“When you got on that plane to come home ... it was so quiet it was almost scary; you could hear a pin drop,” Veteran War veteran Marion “Marty” Green says.
It was like everybody was holding his breath because the enemy could still attack.
“But when the plane got up in the air -- when the landing gear went up and the pilot hit that light that went 'ding, ding, ding' -- everybody jumped up and started shouting,” Green says.
That was the happiest moment he had during the 13 months he spent in Vietnam as a member of the U.S. Army Military Police, he said.
“When we got back to California, we got down and kissed the ground,” Green said.
An inexperienced 20-year-old Specialist (Spec.) 4, Green was totally unprepared for the reality of Vietnam. He had no fear at all “of what I was going to or what I was getting into” until he arrived at Binh Wahr airport in November 1970.
The plane couldn’t land because the enemy was bombing the runway. Five or six people were killed in that attack, he said.
“That’s when it hit me that this here was not Memorex," Green said. “It was live, and that’s when fear hit me. I said, 'I am not going to make it out of here.'”
The plane went on to land in Saigon, where hard reality hit again, he said, noting, “When I stepped off the plane, the heat hit me right in the face and almost pushed me back in the plane."
His first visit to the chow hall was another experience, Green said. The only people serving in there were elderly Vietnamese that everybody called "papa-san or mama-san," he said.
“I had never seen a Vietnamese before. They all chewed something that’s purple and their teeth and everything were purple," Green said.
They were serving liver that looked like a sponge, he said.
“I said, 'If I don’t die from a bullet, I’m going to die of starvation because I’m not going to eat this.' I said, 'I guess I’ll be living out of a can for the next year.'”
But the food got better, and real spaghetti was served at the next meal, Green said, adding, "I like to eat myself to death."
Green was stationed in the small South Vietnamese town of Long Binh. As an MP, his experiences were very different from those of the average soldier. In one major sense, he said he didn’t have it nearly as bad as they did because he wasn’t out in the jungle, getting shot at all the time.
On the other hand, as an MP, he had to deal with American soldiers as well as the enemy and local civilians.
The soldiers would come into town after being in the jungle for up to 90 days and want to let their hair down and have a good time, Green said. They weren’t concerned about abiding by the law and they didn’t like it when he and his fellow MP’s enforced it, he said.
It was also Green's job to investigate crimes. Soldiers are just like anyone else. Some of them obey the law and some break it, he said.
More of the crime was related to drugs than anything else because they were so accessible and so cheap. A dollar was worth three times more over there than it was at home, Green said. Other crimes included robberies, larcenies, murders and accidental deaths that had to be investigated, he said.
He also patrolled the streets of Long Binh, the highway between Long Binh and Cantho, a distance of about 40 miles, and the road to the Mekong River.
Being out on the Long Binh streets could be very frightening, especially that first night, Green said.
“It was just me and my partner in a jeep,” he said. “I asked my partner, 'Why are you driving so slow? They could snatch us out and kill us right now.'”
The roads outside the town were so dangerous they were “red,” or closed to all Americans except the MPs after 7 p.m., Green noted. The Viet Cong had snipers who were so good they could look at the spot where the headlights were on a car and shoot the driver right through the heart, he said.
But Green said he found that overall, the enemy didn’t want to injure the MPs.
Long Binh was “on limits,” which meant it was open to the American soldiers who would go in and spend their money, he said. “If they killed us, the town would go off limits, and they didn’t want to lose the income.”
The MPs also got protection from American forces. When they had to investigate something at night, they went out in a V-100 tank and were accompanied by Cobra attack helicopters, Green said.
Like all the American soldiers, the MPs faced the problem of not knowing who or where the enemy was, he said. There was the Vietcong, civilians, the army and a gang called the "cowboys," and they all looked alike, he said.
Green gave as an example a barber in Long Bing, who was there cutting hair every single day, including that of the American soldiers. He was listening to everything that was said, he noted.
One night, an MP on patrol saw someone coming across the wire fence into the compound and shot him, Green said. It was the barber, who turned out to be a lieutenant in the North Vietnamese army, he said.
“I’m sure I sat down with the enemy many times, and I just didn’t know it,” he said.
Green said the most difficult thing about his job, one that keeps him away from funeral homes and tragedies today, were the horrible things -- so much death -- that he saw as an MP in Vietnam.
Anytime he sees blue flashing lights that indicate an accident, he drives well out of his way to avoid it, Green said.
One of the worst experiences he had to deal with in Vietnam was the senseless death of a young child.
A mama-san or papa-san pushed a tiny child out in front of one of the engineering vehicles, he said. It hit the child, who couldn’t have been more than 2 or 3 years old, and mashed it like a turtle, Green said.
“I just couldn’t handle it,” he said. “If you can just imagine a smashed up little child -- but you have to pull yourself together and investigate it.”
He didn’t arrest the driver because it was not his fault, Green said. But he wasn’t allowed to arrest any Vietnamese.
Looking back, he remembers some good times in Vietnam.
“I had some good experiences working with some of the local people and police, the guys I worked with,” Green said. “We were a close-knit group.”
There was a civilian compound where they could hang out and watch movies and other entertainment, he said, adding that they always had a good brunch on Sundays.
Forty-five years after leaving Vietnam, Green says he thinks the war was a waste of time and young, American lives. Approximately 58,700 American soldiers died, he said. Many others were wounded or came back with mental problems, Green said.
“That’s a lot of people to lose, and we didn’t gain anything,” he said. “The North Vietnamese won anyway and took over the South.”
He said he thinks the outcome could have been different, even though the American soldiers faced difficulties. For one thing, they lacked the home advantage of knowing the territory, Green said. In addition, they had to follow the rules of the Geneva Convention and the enemy did not, Green noted.
“A lot of Americans don’t understand, but it’s hard to fight a war when you fight by rules and the enemy don’t have any rules,” he said. “If they kill your buddy and then surrender, you can’t shoot them. You have to take them prisoner.”
On the other hand, if an American soldier shot someone and surrendered, they’d just shoot him anyway, he said.
“But I thought we could have won the war anytime we wanted to,” Green said. “It was political, and we lost a lot of lives for nothing.”