Echoes in the Delta
BY GREG STADLER
PREFACE: The following account is merely an attempt to capture some of the day to day experiences as a squad leader with with Echo Company during the time I was assigned. It is not intended to be a war story, nor is it meant to be comprehensive by any means—simply an overview of some of the smaller incidents. I have intentionally refrained from delving into specific details of missions or patrols or what some might call “peak events.” I urge the reader to keep in mind that it is only one person’s point of view of events that occurred 35 years ago. Each Old Guardsman has his own valuable story to tell. The Old Guard was in Vietnam from 1966 through 1970. My experience occurred during the middle of that time frame. Perhaps it will jog some memories and encourage other Old Guardsmen to share their own perceptions.
Replacement—that was a new word in my Army vocabulary that I learned my first day in Vietnam. I learned that word at the 90th Replacement Battalion, a weigh station for the newly arrived GIs waiting for unit assignments in South Vietnam. My status as a new replacement left me feeling just barely above plant life on the Army’s food chain, and subject to special assignments like the burning of human waste in 55 gallon drums-my dream job. I learned that the FNGs were routinely delegated the task of burning the human waste that accumulated in the steel drums under the outhouse seats. As new guys, we were given advanced training in sanitary engineering. We would remove the receptacles in the men’s latrine, then stir the pot with a wooden stick while adding diesel fuel, until the ingredients had reached just the right consistency. Then we would toss in a match and…voila, a chef’s masterpiece! A real art form! It reminded me of bananas flambé, but with a decidedly different fragrance! I had been exposed to Agent Brown and I hadn’t even left the base camp! That was the reality of my humble, or should I say, humiliating, beginnings as a grunt in Vietnam.
My arrival in South Vietnam occurred on February 15th, 1967 and after my joyful experience at the 90th Replacement, I was assigned to Alpha Company 2nd Bn,14th Infantry,(Golden Dragons) 25th Infantry Division as one of the very first replacements for the guys that came over in April of 1966. Alpha Company was a high-morale outfit that trained with the Tropic Lightning in Hawaii, but unfortunately the company lost 97 men while it was in Vietnam. I was assigned to Alpha Company’s 2nd Platoon as an RTO and rifleman, even though my MOS was anti-tank. We were not looking for easy targets like tanks. We were looking for the ever-elusive Victor Charlie and his first cousins from Hanoi.
I arrived at the 25th Division just in time for Operation Junction City, the largest of the war, with 22 battalions participating. During Junction City the 173rd Airborne made the only combat jump during the Vietnam War. While I was with the Golden Dragons we operated in the III Core area— the Iron Triangle, the Hobo and Boi Loi Woods, Nui Ba Dinh (Black Virgin Mountain), Tay Ninh, Dau Tieng, Rach Kien, The Michelin Rubber Plantation and The Pineapple. They were not places or experiences that I could list on my civilian resume, but they would remain indelibly engraved in my memory. I had seen the speed at which death can come and the many ways Mr. Charles could inflict casualties with his bag of tricks.
After surviving my first few months in the field and learning some valuable lessons as a grunt, I learned another new word—“infusion.” The infusion program was the Army’s solution to avoid having too many seasoned combat veterans from one unit rotate home, leaving the unit with too many unseasoned people. Hundreds were transferred from one unit to another each month, in an attempt to maintain this equilibrium and maximize the effectiveness of the fighting units. I didn’t realize it yet, but I was going to be a participant in the infusion program.
Operation Manhattan was underway in the Boi Loi Woods when I was ordered to report to Dragon headquarters. After being informed of a transfer, I felt some underlying anxiety about what lie ahead. I wasn’t told much about my new assignment, just that I would be going to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. I wondered what they meant by “light infantry?” Humping across difficult terrain with a PRC-10 radio or an M60 in addition to all the usual gear seemed like anything but light. I was just beginning to feel “at home” with the Dragons, when I got the mysterious transfer orders to the Redcatcher Brigade. I wondered what the unit would be like and what the conditions were. All I knew was that they operated in the Delta, but so did the 9th Division.
At Cu Chi I was reunited with Hank Jacobs, a good friend whom I had known at Ft Polk. Hank had been assigned to the 25th Division also, but he had gone to the Wolfhounds, while I went to the Dragons. The two of us departed from the 25th Division Headquarters in Cu Chi toward our new assignment. We rode in the back of a three-quarter ton truck going southeast along Highway One to the 199th LIB base camp in Long Binh. The ride down Highway One to Saigon was familiar to me. Anything could happen on that road; it was highly traveled and frequently the site of VC ambushes and land mines. When the truck stopped on occasion, we would be approached by several mamasans selling coke, candy, and small souvenirs. We were instructed not to drink the coke because, as we had been told, it might contain pulverized glass that was intended to shred the intestines.
