Fred's Vietnam Days
August 1967-August 1968
(Latest Update: February 10, 2015)
Black Lion...........3rd Brigade........Big Red One
(9/1/67-3/3/68) HHC, 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry, (3rd Brigade), 1st Infantry Division
(3/3/68-8/20/68) Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry, (3rd Brigade), 1st Infantry Division
There was a BLACK LION Reunion this past October 2014, in LAUGHLIN, NV
Here's a group picture of those Black Lions who attended (Courtesy of Mark Smith).
To any of you who have also served, a special and heartfelt
Can you believe the American people gave this M-60 Machine Gun to a 20 year old, skinny runt like me? This picture was taken in Vietnam, after I had been there for many months. I know that because of my long hair in the photo.
It all began when I was drafted (actually, I volunteered for the draft) and was sent for my Army "Basic Training" to Fort Lewis, WA. This is a postcard I bought to send home. While these are not my actual barracks, mine were identical to them. Interestingly, I sent a post card to my Mom while on the Western Airlines flight from Los Angeles (where I was inducted) to Seattle (where Ft. Lewis is) and I said "Having a ball. Hope it lasts!". I did not have any idea then I would be sent to Vietnam. In my mind, I was going to be a cook in Germany. There was no basis for this assumption I made, other than I just never thought they'd send me to fight. Wow, did I get that one wrong! I was 20 years old and that was my first real experience of life's ability to smack one in the face with a big dose of reality that not everything unpleasant happens to someone else.
After Basic Training, those who received a 30 day pass to go home knew they were NOT going to Vietnam. There weren't very many who received that pass. Those who got orders to go directly to "AIT" (Advanced Infantry Training) knew they were going to Vietnam as an Infantry Soldier. You now already know I did not get my 30 day pass out of Basic Training. They sent me directly to "Tiger Land" at Ft. Polk, Louisiana. I would come to know it "lovingly" referred to as Ft. Puke, Lousyanna! This entrance to Tiger Land reminded me of a fun park (like Frontierland in Disneyland). But nothing else did. It was rigorous training. The barracks on the left bottom of this photo is exactly like the one I was assigned to. The truck in the center of this picture is known as a "duece and a half" (two and a half ton vehicle), and we were often transported like cattle in one. They also had large, uncovered trailers that would carry 3 to 4 times as many men than even a "Duece and a half". These were pulled by 18 wheeler-style tractors. We really did feel like cattle in those. Anyway, once we completed our 8 week AIT course, we did get our 30 day pass to go home before we shipped to Vietnam.
We left the United States from Travis Air Force Base near San Francisco (Oakland I believe) and arrived in Saigon at Tan Son Nhut Airport on 8/27/67. This was a commercial, international airport that was used by civilians as well as the military. As you may be able to tell, we arrived on a Boeing 707 jet. It was operated by Continental Airlines, and was a military charter flight arranged by MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam). We stopped at Wake Island and at Clark AFB in the Phillipines to refuel. The flight took over 20 hours. I think that the flags on the terminal building represented the various countries that had troops in Vietnam at the time. Apparently we were some of the first Army replacements to arrive by plane. Seems like all the guys before me came over on ships that landed at the seaside city of Vung Tau.
Typical suburb outside Saigon, 1967. Notice the American military Jeep and the French Citroen behind it. (The French influence was still very present in Vietnam, although they had been gone for years.)
We left Saigon's Tan Son Nhut airport in Army green, air-conditioned buses, no less, and were taken to the 90th Replacement Division in Long Binh. By the way, I never saw window glass or air-conditioning (save for vehicles, the General's air-conditioned trailer and house, and a hotel in Vung Tau), the whole rest of the time I was in Vietnam! The next day (8/28/67), I was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division and went by "deuce and a half" forty miles to DiAn (pronounced "Zee-on"), which was just outside of Saigon, to the north.
DiAn (shown above) was the In-processing unit of the 1st Infantry Division (known as the "Big Red One"). It was where our paperwork was processed and we were assisgned to our individual units. We were here for 3 days. I wound up being assigned to an infantry rifle company based in an abandoned French (Michelin) rubber plantation at a village called Lai Khe (pronounced "Lie-Kay"). At that point, I figured I'd last maybe a week or two before I was killed. Fortunately, it turned out I was wrong. Thank you, God!
Lai Khe is about 35 miles north of Saigon on QL 13, nicknamed "Thunder Road" by the 11th ACR who used the call sign "Thunder". The nickname stuck and everyone knew it as "Highway 13 -Thunder Road". Our unit (2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, aka "Black Lions of Cantigny" of the "Big Red One") was positioned so as to stop the enemy from entering Saigon via the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
We mostly encountered enemy Viet Cong (local, guerilla fighters who could be either men, women or children). Viet Cong were never in uniforn, rather always dressed in civilian clothing - usually Ho Chi Minh sandals, black "pajamas" and straw hats. This painting depicts their dress well. Notice the bicycle ridden by the woman. To them it was like their "Jeep". The man on the left is holding an AK-47. And the man on the right has a 122mm rocket laying across his lap. We had never seen the rockets until the night of the 1968 TET offensive. Prior to that the largest incoming rounds we had received were mortars, albeit lots of them!
On occasion we would encounter NVA (North Vietnamese Army) "Regulars". NVA Regulars were usually dressed in solid dark green military fatigues and carried AK-47s.
