surfing the stardust

Into the Country – September 1966

AnKhe Pass – 2005

I arrived in Vietnam in the middle of a September night, having stopped for refueling in Japan after departing my folks from Travis AF Base north of Vallejo.  My Dad had driven me up from their home in Menlo Park.  We didn’t have too much to talk about.  It was 1966

I had graduated from University of Santa Clara sometime in Mid June; then on to Fort Eustis, Virginia for Basic Officers Training for 10 weeks.  On the way back home I had gotten drunk in Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas to the point where I dumped all my money on scotch and soda and baccarat.   A well meaning guy, who picked me up as I walked with a blinding hangover out the road to the Airport, bought me a coffee and the $25 plane ticket to San Francisco.  He saw me in 2nd Lieutenants uniform and figured out where I was going pretty quickly.  My only send off was with Mike and Lou and Dan in Lou’s dorm room in Walsh Hall.  Lou always liked to room with Asians – he said they were quiet and didn’t hassle him when he pee’d in the sink.  But his roommate had seen us taking over the room and had left.  Mike pulled out his brothers pot and we got high…it was my first time and I hallucinated a lot.  We ended up in Campisi Hall lounge with some of the girls; Lou playing the piano. It was grand.

3 nights later, as the chartered jet descended through the massed thunderheads into Ton Son Nhut parachute flares hung in the dark.  They look still, suspended, seemingly purposeless from the window of a 707 at 5000 feet.  There was little electricity then in country and pretty much all was dark.  I have flown into Ton Son Nhut many times since 2003, when I started doing business there.  The first time in 2003 it still had traces of that night in 1966, with a small stucco, 1930’s era, one story building and a couple of quonset huts.  We were herded in the tropical midnight heat to tents with cots where we crashed in our first night in “Nam”.

We had been issued towels and soap, and after a mid-morning shower I went out of the gate and caught a ride in a “putt-putt”, 3 wheeled motorbike taxi.  The gate guard told me about motor scooters throwing grenades into putt-putts..he said it’d been quiet lately. Through the masses of bicycles and horse carts, down the  Nguyen Kiem Road to the Rue Catenac and the Opera House.  I went into the famous old Hotel Continental and out onto the verandah restaurant where I had “steak-frites” and a glass of red.  Eating in the hotel where Graham Green wrote The Quiet American was a treat.  That was the last restaurant meal I had until R&R in Bangkok 8 months later.

We flew up the coast to the small port town of Qui Nhon in a C-123 2 engine prop freight transport plane.  We flew with the rear ramp door open to keep cool.  The loadmaster stood on the door looking out like he was standing on his porch at home.  The jungle hills and rice patties seemed empty of towns and people;  they were intensely green and beautiful.  There was little conversation but it was obvious that I was the only new guy on the plane.

My orders were for the 2nd Transportation Company (Truck) and a sergeant met me in his jeep and we drove west into the Phu Tai Valley – about 10 miles west of the beach town.  We were part of the 27th Transportation Battalion which had been operating since WW2 where it had worked North Africa, the invasion of Sicily, and up the Italian Peninsula through the Po Valley and into the Alps. It had been the first dedicated convoy battalion in Vietnam – it and the 2nd had arrived in October of 1965.

Starting out from QuiNhon – 2005

Our mission was to link up with the beach clearance operation, load our trucks with the cargo coming off the ships, and then take the cargo “up country”.  By this time there were various military operations groups through out all central II Corps.  We’d run convoys north to DaNang, south to TuyHoa and Nha Trang, but 90% of our business was daily run convoys west to Pleiku and then north to Kontum or south toward Buon Ma Thuot.   Those destinations were only 10-15 miles from the Cambodian border.  The famous battle of Ia Drang Valley had take place just 10 months before and we’d run down there to Plei Me  which was about 20 miles out of Pleiku.  The supplies we were taking were for a variety of outfits we supported during my year including the 5th Special Forces, First Cav, 4th Infantry Division, 25th infantry Division, and the Korean Tiger and White Horse Divisions.  Also of course various ARVN outfits too.

So we were based in the Phu Tai Valley,  west of the port.  It was a long narrow thing, running north to south – maybe 5 to 8 miles long and with a flat valley floor only a half mile wide.  There were scrub hills on either side that rose up 300 feet or more.  On the south end of the valley was a pass with the main road headed down towards Nha Trang.  The main ammo dump for the whole area was there – it was a continuous target for the Viet Cong “sappers” and was blown several times while we were there.  Our company camp was on the west side of the valley…snug up against the hills.  It was a dumb place to have a camp.  There were incessant forays of snipers, harassing fire from the brush, occasional small attacks.  Well no wonder – less than a thousand feet away was a high hill covered in thick brush and as the motto went “the night belonged to Charlie”.

Phu Tai Valley – home of the 2nd Trans Company

The company was made up of about 150 men, mainly divided into three platoons.  Each platoon had 20 trucks and about 40 men.  Charlie Trompler, from Oklahoma ran one platoon; Win Luther ran another;  I was to head the third.  Our Company Commander was Captain Gorman and later a nice guy named Capt Jim Becker.    The company had rolled its trucks off of LST’s onto the beach in town less than a year before…the first transportation truck company into Vietnam.

