JOURNAL OF ACTIVITIES: MY YEAR
After completing basic training, advanced infantry training and jungle warfare training at Ft. Hood, TX, I received orders for a tour of duty in Vietnam. It was in mid-November and Army policy was to give 30 days leave to soldiers going overseas. I flew home, relaxed for 30 days and said my good-byes.
My orders said to report to the Oakland Army Base on December 13, 1966 where I spent the night at the 92nd Replacement Station and was taken to Travis Air Force Base early the next day for my flight on a C-141 Military Air Transport jet to Vietnam.
December 16-25. The 15th Admin. Station in An Khe was a dreary place. It had been raining heavily and the camp appeared to be new, but a lot of it was unpaved and muddy from the rains. We were assigned to huge tents and spent the next days being processed, getting uniforms and other equipment and waiting to be assigned to our units. We received some RVN (Republic of Vietnam) training, as well. The training classes were not what I expected. We moved to the training center for 3 days and had to take all of our belongings with us. The first day included lectures by the chaplain, doctors, lawyers and other officers, but the second day things got a little rougher. We went out to a firing range to zero in our weapons. In the morning they had a demonstration on the different types of weapons. They included grenade launchers, 60 caliber machine guns, rocket launchers, smoke bombs, claymore mines and hand grenades. It started to rain. By noon, we were all thoroughly drenched and then we had to fire the M-16 rifles. We had to lay in a rice paddy and stomp through it to check our targets. We marched on muddy roads and through flooded streams. All this was in preparation of what was to come in the field where we would be assigned. We were wearing combat fatigues and the jungle boots really helped in this environment since the top part was made of canvas and on the bottom drainage holes let out the water. The soles were grooved and gave good traction.
The training continued with instruction on booby traps that the Viet Cong employed. A trail had been set up with camouflaged traps to simulate what one would encounter in the field. It was difficult to see the punji stakes that had been hidden and the mines with trip wires. We finally finished the training in the late afternoon and returned to the tents at Camp Radcliff. The next morning we went on a simulated patrol up Hong Kong Mountain. We went up a narrow muddy trail through heavy underbrush and into the jungle. We ran into a lot of wild life including what looked like a peacock but was actually a wild turkey. The monsoon season was just ending in the Highlands, but it was still raining hard and this day was not an exception. In the afternoon, instructors provided helicopter training, which involved rappelling. A tall tower was used for practice. We were shown how to make a "Swiss Seat" by wrapping a rope around the waist and under the legs. Normally, a hook attaches to a rope that is on the helicopter. Once connected, you jump by kicking off and slide down the rope. It was quite an experience, but now we knew what to expect.
We were not going to receive our pay until January 31, but would be given an advance. I asked for $20 and figured that would be enough since there was no place to spend it. We learned that U.S. currency was not used in Vietnam by the military. Instead, Military Payment Certificates (MPC) were used. Additionally, our full pay would not be given to us. We had to elect an amount to be paid monthly and the remainder would be sent to our home of record, a designated U.S. bank account or held for us by the Army in Vietnam until we went home. I asked to receive $50 a month and that the balance of my wages be sent home.
I was told I would be going to Company D, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment and would be in the mortar platoon. We would be flown by helicopter to the forward command. Bob Hope was to perform at An Khe on Christmas Day, but I missed it since I was on my way to my new unit. The battalion was on Operation Thayer II and had been out there since August. We were told that in about 3 or 4 days we would be going on Operation Bird. The unit had made contact with the enemy periodically, but they had been fortunate in losing only 6 men in recent months. I said good-bye to some of the guys I had come over with and left with the rest of the group. I never got to go into the town of An Khe, but didn't really care since I had been told that it was a money trap and looked like the bad parts of Tijuana. Maybe next time.
December 25-28. I arrived at the Phan Thiet Airfield (LZ Betty) in the afternoon, where the Battalion had its headquarters and the Battalion commander greeted us in front of his offices, which were in a brick building. The entrance to the building had the Garry Owen shield over the doorway, the First Cavalry patch was on one side of the door and a list of major Vietnam battles the units had been engaged in was on the other side. There were several buildings in the compound and Army tents housing various activities. There were soldiers moving throughout the camp and jeeps and other Army vehicles everywhere. At the end of the landing strip there were helicopter bunkers and several airplanes were parked near the airfield.
However, our stay at Phan Thiet was short and we were taken by Chinook helicopter that afternoon to LZ Virginia where we met the guys in our unit. I remember being introduced to Sal Mione, Victor Ware, Ivan Alfaro, Sylvester Bourgeois and several others. Since the tour of duty in Vietnam lasted one year, half the platoon was replaced every six months with new troops, except for replacements when there were casualties. About a dozen of us were replacing those who had just left to go home and the other dozen or so "old timers" were waiting for their last six months to pass so that they, too, could go home. Some of the new guys who had arrived with me were John Sommer, Rich Woodke, Ronnie Pugh, Don Rodriguez, Dan Dandrea, Joe Cardwell, Frank Garza, Dave Platson, Steve Craig, David Hancock and Tony Picciuto. I was shown my hooch where I could set up my air mattress and stow my gear. The hooch was a bunker that had been dug out and fortified with sandbags. It had a couple of ponchos stretched over it to form a tent for a roof. We were briefed on life at the LZ and quickly adapted. Hot meals were usually flown in by helicopter for lunch and the evening meal and breakfast was C-rations or whatever one could improvise. The latrines consisted of open pits that had been dug out and which we covered with sand and lime as they filled. The showers were little more than ammo boxes with 55 gallon drums perched high to allow water to drain on the individual underneath. In later months, the Army Corps of Engineers built sturdier latrines and showers, but my first exposure to Army life in Vietnam was quite dreary.
We learned that the routine was to be awakened at 5:45 A.M. We had until 9:00 A.M. to eat, shave and get dressed. We would draw water from cans, filling our helmets and using the cold water to wash and shave. (Beards were not allowed, although mustaches were.) We then cleaned the mortar and our personal weapons the rest of the morning. Lunch was at noon and dinner around 5:00 P.M. At first we didn't have to do much more except to be prepared when fire missions were called. Everyone would run to their mortar and get ready. The old timers did the actual firing and we would be phased into the action gradually. The first night in camp one of the rifle platoons made contact and we supported them with mortar fire. They sustained some casualties. The next day the same thing happened in one of the other units. Every night we took turns on guard duty. Each person stood one hour of duty and periodically we fired one or two H & I (harassment and interdiction) mortar rounds randomly as harassment for the Viet Cong.December 29-31. Our Platoon Sergeant, Howard Smith and his assistant, David Hancock told us to prepare for a long-range patrol. We were a mortar platoon and it was time to get busy. Since we were mortarmen, we had to carry the mortar and its ammunition. Everyone had a designated job; there was a squad leader, some carried the base plate, others the mortar tube, bipod, sight, aiming stakes or ammo. Additionally, we had to carry our weapons and C-rations for a week-long patrol. I got to carry six very heavy rounds of ammo on a backpack and numerous cans of C-rations, water canteens, my M-16, ammunition for the rifle, hand grenades and other items that felt overly weighty and uncomfortable. The patrol moved out in a column. The mortars were in the middle of the formation with rifle platoons flanking them. The first night we slept in a cemetery. The Vietnamese bury their dead with huge mounds above ground, which make ideal protection for soldiers. We didn't have to dig any foxholes that night. It was hot during the day and it was the dry season. Creeks and rivers had no water or had only stagnant pools from which we tried to fill our canteens. I was low on water and thirsty. In the morning I tried to collect the dew that had formed on leaves, but it wasn't enough to quench the thirst. We found some stagnant water and while trying to fill the canteens, we received sniper fire. That night we slept in a dry rice paddy. I pulled perimeter guard with Joe Cardwell who was a smoker. Even though we had been told not to light up at night, Cardwell did and immediately was shot at by a sniper. Fortunately, the sniper missed, but we were all upset with Cardwell for his negligence. The next days we continued patrolling with occasional sniper fire being directed at us. Some rice caches were discovered and destroyed by our unit during the patrol. Finally we were lifted out by helicopter and returned to "civilization" New Year's Eve.
