My Vietnam War Story
by Dwight davis
MY VIETNAM WAR STORY
Dwight F. Davis
It is now almost 28 years since I was in Vietnam. Today, May 20, 1998, I was playing on the Internet and came on a website with material about the Vietnam War including several other sites with the personal stories of folks who had served in the military in Vietnam. I read one thoroughly which was written by a guy who had served as an infantry officer in the First Division (the Big Red One). Much of this guy's story jived with my own experiences and it got me to reflecting about my experiences.
In general, there is nothing truly remarkable about my experiences in Vietnam, however, I believe my experience as an infantry platoon sergeant there was a defining moment of my life because it taught me what is important (i.e., God, family, friends, trust, integrity, and perseverance). Although I earned a Ph.D. in Government from Florida State University, served successfully on the faculties of three major state universities (University of Illinois-Chicago Circle, University of Oklahoma, and Texas A&M University) including being tenured and promoted to Associate Professor at Texas A&M University, served as a leader in the largest state legislative program evaluation unit in the United States, and also served as the chief of the bureau responsible for Florida's Motor Vehicle Inspection Program (MVIP) which is the largest program of its kind in the United States, I believe my service in Vietnam was the most important thing I ever did. I suppose I reached that conclusion because the stakes were so high there, people got killed, however, I also believe it is because it was real service to my country no matter that it was unpopular. In addition, the fact that I served reasonably well makes me proud of myself.
Like many veterans, I have fantasized about writing a book about my experiences in Vietnam. I know that will never happen, however. I do not have the patience nor the skill to do the job. I suspect a good writer could write a book about my experiences since there are many interesting anecdotes. For my part, however, I will just provide the bare bones version.
I will try to tell my story as accurately and as honestly as I can, however, I am afraid my long term memory will fail me on the some of the details and the proper sequence of events. I left Vietnam September 7, 1970 and, as I begin this journal, it is May 20, 1998, so a lot has happened to me in the interim and my memory will be stretched.
TO FORT LEWIS
My story begins with a flight to Seattle, Washington from Pensacola, Florida. I had been given a month's leave before I had to go to Vietnam, however, I spent the last week visiting my girl friend, Jeannie Miller, in Ft. Walton Beach, before I left for Vietnam. She drove me to the airport in Pensacola, I kissed her good-bye, then started on my adventure. At the airport in Seattle, I got on a bus which took me to Ft. Lewis and the reception center for FNGs (Fucking New Guys) on their way to Vietnam. I arrived about 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon as I recall. After the inevitable in-processing, we were issued three sets of jungle fatigues and a pair of jungle boots. The instructions I received at Ft. Benning told us to bring our duffle bag complete with khaki uniforms, a couple of pair of regular fatigues, our issue boots and some other nonsense, none of which we needed. Except for a few civilian clothes I brought, this stuff stayed in my bag the entire time I was in Vietnam unused. When I returned home I gave this stuff to my mother who donated it to the Theater Department at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.
I killed about two days at Ft. Lewis with nothing much to do except share nervous stories with the other soldiers I met. I went to a movie one night, Midnight Cowboy´┐1/21/2 which was a good movie and won an Oscar, however, it was depressing. One of the main characters played by Dustin Hoffman was a scrounge who lived by his wits on the streets of New York City. The other main character was a hick from out West played by John Voight whose goal was to use his sexual prowess to get things from rich women in New York. These two ultimately get enough money to take a bus to Florida which they envision as the promised land, however, the Dustin Hoffman character dies on the bus trip. Not too uplifting for a guy on his way to serve in the infantry in Vietnam.
The next day we got on bus which took us to the airfield which had large commercial airplanes for the trip to Vietnam. Shortly after I got there my name was called out by some officer in the front. I reported to him and he put me in charge of a loser who had gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave) to avoid going to Vietnam, had been caught and was being shipped out instead of going to jail where he should have gone. I was actually handcuffed to this guy until the plane took off and was handcuffed to him again when we got to Vietnam until I was able to turn him over to some military police who were waiting for him there. As it turned out, I would relive this experience when I left Vietnam. I was proud that I had graduated No. 2 in my class at NCO school which gave me the rank of staff sergeant E-6, however, I was to learn that E-6s got picked on for all sorts of shitty details.
The flight to Vietnam took approximately 16 hours with a two hour stopover in Alaska where the plane was refueled. A normal breakfast in the airport in Alaska cost approximately $10.00, not cheap for 1969. We arrived in Vietnam at about 4:00 a.m. Our arrival point was Cam Rahn Bay, a huge military facility with many aircraft and a large transit area. I arrived there on November 1, 1969. Again, the usual in processing, then we were put on a bus which took us to the barracks where we stayed for a little more than a day. The bus had wire mesh over the windows, to prevent grenades from being thrown in, we were told by the bus driver.
By the time we arrived at the barracks it was almost 7:00 a.m. and it was already hot. I was to find out that the normal daytime temperature in Vietnam was over 100 degrees and got up to 115 degrees. In the mountains of the Central Highlands where I was to serve, it might get down to the 80s at night and we would be freezing because of the radical change from the daytime. I decided I needed a shower so I went to the large shower facility behind the barracks. I got undressed in the alcove area then went into the shower area. There I met a Vietnamese woman who was washing clothes in a large metal tub. She waived and said Hi GI.´┐1/21/2 If it didn't bother her it didn't bother me, so I took my shower without worrying about her.
Basically, we just killed time at Cam Rahn, although we did get to go to the NCO club the first night for several beers and to listen to the Filipino band singing popular rock and roll tunes where the Ls´┐1/21/2 sounded like Rs.´┐1/21/2 The men assigned to Cam Rahn generally ignored us and we were all fairly amazed by the place. It was a huge expanse of sand because the ocean was close and it was easily 500 meters from our barracks to the base camp perimeter with all the concertina wire and machine gun emplacements.
The next day we were all called into a large meeting room, they read off our unit assignments, and told us which bus to take to get transportation to our various divisions. I was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division which, at that time, was headquartered at Camp Enari near Pleiku City which is in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in the military area called II Corps. That was probably lucky because while I was in Vietnam, we seemed to have it easier than guys assigned to the other parts of Vietnam. The far South was IV Corps and was largely a huge mass of rice paddies and swamps. Above that was III Corps which included Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam and the largest city on the Vietnam Peninsula. I believe that area was also largely rice paddies and small villages, not including Saigon. One of my friends from NCO School, John Gilbertson, who also graduated as a Staff Sergeant from NCO School, served there in the 25th Division and he later told me that one of their biggest problems was trenchfoot because they humped through wet land so long. There were also many more booby traps in the III Corps and IV Corps areas than in the Central Highlands. I Corps, the most Northern part of South Vietnam, was mostly a Marine area of operations (AO), and it has the highest mountains in South Vietnam. The Central Highlands seemed like a good deal. I saw my friend John about a year after I returned from Vietnam. He had just been released from Walter Reed Army Hospital where he spent the better part of a year recovering from wounds he received in Vietnam. He will walk with a limp for the rest of his life. He went on to become a counselor for juvenile delinquents and I suspect he is good at that.
