Chapter Three - Private Block

Chapter 3 - Private Block

Aware that he would probably be put in the military whether he wanted to or not, Lance Block considered joining the air force.  Whether flying a plane, or working at a control center on the ground, he knew it would be stimulating.  However, his interest really lay in architecture.  An expert with a pencil, Lance enjoyed designing and drawing three dimensional images.  His uncle was one of the premier architects in the world, designing buildings all across the United States.  He designed the third tallest building in Chicago, and had designed the tallest before the project fell apart.  Growing up, Lance occasionally assisted him, and learned a lot as he did.

When he came of age, Lance went to study mechanical drafting at the University of Santa Cruz.  He was instantly successful.  Between his experience with his uncle and his natural talent, Lance was able to translate 3D images to drawings quickly and precisely.  When his class was required to do isometric drawings of objects, he accurately represented them on the page to the smallest detail, getting A’s in every test, and surpassing all his classmates.

This expertise would have kept him out of the war as college students whose grade point average remained above a C were exempt from service.  He was tripped up, however, by his German language class.  Lance had not needed to take German.  In fact, his mother, who came from Polish ancestry, discouraged it.  But Lance had a large interest in model tanks, and the best book on the market about German tanks was written in German, so he was bound and determined to read it.  Had he taken a less challenging class, Lance could have avoided military service, but his inability to learn the language dipped his GPA just below a B, and he received his draft card in 1968.

His mother, incidentally, never let him live down the fact that it was learning German that caused him to get drafted.  She and her three sisters resented the language since World War II, in which Poland had been conquered by Germany, was just over 20 years earlier.  The occasional guilt Lance felt interfered with his studies, which may have been why he didn’t do well in the class.  In any event, on his way to Vietnam, Lance threw the German book away out of disgust.

The result of being drafted rather than joining was that he would have less power determining which branch to join.  However, he could take tests to determine which branch was best suited for him.

After going through a physical examination to determine his fitness eligibility, Lance was given the opportunity to take tests at the recruiting offices to see which branch was most appropriate for him.  He chose to take tests for the air force and the army.  The latter choice was because many of his family members had been in the army, including his father, who had stormed beaches in the Pacific Ocean during World War II.

One of the few stories Lance knew about his father was when his Wild Cat Division was attacking island of Palau.  The landing craft they were in got stuck on reef, and the captain, thinking they had hit shore, had ramp opened and ordered the men out.  Lance’s father, who had a full, nearly 100 pound field radio on his back, dashed out first and dropped into the ocean.  Realizing they hadn’t reached shore yet, the captain ordered the boat to back up, leaving Private Block behind to sink.  Block’s best friend managed to reach into the water and pull him back onto the craft before they left, however, saving his life.

Aside from this one short account, and a few other short stories, Lance knew little of his father’s experience.  So when he passed both the air force and army tests, he chose to go into the army.  The army then placed him in the infantry because Lance had written in his test that he liked to go camping.  "That was a big mistake now that I think back on it," Lance now says.  He had wound up in the same spot he would have been had he waited to be drafted, and because he volunteered, his enlistment would be for two years rather than one.

He spent the first three days at the Los Angeles Induction Center, a medical building near downtown.  There he got to know eight guys who were close in line because their names all started with similar letters.  Dressed in only their underwear and carrying their clothes and paperwork in their arms, the nine young men shuffled through the multitude of rooms, following arrows on the ground that led them from doctor to doctor who checked them out to make sure they had no diseases or other disabilities.

They all had bunk beds near one another, and they became close friends over the three days in LA.  They then traveled together to Fort Ord where they got their buzz cuts, and they went to basic training together at Fort Washington.

One of the men that Lance became particularly good friends with was a young man named Peter Borse.  He had been the first person Lance met while standing in line at the medical center, and the two of them had remained close throughout training.  Peter was the son of a minister, and hoped to become a minister when he returned from the war.  He exemplified what he preached, showing a genuine interest in other people’s thoughts and feelings.  "You couldn’t help but like him," Lance says today about Peter.

The nine friends did everything together, mostly going to see movies during their time off.  It didn’t matter what was playing, they didn’t have a lot of choice.  They just went to whatever was there.  Before and after the movies, they talked about everything from politics to regrets of the past and plans of the future.  They were all very different from one another, coming from widely differing social and economic backgrounds.  Politically, they were all over the spectrum.  They probably would never have met outside of the military.

Training included target practice and sparring in hand to hand combat with other recruits.  Lance was good with a gun.  He figured that would be what’s necessary in modern combat.  "In my mind, if you have to use a knife or your fist, you’ve fucked up," Lance says today.  And he hoped it wouldn’t come to that, because he was terrible at melee, getting beaten down by nearly every trainee.

