A Whole Lifetime in 12 months
A Whole Lifetime in 12 months
Andrew Bradick, Commander US Navy (Ret.)
So OK to begin, how do you get to Vietnam? 1964 I had been out of the Navy less than one year after a three-year tour on a Destroyer. I had participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis. I was actually on my way to be the XO of a mine sweeper in Charleston, South Carolina. While home on Leave many of my college buddies told me what a great time they were having and why I should join them in New York City. So I resigned my commission.
Nine months later I was bored to tears after trying civilian life in two different jobs, each not lasting more than two months. I called the junior officer detailer at the bureau of Naval personnel and ask what’s the fastest way I could get back to active duty. It was not more than a heartbeat when the detailer said “oh volunteer for Vietnam.” I thought well that’s not a bad idea since I had never been there. I quickly received a set of orders returning me to active duty. The first stop was Fort Bragg where I was put through an Army orientation program. I received some introduction to Vietnam, learning about the culture, history and most importantly learning how to use and fire the kinds of weapons that we Navy Officers never get to see.
By the way, there were no regular US military units in Vietnam at that time and those of us who were assigned to Vietnam were assigned as “advisors.”
One important issue emphasized by a weapons NCO regarding the 50 caliber machine gun. He waved under our noses something called a Head Space tool. He claimed that it was absolutely mandatory that we use this when tightening the barrel on a 50 caliber machine gun. Truth being stranger than fiction I had the occasion to fire lots of 50 caliber ammunition taken care of by various and sundry random Vietnamese Junk Force sailors and I am here to report that never once did I ever see them use the headspace tool. The standard adjustment was always the same, that is turn the barrel clockwise until it was hand tight and then turned it back two clicks and you were good to go. Never once did we observe a double load, a misfire, a hang fire or a jam.
As an aside now in retrospect, I will give you my perspective on Vietnam. I suggest that if you took 100 guys who were advisers and 100 guys who were in Vietnam assigned to regular US military units and you asked them the same set of questions, you would swear that they were in different countries and different “wars,” at different times. To further this comment, the Ken Burns PBS series on Viet Nam totally ignored the advisory effort. I am guessing that any positive comments on the ARVN would not have fit with the agreed to narrative.
I arrived in Saigon on the November 1964 and was assigned to Naval Advisory Group MACV. There were about six or eight Navy Officers newly assigned to Naval Advisory Group. We spend most of the day milling around smartly waiting for an assignment and killing time. My assignment came in the usual serendipitous manner. While at lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant
near the advisory group I noted that we were going to be late for another briefing. While trying to get the attention of the Vietnamese staff to get a bill I unleashed both barrels of my high school French and shouted “l’addition s’il vous plait.” This singular exhibition of my language fluency caught the attention of a personal weenie who had just received a request for a French speaking advisor to assist a US Marine major advising a Vietnamese Major in the Rung Sat Special Zone (RSSZ)
A cautionary note that applies throughout this recollection is that I cannot remember in detail the ways, whys and wherefores related to most of the anecdotes describing here. I can’t remember times, dates, places however I believe that these are reasonably accurate although I could not swear to it. Pretty much everything related here was an “in the moment” memory.
And while I can remember it, a comment to put things in context relative to my experiences in Vietnam. I am a first generation American who grew up with one foot in the Italian culture and one foot in the American culture. This allowed me a certain positive perspective about cross cultural experiences. As an example, my grandmother on demand, could conjure up a pizza in her cast iron frying pan, much to the envy of my school mates. Unlike most advisors who found much of what they saw as not particularly agreeable or understandable, I found interesting, attractive and perhaps exotic. I fact, I can say that there was never a day that I did not see, hear, smell or taste something I had never sensed before. From the constant smell of charcoal cooking fires, to the sensual pleasure of bathing from a large pottery barrel of collected rainwater, to watching a young boy taking an afternoon nap sprawled on the back of a water buffalo, to a family of five stacked onto one small motorized bicycle. One last note and relative to my cultural heritage. Being of Mediterranean extraction I tend to be olive complected and on any occasion in the sun, I tan to a dark brown very quickly. This resulted in the Vietnamese I came in contact with who invariably would say ‘but you’re not really American are you?’ Their exposure to most Americans came from the John Wayne movie hero measuring 6 feet tall, blonde and blue-eyed. None of which I fit.
