No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it. Carl von Clausewitz, circa 1905.

Flying me and 75 other replacements, closer to the war, the USAF C-130 Hercules landed hard onto the too-short runway at the An Khe Army Airfield and quickly reversed thrust to keep from overshooting.

Here in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, was a sight to behold:  The elite 1st  Cavalry Division (Airmobile), headquarters for  “The First Team,” boasting at least 16,000 men including Airborne, Ranger, Pathfinder and other specially trained Skytroopers; high-tech gunships and support helicopters numbered 434.
An Khe Army airfield in 1966 at Camp Radcliff, 1st Cavalry Division HQ. Long lines of choppers just to the right of runway. Mountains in the background known as “Dragon’s Back” include the An Khe Pass and farther north (to the left) the Mang Yang pass. (US Army photo)
Hon Cong Mountain overlook, and radar site, Camp Radcliff, (a few hundred meters, directly below patch) is Headquarters of the 1st Air Cavalry Division, 1966. (US Army photo)

Because of those expensive weapons-of-war-aircraft and other security concerns, Camp Radcliff,* (unlike most other large U.S. bases in Vietnam) was off-limits to Vietnamese Nationals. That meant low-ranking GI’s like me, did the dirty work usually performed by indigenous Vietnamese.

The enemy made up for the prohibition of their fellow Vietnamese (many of whom would spy for them) by launching mortars our way most every night.

My temporary quarters would be at Camp Radcliff, near the PIO headquarters building, just a couple of hundred yards from where our helicopters lifted-off for combat sorties, and (hopefully) returned for fuel, munitions and maintenance.

While I looked for a place to bunk, I thumbed the small wheel on my transistor, trying to get better reception from AFVN, as they played I’m A Believer by the Monkeys.  I found an empty corner in an old hooch located one hut over from the quarters of a slender USAF major from Ohio, the Weather Officer for the 1st Cav.

The nightly booms and echoes we were hearing had nothing to do with a weather event. It was our own 105-mm artillery (harassment & interdiction) rounds that filled the night as we lay half-awake and alert for a different sound — the shrill** of incoming mortars. Although the VC were typically aiming for our helicopters, we were close enough.  For us and a dozen others who occupied makeshift shelters, we had access to a nearby bunker.

On my first day at Camp Radcliff, among tents, hooches, hard and dusty red dirt, stiffing heat and weary line soldiers on a short break from the field, just about everybody I encountered was talking about one of our undermanned Cav companies that was overrun by the NVA less than two weeks ago.

Twenty-eight of our soldiers were killed and 87 wounded at LZ Bird on 27 December 66. The six men who survived, in one platoon, were saved by the firing of a beehive round; its first use in Vietnam. The projectile is a canister containing 8,000 fléchettes (darts) of metal fired horizontally and at ground level from a 105-mm howitzer at 1,600 feet per second that obliterates everything in its line of site.  (A description of the battle, written by a man who was in the thick of it, Spencer Matteson, is included in Book II, Chapter V Bad Night at LZ Bird.) 

In the context of that horrific battle — the dead, the wounded, the overwhelming fear and hopelessness — my first detail at the camp, as a honey-dipper, didn’t seem so bad.

A fifty-five-gallon drum cut in half, two-thirds full of diesel fuel, sat below the holes in the camp’s outhouses. When they were about to overflow with crap, someone needed to burn it. That task would go to low ranking enlisted like me.

Here’s a brief indoctrination, for the layperson, on the art of burning shit: Grab the rebar type handles welded near the top and carefully pull the honeypots from the outhouse. Add a bit more diesel, stir a little, throw in a lighted match or carefully lower a Zippo®, ignite, stand back, and watch it burn.

This burning was done in the of the heat of the day, and it was usually hot in An Khe. And during the monsoons, it was not an ideal spot to dry out. On the upside, when on this detail, nobody fu**ed with you.

In a few hours, the turds would be crispy enough to dump.  Refill the drums to the proper level and push them back under the holes of the outhouses, all done. Unsurprisingly, this was known as the shit-detail — literally.

Given a choice, I’d take it over KP without hesitation; working in the mess hall peeling spuds, scrubbing pots, and taking shit from a grumpy old mess sergeant was a 10-12 hour detail. I got to do plenty of both.

As for actual work, I hosted news media from the states with briefings, some press releases, and a few other viable tasks at the 1st Cav PIO. One such event included a radio reporter from Chicago that I was assisting. He had just arrived in Vietnam and wanted to go straight to the 1st Cav where the action was.

I met him at our PIO in An Khe about 2100 one evening just as we were getting some incoming. He turned on his recorder, and in a high pitch voice announced. “I’m [whatever his name was] in An Khe, South Vietnam [heavy breathing, hyperventilating] and we’re under attack [near screaming] at this moment by the NVA,” he was yelling so loudly and over modulating (as we call it in the business) he almost drowned out the thump and splat of the mortars.

His recording reminded me of a radio reporter (also from Chicago) who thirty years earlier, while witnessing the Hindenburg crash in New Jersey, described it as  “The worst catastrophe in the world . . . Oh! the humanity . . . .” Although it was a terrible event that killed 36 people (62 survived) the reporter was widely mocked for his over the top narrative.

Although there were no injuries here, and mortars are no joke, I got a good laugh from the An Khe recording, and the reporter was a bit embarrassed; we were a far cry from being “under attack.”