As the truck made its way through Saigon we were presented with a kaleidoscope of sights and smells. One of the first things I could see was that there was no sanitary sewer system—a subtle thing taken for granted in the States. The trenches at the side of the road collected human waste and trash that managed to settle there. Saigon smelled like an open sewer because, in fact, it was one. As we drove along I could see people in the act of relieving themselves at the roadside. The streets were places where anything could be bought and sold for a price—the barter system at its best. Rickshaws, Lambrettas, Hondas, Vespas, mopeds, military trucks & jeeps, Citroens and Peugeots, animals, peasant farmers, merchants, ARVN soldiers and GIs filled the streets. It seemed like utter chaos and congestion. We passed endless rows of shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels and street vendors. The MPs and Saigon Police were scattered throughout the city to direct the traffic flow and provide security. Nonetheless, Saigon seemed like just another jungle—a human jungle. After several minutes we made our way past MACV Headquarters, crossed the river, and proceeded on toward our destination in Long Binh.
Redcatchers & Old Guardsmen
After arriving in Long Binh I went to Brigade Headquarters, located in one of the tropical wood frame buildings, and picked up my orders for the Old Guard. I knew even less about the Old Guard than I did about the 199th, so I was curious. Now I was a “Redcatcher.” That was the first time I had heard the term Redcatcher. It seemed appropriate, I guess, since we were trying to stop Communist aggression in Southeast Asia. When I saw the brigade patch with the spear & flame, I thought the red part in the center looked like the devil with horns. So, I surmised that we were being commissioned to catch the devil (Charlie) and kill him with the spear—the symbol of the infantry. No problem! The Redcatcher’s motto was Light, Swift and Accurate. My curiosity was roused further after they gave me a brief written history of the3rd Infantry Regiment. It had an impressive pedigree and campaign history. The honor guards in DC and the Tomb Guards in Arlington were legendary. I still have my original copy of the Old Guard unit history.
From Long Binh we drove south to the Old Guard headquarters located in Nha Be. It was located near the site of the Shell Oil tank farm on the Song Nha Be. There were a few wood frame and tent structures in the area. Battalion Headquarters was down the road from where the Navy Seabees and Seals were located. It was a busy little place on the river. LCMs, PBR s and other assorted river craft could be seen coming and going from Nha Be.
The villages in the Delta were several miles apart and connected only by a network of narrow mud roads with big chuckholes. They were little more than a wide dike. Everywhere I looked, there was a calm sea of mud-colored water with green sprouts of rice reaching upward toward a relentless and unforgiving sun. Clusters of nippa palm dotted the landscape and I knew it was going to be difficult humping these paddies. The Delta also had a its own distinctive smell, not as foul as Saigon, but not like the fresh smell of an Oregon rain forest nor the Pacific Ocean. The smell was especially evident when walking through a rice paddy and stirring up that centuries old mixture of mud, salt water, buffalo dung and fermented rice.
The air was thick— very thick. The humidity seemed as though is must have been 100%. The native people dressed in black pajama bottoms, with long cotton shirts and cone-shaped straw coolie hats. Most of them wore thongs or Ho Chi Minh sandals with tire tread soles. Peasant farmers and children were walking along the roads. Sampans were the usual mode of transportation on the waterways, while mopeds and bicycles were a common sight on the narrow Delta roads. Water buffalo could be seen pulling primitive wooden plows guided by small but sturdy men with bronze skin. Those water buffalo looked as if they could breathe fire from their noses and their eyes appeared wild and unpredictable. It was always a spooky experience walking by one of those creatures.
I witnessed a water buffalo attack a soldier. From a distance I watched as the creature ran over the soldier like a freight train. In one swift action he was knocked to the ground, grinding his body into the rice paddy. I thought the man was dead, but the cushion of the water and mud saved his life. He was dusted off. Today, he probably tells his grandchildren about the day he survived a wrestling match with a water buffalo. Three men who stood about twenty yards away emptied their magazines into the animal. To my disbelief, it just stood there for several minutes, wiggled its ears, and finally toppled over. In Oregon we have some people who actually ride Brahma bulls for a living, but I have never been so inclined.
