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The Smell of the Light

© 2017 by Bill McCloud

All rights domestic and international retained by the author.

Published 2017 by The Balkan Press

First Edition

ISBN: 978-1-948263-00-9

Author photo: Tim Bonea

Printed in the U.S.A.

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The Smell of the Light: Vietnam, 1968-1969

Bill McCloud

Author of What Should We Tell Our Children About Vietnam?

These poems are dedicated to those who came before:

my mom, F.D. Brown, and Grandma Winnie

Those who were there:

Vaughn Crayton and Tim Young

Those who have come along since:

William and Claudia, Cat and Maddy, and Samuel

“Everything’s going to be OK.”

Words Robert F. Kennedy spoke to Juan Romero, who cradled Kennedy’s head after the senator and presidential candidate was shot. It was June 5, 1968, and Kennedy would die the next day. It was my 75th day in South Vietnam.



Let’s Drop Out 5


Six Things I Learned in Basic Training 9

Follow Instructions Exactly 10

No Ticket Out 11

Peace 12

Joe Salazar 13

Pay Check 14

Guard Duty 15

John Wayne 16

“C.O.” 17

Assignment Day 18

Walter Cronkite Pulls Out 19

Off to War 20

Cleaned Out 21


Plane Load of Pornography 25

Vung Tau I (The Luckiest Guy) 26

Vung Tau II (The Safest Place) 27

Arms Room 28

Chinooks 29

The Worst, Man! 30

Two (Army) Officers/Two (Bar) Girls 31

Beer Alchemy 33

Hooch Maids 34

I Shall Not Seek … 35

April Fool’s 38

Leprosarium 39

The Disappearing Face 40

Tortoise 41

Eating Glass 42

Hillclimber 027 43

June 2, 1968 44

Bobby Kennedy 45

Darker Than Amber 46

Dylan Wins the War 47

Numbers 48

Fighting Fire 49

Oh, the Humanity! 50

Home Front 51

27 Hits 52

Sometimes You Just Can’t Catch a Break 53

Betty and Veronica 54

How’s Your VD Lately? 55

A Ball of Flames 56

Pruess 57

Called Home by Death 58

Eight Rounds 59

Not Without a Hitch 60

Seats 61

Shit 62

Lonesome Cities 63

“Crazy Ralph” 64

Young and Distant Love 66

The Tall Man 68

Mockingbird 69

Dream 70

Message from Milo 71

Officers’ Club 72

Conversion Day (C-Day) 73

Gun Men 74

Sydney, Australia 75

Rubber Soul 77

Room 6 78

Write Your Mom (The Blue Period) 79

Thanksgiving Message 80

Rat Fink 81

His Sister 82

Short 83

Let’s Fight 84

Bar (War?) Wound 86

Mid-Air Accident 87

Commander’s Christmas Message 88

A Christmas Prayer 89

Ann-Margret 90

Apollo 8 91

Weather in Hell 92

Worker Bees and Flies 93

Trip to Town 94

Sarah Lawrence 95

Radio Adventure 96

Wounds 97

War (The Longest Day) 98

Tragedy on the Airfield (The Day We Lost Weldon 99 Hodges of Midland, TX)

Rockets 100

Last Two Weeks (The Chant) 101

A Story I Never Enjoy Telling 102

Distinction 104

My Vietnam Experience 105


The Saint Christopher Medal (A Love Story) 109

Back in the World 110

Beer 111

Sleep 112

Pot (The Disappointment) 113

Dark Side of the Moon 114

Tranquility Base 115

My Lai 116

McTeague 117

Slow Motion 119


Air Medal 123

Platoon (Everyone’s Vietnam is Different) 124

Her Son 125

At the Wall 126


Vung Tau III (Today) 129

Disability 130

Linh Is Bored 131


Blue 135

America 136




These poems carry the reader, chronologically, through my Vietnam War experience, beginning in the spring of 1967. Most of them were written in 2015 and 2016.

They are not simply based on the memories of an old man desperately trying to recall events, incidents, and people from fifty years ago. In my case I was able to use fifty-two letters that I wrote home to my parents from Vietnam and that my family still has.

Those letters provide the stories, personalities, detail, and emotion that were the basis of most of these poems. If those letters had not been written and saved it would not have been possible for me to write these poems. My memory was also aided by reading the history pages that are part of our unit’s current webpage.

After dropping out of college in my second semester I volunteered for the Army and entered the service on the 90-day delay program. I was in uniform from September of 1967 until September of 1970. I was in Vietnam from March of 1968 until March of 1969, serving as flight operations coordinator for the 147th Assault Support Helicopter Company (Hillclimbers) on the airfield at Vung Tau.

