TRUCKING IN VIETNAM, Part 1
Getting There is Half the Fun and Orientation
|from Fred Probst
Fred Probst Website
566th Transportation Company
A starry night in January 1968, found me on a westbound Trailways Bus somewhere in the Nevada desert. My transistor radio was playing "Hey Jude", and my destination was Vietnam.
The first time I had ever heard of Vietnam was in 1965. I was assigned to the 396th Truck Company located at Panzer Karserne in Boeblingen, Germany. Our CO would call us together periodically and brief us about this place called Vietnam. All I can recall from those briefings is; that he talked a lot about a town called Da Nang, wondering what has this got to do with me, what has this to do with driving a truck, and how long was this briefing going to last. After all, I joined the Army to drive a truck, not to attend history classes.
Since that time I had heard more and more about Vietnam as it was hitting the papers and TV news daily now. As the news media increased its coverage of the ______, pick one, (War) (Battle) (Conflict), our briefings on the subject decreased, and we started to receive jungle training.
I had just gone through a mini Vietnam village a couple of months ago at Fort Riley, where they had constructed a Vietnamese village in one of its remote areas. It was complete with straw huts, trails, and many booby traps. I learned about trip wires, pungie sticks, booby traps, and a nasty spring loaded device that sprung up, down or out, depending upon its design, with numerous wooden spikes pointed in your direction, that would impale you when you activated the trip wire.
We were also warned about picking up souvenirs, as the Vietnamese were notorious for booby trapping items that the American GI thought would be neat to pick up and take back home.
A lurch of the bus brought me back to the present, and my radio was now playing "Light My Fire." The guy sitting next to me, who was asleep now, was returning to Nam for his second tour. He had filled me in on what to expect over there, and shared some of his war stories with me. As I listened to the drone of the bus's engine, I was thinking, "This is it." "This is real." "I'm going to a place where I could be shot". "I may have to shoot at people". "Will I be killed?" "Will I have to kill someone?" And what did he mean by, "Body count?"
The bus made a rest stop in Reno, Nevada and I walked across the street to a bar and ordered a beer. I was informed that I was not old enough to drink beer. Do you see any irony here?
The Oakland Army Terminal was a large place, and I would just be guessing if I were to say how many people were crowded into its confines. I recall rows upon rows of cots and duffel bags stretching on almost to infinity. There were a matching number of GIs that were milling around, standing in line, or sitting on cots. Some were talking, some were reading, all were lost. In those days when you reported in to a place, you were told to, "Wait here until your name is called." How many times has that been heard in the Army? So, like everyone else, I waited around listening for my name to be called.
I noticed that some of the GIs were squatting down in the middle of the floor, their butts almost on the ground, and had their arms draped over their knees while they talked amongst themselves. When I inquired about this strange behavior, I was told, "They just returned from Nam." Huh?
A couple of days later my name was called and I was crowded onto another bus and taken to the airport. As we entered a holding area at the airport I heard the familiar, "Wait here until your name is called."
Later that afternoon our names were called and we were taken outside the terminal, onto the tarmac, and told? You got it, only now, for the sake of brevity, I'm going to invent the acronym "WHUYNIC".
There was a large aircraft waiting for us with the face of a tiger on it's tail, and the words, "Flying Tiger" written on the fuselage. I recalled that this airline had been around for quite awhile, and seems like they did a lot of flying during W.W.II. Well, at least we were going to Nam with some folks that new what they were doing and had some experience in dodging bullets. This gave me a warm fuzzy.
As our names were called, we loaded onto the aircraft and shortly afterwards we were airborne and on our way. The trip was pretty much uneventful. That is except for the announcement that the pilot made, giving us our estimated arrival time for landing in Anchorage, along with the local weather. Alaska! My eyes dilated to their max, I broke into a sweat, and my warm fuzzy took off like a cork out of a champagne bottle.
