The work on the hill was basically manual labor. I had a M426 bulldozer for a while, but the demand for engineer stuff was great and the Battalion Commander LTC Rodolph had a rule that you only asked for equipment when you could use it constantly. I used it to clear the hole, dig other trenches, and trash pits. You never knew when LTC Rodolph would pop up from below the hill in his LOH (Light Observation Helicopter) and catch the equipment idle, or your troops in some other indiscretion.
So, to lift the huge beams into place, mix concrete in a makeshift pan, and dig drainage, we borrowed the labor of infantry guys on the hill who were there for a respite from patrolling or as it was called “humping the bush.” I felt like an Egyptian building the pyramids. The first time we asked them to place a huge 12”x12” beam up 8 feet using hastily constructed stairs and brute force, my NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) gave the “lay hold” and “heave” commands. They laughed. So he said, “OK, you do it your way.” They tried to coordinate the lift but failed. Finally their 1st SGT came over and told them to listen up to the engineer. They “lay hold” of the beam and with a unified lift “heaved” it into place.
We designed some modifications and learned about construction drainage as the rains started to come. We used old 155 round canisters as pipe and put in drainage (a real problem as the monsoon season in the division area was tough), we added a slope to the roof by adding 3X12s to the beams in descending number (helped runoff), grease traps near the kitchen bunker, and a covered stairway to the entrance.
At night most of the guys would spread out around the fire base, and you could soon see the orange glow in the fading light of the marijuana cigarettes. There was so much of it – enforcement was a losing battle. My NCOs and I chose to look the other way, as long as they did not do it right in front of us or allow it to impair a specific mission.
FB (Fire Base) Arsenal had a road to it. It was not in bad shape but with a few low water crossings. The road led toward Camp Eagle and was in a fairly safe area. Our sweeps of it never amounted to anything. The only problem was traffic at times as the road was fairly narrow in spots. Once I was riding in a jeep and we met some big trucks moving towards us. My driver swerved to avoid a collision and we slowly rolled off the shoulder. A tree stopped the roll and we scrambled out unhurt. We used a cable and pulled the jeep up and righted it. It worked fine, and all I could think of was how useless to be killed in a traffic
accident. We were lucky.
Breaks in the days of work were few, but some did occur. During the job the FB was visited once by some of the young ladies (actual real Americans) who were in country for the Red Cross. We called them “doughnut dollies.” They stayed mostly in Division base camps.
In base camp their quarters were near the division staff billets supposedly for protection from the sex starved troops. Not sure who protected them from the sex starved staff. Anyway, they came out on the log birds (Huey’s that brought our daily supplies) and played board games and talked with the troops.
We were working hard to finish before the full monsoon took over so I did not release my guys to play. The head girl came over and stood on top of the bunker’s beams — as we were down working the interior and had not covered the roof. She squatted down wearing a short skirt and showed that she, too, had chosen my solution to jungle crud prevention. My guys got quite a view. She pleaded, “Come on LT, let the guys have a little fun.” I looked at the men and said, “OK for a half an hour.” An NCO and I took a break on the side of the hill.
My real break was reading the almost daily letters from Mary Ellen. When the log bird arrived with the mail pouch the day got easier. Just the envelop with her handwriting was enough to lift my spirits. I tried hard not to think of what I was missing as she went through her fall semester and our baby grew inside her. Her letters were always upbeat. Mine were probably terribly redundant – just how much she meant to me and how I so longed to be with her. I read them in private, usually sitting on the side of the hill looking out at the mountains and valley below — and forgot the war.
I learned two more valuable things on Arsenal.
One was just how much my guys appreciated my working side by side with them and how loyal they were to me. I had been chewed out for not wearing my shirt with rank and helmet by LTC Rodolph, and working as a troop. I explained it was very hot and my guys knew who I was, and we were short-handed so I felt we could all pitch in. It was not what he wanted to hear. But we had a great product, were ahead of schedule, and (most importantly) the infantry battalion commander was very happy.
Anyway, we had just finished covering the huge roof of the bunker with tar paper (water proofing sheets that were in very short supply) and were about to start covering it with sandbags. The pathfinder came to me. (These were guys who dropped in ahead of a parachute drop to light the DZ (Drop Zone) in the Airborne, but in the 101st Airmobile mostly directed the supply helo drops.) He asked where I wanted a Chinook sling load of 8X8s. I did not want to have to carry them up from the helo pad so I asked that he drop them near the bunker.
As the hook came in the huge downdraft from the helicopter’s two rotors started to blow the tar paper everywhere. Just then overhead appeared LTC Rodolph in his LOH. He was furious. I met him at the pad with my helmet but no shirt. He demanded to know who was directing the load in so close and destroying the job. I said the pathfinder, but he was following my orders. He glared and told me to come with him. We marched to the bunker area where my entire platoon was scrambling to get the paper redone, and working feverously. He inspected every aspect of the job, every guy’s gear, and anything he could find. My guys were amazing and the Colonel found nothing else wrong. He stood me in front of him, chewed my ass some more about my missing shirt, told me to never make such a boneheaded decision again, and left.
The second lesson was about checking. The mortar guys had several misfired duds to dispose of. These were rounds that did not eject from the
mortar tubes when dropped in and had to gingerly be removed by tilting the tube after some time to allow for a delayed “cook off”. The rounds had not “armed” by being propelled into the air, but they still were full of explosives and shrapnel. The only safe thing to do was use demolitions like C4 (plastic explosives) to explode them at a safe distance and place. They asked that we blow them in place. I took a newly arrived “demo specialist” with me and we went down the hill to a pit. I told him to set the charge of C4 and come back with the wire. He did and I sat and watched a beautiful sunset. We hooked up the wire, gave the required “fire in the hole” three times, popped red smoke, and set off the charge. Suddenly hurling through the air were several mortar rounds with one embedding itself in the ground two feet from us. They did not go off. When I could, I asked how the hell he had set the charge. He told me he set the charge, PLACED THE DUD ROUNDS ON TOP, and came back. It was my fault, as I should have checked the demo, and I should have known better.
While we were about finished we were given a mission to recon the small river below Arsenal that flowed into the Perfume River to the north and east. I was given a small boat and started along the river. At one crossing we came upon a group of rangers (the company assigned to the 101st as a long range recon outfit) practicing one rope river crossings. Their platoon leader was Paul Sawtelle, a classmate. We greeted each other like we did at school – brother to brother. We talked awhile about his great assignment and said our goodbyes. A few months later he was killed setting up an ambush in the Ashau Valley.
An excerpt from an unpublished work called “Pop’s War”.
Ray Dupere says
Thanks for your story, Wayne. I appreciate reading about all the different RVN experiences we had. God bless. Ray Dupere, D-3 & H-3
Wayne Murphy says
God bless. Like the blind men and the elephant from John Saxe’s poem about the Indian legend – all had a different war in what they saw.