Nov 11, 2002
Richmond, VA USA
Click here for Part II of the story: Amid a war's horrors, soldiers met an angel
If the M-16 rifles had not started jamming, the filthy, exhausted men of 2nd Lt. Jack Price's platoon might never have gathered in the squad tent to ask him to do the impossible.
But Vietnam in late 1965 was like that: Tiny circumstances set off unpredictable chains of events that led sometimes to belly laughs in the chow line, sometimes to brutal death in the jungle. You never knew where the chain might end. The point man of a patrol might trigger a mine, but often it was the second, third or even fourth man on the path who was blown to bits.
So the problem with the rifles started the chain of events. Price's men took it from there.
Price was a 23-year-old West Point graduate when he arrived in Vietnam to take charge of his own platoon, and right away he heard soldiers curse the perilous unreliability of the Army's new M-16. The gas-operated weapon was jamming, sometimes in the middle of firefights with the Viet Cong, because expended shells stuck in the chamber.
About the only way to knock the shell out was to shove a cleaning rod down the barrel.
Price's company had no cleaning rods.
Price was a platoon leader in Company B of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade. The 173rd was the first major ground-combat unit the U.S. Army sent to Vietnam. The hard-charging warriors of Company B called themselves the Bravo Bulls.
The Bulls' officers had filled out the paperwork to get cleaning rods, to no avail. They beseeched supply sergeants, phoned Saigon and contacted the Pentagon. Still, no cleaning rods arrived. Stories were making the rounds that men had been killed in combat because their M-16s wouldn't fire.
Pfc. Jim Jackson, a Bravo Bull, almost became one of those stories. Jackson hiked out to the jungle with Lt. Ronald Zinn and his platoon the day Zinn was killed, July 7, 1965. The day was a dark one for the Bravo Bulls because Zinn, an athlete in the 1964 Olympic Games, was one of the company's most beloved men. After his death, they named their camp after him: Camp Zinn.
|Here is the August 1965 Playboy cover with Jo Collins as Playmate of the Year.|
Zinn and his platoon were creeping through the steaming jungle when they came upon a Viet Cong training camp. Bullets started raining in. The soldiers ducked for cover, but it was already too late for Zinn. Shot through the head, he fell instantly. Jackson scrambled into the jungle underbrush and began returning fire.
All around him, other Bravo Bulls fired back as well. The M-60 machine guns chugged out rapid fire, and the M-16s kept up a constant rattle.
The air grew thick with the acrid blue haze of gunpowder. Some of Jackson's buddies began screaming for help. Wounded men lay everywhere. Medics ignored the flying bullets and started dragging men to safety.
The fight grew more frenzied, the firing more intense. Jackson wasn't sure he was going to make it out of this one alive. And then, as if to assure him he wouldn't, his M-16 jammed.
Throwing the weapon aside, he crawled to Zinn, taking cover as the bullets kept ripping into the dead lieutenant's body. Jackson grabbed Zinn's M-16. The rifle stock was completely gone, shot off, but what was left of the weapon still worked. Jackson aimed it in the direction of the unseen enemy and fired it, over and over. He survived.
. . .
Stories such as Jackson's were common. Men's lives were in jeopardy because they couldn't clear the shells from their rifle chambers. Dismayed that no one had been able to get the cleaning rods that would help, Lieutenant Price took action.
He wrote a letter to a buddy at Colt Arms Co. Price had been on West Point's skeet and trapshooting team, and he occasionally had competed against the Colt company's team. Colt made M-16s.
Price told his buddy that he now was in Vietnam and his men needed cleaning rods. It was a matter of life and death to get them, he wrote. He offered to pay for them himself.
Price sent off his letter to Colt. Then, along with the rest of the Bravo Bulls, he waited.
The Bulls had set up their camp in a rubber-tree plantation outside Bien Hoa, a ragged little town with a French restaurant but not much else. Bien Hoa also happened to be the place where the first U.S. advisers in Vietnam were killed, back in 1959.