When I arrived at the Old Guard Headquarters in Nha Be, most of the men were wearing strange looking olive drab three-cornered hats with the subdued Redcatcher patch sewn on one side. The hats seemed like a throw back to an era when Washington crossed the Delaware. I wondered what in the world the neo-colonists were doing in Vietnam. In Portland we had a rock and roll group of some fame named Paul Revere and the Raiders. Their name would have been appropriate for this group. They told me that the Old Guard hats were authorized in the village or at battalion headquarters, but not on missions. So, I was issued one of these strange hats and went on my merry way to the village of Long Duc, by truck. I had fully expected a horse. Someone needed to tell these people that we were fighting the VC and the NVA, not the British.
The roads in the Mekong Delta were built on high ground that stood about 2 feet above the water in the surrounding paddies. They were, in reality, nothing more than a wide dike of compacted mud that separated one paddy from another. I imagine it took hundreds of years to build the network of roads in the Delta, crude as they were. The road from Nha Be to Long Duc was rather slow going because it was narrow and full of chuck holes, but we eventually arrived at the entry gate on the north end of the village.
Long Duc Village
The gateposts on either side of the road, supported an overhead beam with the words “Camp Liaho” painted on it. This was Echo Company’s home and was very different from the small fire-bases or larger base camps that were a home to thousands of GIs in Vietnam. About 200 South Vietnamese and approximately 100 Old Guardsmen in Echo Company occupied our village. At the north entry gate there was a sandbagged bunker with wide, slotted openings for a field of vision covering the road to the north and the paddies to the west.
Once past the gate, the road continued through the village about 1000 feet until it dead-ended at the river. Adjacent to the river was a guard tower that was a 10 or 12 foot square structure built on wooden posts. At one corner was a vertical ladder for access. From the tower there was a commanding view of the river and rice paddies for several hundred yards in each direction. In the village there were a few tents here and there, but mostly just simple thatched nippa palm hootches that were a typical sight throughout the Mekong Delta. These hootches had a hardened dirt floor and a fire pit or small primitive stove slightly off-center in the simple abode. Roofs and walls were thatched by hand labor—probably the way they had done it for hundreds of years. Aside from a few cooking implements, bowls, a wooden chest and a futon-like bed, the interior was very basis and simple. There were usually a couple window openings for light, but no glass, no phones, no electricity, no insulation, no heat, no appliances, no wall-to-wall carpet, no sinks or toilets, and no double garage. These primitive shelters, however, met the needs of a simple people that were in tune with their environment.
In the center of the village was the long mess tent with wooden floor. Light in the hootches and tents was provided by kerosene lamp. A gas-powered generator was used periodically for the mess and supply tents. Each of the three platoons occupied a different sector of the village and was responsible for its own perimeter defense. The village had concertina wire stretched around its entire circumference, except for the south end where the river formed a natural boundary.
Recon Platoon occupied the south end of the village, Mortars Platoon was set up on the west side of the central road and Anti-tank was on the east. Near the center of the village was a PF (Popular Forces) compound that had a bunker facing east. The company’s Command & Control bunker was not far from the PF compound. Around the circumference of the village there were sandbagged bunkers spaced periodically with concertina wire stretched between them. Beyond the perimeter of the village were vast expanses of rice paddies, meandering streams, and nippa palm in the distance. Everything was flat for as far as the eye could see. There were no hills, just endless paddies. Occasionally there were some palm trees that grew to 20 or 30 feet in height. An earth berm and barbed wire fence surrounded the PF compound. Inside there were always a few South Vietnamese militiamen who manned the compound. They had weapons, but were citizen-soldiers and did not wear the same uniforms as the ARVNs or Rangers. They were less regimented and seemed pretty casual. They did not inspire confidence in me.
I noticed one of the PF soldiers was carrying a small wire cage secured to a flat wooden board that was about 18 inches long. I asked someone what it was used for and was told that it was a rattrap. I had seen rats in Cu Chi; the bunkers were full of them. I had also seen an occasional rat in Oregon that grew to about 6 inches long. In the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam, however, I saw rats that were the size of cats. These critters looked like they were on steroids and pumping iron. The Popular Forces would catch them and eat them. I thought to myself “even the 1945 vintage C-rations or powdered eggs are better than eating one of these critters.” Some times at night I would see a rat running along the top of a dike. It was so large that I couldn’t believe my eyes at first. I thought it had to be some other kind of animal.
