The novel opens with the protagonist, 17-year old Richie Perry, engaged in conversation with another soldier, Harold "Peewee" Gates. The two men and their fellow passengers are on an army airplane flying from the United States to Vietnam. Perry and Peewee, who are from New York City and Chicago, respectively, are both privates on their first tours of duty. Peewee is loud and cocky and enjoys making jokes about killing Viet Cong. While the plane is refueling at Anchorage, Perry also befriends Judy Duncan, an army nurse.
On the flight, Perry is too nervous to eat. He muses that the only reason he is even going to "Nam" is because of a paperwork mistake. A knee injury has left him unfit for combat duty, but as his former captain has told him, "it takes forever to process a medical profile" (5). Despite his nerves, Perry manages to sleep all the way to Osaka, Japan, where they will spend the night. Perry buys a souvenir for his Mom and some Japanese comics for his younger brother, Kenny.
The next morning, Perry and Judy sit together at breakfast and solidify their friendship. Back on the plane, Perry observes that the conversations become quieter as they approach Vietnam. He tries to write a letter to his mother, but cannot think of anything to say. After landing, Judy informs Perry that she will be stationed in Chu Lai. They say good-bye.
Perry and Peewee are now both members of the 22nd Replacement Company. While they await their orders, Perry observes his strange new surroundings. He notes that the Vietnamese soldiers are "smaller than [he] thought they would be" (9). Back at the barracks, Perry and Peewee discuss the presence of a Vietnamese cleaning staff on an American base. Peewee is suspicious of the civilians and refers to them as "Congs," but Perry dismisses his colleague's narrow-minded assessment. Soon thereafter, Peewee's off-color comments lead him into a physical conflict with a much larger ranger. The ranger backs down, however, once Peewee pulls out his knife. Perry writes about the fight in a letter to his mother.
That night, Perry thinks about his reasons for joining the army in the first place. He wanted to earn money to help provide for his younger brother's education. Additionally, Perry saw enlisting as a way to avoid figuring out his next steps after realizing he lacked the financial resources to enroll in college. Perry has had to let go of his dream of "[going] to college and [writing] like James Baldwin" (15). He compares the war to a basketball game. A whole team shares in a win or a loss, which means that Perry always feels bad about a loss, even if he, a star player, has performed well. To him, entering the army already feels like "a kind of defeat" (14), so he feels relatively unemotional about the United States's rumored victory.
The next morning, Perry and Peewee have breakfast together. Peewee likes the army because every soldier has the same possessions —same uniform, same food, same guns — and he does not feel poor or inferior here, like he often does at home. Later in the day, Rings tries to rally all the African American soldiers to pledge their solidarity to one another by taking a blood oath. Rings cuts his wrist and encourages Peewee and Perry to follow his lead. Both men decline. Later, Peewee and Perry play checkers and meet some other soldiers. An Italian man from Connecticut informs them that negotiations for a truce that could end the war are currently taking place in Paris. That night, Perry writes his first letter to Kenny, telling him that the fighting is almost over.
After being in the barracks for nine days without an assignment, Perry finally receives his orders. He, Peewee, and Jenkins are assigned to the base camp at Chu Lai. Before departure, they must go through orientation. A sergeant lectures the new soldiers about everything they have to beware of in addition to "Charlie", including malaria, venereal disease, black market goods, and drugs. Later, Peewee shows his vulnerable side by asking Perry to make a friendship pact. Perry agrees and the two men spit on their palms and slap high-five. On the eve of their departure for Chu Lai, Jenkins is crying. Both Perry and Peewee are scared, too.
Perry observes that Chu Lai is more organized than their previous camp at Tan Son Nhut. Perry, Peewee, and Jenkins are assigned to Alpha Company. They meet Johnson, a soldier from Georgia, whom Peewee immediately begins to mock. Jenkins reveals that his father is a colonel in the army and wants his son to have a military career. They spend the night at Chu Lai. Perry awakens in the middle of the night to the sound of artillery fire; he thinks it sounds like thunder. The next day, a helicopter takes the new members of Alpha Company to their base in the jungle. This is Perry's first time in a helicopter because his knee injury forced him to miss that part of training.
