Discussion in 'Vietnam Stories: By John H. Wilborn' started by Guest, Feb 25, 2003.

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    (3/26/01 2:55:14 pm)
    Reply 'OLD HANK JUST DIED'!!
    The morning sounds and smells were indeed welcome events for the early rising construction
    men as tousled, sun bleached heads emerged from under the olive drab mosquito nets that covered
    their wooden folding cots---to be followed by the bronzed, work tempered figures of young naval
    construction workers called Seabees.
    A radio was turned on somewhere in the deep recesses of the canvas squad tent....Jo Stafford
    sang in her plainitive style, ‘YOU BELONG TO ME’....not from stateside but over Subic Bays Armed
    Forces Radio Station.
    Today was a holiday routine for every naval construction battalion living on the hill top known as
    Cubi Point, Philippine Islands. January 1st l953--- the beginning of a new year---a year that about six
    months down the road, would see a truce and a cease fire for the so-called United Nations police
    action ....It was a very real war that was raging on the Korean Penisula and it had been since the l950
    incursion of the North Korean forces into the southern half of the tiny nation.
    Loud, gasping, yawns blended with the metallic sounds of Zippo lighters igniting the first cigarette
    of the day--- to be interrupted shortly thereafter by fits and bouts of coughing and gagging---then the
    shoe sole bending siezures of the masculine throat clearing.
    Good morning Philippine Islands----welcome to our world--we’re here to shove a mountion out
    into the bay---we’re going to build us an airfield----what’s your excuse?
    Many of those finely tuned bodies remained cowering in their racks--- nursing the New Years Eve,
    cranium bursting hangovers--those degrees of pain in direct proportion only to the amount of San
    Miguel beer consumed--- pain accompanied by groans or sighs of resignation, thankful for the
    The distinct sound of ‘flip-flop’ shower shoes slapping on the diesel oil soaked plywood decking---
    the rank smell of soiled, sweaty work clothing, and the standard issue rough-leather-out boondockers
    (shoes) the Seabees wore emanating their own tell-tale odor....Seabees with foul smelling feet
    claimed in very medical sounding terms, ‘there’s fungus, among us’, and further declaring that the
    fungicidal powder handed out down at sick bay would’nt even control the rash on their backsides let
    alone make their stinky feet smell sweet.
    Even though it was a ‘standdown’ for all the troops there were those who had to toil and boil,
    especially the cooks and bakers over in the galley. The hearty builders who were up for the day
    smelled the early morning chow preparation----those with the skull damaged hangovers tried in the
    most valiant of ways, to shut down their sense of smell.
    Guy Mitchell was belting out a Seabee favorite called ‘PITTSBURG PENNSYLVANIA’---he just
    wanted to get 5 or 10 from the pawnshop on the corner....Someone inside the tent was whistling
    along with Guy--just kind of squirting out the sounds---nothing shrill or bothersome---those recovering
    ears attached to that throbbing skull would never tolerate shrill sounds without some vocal assault of
    their own....
    Someones coffee perculator could be easily heard gurgling and perking --and smelled--- first jolt
    of the day---to be shared and savored---- only eight cups to a pot but more would be made all day
    long. The Seabees did’nt have much to offer but their most sincere hospitality they could offer was to
    share a cup of ‘JOE’.
    Someone returning from the primitive outside heads and showers was telling a buddy that there
    had been a ‘hot-locker’ fire over in MOB FIVE berthing area during the night.
    The hot lockers were a plywood, closet looking container in every tent. The tents occupants could
    store their dress blue uniforms away from the jungles humidity and mold----the ‘hot’ being provided by
    several 100 watt bulbs in the lockers....Sometimes the only heat producing bulbs that could be
    scrounged might be a 150 watt or even larger bulbs---- too much heat so the results were
    inevitable----a fire.
    Usually the routine and very necessary mosquito spraying was done in the evening---wonder why
    they were spraying so early this morning....maybe the holiday changed that routine also.