One of the amazing facts about Vietnam is that it is a wonderfully beautiful country. I discovered that over and over when I flew on helicopters or in C-135s and looked down. The beaches in Vietnam may be the most beautiful beaches in the world and the mountains where I was were truly gorgeous with many impressive water falls, lush forests, and broad plains with rice paddies and rubber plantations. Everything is green. Of course, when we were there, the land was also pocked marked with the results of bombs and artillery shells. Some areas looked like the skin of someone with really bad acne. I understand that we dropped more ordinance there than in W.W.I and W.W.II combined.
I got a ride on a C-135 from Cam Rahn to Pleiku Air Force Base which was an American Air Force Base located just outside Pleiku City and approximately 10-15 miles from Camp Enari which was my destination. The
C-135 trips were often fairly interesting because they normally involved some Vietnamese military types and sometimes some civilians as well. It appeared that many Vietnamese military people traveled with their families and often their pigs and chickens as well. When we got to Pleiku Air Force Base I got on a bus which took us to Camp Enari. Again, the windows of the bus were covered with wire mesh.
Camp Enari was another huge base camp. It was devoid of trees and the land looked much like what you find in South Georgia, lots and lots of red clay and plenty of dust which kicked up every time a helicopter came in. When we got there we had more in-processing and were then assigned to transit barracks. In many ways the base camp looked a lot like a regular Army facility back in the states. Among the lessons I learned my first day there is that the United States of America was not referred to in these terms. Rather, it was referred to as the World.´┐1/21/2 The psychology of that impressed me immediately. It was clear that soldiers in Vietnam did not think of Vietnam as part of the real world but rather some sort of bad nightmare place which you wanted to leave as soon as you could. Some guys started their short timer´┐1/21/2 calendars shortly after they got to Vietnam. That was a mistake because once you started counting the days you had left on your tour, they started to go by more slowly. I did not start counting until I had a little less than 6 months left and I am sure the days went by quicker before I started counting. For us, the tour was 365 days. My Dad served in Vietnam for 14 months from late 1960 to early 1962 and I believe the Marines typically had a 14 month tour early in the war. By the time I got there, however, everyone was serving 365 days.
The guys stationed at Camp Enari who were short (had little time left to serve) were obnoxious about that. They would ask FNGs how many days they had left which would be about 362-363, and then they would say: I have less time in hours to spend in the God Damn Army than you have days left to spend in Vietnam.´┐1/21/2 Other comments included: I am so short I don't have time for a long conversation.´┐1/21/2 I am so short, I can play handball against the curb.´┐1/21/2 ´┐1/21/2I am so short I left yesterday.´┐1/21/2 etc. etc. etc. I told myself that I would never do that to new guys, however, I was just as bad when I got short. War can make one cynical.
We spent about five days in the transit area going to all sorts of classes and orientations to Vietnam. At one point we even got issued M-16s and went on a sweep outside the base camp for a couple of miles. Even guys who were not infantry got to go on this excursion which was interesting because they were not pleased. At the end of our sweep, we went to a shooting range and fired our M-16s for a couple of hours. While we were there we bought pineapple from a Montagnard who used a long machete to carve off the outside for us. The Montagnards charged a dollar for whatever they sold you; one banana one dollar, one pineapple one dollar, etc.
Theoretically, we were not supposed to spend dollars on the local economy. We were supposed to use Vietnamese currency, the piaster, or Military Payment Certificates (MPC). MPC looked like funny money since the bills were in various colors including pink. Periodically, all MPC was collected and replaced with new MPC in the interest of cutting down on black market trading. If a Vietnamese could get hold of dollars or MPC, there is nothing they could not buy. Some guys told me that in Saigon you could buy anything from street vendors, including weapons. Stuff that the Post Exchange (PX) did not have the street vendors had. It turns out that much of what the street vendors had was stolen from the PX resupply points.
The Montagnards were very interesting. They were, historically, a nomadic people, living very much like Native Americans prior to reservations. They are a distinct ethnic group from the Vietnamese and are built a bit stockier. The Vietnamese slang word for Montagnard literally translates as savages.´┐1/21/2 In general, they were treated like blacks in the South before the Civil Rights Movement. In addition, since Americans wanted to use harassment and interdiction (H&I) fire with bombs and artillery to make the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) nervous, especially at night, they herded up many of the Montagnards and moved them into to artificially established compounds so they would not get hurt. Over time this had the effect of hurting this culture. Despite their bad treatment by the Vietnamese, including South Vietnamese as well as VC and NVA, the Montagnards had a reputation of being good fighters and dependable allies. In addition, they carried as much stuff as a GI which could amount to 60-70 pounds. The South Vietnamese soldiers in contrast whom we often called Marvin the ARVN´┐1/21/2, generally appeared to carry little equipment. ARVN stands for Army of the Republic of Vietnam. I know from my reading that the South Vietnamese Army paid heavy dues in the war and many units distinguished themselves with first class efforts, however, the ones I saw were not impressive and most looked liked they were shamming´┐1/21/2 (goofing off) most of the time. We respected the Montagnards, however.
As noted earlier, we got classes on all sorts of stuff while we were in the transit area. My personal favorite was a class for noncommissioned officers (NCOs or Noncoms) and officers which was about how to keep your troops from being ripped off in Vietnam. The crusty old E-7 who taught the class was good. He held up a glass jar and said: I can put Shit in here and label it Shit, and I can still sell it to a GI.´┐1/21/2 I found out later that he had a point. Of course, alcohol abuse did not help in this regard, however, I have seen stone sober GIs buy crap and pay a premium and I even did it myself on a few occasions.
During some downtime, I went to the division's PX which was very large. If you had a ration card you could buy liquor or beer. I had not been issued a ration card yet. Right next to the PX was a large shower and steam room facility in which you could get a rub down from a cute Vietnamese woman wearing shorts and a halter top. I took advantage of that and enjoyed it immensely. I was told later that you could have sex with these women; some guys even alleged that you could get souvenir´┐1/21/2 sex which meant free. It was not obvious to me that any of this was possible while I was there.
