Bien Hoa, RVN

We left Ft. Campbell and headed for the Republic of Vietnam or South Vietnam on December 3, 1967. As we flew, the many hours in the air became quite long and boring. We tried to read to pass the time but could only endure so much. We attempted to sleep sitting in the webbed seats that lined the aircraft but as time progressed, we ended sleeping on top of the trucks on the canvas covering on their rear section which worked somewhat lick a hammock.

The pilots were a friendly bunch and as I chatted with them I had stated that I was from Denver, CO. I was called to the cockpit and told by the pilot that Denver was below us. "Take a good look", the pilot said, "as it will be a while before you see it again." We continued over the mountains and my city disappeared in the mist of the cloud cover. On we flew!

I believe that we made two stops during our journey: San Francisco and Guam. As I recall, we remained on the aircraft while in San Francisco and were allowed some movement outside the aircraft at Guam. A few of our group had to remain near the aircraft and pull guard duty while we were on the tar mack. The assignment was probably more of an adjustment of our attitudes to our up-coming business rather than that of a perceived threat.

During our flight, I don't remember being told of our eventual destination of Bien Hoa. Even had I been told, I would not have had a clue as to its location. Looking back to my few weeks at Ft. Campbell, my friend Teddy Castillo and I had stopped by the post library to see if we could find any information on Vietnam in general. We found but one book that spoke of our future destination. Today, Vietnam is ancient history in the minds of many Americans-especially the young. Our landing was in the southern-most part of the country just to the west of the words South Vietnam.

Ok, we arrived at the Bien Hoa Air Base probably on the 4th of December after a very long flight at about 3:30 in the morning. Our trucks were moved to where-ever after being unloaded from the aircraft (C-141). There were busses that came to pick us up from the aircraft and I found it strange that there was "chicken wire" on the windows. I inquired as to why there was wire on the windows and was told it was to keep hand grenades from being thrown into the vehicle. This was very sobering! If I ever had a moment of reflection as to what I was getting myself into, this was the moment. I remember the smell was quite humid and wafted of diesel and aircraft fuel along with many other smells that only your being there could explain. We were taken to our company area which was located at the end of the runway of the Bien Hoa airbase.


C141 @ Bien Hoa AFB

           

 

 

I must tell you that I was not privy to the command decisions made by our officers or those above them. My job was to repair radios and do what I was told. So, what I have to present is only from my position and view as an enlisted person. Yes, there are many things to know about the time. I knew little about the whole picture while serving and the war is a study unto itself. I hope to improve my knowledge of this period of time by my chosen retirement hobby of the study of military history. It is only through my reading that I am knowledgeable of the time lines and geography of the war.

We started the process of building our company area immediately after a few hours of sleep. As a precaution, we were all instructed to wear head gear and keep our sleeves rolled down to prevent sunburn. It was hot and uncomfortable but a wise decision. We did so many things over the next few days that it is a bit blurred in my memory. The one thing that doesn't escape my memory is the job of sand-bagging everything static. For most of us, this was a daily ritual that continued through out our tour of duty.

There was a lot to be done and in quick time.....As we were to learn but a few short weeks later at the end of January: The Tet Offensive. We went about our work with enthusiasm for the most part. Although there was a seriousness in the air, there was also a light heartedness as well. We were young, optimistic and bullet-proof. After all, we were the 101st Airborne Division.....The best of the best.

Here are some pictures of our company area that are a combination of some taken by myself and some by our company clerk, Tom O'Malley:

 Bunker                                      Mess Sgt. Frank Derry                                                  Dan

             
     The comforts of home.                                                                     You 'numba one' GI


Laundry time                                                      Bunker building


Bunker building


Ally Oop!


"water buffalo"


Looking back on Camp Bien Hoa from birm tower

Just down the road from us was the 326th Medical Unit. We shared mess facilities with these guys. Another sobering moment for me was when I witnessed the retrieval of several soldiers that had been ambushed. They were wrapped in ponchos and only their boots were showing. I remember thinking that their boots were just like mine. May they rest in peace. My reading has shown me that my experience was not the first. There is a notation by a WWII soldier that reflects this same observation in one of the books that I have read.

bat3
     326 Medic Unit                                                                 326 Med Unit
                                                                                            Courtesy: T. O'Malley


Sewing girl                                                                    Bar Maid

It is my honest belief that our "sewing girl" was a Viet Cong observer of our unit. I reported this to Capt. T. and was told to be observant. She failed to return after the Tet Offensive. We would speak in French during our interaction and her words gave some trepidation as to her true motives. Her favorite TV show? Combat, featuring Vince Morrow.


Kim, Laundry girl.


Tom O'Malley serving. Airborne pink?


Club @ Bien Hoa-Dietz in t-shirt?                        New Years Day 1968
                     Courtesy: Capt. T.                                   Courtesy: Capt. T.           

