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The Temperature of  War

by Rick Waters


During the fall of 1970, I entered the final year of High School full of hope and optimism for the future.

On November 4th, a letter arrived from President Richard Nixon wishing warm birthday regards and, oh by the way, casually revealing that I had been drafted. Of course, it went on to state they would wait until graduation to collect another warm body destined for the battlefields of Vietnam.

Even though Niagara Falls was a two-hour drive away up Highway 390, I never considered escaping this responsibility by taking the deserter’s route straight into Canada.

It had a great deal to do with a strict Baptist upbringing in a household where it was considered a duty to serve. Personally, I was neither super-religious nor excessively worldly and viewed this unexpected news with a cool indifference.

As a result of testing high on the Morse portion of the classification tests, two Army Security Agency recruiters called me into their office to discuss joining the elite organization as an Intercept Operator. They painted an idyllic picture of life as a Morse operator separate from the reach of the regular Army. The clincher just happened to be when they guaranteed I would not go to Vietnam.

Only a fool desperate to prove their mettle would purposely go to war.

The O5h-20 MOS I signed up for had one of the highest washout rates at the time. Those who survived and passed the course were considered gifted. What the recruiter’s did not bother to mention were the host of psychological abnormalities to crop up from copying high-speed Morse code. Nor the fact they worsened over time when an operator copied at ever faster speeds.

I was born with a wired quirky disposition to begin with. When the side-effects of an altered brain merged with this personality, it produced one crazed over-the-top individual.

We were sworn to secrecy and could not discuss our work with anyone except for those co-workers with a need to know. By the end of the three-year hitch, I had accumulated a Top Secret Cryptographic Special Intelligence security clearance.

Upon graduation from MOS school, my class was shown the slide presentation of a rustic jungle base in Thailand and told it would be our home for the next year.

However, while on vacation before reporting, I received travel orders in the mail for the 175th Radio Research Field Station near Bien Hoa Airbase Vietnam.

On a sunny mid-July morning in 1972, I boarded a Flying Tigers airplane out of Oakland bound for Tan Son Nhut Airbase Saigon.

Chapter One Welcome to Sunny Vietnam

To boldly proclaim, “It’s a good day to die!”, is such a shameless display of bravado. Who in their most heroic of moments utters this nonsense?

Warrior or coward. Disfigured or whole. Dead or alive.

Such speculative thoughts dominated by these extreme possibilities were merely a guessing game to describe how I would return home after serving a one-year tour of duty in country.

During the long arduous flight in close quarters, I had gone to the laboratory several times to throw cool water on a face staring at its somber reflection in the mirror. It was hard to believe the strange person slumped over the sink with a GI haircut, hazel eyes, and a haunted stare was even myself.

A hundred or so first-timers sat all around wondering what it would be like to be in Vietnam. After overhearing their conversations, I was grateful not to be a grunt. Rather than hump through the jungle with a finger ready to pull the trigger of an M-16 rifle, I would be fighting this war wielding a fully loaded typewriter.

With no other distractions to stave off the boredom, my mind traveled back recalling the circular route leading up to this cramped airplane. Even though it required six months to pass the mandatory eighteen Groups Per Minute (five characters per group), I could not remember much of the MOS training.


On many of those days, my head felt like a well-shaken paint can.

One torturous hour stacked on top of another until a commanding voice mercifully announced over the loudspeaker.

“This is your Captain speaking. I just thought you might want to know we are an hour out from landing at Tan Son Nhut Airbase. Please be ready to disembark.”

As if on cue, all conversations in the plane immediately ceased. It was so quiet I swear you could hear a grenade pin drop.

On the morning of July 19, the plane landed with nary a bump then taxied to an open area of the runway where several green buses were lined up. When the overhead lights came on signaling we could move about, no one was in a hurry to rush off.

An attractive stewardess standing at the exit could not hide a worried expression of concern during the utterance of a strained goodbye. As I stepped past her, a blast of scorching hot air hit with all the force of being gut-punched by a furnace.

Once everyone had deplaned, we stood at attention in a half-ass formation on the hot tarmac waiting to be told what to do next.

From the well of the first bus in line, an impatient pimple-faced PFC (Private First Class) shouted out.

“What the hell are you waiting for? Don’t worry about your damn duffel bags and climb on board.”

