A logistics officer’s mundane quest for supplies found uncommon goodwill and true heroes.
In late fall 1967, I was assigned to the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) as an adviser to the South Vietnamese Army and local militia. The advisers were not there to fight but to provide training and support. I was on Advisory Team 56 at Vi Thanh in the Mekong Delta, about as remote as it gets. We lived in a separate compound and totally depended on the host forces for our protection.
As a logistics officer, I advised the commander of the Vietnamese Army Supply and Service Company, coordinating the support we needed for our counterpart forces in our camp. I found out soon after arriving there that Team 56 was in dire need of supplies and had been long before my arrival.
The last person to occupy my assignment, which included the function of team supply officer, was not a logistician. When he needed an item, he called the nearest support base in Can Tho. Since it actually stocked few supplies, he was usually told that the item was not available, and that’s about as far as it went. The proper approach was to complete requisitions and send them to Can Tho, where the ones that could be filled were, and the rest then forwarded to the next higher support facility.
Some products for our team of 80 advisers, such as ammunition and gasoline, were provided from the supplies of our counterparts. Food was issued based on a headcount of people submitted in a daily report. We were provided our weapons and uniforms upon arrival in Vietnam. But it was my job to get all the other supplies, including paper products, bug spray, soap, bedding, vehicle parts, lumber, sandbags, tents, light bulbs, radio equipment, telephones, refrigeration equipment, typewriters, tools, repair parts for generators, pots and pans, and so on.
When I arrived, the team commander tasked me to “keep after Can Tho to better supply our needs.” I contacted Can Tho and found out that our team had no requisitions! I spent the better part of a week determining what was needed and getting the requisition cards filled out. I then flew to Can Tho to turn them in and start the process. All the requisitions were in order and accepted, but the supply line was slow because everything was shipped via boat from the depot in Vung Tau. I was also informed—and warned—that many supplies would fail to make it to us, not because of enemy action, but because they would be snatched away by the U.S. forces, as we were at the end of the supply line. With a considerable delay in the receipt of the supplies, and then the prospect of reordering those that did not make it, it could be months before the pressure would be off me to fill the team needs. I took back the requisitions and called the team commander and asked if I could go to Vung Tau to shorten the order-ship time. He approved.
I made it to the depot at Vung Tau the next morning and turned in the requisitions. The depot commander scolded me for not relying on the system, but when I explained the dire situation Team 56 was in, he ordered the requisitions to be filled on a priority basis. What may have also helped to gain his sympathy was my unkempt condition. I was muddy from having to dive into a water-filled bunker during a mortar attack on the team compound, dusty from the trip to Vung Tau and unshaven. I appeared to have just come in from the boonies.
He told me all the supplies would be pulled and prepared for shipment that day. I offered to help, but he said I needed some free time. He set me up at a hotel to clean up and get some rest, and arranged to have my uniform, my .45 pistol and .30-cal carbine cleaned. He also told me about a USO show that afternoon.
Then he took me to breakfast and asked all about our circumstances, which I described as slightly more severe than they really were. As we finished eating and drinking several mugs of coffee, I said:“That coffee tastes so good. I wish we could have this good of coffee at Team 56.” He was eating it up. One of his clerks came up to us as we were leaving, and handed him some printouts. The commander gave them to me, saying:“These are the tonnage figures to be shipped to you. Take this to Transportation, and Sam will take care of the shipment, and then come back tomorrow morning. No, better yet, I’ll pick you up at the hotel.”I knew I had found a way to get supplies in the future!
I went to the transportation office and was looking for someone to ask where Sam was when I noted “SAM” written above one of the doors. It turned out SAM stood for Special Air Mission. My supplies was going to be flown directly to Vi Thanh. Three twin-engine aircraft had been ordered!
Elated with my luck so far, I went to the hotel and cleaned up. I was told the USO show was at the 36th Evacuation Hospital. I had to take a military bus to get there—and had go when the bus went—so I arrived a good two hours before the show.
