Note from the Author: This is part four of my experience during the Vietnam Conflict. You can pick up Part One, Part Two and Part Three by clicking on the links.
Back to the Nam
It was in May, 1970 when I boarded – once again – that big commercial airliner and headed back to Vietnam to complete my first tour. I remember my mother’s words ringing in my ears as I kissed her goodbye at the gate to board the plane at O’hare International Airport in Chicago.
“Don’t you go over there and fall in love with one of those oriental women. You finish your tour of duty and get back home where you belong. One year is enough for this country to take my son away,” She said as she hugged me goodbye for the second time. Why she had to say something about the falling in love with one of those oriental women is beyond me. My girlfriend at the time, Terri, was standing right next to her.
“Ahh Ma,” I said as I smiled at her, “You don’t have to worry I am only going to spend one tour over there because I promised Terri I would come back to marry her.”
Yea, I had a tendency – as a younger man – to fall in love with any woman who looked for more than 3 seconds at me and after the first date usually promised to marry her. I was a romantic at heart. I had only met Terri about a week and a half before I had to leave to go back to Vietnam and had only had about 3 dates during that time and was already discussing marriage.
Within just a couple of hours I was landing in the Philadelphia Airport and catching a taxi to Fort Dix New Jersey. Ironically, by nightfall I was on another big commercial airliner headed for a 20 to 24 hour flight to Vietnam. There was no KP or garbage detail for 3 or 4 days before boarding this time … I was an old guy and was not treated like an FNG (pronounced Funoogy).
If you want to know more about FNGs, you can watch this video I found on Youtube. If you do not want to hear some vulgarity, I suggest you not watch this film. However, it will give some sense as to what we mean when we say FNG vs. Old Guy.
Click Here it shows the difference between the FNG and the Old Guy.
As I was on my flight back to the Nam … I had no idea as to whether I would end up in the same company or not. My orders only told me to report to the 90th Replacement Battalion again, in Long Bien. While flying back I did have some time to think. I mainly thought about Terri, the girl I’d left behind. Was there a future there? I came to the conclusion, rather quickly, there was not.
She liked smoking pot and listening to Hard Rock … I was into Whiskey and Country Music. Her other friends and I never got along in the whole week and a half that I knew her. I made a decision … I would not string her along … I’d write her a “Dear Jane” letter as soon as I got settled and let her down as easy as possible — after all — though I may consider myself a “heartthrob” … I was also a “nice guy.”
Before long, about 24 hours since I left Fort Dix and about 36 hours since I left home … I was reporting into the 90th Replacement Battalion. No sooner did I check in I was given orders to return to … you guessed it … the 539th Transportation Company. I thought, “Oh cap … back to that damned typewriter ordering aircraft parts. I really should be fighting in this war if I am going to be over here.” But, what does Uncle Sam know?
Same old Company … brand new Job
They already had a 3/4 ton truck (smaller than a deuce and a half) waiting to take me home …
We drove through the gates of Phu Loi and into my company area at about 4:00 PM in early May 1970. I made it back to my hooch and found not much had changed except that my roommates were all little darker from the sun they’d been working in and I once again was white as snow. Funny how long it seems to get a tan and how fast it can leave you when you sleep most of the day and stay up all night long.
The next morning when I reported for duty I found out that I was no longer the “Maintenance Clerk” thank God. That job had been given to some FNG that could type about 80 words per minute with no mistakes.
I had been given a new job … one of several I would have during my stay in Vietnam. I had a tendency to screw them all up for one reason or another. For the next few months it was my job to De-fuel aircraft before the flight line mechanics could begin to work on them. Every Helicopter that could not fly must have the fuel removed from the tanks until all work was completed. Once removed, the military said the fuel was contaminated and must never be used again for anything other than possibly starting fires. If we could not burn it up on the ground … we were to dump it out in the perimeter and just let it soak into the soil. If only the “tree huggers” knew this. Here’s a picture of a truck very similar to mine that I captured on the internet, below. Believe me … if I’d known 48 years ago that I’d be around to write these stories today … two things would have happened:
- I would have taken more pictures, and
- I would have taken better care of myself physically and mentally.