    To spray the mosquitos a peice of equipment called a TIFA (Todd Insectidal Fog Applicator) was
    mounted on the back of a 3/4 ton weapons carrier and driven throughout the entire Cubi Point camp
    area. A mixture of DDT insecticide and diesel fuel was sprayed into the hot combustion chamber on
    the TIFA resulting in great, noxious clouds of eye burning and choking smoke.....
    Many of those medical sounding Seabees spouting a knowledge of smelly feet and fungus, would
    further remark ‘there’s malaria in the area’ and claim that the DDT and diesel smoke would be more
    injurous to men’s health than it was for killing bugs and mosquitos---sure and it was determined a
    decade or so later that was the case with DDT poisoning of man, fish, and animals.
    More retching and gagging from the still reclining sufferers of too much San Migel....believe it,
    some of those poor souls even resorted to attacking the spray operators pedigree, claiming in fact he
    had no parents--- that he was probably hatched from under a rock. No sleep for the wicked this day
    and the rightous were already up waiting for chow.
    The sun had not yet broke the jungle etched horizon but it was light enough to see the double
    Quonset huts in the distance. Joined for utility purposes with a variety of appendages protruding from
    the enormous, half circle, corrogated metal structure --- this was the galley and the chow hall with the
    large walk-in food freezers and refrigerators for food storage---the add-on looking appendage on one
    side was the boiler room, operated by ‘Fat’ Jonesy from Texas and on the other side, identical in shape
    and appearance was the refrigeration shop and galley maintenance operated by Eddie Hubel from
    New York City.
    I worked for Ed, in fact I berthed in the reefer shop keeping the ice cream freezers freezing, the
    bake ovens baking, and the potato peelers peeling. What a job---to be around your work station 24
    hours every day----never had to stand in those long chow lines.
    The chow line was forming at the mess hall entrance. A surley looking Master-at-Arms, glared out
    through the locked screen door at the waiting, early risers----a white Navy tee shirt made a futile
    attempt to cover an expanse of belly that could only be described as life-threatening.
    The MAA was a third class Gunners Mate--- much older than the muscular, hardworking Seabees.
    The young constructionmen coveted the Gunners faded and worn dungerees, especially his patch
    pockets....A gobs white hat that ‘Guns’ was wearing, hung precariously atop his black eyebrows, held
    there by an overly generous and very rosy snout.
    Most of the young Bees did tease Gunner and even though he appeared disgruntled and claimed
    that he would’nt ever be the same Navyman until he got back to shipboard life away from those
    misbegotten Seabees---all the Bees concluded that Gunner did encourage the treatment---he really
    enjoyed the Seabees---probably one of the first examples of the Generation Gap.
    Many of the waiting personnel lounged against the corrugated metal of the Quonset while around
    the corner where the cement ended, others sat on their heels or on the dry, dusty hillside which led up
    to the post office.
    Truly like the Kipling verse, ‘ the sun did come up like thunder, out of China, cross the bay.’ The
    high humidity in the cool and still morning air accounted for a maginificant sunrise---a glorious
    offering-- this new day-- this new year... An unreal quiet prevailed--- it seemed as if some general
    concensus had been silently agreed to among these builder-warriors as they waited ...why--- what
    had happened ...was this day going to be so different?
    One young man silently thought of his watch tonight down on the road to Subic Bay guarding the
    water point and pump station --- listening throughout the humid night to the rage and the high pitched
    screeching of the rock apes hasling in the underbrush and then there was the constant barrage of
    profane sounds from the never-to-be-seen tree lizards, uttering foul sounds into the blackened tree
    tops--- in fact sounding a lot like ‘OleGunner’ as he told some young Seabee nastily about their
    birthrights and further what they could do for themselves. I imagine every man waiting there, in those
    moments of arbitrated silence were either plagued or blessed with the solitude.
