Steven E Weathers’ memoir, A Date with Vietnam (CreateSpace, 288 pp., $12.81, paper), starts off with the author telling us about his problems with authority in high school. I quickly found myself wondering how he’d do with military rules and authority given the fact that the relatively mild high school structure troubled him. Weathers says he wanted to be treated as an adult, and thought that he would get that in the military.
I also wondered how soon we’d get a reference to John Wayne. We did not have long to wait. “I grew up watching John Wayne movies and I especially liked his military films when I was a kid,” Weather says. He goes on to praise Wayne for playing military characters “so true to life.” Weathers grew up “in a family and a society that made you feel it was your duty to go fight communism.”
He was told “to join, not wait to be drafted. Guys who are drafted are treated like shit.” This sounds like Army recruiter talk, and it is a lie. Weathers’ recruiter told him, that in his opinion, “a bunch of jungle backwoods pack rats wouldn’t hold up long against the American military machine” in Vietnam. The recruiter also told him that losers get drafted and that second-class soldiers are the first to be sent to the fighting. Another lie.
Steven Weathers viewed serving in the Army as a patriotic duty—and his ticket to manhood. This point of view was not unusual for men to have in the mid 1960s.
A small-town Indiana boy of seventeen, a high school dropout who knew how to type, Weathers took the military aptitude tests and ended up as an Army clerk typist. He was sent to Okinawa, “a cushy assignment on an island paradise.” At seventeen he was too young to go to Vietnam, but as soon as he turned eighteen, Weathers volunteered for the war zone.
Assigned to the 18th MP Battalion, Weathers was happy to have escaped small-town boring America. He makes the usual observations about Vietnam upon arrival. He is hit in the face by the hottest air he had ever experienced. He comments on shit-burning, but says he never got assigned that dirty detail. He mentions the steel wire on the windows of the bus that took him to his assignment. Protection against grenades, he says.
Weathers next went to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 4th Transportation Command, where he lived in the Le Lai Hotel in Saigon. He discovered that he was considered a REMF and explains what that is.
He and his roommate spent their off duty time “drinking, smoking pot and frequenting the local whorehouse.” Weathers’ job consisted of typing up disposition forms, memoranda, and the occasional classified documents twelve hours a day, seven days a week.
After betting promoted to E-4, his job changed. He became a harbor pilot escort, using a jeep as transportation, and also PBRs ( patrol boat, river.) On one mission his jeep came under fire. His passenger, a harbor pilot, was killed; Weathers narrowly missed death himself.
This memoir offers a good description of the impact that Tet 1968 had on Weathers’ life, and life in general in Vietnam for soldiers with assignments such as his. After Tet, Weathers was moved out of the hotel and into more a typical barracks living situation. Later, while riding in a helicopter, he fell out at about fifty feet, and survived only because he landed in a grove of trees that cushioned his fall.
The main strength of this memoir is its unabashed honesty, especially about Weathers’ behavior and that of his best friend. He tells us about kicking Vietnamese off of their bicycles while driving his jeep if they impeded his progress. He says he enjoyed “kicking gook ass” in bars.
Like many other rear-echelon troops, Weathers had a mama san to clean and polish his boots and do his laundry. Like many others who served in Vietnam, his favorite song was the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” He expressed outrage at a culture that sold dogs and cats and other pets in the marketplace for dinner items.
When Weathers came home in 1968 after two tours of duty, he partied for thirty days. But his parents were at him about moving out and getting a job. So he went back to the grocery store job he had left to join the Army.
Civilian life was hard. He had two dismal marriages. Weathers joined the Army Reserves where he found the structure and camaraderie he missed from his time in Vietnam. Weathers became a Senior Track and Wheel Inspector, and later a drill instructor. He received many honors and medals, and stuck with the Reserves until retirement.
Eventually he even found true love. She had been married for sixteen years to a man she called “a crazy Vietnam vet.”
This memoir is an honorable and honest addition to the canon of Army Vietnam War memoirs. I enjoyed reading it. There were many familiar chords in it reflecting my own REMF tour of duty in the Vietnam War–and also many differences.