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Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
-- John F. Kennedy
A starry night in January 1968, found me on a westbound Trailways Bus somewhere in the Nevada desert. My transistor radio was playing "Hey Jude", and my destination was Vietnam. The first time I had ever heard of Vietnam was in 1965. I was assigned to the 396th Truck Company located at Panzer Karserne in Boeblingen, Germany. Our CO would call us together periodically and brief us about this place called Vietnam.
All I can recall from those briefings is; that he talked a lot about a town called Da Nang, wondering what has this got to do with me, what has this to do with driving a truck, and how long was this briefing going to last. After all, I joined the Army to drive a truck, not to attend history classes.
Since that time I had heard more and more about Vietnam as it was hitting the papers and TV news daily now. As the news media increased its coverage of the ______, pick one, (War) (Battle) (Conflict), our briefings on the subject decreased, and we started to receive jungle training.
I had just gone through a mini Vietnam village a couple of months ago at Fort Riley, where they had constructed a Vietnamese village in one of its remote areas. It was complete with straw huts, trails, and many booby traps. I learned about trip wires, pungie sticks, booby traps, and a nasty spring loaded device that sprung up, down or out, depending upon its design, with numerous wooden spikes pointed in your direction, that would impale you when you activated the trip wire.
We were also warned about picking up souvenirs, as the Vietnamese were notorious for booby trapping items that the American GI thought would be neat to pick up and take back home.
A lurch of the bus brought me back to the present, and my radio was now playing "Light My Fire." The guy sitting next to me, who was asleep now, was returning to Nam for his second tour. He had filled me in on what to expect over there, and shared some of his war stories with me. As I listened to the drone of the bus's engine, I was thinking, "This is it." "This is real." "I'm going to a place where I could be shot". "I may have to shoot at people". "Will I be killed?" "Will I have to kill someone?" And what did he mean by, "Body count?"
The bus made a rest stop in Reno, Nevada and I walked across the street to a bar and ordered a beer. I was informed that I was not old enough to drink beer. Do you see any irony here?
The Oakland Army Terminal was a large place, and I would just be guessing if I were to say how many people were crowded into its confines. I recall rows upon rows of cots and duffel bags stretching on almost to infinity. There were a matching number of GIs that were milling around, standing in line, or sitting on cots. Some were talking, some were reading, all were lost. In those days when you reported in to a place, you were told to, "Wait here until your name is called." How many times has that been heard in the Army? So, like everyone else, I waited around listening for my name to be called.
I noticed that some of the GIs were squatting down in the middle of the floor, their butts almost on the ground, and had their arms draped over their knees while they talked amongst themselves. When I inquired about this strange behavior, I was told, "They just returned from Nam." Huh?
A couple of days later my name was called and I was crowded onto another bus and taken to the airport. As we entered a holding area at the airport I heard the familiar, "Wait here until your name is called."
Later that afternoon our names were called and we were taken outside the terminal, onto the tarmac, and told? You got it, only now, for the sake of brevity, I'm going to invent the acronym "WHUYNIC".
There was a large aircraft waiting for us with the face of a tiger on it's tail, and the words, "Flying Tiger" written on the fuselage. I recalled that this airline had been around for quite awhile, and seems like they did a lot of flying during W.W.II. Well, at least we were going to Nam with some folks that new what they were doing and had some experience in dodging bullets. This gave me a warm fuzzy.
As our names were called, we loaded onto the aircraft and shortly afterwards we were airborne and on our way. The trip was pretty much uneventful. That is except for the announcement that the pilot made, giving us our estimated arrival time for landing in Anchorage, along with the local weather. Alaska! My eyes dilated to their max, I broke into a sweat, and my warm fuzzy took off like a cork out of a champagne bottle.
Things started flashing through my mind such as; missing a movement, reimbursement to the Government for a plane ticket, and stockade! About the time I thought of looking for a brown paper bag to breath into to prevent myself from hyperventilating, the pilot continued with his announcement with; "From there we will continue on to Okinawa, Japan and Vietnam. Phew! I am on the right plane after all I thought, as the color returned to my face and my warm fuzzy showed back up.
We arrived over Vietnam sometime during the night, and I recall looking out the cabin window, trying to make out anything on the ground. But with the exception of a few scattered lights, it was pitch black. We were making our approach, the engines had slowed, and we were descending, but it was still black down there. Just about this time the sky started to light up with white and orange streaks of light, and I knew we were under some kind of attack. I expected that at any minute our pilot would give the engines full throttle and we would get out of there. But we kept descending, and my warm fuzzy went AWOL.
I learned later that we were not under attack after all, and that the orange lights that popped up everywhere were only parachute flares, used nightly all over Vietnam. My warm fuzzy started coming back. I wished later that I had some stock in the parachute flare business.
The doors opened on our aircraft and I stepped out into the night. I was immediately hit by a big surge of hot air which did not go away the whole time I was in country. As I recall, there were three seasons in Nam. Hot and muggy, hot and dry, or in the winter, warm and muggy. We marched into the air terminal, placed our duffel bags on the floor, and were told, WHUYNIC.
I need to explain something here for you folks that haven't enjoyed a trip to this part of South East Asia. You may have noticed that I shortened "Vietnam" to "Nam". I can do this because I've been there. But it is considered a faux pas to use this term without having spent your time "In country." I don't know why, it just is.
Sometime during the night my name was called and I loaded onto a small military bus. As we pulled out of the airport and started through a village, which I can now refer to as "The Vil", without committing a faux pas, I noticed that the windows on the bus had heavy, wire mesh screens over them. I made a comment about needing the screens for the big mosquitoes over here. I was informed that the screens were there to prevent the villagers from tossing handgrenades into the bus. I felt my warm fuzzy deserting me again, and this time it didn't return until I was back in the states.
I have no idea where our plane landed, but think it may have been Bien Hoa. The bus was taking us to a place called Long Binh. We made the trip without incident. At Long Binh we were ushered into a large BLDG and told to WHUYNIC.