With my nose pressed against the glass eager to absorb our new surroundings, the bus drove a short distance to the front gate of Camp Alpha.

At first glance, the intimidating complex had more in common with a penitentiary than a processing center. It was manned by grim looking military police who guarded the only way in and out and was surrounded by ten-foot-tall fencing with razor-sharp wire strung across the top.


Initially, I thought the time spent here would be one of a prisoner marking time before parole or, as in our case, a duty station. After exploring this military way station further, my outlook changed dramatically.

It was a city within itself featuring a free movie theater, a military Post Exchange to stock up on sundry items, and a 24/7 nightclub with live bands and go-go girls. Best of all were the maids who dutifully washed our clothes and made the beds.

Within the barracks I shared with twenty or so others were two diddy-bopping operators who, ironically, lived close by each other back in the real world. In no time, I had become fast friends with Woody and Jed the Head- their Vietnam nicknames.

Just by gazing at the lanky body then further up, I hoped Woody was not as kinky as the headful of brown hair and bushy mustache suggested. And those pair of silver-rimmed square glasses he wore contributed substantially to the overall vibe of a creepy High School shop teacher.

Then there was Jed the Head who constantly bore the expression of a baby about to crap it’s diaper. His remarkably unremarkable features of short cut sandy brown hair and round brown glasses on an average face did little to inspire the ladies. In a world of squared away soldiers, he was a stick figure trying to fill out a baggy uniform.

As for my nickname, it came about quite by accident. The young mama san assigned to our barracks tried to say my name but, because of a linguistic hurdle, it came out, ‘Lick’. I discovered in short order the Vietnamese could not pronounce their ‘R’s’ or ‘W’s’ correctly.

When she said my full name, all I heard was, “Lick Lotters.”

Unfortunately, Woody was standing nearby when the petite mama san dressed in white pajamas walked past, waved, and called out to me. I tried to explain the reason for expressing such a suggestive word but, unfortunately, he blew me off by mockingly repeating it several times over.

It turned my stomach whenever he did but as she softly uttered “Lick… Lick”- well, I did have an active imagination!

At least I learned a few basic Vietnamese words and common expressions from her:

Mama san referred to a Vietnamese woman,

Xin Loi (sin loyee) translated to ‘sorry about that’,

Choy Oi (choy oy) was an expression of surprise,

And Di Di Mau (dee dee maow) meant to leave quickly.

Hands down the most oppressive drawback facing all the soldiers here had to be the blazing sun beating down from a clear blue sky. Someone mentioned it being a hundred ten in the shade and, short of finding a thermometer, I had no reason to doubt their word.

To counteract the brutal onslaught, our bodies perspired profusely. It was common sight to see a wide continuous flow of sweat running from the armpit of the green uniforms down to the waistband.

The only safe havens of refreshing coolness to be found were in the air-conditioned PX, movie theater and indoctrination buildings. Rather than sit around all day watching the same movies, the logical choice to escape the heat could be found in the nightclub. It took a few minutes to walk in from the blinding brightness of outdoors and adjust to this dark dank oasis of spinning ceiling fans.

Assisted by the stirring of air and a cold can of beer pressed against the cheek, we battled both boredom and the weather. Any other time, the lure of cheap drinks and nightly Vietnamese rock bands fronted by scantily clad go-go girls would be considered a paradise.

As for the house bands- their playing was okay. Yet, to hear the Animals song ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ sung in a Vietnamese accent was definitely unsettling to be sure. Especially when many considered it to be the Vietnam anthem.

They seemed to know many of the current songs on the American Top 40 but the real draw, for every mean green fighting machine in attendance, were the young Vietnamese dancers. Although these exotic creatures were prettier than our mama sans, none were any better at filling out the top portion of their skimpy outfits.

The women must have learned how to dance by watching American porn flicks. The rhythmic swaying of their hips was constantly accented by dry-humping the air to simulate doing each and every one of us.

Later the next day there was no way to hide my disappointment in receiving a complete wardrobe of the latest Army gear made especially for this hot inclement weather. Woody and Jed took immense pleasure in needling me simply because they misspelled the last name.

In response, I repeatedly stated, “I mater.”

As part of the processing in country, we were required to go to indoctrination classes to get the lowdown on Vietnam. Most of them were boring as hell dealing with the usual propaganda of being ambassadors of the United States and how we should conduct ourselves accordingly.