The soldiers weren't there to protect the town, though. Their orders were to help the South Vietnamese Army whenever it ran into too much trouble and to defend the airstrip.
Jokers often called the Bien Hoa air base, about 20 miles north of Saigon, the busiest airport in the world. Minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, cargo planes, fighter jets and Huey helicopters armed with machine guns and loaded with soldiers took off and landed. If the birds in the nearby jungle were singing any songs, no one could hear them over the aircraft engines' constant roar.
The Viet Cong hid beneath the jungle's dark green canopy and occasionally lobbed mortars that landed at the air base with a dull thud. They also fired their rifles at the cargo planes. Occasionally a plane would come skidding in, shot up, its metal underbelly screeching down the runway and showering sparks.
The Bravo Bulls' job was to chase the Viet Cong away from the airport. Or, preferably, to kill them.
Price was a natural at the job. He and his men constantly humped out into the thick jungle, across rice paddies and through bamboo stands and tall elephant grass to shoot it out with the Viet Cong.
When the men went out, many hoped they wouldn't find any enemy, because that meant somebody they were joking with just that morning might get killed.
Price seemed to be fearless, though. He had an abundance of guts.
Some thought Price acted too keen for combat when he first arrived at Bien Hoa. On one early patrol, far out of range of mortar support and unable to call in airstrikes, his platoon sergeant, Jim Quick, put his hand on Price's shoulder and told him to turn back.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, said Quick, a Korean War veteran and 15 years older than the men around him: You'll get enough of it soon enough. More than you want.
Price learned. In a matter of weeks, his calm under fire and his uncanny instincts in combat won the trust of the men in his platoon and the Bravo Bulls' commanding officer, Capt. Les Brownlee.
That's one outstanding platoon leader, Brownlee often thought when he saw Price bringing his dirty men in from the jungle, ordering them to clean their weapons and wait for the next assignment.
. . .
One day, not long after Price wrote his letter, a box of 500 cleaning rods arrived in the mail. Courtesy of Colt.
Price's stock shot up immediately. He was suddenly the go-to guy, the lieutenant who got things done. But the cleaning rods were just a link in the chain.
The men then came to the squad tent with their request. A request for the impossible, a request for a small miracle.
Cleaning rods are fine, one of them told Price, but what we really need, sir, is for a bunny from Playboy magazine to come visit us.
The soldiers grinned to see Price's puzzled look.
No, not just a bunny, another chimed in. Not just a bunny from one of the Playboy Clubs, but a Playmate, one of those busty girls who appear naked in the magazine's centerfold every month.
The men laughed at the wonderful impossibility of it all. A Playmate in Vietnam! Quick, the platoon sergeant, laughed, too. He was 34, and he liked to see these 18- and 19-year-old kids teasing their lieutenant. Price could only laugh back.
Why just any Playmate? one of the soldiers asked. Why not the 1965 Playmate of the Year?
The men guffawed. Come on, lieutenant, they said. You can do it, you can do anything. Get us the Playmate, sir.
Price looked from man to man. He was thinking, and when he pondered a subject, a light flickered in his eyes. The soldiers stopped laughing to see their lieutenant turn pensive. Price stood silently for a few more seconds while the men waited.
Well, he said at last, there might be a way to bring a Playmate to Vietnam, but it's a long shot. And then he laid out a plan of action.
Quick, as eager as the next man to meet a real Playmate, nodded his head in agreement. He liked Price's plan. Let's do it, he said. And then he volunteered to start collecting money from the platoon.
. . .
Nelson Futch sat behind his gleaming white desk on the first floor of Playboy's Chicago headquarters and fretted. As director of Playboy promotions, he recognized a good publicity stunt when he saw one. And the letter that had arrived that morning seemed to offer him a great chance to engineer some headlines.
But it was all too impractical. And dangerous. Impossible, even. Maybe.
Futch looked across the desk for the letter, which lay somewhere among the many memos from Hugh Hefner, Playboy's founder. Hefner worked in the evenings and dictated memos late into the night, so when Futch and the other executives entered the three-story brick building on East Ohio Street each morning, their secretaries greeted them with a fresh stack of Hefner's utterances.
