My journey to Vietnam started in June 1969 at Travis Air Force Base near San Francisco. We flew to Anchorage Alaska, refueled there and then traveled across the Pacific to Guam. After again refueling we headed east for Bien Hoa Air Base, located 22 miles northeast of Saigon. We flew in commercial airliners that had been leased by the military.
We were due to arrive at Bien Hoa in the early hours of the morning however at the time of our E.T.A. it was reported that Bien Hoa was under attack and we would have to wait. We circled around till dawn when it was deemed that the base was secure and then landed.
On deplaning we were met by buses that transported us the short distance to the 90th Replacement Battalion. The glass in the windows of the buses had been replaced with reinforced chicken wire to prevent grenades being thrown into the transport. My first experience of Vietnam was the heat and the awful smell.
When arriving in Vietnam all Army personnel were processed through a Replacement Battalion. I went through the 90th Replacement Battalion at Long Bien. From these Replacement Battalions, the soldiers were forwarded to their parent unit.
Life in the 90th was miserable, it seemed we were living a life of organized chaos. A “Shipping Formation” was held every three hours on the Parade Ground. Here those who had received orders for a unit left us. We were restricted to the limits of the compound and employed at menial tasks until it was your turn to depart.
My stay at the 90th was a couple of days before I was assigned to the 539th Transportation Company at Phu Loi.
All new enlisted arrivals at the 539th were assigned to the security platoon. The reason was partly to get us used to being “in country” and also for personnel to find us a work position that called for the individuals M.O.S. (military occupation specialty.)
As it implies the security platoon was responsible for the security of a section of the perimeter that surrounded Phu Loi. I would have been in the security platoon for a period about two weeks which is the time frame of this story.
My first day with the security platoon we had to go into the minefield and repair barbed wire and spray Agent Orange to clear the vegetation from the minefields that surrounded our base. In the process of this one soldier stepped on an anti-personnel mine and blew his foot off, he had been in the country, like me for three days! The mine had probably moved during the incessant monsoon storms. We didn’t know whether to be pleased or sorry for him!
This is Tower 4 at Phu Loi where I spent many hours when assigned to the Security Platoon.
Our camp was ringed with these towers and the fortified bunkers that were spread at approximately 100-yard intervals between the towers. I do not recall how many towers there were, perhaps 10. You can see the rooftops of Phu Loi village behind the tower so you can appreciate how close the villagers were to our defensive perimeter.
Before going on guard duty we would have to draw our weapons and have an inspection. Besides the obviously necessary weapons inspection, we were submitted to a rigorous personal inspection by the Officer Of The Day. Boots clean, uniform tidy clean shaven etc. All unnecessary to the enlisted personnel who were, after all, going out on guard duty all night. When the inspection was over we were trucked out to our guard posts. The relationship between the officers and the enlisted men was very fragile in Vietnam.
Here I am with my M60 that I have just drawn from the armory.
I am in our Company Area, the construction to the right is a bunker made from railway ties and sandbagged on top. The bunker was situated just outside of our sleeping quarters and is where we would dash when the VC fired 107 and 122mm rockets at us. To the left can be seen the sandbags that surrounded the mess hall.
Inside of the tower. The roof was made of corrugated tin for protection from the weather. I am sat behind the M60 with my M16 to my left. On the shelf can be seen the clacker that would detonate a mine.
Outside one of the bunkers with an M79 Grenade Launcher and an M16.
This bunker is constructed of sand bags. I am wearing my steel pot. We were not required to wear the steel pot when on guard duty, just required to have it. Most of us wore jungle hats. To my rear is Phu Loi village.
After our 12 hour stint of guard duty, we would have to clean our weapons before turning them into the armory.
This is one of the bunkers that came between the towers.
These bunkers were made from sandbags and then layered with concrete and had a firing slit facing the “enemy.”
Bunker duty was not popular. The bunkers were dark and dank and didn’t half stink. During the monsoon season, they were full of water, insects and various creepy crawlies. When on bunker duty G.I.’s would usually sit on top of the bunker unless of course, the monsoon rains were coming down.
Our duty required us to pull 12-hour shifts, two men, to a bunker or tower. During daylight hours, the bunkers were unmanned.
Here I am peering out of one of the bunkers.
We always carried our own personal weapon the M-16 when we were on duty. In addition to the M-16, the tower was equipped with an M-60 Machine gun, and an M-79 grenade launcher. Some of the various rounds we had available for the M-79 were, HE (High Explosive,) WP (White Phosphorus or Willy Pete), Beehive (little metal darts about an inch and a half in length,) Shotgun (buckshot pellets.) Tear gas was available for this weapon but we had none issued to us.
An M-79 Grenade Launcher with various rounds.
In front of the tower was the minefield consisting of small conventional land mines planted at intervals throughout the area. These mines were pressure operated and were designed to incapacitate whoever trod on them. We also had Claymore Mines that were command detonated by a small hand-held firing device we called a clacker. The clacker sent a battery powered electrical charge to the antipersonnel mine which, when detonated, propelled small steel cubes in a 60-degree fan-shaped pattern to a maximum distance of 100 meters.
Should Charlie decide to come through the wire we also had Foo Gas at our disposal. Foo Gas is a napalm-like substance housed in 55-gallon drums that is detonated on command the same way as the Claymore. It was not uncommon for lightning strikes to produce enough amperage to fire these mines. That was always an attention getter.
