Nov 11, 2002
Richmond Times-Dispatch
Richmond, VA USA

Amid a war's horrors, soldiers met an angel

BY REX BOWMAN
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER

 
Playboy Playmate Jo Collins and Pvt. Larry Paladino greet each other at Bien Hoa airbase, Vietnam, 1966.
(COURTESY OF LARRY PALADINO)

Click here for Part I of the story: A BEAUTY FOR BRAVO COMPANY

The mission seemed simple enough, if larger than most. Choppers would carry two battalions of the 503rd Infantry Regiment out to the Plain of Reeds in the Mekong Delta to harass a Viet Cong regiment that was pressing hard against the South Vietnamese army.

Even simple missions, though, meant GIs would die.

The Bravo Bulls belonged to one of the assigned battalions. On New Year's Day 1966, the men of Company B loaded up their gear. In addition to their M-16s, M-60 light machine guns and M-79 grenade launchers, Lt. Jack Price and the men in his platoon grabbed ammo belts, Claymore mines, radios, batteries and extra grenades.

They jumped aboard the waiting 2-ton trucks, which ground along until they reached an area the men called the Snake Pit. The Hueys waited there. The men climbed out of the trucks and into the choppers, their legs dangling out over the skids.

The Hueys sped forward, lifted off and banked sharply away from their base at Bien Hoa. The men looked straight down, about 2,000 feet. None wore a parachute.

A swath of dry rice paddies served as their assembly area. When they landed, the men immediately set up camp and the officers briefed them on the next day's assault. The stacks of rice stalks dotting the plain reminded Price of Thanksgiving.

The next morning, the Hueys lifted off again, heading toward combat. Price had been told they would land in more dry rice paddies. When he jumped from the chopper, his boots landed in thick mud.

Price and his men, forming the flank of the assault, moved across the exposed flat toward a small earthen dike. The dike was the only thing anywhere to hide behind. Before the men could reach it, though, the Viet Cong opened fire. Bullets poured in from everywhere as the men scrambled through the mud. The Viet Cong's machine guns chattered and their AK-47s popped.

Here is the August 1965 Playboy cover with Jo Collins as Playmate of the Year.

Price urged his men on. He looked for his radio operator, a new kid out in the field for the first time. Better keep an eye on him, Price thought. When Price spotted him at last, the new kid lay in the mud, dead, blood spilling from his chest.

The men crawled toward the dike as the minutes passed, pausing briefly to radio for artillery and air support. The incoming fire didn't let up. Still, Price figured if the artillerymen and fighter-bombers could take care of the problem, no more of his men would have to die that day.

The artillery opened up. At that moment, the Bird Dog, a small spotter plane that had been buzzing overhead all morning, exploded. It landed in the mud with a sickening whump behind Price and his men and continued to burn. The men couldn't tell if it had been hit by enemy fire or an artillery round.

The artillery continued to lob shells over Price's head. They landed with a boom where the Viet Cong hid. A single-engine A1E Skyraider flew overhead. Though the plane could fly no faster than 325 mph, its four 20-mm cannons sent the enemy ducking for cover. Price lay on his back in the mud and looked up at the Skyraider. Vortices of air peeled off the wing tips, leaving white streaks in the air just like in the "Steve Canyon comic strips.

The next moment, though, Price looked on in horror as one of the plane's 500-pound bombs broke loose and tumbled down. Price and the men around him dived deeper into the mud, clawing desperately, trying to burrow underground in the frantic seconds before the bomb hit.

When it landed, the air exploded in a deafening rattle and the ground rolled like jelly. Where Price had placed a machine-gun squad to protect his flank, there now remained only an ugly splotch of blackened mud. The Viet Cong kept firing.

Price yelled orders to try to reorganize his platoon. Then, instead of continuing to crawl toward the dike, he jumped up and began running. He ran toward the dike, the mud sucking his boots down with every step. As he turned to his left, a round flew in and smashed into his left forearm.

The impact sent him cartwheeling through the mud. He pulled himself up to his knees and looked down at his arm. His bone had been crushed. The bloody left sleeve of his jungle fatigues filled with scarlet and pink goo. A severed artery jutted up from the torn sleeve and flapped around wildly, spurting blood.

Staff Sgt. Willie Boyd rushed to Price's side in a heartbeat. Boyd dragged him more than 100 yards to the dike while the bullets whizzed by. Price kept a Randall knife bound to his leg with thongs, and he jerked the thongs off and used them as a tourniquet. Platoon Sgt. Jim Quick yelled orders. He now led Price's men.

As he lay in the mud and wondered how long it would be before a chopper could take him out, Price realized the wound was his ticket back to the United States. If he lived through the day. Feeling increasingly faint, he also thought to himself: No Playmate for me.

. . .