Every ear in the room perked up when the subject of prostitutes was raised.


The instructor lost all credibility by suggesting we should stay away from women altogether. He emphasized most were Viet Cong who only wanted to maim us by depositing a razor blade deep inside themselves. He grossed everyone out by describing in explicit detail how your manhood was sliced and diced during a spirited session of lovemaking.

The sergeant then doubled down on the crazy by depicting life here on earth if you were unfortunate enough to become infected with an uncurable case of Black Syphilis. An audible gasp arose when he mentioned how anyone who caught the disease would be shipped off to a leper colony on some isolated island in the Pacific.

His last note of caution concerned heroin. In order to illustrate the chronic problem, we were handed a cheesy comic book and told to read it carefully.

The long days of sitting around abruptly ended with the strong arm of an MP rudely shaking me awake by the shoulder. In keeping with the Army’s bizzarro concept of ‘hurry up and wait’, the Army Security Agency soldiers within the barracks were told we had one hour to pack, hit the mess hall and be ready to depart.

Although I was excited to leave the isolation, a nagging voice in the dark recesses of my brain whispered.

“It’s about to get all too real!”

The golden rays of a morning sun were just peeking over the movie theater as I lugged the heavy green duffel bag to the departure area. With arms folded one over the other, Woody and Jed the Head were already standing around shooting the shit in front of an OD green bus.

I took comfort in having some company to share the anxiety of going into a war zone.

Still half-asleep, I walked up and asked in all sincerity, “Well… are you two ready to go out and earn a Purple Heart?”

Their response was cut short by an agitated PFC standing on the front step of the bus.

“Alright you clueless nugs… it’s time to board the bus to hell. Before embarkation put your duffel bags on the deuce-and-a-half parked behind me.”

The three of us scrambled to grab the long bulky bags and toss them in the spacious bed of a large Army truck covered in green canvas. I then jumped on the bus and scarfed up a window seat directly behind the driver.

As it filled with forty or so wide-eyed fresh meat, our impatient chauffeur responded to every question in the same manner.

“Dream on nugs. You’ll know soon enough.”

When everyone was seated, the bus drove out past the MP checkpoint at the front gate and turned right onto a blacktopped road. Before long we left the bosom and safety of the sprawling Tan Son Nhut Airbase for the backstreets of Saigon.

I tried to soak up as much of the sights as possible but there was not much to see beyond an awakening city beginning to hum with activity. A short interval later the bus drove north on the modern two-lane road of Highway One. If not for the jungle skirting both sides, I would have sworn we were cruising through parts of upstate New York.

An overpowering sun beating down on the metal roof eventually converted our bus into an impromptu pressure cooker. The earlier conversations flying about dissipated amid an atmosphere of apprehension for the unknown awaiting us all.

As the constant rhythm of rolling tires marked the miles, the only relief to be found was by hanging my head out the window with a wide-open mouth to catch the breeze. During the futile effort to dodge bugs, I happened to notice an unusual object alongside the road up ahead.

Although we were still a football field away, the curious oddity took on the shape of two distinct forms – one very large and another smaller figure directly behind it. As we rolled within one hundred feet, it all came into focus.

In a flash, I jumped up and turned around excitedly waving both arms overhead.

“Hey everybody… wassup? Look out the windows on my side of the bus. You won’t believe your eyes.”

There in a field just off the road was a small Vietnamese man standing on some kind of tree stump directly behind a water buffalo. Both hands gripped the animal’s rump as his body’s herky-jerky thrusting needed no explanation to anyone familiar with the term ‘stumping’.

As we drove past, he struck me as a multi-tasker who could pound that poor beast into submission while, at the same time, enthusiastically wave at us with a proud smile. It was just another example of the rich history of horny farmers who took liberties with their cross-eyed livestock.

The atmosphere inside the bus magically transformed from stoic to chaotic in a pulsating heartbeat. I thought it would tip over as everyone clamored to my side to view the weirdly absurd. From then on, the awkward tension was supplanted by a buzzing of overlapping voices breaking into laughter at the mere mention of the farmer.

Yes, the road we traveled on reminded me of home yet there was one clear distinction. Back there the farmers were stumping cows.

Chapter Two The 175th

The sun had been up for an hour now as I sat on an ancient steel bunk feeling dazed and hazed.

