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Secret Agent

I arrived in Vietnam 2 months after my 19th birthday and was starting my first day as door gunner on our UH-1H “huey” helicopter. The crew chief showed me how to operate the intercom and load the ammo into the feeders. Everything in Vietnam was OJT.

I climbed into my seat behind the M-60 machine gun and strapped myself into the monkey harness. The blades slapped the air as we flew to the northwest toward our destination of Long Thanh. Sprawled below us were the muddy mangrove flats of the Dong Nai River delta. A single road, Highway 15 wound among the backwaters eventually turning north toward Saigon. 

Overhead shot of a river and surrounding fields. Orange on the outsides, green around the river.

Dong Nai River.

As we climbed out the air became noticeably cooler and dryer. Seated in open doorway of a Huey, tethered by the monkey harness was about as close to being bird as you could get. There was nothing in front of me but blades above and air and earth below which made me feel very vulnerable. I was blown away by the vista before me. The earth was pocked with hundreds of water filled bomb craters, acres of brownish yellow defoliated vegetation and artillery fire bases. Nothing grew in the earth around the fire bases. The land was bulldozed bare from the center extending several hundred yards in all directions like spokes of a wheel. Along the roads, there was not a speck of green for a width of hundreds of meters. Only yellow and brown leaves clung to the branches. It was ugly. 

Aerial shot of barren land.

Defoliated Vegetation.

Aerial shot of barren-looking encampment.


We passed over several small villages with large vegetable gardens surrounded by acres of defoliated trees. About a half hour later we descended over rubber plantations, which were never torched or defoliated due the cost of reparations to the French owners. Red dust flew around us in mini vortices as we settled to pick up couple guys catching their ‘freedom bird’ to California.

30 minutes later we zoomed in across the Saigon River and over downtown Saigon. What a scene it was. Thousands of motor bikes, lambrettas, rickshaws and small cars seemed to be flowing like rivers through the narrow streets.

Etched in my mind was a snapshot of the country: so much beauty and destruction.

Airborne after our touch down at Saigon’s Hotel 3 helipad, we banked south toward our next stop, Vinh Long. Several minutes into this leg of our flight the earth below turned from the red scarred earth into an emerald sea of rice paddies.

From my perch, I could see people working up to their knees in the water, walking behind water buffaloes pulling wooden plows through the thick mud. Other farmers wearing conical hats worked bent at the waist in the brown water while the kids played along the grassy edges. The scene resembled one of those black silk landscape paintings sold by the street artists.

Interspersed among the green, there were large areas of bomb craters filled with water and red earth. It almost looked like the earth had bubbled up. In the distance bright red flames and smoke rose from blackened banana trees and burning bamboo homes where napalm had apparently been dropped. Ahead of us I caught a glimpse of a wide river that snaked its way to the east and west as far as the eye could see; it was the mighty Mekong.

Overhead shot of a wide river.

Mekong River.

The view was stunning; motor powered barges left wide white wakes in the chocolate water. Sampans heavy with bright green cargo and bags of rice plied their way along the banks of lush vegetation joining others in a huge floating market. We were about 75 miles south of Saigon in the middle of the Mekong Delta. Descending, our blades chopped as the pilot’s voice popped into my headset advising me to keep an eye out for ground fire. 

A few days earlier the crew had taken a few rounds through the tail boom as they crossed the area. After seeing the blood and bullet holes in other choppers, I started thinking I should be sitting on my flak jacket rather than wearing it. The base at Vinh Long was carved out of the jungle along the river and obviously defoliated with herbicides leaving a large red scar in an otherwise green landscape. 

After refueling, we headed toward Vung Tau, the lush green land below turning into a mass of small muddy rivers flowing through an endless mass of mangrove islands. Scattered among the mud flats several fisherman tossed nets. A small grey US Navy boat had four of the small boats pulled over and it appeared they were searching them for weapons.

My head was spinning as I left the flight line that day. Etched in my mind was a snapshot of the country: so much beauty and destruction.

The radio was tuned to Armed Forces Vietnam Network ( AFVN ). The DJ repeated the headlines: Two Apollo astronauts had become the first humans to land and walk on the moon. I was amazed at their story but felt that I too had walked on the moon.

Some months after I left Vietnam, I developed a mysterious rash over my torso that confounded the doctors. I was photographed and studied, but remained ignorant of my connection to the yellowing vegetation. In the years following, after the manufacturers were granted immunity, the Veteran’s Administration revealed that Agent Orange defoliant was the culprit. I recalled the C-123’s gliding over us like a flock of geese spraying a dense mist intended for the nearby mangroves.

It haunts me that veterans and the people of Vietnam still suffer the consequences.

Biographical Details

Primary Location During Vietnam: Long Thanh, Vietnam Vietnam location marker

Story Subject: Military Service

Military Branch: U.S. Army

Dates of Service: 1968 - 1970

Veteran Organization: Veterans for Peace, Vietnam Veterans Against the War

Unit: 56 Trans, 388 Trans

Specialty: 68G20 Airframe

Story Themes: AFVN, Agent Orange, Armed Forces Vietnam Network, Defoliant, First Impressions, Huey Helicopter, Mekong Delta, News Coverage, Saint Paul, St Paul, Terrain, The VA, Veterans for Peace

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