No, the guy on top of this truck is not me. I had to get this picture from the internet and I have no idea who he is. But, it could have been me since he is dressed about the same way I did.
Yes, I’d left an airconditioned office for a truck that had no air conditioning other than going 50 miles per hour (it’s top speed) and opening all windows. What a dummy I was.
Keep in mind that this truck would hold about 5,000 gallons of JP4 (that was the Jet Fuel used by helicopters in Vietnam) which was a very high grade diesel like fuel. My job was to fill the truck which took one to two days normally … provide Bill Denham – our sanitation engineer (a title he gave himself) – enough to burn the days human feces (that was his job) …. and dump the rest somewhere out in the perimeter.
The perfect Gig for an EOD Specialist
Bill Denham … that was a character. A friend of mine, nonetheless. Bill was trained in EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal). Since we had no real explosives in the 539th, the company commander put him in charge of the only fire we should ever have … that of “burning crap.” Bill did not like the title “Shit Burner” that the military gave him, so he changed it to “Sanitation Engineer“. Remember we did not have flushable toilets in Vietnam. We were privy to only outdoor privies. For some of you reading this who may have never seen an outhouse – and I hope you never have to use one – here’s what they could look like.
Now below those two holes were portions (about 1/3rd to 1/2) of 55 Gallon Drums (pictured below). These two-holers would fill quite quickly … but we also had some 6 and 8 holers (a picture of a 6-holer is below) that would not have to be emptied as often.
This is a view from the backside … notice the doors that are hinged. This is where the “Sanitation Engineer” would reach in and grab a barrel and pull it outside … throw a little fuel on it and set it on fire (see below):
Now I can tell you with 100% certainty that the person in this photo is not my friend Bill Denham. Bill was much to smart and way lazier than this ole boy is. Bill’s hands never touched a barrel of feces and he never worked more than 2 hours per day at his job (until later when he had to). Like I said he was smart. Keep Reading.
The day Bill was given this wonderful job he took it upon himself to head to the village of Phu Loi …
He recruited 3 boysons (three young Vietnamese Males) and hired them to do the dirty work. He would pick them up and drop them off each day in his deuce and a half truck. The amount he paid them was about $2.00 per week (not bad for 7 days – about 14 hours – of work). It cost Bill $6 per week to have a job that allowed him to work only 2 hours per day and screw off the rest of his time in the Nam. He loved it – and I think it is the only actual job he had throughout his tour of duty.
The boysons would reach in … grab the drums of crap … throw them in the truck and replace the old drums with new ones that Bill had gotten a papasan (an older male) in Phu Loi to make for him. He would rotate from used to cleaned drums every day. Once his truck was empty of clean drums (and I think we had about 10 of these outhouses in our company area) Bill would drive the truck to a big hole at the back of our Helicopter Boneyard. The boysons would empty the poop cans into the hole and clean them out. Bill would call me (the defueler) on the radio … I’d drive down to the hole and spray some Jet Fuel on the stuff and Bill would throw in a match. That was all there was too his job. He spent a year in the Nam and worked 7 days per week … 2 hours per day … for a total of only 728 hours … if you can call it work. He said, “Hey it’s a whole lot better than wearing a blast suit in this hot sun and trying to dispose of a bomb.”
I think he was probably right … I know how hot it got in our trucks in the Nam … how about trying to work in that hot sun wearing one of these things. I would have suffocated.
Bill loved his job – as did most Sanitation Engineers in most companies – while many of us were envious but glad that we did not have that job.
But after all – it was a job someone had to do.
During the early parts of the war (mid to late 60’s) even though there was racial tensions in the homeland (America) the whites and blacks on the battlefields of Vietnam seemed to be getting along. But then, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King there was a lot of black anger in Vietnam – some of it brought on by white soldiers who decided it would be a good idea to hang confederate flags outside their hooches.
