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  Hey Wait a Minute

by: Jack Stoddard


It was the summer of 1968 and I was a young, twenty-two year- old buck sergeant being sent to Vietnam - a strange, faraway place that few if any knew much about. I had already completed an overseas tour in Korea assigned to a tank company stationed south of the DMZ (demilitarized zone). This was different, but still I didn't feel like I was going to war. Maybe it would have if I had arrived in Vietnam earlier with those troops who came over with their entire units. For the most part, these early forces of soldiers and Marines had taken the long ride across the Pacific on troop ships surrounded by friends. By contrast, I didn't know a single soul on my eighteen-hour flight aboard a chartered civilian jetliner from the states. We were replacements for the earlier troops who had either completed their tours and rotated home or had become a casualty of the war.

Our flight from Travis Air Force Base in California to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in South Vietnam had been uneventful and long. The plane was packed with some 300 officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlisted men with most of the latter being in their teens and early twenties. Even with short stopovers in Hawaii and Guam, eighteen hours was just too long to be crammed in the confines of those narrow seats. Our Class A khakis were badly crumpled and looked as if we had slept in them which, as a matter of fact, we had.

The in-flight food was uninspired, but I don't think anyone was thinking much about food. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the steak dinner that was served by the attractive, mini-skirted flight attendant. I wanted to remember the taste of every bite knowing it might be a long time before I'd enjoy anything that good again. After the plane made its bumpy landing at Tan Son Nhut, which had become one of the world's busiest airports, it seemed like it took forever before we finally stopped and the exit door opened. The bright sunlight filtered its way through the plane along with the hot, humid, sticky air that immediately engulfed us. I remember thinking, boy, will I be glad to get out of this plane and outside. Maybe there'll be a nice cool breeze to relieve this awful stuffy feeling!

A little nervous and apprehensive, I said to myself, Well Jack, the ride's over. There's no going back now! The guys around me started getting up and gathering their gear. I guess they thought that would somehow make the long line move a little faster.

As I looked out the window, I saw the ground crew pushing a metal loading ramp across the steaming tarmac toward us. I hoped it would take me away from this unbearable feeling inside the cramped plane. By the time my feet hit the bottom of the ramp, I had learned my first lesson in Vietnam: there was no cool breeze. That hot sticky feeling that had smothered me inside the plane surrounded me on the ground, too. Welcome to Vietnam, Jack.

As soon as we deplaned, we were loaded on big blue Air Force buses with wire screens covering the windows to be taken to the 90th Replacement Battalion at Long Binh, about an hour from the air base. The young soldier sitting next to me smiled and asked the driver, "Why all the screens? To keep us from getting out?"

The overworked driver replied matter-of-factly, "No, it's to keep the grenades from coming in."

The soldier's smile quickly disappeared as he turned to me and asked, "He's kidding, right?"

I won't go into great detail about my experiences over the next few days other than to say I have never been in so many small offices and long lines in my life. One for filling out your will, the next to get paid, and another to fill out your life insurance form. This went on for two full days until I was finally given my orders to report to the smaller Corp Replacement Center at Bien Hoa. This was where we would complete our final in-processing before being assigned to permanent units.

All of us FNGs (fucking new guys), that's what we were called, did a lot of talking and nervous joking about what to expect from serving with the 11th Armored Cavalry, the famous Blackhorse regiment. I learned, for example, that the history of the regiment dated back to 1902 and had served meritoriously in Vietnam since 1966 and as such, was entitled to numerous unit decorations and awards. The regiment was made up of three squadrons each consisting of one tank company, one artillery battalion and three troops of armored personnel carriers.

I was excited when I found out someone else in my group would be going to the same company as I was. We talked about where we were from and if we had volunteered or had been drafted. It was interesting and a good way to pass the time. We laughed about how we would probably see each other again on the same plane going home. That never did happen though.

Shortly after we arrived at the smaller processing center at Bien Hoa, we were put through a really cool one-day jungle course. It was filled with booby traps, hidden mines, and all sorts of new things we would find as a life-threatening reality in our very near future. While the instructors did their best to make it enjoyable, they also let us know it was deadly serious business and what we learned today could save our lives tomorrow.

