Arrival In-country

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   On my way to Vietnam holding my nephew Matthew, July 1968

I arrived in-country on July 29, 1968, after having enlisted in the Army in February, 1966, and volunteering for duty in Vietnam in November, 1967. My previous duty assignment was in Gelnhausen, Germany, with Co C, 1st Bn 33rd Armor, 3rd Armored Division (Spearhead). When I arrived in Vietnam I was a SGT E-5 with over a year time in grade, and two and one half years in the Army.

In the 7th Army's Tank Crew Qualification Course (TCQC) I qualified Expert and received the Distinguished Tank Crew Award, roughly equivalent to the Infantry's Expert Infantryman Badge (EIB).

Far from being a rookie, I was well trained in all aspects of my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty), which was 11E40 (Tank Commander). On the day I arrived, I had seven months left in the Army. I would not be serving the standard 365-day Tour Of Duty, so I was "short" upon arrival, much to the chagrin of my fellow tankers.

I was probably among a tiny minority in that I had read two excellent books about Vietnam written by Bernard Fall. The Two Vietnams and Street Without Joy (which detailed the ambushes on the infamous Highway 19, which I would soon patrol and guard).

From the books I had learned of the long history of invasions of Indochina, the French Colonial period, the Viet Minh, and Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho. I was decidedly anticommunist (hey, I was born in '46) and believed that we were on the side of the angels in this adventure. I still do to this day.

I arrived at the 14th Aerial Port at Cam Ranh Bay expecting to have to low-crawl from the Flying Tigers DC-8 to a slit-trench and fight my way off the airfield. Such is the power of Walter Cronkite and the CBS evening news. To my surprise I didn't have to engage in hand-to-hand combat or a fierce fire-fight. Instead a Vietnamese girl in a Ao Dai (a flowing, traditional silk dress) placed a Lai of flowers around my neck and gave me a paper cup of pineapple juice.

A bus ride (windows covered by anti-grenade-mesh) later I arrived at the 22nd Replacement Battalion where I would be processed for assignment to a combat unit. Day turned into night and I noticed that this operation ran 24-hours a day. It was late into a truly balmy (I never really understood the meaning of that word until then) evening when they gathered us together and read off the names and units of all the new replacements.

I heard names like Big Red One (1st Infantry), Screaming Eagles (101st Airborne), Tropic Lightning (25th Infantry), and First Cav (Airmobile). When they read my name they said "4th Infantry, Ivy Division". I was disappointed. This sounded like a horticultural-society, not the crack, combat hardened (and familiar to the home-folks) unit I had hoped for. The nickname actually was derived from the fact that the Roman numeral for four is pronounced Eye-Vee, so the name "Ivy" stuck.

I boarded a MAC C-123 Provider, or Dumbo, along with a Vietnamese Village being relocated, replete with goats, pigs, and a water buffalo, for the flight to New Pleiku Air Force Base, and Camp Enari, home of the "Ivy" Division.

   The 4th Infantry's Shoulder Patch. This was not my idea of macho.

At my initial processing, conducted by the 4th Replacement Company, I learned that the 4th Infantry Division had been involved in some fierce fighting in the hedgerow country of France in WWII. They had fought some major engagements against the NVA in the mountainous area along the Laotian border, and had earned numerous awards and citations. It turned out that they were one of the finest combat units in Vietnam.

During my initial processing they noticed that my Army test scores were rather good so they asked if I wanted to work as an Intel aide in the Division TOC, or Tactical Operations Center. Intrigued, I agreed to go for an interview. The Light Colonel that interviewed me offered me a job after a brief chat. I would monitor the progress of LRRP teams in the mountainous AO along the Laotian border.

I would have taken the job, it did seem interesting, but I feared that I would just be a gopher, getting coffee for the brass, and I wanted adventure. I said no, as politely, humbly, and respectfully as a buck sergeant can when speaking to a light colonel, but he thought I was a loon to want field duty, and damned ungrateful to boot, and told me so in no uncertain terms.

Cherry School

While at Camp Enari I attended Cherry School. This was an in-country introduction and training course and it probably saved my life. The most important thing I learned was "If you didn't drop it, don't pick it up". This was excellent advice for avoiding being killed or maimed by a VC booby-trap and I took it to heart.

