Mythology of War
by G. Duff
We weren't a military family. My mother had worked at Wright Field in Dayton during the war and her brother was with the 101 at Bastogne and had the missing toes to prove it. Uncle Buford, who grew in a mining camp outside Hazard, Kentucky, was my first initiation with war stories. He had two complaints, General Patton and the Donut Dollies that actually "sold" donuts to troops. To Uncle Buford, Patton was a "stinkin' yellow bellied polecat". I'm sure Uncle Buford never met Patton. The current "FUBAR" episode of Ken Burn's War explodes a few of the remaining myths about the Second World War. Band of Brothers even went after more than a few.
I can't ever swear he met a Donut Dollie either but he loved to rag on about them. Griping is a tradition with the soldier and generally a well-earned one, as I was to learn later on.
I had one "Donut Dollie" experience in late October or early November 1969 a few miles outside Dai La Pass. I was with a Marine rifle squad doing a "road sweep." This was a check for "landmines," they have some other fancy name for them today now that they work with cellular telephones. We would walk two abreast and see if we blew up. This was the morning activity prior to a day patrol and night ambush, pretty much a routine day when we were not in the hills chasing mosquitos…
This day we saw, perhaps, the craziest thing I remember. OK, not that crazy, but it seemed that way at the time. I had not been out of Detroit that long. I am trying to remember if it was a trailer or some sort of truck. I think a truck. It was white and the side opened like a sort of lunch cart. There were two women inside.
Fall here in the Midwest can be a bit chilly. I suspect it is 35 degrees right now, early November. There, we were dealing with the mid 90s. The idea of coffee and donuts seemed a bit odd.
I was now reliving Buford's World War 2 experience. I had no idea what to expect. What could be the purpose of bringing a donut cart with no security down a fairly peaceful road outside Da Nang? The six of us were hot and tired. We had slept out on the ground a few miles away the night before and the night before and the night before, ad nauseum. I had changed clothes in August and showered in September when we picked up replacements for the guys killed in our last amphibious operation.
None of us had seen a "round eye" or "white woman" or whatever TV now calls them. Actually, we never used these terms. They seemed stupid and, frankly, there was no reason to use them. They sound good now on TV.
I was the first one to walk up to the cart. I asked them what they had. The women/girl inside (certainly older than any of us) said, "Hot coffee and donuts, ten cents for coffee and ten cents for donuts."
Money wasn't the issue. I sometimes kept as much as fifty cents in "military script" in my pocket. That would buy a "lightly chilled" Pepsi from the kids who worked as vendors and, perhaps spies, anywhere Americans were.
Considering the weather, coffee and donuts would do little but bring on a bout of projectile vomiting, so I declined, as did the others.
This seemed to make the "Donut Dollies" angry.
One of them asked, "Who are you guys anyway?"
I answered that we were Marines. She then said that she had seen Marines and we didn't look like any Marines that she knew of.
I suspected she was right. We were combat vets. Nobody had a real uniform, we (those of us old enough to shave) needed shaves and haircuts and were loaded down with junk. Junk, in this instance, being weapons, ammunition, water and the few personal belongings we owned.
The other Donut Dollie then chimed in, "People like you are a disgrace, no wonder this war is taking so long with people the likes of y'all in the Army." I thought about reminding her that we were Marines but thought better of it.
At home I wouldn't have looked at her twice and ten thousand miles didn't turn salt pork into filet.
Actually, we could understand a bit of where she was coming from. We had spent two weeks in Da Nang after Operation Defiant Stand. We had lost some people and the rest of us were sick or simply worn out. Our unit was considered "removed from amphibious operation status" because, as I am told, we had "lost our combat effectiveness" and were being moved inland.
During our time waiting for replacements and a new AO (area of operations), we were stationed at III MAF HQ in Da Nang, "party central" for I Corps. We guarded the perimeter for two weeks, sleeping on mattresses, eating incredible food on real china with real silver.
To the brass, III MAF HQ was the "Puzzle Palace", a center of strategy, intellect and "heroic endeavor."
Our native American brothers, formerly called "Indians" used to have sayings about warriors who never strayed far from the teepee.
