Poems 4

This poem is based on one of my favorite poems, an old English ballad, “The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens,” written by an unknown author in the 1200s or 1300s.  It documents, in poetic form, an unsuccessful voyage, undertaken by a sailing crew in winter weather, when the King of Scotland ordered Sir Patrick Spens and his men to sail to Norway in connection with a royal wedding. Sir Patrick and his crew evidently sailed to Norway without incident but did not return, capsizing in the North Sea in rough weather.

The original poem is to my mind one of the most accurate and bitterly ironic commentaries on the hazards of working in the service of the country’s top political leader. In my version the authoritative situation of the King is represented by the command at MACV, the Saigon headquarters of military missions in Vietnam during the Vietnam war, and the hazardous mission is undertaken by a C-130 crew trying to deliver a planeload of ammunition to a group of besieged Army troops in the A Shau Valley northwest of Da Nang.  Like the original ballad, it is based on an actual mission, except that this event occurred during the Vietnam War.

If you will compare the original version of the ballad with mine, you will see that I have shamelessly copied not only its rhyme scheme and phraseologies but have borrowed its general scenario and several key moments and situations in the poem as well.  I’m not happy about some of the rhymes in the poem and will continue to tinker with it.


The Ballad of Lieutenant Patrick Spence

The Colonels sit in old MACV
Drinking their Budweiser cold
“Oh where will we find good pilot
To fly this mission bold?”

“Our army men need help real bad.
They hardly held the camp last night
The Viet Cong who own the green A Shau,
Are pressing home the fight”

Then up and spoke a trim O-6
With a few days more to go:
“We need an eager pilot, one
Who’s brave and suitably gung-ho.”

The colonels all are flying desks,
Working a four-hour day
The majors are in Bangkok
Drawing their combat pay

The captains are drinking in the bar
Making the bar maids scream
Staneval are on easy runs
To Naha or the Philippines.

“We need a man who will take the task
And never question why.
Who’s the best man to do this job?
Who loves this Vietnam sky?”

The call went out to the ALCEs
From Bien Hoa to Cam Ranh;
To review their lists, to see
Who might be the lucky man.

Then a voice came faintly through
From the distant Ocean coast:
“Lieutenant Spence can drop the goods
Among the hostile host.”

The Colonels cheered to hear these words
They gave a mighty shout
Their plan had found the man
To help the army out

The Duty Officer has drawn the route,
And sent for Lieutenant Spence
His crew is on the Da Nang ramp
Looking a little tense

When Spence first read the frag he laughed
As if he’d heard a joke
The second time he read it through
His voice began to choke

“You’ll climb above the Khe Sanh hills
Then fly from south to north
Come down to one thousand feet
Drop it, and go for all you’re worth.”

“’The weather’s fine, the ground fire’s light,
you can wave as you go by.’”
(In Saigon the colonels dance
Where they never have to fly)

He called his men, their faces grim
He had them gather near
He wanted to encourage them
And alleviate their fear

“We’ll climb across the western hills
Then fly high above the trees.
We’ll line up on the signal
And drop our load with ease”

“Our load is coming out right now—
Four pallets of small arms ammo
When I give the red light, open the ramp,
The green light, send the load below”

But what did Saigon know
About the weather in the north
Where thick clouds were dropping low
And skies were dark as death

The pilot leveled just above the trees
No higher could he fly
An easy target for those below
Waiting to shoot the sky

Undaunted by conditions dread
They steadily came ahead
The VC fired from all around
The dark air streaked with red

The army men on the ground beneath
Prepared to catch the drop
But when the guns began to fire
They knew there was no hope

One engine stopped, one burst in fire
One left a smoking trail
The sturdy ship with its promise bright
Soon began to fail

The C-130 tilted then
A dark shape above the green
The jungle rose and took it in
As if it had never been

Too suddenly it struck the earth
Too quickly did it blow
Too bad five men were gone
In the hellish glow

The smoke and clouds together grew
Could not be told apart
The soldiers scarce had time to mourn
As the forest air grew dark

The wives and girls and mothers
The families of the men
Can view the decorations but not the crew
Who flew with Lieutenant Spence

The papers will scarce record
The efforts of these few
Another Vietnam mission flown
By the airmen of a cargo crew

The MACV Colonels sign the log
Their files they start to screen
To find another stalwart group
To fly to the A Shau green