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© Copyright 1999, Jim Loy
I was in Vietnam from Apr. 1969 to Jun. 1971. In 1969, I was a Private E-2, in jungle fatigues, in a barracks in Ft. Lewis, WA. I carried my duffle bag to a bus, which took me, and many other soldiers, to a nearby Air Force base. There I boarded a Flying Tiger Airlines jet. I had never heard of Flying Tiger. We flew to Anchorage, AK, lots of thin trees, some snow on the ground, white mountains in the distance. Then we flew to Tokyo; I saw Fuji in the distance. Then we flew to Cam Ranh Bay. We approached over water, and then landed. Then we exited the plane for the first and only time. It was hot out.
We were in Cam Ranh for a couple of days, picking up cigarette butts. Then we flew to Phu Bai, in a propeller driven cargo plane. No seats, we sat on our duffle bags. The plane stopped somewhere else, before it got to Phu Bai.
Another guy, Paul, had orders to the same unit that I was being assigned to. We waited at the airport at Phu Bai, wondering if someone was supposed to pick us up. Paul phoned our unit, and a corporal drove a jeep over to pick us up.
HHB XXIV CORPS ARTY. It said that on the "jeeps" (Fords which looked like Jeeps) and trucks. Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, XXIV Corps, Artillery. XXIV Corps' emblem was concentric blue and white hearts (shown on the right, a photo from Timberon Trading).
There were guns all around, self-propelled howitzers, like tanks with very big guns. There were bigger guns, elsewhere. We didn't have any guns, in our unit, as we were the headquarters battery. The guns would make my bed jump. The shells fired over us sounded like freight trains going by.
That night, an enemy rocket flew through the aluminum roof of the building across the street. Three people were sleeping in that building. No one was hurt. The hole in the roof was about 5 feet in diameter. That was the closest I ever got to death.
Everybody ran to the bunkers, shouting. I slept through all the noise. The next morning, it was apparent that something had happened. Everyone was talking about something. They were amazed that I had slept through it.
We were sent to the motor pool to "pull motor staples." I thought that this must be a mistake, as I was trained as a Comm Center Specialist (72 Bravo, as I recall), teletype. I was soon to be employed as 05 Charlie, radio teletype operator. But, every day we had to do routine maintenance on our vehicles. As an artist, I painted a lot of stars on trucks and Jeeps. I once painted one freehand, which was easy, as I could keep adjusting the outline until it was symmetric.
We were driven to the Crypto Bunker, where we were to work. It was surrounded by huge rolls of razor barbed wire, attached to metal stakes and wooden poles. We entered through a tall wooden gate that had rolls of barbed wire attached to it. On the far side of the Crypto Bunker was a mine field, with rows of barbed wire. One night, when I was working, a dog blew himself up in that mine field.
I smashed my finger, when I opened the door to the Crypto Bunker. The door was heavy. And there wasn't much clearance between it and an interior wall. And my finger got caught between the two. There was a cot and a safe (in the floor, I think) and a map on the wall. I don't remember much else about the Crypto bunker. We expanded it later.
I worked in a radio-teletype (RTT) rig. This was a metallic green box attached to an antenna which ran between poles. The rig was small, room for one person. It was air conditioned. There was a swivel chair attached to the floor, an ancient teletype machine, a mysterious box which encrypted and decrypted the messages, and there was a radio.
We talked on the radio, getting the right person on the air, and then sent or received our message. Almost all of the outgoing messages were artillery coordinates, saying how many rounds to fire at the target. The target was described roughly, "suspected enemy truck," or "five suspected enemy soldiers." The incoming messages were mostly results, "results unknown." This was all SECRET.
The RTT rig fit on the back of a truck. Ours stood on four legs, over red mud.
We had to change the code setting for the RTT encryption, every day. I think it was an electrical plug board (bread board), and we would change the connections. It is hard to remember.
I lived in a hootch. It was a rectangular building, with a door on each end. There were about 8 sleeping areas, with an aisle down the middle. The exterior walls were a screen to let air blow through. The outside of the lower part of the wall was louvered to let air in, while providing privacy, and keeping rain out. I had a squeaky metal bed, with a thin mattress. I had a foot locker. The roof was slanting aluminum. The floor was plywood. The building was surrounded by sand bags, and later by a kind of concrete.