This is a great (and turns out somewhat rare) aerial photo of Lai Khe during 1967/68. It was taken from the gunner's well of a helicopter by Don "Doc" Reynolds, a member of the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company (known as "Robinhoods"), also based in Lai Khe. (All my great aerial photos were confiscated by the Army when I left due to "concerns" they might wind up in enemy hands, somehow, even though my next stop was Travis Air Force Base outside San Francisco!) The top left of this photo looks south towards the village of Ben Cat (about 4 miles south of Lai Khe), and then, ultimately, Saigon. The dark green areas are the rubber trees. One of the major "highways" in Vietnam, Highway 13, runs right through the middle of the plantation. It is the single lane, pot-holed, dirt road that runs from the lower right to the upper left of the picture. (The Vietnamese civilians were not allowed to use the highway through the base camp of Lai Khe proper. Rather, they were diverted around the east side of the base via a by-pass made just for that purpose. See map below.) The longer paved-looking area on the left of the highway (wasn't really paved - rather it was made up of interlocking rubber sheets laid on the dirt) is the fixed wing aircraft runway of Lai Khe Airport. It could handle planes up to C-130s. I never saw any jets there, although I've heard one did make an emergency landing once. I'm told that at one point they were considering making the airstrip here large enough to accomodate B-52s, but that notiion died very early on. The shorter paved area (actually oiled dirt, not tarmack) on the right of Highway 13 is the rotary wing pad (helicopter takeoff and landing area). This is where we always left from on a mission and returned to upon its completion. The speckled area in the upper center is where the French had built their homes and support buildings for the plantation. Since they had already left Vietnam some years earlier, the Army took over all the buildings. You'll see pictures of the one we used as our Orderly Room in HHC a little farther down on this page. There also was a Vietnamese Village where the plantation workers lived. Since the French were gone and the plantation was not being worked, the village workers now supported the Army and were paid to do routine tasks like KP ("Kitchen Patrol", i.e. food prep and washing/cleaning chores), cleaning the outhouses, providing laundry and barber services, etc. Because of the way the plantation had been originally designed by the French, this village was located within the plantation itself. When the Army took it over, they occupied the entire plantation which completely surrounded the village. It was very unusual to have Vietnamese civilians actually living on an American base in Vietnam. This was because the enemy VC didn't wear uniforms and therefore they could not be distinguished from the South Vietnamese civilians. So, it was assumed that there were VC living in the village, specific identities unknown to us. We knew this to be the case because we would occasionally receive an attack that originated from the village. However, those events were relatively rare. Even so, one of those events did destroy my old HHC hooch, of which you'll see the results, farther down on this page. It was for this reason that most US Military compounds were set up with no Vietnamese housing on the compound itself. My outfit happened to be located directly next to the southwestern perimeter of the Lai Khe Vietnamese Village. I'm not exactly sure where it is in this photo, but I believe it to be just above and to the right of the helicopter pad, roughly in the center of the photo.
This view of Lai Khe is from the northwest, looking more or less toward Saigon.
Army map of Lai Khe. Note the bypass (dotted line) that went around the base to the east. This was created to prevent the civilian traffic from going directly through the base proper. Note the detail, right down to the buildings. I believe these represent the French villas and other plantation buildings. I think this is an early map, so I don't believe any Army structures are depicted here, although it seems like the helipad strip is shown in dotted lines, perhaps indicating where the Army thought it might be constructed. The airstrip isn't shown at all, suggesting it hadn't yet been considered.
I am currently trying to identify where things were, using this Army map. Things like the village boundaries, MARS Station, KLIK radio station, company areas in general throughout Lai Khe as well as specifically for A, B, C, D, & HHC of the 2nd/28th Black Lions, PX, Swimming Pool, large Division cement command bunker built during the winter of 1967-68, General Hay's Villa, etc. If you think you can help, send me an email at the bottom of this page. I can email or snail mail a map for you to mark up and send back.
This is a Google earth view of Lai Khe in March, 2014. Notice that the bypass road has survived on the south and east of the plantation. The entire area has now been populated (virtually none of the development seen here around the plantation existed in 1967), however the rubber plantation itself remains. The single lane dirt road we knew as "Thunder Road" is now a modern, paved, four lane highway. Sure is a far cry from the way it was during the war in 1967.
These pictures are of the Highway 13 Thunder Road Bypass Checkpoint at the north end of Lai Khe. Notice the blue French Pugeot in the top photo and the buses that are packed with civilians and baggage. You can see that they are all parked along the edge of the highway while the military convoy (whip) passes to the south. The civilians generally had to wait until the end of the day and during the night to travel this road, as it only allowed one-way travel when a convoy was using it.
This is the single lane, dirt, heavily pot-holed, Highway 13 - as it was in 1967, This picture was taken just north of Lai Khe, The road's condition was so poor, there was no way a wheeled vehicle could travel it much above 15 MPH. That's why you see no significant dust trail from this vehicle, actually a civilian bus. (Tracked vehicles, like APCs, could go faster if they wanted.) There were trucks and small scooter-like civilian vehicles along with bicycles that would travel the road. It was very rare to see an automobile or small pickup truck. Civilians could only use the road in the daytime if there was no military convoy using it. For the most part, that restricted the civilian use of the road to nights. Notice that the Rome Plows (Army bulldozers) have cleared the jungle away from the road for several hundred feet on both sides. This was to prevent surprise road ambushes by the enemy. Notice how rural and undeveloped this area was. It was like this all the way to the end of the road (75 miles or so?), with an occasional village spinkled here and there along the way. It was so remote, there weren't even any utility poles or wires bringing any services to the area. And there were virtually no side roads that went off Highway 13 either. Just widespread jungle.
This shows the Rome Plows at work. The Rome Plow is a large tractor with a specially configured dozer-type blade developed specifically for heavy-duty land clearing operations, civilian and military, by the Rome Caterpillar Company of Rome, Georgia. The blade is more curved than the usual bulldozer blade and has a protruding, sharply honed lower edge. The lower edge curves out on one side to form a spike used to split trees too large to cut with the blade alone, but the blade itself can slice a tree of three feet in diameter. Bars are added to the top of the blade to force trees away from the tractor, and there is a safety feature-a "headache bar"-over the operator's position to protect him from falling debris. Some Rome Plows were also modified to include light armor for the operator. You can see two M113 Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) in the lower center defending the area against attack from the enemy as the plows worked. This is how the jungle was cleared if a defoliant sprayed from the air wasn't used. While we saw more jungle cleared by Rome Plows than sprayed by defoliants (Agent Orange was the predominant defoliant used), the use of aerial spraying began to increase substantially as time went by. It eventually got into our water supply, unknown to us at the time, of course. In this picture, they are clearing all the jungle in the area, likely as a result of an S&D (Search & Destroy) mission that discovered the enemy area. Later on in my tour of duty (Spring 1968, after the 1968 TET Offensive), we stopped doing S&Ds and began doing Reconnisance-In-Force (RIF) missions where we would "wander" (that's my word - I'm sure the Army would substitute a different one) for weeks on end. They also changed the use of the Rome Plow from clearing an entire area of jungle in response to an enemy encounter to cutting large grids in the jungle, and then our RIF's would go into the resulting "manageable" squares of jungle left by the plows' grid. I don't believe the Army went back to S&D's after this.