The next day we were formed up outside for a newbie's survival briefing. As we were getting into formation I noticed that there were several old timers that were moving into the area as if they were going to listen to the briefing also, and I wondered why they would want to stand out in this heat and hear something they must have heard a hundred times before. The briefing started and we were told that there were a couple of warnings we needed to know about.
The first warning was called a Yellow Alert. We would be warned by the sound of a wailing siren, and if we heard it we should move outside of any buildings and proceed to any of the numerous bunkers located throughout the compound.
Then we were told of the Red Alert, and that we were to drop down wherever we were and cover ourselves the best we could. The question was asked, "What is the warning for a Red Alert?" The answer was, "You'll be being shot at!" I then discovered why the old-timers had shown up, as they started leaving the area with big grins on their faces, after watching our reactions to our Red Alert answer.
Shortly after the briefing I was singled out and told I needed a haircut. And admittedly I did need one after managing to go 2 months without one, thanks to a 45 day leave I had just come off of. I found the barber shop and walked in. And what I saw caused any part of my warm fuzzy that might have been hanging around to Di Di Mau. For standing before me, with a big grin on his face and a straight razor in his hand, was a Vietnamese barber! "Have seat", he said in broken English.
I survived my haircut with both ears intact, but as he was trimming around my sideburns with that straight razor he said, "You likey haircut?" "Yes sir" I replied. "I do good job, no?" "You did a great job" I said. "You leave big tip?", he asked, as the razor slid along my the side of my face. "A real big tip" I gulped. How much is 10,000 Dong anyway?
A couple of days later myself and a few other GIs were herded onto a C-123, which is a two engined C-130, to be flown to our new duty station. Our plane had no seats. You walked up a ramp that dropped down from the back end of the aircraft, and found a place on the floor to sit. The floor consisted of aluminum pallets which sat on rollers, and had cargo netting draped over them. The plane took off and we tried to maintain a sitting position on our now rolling pallets. The big trick here was not to get your fingers or butt between the pallets when they rolled together. There were no windows to see out of, and there was too much noise to talk, so we just sat there with our thoughts, wondering if it was normal for this thing to vibrate and shudder the way it was. Everybody else must have been wondering the same thing, as or eyes would all widen in unison. Other than that, our flight was pretty much uneventful. Don't you just love those kind of flights?
We landed in Cam Ranh Bay, and went through the WHUYNIC routine. A deuce and a half showed up and provided the transportation for the final leg of our journey. We bounced along in the back of the truck with our duffel bags, as the dust from the roadway kept pouring in over the tailgate turning our khaki uniforms and green duffel bags a chalky white. I noticed that the bottom of the truck bed was covered with bags full of sand and said something about them being put there to weight the truck down in order to give us a smoother ride. "They're put there to keep the damage to the cargo at a minimum when a landmine is hit.", I was told. Oh fuzzy, where are you?
Our truck, which was now struggling to get through the deep sand it was in, came to a halt and the driver dropped the tailgate. As I climbed out of the truck and looked around, all I could see was white sand, some brown buildings, very little vegetation, and a relenting sun that seemed that it's main mission was to be sure I could not escape from it. I had arrived at the 566th Trans. Co., my new home.
The driver pointed to a building off in the distance and told us that it was the orderly room, and that we should go there to report in. As myself and the other replacements started walking toward the orderly room, we heard someone shout out, "I smell weed." Someone else shouted back, "What kind of weed?" The first person then shouted, "Seaweed!" Seaweed, or weed, was the term used for newbies, a carryover from the troops arriving by ship. We made it to the orderly room with a few more cat calls of, "Here comes some weed." And, "Look at the weed."
In Country Orientation
As I checked in at the 566th orderly room, I went through the normal questioning you get whenever you report into a new unit. "Where you from?", "What unit were you with?", "How long you been in?", etc. Normally at this point the newbie would try to gain some status by telling some old war stories to show that he had been off the front porch a time or two, and that he had a lot more time in the chow line than the clerk checking him in had in the army.
But in Nam it was different. It didn't matter if you had been in the army 10 years longer than the guy you were talking to. This was Nam and you were the newbie. I had been told back in the states by some of the returning Vets to keep my mouth shut and listen if I wanted a chance of survival over here. That was some of the best advice I had received. So I tucked my tail between my legs, answered questions, and paid attention. Besides, at this point, my best war story would have put these guys to sleep.
After signing in, I was given the task of filling out the countless forms that the army had developed over the years. And, although this was an expected ritual I had grown accustomed to, the block titled, "Next of Kin" seemed to jump out at me now. Afterwards I was given a quick briefing that covered; mail call, sick call, work call, mess hall hours, and the Malaria Pill. The Malaria Pill was an orange pill that we were to take every Monday to fight off Malaria. I was also informed that it was provided at he mess hall and that I may have some type of reaction to it. Luckily I did not react to the pill and took it religiously the whole time I was in country. After the briefing I was given a quick tour of the company area, escorted to the supply room to draw bedding, then taken to my new living area, which was a cross between a tent and a building, and was referred to as a hooch. It slept 6 people.
The bottom half of the hooch was about 4' high and consisted of overlapping horizontal slats. The top half of the walls were big open areas that were covered with screening material. The roof was made of corrugated steel, with sand bags scattered on top to keep the roof from flapping in the wind during the monsoon season. Around the outside perimeter of the building was a wall of sandbags which were piled about 3' wide and 4' high. These sand bags, which were around just about every structure in Nam, were designed to hopefully gives us some protection during mortar and rocket attacks.
My escort left, and for the first time in several days, I was by myself! And what a great feeling this was after days of being crowded into buses, planes, sleeping areas, assembly areas, mess halls, etc. As I sat down on my bunk I realized that I had been running on adrenaline for the past several days with very little sleep. Right now I felt like I could just drift off and sleep for days. But I wanted to get my stuff put away, put my bedding on my cot, and take a shower first. How long had it been since I had a shower? Longer than I wanted to think about.
As my escort was leaving me to my new home and thoughts, he told me that my roommates were out on a convoy, and that when they returned they could show me how the shower worked. How complicated could that be I thought. But, being the new kid on the block, I resisted the temptation of taking a shower without instructions, and waited for my roommates to show up.