At the end of the second day, we were issued our new Olive Drab Blackhorse shoulder patches and told we would be reporting to our assigned units later that evening. I was assigned to M company which was part of the third squadron. Like a good soldier, I rushed over to the local seamstress, a weathered old Vietnamese lady, and had my new patches sewn on.

It was late when three of us new guys were dropped off at the M company orderly room at nearby Xuan Loc, our base camp and the home of the Blackhorse regiment. A sergeant and two of his men helped us unload our gear. After we had evening chow, they showed us to our temporary bunks. I was exhausted by then.

It was hard adjusting to the constant heat and humidity. Everything in the 'Nam seemed to sweat. The canvas covering our hooch was mildewed and the smell was overwhelming. It was just too hot to sleep. It was like being in a furnace. Even my lungs were burning.

I fell on my canvas cot trying to envision what was ahead for me. If only there was a fan to help push this thick air around. Finally I fell asleep, soaked in sweat with my uniform still on and my empty rifle by my side.

Early the next morning, about twenty of us new guys from different companies were taken to the helicopter pad in the middle of the camp. Our individual units were all in the field and we would be going to join them. Different types of choppers were taking off and landing all around us. We were guided to a Chinook, one of the largest. By the time everyone and everything was loaded, there were about thirty troopers and three full pallets of supplies on board.

Of this group, less than a dozen were seasoned troopers. We new guys sure must have looked green next to them. They kind of grinned and asked us how many days. They meant, of course, how many days did we have left to serve in country.

"Three-hundred-and-sixty," I said somewhat embarrassed. They all laughed and one yelled out, "Better you than me, buddy!"

While most of them were younger than I was, they appeared much older in their worn and tattered jungle uniforms. I'd been a tanker for nearly five years and was on my second hitch in the Army. I figured I knew my job as well, if not better, than most guys. But now I was really nervous and felt like a raw recruit all over again.

I peeked into the pilot's compartment to see if by chance my brother-in-law, Captain Ric Dickison, could possibly be flying this bird, but I discovered he wasn't. Just then, the twin rotors starting spinning faster and faster and soon we were flying over what seemed to be a busy city.

Before long, we reached the outskirts of the city that was dotted with rice paddies. I watched in amazement as the huge water buffalo and local farmers worked the green fields of new rice.

Within a matter of minutes, we were flying over what appeared from the air to be peaceful jungle. Being naive, I thought this was just too pretty a place for a war. The edges were a light green as new vegetation tried to reclaim the areas that had been cleared by local farmers for their rice paddies. Then the jungle took on a darker green as the younger trees mixed with the older taller trees forming, in effect, a double canopy jungle.

Soon we flew over even darker sections of almost black terrain. Three layers of trees had formed together. At that point, the foliage became so thick it was almost impossible to see through it from the ground or the air. I learned from one of the old-timers that this was called, logically, a triple canopy jungle. It looked so beautiful flying over that I couldn't wait to venture into my new surroundings.

I had been daydreaming, but was jolted back to reality when our chopper started to descend into a small clearing that had once been covered with tall elephant grass. The huge, fifty-ton tanks that formed a large circle around it had smashed it completely flat. The chopper scattered dust and loose grass everywhere as we slowly set down in the middle of nowhere.

As we climbed out of the helicopter, not knowing what to expect, I was sure I'd be facing the enemy! That was not to be. Instead, scared and nervous, we all scattered about like baby chicks. A rather tall first sergeant raised his clenched fist and called out, "All right, you FNGs, assemble on me. On the double!"

We gathered around him and he started calling names and telling us where to report. Finally I heard, "Stoddard, Jack, first platoon, M company," and he pointed to a small group of five tanks one hundred yards away.

Filled with excitement, I grabbed my heavy duffel bag, picked up my new rifle, and took off in the direction of my unit. I tried to look as professional as I could but between the weight of my shiny new flack jacket and my helmet bouncing around like crazy on my head, I wasn't doing a very good job. In fact, reflecting back, I must have looked rather comical to say the least.