Off I went by Jeep to Nha Be the headquarters of the RSSZ about 30 minutes south east of Saigon to meet with Major Ed Bronars, the senior advisor.
– In addition to the Major, there were a number of others including Capt. Bill Leben, US Army Infantry, a Marine Corps artillery Captain, a US Army communications sergeant, a US Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant and a US Marine Corps Staff Sergeant.
– Getting off on the wrong foot, the Major advise me that I needed a haircut. I retorted, without thinking, that my haircut complied with US Navy regulations.
– I inquired as to what my duties might be in support of this advisory group and was told that since I was Navy I was responsible for everything underwater. A few months later it became clear to me that the whole issue of RSSZ was underwater during the monsoon.
Navy elements that were assigned to RSSZ included two Junk Force units, one minesweeping launch (MLMS) group that was responsible for clearing the river of mines from Saigon to the South China Sea. and finally a river assault group (RAG) left over from the French, made up of several very old LCM 6’s one of which was outfitted as a command vessel with a 40 mm Bofors gun mounted on the bow.
Photo #1 An aerial photo of RSSZ mangrove and streams.
– The headquarters at Nha Be was in an old cement block building without any amenities.
The toilet was a pair of wooden planks over a creek behind the building. This facility was shared by the advisory team, some Regional and Popular Force soldiers and Vietnamese civilians living in the neighborhood. The first cultural learning experience for the advisors was to squat over the creek paying attention not to lose your balance, the second was to avoid thinking about getting popped by some VC while in that vulnerable position and falling into the creek.
– A brief explanation of the Regional and Popular forces (known as the Ruff/Puff). Regional forces were the equivalent of our national guard. The Popular Forces were a local militia that were part time soldiers, sailors and whatever. The regular army known as ARVN were regularly equipped. The regional forces got the hand me downs and the popular forces got what was left over. Popular forces manned the Junk Forces which were as they sound, fishing boats that were converted to patrol the coast and larger rivers to prevent infiltration.
Photo #2 Any time an adviser showed up in Rung Sat was an occasion for the kids to come out and gawk
Military operations in the RSSZ
– There were night ambushes every 2 to 3 days,
– Platoon size sweeps into one of the two districts once a week.
– As time and personal permitted, a monthly company size operation involving support from the river assault group, a battery of 105mm artillery from somewhere nearby.
– All of these operations were further supported by the Junk Forces who used their knowledge of the area to land the infantry.
– Finally, there was when available L-19’s that flew out of Ton Son Nhut, over the area to act as a spotter, radio relay and intelligence gatherer. L- 19’s are equipped with smoke rockets for marking and were flown by 19 or 20-year-old army warrant officers usually hung over from the night before. This phenomenon of young pilots was something quite remarkable for Vietnam and a credit to the US Army. They figured out early on that they needed lots of pilots for lots of helicopters which was the new way of fighting modern warfare. These kids considered themselves virtually indestructible and would dare to fly the L-19’s and Huey helicopters under all circumstances without fear. They were a wonder to behold.
– One of my favorite assignments were those occasions when I was designated to act as airborne observer. Clearly it’s more dangerous on the ground as a Navy guy knowing very little about infantry tactics. As an engineering school graduate and model airplane builder, I knew something about aerodynamics. Invariably, the pilot would ask if I wouldn’t mind flying around for a while, while he recovered from running the alleys and got some ZZ’s, the only caution was to stay above 1500 feet altitude to avoid being shot at..
– This activity had a fringe benefit since the L-19 had about a four hour duration before needing to be refueled at Vuong Tau to the south of RSSZ. While the aircraft was being refueled we would run into town to a marvelous French restaurant that served chilled lobster with fresh mayonnaise. The routine was to rush through the front door shouting “deux lobster mayonnaise” run out the back door take a swim in the South China Sea, come back cooled off and ready to consume the great lunch and then back to the aircraft for another four hours over the RSSZ.
