Note from the author: This is part 2 of a story I am writing about my Vietnam experience. If you have not read part one Headed to War, You Zero I suggest that you read it before reading this one.
So … it was around January 9th or 10th of 1970 that I got on that truck (no not a helicopter ride yet) and headed for my new base camp … Base Camp Phu Loi.
This trip today would take about 1 hour … but back then it was a trip of about 2 to 3 hours in the back of what was called a “deuce and a half” truck and looks similar to the one shown below.
Imagine sitting on hard wood benches in the back of that tarp covered sweat box in 110 degree weather for about 2 to 3 hours. I was not a very happy camper, but a very scared kid … and still had not been issued a weapon of any kind. What the Hell, there were about 12 to 15 of us in the back of that thing and the only people with weapons was the driver and co-driver. Was the army crazy? Is this why (and I did not know these numbers at the time) that there were 47,378 Hostile Deaths in the Vietnam War? People running around the roads with no protection whatsoever? Incidentally there were at total of 58,202 deaths in the Vietnam War and you can see all the statistics here if interested.
I had been “in country” and away from “the world” (as we used to say during the war) for about 9 to 10 days … and my family did not know if I was alive or dead. My last contact with them was a phone call before “getting on the big bird” in Fort Dix, New Jersey. I needed to get somewhere so I would have an address and get a letter off to them.
We finally made it to Phu Loi (see the aerial view below):
This was truly one of the larger base camps in that area. Most other camps around the area were known as “Fire Support Bases.” The guys on those saw plenty of action during the war. But, remember, I did not know this at the time.
The driver of the truck drove straight through the main gate after a brief stop to have the truck inspected by the MPs (Military Police) on duty to make sure no “Contraband” was being brought inside. Then, from there we headed to the …
520th Transportation Battalion
I thought I’d found home … but I was wrong. What a found was a battalion that was part of the 34th General Support Group and that consisted of the 20th Transportation Company (Aircraft Direct Support), the 605th Transportation Company (Aircraft Direct Support), the 539th Transportation Company (General Support) and the AVEL Company Central (an Aviation Electronics Support Company).
In 1967-68 about 222 Civilian Workers were assigned to the battalion to handle most of the aircraft support at the time. Apparently Phu Loi Base Camp was a “hot spot” of enemy activity back in the day (1967 – 1968). The US Military that was not flying (those that was supposed to be supporting) were guarding the perimeter around the base camp 24/7/365. They apparently had little time to work on aircraft and only enough was maintained working on aircraft to balance out the amount of civilian workers employed (most of these from America, England and Australia). The name of this company when I was there was called the National Helicopter Association, Inc. (or NHA).
When I checked into the Battalion in January 1970 I was assigned a 90-day spot in the Night Defensive Personnel section … in layman terms I would be “Bunker Guard” full time for at least 90 days. Below is a picture of our Command Bunker that looks that same as when I was actually there, though I pulled this picture from the internet.
This is where the “Officer of the Day” (OD) would stay while we “low lifes” were pulling guard duty all night long.
We were to radio into this bunker with any suspicious activity in our area and the OD would have his jeep driver bring him out to the area to investigate and tell us what to do.
Most of these officers were randomly chosen and many were fresh out of Officer’s Candidate School (OCS) or got a 2nd Lieutenant accommodation right out of college ROTC service. Few had any knowledge or experience of war … just like us “Enlisted Personnel” but oh they thought they did.
Living conditions in Vietnam were not the greatest, but they are far better for me when I was there than they were for the guys who first got there between 1964 and 1968. In 1964 they were sleeping “under the stars” and in 1968 many were still in tents. Here is what our “Hooches” looked like when I arrived, and this is an actual picture from a photo album I sent to my mom and dad a month or two after I got there.
You will notice there are a couple of guys walking away in Rain Ponchos. They are headed out to guard duty. It rained a lot in Vietnam. In fact, there were two seasons in South Vietnam … Hot and Hot & Wet. When it would rain … it would not rain for days … but rather months. I hated that rainy season. I was not only scared but also wet.
