Getting to the Bottom of the Bottle of Drambuie, Part I

     What He Was Doing

Rod’s military portrait.

Rod’s first stop after his initial enlistment was Fort Ord, California, for basic training. After that, he would travel to Fort Devons in Massachusetts for Advanced Individual Training, or AIT.

During his time in AIT, Rod was being trained to identify and intercept Non-Morse radio signals by means of a radio receiver and associated equipment. In other words, he was tasked with monitoring, collecting, and interpreting military voice and electronic signals from countries of interest. Much to his sister’s dismay, this position came with risks. “That’s when you started hearing about members of the ASA (Army Security Agency) and when they were in Vietnam,” he stated. Rod began telling a story of the CONEX boxes that housed agents listening to electronic signals being transmitted around them. CONEX boxes were standard shipping containers developed to transport supplies during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. “If there was a problem, or the camp was being overrun,” he said, “the guards were told to shoot the ASA people so they wouldn’t be compromised.” This was a common practice because if an ASA agent were captured by the enemy, they risked torture and death for the knowledge they held. He was grinning by this point, traveling back with his memories from what feels so long ago. “I thought that wasn’t a very nice thing to do,” he remarked. “But I understood it.”

During his time at Fort Devons, Rod participated on an honor guard unit while taking classes for the ASA. The group had drill and attended ceremonies performing rifle drills and even marched in parades. “I also was on a British Drill Squad,” he said, scratching atop his white head of hair. “There were 10 soldiers and we practiced British Drill, which is different than American. We performed at different functions, too, which was good.”

“All the people of the honor guard were people that were oriented or going toward their OCS (Officer Candidate School),” he explained. “Or Special Forces or Airborne or Ranger. We all wanted something more than just being in the service. I ended up going to OCS. I left Massachusetts and went down to Fort Belford, Virginia, and six months later I got my commission as a second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. Then I came back to Maine to see my future wife, and two weeks later, I was in Vietnam.”

Getting to Vietnam

Rod sat back in his chair, taking a sip of his cranberry juice. Setting the cup back down on his kitchen table, he crossed his arms across his chest. “It was quite an experience, you know,” he finally said. “You take a civilian airplane, fill it up with brand-new soldiers and start flying over to Vietnam and no one’s got a clue. We certainly didn’t.”

A quick Google search today reveals the average age of U.S. soldiers going to fight in Vietnam was 19 years old. “I remember when we were coming in for a landing or started heading in for a landing,” Rod said. “The plane pulled up and the stewardess started running up and down the aisle passing out little bottles of booze to everybody. Didn’t matter how old you were, she was passing out booze.” He recalls looking around at all the men unscrewing the bottles and guzzling their contents. “Then the pilot comes on and says there’s been a short delay because they (the enemy) were dropping mortars,” he said. “Explosions, on the airfield. ‘We can’t land right now.’ So, we took all those bottles and kept asking for more. A few guys had bottles in their packs and started pulling them out. That was our first experience.”

After a holding pattern, a maneuver that keeps aircraft within specified airspace until clearance was permitted, Rod’s plane was finally able to land. “Then the busses pulled up,” he said. “Green Army busses with steel cages all around the windows, you know, so stuff couldn’t get in to the passengers.” The busses were also outfitted with plates running along their sides. That’s when he had a little realization. “Oh,” he said he remembers saying. “This really isn’t a good place to be.”