When I finished my orientation, I was put on a deuce and a half (a very large truck) and taken to my new battalion headquarters which was in the division's base. My battalion was the 2/35th or Blue Cacti´┐1/21/2 which was the battalion's symbol. The battalion had a long and distinguished history going back to the Spanish-American War. There I was met by the battalion supply officer who was a captain who had been a first sergeant, then went to OCS (Officers Candidate School). He was a crusty old guy who appeared to be a fine soldier. He issued us gear including an M-16 with ammunition, rucksack, four grenades, two smoke grenades, two hand held flares, a claymore mine, two canteens, a five quart water bag, a gas mask, a poncho liner, a poncho, air mattress, and three days of C-Rations (C-Rats). Then he took us to meet our company clerk. In my case it was C´┐1/21/2 Company or Charlie´┐1/21/2 Company. The clerk's job was to get us into his paperwork files, then get us out into the field. He told me I was being assigned to the 2nd Platoon.
I spoke to the clerk about my early out´┐1/21/2 to attend graduate school. While I was home on leave, prior to going to Vietnam, I visited Tallahassee and went to Florida State University (FSU) to see about getting accepted to graduate school. I had been advised that I could get out of Vietnam early if I got unconditionally accepted to school and school started within 90 days of my ETS (Estimated Time of Separation - when you go home). It turned out that my grades had been so poor in undergraduate school at FSU that the director of graduate studies in the Government Department did not want to accept me. My Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores were acceptable, however, my undergraduate grade point average was only 2.4 which was too low to get accepted. I explained that I could get out of Vietnam early if I was unconditionally accepted and, the professor said: I don't want anyone to stay there longer than necessary,´┐1/21/2 whereupon he signed my acceptance paper. I brought it with me to Vietnam. The clerk said he would do the necessary paper work for my early out. Interestingly, when I eventually went to graduate school I did quite well, completing my Ph.D. with a 3.8 grade point average. What a difference maturity makes.
During my time at Camp Enari, I had occasion to read a newspaper from the States, I cannot remember from what town. Some guys had newspapers sent to them periodically by their folks from back home. The remarkable thing about this newspaper was that it had a story about the new draft system. Beginning in the Fall of 1969, guys were to be drafted by lottery according to their birthday. College deferments had been eliminated the previous year. I was to learn the significance of the new draft system a couple of years later in Graduate School where we read a book entitled Little Groups of Friends and Neighbors. It was about the Army draft system. It turned out that the draft system was very corrupt. There were draft boards in every community that decided who got drafted and the result was that draftees were disproportionately the sons of the poor, the working poor, and the nonwhite. I had believed that, if you were 18 and were not in college getting a college deferment or did not have a physical problem that made you 4-F (unable to serve in the military due to physical problems), you got drafted. That was not the way it was. Years later, upon reflection, I concluded that the expansion of the anti-war movement, which began in 1969, and the pressure from the general public, not just college students, to get out of Vietnam, was directly related to the beginning of the draft of the sons of the middle class. I still believe that.
THE FORWARD TRAINS --- BAN ME THUOT
After only a few days in my battalion rear area, I was on a deuce and a half going to Pleiku Air Force Base to catch a ride to the Forward Transit Area´┐1/21/2 which we called the Forward Trains. It took three days to get this ride because they were overbooked each of the first two days. Consequently, after hanging around in the hot sun all day, we had to get back on the truck and go back to Camp Enari. Finally, I got out and flew to a small base camp just outside Ban Me Thuot and from there caught a resupply helicopter to my company in the boonies.´┐1/21/2 Ban Me Thuot was a very interesting place I returned to in a couple of weeks and then again a couple of weeks later.
The helicopters we flew in most often were HU-1s which were generally referred to as Hueys´┐1/21/2 although we also called them Slicks´┐1/21/2 or just Birds.´┐1/21/2 Each helicopter was staffed with a pilot, co-pilot, and two door gunners who operated M-60 machine guns at the rear of the helicopter. There were no side doors. Typically when you went on a CA (Combat Assault), which is how we referred to our missions, one GI sat in the middle and two GIs sat at each side door with their legs hanging out and holding on to the metal support bars on each side. We flew not much above the tree tops most often so the view of the country side was magnificent. I generally liked flying in helicopters, however, as we used to say: The only bad parts about flying in helicopters are taking off and landing.´┐1/21/2 The reason for this adage was because the helicopter was most vulnerable to sniper fire or attack when it was lifting off or landing. I would have that experience on several occasions as time went on in Vietnam. I was surprised to learn at the end of my tour that I had earned an Air Medal which is generally given only to pilots and their crews. The reason was because I had been on at least 25 CAs.
THE FIRST HUMP
Arriving in the boonies gave me an insight into what was to come. The helicopter landed in a grassy area surrounded by forest and I got out. The troops had surrounded the Landing Zone´┐1/21/2 (LZ) for security. I then helped the helicopter crew unload the supplies for my company which included several cases of C-Rats, mail, replacement fatigues, and Supplementary Ration Packs. A Supplementary Ration Pack is a cardboard box about three feet by two feet by eight inches in size in which were 10 cartons of cigarettes, some chewing tobacco, some candy, several tablets of writing paper and ball point pens, and some replacement boot laces. Each platoon got one of these about once a week. Other supplies were delivered by helicopter every three days, weather permitting. Every guy in the platoon got three days of C-Rats (9 meals -- there were only 12 kinds of C-Rats) and a change of fatigues. I was to learn later that the change of fatigues was delivered sporadically. We once went almost a month before we got a change of clothes and we never carried any spare clothes with us except for a jungle sweater or sweatshirt and at least one pair of extra socks. When a Supplementary Ration Pack was delivered the platoon sergeant doled out the smokes and other contents as equitably as possible. Some guys were picky about what they smoked so they got less than others who were not so picky. I took whatever smokes I could get because I knew that we might miss a Supplementary Ration Pack delivery. The resupply birds also took mail from the troops which got sent to the States upon their return to the division base camp. The good news was that we did not have to pay for postage; one of the few benefits of being in a combat zone.
