William B. McCormick has put together a rather untypical war story in What Was I Doing There? (Hellgate Press, 132 pp., $13.95, paper). This young soldier began his tour of duty in Southeast Asia on September 22, 1968, near Cam Ranh Bay. He was part of the 174th Ordnance Detachment, a support unit that supplied ammo to artillery units in Central Vietnam during the war.
The title of the book describes much of what Bill McCormick felt during his tour of duty. A read through the table of contents gives an immediate overview of wartime activities not often mentioned in Vietnam War memoirs. Routine “Guard Duty” and “Ambush Patrol” take on different meanings when performed in rear areas.
Daily work of the 174th ran the gamut from boring to dangerous—and from humorous to tragic. McCormick’s writing brings the reader right into the heart of it all. I was impressed by how clearly he described his arrival in Vietnam. You could almost feel the heat, sense the fear, and smell the odor of burning feces and urine mixed with diesel fuel.
Living in an ammunition depot is uniquely dangerous, and as in any war, mistakes were made regularly. Soldiers with no infantry training were sometimes moved to line units just to fill a quota, and sometimes infantryman found themselves handling ammunition in the rear.
One example of nonsensical activity: McCormick and his buddies found themselves building flowerbeds for beautification. Then he tells us that in all of his time in Vietnam he never saw one flower.
McCormick’s description of the local people is invaluable to readers who were not in Vietnam during the war. It becomes very clear that poverty was the state of affairs for many Vietnamese. Young women were hired to do laundry, sweep the barracks, and do other domestic chores. McCormick’s house girl had the peculiar habit of throwing away his handkerchiefs after he had used them one time.
Prostitutes were ubiquitous in Vietnam anywhere near the troops. McCormick pulls no punches describing the frequently detrimental results.
He describes a night-time phantom that had many of the group on edge at night as “it” moved around the sleeping GIs fondling their genitals. Humorous, perhaps, in the telling today, but not so funny in the war zone in 1968.
The dangers of living on a base surrounded by mountains of high explosives takes on a surreal effect. While the men had practice alerts, they knew that if one enemy shell exploded in the right place all of them would have been blown into very small pieces. According to McCormick, getting used to that danger often led to carelessness.
Just as McCormick memorably recalls his arrival in Vietnam, so too does he describe his leaving. “When it came time for me to go home, all I had thought about was leaving, ” he writes. “I was unprepared for the pangs of regret that surged to the surface when the truck pulled out of the company area. All of a sudden, it dawned on me that I would never see these men again. I remember several men I had forgotten to say goodbye to, and almost jumped off the truck to do it.”
This excellently written, readable narrative speaks volumes. I am grateful to William B. McCormick for sharing his story and leaving this reader with a greater appreciation for the support troops in the Vietnam War.