I dumped my duffel bag out on my bunk and started putting my stuff away. My area of the room consisted of an army cot, a foot locker, and a box hanging onto the wall with shelves in it. I was pleasantly surprised to see that we had electricity. In fact, one of the guys had a small apartment sized refrigerator next to his cot, and another guy had a reel to reel recorder. For you younger readers, a reel to reel is a pre-CD, pre-cassette, pre-eight track, music playing device.
The distant sounds of truck engines and banging tailgate gates woke me. I must have succumbed to the lull of activity and drifted off to sleep while sitting on my cot. As I looked out through the screen I saw that it was starting to turn dusk and there were a couple of deuce and a halfs unloading people. These passengers started to disperse, walking towards their respective hooches, and several of them were headed my way.
I stood up as my new roommates entered the hooch and was surprised to see that they were all white as a ghost, from their boots to their hair. Even their weapons and gear were white. It turned out that this was a normal end of the day appearance for them, and was the result of long hours of driving in convoys on unpaved roads. As they entered the hooch and started to drop their gear onto their cots they noticed me standing there in my wrinkled stateside khakis and the somebody hollered, "Seaweed!" They threw their gear on their cots and came over to welcome me to their piece of the world.
We went through the normal, "Where you from?" questions as they sat on their cots, and started wiping down and cleaning their weapons. And while cleaning weapons in the army is something that is very normal, and done wherever you go, I noticed something very different here, and at first I couldn't put my finger on it.
Later on it dawned on me what was different. There was no command to clean the weapons. Everyone just sat down, almost in unison, and started taking their weapons apart. They knew right where their cleaning supplies were. No one was looking for or borrowing something to clean with. And while the normal procedure elsewhere was to look at the person you were talking to, with an occasional glance at your weapon, the opposite was true here. While looking intently at the weapon they were cleaning, they would make an occasional glance at the person they were talking to.
One of the guys also carried an M-60 into the hooch. And as everyone finished cleaning their assigned weapon, they automatically started cleaning the M-60. Like ants on a bug, they converged on the machine gun, took it apart, cleaned it, and had it back together in no time. If this had been stateside, they would have still been standing in a formation while an NCO gave directions on where to find the cleaning supplies, assigning tasks, and providing a time for another formation so the weapons could be inspected. Then you would have had the normal lame and lazy folks that would be dragging their feet while they complained and whined or just eased out of the door, leaving the cleaning task to someone else.
But not here. Not in Nam. And while these guys had to be tired and hungry, not to mention needing a shower in a bad way, their weapons came first, and nobody shirked their responsibility.
After the weapons were cleaned the talk turned to chow and we headed to the mess hall. We stopped by the arms room on the way and I waited off to the side while they turned their weapons into the armor. The arms room was one of the few buildings in the area that had full wooden walls. The rest of the buildings were constructed pretty much the same as our hooch, to include the mess hall.
As we entered the mess hall I saw a dispenser hanging on the wall and some of the guys were taking small white tablets from it. "Salt pills.", I was told as someone noticed the puzzled expression on my face. Newbies walk around with that look on their faces a lot during the first week or two in Nam.
Chow was chow, and I couldn't even hazard a guess as to what I ate that night. The mess hall was pretty much arraigned the same as any other chow hall in the army. You entered the hall, grabbed a compartmented tray and slid it along the counter as the cook placed food in the different compartments. The big difference here was, this was the first air-conditioned mess hall I had been in, and it felt great.
Several of the guys at a table motioned for me to join them and I headed their way. Their enthusiasm to have me sit with them was not because of who I was, but because I was their link to the states. I had the latest news, gossip, and information on what was happening stateside. I was their thread to reality, and they knew that within 48 hours their link would disappear. My Class A uniform would turn into jungle fatigues. My stateside slang would go away and the term "Rock & Roll" would take on a new meaning. In 48 hours we would be sitting at this table again. Only I would be in chalky white jungle fatigues, with chalky white hair, and have a chalky white face with sweat streaks running down it, and their link to the states would be broken.
After chow we headed back to the hooch and my thoughts started turning towards taking a shower, which I expressed to my comrades. "No problem.", they said, and as we approached our hooch. One of the guys said, "Grab that diesel can and follow me." Huh? Along with puzzled looks, The expression "Huh?", would also be with me for awhile.
I grabbed the can and followed him to the shower room which was just behind our hooch. "First you make sure that we've got water.", he said as he pulled the cord on a shower head and water flowed out. Then we started following a water line that ran from the shower and up a hill. Connected to the other end of the water line, on top of the hill, sat a fuel tank that had once been attached to a fighter jet which had met its demise. It had since been salvaged and cleaned, and now stored the water for our shower. About midway between the shower and the tank, the water line ran through a 55 gal barrel which had been cut in half. The bottom of the barrel was filled with sand, and just above the sand the water line entered the barrel, coiled around itself about 5 times, and continued out the other side of the barrel.
"Pour the diesel into the sand.", he said. I followed his directions, saturating the sand in the bottom of the barrel with diesel fuel. He then showed me how to ignite the diesel fuel while still maintaining my eyebrows. Flames flared up and engulfed the coils of water pipe in the barrel. Then he explained that I would have to work out the timing of my shower through trial and error, but normally, by the time I walked back down the hill, got my clothes off, and walked back to the shower, it would be about right, more or less.
By the time I got back down to the hooch I discovered that everyone else had stripped down and were converging on the shower, which put me at the back of the line. While waiting for my turn in the shower, I tried calculating the volume of the water tank and the number of people ahead of me, to see if there would be any water left when I got my turn in the shower. I was happy to discover that everyone washed quickly, and used very little water.
When my turn in the shower came I wanted to just stand under the running water and let the accumulation of dirt and sweat from the last couple of days wash off while I held the water valve open. But that was a luxury that I wouldn't have until I got back home. So I got wet enough to lather up, and then used just enough water to rinse off with. But it still felt great.
