I Was Lucky

1968. I had been working as a clerk-typist in the personnel office at Fort Benning, Georgia. I was 21 years old. My levy for Vietnam was imminent. One day, there it was. I typed my own orders for The Big Muddy.

Two days later, the Sergeant Major called me into his office and said he was going to try to get me assigned there permanently. I thanked him but told him it was too late. Now that I was levied, it would take Pentagon action to change my orders. He cursed. The next day, I stopped in front of the bulletin board. My name was on a long list. Now it was real. No fax machines, no photocopiers, no e-mails. Check the bulletin board at least twice a day. That’s an order. I was drinking a Coke. I threw it away and got a beer.

I had a 28-day leave. Katy and I got married. A sleepless, scared last night. We dozed watching an Abbott & Costello movie. Which one is it that has a bunch of letters going down a big old-fashioned office mail chute? Then we overslept. Panic. I got her to Kennedy Airport. She had about 30 minutes to make her flight back home to Daytona Beach to be with her parents. No parking spaces, unbelievable traffic. I pulled up in front of a cop. I was in uniform, and I told him we were in a bind.

“Leave it here. Give me your keys.” If I had gotten his name and badge number he’d be in my will.

My sister, Roberta, only recently told me that when I left Mom spent the entire night crying. I had never known. But then it hit me. She had seen a 21-year-old husband off to war and now a 21-year-old son.

McGuire Air Force Base to Washington State to Anchorage to Tokyo to Saigon. We had a layover in Anchorage. The most spectacularly beautiful mountain ranges I have ever seen were right outside. Will Rogers and Wiley Post were still out there somewhere, lost forever in 1935 in the wreckage of their small plane.

On the first leg of the flight, we hit wind shear. The plane dropped several thousand feet without warning. Meals and guys bouncing off the ceiling. Stewardesses — as they were still called — strapped in and not answering calls. I hadn’t undone my seat belt and had not been served a meal, so I was OK, just terrified. You have never seen whiter knuckles. It took me 20 years to get over my fear of flying.

The military chartered civilian jets and the flight was much like any other except no alcohol, and every seat was full, unusual for those days. A few weeks before one of those planes had strayed off course and been forced down by Soviet MIGs onto the Sakhalin Islands. They spent several days on the broiling runway while our State Department negotiated their release. I asked one of the stewardesses if she knew anyone on that flight.

She laughed: “Are you kidding? That was this plane, this crew, me.” I actually started to worry about getting to Vietnam. The trip took almost 24 hours.

The end of the fight was ordinary, with one exception. A stewardess said: “Welcome to Tan Son Nhut Airport near Saigon, Republic of South Vietnam. Local time is 7:35 AM. The temperature is 92 degrees. We’ll see you in a year. It’s been a pleasure to fly with you.” She did not add, “We hope you enjoy your stay.”

When we got off the plane, the heat hit us hard. Some men gasped. Contrary to the cheesy movies, there were no black rubber body bags stacked up waiting to be loaded onto the plane, but there were more than 200 guys waiting to get on that plane for their ride back to The Land of the Big PX. Some of them shouted encouragement at us: “Kill yourselves now. Don’t wait for the gooks to do it.” We were herded onto buses. Cast iron and barbed wire over windows that seemed to be about a foot thick. A friend from Fort Benning, Don Sartor, kept saying “When are they going to give us rifles?” At the 90th Replacement Battalion, we were immediately put to work filling sandbags for bunkers. Each morning there would be a formation during which a senior sergeant or an officer would call out names and units. If your name wasn’t called, you went back to work. Don was called a day before I was.

“Rehyansky, Joseph A., PFC, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, The Blackhorse.”

“Do you know who their CO is?” someone in the formation asked. “George S. Patton III. He’s just as crazy as his father. You are in very deep s–t.”

The CV2B Caribou could take off and land at a very steep angle. Take your time coasting in like my father’s B-24 Liberator and you’re dog meat. Still, we attracted some ground fire. As we approached Blackhorse Base Camp, I could see guys on top of tanks and ACAV’s (armored cavalry assault vehicles), washing them. It was oddly reassuring, calming. The day I watched a friend’s brains being hosed off his ACAV was very different.

