Time Magazine sent newsmen to interview and photograph me in 1967. Yes, that Time Magazine.
I was 21 and maybe a Specialist Fifth Class (E-5). I had only been in the Army less than a year, was so bad a soldier that I had to go through basic training twice (does not take direction or supervision well; has an independent attitude), yet I had been promoted to a rank equivalent to a sergeant, showing that the Army would promote anybody fast in those days.
Although I had enlisted to be a personnel clerk, a duty I naively believed would have kept me safe, I was assigned to the 242d Chemical Detachment of the First Infantry Division (the Big Red One), a unit that had some strange missions, which were far from safe. No complaint about this, because there were other people in far more jeopardy than I was of dying or being severely maimed, although the emotional dents were pretty much the same.
The reporter and photographer from Time Magazine didn’t come to interview me since I had been rapidly promoted or because I was a child prodigy as a writer. They came to our unit because of a device called a “man-pack personnel detector.” I was one of the soldiers operating this device.
The official designation for this gizmo was more complicated, had some numbers and letters in it, and I have added the hyphen to get by spell check.
Popularly known as the “people sniffer,” the device was manufactured by General Electric. In theory, the detector sensed human body effluents, particularly ammonia from feces, urine, and sweat – and, in a second mode, heat.
Someone told me the machine was made for Arctic conditions. A soldier would carry the pack on his back and hook the probe to his rifle. The enemy dressed in white on a snowy field would be hard to see, but the man-pack detector would find them. Presumably so you could then kill them before they killed you.
Man-pack in the Promised Land
In 1967 where I was located was a far throw from Arctic conditions. I was first in Di An and then Lai Khe, Vietnam, halfway between the two poles, where the temperature was routinely 90 or 100, and we largely used the device in jungles, or rather over them.
At some level in the U.S. Army above mine, which was close to the very bottom, where you-know-what rolls downhill, it had been proposed to attach these devices to the skids of helicopters, fly over the jungles at treetop levels, and locate enemy troops for further actions, like bombing and artillery fire.
The devices could not operate themselves. They weren’t that smart. I’m not sure we were either.
A soldier had to clamp the probe to a helicopter skid, calibrate the machine once in the air, sit behind the machine looking at a dial, and make note of a sudden rise, if a reading spiked on (if I recall correctly) a dial from 0 to 50.
“People sniffing” didn’t sound like such a cool thing, nor does one want to be known as a “sniffer” of people, which sounds sort of gross, something you could get arrested for, so in the First Infantry Division, we were at first dubbed “the bloodhounds.”
I note that in other units such operations were called Project Snoopy and Mission Snoopy, probably without permission of Charles Schultz, but snoopers doesn’t sound much better to me than “sniffers.”
Whatever this machine was called, it had caught the eye of some editor at Time.
Crash, Boom, and Bang
From 1975 until 2008, I did not fly, and you couldn’t make me.
My wife explains this by saying that “he crashed in Vietnam.” Like many simple explanations, this is imprecise.
I didn’t fly for those years because I had crashed, although we did have many collisions with trees, the ground, and a few with bullets, but because I was afraid it was time for me to die in a crash. It would be karma for getting away safely from probably several hundred combat or combat-support missions. I stopped counting missions after the third award (which I believe would represent 200 combat-support flight hours) of the Air Medal, why I would want so many. I felt I had pushed my luck in the air over Vietnam, or someone else had pushed my luck for me, and that the next time I got above the planet Earth, I wouldn’t be so lucky.
When I came home from Europe in 1975, it was aboard the QEII, and I would have sailed on a boat from Vietnam to the U.S. if this had been allowed. I have made at least four trans-continental trips, maybe more, but by automobile, not jetliner.
Before our strange little unit became “bloodhounds,” we dropped from the sky CS-1 and CS-2 riot control agents, better known as teargas, in 55-gallon barrels to interdict suspected enemy supply routes. In that capacity, one day I found myself strapped to a Chinook helicopter more or less 2000 feet over the jungle and standing on the edge of the lowered cargo door. The Chinook went violently up and down due to the wind and pilot slackness, and I realized that very easily I could be soaring behind the Chinook, tethered to a harness, or plunging the third of a mile to the jungle floor.
Being always in favor of living, this put a healthy fear of heights into me.
We had a captain in our unit who was injured badly in a serious helicopter crash.