Vung Tau, about 45 miles southeast of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), was one of the major in-country R&R centers for American and allied troops and was long rumored to serve the same purpose for the Viet Cong.



One day I was carpooling to

college with four other guys

when suddenly one of them

not necessarily the smartest one

said let's drop out

and join the army

and that's what we did

My problem with that school was that

they graded very strictly on attendance

Only a short time later did I discover that

the army was a lot more serious about

attendance than that school ever was



1. The importance of malaria pills.

2. How to follow monkeys in a jungle to look for food.

3. To avoid sex when outside the U.S. because the black rot is everywhere.

4. The black rot is incurable.

5. How to defend myself in hand-to-hand combat.

6. Not to be concerned about taking a life. We’re not really fighting people just gooks dinks and slants.

(Sent with love from Fort Polk Louisiana September 1967)


When I fired for qualification

on the M14 and M16 rifles

I scored as expert on both

That pretty well amazed me

because I had never hunted or

shot a weapon before in my life

I thought I must be a

natural some hotshot but

they had an explanation

I had no bad habits to

unlearn and followed

their instructions exactly

That would be my style

through three years

in this man’s army

Do exactly as you’re told

and you’ll succeed here

And I folded into myself


One of the guys in

our company in basic

about six weeks in

shot himself in the foot

He admitted he did it

to get out of the army

Drill Sergeant called us

all together to assure us

the guy was most

definitely not getting out

and had some time in the

stockade coming as well

A few guys made fun of him

called him names they thought

made it seem like he wasn’t

much of a man

After lights out there was

a brief discussion about

whether having the guts

to shoot yourself

indicated any sense of courage

After two or three days

his name was never

mentioned again


How sorry would someone

have to be to steal a big

peace-symbol necklace

at Fort Gordon Georgia

I couldn’t wear

it all the time

so I often left it

in my locker

One day I came back

and it had been stolen

probably the coolest thing

I owned naturally

For the rest of 1967

I kept my eyes open for a

soldier at Fort Gordon Georgia

wearing a big peace symbol

I figured he’d be pretty easy to spot

but I never saw a soldier

advertising for peace

at Fort Gordon Georgia


One of my best buddies

while stationed at Fort Gordon

over there in Georgia

was a guy named Joe Salazar

For some reason

he really liked me

and he showed it by

polishing my boots for me

Shined them every day

two pairs a day

and I’m here to tell you

he was the best

Still not exactly sure why that

was what he wanted to do

but he did it every day

for three months

I had nothing to give him in return

back then except friendship

and I have nothing more

now except for this

Almost fifty years later and

I have never forgotten his name


Pay check -$ 77

sent home –35

heels on boots – 3

new hat – 2

new gloves – 4

loans payed back –14

laundry – 2

personal hygiene –3

Left for the month - 14


One time at Fort Gordon

I was on guard duty

It was kind of a pretend guard duty

where I spent two hours

just walking around a small PX

sort of a military convenience store

It was like from midnight till two

The store was closed no one around

but it was a very cold and icy day

At one point as I stepped forward

my front foot slid on the ice and I

began to fall

I instinctively threw out my hands

I had a nightstick but my

hand was through the thong

As I hit the ground the stick

swung up and whacked me in the eye

When they came to pick me up an hour later

A guy said, man what happened to your eye

I said nothing don’t worry about it

We drove back to the barracks in silence


We keep hearing rumors

that they’re currently filming

a John Wayne movie about Vietnam

Everyone’s excited now about John Wayne

Everyone’s excited now about going to Vietnam

Now it’s a John Wayne war

C. O.”

At Fort Gordon Georgia

doing our advanced training

after Basic and it’s Monday

One of the guys this morning

just put on civilian clothes and

refused to put on his uniform

He ignored a lawful order

from his squad leader and

platoon and personnel sergeants

and from the First Sergeant

and then a direct order from

the commanding officer

who he then cursed at

before being sent off

to see a psychiatrist

who said he wasn’t insane

What he was was a college grad

who had volunteered for the army

but over Christmas leave

had changed his mind and is

now against the war in Vietnam

Which reminds me that two

other men are AWOL and haven’t

come back from Christmas leave yet


46 of us graduated

from our advanced training and

received our assignments today

1 stays here as an instructor

5 are being sent to Thailand

40 of us are going to Vietnam

That’s an example of what they call the new math


We have been too often disappointed

by the optimism of the American leaders

to have faith any longer in the

silver linings they find

in the darkest clouds

It seems now more certain than ever

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