Things started flashing through my mind such as; missing a movement, reimbursement to the Government for a plane ticket, and stockade! About the time I thought of looking for a brown paper bag to breath into to prevent myself from hyperventilating, the pilot continued with his announcement with; "From there we will continue on to Okinawa, Japan and Vietnam. Phew! I am on the right plane after all I thought, as the color returned to my face and my warm fuzzy showed back up.
We arrived over Vietnam sometime during the night, and I recall looking out the cabin window, trying to make out anything on the ground. But with the exception of a few scattered lights, it was pitch black. We were making our approach, the engines had slowed, and we were descending, but it was still black down there. Just about this time the sky started to light up with white and orange streaks of light, and I knew we were under some kind of attack. I expected that at any minute our pilot would give the engines full throttle and we would get out of there. But we kept descending, and my warm fuzzy went AWOL.
I learned later that we were not under attack after all, and that the orange lights that popped up everywhere were only parachute flares, used nightly all over Vietnam. My warm fuzzy started coming back. I wished later that I had some stock in the parachute flare business.
The doors opened on our aircraft and I stepped out into the night. I was immediately hit by a big surge of hot air which did not go away the whole time I was in country. As I recall, there were three seasons in Nam. Hot and muggy, hot and dry, or in the winter, warm and muggy. We marched into the air terminal, placed our duffel bags on the floor, and were told, WHUYNIC.
I need to explain something here for you folks that haven't enjoyed a trip to this part of South East Asia. You may have noticed that I shortened "Vietnam" to "Nam". I can do this because I've been there. But it is considered a faux pas to use this term without having spent your time "In country." I don't know why, it just is.
Sometime during the night my name was called and I loaded onto a small military bus. As we pulled out of the airport and started through a village, which I can now refer to as "The Vil", without committing a faux pas, I noticed that the windows on the bus had heavy, wire mesh screens over them. I made a comment about needing the screens for the big mosquitoes over here. I was informed that the screens were there to prevent the villagers from tossing handgrenades into the bus. I felt my warm fuzzy deserting me again, and this time it didn't return until I was back in the states.
I have no idea where our plane landed, but think it may have been Bien Hoa. The bus was taking us to a place called Long Binh. We made the trip without incident. At Long Binh we were ushered into a large BLDG and told to WHUYNIC.
The next day we were formed up outside for a newbie's survival briefing. As we were getting into formation I noticed that there were several old timers that were moving into the area as if they were going to listen to the briefing also, and I wondered why they would want to stand out in this heat and hear something they must have heard a hundred times before. The briefing started and we were told that there were a couple of warnings we needed to know about.
The first warning was called a Yellow Alert. We would be warned by the sound of a wailing siren, and if we heard it we should move outside of any buildings and proceed to any of the numerous bunkers located throughout the compound.
Then we were told of the Red Alert, and that we were to drop down wherever we were and cover ourselves the best we could. The question was asked, "What is the warning for a Red Alert?" The answer was, "You'll be being shot at!" I then discovered why the old-timers had shown up, as they started leaving the area with big grins on their faces, after watching our reactions to our Red Alert answer.
Shortly after the briefing I was singled out and told I needed a haircut. And admittedly I did need one after managing to go 2 months without one, thanks to a 45 day leave I had just come off of. I found the barber shop and walked in. And what I saw caused any part of my warm fuzzy that might have been hanging around to Di Di Mau. For standing before me, with a big grin on his face and a straight razor in his hand, was a Vietnamese barber! "Have seat", he said in broken English.
I survived my haircut with both ears intact, but as he was trimming around my sideburns with that straight razor he said, "You likey haircut?" "Yes sir" I replied. "I do good job, no?" "You did a great job" I said. "You leave big tip?", he asked, as the razor slid along my the side of my face. "A real big tip" I gulped. How much is 10,000 Dong anyway?