– One added fringe benefit that I was to discover later on was that one of the few medals that was readily available to all was the Air Medal that is based on a calculation of combat, liaison, and support missions flown. All of which are at some point added up to some quantifiable amount that would allow you to submit for and receive an Air Medal.
– The most interesting airborne assignment was flying in a DC-3 converted to a “Puff the Magic Dragon” with 4 or 6 mini guns poking out of the right side of the fuselage. The RSSZ was the nearest area to Ton Son Nhut airbase that offered a “Free Fire Zone”.
For the uninitiated a free fire zone is an area that has been declared free of all innocent civilians and is a hotbed of the Viet Cong activity. This allows the good guys to fire indiscriminately in to this area without fear of harming friendlies or civilians.
My duty on this mission was to liaison with the Vietnamese observer on board to confirm that the location that was being selected to receive Puff the Magic Dragon visitation was in fact a free fire zone. Puff the Magic Dragon was quite an awesome enterprise to observe at night as the mini guns fired thousands of rounds in to the blackness below. One could see the tracers wiggling down like tubes of red neon. Whether or not there was any bomb damage assessment done I was not aware. I can’t speak to the effectiveness of either puff the Magic Dragon or the free fire zone.
– Now this may sound a little like fun and games and Terry and the Pirates and in fact that’s exactly what was going on. In retrospect I believe that had we not gotten too excited about ‘this being the only war we had’ we would probably still be there today at a low level of advisors and South Vietnamese fending off the VC. I will recall one afternoon in Vung Tau, sitting with the local junk force advisors of that district in our flip-flops, cut off’s, T-shirts and Junk Force berets looking very roguish. When out of the sky came a cloud of C130s. We watched them land, disgorge what must have been a battalion of US Army troops. That turned out to be the first stop of the “Big Red One”. We watched the jeeps and M113s, roll down the street with steely eyed soldiers wearing flak jackets and helmets, manning charged 50 caliber machine guns. What occurred to us observing was that “I guess they’re going to make a war out of this mess”. Up until that moment we used to joke about our 9 to 5 war five days a week. On the weekend everybody VC included would go to Saigon to enjoy life with pretty Dancehall girls.
– To follow up on the brief issue of fun military operations in the RSSZ, generally speaking the results were to kill or capture couple of VC’s every month, to recover some weapons and to occasionally suffer one or more KIA’s or wounded. Among my duties in the L- 19 was to drop leaflets encouraging local VC to surrender to the regular forces. It would include a menu of rewards should they bring in a handful of bullets or a pistol or rifle or submachinegun or grenades that were all given a value. So while on the operations as previously mentioned we would also get, through this leaflet program called “Chieu Hoi” meaning “come home” 1 or 2 VC would wander in to receive their reward for surrendering.
Photo # 3 A fortified hamlet in RSSZ..No sand bags? No sand!
It was a wonder to me to watch Bill Leben, our operations chief, plan ambushes, platoon level sweeps and company size operations using an acetate covered map, a grease pencil and three phrases that provided all the communications necessary between the advisers and the Vietnamese; they were “number one (translation: very good), number 10 (translation: very bad) and same same (meaning like before) ”. Bill, started out as an enlisted infantrymen in Korea. I’m not sure but I think he got out and went to college under the GI Bill. I don’t know but he was commissioned and when I met him, he was a U.S. Army Infantry Captain sporting a combat infantryman’s badge.
– Bill had connected with a group called ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency), who were using Viet Nam to test new equipment. Bill was one of the first to carry the AR-15 the predecessor of the M-16.
– One of the fun pieces of equipment that showed up was an Air Boat like those used in the Florida and Louisiana swamps.
