Ain’t Released Me Yet
Memoirs of a REMF
Copyright© 2016 by Robert B. Martin, IV
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission from the copyright owner, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal. I have attempted to recreate events, locales, and conversations from my memories of them.
My New Home and Job
“We’re a long, long way from home. Home’s a long, long way from us.”..........Bruce Springsteen
I reported to 1SG Driver who introduced me to the CO (Commanding Officer), CPT L.E. Oliver. I was then turned over to the clerk I was to replace, an SP5 (Specialist Fifth Class) whose name I cannot remember. His tour would soon be over and he would be going home. He was very happy to see me. The H&HB CP was a hooch that had been divided into two rooms. In the front room stood a couple of filing cabinets and two metal desks, one for the clerk and the other for the First Sergeant. The two desks faced each other, mine to the left of the door as you walked in, the First Sergeant’s to the right. The back room was the BC’s (Battery Commander’s) office. When you entered his office you were standing in front of his desk.
I was assigned to a bunk in a hooch next door to the supply hooch. It was on the eastern side of the H&HB area. I found it and began unpacking and putting away my clothing and gear. The previous occupant had left me a wooden footlocker and a homemade wooden cabinet with shelves. The footlocker was a standard issue Army footlocker but the cabinet was built from empty rocket boxes (we were located next to a Cobra attack helicopter unit). All of my hooch-mates worked in the supply room located next door. I can only remember the names of two of the guys. They were Roger Carpenter and Pedro Roybal.
My bunk was an Army cot, the folding type, made of wood and canvas. It measured a little over 6-feet long and 2-feet wide. The cot included an air mattress (no holes in this one) and a pillow. I was issued one poncho liner to use in place of sheets and blankets. It turned out that living with the supply guys could be very advantageous. Right off the bat they slipped me a second poncho liner so I could wrap one around the air mattress like a bottom sheet and use the second like a duvet to sleep under. A poncho liner was the closest thing to an Army luxury item. It was the same size as a rubber poncho but made of two layers of quilted nylon with a polyester filling. Very much like a big fluffy quilt. It had a camouflage pattern on both sides and cloth ties at intervals along the edges so that could be tied to the eyelets of a rubber poncho to provide warmth in a cold rain. It was also very light, making it easy to carry in the field.
Because malaria was a threat in Vietnam, the cot was draped in mosquito netting, which was held up by four wooden poles, one on each of the cot’s four corners. The bottom of the netting was tucked under the air mattress to keep the mosquitos from finding an opening while you were sleeping.
Even with the additional comfort provided by the second poncho liner it was difficult to get much sleep on some nights. This was usually due to loud music from someone’s stereo but other times it was the noise from the “Long Toms” that kept us awake at night. “Long Toms” were very large artillery pieces located to the rear of our battalion area. The shells sounded like freight trains passing overhead. It was a bit frightening until you learned to recognize the differences between the sounds of in-coming and out-going artillery.
The “Long Tom” was the same caliber as our battalion’s 155mm towed howitzers, but that’s where the similarity ended. Our 155mm towed howitzers had a barrel length of eleven feet eight inches, weighed twelve thousand eight hundred pounds, required a crew of eleven, and had a range of fourteen point six kilometers. A “Long Tom” had a barrel length of twenty-two feet eight inches, weighed thirty thousand, six hundred pounds, required a crew of fourteen, and had a range of twenty-three point seven kilometers. The “Long Tom” was not considered “airmobile” because of its size and weight. It was used as a “fixed” artillery piece and stationed only in base camps, such as Camp Eagle.
As I have mentioned, Camp Eagle was the 101st Airborne Division’s base camp and served as support and home base for the 101st troopers out in the field. The Division’s primary Area of Operations (AO) was the nearby A Shau Valley, through which the Ho Chi Minh trail meandered. It was perhaps the most important and possibly the most difficult AO in I Corps. The mission of the 101st was to prevent the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) from controlling that area. The NVA was a well-trained and organized army and wore uniforms (quite different from the local VC guerillas). The NVA were tough and fought hard. In almost all of the other AOs in Vietnam, the primary enemy was the VC, farmers by day and rebel guerillas by night. They did not wear uniforms and their tactics were mostly hit and run.
From our battalion’s hilltop could be seen helicopters and landing pads belonging to several aviation companies. The closest, next to our hill, was an AH-1 Huey Cobra (aka “Cobra”) pad. It was common to see UH-1 Hueys (aka, Huey or “Slick”), CH-47 Chinooks (aka, “Shit Hook” or “Hook”), CH-54 Sky Cranes, and occasionally an OH-6 LOH (aka, Light Observation Helicopter, or “Loach”) in the skies above Camp Eagle. The first letter of their model numbers indicated the type of helicopter. A for attack, U for utility, C for cargo, and O for observation helicopter.