During the captain’s crash, the helicopter’s motor came down on his back, back broken. This was always in my mind whenever auto-rotating to the ground. I never sat under the motor.
The captain was shipped to Japan for recovery and was never expected to return to the unit. One day he came back, and immediately he went on a bloodhound mission with me. In fact, I think he didn’t have to come back to Vietnam, but volunteered to come back. He was a brave warrior and true soldier, unlike me. I was a civilian at heart and a pacifist by nature. I admired him.
We Go On a Mission Together
Here is what it was like to “people sniff.” You are flying along at say 1,500 or 2,000 feet. This is up nice and high and mostly safe and much cooler than being on red Vietnamese soil. Some days it’s pretty windy, and the wind dispersed the ammonia, so we didn’t fly when it was too windy, and we never flew when it rained, because rain had a dampening effect on ammonia readings. In the mornings, there were inversions. These were not particularly good for “people sniffing” either. We often waited for the inversions to rise and dissipate.
Several times we saw elephants and tigers near the Cambodian and Laotian borders and probably across those borders. We saw enemy training facilities, apparently abandoned. We sometimes saw the enemy. The enemy sometimes shot at us, but often because we had two gunships above or with us.
If we found the enemy or saw people in a free-fire zone (where you could shoot and kill anyone at will), the gunship team above attacked and killed people.
While up high, you could see orderly blue and green rice paddies, red and dusty roads that were mostly straight and predictable, green lush jungle, vast cleared jungle, un-cleared jungle, and maybe the muddy Mekong River, depending on where you were, or if near Cambodia and Laos, you might see some hazy mountains.
Once I had moved forward to Lai Khe, every day I could see the Black Virgin Mountain to the west. In French, it translates as Black Lady Mountain. I guess Americans thought you could only be a lady if still a virgin. In Vietnamese, it is Nui Ba Den with some accents that I cannot duplicate on my Mac.
Beginning your “sniffing” mission, the helicopter makes a sudden drop, a long and severe fall to avoid enemy fire, something like falling like a stone, and which feels like being on a plunging rollercoaster, until the pilot pulls up on the stick and you are buzzing right over the jungle canopy at about 100-110 miles per hour, or about 75% of the speed those helicopters could make.
The “sniffing” machine is in front of you. You have tied its probe to the skids before takeoff. You have a radio headset on, and every time the needle makes a wild swing, you transmit, “Mark” over the radio.
The world may be round, but military grids on maps are square. We flew over map grids, banking sharply at the edge of our grid or grids, and then the helicopter would lean on its side to turn around and do it again, over and over, until whatever grids we were over had been “sniffed,” and when the helicopter banked, you could get a good look at the jungle and light a cigarette before the next pass.
Up above you when you are “people sniffing,” one of the members of a helicopter gunship team puts a mark on map under acetate using a grease pen when you tell them you have a “mark” reading on the meter. Later I often translated these marks into coordinates, encoded them, and sent them on to intelligence.
Meanwhile, for the hour or so you are careening over the map grid or grids, it feels like you are on the wildest rollercoaster ride ever, for the helicopter rises and falls over the treetops.
A good or lucky pilot doesn’t hit the treetops. We had some pilots that weren’t good or lucky.
It was not unusual after a flight to pick limbs and pieces of tree off the skids or even to have a hole beneath your feet where the shiny silver metal floor had a gouge ripped into it (happened to me once).
When descending or flashing above the trees, I wasn’t scared because I was no longer human. I was a robot, a mechanical man, doing what I had to do, stifling a great deal of fear, and letting the imagined themes from The Magnificent Seven and The March of the Valkyries pound loudly through my head.
When the mission was over, we usually flew straight back to our base camp. At night, I drank to go to sleep. Without drink, sleep wouldn’t come. Most of us drank nightly, beer from our cooler, and the occasional bottle obtained by one of sergeants. Our unit was top heavy in sergeants and officers and skimpy on people like me.
As a “people sniffer,” I was just one of the group, nothing special, and so I was puzzled when men representing Time Magazine showed up wanting to interview me. I still puzzle over my selection.
“Where are you from?” the reporter for Time asked. He smiled a lot, but the smiles didn’t have much heart behind him. I figured he was probably a long way from his air-condition villa in Saigon, but maybe I read too much of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.