There, in the broiling sun, was a large concrete amphitheater. Being the first to arrive, I found some shade and waited. Soon a nurse pushed a gurney along the row in front of me. The soldier in the bed was bandaged up and had lost a leg. He told the nurse how to prop up his head so he could see the stage. The nurse left and the soldier greeted me. He was a very young draftee from Chicago and was waiting to be flown out of country. He told me what happened and that two of his buddies died in the same attack. He was bitter, scared and worried about what the future had in store for him. The nurse wheeled another gurney out and lined it up next to the first one. She turned to the first soldier and sponged sweat from his forehead and spoke to him softly.
Then more and more troops were wheeled out, some on gurneys and some in wheelchairs. Most had IVs flowing, all were bandaged and many had stumps where legs or arms once were. Some limbs were hanging from metal frames, suspended in air. As performance time drew near, the “walking wounded” came out, some on crutches, pulling stands that held their IV bags. Nurses and doctors were attending to each, in turn, checking the flow of IVs, wiping sweat from faces and offering cool drinks. These were the ones able to come outside, I thought. How many were in the intensive care unit?
It was eerily quiet. All words spoken were in whispers, and the hospital staff scurried about, making little noise. One soldier was being tended when the nurse shouted out,“Doctor!”and quickly pushed the soldier back inside.
I was shaken as I looked out over the mass of mangled bodies assembled. Young men, some teenagers and mostly draftees, all with futures that would be forever changed, all troops that fought in a war they probably did not want or believe in. They had fallen in battle. Now, through no fault of their own, here they were, in pain, mangled and burned, wondering if their girlfriends or wives would still want a one-legged or one-armed man. How would they tell their parents what happened, or how could they support themselves when the wounds healed? They had every reason to hate the U.S. government, the system and the nation that put them there in the first place.
The Stars and Stripes reported about the antiwar movement in the United States, the draft dodgers fleeing to Canada, college students burning ROTC buildings and how poorly soldiers were being treated upon their return from Vietnam. That these troops could also be angry at their country was understandable and could be expected. They had given just short of all they had, and now had to live with whatever was left.
The USO show began. Nothing fancy. A queen-size black singer appeared shaken when she came on the stage and saw her audience. I could tell she was fighting to keep her composure while doing her show. She sang several numbers, and after each one, there was subdued and polite applause. Soldiers made an effort to be heard by slapping a good hand on the gurney or on a cast. Some yelled, “Bravo!”
Her final song was God Bless America. As she belted out the first three words, the most amazing scene began to unfold in front of me. Soldiers who could, regardless of whether they were on a gurney, in a wheelchair or one of the walking wounded, brought their hands to smart military salutes. The doctors and nurses were crying, the singer lost it for a moment, then, crying herself, she waded out into the sea of broken humanity, singing like she never sang before, touching and hugging soldiers, many of whom joined in though few knew the words beyond the first verse. A medic came out of the hospital carrying Old Glory, waving it to the cheers of those who could. The singer took the flag and sang the first verse again.
I was shocked, amazed, proud, sad and shaken all at once. I felt their pain through my tears. I was humbled and overwhelmed. I never felt closer to a group of people that I didn’t even know. I knew then that the United States was all right, that her young people still loved her and that we would be stronger than ever when this war was over.
To this day, when I hear God Bless America, I am instantly returned to that hospital in Vung Tau, and I fight the tears.
I love this song and the memory of those troops. The next morning, the depot commander picked me up, returned my cleaned-up personal equipment and drove me to the airport, where three aircraft were waiting to fly to Vi Thanh. As soon as we gained altitude, I was able to radio the team commander. I told him I was on my way and asked him to have every truck and trailer available at the airstrip. After the supplies were unloaded and transported to the camp, someone gave me a box with my name on it. Inside was a can of coffee and a note from the depot commander inviting me to come back anytime.
As the supplies poured into the camp and to the hands of the team personnel, I was treated like a hero. I was no hero. I did, however, see an amphitheater full of heroes the day before.
Captain Bryan was soon reassigned to the duties of a petroleum officer at Cam Ranh Bay, then became depot commander of the 525th QM Petroleum Depot Company. He retired from active duty as a lieutenant colonel in 1983.
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.