Please excuse this story. It is full of blood, gore, combat violence, atrocities, gratuitous sex, and animal sacrifices.
The Day of the REMF
By Sonny Hoffman
I was a grunt and proud of my gruntness. Though I thought I had life pretty good and wouldn’t want to trade places with anyone in Vietnam, hating REMFs was the thing to do. I hated REMFs. We all did. REMFs were slackers, dopers, whiners and complainers. They screwed up everything and drove up the price of whores. They took the best for themselves, got all the glory, aided and abetted the enemy, and were chiefly responsible for the spread of VD. In the final analysis, they were the reason we lost the war. REMFs were bad, very bad.
In my capacity as the team scrounge, I came in contact with many REMFs in both Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Bay. Sometimes, I had to kiss their asses to get what I needed. I came to know them and their asses quite well. Most of the REMFs I met were pretty decent guys. The ones I knew wanted to help and would bend double to help a grunt. Anything they had or could get their hands on was yours for the asking. I knew several that wanted to get outside the wire and contribute directly to the war effort. They were willing to take risks. Not all REMFs were bad, but you couldn’t acknowledge that openly.
When I wasn’t hanging out with my REMF friends, I was in the Montagnard village of Cai Cai. It wasn’t really much of a village—a few dozen straw and mud huts scattered along a small river, just off Highway One. The village was on useless land at the base of the Dong Bo Mountains. Cai Cai was a refugee resettlement village. The villagers were mostly Koho tribesmen but had a smattering of Jurai and Sedang. Most of the men were dead or soon-to-be dead, working for the U.S. Special Forces at A-502 or with special projects.
Cai Cai was mostly old men, women, and children. They had nothing. They had been taken from their homelands in the Central Highlands to make free fire zones. They eeked out a meager living by cutting firewood from the mountains and selling it along the roadside. They also made traditional Yard stuff— crossbows, spears, bracelets, and knives—to sell to GIs who passed by in convoys. They’d trade a day’s work for a can of ham and lima beans. My heart went out to these people. They took me in as one of their own. I wore the bracelet of a Koho from Cai Cai.
I did what I could to make their lot in life easier. I scrounged for them as well as for my team. I helped them get better trades for their stuff and shopped in the PX for them. Trying to elevate their standard of living was like trying to pile dry sand into a column. The South Vietnamese stole anything of value. What they didn’t steal, the VC took. Protecting my people was a problem beyond my abilities, but I did what I could.
The Yards had to do their work alongside the VC. They shared the same hills. When their paths crossed, the VC took whatever they had. Giving a Yard a nice machete was as good as handing to the Cong. I could have booby trapped the village approaches and made them pay dearly for messing with my Yards, but they’d only meat out revenge ten fold. The VC could have wiped Cai Cai off the map anytime they chose to. They didn’t, because this would have put angry warriors freelancing in their area. An uneasy truce existed between them. I could do nothing about corrupt government officials but squawk. For all the good it did, I squawked.
As if working next to the VC weren’t bad enough, the area where the Yards cut firewood was a free fire zone. In the past, trigger happy door gunners shot up wood gathering parties after getting the all clear that no friendly units were operating in the area. To prevent this, our A-team commander explained the situation to the aviation commanders. I also visited the aviation units based out of Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Bay. I talked to pilots, to door gunners, and anyone who would listen. Thankfully, no Yards fell to our bullets while I was at A-502.
My efforts made me popular with the Yards. The men deeply appreciated the interest I took in their families. I treated the elders with respect, and never flirted with the women, even the cute, bare-breasted, single girls. I should have earned a medal for that. In time, the kids overcame their shyness with me.
In a way, I envied those kids. Oblivious to their plight, a life with no future, many without living parents, with nothing that I could consider a toy, nevertheless, they played. Their laughter mocked the war. They frolicked amid disaster and danced naked before a backdrop of burning napalm. The kids knew how to squeeze the life blood from the turnip of war. They let me play with them. I drew strength from them. They gave me energy. In return, I made them laugh.
A trip to Cai Cai was an excuse to play with the kids. I don’t think I ever missed an opportunity. The river was the playground. In the waist deep, muddy water, I’d stand like a flesh and bone monolith while dozens of little brown bodies climbed me. Like little hairless monkeys, they swarmed over me. I’d grab a clinging monkey person and hurl it, screaming, limbs flailing, laughing through the air to splash into deeper water.
