In Vietnam where I served, every compound of American GIs had their own dogs. These were mostly fed mess hall scraps that the troops sneaked out for their canine buddies. The dogs were very territorial, fiercely defending their home area and their troops against outside dogs and people. Our Army helicopter company was the only American unit based inside a South Korean division headquarters compound.
“Hootch” was GI slang for living accommodations. For American troops, their hootches could mean anything from mud-floor tent shelters which the infantry grunts called home, to actual air-conditioned dormitory barracks like the ones that housed the Air Force guys. Our company had separate hootch areas for the officers, who were the aviators, and the enlisted troops.
Originally linear concrete slabs for tents, over the years these hootch pads were transformed by the troops into pretty elaborate living quarters. At some point early in the war, these slabs had been framed in, making rows of adjoining rough ten-by-twenty foot square sheds, each intended as shelter for two to four troops. In the officers’ area, the three rows of hootches formed a “C.”
Building materials were salvaged from the long wooden boxes that gunship rockets were shipped in.
We hired a local papa-san for three hundred piasters a day to break down the rocket boxes. With his hammer, he would knock the boxes apart and pull the nails. After stacking the boards, he pounded all the nails approximately straight and sorted them into coffee cans. These nails and lumber were what the troops used to build or improve their own hootches, which grew in size and complexity over the years. As old-timers finished their tours, new guys moved in and continued work. One group of our warrant officers had knocked out a partition between two hootches and built a four-bunk apartment suite, complete with a brick fireplace and lava lamps in the lounge section.
When I deployed, I brought a twin-size waterbed mattress from stateside; it was brand-new, weighed about eight pounds, about 10” x 15” x 1-1/2” that fit in the bag I hand-carried, along with my Nomex flight suits and leather boots. Arriving in the unit, I had no problem finding the lumber to build a frame for my waterbed, flat on the concrete slab, but getting 120 gallons of water to fill the mattress was more challenging.
Eventually, the solution emerged in the form of the fire truck stationed on the flight line. This was a converted 2-1/2-ton cargo truck, called a “deuce-and-a-half,” with a 1,200-gallon water tank and a pump. I “bogarted” the truck one morning when all the aircraft were away on missions and drove it behind my hootch. By adapting a section of helicopter hydraulic tubing with duct tape, I was able to feed the water by gravity into the mattress, returning the fire truck to the flight line before anyone ever noticed that it was missing.
To my knowledge, that was the only waterbed in all of Vietnam.
Using my waterbed frame as a support, my new hootch mate, Captain Tim, built a bunk bed against the wall over the waterbed, complete with a ladder. He and I partitioned off the rear twelvefeet of our shed as a sleeping area, with a blackout curtain in the passageway made from a dark green poncho liner. We wired a pair of low-intensity lights using field telephone wire, and had a cozy little crash pad.
In front of the room partition, we built a day area where Tim installed a chin-up bar. I had scrounged a broken typewriter, which I was able to fix with safety wire. At the opposite end of our day area from Tim’s chin-up bar I built a fold-down shelf for my typewriter and letter-writing, with a 60-watt reading lamp overhead. I could type faster than writing, so letters home were easier to keep up with.
Just outside our hootch front door was the heavy timber bunker which served as the officers’ shelter from incoming ordnance. Using packets of seeds his wife mailed him, Tim raised a flower garden beside the bunker which he watered daily. Behind the bunker was a volleyball net, where off-duty aviators sometimes played according to “jungle rules.” These rules prescribed that each side had a net man, whose job it was to yank the net up, down or sideways as necessary to the advantage of his team.
Assorted Vietnamese came in daily to perform various housekeeping chores for us. In addition to our papa-san lumber man, we had hootch maids who did our laundry and a barber.
In the officers’ latrine at one corner of our area, the urinal was made from a section of galvanized 16” pipe split length-wise into a trough, with a constant trickle flow of water. I discovered one day that the hootch maids did our daily wash by stopping the drain of the urinal, creating a long wash basin for scrubbing out our clothes. Some things you just wish you didn’t know.
The officers’ hootch area was ruled by four dogs. The alpha male was a big fellow named Zoomer, who had a magnificent, plumed tail. His pack included a mother bitch called Pig, and two of her offspring. The dogs jealously guarded our hootch area. They were perfectly tolerant of the Vietnamese day workers they knew over the years, and American troops were constantly rotating through, so the dogs accepted us all. But the dogs absolutely did not like Korean soldiers and would snarl at any hapless Korean troop who had to enter our area. I suppose the dogs reacted to the strong kim-chee aroma that surrounded the Koreans.
Zoomer ruled his pack like a feudal lord, until one fateful day, when he fell asleep under a deuce-and-a-half. When the truck started up, his magnificent tail got run over, leaving nothing but a raw bloody string of bones. Over the seven weeks it took for his tail skin and hair to grow back in, old Zoomer hid out of sight in shame almost the entire time.
Beside the volleyball net was an outdoor grill, where our dogs’ favorite event took place: Steak night. Every month or so, our crafty supply officer managed to trade something or other for several cases of frozen steaks, which our aviators took great pride in barbecuing. Once the steaks began sizzling, the dogs clustered round like burrs on Velcro. As fat and bones got trimmed off, the dogs stood on their hind legs begging the scraps. After a while, the dogs got so sated from gorging on steak trimmings that they quit begging. Eventually, they quit coming for more, but they would still eat scraps if we placed them in front of them. Finally, they were so full they wouldn’t even touch a whole steak laid on their paws.
A “dog’s life” in our hootch area was a pretty good existence, after all. Sadly, I never knew what became of our beloved dogs after we left in January of 1973.
William J. Bahr says
Thanks, Guy, for the fascinating story. And a good steak was had by all!? One can only hope your canine friends lived happily ever after…or at least had very happy memories! 🙂
Pete Grimm says
A great supplement to your aviation-oriented series, Guy. It really gives us who did not experience Hooch life and idea of what it could be. Thanks.
Tom Piazze says
Great story, Guy. Brought back some good…but forgotten…memories of service in Vietnam.
Eric Robyn says
Thanks for another real-life story, Guy! Always entertaining and educational …
Bill Mork says
I was in an Air Force weather unit supporting the First Cav Div in Phuoc Vinh. In Spring 1970, Our dog patrolled the front of our hootch. Along came another dog and the fight was on. I tried to break up the dog fight by kicking them with my thongs…..bad idea. I broke a toe. I went to see the Army doctor the next morning. He said just wear your combat boots and it will heal fine. All healed by the time I went R&R to see my wife in Hawaii in July.
We traded steaks for lumber and built separate rooms for the officers and NCOs. I learned to separate incoming rockets/mortars from outgoing artillery and hit the ground middle of the night. Great place to lose weight as I dropped 30 lb in 3 months….no A/C and little appetite for the food. My wife saw me and said, ” Where’s Bill?”. Went 185 to 155, pre-marriage weight. Am now 85 in Florida and doing fine. Just passed 60 years of marriage. My Vietnam baseball cap has been worth a dozen free meals. Florida is very kind to Vietnam Vets. My Freedom Bird landed at McGuire AFB NJ, so I missed the greetings my friends got at SFO and OAK (spit on).
guy miller says
Good to hear from you. Be sure to read the rest of my stories, especially the FARRP episode on the First Cav. May your orientation be vertical for many years to come.