Semi-REMF Stories, Americal 69-70
After I graduated from artillery officer candidate school (OCS) at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma in June of 1967, I was stationed at Ft. Carson, Colorado. Ft Carson is on a plateau just south of Colorado Springs, Colorado and east of a range of the Rocky Mountains up at about 5000 ft. My orders said clearly that I was to be reassigned to the Republic of South Vietnam (RSVN) no later than 6 months after this change of station. I was assigned to a 155 battery in a battalion of mixed self-propelled (SP) 155mm and 8" howitzers attached to the 5th Mechanized Infantry Division.
It was actually quite a coincidence getting an assignment in Colorado as my young wife had been staying with her grandmother in Greeley, Colorado while I was in OCS. I had been given my orders a couple of weeks prior to my graduation so I was able let her know before I headed her way. I had managed to resist the temptation of buying a new car upon graduation, as was the tradition. I settled instead for a little bodywork, new coat of paint, and tires for my battered but still reliable 1960 VW bug. It was hardly the Mustang, Camaro or sports car that was the preferred car of most new Lieutenants, but seemed like the practical thing to do. After all, I was a married man. My one concession to the peer and testosterone pressure for a fast car was that I had my bug painted British Racing Green. It really did look like a new car and I was content with that for the time being.
My wife and I had eloped just after I had completed basic training on my leave prior to what I thought would be a 12 month period of electronics training at Ft Bliss, Texas. I had enlisted to be a Nike Missile Guidance System Technician after having received my draft notice. After a few weeks in advanced individual training (AIT), it finally sunk in that I was being trained for an obsolete antiaircraft fire control military occupation specialty (MOS). I was learning how to write backwards and plot incoming aircraft on a large Plexiglas situation display. The equipment I thought I had enlisted to work on had replaced this manual system. I was told that they kept a few people trained as a backup in case the new electronic equipment failed or was destroyed.
I asked to see my training battery commander and tried to explain to him that there had been some kind of a mistake. He simply opened my personnel file, showed me my enlistment papers, and asked if that was my signature on the papers. When I said yes, he then showed me the MOS listed and said it was what I was being trained for. I realized that the recruiter had pulled a fast one on me and had put down a MOS he needed to fill, not what I had told him I wanted. When I told the captain that the recruiter had hoodwinked me, he said that there was nothing he could do because as far as he could see, all the paperwork was in order. After briefly considering and discarding asking to see the Judge Adjutant General (JAG) and filing a complaint, I asked him what other options I had. He briefly looked over my papers and said that I had done very well on my military entrance exams and was qualified for just about everything. He started down a list including airborne, rangers, special forces, officer candidate school (OCS) and several other occupations. When I indicated an interest in OCS, he perked up and quickly got out some paperwork. I thought that the added income and benefits would allow me to take better care of my new wife. I also prayed to every god that I could think of, I would someday bump into that recruiter after I was an officer.
I started filling out the paperwork while my commander (CO) waited. When I came to a part that said select 3 branch choices, I noticed the first 4 were infantry, armor, artillery, and engineers. Below these, were options like chemical, quartermaster, communications, transportation, ordnance, etc. I checked off three from the less dangerous sounding group, signed the papers, and handed them over. After looking them over, he chuckled and gave them back to me and said that one of my choices needed to be a combat arms branch, those 4 at the top. At that point, I knew what the outcome to my request would be. As he watched the understanding come over my face, he added, " and if you expect my approval you had better do this right" and pointed at the crossed cannons on his collar. I thought about it a moment and checked the box for artillery. I remembered that my dad had trained as a "90-day wonder" in the artillery towards the end of WWII. Like father like son, I thought. After completing my questionable training and some time as a company driver and mail clerk for a basic training unit, my orders for OCS finally came through. I drove my wife up to Colorado to stay with her grandma and then back down to Ft. Sill. Twenty-three long and demanding weeks later, I was proudly an artillery second lieutenant or a "butter bar".