When we left the LZ, we went into the forest a short way and stopped to divvy up the supplies. There I was introduced to my company commander and platoon leader. The platoon leader's name was Mel Salazar, a Second Lieutenant who was Mexican-American from New Mexico. He was 20 years old but looked about 16. In approximately two months he would be killed, still looking very young and doing something brave and stupid. I also met the other NCOs in the company including one who would become a very good friend, Staff Sergeant George Keener. Keener had a bachelors degree in Forestry and also had the distinction of having been shot in the leg. His Dad and he came on some poachers on their land and the poachers starting shooting. Keener also had the distinction of having volunteered for the Infantry. He had some other staff MOS (Military Occupation Specialty), however, he decided that it was boring so he volunteered for the action. The Infantry MOS was 11-B also known as 11-Bravo or 11-Bush. Our specific MOS was 11-B40 because we were NCOs. Almost all the NCOs in the field were graduates of the NCO School I had gone to. The regular Army referred to us as Instant NCOs´┐1/21/2 or Shake and Bakes´┐1/21/2 because we made our stripes in 90 days followed by 90 days of on the job training (OJT), then a ticket straight to Vietnam, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Almost all Shake and Bake NCOs were draftees. I was to read a few years later that by the close of 1969, 80 percent of all combat troops in Vietnam were draftees. This was truly a citizen soldier war.
Because I was a staff sergeant E-6, I was assigned as the second platoon's platoon sergeant which is an interesting sidelight on the Vietnam War after about 1968. A platoon sergeant should be a Sergeant First Class, an E-7. One did not make this rank until he had been in the Army 8-10 years. In fact, most guys did not make staff sergeant E-6 until they had been in the Army 6-8 years. While I was in Vietnam the largest number of career or Lifer´┐1/21/2 NCOs I ever saw in the field were three in my whole battalion which amounted to approximately 500 men. Almost all squad leaders and platoon sergeants were graduates of the Noncommissioned Officer Course (NCOC) and were generally referred to as Shake and Bakes, and almost all of them were draftees. The Army began the NCOC program in 1967 to compensate for the lack of junior NCOs, especially Sergeant E-5s, who are the squad leaders. Since you were not in the war for the duration´┐1/21/2 like soldiers in W.W.II, but rather served one year tours, in time the Army ran out of junior NCOs. The Lifers had been promoted to ranks too high to serve as squad leaders and everyone else got out of the Army as soon as possible. The NCOC program was the brainchild of a famous soldier, David Hackworth, who was a colonel at the time. He went on to write his memoirs about his experiences in the Korean and Vietnam Wars and then to write books critical of the military establishment. His criticism of the military establishment after his third or fourth tour in Vietnam got him forced into retirement as an embarrassment to the Army. Hackworth was the most decorated soldier in modern times, including five purple hearts which he said were the most important awards because you could not fake them. I believe his observations about the corporate nature of top military leadership, especially in peace time, is right on target.
Several months after I arrived in country, I had occasion to go to the division NCO club with two other platoon sergeants from my company. While we were there getting smashed, we overheard a conversation from the next table from some ´┐1/21/2Super Lifers;´┐1/21/2 First Sergeants (E-8s) and Sergeant Majors (E-9s). One of them starting bad mouthing Shake and Bake NCOs as not being real good NCOs like the career guys supposedly were. After a few minutes of this, one of my buddies, who was a large guy, got up, walked over to their table and said: You see those stripes on your sleeve. You are a Lifer who volunteered for this Shit. You and your Momma should be out humping the boonies rather than relying on us citizen soldiers doing the job for you.´┐1/21/2 Interestingly, the Lifers just stopped talking and turned away. I was afraid we were going to jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.
I then met the members of my platoon. Unfortunately, I cannot remember all of the names. There was a Specialist 4th Class guy named Jerry Kline from Ohio who was called Snake. He was a very good infantry soldier, and often walked point, however, he was always trying to get out of the field. In the World he was a motorcycle gang member. There was another guy, a Private, called Bink who was a Black guy from Delaware whose father was a Highway Patrol trooper. Bink was funny, however, he was low on courage. There was a Cajun guy, Private Melvin Guidry, from Louisiana. He was the real deal. Later he would meet another Cajun guy back in the rear and they would talk to each other using a variety of basterdized French and expressions unique to the swamps of Louisiana. Another guy was Private Mark Roe. He was from California and had worked for the largest utility company there before he got drafted. For awhile, he kept a detailed journal of his experiences in Vietnam, however, he eventually quit taking notes after the drudgery set in.
There was a handsome young Black guy named Private Alvin Thompson who had a sullen personality and generally felt like he had been dealt a bad hand in life. He wanted desperately to get out of the field and eventually did that by purposely wounding himself in the foot with his M-16. Unfortunately, he had apparently not paid attention in training when they explained the ballistics of the M-16. It is a high velocity weapon which causes the bullet to tumble in flight. The round is 5.56 millimeter, not much bigger than a 22 caliber, however, due to the velocity and tumbling action, when it goes in it makes a very small hole about the size of a dime, however, when it comes out the hole is much bigger, at least the size of a fifty cent piece. I suspect he is crippled for the rest of his life.
Another guy named Specialist 4th Class Robert (Bob) Stevens, was a handsome muscular guy who was one of the few guys in the unit who had actually enlisted in the Army rather than being drafted. He would later assist me in probably my only act of bravery in Vietnam.
One of the radio telephone operators (RTOs) was a Mexican-American guy from Chicago named Private Mario Flores. I really got to like Mario because he was bright, funny and generally worked hard. Mario later earned the distinction of having the best reaction to a Dear John´┐1/21/2 letter in the platoon. We used to gather around and have the guy who just got the Dear John letter read it to the platoon; then we would critique the letter. Mario got one from his girl friend who was a high school student. It basically said that she had met someone else so it was over. At the end she said she hoped Mario would not do anything foolish when he got the letter. His reaction was: What does the bitch think I'm going to do, jump up and get hit, Fuck her!´┐1/21/2 I commented: Mario, I believe you are going to do fine.´┐1/21/2 Another funny thing about Mario is that he got mistaken for a Vietnamese a couple of times by some other GIs, probably because he had slightly brown skin and a very youthful face. He was indignant: I ain't no Dink (a derogatory term for Vietnamese who were also called Slopes or Gooks), I am Mexican man!´┐1/21/2 Referring to Vietnamese as Dinks was, of course, dehumanizing, however, it appears that all soldiers dehumanize the enemy, I suppose because it makes it easier to kill them.
There were several other guys, a total of approximately 22, who I remember vaguely. There was a big black guy named Jake from Memphis, Tennessee, who was a machine gunner and a very good man. There was another Mexican guy whose name I cannot remember who was an outstanding soldier and mature beyond his years. He came from a very small border town in Texas. I learned several years later that Hispanics had the highest death rate in the Vietnam War. Luckily, both of the Hispanic guys in my platoon went home.
