My first memory of Vietnam was the pilot announcing, “we are approaching the coastline of Vietnam.” I was still half asleep, suffering from two days of travel from North Carolina to McChord Air Force Base in Washington State before finally arriving at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon. My Pan Am flight looked like any other Pan Am flight that I had taken, a commercial aircraft with attractive young flight attendants, which was the norm at that time. The primary exception was that almost all the passengers on the plane were wearing a uniform. Most were in Army khakis, others in Navy and Air Force blue, and a few in civilian clothes, Department of the Army civilians and contractors. As I looked out the window and saw the coastline coming up and the rice paddies and mountains in the distance, I expected to see artillery and bomb explosions or tracers streaming into the air, but it was utterly peaceful. There was no sign that this was a country at war. Our plane landed at Tan Son Nhut, and we started deboarding down the portable stairs onto the tarmac. As I stepped out of the air-conditioned plane, I was struck by a tremendous wave of hot, humid air. It was my welcome to Vietnam and the climate I would be living in for the next year.
My journey to Vietnam had started in March 1969. My class of 800 West Point cadets had gathered in Thayer Hall to select our first assignments. The selection process was based on class rank, and although there were hundreds of classmates in front of me, assignments in Europe, stateside, or Vietnam were still open to me when my name was called. Many of my classmates planned to get married or were engaged and wanted to avoid service in Vietnam as their initial assignment. Others did not feel ready to serve in a combat zone and preferred to go to Europe or a stateside location to gain experience. I selected Vietnam. There were many reasons. I had received a free education paid for by my country and felt an obligation to serve. My father had served in World War II, as had many of my uncles. The war was not going well, and there was a shortage of good junior leaders, and I felt like I could make a positive contribution in a difficult situation. Lastly, I did not have a fiancé nor steady girlfriend at the time, so I had only myself to consider.
When I deployed to Vietnam in August 1970, the war that began in 1965 was not going well for the US side. The Vietcong had demonstrated during the Tet offensive of 1968 that they could still control the countryside. Many Americans no longer supported the war, and daily antiwar demonstrations were the norm in the states. By 1970, 40% of the junior enlisted soldiers serving in Vietnam were draftees, the vast majority of which were disproportionally serving in ground combat units. Most were good soldiers, but they were young and inexperienced. The average age of the 2.7 million veterans who served in Vietnam was 22 years old, versus 26 years old for those who served in WWII. Unlike in WWII, drugs and racial strife were common problems in most American units, especially among support troops.
I had requested an assignment in the 11th Armored Cavalry Squadron, a prestigious unit near Saigon. When I arrived in Vietnam, however, this unit had all the lieutenants it needed. Hence, the Army assigned me to A Troop, 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division, located in a large US base camp at Chu Chi. This unit was
operating about 60 miles northwest of Saigon in what was called the “Fishhook” as the border of Vietnam with Cambodia curved like a fishhook in that area. The entire area of operations consisted of flat terrain made up of miles and miles of rice paddies and jungle with small Vietnamese villages scattered throughout.
The chief terrain feature in the area my unit had to protect was an inactive volcanic mountain several thousand feet high, called Nui Ba Den, or “Black Virgin Mountain”.
The Army had a radio relay station on the summit, which came under regular attack from the VC. Consequently, the mountains’ sides had been bombed and hit by artillery so often that almost no trees were left standing. The most significant benefit of the mountain was to help those of us on the flat terrain surrounding it to navigate. By taking a compass reading from our location to the mountain, and another reading from an airburst of US artillery, we could use triangulation to determine our position on the flat rice paddies and
high grass. This primitive method of determining location was not without error and sometimes resulted in artillery fire missing the enemy, or even worse, falling on friendly positions. On the road from Saigon to Cu Chi Base Camp, we passed through the city of Tay Ninh, which is the home of a small Buddhist religion called Caodaism. As we passed by the beautiful Cao Dai temple, dozens of young monks in their orange robes moved around outside and in the neighborhood. The Cao Dai faithful believe that there are 36 levels of Heaven and 72 planets having intelligent life. The first planet is closest to Heaven, while number 72 is closest to Hell. Earth, sadly, is close to Hell at number 68. Maybe it was because the land they inhabited had been at war for more than 25 years.