On Aug. 29, 1968, hundreds of black prisoners overwhelmed prison guards at Long Binh Jail, captured the stockade commander and set the mess hall and administration building on fire. On Nov. 23, 1968, The Philadelphia Tribune wrote of large-scale battles between black and white soldiers in service clubs in Da Nang and Long Binh. In late 1968, the journalist Zalin Grant reported that “racial incidents occurred at the nearby China Beach recreation area and in Danang clubs and dining halls” on an almost daily basis. He concluded that the “biggest threat is race riots, not the Vietcong.” You can read about this in a New York Times Article by clicking on the link I’ve provided. The name of the story is Black and White in Vietnam.
I did not notice this racial tension when I first arrived in Vietnam in January 1970 … but is was certainly becoming more and more noticeable the more we got into our daily routines in the 539th Transportation Company. I did not know it at the time … but this was the first war America had fought with a desegregated military. Even though a law was passed in 1948 to desegregate it did not happen until about 1954 (after the Korean Conflict).
Fortunately, for us in the 539th, we had a black company commander and a white Top (First Sergeant). Our company commander, the black major was from the northern part of America while the white Top was from the deep south. These two guys got along like two peas in a pod and required that we do the same. Don’t get me wrong, this does not mean we were racial tension free. We still had our share of fights … but most of them were only fist fights and did not last too long until the commander and Top was in the middle breaking them up.
I have yet to understand why this carried over to the Vietnam War – this Racial inequality thing – but it did and I was never for it (Racial Inequality). I felt that we all bleed red blood regardless of our skin color. I know that this racial tension was primarily on base camps and other support camps … and not in the jungle among fighting troops. How do I know – even though I was not in the jungle fighting – because I would see the patrols come into camp and be amazed (black and white) about what was going on. However, they would not be in camp but for a few days before they too would be on one side or the other.
I remember during some of the darkest hours I walked into Bill Denham’s room. He was laying in bed holding a claymore mine trigger in his hand watching TV (AFVN – Armed Forces Vietnam – the only TV channel we had) at it was discussing some of the racial tension we were seeing.
I asked him what he was doing with the triggering device and he grinned from ear to ear and said, “I’ve loaded the revetment out front with C4 and if any of those black guys come in here after me I am taking them all out.
Bill had torn apart 5 claymore mines (pictured below) and put the C4 out of those minds into the sand found between the wood barriers of this revetment.
The idea was to blow them as soon as someone opened his door that he did not approve of.
Naturally, had Bill done this he would have not only killed the black guys he wanted to … he would have killed himself, me and others that were within about a thousand feet or so of this man made bomb. I don’t know how … but I was able to talk him out of this hairbrained idea and removed the trigger mechanism from his hooch. The next thing he and I did was wait till nightfall then Bill and I removed the C4 from the revetment.
Figure 9: Exterior and Interior of M18 Claymore Mine
The first picture above shows the mine, the electrical cord and the triggering device of an M18 Claymore Mine. This is the mine Bill disassembled and made his own idea of a bomb. The second picture shows inside … nothing but steel balls compressed into the plastic explosive C4. If you want to see what one claymore mine looks like when it explodes watch the first 1 minute of this video. Then image five going off at one time.
Only a week or two into our darkest days of tension the Company Commander and First Sergeant came up with a plan. We could either get along voluntarily or they would force it. How? By making sure our 4-men rooms were a combination of Black, White and Hispanic soldiers. Eventually, things did calm down and we seemed to once again learned to live together. I was glad.
The days of Snakes and Piglets …
My friend from the Florida Everglades … Donnie Dees … never had a problem with anyone ever wanting to stay in his room with him and his multiple den of animals. Yes, he had a monkey that hated everyone except the man who fed him … Donnie. He had a few frogs, turtles and several snakes.
Vietnam is home to some of the world’s deadliest snakes such as asian cobras, king cobras, coral snakes, kraits, and numerous vipers and pit vipers. The fact is that over 30 of Vietnam’s 140 snake species are poisonous. Donnie Dees, in my opinion, knew all 140 snakes and which were and were not venomous.