A couple of days later myself and a few other GIs were herded onto a C-123, which is a two engined C-130, to be flown to our new duty station. Our plane had no seats. You walked up a ramp that dropped down from the back end of the aircraft, and found a place on the floor to sit. The floor consisted of aluminum pallets which sat on rollers, and had cargo netting draped over them. The plane took off and we tried to maintain a sitting position on our now rolling pallets. The big trick here was not to get your fingers or butt between the pallets when they rolled together. There were no windows to see out of, and there was too much noise to talk, so we just sat there with our thoughts, wondering if it was normal for this thing to vibrate and shudder the way it was. Everybody else must have been wondering the same thing, as or eyes would all widen in unison. Other than that, our flight was pretty much uneventful. Don't you just love those kind of flights?
We landed in Cam Ranh Bay, and went through the WHUYNIC routine. A deuce and a half showed up and provided the transportation for the final leg of our journey. We bounced along in the back of the truck with our duffel bags, as the dust from the roadway kept pouring in over the tailgate turning our khaki uniforms and green duffel bags a chalky white. I noticed that the bottom of the truck bed was covered with bags full of sand and said something about them being put there to weight the truck down in order to give us a smoother ride. "They're put there to keep the damage to the cargo at a minimum when a landmine is hit.", I was told. Oh fuzzy, where are you?
Our truck, which was now struggling to get through the deep sand it was in, came to a halt and the driver dropped the tailgate. As I climbed out of the truck and looked around, all I could see was white sand, some brown buildings, very little vegetation, and a relenting sun that seemed that it's main mission was to be sure I could not escape from it. I had arrived at the 566th Trans. Co., my new home.
The driver pointed to a building off in the distance and told us that it was the orderly room, and that we should go there to report in. As myself and the other replacements started walking toward the orderly room, we heard someone shout out, "I smell weed." Someone else shouted back, "What kind of weed?" The first person then shouted, "Seaweed!" Seaweed, or weed, was the term used for newbies, a carryover from the troops arriving by ship. We made it to the orderly room with a few more cat calls of, "Here comes some weed." And, "Look at the weed."
As I checked in at the 566th orderly room, I went through the normal questioning you get whenever you report into a new unit. "Where you from?", "What unit were you with?", "How long you been in?", etc. Normally at this point the newbie would try to gain some status by telling some old war stories to show that he had been off the front porch a time or two, and that he had a lot more time in the chow line than the clerk checking him in had in the army.
But in Nam it was different. It didn't matter if you had been in the army 10 years longer than the guy you were talking to. This was Nam and you were the newbie. I had been told back in the states by some of the returning Vets to keep my mouth shut and listen if I wanted a chance of survival over here. That was some of the best advice I had received. So I tucked my tail between my legs, answered questions, and paid attention. Besides, at this point, my best war story would have put these guys to sleep.
After signing in, I was given the task of filling out the countless forms that the army had developed over the years. And, although this was an expected ritual I had grown accustomed to, the block titled, "Next of Kin" seemed to jump out at me now. Afterwards I was given a quick briefing that covered; mail call, sick call, work call, mess hall hours, and the Malaria Pill. The Malaria Pill was an orange pill that we were to take every Monday to fight off Malaria. I was also informed that it was provided at he mess hall and that I may have some type of reaction to it. Luckily I did not react to the pill and took it religiously the whole time I was in country. After the briefing I was given a quick tour of the company area, escorted to the supply room to draw bedding, then taken to my new living area, which was a cross between a tent and a building, and was referred to as a hooch. It slept 6 people.
The bottom half of the hooch was about 4' high and consisted of overlapping horizontal slats. The top half of the walls were big open areas that were covered with screening material. The roof was made of corrugated steel, with sand bags scattered on top to keep the roof from flapping in the wind during the monsoon season. Around the outside perimeter of the building was a wall of sandbags which were piled about 3' wide and 4' high. These sand bags, which were around just about every structure in Nam, were designed to hopefully gives us some protection during mortar and rocket attacks.
