Vietnam and Beyond: The Importance of Story
By John M. Del Vecchio
This may sound odd, but I remember the cold in Viet Nam more than the heat. Maybe it’s because I expected the heat, expected those days when the hot air sucked the breath from your lungs. But I had never been told about the cold, up north in I Corps, about the chill effect of the northeast monsoons from October to April—the opposite of most of the country which was hit by the southwest monsoons from April to October. The NE monsoons were not like those from the SW. The latter were caused by prevailing winds coming from the India Ocean across the Gulf of Siam, rising up the east side of the Annamites, building all day until mid-afternoon when it would pour like crazy for three hours. The NE monsoons came in from the Pacific—cold, gray, oppressive. Once they began in earnest, they didn’t stop. 1970-71 was a bad weather year in I Corps. By late October the rain was continuous, every day all day, until late February. Hue flooded. We ran rescue missions along with MedCaps. The humidity was so thick—this was cold, dank humidity—in the rear we threw away all the mattresses because they were soggy, wouldn’t dry, became moldy. Every few weeks there was a break lasting perhaps an hour. The roads of Camp Eagle were linear morasses, nearly impassable red-orange muck 12 to 24 inches deep. When the sun did break through it would immediately dry the surface of the mud down to about ¼ inch, and the wind would pick up the dust and stick it to every exposed surface. If you look at pictures of guys from that time, you’ll see everyone looks orange—black guys, white guys, brown guys—all orange. On Christmas Eve 1970 I was in a foxhole atop the steep pinnacle of OP Checkmate. Cold, cold, cold—cold because all we had were our jungle fatigues, jungle sweaters, jungle boots soaking in the mud and slosh, and thin nylon poncho liners. That night it snowed. Only brief flurries, but snow! The good thing about the rains, when they were at their heaviest, was the NVA couldn’t move. As you got away from the coast, the deluge lessened but the fog thickened. The mountains were socked in. In early October I spent eight days on Firebase Whip at the edge of the A Shau. It socked in the first afternoon. We couldn’t get in Medevacs or resupply birds, and a C-130 aerial drop of food on the fifth or sixth day missed the hill and was never found. On the eighth day the sky broke—just long enough to withdraw the tubes and evacuate all personnel.
I mention this cold because everyone knows about the heat. The heat is part of the “standard narrative,” the “mainstream interpretation,” the “pressroom boilerplate,” or in a term I prefer, an element of the “ambient cultural story.” The narrative, the boilerplate, the cultural story isn’t accurate—is always, at best, only partially correct. And this is a problem.
We have a media problem in this country. And it is not simply media bias. It took me years to understand that there was a problem, more years to get a grasp on definable elements. I did not understand it in the fall of 1972 when I wrote the first draft of The 13th Valley in an old farmhouse in the woods of Maine. In early 1975 I was living in California when South Viet Nam was falling. Locally, defunct Hamilton Air Force Base was reopened to handle the influx of refugees. Newspapers and news magazines carried daily articles following the collapse, and for a year articles about who we were as the American military in Southeast Asia. I didn’t recognize the verbal pictures they painted. I didn’t know the extent of the inaccuracies, but I knew they had it all wrong if they were lumping the 101st Airborne (Airmobile) into their generalizations. From late 1976 to mid-1979 I researched and wrote and rewrote the story of The 13th Valley. I was out to set the record straight for the One-Oh-One. I didn’t disbelieve the news I was seeing, I simply thought they were describing others.