My first night in Vietnam: I hardly slept. I was a combat photographer with the First Cavalry Division’s advance party; the next morning we would assault an unimproved airstrip at An Khe — 900 feet of packed red clay abandoned by the French a decade earlier.
We’d been briefed: enemy ambushers might allow the first aircraft to land unmolested, then attack the second as it lands. They'd try to block the runway or landing zone to prevent reinforcements, then kill or capture everyone on the ground. I would be on the second plane — and for all we knew, half the North Vietnamese Army was hiding in the triple-canopy jungle surrounding the airstrip.
That was plenty to think about. But I also kept thinking about Iwo Jima, where, two days earlier, en route to Vietnam, our Air Force C-130 transport made an emergency landing. While repairs were made, our hosts showed us combat footage of the WW II amphibious invasion that cost the lives of 7,000 U.S. Marines. The Japanese had allowed the first wave of Marines to land, waited until the second wave was almost on the beach, then unleashed heavy artillery and hidden machineguns. A massacre.
After viewing that sobering combat footage, we watched the Hollywood version: “Sands Of Iwo Jima,” starring John Wayne. Although he’d spent World War II making movies, to me and most Sixties soldiers, Wayne stood as a symbol of manliness and American values, a larger-than-life character whose ethos we might emulate. That’s why we called any reckless act of combat courage “pulling a John Wayne.”
Throughout that sleepless night I thought about what might await me at An Khe. How would I handle the stress, the confusion? Would I keep a cool head, do my job? Would I die or be horribly maimed? I thought about all the Marines who left Iwo Jima in body bags. Had they worried about death? What was on their minds as they climbed into landing craft? When they headed for those bloody beaches? When enemy shells blasted the sand, sea and skies around them?
I tried but failed to put such thoughts out of my mind.
At breakfast we were issued salt tablets to compensate for the heavy perspiration expected while acclimating to sweltering heat and stifling humidity. I washed mine down with metallic-tasting canteen water.
After chow everyone was issued 200 rounds of ammunition. We boarded C-130s in full combat gear — rifle, bayonet, steel helmet, pack, canteen, compress bandage, entrenching tool, etc. I found a space on a bench that ran the length of the fuselage, tucked my huge, heavy camera bag under the bench and slid my M16 between my knees. Then I looked up: on my left sat the division command sergeant major; on my right was General Wright, the advance party commander.
The last guys any private wanted around if he screwed up.
It was a short journey but a long flight: There was room on the ground for just one plane; after landing, each pilot had to turn his ship around, backing and filling like a semi-trailer trying to get into a compact’s parking space. Then he taxied to the far end and laboriously turned around again to take off into the wind. Only then could another plane land.
The first C-130 landed an infantry platoon while we orbited above, just out of small arms range. Waiting for the strip to clear, bumping up and down, sliding left and right in the rough air, my stomach grew more queasy with each passing minute. I shouldn’t have taken both salt tablets! My pulse raced. My face flushed. Sweat stained my uniform. Never before had I been airsick — but now, desperate to retch, I obsessed about getting vomit on the general or the sergeant major.
That scared me more than getting shot.
To distract myself, I imagined myself on a landing craft among WWII Marines as they approached Iwo Jima’s rocky beaches. Some must have felt just as sick I did now. What did they do?
Puke over the side, I supposed.
No help there.
I flashed on the other film, “Sands of Iwo Jima.” What would John Wayne do if he got airsick?
Right: John Wayne doesn’t get airsick. But what if he did?
I was wearing a steel helmet. Aside from its intended use, soldiers in the field often shave and bathe in their steel pot. Some use it to boil eggs or make soup. I thought it might serve still another purpose.
Beneath the steel was a liner with an inner nylon web that kept liner and helmet from slipping down over my eyes.
When I could wait no longer, I whipped off the helmet, pulled the liner out, plopped it back on my head — and upchucked into the steel pot.
As if they had rehearsed, the men on either side of me simultaneously reached out and patted my back.
“Good thinking,” said the general.
“Smart move,” echoed the sergeant major.
Suddenly the nose dropped and we fell like a stone, side-slipping and jinking until we were almost in the trees, then pulling up sharply to align with the runway. We bounced twice, then shuddered down the rutted strip as pilots applied brakes and flaps. Before we rocked to a halt, the cargo door dropped, an airmen kicked the wheel chocks free and a machinegun jeep rolled off. Everyone grabbed their weapon and dashed after it.
Everyone but me.
Struggling with a helmet full of puke, I awkwardly retrieved my camera bag, slung it over one shoulder, slung my rifle over the other, and, still clutching my reeking helmet, stumbled down the ramp.
As I topped the berm rimming the runway something zipped past my left ear. Not too close, but close enough; I was acutely aware that my helmet liner wouldn’t stop even a thumb tack.
Descending the berm, I dropped to my knees. Another bullet crackled past. I buried my breakfast in the sands of An Khe, put my helmet back on, returned to the safer side of the berm, broke out my old-fashioned press camera and began taking pictures.
