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
A lot of us bought the "Aussie" style hat but were later told that it was not part of our uniform.
My neighbor's nephew who was stationed with the 1st CAV stopped by.
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 becoming more 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.
Being the best often meant the best at scrounging (military term for stealing) anything and everything that we needed to become functional. Although I personally never saw the papers, it is my understanding that phony orders were cut that stated that excess material should be placed on trucks that were provided by our company and placed in a central location. Of course, like an old horse, our trucks only knew how to return to our "stable." Is there any more that need be said?
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:
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 (Guinther supervising)
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 of the boots in one of the books that I have read.
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 lent 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.
Guard duty was an on-going detail that could sometimes scare the life out of you......and a lot of other things. 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.
1968 TET OFFENSIVE
BIEN HOA, RVN
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, SFC Farmer, 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, of which there were three assigned to our company (I think), 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.
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
The terrain just in front our bunker positions looking towards the town of Bien Hoa.
I'm guessing that this photo was taken after the Tet Offensive. Notice the dirt piled up at the end of what looks like a trench.
The Vietnam Magazine stated that the enemy bodies, 115 of them, were buried in a mass grave at the end of the runway.
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.
Flare lighting up bunker in company area (looks like a double exposure)
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 as I recall.
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 although, aparantely, the action on the perimeter berm had not yet heated up. It was not uncommon to receive a single 122mm rocket round at any given time. 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. I believe it was our mess sergeant, Frank Derry.
Over the years, I thought that my original position was on the secondary line behind the wire of the company area. And, in rotation, placed on the line of the perimeter. Even though the fighting had died down considerably after that first night, there was still the sound of rounds being fired at our positions. (This is where it gets confusing. Teddy Castillo says that I was on the main bunker line with him....see our conversation transcript below...). Teddy stated to me in a conversation (April 2010) that I was, in fact, the first person on our line to open fire on the sappers that were in the wire. He says that he popped a flare and I began firing the M60 and then the whole line began firing. He states that this fact came to him after reading Vietnam Magazine where Colonel Beckwith, G2 commander of the 101st Airborne Division states: "....As the sappers probed for mines, a 101st Airborne soldier who was manning an M-60 machine gun saw something moving out there and began to fire. Moments later, gunfire opened up along the entire perimeter. I never found out who the lone gunner was on the M-60, but I promised myself that if I ever met him, I would make sure I shook his hand. The sappers never made it through the wire."
Through my reading, internet research and email conversations with others of my company, I am reasonably convinced that the enemy did, in fact, breach our perimeter line. I believe that the line was broken on our right flank close to the runway. The heavy force of enemy in our section of the perimeter makes sense. The overwealming of this section would have given them access not only to the runway area but our intellegence and the headquarters of the division which was close by.
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 asked Russ "Stein" Guinther about what impression stands out in his mine and he said the front of the bunkers that had beed ripped to shreads by the incoming small arms. Am I grateful for having survived this action? You bet! You just had to be there to know.
UPDATE: On April 5, 2010, I received one of the best phone calls ever! My good friend, Teddy Castillo, with whom I spent "hot time" on the perimeter during the Tet Offensive and time at Ft. Riley upon our return relayed this story to me: 'We were on the bunker line and at 3am I popped a flare. You were in the bunker on the M-60. The enemy was already in the wire and you opened up with the MG. After you fired, the whole perimeter came alive and got into the fight.'
I told him that I couldn't remember a thing other than a few "snap-shots" in my head of the battle. As we talked, I began to remember a bit more.....The napalm drop by the jets in front of our line, the ammo dump blowing up and more. Teddy said that it was from reading the February 2000 issue of Vietnam Magazine that spurred him to remember the events of that night. Apparently, the commander of Bien Hoa stated that he'd like to shake the hand of the trooper that fired that first shot as it shook everyone awake to the attack. Needless to say, I was trembling for the rest of the day.
We talked the next day as I HAD to call him back. I asked Teddy: "How long was the perimeter line under fire?" He said: "About three days. I got pulled off the line for firing the flare without permission. The rest of you stayed at the bunker." That prompted me to relate a story to him about an email that I wrote to one of our reunion members that admittedly was a bit harsh. One of the things that I'd said to my associate was that I felt that the government had screwed up in their assignment of jobs (mine) and what a stupid job it was. I asked Teddy if he could remember our ever having worked on radio equipment at Ft. Riley. He chuckled and basically re enforced what I already knew...."We didn't even work on anything in Vietnam! Everything was modular-plug and pull. It was a stupid job!" Well, regardless, it was a long time ago and we didn't have any choice in the matter of being in attendance.
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! I got the call! We got back in touch and talk frequently. He sent me some pics that he had taken at Bien Hoa so here goes:
Courtesy: Theodore Castillo
I remember the faces but not the names.
Courtesy: Theodore Castillo
Again, face is good, name is not.
Courtesy: Theodore Castillo
Courtesy: Theodore Castillo
Courtesy: Theodore Castillo
Sandbagging....Camp Eagle perhaps
Courtesy: Theodore Castillo
Sandbagging @ Bien Hoa
Courtesy: Theodore Castillo
Courtesy: C. Domingo
Flare on the night horizon
Courtesy: C. Domingo
Bat signs painted by C. Domingo
Courtesy: C. Domingo
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. I can still hear one coming from afar because of the sound frequency even though my hearing is not what it should be.
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 and several that show the U-2.. 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 by the South Vietnamese. The Tonkin Gulf incident/resolution was partly 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 was sitting at the bar of American Legion Post #178 one afternoon and spoke about a book I was reading at the time: TRUTH IS THE FIRST CASUALITY which talks about the Tonkin Gulf incident. The man sitting next to me wearing his Navy Veteran cap turned to me and said:"I was on the radio of Turner Joy that day." Turner Joy was one of the two destroyers that took part in that action." It was an honor!
"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.
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.
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.....just a few days after the Tet Offensive.
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".
As time progresses, there are many new things on the internet. Here's a link that will tell some more of the story: http://www.bathead.com/265RRC.html
On to Saigon
Back to Ft. Campbell