Where in ____ is Viet Nam? Jul 15, 2010 20:26:47 GMT -5
Post by Jim Visel on Jul 15, 2010 20:26:47 GMT -5
WHERE IN H___ IS VIET NAM?
Copyright James Visel, 1990
TINS I guess that was a pretty common question, now that I think of it. 1963 was a very troubled year. John F. Kennedy was assassinated then. It was the year I graduated from Holy Trinity High School in Bloomington, Illinois. I remember they suspended classes the day it happened. The first Catholic president, he was popular, at least with the folks I ran with. It was a time of the Cuban Missile crisis, facing down the Soviet Union, civil rights demonstrations, manned space flights, and the Peace Corps.
Some reports say that Kennedy ordered all U.S. personnel out of Vietnam, and would not support the CIA in the Bay of Pigs, and that’s why he was shot. Some say it was Johnson’s war. Who knows for sure? I’ve always been uneasy with the media version, and still don’t trust them. But at that time I was 18 and soon to be 21. I knew everything back then, and couldn’t wait to get on with life.
I don’t remember really, why I decided to volunteer, but after working for my Uncle Bill driving a bulldozer for a few years, I signed up in the Army. That was November 29, 1965, and they sent me for Basic Training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I still remember the unit number, A-14-4. The most notable thing that I can remember there is meeting a short, squatty little guy with a tremendous sense of humor. His name was Doug Ward, from Dayton, Ohio.
The way we met sticks in my mind, because we were out on the long range, firing the M-14’s, it was the middle of February, and as cold as Kentucky ever got. I did pretty respectable. I think they put pea-gravel in front of the 1000 yard targets, because they fell over every time I pulled the trigger. Anyway, I was the first one to qualify, so afterwards we were allowed to sit in the warm-up tents. They were big 10-man tents with a 3’ wood wall from the ground up, 2” rock on the ground, and a pot-bellied stove for heat.
I was sitting with my back to the wall, picking the dirt under my fingernails with a bayonet, when DougWard and Nick Maggio walked in and sat down across the way. A farm-boy, I had never really learned how to relate to city-slickers, so I just ignored them. Doug picked up a rock and chucked it across and hit me squarely in the nuts. I did the dumbest thing that I had ever done in my life at that time. I threw that bayonet at them! They saw it coming, and peeled both ways with wide eyes.
For some reason, it actually stuck in the wall, and was still quivering when I snatched it up, stalking out. That was the auspicious beginning of the strangest and longest lasting friend-ship in my life. One which was interrupted for a while, for though we both volunteered for Airborne-Ranger training, Doug was sent to Artillery school, and I was sent to Fort Rucker, Alabama for Aviation mechanics.
"Mother Rucker" was home for the next year as I learned to fix the O-1A Birddog, the U6-A Beaver, the Otter (don’t remember its number) and the OV-1 Mohawk, which was actually a cool, twin engined airplane. It was sort of like a Corvette that could fly. It was designed for aircraft carrier use, but the Navy was interested in jets, not turbo-props. The Air Force didn’t want it either, but the Army bought about a thousand or so of them. I remember in my spare time I waded the creeks and streams around Fort Rucker hunting Rattlers and Water-moccasins with a .22 pistol.
I was the only man from my unit that was sent to Vietnam, the rest went to Germany. I never kept in touch with them. They made me a Private 1st Class, and gave me a 30-days leave, during which I told my girl-friend that I was going to Vietnam, and was not planning to come home. She should find a nice man, get married, and have a family. It was hard separating like that, but I didn’t feel right about getting a start on something that I couldn’t finish. I didn’t have a clue as to what was coming.
They boarded us on a big commercial airliner. Braniff painted their passenger jets in various pastels then, in keeping with the Hippy movement. 26 hours later we landed at Ton Son Nuit. Spent a day and a night at Bien Hoa being “sorted out,” as the Army sorts things, and was issued an M-14 with four magazines, (live ammo) and a bunch of us were loaded on a duce-and-a-half. The loud, smoky truck joined a convoy, and US MP’s escorted us through the shaggiest city of dirt-poor people that I had ever seen. The humidity was a soggy blanket, and though the Americans were soaked with sweat, the locals didn’t even seem fazed by it. Maybe the cone hats had something to do with it. The place smelled like a wet dog, and sewage.