There were also several other Black guys, some of whom would prove to be problems later on. One of the truly sad parts of the Vietnam War was the extraordinary racism there. It was not very evident in the boonies where everyone depended on each other, however, in the rear, it was omnipresent. Black guys hung out with Black guys and White guys hung out with White guys and both groups bad mouthed each other. The Black guys, who everyone called Brothers,´┐1/21/2 made bracelets and necklaces out of black boot laces and wore them proudly. They also greeted each other with very elaborate hand shakes called Daps´┐1/21/2. And, back in the division rear, there were many racially motivated assaults which I was to experience as well.
A lesson I was to soon learn was that we never had what the military calls Unit Integrity´┐1/21/2 in Vietnam. Every month some guys left and others came in their place. As a consequence, we never had a sense of unit that you would get if you had all worked together for awhile. The first Army units sent to Vietnam came as whole divisions from the States and they had been together for awhile before they went to Vietnam. I am certain that you get better unit performance when you were a team before you go into combat.
My hootch mate (a hootch is any sort of residence or shelter, even temporary) that night and for several other nights was a young guy whose name I cannot remember. He had arrived in country only a couple of weeks before me. We made a hootch using a poncho to keep the rain off and shared the ground and guard duty together. A couple of months later he was shot in the head by a machine gunner from another platoon who was cleaning his 45 Caliber Pistol. The bozo removed the magazine, however, he had pulled back the hammer first and chambered a round. Then he vaguely remembered that he should fire the weapon in the air afterward to ensure there was no round in it, however, he forgot to point it upward. My friend went to Japan a couple of days later and we heard that he was paralyzed.
One of the most interesting characters in my platoon was the medic whose name was Specialist 5th Class Bugnuts (I am not making this up). He had been the medic in the battalion Recon Platoon and distinguished himself as a soldier there. He turned out to be more of an infantryman than a medic, although he knew his business as a medic. He was, however, more interested in killing VC and NVA than tending to GIs. For reasons I cannot recall he was transferred to my platoon. He taught me a lot about being a Grunt (infantryman) and he came the closest to going native´┐1/21/2 of anyone I met in Vietnam. He used to carry Vietnamese rations rather than C-Rats and after cooking and eating rice, he would carry rice in a plastic bag for a snack later. He never wore a steel pot´┐1/21/2 (helmet) that I can recall. Instead he wore a boonie cap´┐1/21/2 or a sweat band tied around his head. He told me that he and a friend of his in Recon Platoon once went into Pleiku and did not get back to base camp by curfew. After a certain time you cannot just walk in or you would get shot. After getting in this predicament, they broke into a Vietnamese peasant's house in the city with their M-16s and all and demanded to stay the night. According to Bugnuts, they got drunk with the man of the house and slept well.
Within a few days I got familiar with the routine of being in the boonies. The gist of it was humping´┐1/21/2 several miles a day with side trips looking for signs,´┐1/21/2 then setting up in a night perimeter complete with claymore mines out and a listening post (LP)´┐1/21/2. A listening post was four guys about 100 meters from the perimeter in the area which seemed most likely to be the path of bad guys walking through the boonies. Their job was to provide early warning to the platoon then beat feet back into the perimeter.
For awhile we humped as a company, then we broke up into platoons which operated separately and did not come together until we were pulled out of the boonies. I spent most of my 10 months in Vietnam humping the boonies with 17-25 men several kilometers from the rest of our company. Apparently, this was part of a philosophy of Higher Higher´┐1/21/2 (division command and higher). The theory was that the VC operated mostly in small units and that we would have more luck finding them and getting into contact with them if we worked in small units. It was probably a good idea. From a day to day perspective it amounted to long periods of exhausting boredom animated with high anxiety about possible danger from ambushes and snipers. The term humping´┐1/21/2 was appropriate because, due to the weight of your rucksack, you felt like a pack mule and it was hot as Hell all the time.
The reference to LP reminds me of one of the best stories I heard in Vietnam. It happened to the LP in the Recon Platoon about the same time I arrived in country. About 0200 hrs. (2:00 a.m.) the guys in the perimeter heard screams from their LP so they grabbed their M-16s and rushed out to find out what was happening. It turned out that an Orangutan was loping through the forest and stumbled on the LP. In self defense, the Orangutan kicked butt. One guy got a broken arm and another got broken ribs. If you can imagine an animal that weighs approximately 165 pounds which is much stronger than a man reach out with a long hairy arm and slam you into a tree you get the picture. These guys were legends when they got back to Division base camp.
It was always very hot. Soon after one got to the boonies he stopped wearing underwear and some guys actually wore no socks which was a stupid idea. No underwear was smart, however, because it helped reduce the incidence of rashes which were epidemic. I had occasions where my entire back was covered with rashes due to the heat and sweat produced by humping a 60 or 70 pound rucksack all day long. We were also subject to frequent Jungle Rot´┐1/21/2 which was essentially a staff infection which could be started by very small cuts. Because we were virtually always in a filthy condition and could rarely bathe, Jungle Rot was constant. If it got bad enough you got Medivaced´┐1/21/2 (Medical Evacuation) to the rear where they got you clean and tried to keep you dry so it would heal. I bought a wide leather watch band when I was in Camp Enari which eventually caused Jungle Rot on my right wrist. I got another regular width watch band later and starting wearing my watch on my left wrist, even though I am left handed, to solve the Jungle Rot problem. I wear my watch on my left wrist to this day.
SHAMMING AT BAN ME THUOT
To sham´┐1/21/2 is to avoid real work. Shamming was a passion for many soldiers in Vietnam. I had only a couple of opportunities to sham while I was in Vietnam, however, I did get an opportunity shortly after I had arrived in the boonies. For reasons that were a mystery to me, I was selected to attend a seminar at the Trains area in Ban Me Thuot. This involved about three days of attending classes put on by officers and senior NCOs from our brigade. The 2/35th was one of three battalions in the 1st Infantry Brigade. The theory was that by providing seminars to company level officers and NCOs, Higher Higher would get out the word about how to succeed in Vietnam. For the remainder of my time in Vietnam, I do not recall another seminar being offered so it must not have been a very successful program. This seminar, however, was a golden opportunity for me, an FNG, to sham or what the Brothers called get over.´┐1/21/2 My company was extracted from the boonies and taken to Fire Base Dean while I flew on to Ban Me Thuot.
