I reported into Phu Bai and was given my platoon command. It was a bit under strength in personnel with only a few NCOs. My “experienced” platoon sergeant was short timer in country and had established his place as in the rear coordinating supply. My “field” platoon sergeant was a Staff Sergeant Sikes. He was a good guy with a wife in Florida, but he only had two years in the Army. We worked well together, but he was soon to move to battalion HDQs in the S-3 (Operations). My squads were in support of infantry battalions and fire bases (FBs). Besides the one staff sergeant I had several “shake and bake” sergeant E5’s (Smart guys in basic and AIT were given a three month course, declared sergeants and called “shake and bake” because of their lack of experience.) At the age of twenty three I was the “old man.”
We were based in huts near the second brigade HQ, and had a cot and a footlocker to store stuff when we were in base. As I mentioned I had squads out supporting infantry battalions operating west and south in the mountains to shield the populated areas from the NVA. Most were on a fire base (FB) like FB Brick where an artillery battery in support of the infantry battalion was deployed. My guys were called on for hasty construction, mine clearing, booby trap removal (although the infantry did a lot of that themselves), and LZ (landing zone) construction. I would visit them and go on some of their missions. The monsoon had started so most of the lowlands were flooded and the operational pace slowed considerably.
The previous year the 101st engineers had been involved in Operation Life Saver which consisted of creating landing zones (LZ) in each 1 km grid square in the division’s patrol area. The idea was that a unit would be no more than a 1 km from an evacuation or reinforcing spot if they made contact with the enemy. We had only a very few left to do. This consisted of rappelling in to the hill top (usually) with demolitions and chain saws. Half the team went to one side and cut smaller trees with the saws, the other half prepared the large trees with explosives. When ready we all went to the sawed side and blew the charges on the other side. We then reversed the process and you had a “cleared LZ.” There were nice formulas in our manuals to determine the size of a charge, but we usually used “P” for plenty. The tallest trees were hundreds of feet high and most were dead. Agent Orange spraying had killed them off. That could lead to a lot of deadfall problems at odd times.
We also could be called in to destroy enemy bunkers and tunnels if the infantry did not want to take the job on. We had a “tunnel kit” issued to the platoon – which consisted of a small caliber revolver which was easier and quieter to fire in a closed space and a flashlight. I remember one time we were not too keen on going down a hole, so we did a cursory look and dropped down some grenades. The secondary explosion of whatever was down there literally lifted the ground up and sank it. That scared all of us to death.
Our Division fire bases supported the infantry battalions when the infantry was in contact with their 105mm or 155mm howitzers. When contact with the enemy was not occurring the artillery would fire H&I (harassment and interdiction) missions. The idea was to saturate a road or suspected enemy area with fire at night mostly to keep the NVA on its toes and limit their resupply and consolidation. This made for not so quiet nights on a firebase.
Sleep was interesting as we learned to get it when we could. On a Fire Base you usually had a bunker with shelving or canvass cots to rest on. In the rear we had real bunks after our move to the Navy site. When working the bush, you slept where you lay. In any case we all got to be very light sleepers. That was something that carried over for years for me when I returned. Mary Ellen found a very startled reaction when waking me sometimes.
I should mention a bit about communications in a platoon. Our primary means was through ANPRC 77-like radios. They were FM radios (line of sight transmission) in a box-like container mounted on a frame for humping in the bush. Batteries were a very essential re-supply item. We had ANPRC 47s FM radios in the jeep as I recall that ran off the jeep battery. Your RTO (radio telephone operator) was usually a strong guy who could take the extra weight of the radio and smart enough to use it. The range of transmission really depended upon the antenna. Small whip antennas had short range. On a fire base we would deploy 292s (large, tall antennas) and get quite a range. In any case the radio was our access to supply and support to include fire support. The radio was a security blanket in many ways.
A Radio Telephone Operator (RTO) was essential, but per Ranger School instruction he never walked too near. He was a jump and lunge away. The gooks would target the guy near him as “important”. The SOI (signal operating instructions) gave the daily change in frequencies and call signs (like “eagle”, etc). We were not all that sophisticated and used a call sign like “eagle 26” for second platoon leader, “eagle 6” for company commander, “eagle 25” for platoon sergeant.
Pilots were easy to identify in a transmission as the helicopter vibration would come across in their voices. It was a bit funny actually to hear.
The frequency range on the radios did not include civilian frequencies (although stateside on the edge you could get TV audio at times). At night on firebases sometimes a troop would get access to a radio and tune it to the unused edge frequencies and go up on what they called the “BS” (bovine excrement) net. They had their trucker-like handles and would talk to other firebases on an unauthorized and informal net – lot of trash talk and sometimes bogus info. Anyway, it seemed to amuse some – but not division intelligence guys.
About a month or so in to my platoon command there was a fire on Fire Base Arsenal, a large FB southwest of Camp Eagle. Arsenal had 105 and 155 artillery batteries as I recall and an infantry battalion HQ. The fire destroyed the mess bunker. I was flown out the next day and told to rebuild the bunker but this time in a massive way with as many “amenities” as we could consider. This was great because I got to consolidate most of my whole platoon for the job – about 20 guys.
The S3 (Battalion Operations Officer) had an assistant, CPT Christman (who later was Superintendent at West Point as a three-star General). He designed an elaborate bunker with 12” X 12” beams and posts, a concrete floor, and a separate cooking bunker lined with sheet metal (to alleviate the grease fire problem). It was to be massive and strong enough to land a helicopter on it for medevac (complete with a red cross), and to show movies inside at night. We got to build it.
Since there were no bunkers available for most of my guys on the hill we were put up in a dilapidated storage bunker/shed. The main problem was rats at night – big suckers. One of my guys pulled a .45 pistol one night and was going to kill one that ran across his face – problem was the round ricocheting around. We stopped him, got all to one side and killed the rat.
One of the more difficult problems in Vietnam was malaria. In I Corps our guys were subject to two types – regular and falciparum. You took a weekly orange horse pill for the regular and a small white one daily for falciparum. The orange pill gave most troops diarrhea and getting them to swallow was a task and an inspection was held to make sure they took them. The white pills seemed innocuous but years later there seemed to be high incidents of Hodgkin’s disease and other cancers in my classmates serving in I Corps. Agent Orange spraying also may have been a culprit. In fact one of my USMA cadet company (B-3) classmates, Jerry Hackett, died of cancer in 1993.