When I arrived in Colorado Springs, my wife had already found and rented a wonderful old stone home on the outskirts of town. It was small, in a quiet neighborhood, surrounded by rose bushes, and it fit our needs and desires perfectly. Our first day's back together seemed like a honeymoon, after the forced 6-month separation while I was in OCS. It was summertime and Colorado was beautiful that time of year. The sky and air was crystal clear in the mornings and a light short summer rain blew in off the mountains almost every afternoon. We were young, I had just turned 21 and she was 19, very much in love, and we pretended that it would be like this forever. After our passions from being apart so long died down, cracks began to appear in our relationship. We found that in the months we had been apart, we had both changed into very different and somewhat opposing people. She had been living in a college town, associating with the students, and had naturally assimilated some of the anti-war sentiment and drug culture that was part of the college scene at that time. On the other hand, I had become very much indoctrinated by the military culture: short hair, starched uniforms, can-do attitude, all bone and muscle including large deposits between my ears. I even considered a military career for a while, which must have horrified her as she had grown up as an Air Force brat. Probably one of her biggest reasons for eloping with me was to get away from that life style and her domineering father, a Lieutenant Colonel.
A few months later, I came home early one afternoon to surprise her with a dinner out and found her packing. Haltingly, on the verge of tears, she said she had planned on being gone before I got home, leaving a letter on the bed. I was shocked and hurt but at the same time trying to maintain the machismo that was a part of who I was at that time. I struggled to remain calm so that I could try and make some sense of what she was saying and talk her out of it. After a long conversation that at times grew heated, I came to see that she was committed to this course of action. It appeared that nothing I could say or do would change her mind. So I began to ask what her plans were and how she hoped to get along. She indicated that she was going to stay with a girlfriend and beyond that she hadnít planned much. She said that she would probably get a job and since it was her decision that she didnít expect anything from me.
As a second Lt., I made a little over $300 per month at that time and she knew that my resources were very thin. I insisted that she at least take our Bug. I assured her that I would be able to arrange a small loan from the Ft. Carson Credit Union to finance another car and could move into the bachelors officer quarters (BOQ) to get by if I had to. She put her things in the Bug and drove away. We talked on the phone a few times over the next few months and I kept hoping in vain that she would change her mind. She had been my high school sweetheart and we had come quite a ways together and I loved her with a passion that was overwhelming at times. I was physically and emotionally a wreck for quite a few weeks after she left. I drank too much, developed a deep appreciation for blues music, and spent way too much time feeling sorry for myself.
The next year proved to be an emotional roller coaster ride for me. I went from black despair over the loss of romance and love in my life to the highs of a football player on a winning team. My duties as a junior battery officer ran the gamut of everything from maintenance officer to fire direction officer (FDO). For a while, I was also a training officer, teaching an infantry 4.2" (four-deuce) mortar unit how to use their mortars for indirect fire. I became familiar with the 155 SP howitzer and mechanized infantry style operations. A 5th Mech. Brigade was slated to deploy to Vietnam soon and I assumed, based on my orders to Ft. Carson, that I would be going with them. It turned out that my battery was not on the levy for Vietnam. They did ask for volunteers to fill the empty forward observer (FO) slots in the units going over. I decided that going to Vietnam with a green unit to be stationed right on the demilitarized zone (DMZ) was probably not the wisest thing to do. Instead, I choose to wait for my orders through regular channels and hope to get an assignment with a more experienced unit. It proved that almost all of the FOs who had deployed with the brigade were killed or wounded within six months of arriving in Vietnam.
The 5th Mechís commanding general at Ft. Carson was an avid sports enthusiast and supported any and all team sports as a way of improving morale and esprit de corp. I had not played football in high school, at the time being more interested in music and band. At 6í and 220lb, the coaches were always after me to help them shore up their lines. I had often wondered afterwards if I had missed out on something important by that decision. A fellow battery officer, a natural athlete who had grown up on a ranch in Oklahoma, told me about the division football league. I immediately signed up for the team along with him. During the football season, we put in a short work day and then went to football practice in the afternoon. I had been increasingly depressed by my marital situation and somehow instinctively knew that I needed the physical activity for my mental health. I had lost a lot of weight during the demanding physical training at OCS and now at 175lb was a little light for the line. I was used as a weak side pulling guard on sweeps and rode the bench a lot due to my inexperience. Whenever I got the chance though, I played hard and learned fast, an ability I was blessed with. We had a good solid team that year and ended up 2nd, loosing a heartbreaker in the championship game. On a cold slushy early winter afternoon we missed a single extra point on a mushy sleet-dampened field which proved to be the margin of the game. Even though I didnít get to play regularly, I had learned a lot of the important techniques. I decided that I wanted to play on the defense, not offense.
