The ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) was finally extricated from Laos and we were alerted to prepare for blocking positions if the NVA (North Vietnamize Army) moved on I Corps. Several units set up in the Ashau Valley and to the north to block any attacks. The NVA were hurt as much as the ARVN, I guess. My guys were not deployed. My recollection of the timeline gets fuzzy here, but then I was concerned that I had not heard from Mary Ellen on our baby’s birth and was getting anxious – her due date was when I was up north and that had passed. I was so bad with worry that the Chaplain arranged a call to her via Saigon from Camp Eagle – a real telephone call! I talked with her and she told me all was well – the baby was just late.
Sometime around this part of the tour we got what was a short in country R&R (rest and recuperation) at the division’s center called Eagle Beach east of Hue on the South China Sea. It was just a bunch of hootches on the beach, with a recreation center with a show and bar. We had to turn in all our weapons and were guarded by division security troops. Infantry guys got this in country R&R and not engineers, but we were there to repair and rebuild some of the facilities and got to rest after work. The show at night was a Filipino band with two very young go-go girl dancers (they looked 12-15). They did all the current songs – but you have not lived until you heard “Ploud Lary – lollin on the liver” sung very loudly!
As I recall after we returned, we were given a civic action mission in Thua Thein province east of Hue. (Area was just south of the French Indo-China war era stretch known as “The Street Without Joy.”) We were to repair a road and some bridges through the flat rice paddy country and sand dunes to help the local bus company connect a bunch of small villages. The area was very safe, and we worked out of a local ARVN base, manned by the Ruff Puffs (local regional troops something like local militia). Down the road we ran into an Australian Special Forces Detachment whose mission was advising the local forces. They were great guys and the only “Allies” I ran into during my tour.
The Ruff Puffs did some night work and caught two supposed VC. They had been killed in a fire fight and were staked out on a mound as a warning, or as a trophy, I guess. The bodies were discolored and bloating. As we worked near another village, we uncovered some more bodies hastily buried by the other side. When one of my guys ran an entrenching tool into the ground, he cut right into one. The smell was bad, and the flesh had the look of corned beef. That was exactly what we got flown to us for a meal later that day. It was years before I could eat corned beef again!
Our work went well except for two instances. One involved the replacement of a pier for a bridge over a canal. The water was mostly stagnant. We waded in to work on the pier and when we got out, we had several leaches attached. We quickly removed them with cigarettes. I remembered the scene from “The African Queen” when Bogart has to go back in the water. We did too – and it was not easy.
The second involved a culvert we put in the road between two paddies. It was fine and the local farmer dammed it to control flow. About 100 meters along, we found on successive mornings a trench dug across the road. We filled it in and each morning it returned. We finally got an interpreter to talk with the locals. It seems another farmer was jealous of our “giving” a culvert to his neighbor and wanted one, too. Although it was not called for in the plans, we added one for him in the spot he kept digging up. He seemed pleased.
This was the closest we came to the locals who just wanted to live and ignore us and get the crops in. They had small ponds near their homes and some raised fish in them. The dikes were used as paths and latrines. I sure did not want to eat any of the fish. The Vietnamese would squat with their feet flat and actually rest in that position – we would fall over. The older folks had terrible teeth and they would smear betel nut over them to kill pain and give you quite a look when they smiled.
Our work required some fill (additional soil) and we established a borrow pit near QL1 (main north-south route in I Corps) using some guys from our headquarters equipment platoon. One ran a front loader and filled the 2 ½ ton dumps we borrowed from the HQ Company with fill we used to repair the road. This was as close as our troops got to the locals, and the local ladies were plying their wares. The loader operator was participating in an active exchange when LTC Rodolph’s LOH appeared overhead. LTC Rodolph landed and pulled the man off in “mid debauch.” Needless to say, we did not think that was very sporting when reported to us.
The 101st field troop access to the local ladies was very restricted. First, we operated in the hills where there were no locals, and second, to a small extent, some were afraid of the “Black Syph.” The myth going around our unit was that the enemy had developed a very virulent and fatal form of syphilis. If you got it, you were transported to isolation on an island off the coast and your family was notified that you were missing in action – never to go home. It was very far-fetched, but we had some of Lyndon Johnson’s Project 100,000 soldiers (aka “MacNamara’s Folly” that enlisted men with less than required mental or physical capabilities) still and they would believe anything.
One evening as it was getting dark, one of the trucks ran off the road into a rice paddy. To get it out we had to set up a dozer and cables. We did a job on a small portion of the paddy. I reported the damage to division and, as was the policy, the division assigned a JAG officer to pay an equitable claim to the owner of the field. I had to accompany him to meet with the farmer. The Vietnamese farmer had essentially claimed the entire field’s crop of rice. We had maybe destroyed 5% of the paddy. The payment was in the local currency, piasters, which had an official value way above its actual black-market rate. We used US Army currency we called script among US troops and stores (PX).
We went to the farmhouse – a thatched hut with a dirt floor. The owner showed up as a former ARVN soldier with one arm. Not sure if he was actually the owner or the “stand in” to gain more sympathy. He showed us his discharge and medals. We offered the appropriate amount; the farmer was very distraught. After consultations, the division officer offered him about 25% of the field’s yield. He took it and we shook hands and left.
We also got to play with some new mine-clearing gear brought in country by Waterways Experiment Station folks from their Corps of Engineers lab. It was a lesson in a good technical idea that would not work. Two civilian scientists were field testing a new nonmetallic mine detector and my platoon was to support them. We had detectors that could find metal mines and detonators, but plastic explosives in wood containers would go mostly undetected. Our existing nonmetallic mine detector equipment was essentially a stick to look for booby traps. These guys had a new piece that sent out a signal and measured the changing dialectic constant of a material – a change in density and therefore, theoretically detect non-metallic mines. You had to keep the head of the sweeper perfectly parallel to the surface – a hand turn would give a signal.
We set up a stretch of road and buried some target nonmetallic mines. The sweep started and we got readings every few inches – rocks, shrapnel, or wood. We took an hour to clear a few feet. The scientists still could not find the target mines we had placed and complained the test was unfair. The road was not homogeneous enough. I told them that was the condition of most roads in our areas. We left them still trying to find the targets.
Back in base camp, I was really getting nervous about our baby and Mary Ellen – and a bit hard to live with. On 8 March I was called in by CPT Fisher who read me a Red Cross telegram that Mary Ellen had given birth to a boy on 4 March and all was well – later I learned that Sean’s delivery was difficult, and Mary Ellen had to have a C-Section. With the news I was ecstatic! Wrote Mary Ellen a letter that minute – talked about little league, PTA, and how much I loved her.
The Red Cross telegram had been held up by a Western Union strike on the west coast supposedly. Steve, my younger brother, had delivered per our arrangement the yellow roses on time so Mary Ellen had no idea I had not been told.
Mary Ellen had sent me a package with cigars for this moment and I opened it. The climate had taken its toll and only some were useable. Still, I got some more from the PX and gave them out. All I wanted now was to get home and see Mary Ellen and Sean.
When the aftermath of our air losses in Lam San 719, and of the ARVN in troops, had run its course in most of the area, I was chosen to head up a Vietnamization (efforts to turn over war to Vietnamize forces) fire base construction in our Brigade’s area of operations. Best job I had in country.