Part of our equipment in the tower were night vision binoculars. They were called “Starlight Scopes” and were very bulky to use. They used ambient light and would only work efficiently during moonlit nights. We had a little ditty we used to sing, “Star Light Star Bright, Kill the First Gook I See Tonight.”
During our instruction for Guard Duty, we were told of Sappers coming through the wire. The Sappers would crawl into the minefields and turn the Claymore mines around so they were facing towards the operator and not away. A sobering thought for those soldiers about to go on duty.
We utilized Agent Orange to keep the grass and weeds under control in the wire and the minefield areas. Phu Loi was a distribution center for the Agent Orange spraying operations. The Americans sprayed a large amount of the chemical in and around Phu Loi base camp that was circular in shape. Therefore, whatever way the wind blew the mist covered the base.
Many hours of boredom were endured in these towers and there is nothing like a bored and creative G.I. to get something started. The villager’s dogs were always underfed and consequently attracted to us and would come to us right through our minefields!
We would whistle to the dogs, shout, hoot, holler, and laugh like hell if they trod on anti-personnel mine. Hey, we were bored, we just wanted to blow something up and see if the minefield really worked.
In Tower 4 we were equipped with parachute illumination flares! Oh boy, what fun they were! We would shoot them off at the slightest excuse. A parachute flare comes in a metal tube that the operator activates by striking with his hand. A flare is fired from the tube that rises to perhaps 300′ and illuminates the terrain below dangling under a parachute.
We G.I.’s would take the parachute out of the flare tube, reassemble it without the parachute and fire it into the village just outside the base’s perimeter. That always caused a commotion, but in our way of thinking, it was fair as they constantly shooting rockets at us. C’est la Guerre!
We did not experience full-scale NVA attacks through the wire during my time at Phu Loi. Victor Charlie would infiltrate through the wire and attempt to place satchel charges on the aircraft but that was a rare event.
More common was for Victor Charlie to shoot salvos of rockets at us. In response, headquarters would call “Puff the Magic Dragon” and an Air Force C47 (DC3) would show up from Bien Hoa. With his miniguns a roaring, Puff would lay down a field of fire just outside the wire in the area that the attack was initiated from. We G.I.’s would be up on top of the bunkers screaming and yelling just as if we were at a football game! Here is “Puff” protecting our perimeter.
Tower Duty was always sought after, especially by the dopers in the company. It was one of the few places on the base where one could be truly isolated. To his front, the soldier would have a minefield and to his rear the perimeter road and the base.
Perched “high” in his tower the on-duty trooper could see everything that was taking place around him and it was impossible for the Duty Officer to catch him unawares. In those days, there was a very poor officer-enlisted relationship.
While fragging never took place in our company, I do recall the officer’s showers receiving a CS gas grenade for a present. As a reprisal, the Commanding Officer assembled the whole company at 2.00 a.m. and had the First Sergeant double time us around the base. (Fragging was a term formed from fragmentation grenade and the practice of tossing of a grenade into an unliked officer’s quarters etc.)
One hot day I was on tower guard duty. My partner and I were bored out of our minds. What could we do to relieve our boredom? Just outside the wire was a little pagoda structure about 5 feet high with some type of religious icon contained in it that the Vietnamese villagers had constructed.
Says one G.I. to the other “Reckon I can hit that thing with my M-79 before the Officer of the Day gets here?” We were on! We took turns at taking pot shots at it with our grenade launchers until we saw the officer’s jeep come tearing out of the company area and race down the perimeter road in our direction.
Pulling to a screeching halt the second lieutenant jumps out of his Jeep and shouted an inquiry to us up in the tower as to what we were firing at. “Not us” we replied, “but we thought we heard something down at Tower 6.” The duty officer proceeds to jump back in his jeep and speeds off to towards Tower 6 in a cloud of dust. Just too funny!
We enlisted men took great delight in messing with Butter Bars (Second Lieutenants, so named because the gold bar denoting their rank looks like a stick of butter.)
One night I was manning the bunker next to Tower 4. I told earlier how we could remove the parachute from a parachute flare and then fire it as a projectile that would burn on the ground for a while. In the tower, one G.I. removed the parachute from a flare with the intention of firing the flare into the village to piss off the locals. He fired the flare but his aim was not good. The flare hit the inside of the roof did an 180 and hit the person who had fired it before exiting out the door.
Cries of great pain came from the tower and it transpired that our friend had a huge gash in his leg that was bleeding profusely and would need immediate attention. We made the required calls and the officer of the day turned up and then the medics. We made up a story that the flare had been fired at us from the village.
An alert was immediately called, and the whole base was aroused from their beds and sent to their posts. A flight of helicopter gunships took off and menaced the village and Puff the Magic Dragon turned up. By dawn, things had quietened down and the sleepy G.I.’s that were awakened from their beds and sent to their duty stations made their way to breakfast and work.
This G.I. who was now coming off guard duty turned in and laughed himself to sleep. Boy, we had some fun. My friend in the tower, by the way, got a purple heart for the incident!
Here is a view from the tower looking along the perimeter. This is the road that the lieutenant came dashing down when he thought we were under attack.