A guest blog post by Bert Carson author of several books including Maddog and Miss Kitty.
If you live in the south, you know what Vacation Bible School is, however, if you live anywhere else on the planet, you may not. For those in the second group, let me explain. VBS is conducted by churches, early in summer, usually a week or two after the final day of school.
Consider that from a kid’s point of view. Just when you’ve acclimated to a summer schedule, and weeks before you start counting the days left in your vacation, you find yourself in church, hearing the same stories you’ve heard twice a week forever, singing the same songs, drinking the same watered-down lemonade, and eating stale vanilla wafers.
Do you get the impression that I didn’t like Vacation Bible School? Let me clarify that point for you – I’m seventy years old, and I still get goose bumps when I think of the endless hours I spent in Vacation Bible School.
I volunteered for Vietnam. It wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. I was nine months into my twenty-four month service commitment when I decided to go. That meant I had to extend my service commitment by twelve months in order to go to Vietnam. I didn’t think twice about doing that, and two months later, I boarded a plane in California, bound for Vietnam. I arrived at my new unit, the 214th Combat Aviation Battalion, in early May 1967.
The morning of January 31, 1968, all hell broke loose and for once Camp Bearcat wasn’t being hit. It was the beginning of Tet of 1968. Our first inkling of the magnitude of the attack came when we got word that the 117th Assault Helicopter Company, one of our units based at Long Binh, was pinned down by heavy ground fire and couldn’t get a single chopper in the air.
Shortly after that dispatch, we were ordered to send Huey’s, with ammo, to the American Embassy in Saigon. The first chopper to land on the embassy took forty-five hits crossing the street when it took off from the building. None of the crewmen were injured, but the chopper was in sad shape. It flew for five miles before coming down in a rice paddy just east of the city.
Major Sprague, my Battalion Commander, sent Fleury, our company clerk, to find me. In minutes, I reported to the “Old Man.” He told me that our Pathfinders were tied up and there was no one to secure the downed Huey. Before he could finish his sentence I said, “I’ll get some men and do it, Sir.”
He laughed and said, “I knew you would,” then he hesitated and said, “There’s not a man left in the area that’s qualified to do this, and that includes you, Sergeant.”
I said, “Well, we’ll just have an OJT (on the job training) experience.”
He thought about what I’d said then said, “See if you can find twelve idiots willing to go with you… and…”
Finally I said, “And what, Sir.”
He blurted out, “And be careful, Son.” In the same breath he turned to Fleury and said, “Don’t even think about going with him, Fleury. Don’t even think about it.”
Fifteen minutes later, eleven of the most unqualified soldiers you can imagine, and an equally unqualified NCO, boarded two Hueys that were running at a flight idle on the ready line. In seconds, we were airborne, heading toward Saigon. Fifteen minutes later, I stood on the skid of one of the hovering Hueys, took a breath and hoped there was a bottom under the surface of the rice paddy I was about to jump into. There was. As the sound of the two Huey’s faded, I thought, this is how all the troopers that I’ve been party to leaving in isolated landing zones feel when we take off, leaving them alone.
I brought my attention back to the present, looked at the shot-to-hell Huey half submerged in the center of the rice paddy and pointed to various points on the dikes that enclosed the paddy, as I dispatched my squad with orders to stay alert and not make a sound unless I told them to.
With everyone in position, I evaluated the situation. In the distance, I could hear heavy fighting in Saigon, punctuated by artillery and aircraft counter attacks. I looked at each member of my squad: five clerks from my section, a Chaplin’s assistant, a communication specialist, a medic, two cooks, the battalion supply sergeant, and me. Not a single one of us had infantry training.
I shook my head and moved through the thigh deep water toward Robert Wilburn, one of my clerks. Robert was a really neat farm kid from Nebraska. I settled in beside him, my body, from the waist down submerged in the wicked smelling water of the rice paddy. I knew I wouldn’t bet a dollar on our chances of living through this. I wasn’t scared, I was just being objective. Moments later my mind turned to thoughts of leeches and unknown plagues. That’s when Robert whispered, “Hey Sarge.”
I whispered back, “Yeah, Robert.” Without hesitating he said, “Just remember, it could be worse.” He paused and then added, “We could be in Vacation Bible School.”
In half a second my John Wayne demeanor vanished like smoke in front of a breeze, and I lost it. Then Robert lost it. When we regained a bit of composure, Sergeant Ferguson, our Supply Sergeant, called out, “What is so damn funny?”
I shouted back, “Robert said that things could be worse. We could be in Vacation Bible School.”
Apparently every member of my makeshift squad knew what Vacation Bible School was because instantly they roared as one.
We survived the day and in the process fulfilled our objective. Just before nightfall, one of our Chinooks, flying low and slow, appeared on the horizon. Within minutes, Howard Dirler, my good friend and the NCO in charge of our Pathfinder Platoon, had his men rigging a harness around the Huey. Minutes later, the twin rotor helicopter easily lifted the disabled chopper out of the Rice Paddy and headed off toward Camp Bearcat. Soon after that, two Hueys with a Cobra escort came and picked up my squad and me.
Every time I’ve faced impossible situations in the forty-four years since the first day of Tet 1968, I’ve thought of Robert and heard him say, “Things could be worse, Sarge. We could be in Vacation Bible School.”
Editors note from Digital Book Today: VBS is alive and a staple in the summer in the northern states as well.