Once back in the hooch I was told that in order to shave, wash my face, or brush my teeth in the mornings, that I needed to acquire a washing bowl, not unlike a large mixing bowl, to carry water and wash in. One of the guys loaned me an old one he had, that leaked, but said it would get me by until I got one of my own. The bowl as I remember was about 18" across, about 6" deep, and made out of light weight aluminum. And after being used for awhile the sides would crack from flexing while water was being carried in it. I was also told that for $10.00 a month, Mama-san would polish my boots, sweep the floor, make my cot, and wash my clothes. That was probably the best return on my money I ever gotten.
Sleep came quickly that night and when I woke the next morning I was by myself. Everyone else had headed out on another convoy, and since I still had a day of processing to go through, they let me sleep in. I made my way to the water truck that was parked in the company area, filled my borrowed bowl with water, and carried it back to an area that had been set up for washing and shaving in the mornings. I discovered that about half of my water had leaked out already, and I had just enough to brush my teeth. After two more trips to the water truck I was shaved, washed and ready for my first full day in the company.
Mama-san came by the hooch just as I was putting my shaving gear away, and between her broken English and my no Vietnamese, I think we agreed that she would wash my clothes. Anyway I gave her $10.00 and hoped that's what we had agreed to. Actually I gave her $10.00 worth of Military Pay Certificates (MPC). Somewhere along the line, probably in Long Binh, I had to convert all my American money for these MPCs. I was told that it was to fight the black market.
After breakfast I headed to the clothing issue point where I was issued my new, in country clothing. This included jungle fatigues, jungle boots, flak jacket, and other related items. Although the fatigues and boots I received were new, the flak jacket was another matter. It was worn, scared and stained, and I often wondered about the source of the stains. One of the issues I received was a wide brimmed canvas hat with a draw string that went under your chin. Almost everyone, to include myself, wore these hats with the sides rolled up, western style.
As I trudged back to my hooch to stow my gear, while wearing my newly acquired hat, it dawned on me that nobody that I had seen in the last couple of days had been wearing a steel pot. The whole time I had been in the army, you had to wear your helmet for a number of functions to include; guard mount, guard duty, going to the field, in parades, and any other function the army could think of to make you wear this piece of equipment. Good training was the buzzword when anyone complained about the weight of this thing setting on their heads. Now I'm in a combat zone and I get to wear a cloth cap. Gotta love the army.
I was to learn that most of the training I had done prior to coming to Nam was going to be set aside while we dealt with the mission at hand. Although I was issued a steel pot, it spent most of its time bouncing around on the floorboard of my truck. When you needed it, you put it on. When you didn't need it, you took it off. Is that simple or what?
After putting my gear up I climbed into my new fatigues and boots. And yes, I spent a little time in front of the mirror trying to get the right look with my new hat. After all, there is a very fine line between looking like Gabby Hays or John Wayne when you wore a wide brimmed hat. Feeling less self-conscious in my fatigues then I did in my Class A's, I felt that I could blend in more with the old-timers and started to walk around exploring my new surroundings. Of course the bright green of my fatigues and polished boots still screamed, "Seaweed." I made it to the PX and picked up a new bowl to use for my morning washing.
The 566th , along with the 24th, 442nd, and other truck companies in the area, was located above the bay on a hill side, while the motor pools were located down below, where the ground was flat. Although there were boardwalks around the company areas, and a couple of paved roads in Cam Ranh Bay, most everywhere you went, whether walking or driving, you were in sand. Some sand you sank into, other sand was hard packed and easy to walk or drive on. It was not uncommon to see a truck sitting in a hole it had dug for itself, waiting on a wrecker or another truck to pull it out.
As I was enjoying my walk around my new neighborhood I received an urgent call from nature and quickly located the company latrine, which was located along one of the boardwalks. Although we had urinals located closer to the hooch, this was my first experience with the company's full function latrine. It too was built with 4' wooden sides, with the top half being screened in, and a corrugated steel roof. As I entered the latrine I saw that although it was a 6 holer, I was the only one here. In order to gain access to the seats, you had to step up onto a ledge about 18" above the ground. You then dropped your drawers, turned around and sat down. This extra height gave you the feeling of sitting on a throne. You could sit here and watch the world go by. It also occurred to me that as the world went by, they could also watch me.
This was a very humbling experience, and as I sat there wondering if maybe there were curtains or something I should have lowered, it got worse. In the distance I could hear two Mama-sans talking to each other, and their voices were getting closer! Just as I started to pray, "Please Lord, head them in another direction", they walked right by the front of my throne. I held my breath. I didn't make eye contact. I tweaked my nose hoping I could turn invisible. Something worked, because they walked right on by and never looked in my direction.
Once I made my retreat from the latrine, I doubled back and made a curios pass in front of it. I was somewhat relieved to discover that due to the bright sunlight outside, and the dark interior, it was difficult to see anything inside. However, I didn't spend anymore time than necessary whenever I made a visit to the throne after that.
I returned to my hooch and discovered that evidently my $10.00 went where it was suppose to. For sitting on my cot, washed and neatly folded were the clothes that I had left in my laundry bag. The rest of the day went by pretty uneventfully. And just prior to the evening meal I was informed that I would be going out with the convoy in the morning. As I sat in the hooch that evening after chow, I was told what to expect tomorrow, what equipment I needed to bring, and a few other words of wisdom from the other drivers
I'm not sure what woke me up, but as I looked around I saw that the lights in the hooch were on, the other drivers were crawling out of bed, and it was still dark outside. Not the kind of dark that precedes dawn, but middle of the night dark. What was wrong I wondered? Were we being put on alert? Had VC been seen in the area?
Not knowing what was going on, I made a quick scan of the other people in the hooch. I saw that as they were getting out of bed, they were scratching and yawning. Scratching and yawning is good I thought. Running and yelling on the other hand would have been bad. Their behavior was normal for people getting up to go to work. But this was the middle of the night! I followed suit, climbed out of bed and started scratching and yawning along with the rest of them.