Photo#4 Airboat underway
The thought was that RSSZ has pretty much swamp and mangrove like that found in Louisiana or Florida and therefore the boat might be a useful means of transportation. However, the downside was that it was very, very noisy as we soon learned. You were never be aware that you were being shot at. The airboat on inspection after returning from an operation was discovered to have numerous holes. Never at a loss for a technical solution the ARPA scientists provided us with a “bullet detector” this was a little device that was tuned to the high frequency sound of a bullet passing by and would switch from green to red when it detected these sounds. However, the downside still remained that you now knew you were being shot at but you had no idea where you were being shot at from. One final downside of the airboat experiment was that the Vietnamese never quite understood that when the propeller was turning it appeared to disappear. Their curiosity got the better of them and on more than one occasion one of the Vietnamese soldiers stuck his finger into the caged area and it was quickly removed with a lot of hooting and hollering. The final effort to find some use for the airboat was as an R&R vehicle. We were able to draw water skis from the Saigon welfare and recreation facility. This effort did not work well either since the airboat has no keel or propeller under the water to keep it stable so every time you would swing out on the water skis it would turn the boat and slow down everything… oh well good idea.
– By the way as an aside, I observed that the US Military were very hungry for awards and decorations. This was particularly true of the Army and Marines who needed that sort of thing as an enhancement for promotion. Being Navy it was rare that we received awards for doing what we considered our job. This changed later on when everyone received some kind of a decoration for being “in Nam” no matter what role they played.
– This reminds me of another anecdote, an enlisted US Navy Photographers Mate Second Class by the name of Penner was usually sent down to our area to cover any operations to ensure that the U.S. Navy got the appropriate recognition for being in combat. Penner, went out on quite a few operations. When the fire fight started, typically I was looking some place safe, while Penner was exposing himself trying to record the events. At one point we all agreed that Penner should get some kind of an award for service above and beyond. We sent it up to Saigon where it was immediately shunted it aside as not really important. We made a number of efforts and finally got Penner, awarded the Navy Commendation Medal and I think with a “V” for awarded in combat.
This may be a good place to comment about the fact that RSSZ was the closest designated combat zone from Saigon so typically Saturday mornings were reserved for Saigon staff officers to jump on helicopters and come down to receive a briefing and check off their exposure in a combat zone to get tax free and combat pay.
– The advantage for us was that while the Colonels were being treated to a prolonged briefing and I think a lunch, the lesser of us mortals commandeered their helicopters so that we could take a quick trip down to the various villages and hamlets in the RSSZ.
Photo # 5 Showing captured VC weapons to a Saturday morning gaggle of Saigon staff guys.
– The quid pro quo here was that the helo pilots were paid off with freshly caught shrimp and we got a chance to visit some of the places that are hard to reach during the regular day since all the transportation we had was by boat.
– Later on, we found a better use for this helicopter transport; while doing some “civic action” i.e. winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. In Vietnam there are many children born with cleft palate (sometimes called hare lip). In the Vietnamese culture it is significant if a child is born with any defect since it is interpreted as an intervention of an evil spirit and condemns the child to a life without upward mobility, the possibility of marriage etc. etc. We had learned of a Filipino doctor in Bien Hoa, a Provincial town a 20 minute helicopter ride away from Nha Be. This Filipino doctor was doing surgery on these kids, for 10 bucks each. That was the cost of the materials in his clinic and meals for the child and guardian. We arranged on a regular basis to have a designated child from one of the villages or hamlets have this life-changing operation done. We would raise money by selling some captured VC weapons to Saigon staff folks. During that time the Chinese made SKS Rifle with folding bayonet was the preferred souvenir. I don’t remember exactly what the financial transaction actually was but it was enough where we had a regular turnaround of the kids on commandeered U.S. Army helos to get their life changed.
– The senior military commander for RSSZ was a Vietnamese Marine Major by the name of Thu Ta Thai. He sheepishly approached Major Bronars, when he found out about the Filipino doctor and asked if it was possible to include his son who was maybe three or four. The boy was born with six toes on each foot which was an embarrassment as any of these birth defects were. To make a long story short his was son on the next flight up and had the extra toe removed.
– One of my many regrets after leaving Viet Nam was that I never kept any photos of those children.
Culture, Culture, and more Culture:
– There is no way to succinctly describe the Vietnamese culture or the innumerable differences compared to the “American” culture. But it’s important to remind you that my exposure to the culture is exactly 50+ years old and life has moved on both here and in Vietnam. What the American military faced when arriving in Vietnam was an unknown culture that was easily criticized as unsanitary, dirty, ignorant, or backward.