This morning, as the sun shone weakly through the Japanese shoji screens on the windows, Futch's secretary also had handed him a letter.
Futch sorted through the memos and pulled the letter off his desk. It had been pounded out on a Remington typewriter, formatted in a formal military style, addressed to Mr. Hugh M. Hefner. The date in the upper right corner was 13 November 1965.
Futch read it over, a bemused smile on his face as he ignored the occasional misspelling:
"This letter is written from the depths of the hearts of 180 officers and men of Company B, 2nd Bn, 503d Inf, 173d Airborne Brigade (Separate) stationed at Bien Hoa, Republic of Vietnam. We were the first American troop unit committed in action here in Vietnam and we have gone many miles, some in sorrow and some in joy, but mostly in hard, bone-weary inches. You may have seen pictures of us in 'Life' 22 October 1965 and read of our victories and our setbacks in the neat black and white newsprint at your breakfast table, while we were picking off the leaches and loading ammo into empty magazines. We are proud to be here and have found the answer to the question, 'Ask what you can do for your country' and yet we cannot stand alone - and now I come to the reason for sending you this request.
"Loneliness in a man's heart is a terrible thing - and Christmas and New Years Day are just around the corner. The beauty of Vietnamese women is unquestionable and yet, we would appreciate so very much a real, living, breathing American girl. Now we must consider who we would like to see. We have unanimousley decided that she is the Playmate of the Year for 1965. We further understand that, with a lifetime membership purchase, a bunny delivers the initial copy. It is our fervent hope that she will be allowed to deliver this copy. Should she not be able to, any of the 1965 Playmates of the Month would be received with open arms.
"If we are not important enough, alone, to send a playmate for, we could attempt to have some other units do as we have. If further, we could share our Christmas or New Years Day with her, it would be a privilege beyond compare. When she arrives in Saigon, we would assume responsibility for getting her to the unit and back.
"I do hope that you understand the deep sincerity of our request and the hopes and dreams we have placed in it. We are anxiously awaiting your reply. Enclosed is a money order for $150.00 for a lifetime subscription for Company B, 2nd Bn, 503d Inf, 173d Airborne Brigade (Separate). Should a personal delivery not be possible, please just forget about us, return our money order and we will fade back into the jungle."
The letter was signed by 2nd Lt. John S. Price. Below his name was typed the title "Bunny project officer."
. . .
Futch shook his head. Yes, the lieutenant was right, sort of: Several years earlier, as part of a Christmas promotional offer, Playboy had pledged to have one of its bunnies deliver the first copy of a lifetime subscription. But there was fine print: The subscriber had to live in a city with a Playboy Club.
Vietnam had no club. And no way could Futch justify spending hundreds of dollars of Hef's money to send a Playmate - especially Playmate of the Year Jo Collins - to a deadly combat zone to deliver a 75-cent copy of Playboy. Judging from the newspaper stories, Vietnam was a dangerous corner of hell, and Collins easily could come home in a coffin.
And yet. What if she made the trip - with a Playboy photographer, of course - and made it back safely? That would make for fantastic copy and banner headlines, Futch thought. No, no. Too risky. End of story.
Futch decided he'd have to send Price a letter of regret. He decided he liked the nerve of Price and Bravo Company, but what would possess a bunch of guys to make such a bold request?
. . .
Six weeks passed, and still the Bravo Bulls had seen no Playmate. Every day the men stopped Price and asked: Hear anything from Hefner, sir?
Nothing new, Price replied.
Word of Price's scheme spread rapidly through the company. Because he and Quick couldn't come up with enough money from their own platoon, they had tried to scratch up a buck from every one of the Bravo Bulls. In the end, the two had to throw in a few more of their own dollar bills to get the $150.
Brownlee, the Bravo Bulls' commanding officer, shook his head and smiled when he heard what his young lieutenant was up to. He liked Price. Price was a replacement officer, having arrived in September two months after Zinn's death.
