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The difficulty of tactical maneuvering consists in turning the devious into the direct, and misfortune into gain.
-- Sun Tzu
At the very end of June 1967 we arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam. From there we took a bus ride to Camp Alpha. The bus ride was a bit odd. There was barbed wire on the opened windows. Someone asked the driver, “Why the barbed wire?” We were told that sometimes the V.C. liked to throw hand grenades into any American bus and the wire was a preventative measure.
It was a very good answer but not anything we had expected to hear. The idea that a person, hell any person in that busy, over crowded city was ready to murder us didn't go over very well. Lots of guys slid down in their seats and even more lit up cigarettes. I didn't smoke at the time but sort of wished that I did.
Camp Alpha was not a happy place. It contained every shade of brown and lots of the olive drab green, not what you might call happy colors. It was a city of tents with only a few buildings made of wood, tin and mosquito netting. I didn't know it at the time but the food was some of the best I'd eat for the next year. The sergeants acted a lot like drill instructors from basic or AIT. We didn't know it at the time but they were really jerks and didn't need to act that way. I later wondered if any of them had served in combat.
Someone told us we were supposed to get a three day indoctrination, sort of a, "Welcome to the Republic of. This is how to watch out for bullets and venereal disease". However, the next morning at formation our make shift platoon was told that the 25th Division needed replacements yesterday. We were asked if anyone would like to spend their tour with the 25th and start today. There was no good reason to do so, but six of us stepped forward. Someone in formation said, "Half of 'em will be dead in a month". Negative vibes, we didn't need that.
A few hours later we were on a Huey chopper flying northwest. What a view from that helicopter without doors! A million shades of green (and brown), little round holes everywhere, where artillery or bombs had landed. The water, the water was everywhere, pools, swamps, rice paddies, rivers, streams, brown water, green water, every kind of water but clear water. This would not be my first choice as a place to fight a war. As a kid I had fought many battles, playing Army or Cowboy and Indian. This was a far cry from the gentle rolling landscape of Massachusetts with it's well manicured lawns and paved streets. Then again in January we would not be fighting in the snow. Ok, we'd have a war in Vietnam. It wasn't like we had a choice, hell we only had one war.
We landed at a place called Cu Chi, 25th Division Head Quarters. There was a ¾ ton truck waiting for us. It was then we were told we would be going to Company "C" of the 4th/23rd Mechanized Infantry. Mechanized, I wouldn't have to do all that much walking. Those guys rode most everywhere they went. Hey this was going to be easy. I had heard those Mech guys rode around with coolers full of beer in their vehicles and some said they even rode around with girls tucked away inside. God was I lucky.
We drove straight to the motor pool where we were met by the executive officer. A First Lieutenant who was tall and skinny. He was wearing those black plastic army issue glasses which were called BCG's (birth control glasses). They made any person appear to have an IQ ten points lower than normal and it didn't seem any woman worth having would even think of kissing a man wearing those things. However he was the Lt and we saluted him as if he was a general. He welcomed us by saying three of the men were to unload a couple pallets of what appear to be iron plates. The three of us who were left were told to clean out an Armored Personal Carrier. He said the APC had just come in from the field. Two men had been killed inside it while sleeping. Two others who were sleeping on top had been wounded. The three of us would be assigned to this vehicle.
As we walked toward the vehicle we saw a fairly small hole in the upper center of the drivers side. Around the hole were a number of smaller divots, scratches, dents in the side of the armor. The Lt told us the vehicle had been hit with an RPG (Recoilless Percussion Grenade - an antitank rocket). He said two idiots had decided to sleep inside the vehicle and this is what happened. We were told to empty and clean out the APC.
Someone from the motor pool started up the 13 ton vehicle and lowered the rear ramp. All the hatches had been closed, it was around 100 degrees in the shade, as if there was any shade. The smell of death floated out of the rear of the vehicle, it was almost overwhelming. We didn't expect to see what we saw inside that vehicle. It was packed full of equipment. Ammunition, medical supplies, food, water, soda, mechanical equipment, duffle bags, it looked like a large and violent clan of gypsies had been living out of this thing. The bodies were of course removed but as we began pulling equipment out of the APC we found blood splatters on some of the containers; not good. As we went deeper into the mess we found things we really didn't want to.
We began asking ourselves and each other questions. Did I just put my hand on part of someone's lung? Oh God, was that someone's balls? There were pieces of flesh, bone, muscle and whatever that were stuck to the walls of this Armored Personnel Carrier. Armored, didn't seem like the armor worked very well. Maybe Mechanized Infantry wasn't that good of an idea?
When the vehicle was empty we washed the ceiling, walls and floor however even with that military cleanser you couldn't get rid of the smell of death. I never thought of it at the time but it would have been nice if they gave us gloves. We still weren't done. We were told to wash as much of the coagulated blood off the equipment as possible. A lot of it would be reused, repacked into that vehicle.
During the job each of us took a quick break to vomit. I don't think any of the three of us ate dinner that evening. Guess this was the 23rd Regiment's way of saying, "Welcome to Vietnam". No doubt it was much more effective than any lecture we could have received in Camp Alpha. It was a reality check and it worked. It's funny after all these years I can still see and smell the inside of that track. For the next year every time someone suggested we sleep inside the vehicle to get away from the rain I remembered vehicle "22". Spent a lot of nights in the bramble with the bugs. It seemed prudent.
There was a number of the side of the vehicle, "22" painted in sort of a faint blue. I was born on the 22nd and always thought of that number as being lucky. There is more than one kind of luck. I wondered out loud if this would be my coffin. One of the other new guys told me to shut the Phuck up. I couldn't get over the idea that I'd die in "22". Ironically, the other two guys would die on that track and not me, but that is another story.
Note: by Thomas Andrzejczyk, Co. "C" 4th/23 Mech Infantry, 25th Division
This Day in History
Puritans jail Governor Stone after a military victory over Catholic forces in the colony of Maryland.
The Secretary of the Navy approves the first formal uniform of the Marine Corps.
The frigate USS Essex
flies the first U.S. flag in battle in the Pacific.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton presents the first Medals of Honor to six of the surviving members of Andrews Raiders. They are the first Medals of Honor ever presented.
The Battle of Paducah Kentucky takes place.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee makes Fort Stedman his last attack of the war in a desperate attempt to break out of Petersburg, Virginia. The attack failed, and within a week Lee was evacuating his positions around Petersburg.
The Battle of Bluff Spring Florida takes place.
The Battle of Mobile Alabama takes place.
Japan invades the kingdom of Liuqiu (Ryukyu) Islands, formerly a vassal of China.
Italian troops invade Abyssinia (Ethiopia).