He who controls the highlands...

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On November 1st, we road-marched our tanks 77 miles (124km) from LZ Uplift, to An Khe, in the Central Highlands. This was a long road-march, some 5 hours, along Highway 19 through the ever-dangerous An Khe pass. What made it especially dangerous was the fact that the sides of the pass were so high we could not elevate any of our weapons high enough to fire at an enemy located at the top. This was the same problem faced by French armored units during the Indochina War. Stretch Grohman and I were acutely aware of this, having read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. My eyes were glued to the ridge lines above our heads.

We were fortunate once again, however, in that Chuck was not in a position to launch an attack, since he was still licking his wounds from his disastrous losses during the February 1968 Tet offensive.

The Vietnamese military believed that he who controls the highlands, controls Vietnam. This had certainly been the case during the First Indochina War. The highlands were composed of rugged, mountainous terrain, offering excellent hiding places for the NVA/VC, and the French were unsuccessful in defending the region against attack.

The key to defending the highlands was in defending Highway 19, the vital road link between the port city of Qui Nhon and the city of Pleiku some 109 miles (175km) inland. The French had been unable to keep this route open, and suffered major losses in several devastating Vietminh ambushes. Our deployment to the highlands was designed to strengthen our hold on Highway 19.

When we arrived at the home of the 173rd Airborne and 1st Cavalry at Camp Radcliff, we got our first glimpse of Hon Cong mountain, in the center of the sprawling base. On it, people from the two units had inscribed gigantic, full color replicas of their shoulder patches. There must have been competition to see whose would be bigger, and the big yellow patch of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) seemed to win out, if only slightly.

We were stunned to discover that these guys had a swimming pool. Not only that, but they had a PX, snack bar, service club, and other amenities of home. We also discovered their NCO club, where we promptly got into a brawl with some airborne REMFs, or "Chairborne Rangers", as we liked to call them. These guys were not to be confused with the airborne infantrymen who we fought alongside in the field who were the finest light infantry in the world. Rather these were guys who did anything and everything to avoid going to the field, but who pretended to be just the opposite. We loathed them.

This brawl started the way they always did. The REMFs called us "legs", a pejorative term they used to refer to everyone who wasn't a paratrooper. We responded that they were mistaken, that legs walked, while we rode into battle. They made snide remarks about "iron coffins" and "death traps" and I replied that only two things fell from the sky: airborne, and bird shit.

As was my customary habit in these affairs, I took the first punch squarely in the nose and crumpled to the wooden floor, at which point the bigger guys counterattacked. The REMFs were convinced that they were the baddest people on God's green earth, and it came, I think, as somewhat of a shock to them when they discovered that jumping out of an airplane did not make you a bad-ass: size, strength, and a great deal of pent up rage made you a bad-ass. Some of our guys had all of those ingredients and at worst they fought the REMFs to a bloody-nosed draw.

Actually, I think they kicked their asses. It looked that way as Chuck Barker carried me out of the club over his shoulder anyway. I defiantly flipped the REMFs the bird on the way out. Later I discovered that my nose was broken, again.

We were subsequently banished from the NCO club for life, the remainder of the war, or the remainder of our tours, whichever was greater. It didn't really matter. We never returned there again. It turned out that this would be the only three day stand-down that our platoon would receive during my tour.

The next day we were given a one-day pass to go down to the Vietnamese village that had grown up around Camp Radcliff. This village was known variously as "Sin City" and "Dodge City". The former name was the result of the numerous bars and whore houses, while the latter name was due to the construction of the town. The only exposure to American culture these people had, it turned out, was a number of Cowboy movies. They saw the buildings and streets of Hollywood's version of the Old West and copied it precisely.

Another reason for the name "Dodge City" was the fact that we were required to go downtown fully armed, wearing steel pots and flak vests. Combine all the M-16s with enough booze and sooner or later there was a shoot-out. Although mostly confined to drunken ARVN soldiers, there were a couple of "High Noon" encounters between REMFs from Camp Radcliff.

Fortunately morale, esprit d' corp, and unit cohesiveness were much better in our platoon and we suffered no friendly WIA during this excursion. We did however avail ourselves of the services of several boom-boom girls, then returned safely to Camp Radcliff.

November 4th found our platoon at LZ Scheuller, about 11 miles west of Camp Radcliff on Highway QL19E. We had been placed OPCON (OPerational CONtrol) to the 1st Bn (Mechanized) 50th Infantry, who were themselves OPCON to the 173rd Airborne. The 1st/50th was originally part of the 3rd BDE of the 4th Infantry, as were we.

Intelligence (hehe) had obtained information that the 95B NVA Regiment was planning major attacks against the highway in order to disrupt the supply of Pleiku. We had been assigned to the area to help repulse this attack. As it turned out, the added presence of our tanks may have disuaded the NVA from massing in the formations necessary to conduct such an attack. However, their was still plenty of action, mostly platoon and squad size ambushes along Hwy 19E. The 1/50th was stretched very thin in trying to guard Camp Radcliff, and some twenty miles of Highway 19E.

The next two weeks or so were spent learning our new AO and trying to explain the proper use of armor to the infantry. We were assigned various duties, including escorting the morning mine-sweep detail of 173rd engineers, strongpoint occupation, and bridge guard.