January 3-5.Our quiet time didn't last too long. We had to go on another patrol. This time it was to a place called LZ Surf. Our squad had to carry the mortar. I got the aiming stakes and took turns carrying the base plate. The first day we were in sand dunes near the ocean and climbed a sand hill. It was very strenuous work with the heavy gear we were loaded down with; we walked for three hours and then took a break to eat our C-rations for lunch. We moved out again and walked for another four hours. Finally, we slept in the sand, near the ocean. After leaving the sand in the morning, a sniper started firing at us. We set up the mortar quickly and shot back. This discouraged the sniper and he stopped shooting. We continued the patrol through thick vegetation in the Le Hong Phong forest near the seacoast. We were running out of water and found a stream where we could fill our canteens. As we were filling up a sniper started firing at us again. We fired back, finished getting our water and moved out. The next night we slept in a dried out rice paddy. In the morning, our sniper friend was back harassing us. We fired our mortar at him again with no obvious results. We got ready to return to camp after things quieted down. It was a tiring and stressful patrol. As it turned out, the rifle platoons killed five Viet Cong and burned five tons of rice that were found during the time we were out there.
January 6-12.We were back at LZ Virginia again. It was time to write letters and tell everyone back home what we had done last week. Other activities involved cleaning our weapons, including the mortars and practicing fire missions. We would also unpack and stack mortar ammunition in the bunkers near the mortar. Our hooches were "furnished" very sparsely. We usually had an airbag and a poncho liner to serve as our bedding and sometimes used mosquito netting. My airbag had a leak in it and I finally was able to trade it for an extra one I found in the supply area. We kept our duffel bags with us and they usually contained clean fatigues and socks and our personal belongings. One could always find cans of C-rations in the hooches. They were often kept as snacks. Later on, some of the guys became adept at cooking the C-rations and transforming them into "culinary masterpieces" that were highly seasoned with hot sauce and other spices and herbs. A couple of days after being at Virginia, we all got word of a casualty in one of the line platoons. A soldier whom we only knew as Missouri had been killed. The young man had been killed by an enemy sniper and he was the first casualty that we experienced close to home. Although the new guys didn't know him, we had all heard his name around camp and on patrol in the days since we had arrived. He had been from the state of Missouri, hence his nickname, and I recently found out that his actual name was Timmy Mattingly.
January 13-14.Our platoon was told to prepare for an overnight patrol. Apparently, Intelligence had developed that the Viet Cong were maintaining a vegetable market in the area. We were going to try to find it and hopefully, the VC that ran it. It seemed rather odd to me, but I got lucky because I was told to remain at LZ Virginia with a couple of others to guard the equipment and supplies that belonged to our unit. I guess we were mostly guarding it from our own people in the company who stayed behind and might get an itch to steal something. We certainly couldn't have been guarding from the Viet Cong!
January 15.Everybody came back from the patrol, which turned out to be a total waste of time. Fortunately, nothing happened at LZ Virginia while they were away. All the gear and supplies had been stored in a huge Army tent and nothing had been disturbed while we were there to guard it. We returned to our normal routine at camp.
The sun was really hot and most of the guys did not wear shirts around camp. I was not used to the intense rays of the sun and had been cautious about exposing myself to them. It was very inconvenient and uncomfortable wearing fatigue shirts all day. I decided to become more tolerant of the sun when I found a can of sunblock that the Army issued. Somebody had discarded it so I took it and began to use it. I gradually exposed my upper body and applied the sunblock until I finally got to the point where I could go around without a shirt most of the day. I would generally use a green tee shirt, but now I could remove that whenever I had to be outside working and sweating.
January 16-20. It had been a busy month for us, the new troops, as far as I was concerned. Another patrol was ordered. This time we were to go on a long-range patrol (LRP) with the line platoons. It was originally planned as an overnight "goat" or ambush near the railroad tracks, but the scope apparently changed and off we went. The rifle platoons were going to set up the ambush on an abandoned railroad track because they were expecting some Viet Cong to cross it that night. Our mortar platoon was to stay behind, but the Commanding Officer (CO) asked for 8 of us to help reinforce the others that were going out. We were supposed to come in at noon the next day. The CO decided to keep us out another night. However, at about 8 P.M. it started to rain. We were at the base of a mountain and we got thoroughly wet. In the morning, we were told we were going to go around the base of the mountain and finish the patrol. Instead, I noticed that we were climbing the mountain. I knew then that we would be out at least another day. We patrolled in the mountains and climbed what was called Cold Shower Mountain. I don't know if this was the actual translated name of the mountain as it appeared on the map or whether someone just tagged it that way for us. (Note: Capt. Adams, now retired Colonel Adams recently told me he was not particularly pleased that he was given the radio call sign Cold Shower 6 and that the mountain was also assigned that name. He thinks it was a topic of humor for many of the troopers who climbed the mountain.) The climb was steep over huge granite rocks that were wet and slippery. There was a lot of jungle vegetation. At about 3 P.M. we stopped on a little trail and we were told to drop all of our gear except for our weapons and ammo; that 12 VC had been spotted and we were going to surprise them. Soon there was a lot of shooting. Everyone spread out and Don Rodriguez, the Radio Telephone Operator (RTO), another trooper and I took cover and tried to figure out what was going on. There was a lot of yelling and running around. One of the officers came and told us to follow him. We went down into a stream bed and came across two dead Viet Cong. Artillery was called in and helicopters were flying above firing machine guns and aerial rocket artillery rounds (ARA). The Viet Cong unit escaped. We regrouped and started to search the area. It appeared we had surprised a Viet Cong camp of about 50, which was set up in one of the caves among the boulders. The ones that had been there had left everything and run. We went through the place and destroyed all the food and supplies that had been left behind. We also captured a 60 mm mortar, which in fact, the Viet Cong had previously captured from U.S. troops. On our return to camp, the mortar was turned over to our platoon and became a godsend since we now would be able to carry the lighter weapon on future missions.
We finished climbing up the mountain. It was no fun. There were no trails and it was difficult terrain. We slipped and slid all the way on the climb up, but managed by holding on to bamboo plants, shrubs and whatever we could find along the way. We camped on the mountain that night and the next day went clear to the top. To me, it was thrilling to see the heavy bamboo forest at the top which appeared to have been undisturbed by man. There was huge bamboo with stems as thick as the trunks of any trees I had ever seen. The forest was dark and moist and butterflies flitted around (also, mosquitoes and other insects). It was very peaceful up there. It was unbelievable that places like this existed away from all the fighting and chaos that was going on in the rest of the country. Mentally, I transported myself for a brief moment to the tranquil life I had been pulled away from. It all ended when we were told that the mountain was 960 meters high and when the CO informed everyone that there was no way down except the way we had come up. We turned around and went down, taking another eight difficult hours to descend.
We stopped one more night near the base of the mountain and finally made it back without anymore incidents. Out of the 12 Viet Cong that had been spotted and 50 that were thought to have been there, five had been killed. I gave thanks that I was a mortarman and usually would not be encountering the situations riflemen did, as on this last patrol.
We arrived home at Virginia via helicopter and
rested up from the LRP. Helicopters would land periodically on the landing pad, which was
near the mortar platoons area, and stir up the sand each time. The entire area was
composed of sandy soil and the vegetation around the camp was sparse and gray. It reminded
me of a desert-like environment such as one might see in Arizona or New Mexico. It was a
definite contrast to the lush and green jungles we encountered on patrols and the fertile,
cultivated areas where the Vietnamese people lived and farmed. At LZ Virginia I couldn't
really enjoy plants like I always had. There was not much I could do to practice any kind
of gardening, although one day I found a squash or watermelon plant that was growing near
one of the bunkers. It probably germinated from a seed someone spit out that he was
eating. I decided to water it and nurture it to see what it would turn out to be.
Unfortunately, I didn't get very far with this project because we had to leave again.
January 20-February 7.
February 7-12.The Company Commander, Capt. Bobby Ray Adams informed us we were moving out of LZ Virginia and our instructions were to build LZ Lucky Strike at the location we were taken. We spent these days digging fox holes and mortar pits, filling sand bags to fortify them. It was hard, sweaty work and it turned out to be a fairly decent camp. We would go down to a creek after working all day and bathe in the water, always watchful for leeches and other dangers. Sometimes in the evening we could hear the trumpeting of what sounded like elephants in the distance. There was a lot of vegetation, plenty of insects and thick jungle surrounding the area. I was always intrigued by a species of bird I would hear in the early mornings and evenings making a loud sound that remarkably sounded like "f*ck you"... or maybe it was "ca coo." I never did see the bird even though its call echoed in the stillness. Later on, I found out that the animal making the sounds was actually a well-known gecko or lizard, but it still seemed like a bird to me. (It was nicknamed the F*ck-you Lizard by Vietnam GIs and found all over the country.)