Very close to the same place on Highway 13 Thunder Road as the aerial photo 2 frames above, this is Highway 13 at the north end of Lai Khe in 2011. As you can tell in the Google earth picture 5 frames above, the area is now quite populated and developed. In this picture you see utility poles on both sides of the highway. And the vegetation has grown back to the edge of the roadway, since open areas along the sides of the roadway are obviously no longer required.
An aerial shot (albeit low to the ground) at the southwestern edge of our Base Camp in Lai Khe, with Highway 13 just out of view to the right edge of this photo. Notice the abandoned rice paddies. They are outside the perimeter edge of the base camp. They were no longer used by the Vietnamese because these were now our fields of fire against the enemy. There was always fighting going on in this area and it was heavily mined with land mines. The two brown dots near the horizon are choppers coming in from the north to land. The Google Earth picture above shows that this rice paddy area has now been developed into homes.
While I did not take this particular photo (credit to Sgt. David D. Hack), it depicts the entrance to the commercial area of the Vietnamese Village in Lai Khe (1968) where they sold their products to the US military. No outside Vietnamese civilians were able to shop here because it was inside the base's perimeter, and therefore unavailable to them. Notice the primitive construction used.
This is another view of the village (also taken by David Hack). Notice the coiled concertina barbed wire fencing. Hard to read the sign on the fence, but it basically says stay away and don't cross.
I took this one day when I went exploring in the village. It is a main residential street in the Vietnamese village of Lai Khe, 1967. Notice the oxen drawn, 2 wheeled, wooden wagon (center right). The children always wanted their picture taken - some for free and some for payment. It was rare to get a picture without them in it.
I'm assuming the French had built this large swimming pool. It was now within the boundary of the Vietnamese Village in Lai Khe. Not sure if that was the case when it was originally built. I didn't know this pool even existed. So you can imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon it that day I went exploring in the village. There was a small snack bar located in the building on the far side of the pool behind the life guard chair. It was run by the Army and they served drinks (cool, not ice cold) and hamburgers, which were small, thin, and way over-cooked. After TET 1968, the Village was generally off-limits to grunts like myself.
I came back another day and stayed the whole day sun bathing, swimming and playing with the Vietnamese kids (one of whom took this photo). It was a great day. I didn't get caught either, so there were no repercussions for my day of playing "hookey". Years later, I learned at a Black Lion reunion that it wasn't uncommon for GIs based in Lai Khe to go to the pool, but very few infantry units apparently got to enjoy it. Most folks I've spoken to about the pool never even knew of its existance! I guess it became a moot point, as I'm told that the pool was ultimately destroyed during, or just after, the 1968 TET offensve. (My guess is that these two photos were taken sometime between October 1967 and January 1968.)
This is the money we used in Vietnam. It was called MPC (Military Payment Certificate). I'm showing a nickel, a dime (covered in Quan Loi mud, no less), and a quarter. No, I don't know who the lady is depicted on the MPC. I've done a little research on her, and I've come to the conclusion she is not a real person, rather an engraver's created vignette, commisioned by the US government, because the image was pleasing to the young military troops. US greenbacks and coins were illegal in Vietnam, and I never saw them used there. I did use greenbacks once I left the country on R&R. The Vietnamese money was called piasters. We were to use piasters when dealing with the Vietnamese, and MPC in the military PX, EM Club, etc. The purpose of the MPC was to prevent (well, limit anyway) the black market so as not to undermine the local currency value. Since this edition of MPC was in use in Vietnam from 1965, we often used MPC with the Vietnamese too. We "grunts" all converted many an MPC into piasters for the local Vietnamese in the Lai Khe village, usually at a small profit for ourselves. This was in direct violation of the purpose of MPC in the first place. However, very shortly after I left, there was an unannounced "C-Day" (September 1968) where the 1965 MPC was all collected from the US military personnel and "Changed" to the new 1968 issue, i.e. reissued with a new series that looked differently. All the 1965 MPC that was held by ANYONE (US personnel who didn't convert on "C-Day", the Vietnamese and any others, anywhere) became worthless - immediately. I'll bet there were a lot of unhappy Vietnamese and black market participants that day. I'm told by folks who were there that they did change the MPC in Ocober 1968, however the US did make a special effort to help out Vietnamese civilians who got caught up in the MPC reissue.
Me, all cleaned up at the base camp (Lai Khe), in the CO's "jeep". Since I was his driver, it really was effectively mine. Even though we called it a Jeep, this one was actually manufactured by Ford - true! There was a Jeep-made version as well, but I couldn't tell them apart. They looked the same to me. However, the Jeep-made version was reputed to be faster than the Ford. For some reason I cannot explain now, I never raced a Ford made jeep against a Jeep made one, so I can't confirm the story. The portable, rubber, air-filled "Quanset Hut" type structures, set amongst the rubber trees behind me, were our equivalent of a M*A*S*H* hospital, although it was actually named as follows:
It was in Lai Khe for weeks (if not months) and then it was gone - seemed like overnight! I've since learned from Bruce MacDonald (Green Bay, WI) that the 18th Surgical Hospital came to Lai Khe from Pleiku, and then it went on to Quang Tri. I think it was in Lai Khe just after TET 1968, but I could be off some on that. Here's how Bruce describes it:
"In Pleiku the 18th was quonset huts. We shifted to all male nurses and picked up the MUST (Medical Unit Self containted Transportable) @ Long Binh, trained on setting it up and taking it down, then off to Lai Khe for a full-on operational test. Our dust off pad ran towards the [perimeter concertina] wire with a few 11th ACR guys between us and the wire. There was an interesting night. The patients and most personnel were pulled back into the core of the base. A few stayed behind. The gunship brass was falling on our pad and the Air Force was dropping napalm just outside the wire. 3 napalm and a 500 pound to spread it around. As classified documents custodian I was one of the stay behinds. A very interesting night." Bruce MacDonald, Green Bay WI
This was the 1st Infantry Division commander Major General John Hancock Hay's house in Lai Khe. (Thanks to Rick Incrocci, Longhorn 77's chopper gunner for getting this correct.) It was an old French plantation house and was the only one that the Army had upgraded with glass windows and was fully air-conditioned. I never got any closer to it than when I took this picture.