I really do not remember what was covered in the seminar, however, as I recall, it was about very practical matters of field operations. In any event, since the seminars did not last all day, I had the opportunity to explore Ban Me Thuot and generally get over in a big way. I caught a bus from our forward Trains area into town where there was a large U.S. military PX. Almost across the street from the PX was an area known affectionately as Sin City.´┐1/21/2 It was approximately one half of a city block square and surrounded with barbed and concertina wire. To enter you had to pass by an ARVN guard who checked your ID card. Inside were several bars and brothels. I was told that the women who worked in Sin City were periodically checked for venereal disease (VD) by U.S. Army medical personnel. Theoretically, therefore, one had a reasonable guarantee that none of the hookers there had VD. It turned out, as I later learned, the guarantee was not that solid. Because a hooker could make many times what an ARVN private could make in a month, they typically bribed the ARVN guard to get into Sin City and work in the brothels.
The bars were crowded with GIs and smokey. When you sat down in a booth, took up a bar stool, or sat at one of the tables, you were immediately overrun with young Vietnamese women imploring: You buy me Saigon Tea GI?´┐1/21/2 It turned out that Saigon Tea was exactly that, however, it costs as much as a mixed drink. In fact, if you were not careful, you could run out of money buying Saigon Teas before you ever got any action and that was actually the womens' plan. If you persisted, however, you could get one to take you around the corner to one of the many small bedrooms for sex. If you were real lucky, the room would have an overhead fan which was definitely Nirvana for a Grunt.
THE FIRST FIREBASE - LZ DEAN
When I finished my seminar at Ban Me Thuot, I caught a flight to the firebase where my company had been taken, LZ Dean. This was the first forward firebase I had seen. A forward firebase is essentially a barren hill in the middle of nowhere on which were located an artillery unit a mortar unit and a company of Grunts for security. The perimeter was composed of bunkers dug into the ground and covered with the heavy metal grates used to make forward runways for planes on top of which were stacked many sandbags. The center of the firebase were two or three very large bunkers which housed the commander who might be the battalion commander, a Lt. Colonel, or a company commander, a captain, and the artillery unit. The bunkers on the perimeter could hold maybe four or five guys, while the bunkers in the center of the firebase could hold 8-10 people. In addition, because the artillery guys did not move after being placed on a forward firebase, they had extra goodies which might include what amounted to lawn furniture made out of the wood from artillery boxes, books, comic books, extra rations, and often lots of soda and even beer on occasion, although I believe there was not supposed to be beer at a forward firebase. Us Grunts generally envied how the artillery guys lived although we did not think they were as tough as we were. In return the artillery guys appeared to hold us in low esteem which did not make sense since we protected their butts.
One day the lack of respect between the artillery guys and us came to a head. Especially at night the artillery guys would shoot off a lot of H&I rounds. When that happened the Grunts tended to flinch. We had spent weeks humping the boonies trying to be quiet as possible so really loud noises made us jumpy. The artillery guys thought that was funny and openly laughed at us when we flinched. When the sun went down, Doc Bugnuts decided to get even. He told me and the other members of the platoon to put on our gas masks and not to ask questions. Knowing him, we did exactly that. In a few minutes we heard screaming from the artillery guys' bunker. Doc had thrown in a CS grenade. CS gas makes your eyes and skin burn and, depending on how much you get exposed to can make you throw up and generally become incapacitated. One of the problems for the artillery guys was that the entrance to their bunker could accommodate only one man and he had to lean over to fit in and out. Well, six guys tried to get through that hole all at once and it didn't work. Shortly thereafter, my company commander came over to my platoon position from the other side of the firebase and asked what was happening. I told him: We must have taken an incoming CS mortar.´┐1/21/2 He noticed that we were all equipped with gas masks which might not have happened if we really had taken incoming since GIs hated to hump gas masks and did not keep them close often. He then said: Good job Sergeant, carry on.´┐1/21/2 A little later Doc Bugnuts returned with a big Shit eating grin and we all had a nice laugh. For the rest of our week or so on that firebase, we did not get any more flack from the artillery guys.
A sad thing happened at LZ Dean as well. This firebase had been an ARVN firebase before my battalion took it over. It turns out the ARVNs were not very neat or clean. Consequently, the firebase was overrun with rats, especially at night. The permanent party on the firebase did the best they could to kill the rats but they were never able to eliminate them entirely. The rats were very unpleasant because they were large and scary looking and they crawled over you when you were in the bunkers. I had one crawl over my face. Snakes don't bother me but I hate rats. One of the guys from another platoon got so upset by rats crawling over him in his bunker that he went up on top and rolled up in his poncho liner there. Some time in the wee hours a guy from the next bunker saw movement on top of that bunker which he thought was a sapper. A sapper is a guy trained to crawl through your concertina wire and get into your perimeter to plant explosives. We saw a demonstration of a sapper when we went through orientation at Camp Enari. Typically, the concertina wire had cans on it to make noise if someone jiggled the wire as an early warning to guys in the perimeter bunkers. This guy crawled through approximately 50 meters of wire which had these noise making devices and never made a sound although he was carrying a satchel weighing 10-15 pounds. The guy who thought he saw a sapper opened fire hitting the Grunt sleeping on top of the next bunker and he died from the wounds.
BACK TO BAN ME THUOT
When we were extracted from LZ Dean, we were flown to Ban Me Thuot where we spent about a week pulling perimeter security at a helicopter and refueling base just outside the city. Ban Me Thuot was an interesting place, in part, because there was a statute there commemorating the visit by Teddy Roosevelt when he was President of the U.S. to hunt tigers. I suspect that statute was torn down after the NVA overran South Vietnam in 1975.
While we were at Ban Me Thuot, I was directed to assist our First Sergeant or Top´┐1/21/2 in managing the bunker line. The goals were to ensure that guys in each bunker had adequate fields of fire, knew how to react to a sapper attack, and generally kept the bunkers clean. It was easy duty. Our First Sergeant was actually a Sergeant First Class, an E-7 rather than an E-8 First Sergeant, who had been in the Special Forces for a long time. He was kicked out of the Special Forces unit to which he had been assigned on this tour of duty for almost beating a VC prisoner to death. He was a hard drinking crusty guy, however, I liked him very much because he really knew how to soldier and he tried his best to care for his men. While we were at Ban Me Thuot, he visited a Mike Force´┐1/21/2, a Special Forces unit, nearby and got us a film projector and the movie Hawaii.´┐1/21/2 We set it up one night using a generator and several cords we took from claymore mines spliced together. Because of all the splices, we did not get consistently good charge so, periodically, the film would slow down greatly as did the audio. It was actually kind of funny. Top also got us some beer which was greatly appreciated. Theoretically, in a rear area we could each have two beers a day pursuant to division policy. As it turned out, however, you could do much better than that. To my surprise, there were quite a few nice young guys who did not drink. Consequently, those of us that did, traded our sodas to these guys in exchange for beer. It was easy to get a couple of six packs that way.
