A Veteran's Story: Cliff Cahoon, Part I

By: Clifford Cahoon

NOTE: This is the first of a series of stories from Cliff’s time in Vietnam, more will follow. Cliff is part of the AFF Patriot’s Shooting team, and an all around great guy. We can’t express our deep gratitude for his willingness to share his stories with us.

101st Air Borne Division, 2/327 INF, NO SLACK, C company, 2nd platoon, Viet Nam 69, 70

“To lay bare the conflict within, to strip away the social anxiety, to talk about the reality and the fear that feeds on the unknown moments of our future.”

C.D.C.

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Veterans Day comes and goes every year. There are quiet times, memorials, celebrations and Veterans Day sales that abound throughout our country with great flourish; and then it is over. For some veterans, it is never over. Every day there is some memory etched in their soul so deeply, it creates a void that can isolate them from everything around them. Sometimes they find no lasting help or support and they choose to end their lives. This fact completely devastates me and as I write these words, hot wet tears gush from my eyes in knowing what this means and I never want to forget.

It is my hope, that by sharing this personal narrative to induce some response from my fellow veterans, for in the sharing of stories among comrades, there is good therapy.

For me, this time of year is a catalyst for memories. After boarding an airplane from Flying Tiger Airlines at McCord Air force base, I landed at Da Nang, Viet Nam in South East Asia November 20, 1969. The moment the door of the airplane opened a flood of heavy, warm moist air enveloped the occupants like a wet blanket. Descending the stairway, and greeted by a sergeant asking if we had been here before, my negative answer landed me with a group that unloaded the cargo of the plane. Being new in country and not acclimated, we were immediately drenched in sweat from exertion. We found later, this was a benefit. The ride in the back of the trucks cooled us down and no personnel involved in unloading the plane had to attend any in-processing briefings.

From Nov. 20 to 22 arriving troops dispersed to their assigned units throughout the country. Some were trucked in open containers (cattle trucks) to closer destinations and some, including myself, spent many hours on hard benches waiting for announcements to catch a flight with available aircraft. If you fell asleep, you missed a flight and had to wait for the next one. Sometimes runways closed and you had to seek cover because of rocket and mortar attack. You were on your own to find your way to your assigned company, while the war churned around you. I felt completely exposed, having no weapons with me yet.

My flight out of Da Nang on a C-130 aircraft loaded with munitions was my only choice. I was the only passenger and the crew chief strapped me in in front of the cargo, right behind the pilots. The chief leaned over and told me to “just hang on” if there was a problem. Taxing out for departure the pilot pulled onto the runway; locked the brakes and proceeded to rev the engines to full throttle because of the weight of the explosives on board the craft. The plane was vibrating loudly and I was definitely hanging on. Releasing the brakes, the plane lurched and lumbered, using up the entire runway and we were off.

Arriving at Bien Hoa air base, near Saigon (now Ho Chi Min City) I was assigned a bunk and locker in a large staging facility, consisting of numerous wood framed buildings built next to the helicopter pads. Later, I found out this was not a good location. Spending the day of Nov. 24 walking around the compound avoiding officers and conversing with clerks and other personnel that had been in country for a while,  I discovered some important information. All new personnel were referred to as cherries; a derogatory term meaning you were the new guys or (FNGS), another more vulgar term. New guys were easy to spot, because we all wore new cloths and shiny new boots. I promptly found an equipment laundry and distribution center and traded all of my new stuff for a faded and scuffed look. I believe I encountered less hassle because of it.

The day was finished at the mess hall and in the enlisted men’s club (or local pub). After a long day exploring, I found my way back to the barracks before curfew and turned in early. Tomorrow was Thanksgiving and my first away from home and family.

At 3:00 am on thanksgiving morning, multiple sirens blared incessantly. The local Viet Cong had launched a rocket and mortar attack attempting to destroy the aircraft directly behind my sleeping quarters. Not knowing where the safety bunkers were or what else to do, I fell on to the floor, pulling two mattresses on top of me for protection and hoped for the best. Explosions erupted all around, blowing parts of the building into piles of rubble. Secondary explosions from burning aircraft fuel threw sheets of flame over some areas and ignited the dry wood from the buildings causing small infernos to erupt and incinerate some people trapped inside. The attack lasted perhaps five to seven minutes. The sounds were deafening, and explosions were close and unnerving causing some to have bleeding ears.                                           

More sirens and loud speakers announced it was over. After climbing out from under the mattresses, the uninjured assisted in clean up and looked for survivors.

The sky was clear as the sun rose and exposed the destruction from the attack. As it happens, 122 mm rockets are not easy to direct and launching in multiple salvos is the preferred method. The indiscriminate blast patterns not only destroyed aircraft and my sleeping quarters but the mess hall as well. The mess hall crew had worked the previous day setting up everything for our meal. A direct hit destroyed everything, which left us with freeze-dried food, and C rations for the day.

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