibious track vehicles.
We got our company on them, started going across the river and got halfway there when we began taking machine gun fire from the village. So we hit the beach and got off the track and they just started hitting us from all over. I’m thinking, man, this is some platoon they’ve got. We began pushing across an open field to this one small little hill right before the large village. We had lost over half the company by now.
All night we were losing people and getting rocket rounds and mortar rounds. We had this one amtrack left and we were going to charge across the field and attack the village with about half our company. We got halfway across the field and then it really started. And Command was still insisting this was an NVA platoon.
Well, we kept pushing through until finally everybody was shot, everyone was out of ammunition and everything. We tried pulling back, all the corpsmen were shot. I was shot myself. We dragged back to the river so we had the river at our backs. We had 11 of us left now out of approximately 237 men.
[A few days later another Marine unit took the village.] They estimated the NVA body count was over 1500. It was in Time magazine. They wrote that Bravo Company had attacked a full division, the 320th NVA Division. They said we had won. They didn’t mention that only 11 guys had survived.
#3 An ASA GI sent me his memories of duty at Phu Bai in ’64. He had been flown up from Saigon to Danang and then driven the 55-60 miles northeast to the base. Jeff had preceded him six months earlier by chopper directly to Phu Bai, standing in as door gunner for the shorthanded pilot. My interlocutor was a Morse Code operator aka ‘ditty bopper’, while Jeff had been a linguist, or lingy, but the duty station where they served was the same.
Flour Sprinkled Liberally with Weevils
The ASA base at Phu Bai when I got there, was about a 500
square-yard patch of bulldozed sandy soil surrounded by barbed wire and sandbagged bunkers. Adjacent to our base was an Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) artillery base which had 105 mm and 155 mm guns. They fired them day and night, mostly on harassment/interdiction fire missions.
I remember being startled when I first heard the guns fire; the pant legs on my fatigues would be pressed against my legs from the concussion when the 155’s fired, and then we could hear the shells whooshing away for a few seconds. Woe to those on the receiving end.
We ate in a mess hall with a roof, not a tent. The food was mostly heated-up C-rations. I remember a lot of salty, stringy beef; powdered eggs and bread made from flour sprinkled liberally with weevils.
There was a small bar at Phu Bai, open for a few hours most nights where the GIs could buy beer. We paid for the drinks with military payment certificates or MPC’s – we weren’t given dollars for fear of black-marketing by the GIs.
We worked either in a building with a roof or in little containers built on the frames of deuce-and-a-half trucks. As I recall, we worked 5 days a week, 8-10 hours a day.
The Army designation of the unit at Phu Bai was Detachment J of the
3rd Radio Research Unit (the headquarters of the 3rd RRU
was in Saigon). The commanding officer of Det J as it was called was a Major
I remember hearing that one of the ASA lieutenants was fooling around with his .45 pistol and fired a round into the locker of his roommate, putting a hole through most of his roommate’s uniforms, which he had to pay to replace. ASA guys were not particularly military in outlook.
#4 The ASA base at Phu Bai was in the northernmost part of South Vietnam. The old coastal city of Hue was not too distant, but for livelier diversions Jeff and John Buquoi often headed down to Danang, also on the South China Sea. The route down was over a coastal mountain range at the peak of which was the Hai Van, or Sea Cloud Pass. The road leading up to the pass and then down into Danang was narrow and winding.
Looking at a photo of Jeff at the top of the pass with an M-14 slung over his shoulder, John describes the scene.
Mist-shrouded and Windy
The road over the pass at the time was single lane, so traffic would head up to the top and stop in a small parking area there that featured beer and soup stands (it was a cold place, often mist-shrouded and windy).
As the parking area approached capacity, a signal would be given, up traffic would be held at the bottom of the mountain, and all cars at the top would be permitted to continue on their way down. Once the last cars cleared the bottom, the signal would be given to release the upbound traffic and so on.
I think there must have been a command post with a traffic controller on a radio on the mountain above it all. Jeff and I could have been heading to Danang or back to Phu Bai, and we did have issued ammo for the M-14s when we traveled anywhere off base.
#5 Phu Bai was a relatively quiet post during Jeff’s tour – in ’64, the low intensity war was concentrated in the Mekong Delta and to the north of Saigon. After the escalation in ’65, a Marine combat battalion moved into the Phu Bai area. They were there to guard the airstrip and the ASA unit.
Two Villagers Buried Alive by the Vietcong
The radio research unit is believed to be engaged in jamming North Vietnamese radar, monitoring Communist radio traffic, and guiding air strikes against the North.