We would eat dinner around 5:00 every day and were sent to our assigned bunkers at 6:00 every night. That is where we would stay until 6:00 the next morning.
Here’s a photo of a typical Army Meal:
This was a picture of my first meal on my first night of guard duty. I took the picture because I really thought it could be my last meal. I’m not sure exactly what it was … but it did not taste very good.
Why did we have to guard the perimeter every night?
You see, most of the attacks on a base camp came from what was called “Sappers,” and surprise attacks by elite Communist units known as sappers were one of the most serious—and feared—threats to Americans in Vietnam. These little guys with their bodies covered with charcoal dust and grease that made them almost invisible in the dark were damned good at their job. They would lay in wait, sometimes for days, in permitters around base camps and fire support bases waiting for the right time to enter the compound, usually under an umbrella of NVA (north Vietnamese Army) mortar fire, then the sappers raced through the compound tossing gas grenades and canvas satchels loaded with explosives (known as satchel charges). They then directed automatic weapons fire at the demolished or burning targets. If your interested in reading about this kind of warfare you will find it here. Most sappers were on suicide missions since most did not make it out of base camps or fire support bases alive … kind of like the Japanese Kamikaze pilots of WWII.
Well, our main job while standing guard in and on those bunkers was to watch for these little people and notify the command bunker if we saw any. Mind you we could not just shoot them … this was a “political war” and we first had to get permission. This made me even more afraid in the early days of my deployment. I felt the army had it all wrong. It never failed; once we thought we saw something and called it in … here would come the OD in his jeep down perimeter road with with headlights blaring. These “sappers” were smart. They knew exactly what was going on so they would hide and wait until they saw the tail lights of the jeep before they would move again.
Now don’t confuse a North Vietnamese Sapper with a US Military Sapper. This is the definition of a Sapper from Wikipedia: A sapper, also called pioneer or combat engineer, is a combatant or soldier who performs a variety of military engineering duties such as breaching fortifications, demolitions, bridge-building, laying or clearing minefields, preparing field defenses, as well as working on road and airfield construction and repair. So, you see, a North Vietnamese Communist Sapper is actually the opposite. They have the responsibility to destroy what American Sappers built. Ole Ho Chi Minh was really something for coming up with that name for them.
The main reason for the OD coming to give permission to fire, I found out soon, was that at night when there are no lights other than the stars and the moon, you eyes can play tricks on you. What you think is a human moving in the wire may be nothing more than a bush blowing in the breeze or a wild pig out feeding. The OD came equipped with “night vision” goggles like you see on TV shows today when you watch programs such as Seals. These goggles turn night into day through some expensive technology. It always amazed me that the military could budget for multibillion dollar aircraft to be destroyed but not for every ground person on guard duty to have night vision goggles.
My assigned bunker was Bunker #50. I believe we had around 150 of these around our base camp. They were about 100 yards or so apart (about the length of a football field). Ever so often we would also have a tower – with the tallest tower being at the main gate. I would have preferred a tower position – you could see more – but did not have enough rank at the time. In addition, every tower – manned by 4 guards – came equipped with one set of night vision goggles or a night vision scope.
Look at how young I was … just a kid. I know I was smiling in the photo, but believe me … I was so scared. This was my first night on the job. On my right shoulder is an M14 Rifle. In my left hand is an M16 Assault Rifle. In my right hand is an M79 Grenade Launcher. Inside the bunker facing the perimeter behind me is an M60 Machine Gun. Out of all the weapons, the only one loaded and ready to fire was the Machine Gun. Why? A silly Battalion policy that stated no weapons outside the bunker are to be loaded unless you were on a combat mission or unless the base camp was under “Red Alert” (aka being attacked). Silly rules for a ridiculous war. I was so glad that I had two bunker partners that did not seem to be as scared as I was. You will meet these to people later in this story.