Upon reaching the 175th Radio Research Field Station, none of us were given time to breathe let alone unpack.

Shortly after passing the shameless Vietnamese farmer, our bus turned off the highway and drove uphill on a narrow asphalt road. At the very crest, Bien Hoa Airbase could be seen below sprawled out lengthwise along a wide valley. Off to the right was a massive tarmac filled with row after row of airplanes perfectly lined up throughout. On the left, I could see city blocks similar to those found in a medium-sized town.

After turning onto a red-clay dirt road, we eventually drove up to a fenced-in compound guarded by an MP sitting inside a small wooden shack covered in OD green sandbags. Without bothering to get up, the uninterested sergeant waved the bus through with a left hand while conspicuously sucking on a beer can.

Inside the complex, our heads practically spun around from trying to absorb this new duty station we would call home. Instead of a friendly greeting, the few soldiers we drove past looked up shaking their heads with disgust.

“Fuckin nugs!”

There was that word again and I was already sick of hearing it.

The bus pulled up in front of a sandbagged building with a white HQ sign hanging above the door to our new headquarters.

In a sharp high-pitched voice, the PFC screamed, “Move it. Get the hell off my bus!”

His eloquence and display of compassion brought back fond memories of my Drill Instructor in Basic. At least, before driving off in a red cloud of dust, the PFC cleared up one burning question.

“A nug is a new guy and ya’ll are some of the sorriest ones I’ve ever driven in-county!”

In quick succession, a youthful Lieutenant exited HQ and ordered us to secure the duffel bags and follow him to a series of one-story hootches.

Although considerably smaller, these were similar to the barracks at Camp Alpha. They were constructed of tin roofs, a continuous stretch of mesh screening just below instead of windows and, of course, the ever-present protective sandbags stacked up to the screens. Without delay, he hurriedly assigned us two to a room in the eight room living quarters.

Following a tasteless (and nutritious?) meal in the new mess hall, we were given a half day of half-ass indoctrination. It had nothing to do with women and everything to do with the basics of daily life here. Highly stressed among the particulars was a stern warning that the city of Bien Hoa was off limits. We were told it especially dangerous to go there after dark because the VC controlled everything.

Our cover story was too incredible to believe. If anyone asked, we were scientist studying atmospheric conditions, solar flares and the such. The last bit of news caught everyone by surprise- we had guard duty that very night.

Now, wasn’t that a swift kick to the nether regions!

The last time any of us touched a weapon was a year ago in Basic. Even then, we were only taught the fundamentals and had forgotten much of it by now.

Shortly before dark, all the nugs assembled peacefully at the armory behind HQ with gasmasks in hand. As the names were called out, each soldier was issued an M-16 rifle while others were assigned a M-79 Grenade Launcher as well.

By the end we were armed and dangerous (mainly to ourselves).

Afterwards, we were herded into the back of a deuce-and-a-half truck and told to take a seat on one of two continuous wooden benches lining either side. It was sweltering inside the canvas-covered top during the brief drive to the outer perimeter of the compound.

As the truck rumbled along a red-clay dirt road, a thick black cloud of diesel smoke spewed from an exhaust pipe rising just above the cab. It swept through the back of the truck reeking of the most repulsive of farts.

A quick turn to the left found us driving alongside a towering berm line of red dirt the Army engineers had erected around the camp long ago. Within this mountain of earth, they had constructed a series of green sandbagged bunkers set at intervals of every hundred feet.

The driver suddenly slammed on the brakes at the first bunker to drop us off in groups of three. A no-nonsense PFC reading from a clipboard ordered Woody, myself, and my new roommate Owl to get out.

I gave him the nickname after seeing those two huge eyes constantly scanning from left to right and back again. There was usually a goofy expression beneath the closely cropped headful of black hair. Given Owl’s height and weight, ‘lurch’ would have been a more appropriate nickname but one of the old-timers had already claimed it.

We jumped down from the rear with weapons slung over our shoulders and walked across a brief stretch of high grass to the bottom half of the bunker. I carefully climbed inside a square sandbagged entrance and leaned the M-16 against a decrepit Army cot that had definitely seen better wars.

Next, I strolled over to a M-60 heavy machine gun whose barrel extended through a square opening at the front and stared out toward the deadly jungle ahead. Stacked to the right were metal boxes of extra ammo for it and our other weapons.

