My journals from August 13, 1967 note that I had been in Kon Tum one week by that date, having been on the road almost two months, traveling from Canada, then two weeks in Harpers Ferry, then to the Philippines, and a couple of weeks in Saigon. I was culturally stressed out already, with radical changes in eating, sleeping, and living habits. “I am faced with some very complex problems in understanding my mission, as I face this complexity,” I wrote. This complexity I referred to was the war. It was all around me.
By the 23rd of August, I note that Kon Tum “could be a real pain.” On the 26th, I experienced my first “incoming” mortar and rocket attack. I still can feel the rise of nausea in my gut, as I was jarred from sleep, realizing their message was clear: “we are here, and we are coming to kill you.”
“There would be no war” where I was going, as I was told by my IVS recruiter in Boston International Airport in April 1967. I can still feel the wry expression on my face, as I recalled those words several months later in the reality that I was facing. Perhaps what he told me, he believed as true, for I believed him, and perhaps by the time I arrived, the situation had deteriorated.
The Highlands of South Vietnam were an almost constant “red” zone in military “speak,” the risk of attack always high. Now I understand as I watch Vietnam fall ‘67 and the Highlands in Ken Burns documentaries. All I knew at the time was how the war raged on around me. And oh, how it did.
Soon after my arrival, the Americans set up an artillery battery. Their largest cannon was just across the river to the south of Kon Tum off main highway. The blast of muzzle and the retort, even across town in my house, required me to steel my nerves against the ear splitting and body shuddering sound waves as they passed through me. At any time of day or night. In my memory, I can still hear those guns and their shells flying through the sky, sounding like boxcars slicing through the clouds. Their whoosh, whoosh, whoosh was a unique sound of war. I shuddered at the thoughts of the carnage wrought, as the echo of a shell exploding came back.
Kon Tum in a state of constant war readiness quickly shattered any illusions about there being “no war.” There was war, and I was in it, like it or not. In Saigon, which was also a city subject to periodic attacks, the size of the city made the war feel less intense. Talking at breakfast about a rocket attack near the airport some 3 kilometers away was one thing, whereas in Kon Tum, the area was small, and the attacks felt personal. Each experience left me praying to God in the awareness that I might be next, and may it be quick. For me, Kon Tum was my own version of “hell in very small place6.”
By September 6th, I wrote the following words:
War, where is Thy Gain?
Forests lying in ruin.
Animals, children screaming.
People moaning, staring.
Bombs slashing, cutting.
Bullets ripping, tearing.
Knives flashing, plunging.
War, where is Thy Gain?
Where is victory and
What is the Price?
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