My escort left, and for the first time in several days, I was by myself! And what a great feeling this was after days of being crowded into buses, planes, sleeping areas, assembly areas, mess halls, etc. As I sat down on my bunk I realized that I had been running on adrenaline for the past several days with very little sleep. Right now I felt like I could just drift off and sleep for days. But I wanted to get my stuff put away, put my bedding on my cot, and take a shower first. How long had it been since I had a shower? Longer than I wanted to think about.
As my escort was leaving me to my new home and thoughts, he told me that my roommates were out on a convoy, and that when they returned they could show me how the shower worked. How complicated could that be I thought. But, being the new kid on the block, I resisted the temptation of taking a shower without instructions, and waited for my roommates to show up.
I dumped my duffel bag out on my bunk and started putting my stuff away. My area of the room consisted of an army cot, a foot locker, and a box hanging onto the wall with shelves in it. I was pleasantly surprised to see that we had electricity. In fact, one of the guys had a small apartment sized refrigerator next to his cot, and another guy had a reel to reel recorder. For you younger readers, a reel to reel is a pre-CD, pre-cassette, pre-eight track, music playing device.
The distant sounds of truck engines and banging tailgate gates woke me. I must have succumbed to the lull of activity and drifted off to sleep while sitting on my cot. As I looked out through the screen I saw that it was starting to turn dusk and there were a couple of deuce and a halfs unloading people. These passengers started to disperse, walking towards their respective hooches, and several of them were headed my way.
I stood up as my new roommates entered the hooch and was surprised to see that they were all white as a ghost, from their boots to their hair. Even their weapons and gear were white. It turned out that this was a normal end of the day appearance for them, and was the result of long hours of driving in convoys on unpaved roads. As they entered the hooch and started to drop their gear onto their cots they noticed me standing there in my wrinkled stateside khakis and the somebody hollered, "Seaweed!" They threw their gear on their cots and came over to welcome me to their piece of the world.
We went through the normal, "Where you from?" questions as they sat on their cots, and started wiping down and cleaning their weapons. And while cleaning weapons in the army is something that is very normal, and done wherever you go, I noticed something very different here, and at first I couldn't put my finger on it.
Later on it dawned on me what was different. There was no command to clean the weapons. Everyone just sat down, almost in unison, and started taking their weapons apart. They knew right where their cleaning supplies were. No one was looking for or borrowing something to clean with. And while the normal procedure elsewhere was to look at the person you were talking to, with an occasional glance at your weapon, the opposite was true here. While looking intently at the weapon they were cleaning, they would make an occasional glance at the person they were talking to.
One of the guys also carried an M-60 into the hooch. And as everyone finished cleaning their assigned weapon, they automatically started cleaning the M-60. Like ants on a bug, they converged on the machine gun, took it apart, cleaned it, and had it back together in no time. If this had been stateside, they would have still been standing in a formation while an NCO gave directions on where to find the cleaning supplies, assigning tasks, and providing a time for another formation so the weapons could be inspected. Then you would have had the normal lame and lazy folks that would be dragging their feet while they complained and whined or just eased out of the door, leaving the cleaning task to someone else.
But not here. Not in Nam. And while these guys had to be tired and hungry, not to mention needing a shower in a bad way, their weapons came first, and nobody shirked their responsibility.
After the weapons were cleaned the talk turned to chow and we headed to the mess hall. We stopped by the arms room on the way and I waited off to the side while they turned their weapons into the armor. The arms room was one of the few buildings in the area that had full wooden walls. The rest of the buildings were constructed pretty much the same as our hooch, to include the mess hall.
As we entered the mess hall I saw a dispenser hanging on the wall and some of the guys were taking small white tablets from it. "Salt pills.", I was told as someone noticed the puzzled expression on my face. Newbies walk around with that look on their faces a lot during the first week or two in Nam.
Chow was chow, and I couldn't even hazard a guess as to what I ate that night. The mess hall was pretty much arraigned the same as any other chow hall in the army. You entered the hall, grabbed a compartmented tray and slid it along the counter as the cook placed food in the different compartments. The big difference here was, this was the first air-conditioned mess hall I had been in, and it felt great.