I did not go to his room for fear one of the snakes may be loose … and I heard that one, his favorite, was almost always loose. I’m not ashamed to tell you that I have two phobias … Claustrophobia and Ophidiophobia … That is tight spaces and snakes … and when you combine the two … whooa!!! Remember I told you in an earlier article our rooms were only about 300 square feet (15’X20′). The rooms had only one way in and one way out. I would give Donnie’s room wide berth when I had to pass it for fear he would throw me in it then stand and lean on the door outside so I could not get out. The Monkey would flat make me mad by throwing things and spitting on me … but his biggest pet snake was always loose just crawling around the room.
This is not THE SNAKE Donnie had … but very similar to the snake he had. I remember the day he came walking into the company area dragging this thing around his neck. I asked him how he found it and he stated he found it out in the perimeter of the company area when he was repairing some of the fencing. I asked, “How long do you think it is?’
He said, “Not sure, why don’t you come help me stretch him out and we will measure him.”
I said, “You go to hell, man, and take the snake with you.”
Donnie just laughed.
The snake was just shy of 16 feet long. It is said they are capable of reaching 23 feet or more in length and weighing up to 200 pounds with a girth as big as a telephone pole. This snake was already almost as big around as a telephone pole.
What did Donnie feed it?
Once a week, Donnie would make his way to the market in downtown Phu Loi and bring back one of these little critters.
Yea, to those of you reading this … this may seem cruel … but the snake had to eat to stay happy and if you lived in our company area … you wanted that snake happy. As long as he was happy (or she – I really never knew) the snake would leave us humans alone.
This is Donnie, pictured to the left. Now everyone that I knew and I believe everyone in the company area of the 539th Transportation Company like and admired Donnie.
He was just one of those “likeable guys” that seemed to never meet a stranger and we he talked to you seemed more concerned talking about you than talking about him.
People would tend to flock to him in a room full of people to hear his stories of the Florida Everglades … but they also steered clear of his room.
Other Jobs I held …
Flightline Crew Chief
After getting fired from my job as Defueler, I became a crew chief on the flight-line. I was fired as a defueler because I loaned Bill Denham my truck one day to go burn his crap. He almost blew the truck up. The fire from the previous day was not completely out and he took the hose from the truck and started soaking down his crap pit with JP4 from my truck. We saw the fire start travelling up the stream of fuel to the hose and Bill and his boysons running to beat hell. Fortunately, when he threw the hose on the ground it shut off and saved the truck – yet somehow the company commander found out about it. Need I say more. We were both fortunate that the company commander was in a good mood. Could never figure out why I lost my job and Bill did not lose his. I guess you couldn’t get much lower on the totem pole of occupations. He was required to start doing odd-jobs at the company commanders discretion after completing his job for the day … but all he did was to do his job a lot slower. Now instead of doing it in 2 hours he took 6 to 8 hours to do it. That means he found some places to hide out.
As crew chief on the flight line it was my responsibility to check the work done on the helicopters by the mechanics and with the permission of my commanding officer (CO) or Sergeant approve the aircraft to be test flown. Since the CO or Sergeant rarely got out of the air conditioned office to actually look at the aircraft … they took my word for it. However, the test pilots did not.
In the 539th Transportation Company we had two main test pilots (and yes they flew other missions as well when they were not testing aircraft). These pilots were Captain James R McConnel and Chief Warrant Officers (Mr.) Darrel E Jones. There were chosen as test pilots because of their excellent flying skills and the ability to put the helicopter through its paces. In Vietnam there were several different kinds of helicopters in use depending on branch of military (e.g. Navy, Army, Air Force or Marines) and country (e.g. Vietnam, America, Korea, Australia or other) and location (e.g. Delta, Central, Highlands, etc.).
In the 539th we were equipped to repair and test them all … but these five shown below are the primary ones we serviced in our company:
Figure 12: Common Helicopters Repaired at 539th
From upper left to lower right these have the following nicknames: Huey, Chinook, Cobra, Bell Jet Ranger, and Loach.
