In January and February 1968 while I was sleeping snug and warm in my dorm at Tift College, my brother Frederick was spending nights in frozen foxholes at Camp Lejeune, N.C. He had to endure more training before a second tour of duty in Vietnam. Then, back at his home base in Gulf Port, Miss., he “bought a tree,” in his new, bright red 1966 Ford Fairlane GTA, for which the Navy fined him. Adding to his anger and dismay, rumors of an early out for the Seabees who had already served in Vietnam proved false.
In a letter dated Feb. 28, he shared with me some black humor over returning to the war zone, “Sure will be glad to get over there where it is safe, ha! We have had 4 guys killed in the States in the past 5 months. Guess war ain’t so bad after all.” The four young men had all been killed in automobile accidents.
After two weeks at home in late March, he was back in Vietnam, this time in Phu Bai, south of Hue, the scene of a major battle during the Tet Offensive in January. I returned to Tift for Spring quarter of my sophomore year in his repaired car. As he handed over the keys, he said that he had bought “the little Red Rag” with an automatic transmission specifically because he knew I could drive it! He also said if I put scratches on the car, he wouldn’t get mad, but if I hurt myself he’d never forgive me.
Phu Bai and Forsyth
While I drove my girlfriends around the tiny town of Forsyth, Frederick and the rest of his battalion were putting up hospital tents in Phu Bai for the 101st Airborne Infantry Battalion. On April 24, soon after he arrived, he reported to our parents that there was “a lot more action up here than there was at DaNang but so far we haven’t seen any. They have some big guns just across the road from us and they kept us awake the first couple of nights but we’re used to that now.”
In a letter to me dated a couple of days after that one, he writes, “It’s still raining almost every day but it’s hot as you know what when the sun shines. I’ve already got a tan.” He also asked me how the car was running and whether I had “the fastest car on campus or not? You better not know! Just watch for them thar trees, they’re bad.” He added a P.S., “I bet you do turn some heads in the Ford.”
Not long after that I backed the little Red Rag into another car in the dorm parking lot. His reaction was typical of the loving brother he was and is, “Well I’m glad you wasn’t hurt. The little red rag didn’t look right without a scratch or two anyway. I’m just going to say: Ha! Ha! Ha! I wish I could have been there. I know you were probably the funniest thing for miles.”
In that letter dated May 2, he also reported that they were “about to finish the hospital tents. I’ll be glad to get away from there. You see some pretty gruesome things over there.” He went on to say, “The V.C. are keeping us awake quite a bit. So far though the only things we’ve lost is sleep. I haven’t lost any of my speed from last year either. I can come out of my bed going 100 m.p.h. when that siren goes.”
On May 11 he wrote: “Things have been hot here in more ways than one. They sent me down south to build 4 huts. Well [the V.C.] hit the place 3 times this week, twice while I was there, and the galley almost burned down. We immediately quit work on the huts and went to work on the galley. After they started pestering us with mortars every night we just started sleeping out in the holes. The first couple of nights it was very uncomfortable but after we got used to it we sleep just as good there as back in the huts.” He noted that “there seems to be a lot more action everywhere than there was last year. They’re getting attacked at DaNang now.”
And once again he began to hold on to the hope that the Seabees who completed their second tour in Vietnam by the end of 1968 would get an early out once they returned to the states. At the end of most letters, he said, “See you Christmas, I hope.”
Later that month he responded to my report on how much it would cost to repair the damage to the car, which he was paying for. “I guess you smacked that car pretty good,” he wrote. “You must have really been yakking when you should have been looking where you were backing.” He also teased me about playing Bre’r Rabbit in a skit for the May Day Program: “I can imagine you as Brer Rabbit.
Just don’t get the idea that you might make a good bunny such as a Playboy Bunny. I don’t think I would approve of that. Daddy wouldn’t like it much either.”
He and his buddies were “still sleeping out in the holes every night,” even though it was hotter out there. He said the temperature was over 100 degrees every day, “and the dust is knee deep. It’s starting to rain now so I guess the mud will be knee deep tomorrow.” In the next letter to our parents, he reported, “We lost our first man today, another traffic fatality. He was driving a truck loaded with telephone poles to Hue and it overturned. Sure hope this doesn’t touch off a rash of injuries this year.” That fear, plus frustrations at not receiving his mail in a timely fashion, doubts about the possibility of getting an early out, and sheer exhaustion from working long and hard even on Sundays, impelled him to write, “I want out of this outfit worse than I have ever wanted anything. I think we deserve a break after what we’ve been through.”
By the time I received the next red-and-blue-bordered white envelope on June 12, I had driven the Red Rag to Clayton for another summer as a camp counselor, and I had left my teenage years behind; hence, the salutation of Frederick’s letter read, “Dear ex teeny- bopper…Welcome to the roaring twenties. The fun has just begun.” Things had quieted down in Phu Bai so they were sleeping in the huts again. And since there wasn’t any immediate work, they were taking it easy. He doubted that would last long.
In a letter Mama kept, I wrote that another camp counselor’s brother was also in Vietnam and she had complained that “My brother didn’t give me his car. He sold it!” I felt both special and spoiled. When I reported this to Frederick, he replied, “I don’t think you’ll spoil. If I did I would treat you mean. Besides I love you.”
