“The Green Berets”John Wayne movie evokes one of my warmest memories of Ft. Ord and the US Army, Springtime 1969.
I was in Advanced Individual Training-- Radio School-- when the movie came to the post theatre. Guys on their way home from Vietnam, trainees like me wrapping things up in preparation for overseas movement, we all lined up for the movie; it was about us, don’t you see?
During Basic, the Army plays wondrous psychological games on its hapless trainees, adding dramatic flair to teach soldiers stuff like crawling under machine gun fire. Just before dusk, at the end of a long strenuous day, a hundred of us-- the entire training company-- fill wooden bleachers.
The bleachers face a flat dirt lot about 30 yards long criscrossed with barbed wire. To our left, where we would begin the exercise, a gentle hillside rises, surrounded by the California Live Oaks that make this part of the Salinas Valley so serenely picturesque. The orientation lecture comes at us over a MASH-like loudspeaker, except Altman hasn’t made MASH yet in January 1969, so let’s call it a tinny PA system.
The speech climaxes in a loudly spectaular demonstration of a 7.62mm M60 machine gun. To our right, an M60 opens up at 500 rounds per minute traveling 2800 feet per second. Red and green tracer rounds slam into the hillside on our left, which disappears in a swirling cloud of light brown dust.
I stand, stomping my boots. I scream mindlessly. The bleachers around me explode in wild cheers, whistles, catcalls, our eager stupidity. We are raring to get out there and crawl under those ribbons of fire!
A few weeks later, comes that night at the Ft Ord movie house. “The Green Berets” plods along event to event, character to character, breaking its monotony with increasingly lethal confrontations with Charlie Cong.
Finally, our boys are up against it. Holding out on a hilltop redoubt, VC sappers have begun to penetrate the wires. Characters we recognize are getting shot up. It looks bad for our side.
John Wayne calls in “Puff, the Magic Dragon”, a propeller-driven airplane mounted with three 7.62mm Gatling Guns on one side. The driver tilts the airplane so the gun side points in an appropriate direction. 18,000 rounds per minute pelt the earth when Puff does its stuff.
On screen-- as in real death-- red and green tracers ribbon down onto Viet Cong dropping like flies. The load is four unseen rounds for every tracer. The camera pans actors in throes of screaming agonized run-but-it-don’t-do-you-no-good horrible meat grinding death. And we soldiers?
The Ft. Ord movie house explodes in wilder cheers, louder whistles and catcalls, guys stand on their seats cheering and stomping the wooden floor with a fevered intensity that raises a cloud of light brown dust left behind by the boots of thousands of souls who have come to this theatre before me and whose spirits I feel in that surreal John Wayne moment.