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earlier, I was in Kontum only a few weeks. In May, I was selected
for an advance party to go to Bong Song and build a base camp.
This was several weeks of hot, grueling work. However, the
base camp we were to build was already partially established;
we were there to add to it. The group that was already there
were members of the Army's elite 173rd Airborne Brigade. They
pretty much stayed to themselves but from what I observed
of them they were very professional, no-nonsense soldiers.
From May through August we pretty much stayed behind the perimeter
of our base camp and built it up, with one notable exception.
Highway One, which ran the length of South Vietnam close to
the South China seacoast, was nothing more than a two lane
blacktop road. However, it was a vitally important transportation
artery for the US and South Vietnamese forces and may as well
have been an American interstate highway, judging by the high
priority of maintenance placed upon on it. In the hottest
part of the summer, our squad was selected to repair potholes
in a 30 mile stretch of this road which ran close to our base
camp. We used jackhammers, tar, and hot asphalt. I've always
maintained that this was the hardest work I have ever done
in my life. Hot asphalt at our feet and the summer sun above
us caused me to lose weight off of an already lean body. For
those of you who have seen Cool Hand Luke, the 1967 film starring
Paul Newman as the prisoner on a southern chain gang, then
you can understand what this duty was like. Only, we didn't
wear chains. We didn't need to. If any of us were to go AWOL,
where would we go?
base camp, we ate our meals in our mess hall over on the 173rd
side of the base camp, or compound, as we usually called it.
The trash area sat directly off the road leading to the front
gate, and one day I was riding in the back of truck as we
headed out to our job site. As we rolled toward the gate,
I saw several Vietnamese boys literally crawling through 55
gallon drums of used fry grease, looking for any solid food
residue they could. They looked up at us and smiled, their
hair and faces filthy with rancid fry grease. The image of
these starving, desperate children haunts me to this day.
I mentioned the perimeter earlier. My military occupational
specialty was combat demolitions. (I made E-5 NCO rank by
passing the promotion board test in this field before returning
to the States). While I was in Vietnam, I set up many different
kinds of mines and booby traps along the various perimeters
we would set up at the sites we worked at. Dad once asked,
"Did any of the mines you set up ever kill anybody?"
I truthfully told him that I did not know. He replied, "That's
probably just as well."
part of my tour began in late August when our platoon headed
for the field to build a bridge. The plan was to get this
bridge, a two lane, medium size bridge spanning a small river,
built before the monsoon rains would commence in the middle
October. We did not make it. For one reason or another, (materials
did not arrive on time, lack of manpower, or, the reason I
have always felt was the main factor: The powers that
be were way short in their estimation of how long it would
take to erect this bridge), we fell short of our estimated
time of completion. The bridge was only partially complete
by the time the rains hit.
they did. Tropical monsoon rain is not like rain in most areas
of North America. I was constantly reminded during that Fall
of 1969 of the Biblical story of Noah and the great flood.
We were camped out on a dry rice paddy close to the bridge
site living in tents and sleeping on cots. During the dry
season, this was not too bad.
the consistency of the soil in the rice paddy was such that,
when water mixed with it, it changed from a very hard, brick-like
surface and became a filthy, (Vietnamese fertilize their rice
paddies with human excrement), smelly soup-like substance
that was very sticky. Often you would be walking along on
what you thought was solid ground and the next step you took
would sink your foot a foot or more into the ground.
continue, let me relate a short human interest story. Around
our campsite, a small Vietnamese boy began hanging around
and did odd jobs for soda pop and candy. He was friendly,
always had a smile on his face, and we all liked him. I would
guess that he was around ten years old. One day, another boy
showed up offering to do similar errands, providing competition
to our original young friend. I was taking a break just before
noon when I heard a blood curdling yell. The boy we knew well
had taken a knife and sliced a several inch gash in the second
boy's leg, deep enough to where the boy's calf muscle was
projecting out of the skin. Our medic quickly sewed him up,
and we sent both boys away for good.
another lesson to me in how desperately poor and downtrodden
most Vietnamese civilians were, particularly the ones in the
remote locations I was stationed at. Pretty young girls, as
young as 11 or 12, would sell their bodies, and young boys
such as the one we knew were willing to knife their rivals
over a roll of Life Savers or package of chewing gum. To this
day, I think of this often and am grateful that I and my loved
ones live in the Land of Plenty. Next