February 12-19.At least this time we were flown back to LZ Betty. We could take showers in a one-stall shower room near Battalion Headquarters and the camp was relatively secure since it was also the Phan Thiet Airport and well-protected. The entire perimeter was fenced and there were tall guard towers along the way. Artillery and Armored units were stationed here and there was substantial support for them and the helicopter troops that provided us with their services. Helicopters were parked in heavily bunkered areas. Roads weaved around the camp and airfield. Jeeps, mules (flatbed motor vehicles) tanks and personnel carriers were constantly moving about. Far outside the perimeter, in the middle of nothing, was a building standing alone. It had been dubbed the "Howard Johnsons" because it resembled Howard Johnson motel or restaurant buildings. We never did find out what the building was or if it was occupied.
I once even saw a 1957 red and white Plymouth sedan with its big rear fins drive into the Phan Thiet airfield. I imagine it belonged to someone who lived in the town of Phan Thiet. Usually we only saw jeeps and military trucks along with the thousands of bicycles and motor scooters that were the predominant means of transportation.
Whenever we were at LZ Betty, of course, we
had to set up our mortars and guard and maintain them. The danger factor seemed lower for
us here because of all this seemingly organized and typical Army activity that was
prevalent, as well as the Vietnamese life that went on around us.
February 20-26.Our unit was flown out to what was called LZ Fred. We set out on an LRP from here after burning the hillside where we landed. I supposed this was to make it safer for choppers to land on future missions. We walked up a stream bed and set up camp along the edge. The weather was hot and dry and we were rationing the water we were carrying. The newer members of the platoon were shown how to dig in the stream bed in order to tap the water table underneath and draw water from it. The water was milky in appearance and tasted murky to me, but we added iodine tablets to it in our canteens as a precaution. I was finding out that water was water as long as it was safe to drink. Our platoon had the 60 mm mortar and I had to carry five of the rounds for it on a backboard. Although heavy, it was a lot lighter load than if I had had to carry rounds for the 81 mm mortar. On the patrol, there were only two places where we set up that we could have fired the mortar. The rest of the time we were in heavily wooded areas with dense overgrowth. I developed blisters on my feet from all the humping until we finally found a stream and walked through it, relieving my aching feet. We set up on the edge of the stream and stayed there for two days. Wielding machetes, we cut an LZ so that a helicopter could land with supplies and to evacuate some guys that had gotten sick. We finally left and followed the stream for miles, again going through heavy bamboo thickets. Along the way we ran into an abandoned VC training camp and set it on fire. Later some VC hooches were found and we went in and found clearings where the VC had kept some animals in the pastures. While we were going past the hooches four Viet Cong started firing at us and one of them was killed by our rifle platoons.
The patrol continued through wooded areas and we came across another stream. While I was crossing it, I lost my balance and fell in the water and got completely soaked. I kept checking myself to see if any leeches had attached themselves to me since they were common everywhere we went. Luckily, the leeches seemed not to favor me and I didn't have any on me. On one of the trails I found some peacock feathers which I collected and sent home as a souvenir. Our last night was spent in a clearing that would accommodate the helicopters that would pick us up the following morning. For harassment, we shot mortar rounds in the surrounding area since we knew it was VC territory. A group of about 30 Montagnards suddenly appeared from out of the woods to give themselves up since they thought we were firing on them. One of them spoke English and served as interpreter for them and was able to explain to them what was going on.
February 26-March 7.After the LRP, our destination was LZ Virginia. It was better than being out in the boonies. Some changes had occurred since the last time we were there. My squash plant was gone. Also, an Army Corps of Engineers group had been brought in and built wooden latrines and shower stalls. The latrines were a definite improvement over the trenches that we had been using previously. Now we had "toilets" with cut-off oil drums underneath the structure to catch the human waste. The nasty thing was that we had to periodically burn the waste with JP4, a diesel fuel. This was standard practice at all the other camps where latrines existed. One could usually see the black smoke billowing from the barrels when the waste was being burned. The shower stalls were simple enclosures with a 55 gallon barrel positioned on a high shelf. There was a wooden ladder in the back of the structure to reach the water barrel. A shower head was attached to the barrel and it had valve to turn it on and off. The idea was to fill the barrel with water and allow the water to shower the user by gravity. It worked and was better than having to wait until we went to LZ Betty for showers. On this visit to Virginia, I had a hooch that was close to the helicopter landing pad and each time a chopper came in it would blow sand everywhere. I had sand and grit all over my things and despite the new showers, couldn't keep clean. Sand was in my hair and I felt gritty as it stuck to my sweaty body. After this stay, I made sure I selected a hooch, which was farther away.
Our CO was supposed to be going on R&R the next week and said he didn't want us going on any patrols while he was away. He told us we would be moving to LZ Betty and that soon afterwards we would be getting a new Company Commander since he was being reassigned.
March 8-11.So much for what our CO had said. We didn't move to Betty and a long range patrol to LZ Salem was called. Off we went again. This one involved patrolling in dense, woody areas and cutting an LZ for an observation chopper to land. It was no fun and involved miserable work, cutting and chopping the trees and shrubs in the area. Everything had to be cut close to the ground so that the helicopter would not be damaged when it landed. Generally, Huey helicopters would bring in the troops one by one, hover a few feet above the ground while the troops jumped off and then move out immediately so that the next chopper in line could do the same. This procedure had to be accomplished quickly because the helicopter was in danger of getting shot down and the soldiers were in danger of getting killed. Everyone was a sitting duck while this was going on. As a result, the landing area had to be as clear of obstructions as possible. This time it was a LOCH helicopter that would be using the landing area, but the same safety considerations had to be followed.
An accident occurred on this patrol. A group of guys were standing underneath some trees and somehow a grenade launcher was fired accidentally. The round hit the branches of one of the trees and the shrapnel wounded one of our guys. Don Rodriguez was taken by medevac to the aid station at LZ Betty. Fortunately, the wounds were not life-threatening and he returned to our unit after being treated for their injuries.
March 12.We weren't finished with our mission. A "mini-Cav" was called and this involved some of us going out on a short patrol, fully equipped. Ever since our unit captured the 60mm mortar from the VC in January, we had been using it consistently. For this mini-Cav we were told to take the 81mm mortar and we had to lug the heavy weapon, with its baseplate, bipod and large mortar rounds. We all felt we could do without this type of patrol. The 60mm mortar was heavy enough. The entire weapon weighed about 40 lb. and the rounds were about 4 lb. each. Guys that weren't carrying a part of the mortar carried at least 6 rounds. In contrast, the 81mm weighed more than 130 pounds complete. One person carried the tube, which was about 45 lb., another guy carried the bipod weighing more than 45 lb. and a third individual carried the base plate, which was also a hefty 45 lb. The mortar rounds were a burdensome 10 lb.+, so the difference between the two weapons, weightwise, was very apparent. Almost everyone was loaded down with more than 40 lb. a piece just from the weapon. This mini-Cav ended with no surprises for us and we were happy to get back to recuperate.
March 12-18.We returned to LZ Virginia and surprisingly a couple of new troops were brought in. Lloyd Butler had arrived. I knew him from my assignment at Ft. Hood, TX. We got together and a couple of the other guys and I showed him around and introduced him to some of the others. Butler and I built what we later called our "deluxe hooch" at LZ Virginia. Eddie Stanfield, also from California, was also added to our platoon about this time, but I am sure exactly when. Richard Allen from Chicago arrived about this time too. I believe that our unit was now at full strength and no other additions were made until several months later.
March 19-22.Another long range patrol was planned and this time we walked out of LZ Virginia. We were going to be patrolling the immediate area, but it turned into a rough mission. The weather was hot and the terrain difficult. I developed stomach cramps on the last day of the patrol and the heat also struck several others in the platoon. A medevac chopper was called and we were taken to the Battalion aid station at LZ Betty where the doctors determined that my cramps were caused by heat exhaustion. Later, when I was released and returned to LZ Virginia, our platoon sergeant accused us of faking it because he had found evidence that indicated one of the others had put something foul in his canteen. I denied I had done anything like that, of course, but the sergeant still gave me clean up duty as punishment. I disliked Sgt. Howard Smith intensely from that day on; in any case, he was not well-liked by most of the other platoon members because of his unfairness, favoritism and seeming disdain for most of the men. I kept my distance and avoided him as much as I could. Smith left the company in July or August mysteriously. We never found out why he was replaced or where he was reassigned.