Following a brief inspection of this small square box we would call home for the night; it was time to head back outside to see what kind of mischief the others were up to. It took both hands and feet powering up the steep incline to reach the top where they were sitting at the edge of the flat sandbagged roof with both feet dangling over the side.

Staring ahead at an open field and the jungle beyond that, an uneasy Woody wondered aloud.

“Like, they must be tripping to think that roll of wire will protect us from an all-out attack. I don’t want to freak the two of you out, but how do we set off the claymore mines? Fer shure this is a gnarly setup!”

The massive rolls of razor-sharp concertina wire were strung out a short space in front of the bunkers and extended all along the berm line. As for the claymore mines set up between the wire and the bunkers, I naturally assumed the trigger was somewhere down next to the M-60. Even if we found the controls, there was still the mystery of how to operate it.

To pass the time till nightfall we checked out the weapons, surveyed the desolate stretch of ‘no man’s land’ leading up to the jungle and then the South Vietnamese soldiers in fortified positions… behind us???

Technically our mission was to support them in the quest for freedom. So, why were the ARVN troops not manning the bunkers instead of us? It was a question I would repeatedly ask anyone within earshot.

As the golden globe in the sky descended in the west, a concerned Owl nervously scratched behind his right ear prior to declaring.

“You guys better stay awake tonight. One of the cryptanalysts described in great detail how North Vietnamese sappers silently crawl through the grass and cut your throat before a word can be uttered.”

In all sincerity, I profusely thanked him for giving me something else to worry about during the long night.

As of that moment, there were only three bothersome obstacles to overcome. The stifling heat, dive-bombing mosquitoes, and the desire to make it through the night without shitting all over ourselves.

Then, just ahead of the setting sun, we received a fourth.

A few of the old-timers thought it would be ‘educational’ to demonstrate what live fire was really like. On the road behind us, a jeep drove by filled with several of them firing off exploding tear-gas canisters at every bunker. At the same time, others within the racing vehicle screamed to the high heavens during a furious discharge of M-16 rounds into the air.

Unsure if this was normal or if we were under attack from the rear, Woody glanced over at me with panic-stricken eyes. I then gazed over at Owl who looked as if his head was about to spin around.

My biggest fear in coming to Vietnam was now occurring and the moment of truth ‘fight or flight’ response was rapidly drawing nigh.

A momentary episode of paralyzing fear gave way to a mad stampede through billowing clouds of white smoke searching for gasmasks which up until now were merely tossed to one side. We must have been doing a fair impression of the Three Stooges doing the mad scramble in panic mode.

The stinging gas was doing a number on my eyes and shredding a throat raw from coughing uncontrollably. Through half-shut eyelids, I finally found and pulled the straps on both sides tight against my head.

Now there was the simple matter of scrambling down the mound to secure the M16 leaning against the bunk before Charlie came back.

Even after finding the rifle, I had a difficult time remembering where the safety was and how to flick it over to fully automatic.

By the time we were ready to fight, the cloud had pretty much dissipated. On its return trip back to the compound, our display of incompetence was accompanied by the sound of hysterical laughter coming from the jeep.

If this was any indication of our readiness, the VC had nothing to worry about.

Fifteen minutes later, as an Army truck started coming down the road towards us, we were locked and loaded with retaliation in mind. Regrettably, it was from the mess hall delivering a bountiful supper of stale ham sandwiches and warm cans of coke.

As the night faded to black, so did our morale.

With morning an eternity away, I sincerely hoped those a-holes did not come back. Or worse yet- having to deal with the real thing. Unable to sleep, we three brave soldiers spent the entire night huddled in the bunker below jumping at the slightest of sounds.

Just when it seemed morning would never arrive, Mother Nature began an erotic striptease of sorts. She disrobed one shade of black at a time before unveiling a glorious sunrise of yellow and orange. To say it was the most beautiful sight in the world would be a massive understatement at this moment.

Want to read more?

Whether it be hot lead flying in the jungles of Vietnam or the coldness of Russian aggression, Morse code was the thread connecting every outrageous adventure in the secretive Army Security Agency. During a three-year hitch spanning three duty stations in the early seventies, Spec 4 Waters copied encrypted enemy messages transmitted in high-speed Morse.

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