Another normal action I found, was to brush sand off of yourself when you got up. The sand in Cam Ranh Bay had a tendency to get everywhere. Even when you put on a freshly laundered set of fatigues you could feel the sand of CRB rubbing against your skin. I often suspected the sand in my clothes was purposely put there by Mama-san when she did my laundry but could never prove it. I grabbed my newly acquired wash bowl and headed to the water truck. After washing, brushing and shaving, we headed to the mess hall.
The conversation during breakfast seemed to be normal. No talk of VC in the area. Nobody seemed to be discussing anything unusual. Although I wanted to ask what was going on, and why we were up in the middle of the night, I thought it would be better if I just sat there and listened. After all, getting a newbie title to wear off was hard enough. No sense in opening my mouth and reminding everyone of the fact. After breakfast we returned to our hooch, grabbed our gear, and headed to the arms room.
Usually you could spend 30 minutes waiting in line to draw your weapon. But not here. The operation ran smoothly and the whole process of getting in line, working your way to the issue window, and drawing your weapon only took a couple of minutes. In fact, if it hadn't been for me, the process would have gone faster. But this was another learning experience for the newbie, and I was caught off guard when in addition to being handed my weapon, I was also given several magazines of ammo.
Up until this point in my army career, ammo pouches were used for everything else but ammo, and right now mine were full of cigarettes, a lighter, and some snacks. I quickly found the fender of a truck to use as a table while I got my priorities in their proper order. After all, who ever heard of issuing ammunition with a weapon. That was something you did at the range after a 30 minute safety briefing. Did I hear someone mention Seaweed?
Once everyone drew their weapons, we loaded into the back end of some deuce and a halves and headed towards the motor pool, which was a couple of miles, more or less, from our living area. We came to a bouncing halt in the motor pool, climbed out of the trucks, and made our way to a van that was set up to maintain our log books. As we filed by the van, you called your truck number out, and someone would toss you your log book. From there you walked to the paved roadway that ran in front of the motor pool, where a line of tractor trailers sat waiting for their drivers. At this point you would walk down the line of trucks looking at the bumper numbers, trying to locate your assigned truck.
As I made my way down the long line of trucks, looking for the bumper number of my assigned truck, the vision of a multi-truck pileup on a freeway ran through my mind. Instead of looking at a line of spit and polished army trucks, I was looking at something you were more likely to find in a wrecking yard. Truck after truck looked as it was on its last leg. Bumpers and fenders were bent, cab tops were missing, windshields were cracked, door glass was missing, mirrors were missing or bent, tires were close to being bald, door handles were dangling, headlights were broken or missing, and the list goes on. The trailers were in no better condition. I noticed that some of the trucks had either chains or steel rods welded from the door post to the front fenders, to keep the fenders from falling off.
I finally located the bumper number my truck, where it sat in line patiently waiting for its driver to show up. All things considered, it was in fairly good shape. Stateside it would have been deadlined, but here it was looking pretty good. It had a broken headlight, cracked windshield, a dangling door handle, and a few bad tires, but all in all, good shape. When the day was out I would be able to recognize my truck by its characteristics, rather than its bumper number.
As I neatly arraigned my helmet and other gear on the passenger seat, I noticed other drivers opening the passenger doors of their trucks and just throwing their equipment in on the floor board. Some people just don't want to take care of their equipment I thought. That thought would stay with me for about the first mile into the convoy.
The hoods on the trucks started going up and I followed suit, raising my hood in order to check the water and oil, although it was still dark and you couldn't see much under there. I would learn later, when we stopped for our lunch break, that while I was checking my oil and water, everyone else was placing a can of their C-rations on the truck's manifold, so they would have a hot meal for lunch. So what's wrong with a can of cold Ham & Lima Beans once in awhile. We got the signal to mount up and the trucks started to roar to life, although sputter to life would be a better term for a couple of them. The lead truck pulled out and the rest of us followed. We didn't go far until we pulled to the side of the road and stopped. I was far enough towards the back of the convoy that I couldn't see what was going on up ahead. The drivers climbed back out of the trucks and started gathering in small groups. I tried to see if any of them had grabbed their weapons and it appeared that they were empty handed, so I left my rifle in the cab and joined one of the groups. "What's the problem?", I asked. "Daylight.", was the reply. Huh?
It turns out that we were not allowed to leave the cantonment area until daylight and that we had gone as far as we could in the dark, which was the approach to a bridge which would carry us out of Cam Ranh Bay and into the general population of Vietnam. I also learned, to my dismay, that getting up in the middle of the night was going to be a routine reoccurrence so that we could reach the bridge by dawn. I looked around and saw that daylight was finally breaking. How long have we been up already? This was going to be hard for a night owl to adjust to.
Once it was light enough to leave, we mounted up and started out. At least I went far enough to almost reach second gear when we stopped again. We went through a stop and go process until we finally reached the bridge. The bridge I discovered was a one lane pontoon bridge which floated on the surface of the water. At the entrance to the bridge stood a soldier that was spacing the trucks out, in order to get a proper weight distribution on the bridge. I was finally waved onto the bridge and started across. It appeared that there was a hill just in front of my truck, but I could never reach it. The weight of the truck caused the bridge to sink a few feet, and as the truck proceeded forward it pushed the hill ahead of it until reaching the other side.
After reaching the other side we continued to crawl along at a snails pace in order to allow the rest of the convoy to clear the bridge. Once the trail vehicle cleared the bridge our pace picked up and I was finally able to get into a higher gear. Within the first mile I hit a good sized pothole and all the equipment that I had placed neatly on the seat, ended up in a heap on the floorboard. My rifle however stayed put, only because before departing, an old-timer had shown me how to hang it upside down on the thumb screw for the windshield hinge, where it still hung in its place.
Our destination was Nah Trang, which is located south of CRB. Nah Trang was considered a milk run because we could make the trip down there without a break, unload, and return to CRB before dark. Piece of cake I thought, but discovered that is was going to be a dry crusty piece of cake. As far as convoys in Nam go, this was going to be an uneventful trip. But it was my first, and there was a lot I would learn by the time we were back in CRB that evening.