The Cross Roads. This was a favorite spot of many and was located sort of in the middle of Lai Khe. It had a barber and some local shops that I believe were run by local Vietnamese. It was a ways away from our company area, so unless we were willing to walk a mile or so (like we didn't do enough of that on patrol), we didn't get over here much, without a Jeep. I believe Co C, 2nd Bn 28th Inf was located down this street along the perimeter of Lai Khe.
While this is a great looking French plantation house that I'm certain was in Lai Khe (although in this photo it looks like it could be somewhere in the French countryside), I couldn't tell you where in Lai Khe it was nor who lived here. However, I've been told that this was the 3rd Brigade Commander's villa.
Me in my "bunk" in an HHC "hooch" at the base camp. It was brand new and replaced the old tents that had been used up until just before I got there. Things were pretty sparse in the early months. Note the rubber air mattress "bed" and complete lack of any furniture (such as foot lockers or chairs). Eventually we finally got an actual metal spring cot with a thin mattress for our bed. However, we only got to sleep here one night every two weeks or so between operations. The rest of the time we were patroling in the jungle and slept on the ground in the NDP (Night Defensive Position).
Some of my Alpha Company squad buddies at the base camp on that "day off" between operations. (You can see we had access to cold Coca Colas when we were in Lai Khe.) My memory lets me down on these guys' names, but I think the person on the right's last name was maybe Chris Christiansen and the one in the middle on the bed was from Montana or similar cowboy country named Allison. But I could be totally wrong - their names may be lost to me forever. I do remember they were the machine gunner and his ammo bearers in my squad. Notice the "new" beds - cots with such "thick" mattresses! Not so sure they were much better than the air mattresses we had prior. Eventually, towards the end of my tour of duty, there were some rooms partitioned off in some of the hooches. As I recall, these "rooms" were reserved for pay grades E-5 and above. Since we were rarely in the base camp, private rooms were kind of a moot point.
SGT Larry McDevitt, another buddy from HHC, in the rubber trees of Lai Khe.
Headquarters sign for the Battalion in 1968. (Picture courtesy Sgt. Larry McDevitt.)
HHC, 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry Orderly Room and the CO's Ford-built "Jeep" (October 1967). It was one of the original French plantation houses (Michelin Rubber Plantation at Lai Khe). The Donut Dollies (Red Cross girls) lived in the house next door (the building behind this house on the right edge of this picture). Directly across the street (to the right in this photo) was the 1st Division's main command bunker. It was finished not too long after I arrived and was built to withstand a direct rocket attack. Don't know if that ever got "tested", though. I've seen pictures of it in 2011, and it is still intact, albeit completely abandoned.
This is the outside of our barracks area in Alpha Company (we called them "hooches"). The sand bags were to protect us from incoming enemy mortar fire. The sinks we used to wash up are under the covered awnings in the center walkway. As I mentioned above, the Vietnamese were there to do cleanup work and were paid by the Army. (That is NOT snow on the ground, just the light colored dirt of Lai Khe. Trust me, that part of the country has never seen anything resembling snow!)
My actual "hooch", (Can't recall my Squad or Platoon numbers), Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, Michelin French Rubber Plantation at Lai Khe, Binh Duong Province, South Vietnam, Asian Continent, Northern Hemispere, Planet Earth, Solar System, Milky Way Galaxy, The Universe. (Sorry 'bout that - chalk it up to Agent Orange exposure...) Picture taken Spring-Summer 1968.
This attack originated out of the Vietnamese Village and shows what a VC satchel charge does to a barracks hooch. My buddy, Sgt. McDevitt, was seriously wounded in this 3/31/68 attack in Lai Khe (this photo provided by Sgt. Larry McDevitt). This had been my hooch when I was in HHC. Not sure if this was the corner my bunk was in or if I was in the corner diagonally across at the other end. It's somewhat of a moot point anyway, since I had already been transferred to Alpha Company on 3/3/68 (about 4 weeks prior), and was actually in the Battalion's NDP, some 10-15 miles west of Lai Khe, at the time of this attack. Once again, lucky me!
However, months before on October 27, 1967, we received a heavy mortar attack on our company area in Lai Khe. I was wounded that night by a mortar while rushing into a bunker after escaping from this very hooch (minor shrapnel shoulder wound). However, a field cook (SP4 James Robert Warren, Jr.), who was directly behind me exiting this hooch during that attack, was killed instantly by the same mortar explosion. He had apparently stayed behind in Lai Khe that day due to a minor arm wound. Here's a picture of him on his wedding day, a couple of years or so before he was lost.
A typical toilet in Lai Khe. They were basically outhouses set on 55 gallon drums that had been cut in half. The Vietnamese workers (some are shown in this picture) would regularly drag the drums out of the outhouse so they could pour diesel fuel directly in the drums and set it ablase. After this "flushing" process had cooled, the drums would be returned to the "latrine".
These were our showers in Lai Khe. Since the ambient temperature was always between 90-100 degrees, there was no real need to heat the water in the 55 gallon drums. These were enlisted men's showers. The officers' showers were similar, except theirs were heated so they had hot showers. Of course, we only got to use these showers once every two weeks or so when we came back to the base camp between missions. Needless to say, we were pretty gross in between, even though we tried to clean up as best we could by washing up in the field using our helmet (known as our "steel pot") as a sink/bathtub. No wonder "Charlie" could smell us coming from afar! 'Course we could smell them as well. Their odor was distinctly different though, because of their different diet.
Once however (March 22, 1968), we came upon this stream on an S&D (Search & Destroy) patrol. It had no leaches, which was somewhat rare! We were in the Montagnard area outside Quan Loi (an area noted for its bright red soil). Montagnards were indigenous, primative people of the rural mountainous area. They did not take sides in the war and tried to remain uninvolved. Our CO got permission from the owner of the land to let us bathe in the stream. You have no idea how that improved morale that day! Know that we still had to guard ourselves against the enemy, so the bathing was done in two shifts. (No, I CAN'T tell you what that guy in the lower left is sitting on, NOR can I tell you what he might actually be doing to himself!)
Mom sent this artificial Christmas tree, complete with decorations and presents, for Christmas 1967! I was the only one in our outfit who had one. I set it up in the HHC Orderly Room so everyone could enjoy it. And we did, too! It was a big hit. Mom did a great thing sending this over. It was a small touch of home in a lonely situation. Most Vietnamese were not Christians, so there was virtually no Christmas presence evident there.