The 101st Airborne Division was the major “Airmobile” unit in Vietnam at the time. Most of its combat operations throughout Northern I Corps involved the use of helicopters to transport troops, supplies, and artillery back and forth between base camps, battle areas, and fire support bases in fighting the North Vietnamese Army regulars. The 101st Airborne Division’s casualty rate in Vietnam was second only to the 25th Infantry Division’s. The period May 1969 to the middle of 1970, which covered most of my tour, was one of the most intense time periods for the 101st.
The UH-1 Huey was the most common helicopter used in Vietnam. Its rotors made a characteristic “whomp - whomp” sound that I can still identify to this day. Hueys were to the air what the Jeep was to the ground. They were used primarily as supply ships, troop transports, Medevacs, and gunships.
The Cobra had a narrow fuselage, was fast, and had only two seats (pilot and weapons officer). The “sports car” of helicopters, it was heavily armed with mini-guns and rockets and was utilized to “ride shotgun” for other helicopters, defend ground troops, and attack enemy positions.
Chinooks were twin-rotor heavy lift helicopters. If the Huey was the Jeep of the sky, the Chinook was the 18-wheeler of the sky. It had a large cargo bay that could carry troops, supplies, vehicles, artillery, and just about anything else that would fit inside. Our battalion’s 155mm towed howitzers were transported by suspending them in a sling beneath the Chinook. They could also be towed by truck, but because of the rugged terrain, it was not uncommon for Chinooks to transport these heavy artillery pieces.
The CH-54 “Sky Crane” was similar to the Chinook except that it had no enclosed cabin in which to transport troops or equipment. It was used as a heavy lift helicopter whose cargo had to be carried in a sling beneath it. We didn’t see as many “Sky Cranes” as we did “Shit Hooks.”
The “Loach,” a single-engine Light Observation Helicopter, was used primarily for command and control, observation, target acquisition, and reconnaissance. Some had a mini-gun on one side but most were unarmed. It was often used over a battlefield as a commander’s “eye-in-the-sky.”
There were hundreds of buildings at Camp Eagle and most had been erected since February of 1969, only five months before my arrival. Construction of Camp Eagle had begun in the summer of 1967, when it was called LZ Tombstone and served as home to the 1st Air Cavalry Division (“First Cav”). It was overrun during the Tet offensive of 1968 and then abandoned when the First Cav moved back south. The 101st Airborne Division was then moved north and rebuilt the camp in February 1969, changing its name to Camp Eagle.
The buildings in the battalion area were tin-roofed hooch's, probably the same as any other Army hooch built by the Army Corps of Engineers in Vietnam. Each was built on an approximately sixteen by thirty-six foot raised wooden floor. Walls consisted of four by eight feet sheets of plywood placed long-ways and nailed to 2x4-inch studs. Sandbags were stacked around the outside walls of the hooch from the ground to the top of the four-foot high plywood walls. Wire screening filled in the area between the plywood half-wall and the tin roof. During the monsoon season sheets of polyethylene (plastic) were used to cover the wire screening in an attempt to keep the interior of the hooch as dry and warm as possible. They were simply rolled up during the dry season. Sandbags were secured onto the tin roof to help hold it down during the strong monsoon winds. A screen door was centered on each end of the hooch. A “blast wall” protected the back door. The blast wall was constructed of either sandbags or empty wooden ammunition boxes filled with dirt. The wall stood about four or five feet high and was set five or six feet out from and parallel to the door. It was supposed to shield the rear of the hooch from an explosion. The front of the hooch was protected by a wall of dirt. Electricity was supplied by large diesel generators operating twenty-four hours a day in the motor pool. Lighting was provided by light bulbs hanging from the rafters on drop-cords. If I remember correctly, there were four or five lights down the middle of the hooch at regular intervals from the front to the rear door. The normal occupancy of a hooch was ten men, five cots down each side of the hooch. This allowed each GI a personal area of about six by seven feet.
In addition to the offices and living quarters, the battalion area also included shower facilities, latrines, urinals, a mess hall, clubs, supply room, and various other buildings. The battalion was like a small town. Everything we needed – not necessarily everything we wanted – was available. We even had two pet dogs, Spooky and her mother, Ozzie. They were the battalion “mascots.” Ozzie came over from the U.S. when the 2/11th was first sent to Vietnam. Spooky was born in Vietnam. No one knew who the father was.