Our battery commander had complained bitterly when he found out that both Ron and myself were playing. He said that he couldnít afford to loose us both at the same time. We both persisted, so he later gave both of us average officer efficiency reports (OER) in retaliation. Given the state of inflation that existed in the OER process at that time, they would have been career ending. By that time, I had grown out of the idea of making a career in the military and was planning on returning to college when I got out. So other than the pettiness of it, I didnít mind that much. I did however, relent and not go out for any other sports the rest of the year after the football season. Ron suffered no such pangs and played sports year round. I did play the next season when it turned out that I didnít receive the expected orders for RSVN. I had worked out hard with weights during the off season and had bulked up to about 205. At this weight and strength, I could play outside linebacker easily.
Our team that next year was smaller due to the deployment of the unit to Vietnam, so I easily made 1st string. I was also frequently forced to play offensive guard too, going both ways. Our team wasnít as good that second season, we went 2 and 3, but I really enjoyed playing the defense. The highlight of my season was an interception I made close to the opponentís goal. The opposing quarterback threw a slant-in to the end, which dropped rights into my arms when I stepped up to fill a gap after the snap. No one was more surprised than me and I stood there staring at the ball for a moment before Ron, playing defensive back, came up and hit me from behind knocking me towards the goal line. I was on about the 7-yard line and stumbled forward to about the 2-yard line before the opponents converged and knocked me down. I took a lot of good-natured ribbing from the team about missing my chance at glory. However, our offense scored on the next play and we won the game by a good margin, so that eased my embarrassment a little. I had gotten a small taste of what it was like to be a football hero and can see why so many young men batter and bruise their bodies in pursuit of that elusive feeling. It was sweet while it lasted.
During my second season of football, my estranged wife and I had a try at reconciliation at the behest of her parents. This proved to be another painful experience for both of us. When she first left, I had shopped around and found a well used but pretty little red Triumph Spitfire for the few hundred dollars I could borrow at that time. I had decided that since I was separated, I would give in to that urge for a sports car after all. Just before she moved back in, I had finally scraped together enough money to buy a near new engine and transmission for it from a local junkyard. The engine was smoking badly and reverse gear had gone out. My wife packed a picnic lunch and went with me to the junkyard to help out and provide moral support. Together, we drove to the yard early in the morning, changed out the engine/trans unit, and then drove it home that evening.
One wintry day a few weeks later, when I came home after commuting to work with a buddy so she could use the car, she was packing again. She told me that she had blind-sided a Mustang with my Spitfire and totaled the front end that morning. She said she knew I wouldnít want her around after that. Even though that was far from the truth, I realized that it was probably as good an excuse as any other. It was time to face the fact that it wasnít going to work out between us. I didnít argue with her this time. She had managed to trash the Bug in short order after we separated and had sold it to a junkyard in Denver. So she called up the girlfriend she had been living with. She came a few hours later and picked her up. We talked on the phone a few times and I got one letter from her when I was overseas, but I never saw her again after that. The clean break was probably best for both of us in the long run.
A couple of weeks later, I moved into a wonderful house 7 miles up in the foothills at the base of the mountains just west of Ft. Carson. The owner lived out of state and very courageously rented it to three other lieutenants and myself. Our nearest neighbors were about a mile away and the view from the upstairs veranda of the 2-story house was simply incredible. Since the four of us rarely had the same duty hours or personal schedules, it also provided me with a great place to get away from it all and do some serious thinking. Even when my roomies were around and raising hell it only took about a 200 yards walk into the small pine trees surrounding the place to have a little solitude, peace, and quiet. As I felt that I would soon be on orders for SE Asia, I bought several firearms and began to hone my skills with them. I learned how to snap shoot accurately with a small caliber handgun. I then transferred this skill up to an accurized government model 1911 Colt .45 similar to the one I would be carrying in Vietnam. I also purchased nice bolt action rifle in a heavy caliber and practiced my long-range marksmanship on the trees in the mostly deserted hills and mountainsides. I soon got to where I could reliably knock over small pine trees from several hundred meters, not very ecologically minded but satisfying never the less. I got terrain maps of the area from work and honed my map reading and path finding skills. One thing I learned from a little map analysis was that we were only a few miles away from the Air Forceís SAC center under Cheyenne Mountain. One day I hiked to the base of Cheyenne Mountain and up to the outer boundary fences and warning signs. From there I could make out some very large openings down into the mountain, which I guessed were the airshafts which fed the nationís nuclear defense center. For a moment, I actually considered popping a few rounds from my 7mm Parker Hale short rifle into these airshafts to see if I could get a rise out of the boys in blue. After some rare clear thinking, I decided it was a little too sophomoric and anyway I hadnít really prepared properly for such a "mission". I soon naively began to think that I was about as ready for the real thing as I could be.