He and other reporters wanted something more substantial than a routine rocket barrage. They wanted to go where there was fighting. I, too, wanted that. I didn’t go through BCT, become a highly trained killer, and a Broadcast Specialist for shit details.

Unlike most support personnel, I had the option of volunteering for the forward areas. And that I did. It would prove to be more interesting and a lot riskier than burning shit. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

The slick sleeve below Pfc., like me (I thought) at the Armory in An Khe, didn’t question my choice or amount of armament once he found out where I was headed. I had never seen, let alone fired, the recently introduced M-16 I was issued. The Halzone he gave me was for water purification; the salt tablets were to prevent heat exhaustion.   Oh, and don’t forget the primaquine, an anti-malaria pill, he reminded me. “Better take the damn things, and try not to get shot,” the Private said.

Getting shot was just one of the things to worry about. The Black supply sergeant who overhead the private reminded us there are a thousand and one other ways to die over here. You can get rocketed, mortared, bombed, bayoneted, step on a land mine, a booby trap, or walk into a punji pit. Your helicopter can crash, and your bunker can cave in. You can die from heatstroke or from being napalmed by friendlies. You can ingest ground glass or battery acid, the VC has been known to put in GIs beers and cokes.  You can die from a rat bite, a dog bite, gored or stomped on, or spiked by a pissed-off water buffalo bitten by any number of poisonous snakes. The sergeant looked at us with a half-assed grin and concluded, “Man, war ain’t only hell. It’s a mother f**ker.”***

Before I left for “Cowboy Country” farther north, I was told the 1st Sgt. was looking for me, and when I stood before him, he said in a raised voice, “You’re out of uniform, soldier.”  I was looking around my fatigues and jungle boots warily when he said: “Don’t worry, Swan, [he said jokingly] it’s because you’re not wearing your rank; you’re a Pfc., have been since you got here.” (Enlisted and officer insignia was not consistently displayed in the field.) “Thanks, 1st Sgt,”  I said, “Wish I’d known that last night when I was on Green Line guard duty.”  “What happened,” he said. “Oh, nothing, 1st Sgt.”

What had happened was, the other trooper in the guard tower kept ordering me around because even though we were both privates, he’d reminded me he had been In-Country longer, and I fell for the petty rank pulling. As a Pfc, I would have said, “No, you’re going to check the Claymores this time.” (Antipersonnel mines activated by wire).  Anyhow, the 1st Shirt said to keep my head down up there and not make too many friends.

When I lumbered onto the ramp of the C-7A Caribou, at the An Khe Airfield, I had with me just about all I could handle, and so did the Caribou with room for just one more, me.

Let’s see, M-16 with bayonet and twelve clips of ammo with eighteen rounds each instead of 20 (less chance of jamming). Check.  Six M26 grenades. Check. M-79 launcher (thump gun) with six rounds. Check. Mk V .455 (not army-issued) sidearm with dozens of rounds. Check.

You get the idea; I also carried beaucoup pills, a gas mask, a first aid kit, razor/toiletries, entrenching tool, mosquito repellent and net, poncho and liner, C-Rats and P-38 can opener, four canteens of water, an extra pair of socks, my 10 x 10-inch reel to reel Panasonic® RQ-1025 tape-recorder with improvised strap and extra batteries, letters from Marty and so on, about 50 lbs.

C-7A Caribou touches down in dirt on unimproved runway in Bong Son. (U.S. Army photo)

Although the strip at An Khe was long enough for a leisurely takeoff, the pilot “pulled the guts” on the little Caribou, executing a max vertical tactical takeoff.

I had no preconceived notion of whom I would encounter onboard, but I wasn’t expecting what I saw: A dozen Green Berets with CAR-15s (Modified M-16s), Chopped M-79 Grenade Launchers, and sidearms I didn’t recognize at the time. They weren’t wearing berets. Their headgear was green cravats with uniforms in leaf pattern camo, sans patches, name tags, or insignia. Onboard for the short lift to Bong Son, they weren’t engaging in horseplay. They were quiet and looking straight ahead. I thought it unwise to ask, “Wassup?” (Oh, wait, that trash-talking hadn’t been invented yet.) I surmised that saying or asking nothing was wise, and that’s what I did while sitting atop my helmet in the droning Caribou.

There were several Marines abroad; they had a small detachment in Bong Son. They weren’t completely stoic, but they were not loud, laughing or telling jokes either.

            Special Forces CAR-15  (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The Caribou we were guests on is a short landing and takeoff (STOL) tactical transport aircraft that can land with as little as a thousand feet on an unimproved strip. These twin-engine prop jobs were a workhorse that kept U.S. troops moving while freeing up valuable helicopter time for our soldiers who needed to get in real close. Bong Son would be that place. We gently touched down in the dirt, reversed thrust, rolled to a quick stop, and disembarked forthwith — Special Forces, Marines — then me.

*Named after the first U.S. casualty near the camp, an army major.

**Some GIs in Vietnam claimed that certain types of incoming mortars didn’t shrill — but that was not my experience.  Everyone was required, once the mortar alert was sounded, to rush into the bunkers (when available). Some just slept through these warnings, rhetorically asking: “What are you going to do, send me to Vietnam?”

*** Idea and some quotes from LRRPs in Cambobia by Kregg P. J. Jorgenson.

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