The calm in Phu Bai lasted through June and into July. He wrote to Mama and Daddy on July 2: “They’re making us spend every fourth night on the line now. Guess they figure that since we don’t have much to do they’ll make it look like we have a war to fight.”
Resurface the runway in 72 hours
By July 10, the early out had finally been confirmed, and Frederick exulted, “160-odd days to go.” But, the easy days were over. The Seabees were given 72 hours in which to resurface “the landing strip with steel matting.” Each man worked in 12-hour shifts lifting and laying down sheets that weighed 140 pounds each and took two men to carry. Frederick’s initial comment was, “I guess we can hack it.” In this letter, he told Mama if she wanted to send him something, he would like “some Vienna sausages, potato sticks and other canned goodies to snack on.”
He also commented on the condition of Hue, which he had visited recently to build a hut: “The town is really torn apart. It was once a very beautiful city. I didn’t see the Citadel but most of the buildings are full of holes. I guess they really had a battle there.” *
In his July 13 letter to me, he commented on a photo of the car that I had sent him: “It really looked good. I hope you continue to enjoy it as much as I enjoy your having it. I guess you’re kind of special to me.” He joked about the early out: “I’m sure upset about being discharged 9 months early. All I do is wonder what I’ll do with myself when I’m free again. I have so many day dreams stashed in my head that I’m sure some of them will materialize.”
Three days later he wrote to our parents that they were half-way through with the runway job. “We figure that each man there handled over 25 tons yesterday. I know no one would believe that but we sure do. I guess we all must be crazy to work that hard for about $.30 an hour.” In the next letter, four days later, he said they had finished the airstrip in 51 hours. The hard work had certainly taken its toll on him, though. He was writing from the “transient barracks” in DaNang where he had been sent to see a specialist for an ear infection that had already lasted more than 10 days. He remained there through the end of July, commenting that it was boring because he didn’t “have to muster or anything.”
Build 2000 huts
He was back in Phu Bai on Aug. 5 and reported he was glad to get his backlogged mail and to see familiar faces. The Seabees’ new assignment was to build 2,000 huts for the 101st Airborne in the roughly four months remaining in their deployment. They were putting in 12-hour days. Toward the end of August, he wrote that “Things are pretty hot around here weather-wise and war-wise. Everybody is expecting a big offensive soon. The last week surrounding outfits have been hit frequently but so far we haven’t been bothered. We’re prepared as always though.”
In early September he said, “We’re still working like ‘bees.’ I think I could put up huts in my sleep. We finished no. 500 Sunday. That only leaves 1500 to go.”
Soon thereafter he went on R&R in Australia, coming home toward the end of the month in time to help build 30 more huts. The last one was completed on Sep.27, just before the monsoon season began. There were 90 days left in his deployment.
He wrote me about Australia: “The people were unbelievably friendly. They have an Australian-American friendship club run by min-skirted volunteers.”
He began generating ideas for what he would do after he left the Navy and expressed some concerns about what I would do for transportation if he took the Red Rag back. “I want to go to work as soon as possible,” he told our parents. “The more I goof off the harder it will be to adjust back to civilian life. Besides I like that money.” In late October it had “rained for almost 2 straight weeks… Chances are it will still be raining when I catch that big beautiful bird home.”
He was disappointed in the outcome of the presidential election. On Nov. 10 he wrote to our parents: “We all felt that Johnson and Humphrey sold us out with the bombing halt. Hue and Phu Bai both got hit almost immediately after word reached here. We hadn’t been bothered in over five months. None of the rounds came into our camp though. I also thought it was pretty low not to consult the South Vietnamese. I don’t care for any of these gooks but we should give them a fair shake.”
As he had reminded us in almost every letter since confirmation of the early out in July, he was “short.” His Nov. 10 letter to me ended with “See you soon.” He was home for Christmas 1968. Fred tried going back to classes, this time at UGA, but found he couldn’t stand being inside so much. He found work plastering and setting tile, skills he had learned from our father and honed in Vietnam. He settled back as best he could into the routines of farm and family, bought a used truck so that I could continue to drive the Red Rag, gladly reclaiming it when I was home for any length of time.
Today Fred and I are next-door-neighbors on the farm of our childhood. He retired some years ago but continued to farm cattle until last year when he sold all of his cows and leased the farmland, which hasn’t been without a cow since before Daddy bought the farm in 1935. Fred and his wife helped raise their grandson and granddaughter and are now helping raise a great- granddaughter. Despite the aches and pains that have come with age, as well as type 2 diabetes, bladder cancer and occasional nightmares that appear to be related to his two tours of duty in Vietnam, he enjoys life and declares that God is good.
I’m grateful to have such a devoted brother who still looks out for me in more ways than I will ever know.
And he still teases me unmercifully and occasionally calls me by one of the pet names from our childhood with which he sometimes greeted me in his letters from Vietnam: “Dear Squirt Blossom,” or its shortened version, “Dear Squirt.” And unabashedly, we both still declare our love when we part, the kind of love that stretches across continents and oceans and years and knows no boundaries.
* The North Vietnamese had captured Hue as part of the Tet offensive in January. They occupied the Citadel, which had been built in the early 19th century to house Vietnam’s emperors. In a month of house-to-house fighting, 80 percent of the city was destroyed and 10,000 killed before the city was recaptured by the Marines. (1,800 Americans; 2,500 S. Vietnamese soldiers, 5,000 N. Vietnamese soldiers, and untold thousands of civilians)