Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mine Sweeping

My typical day at Camp Carroll started out by going with the Marine infantry and engineers to sweep a section of Route 9 for mines that would be planted during the night. There were several teams that each had a section of road to check. Once that was done the convoys could roll.

These photos show some enemy mortar attacks. We also had to contend w/ command detonated anti-personnel mines along here. Mortar and sniper attacks would be mounted from the hills just N of the river that runs to the N of route 9. There was one hot area where the problem was the worst. Both pix of shooting Dusters were taken on different days but the action is in about the same approximate place. Our guide wanted to know where this was, but because of all the houses and tall trees, I was unable to pinpoint the spot. These exchanges of gunfire took place in what is now somebody's front yard.

It was an unnerving experience. When I first came under fire I was glad to be in a steel vehicle, but as crazy as it sounds I thought maybe "I'll just stick my finger up out of this cocoon I'm in to see if I can get a Purple Heart." So, while mortars were exploding around us, I gingerly poked a couple of fingers up out of the track. It took about a nanosecond to think, "Jesus! What if a piece of shrapnel comes flying along here and hits me and pulls my whole hand up and out and I lose my arm?!" My hand came back down in a hurry. I'm laughing right now as I write this. What a stupid thing to think. I guess that's why they send kids to war. We were dumb enough to do all kinds of crazy stuff.

What I experienced along here went a long way towards my disenchantment of the war. Marines who were stationed closer to the DMZ and various pilots who had a better view than we did told us of seeing trucks in the DMZ loaded w/ ammo, or troops swimming openly in the river, but the Americans were under orders to observe the neutrality of the DMZ and not call air-strikes or artillery in on them. NO! we had to wait until they brought all that stuff down a little closer and mortared us and mined us before we could take any action. One can only imagine how pissed we were about that! Another time we were getting mortared and my radio quit working. I could hear , but couldn't transmit. The Marine RTO kept trying to raise me on the radio so he could tell me where to return fire. I was screaming at the top of my lungs, " TRANSMIT TO ME! I CAN HEAR YOU, BUT I CAN'T TRANSMIT TO YOU!" I finally had to get down ( out of my somewhat protective hatch- with frikkin' mortars exploding for chrissake!) and run over to him and explain the situation. Not a fun day. We always had something breaking down. There were other dicey situations where I couldn't communicate or some other damned thing wouldn't work. Our equipment was just too old and that is what we were sent into combat with. The Marines had it even worse than we did. They even came to us begging for rifle patches to clean their weapons. They complained of only getting 2 C-rations per day while they were burning calories like mad out in the bush. I distinctly remember a squad of Marines being so thankful to get C-ration Ham and Lima Beans. They were so bad that we called them "Ham and Motherfuckers" and refused to eat the stuff. They had to be terribly hungry!

This FUBAR crap happened all the time. In the Iran-Contra hearings, Col Oliver North defending his actions, explained that he was motivated to "... not abandon men on the battlefield." I never met Oliver North, but he and I were both officers along the DMZ at the same time and same place. I know EXACTLY what forged his mindset in this matter. In later years I got further enraged while watching the PBS presentation on the War I heard that the high mucky-mucks in the Whitehouse and Cabinet were discussing that they knew we couldn't win this war. All this was going on while young Americans were fighting, dying, and being maimed along the DMZ during my tour. Much has been written on the tragedy of all this, but this is my own personal take on it. All this disenchantment changed how I operated. My mission was to not win a war that it appeared to me was just a terrible sick joke. My mission became "Don't risk my troops unnecessarily. Don't go looking for Missions we can get involved with as the whole thing is going terribly wrong." I wouldn't hesitate for a minute to go to the rescue of Americans in trouble, but any pro-active gung-ho, macho BS was off my plate. I told my brother to go to Canada. The President, the Congress, the whole American leadership apparatus placed no value on us at all. It became my job to protect as many American lives as I could.