One of them, who had been a fighter before the army, saw that Lance was struggling; so he went over to him and gave him some pointers.  They were sporadic suggestions, as he could not linger long without being yelled at by the sergeant.

During the three months, trainees received paperwork that gave some idea of where they would be going and what they would be doing.  Those who received orders to go to advanced training were on their way to Vietnam.  Others would be mustered into American forts either in the US or somewhere else in the world.

Lance and his eight friends all got transfers to Fort Benning, Washington.  They would be going to advanced infantry training.  "We all saw the writing on the wall," Lance says today.

Advanced training was the same as basic training, except more intense.  Lance’s small band of friends were in different platoons, so they were separated during training, but they continued to get together and do things during their time off.  Lance was increasingly impressed by Peter, who, as far as he was concerned, was already taking on the role of minister.  He was the one who de-escalated arguments, and who everyone turned to with their problems.  He was the ever-present voice of reason, and the group psychologist.

Lance continued to be bad at hand to hand combat.  One soldier got especially aggressive while fighting him, and wouldn’t let up after he was supposed to.  Lance didn’t understand what the man had against him, but the next day, the same trainee wanted to be good friends with him.  Lance let him hang out with himself and his friends, but found the whole experience unusual.

After advanced training, soldiers were given time off to visit their families one last time before being shipped off to war.  Many were then sent individually, but Lance and his friends were able to go over together, stopping first at Fort Lewis for some final rifle training; then on to Hawaii, Japan, and finally landing in Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam.  From there they were transported to Bien Hoa as replacement recruits.  This was another point at which soldiers were generally separated as they were placed into units that needed new soldiers.  But luckily for the nine friends, the First Cavalry was in need of a lot more soldiers, so they all went to An Khe together in the central part of South Vietnam.

There, Lance and the other soldiers went through additional training.  This time it was more specific to the environment and the tactics being employed in the area.  They trained with helicopters, practicing landings and descending from ropes into the jungle.  They also trained in survival methods, and learned how to use the equipment they would be using out on patrol.

The First Cavalry Division, Airmobile, was one of the most decorated units in the military, and one that exemplified the strategies employed in Vietnam.  Having started as a cavalry division at the end of the usefulness of cavalry, the First Cavalry evolved first into a light mobile unit meant for fast strikes.  It grew to include combined arms, and served with distinction in World War II and the Korean War.  With the inclusion of helicopters into the military, the renamed "1st Air Cavalry" led the way into the new tactical doctrine; flying troops into an area that had just been bombarded with artillery, then controlling the territory with the support of combat helicopters.  The division was present at the Battle of Ia Drang the first major engagement of the Vietnam War, and was stationed in the most hotly contested area near the center of the DMZ, the border between North Vietnam and South Vietnam.

Lance and all of his friends had expressed desires to serve in a combat zone for extended periods of time because doing so meant they could get out of the army five months early.  They had two year enlistments, and none of them wanted to make a career out of the military, so they all wanted early-outs.

Though they were all part of Charlie Company, Lance was part of first platoon while the rest of his friends were in third platoon, so they were separated in the enormous base.  An Khe, (also known as Camp Radcliff named after the division’s first casualty,) was a combination airfield and base camp large enough to hold three divisions.  It had a 26 kilometer perimeter, nicknamed the Green Line with 3-man watchtowers every 50 meters.  The escalation in the area made it the largest helicopter base in the world, with more than 400 helicopters on what was nicknamed the Golfcourse because of how level the ground was made to accommodate the aircraft.  This field was bordered by a long runway capable of landing enormous C-130 Hercules aircraft which flew in new troops like Lance Block and his friends.

Lance’s quarters were inside a bunker whose walls were made of sandbags held up by corrugated pipes.  These were made to resist against the mortar attacks that would occasionally come in from somewhere outside the base.

The first thing Lance noticed was the same thing most soldiers noticed, how hot and muggy it was.  Average temperatures were in the 80s, while the humidity hung over 90%.  To make matters worse, he had flown in during the monsoon season.  This meant that the rain started falling about 3:00 in the afternoon, and continued late into the night most every day.

Everyone in the base had bunkers to hide in due to the sporadic mortar attacks from either the North Vietnamese or the Vietcong.  Typically, no one would ever learn as either the attackers disappeared into the forest before anyone could reach them, or their bodies were charred by the counter-battery fire from the American base.

Soldiers in Lance’s company decorated their quarters with pine boxes they got from the artillery.  These boxes had transported shells, and were being thrown out after delivering their ordinance, but infantrymen noticed how finely crafted they were, and how well they stored personal items, such as radios, framed photographs, and other paraphernalia.  They also served well as tables, and, when filled with sandbags, made for good roof supports in their bunkers.  These disposable boxes were the backbone of many homes away from home for the soldiers.

