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The Scent of War

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By Tom Keating

I boarded the Flying Tiger Air 707 at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey on September, 1969 along with 200 other soldiers to begin our trip to the war in Vietnam. We all wore our new bright green jungle fatigues, and sat silently as the plane took off and headed west. This was a military flight, no movies, no music, no alcohol.

After a seven-hour flight to California for refueling, our plane continued on to Hawaii, then Guam, and finally the Republic of Vietnam. A total of 27 hours. When the plane arrived near the coast of Vietnam, our pilot announced that we would circle the for a while because our destination, Bien Hoa Air Base, was under enemy fire. That woke us up and everyone looked out the windows, trying to see the battle, but our plane was high above the clouds.

Finally, the plane began its final approach, in a steep dive and pulling up to land hard. The plane taxied quickly toward a terminal building. The door opened, and the flight attendants nervously hurried us off the plane in the dark. It was almost 10 p.m.

The first thing I noticed was the smell – a rich, fetid mix of diesel fuel, water buffalo manure and earthy vegetation. Then the heat. Unbearably hot and muggy. An officer directed everyone to board some Army-green school buses lined up outside the terminal for the trip to the 90th Replacement Center. There was no glass in the windows of the buses, just chain link fencing. The driver said it kept grenades from being thrown into the bus by the enemy.

The unrelenting heat and humidity and the odors intensified as the buses drove by rice paddies. We pulled into a barbed wire and sand bag enclosure at Long Binh Post, northeast of Saigon. Dripping with sweat, we were told to assemble at a large dirt field, dropping our heavy duffel bags at our feet, our brand-new jungle fatigues sweat-soaked. An officer with a bull horn began to tell us about in-processing when sirens went off. He and his staff ran off. “Incoming!” someone yelled. We stood there confused.

“Over here! Hey! New guys!” a sergeant shouted, and we ran to some sandbag bunkers. I squeezed into one of them. We heard the crump! crump! of exploding mortar shells. I counted three of them. Then they stopped. Someone said, “Welcome to Vietnam, guys.” A nervous laugh swept through the crowded bunker as guys released their fear. Another siren went off. “All clear,” someone said, “Everybody out!” The stink of cordite told me that the mortars landed nearby. We reassembled in the field, next to our deserted duffel bags.

The rest of the night was quiet, with the occasional popping of flares on the perimeter, as the Army processed us to our different combat posts. I caught an assignment to a headquarters unit, the 47th Military History Detachment. Many other things happened during my year of duty, but I still remember most vividly the smells and the heat that welcomed me when I arrived at the Vietnam War.

VFW Chaplain Tom Keating, who served in the US Army in Vietnam, submitted this piece in a tribute to National Vietnam Veterans Day, which occurs tomorrow - and every March 29. President Donald Trump signed the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017, which establishes the day as a national observance. However, it is not an official holiday in any part of the United States.

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