The Marines’ battery of 155-mm howitzers dominates a 55-sq mile sweep of sand dunes, dusty hillocks, and paddy fields that yield suddenly to steep hills and jungles in the west. ‘Hell’, said one Marine rifleman recently, ‘I ain’t seen one of them Victor Charlies since I been here’.
But Victor Charlie is there alright. Last week’s Phu Bai ‘incident’ list included ‘two villagers taken away by the VC and buried alive. Village chief shot at night’. [Time mag]
#6 In his letters during his last months in Vietnam, Jeff was disillusioned by what we were up to there, and increasingly bitter about his time spent in the military as he wrote me in one letter:
Vietnam My Bitch
Vietnam is my bitch.
Time is running out.
#7 Jeff-2 continues his narrative from his long conversation with J Buquoi. Jeff and JB are now in Phu Bai.
Military Planes Rising and Descending
It’s beautiful, Vietnam, especially when you and your buddy Jeff have a jeep for the weekend. Road trip! Danang over the mountain, with a bonus stop on the way. Buquoi has bought a trophy, a submachine gun, a ‘Swedish K’, for $25.
So they’re in their jeep, open top on the little highway, riding with a big gun, and what do you know but a bunker, an old strong point, must be from the French Far East Expeditionary. Rat-a-tat-tat, ‘we’re young and we can outrun anything’.
Then comes the mountain. One lane up and down, the ocean below, and at the top, Cloudy Pass or Col des Nuages, or Hai Van. From there you can see everything. It’s forty degrees. ‘Colder than a witch’s tit’, says Buquoi, and Jeff laughs.
They’re waiting for their turn to go down the mountain – traffic switches off on the one lane, everybody waits at the top, which is nice, because there are little vendors, a bowl of soup and a beer and below, Vietnam.
Normally it’s all clouds up there, but today it’s clear like it’s calling to Jeff and Buquoi, look and listen. In the distance, Danang, military planes rising and descending, too far away to be heard. But look in the other direction and the war – that’s what’s coming, they both understand that now. The war disappears, replaced by rice paddies, the mountains, and the sea.
#8 Jeff-2 concludes his narrative as the two GIs spy a strip of land, a green peninsula, jutting into the South China Sea from the coast far below the Hai Van Pass enroute to Danang.
Dreaming A Future
‘War’s over, I’m
coming back here’, Jeff says.
'Tell you what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna build a casino on that peninsula’.
‘Yeah, Yeah. It’s perfect’, Buquoi agrees.
‘Put a little gate on that strip of land, incredible security’.
'A casino Jeff, beautiful’.
Not a plan, less than a memory. Just a snapshot of Jeff and Buquoi, two young men on a weekend adventure, dreaming a future.
#9 With a second coup in the air in late January ’64, Jeff and six fellow Vietnamese linguists were rushed to Saigon. As they arrived, the coup came to a successful conclusion. Jeff’s TDY, or Temporary Duty, was extended, and he was sent up to Phu Bai.
Sharlet, Jeffrey J
30 January 1964
Along with his buddies Fred Baumann, Karl Grabner, Jim Schroeder, Keith Willis, and Ken Yonowitz, Jeff was shipped to Saigon, RVN, on TDY for a period of 30 days. Movement orders indicated that all individuals were cleared for Top Secret/Cryptographic.
#10 Jeff largely became politicized in VN as he increasingly turned against the US mission. At Phu Bai, John Buquoi remembered he didn’t hesitate to make his views known and was known for his calm, reasoned manner of debate.
Outspoken in His Views
There were plenty of occasions when Jeff calmed heated debate with his steady, rational, low-key approach. Recall, too, that Jeff was outspoken in his views against the war, and – especially at Phu Bai – these views were not always well received by people holding contrary beliefs.
Yet, I never saw anyone corner or threaten him – his cool, calm approach to any debate or potential confrontation always kept things from getting heated. It was just his ‘style’ of debate, discussion, persuasion that always kept things calm, or, if heated, heated amicably and to a point below boiling.
#11 R H Shultz in ‘The Secret War against Hanoi’ describes the operation Jeff was involved in.
The Insertion of Long-Term Agent Teams into the North
The insertion of long-term agent teams into the North was extremely difficult and largely unsuccessful under the CIA. Washington could not decide on the objectives of these teams. According to OPLAN-34A, the agents were to establish a resistance movement in North Vietnam.
Since this was never officially authorized by Washington, the mission was changed to intelligence collection, sabotage, and psychological warfare.