Bill Nixon served in Vietnam from the last month of 1965 until November 1966.
During his year-long tour he survived firefights and Army life, and he recently started putting pen to paper to record his experiences.
Nixon was generous enough to share his writings and we are running the first few chapters here on Veterans Day. There is a lot more to his work, which he entitled The Turkey Farm, and we plan to return to it in the future.
Nixon tells us everything he has written is factual, although he did change the names of the people involved. Except for Ringo Starr and Elvis. He left their names alone.
The Turkey Farm
I was on my first operation in Vietnam. There was an enemy hospital complex at an unknown location within our battalion’s area of responsibility and we had been assigned the task of pinpointing it. Our orders were to destroy all structures and capture any personnel found there. Equipment and supplies confiscated would be flown to our basecamp.
We split into four companies and unsuccessfully worked the terrain with a fine-tooth comb. Days turned into weeks and the search took on a competitive air. Each company put forth a fierce effort to get credit for the find.
It was one of the other companies that, at long last, stumbled upon the objective. No one remained on the site and the place had been dismantled and abandoned. A single piece of inventory was the only item left behind, a lone cotton ball.
The captain in charge at the scene followed orders to the letter. He radioed for a chopper to come in just to pick up that one tiny cotton ball, which was dwarfed by the tag he attached to it. I don’t know his name but that man is one of my military heroes. How can you not love a guy with such a sense of humor?
I once had a hospitalized relative bitching about being charged a dollar for each cotton ball on her bill. I wonder what the hunt for that solitary little cotton ball we beat the bush to acquire cost U.S. taxpayers.
Welcome to Vietnam.
In the jungle, human flesh and clothing are at the mercy of every nasty plant and infamous wait-a-minute vine that grows. They slice and dive and tear and shred and leave thorns in your skin that finally ooze out with the pus after the wounds have festered. The rainforest is an alien, brutal environment, like being in the garden of hell.
Our uniforms were in tatters. The whole front of my trousers, from nearly waist to knees, was missing and I sacrificed my underwear for use as toilet paper when I had none, so the most sensitive area of my body was left unprotected. I tried, and soon rejected, wearing the damaged pants backwards because my movement was restricted. I felt like my b---s were being squeezed in a vice and everyone was laughing at my bare butt. My private parts, raw and inflamed, could endure no more punishment. I requested new fatigues for days but I might as well have been asking for the moon. All I got was excuses. The Army could rebuild bombed out bridges overnight but my simple expectation was unrealistic?
One evening we got word that we were being moved, as part of a mammoth airlift, to a new landing zone the following morning. We were informed that all three major TV networks at the time would be on hand to film the action for the 6 o’clock news so the folks back home could be dazzled by the spectacle while they ate dinner. I had an idea.
When my chopper touched down I would run directly toward the cameras and give the journalists a close-up, triple X-rated eyeful. They wouldn’t be able to broadcast that scene and, hopefully, they’d raise hell with the Army for blatantly neglecting the most basic needs of one of its poor soldiers.
That’s exactly how it played out but it got me an angry ass-chewing from my squad leader, Big Al.
“Don’t you dare ever pull another f-----g stunt like that again, mister!” he growled as he tossed a new pair of pants in my face.
It was worth it though. How often does a lowly Pfc. beat the mighty U.S. Army at its own game? It took them under an hour to deliver the goods after being put on the spot.
To some, authority is like a narcotic. They can’t use it without abusing it. The stupidest and riskiest place to play God is in a combat zone. Out there everyone’s armed and guns don’t recognize rank. Pushing people to far is at the peril of the pusher. Would-be victims of bullies hold the equalizers in their hands and have only to squeeze the trigger to neutralize the superiority of tormentors. Troops have turned their weapons on comrades in every war. The enemy is not always the person wearing the other uniform and soldiers are trained to shoot the enemy.
After getting mistreated by Sgt. Shaver for weeks, Jonesy shot him in the leg three times at close range with his M-16 on Valentine’s Day. Shaver nearly bled to death but managed to survive and, against all odds, even come away with his leg disabled but intact. It happened with no warning. Jonesy had the rest of us diving for cover, assuming that we were under enemy attack. I was a quarter way through my tour of duty in Vietnam and it was first time under fire.
To our weapons, squad leader, Sgt. Marino, danger was an aphrodisiac and he courted it. Thinking that we had been engaged by hostile forces was, to him, akin to winning the Irish Sweepstakes. He was jubilant. Marino seized the spotlight. He wanted to be Audie Murphy. He wanted to be Mighty Mouse, here to save the day!
Marino immediately had both his machineguns barking away. We were in open rice paddies with an unobstructed view for as far as the eye could see in all directions. Everything on the landscape was stationary. Confused, Big Al shouted, “What are those men shooting at, Marino?” The only witness to what really happened was our platoon sergeant, Sgt. Andy, and he was unable to calm down the wound-up Sgt. Marino enough to tell him.