This was the "official" Christmas Card of the 1st Division for 1967. Quan Loi, Lai Khe, Phu Loi and Di An were the four base camps of the Division. I did not actually use this card myself as it seemed too impersonal.
Below are the actual cards I bought from the local Vietnamese and sent home to my mom & sister (Dee). The pictures in the cards are actually printed on silk inserts. (Notice that the picture on the one to my sister is mounted upside down! Not much quality control - kinda typical of the Vietnamese back then.) Also, my P.S. referring to "BuCu" as being a Vietnamese term is actually incorrect. I didn't realize this until someone corrected me YEARS later. It is actually a French word and it should be spelled "beaucoup". Still translates as "many", but it just wasn't a Vietnamese word!
Christmas Dinner Menu. The food was actually very good. The big thing I missed was real milk. The closest we got was "recombined" milk processed out of Saigon. It was not fresh milk, but a sophisticated powdered version delivered in liquid form in traditional milk cartons. If it was really cold, it would pass for milk.
While this is a picture of the HHC Mess Hall set up for Thanksgiving, Christmas was very similar. They made a serious effort to make both of these holiday meals extra special, and I think they pulled it off! Thanks out to all who made these events happen.
Our Battalion Headquarters bunker in Lai Khe. This is where all the serious communications gear and operations were housed. The actual Battalion HQ was in a plantation villa just to the right and out of view of this photo.
This is a spider monkey sleeping on my leg. We found him hurt in the jungle one day and brought him back to the base camp in Lai Khe. He became our mascot. Unfortunately, while we were out at an NDP (the Army wouldn't let us take him with us), he was stolen by the Vietnamese and eaten by them for food. We were just devasted when we came back and found out. We never were allowed another mascot, which was probably a good thing for morale in the long run.
While this little junge lizard was most certainly never a mascot of ours, they had a very distinctive sound that was very much like someone saying, in a high pitched voice, "F*** You". And so they were known by us as the "F*** You Lizard". They're reallyTokay Geckos. Want to hear for yourself? Click on the lizard picture above to hear a recording of their sound (to return here afterwards, click on your browser's "BACK" button).
Doing something on a 3/4 ton truck, which was rare for me - I was an Infantry "grunt"! While I don't specifically recall, I'd bet I was exchanging my labor for driving priviledges.
Typical GI under ground bunker. This one was on the north western perimeter of Lai Khe. It was pretty nasty inside (water, mud, spiders, scorpions, maybe a snake), but very safe from mortars. Nevertheless, this was my last choice of safety in an attack. Most of us would opt for an above ground version, given a choice.
Typical GI above ground bunker. This one was in our Battalion's HQ area of Lai Khe. Notice it had a "rain proof" canvass lining in the roof. Therefore, no standing water, mud or critters! Notice the "blind" of sand bags that are set up in front of the doorless entry. It prevented schrapnel from entering the bunker. You can now see why we preferred this style to the below ground ones. During the two month TET Offensive (Feb-Mar 1968) we virtually lived in these above ground bunkers for protection from the constant barrage of mortar and rocket attacks. During this time, we brought in temporary power, communications and other creature comfort items to make them as comfy as possible. However, that stuff came out of the bunkers once the TET barrage was over - I'd say May 1968.
Typical VC Bunker in the jungle - mostly underground and often connected by tunnels to other nearby bunkers. Made of tree branches and dirt, but very effective, nonetheless. Just shows how miserable the conditions were for the enemy. They lived in these underground complexes all the time, 24/7. No hooches, mess halls, NCO/Officers Clubs or PXs for them...
As shown in these photos (coutesy Dave Berry), the VC would often put their propoganda as messages on trees in the jungle. (The one on the left reads "Don't burn our house - peace for Viet Nam")
Our main propoganda approach was called Psychological Operations or "PSYOPs", and took the form of the "Chieu Hoi" (Open Arms) Program. It involved "rallies" designed to convert the enemy using loudspeaker broadcasts from helicopters and dropping leaflets like these. This is one I picked up off the ground on an aperation with which we were involved. I was told it encourages them to give up, join the South Vietnamese Army, bring in others and turn in weapons - all for money. It seemed to work some. I heard that there were as many as 1,000-2,000 per month that took advantage of this program nation-wide.
Following is a detailed description of how the Chieu Hoi program was used during a 1st Infantry Division operation known as Operation CEDAR FALLS (occured in 1967, just before my arrival in Vietnam), in preparation of Operation JUNCTION CITY:
The number of enemy Chieu Hoi (open arms) ralliers grew well beyond previous totals. Psychological Operations field teams effectively exploited these ralliers by printing rapid reaction leaflets containing surrender appeals from the ralliers to their Viet Cong friends. Typical of the messages dropped was one written by rallier Le Van Sa. Printed on both sides of 5x8 inch paper, 50,000 copies were disseminated in the 1st Infantry Division's area of operations: "To my dear friends still in the VC Ranks, I am Le Van Sa, medic of the medical team of VH (MB 3011). I followed the VC by their false inducement. I found fault with our people and nation. I have gone the wrong way. But in time I found out what is right and what is wrong. I have rallied to the GVN and have been warmly welcomed, well treated. At the present time I am very happy at the CH (Chieu Hoi) Center. I also saw my family who are living in the Resettlement Center of GVN. I send to you this letter so that you too could rally to the Government side where you can start a new life Psychological Operations or PSYOPand see your families. My dear friends: Hung, Rong, Tieng, Chi, Tu Dan, Minh Nhan, Tha Luong, Tam Thu. Thanh, Huyen, Lion, Thau, Mong Tieng, Ut and Gan, all of you should return to GVN as soon as possible. Staying with VC, you will have no place to hide. You can use any Chieu Hoi leaflet and take the nearest road to report to the Government or Allied Military Installations. You will be treated as we are now. There are more than 300 VC who have returned to the National Just Cause in a very short time. They are having a good living here at the CH Center. They have been well treated. My dear friends you should rally right now to avoid useless deaths. Tet  is going to come very soon. Rally to reunite with your families. The door of the Chieu Hoi Center is wide open for your return." The leaflet also bore a photograph of Sa. In addition to these quick reaction messages directed at individual Viet Cong by name, more general messages were also dropped encouraging the Viet Cong to give up. One such message read: "To VC of South Ben Cat, the powerful GVN and Allied Forces will continue extensive operations in the area of Ben Suc and south Ben Cat. All base camps will be destroyed and the area will be subjected to continuous artillery fire and air strikes. Huge areas of jungle are being removed and there will be no safety for VC anywhere. You will no longer find shelter or supplies here, and you will not have safe base camps. All VC remaining in this area will meet inevitable death. From 8 to 15 Jan 67, 259 of your comrades have been killed and 60 captured, and numerous other supplies, clothing and equipment have been captured or destroyed. More than 200 of your comrades have already rallied to the GVN and are receiving good treatment. Rally now and start a new life of happiness, united with your families. Turn yourself in to the nearest government office. A government office is located in Ben Cat where you will be welcomed with open arms and given protection. Walk to any road that leads to Ben Cat - stay on the road - walk at all times - if you run your intentions may be mistaken and you may be killed. Use the sketch map on the back of this leaflet as your guide to safety and freedom. Rally now before it is too late!" On the reverse side of the 5x8 inch sheet was a map of the Iron Triangle. Over five hundred Viet Cong surrendered during the operation, many as a result of the Psychological Operations but most because the continued presence of allied troops gave them no choice when they became hungry, wet, and out of supplies and support.