– We westerners were generally put off by the Vietnamese, who when angry or nervous would shout in a high-pitched girlish voice we found inappropriate. The Vietnamese language is tonal, meaning that although the words as written may look the same with some squiggly lines above, below or aside the word itself. This changes the meanings significantly. Vietnamese language was Anglicized by French missionaries. Until that point the Vietnamese language was only a spoken language and all the written language was in Chinese limited only to the very well educated. In general, the vocabulary is fairly easy to acquire since most of the words are a root word and a modifier for example all living things start with the word CON and then the modifier e.g. for pig Con HEO,
– for Cow Con Bo, etc.
I would on many occasions produce giggles by introducing myself as an American Navy officer that when mispronounced would be understood as two American pants.
Photo # 6 A local Starbucks at one of the RSSZ Hamlets.
Women and girls:
– The moment I arrived in Saigon I was struck by the women and girls. The native dress of pantaloons with a long dress split on both sides that would rise up in the breeze or on the back of a motorbike. This dress worn by all Vietnamese females is called an Au Dai.
I do wonder sometimes if in fact this dress is still worn in modern day Saigon. Vietnamese in general are small of stature typical women are about 4 feet 10 to 5 feet tall and weigh no more than 95 pounds. Very slender with fine bone facial features and shiny long raven black hair.
– The singular image that remains embedded in my mind is of a young Vietnamese girl in a tiny hamlet stepping out from her palm frond hut dressed in an all-white Au Dai. To see this girl striding along with perfect posture and enormous grace along a mud dike that acted as a sidewalk to get between houses and the hamlet center during the monsoon and when the rice patties are flooded.
– It made no difference if the Vietnamese girl or woman was well educated, from a good family, a well-to-do family, a hard-working bar girl, hustling Saigon Tea from willing GIs or a “professional lady of negotiable virtue”, they were without exception graceful, feminine, charming and all the adjectives that were normally ascribed to women who took your breath away. They were uniformly smiling and coquettish.
My dear friend Thieu Uy Tu.
– As the only bachelor in the advisory group, my life in VN, was different from my colleagues. It turns out that there was one bachelor amongst the Vietnamese officers that I immediately bonded with, his name was Tu. He was clearly someone of mixed race whose round face and a darker complexion than most Vietnamese spoke of a Cambodian ancestor. We somehow managed to always be on operations together where I learned a lot from his many years of experience in the military. One of the more alarming habits that he had was during a fire fight to stand up exposed, with nothing more than a stick in his hand pointing, yelling and directing his soldiers. All the while I was doing my best to stay out of danger and to not look too frightened.
Photo # 7 My friend Tu 2nd Lt Vietnamese Regional Forces
– As I had mentioned before, the early days in VN when it was a 9 to 5 five days a week war when everybody seem to have a reason to go to Saigon on the weekends. So Tu and I established a regime were we would meet in Saigon and I would be responsible for providing pretty girls, all meals for that day or two and housing. The following week Tu would be obliged to do the same. We also establish a technique whereby we would criticize the arrangements that the other had made for that weekend; the girls were not so pretty, the food was not so good and the housing was not so hot.
– There is a custom amongst Vietnamese men when they are in the company of a very good friend to hold hands as they walk down the street. As you can imagine this is not something that I was customed to. However after several fire fights and weekends in Saigon I said ‘to hell with it’ and would hold hands as we walked. It was a decision that I shall never regret since a few months later Tu was killed in combat.
– Bien Yi Xinh.
Photo # 8 As the Senior Adviser, Maj Bronars rated a “Bat Man/Aide” Xinh pictured here was the driver/body guard/all around handy man with the exalted rank of “soldier”. His exploits would require me add atleast one more page of recollections
One of the personalities that I still fondly recall was Xinh. He held the rank of “Soldier.”
Xinh, was assigned as the Batman/body guard/driver for Major Bronars.