Road to Khe Sahn

Old and New Pix Along the DMZ

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Monday, April 13, 2009

These 3 pix were taken on the road towards Rockpile (west) from Camp Carroll. If you were there you remember a bridge that had a sharp ridge coming down to it from the S side of the road. The abutments for an old bridge are still there - the ridge has been cut way back as you can see in the 2009 photo. The road doesn't have to make such a sharp turn now. Big trucks from Laos have an easier time getting thru there now.The river hasn't changed much at all in 40 years. The arrows in the above photos point out the riffle that is in the same spot now as then.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

More C Battery pix Copy and Paste the URL

These next 4 pix were taken probably 1968, on or near route 9. Where you see nothing but grass in '68-69, I saw houses, farmettes, and tall trees

These pix from 1968 -9(?) show just grass alongside route 9. Today there are so many houses, farmettes, and planted tall trees that I really couldn't orient myself too well. Google Earth at this time has very poor detail of this area and is useless to help out. If You go there (or any other place you were in the olden days) try to find satellite photos (if there are any - try cruising the GPS mapping sites on the web). I wish I had taken a GPS w/ me to get some waypoints that I could research at home.

My traveling partner, Mike, was disappointed w/his tour of his old base in the Delta. The guide was able to take us to some things that Mike recognized, but there was so much modern buildup that orientation was difficult. When Mike got home he was able to see an airfield on Google Earth that we had been taken to, but he also was able to scope out on Google Earth what he thinks are "his" old hangers that still exist to this day. Unfortunately we didn't get taken there. Had he taken GPS coord's off Google Earth we could have directed our driver right to the spot.

Supporting Marines w/ Dusters '68-'69

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Road to Khe Sahn

Looking at my pix from 1968

I'm not exactly sure when I made my first trip into Khe Sahn. It was sometime in April '68, and I believe it was the second convoy that went into Khe Sahn after the siege had lifted. I had just gotten to C Btry 1/44th Arty and was still in my orientation phase. Being a newbie young 2Lt I had never seen anything like it.It was eerie to look at bomb crater upon bomb crater, torn up jungle,and so on. I couldn't imagine how the North Vietnamese could sustain such a horrific bombing and still keep at it.( I later learned, that at Khe Sahn, the NVA had lost 10,000 men to our approx 275) I remember talking about this and calculating that this war had been going on w/ us and the French for a generation, and the North could keep it up indefinitely just by having more and more children that could grow up and be fed into the hopper. It was almost more than you could wrap your head around.
It was a 99% Marine show in that area, and we Army "Doggies" (Army personnel) provided convoy security for the "Jarheads" (Marines) convoy. I can't remember exactly, but we must have been bringing replacements of people and/or ammo to the Dusters that were perimeter security for for the base. The battery CO, CPT Vince Tedesco, and 1LT Jim Sheffler were the other 2 officers that I remember along for this deal. I was so glad they knew what they were doing because I had been trained as an Artillery forward observer and here I was, orienting to be a platoon leader in a Duster battery. A duster was something that up until a week -ten days before, I never knew existed. It was explained to me that we operated something like tanks only we weren't completely armored as the gun turret was an open area. These things were designed to be anti-aircraft artillery- shooting at planes up in the air rather than close combat. Anti Aircraft ARTILLERY was the key word that got a Field Artillery officer involved with these things. They were used in the Korean War and were so obsolete that we had a hard time getting parts for them. I remember that at one time at least half of my "tracks" , as we called them, were unable to be driven and were used only for perimeter security.
Anyway, back to the convoy story. I was pretty much scared shitless. I knew full well what had been going down around there, and memories of the ferociousness of the Tet Offensive were fresh in my mind. The road was narrow and hemmed in by steep hills that were covered in jungle that could harbor a jillion bad guys just waiting to blow my brains out. At one point a vehicle broke down and stalled the convoy. "Oh My God! we're stopped! We are going to be ambushed for sure now!" Lt Sheffler was up front several hundred yards very confidently giving orders on the radio about how to handle the situation."Thank God I'm still orienting and nobody expects me to know anything. How do they stay so calm? (hyperventilate-hyperventilate) When Sheffler goes home soon I'm going to be in charge. I'm the one who will be on the radio calmly giving out commands like you see heros in the movies doing it. Oh Jesus, help me." Many times I had that same surreal feeling that "This is just like being in a movie, but it is REAL."
There had been plenty of shelling the nite before and somebody's dismembered body part had been found on top of one of our tracks. More surreal stuff to digest. It was interesting to me to see how I adapted to all this. After a while you got, of course, concerned when rockets or mortars were falling around you, but you psychologically dealt with it and went about your business. After a while I got a private chuckle out of listening to the Newbies prattle a million miles an hour as they came down off their adrenaline high after their first time of being under fire. That was me just a month or two ago. It is amazing, and in some cases horrifying, what people can accommodate to.