After my Spitfire had been rendered inoperable by its losing battle with the Mustang, I had begged and borrowed ever cent I could and bought a battered old red 56 Ford pickup for $150. I then started to save up to put the Spitfire back together. It wasnít a great car but I decided to fix it up because of its near new drive train and the fact that I really enjoyed tinkering on it. That was good, because it always seemed to need something but it sure was a pleasure to drive fast with it on those Rocky Mountain backcountry roads. Two months later, I finally saved enough to buy the parts I needed. I drove down to tow it from the parking spot I had rented for it and found that it had been stolen. After a fruitless session with local gendarmes, which left me little hope that they would do anything, I did some amateur detective work. Knocking on a few doors and asking people around the neighborhood if they had seen anything, I finally found a couple of young kids who remembered it being driven off a few days earlier. It stuck out in their minds because it looked so funny driving off with a bare front end. On the Spitfire, the front hood and fenders were a single unit called a bonnet which was lifted for access to the engine. I had stripped it, removed and discarded it as unsalvageable. The radiator was badly damaged, so I reasoned it couldnít have driven far. I got my small Montesa motorcycle and rode around the local neighborhoods looking for my Spit with my .45 in my pants. After a few hours of buzzing around, my anger and determination finally fizzled out. I concluded it must have been taken for the engine and trans and was probably already dismantled. Itís a good thing I didnít find it as in my mental state, I very well might have shot someone and gotten in big trouble.
At about this same time, I had recieved a letter from a lawyer that my wifeís father had gotten for her. He was demanding a $3500 settlement to be used for her education as the terms of the divorce. I was sure that it was coming mostly from her father and chafed at it as a result. In my mind, it seemed a little unfair as I felt I had made all the sacrifices and compromises during our short-lived relationship. The lawyer I talked with told me that it was a good deal and so after some fruitless grumbling, I shut up and paid the money. I had to borrow it from my folks and so found myself broke, embarrassingly in debt to my parents, and with some 6 months left in the army. Not a great situation but that was just the way it had been going for me.
A little while after this, I managed to crunch up the fender of Ronís lady friendís late model Mustang. She was a bartender and I had borrowed it to go get my checkbook, after I had drank up all the money I had in my pocket. I didn't think we were going to be out that long and hadn't brought much with me. I am sure she knew better but let me take it at Ron's urging anyway. I ruined the fender by smacking into a small pine tree when I over-slide through a tight turn playing Parnelli Jones on the dirt roads coming back down from our house up in the hills. Fortunately for me, no one was around as I was probably over the legal limit and might have ended up in the clink. Ron offered to talk his girlfriend into claiming a drunk had hit it in the parking lot outside of where she worked. That way her insurance would take care of it less a small deductible, which he would pick up in exchange for what he owed me at the time. Since the repair estimate was around $300 and I figured I was going to be broke for 2 months paying for it, I took his offer. However, the experience was an eye-opener for me and it forced me to take a long hard look at myself and where I was heading. I did a lot of soul-searching and decided that I needed to make some big changes in my life.
As I thought about my situation, I came to the conclusion that I had been training and gearing up for Vietnam for close to 3 years and it now looked like that wasnít going to happen. In some strange way I was not relieved by this but very frustrated and left feeling like I wouldnít be doing my fair share. I also wanted to know if I could cut it in battle, an old and foolish question. I also wanted to be able to pay my folks off and have a good chunk of change in the bank to support me when I went back to college. I reasoned that saving money in a battle zone should be a snap. I just needed to survive in order to collect my savings. For whatever reason, I finally came to the conclusion that I wanted these things and to know the answer to that question more than I was worried about dying.
