August 19, 2013

The Shoe Box

Leaving work and walking to my car, I hear a distant rumble in the night sky. At first I thought it might be thunder. Then I realize it is the fireworks show they put on at the local ball park after the game is over. The combination of the warm night air and the distant murmur of the fireworks transports me back in time to a place where the sound of fireworks meant something quite different.

First, let's set the stage. Think about the last time you went to see fireworks. The air fills with rockets and Roman candles, fountains and mines creating stars and comets and cascading showers of sparks that sizzle and whistle or end in a loud boom reverberating across the sky. Then comes the finale, an orgiastic explosion of light and sound that overwhelms the senses.

I want you to close your eyes and hear that finale in your mind's ear ... an incredibly rapid concatenation of explosions, one after the other, faster than you can count. Imagine it goes on for a couple of minutes with ear-shattering intensity, right over your head. Got it? Now imagine that instead of firecrackers, you are hearing 500 and 750 pound bombs, over a hundred of them, blanketing an area a third of mile wide by sightly over a half-mile long. Good morning, Vietnam!

We called them Arc Lights, based on the code name given by the military for such flights. As a radio operator, I would warn of impending B-52 strikes with the coded phrase, "Heavy Artillery Warning." Yeah, like that fooled anybody.

The use of such aerial bombardments began in World War I, but really came into its own in World War II. That said, it may surprise you to learn, as it did me, that more bombs were dropped by the United States during Vietnam than during all of World War II, including both the European and the Japanese fronts. Of course, the Vietnam War lasted much longer than our involvement in World War II, which accounts for some of the disparity. Still, that's a lot of ordinance.

In a final attempt to leverage the North Vietnamese into signing the Paris Peace Accords, the United States dropped 15,247 tons of ordnance during an 8-day stretch in December 1972. Mostly, though, the B-52 dropped their bombs on the jungle, hoping to disrupt infiltration routes. Joseph Conrad has a scene in "Heart of Darkness" where a French man-o-war sits off the African coast, her 8-inch guns firing round after round: "In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent." Most of the B-52 strikes had about the same effect.

That doesn't mean you weren't in some serious shit if you were unlucky enough to be in the vicinity. I talked to a guy who was under attack at a night defensive position, and they called in a B-52 strike nearby, only the triangulation was just a tad off. Next thing my guy knew, there were whole trees raining down from the sky in front of his position. Nothing above ground level survives a B-52 strike. Nothing.

I once saw a B-52 strike go in ... from a distance, mind you. The strike I saw gave truth to the name some gave to the B-52's: The silent death. Flying at 30,000 feet they were invisible and made no noise, although I once did see one flying high in the night sky, reflecting a sun that had long-since set but whose rays could still be reflected from such a high altitude.

On the day I saw a strike go in, I was standing just looking out over the jungle canopy from higher ground, where exactly I couldn't tell you. Without warning, a brown rectangle of dust and dirt -- we called such areas of impact the shoe box, because that's what it looked like, a brown shoe box -- rose suddenly from the ground. Ultimately, it would reach a height thousands of feet in the air.

For a moment, there was complete silence as I watched the shoe box grow higher. Then came wave after wave of rapid-fire concussive bursts, sounding just like a fireworks finale, except this was the grand finale for any living thing caught in the shoe box.

Truth be told, the whole thing was kind of cool.  There is something to the shock-and-awe theory. You listen to all those bombs detonating one right after another in a seemingly never-ending fusilade of death -- like listening to a mini-gun expend from a Cobra gun ship, sounding more like a chain saw than a weapon, the unbroken line of red tracers pissing death from the sky -- and you can't help but be held spellbound at the potency of all that ordnance. But after a few decades, looking back, it is hard to make sense of it all. All that money, all those bombs, all those lives, both civilian and military ... for what?

I keep coming back to Conrad, who captured the futility of it all as he continued on about the French man-o-war: "Pop, would go one of the eight-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding ..."

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