The shower house was constructed of the same materials as a hooch. It was made of plywood and wire screen sides with a tin roof but instead of being built on a wooden platform it was built on a concrete pad with a drain in the middle of the floor. A drain pipe ran underground from the drain to a nearby drainage ditch. The building was partitioned by a plywood wall separating the shower area from a row of lavatories. The shower house was located on the lowest portion of the battalion’s hill in order to have “running” water. Up the hill from the shower house, next to the dirt road behind the hooch-line, sat a flat-bottomed aluminum pontoon boat. I don’t know its actual size but it was probably about six feet wide, fifteen to eighteen feet long, and perhaps three feet deep. It was used as a water reservoir for the shower house and was kept filled by an army tank truck that delivered non-potable (not for drinking) water around the camp.
Only cold water was available in the shower house when I first arrived at Camp Eagle. The water was provided by a pipe that ran from the bottom of the boat down to the shower house. The boat had no cover so the sun kept the water warm during the hot, dry season, but during the monsoon season the water was very cold.
A very enterprising trooper built an “in-line” water heater for the shower house shortly after I arrived. He paired a fifty-five-gallon drum with a gasoline fueled “immersion heater.” The immersion heater had a watertight steel body consisting of a combustion chamber with a stovepipe exhaust chimney. The combustion chamber contained a gasoline-fed burner, which heated the air in the chamber, which in turn, heated the water that surrounded it in the 55-gallon drum. These heaters were normally used in the field to heat water for washing utensils and mess kits. An immersion heater was somewhat dangerous because it burned gasoline and special care was needed to prevent an explosion when lighting the heater.
A second water pipe was added from the boat to the bottom of the 55-gallon drum. This provided a continuous flow of water to an “inlet” in the bottom of the “water heater.” The cold water in the drum was heated, the hot water rose to the top of the drum, and then flowed into a pipe and down the hill to the shower house. This allowed the shower house to have both hot and cold running water. Somewhat rare in Vietnam.
The same GI who built the water heater also came up with a homemade washing machine. Paddles/agitators inside half of a fifty-five-gallon drum rotated by turning a hand crank. Water was provided from a water hose and there was a drain plug in the bottom. It required quite a bit of muscle to wash a load of dirty laundry. I sent mine to the local Vietnamese laundry.
The latrine building was constructed of the same materials as the other buildings. Namely, plywood, wire screen, and tin. It was essentially a large outhouse with multiple toilet seats built into the top of what looked like a long, narrow, rectangular wooden box. There was a hinged door on the outside back wall behind and below each seat. Opening the door from the outside revealed half of a fifty-five-gallon drum filled with diesel fuel sitting directly beneath the toilet seat. Each morning the “used” drum-half was pulled from beneath the toilet seat and replaced by a “clean” drum-half. The “used” drum-half was cleaned and prepared to replace what would be the “used” one the next morning. How was the “used” drum cleaned? It was burned, of course. Hence, the diesel fuel in the drum-halves.
Unlike gasoline, diesel fuel can be difficult to ignite and it burns more slowly. Paper was lit and tossed into the “used” drum half to ignite the diesel. Ash was all that was left of the shit after about six hours of stirring the fire with a boat paddle. The “shit burner” was exposed to the stench all day long, his clothing saturated with black smoke, and his skin covered with an oily film. It wasn’t particularly pleasant for anyone on the downwind side of the latrine, either.
Fortunately, Vietnamese civilian workers (men were called “papa-san” and women, “mama-san”) were hired to do much of our dirty work, all for the princely sum of 100 Piastres (or “P”; also called “Dong”) a day. This was equivalent to about $1 U.S. a day. Many units in Vietnam were permitted to hire women as “hooch maids” to clean the insides of hooches. However, the 101st Airborne Division did not allow Vietnamese civilians on the inside of its buildings. They were only allowed to work outside.
Civilian workers were not paid in military script. The 1SG kept a supply of Vietnamese currency for paying the workers. Each morning the workers would squat in front of the CP waiting for me to hand out their work assignments.
I would ask, “Who wants to be the shit burner?”
Although they probably understood only the two words, "shit burner," they would all jump up and down, waving their hands in the air, and shouting, “Me, Me, Me!”
Why would anyone beg to burn shit? Because the shit burner received 200 Dong ($2.00 US) a day, twice as much as the other jobs, that’s why.
In addition to the latrines, urinals were scattered about the battalion area. A urinal consisted of a vertical tube, usually an empty 155mm projectile canister, with about two-thirds of it buried in the ground. You stood facing it and aimed for the hole. They were affectionately known as “piss tubes.” A three-sided plywood “blind” or a semi-circular portion of metal culvert was used to screen you from knee- to chest-height, offering a modicum of privacy in front of the user.
End Chapter 25, Part I….