On the way to a place called Phu Loi, we passed through several fairly sizable villages, one named Phu Cuong. I nervously watched as the communities disappeared, and the duce-and-a-half sped down the red laterite road into the country. We passed the hulk of an APC (armored personnel carrier) alongside the road. There was a hole in it the size of my head, and smaller ones that I could stick my thumb into. I glanced at one of the old-timers (you could tell by the crusty boots and jungle fatigues.) He ignored the APC, and pointed to an American tank that most of the front end was missing.
“They did that by burying an unexploded 500 lb bomb in the road, then when the tank rolls over it, they hand-detonated it.” His eyes searched the woods about 100 yards off of the road.
I did likewise, wondering how I could hit anything at that range from the back of the bouncing truck. What did the VC look like anyway? Everybody wore black silk pajamas and a cone hat. How do you tell them apart? Occasionally we passed a small blue three-wheeled motorbike with a covered box on the back for carrying passengers. They seemed to be a sort of a taxi. Usually there were chickens in a crate, or a pig wrapped up in a bamboo cage up on top. Sometimes the black pajama tops that the locals wore were white (usually on the mama-sans,) and occasionally a slender young woman was dressed in the stunning formal ao yai. That always bought approving looks, whistles, and shouts from the GI’s on the trucks. Usually they were ignored.
Most of the countryside on the first part of the journey was rice paddies, with occasional tree-lines. Palm trees flourished in this area. Often there were patches of wooded areas that grew more common the farther north and west we headed.
In Saigon proper, much of the permanent building structures showed a moldy French influence, with stucco walls and tile roofs. Towards the “suburbs”, small houses and huts were roofed with corrugated tin, usually advertising beer, and that gave way to straw thatch, the farther into the countryside we traveled. Thatched-roof farm hootches dotted the country-side, and thin-shanked, bare legged farmers were harvesting rice, stacking shocks of grain in carts pulled by water-buffalo. Incredibly, the farmer’s kids often rode this domesticated version of the feared Cape Buffalo.
An hour later we bounced into Phu Loi, which had a busy US military airstrip, and some of the convoy stopped. The remaining dozen or so trucks continued on to Ben Cat, where a truck pulled off at an ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam) outpost, and the rest of us went on to Lai Khe. From a distance it looked like a forest, with trees closing in on both sides of the road.
My new home was a tree-covered area that sloped off in three directions; south, west, and north. Some bull-dozers were clearing brush and trees; pushing the perimeter back to what appears to about 500 yards. Highway 13 seemed to pass right through the middle of the 1st Infantry Division base camp. MP’s waved us through concertina fence to what turned out to be part of the Michelon Rubber tree plantation. We passed a fuel dump where some Hueys were refueling, past a medical helicopter pad called “Dustoff,” past a bunch of 105mm howitzers on the south end of the airstrip (they were firing,) and finally stopped along side of a PSP (Perforated Steel Plank) runway.
I unloaded my gear, asked directions, and looked across the landing strip where I was pointed to where a row of Hueys were parked. “Where do they keep the Mohawks?” I asked.
The grunt looked at me with a question mark in the cloud over his head and shrugged. I slung my rifle upside down, and started across. There were some people welding patches in the runway about mid-point. I nearly stumbled over an 18” hole that had been blown in the PSP underfoot. That explains what they are welding on....Hmmmm.
Across the runway, between the rows of barrels stacked between the Hueys, I trudged past a sign that advertised Harold’s club, Reno Nevada. Another sign in front of the Orderly Room said “Welcome to the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company.” Below it, “Robin Hoods, Sherwood Forest.” Beyond the Orderly Room and Operations, which seemed to be the only permanent structures, big ten-man tents were stretched between rows of rubber trees. It was almost cool in the shade. A water trailer sat between the orderly room and Operations at which I refilled my canteen and paused for a drink.
Inside the screened in building which was surrounded by a 3’ high stack of sandbags, I introduced myself to “Alky,” the company clerk. He looked at my orders, and then walked me out and showed me where to bunk. “Have you had anything to eat?”
I shook my head, “Not since this morning at Bien Hoa.”
“Ok, then, the mess hall is over there, and dinner, such as it is, will be served in an hour. Meantime, take this form down to supply for your bedding and gear…that way, the big tent across the road from the motor pool. Good Luck!”
I was making up the cot (unrolling a sleeping bag,) and setting up the mosquito netting in the tent I’d been assigned to, when up in the trees a claxon horn went off. Several groups of air-crews pounded out to two of the Huey C-model gun-ships which were airborne in minutes. Other than looking up to see the hot-footing airmen, no one else paid much attention. I put my M-14 back down.
