Tan Son Nhat Air Base in Saigon is a steaming armpit of movement and bother. Free to move through the war following my head, I move aimlessly. Military life has accustomed me to being told what to do. On my own, I’m unsure of what to do. I’m only sure of one thing, I don’t want to get killed for a few photographs.
I explain this goal to the Operation’s Officer at the Navy fight counter. My magic orders lay on the counter in front of him. My words sound cowardly and weak, his eyes say as he studies me with a seasoned smirk. Even to me the idea of photographing a war safely seems lame. “I’m just looking to go some place to get some good pictures is all,” I say, trying to put bravado in my voice. The officer points to a giant operations’ board on the wall behind him. “Look bud I can’t guarantee you anything. Those are the operations going on out of here right now. You pick one and those orders take you there.”
I study the board and try to glean some hint as to where the operation might take me, and what I might encounter there. Some of the operations have phrases in their titles like “counter strike,” “attack force,” or “search and destroy.” I put these in the death and destruction column. Then I see an operation that has something about helicopters and “supply” in the title. Supply, I think, how many supply clerks have had their war chronicled? I tell the busy operations officer, I’ll take that chopper operation down by Long Xuyen. “Tomorrow morning 0500 bud,” he says stamping my papers and then adds with what looks like a knowing sneer, “You’ll have a lotta fun down there.”
A night in Saigon at a transit hotel and I’m ready for almost anything the next day. I arrive to find my supply operation flies Sea Horse choppers backed up by C47s that look to have been World War II surplus. Twenty-year-old mechanics seem to labor away keeping 30-year-old prop aircraft in the sky.