After checking in and meeting Captain Ferguson, First Sergeant Rogers, and the company clerk, I was guided to a hootch where several of the guys in the 3rd squad kept there gear. The hootch was located in Anti-tank Platoon’s area. Inside there were about 7 or 8 cots and a large steel rectangular container at one end for storing grenades, claymores, smoke grenades, C-4 and explosive ordinance. I was introduced to several members of the squad while I placed my gear on a canvas cot, then walked back outside. In a small open area, not far from the hootch, were a few of the guys gathered around a small fire. As I walked along the footpath I saw a couple pigs, a few ducks, some chickens and a rooster near by.
I walked up to the small group gathered at the fire and introduced myself. After exchanging the usual information, names, hometown etc, I was invited to sit down. As I did, one of the guys summoned a village woman using a unique mixture of Vietnamese and English. He asked the mamasan to retrieve something to eat. I asked what it was that they were eating and he said crab—rice paddy crab. I certainly had never heard of anything like rice paddy crab. I thought he was putting me on. But in a few minutes a young woman showed up with several crabs that looked pretty similar to the Dungeonous variety that I was used to seeing on the Oregon Coast. ” It seemed strange that we were eating crab with no ocean in sight. My new friend informed me that the whole Delta was just an extension of the South China Sea. Then we proceeded to get on with the crab feast.
After eating and listening to a few stories around the fire I went back to the squad hooch. I was assigned a time slot for bunker guard that evening. Thoughts raced through my mind. New sights and smells had filled my senses and I was somewhat tired. It was a totally new environment to adjust to, new responsibilities, and new friendships to build. Long Duc was small and primitive, yet friendly. My first day there was a mixture of excitement, wonder and disorientation. These surroundings were definitely beyond my frame of reference. Everywhere I looked I saw water—brown water. That simple fact took a while to get used to.
After the meal I had really urgent matters to attend to, so I asked where I could go to relieve myself. One of the guys pointed to a narrow weathered plank that was supported by some wooden poles that were driven into the muddy streambed east of the roadway. At the end of the wooden plank was a very short privacy screen made of corrugated metal, perhaps 2 feet high—barely high enough to provide some visual privacy when squatting down on the plank. In the stream below were the fish we affectionately referred to as the shit-eating fish, a weird species indeed. The water below came to a lively boil after someone left their deposit, and the fish efficiently disposed of the waste. This was environmental planning at it’s best. I’m sure Ralph Nader would have approved.
Rice Paddy Soldiers
I have my own vivid memories of Vietnam. Some incidents, because of their intensity, seem immeasurably larger, and more powerful than other parts of my life. There are emotions attached to many of them. But, in reflecting back upon Echo Company I think also about the daily rhythms of life in the Mekong Delta and our little village of Long Duc. They were the threads that are woven into the fabric of my experience, my memories and my life.
Every day there was an incoming and outgoing tide from the streams and rivers. Occasionally there was a very high tide in the feeder streams that would flood some of the areas of the village. The mamasans washed their family’s clothes and eating utensils in the same water that carried human excrement. The changing of the tides acted as a gigantic flushing action, and each day at high tide the streams would swell and at low tide the streams would be reduced to just a trickle. The sides of the near empty streambeds were covered with a smooth glistening layer of mud that was about three feet deep. All the water flowed to and from the South China Sea through a network of these streams. The smaller streams that meandered across the Delta had deceptively powerful currents that could easily drown a man that was laden with webgear, ammo, grenades and weapons. One of the largest rivers in our area was the Song Nha Be. It was a good sized serpentine river that would occasionally transport our platoon by LCM, deeper into the Mekong Delta.
A typical day in the village might start with the crowing of the rooster and the smell of a fire being started, and perhaps the cry of a young baby and people stirring in their hootchs. Soldiers would walk from their hootchs or tents to the mess tent at the center of the village. Those who had been on bunker guard during the night would be relieved by a replacement. If we were going out on a mission, then usually each squad would pick up their c-rations from supply. At this time people would barter for their favorites—spicy beef, beans and franks, ham & lima beans, etc. Those who were staying in the village would take turns manning the bunkers or going out on ambush. Those who were going out on a mission would pack their rucksacks with c-rats, poncho liner, ammo, fragmentation grenades, smoke grenades and possibly an air mattress. When Sergeant Mann rotated home I became squad leader of the 3rd squad. A compass and map were my essential tools for land navigation and directing artillery, mortar fire or air support from gunships. We also had the support of F-104s and Puff the Magic Dragon if needed.