At the base, Perry's new captain acknowledges his medical profile and tells Perry to stay with the squad until his medical records arrive, claiming that the whole company will shipping back to Hawaii soon anyway. Lieutenant Carroll, their platoon leader, informs the new arrivals that he runs his platoon "by the book," and that they all need to keep their minds on their work despite the rampant rumors about Hawaii. Perry keeps trying to write to his mother but scraps several letters because he feels as though "everything [sounds] lame" (35). He thinks about playing basketball in high school, and how it helped him go from being an observer in his life to an active participant.
That evening, Perry and his squad-mates must go on patrol in the rain. Sergeant Simpson half-jokingly warns the new soldiers, or ‘cherries,’ not to shoot him because his tour of duty is almost finished. Perry daydreams on the helicopter ride to the patrol site, remembering the basketball game that cost him his knee. When they reach the patrol area, Simpson yells at Perry to wake up. After they disembark from the helicopter, the squad walks for about two hours before Simpson calls for a chopper to transport them back to the base area. Less than 100 yards from the base area, the squad encounters one of the VC's deadly booby traps. Perry makes it safely back to camp, but Jenkins is badly injured. His wound proves to be fatal, and Perry watches Jenkins die.
In the first few chapters of Fallen Angels, both Perry and the reader are forced to acclimatize to the unpleasant reality of war. On the flight to Vietnam, the young privates are nervous and completely unprepared for what lies ahead. Perry does not have to face the atrocities of war until Jenkins dies on the first patrol. Before that, Perry spends his downtime daydreaming about his life "in the World," which is illustrative the two disparate mindsets that many of these young men are trying to reconcile. The theme of alternate realities is pervasive throughout the novel; many of the soldiers in Vietnam prefer to distance themselves from the war as if it is a bad dream from which they will soon awaken. However, Jenkins's prophetic fear that he will "die over here" goes from anxiety to foreshadowing when he becomes the novel's first casualty.
Myers's storytelling in these opening pages is efficient and clean, which presents a contrast to Perry's observations about the army's structural disorganization. In Osaka, the privates encounter confusion about payment for their meals, which Perry classifies as “typical army” (6). Once he arrives in Vietnam, Perry and his fellow GIs wait on the tarmac in the hot sun for many hours before receiving instructions. He comments, "I figure that of the seven months I [have] spent in the army, four of them [have] been standing around waiting for something to happen" (8). After that, Perry spends nine days in the barracks playing checkers and biding his time until he finally gets assigned to the 196th at Chu Lai. Prior to arriving in Vietnam, Perry claims, he did not give much thought to the anti-war protestors. However, these various missteps lead Perry to start questioning his decision to join the army and plant the seeds for his growing skepticism about America's motives in Vietnam.
Perry admits that he enlisted in the army as a way to avoid deciding what to do with his life. He once had dreams of being a philosopher or a writer but lacked the resources to follow an academic path. The army appears to offer a temporary solution for his indecision. Perry expected to enter an environment where his superiors would be making all his decisions for him. However, those decisions start to feel arbitrary. Perry muses on the plane ride to Vietnam: "The only reason I [am] going... [is] because of a paperwork mess-up" (5). The army's inefficiency presents a parallel to Perry's life; Everyone seems to be waiting for orders and nobody is in control.
While he is waiting for his first assignment, Perry thinks a lot about his knee injury. His knee is a symbol of weakness, but it reveals the inherent paradox of Perry's character. Perry's knee injury is his "out:" he could use it as an excuse to avoid combat without any consequences. However, he instead chooses to enter the field while is waiting for his medical profile to come in, showing that he is both indecisive and brave. He has intelligence and courage but is looking for a way to channel it. Perry's indecisiveness is also representative of the naiveté that defined the American infantry in Vietnam - many of these soldiers were still only teenagers.
Peewee serves as a foil to Perry. Where Perry is quiet and contemplative, Peewee is jovial and arrogant. By juxtaposing his protagonist with Peewee, Myers is able to highlight Perry’s indecisive nature and quiet intelligence. However, Perry and Peewee are united by their youth, race, and class background. Neither Perry nor Peewee are in Vietnam for the sole purpose of patriotism or some fervent commitment to the cause. Rather, they both hail from working-class backgrounds and have enlisted because of a lack of other options (as opposed to Jenkins, for example, who comes from a military family). Perry and Peewee represent a common archetype of the Vietnam soldier.