I bounced and jumped in that truck just about all the way to Nah Trang back. My back muscles were killing me, my butt was numb, and I wasn't too sure that I hadn't broken something. The dust got so thick you couldn't see at times. The sun would not go away. It just kept beating down and the day got hotter and hotter. Everything in Nam seemed to be a trade off. If we slowed down, you got a break from the dust that kept boiling into the cab of the trucks, but you lost the breeze that came with it, and sweat would start running down your face and stinging your eyes. When our speed increased we would get our breeze back, but the bone jarring crunch you received when hitting a potholes intensified. The water in my canteen was gone before I reached Nah Trang and I didn't think I could ever be this thirsty again, but that was the newbie in me talking.
Once reaching Nah Trang I thought, Thank God, now I can get some rest and get something to drink. But again that was the newbie coming out. As soon as we entered the compound, we were taken to different areas, depending on what type of supplies we had on our trailers, to be unloaded. As I came to a stop at my unloading point and turned the truck off, I spotted a shady spot and immediately headed for it, where I folded into a heap. As I sat there in the shade with my mouth open, wondering why it was still hot in the shade, I heard someone yell, "Hey driver, let's get those sideboards off!"
The sideboards manufactured for army trailers are well designed, line up perfectly with the stake pockets made to hold them, and slide in and out of those pockets easily. It's just too bad that we didn't have those sideboards in Nam. Although I'm sure that the trailers arrived with the proper sideboards on them, over a period of time they became bent, broken, or lost. And the trailer side rails which the sideboards slid into also became bent. So now instead of lifting the sideboard up and sitting it to the side, you had to wiggle, force, beat and pry the side boards out. By the time I managed to get the sideboards out and set aside, my back and arms were in agony, my hands were cut and had splinters in them. I climbed off the trailer, found my hot shady spot, and dropped. I was wringing wet. I couldn't have gotten any wetter if I had fallen into a pool. I sat there panting while I watched those guys on the forklifts attack the cargo on my trailer. In less than five minutes my trailer was empty, and I heard, "Hey driver, move it out!"
"%^%$##&*&^%$." I'm not one for cussing, but give me a break. I'm so hot I think I'm going to be a victim of spontaneous combustion and they want me to go back to work. I climbed back on the trailer, and with the aid of a broken two by four, beat the sideboards back into their stake pockets. Where is the air I wondered as sweat continued to pour off of me and I beat the sideboards back into place. There is no breeze, no fresh air, just a hot sun beating down. Once I had replaced the sideboards I was told where the staging area was and headed that way.
There were a couple of other trucks from our unit already at the staging area when I arrived. I parked in line, turned the truck off, and climbed out. I learned that this was our break time, and it wasn't a minute too soon. I found the water truck and put just enough water in my canteen for a good sized swallow and drank it. God, that was good. I did that a couple more times then filled my canteen. I drank about half of the water in my canteen and poured the rest of it over my head, and filled the canteen again. I may just survive I thought, and headed back to my truck.
Every time we stopped for a break, and at the end of the day, we had to check our tires for flats. Thank goodness I didn't have any, I don't think I had enough strength left to bust the lug nuts loose. I gathered my C's (C-rations) from the floor board of my truck, crawled underneath a trailer where some of the other drivers had gone to get out of the sun, and started working on a can with my P-38 (Can Opener). Although C's are designed to be eaten cold, I was envious of the drivers that were retrieving their heated C's from the manifolds of their trucks. However, as I ate my cold C's, I noticed two drivers changing a flat tires. And, all things considered, I'd rather be eating cold C's.
A couple of the drivers had 5 gallon water cans on their trucks which they had put ice into prior to leaving CRB, and then filled up with beer and soda. During these breaks they would sell it to the drivers or other folks that wanted a cold drink. I don't believe they ever had to worry about returning to CRB with unsold cans. In those days the cans were made with steel and everyone carried a Church Key (Beer Can Opener) with them, which I put on my list for my next trip to the PX.
The return trip to CRB was about the same as the one going to Nah Trang, except the pot holes felt worse since our trailers were now empty. As the pontoon bridge that would take us back to CRB came into view I finished off the water in my canteen, which I had learned to ration, and started thinking about tonight's shower. As we made the approach to the bridge we came to a stop. We had to wait for vehicles coming from CRB to start their way slowly across the bridge. There were different priorities set up for who had the right of way on the bridge, and the priorities changed depending on time of day, direction of travel, military or civilian vehicles, and types of cargo.
Even though it was late afternoon, the sun was still there, beating down on us, and I was wishing that I hadn't chug-a-lugged the last of my water. We finally crawled over bridge and made our way back to our motor pool. As we pulled to a stop I started to anticipate the ride to company area and the shower I was going to get. Anticipation is a word I would soon remove from my vocabulary.
Instead of everyone bailing out of their trucks for the ride to the company area, we just sat there. Then we started another stop and go routine. I discovered we were in line that passed by a fuel tanker, where we topped our fuel tanks off. Afterwards everyone circled their trucks back around and parked side by side. In doing so you had to drive through some soft sand where you had a chance of becoming stuck. But everyone made it, with a fair amount of wheel spinning, and managed to park their trucks without the need for a muscle (wrecker). I allowed myself to start thinking about the shower again, but it was still a long ways off.
After fueling and parking our trucks, we then hauled out air lines, which were part of our OVM (Tool Kit), and hooked them up to air valves which were mounted under the passenger's dashboard. We then removed the truck's air filters out of their housings, which were mounted on the fenders, and used the air hoses to blow all the dust out of them. I have to admit that there was an impressive amount of dust that bellowed into the air, and I wondered just how much dust I had breathed in on the trip.
Again we checked our tires for flats. Anyone with a flat had to change the tire prior to going to the unit, and there were several trucks a day that came in with flats. My luck in this area was still holding, for as I went around my truck thumping tires, I discovered that they were all holding air. Once we completed the rest of our motor stables (Maintenance), which included checking water, oil, hoses, etc., we filled out our log books, recording the days mileage, and amount of fuel and oil used. We also filled out a daily inspection sheet, recording any deficiencies found on the truck. Prior to Nam you would record such things as; "4 inch scratch near right headlight.", or "Crack in left tail light lens." In Nam these things aren't even noticed. Here you recorded things like, "Right fender falling off" or "Spring hanger broken."