Me: Belleair, Florida.
Interviewer: What’s that near?
Interviewer: Where’s that?
Me: Pinellas County.
Interviewer: Pine what?
Me: On the West Coast of Florida.
Interviewer: What’s it near?
Me: St. Petersburg.
Interviewer: Is that near Miami?”
Interviewer: Are you married?
Interviewer: Have a girlfriend back home?
Me: I used to, not sure I still do.
“I think we need someone from a larger city and with more human interest,” the reporter said, he thought confidentially, to his photographer.
The photographer nodded. “Not much human interest.”
“I don’t think anyone knows where Belleair is, and this screwed-up kid doesn’t even know if he has a girlfriend or not.”
That was the beginning and likely end of my interview, recreated from a very imperfect memory 44 years later, and not a word of which appeared in Time.
Instead my sergeant was interviewed and appears in a photograph in that issue. This was very fitting, because he was the man in our unit who developed procedures for using the gizmo, whereas I just sat behind one hoping not to crash. He was a knowledgeable man, a career military sergeant, and gonzo (new word for gung ho and fearless). I hope he has had a good life since and has overcome having me serve under him.
My sergeant was photographed behind the man-pack personnel detector, otherwise known as a “people sniffer.” He looked intent and busy and as if doing something important. He was married with two children, I think girls, and from a large town in, I think, Oklahoma. Haven’t heard of him or seen him since he got his last medal and went home to America.
The Art of Human Error
Did the device work? Some people think so. The Time Magazine article seemed optimistic. Like many things about that war, however, the answers are unclear for a variety of reasons.
Big creatures, like elephants, other primates, and tigers, make ammonia too, not just enemy soldiers.
It was a smoky country, poorly electrified, and smoke was prevalent everywhere, not necessarily from enemy campfires. Smoke carries ammonia.
There were many times that the meter readings just took off and we had no idea why.
Calibrating the machines wasn’t a science; it was a guess. Did we calibrate them right? We hoped so.
Marking on an acetate cover in a gunship left room for human error. The marking was usually done by the gunship co-pilot and in a cramped space in a shaking helicopter that was way up in the sky.
When we returned to base, someone else, sometimes me, had to translate the marks on the acetate overlap into coordinates, another set of guesses. It was hard to tell the center of a usually sloppily made X. We much preferred dots. Sometimes the pilots made dots, but more often X marked an imprecise spot. Some dot makers made really big, ugly, hard-to-interpret marks. Other dot makers made tiny ones.
I had to type all those coordinates after figuring them out and get them over to G-2 or G-3 encoded as quickly as possible when we got on the ground. I was rushed to produce these typed coordinates nightly before the commanding general’s briefing and typos may have snuck in.
Sometimes we had to report the coordinates in code and call it in over landlines. This meant I had to encrypt the coordinates, or someone did, and this took time (unlock the safe, find the code being used that day, change numbers and coordinate letters into code), and often added more errors to the process.
On the other end, someone had to decode the coded coordinates, leaving room for more human error.
I Appear in Time Magazine
Whether the “people sniffer” worked or not, my sergeant and I went out on the Tarmac and sat in the helicopter we would fly in that day. We attached the probes to the skids with clamps like we did every time we flew and sat behind our machines and answered questions about how they worked, or how we thought they worked.
The pilots and crews looked on and smiled from where they stood on the tarmac.
My famous right knee appears in the corner of that picture in Time Magazine. My mother kept that issue because my knee was in the photograph. She also kept the plaque saying I was a bloodhound and the myriad news releases sent to The Clearwater Sun or St. Petersburg Times reporting on my promotions or awards. She kept my awards and medals.
“Aren’t you going on a mission with us?” I asked the newsmen. I thought that they wanted to see the machines in action and know what it was like to be on a “people-sniffing” mission.
“They didn’t tell us to,” the photographer said.
“Not enough time,” the reporter said.
The photograph looks like my knee is in a helicopter flying in combat. The photograph, however, was taken on the ground, not on an actual mission. It is like that with a lot of journalism, a recreation, although I never realized it until I began writing for a living.
Using the Internet, I found that probably the article ran on June 9, 1967, but you have to be a subscriber of Time to read it entirely, so I am not sure. I don’t remember it as being much of an article, although it was cleverly written, and I liked the style.
I could have written better, but they never asked me.