My War – Part VII – Vietnam Memories 3

I continue recollections of my 1969-70 months at USARV HQ on the Long Binh Army base in South Vietnam.

Combat. The whole point of being in Long Binh was to avoid combat, right? Well, almost. From time to time the Viet Cong decided to remind us that they were still out there, so they’d send a rocket into the base. They usually landed far away, and since the normal time of arrival was between 2 and 4 a.m., we’d not hear the explosion. But we could rely on the post command center to hit the panic button, and the sirens would fire off. They could wake the dead, I guarantee it! So, half asleep still, we’d stagger to our feet and set off at a run for the bunker outside the hootch. The bunker was a corrugated steel tube reinforced on all sides and top with sandbags. It would never survive a direct hit, but we’d be protected from shrapnel from even a near miss.

On one of those nocturnal, semi-awake dashes, I missed the main hallway and instead ran into my footlocker. I still have the dent in my shinbone from that collision. (As well as a dent in the top of my head from when a steel helmet fell off a locker. I really did not have my wits about me then — I could have claimed unremitting, severe headaches from that incident that could have gotten me out early on a medical discharge!)

The other times we came face-to-face with (a small taste of) the realities of life in Vietnam were standing guard duty on the base’s perimeter. The perimeter itself consisted of five or so layers of concertina wire, with a road lying just beyond, and beyond that (at least where our guard bunker was) rice paddies. Five or so of us would arrive there late in the afternoon and be expected to sit guard duty for 24 hours, including night when at least one person had to remain awake. We had M-16s, a 50-caliber machine gun, claymore mine detonators (the claymores were scattered along the perimeter; if you aren’t familiar with the weapon, read here), a flare gun, and a telephone connecting us to sector HQ. The nights were long, and the days hot. I remember looking out from that bunker the first visit and noting that the rice paddies met the road at an embankment behind which an entire battalion of VC could hide before charging the perimeter.

I was often the senior NCO in our bunker, so was responsible for setting up the watch schedule, and was also responsible if any of the guys was found sleeping when he was supposed to be awake. My own nerves were on edge in the beginning, since we were told (perhaps apocryphally) that a 2d lieutenant had been killed — his head blown off by an RPG, we were told — in that very same bunker during the Tet Offensive only sixteen or so months previously.

Seeing Vietnam. I didn’t “get out” much. That was understandable, given the fact that GIs might be attacked anywhere outside of the main secured areas. Fortunately, the main highway between Long Binh and Saigon was well-protected, and this was before development of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) killing our troops today in Iraq.

Twice or three times I went to Saigon, spending some time in the city center after getting off the shuttle bus at MACV HQ near Tan Son Nhut Air Base. I’d take a three-wheel jitney into the city and walk around, sometimes venturing slightly into side streets. Although recollections of those trips are slim, the one thing burned into my sensory memory was the smell of nuc mam sauce preparation (nuc mam is made by layering anchovies [or other fish] and salt in barrels or tanks, allowing it brew for a while, and then draining and bottling the liqour that results). The smell is unmistakable, and, like sausage, much as the result is delicious, you don’t want to pay too close attention to its making.

Once, for some reason, Col. Berge wanted some documents hand-delivered to the Replacement Operations battalion at Cam Ranh Bay. He sent me, which meant I flew by C-130 from Bien Hoa to the large airbase at Cam Ranh. It also meant, however, that he gave me the weekend to spend there, which I took advantage of by hours spent on the beautiful white-sand beach on the turquoise South China Sea (well, technically, I suppose it is just the Pacific Ocean, but it sure felt like the South China Sea). Cam Ranh is located about half-way up the coast of former South Vietnam, just below Nha Trang, and has a beach that would be the envy of any Caribbean island. Check out the photos here to see what I mean. It is still a Vietnam navy port, but I’m convinced that it could easily be a destination luxury beach resort. (Some reports say that’s a direction it is heading.)

Twice Col. Berge used his rank and connections to get us a helicopter ride over surrounding countryside. The helicopter was a “Loach,” the nickname for the Army OH-6 six-seater light observation helicopter. Small and highly maneuverable, I suppose I was foolhardy to go along, but the temptation was just too great. It was my first introduction to lowland agricultural terrains of Southeast Asia.

(One other time I recall seeing South Vietnam terrain was noticing a cluster of B-52 bomb craters viewed from a passenger jet arriving in Vietnam. It was pretty impressive at the time, although I’m told (understatement warning) no picnic for anyone caught in the region of the bomb run.)

Photography. I arrived in Vietnam with no camera. Sometime soon after arrival, however, I purchased a Minolta SLR at the PX. I can’t remember if I purchased more than a basic lens, although by the time I left Vietnam I also had a 135mm telephoto, but that camera coupled with the availability of a darkroom available for enthusiasts nearby, led to a considerable body of B&W work, little of which survives (or is worthy of more than curiosity).

At some point later during my tour an acquaintance was taking R&R in Hong Kong. I prevailed upon him to buy me a Rolleiflex (a twin lens reflex camera, using 120 film [2.25 inch square negatives]), which he did. Such a fine instrument! Some of the best photos I’ve taken in pre-digital years came from that camera.

I became friends with a young lady (a civilian) who was a secretary in one of the general staff offices at HQ. She served as my (clothed) model for a number of shoots. I made the mistake, however, of mentioning this to my wife in one of my letters, and believe me I caught hell for that upon her reply!

I think one more day’s posting will wrap up these recollections.


Another of Meg from last Friday’s session.

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