March 27-30.We were being assigned a new Commanding Officer, Captain George "Jay" Martindell. On his first long range patrol, he led us to LZ Cheese. He appeared to be a good leader and everyone seemed happy with the new CO. We were in mountainous terrain and found what we thought was an abandoned Montegnard village. The Montegnard are indigenous tribes to the area and, generally, were friendly towards the U.S. military. It later looked more likely to be Viet Cong dwellings. There were pigs and chickens running loose in the village and it appeared that everyone had just run off before we got there. At the village, we found the corpse of an old woman who probably had died of natural causes, but had not been buried yet when the people fled. On the trail leading to the village, the lead rifle platoon found punji stake pits and uncovered them as they went along. The VC had also placed punji stakes along the edges of the trail and camouflaged them well. This gave us a clue as to what we had encountered. There was no further action on this patrol, although numerous booby traps were found on the trails we followed. Most of the time, the point man or the lead rifle platoon found the traps, marked or signaled them out and word was passed on down the column so that each person could avoid them.
March 31-April 2.Another week at LZ Betty was spent recuperating from the last LRP. The Army regularly provided the troops with what were called "sundries." These were cartons of candy, gum, cigarettes, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco and other supplies. We also got cases of sodas and beer, which occasionally we cooled by purchasing ice blocks from Vietnamese merchants. The sundries were given out at regular intervals and, in fact, we usually weren't able to consume all of the goods. The remaining items were sometimes used to trade or barter with the Vietnamese. We also bought Cokes and other snacks at the Vietnamese stands. We were generally paid in MPCs (military payment certificates), although we could get U.S. currency whenever a finance officer came out and exchanged the MPCs for dollars. It usually wasn't necessary because the MPCs were readily accepted everywhere. My favorite item in the sundry boxes were Hershey Tropical Bars. Nobody in our platoon seemed to like them very much because of their sweetness, but I did. They were pure chocolate bars that were especially made to withstand the heat and humidity of Vietnam. I have never seen them sold commercially in the United States.
April 3-4.Since Capt. Martindell was taking over the company, our former CO, Captain Chester Cary was being reassigned. He took command of his last LRP with us and led us through a number of villages while traveling down old Highway 1. The patrol was non-eventful, but we did find tracks along the highway, which appeared to have been made by a tiger. We walked through flat terrain and encountered an abandoned Catholic church that had been bombed and almost completely destroyed. On one of the rest breaks, I sat on the ground where there were red ants and one of them bit me and caused my skin to swell up like a balloon. I showed our medic my problem and he gave me a pill to take (probably an anti-histamine) which soon reduced the swelling. From then on, I checked where ever I sat down.
April 4-16.We returned to LZ Virginia once again. One day, a rifle platoon was walking into Virginia from a patrol they had just concluded. One of the guys was carrying a large raceme of bananas and was telling one of his buddies that he regretted having brought them back because he didn't know what he was going to do with all of them. I asked him if I could have them and he dropped them in front of my hooch. Everyone in the platoon wanted to know what I was going to do with them and I told them to wait and see. I scrounged around in the "mess" tent and found a can of butter. I pulled out my mess kit and used it like a pan, melting the butter and frying the bananas. People started asking me what I was doing; many of the guys had never eaten fried bananas and were skeptical of my culinary idea. In fact, fried bananas and plantains are typical fare in the Central American diet I grew up with. We ate a lot of fried bananas at LZ Virginia.
April 17-18.After spending a week at Virginia, we were told to pack up and move to LZ Betty. The move was short-lived and lasted only long enough to get ready for another patrol.
April 19-24.This time we went on an LRP to LZ Caisson. Captain Cary was in charge of this patrol and around 10 PM we were struck by the first mortar attack I had experienced. We had stopped for the night and set up the mortar pit. The ground was very dry and hard and we had not been able to dig very deeply with our entrenching tools. The attack took us by surprise and we were all trying to keep as low as possible since our positions were not very protective. Our platoon went into action and we returned fire to the VC who had opened up on us. We soon started to run low on mortar rounds and we began checking with the others to see how our supply was doing. David Platson dove into our mortar pit to ask if we had anymore rounds and we then got confirmation that only a few rounds were left in the platoon. I thought to myself, "Oh no, we are really in trouble now." However, the attack ended as quickly as it began; the VC hit us more for harassment than anything else. It might have been a graver situation if the VC had known we were low on ammo. Fortunately, there were no casualties and we were later resupplied with ammo. We finally returned to base camp without further incident.
April 24-30.Before the patrol to LZ Caisson, we had taken our equipment and gear to LZ Betty and after the patrol, returned to pick up where we had left off. Time was spent at the beach and drinking Cokes at the beach stands where enterprising Vietnamese sold their wares. I got a haircut from a guy from battalion headquarters who had set up shop at Betty and charged $1 for his service. He was doing a thriving business since guys were lined up waiting for their turns.
May 1-4.Something different was planned. Instead of the usual LRP, we prepared to go to Song Mao. We were supposed to go on C-132 jets, but at the last minute we were flown by Chinook helicopter. Half way to Song Mao the chopper developed trouble in the hydraulic system and we had to make an emergency landing in a ride paddy between two villages. It was about 11 A.M. and we were told that a part to repair it had been ordered, but that it wouldn't get there until about 3 P.M. We set up a perimeter around the chopper and waited until 6 P.M. The part finally arrived and we signaled our position to the helicopter by igniting smoke grenades. We arrived at the Song Mao airstrip about half an hour later and were taken to an ARVN compound for the night. The airfield had been constructed by Co. B, 87th Engineering Battalion and had ARVN troops stationed there. Shortly afterwards, we were put on stand-by for a mini-Cav. The first platoon found something in a suspected Viet Cong area and went in. They killed four VC, captured one wounded, got three weapons--a German mauser, a carbine and a French burp gun. They also destroyed 37 tons of rice. We remained on stand-by with the third platoon in case they needed support, but we didn't have to go out.
During our stay at Song Mao we did some training, rappelling off hovering helicopters at the Song Mao Airfield. Some of the men on patrol burned their hands sliding down the ropes since we didn't have gloves with us. We were housed in ARVN (Army of Viet Nam) barracks near the airfield. They were very comfortable and totally different than anything we were used to. An Army engineering company using metal tarmac had built the airfield. Our task was guard duty to relieve the unit, which was normally there, and to provide support with our 81mm mortar. The airfield had a restaurant/bar where we spent most of our free time drinking Cokes and beer and eating French fries. They also had a shower room where they charged 50 piasters for using it.
May 5-11.The next few weeks were somewhat boring, although a relief from all the patrols we had been running. Our first stay was back at LZ Betty when we returned from Song Mao. Some of us were allowed to go into Phan Thiet, but not everyone got a chance because we were headed back to Bartlett. I went with Don Rodriguez and walked around town taking pictures. I took pictures of the streets and the people. Most of the little kids were hams and wanted to get their pictures taken, but teenage girls and young women were really shy and would quickly cover their faces with their bamboo half-moon hats. We went past a high school and tried to take a picture of a group of girls, but they ran away. Rodriguez and I walked through an area where nuoc mam is produced. Phan Thiet is a major producer of the fish sauce that is used by all Vietnamese on their rice. In the producing area, there are huge vats in which the fish are allowed to ferment. After a certain amount of time other ingredients are added and the sauce is finally bottled in clay jars. They are then shipped throughout the country. Walking down the streets, one could smell the foul odor of decaying fish as they fermented in the vats. I took pictures as we toured the area. We also went shopping in a market place where no one spoke English. Rodriguez tried bargaining with the shopkeepers and managed to get the price down substantially on some baby clothes he was going to get, but he changed his mind. I bought a pipe for 180 piasters.
May 12-22.We moved to LZ Bartlett which was on a mountain top, but which we all liked because an Artillery Company, 1/21 Artillery-Engineers, generally occupied it. They had their own cooks and a mess area where hot food was always served. We had the luxury of ordering fresh eggs cooked anyway we wanted them for breakfast. At the other camps, dinner was always served hot, at the least, but it was provided to us in containers from the mess hall at LZ Betty (Battalion HQ). The hot food was flown into the remote camps such as LZ Virginia and LZ Judy.
