Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Music To Wait For War By

The Pentagon recently decided the Vietnam War started in the first days of 1962. Many disagree with that date; some think it began earlier, some later.  But, coincidentally, January of 1962 was the start of Jeff Sharlet’s Vietnam War, the year he entered the Army Language School (ALS) and found himself in a year-long Vietnamese course.

The US mission which kicked off our war in Vietnam in ’62, according to the Pentagon, was ‘Operation Chopper’, the first time American military advisors were actively engaged in a major combat support role in South Vietnam. Over a thousand paratroopers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) were flown in 82 helicopters to a stronghold of the guerrilla insurgents commonly known as the VC, Victor Charlie, just plain Charlie, or the Viet Cong – 10 miles west of Saigon.

But back at ALS as the battle raged in a faraway war in a country few could find on a map, Jeff and his fellow language students were just settling in to their 47-week program. Learning an unfamiliar Asian language by day, the guys were having a good time by night and on weekends. For many of the GI students from Eastern and Midwestern universities, the language school’s home at the Presidio of Monterey on the California coast was a magical place. High on a hill overlooking Monterey Bay with flower-bordered walks and endless sunny days, it was an exotic place ‘to go to school’.

Jeff and his friend Keith Willis from back home in upstate New York would ride their motorcycle up to San Francisco for drinks and cigars at the Top of the Mark on Nob Hill, or down Highway 1 through Carmel-by-the-Sea to Nepenthe, 800 feet above the Pacific surf in Big Sur with its 40-mile view.  Like the rest of their young countrymen, they’d have been traveling along with a rollicking, yodeling doo-wop version of a traditional African tune that had hit #1 on the pop charts:

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…

Hush, my darling, don’t fear my darling, the lion sleeps tonight.

Nepenthe was no doubt an unbelievable scene for Jeff and Keith. Its breathtaking scenery and rich history in an incredibly laid-back atmosphere made it a destination for people from all over the world.Poets, artists, beats, lovers, dancers, musicians, as well as folks out for a memorable evening, all gathered there to relax and raise a glass to celebrate life in that most unforgettable place.And to dance the night away – among other dances, to ‘do the Twist’, the latest craze:

Yeah daddy is sleepin' and mama ain't around

We're gonna twisty twisty twisty
'Til we turn the house down.†

File:Big Sur June 2008.jpg

Big Sur Coastline

After a year in California paradise, it wasn’t surprising that Jeff’s letters home expressed no love lost for the Philippines.  Arriving at the 9th ASA (Army Security Agency) station at Clark Air Base in January of ’63, Jeff would work a full schedule translating intercepted North Vietnamese messages. Off duty it was short trips into Manila to prowl the bars or hit the racetrack; or head up to Baguio, a mountain retreat high above the heat of the lowlands. He and Keith would make shorter forays into Angeles City, a dusty town near the base offering the usual amusements and enticements to GIs.

There they could grab a bite, catch a movie, and especially go bar-hopping where they’d find music and girls. Keith would teach the B-girls steps of stateside dances like the Twist and the Mashed Potato, while Jeff was always welcome since he was often mistaken for a Spaniard. But Angeles City was a far cry from San Francisco or Big Sur.

Plaza Cafe, Angeles City, Philippines

In January of ’63, US advisors supported South Vietnamese forces in the Battle of Ap Bac, which went badly for the ARVN as well as the Americans. The South Vietnamese took heavy casualties, 83 killed and at least 100 wounded.  Of the 15 helicopters the US crews flew, only one escaped undamaged, while 5 were downed by enemy fire or completely destroyed with 3 Americans killed and 8 wounded. In the wake of defeat, US commanders took it as a bad sign that an anonymously composed Ballad of Ap Bac, sung to the tune of On Top of Old Smoky, echoing a battle report and lampooning the war effort, was making the rounds of the US billets.

On January two
We were called into Tan Hiep
We would never have gone there
If we had only knew
We were supporting the ARVNs
A group without guts
Attacking a village
Of straw covered huts
A ten copter mission
A hundred troop load
Three lifts were now over
A fourth on the road…
…A Huey returns now
To give them some aid
The VC’s are so accurate
They shot off a blade…
An armored battalion
Just stayed in a trance
One captain died trying
To make them advance…
…The paratroopers landed
A magnificent sight
There was hand to hand combat
But no VC’s in sight...
…When the news was reported
The ARVNs had won
The VC are laughing
Over their captured guns....

Colonel James Patterson “Bull” Durham, a pilot as well as singer-songwriter, collected many songs “in-country” written and performed by GIs, including himself.  A number of them were protest songs; others patriotic, and still others were about the general hardships and worries soldiers faced in a strange land in the midst of an undeclared no-win war. Some were parodies, some original, all were heartfelt.  One of Durham’s ditties was about the rescue helicopter affectionately known as the Jolly Green Giant or the Gooney Bird, painted all brown and green, the prettiest bird a downed pilot had ever seen:

♫I sit here alone in this tree
 Scared of 'Charlie' as I can be
Wish to the Lord that I could see Jolly Green.

But it’s still 1963, and the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) in the Philippines played music around the clock.  Needless to say, the in-country tunes were not on the playlists, but just imagine the reaction when the DJ announced an active duty Marine Corps group, ‘The Essex’, with a major million-selling #1 hit, Easier Said Than Done.  The writers said the beat was inspired by the sound of multiple teletype machines pounding out copy in the communications center.

♫….Tell him he’s the one.

Deep in my heart I know it,
But it’s so hard to show it
‘Cause it’s easier – easier said than done.

Folk music was just beginning to gain widespread popularity in the early 60’s.  One of the earliest hits was Peter, Paul and Mary’s 500 Miles, which surely stirred deep feelings of nostalgia among the GIs far from home, friends, and family:
Lord I'm one, Lord I'm two, Lord I'm three, Lord I'm four,
Lord I'm 500 miles from my home.
500 miles, 500 miles, 500 miles, 500 miles
Lord I'm five hundred miles from my home.
Then there was Fare Thee Well, based on an old English ballad, sung by Joan Baez, which offered a more accurate version of the distance between the Philippines and Jeff’s stateside hometown. Folk music-loving GIs might have remembered it from her debut album in 1960:
And fare thee well my own true love
 And farewell for a while.
I’m going away, but I’ll be back
If I go ten thousand miles.
One thing the Philippines did have going for it that was reminiscent of California was good surf, especially during the monsoon season from October to January. The surf rock music craze was on, and the singers Jan and Dean made it to the #1 slot with Surf City:

Two girls for every boy
I bought a '30 Ford wagon and we call it a woody
(Surf City, here we come)
You know it's not very cherry, it's an oldie but a goody
(Surf City, here we come)
Well, it ain't got a back seat or a rear window
But it still gets me where I wanna go.
Meanwhile, back in the States, protest songs were popping up, but not to be heard on AFRS.  One was Bob Dylan’s Masters of War, inspired by President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address warning of the military-industrial complex:
♫Come you masters of war
 You that build all the guns
 You that build the death planes
 You that build all the bombs
 You that hide behind walls
 You that hide behind desks
 I just want you to know
 I can see through your masks.
Jeff’s first Vietnam assignment came in August ‘63 as the Buddhist self-immolations continued and the Vietnamese generals began planning the coup that would unseat the President of South Vietnam, ending with his assassination, but that’s a tale for another time. 

*Ballad of Ap Bac:
  Links to music videos


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