Friday, October 13, 2006

Dale Dye on the Thunderbird Club

An excerpt from Dale Dye's forthcoming autobiography, courtesy of


We lost a lot of good men during the ten years America prosecuted the war in Vietnam, trying at the last to get unstuck from that Asian tar-baby and having no more luck than Brer Rabbit did. That’s a crying ass shame, but more about that in a page or two. What’s another under-appreciated crying ass shame is our failure to disassemble, crate and ship the infamous Thunderbird Club from its perch on the military crest of Hill 327, just below the Command Post of the fighting 1st Marine Division in Danang, to re-assemble it at some easily-accessible location Stateside. We’d have a damn site fewer cases of PTSD among some of our Vietnam Vets if we’d done that when we un-assed the area back in 1975.

The Thunderbird was an oasis for the cooks, clerks, label-lickers, box-kickers and other rear-echelon Marines who supported the fighting regiments of the Division out in the bush. It was strictly for enlisted men. The officers and senior NCOs had their own sanctorum where – due to their advanced maturity and rank – they were allowed to purchase a snort of hard liquor and get hammered like shit-house rats without fear of frowns from the riff-raff they ruled. For the enlisted swine laboring in the Division rear, it was the Thunderbird and beer only, usually hand-me-down cases of Carling Black Label served lukewarm in rusty cans. That swill was enough to gag a maggot. It was also cheap and served by bandy-legged Vietnamese girls exposing only a few suppurating jungle-sores beneath their mini-skirts. For the REMFs who labored through a mind-numbing tour of duty in the shadow of the flagpole, the Thunderbird was a pit stop between the shop and clean sheets in hard-backed hooches. For those of us who spent most of our time bashing the bush and chasing – or being chased – by the bad guys, the Thunderbird was nirvana. You’ll learn more about this shortly as it figures relatively large in my Vietnam experience but it’s important to give you a feel for the thing.

Understandably, the pogues did not care for bush-beasts dropping by the Thunderbird bristling with weapons, stinking of paddy mud and wearing faded, sweat-stained jungle utilities above boots scuffed white from hard humping. The Invasion of the Bush Beasts was a close encounter with the war they were missing and an unwelcome reminder that they were – like it or not – in the rear with the gear; a mere scale in the tail of the dragon, well behind the teeth of the line outfits. That’s why those of us who served in 1967-68 as Combat Correspondents with the Division and spent the majority of our time out with infantry battalions dearly loved to descend on the Thunderbird – just to remind the pogues that they weren’t shit…and we were.

The ambience was strictly GI with locally-fashioned picnic bench seating and an overall décor of painted plywood, but the Thunderbird did have a long plank bar where you could belly up and feel like you were pounding brews back in The World somewhere - as long as your supply of Military Payment Certificates (MPC) lasted. With beer at ten cents a can, that was usually about the time you puked or got hauled away by the Division MPs. If you were tapped out and the pogues weren’t feeling overly resentful, you could usually cadge a free round for the price of a good no-shit war story. If you’ve never been involved in insane shit like what went on regularly at the Thunderbird Club, Hill 327, Danang, your canteen cup will always remain half empty. You can’t find those kinds of kicks shooting nine-ball at your local sports pub.

1 comment:

john akins said...

I served as a marine rifleman in Viet Nam, 1968-69. I’ve read much Viet Nam war literature and published a collection of war poetry, On The Way to Khe Sanh, (three of which appeared in The Iowa Review, Spring 2005), and a memoir, Nam Au Go Go - Falling for the Vietnamese Goddess of War.

Nam Au Go Go is different. It talks about something no one I can find has written about - what violence does to war fighters. How, if combat soldiers and marines see too much, do too much, they can cross a threshold into an adaptation to violence and become addicted to it. When your emotional self is killed off by the insanity of war, survivors of this addiction have a hard time re-connecting with society. Combat is a one-way door. Once you go through, you cannot go back. You are changed.

For a glimpse, go to

Find Nam Au Go Go on booksellers’ websites.