I had signed up for a correspondence course from the University of California Extension and my books arrived while I was at Bartlett. It was a 3 unit Spanish class, which required a lot of reading and grammar. I would do the lessons, submit them and the professor would correct them and return them via mail. Since it was a flexible arrangement with no time limits, it worked out well for me. I would get college credit for the course, learn a lot and keep myself busy whenever we were at camp and not on patrol.
Rodriguez had a phonograph and records and we set it up in our hooch and started to play music. Eight guys squeezed into our hooch to listen to the music and soon there was a crowd of others standing around outside. We experimented with "psychedelic lights" flashing them on and off, joked around and annoyed and kept our platoon sergeant up all night. It was a lot of fun. The following night we repeated the party in another guy's hooch and the Company's executive officer (XO) joined us and had a good time too.
Someone acquired a puppy and it became our platoon's pet. She was named Boom Boom and when we first got her she had worms. Some guys got worm medicine from the medic and poured 1/4 of the bottle down her throat. She got all weak, had a hard time walking and wobbled all over. We thought she was going to die, but she pulled through and became really spunky. I think she was formally adopted by the medic and stayed with him all the time. Our medic was a really nice guy who was later killed by a sniper. I didnt know his name since everyone just called him "Doc" and I never did hear what happened to the dog.
May 23.We went back to LZ Betty for another one of those stops to prepare for an LRP. We were there overnight only to leave our gear and pick out hooches for when we returned. We were told to take plenty of supplies and ammo for the patrol and left with heavy packs on our backs. Almost everyone was carrying mortar rounds on their backs, in addition to hand grenades and ammo cartridges for the M-16.
May 24-27.This was an unusual long range patrol because it was near the beach at Phan Thiet and SSG James Mobley was in charge of our platoon. Mobley gave us no details about the mission and we never found out what we were doing or looking for. In any case, nothing happened and as far as we could tell, it was a totally useless exercise.
May 28-June 1.We were flown to LZ Judy. This was the first time we had been here and the camp was relatively new, although already established. The surrounding area was completely flat and the terrain dry and sandy. Despite the dryness of the terrain, the weather was wet and humid while we were there, with heavy rains pelting us for several days.
June 2-9.Our mortar squad was left to secure the area we occupied at LZ Judy, along with one of the line platoons, while the rest of the men went on patrol. We had a lot of free time and every day I would go to the river that is nearby to bathe. The main duty we had at camp was daily radio watch for about an hour and 15 minutes each. We had to be alert and monitor any radio activity. Fire missions might be called and the person on duty had to yell "Fire Mission" at the top of his lungs to get the gun squad into action. Each unit had a call sign. The mortar platoon was always 428 (the 4 indicated 4th platoon) and when I first arrived at the unit, our call sign was "Cold Shower 428." A few months later it was changed to "Choctaw Indian 428" and finally it was "Smokey Rifles 428" before I left in December. Fortunately, most of the time radio watch was uneventful.
It had been raining everyday for periods of about 15 minutes and the rest of the time it was hot. The humidity was very high and the days were uncomfortable. If we weren't at the river, we were huddled in our hooches which, at Judy, were dug out areas with sandbag construction for the walls and roofs. They were the only cool places at the LZ and fairly roomy and comfortable. In the meantime, I had received orders for my R&R and had been told I would have a week off in Penang. I didn't know where Penang was until someone told me it was a resort island in Malaysia. I had hoped for R&R in Australia or Tokyo, but some of the other guys who had been to Penang told me it would be a worthwhile trip.
June 9-12.The day finally came for R&R to begin. I packed my clothes and stored my gear. A helicopter flew me to LZ Betty and another one to An Khe, the 1st Cavalry's base camp. I hadn't been to An Khe since December when I arrived in-country. It had grown and new buildings had been built everywhere. The weather was now dry, however, and all the mud and gloom I had encountered on my first visit were gone.
June 13-14.After a few days at An Khe, I was sent to Cam Rahn Bay to await my commercial flight to Penang. Cam Rahn was a huge Air Force base that was known for its tight security. President Johnson landed here on his trip to Viet Nam and it was where most politicians and dignitaries came to visit. At Cam Rahn Bay Air Base, we were assigned to really decent barracks and the base was very clean, modern and comparable to those in the U.S. While I was there, I ran into Bob Rathburn, an old friend from Ft. Hood, TX who was now assigned to the 1st Bn, 7th Cavalry. He was going on R&R to Honolulu (lucky guy, I thought). We had a good visit and even got to eat ice cream at the mess hall, which was unheard of in the field. Drinking milk from regular milk cartons was also a treat that I had missed since coming to Vietnam. The only milk available in the field was canned evaporated milk. The base had great facilities, a PX, movie theater and everything else that was needed.
I finally got my orders for the flight and was taken to the terminal to await the Pan Am turbo prop that would take me to Malaysia.
June 14-19.Pan Am landed at an Australian Air Force base in Georgetown on the island of Penang. We were warned not to take any pictures at the air base. A U.S. Army representative was waiting for us and we were put on a bus to take us into town. On the way in, the Army rep told us about Penang, what we could see, where we could go and what to watch out for. He said that the people were predominantly Chinese, Indian and Malaysian, but that there was a minority presence of Caucasians, mostly Australians stationed at the base. We were taken to the Pilau Pinang Hotel and left to our own resources. The hotel was a clean, but inexpensive establishment that was in the downtown area. It had a small bar and a Chinese restaurant on the premises. The next few days I visited all the tourist spots, including Batu Feringi, the Monkey Gardens and other points of interest. I met a young boy named Ali Pancho, who attached himself as my personal guide, telling me I didn't have to pay him, that he wanted to show me around his town. He was always waiting for me in front of the hotel in the morning and turned out to be a good guy and efficient guide. Of course, I paid him some money at the end of my stay. He most likely got commissions from shopkeepers, restaurants and other places he took me. Everybody in Penang seemed to know him.
During my stay in Penang I took a lot of pictures. I also bought some brocade silk material and two ivory elephants for my mother. I bought my brother 2 stainless steel switchblade knives and bought a 35 mm camera with tripod and filters for myself.
June 19-20.Another Pan Am turbo prop flew me back to Cam Rahn Bay. Vacation was over and now it was back to reality and uncertainty. The stay at Cam Rahn was only overnight and in the morning I was flown to An Khe. Another overnight stay at An Khe and then a helicopter ride was arranged for the trip back to LZ Betty, where our company was staying.
June 21-22.LZ Betty hadn't changed in the two weeks I was gone. The company had gone on two patrols while I was away. Our new CO almost got killed on the last patrol. A VC narrowly missed hitting him and got his RTO instead. Luckily the guy was going to be OK. When the company got back, Artillery was firing some harassment rounds and two duds accidentally landed very close to the CO's hooch. Obviously his luck was holding out. Some of the new guys, who would replace those who had been there a year now, had started arriving. I am not exactly sure when or in what order they arrived, but this group included Henry Guidotti, Robert Datish, Ron Newberg, David Thrower, Roger Meeks, Max Bennett, Odell Bonds, Boyd Williamson, John Austin and several others. I believe most of them were assigned to the unit during late June, in July and in early August.
On one of the patrols while I was away, James Santa Maria, one of the newer guys in our platoon learned about the dangers of Vietnam the hard way. While crossing rice paddies, the column had finally stopped to rest and he sat down under the shade of a small tree. A scorpion or venomous insect of some kind landed on his shoulder and stung him. He killed it and continued on with the patrol, but the poison began to affect him and he was almost paralyzed by the time a medevac chopper was called in to take him to the aid station. The doctors at the station did not know what had stung him and had difficulty treating him, so they evacuated him to an Army hospital in Japan. Recovery was long and agonizing for Santa Maria and he was gone for several months. When he returned to our unit, he had lost over 50 pounds and the strain his body had gone through was apparent. These incidents brought me back to reality after my vacation in Penang.