Probably the highlight of the Ban Me Thuot mission was the night that some guys snuck two or three prostitutes into the perimeter and for several hours shared them bunker by bunker. The drill was that one guy would go into the bunker with the hooker, lay her out on an air mattress, have sex, then leave for the next lucky guy. The rest of the soldiers assigned to the bunker would wait patiently outside. Before the night was over, I would guess that these young women had sex with approximately 25-30 guys. No one to my knowledge complained about sloppy seconds. In the morning, Top got hip to the circumstance and called the MPs or Military Police who promptly took custody of the women and turned them over to Vietnamese civilian police. Top was concerned that they were VC doing a reconnaissance (recon) of our base. I do not believe that was the case, however, quite a few guys got three penicillin shots a couple of weeks later to get rid of the clap´┐1/21/2 (gonorrhea).
BACK TO THE BOONIES FOR CHRISTMAS
About mid December we were flown back to the boonies for the purpose of doing small unit ambushes in a mountainous area not too far from Ban Me Thuot. The theory was that another battalion was going to move through an area not far from us which would force the local VC, or whatever other bad guys were there, to move in our direction where we would catch them in ambushes. It never worked, although we did see some bad guys, NVA regulars.
Every night we would set up small unit ambushes involving a squad, approximately 8 men, along some trail. The claymores were placed next to the trail and camouflaged so you could not see them. We would be approximately 20-30 meters behind the claymores in line with the trail. Generally, everyone in the ambush would be on alert until 10:00 p.m. or so then it would be half and half with half sleeping. You would not think you could sleep in that context, however, after humping all day, it was not hard to fall off into slumber. Some guys would have to be awakened periodically because they snored and noise is a No No in an ambush. We were also very careful to not leave any trash around our area so our position could not be spotted. We heard about a unit that had some guys who took a dump behind their ambush site and left the toilet paper we got in C-rat packs on the ground. Some bad guys tooling through the boonies saw the toilet paper and came up behind the ambush unit and shot them up. We pulled these ambushes for at least a week and never got into any contact.
One day I linked up with my buddy, the platoon sergeant of Third platoon, Staff Sergeant George Keener. We were essentially taking a break in the shade of some trees when George and I thought we would do a Leaders Recon.´┐1/21/2 Stupidly, we walked away from our unit with no radio, perhaps a hundred meters or so where we came to a large open field with a steep slope. The day was beautiful and we were admiring the beauty of the surrounding area when we spotted four NVA regular soldiers coming up the slope into the open grass field. In no time we were within 40 meters of them. George and I opened up with our M-16s, then hit the dirt. At that point a B-40 rocket came sailing our way and slammed into a tree behind us. As I recall, it did not explode. If it did, the shrapnel never touched us. At that point we got up and charged toward the field to shoot at the bad guys again, however, they were gone, di di (di di means to leave -- we often used the term di di mau which means to leave quickly). In their haste to escape the bad guys lost two of their pith helmets which George and I took with us when we went back to our unit. There was Vietnamese writing on the pith helmets. We did not know what it said, however, we guessed that it said ´┐1/21/2Fuck the Army, I am short, etc.´┐1/21/2 like the covers of our steel pots did. A day or two later my First Sergeant said he would put George and me in for a medal, probably an Army Commendation (ARCOM) medal. We did not think we deserved any recognition for this fluke incident and it never happened. This experience did, however, reinforce our affection for each other. George was a somewhat skinny guy, although strong, with a boyish face, but a very tough guy. He had a lot of courage and integrity and I felt it was a privilege to work with him. He is one of only two friends I made in Vietnam with whom I still correspond at Christmas.
At one point during this long mission to the boonies we were asked to track some bad guys who were supposedly carrying resupplies on elephants. That was interesting. We found the elephant tracks fairly easily, but after several days of tracking them which was also easy due to the damage caused by elephants moving through the forest, we never caught up with them. All we got for our efforts was lots of opportunities to step in elephant manure.
After mucking around the boonies for some time, my platoon was operating on its own and came on to a large bunker complex with signs that people had been there shortly before. Such complexes were scattered throughout the Central Highlands and often had supplies for VC Mainforce or NVA units which came through. Normally, such units linked up with a local VC who served as their guide through the area since they did not know the area. The guide would show them where the food and weapons caches were and where the bunker complexes were located. This complex was huge, probably regimental size so we figured we were in for something scary. We set up in one remote corner of the bunker complex then did some searches of the area. About one kilometer from the bunker complex we came on a tin shack up on stilts. We put out perimeter security then slowly approached the shack. It turned out no one was there, however, there was a small weapons cache, approximately 10-12 rifles and a few thousand rounds of ammunition. Most of the rifles were AK-47s, however, there were a couple of SKS rifles and Chicom 53 rifles. The SKS rifles were really attractive with nice looking wooden stocks and an impressive stainless steel bayonet which folded up under the barrel and stock. They were highly prized as war trophies. I missed getting an SKS, however, I did get one of the Chicom 53s which is a peasant weapon; bolt action and heavy with a very long bayonet which folded up under the barrel and stock. I brought it home with me when I left Vietnam. We hauled all this stuff back to where we had set up and called our company commander to report our find.
The next day the rest of the company came to our location and effectively took over the bunker complex. A resupply bird came in with our company executive officer on it and he promised me he would ensure that my rifle was properly marked and saved for me back in the rear. I hoped that was true because I had heard stories about guys in the rear stealing war trophies picked up by the field Grunts.
We spent the next several days searching the area for more caches and another platoon came on an ammunition cache with approximately 11,000 rounds. This also got taken back and loaded on the next resupply bird for delivery to the rear. Another company of our battalion got into contact not far from us and we heard the shooting. I do not recall the outcome.
Before we knew it, it was Christmas Eve. I spent Christmas Eve on a squad ambush on a trail leading to the bunker complex. Christmas morning when we got up to return to the company area we all said Merry Fucking Christmas.´┐1/21/2 That afternoon, however, we got a treat. A resupply bird came with Hot A's´┐1/21/2
(hot food) and two Doughnut Dollies (Red Cross workers) dressed up as Santa's helpers with short skirts and good looking legs. What was even more amazing, the helicopter landed and the pilot shut off the engine and joined us for Christmas supper. Helicopters never stayed in the boonies; too valuable and too vulnerable. The Doughnut Dollies came around, said Hi to every guy in the company and also joined us for Christmas supper. We thought they looked good enough to eat. By this time I had been growing a mustache for a couple of weeks and I thought that might charm them, however, they kept a little distance between themselves and us Grunts. Of course, we looked like we had been living in a pig pen for a month and probably smelled that bad as well. It was a nice time, however, and we felt lucky.
