The ARVNs Are Useless

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On October 11th, we were ordered to participate in a joint maneuver operation with the South Vietnamese Army and elements of the 1/503rd Infantry (Airborne), along with scouts from E Troop, 17th Cavalry. During this operation we were ambushed in the vicinity of BR898840 by the South Vietnamese unit we were working with. Automatic weapons fire peppered our tank, sounding like a heavy rain. Initially we assumed that we were under attack by the NVA, but Stretch determined that it was friendly-fire and that the ARVNs were the ones firing. I requested permission to return the friendly-fire with our own equally-friendly-fire, but Stretch said no. He finally contacted the US adviser who accompanied the ARVNs and rather calmly and politely asked him to have the ARVNs cease fire. After several minutes, this was accomplished. During this day the ARVNs would fire on every US unit involved in the operation. Fortunately, their marksmanship was so poor, there were no US casualties.

That night, we set up a NDP on a hill, with these same ARVNs as security for our tanks. Billy Kneipp and I went out at twilight to position claymore mines and trip flares in the area downslope from, and immediately in front of, our tank. Before going outside the perimeter, I spoke with the commander of the ARVN forces and their US advisor, and informed them that two US personnel would be outside the perimeter setting trip flares and claymores. I requested that they not fire at anything until we returned and checked-in with them. They agreed.

While setting the trip flares, Billy accidentally set off a previously placed flare. Immediately the ARVNs upslope began to fire at us. Billy and I hunkered down behind the trunk of a fallen tree and began yelling at the top of our lungs for the ARVNs to cease fire. After several minutes of pure terror, they did cease fire. I was livid when Billy and I returned to the NDP and I went looking for the idiot ARVN commander with fire in my eyes. Stretch intercepted me and persuaded me that killing the ARVN would not accomplish anything except to land my ass in jail, so I fumed for the remainder of the night.

I Hate Rain

We were struck by Typhoon Hester, which developed in the South China Sea, on October 14, 1968. It rained, literally, for four straight days and nights. In the seven day period from October 14, 1968 through October 21, 1968, over 30 inches of rain fell on the Bong Son plain resulting in severe flooding over sections of Highway 1 which washed out several culverts and bridge abutments.

Life during this period was miserable. We would go to sleep wet, get up for our 2-hour watch and sit in the rain, then go back to sleep wet. Our food was water-logged, and worse, no TAC air was available because of the low clouds. This would have been a perfect time for Charles to start something, but he did not.

On the second day of the storm we were ordered to move up Highway 1 in order to inspect the numerous bridges that spanned the monsoonal streams. These were guarded by RF/PF or "Ruff Puffs. The term meant Regional Forces/Popular Forces, and was kind of a Vietnamese version of our National Guard. Except that these guys deserted frequently, especially now because the rains flooded their rice paddies.

Every bridge that we crossed was deserted. The Ruff Puffs had simply gone home, leaving all their weapons, including hundreds of brand new M-16A1 rifles, laying out in plain sight. Stretch called our CP to report this so that someone could come out and police-up these weapons before Charles had a chance to get them. There were so many of them that it would have been impossible for us to load them on the tank.

As we continued up Highway 1 the water level on the road grew higher and higher. Afraid that Billy Kneipp our driver would accidentally stray off the shoulder, where there was a drop high enough to roll the tank, Stretch Grohman had me walk in front of the tank as a ground guide.

As I proceeded through waist deep water, snakes swam by me. The water became deeper the further I walked however, until it was finally up to my chin. At this point I told Stretch I was going no further because I couldn't swim, and I couldn't breathe under water. He called higher headquarters to report this news (the water level, not my inability to swim) and they asked "how deep is the water?" At this point Grohman asked me how tall I was. "Five feet two inches" I replied. Since the water was up to my chin Grohman reported the water as "One Smitty deep" to which the perplexed RTO at LZ Uplift asked "What's a Smitty?" "About Five Feet" Stretch replied, thereby setting a standard for linear measurement that would haunt me for months.

On October 16, at about 2000 hours, or just about dusk, a crewman on C-12, SP4 Nelson Smith, was bitten by a snake. Nelson had been deliberately trying to grab the snake and it bit him in self-defense. This incident was humorous in that the Dustoff pilots had a sort-of unwritten rule that they viewed night-time MedEvacs of self-inflicted gun-shot wounds and snake-bites as less than high priority. We told Nelson this, because no one liked the man. He whined constantly and was generally a malingerer so he received very little sympathy from anyone. The Dustoff ship finally evacuated him at 2105 hours. We never saw him again, although he did survive the war.