In the Delta we sometimes carried air mattresses and a rope for crossing streams. We would send a good strong swimmer across the stream first and attach a rope to a tree if possible. Then others would load their heavy gear on an air mattress. Being an Oregonian, I thought I knew about rain. I was wrong about that. During the Monsoons it would rain every day at the same time for several hours, quit for a while and then start again. It meant that on ambush we would be sleeping in water all night. The ponchos helped keep us warm, but not dry. The rain was an unrelenting deluge of water pounding away on us until we had grown webs between our toes—or fungus as was the case with most of us.
In the hot season it was customary for each man to carry three canteens of water to avoid dehydration. We filled our canteens from the water wagon that was usually parked on the village road. Water can be depleted quickly when the heat is intense. On one occasion I saw it get so hot that people started passing out with heat stroke, as we walked through tall elephant grass. Our company came to a halt. Dust offs were called in for heat stroke victims and resupply choppers brought in water in large plastic containers. I saw to it that each man had his proper ration of ammo, which depended on the mission and time spent in the field. Frequently we wore bandoleers of M60 or M16 ammo crossed over our chest for additional reserves, since our web gear didn’t hold that much. An M-16 on full auto would burn through the brass casings pretty quickly.
When I arrived at Long Duc I was in pretty good shape and was accustomed to carrying heavy loads under varying field conditions. But even so, it was a real challenge adjusting to the peanut butter consistency of the rice paddies in the Delta-especially in the sweltering sun and high humidity. The word “grunt” took on a whole new meaning. Humping across the paddies became an exercise in rhythm and endurance. For an RTO, an M60 gunner, or someone carrying a couple mortar rounds in addition to all the other gear it was an accomplishment that would challenge the best of professional athletes. Arnold Swarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone simply couldn’t cut the mustard. I soon had a tremendous respect for the guys in Echo Company after going on my first sweep operation. We were the original “ aerobic trainers.” And probably in better condition than the people that were using Jane Fonda’s exercise videos. My weight went from 180lbs down to a more efficient 156lb “paddy skipper.” Two or three months in the paddies was a great weight loss and conditioning program.
Third squad had a couple adopted pets. I’m not sure how they were acquired. One was our old yellow female dog called “Yip.” The other little friend was our little gray-brown spider monkey named “Rochester.” He acted like he was pumped up on steroids and speed. The animals stayed in the village of course, and when we went out on missions we left food for them. Eventually they both disappeared. We suspected that they had been stolen and possibly eaten.
I have a couple photos of Rochester, the monkey. One was taken while we spent a couple days guarding a demolished steel bridge that the engineers were rebuilding. At the site of the river crossing, there was an old brick guard tower that had been built by the French. One day a few of us were dropped off at the guard tower and we set up our sleeping gear on the upper level tower, where we had a commanding view of the river. We took Rochester with us; he was on a leash. That was a mistake. Somehow he got loose for a while and climbed up in the rafters of the tower. He was running around up above us making funny chattering noises, but we didn’t pay too much attention to him since he couldn’t get away. It was about mid day and we were preoccupied with the usual talk of home, jokes, and story telling. All of a sudden it appeared to be raining, yet it was perfectly sunny. We glanced up and there was Rochester pissing on us from his lofty perch. He had an ear-to-ear grin on his little primate face. His dark beady eyes darted back and forth and his teeth chattered as he mockingly made fun of us. Well, that was a bit too much to tolerate. I could understand being shot at, but being pissed on by a lesser creature—that was just a bit too much. I had visions of monkey stew for the evening meal. Three of us tried at that point to reach him so we could strangle him, but he was too fast for us. He ran around and around in the rafters for quite some time. Eventually he settled down and we got him secured to a post. Some pet!
Our dog Yip had a hot courtship with her suitor mongrel. During one of their mating sessions, they became entangled, shall we say, and could not break loose. There was whining and howling and struggling to break their death lock. Everyone was laughing. After dragging each other back and forth for quite a long time one of the guys got a pail of water and threw it on the dogs. That worked like a charm and they were able to disengage from their passionate dilemma. The male dog retreated and was not seen again for awhile.
Yip got pregnant and carried a litter of pups and finally delivered. She gave birth to the litter of puppies in our hooch. She managed to find a comfortable spot to lay down and stretch out on someone’s poncho liner. The afterbirth was pretty smelly after that. Yip nursed her puppies and our squad kept one of them as our little mascot. He was a healthy looking male with a shiny black coat. Everyone agreed that we should name him “Blacky.” Yip and her pups were doing fine and we attempted to give them as much attention and food as we could in between our duties.