We were only going to be at Betty another day and then we had to move to LZ Bartlett.June 23-July 8. I enjoyed LZ Bartlett because of the fresh mountain air and, to me, the environment was more pleasant than some of the other LZs we stayed at. This time my back started bothering me and I could barely stand straight or get up to walk. I went on sick call because of the back pains and the medic gave me some pills, which helped. He told me to stay off my feet for a few days and that it would go away; it was probably a back sprain. It eventually did go away. About half the mortar platoon was rotating back to the U.S. and new guys were coming in to replace them. While we were here SSG David Hancock, who was now in charge of our platoon, asked me if I would be interested in working fire direction control as a "computer." I had previously been an ammo bearer or carried one of the parts of the mortar, the baseplate, tube or bipod. The job meant taking fire missions in on the radio, getting coordinates from the forward observer and calculating the trajections on a plotting board. The results were called out to the mortar crew, which positioned the gun in accordance with the plotted directions. It was definitely an easier job since I would only have to carry the plotting board on patrols, but it meant more responsibility because one had to be precise and errors could kill or wound friendly troops. I had trained for this at Fort Hood and I happily agreed. Besides, there was no one else who knew anything about computing the coordinates that was going to be staying. Victor Ware and some of the other guys who were leaving shortly started to train me and the others who would replace them. I computed my first fire mission at Bartlett and everything worked well. One of the things that was called for was an illumination round on LZ Bartlett. I don't know if it was for my benefit and for me to practice, but it went right on target. I later retrieved the little parachute that was attached to the illumination round to slowly bring it down. I took it home as a souvenir. Fortunately, I was almost right on target whenever I did the computing alone after that time.
July 8-12. We got a new CO while we were at Bartlett. His name, we were told, was Captain Feegeebee Parish. We all thought that was an unusual name and would refer to him privately as Feegeebee. The word on the grapevine was that he was inexperienced. Up until now, all of our COs had seemed to be old hands at running the company, even though we didn't generally have a clue as to what they really were trying to do. The new CO took us out on a long range patrol to LZ Pall Mall. We didn't notice anything unusual about his capabilities. We were relieved because nothing really out of the ordinary happened after spending almost a week in the boonies. It was the first time I got to carry the plotting board on a patrol. Life continued as usual when we returned.
July 12-27.We were flown back to LZ Betty after the patrol and we moved into our usual hooches near the mortar pits. I bunked in one of the two-man hooches with John Sommer. The hooches at Betty were made of simple wood that the troops had used to built them sometime in the past. Some of the wood appeared to be scrap wood from pallets or from artillery and mortar ammo boxes, but the structures were actually well-built and most of the roofs were covered with tar paper that came in the ammo boxes. They were one or two-man hooches with sand bags surrounding them for added protection. One of the hooches was reserved for Fire Direction Control, which is where we plotted fire missions for the mortar, if they were called in. We also took turns monitoring the radio. The mortar gun pits were in the center of the area and latrines (more like outhouses) were nearby. The shower room was near the battalion headquarters office at the airfield and mess tents were set up near the BN buildings, but we usually were served hot food from containers which were sent down to us near our hooches. On this stay at LZ Betty, I got to go into Phan Thiet with Richard Allen and Ronald Newberg. We got a ride from somebody that was driving a jeep into town. We headed for Johnny's Bar, where we could get refreshments and food. They also had popular music on a jukebox and I remember they had tunes from the Beatles, Dean Martin, Mammas and the Papas and others. The day was spent walking around town and observing what we could that was different from our usual days. I had my portrait taken at photography studio. I posed with my steel helmet on. While in Phan Thiet I also got a haircut. The barber charged me 50 piasters or about 40 cents.
We spent some time on the beach. A group of us, Ronnie Pugh, Lloyd Butler, Richard Fahrenbruch, Dave Platson and I took our air mattresses and had fun swimming in the ocean. I was in the sun too long and got a bit of a sunburn. While we were there, we buried Platson in the sand and took pictures of him with all of his body in the sand except for his head. On the way home, I picked up some clothes at the beach stands that I had sent to have laundered. I also got a new pair of jungle boots from Supply and with the starched fatigues looked like I was back in the States. This was not going to last long because we were due for another patrol.
July 28-August 2.Without any fanfare, they reassigned Captain Parrish, our Commanding Officer and brought in Captain Oscar O'Connor to take his place. O'Connor had Special Forces, Airborne and Ranger training. He had been in Vietnam in War Zone D, got wounded and was reassigned to our unit. Everyone really like him. He was the first CO to get our mail out to us on a patrol and arranged for us to get sodas and beer while we were in the field. He also built a new Orderly Room at Betty with money from a fund that had $3000 in it and had not been used. We were all elated that he was our Company Commander and someone who seemed to care about his men.
Leaving LZ Betty on a long range patrol, O'Connor took us out to an unnamed LZ. It turned out to be the same area where we had gone with Captain Adams on his last patrol and involved nothing more than walking through rice paddies and Vietnamese villages. The villages were usually searched and we were always suspicious of the people because we never knew whether they were friendly towards us or backed the local Viet Cong. In many cases, these same people were farmers by day and VC by night so we had to be on our guard. The mortar platoon almost always followed or was between the rifle platoons and it was the rifle platoons that usually took point and tried to ensure that it was safe to go into an area. On this patrol, one of the villages was found to be a Viet Cong stronghold. Weapons caches were found in some of the huts. The village was set on fire and it was rather sad to see the village women and children watch as their homes burned to the ground. On our way out of the village, John Austin found an abandoned or lost parrot. It might have been a pet from the village, but we didn't know. He took the parrot with him and trained him to stay on his shoulder and sleep in shrubs outside of our hooches back at camp.
O'Connor kept us busy with the mortar on this patrol. He had a lot of missions called in and we were firing the weapon constantly. Usually, we only went into action if we actually were hit. This time we fired 46 of 50 mortar rounds our platoon had carried out on the patrol. A helicopter was called in later to resupply us with ammo.
August 3-9.We hadn't been to LZ Judy for sometime and walked into the camp from the patrol we were on. LZ Judy was, to me, a barren, ugly camp and this time the monsoons were going like gangbusters and it would rain heavily every day. Because of the rain, it felt hotter and more humid than usual and there were a lot of mosquitoes. I slept under mosquito netting whenever I could and made sure I always took the malaria pills that were distributed to us. It was kind of a joke that I was always going around offering guys the malaria pills (fluoroquine and primaquine), but I figured if I remembered to take them, I might as well remind the others too. I don't think any of us came down with malaria while we were in Vietnam. I had always been very conscious about preventive medicine and kept my immunization certificate with me and up to date. I still have it and it shows that I was vaccinated in Vietnam for smallpox, cholera (twice), typhoid, tetanus, yellow fever, typhus, plague (twice) and flu. I even got a gamma globulin shot for hepatitis once when a cook was diagnosed with the disease. We all had to line up to get the shots as a precaution.
As I mentioned before, the "accommodations" at Judy were sand-bagged bunkers that had been dug down a few feet. They tended to be cool, but were always fairly dark despite the "windows" that were incorporated into the structures.
Ronnie Pugh had his mother mail him a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson which he wanted to use as a personal weapon. It arrived OK even though it is illegal to mail weapons. The Army doesn't generally let you bring personal weapons, but if they are somehow acquired in Vietnam, they don't object. Pugh got a special permit from the MPs and carried the gun with him everywhere. Before going on our last patrol, one of the guys was cleaning his M-16 and got the cleaning rod stuck in the barrel. They had to send the rifle back to camp to get it fixed and he was left without a weapon. He asked Pugh if he could borrow his .38, but Pugh refused and instead lent him his M-16. The platoon sergeant was furious and made him get the M-16 back. Pugh let the guy carry his .38 and everybody criticized him for it.
There were a lot of thieves around. Dave Platson had his new 35mm camera stolen. He had bought it when he went on R&R and had let me use it a couple of times until I got mine. Don Rodriguez had his tape recorder stolen and we were all paranoid about having our things taken. There was no place to leave valuables while we were away on patrols so we either had to carry them with us or take a chance that they might be stolen from our duffel bags. Usually that was when things got stolen.
August 9-20.We moved to LZ Betty. This time we were there for a number of days and got to go to the beach a lot. Obviously we didn't all go at the same time and would take turns. The outings to the beach were popular because there were stands set up by enterprising Vietnamese who sold Cokes, writing paper, film, souvenirs and other items that were popular. Also, we could go swimming in the South China Sea whenever we had the chance. The water was warm and seemed to be unpolluted and the beach was usually deserted, except for a few soldiers who might be frequenting it to rest and relax.