Physically, Xinh was unremarkable, of small stature and thin, he was about 40 years
of age and had a wizened appearance. The singular event that imprints him in my mind was his care of the Majors Jeep. He was told by someone that the Jeep was too dirty and needed to be kept clean and shiny as befit the Major. Alas, Xinh was unfamiliar with the techniques of car detailing. Doing what he could with the resources he had at hand, he proceeded to wipe down the jeep with a motor oil. The brief shiny appearance
was quickly turned into a muddy dust color.
Fun and games;
– Many will recall that during the time the US military was in VN, we were regularly entertained by USO troupes, many had some well-known entertainers.
– Early on there was a visit by the cast of the Broadway Musical “Hello Dolly”, including the leading lady, Carol Channing. There was a reception being held at the home of General Westmoreland and I happened to stumble into the headquarters of the US Navy MAAG, just at a moment when they had a requirement for ‘combat proven’ Navy officers to attend the Reception. The last thing on my mind was to make nice with visitors. However, I was ordered to go to my BOQ change into tropical white long and attend this event.
– Somethings that you never can predict happened. I quickly shifted into my uniform and hailed a local taxi (description of which I will get to later). Hopped in and gave the driver directions written in Vietnamese on a slip of paper. As I settled back, my left hand felt odd and I looked down to notice that the previous occupant had been a vendor with several ducks being transported to the market. However, these ducks decided to relieve themselves while in transit. What I noticed or felt was slimy duck poop which was not only on my hand but on my trousers as well requiring me to do a U-turn, return to the BOQ and change again into an appropriate uniform.
– I did arrive at the Generals residence in a timely fashion. I met Carol Channing and other members of the cast, all the while imagining how long it would take me to get out of there and to my favorite dance hall.
– That occasion included a meeting with Lieutenant Meyerkord, another advisor with the 23rd River Assault Group. I was struck almost immediately by a look about him that I never forgot. Some months later he was killed in action for which he received a Navy Cross and had a U.S. Navy ship was named in his honor/memory.
Reasons to dislike the Viet Cong;
– I quickly learned that the Mekong Floating Restaurant, located at the edge of the Saigon river was the ultimate dining spot for the Vietnamese ladies. When it was my turn to host the weekend with Tu, I would choose that spot, since I could afford it but more importantly the ladies considered it to be very ‘romantic.’
– The problem was that about once a month, the VC would plant a bomb in or near the restaurant putting it out of business for a while, thereby ruining my chances for a successful conclusion to a date.
How to spoil a good time:
– The introduction of US Marines in Danang and U.S. Army everywhere during 1965
was an escalation that left the U.S. Navy behind the “action”curve incountry. But not for long!
Out of whole cloth the Navy decided that what was needed was a coastal patrol regime to intercept contraband coming from the north to support the VC in the south. I guess they had not heard about the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
– Thus was Operation Market Time created. In brief the regime was to increase the size and locations of the Junk Forces and the Navy advisers to the junk forces as well the assignment of US Navy mine sweepers and small destroyer escorts which were of a size and shape that could operate in coastal waters as well as P2 Maritime Patrol Air Craft
– I was reassigned to Phu Quoc Island, in the Gulf of Thailand on the west coast of Vietnam. This garden spot was known for producing the best of the best Nuoc Mam a condiment of sorts that is used by every Vietnamese for every meal. The other economic activity was the raising of pepper corn. I quickly learned that this product was
the standard commodity smuggled to Cambodia in exchange for cigarettes.
– The island was also host to a US Special Forces A Team at the district headquarters who amongst other duties, maintained the steel mat airstrip that was the only means of transportation to and from the island via a US Navy DC3 or a US Army Caribou.
– Located at the southern tip of the island south of the island was a Vietnamese Navy refueling station at the village of An Toi, that had recently been built by RMK the US contractor of choice for these matters. By the way, this is a model that was later used with great success in Iraq where the US contractor Halliburton, would provide virtually total and very profitable support to the US military.
– Once again, my memory fails me since I cannot remember even the most usual routine things for example how meals were prepared, who prepared the meals and how many advisers were there on the island. I do remember there was a lieutenant commander who was the OinC. I can remember three or four other officers plus some enlisted .