The French had been here originally. We still had plenty of their buildings and, of course, their wall surrounding the compound. Here, congressional junkets, newspaper reporters and Pentagon brass could visit the war while enjoying total safety, great food, beautiful accomodations and bevies of very young local girls who were brought in every night.
Every uniform was clean and starched, every boot shined. I remember we took some photos there. I remember the photos mostly because I was the only one in them to come home alive.
We all looked like clowns in the starched hats and heavy camouflage jackets in the stifling heat.
This was the real Vietnam, not the miles of filthy barbed wire surrounded bases or the couple thousand "tip of the spear" guys sleeping up in the hills so the farce below could go on.
This was the Vietnam where the medals were earned, every chest loaded with Bronze and Silver Stars, DSC's or more. It was a land of green paint loaded with polish, jeeps and helicopters with red seat covers, every surface waxed and buffed.
Down by the river front were prefab houses built for the for the generals with "putting green" lawns, a short walk from the elegant heliport that overlooked the bay and old French city beyond. It was like a touch of Monaco or Nice "in season."
These were the real soldiers. They stayed fit lifting weights in the air conditioned gym watching American television. This was the first time I saw a Star Trek episode, staring thru a window. The air conditioner drowned out the sound while I stood for a few minutes staring in disbelief.
This was a place where careers and reputations were made, far from the noise and smoke and blood. This was the breeding ground for what Dave Hackworth would come to call "The Purfumed Princes of the Pentagon."
Maybe these were the soldiers the Donut Dollies had seen. Compared to them, we could have been refugees or escapees from a concentration camp. Come to think of it, this is closer to the truth than I cared to admit at the time.
I still get asked about Donut Dollies and Bob Hope shows. People ask me how I loved the hot turkey Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners we got. When I remember the truth, I have an uncomfortable fear about what could be happening to our troops now.
Marines were always putting "prices" on people's heads. It was an act of defiance– an act mind you– but one with no real audience. Bob Hope was always a note of bitterness. He came to Da Nang every Christmas. Every Christmas, every combat soldier was sent out into the hills to keep Bob Hope safe from rocket attack.
It was said that Bob Hope had a price on his head because every combat Marine missed Christmas because of him. Of course there wouldn't have been any Christmas anyway but people have to have something to complain about. Our "blood and guts, our blood, his guts" target was always Westmoreland. Even after he was gone and forgotten, he was always the target of derision. We knew of nobody else to blame.
Christmas was always the same. We had a Christmas truce that everyone violated. You could depend on one thing for sure, you would be using your weapon on Christmas eve, when the VC came home to see their families and we were there to meet them.
I remember asking if we were going to see Bob Hope. I remember the laughs. Christmas was mud and C-Rations. Thanksgiving was mud and C-Rations. On the few occasions when we had hot food, it was liverwurst, spam and stale bread. All other food was sold on the black market. No, I am not kidding.
After this day, outside Dai La Pass, Donut Dollies became a target. Deserved or undeserved, two "party girls" out to see the war made enemies with six Marines.
Pleasant memories are rare in wartime. Every kindness is remembered as is every cruelty. Though I remember this day, it falls into the "inanity" category. It was one of the dozens of scenes that made Catch 22 and Apocalypse Now more real than those who weren't there will ever know.
There are two things I remember. Once, while on a remote island south of Hoi An, an Army helicopter spotted us, landed and handed each of us a cold apple, wrapped in paper saying "A Gift from the State of Washington". I know it happened. It made no sense. This may have been the most expensive and, perhaps best, apple in history.
I have one other memory but it is no longer clear. I remember a cold can of chocolate milk, or something like milk. I can't remember where or when but it was an unexpected kindness.
I suspect it may have been another Army helicopter pilot.
Those of us who stayed sane there learned to accept and appreciate what we had. We didn't dream of Red Cross Girls or Army Nurses. This is the stuff of fiction, of TV shows from another era better serving, perhaps, another planet. You could learn to love clean water (now we know it was laced with Agent Orange…and so it goes) from a well or an hour or two of sleep without being pelted by rain.
Everything was for "the moment." Little did I know that leaving Vietnam behind would end, probably, my only real brush with feeling truly alive.