The next day after formation, Alky introduced me to the First Sergeant, whose face wrinkled every time he smiled, which was most of the time. “Top” walked me down to the Motor Pool, and introduced me to the huge black Motor-Pool Sergeant, and together they walked me out to a new ¾ ton truck. “Visel, you’ve got the wrong MOS for a helicopter company, and until we figure out what to do with you, I’m going to use you for the company gofer.” Then as he listed the things that he wanted me to do, it slowly sunk in that I was, among other things, the new company garbage-man. I was so discouraged that I didn’t even ask about the Mohawks. All they had here were Hueys.
That first day, four of us were assigned to empty the 55-gallon drums used for garbage cans around the company area, and then take it out to the dump on the west perimeter. Some kids were picking through it for anything of value or something to eat. I gave one of them a stick of gum, and was immediately surrounded by a dozen or so other kids. I gave them what I had and we moved on and back for a second load.
Every mid-morning there was a peculiar smoky stench hanging in the rubber trees, and looking for the source of it, I observed a lone GI on a shit-burning detail. The outhouses had a little trap-door in the back where a cut-off section of a 55-gallon drum was slid in to catch whatever came from above. Every day, these were pulled out with a hook, slid back a ways, doused with JP-4 (aviation fuel) and burned off. I glanced at the guy with sympathy, and didn’t feel so badly about my own job. He looked up at the column of smoke and said, “They call it the Lai Khe VOR. You can see it for miles.” His face was and fatigues were covered with black soot. So were his teeth.
A week later it was still the same. Only now when the First Sergeant sent the guys to help, I sent them back to him and man-handled the 55-gallon drums by myself. The daily agenda was breakfast, company formation, trash run, wash out the truck at the north checkpoint where a creek flowed under Highway 13 and south-west around Lai Khe. Then go to the south check-point to pick up a load of Mama-sans and “hooch-girls” who did laundry and kept house for the officers.
After checking with Top, the rest of the day was usually my own, unless he had something else he needed. I explored the base camp. About a half-mile wide, and almost a mile long, it was included a Vietnamese village (Lai Khe) with an old French quarter that had a swimming pool half full of brown water. There was a jeep trail just inside of the perimeter concertina wire, mine fields, and bunkers set about every 50’ or so.
Once morning the First Sergeant walked me to the south end of the rows of the Robinhood tents, and pointed out where two new ones had to be set up. Two rubber-trees had to be cut down for each tent. The Frenchman who owned the place had to be paid for each tree cut down. About 18” in diameter, and 50’ tall, he figured it would take three of us about a day per tree, to drop it, and cut it up to where it would fit on the ¾ ton. I told him to keep his help, I’d do it myself. He looked at me, cocked his head and walked away.
On the back of the truck was a new axe, for which I went looking for a file to sharpen it. The Motor-pool guys had a grinding wheel and it was soon sharp enough to shave with. In less than an hour the first tree was down, the branches lopped, and stacked, and it was reduced to a single log about 50’ long. I stopped, emptied a canteen, and walked to the water-trailer to refill it again. It was soaking hot, in spite of the shade.
Two hours later the log was chopped into 6’ sections which were wrestled into the ¾ ton and on the way to the dump. More water, and another trip. When I dropped the second one, Top Sergeant came to see, and after watching for a while, asked me why. “What’s going on, son, you have a whole year to go! You’re going to be wore out before you get there. Why don’t you use some help that I give you?”
“Top, those are all city-boys, they don’t know a damned thing about an axe. I’d just have to cart ‘em over to the medic’s tent when they split their foot in two. But anyway, I didn’t come to this miserable hole to be a garbage-man. I want to fly.”
He grinned, grunted, rubbed his chin, and walked away.
The sound of the entire flight of Hueys filled the air with vibration. They were running up for a full company flight. Only a light fire team (two gun-ships) remained. By night fall they had not returned yet. The claxon horn sounded and Top called a rare evening formation, instructing everyone to have a full load of ammo per person, weapons, helmets web-gear, and to stand ready for a mortar and ground attack that was eminent sometime during the night. The Hueys had been taken elsewhere to remain overnight for protection.
That night, about 0200 hours, we were hit by a major mortar attack. The “Wa-chunk! Wa-chunk! Wa-Chunk! of the exploding rounds first curious, quickly became terrifying. No need to explain. Incoming! I grabbed my rifle, helmet, web gear and headed for a bunker with everybody else in the tent.
