A Brief Preface
This book is shaped around two events that occurred contemporaneously during two days in the sixties -- October 17 and 18, 1967. The first was an ambush in Vietnam that occurred when the Black Lions, a renowned battalion of the First Infantry Division, marched into the jungle on a search-and-destroy mission forty-four miles northwest of Saigon. The second was a demonstration at the University of Wisconsin where antiwar protestors staged a sit-in aimed at preventing the Dow Chemical Company, manufacturers of napalm, from recruiting on the Madison campus. The title is taken from the first line of "Elegy" by Bruce Weigl, a poem about U.S. infantrymen in Vietnam marching into sunlight on their way to a deadly ambush. But the image applies to all the people of this book who were caught up in the battles of war and peace during that turbulent era. Soldiers in Southeast Asia, student protesters in the United States, President Johnson and his advisers at the White House -- they lived in markedly different worlds that were nonetheless dominated by the same overriding issue, and they all, in their own ways, seemed to be marching toward ambushes in those bright autumn days of 1967.
Chapter One: Sailing to Vung Tau
The soldiers reported one by one and in loose bunches, straggling into Fort Lewis from late April to the end of May 1967, all carrying orders to join a unit called C Packet. Not brigade, battalion, or company, but packet. No one at the military base in Washington State had heard of C Packet until then. It was a phantom designation conceived by military planners to meet the anxious demands of war.
The early arrivals were billeted on the far northern rim of the army base in a rotting wooden barracks with flimsy walls known derisively as "the pit." Many of them checked in at night after long flights and bus rides from forts in Louisiana and Texas or home leaves in the Midwest, and for them morning sunlight revealed an ethereal vision. Out the window, in the distance, rose majestic Mount Rainier. But after gaping at the snowcapped peak, they had little to do. Some were attached temporarily to an engineering battalion, the 339th, but they had no duties. A captain named Jim George, trim and handsome, a marathon runner fresh from the Eighth Infantry Division in Germany, led them through morning calisthenics and long-distance running, which was a drag except for the sight of flaccid lieutenants wheezing and dropping to one knee. One lazy Saturday they organized a picnic at the beach club and grilled hamburgers but ran out of beer, so a young officer rounded up a squad of privates and marched them to the PX and back on a mission for more. It was perhaps the best executed training maneuver of their stay.
When they could, the bored enlisted men slipped across the border into Canada. Gregory Landon of Vestal, New York, who wound up in the infantry after dropping out of Amherst College, rented a car for the trip and paid cash, not even having to use a credit card. He thought it odd to be provided a means of escape from Tacoma to the sheltering north but returned as scheduled. Mike Troyer, drafted out of Urbana, Ohio, while working the graveyard shift at the Navistar truck plant, made his way to Vancouver with another weekend squad. Some soldiers got drunk and climbed atop a memorial fountain before being run off politely by the Canadian police. Peter Miller, drafted out of the assembly line of a Procter & Gamble soap factory in Quincy, Massachusetts, found himself in jail in Seattle following a dustup at the bus station.
After a few weeks of this military being and nothingness, the men of C Packet were told to get their wills in order, their teeth fixed, and their dog tags ready because they were being shipped to Vietnam as permanent overseas replacements in the First Infantry Division. Most of them knew what was coming, but some were taken by surprise, and the news provoked a round of concerned calls to the base from relatives, congressmen, and clergy.
Copyright © 2003 by David Maraniss
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