Yard kids are indestructible and drown proof. The rougher I played, the more they loved it. I could throw a thirty pound bundle of bones twenty meters. The elders would gather to watch our antics and give a toothless smile. I collected those rare smiles like precious treasures.
In my youth, I’d always fantasized being a hero. At Cai Cai, I lived that fantasy. Being a hero was all I’d ever hoped it would be. An entire community of two hundred people liked me, admired me, revered me, and loved me. When I’d pull into the village, the people came to greet me. The kids jumped for joy and shouted out my name. They gathered around me, offering food and drink. They made me feel like royalty. For a boy who had always been the invisible new kid, in the shadow of someone else’s spot light, a bit player, an extra, the feeling was intoxicating.
When A-502 closed, and we turned over the camp to the Vietnamese Rangers, the team disbanded. We all went to the four winds. Some went home, but most were reassigned to other camps. I went to Nha Trang to await reassignment. I ended up in a band, but that’s another story. I remained in Nha Trang, a REMF.
Those first weeks were like withdrawal from a powerful drug. Cai Cai was just beyond the Dong Bo Mountains, not twenty kilometers away, but may as well have been on the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains of California. I had no jeep that I could simply jump into and go. Besides, the journey would be more dangerous. Rumor was that the enemy operated with impunity in our old area of operations. With the Americans gone and with them the instant reprisal of artillery or air support, enemy units roamed the villages even during the day. The Rangers, it was reported, hunkered down behind the wire and rarely ventured out on patrol. We were Vietnamizing the war.
I felt helpless. My people needed me now more than ever. I brooded, sitting for long hours on the bunker line, staring out past the rows and rows of concertina wire. Would they starve? Would the kids play without me? Would the elders ever smile again? Were they still alive? These questions haunted my every waking moment.
My best friend was a clerk at the Special Forces Operational Base (SFOB) in Nha Trang. Sgt Richard Dalrymple was a full-fledged Green Beret who drew an assignment running the clerks at the SFOB. A Green Beret clerk, I often teased him. He took it well, but longed to get in the war. He was a great asset to me in my scrounging days. He knew everyone. He opened doors. He listened to my whining and knew my anxiety. He grew to love my Yards as much as I did. He wanted to get outside the wire, wanted to see Cai Cai, wanted to fling a Yard or two. Sometimes, we brooded together.
One day he said, “You know, it’s a shame we couldn’t leave something permanent for the Yards, something the Vietnamese can’t steal, something they don’t want but the Yards could use.”
I said, “Yeah, like what, a titanium playground cemented into the ground.”
Those impulsive words settled into our minds like silt in a supply sergeant’s canteen. We slowly recognized each other’s light bulbs. “Fuckin’ A—a playground, on the river, made of steel, set in concrete!”
We set to work immediately, formulating plans. We drew sketches of swing sets and teeter totters, slides and whirly gigs. We fanned out over the Nha Trang base, contacting pipe fitters, parachute riggers, aircraft metal shops, and supply people. Everyone we talked to got excited about the idea. Offers and new ideas poured in, people went to work. Dozens of REMFs stopped working on the war and began building playground components. They worked in secret, hiding their clandestine projects. In a matter of weeks, we had a playground scattered in various shops.
This was no ordinary playground. The swing set, a six seater, was two-inch galvanized steel pipe, welded together. Heavy chain supported seats expertly crafted from parachute rigging. A truck axle formed the base of a whirly gig that weighed a ton. See saws that could take a B-52 strike and still saw augmented a water slide that would be the envy of any water amusement park.
The slide was the centerpiece. It was twelve feet tall with steel steps and polished aircraft aluminum for the slide. The steel legs were designed to be placed four feet in the ground, set in concrete. In fact, everything was to be anchored in concrete with no bolts or screws that could be undone. No one had any interest in building anything the Vietnamese could steal; consequently, the construction erred on the side of the ridiculous. Those guys built playground equipment that would be more work to tear apart than the material was worth.
Our little idea took on a life of it’s own. It grew and grew as REMFs came out of the woodwork, wanting in on the deal. My biggest fear was that someone in a command position would find out what was going on and nip the whole thing in the bud. As H-hour approached, it seemed as though everyone knew what was going down.