So most of the next 90 days would be guarding the perimeter at night, sleeping most of the morning and partying in the afternoon before starting work all over again. It was not all bad. We did get some nights off. Usually one or two if there was not real enemy activity spotted in the area. During this time I made some pretty good acquaintances. I cannot call them friends because I simply did not keep track of them after we all got back home. Some of them followed me to my next duty station and some were only with me for the 90 days I was assigned to this battalion.
The first thing I lost when I got to Vietnam (and this was way back in Long Bien) … was my modesty.
It was not easy, me – a kid from Chicago, getting used to this type of culture – but I had too. I mean you can only hold it for so long.
It seemed so strange that we did not have hot and cold running water with flushable toilets … yet we had housemaids (called Hooch Maids or Mommysons) to clean our clothes and our rooms like any five star hotel. Here is a picture of mine:
Now do you notice the symbol that the one on the left is giving me. Her name is Lien and she was my favorite at the time. However, that symbol she is making with her hand … what does it mean? My wife told me what it means and I will not repeat it here. I will leave that to your imagination. I can tell you that it did not please me, and I always thought she was so pretty and nice. Who knows … she could have been one of those “Sappers.” It was probably more my fault than hers though since I did bother her all the time and rarely let her get any of her work done. But, she also never knocked when she came into my room to clean and caught me in all kinds of immodest situations. Not only were our “johns” outdoor so were our showers – and yes the whole world could see us.
On top of fear in the early days was pure embarrassment. It was nothing to come out of your hooch and if you were not careful walk right into a guy going or coming from the showers. Most of them had only a towel … and in many cases it was draped across their shoulders and not around there more private areas. I often wondered if I was at war or at a nudist camp. It did not matter that there were female “hooch maids” in our presence, American men simply have no shame … especially those from the rural south since they seemed to be the most immodest of the bunch.
One of my closest acquaintances in the 520th was Jim Robertson. Jim and I both loved country music, women and drinking (not necessarily in that order). Here we are trying to sing a song that I was learning on the guitar that cost me about $12.50 at the Base Camp PX:
And this one is him and me coming back from the shower after a hard night of perimeter guard duty:
Damned we should have been models for mens underwear or something. There were a few others that I need to show you as well that partied with Jim and me when we were not working. Oh yes, there was a lot of parties since we did not know if we would see another sunrise.
Here’s a photo of Dexter Hebert from someplace in Louisiana. Dexter first introduced me to Chicory Coffee and I learned early on that I could not stand it … but it did keep me awake all night while pulling bunker guard duty:
Dexter was one of my bunker buddies and told me real quick that his name was not Heebert but rather abear. He loved his Chicory Coffee and thought we all should.
Then there was Big Jim Hooks … not a big country music fan … but a very big man that would not let anyone mess with me. He stood about 6.6 and weighed over 200 pounds. I don’t know whe he and I got along so well, but we did – even though his choice of music, soul and jazz, was far from mine.
There was also another Big Guy I hung with that we all called Big Mike. Mike was not into music as much as he was Hot Cars. When he was not working he was looking at the latest issue of Hot Rod Magazine, that his family kept sending to him, and dreaming about the rods he would own someday.
One of the funniest guys I’ve ever come across is a gentleman from Boston that we all called Boston Bob. He had a line of BS that would cover the 13,000 miles from the US to South Vietnam. He loved to tell stories and we loved to tease him about taking his Caaa to the Potty (aka driving his car to the party). He was just plain funny … and kept us laughing no matter how down or scared we felt. Perhaps it was his way of covering up his own fears.
Of course I can’t forget my good buddy the laid back, cool, calm and collected … the impeccable Donny Dees. We called him “Gator Man” because he was from the Everglades, could make alligator sounds and claimed to have wrestled his first gator at the age of 10. Whether he did or not … I do not know … but I do know he loved animals (especially the kind that crawl – snakes in particular) and had a few in his room. He never seemed to get excited, worried or emotional about anything – and he was a fighter that consistently lived his reputation for such. Probably just the kind of guy you would want to have next to you in war.
