Thirteen Landing Fields in South Vietnam, 1967-1968
David K. Vaughan
Poetic Form of Thirteen Landing Fields
The form of each poem is similar to that of a sonnet. Each has 14 lines. There are approximately 10 beats to a line (usually more). There are no rhymed endings. The intent is similar to that of a sonnet, to provide a word picture with a thematic statement. The poems describe my impressions of airfields in South Vietnam moving from south (Tan Son Nhut) to North (Da Nang).
After my first in-country flights I taped
A map of the lands I flew over to the wall
In my room; symbolic in their simple colors,
Pink, yellow, green. I stuck pins in cities where
We landed. Later I was too busy to mark
My progress; flying and not-flying took all
My time. A different map was building
In my head: visions through the windscreens,
Voices in the earphones, the smells of kerosene,
Mortar smoke, the landscape of Vietnam
Below me like a living carpet, life and death
Itself. Later, I folded, then lost the map on the wall.
But my other map is with me still, scenes
Appearing in my mind pinned among its memories.
Tan Son Nhut
Saigon, that sea of light at night, that river-lined city
That we rode through in our blue buses with wire-mesh
Windows. West, over Tan Son Nhut, the aircraft circled in
A non-stop string of traffic where you forced your way in
And hoped the tower would not complain, where you did
Not speak unless the tower operator demanded a reason
For your entry. Where you landed over aircraft poised
On the runway, over up-ended C-46s, where non-standard
Was standard, and it was impossible to land
When the monsoon rains fell because the radios
Always went out. Where the field was alive with tracer
Fire at night, mostly to the west, the Cambodian
Border not that far away. At night it was
A carnival of lights, but not one to cheer your heart.
The Nha Trang Buddha served its village well,
Looking after its people, largely untouched by
The war, smiling on the rice crops, the fish harvest.
It served us well too, as a marker on downwind
Which we could see approaching from the sea,
Past which we flew before turning base leg, then
Final. It kept the VC mortars away, or so we like to think;
it, and the hundreds of shells we fired into the hills
almost every night. It must have been smiling
on the Vietnamese pilot, learning to fly the C-47,
when he lost control on landing, rolled across to the taxiway,
then back to the runway again, all in one grand maneuver,
while we sailed past overhead, banking to the right
to watch his final spinning stop on the edge of the sea.
Cam Ranh Bay
Cam Ranh tower interrupted our sleepy
Return from Saigon late one night, requesting
That we locate an emergency signal that came
From the hills to the southwest. In the early morning dark
We circled, listening for that faint weep-weep-weep
Sound generated by a hand-held radio. We imagined
A downed helicopter, a missing plane, men stranded
On patrol. The direction-finder needle pointed, wavered,
Failed to hold a steady bearing. That sad sound faded
As we descended to the safety of those
Runways in the sand. Later we heard
It was a VC trick, to lure us low enough
To shoot us out of the sky. Eventually the signal
Disappeared. Someone said the battery must have died.
At Bien Hoa the F-100s stood poised
In their trim revetments, ready to bomb
The Vietnam jungle. And the Ranch Hands, in
Their antique C-123s, started engines
In formation, taxied in formation, took off
In formation, flew low over the jungle
Tree tops in formation, giving an air show
To the monkeys, the birds, and other living
Things that saw the white spray of Agent Orange
Filter through the trees. One crew member said
The fumes in the cockpit were so thick you could swim
In them. The crew looked like aliens in their masks
And head gear as they dropped the lethal mixture
Spreading death in formation.
An Khe Golf Course
At the Golf Course we landed and departed
Past the insolent helicopters that flew
Constantly across the low surrounding hills.
The first time I landed there was almost my last
Until the old head in the right seat showed me
What brakes were for. A short runway and narrow,
That slanted down, metal panels that chattered
At us as we careened along it towards its abrupt
And desolate end. Somehow I managed it,
The impossible task, landing there, and
Did not leave smoking, malformed remnants of
The aircraft scattered among the rocks and
Bushes which bordered that hard airstrip. As two
Others did, one before my time and one after.
Strange sight, that morning at Bao Loc, where
Fog pooled thick at the runway ends, while the
Center of the runway arced up into the bright sun.
We hesitated to land there, Denny and I.
But you, Dave, laughed at us and descended,
Gear down, flaps down, props thrashing through
The fog. We saw you swallowed by the white earth-bound
Cloud, gone but for the tip of the vertical stabilizer
Slicing forward until you reappeared, miraculous,
Intact, as if it were normal, how it’s done.