Two or three Vietnamese ladies swept our floor and washed our clothes. They were nice people. I wonder what happened to them. I think that one of them was named Xuan, which was pronounced "soon." We called some of these ladies "mama san." I suspect that most of the guys thought that this was Vietnamese.
I occasionally had to be on guard duty. We sat in metal folding chairs, in a sand bag bunker with a metal roof on it, looking out at the graves and rice paddies. Next to me were my M16, a field telephone, and a detonator for a claymore mine. This mine was a rectangular, green piece of plastic, which stood upright in the sand. A wire led from the detonator to a blasting cap in one corner of the mine. Inside was plastic explosive and a few hundred, tiny, metal spheres. There were sand bags behind the mine, to direct the explosion away from us. I never fired one of those. A friend of mine did, accidentally.
Downstairs, in the bunker, was a cot, a box of grenades, and some LAWs (I forget if that is how you spell that). This was a rocket, in a tube, that was fired like a bazooka, on the shoulder.
Ahead of us was barbed wire, lots of rolls of barbed wire. And there were graves, some among the barbed wire. Beyond that were rice paddies. And beyond that was a forest.
Our guard duty was at night. Someone else guarded during the day. We talked all night, to keep awake. We watched and listened. I think that one of us slept downstairs. There may have been three of us. It is hard to remember. I started to doze off once. A major woke me up.
Every once in a while, someone would hear something and ask for illumination, over the phone. Illumination was a mortar-launched flare under a parachute. Every once in a while, we would hear shooting, and see red and green tracers flying through the woods, a mile or so out in front of us. I was told that the green tracers were enemy bullets. I was glad I wasn't out there, fighting.
The graves were mounds surrounded by short concrete walls with a doorway at one end. There were a lot of these at Phu Bai, which I was told meant "grave yard."
The year before I got there, Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam, was overrun by the NVA and Viet Cong, in the famous Tet Offensive. Hue is just down the road from Phu Bai. Every once in a while, one of the girls who worked for us would not show up for work. They lived in the village of Phu Loc. We were told that she had to identify a body which had just been dug up from where the enemy had hidden it over a year ago. Or she had to attend a funeral, after such a discovery.
I saw no death. But there were occasional reminders of it.
Sometimes, I was on tower guard duty. There were wooden towers behind the perimeter. I would sit in a metal folding chair and see the whole countryside. At night, we would unpack the huge starlight scope, put it on its tripod and turn it on. A friend of mine dropped a starlight scope off the tower. We watched for the enemy. Everything looked a bright green. Guys smoking cigarettes left bright streaks on the screen. I never saw any of the enemy, from our tower.
One of our jobs, in the tower, was to phone the direction that a rocket had come from. We had a crude device to tell the angle, when we sighted along it. We would see artillery bursts in the distance. The Army did this to see how accurately we could report the direction, over the phone. Once, a neighboring base was rocketed, while I was on tower guard duty. Apparently the launch site was hidden by a hill. But I thought I saw flashes in the distance. We phoned in directions. But we probably only helped create confusion.
The thing that most easily reminds me of Vietnam is the sound of helicopters. That is how Vietnam war movies become realistic, by including a few helicopters.
Nearby was a place where Cobra gunships took off and landed. These were two-man, thin helicopters, with rockets and guns and a powerful engine, beautiful machines. They would start up their engines. Then they would hover. While hovering, they would taxi, one behind the other, to where they took off, going forward like airplanes.
I once heard a roar in the sky, like an airplane was flying very close to me. It was a Cobra, way up in the sky, diving straight down. He pulled out of the dive. It was a thrill to see.
There were also those big Sikorsky helicopters with rotors on the front and back.
Most of the helicopters were Hueys. Lots of Hueys.
Nearby was Camp Eagle, 101st Airborne. They fought as infantry, although they were trained to parachute. They saw a lot of combat. They suffered greatly at Hamburger Hill.
