Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Nineteen year old Clarence had arrived in Saigon just a few days ago. He kept getting orders to fly further north and when he got there he got orders to catch a hop even further north. Pretty soon he was almost out of “north” to go to. At his final destination he got off a truck and found he was assigned to my platoon at Camp Carrol, about seven miles south of the DMZ.
I’ll never forget our meeting. He was a slightly built, small kid, with soft hands and a wimpy handshake. He spoke slightly haltingly, as if trying to catch his breath while his eyes furtively darted around in wonder and apprehension. He was as nervous as a cat in the dog pound. He was scared shitless.  He had a narrow, smooth, face that had maybe five whiskers, a high forehead that was prematurely balding, and wore black rimmed glasses. It immediately struck me that this guy was the human incarnation of Tweety Bird. When I found that he was studying to be a librarian that just sealed the deal for me. It all just came together. Tweety was born in my mind. I never called him that out loud, of course, but he was very definitely Tweety to me.

A couple of months later I was making the rounds, inspecting our gun positions and I noticed Tweety had a swollen jaw.
“What’s that knot and swelling on your face, Clarence?”
He managed to mumble, “I’d ravver no’ say , Sir” It was difficult for him to speak.
“What happened to you? Is that from a scorpion bite or what ?”
Again he painfully mumbled, “I’d ravver no’ say,Sir.”
“OK. Clarence, get over to sick bay and have your face looked at.”

I asked the First Sergeant to find out what had happened.
Later he got back to me.
“Clarence fell asleep on guard duty last night. His squad leader caught him and woke him up by smacking him across the face with a combat boot!”
“OK. Thank you First Sergeant. I guess that is taken care of.”

So on this particular day we were providing security for the minesweeping team. KABOOM! KABOOM! Mortars were landing around us. I couldn’t spot any smoke in the jungled hillsides, but the Marines told me where they thought the mortars were.  I was standing in the hatch right next to Tweety who was in the gunners seat getting ready to engage in his first combat. I was yelling in his ear where to aim the 40 mm cannons and he complied flawlessly just like we had practiced it. No more scared shitless.  Just fierce determination and efficiency. He was a rootin’ tootin’  gun slingin' sum'bitch getting on with  his business. 

After the dust had settled I took him aside and told him what a great job he had done that day. You could see him swell up w pride.

When it came time for me to leave and go “back to the world” he made sure to find me and shook my had with a firm grip, looked me straight in the eye and wished me a safe trip home. That knot on Tweety’s face never did fully resolve, and it added to his new “look.” Tweety’s metamorphosis was one of the more amazing things I’ve seen in this world. I couldn’t help but wonder if his family would even recognize the new Clarence.

on the way to Dong Ha

Something Funny Happened on the Way to Dong Ha (1968)

As happened every morning the mine sweep teams had cleared the road from Camp Carrol to Dong Ha. There was no need for armed escorts for the rest of the day. 

Bull dozers had cleared all the jungle from both sides of the road up to about 75 -100 yards. This left a lot of roots and branches on the ground that the local women picked up every day so they could use it for firewood, I was proceeding down the road in one of two M42 Dusters. We were the only vehicles in sight.

On this day tho, there are no women, but I saw a group of about 12-20 military aged men scattered out in a ragged formation walking along the road and in the cleared areas.  Dressed in typical shirts, shorts, and sandals, they are calmly walking along, not picking up firewood despite having large collapsible reed baskets that could be used for firewood. The baskets look sort of like a large folded taco shell carried loosely under an arm or held by the handle. I made eye contact with a couple of them as they calmly walked on. 

“Hmmm” I thought. “Military aged men, scattered out w plenty of space between them, in a place I’ve never seen men before, no women or kids in sight, baskets that are plenty big enough to conceal AK 47’s or grenades. WTF is this? A squad of VC? An innocent men’s club walk in the countryside?”  

We had no infantry with us and our cannons were designed to shoot at airplanes so would not depress down low enough to engage close in enemy infantry. Nobody said anything over the roar of our engines but we all recognized the unusual circumstances. I made sure my .45 was handy and noticed the machine gunner’s nod indicating he was “on it”.

While my mind was racing with defensive and offensive strategies, we, and they, kept our same speed and non-chalance and proceeded on our merry  ways.  I turned around to watch them, and a couple of them turned around to watch us. 

On that day I think I was probably looking the enemy straight in the eye. Fortunately we all survived to tell the tale.

Night tiger

Two or three months into my Viet Nam tour the intelligence people were predicting another all out offensive similar to the Tet offensive.  I got ordered to take two dusters ( down  the road leading to Khe Sahn and help some Marines guard a bridge. I was apprehensive to say the least. 

Dusters were designed to be antiaircraft weapons. The  gunners were in a steel turret standing up to load the guns. At first blush they look somewhat like a tank but if you look closely you’ll see no completely protective armor. We were good for shooting at targets up in the hills, but the guns wouldn’t depress much lower than level to the ground so you’d shoot over the head of  troops sneaking up on you. They were used in the Korean war and were pretty much obsolete by 1968. Parts were hard to find and at one time fully 50% of our vehicles would not run so they were parked in bunkers used as perimeter security. Being asked to go to war with shit equipment is one of the reasons I came to oppose the war. But I digress. On to the bridge story.

I joined up with the marine squad leader who was in charge of the infantry group at the bridge. We exchanged radio call signs, verified call signs for artillery support, discussed possible scenarios etc. while having our chat I noticed he was unscrewing the detonator on a hand grenade! Jesus, what kind of jarhead nonsense is this? He then put a match to the explosives inside the grenade and used the fire to warm his C-rations. You learn something new everyday.