Don got lucky and already had a job as a clerk at Regimental Headquarters. And he had his rifle. He told me, “Just keep saying you can type.” There were no administrative slots left at Regimental HQ. He got the last one. A group of us were picked up in a truck, headed for the 1st Squadron. The driver said, “Can anybody type?” I said “Sixty words a minute” — and this was back in the manual days.

He replied, “You’re bulls—ting me. What’s your GT? Are you a college graduate?” I handed him my personnel file and said “My GT is 144 [roughly the equivalent of the IQ]. I’m a college graduate.” He glanced at my folder and said, “You’re a clerk.” This was a great turn of events for someone who trained principally as an ACAV machine gunner and driver.

At 1st Squadron HQ, I was introduced to Captain Ronald C. “Jug” Wyse, the Adjutant (S-1). He looked through my file and said he had two openings. One was with S-3 — Operations. I’d be in the field but primarily in clerical duties, typing up operational reports, sleeping in an ACAV, never clean, but, “If you want to kill some Commie gooks when you’re not typing, it’s a good job.” The other opening was right there in his office. Guess which job I took?

God rest Jug’s gallant soul. He wanted nothing more than to get a combat command, which he eventually did — and a Silver Star, which I wrote. He died suddenly of a massive coronary in 1995, a few days shy of his 58th birthday. One of the finest people I’ve ever known. I always think of him as the man who probably saved my life. Of the eight young men in my squad in Advanced Individual Training, four were KIA in Vietnam, one was seriously wounded, one went to Germany, one never left the States, and then there was me.

I also wrote a Medal of Honor and, on TV a couple of years later, watched President Nixon hang it around the neck of the officer who earned it.

I got shot at a lot. Rocketed and mortared. Dodged land mines. Played poker and drank coffee with men who were dead the next day. Jean-Francois Kerry got three Purple Hearts. I could have had at least two of the same sort, but I never reported my injuries except to medics who were buddies. We would have been ashamed to apply for Purple Hearts for cuts, bruises, broken fingernails, scrapes. Friends died.

I clawed the vibrating earth believing in the imminence of my death. During attacks, which almost always started in the middle of the night, we all had assigned posts at or near the perimeter. At Blackhorse, I would run to my spot clutching my M-16, able to guide my footsteps only by the flash of incoming rockets and an occasional flare. One night a rocket came in so close and so low that for a second I saw “the rocket’s red glare” up close and personal before the concussion knocked me flat.

At Quan Loi, our forward command post base camp, we got hit really hard. Our perimeter was breached. Some of them carrying satchel charges made it to our airfield and blew up several helicopters before they were killed. It was about 2:00 AM. I was at a sand-bagged M-60 machine gun, my finger on the trigger, waiting for a target. From a bunker not far from me I heard the words, “Here they come!” The last sounds from that bunker were an explosion that sent flames 50 feet into the air and the brief screams of the three kids who died in it.

To complete the circle, I arranged to type my own orders for home.

When our plane took off from Tan Son Nhut in July 1969, the cheers of 240 guys were deafening. The air conditioning failed immediately. The pilot got on the intercom and asked if we wanted to turn back or proceed to Tokyo. WAS HE KIDDING? GO BACK? ARE YOU NUTS? We might have killed him. We sweated and stank and had trouble breathing for eight hours and loved every minute of it. They fixed the air conditioning in Japan. A dark, misty night. Couldn’t see a thing outside my window.

In Anchorage, I called my parents. Mom answered. In the background I could hear my Dad say, “My son is out of there.” He was 77 when he died in 2000. I never heard
such relief in his voice, not before, not after. The lines at the phone booths were so long I didn’t dare try to call Katy — on whose phone number I drew a blank anyway. Mom called her.

I never forget that I am one of the lucky ones. Every day since, bad and good, has been a gift.

Will and Wiley are still out there.