    The screen door hinges, in pitiful need of lubrication, protested like a fingernail on a chalkboard
    as Gunner threw it open for the waiting crew members. The thumps and scrapeings of boondockers
    on the uneven messhall decks mingled with the slamming together of the partitioned, stainless steel
    trays. The clinking of the white china coffee mugs--- Navy mugs with no handles---the smells of
    scrambled eggs, French toast, bacon, overly done toast, and you bet, the Navy coffee.
    A mulititude of shop made, picnic style benches, arrayed the mess deck....their individual seats
    were attached so at least the noise of chairs being handled would not contribute to the din.
    The on duty messcooks had an area unto themselves off in the corner of the messdeck--- almost
    always occuppied and generally filled with overflowing butt kits and gum wrappers.
    This was the time before battery radios and of course, television, but a real status symbol on the
    Seabee mountion was the Zenith Transoceanic radio. Probably the prototype ‘boombox’, they were
    wonderous things and depending on atmospheric conditions and ambient weather prevailing, would
    sometimes receive distant Armed Forces stations, or still, in a static fashion, the fading in and out of
    stateside transmissions--it was truly an article to be coveted and admired. Some messcook had
    probably spent an entire months wages on that super-radio.
    The troops with overflowing trays of food and steaming mugs of coffee entered onto the
    messdecks and headed for the corner to be near that marvel of communication-- that big Zenith radio.
    These also were the times before rock and roll and Elvis or the Beetles and Janice Joplin---it seemed
    most of the Seabees preferred Country and Western with the twanging getfiddles and people who
    could make those envied sounds by singing through their noses---the unevitiable love lost and beer
    drinking and Cadillac cars. The noise continued, building to a crescendo--- the sound of men eating
    and talking and laughing.
    Gunner, having been relieved on the entrance guard, moved ponderously through the strollers and
    seat seekers, on over to where a young, pimply faced mess cook was listening to his radio....he held
    his head close to the receiver and when Gunner spoke to him he must have told him to turn up the
    volume, to which he did---much to loud for most of the troops could now hear Hank Williams doing his
    rendering of ‘COLD COLD HEART’----plaintive, emotional, tear jerking...doing it Hanks way.... ‘and
    melt your cold, cold heart’....all Hank, only Hank. Tony Bennett would have a go at the song also---
    good yes, but never the quality or the impact of Old Hank.
    The big Zenith Transoceanic faded in and out for a few moments, still loud but very over ridden,
    with the scratching, biting static....As the transmission cleared one could almost visualize a cloud
    passing over, disrupting the sound wave propagation......Whatever happened the listeners were
    patient--- after all it was a holiday--- first day of the year--- first day of the rest of their lives or
    something else those profound thinkers were mulling over....
    The voice of the radio announcer could be heard in a measured, dirge-like voice--- speaking of
    Hanks songs and his life....what could it mean---- ‘Hell, just give us some more of Old Hank--- get this
    show on the road----hey Hank, play Jambalaya for all ’ussans’ from the Bayou Country--- God Bless
    Louisana, come on Hank’, a roccous sounding southern voice piped up--- ‘let us have it’, and those
    words being accompanied by a resounding ‘CAN-DO’ for the Hank-man’, and then a hearty cheer.
    Those sounds were drowned out by the gravelly sounding voice of Gunner, who shouted loudly,
    ‘shut the hell up you clowns’ and after glaring toward the offensive Seabees for a moment, leaned
    down, ear close to the big radio, listened to the announcer.
    It must have been sensed before it was heard for in an almost wave like manner, the silence called
    for by ‘Guns’ progressed from row to row, from area to area of the mess deck and it finally seemed to
    pervade the entire building-----all the sounds before seemed to fade-- to quit--and the shuffling chow
    line appeared to come to a halt. Gunner remained in the leaning position near the radio speaker---
    great huge stomach hanging obsenely over his dungeree belt line-- listening.