Even though I am unable to remember many happenings of the time, there is one event that sticks out and has a bit of ingenuity and humor upon reflection. Now, I don't recall who came up with this plan but I thought it to be quite brilliant. It seems as though basic building materials were in short supply and anyone who had a surplus did not want to let any of it go to other units. There was a set of orders cut that stated that excess supplies were to be picked up and sent to a central depot. That central depot area was our company area. If there are any of you out there reading this and can add to it, I'd appreciate it.

Guard duty was an on-going detail that could sometimes scare the life out of you. I remember being trucked out to a perimeter area that I had never looked across prior to being given an M-60 to set-up in this foul smelling pile of sandbags that someone said was a bunker. It is truly amazing just how the night played with one's mind. As a "new-guy", I had no idea of or any familiarity with what the night should sound or smell like. A tune could have been played on my tightly stretched nervous system. That was my first experience with pulling guard duty. We all stayed inside the bunker that night and luckily, nothing adverse transpired.

It was finally worked out that our guard duty station would be directly in front of our company area and to the left of the runway of the air force base of Bien Hoa. Our positions faced toward the town of Bien Hoa. The road to that town passed through what I believe was a rubber plantation and was on our left. The land had been cleared to our front and we became familiar with our turf. This is where we would defend our ground during the Tet Offensive which was soon to be upon us. We were situated with the runway to the airbase just to our right flank.


Troops walking along road in front of 265th company area.


Another look at the birm where the bunkers were located.

There are those historians that have written that our forces were uninformed as to the battle that was about to take place. By my own experience, I must refute these words. The afternoon prior to the beginning of the Tet Offensive our platoon sergeant of prior Vietnam service with Special Forces brought us all together and prepared us. All of our battle gear was checked and we slept as best we could fully dressed with our weapons at the ready. We were told to expect the action to begin at approximate 3 am. As I recall, the first round to come in (at 3 am) hit our driveway in an attempt to hit our antennae fields that were adjacent.

An interesting story comes out of all of this. I wrote earlier of being familiar with the sounds of the night. There was a young soldier who had been assigned to permanent guard duty. As I try to picture him in my mind's eye, he was what one might call a misfit. He didn't look very soldierly and seemed to have a degree of being lax that would not have been tolerated in our unit. However, his unkempt look did nothing to stunt his ability to perform his job and as it turns out, he did it to perfection.

This young man spent every night listening to the sounds of the night to the front of his position. As I understand the story, he had reported that there was some on-going movement to his front and no action had been taken by his superiors. I expect that it is because he was viewed in a dim light. On the night of the Tet Offensive, he is said to have placed an M-79 round squarely on an enemy mortar crew and put that weapon out of action.

Between the bunkers on the line, fox holes had been dug so that additional positions could support the line. The next few pictures were taken from one of these fox hole positions during the Tet Offensive by another one of our company members, Michael.


The terrain just in front our bunker positions looking towards the town of Bien Hoa.


Here's another shot from the tower along the bunker line towards the air base.

Hopefully, my story will come together as I remember back to times of old. In August of 2009, I had a few episodes of dreaming about the offensive in which we were involved. I wrote to a friend and told him my dream's storyline. He stated that, in fact, there were enemy soldiers in the wire to our front. Another one of my buddys recounted that the jets dropped napalm to our front along with high explosives and they watched them being released from the aircraft while the planes were behind our lines. I have almost no memory of those five or six days.

One of the things we had to do upon our arrival in country was convert our american currency in what is called script. Most of us can recall that episode of M.A.S.H. where everyone was scrambling to buy up as much script at pennies on the dollar because there was new script about to be exchanged for the old. Here's what ours looked like:

While still at Bien Hoa, we had a tank outfit set up shop just across from us by the birm. The photos below were taken from a guard tower that was located at the birm. In the pictures, you'll see will be a jeep, Armored Personnel Carrier (APC), 3/4 Dodge truck and some M-60 tanks. It was interesting to watch them "man handle" the tracked vehicles while refurbishing them. Pretty tough gig.


View of 265th company area with tanks if foreground from guard tower.


Perimeter to front of company area with tanks on perimeter/bunker line

They were a good group of guys and we made some acquaintances. Of course, they were still "straight legs" and both groups poked jibes at each other in an amicable way. This friendly antagonism went on so something had to be done; we organized a football game between us. It was held in our motor pool area and on very hard ground without any padding. Here's some pictures:


Kick off with ball in the air

If anyone recognizes the players, let me know. The guy holding the stake is Teddy Castillo from the Twin Cities area. I was in touch with him for a while but have since lost track of him. Teddy, if you're out there somewhere, give me a call!

The above shot is of a group of parked jets. When the picture was taken, they were very far off and I had to crop quite a bit to get this view. I believe that these are the F-4 Phantoms that were at Bien Hoa.