We were fortunate in that the contractors had left behind a number of pre-fabricated plywood buildings that we turned into a dining hall, radio shack and bunk rooms. By the way there must have been electric generator but for some reason we didn’t have any refrigerators. Once a week from the coastal town of Rach Gia, a 6 hour junk ride away, a junk transporting ice would arrive and we would have the occasion for a cold beer. Later on, we were to promote from Saigon a kerosene powered refrigerator which was a modern marvel and provided us with cold beer 24/7.
Photo # 9 Group photo some of the Junk Force advisory team on Phu Quoc
– Operations typically involves one of the command junks which is the larger of the two junks with a regular crew of four or five Vietnamese Junk Force sailors, one US Naval Officer advisor, one Navy enlisted radio operator who took care of the PRC 47 single side band radar to communicate with the base and any US Navy ships or aircraft that happen to be in the region so we could identify ourselves and coordinate our operations. The accommodations on the command junk which is 40 feet in length powered by a single GMC 671 diesel engine.
Photoi # 10 Command Junks hauled up for bottom scrapping.
– Water for cooking and drinking was supplied by a 55 gallon drum strapped to the aft 30 mm machine gun stand. Sleeping was typically stretched out on the deck and sometimes in inclement weather all of us jammed inside the small cabin.
– Cooking was the province of one of the Vietnamese and evolved into what I later referred to as the “three hand grenade” menu. In addition to the rice we always carried on board for every meal the supplementary proteins were accomplished by throwing a hand grenade into the water for breakfast lunch and supper and this would cause a small explosion which would stun whatever fish nearby. These fish were scooped up scaled, gutted, deboned (more or less) and thrown into the pot.
Photo # 11 The chef de cuisine on the “Command Junk”
– OK so now I will relate one more interesting event that occurred to me during my time in Nam. I was raised as Roman Catholic which meant every Friday was fish day. Of my family of five, I was the only one who truly, really, absolutely disliked fish in anyway shape or form. So as it I turns out God with his infinite repertoire of things to amuse us humans made sure that I made up for the first 25 years of my life avoiding fish by now being obliged to eat fish virtually every day when we were on patrol.
– As you can imagine the 55 gallon drum of water was to last us for our seven day patrol.
A typical patrol left the southern tip of the island cruising clockwise, along the west coast of the island then across the top of the island facing Cambodia and down the east coast back to the base, with only one stop at the District Headquarters of Duong Dong,
where we did a little shopping and liaison with the Special Forces A Team.
– This is my only reference to the Special Forces since it was only a few times when we would visit them while on sea patrol. I was impressed by their professionalism and the seriousness with which they took their mission. I don’t recall ever seeing any Vietnamese military inside the wire and in fact the Security as far as I could tell was pretty much all in the hands of the A-Team itself. I’d seen them shower, dress into full uniform then hitting the rack after a night out on patrol.
– I personally made use of their team medic who on one occasion diagnosed a case of dengue fever. They were very generous with their advice and assistance since it was obvious that I was absolutely clueless. One specific event worth mentioning was a discussion about whether we had any heavy weapons at the Junk base. When I reported that the best we had was a 60 mm mortar, one of the weapons sergeants suggested that they had an extra 35 mm Recoilless Rifle and a case of ammunition. My display of ignorance left them howling when I chose a box of 35 mm HEAT ammunition assuming that meant an incendiary ammo rather than high explosive antitank. there were no tanks enemy or friendly on the island. If you don’t know about the recoilless rifle you would need to understand that it is pretty tricky weapon to manage since there is a backblast associated with the firing of this weapon. Only through sheer dumb luck was I able to shoot the weapon without harming anyone on the junk although we did manage to badly scar the cabin with the backblast.
– On one occasion while stopping in Duong Dong, a U.S. Navy P2 aircraft flew overhead wagged its wings which was an indication that they wanted to get radio contact. We came up on the right frequency and was immediately shouted at by some senior sounding person who told us to “get our fucking junk underway.” I was a little taken aback since in fact it was not my Junk as we were just advisors, so my response was “say again all before fucking over.” Curiously we heard no more.