We needed a significant number of vehicles just to transport the components. Jeeps wouldn’t do, we needed big trucks and lots of manpower. My original plan called for small components assembled on location. The whole thing had to be set up and finished in one day. The people building them had their own ideas and welded everything together as finished units, painted and decorated. As a result, the swing set needed its own truck, as did the slide. I not only had to snag a jeep and sneak out of a major U.S installation, I had to sneak out a convoy of trucks and thirty men that looked like a platoon stealing off with a carnival. The problem seemed monumental and growing more monumental with each passing hour.
The SFOB motor pool supplied the big trucks. Dalrymple borrowed his CO’s jeep. H-hour was a quiet Sunday morning. Like a good commando unit, we divided into teams—a teeter totter team, a whirly gig team, etc.. We agreed to leave the base, one vehicle at a time, and link up to form a convoy in Nha Trang City. From there, we would head out across open country and scattered villages, going south on Highway One to Cai Cai. The Yards had no idea we were coming.
Dalrymple and I were in the lead jeep and first to leave. We waited near a traffic round-about in downtown Nha Trang shortly after first light on Sunday morning. The first truck arrived ten minutes later. REMFs in flack jackets and steel pots poked gun barrels from every quarter. The truck bristled with guns and a swing set lying up-side-down. The six, twenty-foot legs on the swing set, painted like skinny barber poles knocked coconuts from the trees and snagged the telephone and power lines as it lumbered down the street.
The whirly gig team arrived next, followed by the slide crew. In all, we had seven vehicles. Three weren’t even part of the plan. One was a blue Air Force gun jeep. One jeep carried a reporter and camera crew from the Green Beret magazine. The reporter was a close friend of Richard’s. It wasn’t difficult to figure out who tipped off the press. I turned to Dalrymple and said, “I hope you know we can kiss our green beanie careers good bye.”
He said, “Don’t sweat it. He’s cool. He’ll make us look good if this goes down right. If it turns to shit, he won’t report a thing. If we don’t get anybody killed, they’ll pin medals on us.”
I put the jeep in gear and moved forward. The convoy began rolling. I said, “I’m not worried about getting any of these guys killed, but do you realize what will happen if a Lambretta backfires. These Remington Raiders will blow some sleepy village off the map. They don’t award medals for that.”
I was only half joking. We had enough firepower to take on a regiment. The tension level, mine and theirs, rose as we departed the city proper. For many of the men in my convoy, it was their first exposure to potential combat, their first time out in the countryside. Every trigger had a nervous finger on it. The locals never saw an American convoy looking so ready for action, or so deserving of it. We obviously carried secret weapons from the super secret Bozo Arsenal of Walla Walla, Washington.
The journey was uneventful. The old area of operations was just as I’d left it: peaceful, serene, pastoral. The water buffalos gave us no notice, nor did the duck herders, nor did the Viet Cong. I halted the convoy just before the turn off to Cai Cai. I wanted to go in alone to make the first contact. I knew how to safely approach the village. I also used a distinctive horn honking sequence that told them it was me. They remembered. The village turned out; kids jumped for joy. Everything was just as I’d left it weeks earlier.
I couldn’t explain playground to the elders. The word doesn’t exist in Koho. I begged their indulgence, then went back to lead the convoy in. The Yards lined the way, staring in open-mouthed awe. Questions etched every face.
The area we’d planned to set up on was a clearing beside the village next to the river. The slide was to dump it’s human cargo into the water, so it had to be positioned first. Teams set to work, digging holes and mixing concrete. Everything was oversized because at least four feet was to be underground. Yards mostly stood back and watched in wonder. They mostly wondered why the Americans would try to dig a deep hole in ground with a one foot water table.
The reporter snapped pictures and interviewed the workers. I stayed away from him. Dalrymple gave him an interview, giving us the credit for the idea. I kept a low profile.
The playground went up rather quickly after the holes were dug. We had plenty of help. We brought plenty, and the Yards lent a hand when they could see what needed to be done—like scooping water out of rapidly filling holes. They simply trusted that what we were doing was something they’d want done. Even after the equipment was all set up and in place, the Yards didn’t know what to make of it. A demonstration was in order, but we couldn’t get on anything until the concrete set up. In the early afternoon, all was ready. To pass the time, the REMFs made friends and handed out goodies.