The other thing that stood out to Lance at first, and that he noticed throughout the war, was the incompetence of the leadership.  Commanders had come from West Point, where they had clearly not learned the same skills that the soldiers who had been drafted or signed up at recruitment centers had.  It seemed that their training was all cerebral, and they had no idea how anything actually worked.  They would give orders with little to no understanding of how those commands could be implemented, and made demands that served their egos, but accomplished nothing.

The root of the problem seemed to stem from the classism which put the officers into their positions, and the inherent narcissism that followed.  Students at West Point were typically taken from a pool of upper class citizens who had the right connections.  They were accepted due to social status rather than merit.  Their training then consisted of lessons from traditional warfare fought on battlegrounds against large, identifiable, well equipped enemies.  They were taught discipline and a rigid social structure, one in which they were told on graduation day that they were the top.

Thus, when a soldier trained in the proper, modern use of equipment, and who had witnessed this new sort of warfare firsthand, tried to inform the commanders of the reality of the Vietnam War, they were met with deaf ears, and a stern dressing down.  They also found themselves bypassed in the chain of command by those who told the officers what they wanted to hear; thus creating more leaders who were in denial of the realities of combat in Vietnam.

"Oh god, you couldn’t tell this son of a bitch anything," Lance says today, thinking back on some of his commanding officers.  "Some of the guys who get into these places is because of who they know or their pedigree.  Doesn’t mean they have what it takes or should be."

One instance that exemplifies Lance’s point was when a captain ordered Lance’s platoon to climb down a rope ladder from a helicopter directly in the woods that had not been cleared of the enemy.  The captain wanted to impress his commanding officers with his plan to coordinate assaults from Chinook helicopters.  The back of the helicopters would open, and the soldiers would throw cargo nets down from them, then climb quickly down into combat areas.

The plan would save the helicopters from having to land, but when it was tried, the cargo nets flapped wildly under the wake of the helicopter blades, and the soldiers who tried to climb down them were tossed about.  They struggled to hold onto the ropes while also keeping hold of their weapons.  Their 70 pound packs drug them down, and the rope ladders got tangled.  The soldiers were supposed to go down two by two, but many of them got tangled, causing a traffic jam that slowed the descent, and nearly caused many of them to fall.

All this was not only a humiliation in front of higher ranking officers, the company had been so noisy coming in that if there was any enemy within the area, they would have easy targets to shoot down, and the helicopters would also be at risk; not being able to easily take off with all that dragging weight, and with soldiers at risk of falling to their deaths if they did get very far into the air.

Luckily for everyone, there was no enemy in the area, and the entire platoon got down safely, though it took them a long time, and the officer chewed them out for taking so long rather than taking responsibility of having a bad plan.

Lance was not long in-country before he was sent out on patrol.  The typical patrol lasted 28 days, and it involved a company marching out into the woods around the main base searching for enemy units or individual, and stopping enemy operations in the area.  Closer to the base, this involved locating mortar locations used to bombard them.  Further out, this involved finding Viet Cong rebels, or North Vietnamese soldiers in a tactic called "search and destroy."  This could be interpreted by individual commanders, but it typically meant killing enemy combatants as the measure of success was usually counted in casualties.

To the soldiers, it usually meant ferreting out enemy operatives and equipment so they could not be used against the American base, the South Vietnamese soldiers, or the local villages.  While some of these villagers were themselves undercover operatives working for the North Vietnamese, Lance found that most of them he met were resentful of the North Vietnamese invasion, and were fearful of their attacks.

During one of his early patrols, Lance’s company located radios the enemy had left behind when escaping.  The soldiers were surprised to hear American voices on these radios.  The enemy had their frequencies, and were listening in.  From that moment forward, Charlie Company tried to keep their radio calls to a minimum, at least insofar as it gave away their position.

The soldiers carried three days of dried rations at a time, which were called LRPPs, (Long Range Patrol Packets.)  Inside the packets was dehydrated food with some seasoning.  There was also a miniature pack of four cigarettes for those who smoked.  Those who didn’t could trade them away with those who did for food or something else they had.

If a soldier wanted to cook their food or boil their water, there was a small powder blue bar that was the same shape and size of a bar of soap which came with the rations.  To use it, a soldier dug a small hole, placed the blue bar at the bottom and placed a few sticks on top of it.  When he lit it with a match that came with the blue bar, a nearly invisible flame lit up.  During the most pitch black night, one could notice a faint blue glow emanating from the source, but that was the only light coming from the flame.  There wasn’t even a smell, smoke, or crackling unless it came from the twigs.

The intention of this was to remain hidden from enemy soldiers, though this didn’t seem to make much difference.  The American soldiers were so loud as they moved through the woods, and especially when they set up camp, that Lance figured the entire country must know exactly where they were at any time.

