When I landed in Vietnam, my tour of 32,572,800 seconds officially began.
Most first-timers in Vietnam earned the designation FNG, and most of the men I was traveling and training with were also new arrival FNGs. The name did not hit home until I arrived at A Battery 7/11.
The day after I arrived in Tay Ninh base camp, the four or five men who staffed our “rear area” began assigning me work that continued until my departure to join the fighting part of our battery. Work details for a private could be expected upon arriving at a new duty station, so I was not surprised and dedicated myself to doing a good job with the hope my work ethic could get me assigned there. I filled sandbags, repaired wood sidewalks, typed a few documents and kept smiling and joking, intending to impress them. After a few days working around our area, the bad news came that I was headed to the field tomorrow, so my work ethic rapidly deflated.
My first few days in the field were spent in the bunker proving I could operate as a trusted member of Fire Direction Control (FDC), but I was quickly assigned to haul ammo and clean up trash as our six howitzers fired in support of infantry units engaged in fighting. This was very hard work, as compared to charting and reading firing tables in FDC. In Dau Tieng, we were often mortared and sniped at during night missions.
Others appeared to ignore them, but I – the new guy – was scared as hell and wanted to get flat on the ground, but people kept yelling at me to get my ass in gear, and I responded. My next work detail was guard duty on the perimeter of the base camp during the night. None of my other work was cut back, so my body was sore everywhere, and my brain was spinning in confusion as to where I was. I had not slept at all since I got to the firing battery. Dave Seim arrived days after I did, and it was obvious we were the only men assigned to these work details. The cause of this was that we were FNGs and were to be the butt of jokes and assigned the worst jobs. Men taunted us for being FNGs every chance they had.
My hair was too long for Army taste, so I was sent to a “mobile home” several hundred yards from our location, staffed with male Vietnamese barbers. Someone told me to take money (MPC), as the barbers were private contractors. After the barber shaved my head in Army style, he began to sharpen a straight razor using a leather strap that was connected to the right arm of my barber chair. No way a Vietnamese was putting a razor to my throat, and I made that clear to him in a loud voice. He had spoken no English up to this point, so I wanted him to know no shave and used the loud voice to help us communicate, as I spoke no Vietnamese. I assumed that to calm me, he rubbed my shoulders and neck for a couple of seconds, followed by karate chops to my shoulders. His next move was to my back, at which point I stopped him cold and got out of the chair. All MPC was paper, even nickels, so I grabbed a handful from my pocket looking for 50 cents to pay for the trim. He loudly insisted I owed him $1.15, while several barbers I had not seen simultaneously emerged from behind a curtain and looked my direction. He got his money, and I got moving.
Upon returning to FDC, everyone wanted to know how much I paid. When I said $1.15, they all started laughing and after enjoying the joke on me, told me that others had paid more. The touching of my body below the head was considered massage, and each area touched had an independent charge for that touch. No one in FDC had allowed a barber to get close with the straight razor. After this, I let my hair grow beyond Army standards and from that time forward, I got my head clear cut by a fellow soldier. Pretty harmless stuff relatively, but, as I quickly found out, just an introduction to being a FNG.
Not only were FNGs set up for pranks, they were the last in line for rewards and first for dirty jobs and work details. It was my turn for the latter. That afternoon someone handed me a hacksaw with a dull and rusted blade, then assigned me to cut off the top and bottom 1/3 of a 55- gallon drum. These drums had a ridge around the circumference at each of the two points near where I was to cut. Starting a cut was maddeningly difficult. Then, after I started to cut through the barrel’s skin, its sharp edges began to slice my hands. A small group gathered to watch my struggles, while laughing and calling me a stupid FNG. A combat engineer assigned to the infantry company we shared the firebase with observed my struggles and told me to hold for a few moments, which I gladly did. Returning with a long string of det cord (plastic explosive shaped like a small, long rope), he wrapped two sections around the barrel where I was to cut and lit them with a Zippo. In a couple of moments, each cord had burned its length and cut the drum into three separate sections. Now I was no longer the target of laughter, and two of my tormentors learned a lesson. To this day, I would like to thank that engineer but did not learn his name. Regardless, bless that man!
Being a FNG doesn’t end until one of a handful of situations occurs. It could be a case of a new recruit joining the unit and taking the “title” from you. The FNG designation could also be shed by the passage of 15 days or performing well in a combat situation. For me, my FNG journey started after nearly 1,000,000 seconds in-country and ended 1,2960,000 later.
This countdown is not as strange as it probably seems to the uninitiated. We all counted down the days. Never wanting to be in Vietnam in the first place, I lived mine in seconds.