To read about what happened to Dusters at Khe Sanh just before I got there you may want to check out this account written By Bruce Geiger

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Calu was a Marine infantry post a few miles south of Rockpile on the way to Khe Sahn

Swimming Hole at Calu

The DMZ forty years later

After Hue it was time to go to Dong Ha and try to set up a personalized tour of the DMZ area. We rode on the DMZ tour bus to Dong Ha (site of the major American base in that area) but didn’t take the tour, just got off at the bus station. From the internet I knew I was to find a place called DMZ Café where I could arrange a tour w/ a former South Vietnamese soldier as a guide. At the bus station I asked for directions to the DMZ Café and was told, “There are 3 DMZ Cafes, Which one do you want?” Sheesh! I didn’t know, so I was rifling through my paperwork when this guy saunters in and says, “You looking for DMZ Café? I work there. You want a tour?” (The Vietnamese cell phone grapevine works like magic)
We agreed on a price of $90 for a van, driver, and guide for the day. I had w/ me old photos of my visit here 40 years ago. The guide and his cronies were fascinated w/ the pictures, passing them around and commenting on this and that, confirming among themselves where some of these places were. So we set off. The driver and me in the front and Mike in the back w/ the guide and another guy who apparently was just along for the ride .( More about him later)
Of course there was nothing to see in Dong Ha of the old American military base. In fact there was nothing to see in Dong Ha of ANYTHING that was there in 1968 because Dong Ha was leveled to the ground when the North Vietnamese invaded the South in earnest.
A little history is in order at this point. The DMZ was the dividing line between N and S Vietnam. The Geneva Accord agreed to in 1954 partitioned the country into the Communist north led by Ho Chi Minh and the non-Communist south led by Diem. Uncle Ho never gave up on having a unified Vietnam so he tried to overtake the south w/ North Vietnamese regular troops and Viet Cong guerrilla fighters in the south. The West was afraid that since Uncle Ho was a Commie allied w/ the Chinese, that it would be a horror story to have the South fall under Communist authority and then have the rest of Southeast Asia fall like dominoes and then threaten the whole of the South Pacific with countries being taken over the same way the USSR took over Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia etc. This is the theory that led to yours truly being posted just south of the DMZ in 1968. It was my job to hold back the commie hoards that were threatening Mom, Apple Pie and the American Flag. I was one of the elements that was to keep the “domino theory” from becoming the “domino fact.”
At the tender age of 20, as a Second Lieutenant, I embarked on one of my great adventures. I wasn’t real gung ho about the war (I knew at the time that it was quite controversial but since I was going no matter what, I purposely didn’t examine the whole thing too closely. I really didn’t want to know.) I could have sat out the war training basic trainees at Ft Lewis, WA, but at that age I was full of piss and vinegar (at age 18 I hitch-hiked from Cairo to Capetown among other things) and I remember thinking, “War is a classic human endeavor. You can get killed doing it, but now is my chance to test myself in a way I never have before and never will again. Can I cut it? How will I handle myself in combat? How brave am I?”
I volunteered for the Green Berets, Airborne, Ranger school, jungle warfare school etc. I was on the phone to the pentagon and the various schools and kept getting the green light from them, but could not get my battalion commanding officer to sign the paperwork to release me. His reasoning was that he did not have enough drill sergeants and was indeed using us officers as “drill lieutenants.” I thought he was kind of a jerk but in retrospect I think that an experienced, combat veteran, who knew what it was all about, was trying to save the life of a young fool.
Being closed out from everything I was trying to do, I jumped on the only thing that my battalion commander couldn’t quash. I’ll never forget it. I was in an office with Second Lieutenant Jack O’Brien when I called a Major Love (the name sticks with me) at the Pentagon and told him I had had enough of training basic trainees and that I wanted to volunteer to go to Vietnam. He asked, “When do you want to go?”
I replied, “Yesterday would be nice.”
Lt O’Brien was silently giving me excited hand signals and making faces in the background. For days after that when Jack wanted to be a smart alec, he would out of the blue bellow, "Oh, yesterday would be nice!" He was an Infantry officer who already had his orders for Vietnam. We left for Vietnam in the same week. Two weeks later he had a Silver Star and was dead. Two and a half years later I married his sister, Kathy.
Like everybody else in my unit I found that I was brave enough. Yes, I could cut it. When the fur is flying you do what you have to do. About 6 months into the thing I wrote to my brother whose birthday was number one in the draft pick lottery and advised him to bail out to Canada, as I saw no shame in not supporting something as ridiculous as what I was involved in there on the DMZ. The details of the foolishness of our involvement are well documented elsewhere so I won’t go into it here. As I got older I just had to shake my head and think that no matter how brave I was in combat, I would have been really brave and grown up if I had just told our leadership to “Go Screw Yourself.” I was young at the time so I forgive myself for not doing so.
I find today that too many grown adults find it easier (like I did as a kid) to “Go along to get along” rather than to responsibly question the “leadership” that they are associated with. Just because somebody is a president, CEO, senator, shop foreman, charge nurse, cop, or whatever doesn’t make ‘em right all the time. We have a responsibility to “call bullshit a four letter word” when we need to. When you reach a level of experience and maturity to truly in your gut discern right from wrong it is not ethical to stand on the sidelines wringing your hands or pretending things are just hunky-dory.
Two of my favorite quotes are from Martin Luther King:

"Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' Vanity asks the question, 'Is it popular?' But, conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one's conscience tells one that it is right."

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

Friday, April 3, 2009

How much does a 28 day trip like this cost?

Mike and I each took care of our own expenses, sharing the cost of a room.
My expenses break down roughly like this:
$1300 Pre-trip for guide books, maps, visa to enter the country, airport shuttle, plane tickets, and travel (repatriation) insurance. (I didn't figure in cost of backpack, travel gear, clothing, toiletries etc.)
$1000 for gifts, souvenirs, and shipping
$1700 in-country for food, my share of the lodging, trains, taxis, buses, planes, bike rental, tours, guides,and admission tickets

From the photos you may gather that we didn't travel like kings, but we didn't go like I did in my backpacking -sleep-under-a-bridge-days either. We would splurge on $3 ice cream, the rare $18 meal (until we got smart) We also got ripped off on occasion. I'd say I lost $75- $100 on "bad decisions." You could certainly do the whole thing more cheaply, and even tho I really am a cheap bastard, I don't regret not roughing it much more than we did. It was really a great trip.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

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Hoi An

After the disastrous nite on the nite bus from Nha Trang we got to Hoi An. Not a real big place. Everything is within walking distance. It is an old trading city, with the modern claim to fame being a hotspot for tourists to buy custom made clothes, silk lanterns, silk "stuff", embroidery and so on. They also have cooking schools that we only got to see a little bit of, unfortunately.
The big draw for Mike and me was the early a.m. fish market and its photographic attractions. I had a ball down there for 3 mornings.
We bought all sorts of stuff. I have birthday presents, Xmas presents and wedding presents to get me thru the whole year of 2009. The recipients of those gifts will be reading this so I'll keep quiet about what I picked up.
I was told that the post office would supply boxes and tape and even box all your stuff up for you. That sounded fishy, but a trip to the PO confirmed that indeed this is the case.
As we were heading out the hotel to the PO w/ all this stuff the girl at the desk said,"Well, why don't you wait here. The post office will come here and box it all up for you." I rather unbelievingly said "OK" and within 5 min of her phone call two girls showed up with boxes and a scale. We filled out paperwork and paid $178.00. We finally figured out that it wasn't the post office who came to the hotel, but a packing service and we probably paid $50-$60 more than we would have at the PO. Oh well, live and learn and we didn't have to wait in line.
One thing I can tell you I bought was a silk embroidery "painting" It was pricey ($240.00) but just beautiful. I only paid a few dollars for silk lanterns that sell on the internet for $20 so I justified my extravagant purchase, thank you very much.