I saw Bob Hope at Camp Eagle. I had just gotten off guard duty. And they were going to make us sleep, instead of going to see him. I remember one bad joke. One of the Laugh In girls (I think it was Judy Carne) said "You bet your sweet bippy." Hope asked, "What's a bippy?" She whispered in his ear, making the crowd hoot and holler. Then Hope said, "I would tell you what she said, but you can't say navel at an Army base." That didn't get much of a laugh.
I only was in Hue a few times. We drove into the city, and saw a big statue of Jesus in front of a Catholic cathedral. There were holes in the cathedral. Twice, I saw the Citadel. I didn't know what it was. I wondered what was inside. Was somebody watching us from there? The Citadel was the walled inner city, surrounded by a wide moat which was a part of the Perfume River. The Citadel is where the toughest fighting had been, during the Tet Offensive.
The first time I saw the Citadel, we were driving on Highway 1 to Dong Ha, the site of one of our artillery batteries, near the DMZ. It was Tet, a year after the big Tet. And we didn't know what to expect. We held onto machine guns, wore our flak jackets (body armor), steel pots (helmets), and lots of ammunition. We were on the back of a truck. We drove by Quang Tri. It looked like a nice little village.
Dong Ha was filthy. The hot wind blew gritty dust into everything. The walls of our hootch were covered with clear (rust colored, actually) plastic, to keep the dust out. The dust was visibly falling from the cracks in the roof. That night, we heard mortars in the distance. A siren warned us to take shelter.
During the day, we were told that we could see the DMZ. There were helicopters all over the place. They were heading out, toward the DMZ. And they were coming back. One carried a helicopter. A sky crane carried an artillery gun.
We spent a couple of days there.
In the Perfume River were fishing nets supported by poles at each corner. The poles were stuck into the mud at the bottom of the river. The fishermen (women?) could lower the net by pulling the poles toward each other. We saw those, on the way to Eagle Beach. We drove through Hue to Eagle Beach. That was where we swam, two or three times. The resort seemed to belong to 101st Airborne. We played frisbee in the surf. Once I had difficulty getting back to the shore because of the undertow. It scared me. Helicopters would fly a few feet over the water.
Coca Cola was 10 cents a can. I drank a lot of Coke. Beer was 15 cents a can. My friend Bob got obnoxiously drunk every night.
One night, our PX, a large aluminum building, was hit by a rocket. It burned all night, quite spectacular. The PX was just down the road from the Crypto Bunker. So, whoever was on duty there (Pete I think) must have had a thrill. He said he spent the night under the cot.
Apparently, what was mostly destroyed were hundreds of tape recorders and tons of Carling Black Label Beer. People said that they hated Carling Black Label Beer.
It seems that there are two Monsoon seasons, depending on which direction it is toward the ocean. In places, it rains constantly in the summer. Where we were, it rained all winter. Although it never got very cold, it certainly felt cold. The ditches were full of red mud, four feet deep. We wore rubber ponchos, with hoods, to stay dry. I wore ski gloves.
Our General wanted a club to drink in. I hurt my back lifting rocks for his fireplace. We joked that they were BFR's, big old rocks. I went to a medic, at the aid station, who gave me a bottle of liniment. That worked OK. I had recurring back pains since then. But there was no medical record of this from the Army. I was eventually cured by a chiropractor who snapped a rib back into place.
One day, when I was on tower guard duty, the Army blew up a bunch of excess ammunition. It was a huge explosion with a huge mushroom cloud. Pieces and bullets were still falling from the sky, when a crowd of Vietnamese (women mostly) ran to the site, to collect ammo. They probably sold it on the black market.
I was on tower guard duty, during a typhoon. A typhoon is a hurricane in the Pacific. The tower was swaying back and forth, making sounds. The rain was blowing directly in my face, as I looked out beyond the perimeter. I could hardly see a thing. I spent much of my time facing the other direction.
Our tower was next to a hospital. We saw lots of helicopters land with wounded, and presumably, with dead.
Rice paddies are apparently a simple way to control weeds. Rice can grow in shallow water, but most weeds cannot. I had contact with a rice paddy, once. I helped put up a chain link fence, around our perimeter, to keep the enemy out, and show where he got in if it didn't keep him out. I don't think they ever finished that fence. I got pretty wet.