We began by demonstrating the slide. I stripped down to my jungle fatigue pants and climbed the ladder. A large crowd gathered around as I sat and slid like a shot out into the river. I came up to howls of laughter. Other GI’s followed, and then the kids lined up. Little brown bodies on wet aircraft aluminum was a perfect Yard slinger. The kids loved the slide.
Each team demonstrated their respective devices. The playground was a huge success. Even the elders took turns swinging, teeter tottering, and getting their whirlies gigged. The laughter coming from Cai Cai that afternoon still echos in my ears after all these years. The laughter drowned out the war. REMFs put down their guns and flung a Yard or two.
“And they all lived happily ever after,” would make a great ending to this story. How I wish I could say that. Cai Cai no longer exists. I don’t know what happened to the Yards. They may have escaped to the Central Highlands, but I fear they fell victim to the NVA after the fall of Nha Trang in 1975. The Vietnamese had no love for them, and their men had fought against the victors. I often wonder what became of the playground. One thing is certain, it did not blow away.
I now regret my attitude after the story came out in the Green Beret magazine. It was a great story, (summer of ‘70, I think) a full layout showing Yard kids on the slide. The command loved what we did. Once everything went right, you’d think they were in on it from the start. What ruined it for me was the story itself. The reporter spelled my name right but identified me as a Green Beret clerk. It said, “Two Green Beret clerks from Nha Trang, Sgt. Sonny Hoffman and Sgt. Richard Dalrymple, put smiles on the faces...etc., etc..”
I don’t remember reading the rest. I felt shame because all of my buddies who were out there fighting the war would think I was a REMF—a clerk REMF at that. I was mortified. Sgt. Dalrymple could not understand why I made such a big deal out of it. I even tried to get the magazine to print a retraction. They didn’t see what the big deal was either. There was no retraction. My foolish pride ruined the richest experience I got from that war. Fortunately, the years have softened my rough edges. The memories remain, now untainted by my youthful foolishness.
When I reflect on the event, I am struck by the selfless sacrifice made by those rear area soldiers and airmen. Going out into that familiar terrain was no big deal for me. I knew the risks were slight. The enemy never was good at taking advantage of targets of opportunity. Anything unexpected or out of the ordinary would require meetings, planning, and guidance from higher command. By then, we’d be back in Nha Trang sucking Budweisers.
The REMFs, however, didn’t know this. They went thinking they’d have to fight their way out to Cai Cai and then have to fight their way back. They risked their lives, not to rescue a besieged garrison or save the nurses and Donut Dollies, but to build a playground for a bunch of kids. Many were career men who put those careers on the line as well. They stole government property, vehicles, weapons and ammunition, and had to go AWOL (in time of war, a very serious charge) in order to spend their day off doing hard manual labor in an unsecured area.
The risks they took willingly boggle the mind. This one insignificant event speaks volumes about the true character of the Americans who went to Vietnam and served in support roles. This wasn’t done to help the war effort or win hearts and minds. The Yards were already committed to us. They didn’t do it for rewards or glory. Any action would have meant body bags and court marshals. I wasn’t the only one pissed about the reporter being there. No, they did what they did for one simple reason: to leave a positive legacy, to do something to make themselves feel good about serving in Vietnam.
These men were not exceptional REMFs. They were no different than any other REMFs. No one ever turned their back on us or refused to help. REMFs fought for a place in a truck. Dalrymple and I could have done the same thing in Phan Rang, Da Nang, Bien Hoa, or Pleiku. We could have done it any place in Vietnam, any place that had REMFs (Rear Echelon Men of Feeling). Their numbers were legion. Grunts did it, too.
Stories like mine abound, but few get told, fewer get read. For every My Lai there were a thousand Cai Cais. I now take great pride in being a part of this project, and I am proud to share this story with you. I was not a clerk; I was a drummer. That’s twice as REMF as a clerk. I was never a hero, but I was one of the REMFs who drowned out the war with the sound of laughter. In Vietnam, that was no small accomplishment.
Note: Sorry about the misleading intro, but I wanted you to read this story to the end.