When I arrived, I found that my unit had just come in from field operations on weeklong maintenance and rest stand-down. It was an ideal time to arrive in that I had a chance to meet my platoon and fellow officers in an environment other than combat operations. My troop commander was serving his second tour in Vietnam and was shortly due to return to the states. He was a senior captain and an experienced leader and went by the radio callsign “Alpha six.” I was assigned as the first platoon leader and went by the radio call sign “Alpha-One-Six.” Steve, the second platoon leader, “Alpha-Two-Six,” was an ROTC, 1st lieutenant who had been drafted to serve in Vietnam and was not happy about being there. Frank, the third platoon leader, “Alpha-Three-Six,” had arrived in Vietnam about a month before I did. Although we were fellow armor officers, we had not previously known each other. He was friendly and welcomed me to the unit.
I had been a tank platoon leader at Fort Riley, with five M60 tanks and crews. In Vietnam, I would lead a reconnaissance platoon equipped with six M113 armored personnel carriers (APCs), each of which carried a crew of four or five soldiers and was armed with a 50-caliber machinegun. These APCs had tracks instead of wheels and could navigate through rice paddies and light jungle. The platoon also had three Sheridan Armored Reconnaissance Vehicles (ARVs) or light tanks. Each was armed with a 152mm
cannon capable of firing a Beehive round against ground infantry or conventional tank rounds against bunkers. Each Sheridan had a four-person crew and was equipped with a 50-caliber and 7.62mm coaxial machine gun.
My platoon was authorized fifty-one men, but there were always positions unfilled, soldiers processing in or out of the country, sick, or recovering from wounds. Consequently, fewer than forty soldiers were available on most days. Almost every noncommissioned officer qualified to serve in a tank or cavalry unit had already had a Vietnam tour by 1970, so there was a significant shortage of qualified NCOs in all platoons. My platoon sergeant, a staff sergeant, was assigned in the position usually held by a sergeant first class. He was not experienced and was not enthusiastic about the job placed upon him because of his seniority. He commanded the three Sheridan tanks as they could not navigate rice paddies and had to remain mainly on the roads. Consequently, my platoon often acted as two units rather than one. The APCs under my control conducted reconnaissance while the Sheridan light tanks under my platoon sergeant’s control escorted supply convoys or provided road security.
With my platoon sergeant frequently absent, I depended upon a less experienced staff sergeant who normally was only responsible for a five-man APC crew. He did a respectable job under the conditions but was little help to me in my first combat leadership role. As the platoon leader, I did not command a track vehicle but instead focused on the entire platoon. Specialist Carson was my M113 carrier commander, responsible for its maintenance and care and supervising the crew. He was a tall, lean soldier who was always professional and knowledgeable and greatly benefited me.
Sgt. Hancock was the leader of my infantry squad and looked the part. Physically fit, striking in appearance, and a natural leader, he was my most reliable noncommissioned officer. Any time we were in a situation where there was danger, he was always the one I wanted with me on the ground. “Doc” was our platoon medic. One of only four minority soldiers in the platoon, he was well trained, highly motivated, and much respected by the other soldiers. Doc enjoyed his job and the prestige that went with it. PFC Campbell, one of my favorites, was a short, baby-faced infantry soldier who loved to tangle with danger and embraced every opportunity to disarm a mine in the road or plant an explosive charge. Another colorful character in my platoon was Private Johnson, an American Indian, who wore a headband and looked like an Apache warrior.
My father served in the same Marine unit for three years in the Pacific during WW II, where he developed life-long friendships. My experience in Vietnam would be different. My fellow soldiers and I would be respectful and cordial with each other, but there was little to bind us in our short time together except getting about the business of war. With one exception, I would never see any of these officers or soldiers again after our unit was deactivated four months later.