– Junks in the monsoon.
Photo # 12 Entering Duong Dong Harbor during the Monsoon. Note the sailor on the bow giving directions to the helmsman
– There are pluses and minuses when patrolling in the monsoon; The monsoons in Vietnam are very accommodating in that you can see the black cloud racing toward you and see the marble sized rain drops pelting down on the sea. If you were quick, you could strip down in time to use the occasion for a quick shower. The downside was that the monsoon would bring rollers into the western side of the island and as we got underway one time into these rollers the junk hit bottom. After about 20 minutes we noticed the junk was wallowing which we did not to pay too much attention to since it so we were in the trough of the sea but, the diesel engine started sputtering and coughing. This was of concern. We open the engine hatch to discover that the engine compartment was filling up with water. This was one of the many occasions when my Vietnamese vocabulary fail to encompass important issues like “is the bilge pump turned on.” As a result, we bailed out the engine compartment with our helmets and hammered rags into the split seam. A quick inspection of the engine noted that it was so contaminated with seawater that the engine oil had turned into a sort of whip cream. I must tell you that my hats off to the GMC 671 it continued all the way around the island for another 2 ½ days to get us back to An Toi safe and sound.
Visit of the Provence Chief..
– During my first few weeks in Saigon, I made friends with a Vietnamese officer whose name escapes me. He invited me to join him at a wedding celebration. There were lots of interesting things going on at this wedding and I was constantly asking questions about the décor and the people present etc. I asked about the particular kinds of food that was served. This is where I first learned of the Vietnamese custom of serving a roasted black dog (Con Cho Muoc} during important celebrations to bring good luck. I carried this information all the way to Phu Quoc and one occasion I noted the absence of the stray dog that the Advisors had adopted. It didn’t take too long for me to walk over to the Junk Force Cook shack to find our pet (who is name I’ve also forgotten) trust up in the corner awaiting his fate. The dogs rescue became one of my contributions to the safety and security of Vietnam.
One more job for my overworked Guardian Angel..
– One afternoon while sitting in the radio shack of our headquarters on Phu Quoc, I was startled by a crashing sound through the tile roof accompanied by a loud clattering. I quickly noticed a 60 mm mortar that apparently fired short and landed at my feet. Why in Gods name it didn’t go off I can only guess that it was; 1. fired from an unswabbed barrel with no increments and didn’t have enough impulse to set the fuse before it exited the barrel or 2. it was just an old round that was defective. It seems that the Junkies had decided to register their mortar for some future H&I missions. Their reaction when I delivered the round back to them was the usual embarrassed giggling that is the Vietnamese default to when they screw up. Whatever the reason, once again my guardian angel was hard at work and saved me from being blown to smithereens.
Capt. K.B. Brown..
– For whatever reason, my addled mind came up with the idea that I probably should extend for six months in Vietnam in order to finally put to good use the lessons that I had learned since coming to Vietnam. I quickly penned, (well actually penciled) a note on yellow lined notepad to the Chief of Staff of the Navy section of MAC-V Capt. Brown. The response was far quicker than I had ever imagine since we were at the very far end of communications from Saigon. I was directed to leave for Phu Quoc and report to Capt. Brown ASAP.
– Arriving in Saigon I went directly to the Captains office and was confronted by a very agitated US Navy Captain. Captain Brown, stood with veins popping out of his forehead, glaring at me and waving my yellow lined paper note and put forth a torrent of Navy lingo the substance of which was: “what the fuck do you think you’re doing, this is a bullshit war in a bullshit place, sailors belong on ships, ships belong at sea. You have your orders to Destroyer School, that you will exercise on time and on schedule. Get back to Phu Quoc, pack your crap and report back up here ASAP so I can keep an eye on you before you do any more stupid stuff. Now get out.”
– Now, I am not the brightest bulb in the box but I did get his inference most directly and clearly and executed it post haste. As a result, I was in Destroyer School for the next class and that ended my service in the Republic of Vietnam.
I gained an additional lifetime of experience in my one year as an advisor in Vietnam.