Letter From Milo: Mr. Hendrix In Vietnam

December 4th, 2018
I guess I’m just an old rocker. My musical tastes were formed in the late 60s and early 70s. I still listen to the old warhorses – Dylan, the Stones, Janis Joplin, the Dead, Cream, Traffic, the Doors, Van Morrison. If I’m driving down the street and hear one of my old favorites on the radio I turn up the volume until the car vibrates.

 

That said, there is one musician I esteem above all others, a musician whose music still sends a chill up my spine, someone who took the electric guitar to places it’s never been before and created sounds that have been copied but never equaled.

 

I’m talking about Jimi Hendrix, genius, guitar god and war hero.

 

I first became aware of Hendrix in 1967, the year I graduated high school. His first hit, “Purple Haze,” was all over the radio. The sound was like nothing I had ever heard before – big, bold, discordant, but undeniably different. It was alien to my unsophisticated ears. I just didn’t get it. But, you have to understand, I had not started smoking pot yet.

 

A year later I was in Vietnam and I got it. Boy did I get it. The Vietnamese conflict has been called the Rock ‘n Roll War. Music was everywhere. It seemed that every soldier had his own cassette player and collection of cassette tapes. I remember my first day in-country. I had just gotten off an airplane along with 200 other new fish and was standing on the tarmac at the Da Nang air base, listening to a bored 2nd Lieutenant welcoming us to Vietnam. While the 2nd Lt. was droning on about the noble mission we were about to undertake, I heard music in the background, coming from a collection of raggedy tents just off the runway. It was the Doors.

 

This is the end/
This is the end/
my friend

 

Welcome to Vietnam.

 

Just like in the good old USA, there were racial problems among the American soldiers in Vietnam. If you recall, the late 60s were when King, Kennedy and Malcolm were assassinated. There were riots in the streets of our major cities. Students were forming revolutionary cells and plotting to overthrow the government. Lines were drawn between the races, the generations and the body politic. It was a time of supreme tension and nobody could say with certainty what the future held.

 

What was happening in the States was mirrored in Vietnam. It was like a bizarre reflection of what was occurring on the streets back home. Lines were also drawn, political and racial. Black guys hung with black guys, white guys hung with white guys and Latinos kept to themselves. There were actually mini race riots in some of the division base camps like Chu Lai and Da Nang. We didn’t have these problems in the field because, as infantrymen, we had more pressing concerns, like trying to keep the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Regulars from killing us while at the same time trying to kill them.

 

It was a different story back in the relative safety of the division camps. The REMFS (Rear Echelon Motherfuckers) had more time on their hands. And they spent some of that time fomenting racial discord. I’m not saying that all the soldiers were like that, but there were enough of them, both black and white, to create serious and often lethal problems. After all, when you mix young men, ethnic strife and automatic rifles together, there are bound to be a few…, ah, misunderstandings.

 

Music played a role in the racial divide. The music you listened to defined who you were. Black guys listened to soul and funk from Motown and Memphis. White guys listened to rock and country. And some poor souls just paid attention to their own demons. There was one musician, however, who crossed all boundaries, someone who both blacks and whites idolized.

 

That was Jimi Hendrix.

 

Whenever you saw groups of blacks and white partying together, sitting around bonfires, drinking warm beer and smoking pot, the chances are that the music blaring from cassette machines was played by Jimi Hendrix. There were several reasons for this adoration of Jimi. The first, obviously, was that he was a supernaturally gifted musician. He simply had no equal. His audacious combination of rock riffs, deep understanding of the blues and soulful stylings (he once played guitar in the Isley Brothers band) spoke to everyone.

 

Another reason he was loved by the troops was that Jimi had once been a soldier himself. Before becoming Jimi Hendrix, he had been James Marshall Hendrix, a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division. That simple connection made it seem that Jimi was one of us. We felt that he understood us and our terrible plights in ways that British fops like Jagger, McCartney and Clapton never could.

 

On Highway 1, near the South China Sea, there was a hill near the village of Sai Hyun called Hendrix Hill. This particular hill was strewn with huge rocks and boulders. On one of the largest boulders someone had painted, in letters that seemed 10 feet high, the word Hendrix. The boulder was easily seen from the highway and every time I passed it I couldn’t help but smile. It was our Hollywood sign.

 

When Jimi came out with his “Electric Ladyland” album, there was a song on it that became seared into the mind of practically every soldier who heard it. The song was called “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be).” There’s a line in that song that’s guaranteed to bring a tear to every Vietnam veteran’s eye. The line is:

 

Well, it’s too bad/
that our friends/
can’t be with us today

 

The line evokes memory, pain and loss. It brings back memories of old friends and comrades in arms, young men who died far too young, in a country 10,000 miles from home, often in circumstances too gruesome to relate.

 

To this day, when I hear that line, I have to stop whatever I’m doing and spend a few moments recalling those who made the supeme sacrifice. Faces and names run through my mind – Captain David Walsh, Sweet Jimmy Ingram, Stony Deel and many others whose names are etched on a granite wall in Washington D.C.

 

I’m going to wrap it up now. I’m going to put on “Electric Ladyland” and try to find some comfort on this rainy day. Jimi had a way of comforting a lot of souls. That’s what heroes do.

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