Nelson Futch was a wreck. Newspapers were reporting that Price lay badly wounded in a mobile Army hospital in Vietnam. The papers also noted that Playboy was refusing to send him his requested Playmate. Playboy was being cast as the bad guy. Unfairly.

To make matters worse, Futch's call to the Pentagon had been a bust.

We can't help you, the public-affairs officer had told Futch before hanging up. Vietnam is a combat zone. We wish you luck, but the Defense Department can't be officially involved in sending a Playmate to a combat zone. Too risky.

Futch had hung up the phone in despair. As promotion director for Playboy, it was his job to get the magazine publicity. Normally the job wasn't that tough. After all, he pitched a magazine that featured page after page of unclothed women. It practically promoted itself. But this situation with the lieutenant in Vietnam was turning into a headache.

News that Price lay in a hospital bed in Bien Hoa had jolted Futch into action. As far as he knew, Price was dying. And he wasn't going to let the young man die without trying to get a Playmate to the Bravo Bulls. Hugh Hefner published Playboy for guys like them, and somehow the magazine would come through for them.

So far, nothing had worked. Playboy had friends at every level of government, but everywhere the answer came back the same: We can't help. The State Department might approve a trip in late February if Playboy could overcome the military restrictions and complete the mountains of paperwork, but anything earlier than that would be unfeasible. But vague promises of a late-February visit did Futch no good, since the doctors planned to ship Price back to the United States no later than Jan. 13.

Futch enlisted the help of his fellow executives and the secretaries, but after wrangling with the problem day after day for a week, no one could figure a way to get the government to approve an immediate Playmate visit to Vietnam. Price was out of luck, it seemed.

The only bright spot was the Playmate, Jo Collins. Futch knew he could rely on her. Just 19 and one year out of high school in Oregon when she posed as Miss December 1964, Collins was a promotion man's dream: She not only had girl-next-door looks and preferred simple jeans over high fashion, she had an adventurous spirit. Futch knew the vivacious beauty would go to Vietnam if asked. If he could only find a way.

And suddenly he found a way.

Several executives were in Futch's office when one finally blurted out, in exasperation, Why don't we just put her on a Pan American Airlines flight to Saigon? They still fly out of San Francisco. Why bother with government permission? They can't stop us, can they?

It was an idea. But still no good. We can put her and a chaperone on a Pan Am flight, Futch said, but we still don't have a way to get her around Vietnam without getting her killed. We can't do it without the military's help. If they don't help, it's the same as denying us permission.

Another colleague spoke up. My sister used to work with the USO, he said. She knows a guy in Vietnam who coordinates the USO trips.

Track him down, Futch said. Any man who knew how to shepherd the Donut Dollies of the USO through a combat zone was just the guy he wanted.

Futch told his secretary to get plane tickets. If she could catch a plane and the USO coordinator would handle the details, Jo Collins was going to Vietnam.

Only, nobody could find Collins. Futch and his assistants called her apartment in Los Angeles, her family, her friends. They called the office where she worked as a part-time secretary. Another day passed, and still Collins couldn't be found.

Eventually, someone reached a relative who said Collins was visiting family in Oregon and, maybe, just maybe, she was on the road somewhere outside Portland.

Futch made another call. A long-shot call.

Later that afternoon, an Oregon state trooper knocked on the door of Collins' mother's house in Eugene. Collins opened the door.

Are you Jo Collins? the trooper asked.

Yes, she said.

I've been looking all over for you; Playboy asked me to find you, he said. You need to call them immediately. They want you to get a passport. They want you to go to Vietnam.

Collins nearly jumped for joy. Great! she thought, quickly trying to recall just where Vietnam was.

. . .

As he made his rounds in the surgical ward, Dr. Kris Keggi, a captain, felt he had never seen the wounded men, nurses and other doctors so excited. To be honest, he felt a little nervous himself

Jo Collins had landed in Saigon the day before and checked into the Embassy Hotel. Word had spread that she would arrive any minute at the Army hospital at Bien Hoa. Already men had painted Playboy's white bunny logo on walls, jeeps and helicopters.

Keggi looked over to the bed where Price lay, a heavy cast on his arm. Keggi liked Price. Everybody liked Price. Soldiers constantly came to visit him, to sit at his side and joke with him. To Keggi, Price seemed an American original, hard as pig iron and a tough character, but always laughing at something.

Keggi had met Price just over a week earlier, when the orderlies brought him in with his left arm little more than a mass of blood and pulp and splintered bone. Keggi had told it to Price straight.

I can amputate the arm and save the elbow joint so you can wear a prosthesis, Keggi said. Or I can try to save the arm. But if I screw up, you'll lose not only the arm but the elbow joint as well. That means no prosthetic arm, just a stump.

Price looked up from the stretcher and gave Keggi an impish smile. I trust you, doc, he said. Go ahead and save the arm.