I called up the personnel office in Washington DC and volunteered to extend for a year and to be assigned to Vietnam. After explaining what I wanted to the elderly gentleman on the phone, he asked what kind of trouble I was in. I wasnít sure what he meant at first but finally figured out that he thought I must be in trouble with the law to do what I was doing. I tried my best to explain my decision to him but he wasnít buying any of it, so finally in frustration I told him I was just plain crazy. He then reluctantly agreed to set things in motion after he checked up on me to make sure I wasnít really in some kind of trouble. He said I could expect to be in RSVN in about 30 days. I immediately applied for all the leave I had coming, about 3 weeks. In the next week, I said my good-byes to my friends and fellow officers in the battery and without exception I was told I was nuts. I sold my old truck and stored my motorcycle with a local dealer. I also sold my guns having been told that personal weapons weren't allowed in Vietnam. I later regretted that, especially missing my accurized Colt .45 when I saw the clunker I was issued in country. I then headed home to try and explain what I had done to my folks.
I surprised my family the next day after flying from Denver to LA and renting a gold colored Buick Skylark to drive to my small hometown of Lompoc on the central California coast. My dad worked at Vandenberg AFB, which along with a federal prison, a John-Mansville plant, and agriculture were the major local industries. When I came through the front door, I could tell by the look on my Momís face that she knew what I had done without having to say a word. I am not sure she fully understood but she had been brought up during WWII and lost a brother in New Guinea. She knew what I needed now more than anything was her moral support. She gave it without any hesitation. My dad just nodded and quietly accepted my decision without a word. It was Feb 1969, during my leave, usually a wet time of the year on the central coast. This year it turned out to be mild, dry, clear, and windy as always. I was able to do a little surf fishing, cruise around to all my old haunts, look up a few friends still in the area, and drink a lot of beer. I had been gone since April 66 but things around town hadnít changed that much. My younger brother had been drafted and was headed for Germany and my youngest brother and sister were still in school. I made my peace with family and friends and tried to get ready for what was to come as best I could.
After three weeks, I returned the rental car and my folks drove me up to Travis AFB east of San Francisco. I hugged them all and got on the Tiger Airlines 707 for the long flight to Vietnam. During the 30-hour flight, we stopped briefly in Hawaii, Guam, and Japan to refuel. The plane was filled mostly with young soldiers headed for their first tour (newbies) like myself. Scattered around plane were a few returning veterans who mostly kept to them selves and were much quieter. The plane grew quieter and quieter, the closer we got to Vietnam in spite of the stewardessís attempts to keep things light. As we began the final descent into Binh Hoa AFB just outside of Saigon, everyone crowded the windows trying to get a first look at the place that might claim our lives.
As the doors opened and we headed towards the steps of the airliner, we were assaulted with the oppressive heat, humidity, and smell of South Vietnam. The stewardessís didnít give us the traditional good-bye when we exited the plane but rather nodded quietly in response to our subdued mood. I also noticed they were having a hard time making eye contact with us. We loaded onto buses that had wire mesh over the windows and were told that it was to keep grenades from coming through the windows. At that moment, it struck home that we were in war zone. I immediately regretted not having brought my .45 as there had been absolutely no checks of our baggage coming into the country. I had brought a decent parkerized-hunting knife with me and took some small comfort by removing it from my bag and putting it on my hip. We rode the buses a few miles through heavy clouds of red clinging dust to the Long Binh replacement depot (REPL/DEPO).
We arrived at a compound full of stateside looking barracks, unloaded, and were assigned to a barracks and a bunk. We were then issued our jungle clothing, showed the mess halls and various clubs, and told to stay close by. A bored Sergeant told us we could expect to get our assignments and transportation in a day or two. Each morning Vietnamese women came and cleaned up the barracks. At night we could hear firing off in the distance as well as see flares going off in the night skies. Those first nights were long uncomfortable ones with our lack of acclimation to the heat and humidity. I was able to sleep only when it cooled off briefly a couple of hours just before the sun came up. As the Sgt. had said, I spent a couple of days there before receiving orders for the 23rd Infantry Division also called the Americal Division. It was a unit, which had been established during WWII and had fought in the South Pacific. It had been deactivated after WWII was over. It had recently been reactivated and assigned to the southern I Corp, a large area of operations (AO) from just south of Da Nang all the way down to Duc Pho, just above the central highlands. The unit patch was a dark blue shield with the four stars of the Southern Cross on it.