At one end of the beach was a desalinization plant that the Army had built. The purified water was pumped into big 250 gallon rubber bladders that were transported by helicopter to camps and places where water was scarce for the troops. Usually the water was drinkable, but I remember one day at LZ Judy that something went wrong at the plant and everybody that drank the batch of water we were using came down with diarrhea. The problem was found and the water supply was changed, but in the meantime most of us had been running constantly and feeling really sick.
My 22nd birthday was August 14. A couple of days later I received a package from my cousin, Gladys Leal. It was really a surprise and had a lot of goodies. She had sent me cookies, candy and a number of other surprises. She also included some milk shake mix, but unfortunately we were not able to use it because we did not get fresh milk in the field. I shared all the things with the guys in my platoon and we actually had a party to celebrate my birthday. It was really great getting packages like this from home and it raised everybody's morale. I still appreciate my cousin's thoughtfulness.
August 20-26.We went off on a long range patrol into the Le Hong Phong Forest. At least that is what we were told the place was called. I'm not sure if that was its real name or whether I spelled it correctly. I couldn't find it on the map. Truck convoy took us over a highway that we almost never saw while patrolling on foot. The convoy dropped us off in the early evening and we set up for the night when we got the word from our CO. The next morning we patrolled near the seacoast and moved inwards towards the forest. As we moved away from green countryside and the vegetation we were used to seeing, we found that the forest didn't really look like a forest anymore because Agent Orange had been used to defoliated it since the last time we had been here. We didn't know what was used to defoliated it at the time and knew even less that there was such a thing as Agent Orange. In any case, it was a vast area with trees everywhere that were completely barren and there was only dried vegetation underneath them. Everything looked gray to me and all we seemed to do here was to walk through in search of whatever it was that we were always searching for on these missions. We encountered nothing unusual and were finally pulled out by helicopters.
August 26-27.After the patrol, we returned to LZ Betty and stayed overnight. I don't think I bothered to get settled in since we knew we were going to move the next day.
August 27-September 7.Choppers took us to LZ Bartlett for another long stay. We watched Air Force jets bomb targets far in the distance where apparently enemy positions had been discovered. The vantage point from LZ Bartlett was excellent for miles but the heavy canopy of the jungle hid from our view what the targets might have been. At the LZ we found and killed a snake in one of the bunkers. We had strong, heavy rains and Ronnie Pugh and SFC Howard Smith undressed and showered in the rain in the nude. The water quickly washed off the soap suds. It was rather humorous.
September 7-11.We walked out of LZ Bartlett on a long range patrol. As we descended into the valley, the column went through rice paddies. Generally, we crossed through the paddies and exited each at one of its corners. Unfortunately, the VC had mined some of these rice paddies and it was the luck of one of our guys, Lawrence Lonzo to step on a mine. He was in the middle of our platoons' column and we could see the medics trying to help him, while everyone took positions and the RTO called for a medevac chopper. We could hear the yelling and confusion that the explosion had caused and shortly after, we found out that Lonzo's foot had been blown off. He did not initially know what had happened to him and it wasn't until he saw that his foot was gone that he began to shout and go into shock. He was quickly evacuated and we were told that he was taken to the aid station, later to a hospital in Japan and finally sent home to a military base in Texas. The rest of the patrol was scary for all of us and we were extra cautious and careful as to where we walked and what we did.
September 11-30.We spent more time at LZ Betty. We again got to go into town and I attended Mass at a Vietnamese Catholic Church that was just outside of Phan Thiet. We rarely had the opportunity to do this. A group of us were taken by jeep to the church, which was full to capacity with local Vietnamese. Everyone looked at us as we walked in wearing starched fatigues and carrying our M-16s (although unloaded). Attendance at Mass was sporadic for us since we moved around so much, but the Catholic chaplain would visit the various LZs periodically and conduct Mass in the open air. Additionally, he would often give general absolution, although he also would hear confessions when time permitted. This had been the first time since I arrived that I attended Mass in a church. Coincidentally, I received a letter from the Oblate Fathers at Our Lady of the Snows Sanctuary in Wisconsin advising me that Masses were being said for me and my buddies everyday for our safe return. It didn't say who had requested the Masses and it wasn't until I returned home that I found out my cousin, Sylvia Macay had been the one. I was grateful for this thoughtfulness.
On September 20, we went out on a mini-Cav operation to the Le Hong Phong Forest with LT John Foley. LT Foley had a reputation for being somewhat of a goof-off, but in this case, he was very professional. A captured Viet Cong was supposedly going to show us where his camp was and the lieutenant had me walk point with him, carrying his radio. The area we were in was very dense and the Viet Cong prisoner escaped before we got anything useful out of him. I don't know what kind of trouble Lt. Foley must have gotten into because of the escape.
October 1-6.Another long range patrol took us to LZ Catfish. This patrol was really miserable and uncomfortable for all of us. It rained heavily while we were out and we were thoroughly soaked the whole time. When we stopped for the night, we would try to dig in as best we could, but the ground was always muddy. There was absolutely no cover and our poncho liners were totally useless. Some mortar ammo was sent out to us by helicopter and we took the heavy tar paper that was used for packing and tried to sleep on it. We tried building fires during the day, but they didn't help to dry us out. Captain O'Connor fell in the slippery mud, cut himself seriously enough to be medevac'd. We all kidded that he would probably get a purple heart for the cut and he probably did.
On one of the days after it stopped raining, we were told to set up for the night. Someone accidentally knocked down a bee hive. Bees were flying everywhere and stinging everyone in sight. We dove for cover and used our ponchos for protection. It was a hot and humid evening and we were all encased in our plastic ponchos, sweating profusely. The bees continued to buzz around us. Finally, after waiting and sweating under my poncho for a long time, I cautiously uncovered myself to see if the bees were still there. Nothing happened. I didn't get stung. It was dark and I couldn't hear any bees. I told everybody that I thought the bees had left. Guys started coming out from under their ponchos and everyone of them got stung. I dove for cover again and everyone cussed me out for giving the "all clear." We spent an uncomfortable night, although luckily I never once got stung. The guys couldn't believe that they all got stung but I didn't.
October 6-7.We returned to LZ Betty for only one day, but it gave us a chance to take showers, dry off and put on clean clothes.
October 7-24.Again we were moved to LZ Judy. We were still getting a lot of rain, but it was starting to taper off. At least we could keep dry most of the time at Judy, not like on that last patrol. One night a fire mission was called and I plotted the coordinates that we got from the forward observer. The mortar was fired to those coordinates and the rounds almost hit our guys. The person calling in the mission had given us bad data and, as a result, we could have had a tragedy. Fortunately nobody was hurt, but we were all shaken up by the incident.
On October 20, we were sent on a local patrol with one of the line platoons. It seemed like the patrols were getting to be more frequent and on short notice. We didn't find anything on this patrol, but everyone started wondering what was going on with the increased activity.
October 24-28. Helicopters took us out to a region euphemistically called the Toilet Bowl and we went on an LRP in this area. There apparently was some Viet Cong activity here. The area was flat and barren, mostly scrub land. We were told to dig in and air strikes were called. We didn't find out what the reasons were for the air strike. After the bombing was completed, we got word that one of the 750 lb. bombs that had been dropped had not detonated. Our platoon was ordered to help find the dud and we fanned out and searched the area for the bomb. Some of the guys were searching nooks and crannies until someone pointed out to them that a 750 lb. bomb was pretty large. I don't know if it was ever found; our platoon did not find it, as far as I know.
October 28-November 2.The platoon was at LZ Betty once again. Half of the platoon was short-timing now. We had about 6 weeks more to go before we would go home. A lot of us started worrying because we knew that guys were most likely to get killed or wounded at the beginning of their tour of duty in Vietnam or near the end of it. We were nervous, even at LZ Betty, which was probably the safest of the camps we stayed at. Some of our replacements had started to arrive. Again, I am not sure when or in what order they arrived, but I remember Robert Alexander, an NCO from San Francisco and also an Englishman, would be the new Platoon Sergeant. I think Haskell O'Donnell, James Hunt, Steve Franciskovich and Larry Holt arrived about this time.
November 2-15.We were moved to LZ Judy. The First Sergeant found out I could type and he asked me to help with some paperwork. They were submitting requests for decorations for some of the officers and NCOs in the unit and the applications had to be typed. I spent the time doing this, which got me out of some of the other duties that most of us hated, such as guard duty on the perimeter towers.