The M16 was fun to shoot. It was a good rifle. It had a bad reputation, for not shooting when it got sand in it. I imagine that soldiers learned to keep it clean. It made a "sproing" sound when fired. It had a huge spring in the stock, which pushed the bolt forward into place, chambering another round. We joked that you could tell it was made by Matell, 'cause it was swell. We were told that the bullet tumbled, making it more deadly. That is hard to believe, as it had a fairly long range. I was very accurate with an M16. I couldn't miss. I only shot at aluminum cans, however.
We wore flak jackets (body armor) on guard duty. These were heavy vests that could apparently stop a bullet or piece of shrapnel. Handy invention. I think we wore them all the time, when on guard duty. Maybe not.
Each bunker had a grenade launcher. This was a breach loading gun, which broke apart like a shotgun. The shell was about three inches in diameter. There were two rounds to choose from, a grenade with a copper-colored tip, and a buckshot round which shot a handful of buckshot at the enemy.
We also had grenades. These were egg shaped, metallic, and smooth, with a grenade handle with a pin (like a cotter pin with a ring attached). When thrown, the handle flies off, and a fuse burns and ignites the explosive inside the grenade. Around the explosive charge is a coil of metal, with narrow weak spots, so that it will break apart at those spots. This coil is responsible for the flying fragments from the grenade. The grenade felt heavier than a baseball, to me.
My job was sending and receiving SECRET messages. I would send coordinates for guns to shoot. And the results would come back, usually "unknown." Eventually, the Army was ordering ten or more artillery shells for every target (soldier, truck, whatever). The results were still "unknown," perhaps for a different reason.
I received one message saying that 101st Airborne had uncovered an enemy supply cache, which contained 2.5 tons (estimate) of Post Toasties, which they destroyed. Is this still SECRET? Probably not.
My closest friends were Paul (from Buckley (He called it Buckeye), WA), Bob (from Walla Walla, WA), Pete (from back East?), and Ted (I forget where he was from).
One night, someone threw a grenade over some buildings, into our motor pool. It slightly injured the guy who was on guard there, and flattened a lot of tires. I guess they never found out who did it. I fixed a bunch of flats the next day.
Twice, we were tear gassed. I had a gas mask hanging from a nail on the wall, next to my bed. As, I said, I am a very sound sleeper. And the gas was very thick, by the time I woke up. Who do you think tear gassed us? Why, it was those rascally US Marines, of course. Some of them would get drunk, and drive around tear gassing the US Army.
We wore green. Our shirts and pants (jungle fatigues) were green. Our socks and underwear were green. Our boots were green and black. Our handkerchiefs were green. American fluorescent white laundry would have stood out as great targets.
The jungle fatigue pants had a bunch of pockets down the legs. I didn't use those pockets much. I suppose they were useful for infantry? I had dog tags, on a chain around my neck. They had my name, and social security number, and blood type. While I was in basic training, the Army switched from service number to social security number.
The jungle boots were nice boots. They had thick, green, canvas up the leg. We were told that they had a steel sole, to protect from booby traps.
We had 5 cent bills. We were not allowed to use American money. We used MPC, military payment certificates. There were no pennies. All prices were rounded to the nearest 5 cents. We ought to do that here.
Every once in a while, they would change to a different style of MPC. They would lock up the bases, so the Vietnamese couldn't exchange their MPC, which they weren't supposed to have. Apparently this was to discourage the flow of MPC on the black market. That day, no one swept our floors or cleaned our laundry.
The Vietnamese unit of currency was the piastre, also called the dong. They had neat paper money, with a strange watermarked face made of clouds.
Eventually, my first year in Vietnam ended. I flew back to Cam Ranh. From there I flew to Washington, via Tokyo and Anchorage. Then I flew to Kalispell, stopping at Spokane. And, I visited my family and friends.
When I got back to Vietnam, we had moved to Danang, in a long convoy of trucks.
P.S. Six people have sent me email, saying that this page brought back memories. One of them remembered the rocket that hit the PX. Another called my attention to an error.
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