One day, after coming back from a two or three day mission, a small group of us were cleaning our gear and using the anti-fungal foot powder to help dry up any jungle rot. We had been sprinkling liberal doses on our feet and, of course, some of it fell on the ground. Little Blacky came along a few minutes later, and being curious, started sniffing and licking the powder. We were all amazed to see that in just a few seconds the puppy went into a convulsion and started foaming at the mouth. I remember feeling a sinking feeling in my gut, so I asked the RTO to call the CO and get permission to fire one round there in the village. I aimed carefully and squeezed. Then it was over and we gave Blacky a proper burial. We had lost a little friend. Maybe it was a metaphor for things to come.
Rangers & Scouts
Others sometimes accompanied us in the war effort. The 33rd ARVN Rangers accompanied us on several joint operations. They had a company that was attached to our company. The Rangers used GI issue WWII weapons, carbines, M1s, BARs, Thompson sub-machine guns, 30 caliber machine guns, and gear given to them by the United States. I even saw some old 45-caliber grease guns. The Unites States Army apparently had warehouses full of the equipment and weapons left over from the WWII and Korea. Sometimes I took a couple of the Rangers out with the 3rd squad on ambush patrols. They knew the terrain quite well and I learned a few things from them as well.
On one mission during monsoon season there was a break in the weather and we stopped to set up for the evening. One of the Rangers caught a couple giant shrimp in the nearby river. All he did was take a simple peace of line and attach it to a piece of peanut butter and cheese from our c-rations, then threw it in the river without the aid of a pole. I was amazed to watch. Within moments he had hooked a big shrimp and was pulling it in. He used some C-4 to cook the shrimp and a pot full of rice. The rice had a light purple color to it. I didn’t see him do it, but he must have put some coloring in with it. It was the best rice I think I have ever eaten. We had a mini-feast. The company commander’s assistant was a tiny guy with a huge rucksack. He looked funny carrying it because it was out of proportion to his size. I couldn’t believe it when he pulled out several aluminum pots and pans for the evening meal. They seemed to dine in a modicum of comfort with a field gourmet. I was jealous. On another occasion one of them showed me a simple way to turn my poncho into a rain shelter using a stem from a nippa palm. He stuck one end in the ground and then bent the stem in an arch and tied the free end to the hood of the poncho, pulling it up in the center. With a minimum of effort and materials I could create a Taj Mahal!
Sometimes we would have a Kit Carson Scout along acting as an interpreter. As defectors they under the Chieu Hoi Program they knew the trails, cache sites, booby trap markers, and ambush sites. We also used the German Shepherd scout dogs and their handlers to help sniff out VC, hidden weapons, tunnels, food and supplies. They were trained to give a warning signal to their handlers. Many of these dogs used in the war effort performed acts of heroism, saving lives. It’s too bad that many of them were left behind when the US departed South Vietnam.
Strange as the village of Long Duc first seemed, it eventually became a welcomed site after being out for several days on a sweep and destroy mission. Long Duc had become our reference point and Southeast Asian home of sorts. When we went on eagle flights or sweeps in another area, it was usually by a lift of Hueys that landed on the roadway North of the village about 100 yards beyond the gate. If we went by Chinook, then the whole platoon loaded through the rear door onto a single chopper. Once we were airborne, it was always amazing to look down at the pattern of dikes, paddies, pagodas, villages and narrow roadways. It was a water world for sure. Then we came down in staggered formation just above a paddy and the crew chief gave a heads up signal that we were to start exiting pronto. We jumped out while the Huey was 4 or 5 feet above the water. We sank in up to our knees, sometimes to our hips, and then moved toward the edge of the paddy to secure the LZ for any other slicks that were coming in. Breaking through the initial suction of the mud upon impact was quite an effort.
Ambush patrols were a regular occurrence and varied in distance, usually between 1.5 to 5 klicks, sometimes longer. We usually left at dusk to allow us just enough time to reach the ambush site, recon the area, and set up. Our ambush site might typically require us to cross a stream or two, in order to reach it. That, of course, meant that we were wet for the evening, but we carried ponchos and poncho liners to stave off the cold. Claymores would be set up, fields of fire established and if the situation allowed, I would call in coordinates for def cons (defensive concentrations). A typical patrol would include about seven or eight people. We would break up into maybe four groups of two, with one person awake at all times. I would create a schedule for everyone to take turns staying up on guard. With mosquitoes and rain, sleep was minimal. Starlight scopes were helpful at night for detecting movement. Just prior to daybreak we would rise, shoulder our rucksacks and walk back to the village. I would call the CP to let them know we were coming back to the village. Our eyes would be puffy from lack of sleep and relentless mosquito attacks. The mosquitoes in the Delta were huge carnivores that didn’t seem to be stopped by the GI issue repellent. Even after saturating our clothing, all it did was slow them down a bit. Sometimes it seemed that the air was thick with them and once I inhaled one as we crossed a paddy at dusk. I guess it was a supplement to the c-rats.