Denny and I followed you in, blinded
In that white world of cloud and mist. When we
Stepped out you laughed to see our faces, white like
The fog that lived at runway’s end.
We descended from the heavy clouds, circling
In a valley of green, a special world, El Dorado
In a war zone, where Special Forces men moved
In the shadows of the hills which screened Ho’s trail.
They were amazed to see us, bringing supplies down
Through a solid overcast. Landing and departing,
We flew through a wide notch cut in a hill that
Blocked the approach. I was amazed to see that
Notch, half a hill top gone in the hilly jungle.
Weeks later, when the camp fell to the enemy,
The smoking wrecks of helicopters and cargo
Aircraft leaned in the dirt. The reports mentioned
The confusion, the smoke, the fighting, but not that
Cut in the hill, through which we flew to Da Nang.
Dak To II
Orbiting to the east, we could see
The dust rising as if God were beating
The field like a rug. A breathless voice
On field frequency, after the last mortar fell,
said we could bring our load of ammunition
In. We landed in half the normal distance,
Stopped before we hit a mortar hole, dead
Center in the runway, taxied slowly across
Metal fragments to let our cargo out. As
We departed, gunships fired rockets across
Our nose into the hills at our two o’clock
Position, the white smoke marking their passage,
Striking the land like Ahab nailing the whale,
Speaking with an anger too fierce for words.
We stood under the wing and watched the JP-4
Drip from the holes the VC guns had made in the
Fuel tanks of the other aircraft, not ours, thank God,
When its crew had flown too low. We counted fifteen
Holes, more than enough to bring number three prop
To a screeching stop. We brought an engine
In to replace the one the guns had gotten.
But Jerry, who had sat in the right seat as we
Flew in from Chu Lai, still did not understand
Why, as we were approaching the field at low
Altitude under a solid cloud deck, I beat my
Hands on the instrument panel, swearing, when
I saw a perfect circle of blue sky,
Centered over the field like a halo.
As on a stair step, the field at Khe Sanh
Sat, flat coastal land east, mountains
West. North, a river like a knife severed
The higher ridges from the field. The runway
Long enough to land on easily as
Long as you forgot about the cliff it sat on.
When we first landed there it was like a park,
Efficient, neat, helicopters lined up in a row,
Hot food in the chow hall. But when the mortars
Began to fall, F-4s and A-4s flew my wing,
Dropping bombs south and west. The camp turned to
Ruin as mortar holes bloomed in the dirt. My
Stomach went to live in my boot each time
I landed in those hard gray days of Tet.
On the Da Nang ramp, on a gray day in
February, waiting for another load
To Khe Sanh, our hearts heavy with dread, we saw
The F-4, its tail hook down, climbing for the sky.
We heard the strange scream of its engines, then
Silence, and the astounding, appalling sight,
An aircraft hanging in the sky, suspended,
Three hundred feet above the ground. Two figures
In their seats hurtled out and down as the aircraft
Pinwheeled slowly through space. And then
All came down, all came down, so hard.
The aircraft expired in flame and smoke, and the
Two men slammed into the ramp, their uninflated
Parachutes settling over them like shrouds.
Dong Ha sat against the line that separated North
Vietnam from South. The South China Sea glistened
In the distance. We brought mail, C-rats, supplies,
Ammunition. Ice cream, even, for Christmas,
Melting chocolate dripping on our rollers and dirty
Floor. They held us, late one night in Tet, for
A special load. The refrigerator truck backed
Slowly into our cargo lights. Three body bags
Strapped casually onto our loading ramp. The smell
Was terrible. Flying back to Da Nang I squatted by
Those shining bags as they moved with the movement
Of the aircraft. My hand moved out to touch
Them, lying dark in darkness. But I was afraid to touch
Death, riding so quietly in the night sky with us.
During Tet the VC charged the perimeter at
Tuy Hoa, but the only enemy I saw there
Was a maid, a mama-san, eating her lunch in the
Latrine. In her black ao di and round straw
Hat she studied her meal of fish and rice
While I stood before the urinal. I
Might not have been there, relieving myself
In an offhand way, for all the attention she
Paid me, and I hardly noticed her, as I
Anticipated the hard tasks of airlift. Old
Woman, were you thinking too of days before
The time of constant engine noise, the flares
At night, unnatural storms, metal rain?