I ran, then walked, and finally dragged my gear until I reached the first tank in line. I asked where I was supposed to report and one of the crewmembers who were lounging on the back deck told me to go over to the third tank. As I lugged my gear the short distance to Mike One-Four, the platoon sergeant's tank, I overheard something about FNGs and shiny boots.

Sergeant First Class Edwards greeted me and informed me he was the "main man" as the platoon wouldn't have an officer assigned until next week. He instructed me to put my duffel bag on his tank until he decided where to assign me.

About twenty minutes later, a call came over the radio for the platoon to move out. I quickly climbed aboard Mike One-Four and found a spot to sit between the loader's and commander's hatch. SFC Edwards was yelling over the radio for his men to hurry up and finish loading the supplies that had just arrived on the chopper. In five minutes word came down and the five tanks of the first platoon were on the move.

As we rolled out of the perimeter, all kinds of new thoughts and questions filled my mind. Were we going to a major battle? Back to base camp? I didn't have any ammunition. When or how would I load my rifle? What am I supposed to look for? Will I be a hero or will I want to hide? I finally decided to just hold on and keep my mouth shut. I'm sure that's what SFC Edwards would have told me anyway.

As we moved further away from the safety of the perimeter, the loader decided to ride inside the tank. That gave me a little more room to sit and I was then able to hang my feet inside the loader's hatch.

Our column of tanks moved off the narrow open path and started cutting its way through the dense jungle to our left. As we slowly forged our way deeper toward some site still unknown to me, branches and tree limbs hit me. I tried to hold onto a handle in front of the loader's hatch and SFC Edwards glanced over and smiled indicating this was perfectly normal.

The jungle became darker and thicker with every minute that went by. It seemed to me as if it was trying to attack and swallow our tanks. I remember thinking, how could anybody work all day in this unbearable climate? It was only the middle of the afternoon and I was already soaked to the skin and physically drained by the heat.

Suddenly, the tentacles of a giant prickly vine leaped out at me! In no time, it was wrapped around my chest and was strangling me in a quiet death grip. My first reaction was to scream as loud as I could. "Wait a minute, wait a minute, I'm being pulled off the tank!" but nobody heard me. SFC Edwards wasn't even looking in my direction and because he was wearing his tanker helmet, he couldn't hear me either.

Fortunately the tank wasn't moving very fast, but the monster vine was still tearing at me, pulling me further off the back of the turret. I yelled again, "Wait a minute!" as my legs flew uncontrollably up in the air past the platoon sergeant. I heard him yell to the driver to stop as I was falling to what I feared was certain death. The tank ground to a halt and with one fell swoop, SFC Edwards cut the huge vine away from me with the largest knife I had ever seen.

This big, burly black sergeant was laughing as he pulled me back on top of the turret. "Welcome to Vietnam, kid. You just met your first wait-a-minute vine," he said. He had just saved my life and he thought it was funny! Boy, did I have a lot of learning to do. However, I hoped there would always be someone around like him to help me through the rough spots.

Our company medic cleaned the blood off me, doused me with some smelly antiseptic ointment and then put bandages all over my wounds. I was to be medivaced to the rear area aid station so the stickers could be removed from around my eyes. Did I ever feel dumb!

With that notable and embarrassing exception, I had survived the first day with my new unit. It really wasn't so bad. In fact it turned out to be pretty good. A lot of the guys came over to check me out and said good things like, "You look pretty bad!" And, "Wow, that wait-a-minute vine sure did a number on you!" We even joked and smoked until the dust-off chopper arrived. I was already beginning to feel like one of the guys. Just think, only 359 days to go!



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11th armored cavalry regiment vietnam veterans blackhorse m company homepage track drivers patch insignia black horsre tank acr cav army war
11th armored cavalry regiment vietnam veterans blackhorse m company homepage track drivers patch insignia black horsre tank acr cav army war