On the Move Again
Toward the end of December of 1967 Echo Company moved out of Long Duc. Our life with the village people, the animals, and the ever-present rice paddies of the Mekong Delta came to a close. During that time this Pacific Northwest city boy of 20 had learned something of the culture, a bastardized form of the language and the simple rhythms of life in the Delta. Now our battalion was moving us up north to where there was hard ground, triple canopy, punji pits, tunnels, and lots of booby traps. I had seen it all before. We would be going to some of the areas I had been in while I was with the 25th Infantry Division. There were rumors during the month of December that we might even be moving way up north by the DMZ in I Core area. There was a general nervousness about the unknown. Many people had a feeling that things could get worse.
On the day of our departure from Long Duc, a crowd of villagers were gathered at the north gate. A Chinook came in for a landing on the roadway beyond the gate. We had packed up all our gear and we were ready to load. There were villagers with carts and belongings strapped to their backs. It never ceased to amaze me how strong and sturdy these people were for their comparatively small size. As I approached the gate I was surprised to see people leaving who had lived there in Long Duc for their whole life. I stopped at the gate to speak to some of the village people I knew. A former ARVN soldier who had lost his leg to a claymore was standing there with his wife, young son and baby. They had become friends and I admired his family. I asked, “Why are you leaving?” He said “VC caca dau.” He told me that the VC would kill them for being friendly to the American GIs. He was taking his family to Saigon. They would no longer have a home in their small village. In their own way, they would be casualties of the war—refugees. Somehow they would have to blend in with the chaos of Saigon and its cowboys, hustlers, prostitutes, street merchants and stench of the city streets. I was left with a lingering thought “did my presence in this man’s little piece of the world really help him?
For a few moments I stood there as a silent observer, and forgot about our trek up north and our new assignments. I looked at him, his wife and baby. I hugged them and headed for the Chinook. A few moments later we were carrying our gear up the ramp and through the back door of the Chinook that was waiting in the roadway. The rotor wash was like a powerful windstorm. The water in the paddies on either side of the road rippled and the green blades of rice bent to the gyrations of the twin rotors. The chinstrap on my helmut was snapped in place so it would not blow off. The crew chief motioned and waved us forward, and in just a few short moments we were seated and lifting off. The village began to look insignificant from the air, quickly blending into the fabric of the landscape. I thought it probably looked much the same as it might have looked hundreds of years earlier. Only the concertina wire, bunkers and control tower were visible remainders of the Old Guardsmen. But, in due time, they would come down. They were a quiet, resilient people, seemingly happy and unencumbered by many of the things that we have come to expect. I wondered about what would happen to them. Whose life had been influenced the most—their or ours? As we gained elevation and distance, the village became smaller and smaller and just blended into the patchwork fabric of paddies and vegetation in the Delta. It all fit together into one whole—not just a place, but an experience we called the Nam.
The next two months were a time of being on the move a lot and adjusting to changing terrain and circumstances. There were fewer open spaces and much more vegetation. It was also a time when I became a short-timer and kept a small plastic calendar and grease pencil in the pocket of my jungle fatigues. Every day brought a new remark or joke about being a short-timer. The problem with being a short timer is that it also makes a person acutely aware of his own mortality. I was getting “too short for a long conversation,” as we used to say.
My cousin, Captain Corky Gavin, came to visit me one day while we were at a small firebase north of Saigon. He drove out in a jeep. It seemed amazing to me that someone in the family was actually visiting me in a war zone. It was also amazing that he could find me. We had a great visit; Corky wanted to know all about my life as a combat infantryman. He was an Army laisson officer for operations between the Air Force and the Army. Corky had a reserved, but confident manner that radiated professionalism and competence. Near the end of our visit he encouraged me to consider re-enlisting and going to OCS upon my return to the States. I hadn’t seriously considered a career in the Army, so I was surprised by his comments. I could see that he was enjoying his career and it was apparently a good fit for him. I pondered his suggestion…for at least 30 seconds.