After completing the paper work, we turned our logbooks back in at the van where we had picked them up earlier in the morning. This morning! It felt like that it was a week ago when we were here last. As I climbed into the rear of a deuce and a half, to be hauled back to the company area, I observed a couple guys in the motor pool changing the flat tires on their trucks. Thank you Lord, I don't think I could have handled a flat tire today.
It was dusk as we unloaded in the company area and headed back to our hooch. Walking back towards the hooch, I started forgetting about my shower, and thinking more about just laying down on my cot and sleeping for a couple of days. What day is it anyway? Days of the week don't come into play much over here. As I dropped my gear onto my cot and started through what was to become a ritual of cleaning my rifle, I got to wondering, how do these guys do this day after day? Thirty minutes later found me sitting at the same table in the mess hall that I had been sitting at 48 hours ago. Only now, instead of sitting there in my Class A uniform, with a puzzled look on my face, I was wearing jungle fatigues that were covered in a chalky white dust, and the puzzled look on my face had been replaced by one of fatigue. And although I took part in the conversation at the table, I was no longer the center of attention. All the news from home had been covered, and everyone knew where I was from.
There is a math problem that everyone in Nam takes part of on a daily basis. You take 365, subtract the number of days you've been here, and that tells you how long you have to go before you go home. Three hundred and sixty one days is the answer I came up with as I drifted off to sleep that night.
Yesterday's activities just flat wore me out, and going to sleep was a piece of cake. I laid down, and drifted into a deep sleep. But now my sleep was being interrupted. The lights were on, it was dark outside and people were getting out of bed. What's going on now I thought. Then it dawned on me, it was time to get back up for another convoy. God, Didn't we just go to bed? This cycle of getting up, driving and going to bed was going to become an almost daily routine. Luckily it wasn't too long before my system adapted to the cycle, and the climate.
In an archive somewhere there is an official multi-page Mission Statement, which states the purpose of the 566th Transportation Company. But to put it in a nutshell, we hauled supplies from Cam Ranh Bay to any military site within a 2 day drive. The supplies consisted of just about anything needed in Nam. Our loads included; lumber, clothing, ammunition, bombs, concertina wire, beer, soda, c-rations, gun powder for large artillery rounds, and a numerous other items.
Along with the usual long line of tractor trailers, our convoys also included a Hard Truck, a couple of jeeps, a water trailer, a couple bob tail tractors, and at the end of the convoy, a wrecker. There was also a support aircraft which flew overhead. The hard truck was a deuce and a half that carried a half dozen soldiers that were heavily armed and were used in the event of an attack while on the road. The jeeps each had a M-60 machine gun mounted on a swivel in the middle of the jeep, which was hopefully higher that the driver's head. The operator of the M-60 sat on the jeep's spare tire, which had no air in it. The air was kept out of the tire to give the fella sitting on it a smoother ride, and help prevent him from being bounced out of the jeep. If the spare was needed it was aired up by one of the trucks.
Some of the routine trips we made were to Tuy Hoa, Phan Rang, Da Lat, Ban Me Thout, Phan Thiet, and Nha Trang, with Tuy Hoa and Nha Trang receiving most of our business. We also hauled supplies to other sites, but these were the most frequent.
Tuy Hoa was a one day drive to the north. We would leave Cam Ranh Bay in the morning and reach Tuy Hoa in time to get unloaded before dark. Along the way we would stop for our lunch break at the base of a mountain, where a large area had been constructed for convoys to get off of the road. Just above us on the mountain side was an engineer outfit that provided some protection from any VC that may be in the area. Although I made numerous stops here, I can't recall the area or name of the engineer unit. If someone can, please let me know so I can enter it here.
While at this break area, there would be approximately 20 Vietnamese children that would show up in hopes of receiving some C-rations, candy, etc. They would also scope out what was loaded on our trailers, and if you didn't watch them, your load would be lighter when you left the area. I'm not sure where these kids came from, as there were no villages in the area, but they seamed to know when and where we would be.
This break area was also a good place to make sure your load was still secured, brakes were OK, and steering wheel still worked. After leaving here we would proceed over Tuy Hoa Mountain. I'm not sure that Tuy Hoa is the actual name of the mountain, but that's what we called it. As far as mountains go, it was not incredible steep, nor did it reach a nose bleeding altitude. But it was a narrow, twisting road that was full of potholes, was one lane most of the way, and as you climbed the mountain, you had a drop off on you right which gave you a spectacular view of the South China Sea.
Due to the frequency of flat tires we would get, we never used the spare tire carriers that were on our trucks. Once our trailers were loaded, the spares were placed in with the load. One afternoon, after reaching Tuy Hoa, a driver that was behind me in the convoy asked if I knew where my spare was. He then told me that when I hit a pothole coming off the mountain, that my spare bounced out of the trailer and took off down the of the mountain side. I often wondered just how much equipment ended up bouncing off those trailers.
Once we were unloaded, we headed for a designated holding area, and were usually given a quick briefing which included our departure time in the morning, and the status of any VC movements. After that we were turned loose, that is after any flats were changed. Normally at this time we would head to the local watering hole and spend the rest of the night telling stories and having a good time.
One minor problem we had when we were released from the holding area for the evening, was securing our gear. Normal gear like your steel pot, flak jacket and web gear was easy to secure, you just left it laying on your floorboard. Thieves in the Army were dealt with differently back in the 60's, and that's probably why there were not as many thieves back then. If someone was caught stealing, he was given a good beating and left to lick his wounds. Don't even get me started on this new "Kinder and Gentler Army" we have now. I'll save that for a novel.
Aside from securing your regular gear, there was your M-16 to tend with. This was normally secured by dismantling it into two pieces, so it would fit inside the tool box mounted on your truck, where you could lock it up. Your other option was to carry it with you. But if the went into a club, you had to turn your M-16 over to the bartender, and then worry about remembering to retrieve it when you left.
