I'd like to set the record straight. Some say an army travels on
its feet, or on its seat - but it really travels on its stomach! And that's not just
when we're low-crawling, either. The heart of any good combat unit is its cook.
When army food is bad, it's lousy. But when it is good, life is not so bad.
The army sincerely tried to give us good cooks and good food. When we were
tired and cold from a long night of combat, it was not unusual to see a chopper roaring
towards us over the trees, with cookie sitting in the wide doorway. When the Huey
landed, out would come big olive drab canisters full of scrambled eggs, bacon, potatoes,
and steaming coffee. I don't have to tell you how welcome it all was - a small touch
of the life we had left behind. Our emptiness was filled in more ways than one.
Cookie was a young man who had probably trained at the army version of the Cordon Bleu
- where they learned to make Chipped Beef on Toast instead of Pheasant Under Glass.
His food was good and solid. It was prepared with occasional flashes of inspiration,
like the time Cookie made cheese omelets out of powdered eggs. His fried chicken was
something I'd go back for even today. Most importantly, he really cared that we have
the best food possible. Sometimes what he got to work with was not the best - like
the buffalo steaks (I think they were buffalo - they were so heavily "marinated"
in vinegar that they didn't taste like meat anymore). Our milk was always
reconstituted, never fresh - like the powdered stuff at home that comes in a box - and it
tasted just about as good. Some mornings there were no eggs, so all he had to offer
was cold cereal and that awful milk. But that wasn't his fault.
Back in the states I got in the habit of skipping
breakfast. In Basic and AIT I didn't have much choice. But on that first
morning out in the field, when there were no eggs and no bacon, but only one brand of cold
cereal and that horrid warm reconstituted milk, I took one look and turned away. The
heck with breakfast! I went back to my bunker and got ready for an early-morning
heliborne. I selected a box of "C" rations for lunch and put the cans in
my pockets. I filled my canteen, checked my ammo, and loaded up for my first day
outside the wire.
In a few minutes our choppers arrived. We climbed aboard and lifted off.
The choppers banked to the west, out over the North Oriental river - and straight toward
the Cambodian border. We flew over the long lines of forest that marked the end of
"civilization" in the region. For perhaps twenty minutes we continued
on. Finally, still heading in the same direction, the Hueys began to descend,
dropping towards a large clearing ahead of us. The landscape looked forbidding.
Once on the ground, it was obvious we were in a border region. There were no
hootches, no rice paddies, no people. The terrain was as flat as a board.
Waist-and-chest-high brush blanketed the ground around us. But there were no leaves,
no lush foliage. In fact there was no green at all - the entire area had been
burned. All that remained were the blackened stems and trunks of willow-like
bushes. As we marched, our uniforms, arms and faces soon became smeared with soot
from brushing against the lifeless limbs.
For half an hour we slowly pushed our way through the burned-over brush, seeing nothing
but acres and acres of charred waste. Eventually the landscape opened out onto a
vast liquid plain, with thin, delicate pathways crossing and re-crossing the surface of
the water in circular patterns. The area had been so saturated with bombs that its
even landscaping had given way to continuous craters, now filled with water. The
rims of the craters overlapped, and the compacted dirt formed narrow pathways that went
from one crater to the next. We started across. One slip and your leg dropped
away into a twenty foot deep puddle that tapered in an inverted cone to the bottom of the
crater. After the first dozen men walked past, what dirt had been above the surface
of the water was pushed under and a cloud of silt rose up to conceal the path. We
just did our best, trying to follow the footsteps of the man in front of us as he walked
on through the water.
Here and there a towering palm had survived, and clumps of thick green bushes clung to
their island of earth. But for us there was no cover. The sun beat down
mercilessly. The temperature was well over one hundred degrees. Though we made
frequent five minute stops we were getting tired. Now the lack of breakfast began to
take its toll. I began to feel dizzy and sick, but I kept moving, trying to
concentrate on the feet of the man ahead of me, and trying not to slip into one of the
holes . . .
It was almost eleven o'clock when we came to dry ground again. We came to a halt
while the captain checked his maps. It was then that the
sergeant turned and saw me. "Are you O.K., Ramsey?" he asked when he got
close. "You're white as a sheet!" I told him I'd skipped breakfast
and probably just needed food. He decided to take a thirty-minute break.
I pulled out a can of fruit cocktail. I felt so dizzy I was
afraid I was going to pass out before I could get it open. I fumbled with the P-38,
a tiny fold-up can opener - I was still a newcomer at this. Finally, I got it open,
and the fruit never tasted better. I lay back and had some water. For a while
the horizon continued to spin slowly around, but by the time I had some more water and ate
the rest of my meal I decided I was going to make it. I found out later that Sarge
had almost called a Medevac, which would have meant giving away our position.
As it was, the food did the job. By one o'clock I was myself again. I was
feeling tired, but that was nothing serious - before many more weeks passed, I would
always be tired. But I never skipped breakfast again - even when it was cold cereal.
We did finally reach our objective. Before the day was over we discovered some
abandoned mud bunkers and used our LAWs ( a sort of bazooka) to blast holes in the walls,
and then collapsed the rest with C-4 explosives. When the
choppers finally arrived to take us home, I was more than ready. My first day, and I
had already learned a valuable lesson.
An Army Travels On Its Stomach: Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright © 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Pictures Copyright © 1995 Bob Lindgren
March 02, 1995