Keggi hadn't screwed up. Price's left arm would never work as well as it had, but at least he had a left arm.

A commotion at the end of the ward caused the patients and nurses to look up. When they did, they saw - Collins. A noisy entourage of beaming officers, enlisted men and others followed her as she walked through the doors. All eyes turned to her. Her eyes sparkled and her smile dazzled like sunlight after a storm as she walked into the ward. She wore a black sleeveless sweater with the Playboy logo, covered partially by an unbuttoned fatigue shirt. The wounded soldiers lay in their beds and grinned.

The entire ward fell silent. Awkwardly silent.

An officer pointed Price out to Collins. She walked straight to his bed.

Price felt his gut tighten with nervousness. But he knew he had to say something. Gosh, he blurted out, you're even prettier than your pictures.

Collins laughed and held out her hand. Price looked down at it. In her palm she held the latest issue of Playboy magazine. The first of the Bravo Bulls' lifetime subscription. She had traveled 8,000 miles to deliver it. Looking at Price's broad smile, she was glad she had come.

The next moments were a blur to Price. Keggi had doped him up to dull the throbbing pain in his left arm. He knew he was talking to Collins and knew she was talking to him, but later, when he had a chance to recall their meeting, he couldn't think of anything they talked about. He couldn't even remember if he kissed her.

In minutes, she was off. She wanted, she said, to visit the other men in the ward. As Keggi watched, she walked from bed to bed, stopping long enough to chat with each of the wounded soldiers. Some asked for her autograph and she obliged. Others asked her to help them finish letters they were writing home. She took up a pen and wrote a few lines. Others simply asked if she would light their cigarettes. Certainly, she said.

Keggi looked around at all the men, some of whom had propped themselves on their elbows to better stare silently at Collins. All of them were smiling.

Keggi had seen generals and senators come through the ward many times. None of them, he thought, had ever done as much good as this 20-year-old woman. She spoke softly and soothingly, perfectly at ease among the bloody dressings and bandaged limbs. She asked the men questions about their lives and chatted casually with them. The men, some of whom had earlier been groaning in pain, looked happy and relaxed. They treated her politely, almost, it seemed, with reverence.

A nurse hurried over to Collins. There's a wounded man who wants to see you, the nurse said before turning away. Collins stood up and rushed to keep up with her.

The nurse stopped beside a stretcher. On it lay a soldier who looked as if he had fallen into a meat grinder. His uniform, caked in blood, was ripped to shreds. His entire body looked as if it had been cut open. His life was ebbing away.

The chain of events that Price had set in motion had led Collins to the soldier. The M-16 rifles that jammed, Price's solution, his platoon's request, his letter to Hugh Hefner, Futch's quest for publicity, even the Oregon state trooper's search for her - everything had brought her here to this broken, bleeding man.

An unknown chain of events, far more terrible, had brought him to her.

Collins looked down at him, and tears pooled in her eyes.

Sweetheart, the dying soldier said with a struggle, I've been waiting to see you.

Collins choked back a sob. Then, just before the soldier closed his eyes on the world, he exhaled, and, looking at Collins, caught a final glimpse of its beauty.

. . .

Pfc. Jim Jackson was happy. After 10 days in the Plain of Reeds, the Bravo Bulls were going back to Camp Zinn.

Word had passed from man to man: Jo Collins waited for them there. Rumor had it she had already given Price the company's first Playboy issue. He couldn't wait to get a look at it.

Jackson and the other Bulls were driving a herd of captured water buffaloes down a dirt road to a "friendly village," where choppers awaited to carry the men back to Bien Hoa. Jackson walked out in front, the point man.

He didn't know why they were on the road. He assumed minesweepers must have cleared it.

His mind wandered elsewhere when - boom! - an explosion sent him flying. He lay on the road, dazed, dust choking his breath, and wondered how he had gotten there. Had he dived for cover, or had the explosion knocked him down? He heard the sound of 700 steel ball-bearings whistling through the air in all directions. A Claymore mine had detonated.

Jackson and the other Bulls ran for cover. Sergeants yelled orders to check the tree line for Viet Cong. After making sure none were hiding nearby, the Bulls hurried back to the road. Two men were injured. Jackson saw another lying on the ground, dead. Oh no, he thought, it's Sgt. Harper.

Sgt. Richard Harper was 22. Jackson, who was 19, had come to love Harper. There was something decent about him, something righteous in the way he treated everyone around him. Jackson didn't know what to say or do as he saw Harper's body lying in the dirt.

Hueys eventually arrived to carry Harper's body and the two wounded men away. The men concluded that the Viet Cong must have remote-detonated the mine. Another U.S. patrol, after all, had passed the same way earlier without tripping any wire.