Though Zinn was popular, Price conveyed a sense of mischief that the men liked. Brownlee met Price when Brownlee became company commander, and Price had made him laugh right away.
That day, Brownlee gave a briefing in one of the small buildings, explaining how the company would run under his command, and Price kept raising his hand, as if to ask a question. Brownlee ignored him and kept talking. He would answer questions at the end of the briefing. Still, Price raised his hand, insistently. Finally, when Brownlee finished, he turned to the young lieutenant.
What is it? he asked, testily.
I was trying to tell you I've got dysentery really bad, sir, Price replied. But nevermind, it's too late now.
Brownlee soon learned that Price was an Army brat, the son of a horse doctor attached to the U.S. cavalry. He had lived in more than a dozen states by the time he began attending high school in Oklahoma.
The way Price told it, he dropped out in order to study for the college-entrance exams. He applied to Yale, the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the Army's U.S. Military Academy at West Point. All of them welcomed him. He chose West Point.
His years there were uneventful, except for the final one, 1964. With no date for the ball during the school's "June week," he wrote a letter to a beauty queen, Miss Oklahoma, and out of the blue told her she ought to accompany him to the dance. She did. Price told the story over beers with the men, and they loved it.
To Brownlee's delight, Price was happy to arrive in Vietnam. Brownlee quickly pegged Price as a born leader. Perfect for the Bulls.
The Bulls and the other men of the 173rd Brigade had trained in jungle warfare on the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Irimote before stepping off the plane and into the suffocating heat of Vietnam on May 5, 1965. Despite the training, each day at Bien Hoa was a struggle.
Initially they lived in pup tents in the rubber-tree plantation outside the town. The rains came, and their lives turned miserable. Men slept in the mud with their hands in their crotch, worried that the ubiquitous leeches would become too intimate. They put their canteens to their lips to find the bottles covered with slick, wet centipedes. Spiders constantly jumped down the collars of their fatigues and crawled around inside. The mosquitoes whined all day long, numberless and insatiable.
The pup tents eventually gave way to larger tents built over wooden floors. Then wooden buildings went up, each surrounded by a trench and walls of sandbags.
Mail from home began arriving regularly. Still, everywhere there was a sense of decay, a feeling that, where they had expected to find the glory of combat, they suffered only the grim reality of boredom, fear and death.
Old Vietnamese men wearing conical hats and bicycling to unknown destinations ceased to be picturesque; the soldiers instead viewed them with growing suspicion.
The knots of noisy children on the streets of Bien Hoa no longer prompted smiles with their games: They rummaged through the camp's garbage dump for scraps of food.
And the quietly pretty Vietnamese girls only reminded the men of the ones they'd seen on leave in the Saigon bars and brothels, the thin young girls wearing mini-skirts and go-go boots and crooning Patsy Cline tunes for drunken American soldiers.
In the mornings at Camp Zinn, the men poured diesel fuel down the toilets of the outhouses and threw in matches. Every day, the fragrant smell of the Vietnamese landscape evaporated under the stench of burning excrement.
. . .
The Viet Cong, meanwhile, proved themselves fierce fighters, even if the men tended to dismiss them as "gooks." Hueys hauled Bulls to landing zones, and minutes later they would be face down in a rice paddy, exchanging fire with Viet Cong hidden in the tree line, bracing for the explosion that would kill them but praying they'd make it out alive.
Increasingly, the prayers weren't enough. More and more patrols returned with wounded or dead men. Once-youthful soldiers with smooth faces now wore scowls on their powder-burned jaws. Their shrapnel wounds glazed over into glistening pink scars. Blood and the salt from dried sweat covered their fatigues, which, unnoticed by the men, stank.
In the weeks after company clerk Larry Paladino sent Price's letter to Hefner, the combat-hardened men buzzed about the prospects of meeting Jo Collins, whose centerfold photo hung on one of the thin wooden walls of the makeshift PX. The star of the December 1964 Playboy, she was a sizzling goddess with 36-24-36 curves. Few men stared at her soft green eyes.