Daytime rocket hit on fuel dump


Company area and road to the front


Miscellaneous helicopter shot of Hueys


                          Always a common sight and sound.                                Here's a small one flying across the perimeter

Nothing has the "whap" of the Huey.               

                         

            chopper over hooches           

                           


Back side of the perimeter from company area showing guard tower


Shot from vehicle while @ Long Binh


Jeep with M-60 (notice wire catcher on front)


Med Cav loaded for bear! Don't fire at me? Hmm!

 

Longer view of front of company area                                                             Back side of hooches             


Horseshoes anyone? Our solar powered shower in background


One of the few shot of the maint. area in rear of company area.


Some type of jet                                          C-130 transport                               

I was always trying to take pictures of the aircraft that were coming in to land. Often, we were able to spot a U2 spy plane but none of these photos came back! Here's a few aircraft pictures that came back to me from development. From my reading, specifically: Tonkin Gulf-Vietnam War by Edwin E. Moise, I have learned that the U2 planes were based at Bien Hoa. These planes were the main source of target intelligence for the OPLANN-34A raids into North Vietnam that were conducted in 1964. The Tonkin Gulf incident/resolution was a result of these raids. Their flight path would be between Bien Hoa, RVN and the Philippines. The following are declassified photos from the internet of the U2.

                                                   


"I saw the thing coming out of the sky. It had one big horn and one big eye."
I don't remember just what came slamming through our hooch.

      
Dust Bunnies

Photo of the Battle of Bien Hoa during the first days of Tet 1968, from the 145th CAB Photo history book vol 2, page 85
Image courtesy of Dave Green

I am not studied in the complexity of the battle in which I was involved. I was but a small part. Hopefully, I will have the opportunity to observe and study these past events.

The Tet Offensive that began on January 31, 1968 seems like something that one might have dreamed about and retained in his memory somewhat like the above picture. The picture was taken prior to the offensive but the night of the attack had this look with all of the flares going off. You knew that the action took place but was almost a vicarious bit of knowledge. I can't say with any certainly just how many days we had to secure our area against attack. My memory says six days/nights. A few things do stick out from the fog.

We knew that something was in the air. As a precaution, we began stocking our bunkers with additional ammunition and other required defensive materiel. We had two lines of defense: one was directly on the birm line while the other was installed in the conex bunkers that we had built to the front of and inside our compound. Each of us had our immediate battle station. A rotation of personnel between the two lines was put into place as the action progressed.

The afternoon prior to the first of the action began our prepping up for some possible action that night. SFC Farmer, Signal Maint NCO, came through and briefed us. We were told to sleep in our clothes with our weapons and web gear directly beside us. He stated that intell had reported the possibility of some kind of action against our camp that evening. We were to expect this action to be at approximately 3 am. I can remember having a few butterflies but was ready.

At 3 am, a rocket round hit the driveway of our compound as I recall. That kicked things into action. The enemy was not uninformed about the mission of our "Radio Research" disguise. I'm sure that the rocket hit was an attempt to knock out our antennae so that we would loose our ability to communicate and monitor their radio net.

It is my understanding that one of our company individuals was color blind and had better night vision than most. I believe that he employed only tracers in his weapon so as to direct the fire of the MG's. Someone will have to verify this story.

My original position was on the secondary line behind the wire of the company area. In rotation, I was placed on the line of the perimeter. Even though the fighting had died down considerably after that first night, there was still the sounds of rounds being fired at our positions.

During the battle, it was interesting to watch the Huey Cobras do their thing. They flew over the area to our front in a group of three and in a circle. Every so often, you'd see one of their tails raise up like that of a scorpion and fire a rocket at some enemy position on the ground. The Huey Cobra got to Vietnam in late 1967 so they weren't a common sight as of January 1968. I think that the F4 Phantom jets got into the action as well but one was well served to pay attention to his own business rather than others'.

At the end of the action, I witnessed what I would call an act of bravery. There was a sergeant who went out into the front of our bunker line armed with a forty-five pistol. He returned with a prisoner. I think that I wouldn't have had enough courage to do something like that. If any of my fellow soldiers have anything to add, send me an email.

I really didn't write a lot of letters home during the year. We really were kept quite busy. Upon my mother's death in 2005, as her executer, I found that she had kept all of my letters home. It was a great treasure to discover after forty years. Here's one that I wrote on February 10, 1968.

One of the things that has come back to me is that we had a MARS radio station. It allowed us to call home via the many short wave operators that could hook up to a land line. I called home in February and my parents were quite surprised. We had to use radio protocol as in saying "over" when finished talking. I was surprised that my dad didn't pick up on this quicker as he had been a career soldier.

Just prior to the offensive, I had to take a ROAD TRIP TO SAIGON and had a chance to take some pictures of the "folks".

On to Saigon

Back to Ft. Campbell

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