Jackson, though, had a sick feeling in his gut that he had triggered the explosion. He thought he might have tripped the mine while daydreaming. His guts churned at the thought.

. . .

When the choppers set down at Bien Hoa and the Bravo Bulls piled out, they rushed to Collins. She stood at the edge of the landing zone, the wind from the rotors whipping her thick brown hair around and driving grit into her eyes. She smiled nonetheless and waved to the men.

Capt. Les Brownlee, the company commander, strode through the growing crowd of soldiers. He was worried. He looked around at them and improvised a quick inspection. He knew many of them didn't wear underwear because of the heat, and often they returned to base with their pants shredded from the jungle's underbrush. He didn't want Collins to see anything that would cause her embarrassment.

Spc. 4 Larry Paladino, the company clerk, stood by his side. He kept a tattered centerfold photo of Collins in his pocket. He wanted her to autograph it. He looked into her eyes and thought she couldn't be real. He felt he was dreaming. She had to be an angel.

The men completely circled Collins. Though they had talked in rough language about what they would do if ever given a chance to meet a pinup, they stood at a slight distance from her, shyly. In a land of constant, brutal killing, the soft-skinned Playmate seemed pure and innocent. Too delicate to touch.

Reporters and photographers suddenly crowded Brownlee. We want a big kiss from the company commander, they said, so we can get a picture. Brownlee immediately knew he wanted no part of that. He was a married man.

He turned to two of the company's radiomen, Paladino and Pfc. John Cotanch.

Listen, Brownlee said, you guys do all my talking for me anyway, so take care of this.

Brownlee studied both of them. Paladino, who had typed Price's letter to Playboy, was a smooth talker when it came to contact with headquarters. Maybe he should greet Collins, Brownlee thought. Cotanch was a smooth talker, too, though. But Cotanch had no front teeth. Brownlee nudged Paladino forward.

Paladino didn't need the push. He stepped forward, grabbed Collins, tilted her back and laid a world-class kiss on her. The men roared. They couldn't believe Paladino's nerve. He was filthy from 10 days in the field, and here he was all over this beautiful young woman. They slapped each other on the back as Paladino kept Collins locked in the kiss.

Collins didn't flinch. Instead, she threw her arms around Paladino and kissed him as passionately as he kissed her. She had flown in a Huey over the heads of the Viet Cong to get here, and she didn't want to disappoint the men.

Seconds ticked by, the men hooted and whistled, and still the kiss continued.

Jackson, who minutes earlier had been brooding about Harper's death, stood in the crowd of laughing men. This is great, he thought, just great. The weariness of spending days in the field fell from his shoulders. He laughed with the rest of the men to see the grimy Paladino and the beautiful pinup locked in their embrace. She looks like an angel, he thought, a real angel. The most beautiful thing he had seen in a long, long time.

Roughly 180 Bulls had arrived in Vietnam eight months earlier, and since then their blood had paid for 150 Purple Hearts. So many of them had been killed or maimed, reporters had begun referring to them as Bloody Bravo. Standing around Collins, the men relaxed and laughed anyway, all the bloodshed and death suddenly as distant as the moon.

Years later, when the sorrow of Vietnam weighed on them, when tears filled their eyes at the thought of all the Bulls who died, all the good men like Harper and Zinn and the young radioman killed on his first trip to the field, the Bulls remembered Price's scheme. Then they remembered Paladino's bravado and Collins' beauty.

And when they thought about it long enough, the war became like a bittersweet old movie, one that ended with a kiss.

Postscript

  • Lt. Jack Price now lives in Floyd County, Va. After meeting Jo Collins, he was sent to recuperate in a Texas hospital, where he met and wooed a beautiful hospital staff member. Her father called Price the sorriest excuse for a potential son-in-law his daughter had ever dragged home, and he forbade her from seeing Price. Price married her, and they have lived happily ever after.
  • Capt. Les Brownlee now has a Pentagon desk job: undersecretary of the Army.
  • Platoon Sgt. Jim Quick works for a local school district in Kentucky.
  • Pfc. Jim Jackson is a postal worker in California.
  • Spc. 4 Larry Paladino is a freelance writer and former sports editor for The Associated Press in Michigan.
  • Capt. Kris Keggi is head of the Keggi Orthopaedic Foundation in Connecticut.
  • Nelson Futch is retired and lives in Florida.
  • Jo Collins now manages property and lives outside Chicago. Next to giving birth to a daughter, she says going to Vietnam is the best thing she has ever done in her life.
  • The men of Bravo Company, those who survived, generally believe to this day that Jo Collins' visit served as the inspiration for the Playboy bunnies' scenes in Francis Ford Coppola's film of the Vietnam War, "Apocalypse Now."

    Contact Rex Bowman at (540) 344-3612 or rbowman@timesdispatch.com


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