The novel starts with some banter between the main character and a dude named Gates, who jokes about how someone should have told the Vietcong that he was coming. What a jokester.
We also meet Judy, a medical specialist from Texas who has a friendly chat with the main character.
Time for the deets. The main character, Richard Perry, is flying to Vietnam. He thinks of it as "a paperwork mess up." (1.20) His knee is too bad for combat duty, so they're sending him to Vietnam to put him behind a desk while his file gets processed.
They have an overnight layover in Osaka, Japan, and there's some drama over whether the airport will accept their army meal tickets. (Which is kinda funny as "drama," considering all the war that's about to happen.) Then they take off again and land in Tan Son Nhut.
The nurses (including Judy) are separated from the men and sent to Chu Lai. Richard and the other soldiers have to stand in the sun for hours before Richard is finally assigned to the Twenty-Second Replacement Company. He bunks next to Gates, the cocky jokester from the plane.
There are Vietnamese people doing odd jobs, like cleaning, around the barracks. Gates and Richard argue about whether they're "Congs." Richard thinks they aren't because you wouldn't hire an enemy to clean where you sleep.
Gates, who has the oh-so-intimidating nickname of Peewee, yells at the cleaning lady until she walks away.
Peewee gets into a fight with a bigger guy who calls him "boy." Peewee kicks him in the crotch, takes out a knife from under his pillow, and threatens him with it. That makes the guy back down.