When we spent the night away from our home base, we had to fend for ourselves when it came time to sleep. Usually you ended up sleeping in the cab of your truck, or under the trailer, depending upon the weather, ground surface or snakes. One of three things, if not all at once, worked against you when you tried to sleep. Heat, monsoon rains and mosquitoes. Very seldom was there a breeze at night. You slept with both cab doors standing open hoping to catch any breeze that may come by. Of course this gave the mosquitoes an open invitation to come on in. During the monsoon season you tried to keep everything open in the cab that you could without getting drenched. This usually meant that you were scrunched up in one corner of the cab or the other, trying to stay dry while you slept.
On the plus side of spending the night in Tuy Hoa, you were able to sleep until daylight. We were already with our vehicles, which didn't have to be dispatched, and for breakfast we just opened a can of C's. Plus, the road leading from the compound was dirt and gravel, so everyone had to wait for the mine sweepers to go out in the morning and clear the road before we could leave.
Speaking of mines, roadways were not the only place where the VC used mines. The picture below is the result of a railroad track that had been mined.
Da Lat, the only place in Nam that I can recall going where the air was cool, is located in the Central Highlands. What really makes it stand out is the fact that it had paved roads, street lights, and wood framed houses. The military compound was just outside the city limits. Although convoys weren't suppose to run at night, it was dark by the time we reached Da Lat on my first trip there. When we entered the compound we had to turn our lights off, and we were taken to a staging area using what is referred to as Blackout Drive lights, which is one step up from using a match to drive with. After parking our trucks and checking tires, a deuce and a half was used to haul us to the local watering hole. We stayed until closing time and then were trucked back to the staging area, where we sat around talking for awhile. One by one we found a convenient spot to lay down and went to sleep.
I was awakened from my sleep by someone shouting,"In Coming!" At first I had no idea of what was going on, but people were running and shouting, which if you recall, is not as good as scratching and yawning. Explosions started erupting around us and the ground started shaking. We were under a mortar attack, and it was my first. I started running for a ditch I had seen earlier, but no matter how fast I ran, it was like I was stuck in slow motion and I didn't think I was ever going to reach it. I finally made it to the ditch where several other guys were already hunkered down.
Parachute flares started to pop up all over the place and we could start to see a little better. We were told to set up a perimeter so we ran to where our trucks were lined up, and crawled between the tires, hoping they would give us some cover. Not knowing whose truck I was under, I started wondering what type of cargo he had, since it could be anything from C-rations to 750 pound bombs. I made a little mental note to myself to look before I crawled under anymore trucks for protection.
Staring out into the night when you are being bombarded by mortars, causes you to see things, and it wasn't long before someone opened fire, which in turn caused the whole line to open up, sending a hail of bullets down range. I don't recall his name, but I know that he was an Indian from Oklahoma, and everybody called him Chief. Well ole Chief had seen one too many John Wayne movies, and before you knew it, Chief was on a dead run, headed towards the enemy. And although this was a heroic attempt on his part to stop the war in Vietnam, he neglected to tell anyone of his plan. Except for the two of us that happened to be on either side of Chief when he took off into the night, everyone else saw his silhouette as a target, and you could see the tracers that had been going straight out into the night start to converge on him forming a large V of florescent light.
Now, we were instructed back in the states, when ever you see an unsafe act on the range, to holler, "Cease Fire!", and everybody will stop shooting. Well, between the sound of the mortars going off, the 50 Cals, the M-60's, and M-16's, and everybody going after Chief like a pack of dogs after a scrape of meat, the Cease Fire command didn't work. We had to pass the word from one to another to get the word out. Eventually everyone ceased firing.
Now I'm thinking ole Chief was already on his way to the Happy Hunting Ground, but started yelling for him anyway. The next thing you know, you can hear him crawling back towards us between the noise of the mortars. Then again, was it him or VC? This put us in a dilemma. If it's Chief, we don't want to shoot him, but then again it could be the VC crawling our way.
"Is that you Chief?", I yelled. "Yea.", he replied. Now what kind of answer is that? In the movies they always ask a sports question that only the good guys should know, like who won the 67 World Series. However, I'm not a sports fanatic, so that was out. Then I remembered where he was from. "Where you from Chief?" No answer, but the crawling is getting closer. "Hey Chief, where you from?", as everyone is starting to take aim at a figure crawling through the darkness. "Oklahoma." he finally replied.
I don't know why Chief wasn't hit as he was running through a hail of bullets that night. And on his return trip, he was close to being shot at again, but he wasn't. Somebody was looking over him that night.
The incoming mortars stopped shortly after Chief returned, and as we lay there we could see a barrage of tracer rounds streaming from a helicopter that was up along the mountain side. It was a strange effect. Although you could see this helicopter lighting up the mountain side, you couldn't hear it. Evidently they had located where the mortars were coming from because it was quite the rest of the night, although there wasn't much sleeping done.
When the sun came up in the morning, we saw why we were such a tempting target. When we were parked in the dark the night prior, we had been parked right along side of an airstrip, giving the VC both a line of loaded trucks and an airstrip to aim for.
Note: by Fred Probst, 566th Transportation Company
This Day in History
Union troops under General Frederick Steele fight off a Confederate army under General Edmund Kirby Smith as the Yankees retreat towards Little Rock, Arkansas.
Work begins on the Dams along the Red River, which will allow Union General Nathaniel Banks troops to sail over the rapids above Alexandria, Louisiana.
The Soviet Union proposes a military alliance with France and Great Britain.
The British submarine HMS Seraph drops a dead man the British planted with false invasion plans, into the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain.
Adolf Hitler commits suicide in his bunker. Karl Donitz becomes his successor.
U.S. Marines attack a division of North Vietnamese troops in the village of Dai Do.
U.S. troops invade Cambodia to disrupt North Vietnamese Army base areas.
South Vietnam surrenders. By dawn, communist forces move into Saigon.