When Mr. Jones and/or Captain McConnel would come to the flight line to test a helicopter I’d signed off on … I would always be required to not only assist them on their pre-flight checklist … but also jump in the co-pilot’s seat and make the flight with them. That was the “fun” part of the job. Inevitably I’d be given a chance to take over the controls and do a little flying of my own. The reason I was required to go though, was to make sure I trusted those that were doing the work, if I was going to trust that others could fly in the helicopter after it was released.
I cannot forget the first time this occurred. It was Mr. Jones flying the aircraft and it was a Huey gun ship. Huey’s were used as gun ships, troop movement or medevac flights. We were at about 6,000 to 7,000 feet and he did not tell me anything. All of a sudden our engine shut down and we started falling out of the sky. I could see the ground coming up faster and faster and to be honest with you my butt was taking big bites out of the co-pilot’s seat. I closed my eyes and began to pray.
When I opened my eyes (full of tears) we had landed as soft as a feather on an old dirt road and Mr. Jones was laughing like he was being tickled with a feather. He had just performed one of the many tasks that he was required to do on a test flight. It was known as an auto-rotation.
Now you may hear people talking about the advantage of an airplane over a helicopter is that if you lose an engine on an airplane you can glide to a landing but the helicopter will drop like a rock. I’m here to tell you that a helicopter will also glide — much safer I might add — then an airplane if it loses an engine. Now if it loses a rotor blade or the transmission the rotor blade main shaft is attached too … that is a different story … but the loss of an engine with an experienced pilot is no big thing.
For those who want to know more … check out this 9 minute video I found on Youtube.
I held this job for a longer period of time than I held the defueling job … and was glad I did. I really got to know the pilots quite well and loved the flying part of it. Flying a helicopter, I learned, took a lot of skill. As for controls you had two pedals (to make the tail of the helicopter go left or right), a collective stick (to make the helicopter go up and down) and a cyclic stick (to make the helicopter go forward, backward, right or left). All of these have to be used at the same time … especially when Hovering in one place.
I was always amazed at a good pilot’s ability to hover a helicopter above a load or over a particular drop zone for minutes and/or hours on end. I could do it for about 30 seconds and before I knew it the aircraft was creeping back, down and to the right due to the force of the rotor blades and my inability to overcome the force with proper movement of the pedals, collective and cyclic controls.
I learned to take off, fly and land … but was never good enough to auto-rotate or hover the aircraft.
When we were not busy on the flightline, of course, the company commander and Top Sergeant made sure I was busy helping maintain the company area with clean up duties and painting, etc. They never forgot that I loaned out that old defueling tank truck, I guess.
The Boneyard (aka Snake Pit)
Then one day, about 3 months after I’d started working on the flight-line I was notified that I was the new proprietor (yea right) of the 539th Transportations Boneyard.
When I got there, it was a lot more crowded than what is shown in the picture. Pipe Smoke Recovery, our helicopter recovery unit on the base, had the job of recovering crashed helicopters. They had a choice to bring them in or destroy them on site. In many cases they would bring them back to our base camp to see if they could be repaired – but many could not be. It was pretty hard for an enlisted man, below the rank of 2nd Lieutenant to order an aircraft be destroyed on site knowing that the replacement cost of one Huey (UH-1D) the #1 Helicopter used in Vietnam was $4.7 million dollars. Therefore, many were brought back and placed in “My Boneyard.”
It was up to me to remove parts and pieces that could be used on other aircraft and scrap the rest. Scrap literally meant loading up the skeleton of what was left and hauling it off to Bien Hoa where it would eventually be crushed, then transported to a ship and sent back to America for reusable steel and aluminum I guess.
Boy, I really hated this job. It was hot and the boneyard was full of “SNAKES” that I did not like at all. To me it did not matter if they were poisonous or not … I wanted them all dead. They should have sent Donnie Dees to do this job!