Leaning on my backpack filled with everything I'll need for two weeks (about 65 lbs), waiting under a rubber tree in Lai Khe for the choppers (also called "slicks") to arrive and take us out to a new NDP (Night Defensive Position). We usually had a towel around our necks to wipe off the sweat. The shovel is to clear a recessed place in the ground to sleep in, as well as dig and fill sand bags for a bunker at the new NDP. We did this every two weeks or so. Yes, that's my ever present M-16 in my hands. My helmut doubles as my sink when I'm "bathing" at the NDP. While it's hard to see in this picture, there is my ever-present plastic bottle of insect repellant under an elastic band at the front of the helmut.
Typical NDP (Night Defensive Position). Every two weeks or so, about 200 of us (battalion size) would chopper out to a new location somewhere in the jungle, set up a "secure" perimeter, perform daily S&Ds (Search and Destroy missions) as well as nightly ambushes to rout out the VC (Viet Cong) and NVA (North Vietnamese Army) Regulars. The tents were for the communications gear and senior officers. We "grunts" were just out in the open. But, as primative as this was, every day they'd fly out basic creature comforts in the ammo re-supply chopper. This would include things such as large blocks of ice for our soda pop, mail from home, and fresh cooked dinner in large thermos containers. And there were cooks that made fresh breakfast (eggs, bacon, french toast, hot oatmeal, etc.) every morning right there in the NDP. Helped to take the "edge off". Besides, well-fed grunts can kill lots of VC, eh?
This is a view of an NDP from the air. As you can see, it was pretty sparse. This would be our home for about 2 weeks while we did Search & Destroy missions in the jungle area all around it. Then we'd pack up and leave, go back to Lai Khe for a day and then off to a new NDP and do the whole thing all over again.
Chaplain giving Sunday Services at an NDP
Every third day, each squad would have to go out into the jungle at night and set up an ambush to hopefully catch the enemy moving at night. When it was our turn to do ambush patrol, we would not have to do an S&D the next day, so we stayed in the NDP. Pretty boring, but relatively safe! I'm sitting on top of my foxhole bunker in this picture. I never did catch any VC in any of our ambushes the whole year I was there. However, accasionally, other units did.
I remember one time a brand new officer (don't recall who he was - probably just as well) who had recently arrived in Vietnam, had us set up an ambush on a trail and positioned us so close to the trail (4 - 6 feet!), that if Charlie had come down it, we couldn't have popped the ambush because we would have been killed by the back blast of our own claymores. We protested to the officer, but the protests fell on deaf ears. And while we normally went out as a squad (6-8 men), this time it was at least the whole Platoon (maybe even the whole Company), 30-50 of us, I'd guess. Wouldn't you know, that was the one time Charlie actually entered our ambush. My squad happened to be at the begining of the ambush zone. There were about 5 or 6 VC (mostly women) who came down the trail. They saw us and, of course, we saw them, literally eyeball to eyeball. I remember that as though it were yesterday. We didn't pop the ambush (for personal safety reasons due to the stupid way we had been positioned relative to the trail) and they just walked through, claymores, mortars, and pots and pans rattling on their hips! After they passed, I had a very serious discussion with a Staff Sergeant to convince the Officer (who, by the way, was furious we had not popped the ambush) to move us immediately, as we would obviously be attacked if we didn't. The officer finally conceded (but not without a lot of convincing) and we moved away a few hundred feet in the darkness of early morning. Not 15 minutes after we moved, our ambush site came under enemy mortar attack. Had we not moved, we would have been massacred. Now that was a close call, to say the least. I don't know if there ever was any repercussion for the officer in charge that night, but we grunts never caught any flack whatsoever, over the whole debacle.
Another time (May 12th, 1968), we were flying by helicopter to an ambush patrol at dusk. In mid-flight, we were diverted to rescue our recon platoon that had unexpectedly run into a HUGE enemy base camp. We did a nighttime, in-line, WWII style assault on this entrenched enemy until just after midnight. This tactic was very unusual at that time, as Vietnam jungle warfare focused almost exclusively on S&D style encounters with the enemy, And that night there were flares lighting up the sky. We were supported by a Mechanized Calvary unit. Rome plows were also working in the area. (The Rome Plow is a large tractor with a specially configured dozer-type blade developed specifically for heavy-duty land clearing operations, civilian and military, by the Rome Caterpillar Company of Rome, Georgia. The blade is more curved than the usual bulldozer blade and has a protruding, sharply honed lower edge. The lower edge curves out on one side to form a spike used to split trees too large to cut with the blade alone, but the blade itself can slice a tree of three feet in diameter. Bars are added to the top of the blade to force trees away from the tractor, and there is a safety feature known as a "headache bar" over the operator's position to protect him from falling debris. Some Rome Plows were also modified to include light armor for the operator.) As we made our assault that night, I killed 2 VC and 1 NVA Regular (an officer at that). I directly shot 2 with my M-16 and killed one with a grenade. Yes, me successfully using a hand grenade. Shows how close the combat was. I was within 10-15 feet of all 3 enemy soldiers when I killed them. Fortunately no hand-to-hand combat occurred. There was so much fighting going on that there was just no time to be scared. I had not knowingly killed anyone before this event, although I had returned fire innumeral times, but I never had actually seen my enemy face-to-face, before this event. Anyway, we were ordered to pull back 100 meters or so at about 12:30 AM and then they brought in close artillery and air strikes until daylight arrived. No sleep for any of us that night at all. At dawn, we again advanced on the base camp. Apparently, due to all the artillery and air strikes that continued throughout the night, there was no serious VC resistance that morning. As we went through the enemy base camp to get a body count and collect weapons and supplies, we came across the bodies of the 3 VC I had killed earlier. I kept the officer's binoculars and some other personal effects. I was struck that they had a noticeably odd odor compared to us due to their different diet. Right after that, as we continued to sweep the base camp, a VC hand with a white cloth emerged from a hole in the ground. One of the guys in my squad asked me (I was the acting squad leader on this mission) if we should shoot him, as the orders that morning were to shoot on sight - no prisoners were to be taken. I said "No! He's surrendering." So we captured him. I learned later that he told the intelligence folks in S-3 that his unit was on their way to fight in Saigon.