A mortar round exploded near the jungle’s edge. Then another, closer. A few more sniper bullets chirped overhead. An officer found and disarmed a booby-trapped artillery shell concealed in a tree.
And that was it. Fifty more C-130s landed and took off without further resistance; by dark we had secured the airstrip and the jungle around it.
Not exactly Iwo Jima, but I wasn’t complaining.
* * *
Two years later, in 1967, John Wayne’s Batjac Productions filmed “The Green Berets” at Ft. Benning, Georgia. On his first visit to the headquarters building, the Duke attempted to walk the long, office-lined corridor between the public information office, where I worked, and the commanding general’s suite. As he passed each door, it opened and someone popped out to stare. He paused at every door, extended his hand, introducing himself, signing autographs, unfailingly gracious and humble. It took him an hour to reach the general’s office.
By then I was a lieutenant. Captain August Schomburg, Jr., became the liaison officer to Wayne’s company; I was detailed to assist him. When Batjac needed 200 Asian female extras, I called around and rounded up Army wives and daughters. When they wanted a bridge to blow up, I arranged it. And when they sought an old plantation house for a night scene, I found one in nearby Columbus.
My kitchen window offered a perfect view of the plantation house across the street, so my tiny apartment became Batjac’s temporary production office. During a lull in filming, I found myself, for the only time, alone with the Duke in my kitchen.
“Mr. Wayne, may I ask you something personal?” I said.
“Fire away, lieutenant,” replied Wayne, costumed as a Special Forces colonel.
“Uh… have you ever been airsick?”
Just then an assistant director burst in with something urgent. Wayne, who both starred in and directed the film, rushed out without answering and remained on set till the shoot wrapped at daylight.
Fast forward to 1978, four years after I left the Army: entering a Costa Mesa, California, camera shop, I bellied up to the film counter next to a tall, stoop-shouldered gent who was leafing through an envelope of snapshots. He glanced at me.
John Wayne. Emaciated, balding, deathly pale but undeniably the Duke. He lived nearby.
“Don’t I know you?” he said.
“The Green Berets,” I said. “I worked for Augie Schomburg…”
“That’s right! We used your apartment the night we shot the kidnapping scene,” he said.
We shook hands and he scooped up his pictures and turned to leave. I laid my film on the counter.
“What was it you asked me, Lieutenant?”
“Captain,” I said without thinking. “I didn’t say anything, sir.”
“I mean, that night in your kitchen. Something about getting seasick?”
It came back in a rush.
“If you ever got airsick.”
“Huh. Well, maybe a time or two.”
“Did you throw up?”
In a heartbeat, the years fell away; a healthy flush replaced Wayne’s sickly pallor. He stood taller, seemed somehow bigger. For a long moment he was once again tortured Tom Doniphon, the man who shot Liberty Valence. He was Rooster Cogburn — and he was Stony Brooke and Lieutenant Commander Duke Gifford and Quirt Evans, and Green Beret Colonel Mike Kirby and fighting Seabee Wedge Donovan and Marshall Cahill and Davy Crockett and the Ringo Kid and Deputy Sheriff John Steele and Capt. “Rock” Torrey, USN, and Genghis Khan and Sergeant Stryker, USMC — the names and costumes changed, but through all 171 of his movies, the man born Marion “Duke” Morrison had played only one character, the singularly indomitable John Wayne.
It was an amazing transformation.
“That’s a mighty strange question, pilgrim,” he drawled.
Feeling foolish, I shorthanded: Iwo Jima, the movies I saw there, the Vietnam air assault, vomiting into my helmet to avoid hitting the general or the sergeant-major.
“What would I have done? That’s what you wanted to know?”
The moment passed. Before me again slumped the wan wreckage of an icon.
I nodded, sorry that I’d ever raised the subject.
“Never would have thought of using my helmet,” he said. He paused to peer at me in a strange, almost wistful way. “But I never made an air assault. Nobody ever shot at me with real bullets. I’m just an actor — you’re the soldier And I’m doing chemo now, so I puke plenty.
“Sooner or later everybody pukes,” he continued. “I guess, maybe, if I’d been in your shoes, I’d have just let it fly, and the hell with it.”
Of course I’d always known John Wayne was an actor, that his heroics were mere movie make-believe. Now, for the first time, I felt it. Felt the difference between a two-dimensional celluloid image and a soldier’s reality. I was no hero, but I’d done a tough job under brutal conditions. I’d put my life on the line. I’d ducked real bullets. Bled real blood the time I couldn’t duck. Saw too many real and forever dead friends.
I watched the actor leave, feeling somehow diminished by the reality of his mortality: John Wayne, the man, now confronted death as surely as I had in Vietnam, and no cinema magic could save him.
He died a few months later of stomach cancer.
Everybody pukes — even the Duke. And the hell with it.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, and short fiction, each offering a glimpse of my life and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.