    While others standing nearby could hear and decipher the announcers voice they seemed to be
    waiting for the Gunner to equate for them what they also were hearing..to sort it out for them..to get a
    handle on it-- after all he was black-shoe Navy--did’nt he carry that big ring of keys with the extra dog
    tag attached to the belt hoop of his patch pockets-- did’nt those young Seabees envy his style of dress
    and tell one another they would be glad to get back stateside and wear their own dungerees again
    instead of these washed out, scruffty looking greens with all the tears and rents--- most with cut off
    pant legs and with the shirt sleeves torn off at the shoulder.
    Gunner was to be the interpreter and he was still listening... Almost complete silence
    prevailed---probably the troops waiting outside in the halted chow line had simply surmised that the
    chow line had run out of some entry--maybe their favorite--- the bacon. The yelling and clamoring
    would start soon, but for now they would just relax--- many probably remembering the recent event,
    when the mess line had run out of the frozen strawberries---that the OOD (Officer-of-the-Day) had to
    be called to get the chow line moving when the ‘Bees” got boistirous and rowdy. Some called it a
    mutiny while most said it was just a lack of good manners.
    Even as the radio announcers voice continued to be heard Gunner reached over and turned down
    the volume--when he straightened up that monumental sized gut slipped back into the confines of his
    faded bell-bottoms and the ring of keys could be heard clinking against the extra dog-tag.
    As he looked out over the assorted hues of green uniforms and the open sunbronzed faces of the
    young Seabees, Gunner was’nt glareing this time--- actually the early morning sun rays striking the
    Gunners puffy features took everyone by surprise--amongst the waiting troops there was a
    synchronious intake of breath--- a gasp.
    The Gunners features had an almost Holy appearance....the patrician nose accentuated by those
    black brows--- the pale forehead and his grey stubbled chin Well he did, he appeared almost
    handsome and best of all, he was’nt glareing at the Seabees....His alcohol faded eyes, almost a
    silvery blue in color, were beginning to tear as the rivelets trickled down his pale cheek--- seeming to
    cling there on the grey whiskers near the corners of his sad looking mouth--- an opening generally
    emitting bitterness and wrath, now trembling with an unknown emotion---- attempting to speak to the
    waiting diners.
    He turned his tear filled eyes downward toward the food strewn mess deck, sighed deeply, and to
    all the wide-eyed Seabees assembled there, appeared to shudder, as if cold. Now slowly raising his
    head, the Gunner was glareing this time --- eyes free of tears--- composure restored--- almost like he
    was waiting to be questioned or challenged.
    As his bone-chilling glances swept over the entire group he reached up and yanked the squared
    white hat off his head and placed it over the center of his chest--- actually atop that grand stomach
    that always appeared to be marching about 10 seconds in front of the Gunner----a later recollection of
    those looking on related the hat was actually over the Gunners heart.
    “Now hear this you guys, cause I’m only going to tell it once....Old Hank is gone, dead, kilt or
    sometnin ---last night they found him in his Cadillac after he did a gig in Nashville’....
    Wide, unbelieving eyes--- the sharp intakes of breath could be clearly heard so incredilous had
    been the silence---then a sob--- a pronounced uttering of a wounded animal like groan--- then off to
    one side of the messdeck, the sound of a stainless steel tray and coffee mug, crashing to the concrete
    deck.....Another gasp, another sob, and then the babble of voices--- mutterings at first and then
    building like the roar of an oncoming train---to be silenced abruptly by the Gunner rasping voice ---
    ‘Listen up now you men, I feel as lousy as you all do, but just listen up.....He was only 29 years
    old--- he was married a couple times--- got kids too--- a boy named after him and a girl too is what
    the radio said......They don’t even know what happened. Hell, for all we know the Devil mighta struck
    him with fire and brimstone, or maybe some ‘jerk-water’ girlfriend put a round between his horns---
    don’t know yet, but I know for a fact that the man was a rounder--- a real boozer big-time and he
    liked the dream making stuff about as well as any hop-head.’.
