MY EXPERIENCES AND ESCAPADES WHILE SERVING IN THE 11TH TRANSPORTATION BATTALION AT CAT LAI, VIETNAM
April 1967 – April 1968
Captain W. Jerry Long III
Currently, I am fifty-eight years old. Before my memory fades further, I am recording events from my year in the 11th Transportation Battalion at Cat Lai, Vietnam from April 1967 to April 1968. I trust the reader will value these experiences and escapades.
My Army service began in 1965 when I received a Regular Army Commission (Transportation Corps) through the Army ROTC program at the University Of Tennessee. Prior to service in Vietnam, I graduated from the Armor Officer Basic Course at Fort Knox, KY and then served thirteen months as a platoon leader in the 1/72 Armor, 2nd Infantry Division at Camp Rose, Korea (near the DMZ). In Korea, I graduated from the Imjin Scout School (Korea’s highly modified version of Ranger School). After Vietnam I graduated from the Airborne School at Fort Benning, GA. and attended the Army’s Civil Disturbance Control course at Fort Gordon, GA.
When I arrived at the 11th Transportation Battalion at Cat Lai, Vietnam in April 1967, the battalion had a medium boat company at Vung Tau, a terminal transfer company at Long Binh and two terminal service companies at Cat Lai. In addition there were several detachments including tug boats and river transport vehicles. Total people: about 1,000 of which 300 – 400 were located at Cat Lai. Cat Lai had been occupied by US forces for less than a year.
The Battalion Commander was Ltc. Thomas Hoy who was succeeded by Ltc. Normal Brown and later Ltc. Edgar G. Friend. Sergeant Major Talmage R. Carroll (from Virginia) was the senior enlisted man during most of my stay at Cat Lai. As a young relatively inexperienced officer, he helped me immensely. The enlisted men of Cat Lai could not have had a better representative. May God bless this fine man wherever he is.
The first thirty days, I commuted via LCU river craft to the Saigon Port Complex supervising the unloading of military general cargo ships on piers MM1, MM2 & MM3. I had had absolutely no training in this field. At that time, all Regular Army officers had to serve two years in a combat arm before being assigned to their permanent branch. I had just completed my assignment in Armor (2nd Infantry Division – Korea) and volunteered for Vietnam.
At the Saigon Port we had Vietnamese stevedores, French trucks and American supervisors. Seven days a week, up at 5:00 a.m. on the LCU at 6:00 a.m. then an hour commute. Return to Cat Lai via boat about 7:00 p.m. Why these commuters did not live in Saigon I have never understood.
About June 1, 1967 I became the Headquarters Detachment
Commander and the Battalion Adjutant at Cat Lai where I completed my tour
eleven months later. There were about
110 men assigned to the Headquarters Detachment. It was an excellent job for a young 1st Lieutenant.
Duties included checking the perimeter guards during the night. Once I found two of them asleep in the middle of the night. For them a battalion level Article 15 followed. I will always remember that one of the men who went before the colonel had been told that sleeping on guard duty could result in the death penalty. That morning someone started the rumor that Battalion was assembling a firing squad. The poor fellow went into the Colonel’s office in complete terror. In the end he was fined, demoted and restricted (as if there was somewhere else to go).
At Cat Lai, the duty day started at 6:00 a.m. and normal headquarters hours ended at 6:00 p.m. Then came extra duties. There were no days off during the whole year except for a five day R&R. We played basketball in the gravel in front of the headquarters building after 6:00 p.m. There was also a volleyball court. Periodically, I conducted target practice. A few times we used LAW rockets and 3.5” rockets. The unit had standard M14 rifles. Most evenings the officers cooked for themselves on the balcony of the headquarters building. We used charcoal. Pork and beans, corn or peas with whatever meat we could get was the main course. Good fellowship. Very little alcohol was consumed. We had a few good card games and movies.
At Cat Lai, the Dong Nai River was about a half mile wide with a rapid current. There were villages on each side of the river with a ferryboat running back and forth. In the middle of the river ammunition ships were discharged on to barges. These were WWII Liberty ships each loaded with more than 10,000 tons of high explosives. Typically we had three ships at a given moment. Cat Lai was a very dangerous place to be.
One night I was led to believe that an ammunition ship was on fire. Without hesitation, I immediately sounded the alarm for evacuation of the post. As it turned out, there was a gigantic fire on the far side of the river just behind the ship but the ship was in no danger. The Colonel severely chastised me the next day for the false alarm. However, I had made the call in good faith. I still feel being over cautious was the safest course. To protect the ships, we had heavily armed high speed boats available. One morning sappers blew up one of the barges with several tons of bombs on board. It rocked the compound from miles away. Also, I remember a nearby B52 bomber strike which was similar to an earthquake. Later, one of our LCUs hit a mine in the Mekong Delta and two of our people were killed. The XO, Major Robinson, the S-3 (Major Domke) and I flew in a UH1 chopper down to the delta to get assistance in getting our boat back. When we got there the Infantry Brigade Headquarters was underground. It seems like the place was Can Tho but I am not sure. We did not linger there.
