Long Thanh. It was, and is, the district capital in godforsaken Dong Nai Province, roughly 70 kilometers Norwest of Vung Tau and 20 kilometers southwest of Bien Hoa.
Part of that area was Bearcat. Bearcat was originally a French airfield, later used by the Japanese during World War II.
The 9th Infantry Division moved in and set up camp at Bearcat (Camp Martin Cox, or Long Thanh North, per the old sign over the gate), which was about 20 miles northeast of Saigon proper.
By the end of the day, 19 December 1966, the first convoy from Vung Tau had arrived at Bearcat, and we started filling sandbags. Lots and lots of sandbags. Thousands of them.
Sometime around Christmas ’66, my company was herded into several GP Medium tents, and we were handed legal sized pads of yellow, lined, paper, and introduced to a full colonel and his assistants. He was JAG. A full bird, so that we “might understand the seriousness of the next few hours, and not be grab-assing around,” as he put it. On a bedsheet held up in a frame at the end of the tent was an overhead projector image of the cover sheet that we were going to add to.
We were there to make out our last will and testament.
I was 19 years old.
NOW things started to hit home, just a little bit more. Sure, the heat and the bugs and the reddish dirt and dust and the military vehicles and the helicopters and the idea that we were walking around with M16s WITH live ammo IN the guns and in pouches on our belts — yeah — that brought it home to us pretty good… But now… making out our Last Will And Testament, under the tutelage of JAG officers… Well, that certainly made us sit up and take notice, and we knew, at that point, if nothing else, that the shit had just gotten real. Very, very real.
Most of us didn’t have very much, so it went fairly quickly, but there was a section to fill in to include our last words and wishes, and that did take some time. How do you overcome the emotions and find the words to put down, knowing that this might be your last time to make an impression on those you love and care about? Not an easy thing at all. That took some time to accomplish.
I remember one guy snapped. He got mentally ripped apart and lost it completely, and walked out of the tent crying and screaming… they gathered him up and he went away.
The main thought in my mind, as I labored over the yellow pad with the neat lines on it, was, “I might die here.”
I was 19 years old. I was filling out my last will and testament, and I was 19 years old.
That was some really serious shit at the time.