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Remembering the Real China Beach : ‘It May Evolve as a Series With Something to Say’

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We ordered two beers, a brace of Beck’s, and clinked the bottles.

“To China Beach,” said I. “As it was.”

“To China Beach,” replied Jim Caccavo. “As we knew it.”

And how was that?

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“The beach was always covered with bloody bandages and garbage washed ashore from the hospital ships Repose and Sanctuary in the South China Sea,” remembered Caccavo. “Once I found a hypo syringe just sticking in the beach. Look, I took this picture of it.”

I knew China Beach as a final moment with Ruben Salazar. He was a short-timer with only days to go. We sat in the sand and played back our Vietnam tours. Southeast Asia, he said, was a definite hazard to any correspondent’s health.

Ruben returned to home and his safety. He took a tear-gas round in the head and died while reporting on an anti-war riot in East Los Angeles.

Caccavo tilted his beer bottle. “There was a lifeguard stand on China Beach and it was real odd to see that symbol of relaxation with incoming medivac choppers flying overhead,” he said. “But the show has a hospital right there next to the fun and games. I don’t remember that.

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Nor could we recall a mortuary on this beach near Da Nang, body bags and silent shipments being rather bad for morale at an in-country R&R; center.

So we agreed that “China Beach,” the TV series, is somewhat removed from China Beach, a moment in our times.

To me, I said, it should be titled “Catch 33.” “Or Gomer Pyle’s Tour of Duty with MASH.” Or “Gilligan’s Beach.”

“To me,” said Caccavo, “it’s an insult to the people it attempts to portray, right from the opening when the GIs on the plane are goofing around and hitting on the stewardess. One, you wouldn’t find a stewardess on a contract airline carrying a switchblade. Two, the Army guys would have been sitting there stone cold because they knew exactly where they were going . . . and they would be wondering just how many of them would be going home 365 days later.”

I wasn’t crazy about a long-haired fighter pilot in the series who apparently doesn’t fly missions. Caccavo didn’t like the portrayal of a fat major general because you don’t get two stars by being dumb and overweight.

We gave two thumbs down to showing Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts handed out like C-rations and without written orders; to a Special Forces team paying homage to a buffalo skull and cast as mute Section 8s in search of signatures; to loaded weapons and grenades in a USO facility; to the escape of a wounded Viet Cong nurse who was simply allowed to walk out of the hospital.

“In real life, as a dedicated VC she would have returned with four grenades under a blanket or called in a mortar attack on the hospital,” said Caccavo.

He despised--as a former Red Cross photographer--the TV show’s recurring theme that GIs looked upon all Red Cross Doughnut Dollies as instant one-night stands.

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“The guys worshiped them and would fall all over themselves to be polite, to clean up their language, to get the combat filth off themselves in time and splash on some aftershave. They may have had their fantasies, but they always were absolute gentlemen.

“What I’m not seeing in this series on China Beach is any recognition that this was the period when the Red Cross really won its colors . . . when its women were allowed close to the war for the first time, when they flew choppers to the forward fire bases and when one of them was killed in a chopper crash and another wounded when a round came through the floor.

“Remember that flag at 11th Cav headquarters?”

Of course. It was raised to fly beneath Old Glory every time Doughnut Dollies arrived. Beneath two big blue eyes and lashes were the words: Round Eyes Are Here.

On the other hand, I said, China Beach sure had its characters.

“It did,” agreed Caccavo. “Remember when Sean (Flynn, free-lance correspondent and son of Errol Flynn) would carry an M-16 on patrols and actually led a couple of assaults and hosed down VC?

“There was this nurse who came out of surgery after losing a patient, looked at me, shook her head and began swearing hard and endlessly against the war. To hear that coming out of such a lovely face has become my description of the war.

“There was the 36th Evac in Vung Tau when 14 Vietnamese children were brought in with burns from a phosphorus grenade. Four died from inhaling the gas, one after another, and the doctor working on them, this big guy from Georgia, came out of the operating room and just sat down with tears streaming down his face.

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“That was his Christmas Day, 1968.

“I’ll never forget the young soldier whose patrol got into a firefight and he killed a 4-year-old child who got caught in the crossfire. That was the day after this man had been told he’d become a father for the first time.”

I can’t forget the fullback grunt bellowing and screaming from the pain of a bullet nick on his bicep--and the uncomplaining skinny kid who remembered a thank-you when I poked a cigarette into what was left of his face.

And the Marine captain who didn’t like one bar separating two lemons on a slot machine, so he went back to his hooch, came back with a .45 automatic and shot up three one-armed bandits in the Officers Club. Or photographer Tim Page, who was so proud of becoming the first British casualty of the Vietnam War and so embarrassed that the shrapnel was in his backside.

Come to think of it, I said, the characters and melodrama of television’s “China Beach” may even be a little smaller than life. Take away its geeks and gross inaccuracies (helicopters do not crash with stationary rotor blades, and “get real” was not a phrase of the ‘60s), and maybe it will evolve as a series with something to say.

Caccavo looked through round, wire-framed glasses and fiddled with the Montagnard brass bracelet he still wears.

“Maybe,” he said.

And maybe one day, I said, the producers will write in the character of a combat photographer.

“I hope it’s not a Red Cross photographer,” said Caccavo, “a guy with wire-rimmed glasses and a Montagnard bracelet who collects toy trains.”

Nah. Viewers wouldn’t believe that .

“True,” he said.

We touched bottles again.

“To China Beach,” said Caccavo. “To absent friends.”

“To China Beach,” I said. “To the way we were.”


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