I actually had a good time in Cherry School. I learned all kinds of things they never taught me in Germany, such as how to field strip an AK-47, how to call a fire mission (we actually went out and called live artillery fire: I was really jazzed), and how to call an Air Strike. I was awed by the fact that the US Army was going to allow Mrs. Smith's son Raymond to call an Air Strike without adult supervision.

A fascinating, and life saving block of instruction was centered on the detection of enemy mines and booby-traps, complete with examples of each and every type Charles had used up to that point in the war.

I learned that Charles was killing us with our own trash. He would use discarded C-ration cans, batteries of all types, and commo wire to rig booby-traps. For example, an M-26A1 fragmentation hand grenade was placed into a C-ration main course (e.g., ham & lima beans) can. The pin was removed from the grenade, and the lever was prevented from flying off by the sides of the can. Chuck would then tie commo wire to the grenade and string it across a trail, concealed by vegetation. When an unsuspecting GI hit the commo wire, the greande was pulled from the can and the arming lever would fly off. About 5 seconds later the grenade exploded. Chuck sometimes also tampered with the grenade fuzes, removing the 5 second delay and making them explode instantly.

A use of discarded batteries, and another use of commo wire, was to make command detonated mines. Chuck would use the batteries to provide the source of ignition for electric blasting caps, and the commo wire to connect the batteries to the mine. This way Charles could be selective about how or what he blew up, whereas a pressure sensitive mine was fairly indiscriminate.

We were taught to police-up any area that we occupied so that nothing useful was left for the VC to use against us. Sometimes we would bury the trash and leave our own booby-trap in with it so that when Charles dug down to uncover the booty, he would get a surprise.

In addition to the interesting things that were part of the curriculum at the 4th Division Cherry School, there was also a wealth of information presented that was not very glamorous, but would prove to make life more bearable in Vietnam. For instance, an Army doctor gave presentations on how to avoid getting malaria, and fungal skin infections.

In the Central Highlands, there is a form of malaria called Falciparum that is especially virulent. In order to combat it we were required to take daily doses of a drug, called Dapsone, in the form of foil wrapped small white pills, in addition to the big orange pill we were required to take on Mondays to prevent garden variety malaria, which was prevalent in the lowlands.

There were also numerous tips that applied mostly to the infantrymen who would be out on deep penetration missions in the trackless highlands and did not necessarily apply to tankers. These included not wearing cologne or after shave since foreign scents such as these produce is easily detected in the jungle. Noise and light discipline was also covered, and there were admonitions to tape dogtags together, not carry half-filled canteens on ambush patrol, etc. I listened to all of these things and remembered them well, but most never became an issue with armor crewmen: the tank made too much noise to worry about clinking dogtags.

Avoiding fungal skin infections was as easy as not wearing any underwear or socks. Both trapped moisture, the breeding ground for fungus, and by not wearing either, air could circulate better and evaporate the moisture more readily.

We were also cautioned against drinking from any water source not deemed potable by the Army, including streams, and wells, unless the water was first treated with iodine tablets or boiled for one minute. Doing this would kill the bacteria that caused amoebic dysentary, a dibilitating illness that caused rapid deheydration.

It rained every single day I was at Enari. The sky was always covered by sullen gray clouds and the ground was a sea of mud. The permanent party personnel at Enari had constructed wooden sidewalks which were a real convenience in the ocean of mud. I was getting depressed, despite the excitement around me. I hate rain.

After Cherry School I was assigned to the 1st Battalion 69th Armor. Their nickname was Panther, which sounded more agressive than "Ivy", so I was pleased. There was a vacancy in Charlie Company, and that's where I was assigned by the Battalion S-1, or personnel department.

I boarded a deuce-and-a-half (a 2 1/2 ton cargo truck) and began the long trip via road to LZ Uplift on the coast, north of Qui Nhon. The monsoon had ended in the lowlands and the weather was sunny and warm. The countryside was lush and scenic, and decidedly foreign. Had I not been wearing a helmet, flak-jacket, and jungle boots, and toting a rifle, it would have been easy to imagine myself as a tourist. But evidence of the war soon became common. A pipeline along Highway 19 was blown in several places and POL was spilled forming huge puddles. Little did I know that I would become more familiar with this road, and this pipeline, in the months ahead.

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Creation Date: Thursday, June 13, 1996
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 1, 1998
Copyright © Ray Smith, 1996, 1998