The battalion had a number of different types of trucks:  “Deuce and a half’s (2 1/2 ton tare weight integrated truck and bed) – it could carry men and small loads but with all wheel drive and 10 gears could go over the roughest terrain; there were 5 ton integrated and also 5-ton tractor-trailers..those were 10 wheel Freightliner tractors which had been converted to multi-fuel engines which ran on kerosene ( jet propellant), gasoline or diesel ; they could pull either a “stake and platform” or tanker trailers with double axle 8 wheels; each company had 2 five ton wreckers; also we could call on a ten ton wrecker if needed.  I once was sent on a mission to retrieve a tractor trailer which had gone down to the bottom of a 100 foot ravine off the AnKhe pass. I took us all day to rig it…as the ten ton wrecker’s extended cables and multiple pulleys pulled the truck up the cliff side the strain on the cables was immense..I imagined them snapping and taking our heads off.  Our convoys mixed all the various truck types together regardless of company.  Convoys could have as many as 30-50 trucks or as few as 4-5, which was the size of the one I led on an April night up into Pleiku when it was under siege.

Our camp was a rough thing..about 8 large canvas tents pitched on the dark clay.  In the dry season the clay turned to thick dust and in the rains it became a foot deep mud wallow.  We had rudimentary cots – some wood, some metal with mosquito netting over a ramshackle frame.  We slept in down sleeping bags or under thin “pancho liners”.  The bases of the tents were stacked with sandbags to catch shrapnel.  There was a wash tent and open air washing racks with aluminum bowls, but little hot water – we’d only take a shower every week or two.

Base Camp

Around the perimeter was triple stacked concertina wire and beyond it mines under low slung array of razorwire.  There were machine gun towers along the west side which was open to the scrub hills from which the VC would come for harrassing fire or sapper incursions.  Also on the west side were the latrines – open air 4-6 holers.  One of the daily chores was to take the cut open bottoms of 55 gallon steel drums which were the recipients of the waste and burn the waste by pouring kerosene on it – it was a horrible stench.  Most of us preferred not to go out to the latrines at night due to sniper fire.  We pulled our own guard with about 6-8 guys on the perimeter each night.  The GI’s spoke and acted just like in the great movie “Platoon”.

27 Trans Battalion truckers in camp

My Vietnam experience had been very lucky in several ways.

The army has a classification of  6 “combat arms” corps..that is how the various outfits are connoted.  The 3 core combat arms corps are Infantry, Armor, Artillery; then there are 3 ancillary combat arms: Transportation, Engineers, Signal.  These are corps whose main missions are to take place in combat areas and in combat situations.  Other rear echelon corps like quartermaster, ordnance, medical, adjutant, etc are generally not meant to see combat.  At our ROTC summer camp we got to “put in” for the corps we wanted – we had 3 choices.  I put in first choice Armor, second Artillery, and third Transportation.  I definitely wanted to be in a combat corps but was not crazy enough to want to be a grunt.  I was and am disappointed that I got Transportation instead of one of the first two.  But in retrospect, running 300 convoys and putting up 30,000 miles driving all over Vietnam let me soak in the lovely rice farming life of the Vietnamese and the cloud-jungle village life of the montagnards.  And gave guys like Charlie, Win, me, and the other convoy runners ring side seats to watch how our war was destroying it.

I was also lucky that a massive SNAFU about my desire to go to Ranger/Jump school and helicopter flight school prevented me from doing either and sent me on to my assignment in as a convoy commander right after basic.

Most lucky was my decision to volunteer for Vietnam.

Having been prepared since childhood to be an army officer and intensely trained with two years college at The Citadel, it was a forgone conclusion that I wanted to get to to the war right away.  This was despite the fact that by the middle of my senior year at SCU I was openly opposed to the war and helped in the beginnings of the campaign against it as the campus representative of SNCC.  So with the SNAFU on flight school, and my volunteering,  I was probably the first of my SCU class to get there.  What that meant was that I had finished my one year tour of duty in September 1967, 5 months before the NVA invasion in the First TET offensive of Feb 1968.  If I had tried to put off going, or proceeded to one of the advanced combat schools, I would have been running the “Street Without Joy” in 1968 when the NVA had come down and the tables were turning.

This unplanned timing good fortune is shown in sharp relief by the fact that 8 weeks after I returned to “the world” our convoys got their first serious ambushes with rockets, machine guns, sappers, landmines, and NVA professionals.  It happened on 11 November and then again on 16 December.  It happened just above the AnKhe pass, which was one of my most traveled stretches – having led convoys and other missions over the killing ground at least 500 time in my 12 month.  In those two battles our outfits lost 30 trucks,  7 dead and 17 wounded out of probably 60-120 men in the convoys.

During my time on the road our enemy was largely the Viet Cong, lightly trained militia with simple light weapons.  While our convoys had had some light ambushes, land-mines and lots of sniper fire, I had never lost a man dead or wounded.  We had lots of action and excitement and some hair raising experiences and bullets flying around me.  But the attacks on our camps were light, the VC were not good shots, and except for the siege of Pleiku, we had never faced the NVA.  Five months later the world had turned and death was all around.  God has been good to me.

.                        On the road to the Cambodian Border – 2005


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