Schroder returned to his bunk and packed his large green duffel bag -- four issues of khaki uniforms, still the stateside version, with heavier cotton than jungle fatigues, plus two pairs of boots, socks, and underwear. Then he walked to the post exchange with a pal to "get some personal items" he might need in Vietnam. After standing around while his buddy "called his 3 girl friends and took plenty of time to tell them good-bye," Jack phoned his parents. No one was home. He tried Eleanor. "But it seemed she wasn't home either, anyway no one answered, she and my son Lawrence Wayne probably went shopping in town." Mail call brought a letter from his mother urging him to be careful and have a "fast trip back to the States" at the end of twelve months.
That evening a posse of privates sat for haircuts, an outing described by Michael Taylor in a letter to his parents in Cordova, Alaska. "Everybody went haircut crazy....Some guys got mohawks, some had rings going around their heads, others got polka dots. One guy had his look like wings....Of course, we all have to have another haircut because the Old Man won't go for it." It was, if nothing else, another way for the young soldiers to express their conflicted feelings about the military before they departed for the unknown.
"Men are anxious to leave now," Schroder signed off his diary that night. "I don't blame them much." Officers included: at their own private going-away party, sixteen war-bound lieutenants emptied four cases of champagne.
The soldiers were mustered at one the next morning and ordered to turn in their bedding and clean the barracks before being divided into three groups for the bus ride to the air field. "It was a very cloudy rainy & dreary day plus cold," Schroder wrote. He talked to two stewardesses on the commercial flight to San Diego, but still it was "not a good trip," lasting "4 hours and some odd minutes." A charter bus brought them to the navy pier, where other replacement packets, some army aviators, and a vast contingent of marines waited to board the ship that would sail them all to Vietnam. It was the USNS General John Pope, an old bucket named for the Civil War general who was relieved of command by Lincoln after the second Battle of Bull Run.
The USNS Pope had made its first Pacific run in December 1943 carrying troops from San Francisco to New Caledonia and was pulled out of mothballs by the Military Sealift Command for Vietnam service. It was a General Class transport ship: 623 feet long, with a maximum speed of twenty-one knots and room for 5,289 men. When sunlight hit at certain angles, massive dents became visible in the hull. "Is this what the Reluctant looked like?" asked C Packet lieutenant Tom Grady, a graduate of Lasalle University in Philadelphia, when he caught sight of the creaky vessel. Grady was reminded of the hapless supply ship that Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon were stuck on in the dark World War II comedy Mister Roberts.
The C Packet troops waited three hours before they were allowed aboard. They marched up the plank to the huzzahs of a brass band, but once they reached deck, there was another delay before chow, because twenty-seven hundred marines ate first. The next morning Schroder hustled to the breakfast line before the mob of marines. The ship was scheduled to leave port at one that afternoon, but the loading took several hours more, which seemed providential to the men. "All day there were young women & girls here at the dock trying to get the GIs to whistle and talk to them and they did," Schroder noted. "Some even missed chow because of the girls. I don't know what they are going to do when they get a leave in December for R.R. (Rest & Recuperation)."
Not long after they shoved off, there was an abandon-ship drill and another meal. The food was not bad, Schroder wrote touchingly, as if he had been living in domestic bliss for years, but "not anywhere near the cooking at home I get from my wife Eleanor." For Michael Taylor and Bill McGath, two C packet troops assigned KP duty, the comparison to home cooking was beyond imagining. One of their jobs was to help navy chefs prepare scrambled eggs for breakfast, which involved climbing up a metal ladder to crack 122 dozen eggs into a massive kettle. They staged contests to see who could crack the most eggs at once, with shell shards flying unappetizingly into the mix. McGath noticed from the crates that the eggs were not fresh but had been in cold storage for fourteen months. What struck Mike Troyer most about breakfast service was that meals awaited them on prestacked trays: eggs that were stuck to the bottom of one metal tray would be scraped onto the plate below.
Copyright © 2003 by David Maraniss
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