Supply drops came in by helicopter every few days, bringing food, ammunition, mail, and replacement parts for any equipment they might have.  They also brought in two bottles of beer and two sodas for each soldier.  Lance didn’t drink, and he traded away his beer for more soda or food.  He likely got the best deal out of it since soldiers in the jungle would sweat so much they wouldn’t have a chance to get drunk or even buzzed.

After a grueling 28 days in the jungle, the company returned to camp for a few days off.  They had been wearing the same clothes the entire time without changing.  When Lance took them off, he found that they had grown so stiff that they stood up on their own.

Soldiers had only three days of respite between each patrol, so they tried to make the time count.  Though Lance’s friends from training went out on the same patrols as him, he didn’t see much of them while outside the base, so he got together with them during these respites.  The first thing Lance noticed every time he visited their part of the camp was Peter Borse counseling someone, or hosting a religious service.  He had quickly made friends with other members of the platoon, and became known throughout the company as someone people could turn to when they were having trouble coping with the frightening and difficult conditions.

Lance’s company was soon sent out on an assault mission.  The soldiers were dropped off in a clearing just large enough for six helicopters at a time.  The third platoon was dropped off in the first wave, and they rushed into the tree line, securing the perimeter.  Lance’s platoon came in on the second wave.  They, too, hurried into the tree line in a similar, but different direction than third platoon.

They were all under fire from the enemy further in the woods.  The Americans returned fire, but did not call to one another using the radio.  Ever since they had learned that the NVA and Viet Cong were listening in, they kept radio silence, and instead used colored smoke grenades to signal orders, answers, and to mark areas where they requested fire or movement from other squads.  First platoon had taken some casualties, and the requested both reinforcements and fire support.  The fire support request was made of red smoke, which they threw ahead of them toward the enemy so the Cobra helicopter would lay down a devastating barrage.

Lance had the yellow smoke grenade which was the signal that his squad acknowledged the reinforcement request, and was on its way.  Unfortunately, the grenade was in his pack, and he had to pull it off and go through the pockets to find it.  Not finding it, he realized it was in the bottom, so Lance held it upside down and emptied the whole thing to get to the grenade.  The sergeant was livid, standing over Lance shouting at him for taking so long.  He wanted to already be across that field helping third platoon, and Lance still hadn’t found the smoke grenade.

At last Lance found it and handed the canister to the sergeant.  As this was happening, someone threw another colored smoke grenade into the clearing just behind third platoon.  It was a marker to show the corporal where his helicopter would land.  The corporal had wanted a color different from everyone else’s landing colors to denote his importance.  He had chosen red.

Lance quickly scooped everything back into his pack, threw it onto his back and stood up.  The sergeant ordered them forward across the clearing to help third platoon.  They had made it one step when the entire area exploded.  The Cobra helicopters had seen the red smoke used to mark the corporal’s landing spot and had mistaken it for their firing orders.  The resulting friendly fire devastated the third platoon.

Despite the disaster, the Americans held the ground, and that night they made camp.  One of Lance’s friends from third platoon found him and told him the results.  Most of the people they had signed up with were dead or wounded.  Peter Borse had been killed instantly.  The soldier didn’t say much else.  He just returned into the darkness, back to his platoon.  

Lance was devastated.  His thoughts swayed from the remorse he had for his friend he would never see again, to the luck he had for having been stalled by the buried smoke grenade, to the survivor’s guilt; knowing he had survived while so many men right in front of him hadn’t.

When he returned to base, Lance had little spirit left.  To add to his misery, he had contracted malaria.  Lance was sent to the hospital.  When he arrived, he saw other soldiers who had been wounded in battles; soldiers who were bleeding all over, missing limbs, some on death’s door.  Lance felt guilty for being there with a fever.  And it threw him into a tailspin of emotion; thinking of his friends, of the people who had died right in front of his eyes, and how he’d be with them if he hadn’t screwed up the placement of his smoke grenade in his pack.  Then he felt bad about thinking of himself.

Without work keeping him constantly busy, and with his mind sick from malaria, Lance fell apart in the hospital.  He was now treated for mental, as well as physical illness.  A doctor trained in psychology saw him, and he kept him in the hospital even after the malaria was cured.  Lance rested, trying to come to terms with everything that had happened.  While the loss of every life there was devastating, it was the loss of Peter Bose that he could not reconcile.  He was the best of all of them, Lance believed; and if karma could not see fit to keep alive a man who was good to everyone he saw, then no one was safe.

After two weeks, the doctor could no longer keep him in the hospital.  Lance felt fine about returning, however.  The work would make him too busy to be haunted by the sadness and guilt he felt.  Soon, he was on patrol again.

(More to come.)