There was a hill off in the distance, barely visible on the horizon, looking about the size of a pimple from our location.
“That hill. That’s where those bastards are!”
Big Al shook his head. “No way, Marino. We’d be out of range of each other’s weapons.”
“Yeah? Well you tell me then. Where the hell are they?”
“I don’t know but not there.”
“Hey, Al, relax, will you? Trust me. I fought in the Korean War.”
“What’s that got to do with this?”
“That, my friend, was a REAL war!
“Just keep laying fire on that hill,” Marino commanded his men. “I see three of those little s---s! They’re wearing tiger suits. You hit one. The other two are running for it. Come on! Cut ‘em down before they get away!”
“We hit one, Sarge? Really? Is he dead?”
“How would I know, son? I didn’t check his pulse, now did I? You just keep that gun going, hear me?”
Marino’s prayers had been answered. He strutted, waved his arms, and bellowed instructions like a college football coach on a Saturday afternoon. Don Quixote in a rice paddy. That was Marino.
It’s amazing how show-offs like Marino suddenly covet anonymity when they realize they’ve made complete asses of themselves. All Marino could do was cringe as the zingers flew about how imaginary gooks are harmless — didn’t they teach him that in the real war in Korea? And how compared to his squad, the Keystone Kops were a fucking SWAT team.
That night, Marino caught one of his men, Pfc. Tyler, asleep on guard. I was in the next foxhole over, the only one who heard the violent exchange between them. Marino told Tyler he was going to have him court-martialed next time we returned to basecamp. Tyler promised Marino that if we got into a firefight before then, Marino would never live to see basecamp again because he, Tyler, would personally make sure that Marino was the first one dead, adding, you can’t prove someone was in the middle of a firefight. I recall thinking to myself, Jonesy and Shaver, Tyler and Marino. The enemy doesn’t have to eliminate us — we’re doing it for them!
Jonesy was not prosecuted for shooting Shaver. On the contrary. He was permanently reassigned to basecamp as a helper on the division garbage truck. That startling decision went unexplained. While handling trash might seem less than glamorous, it beats being in the line of fire by light years and “Combat” Helms was vocal in expressing his envy over such an injustice.
Combat complained that rewarding criminal behavior sent a dangerous message that said if you toe the line and follow the program you’re nothing but a big sucker. You’re a gullible fool to bust your ass because the effort won’t be appreciated anyway. You’ll just keep getting pressured to do more and more. Advantage is taken of good guys. That puts morale in the toilet and discipline disintegrates. Combat nailed it. While these attitudes exist everywhere, nobody exploits them as zealously as the military.
Combat empathized with Jonesy’s frustration and cited a personal anecdote to illustrate his point.
“You all remember the time Shaver would have drowned if I hadn’t saved him? Instead of thanking me for it, he cussed me out because I wasn’t able to gran his cigarettes too! I was so pissed I tried to throw him back in the river but you guys stopped me. So I’m not surprised that Jonesy snapped on Shaver but he CROSSED the line and it’s not fair to everybody else, letting him skate. If being taken out of harm’s way constitutes punishment, then I want to be punished too!”
Theories aplenty were floated to explain Jonesy’s good fortune. Combat believed that nobody was bout to toss Jonesy in the stockade for simply giving Shaver what he deserved.
Another suggestion: Jonesy had faced no charges because he was a foreign national and the United States didn’t want to create an international incident. Combat’s friend, Pete, dismissed that notion as ridiculous.
Jonesy was, in fact, a British citizen, a former resident of Liverpool. Jonesy left England to avoid mandatory service in their armed forces and often joked that he was the only draft dodger on the front lines in Vietnam. Jonesy said he came from the same neighborhood as Ringo Starr.
“That’s it!” someone blurted. “Ringo stepped in with his celebrity clout and got Jonesy off. That makes sense. Ringo’s one of the Beatles, one of the most famous people in the world right now.”
“Yeah, that’s a great story to write home about and it’s sure to impress the girlfriends. Juice it up to sound like we’re practically a-----e buddies with one of the Beatles our damn selves. But it’s just a crock of b------t and we know it. Honestly now, why would Ringo Starr come to the aid of some amoeba that he barely even knows?” asked Pete.
A couple days later, there was an article in our division newspaper about Jonesy that, obviously, went to press prior to his February 14th meltdown. After stating that Jonesy was one of only two British citizens in our division, it gushed about how fortunate we were to have a fine soldier like him among us and concluded by encouraging us to follow his example and emulate his actions!
We all knew about the Jonesy/Ringo thing but I didn’t learn until over four decades later when Combat Helms told me during one of our last conversations prior to his death that our Sgt. Handy had been an Army buddy of Elvis Presley. Two guys served together in a 40-man platoon that had connections to rock ‘n’ roll royalty. How’s that for an amazing bit o’ trivia?