Several of the guys at a table motioned for me to join them and I headed their way. Their enthusiasm to have me sit with them was not because of who I was, but because I was their link to the states. I had the latest news, gossip, and information on what was happening stateside. I was their thread to reality, and they knew that within 48 hours their link would disappear. My Class A uniform would turn into jungle fatigues. My stateside slang would go away and the term "Rock & Roll" would take on a new meaning. In 48 hours we would be sitting at this table again. Only I would be in chalky white jungle fatigues, with chalky white hair, and have a chalky white face with sweat streaks running down it, and their link to the states would be broken.
After chow we headed back to the hooch and my thoughts started turning towards taking a shower, which I expressed to my comrades. "No problem.", they said, and as we approached our hooch. One of the guys said, "Grab that diesel can and follow me." Huh? Along with puzzled looks, The expression "Huh?", would also be with me for awhile.
I grabbed the can and followed him to the shower room which was just behind our hooch. "First you make sure that we've got water.", he said as he pulled the cord on a shower head and water flowed out. Then we started following a water line that ran from the shower and up a hill. Connected to the other end of the water line, on top of the hill, sat a fuel tank that had once been attached to a fighter jet which had met its demise. It had since been salvaged and cleaned, and now stored the water for our shower. About midway between the shower and the tank, the water line ran through a 55 gal barrel which had been cut in half. The bottom of the barrel was filled with sand, and just above the sand the water line entered the barrel, coiled around itself about 5 times, and continued out the other side of the barrel.
"Pour the diesel into the sand.", he said. I followed his directions, saturating the sand in the bottom of the barrel with diesel fuel. He then showed me how to ignite the diesel fuel while still maintaining my eyebrows. Flames flared up and engulfed the coils of water pipe in the barrel. Then he explained that I would have to work out the timing of my shower through trial and error, but normally, by the time I walked back down the hill, got my clothes off, and walked back to the shower, it would be about right, more or less.
By the time I got back down to the hooch I discovered that everyone else had stripped down and were converging on the shower, which put me at the back of the line. While waiting for my turn in the shower, I tried calculating the volume of the water tank and the number of people ahead of me, to see if there would be any water left when I got my turn in the shower. I was happy to discover that everyone washed quickly, and used very little water.
When my turn in the shower came I wanted to just stand under the running water and let the accumulation of dirt and sweat from the last couple of days wash off while I held the water valve open. But that was a luxury that I wouldn't have until I got back home. So I got wet enough to lather up, and then used just enough water to rinse off with. But it still felt great.
Once back in the hooch I was told that in order to shave, wash my face, or brush my teeth in the mornings, that I needed to acquire a washing bowl, not unlike a large mixing bowl, to carry water and wash in. One of the guys loaned me an old one he had, that leaked, but said it would get me by until I got one of my own. The bowl as I remember was about 18" across, about 6" deep, and made out of light weight aluminum. And after being used for awhile the sides would crack from flexing while water was being carried in it. I was also told that for $10.00 a month, Mama-san would polish my boots, sweep the floor, make my cot, and wash my clothes. That was probably the best return on my money I ever gotten.
Sleep came quickly that night and when I woke the next morning I was by myself. Everyone else had headed out on another convoy, and since I still had a day of processing to go through, they let me sleep in. I made my way to the water truck that was parked in the company area, filled my borrowed bowl with water, and carried it back to an area that had been set up for washing and shaving in the mornings. I discovered that about half of my water had leaked out already, and I had just enough to brush my teeth. After two more trips to the water truck I was shaved, washed and ready for my first full day in the company.
Mama-san came by the hooch just as I was putting my shaving gear away, and between her broken English and my no Vietnamese, I think we agreed that she would wash my clothes. Anyway I gave her $10.00 and hoped that's what we had agreed to. Actually I gave her $10.00 worth of Military Pay Certificates (MPC). Somewhere along the line, probably in Long Binh, I had to convert all my American money for these MPCs. I was told that it was to fight the black market.