The rounds were exploding about every two seconds, most of which seemed to be aimed at the runway, and empty helicopter pads. In the village on the other side of the runway the sound of automatic weapons-fire could be heard. Enemy mortar tubes could be heard from the east and west of the base-camp. They gave off a faint but distinctive “Think! Think! Think!... There were at least 3 tubes firing at us. The light fire team wound up and was off and running, hopping, dragging their heavily loaded skids in a curious chuff ling, bouncing take-off. They made it up ok, though exploding .82mm rounds seemed to flash around and behind them. All told, over 120 incoming mortar rounds were counted that night.
There was no moon, but artillery flares started popping overhead. Sgt. Fisher ran into our bunker from Operations. “Awright, listen up! The VC are already through the west perimeter, and have pushed our grunts back through the Old French Village"(the north half of Lai Khe village where the swimming pool was.)
When Top gives the word, we are to take up a secondary position in the ditch just this side of the Flight-line. Do not fire your weapons! Our infantry grunts are presently taking position in the ditch on this side of the runway. Repeat! Do not fire your weapons unless they fall back into our position! You do not want to shoot our own people. Does everybody understand?” He put the ranking man in charge of the bunker, with orders to listen for the First Sergeant’s orders to move out.
Fisher disappeared to the next bunker to the south. Someone shouted and shortly Sgt. Fisher returned and gave the word to move ahead to the Flight Line. As we cautiously moved forward, the trees cast surrealistic shadows. I tried to move quickly from shadow to shadow, trying to see across the runway.
The movement of the grunts taking positions in the run-way ditch was barely visible. Fisher and the Motor Pool and flight platoon sergeants walked along the PSP flight line behind the Huey pads, quietly talking us down into our positions. “Don’t fire on our guys out there! Let them handle it unless they fall back to where we are!”
The gun-ships had engaged the mortar tubes, and the sound of flex-guns, door-guns and rocket-fire could be seen and heard to the south. Automatic weapons fire could be heard sporadically from the direction of Lai Khe Village, across the runway. Occasionally red and green tracer fire could be seen from that direction.
Suddenly, almost out of nowhere, a huge flare burst high overhead. It was a million candle-power flare that had been dropped by a C-47, which shortly began hosing down the area just west of our perimeter. Trip flares ignited inside the village, (I found out later that they marked friendly positions at night in this particular occasion.) A fantastic display of tracer-fire emanated from the old WWII cargo plane circling overhead. Called “Puff the Magic Dragon,” it spit a solid, unbroken stream of tracers from electric “mini-guns” out the side of the ship. Sergeant Fisher explained that for every tracer we could see, there were four regular bullets between them. They fired at about 1700-2000 rounds per minute.
“Puff” sprayed the areas where the enemy mortars had been located, then returned its attention back to the south and west perimeters. They stayed on station for over an hour, and no more gunfire was heard from those areas or the Old French Village that night. They didn’t use its phenomenal firepower inside of our perimeters, but the outside sure must have been a mess for anyone tromping the woods in that area.
We were told later that those VC who had gotten into Lai Khe village had come up through tunnels dug under our perimeter wire and mine fields. Evidently what was left of them disappeared the same way. The tunnels were blown shut the next day.
We were still up and in place when daylight came, and the Robinhood helicopters returned. Hot breakfast was served, with black coffee,” real” eggs, bacon, sausage, toast and orange juice. At morning formation, everybody was accounted for, and dismissed for the day.
The next day, I was busy with the axe again, and cutting up the last log of the four trees. When I paused, the First Sergeant and Major “Dutch” Ebaugh (the Company Commander) were standing there watching. “What’s he doing that for?” the CO asked Top.
“Says he wants to fly, but he has the wrong MOS (Military Occupational Specialty.) He’s a Mohawk mechanic.”
“If the man wants to fly, find him a helicopter. The Mohawk has the same engine the Huey does, only there’s two of them. Find him a home. Give him an experienced gunner.”
They walked away. I stopped and downed another quart of water, following them with my eyes, and then finished the tree trunk.
At the afternoon formation, Sgt Fisher called my name, and introduced me to S/Sgt. Emily of the 2nd Flight Platoon. I moved my gear into the Crew-chief’s tent, and began some serious “catch-up” on the UH-1D slick helicopter. I met Jerry Zott and the other Crew Chiefs, and was given a gunner named Batiste, a black man from N’Orleans.
Until he was seriously wounded in the foot (by incoming mortar-fire) and sent home, he was a fantastic teacher, and an excellent comrade-in-arms under fire. But that’s another story. Welcome to Lai Khe, South Viet Nam.