One day I was trying to disassemble a helicopter with an ax. That was about the highest form of technology I had in the boneyard for big cut jobs. I had loaded a helicopter to a flat bed trailer and I was axing the fuselage just behind the doors and above my head, because the whole helicopter would not fit on the trailer for transport and needed to be cut in half – and the damn ax handle broke. The head flew off the handle and came back and struck me in the nose … breaking it. I was madder than a wet hen … then decided I was lucky it was a one sided ax and not a two sided ax.
Figure 14: Comparison of Axes.
Shortly thereafter, I got 5 fixed wing small aircraft in the boneyard in one week. The nickname of this aircraft was “birddog” and this is what they looked like:
One of the planes was missing a main wing, one was missing a tail wing, one was missing the tail fin, one was missing landing gear and only one had an engine and seats. Needless to say I made that my base model and took from other planes to build a complete plane (in my spare time, of course). My idea was to con Captain McConnel or Mr. Jones into test flying this plane and let me go with them.
Captain McConnel and I decided to take off at 4:00 one morning and be back by 5:00 before the Air Traffic Controllers went to work in the tower. Somehow, word of this must have gotten to the CO because one again my job was changed just a few days before our test … but I really didn’t care this time. I was saying goodbye to dirty greasy helicopters and hundreds if not thousands of those damned snakes.
By this time it was late November, 1970 and I only had about 45 days left in country. I figured this would be my last job, Driving the Jeep for the Company Commander. I also figured it would be a pretty good job and there was probably not much I could do to “screw it up” since the company commander would be sitting just to my right on most “missions” if we could call them that.
This is what his vehicle looked like – though this one has none of our markings on it since I picked it up off the internet:
Most of our so-called “missions” were to locations within the base camp of Phu Loi. However, there were a few times that we would travel to far away places like Long Bien, Bien Hoa or Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) – but those were rare.
It was during one of these trips, however, that the Company Commander was able to convince me that I should extend my tour of duty for another 6 months. There were reasons to do this …
- Combat and Hazardous duty pay would continue even though I was not really in combat and the most hazard I’d had was with snakes in the boneyard,
- I would be more eligible for an early out if the military decided to do such things than one who had not served in a combat zone or only served one term, and
- By extending my stay I could keep blood relatives, like brothers and sisters, from having to spend time in the country of Vietnam, and finally,
- Immediate leave for 30 days as an extended R&R (in other words it would not count against my total military leave time).
Boy, what a crock of you know what, but I was almost sold.
Shortly after this I was asked by the Executive Officer XO (the CO was on R&R) to drive Staff Sergeant Larry Wiggins (I believe it was) to Long Bien to take care of some military business (what business, I did not know or care … I just wanted to drive). Sgt. Wiggins wanted to bring along his Grease Gun (that we were not eligible to have) and that he had recently purchased to test fire after we smuggled it off-base. As the driver of the jeep I did not have to allow it since the jeep and any passengers in it was my responsibility … but I was getting short so said, “Ok, but it’s all on you if we are caught with it leaving or arriving at any gates!”
On the way to our destination, he picked up the gun and was playing around with it. He had his finger on the trigger and the gun pointed at the dashboard of the jeep. I hit a bump at about 40-50 MPH and all of a sudden the sound of the bullet being fired into the dash and engine compartment of the jeep was deafening.
Man, if I didn’t have bad luck I would have no luck at all. Now on this new job I am already facing difficulties for allowing someone who outranks me to shoot up the company commanders jeep. I guess it could have been worse … he could have had the gun pointed at me instead of the dash.
Fortunately, there was no damage done to the Jeep engine … just a hole from the .45 caliber slug in the dash. As soon as we got back I headed for the company area office and extended my tour of duty and got my orders to go home for Christmas (this was around December 12th or so). I wanted to get out of there before the CO returned to a bullet hole in the dash. Sergeant Wiggins said he would take care of the hole before the CO got back. I don’t know if he did or not.
Two days later (one day before the CO returned) I was headed back to Tan Son Nhat International Airport for a freedom bird home.
That’s all for this edition … stay tuned for Part 5 of my Vietnam War Adventure.
With Admiration of those who went before, with and after me,
Jerry Nix, FreeWaveMaker, LLC