I was transported back to the AFB and boarded a C-130 which flew up to Da Nang. Taking off and landing in a C-130 in Vietnam was quite an experience and gave me a taste of what to expect flying in RSVN. The C-130 had a short take off and landing (STOL) capability and they accelerated hard down the runway. On liftoff, they climbed as rapidly as possible to get out of small arms range. At the other end, they did the reverse, a steep and rapid descent, slamming into the runway and then braking hard and reversing the props to add their thrust to help the aircraft stop. It was an exciting and hair-raising ride compared to stateside flying. That was nothing compared to the helicopter ride from Da Nang to Chu Lai. The helicopter pilots in Vietnam took great pride in their ability to make their passengers air sick. Newbies or FNGs, easily identified by their clothing, were given the royal treatment. We flew down to within a few feet of the rice paddies and then bounced up and over the tree lines and down into the next paddy. At one point in the flight, the helicopter skids were within inches of a river we had turned up. I wondered if we touched the river whether we would ski along the surface or be grabbed and slammed into the water at a 100 knots. I weathered the ride well in spite of the pilots best efforts and the pilot gave me a disappointed thumbs up when I exited the aircraft at Chu Lai. I was directed to the division replacement center where I in-processed at the division and then per standard army policy, waited some more.
A few days later, the next cycle of "in country training" began. This was intended to "familiarize" us with the specialized equipment, tactics, terrain, and nature of the warfare we could expect to encounter in the Americal. For me it was the very first time I had handled an M-16, the standard issue rifle in Vietnam. My basic training and all the stateside units I had been assigned had used the M-14. The M-14 was a much different weapon, being basically an updated M-1 Garand, chambered in the slightly less powerful 7.62mm NATO cartridge. It had a detachable 20 round magazine and was selectable for full and semi automatic fire. It had been designed and was highly suitable for a more "conventional" war, such as might be fought in a European or desert theater. As such, it was quite effective in the hands of even an average marksman up to about 500 meters. However, this very virtue meant that it and the ammunition it fired were comparatively large and heavy. For Vietnam, the military establishment decided that a lighter weapon with a faster rate of fire was in order. The M-16 in 5.56mm cartridge, allowing for more ammunition to be carried, was selected. It was only effective out to about 300 meters, but as most firefights were very much up close and personal, this was not usually an issue.
By the time I went to RSVN, the problems with the M-16 had received a lot of attention by both the news media and the military. After some study, it is now my opinion that the only thing really wrong with the M-16 was that its high rate of fire design was inherently susceptible to the dirty and damp conditions of a jungle war. It needed to be kept very clean and well lubricated in order to function properly, not something that one could always control in the battlefield environment. The problems with the weapon jamming were really more a result a huge lot of 5.56 mm ammunition the military had purchased and stockpiled. The powder in this ammo burned too slowly and produced excessive carbon deposits in the chamber and bolt causing the M-16 to jam solidly. Rather than identifying and pulling this lot of ammunition from its the stockpiles, the military decide instead to let the M-16 take the heat and came up with a number of kludges to try and allow it to function in spite of the dirty burning ammo. Very slick graphite lubricants and plating the chamber and bolt were the two fixes I was aware of when I went over. I therefore insured that when I was issued my M-16, it was one of the later ones that had the plated parts. I also brought my own supply of moly-graphite lube from a stateside gun store. I also became anal about the cleanliness of my weapon. I was more fortunate than most grunts or other field soldiers as the nature of my job almost always provided me with the time and place to assure that my weapon was spotless. My M-16 only malfunctioned once after firing 20 magazines as fast as I could load and fire and then it was just a mis-feed. I was able to clear it immediately by jacking the operating rod once.