After breakfast I headed to the clothing issue point where I was issued my new, in country clothing. This included jungle fatigues, jungle boots, flak jacket, and other related items. Although the fatigues and boots I received were new, the flak jacket was another matter. It was worn, scared and stained, and I often wondered about the source of the stains. One of the issues I received was a wide brimmed canvas hat with a draw string that went under your chin. Almost everyone, to include myself, wore these hats with the sides rolled up, western style.
As I trudged back to my hooch to stow my gear, while wearing my newly acquired hat, it dawned on me that nobody that I had seen in the last couple of days had been wearing a steel pot. The whole time I had been in the army, you had to wear your helmet for a number of functions to include; guard mount, guard duty, going to the field, in parades, and any other function the army could think of to make you wear this piece of equipment. Good training was the buzzword when anyone complained about the weight of this thing setting on their heads. Now I'm in a combat zone and I get to wear a cloth cap. Gotta love the army.
I was to learn that most of the training I had done prior to coming to Nam was going to be set aside while we dealt with the mission at hand. Although I was issued a steel pot, it spent most of its time bouncing around on the floorboard of my truck. When you needed it, you put it on. When you didn't need it, you took it off. Is that simple or what?
After putting my gear up I climbed into my new fatigues and boots. And yes, I spent a little time in front of the mirror trying to get the right look with my new hat. After all, there is a very fine line between looking like Gabby Hays or John Wayne when you wore a wide brimmed hat. Feeling less self-conscious in my fatigues then I did in my Class A's, I felt that I could blend in more with the old-timers and started to walk around exploring my new surroundings. Of course the bright green of my fatigues and polished boots still screamed, "Seaweed." I made it to the PX and picked up a new bowl to use for my morning washing.
The 566th , along with the 24th, 442nd, and other truck companies in the area, was located above the bay on a hill side, while the motor pools were located down below, where the ground was flat. Although there were boardwalks around the company areas, and a couple of paved roads in Cam Ranh Bay, most everywhere you went, whether walking or driving, you were in sand. Some sand you sank into, other sand was hard packed and easy to walk or drive on. It was not uncommon to see a truck sitting in a hole it had dug for itself, waiting on a wrecker or another truck to pull it out.
As I was enjoying my walk around my new neighborhood I received an urgent call from nature and quickly located the company latrine, which was located along one of the boardwalks. Although we had urinals located closer to the hooch, this was my first experience with the company's full function latrine. It too was built with 4' wooden sides, with the top half being screened in, and a corrugated steel roof. As I entered the latrine I saw that although it was a 6 holer, I was the only one here. In order to gain access to the seats, you had to step up onto a ledge about 18" above the ground. You then dropped your drawers, turned around and sat down. This extra height gave you the feeling of sitting on a throne. You could sit here and watch the world go by. It also occurred to me that as the world went by, they could also watch me.
This was a very humbling experience, and as I sat there wondering if maybe there were curtains or something I should have lowered, it got worse. In the distance I could hear two Mama-sans talking to each other, and their voices were getting closer! Just as I started to pray, "Please Lord, head them in another direction", they walked right by the front of my throne. I held my breath. I didn't make eye contact. I tweaked my nose hoping I could turn invisible. Something worked, because they walked right on by and never looked in my direction.
Once I made my retreat from the latrine, I doubled back and made a curios pass in front of it. I was somewhat relieved to discover that due to the bright sunlight outside, and the dark interior, it was difficult to see anything inside. However, I didn't spend anymore time than necessary whenever I made a visit to the throne after that.
I returned to my hooch and discovered that evidently my $10.00 went where it was suppose to. For sitting on my cot, washed and neatly folded were the clothes that I had left in my laundry bag. The rest of the day went by pretty uneventfully. And just prior to the evening meal I was informed that I would be going out with the convoy in the morning. As I sat in the hooch that evening after chow, I was told what to expect tomorrow, what equipment I needed to bring, and a few other words of wisdom from the other drivers
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