Cat Lai had three concrete walls plus one side exposed
to the river. The walls were about
twelve feet high and 200 - 300 yards long.
The base had been a French Sea Plane base during the
1st Indo Chinese War. Some hangers were left and used for storage. Beyond the walls we had concertina wire, mines, flares, etc. Spaced along the walls were observation posts with M60 machineguns. We had one night vision scope through which we could actually see in the dark. There was an eight seater “pink” floating latrine on the river. Our showers were all cold from water brought in via tanker. No one wasted water. There were no fox holes because the water table was at ground level. Therefore, we built above ground bunkers using sand bags. Wooden sidewalks were used because of the monsoons. When I arrived in April 1967 all the enlisted men were in tents. A year later there were barracks, an EM Club and a small Officer’s Club. We also had a very small Post Exchange.
In 1967, one of the Vietnamese employees was arrested by the Vietnamese as a spy. It may have been our barber. On call we had artillery support, gunships and if required attack jets. During part of my time at Cat Lai, the 199th Light Infantry Brigade Headquarters used a small portion of our space. The Infantry Brigade’s Commanding General was shot down across the river one night. He was wounded but recovered. Several times I recall seeing major fires at the petroleum storage base down river about five miles at Nah Be. Nightly, from the balcony of the headquarters building I saw flares being dropped over the Newport Terminal Complex which was less than fifteen miles away. In the opposite direction toward Bear Cat, I often saw the new Cobra helicopters making ground attack runs firing rockets and their automatic weapons. Sometimes I saw slow fixed wing aircraft with mini-guns putting a solid seam of tracers to the ground.
The day before the 1968 Tet Offensive, the S-2 warned
us that something was coming but no one knew what. The 199th Infantry went to protect Saigon. We were left to defend ourselves. During the first night of the Tet Offensive
of 1968 (January 1968) we were heavily mortared from the village across the
river. My Headquarters Detachment lost
about twenty men.
Our Battalion Commander, LTC Edgar G. Friend, was on emergency leave. His father was seriously ill. Major James C. Robinson, Jr. (ROTC graduate from Georgia Tech) was in temporary command of the Battalion and prepared for a follow-up ground assault by the Viet Cong. My detachment’s role was to form the final line of defense, inside the wire, surrounding the headquarters building about fifty yards out. When I set up the final line of defense in anticipation of a ground attack, my greatest concern was that the men would get confused in the dark and start shooting each other. Fortunately, no ground attack followed. The American Embassy fell that night. While the mortar rounds were still falling, I recall being in the operations center for a moment when Major Robinson was trying to decide whether or not to sink the ferryboat which ran across the river at Cat Lai. His concern was that a Viet Cong unit might use it to attack Cat Lai from the open river side.
When the Medivac choppers approached for the wounded, the NCO could not get the identification flare to fire. He handed it to me and I eventually got it off. I was surprised at how quiet the wounded were. When I checked the detachment’s area, I came upon one man holding the right cheek of his buttocks on with his hand. In one of the tents was another man asleep having consumed so much alcohol that he did not wake up during the attack. However, on the whole our people handled the emergency professionally and with great calm. This we were all proud of. Almost none of these men had had any training in the combat arms. They were logistics people. A couple men even got through basic training never having been on the rifle range.
Major Robinson was the champion of the young officers. He taught me much, was stern in his judgment toward me but his guidance helped me immensely later in my business life. I will always hold him in the highest esteem. Unfortunately, I have never been able to locate him to give him appropriate thanks.
After the attack, we retaliated with boat mounted 50 caliber fire and American artillery. The area in which the fire was returned was around the village immediately across the river. The boats returned fire almost immediately. However, the artillery fire was delayed about thirty minutes. The Medivac choppers were landing just as the America artillery began to fire. They quickly secured our wounded and departed. The next day no one left Cat Lai as no road was safe. I remember calling in the casualty reports in the clear via radio so the families back home could be notified.
The post received moderate damage from the mortars. The first two rounds passed just over the Battalion Headquarters and hit the Guard Platoon’s tent just fifteen yards away. It was full of men asleep. The next round hit the doctor’s office. Others splattered all over the post. My jeep was destroyed along with a couple trucks. The Headquarters building had minor damage from indirect shrapnel hits.
The next day LTC Friend returned. We were again heavily mortared the following night. In one of the tents someone had placed a refrigerator. A mortar round hit the refrigerator which absorbed the blast while the men slept. Luck, or the hand of our Creator? Both attacks were about 1:00 a.m. There was also a South Vietnamese unit at Cat Lai. We had no ongoing dialogue with them. Their officer’s quarters took two direct hits.