Typical morning extraction from an ambush patrol. It was always done from a clearing in the jungle, and we had to walk from the ambush site (always in the jungle) to the extraction point. We'd pop a smoke grenade to show the choppers where to land. In this picture, it happens to be a green smoke grenade, thus hard to see. The greenish "cloud" behind the tail rotor is really the green smoke being drawn up from the ground by the helicopter's tail rotor. If you look closely, you can see the tail rotor swirl pattern in the smoke cloud.
Don "Doc" Reynolds adds this extra bit of detail. The actual ship in this photo "belonged to the 128th Assault Helicopter Company "Tomahawks" out of Phu Loi. The giveaway is the three vertical stripes on the tail boom. The 128th had a red stripe bordered by two white stripes, the 173rd a green stripe bordered by two white stripes. I could probably provide the colors for the 162nd, but I would have to look it up. They were a sister company of the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company "Robinhoods" out of Lai Khe, as well as the 162nd Assault Helicopter Company "Vultures" out of Phouc Vinh, of the 11th Combat Aviation Batallion. As an aside...There were two CH-47 "Chinook" Assault Support Helicopter Companiies, the 205th and the 213th, and a OH-1 Bird Dog company which did double duty as Aerial Field ArtilleryObservers, and as the intermediary between the Air Force Jets "fast movers" and the units in contact on the ground."
Writing home on ambush patrol recovery day in the NDP. You can see how an area of the jungle would be cleared out for our NDP. We "grunts" didn't do that. It was already done by the rome plows (Army bulldozers) before we got there. This is not a natural clearing. You can see how thick the jungle is in the background. The S&Ds would be done from the NDP into the jungle. It would take a battalion (4 line companies) two weeks to clear the enemy from a 1000 meter swath of the jungle around the NDP (we called 1000 meters a "click" 'cause the maps we used had grid lines of 1000 meters - hence a "click" of the map).
Can you see the guy in this picture who is only 4-5 feet in front of me, sitting down and eating his lunch? It gives you an idea of how thick the jungle is - and we have already cut a trail through this vegitation in this picture!
NOW can you see his helmet (at the 12 o'clock position and his backpack (at 7 o'clock)? And people wonder why we almost never saw our enemy...
Here is a good depiction of us on an S&D in triple canopy jungle. If it weren't for the war, the heat, the bugs and the snakes, this would be a great place! Nevertheless, as you can see, it was beautiful.
This is an example of what Napalm does to triple canopy jungle. It was used to "defoliate" the jungle and destroy the enemy who might be hiding in their bunkers. We would often call in Air Force fighters to drop these napalm bombs when we ran into the enemy on a patrol. Later on in my tour, they began using defoliants that were sprayed from the air above the jungle - the infamous "Agent Orange". Unknown to us at the time, it eventually got into our water supply.
Here's what the hole from a 500 lb bomb dropped from a high altitude B-52 looks like. Instant "swimming pool"! While our unit never bathed in one of these, I've seen pictures of guys who did.
Believe it or not, this is a typical ant hill in the jungle. It is about 4-5 FEET high! The ants that lived here were usually black ones and were benign. However, the red Weaver ants that built their nests in the trees using leaves were something else. If you accidentally broke open a nest of them while cutting your way through the jungle with your machette and they rained down on you, their bites would be so bad that you would stop and deal with them even before you would return fire in a fire fight with the enemy - well maybe not really, but nevertheless they were brutal! Here is an excerpt from an encylopedia regarding these lovely little creatures:
"Although weaver ants lack a functional sting they can inflict painful bites and often spray formic acid directly at the bite wound resulting in intense discomfort."
'Nuff said, AMEN!
Captain Carl Kizer was my CO when I was in HHC. I was his "Radar/Klinger", i.e. Company Clerk (minus the Section 8 desire). He was tragically killed on June 19th, 1968 by a "friendly" artillery shell that hit a treetop and exploded prematurely. This occurred just days before his tour of duty was up. It is important to note that he didn't have to go out that day, but he had volunteered anyway. It was just the kind of man he was. While I was on that patrol, I was no longer in HHC. I had been reassigned to Alpha Company some time earlier, so I was in a differnt area of the column at the time of this tragic accident. Even though he was an officer and I was a draftee, I considered him my best friend while I was in Vietnam. I will always miss him. (I did not take this picture. I'm told it was taken in the field very close to, if not the day of, his death.)
This Army photo of our senior officers was taken in Lai Khe about 2 weeks before many of these men were either killed or seriously wounded on October 17, 1967, in a fience firefight later tagged "The Battle of Ong Thanh", part of the Division's Operation Shenandoah II. Our Battalion of about 175 men was ambushed while on S&D patrol by the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong. 59 US soldiers died, two are still considered as Missing in Action to this day, and 61 were wounded. The NVA and Viet Cong lost about 103 men, women and children (likely many more as they tended to put serious effort into removing their dead so our body counts would seem less). Regardless, as the enemy commander said many years later, neither side won that day. Our battalion was declared unable to operate and it took us about 2 weeks before we were able to receive enough new recruits to be able to return to active patrols. That's how decimated our unit was. It was just horrible - one of the worst days of my life, even though I happened to be transferred to Lai Khe about a week before that fateful day, and wasn't actually in that battle. (For the record, there was another time where our unit was caught in an enemy ambush and we lost so many soldiers that our battalion was declarred unable to operate. Somehow, I survived that event without even incurring so much as a scratch. However, I lost many buddies that day too.)