I know that I appreciated having him as my other Bunker Buddy. He seemed to fear nothing and if he was not happy with the ODs decision about no one being in the perimeter after we called in … he would actually go out there in the barbed wire and find out for himself. One night he came back carrying nothing but a King Cobra snake. Another night he brought back a Python. He could see better at night than most of us could during the day time … so there may have been something to his claims of wrestling alligators in the Everglades.
During this first 90 days … there was no action … other than the action we created for ourselves … me and my little tribe of buddies. We would sleep most mornings from about 7:00 to about 1 or 2 in the afternoon (some would get up earlier than me). When we went to guard duty there were three men (usually unless someone played sick) and we spent most of the night on top of rather than in the bunker. It was way too easy, in my opinion for snakes to be hiding inside (which is why I was glad Donny Dees was my bunker mate).
Yea, the guy standing was Vitti … we called him the Wop and he did not mind. You see we were not yet politically correct in 1970 … we were just fun loving Americans that did not know you could be hurt by name calling! Most Vietnam Veterans that I know today still don’t think you can be hurt by name calling (and I am one of them).
Since we did not see much action … and thanks to the incredible smartness (I thought at the time) of Donny Dees … we made our own action. We would take M16 bullets apart, dump out about one-half to three-quarters of the gunpowder, put the bullet back on the shell casing and shoot the guys at the bunker about 100 yards down from us. It was like having BB war battles like many of is did when we were kids … and hey … we were still kids. The bullets would not penetrate the skin … but if you were hit they would sting like hell. And No … we did not wear eye protection.
Most people don’t know this stat so let me give it to you. A total of 61% of the Americans killed in Vietnam we under the age of 21. That means 35,503 kids lost their lives in Vietnam … and back then you were not even allowed to VOTE until you attained the age of 21. So you could die but not vote for the person or persons that sent you to die. I’m Amazed today that college students on work study programs at the college golf course I play golf at are not allowed to mow the grass because they could become injured according to the Federal Government and the folks that make the work-study rules. Give me a break!
Yep we loved to party …
We were all just typical GIs. Most of us had small tables next to our bed where we would keep pictures of our girlfriend – and those of us who did not have a girlfriend would make one up. Here’s a picture of my girl that I kept by my bedside and went to sleep looking at each morning:
Before going to bed every morning after a hot night on the perimeter we would shower with warm (not hot, since the only heater we had was the sun) water and then spread Baby Powder over our bodies. This would seem to keep the bugs from biting as we tried to sleep in non-air conditioned rooms in sweltering heat of 90 to 110 degrees. Here Donny is putting some on my back while I am pulling on my pants:
We did not have the luxury of bug spray or sun protection back then. Johnson & Johnson, with all its cancer causing qualities (yea right) was it.
The next pictures I put in here was for the Millennials and grandchildren that may be reading this. They did not invent the “Selfie” even though they think they did. Us “Baby Boomers” were doing selfies long before the Millennial and the “Smartphone” came into existence:
As I said, we partied a lot because we really did not know if it was our final day on earth or not … but we did know … and I learned after a few short weeks … that we were not going to spend our time worrying about the end for us.
Because I could play 6 or 7 chords on the guitar I was the entertainer of our little group:
While I was in Vietnam I had a knack for writing song lyrics and poems. I, unfortunately, did not have a knack for actually writing melodies or music so I would have to steal melodies and music from other entertainers to entertain my buddies. I don’t think they minded though since they continued to request me to play for them.
Here’s the words to the song I was singing here … and it went to the Johnny Cash Tune of San Quentin. You can click on that link to hear his song … but here are the words to mine:
Vietnam I hate every inch of you …
Now for another assignment:
My 90 days as a perimeter guard was coming to a close … I was getting ready for a new assignment. Where would it be? And, what would I be doing? Would it be dangerous? For now you will just have to wait and see. We were told that the life expectancy of a GI in the Vietnam war was about 6 months. It seems I’d made it halfway … what would the rest of my journey be like?
That’s all I have for this edition. You will get more later. Hope you enjoy this and don’t forget to leave your comments (if any) below.
Jerry Nix, FreeWaveMaker, LLC.