During our in-country training, I learned how to handle, zero, and hit with the M-16. We also received an impressive demonstration from a team of former VC who had taken part in the Chu Hoy program. The Chu Hoy program allowed VC to surrender and come to work for our side after some indoctrination and training. We watched them slither through a perimeter in a typical US configuration without making a sound in an unbelievably short period of time. We learned a little about the division and the various units and their AOs. We also learned about the current political and military situation in our AO. We were also shown typical enemy fortifications and booby traps we might encounter. All too quickly, the week was over.
The culmination of the in country training was a live patrol with a squad of grunts to an outpost about 10 kilometers outside of the Chu Lai perimeter. This was a very secure area but we were told that an ambush wasnít out of the question. The heat and humidity was incredible and to this day it is still amazing to me that the grunts could function under those conditions. Within 1 klick, we were all drenched with sweat and already drinking our water. The trail took us through heavily wooded hedgerows and across dusty uncultivated rice paddies. In some places, we went through thick stands of bamboo and elephant grass. During this walk in the sun, we got a real hard look at our own ineptitude in this alien environment. In some places, we couldnít see 3 feet through the thick vegetation and it was clear there could have been a regiment in there and we wouldnít have been able to see them though our sweat and exhaustion. I quickly began wishing I had brought more than the 2 canteens I was carrying. The grunt squad gave us a break at about the half way point in a small village. As we neared, the village a group of people appeared and began hawking their wares. We all nervously eyed the villagers until the grunts told us to relax this was a friendly "vill". A young girl appeared on a bicycle with an ice chest wired to it containing ice cold cokes for "one dolla GI". I couldnít resist and forked over and hoped it didnít contain ground up glass, poison, or a dose of dysentery per the warnings we received in training. I it gulped down and survived, although it didnít taste anything like stateside coke. It was basically just flavored water but it sure hit the spot.
At about 1500 hours, we arrived at the firebase on a hill that rose straight up 150 ft out of the countryside. It had a very steep trail, which crisscrossed its way up a steep slope on one side of the hill. On the other side the hill dropped almost straight down. We were to spend the night on the firebase and be airlifted back to Chu Lai in the morning. After that, we would be transported to our newly assigned units. We had found whatever shade we could and tried our best to cool down from the patrol. A few minutes later, I heard explosions from the other side of the small outpost. I hurried over to find a weary looking grunt in faded cut-off fatigues chucking grenades from a large box over the steep side of the hill. I asked what was going on and he explained in a tired voice that he was disposing of dated ordnance. He casually reached into box containing every type of grenade I knew of and quite a few I had never seen, lifted out a WWII era pineapple, pulled the pin and threw it over the side. I watched it bounce down about 25 meters and explode with a loud crack. Having thrown only 2 grenades in basic training, I asked if he could use a hand. He looked up with surprise in his eyes and said, "sure, lieutenant, go for it". Seeing my obvious pleasure at his response, he smiled in wistful way and stood back out of the way ready to bail out in case I dropped one. I picked out one of the smooth skinned grenades shaped like a giant egg which I was familiar with from basic. It contained a coil of serrated wire that produced a large blast containing wire slivers in vicious spray covering about a 5-meter area. I carefully followed the DI's instructions, which still rang loud in my mind and safely got it down the hillside. After it exploded, I then proceeded to try out one of each of the many different types in the box. The pineapples, baseball shaped ones I had never seen, surprisingly light black beer can shaped concussion grenades, thermal grenades, white phosphorous, colored smokes, and so on until I had tried them all a couple of times. Knowing that I had a long night ahead, I asked grunt if there was any deadline on the job. When his face asked the question why, I explained I thought it would be a good idea to throw them randomly during the night all around the perimeter to discourage anyone trying to sneak up the hill, the sapper demonstration still fresh in my mind. He said," hey lieutenant, whatever turns ya on and walked away shaking his head". So I spent the long night happily chucking the grenades over the side of the OP.
The next morning, we were choppered back to Chu Lai base camp. From there, I was given a quiet and now very boring ride by truck to a large firebase just east of the Chu Lai perimeter called Artillery Hill. On this very secure LZ, I began my initial assignment as a battalion fire direction officer (FDO) with the 3/16 artillery. I was now officially in-country and had started my tour which was to last another 15 long and unforgettable months.Back