In the middle of October we were ordered to exchange all of our series 641 Military Payment Certificates (MPC or funny money) for a new series of MPC called 661. The purpose of this exchange was to leave Vietnamese (and Korean) holders of MPC with valueless paper. Supposedly they were left with 6 million dollars worth of worthless MPC since only U.S. Military personnel could exchange the old for the new.

Image: I entertain our dog Beethoven on the TC's hatch

During this period, we acquired a little black dog we named Beethoven (don't ask me why, I don't remember). We had rescued him from some Ruff Puffs who wanted to eat him. We were appalled by this cultural faux pas, and like good Americans everywhere, we stepped in and became foster parents.

Beethoven was small--he could hide inside a steel helmet--and fearless--he would bark at Charlie when we were in contact. He bounced when he barked. Beethoven would not eat C-Rations. This was alarming news, since we had nothing else to give him. It was also a sad commentary on C-Rations.

Image: Our platoon on a sweep

October 25th, 1968 found us on strongpoint duty on Highway 1, about midway between LZ Uplift and the Bong Son bridges. We were perhaps a mile north of an ARVN base camp. This turned out to be one of those days you remember.

October 25th was a memorable day for two reasons. The first was the fact that AFVN (Armed Forces VietNam) radio had been announcing frequently that the Commander-in-Chief, President Lyndon B. Johson, would address the nation with an important announcement. In my delusional mind, I envisioned a fiery speech that would conclude with the announcement that okay, no more Mr. Nice Guy, we were going to get this war over before Christmas by invading North Vietnam, kicking General Giap's ass, and going home. I told Billy to get ready to road march to Hanoi, that we would be the point tank in the column.

When old LBJ did speak, it was to announce yet another bombing-halt. We groaned. We knew that this meant that Charlies would take the opportunity to move as many reinforcments and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail as possible, before sense prevailed and LBJ resumed the bombing. That meant more mortar rounds, more anti-tank rockets, and more dead GIs.

The second incident was more laughable, but just as illustrative of our frustration. We were still listening to the radio after the "announcement" and AFVN played a Smokey Robinson tune called "Going To A-Go-Go". As we listened, the volume began to decrease, and old Smokey sounded as though he were 50 meters further away from us. I initially assumed dead batteries, and I asked Billy to replace them. I heard a shout and looked up in time to see long-legged Billy Kneipp bounding off into the bush.

We moved toward the spot where he disappeared into the boonies and saw him in hot pursuit of a diminutive figure in OD fatigues. We initially thought it was a VC or NVA and were appalled at the fact that Billy had no weapon. Moments later Billy caught the running figure, tackled him, and commenced to beat the shit out of him. We ran towards Billy who then yanked the hapless creature off the ground and began to march him back toward the tank.

It turned out that the brainless idiot who stole the radio was an ARVN soldier, assigned to the ARVN base that we were guarding. He was smiling idiotically, a trait that was characteristic of the South Vietnamese which did not endear them to us. They always smiled inappropriately.

Idealistic morons that we were, we were outraged that an ally would steal our radio. Adding to the adrenaline surge was the knowledge that this SOB could just as well have been an NVA or VC who could have killed us all with a grenade or a few burst of AK-47 fire. We were suitably chastened by this realization and I think we all silently vowed that this would never happen again.

We marched this hapless schmuck up to his base camp, and after locating the base commander, we explained, in our best pidgin English, the outrage perptrated upon us by this miscreant. The ARVN Captain, or Dai Wee, listened patiently, then beat the shit out of the thief again. Although we were a little stunned that an officier would do this, we were at the same time pleased. What we didn't know at the time, was that this Captain had probably sent the hapless creature out to steal the radio, and was only pissed because the schmuck got caught.

Billy whispered in my ear at this point that given the circumstances, our lives were not all that secure. What was to stop this Dai Wee from killing us in order to cover up this breakdown in Vietnamese-American relations? Concurring with Billy's assessment, I saluted this Captain with a salute that would have made the Old Guard envious, and we beat an orderly, if not hasty retreat.

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Creation Date: Thursday, June 13, 1996
Last Modified: Thursday, August 29, 1996
Copyright © Ray Smith, 1996