On November 13th, Grohman and I left the field in order to go on R&R in Honolulu, Hawaii. We rode back to Camp Enari in the back of a 5-ton truck that was carrying pipeline sections to Pleiku. We had to straddle the pipes for the entire 59 mile (95km) ride to Enari, which lasted for hours, always watchful of a VC ambush.

I was not even eligible for an R&R, since the requirements stated explicitly that you had to be in-country a least 6 months before you were entitled to request one. This was the first of many examples of the uncanny ability Stretch possessed in getting around the Army bureaucracy to get things done.

Upon arrival at Enari, Grohman announced that we would be taking a VIP flight to Cam Ranh Bay, were we would depart by commercial airline for Hawaii. I thought he was joking, but to my amazement, he picked up a field phone, spoke a few words into it, and voila! The next day we boarded a twin turboprop U-21 VIP aircraft and flew to Nha Trang, where Stretch had served in the IFFV HQs (1st Field Force Vietnam Headquarters) as the protocol officer. One of his former duties was to arrange VIP flights in Vietnam. We stopped by at the IFFV headquarters where we visited with his former colleagues. We were then invited by his former colleagues to a party on " Rec Beach " (Recreational Beach, the Army's offical name) where we ate hamburgers and drank beer for a few hours. The sand was so white the sun's reflection off of it hurt my eyes.

Next came a ride in a UH-1D Huey to Cam Rahn Bay, again arranged by Stretch with just a crank on the field phone. I sat in the door-gunner's seat and was stunned by the beauty of the South China Sea and the beaches it lapped against. When we landed at Cam Ranh, a Captain, known as the "greeting officer", came rushing out to the helipad, locked his heels, and proffered a perfect hand salute for the arriving "VIPs". The sand kicked up by the Huey's rotor swept over this poor guy like a flood but he did not flinch. When Grohman and I bounded out of the Huey, and he realized that the "VIPs" were a 1st Lieutenant and a buck sergeant, he dropped the salute, gave us a long, dirty look, and turned on his heel and departed.

When we arrived at the 526th Replacement Company's R&R Center we discovered that our flight was not scheduled to leave for two more days, despite the earlier information in our orders. I worried that our families would fear that we were dead if we didn't show up on time and wondered if there was a way we could contact them. I had been thinking about a pay-phone, but Stretch had other ideas.

Grohman managed to get us a ride to the top of "Mars Mountain", the communications center for MACV at Cam Ranh Bay. This was a top-secret, restricted-access facility, which we were reminded of by the gate guard. Stretch asked the guard for the field phone in the guard shack, and several softly spoken words later, a jeep picked us up at the gate and took us up Mars Mountain. Grohman had a friend in the communications branch and he allowed us to send messages to our families warning them of our delayed departure. This guy never ceased to amaze me. He could get anything done if he had to.

With two days to kill, we did what every right-thinking tanker does: when in doubt, attack! We went drinking. This was not an easy thing to do. Grohman was an officer, and I a lowly junior NCO. Grohman suggested we go to the officers club, offering to loan me a set of Lieutenants Bars. Not wanting to wind up in LBJ or Leavenworth for impersonating an officer (everyone would have guessed immediately that I was no officer), I suggested we go to the NCO club. I figured that if anyone had the audacity to question Stretch about his membership, he's just pick up a field phone and have their ass transferred. In the end we wound up at the NCO club where we drank too much and I played " Sky Pilot " (the short version) by the Animals, over and over. Finally Stretch said, "Puh-lease, don't play E72 again!". It was a melancholy way to start an R&R.

Eventually we boarded a Pan Am 707 and left Vietnam behind. We stopped for fuel at Anderson AFB on the island of Guam. Our subsequent departure for Honolulu was delayed because a B-52 "Arclight" strike was taking off. We watched in awe as the heavily laden bombers lumbered down the runway and seemed to reluctantly lift off just before reaching the cliff at the end of the runway. We knew they were off to drop thousands of pounds of GP bombs on Charles, who referred to them as "Whispering Death" (they flew so high that Charles couldn't hear or see them, until the bombs exploded).

We finally arrived in Honolulu, and were ferried to the reception center at Fort DeRussy, where we were given a brief lecture on conduct ("You are representatives of the United States Army, so act accordingly" We did.) by a bored Captain, and then we met our families.

  Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head as seen from Pearl Harbor Tour Boat, Nov. '68

We spent the R&R drinking "Gung Hos" in the Canoe House Lounge at the Illikai Hotel on Waikiki Beach. For sport we tossed pennies into the fountain in the courtyard of the Illikai Hotel--from the 20th floor balcony. Life was tough. We also visited Pearl Harbor and went to the USS Arizona Memorial. But mostly we drank, ate, and lounged around the pool at the hotel. Stretch used his amazing talents to get us front row seats at the Don Ho Show in the International Market Place even though we had no reservations and the place was packed. This was a most relaxing and refreshing seven days.

We returned to Nam and went directly back into the field to rejoin the platoon which was still on Highway 19 in the Highlands. The weather in Nam was still good.

While we were in Honolulu, Charles had been busy ambushing convoys and conducting harrassing attacks on strongpoints. No one in our platoon was injured in any of these engagements and we picked up right where we had left off.

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