In early April or so, I took on new mission. We were to enter a “new” AO (area of operations), reopen a road and build a first-class permanent firebase for the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam). It was the consummate Vietnamization mission. The base was to be far enough west to be in the mountains but accessible by ground. The site selected was an old US FB Rifle between FB Anzio (occupied by ARVN) and FB Brick (2nd Brigade 101st) and the new site was south of Phu Bai off of QL1 – the main north-south route in I Corps.
My Commanding Officer at the time, a UMSA 1968 grad, wanted me to take over as his executive officer. But LTC Rodolph, my battalion commander, wanted me to take on this job – quite a compliment. LTC Rodolph prevailed.
The S-3 (operations officer) would design the bunkers and base and my guys would build it. I would have under my command two platoons of my company, C Company, plus the Headquarters equipment – literally, all but one platoon of the company. The planning phase was kind of fun.
First, I had to recon the area and what was left of the old road by helicopter. To do this, I was to ride as observer in a LOH (small bubble-like chopper). My pilot was an 18-year-old warrant officer that loved to put the LOH through her paces. First thing he did was show me how to use the stick and pedals to try and set it down in case he was hit. I did not do very well. We took off and surveyed the area.
Neither U.S. nor ARVN troops had been on these ridges or valleys for several years. As we flew the road, my pilot made like a roller coaster ostensibly to make us less of a target – but he just liked scaring the hell out of me. We would dive down at high speed and come within a few inches of the ground at high speed and then pull up. My stomach felt like the worst roller coaster ride ever. The road was narrow and overgrown and would require some clearing, new culverts, and fill. On one pass we saw what seemed like a very large lizard crossing the road as well as some real tiny deer (local “mule deer” species).
After the aerial recon, we did the next phase. We landed in on top of the saddle ridge we were to use for the base. We assaulted in and the S3 NCOs started doing a topographic survey. There were two hills with a lower ridge in between. The road would approach the near hill at a very steep incline. When we landed and secured the hill, we recognized that neither was large enough for a battery base and that the two and saddle were too large. We stayed for the remainder of the day and were lifted out at dusk.
The final plan was to actually cut off the top of the far western hill with dozers to create a large enough battery-sized base. Since we could not level the hill and occupy it at the same time, we would set up our temporary base on the near hill, using culverts for temporary bunkers and some wire, claymores, and trip flares for security. We would build the permanent bunkers, extensive wire and fighting positions on the west hill and move when complete. The road work would begin simultaneously and be based out of our position.
We made all preparations and assaulted into the saddle in early morning, supported by most of an infantry company. We received no incoming fire, but our gunners blazed away, anyway. After landing we began to clear the hill and land and assemble dozers and gear. Another platoon from C Company was to work from the existing ARVN FB along QL1 and re-open the old road. We did our best to create a secure position on the eastern part of the saddle. We landed and swept for booby traps and mines.
My guys began to use the equipment (backhoe and M450 dozer) to dig in positions. The dozer and another squad moved to link up with the platoon moving from QL1. The infantry guys loved this as the usual SOP was for them to use their entrenching tools and good, deep positions with no labor were a luxury. As I mentioned the hill had not been occupied for several years and we encountered several snakes. There were many types of snakes in Vietnam (vipers, bamboo vipers, cobras, etc,), but the troops referred to them as “two-step” or “four-step” snakes. The myth was that if bitten you could go two steps or four steps before the venom took effect. One of my guys killed a very long one and as his comrades played with it, we discovered it was a King Cobra with quite a fan. As the sun set one guy said he knew something about snakes and had we ever read “Rikki Tikki Tavi” a story about a mongoose and cobras in colonial India. “Well,” he said, “cobras always travel in pairs.” No one got much sleep that night.
Several days into the job we had another encounter with local animal life. About 0100, one of my guys on guard came up and awakened me. He said, “LT, there is somebody just down the hill and they are breathing very loudly.” I grabbed my weapon and gear and crawled to his position and listened. I heard a very long, hard “grrrrrrrrrr” that was almost a deep purring. I told him that it was not someone, but something. Just then, a trip flare went off to our right in front of the M60 machine gun position. A large tiger jumped in the light and down the hill. The machine gunner was frozen and did not get off a round – neither did the rest of us. In the morning we found tracks of a tiger and a cub all around the hill. We did not see her again.
The work progressed well, and we had the culverts in along the road except for one large stream crossing just before the populated areas and large elephant grass. We would leave that as a low water crossing. We had to sweep the road each morning for booby traps and mines and used to position our new XM 203s (a rifle and grenade launcher combination) on the front and to the flanks. We had some “shotgun” rounds for the M79 part of the XM203s and had them loaded as we moved along. The jungle and high grass were close. On one sweep, the grass rustled loudly, and my guy fired the shotgun round. We moved forward and discovered we had bagged a rather large boar. It was sling-loaded to the battalion rear and mess hall for a “luau” for the colonel.
Early in the job my relationship to my company commander had to be “clarified.” He showed up one day by jeep and started to give directions to me and others. He was not very helpful and really a REMF (Rear Echelon Mother F*&%) in my mind. Maybe, that was not fair – Engineer CPTs in their first tour had gone somewhere else after graduation and had already missed the platoon combat experience. They wanted that, but really, they were inexperienced to those of us lucky enough to be engineer LTs. Anyway, his command tour of C Company was coming to an end (six months was the norm) and he would soon be replaced by another.
LTC Rodolph landed subsequently and asked what I needed. I said that having the Company CO moving around giving sometimes conflicting orders was not helping. The Colonel talked with him for some time and came back and told me everything was understood – my CO was moving to the S-3 and would eventually monitor the job from Battalion. My company commander would not come to the hill again, and he was given other duties with what remained of his company until his change of command. Amazingly he gave me more than the benefit of the doubt and a great efficiency report. The efficiency report system was very inflated and you were rated on part of the report on traits from 1 to 4, all “1”s were the norm. He did ding me with a “2” for tact. That was an understatement!
The only Vietnamese supposed to be in the area were wood cutters and Division designated a “wood cutter’s box” frequently to allow the locals to get firewood, etc. Everyone else we found were deemed enemy and it was a free fire zone. The infantry guys would often send out patrols at night and set up ambushes. These often included what we called mechanical ambushes – claymores rigged to trip wires to eliminate anyone on the paths. One such ambush was very effective and the next morning they brought in several bodies. One was an NVA medical doctor and he had a pith helmet as the NVA regulars wore. Inside was a photo of his wife and daughter. It was a bit disturbing to me.
Anyway, after Mai Lai and the trial of LT Calley, the Army was hypersensitive to civilian deaths in Vietnam. One morning a staff sergeant in the infantry battalion working our area was leading a patrol and let his guys sleep an extra hour. They did not take in the mechanical ambush on time and some wood cutters were messed up. The Division picked up the SSG and took him away and charged him with manslaughter we were told.