These are just a sample of some of the enemy weapons captured in Operation Shenandoah II. There are two Chinese-style, homemade claymores (anti-personnel mines), six RPGs (rocket powered grenades), and miscellaneous weapons related "stuff". Often there would be AK-47s, bicyles and food (usually rice) in the captured cache as well.
This is an aerial shot I took from a chopper on our way out to an NDP. We are just north of Lai Khe and this view is to the north. This was the area in which we operated the whole year I was there. It was referred to as the "Iron Triangle", just north of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). As you can see, a lot of uninhabited jungle for the enemy to hide in. The mountains in the distance were just a few miles from the Cambodian border. We did operate at the base of them on occasion when we were trying to shut down the emeny roadway known as the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" (under the triple canopy jungle). You couldn't see the "trail" from the air at all because of the dense jungle. The taller mountain on the left is named Black Virgin Mountain. At the left side of its base is where the Ho Chi Minh Trail crossed the Cambodian border into Vietnam. Today this mountain is a well known tourist destination. It sports a theme park, gondola-style tram ride to the summit, many temples, and hiking trails.
This is a rough map showing the area of the Iron Triangle. The official location is described as between the Saigon River on the west and the Tinh River on the east and bordering Route 13 about 25 miles (40 km) north of Saigon. The southern apex of the "triangle" was seven miles (11 km) from Phu Cong, the capital of Binh Duong Province. Its proximity to Saigon was both a reason for American and South Vietnamese efforts to eradicate it, as well as why it remained a crucial area for Communist forces to try and maintain control over it.
Here I am in the jungle playing cards. Every now and then we would get what we called "Fat Rat Duty". That meant we didn't have to roam through the jungle and do S&Ds all day. Instead, we were securing the roadway for the day so the military convoys (called "Whips") could travel through safely. We were stationed 3 people to an OP (Observation Post) by the edge of the jungle along the highway and simply watched to make sure "Charlie" didn't attack the "Whip". We could watch TV and listen to radio (if we had battery operated ones with us), play cards, hire a Vietnamese prostitute from a nearby village, etc. As long as we answered our radio checks and stayed put, the Army really didn't care what we did there. "Charlie" rarely attacked road patrol OPs. The second week of April 1968, we were securing Highway 1A north of Phu Loi (north of Saigon) for 2 days. The second day an olive drab painted "Good Humor" style truck at the end of the whip tossed half gallon containers of ice cream to each of us grunts as thanks for securing the road and enabling safe passage for the convoy. WOW! Were we surprised or what? We ate it on the spot as we walked behind the convoy to close the highway for the day. Now you see why we called it "Fat Rat Duty"!
A moment of peace in Quan Loi, another base camp about 20 miles north of ours in Lai Khe. Notice the VERY red dirt and my ALWAYS wet fatigue shirt. 95% humidity and 95 degrees was a 24/7 reality all year long. Vietnam has two seasons - 6 months rainy and 6 months not. Temperatures and humidity never seemed to change, rain or shine! This photo was taken in the middle of March 1968 and we were on our way to set up an NDP about 5 miles NE of Loc Ninh and 3 miles south of the Cambodian border. On this mission we surrounded 6-7 villages, captured 10-15 VC, various weapons and 25-30 detainees. Little fighting, though. We also did a 14 mile S&D, plus ambush patrol, in the same day! That day turned out to be one of my longest and tiring days.
Now here's a goofy looking soldier standing amongst the rubber trees! (Me, probably in Lai Khe.) Notice that the bark has no new harvesting strips indicating no one was working the plantation during the war. I doubt the trees in this picture exist today. It appears that most, if not all, of the rubber trees that are there today have been replanted since the war. They are much smaller than those shown here.
I'm happy 'cause I'm not out on patrol sweating my butt off trying not to get shot! It's the little things that count, eh?
Bright, sunny day. I still have those jungle boots to this day, as shown in the photo on the right! And they still are stained in the cracks and crevices with Quan Loi's noteworthy, red mud.
Chris Noel came to the field one day (5/23/68) and gave us a morale boost we were all happy to get. We made an impromptu "stage" by covering a bunch of ammo boxes with a tarp. Can you believe it? An American celebrity from home, in person, in the field! Didn't get any better than that!
Chris Noel signed her picture that day at the NDP. Nancy Sinatra signed hers to me in response to my asking for it by mail. She was so hot. I felt the same way about Ann-Margaret, although I never got a pinup pic from her.
February 1968 and I'm on R&R (Rest & Relaxation) in a horse drawn carriage at the beach (that's the super white sand of Vietnam's seaside resort town of Vung Tau behind me, not snow!) The boy beside me is the owner/operator of the carriage. Most of the "Daddy-aged" men had either been killed in the war or were serving in the South Vietnamese Army.
We grunts were entitled to take one R&R during our one year tour. The choices were Hawaii, Sydney (Australia), Bangkok (Thailand), Hong Kong, Kuala Lampur (Malaysia), Manila (Philippines), Singapore, Taipei (Taiwan), Tokyo, and Japan. The first two were seven days (extra travel time), the others were five days. I went to Hong Kong in April 1968.
There were also opportunities to take an "In-Country" R&R. These were normally most often offered as a reward. In my case, we had more allocations than we had soldiers to use them, so you could get one or more if you played your cards right with the powers that were. Remember, I was the Headquarters Company company clerk for a while, so I had access to the list first off. There were two "In-country" locations. One was in Danang (China Beach), in the northern part of South Vietnam, and was used primarily by the Marines. The other was in Vung Tau, on the coast in the southern part of South Vietnam, and was used by the Army. These two "In-Country" R&R locations had been "unofficially designated as no war zones" under an unlikely arrangement somehow struck between us and the enemy. It seemed to work. I never heard of any fighting in Vung Tau.
Typical street marketplace in Vung Tau. Notice there are no cars - just motor bikes and bicycles (can't see the bicycles in this photo). They guys on the motorcycle could very well be VC, for all I knew...
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