A surprise arrived in the mail. Tom Urani's mother (he was a friend from San Francisco with whom I grew up) had sent me a box of cookies. She worked for a cookie distributor in the City and she had thoughtfully sent me some of their products. We all attacked the cookies with gusto and quickly finished off the large box she had sent me. A couple of days later I received a package of Cemita from my mother. Cemita is a Salvadoran pastry made from whole wheat flour with crushed pineapple filling. She owned a bakery in San Francisco and it was great getting treats like these from home. Usually we ended up with mixed feelings because we were happy to get surprises like these, but they also made us more homesick.
November 15-20.We were sent on a long range patrol to set up a fire base. We had cleared an LZ that was named Short Timer. I don't know if its name had anything to do with our own short-timing situation, but while we were there we conducted fire missions for the company and for visiting officers. I later found out that I was awarded the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service for the fire missions called in by one of our COs.
On one of the days we were setting up and cleaning the gun pit area, I found what I thought was an Army rations peanut butter can embedded in the dirt. I started to kick at it to dislodge it, when Don Rodriguez came over and excitedly told me to stop. He bent down to examine it and I, too, began to look at it more closely. It turned out to be a butterfly mine that had been placed there by VC. Munitions specialists were called over to check it out and they cleared the area and detonated the mine. Had I continued to kick at it, I probably would have detonated it and been seriously injured. The incident made me more paranoid than ever.
November 20-22.LZ Betty was quiet as usual. A movie projector was set up in one of the battalion buildings near the mess hall and movies were being shown for $1. We all went to watch the show on one of the evenings at Betty. A lot of the guys were intoxicated when we got back and I, Lloyd Butler and a couple of other guys decided we should stay up all night on watch since we were the only sober ones there. Fortunately nothing happened, but we didn't want to take any chances since we were now getting down to the end of our tours.
November 22-23.While at LZ Betty monitoring the radio, we heard all the calls between one of the line platoons that was on patrol and the command bunker. The platoon was pinned down and was calling for help. Orders went out for another rifle platoon to be lifted out to them for help. The choppers dropped them into the area but received fire and moved out quickly. The platoon got pinned down as well. More help was being requested. We were told to saddle up and get ready, that we might have to be airlifted out there too. It was late in the day when we, too, received orders to go out there. We went without the mortar, carrying only our M-16s, lots of ammo and grenades. We were dropped off a considerable distance from where the action was since there was heavy fire in progress. We moved into a wooded area and were told to dig in and wait. We learned that SSG James Mobley had been wounded just as his helicopter was dropping his group off. Some of the guys pushed Mobley back on the chopper and he was flown back to the aid station without having to wait for a medevac chopper. In the meantime, air strikes had been called and Air Force jets very close to our positions were firing bombs. We could feel the heat of the bombs and see and hear the shrapnel flying nearby, as we hugged the ground as much as we could. We were all complaining that the bombs were too close to us, not realizing how close we were to the enemy. One of our officers came around and told us to be alert and to fix our bayonets in case we needed to fight hand-to hand. Dan Dandrea received a minor scrape from the shrapnel, and the rest of us were nervous and jumpy. It was dark now and machine gun fire, rifles and other weapons continued to repeat along with the bombs from the jets well into the night.
By dawn the activity had quieted down and we were told that
we would be moving in closer to the area. Intelligence and reports from our troops
indicated that the enemy had retreated and that we needed to move in to secure the area.
It was now daylight and when we got to the scene, there were bodies on the ground, our men
as well as some Vietnamese. The wounded were being evacuated and action was being taken to
collect and remove the dead soldiers. It was upsetting to see the burnt and mutilated
bodies. One of the guys found a boot with the foot of a guy who had been killed. Not all
of the guy's pieces had been put into his body bag before pulling it out. It was the most
action we had seen at one time and first hand. It turned out that we had engaged the 482nd
Battalion of the North Vietnamese Army and lost 11 men from our battalion and had 26
wounded. The NVA battalion was well entrenched here. They had tunnels throughout the area
and had been waiting to engage us. They pulled almost all of their dead and wounded out
and mysteriously disappeared into the night as they withdrew.I recently found out the names of men
that were killed: Co. D: Erhardt William
Mathiesen, McElree Mays, Jr., Tunis Rappleyea, Jr., Charles G. Roberts, Joseph Sherlock
III, Stephen Scott Smith and John
Alan MacDonald; Co. B: Paul McKinley
and Gerald McKinney; Co. C: Levester
Griffin and Frank LeRoy Tafoya. Their deaths were a terrible loss to us.
(40 years later--click here to see newspaper article about Frank LeRoy Tafoya and friends.)
November 23-24.None of us could stop talking or thinking about what had just happened. It was a harbinger of what was to come and deep down, we all knew it. It was Thanksgiving Day and at LZ Betty we attended memorial services for the men that were killed. A chaplain came to our Company's area and everyone gathered for the service. The Thanksgiving meal that evening was sad, but appropriately occurring at the time that we were all truly giving thanks for being alive.
November 25-27.The backlash from the battle wasn't quite over for us yet. We were sent to set up a fire base at LZ Brown near the place where the ambush had occurred. Fortunately, we made no further contact with the enemy and concluded our mission without incident. We did see the tunnels, bunkers and other evidence of where the NVA had been waiting to ambush our troops.
November 28-December 6.Many of us only had a few more days in-country. Those of us who were going home were told that we would not have to go on any more patrols, if at all possible. We were to finish out our tour at LZ Betty and I was sent to the battalion Awards and Decorations office to help clerks there with paperwork. I guess the little bit of experience I had gotten back at LZ Judy in writing up people for medals was of benefit for me to be assigned to this office for the next few days. The day finally came for me to leave. My orders arrived and I was told to pack up and go. I said good-bye to the guys I had lived with everyday for the last six months or so. We exchanged addresses and promises to write and signed the camouflage covers on our helmets. I still have mine. We joined the others at the helicopter pad and were flown to An Khe.
December 6-11.The 1st Cavalry's base camp was at An Khe. We were taken to the 2nd of the 7th's compound and housed in new barracks that had been built recently. The next few days would involve processing. All of our gear had to be turned in and only personal belongings were allowed to be kept. We were allowed to go to the PX and basically spent all of our time in the compound.
The last night of my stay, the guy in the bunk above me had gotten drunk and started vomiting when he came in. I had to move to another bunk and forgot to take my fatigue pants that were hanging on the old bunk, with my 35 mm. camera in the pocket. In the morning, when I got up to get dressed I discovered that my camera and wallet had been stolen. I reported it to the First Sergeant on duty, but he refused to do anything because half of the people there had already left and we were supposed to leave for Cam Rahn Bay almost immediately. I lost my camera with the last roll of pictures in it and my wallet with about $80.
December 11-12.Cam Rahn Bay. The last stop in Vietnam before going home. We waited for further processing, got our orders and waited for instructions involving our flight home. Our belongings were searched again and we were told we could take nothing home except some personal belongings. No clothes, weapons, illicit souvenirs, paper goods or anything else that might harbor insects or any type of pest were allowed. We were allowed to come home with almost only the clothes on our backs.
December 12. Fort Lewis, Washington. A chartered flight aboard a Pan Am jet took us home. It was a 20 hour flight and we arrived at Fort Lewis around 3:00 A.M. A doctor had been summoned to perform physicals on all of us at that hour and he announced in an annoyed tone that he would come around, listen to our heart and if it sounded OK, he would pass us. If we had anything to tell him or to complain about, we were to let him know then and there. The "exam" went smoothly and we got out of the room very quickly. The next few hours were spent eating breakfast and filling out papers. We were taken to Supply and given new Class A uniforms for our trip home. Finally, by 5:00 PM that afternoon, I had gone through all the processing, received my orders for release and had reservations for my flight home. Since I had been inducted and my commitment was for 2 years, I was being released 2 months early and would not be reassigned in the active Army. I was finally a civilian.
Back Home. To this day, I give thanks that I survived Vietnam. I cant say I was in the most dangerous situations during my tour of duty, but I know there were a lot of risks and dangers that came my way. I made many good friends and fortunately, didnt lose very many to the war. These pages of my website are dedicated to all of them.
I was drafted into the Army and did what my country asked me to do at the time. I have never regretted my decision to see it through, although I could have avoided Vietnam altogether since I was not a U.S. citizen then. I regard highly all those who served in the military during this time, whatever their jobs were, and each one should be proud of what they did. I am.
Rolando A. Salazar
Posted: May 2002
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Last Updated: 01/05/09