We settled in for the night not knowing if we’d see the dawn or not. The marines were used to this scenario, but us army “doggies”, as they called us, were not.  We spent our nights at Camp Carrol, snug in our mosquito screened beds. (See photo)Darkness descended like a cloud of black ink. Looking for attackers was like looking for a black cat in a coal mine one hundred feet underground at midnite. I didn’t dare turn on a flashlight because that would be the best thing for a sniper to aim at. I fleetingly considered the possibility of having the artillery support shoot up a flare so we could see. Those things do an amazing job of lighting up a battlefield, but then I reasoned if I cant see, neither can the enemy. Your ears get very sensitive in a situation like this, but I heard nothing, then I saw a North Vietnamese soldier! No, wait he’s gone. WTF, I can’t see my hand in front of my face, how can I see soldiers 40 yards away? There’s another one! Hmm. No, wait. Am I imagining things? Yes, you scaredy cat dumbass, you are imagining things. Whew! My pucker factor was in the red zone all night. We finally made it to sunup and there had been no attack. Big sigh,

Then a shout rang out. Lieutenant! Come over here and look at this! Right next to a sandbagged barrier, manned all night by some infantry, were huge tiger tracks! The tracks went all the way across the bridge past the sandbagged barrier on the other side. Nobody saw or heard a thing. Whoa dude! Spooky.

I guess we were lucky. By dint of being the ranking army officer at Camp Carrol, I got invited to dine with the Marine officers that were hosting a visiting Marine general. At that dinner they recounted a story from the night before. The Marines had set up an ambush that netted no enemy. At daylight they were leaving but one guy was missing.  They went looking for him and found his eviscerated body surrounded by tiger tracks.  Nobody heard a thing. A couple of weeks later a tiger was shot and loaded in a utility trailer behind a jeep. I saw the photos, and that monster completely filled the trailer w paws hanging over the side rails. War is hell, but you don’t think it will be like this.

Guy in creek

The PBS special has gotten me to thinking a lot about Vietnam.  I wrote a blog, but there are a lot of interesting stories that are not in there, so as things pop into my head I’ll write ‘em up and hopefully you won’t be too bored. 
War stories tend to be full of daring-do and explosions, and heroism and all that, but truthfully I did not have the  full on John Wayne experience.  I was shot at, and shot back, but it was over rather quickly. I called a fire mission or two on suspected enemy locations or weapons stashes, but never called in “danger close” air support or artillery.  I only saw one guy that I shot at and he was200 yards away running down a creek bed after he had probably been planting mines in hiway 9.
We were finished with our minesweeping  chores and were heading for the barn when a marine spotted this guy in the creek. He tried to tell me where the guy was hiding but I couldn’t see. 
“OK, I’m gonna shoot a bullet into the water right next to him.”
The marines were all loaded in their trucks with rifles pointing in the general direction of the mine layer. They couldn’t see him either.  I had two Dusters with twin 40 mm cannons trained in the general direction our spotter was pointing.
BANG! The bullet threw up a splash and the VC took off running down the creek bank. The marines unloaded with their rifles, I unloaded with 40 mm cannons and as luck would have it a helicopter happened to be flying over so he joined in with his rockets. Quite an exciting and noisy show. for one poor man running for his life.
I have no idea if we hit him or not.
After several months of dodging mines, mortars, and booby traps, ducking sniper bullets, insisting enlisted men would not salute me so snipers wouldn’t know I was an officer, hiding in bunkers under rocket attacks, and constant worry about the next attack we FINALLY found an enemy to take action against. We could DO something!
It was exhilarating! As we pulled into our home area I was hooting, hollering and waving my arms like we had just won the state wrestling championship.
But the next part really sticks with me. One of the men in the motor pool was watching me carry on like a high school cheerleader because I had just tried to kill somebody and he looked appalled.  He was embarrassed for me. He was embarrassed for himself. He was a bit sickened by the whole thing. I came down off my high and gave the whole thing some sober thought. In those next few minutes my 21 year old self became incrementally more wise and mature. 
It was one of several “growth experiences” I experienced in my year in Vietnam.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Friday, August 6, 2010

My Review of Kelty Triptease Guyline

Originally submitted at REI

Highly reflective 3M Scotchlite™ yarn glows when hit with light--no more tripping over your tent guylines at night!

Better than duct tape.

By aladennis from Mt Vernon, WA on 8/6/2010


5out of 5

Gift: No

Describe Yourself: Avid Adventurer

What Is Your Gear Style: Minimalist

Weighs a whopping one oz per 50 feet. Cut it into 5 pc of ten feet. Melt the ends and coil individually. Carry these in your backpack on your 'round the world trip. Multiple uses: variable length clothesline, secure hotel door that has no lock, hoist bags off the floor, lash broken equipment, attach muddy/wet gear to outside of backpack. Etc. etc extremely handy stuff!


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Before going to Sapa we took a 2 nite, 3 day tour of Halong Bay. It was very hard to figure out what was going to be the best deal. There are literally 100's of boats to go on. Every booking agent shows you the same boats in their pix and all charge a different amount. The whole enterprise is very incestuous. We changed boats and had people getting on and off our boat for different legs of the tour. Depending on how much you pay, the quality of the on-shore lodging varies and the quality of the boat food varies. We talked to some people who paid $70 and weren't real thrilled. After LOTS of looking and talking we paid $90 each for the tour. At Vietnamese prices it seemed steep, but really for $30 a day we got transported to and from Hanoi, meals and lodging.Not a bad deal really. In the end we were glad to have spent the money. Food was really good and the beds were clean and dry. I was surprised that at sea level in the tropics we had to wear jackets to stay comfy in the wind and rain. Being from Puget Sound in Washington state USA it felt very familiar. It is really a beautiful sight. Don't miss it and don't go cheap unless you just have too. We were there the end of Feb, 2009