    Just to think--- the men waiting outside for chow had no idea of the events occurring inside.....they
    would never have seen the tears in the Gunners eyes or hear his hurtful announcments, or see him
    clutch the white hat so pathetically to his heart but most of all, not hear his next labored and painful
    ‘I’m sure not used to praying or even thinking of prayers men but I’d sure appreciate it if you’d all
    join me in his name’.....Again the uncovered head of Gunner was bowed, and strangely his shoulders
    seemed to sag--- not unlike an ungainly weight being added....feet slightly apart like a boxer waiting
    to take a blow and again for the second time within the past hour, the reaction of the troops appeared
    in a wave-like motion, as heads were bowed with silence and reverance all around the messdecks and
    “Don’t know what happened to Old Hank Lord---- he were’nt with us very long--- I never rode a
    ship with him--- never shared mid-rats or relieved him on watch---never got drunk with him either, but
    he was a real man from what I’ve heard--a skinny little guy but a big man in so many ways. When
    MOB 2 got back from Atsugi Japan we was in Hueneme waitin’ to ship out, I got a 45 record for Sweet
    Sue who bartended over at the Crows Nest---she was crazy ‘bout Hank’s ‘HEY GOOD LOOKIN’,
    WHAT’CHA GOT COOKIN’ and she played it all the time.. You better believe I spent time with him---
    listening and learning his songs--knew ‘em all by heart---sure as anything he was there in the armory
    with me when I was working weapons, or up in the radio shack with my buddy Sparkie, who could
    sound just like Old Hank and as we stood the brow watch and listened.to him wail over the radio
    ..and then there was that time in Atsugi when we had to stand night watch out by the benjo ditch----
    gagging and puking out our guts out as those little Jap people emptied their ‘honey pots’ into the
    ditch. I’m sorry for Hank and we’ll sure miss him Lord but I’ll bet you a cool San Miguel that he’ll
    always be with us---maybe his kid will sing for us someday. Thanks for making Old Hank the way you
    did Dear Lord... we’ll always be much obliged’.
    With a pronounced gesture Gunner raised his bowed head and set his white hat squarely atop the
    bushy black eyebrows...Mutterings all around---- Amens most of all---the Gunner reached over and
    restored the volume on the big Zenith radio. The babble of the assembled listeners started
    again----like the wave thing.
    Gunner wandered off aimlessly--- his extra dog tag clinking against the ring of keys that hung on
    his patch pocket dungeree trousers. He must have felt like the grim reaper.
    Some of the trays were abandoned on the tables as the green clad builders and drivers and steel
    workers streamed from the Galley--- some stopping to tell their buddies who were waiting in the chow
    line what they had heard inside, while most hurried off to their respective tents with the mind numbing
    news...There were even those who admitted later of becoming downright ill.
    The Seabee hill called Cubi Point would survive --- the Seabees would spend time and effort
    attempting to structure what had happened--to make some sense of it. There would be some crying
    jags later in the day and evening--- mostly when the Enlisted Mens club opened for some serious beer
    drinking and Old Hank toasts...
    Of course there would be another singer come along to fill Old Hank’s spot, but in most of the true
    believers opinions, never one who would fill Old Hank’s boots......
    As I pen this story I do a little soul-searching of my own. Comparable feelings would not be
    experienced for me again until 20 plus years later when I was stationed with MCB 9 on the island
    Okinawa----to awaken to Armed Forces Radio Station (AFRS OKI) and hear that President John F.
    Kennedy had died---had been struck down by an assassins assault in Dallas, Texas--- the heartland of
    our own beloved country--- not by a foreign assassin, but by a fellow countryman.
    Again amongst the troops, the sobbings and the pathos and the mind numbing disbelief---- and
    yes, like the Gunner--- prayers of their own---in their own space and in their own fashion to their
    own Lord--- the Lord of us all.

    John H. Wilborn Sr. USN (Retired)