Her appearance in Playboy had caused a sensation with the magazine's readers. An aspiring actress who had had a few scenes in beach movies, she was sugar and spice, but mostly spice.
Her photo spread in Playboy showed her draped across a couch, naked, resting on her stomach, a soft pillow tucked beneath her hips. One leg dangled playfully off the side of the couch. In her right hand she delicately held a long red feather duster. Precise bikini tan lines outlined her raised rear end.
The centerfold shot, though, was the one the Bulls loved. In it, she stood beside a pool, wearing nothing but high-heeled shoes and a thin white blouse, which was very, very wet. Beads of water glistened on her long, brown legs, which tapered perfectly to her toenails, painted white. The pinup was a refreshing sight for the Bulls when they returned from the jungle, their faces caked in dirt, their tongues parched from the heat.
Dozens of other colorful pinups covered the PX wall. The flesh-filled photos had frayed and peeled in the humidity, but the men loved them anyway, often caressing them with their callused hands as they passed by.
No matter how ratty and torn they became, the pictures remained. They were one of the few good things left to the men, a little piece of America to savor.
. . .
Though the girlie magazines that arrived from the United States were welcome, the news from back home offered little encouragement. While the men of the 173rd bled to death in the elephant grass of Vietnam, anti-war protesters rallied in 40 U.S. cities, according to the Stars & Stripes newspapers they read.
Draft-card burning had become so common that Congress and President Johnson had criminalized the act, threatening to put card burners in prison for five years. Singer Country Joe McDonald's anti-war song, "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag," was becoming an anthem. The final line of the chorus went "Whoopee! We're all going to die." The Bravo Bulls understood the sentiment.
As 1965 came to a close, the Bulls longed for diversion, any diversion. They longed for relief from the constant killing. Price's scheme offered them hope.
On Dec. 31, 1965, as the night air grew wet, Price lay down on his bunk and tried to ignore the sound of the 175-mm cannon booming nearby. The artillerymen at the air base fired it at random targets every night. Price didn't know that the coming days' combat would provide another link in the chain he was forging. He also didn't know the night would be one of the last times he ever would have a good left arm to lay his head on.
ROANOKE It's supposed to be a truism of modern journalism that reporters no longer find stories by frequenting saloons and chatting up the fellow on the nearby stool.
These days, they say, when newspapering is a less freewheeling enterprise than it once was (meaning edi tors are less likely to punch a reporter or boot a contentious reader down the stairs), stories more often are to be found, for instance, in a health club. So they say.
But The Times-Dispatch found Lt. Jack Price's story the old-fashioned way: over beers in a bar.
On Sept. 6, my wife and I drove to the town of Floyd to enjoy a little bluegrass music. It was a short drive from Roanoke, where I have labored (tirelessly) in The Times-Dispatch's Southwest Virginia bureau since 1997, and my wife and I found we had time to kill before the bluegrass show started. We decided to have a few beers and a bite to eat at Oddfella's Cantina.
Trouble was, we didn't have reservations, and no seats were available. But even as the hostess told us we were out of luck, the phone rang. A patron was calling to cancel her reservation. We had a table.
There was a catch, though: The hostess said my wife and I had to share the table with others who had failed to reserve a seat. We agreed, sat down and waited for the strangers.
Minutes later, they arrived. Jack Price sat down with his wife, Sam, and Sam's sister, Patsy. He introduced himself as a diamond seller who recently had retired to Floyd, and I introduced myself as a writer for The Times-Dispatch.
On hearing I wrote for a living, Price replied that he had written only one thing in his life.
Then, as we drank our Lone Star beers, he launched into the tale of his letter to Hugh Hefner and his days in Vietnam. It was one of the damnedest tales I ever had heard in a bar. And I've heard plenty.
I left the bar knowing I would have to write my own version of Price's story. That way, I could put my beers on The Times-Dispatch's expense account.