Echo Provides Seed for Birth of Delta
In the month of January our operations intensified and toward the end of the month my main thoughts were getting 3rd squad through our operations without losing anyone. Thanksgiving, my 21st birthday, both of my parents birthdays, Christmas, New Years and my wife’s birthday were all in late ’67 and early ’68. Yet one day seemed much the same as any other day. The infantry was a 24/7 proposition. Holidays and weekends didn’t exist.
Sometime in January the Old Guard added a new line company to our battalion and Delta Company born. The new company was seeded with seasoned members of Echo Company and so many of us Echos were used to fill the ranks of Delta. That ocurred while we were on Hill #144, northwest of Saigon. It appears that the change was actually finalized on paper on February 1st of ’68. Fresh troops came from Ft. Lewis in February with Fred Wallenborn. It was during this time that the VC and NVA mounted the Tet Offensive and attempted to take control of Saigon and Long Binh. Approximately two weeks later I was on a big bird headed for Oakland California.
Third squad was a great group of people who were seasoned, fit, dependable and competent soldiers. We were a tight knit group of 11 people. I was buoyed by their camaraderie, trust, crazy humor, brutal honesty, and amazing spirit. We literally depended on each other for survival. During the first two weeks of February we were doing air assaults, sweeps and patrols. About 3 or 4 days prior to my scheduled DEROS we were set up in defensive positions on Hill #144. A few of us were shooting the breeze during a quiet moment, when all of a sudden a grunt from Headquarters Company came running up to me and said that there was a chopper waiting to take off in two or three minutes to go back to Long Binh. I was told to catch the flight so I could begin processing papers back at BMB and get ready to rotate out on February 16th. Although I had been counting the days, that particular moment caught me by surprise.
I gathered my gear quickly, shouldered my rucksack, and after a few quick good byes, I was jogging across the field, headed for the chopper. About half way to the chopper I was hailed by one of the guys in my squad who came running up to me. He gave me a sincere thanks and wished me luck. As I reached out to shake his hand I was seized by some pretty strong sensations. I was elated that I was finally leaving, but suddenly realized that my closest friends in the world, the ones for which I had the greatest trust and respect, were staying behind. It was a strange feeling that came over me. There were no words that I could say—they would not come. We shook hands and I jumped on the chopper. It rotated as it lifted off. It had been a long year of 24 hour days strung together in an experince that seemed to have no end. I felt pretty tired. As I looked at the basecamp and waved, I knew I was leaving one hell of a team. There had been moments of satisfaction, triumph, crazy humor and adventure; but there were also moments of tension, fear, loss, chaos and exhaustion. I was grateful to be alive and grateful for good friends.
Back in Long Binh I started processing paperwork and got geared up to climb on the big bird back home. I felt nervous and somehow out of place, although relieved to be out of the field. A couple days before my rotation I was unexpectedly approached by an officer who asked me to lead a detail of men to attend a memorial service. I thought it was for fellow soldiers who had been killed during Tet. I gathered a squad together, with gas masks and rifles as directed by the officer. We were then taken by duece-and-a-half to the memorial site. However, as we left the gates of Long Binh I thought it was a bit strange that we were leaving the basecamp. We drove to a small village a few miles beyond the BMB and pulled up to a stop. Everyone jumped out the tailgate of the truck. Then we suddenly realized that this was no memorial service for GIs. We were at the site of an old Vietnamese cemetery with NVA and VC bodies strewn everywhere. They had been killed during a big firefight during Tet and had been lying in the sun for days. The stench and the state of decomposition of the bodies were pretty bad.
The officer in charge walked over to me and handed me two bundles of laytex surgical gloves and said that we were to carry the bodies into a mass grave being dug by the engineers with a Caterpillar. There wasn’t much enthusiasm for the task at hand. We dragged a couple bodies to the large gravesite, but they were falling apart by the time we got them in. Villagers were gathered at the edge of the cemetery looking on while covering their mouths and noses with handkerchiefs. The look in their eyes was telling—shock, disgust, horror. I talked to the officer and said I didn’t think this was going to work very well. Then he walked over to the engineer and had a brief chat, at which time he swung the blade of the cat down and started scooping bodies into the open grave. This went on for some time and then when complete, we climbed back on the truck and drove back to the base camp in Long Binh. I departed Vietnam in much the same way that I had entered, with an unforgettable scent in my nostrils. This time it was the smell of death, and I felt I had probably experienced enough of Vietnam. It was time to go home.
Since those days I have been fortunate to be a player and a leader on several teams—some composed of incredible athletes and other teams composed of gifted and ambitious people in the business and professional world. None, however, has ever shown more heart or courage than what was demonstrated by the infantrymen that the Army refers to as Old Guardsmen.