Within an hour of the resupply bird leaving another helicopter came in and out jumped one of the Higher Higher commanders, a one star general. We were again amazed. Behind him came his aide, a 1st Lieutenant, who did not look happy. Both were spit shined to the max and their uniforms were highly starched and crisp. They had to plow through a mud puddle to get to the company's position. The general acted like he did that every day which impressed us. He came around and said Hi to all the troops then spoke briefly with the officers. He told us we were doing a great job and complimented us on the weapons caches we found and secured, then he jumped back into his helicopter and left to visit another field unit. I never saw another general in the boonies while I was in Vietnam.
TO AN KHE
After some more boonie humping we got pulled out and flown back to Camp Enari where we stayed for a few days. On December 28, 1969, I got a Dear John letter from Jeannie Miller. It essentially said that she was pregnant with the baby of a guy she had dated in high school and her freshman year at Florida State University. He had recently returned from Vietnam where he had served as a helicopter pilot. After a couple of hours of remorse, I wrote her a letter saying that I wished her well and appreciated the time we spent together. I then wrote my folks and asked them to not mention this matter again and to not bad mouth Jeannie. As it turned out this was in my best interest. It removed a distraction which was a liability in the boonies where you needed to concentrate. In addition, if this had not happened I would never have met my wonderful Ann and had my great son, Scott. Ann often says that things tend to work out for the best even when they seem bad a first. I believe she is right.
After only a few days at Camp Enari, we then took a convoy to Camp Radcliff near the town of An Khe which was about 60 miles from Pleiku to the East. Our division was moving its headquarters to Camp Radcliff. We had some concerns about that because we thought that our new AO (Area of Operations) would involve some villages which we had not seen in our previous AO and villages generally meant more VC and booby traps. It turned out that we continued to operate in the remote boonies far away from any civilization. Camp Radcliff was sort of an interesting place. It had been the division base camp of the First Cavalry Division. There was a huge hill, almost a mountain, in the middle of the base camp on which was painted a huge First Cavalry Division patch. I was later told that baboons lived on this hill and would come down to the base from time to time and occasionally terrorized the GIs who got too close.
While at Camp Radcliff we generally had it easy although we had to pull security on the perimeter bunkers. That was a very different experience because Camp Radcliff was huge with several miles of perimeter. As an E-6 I did not have to pull duty in a perimeter bunker, however, my Lieutenant and I had to check the bunker line all through the night to ensure that we were covered and that at least one person per bunker was awake and on guard. To check just the sector manned by my platoon involved driving a jeep approximately one mile round trip and that was a bit eerie. We drove without the headlamps on so we would not become a target for a sniper, however, we still felt vulnerable. In addition, it was a bit nerve wracking to walk up on a bunker to check the occupants. The bunkers sat up high on stilts and it was so dark the occupants could not see you until you were right at the foot of the bunker. My Lieutenant and I were a little concerned that we would be shot by our own men out of fear that we were sappers. Consequently, we made friendly noises as we approached each bunker.
It was during this mission that I got an introduction to Rules of Engagement.´┐1/21/2 Theoretically, a guy in a bunker could not just open up on a sound he thought he heard to his front for a couple of reasons. First, the town of An Khe bordered Camp Radcliff's perimeter. Thus, for guys on that side of the perimeter, blasting with an M-16 or M-60 machine gun could result in innocent civilians being hit or their livestock. It turned out that a lot of livestock got shot to death including big water buffaloes as well as pigs and dogs. If we heard something we were supposed to yell halt and dung lai´┐1/21/2 which means stop in Vietnamese and then react to what follows. We thought it made more sense to open up then yell dung lai. As a T-shirt I saw much later said: Kill em all and sort it out later.´┐1/21/2 The Army paid big money for the livestock killed by perimeter guards. A second rationale for the rules of engagement was the need to conserve ammunition for when it was needed. If a guy blasted up a couple of thousand rounds of ammo only to find out nothing was there, he ran the risk of not having enough ammo when a sapper actually came through the wire and it would not be easy to resupply him quickly. We thought that probably made sense.
One of the nice things about our mission in Camp Radcliff was that we had access to showers every day. They were not fancy, generally involving a large tank on a platform out in the open. You pulled a rope and the water came down on you through the force of gravity. To us, however, this was luxury. To get clean every day was a blessing. It helped to heal the Jungle Rot most of us had and it just made you feel more human. Throughout my tour in Vietnam I was to discover that many things we take for granted are important.
We left Camp Radcliff on trucks which took us to LZ Action which was about 20 miles outside Camp Radcliff. It was a forward firebase on Highway 19 which was the East-West highway across the middle of South Vietnam. LZ Action was a tanker firebase and it was named for a goat that had been a pet there for almost a year. As I recall, the mission of the unit assigned there was to ensure that Highway 19 was open for U.S. military traffic. In general, tanks did not make much sense in Vietnam because the terrain usually made it impossible to use tanks. Even tanks can get stuck in the mud and that happened regularly to the tanks in Vietnam. LZ Action was unusual in a couple of respects. First, it was a permanent firebase so it had a messhall and Hot A's every day. The firebases we were used to were used for a few weeks then abandoned out in the boonies. Second, the perimeter at LZ Action was mostly made up of tanks rather than bunkers and, although they had artillery there, they also used the tanks for H&I fire since they had 90 millimeter main guns. One night they let us Grunts get into the tanks with the tankers and fire the main guns. That was amazing. The shell was large and heavy. You inserted the nose into the breach then pushed it all the way in with the top of your fist. That way you did not lose fingers when the breach automatically slammed shut when the round was completely in. Then when you fired the gun you had to be sure your body was to the side because it would recoil the length of the cabin and crush you if you were immediately behind it. These guns did make impressive booms and we thought they were neat.
I took a bunch of dumb photographs while we were at LZ Action including one with me in a black T-shirt holding a machete in my mouth and an M-60 machine gun pointing toward the camera. By this time I thought my mustache was looking fine. Since it did not make sense to carry film in the boonies nor photographs, it was my practice to send film home to my folks who got it developed on my behalf then mailed it back to me so I could see them; then I mailed the photographs back to them occasionally writing explanations of the context on the back of the photos. On the back of one picture I wrote: What do you think of my mustache.´┐1/21/2 My Dad wrote back: What mustache?´┐1/21/2 Of course, being essentially a red head, my mustache was red and blonde in color and
probably not as cool as I thought it was, except when we got filthy when you could see it real well.