A few days later, the commander of the 4th Transportation Command came to Cat Lai to award decorations. I believe it was Colonel Fuson. A tall blond headed PFC from Montana or Wyoming was awarded an ACM with V for heroism for exposing himself to help others during the first attack. Several other awards were made to enlisted men. While we were a support unit, there was plenty of latent courage in those who served at Cat Lai.
During my year with the Battalion there were several non-combat fatalities. Only two men were incarcerated at the Long Binh stockade. Discipline was good while incidents were few and minor. I don’t recall any drugs being found on post though I am certain some people used them. Most incidents were minor fights or the result of alcohol. Beer was only $.10 per can. I do not recall any racial incidents at Cat Lai, ever.
One of the men incarcerated at the Long Binh stockade was transferred to my unit upon his return after a thirty day stay. The first thing he did was report to me and state clearly, “Sir, you will absolutely have no trouble from me.” He was true to his word. A perfect example of rehabilitation.
The other man went to Long Binh twice. On Christmas even 1967 this man was intoxicated with an automatic rifle in hand in one of the tents threatening several people. In an act of courage, the Battalion XO, Major James C. Robinson, Jr., walked into the tent faced him down and talked him out of the rifle. The next day I took the man to the stockade pending trial. Within ninety days he was back and was assigned to my unit. Shortly thereafter he had a knife threatening several people in the EM Club and also struck the duty officer. He was back in the stockade within hours and was there when I returned to CONUS.
Getting needed items often required use of un-official supply channels. We traded dunnage (lumber) from the ships for many items. A friend of mine at Long Binh “acquired” a massive refrigeration unit for the Enlisted Men’s Club in exchange for a minor favor. Unfortunately, it was delivered the night before the IG Inspection but successfully hidden (covered with a tarp in my room) for twenty-four hours. Lumber was also traded for ice cream and meat.
My travels were limited to the Saigon Terminal Complex, Tan Son Nhut Airbase in Cholon, Long Binh and the Bien Hoa Airbase (a total radius of less than thirty-five miles). One evening in the suburbs of Saigon a five year old ran in front of my jeep and we hit him going about twenty miles per hour. Though he was severely injured, I believe he recovered. It was near sunset and no one stayed out after sunset. A French doctor’s office was within a hundred yards of the accident. I left the kid with a female French doctor. He was bleeding severely from head and back injuries. We then dashed for Cat Lai just at dark.
No one was allowed off post after dark. It was literally suicide to wander around in Vietnam after dark. One evening Lt. Tuck Johnston, the duty officer, came and told me three men were unaccounted for and that they had gone to Saigon on normal business. All three were totally reliable people. We decided to go look for them ourselves rather than send someone else. We headed out at dusk heavily armed maintaining radio contact with the S-3. Before we got to the main highway between Saigon and Long Binh there was a bridge guarded by the Vietnamese. We came upon them there. Everyone returned safely to Cat Lai.
Sergeant Major Carroll and I had a most unusual relationship. On the whole it was very favorable. Often he tested me in little ways which sometimes required tolerance which at a young age I did not have in excess. However, always he was loyal and always he provided me with rock solid judgment on difficult issues. His many years experience and willingness to appropriately share it with me were invaluable. To this moment, I have the fondest memories of Sergeant Major Talmage R. Carroll (of Virginia). On almost any taxing issue he was “virtually” always right, “except one time”.
One quite afternoon he went over to the 199th Infantry Brigade Headquarters. Within the hour he came back with almost as much “booty” as he could carry. God only knows what he traded for this treasure from the real combat soldiers. He gave me a Special Forces knife which I still have. Also, he gave me a small fishing kit (for escape and evasion) and a two pound bag of freeze dried shrimp. We were both rich.
Then the Sergeant Major pulled out of his treasure trove what I recognized immediately as an incendiary grenade. He told me he got this “White Smoke Grenade” as part of the booty. I told him that what he had was one of the incendiary grenades used to melt metal. I knew this because I had previously been the battalion ammunition officer in 1/72 Armor in Korea. Not only did he have an incendiary grenade, it was one of the type which after being carried around in a pouch and exposed to moisture often exploded without the pen being pulled. There were numerous incidents of such explosions in Vietnam. In any event, a long friendly argument evolved about whether he had a white smoke grenade or an incendiary grenade of the most dangerous type.
Eventually, I bet him a bottle of Tennessee sour mash that I could prove he had an incendiary grenade by melting the metal on a confiscated illegal weapon we had in the arms room. He readily took the bet. I went out twenty yards from the Colonel’s office, put the confiscated weapon on the ground and prepared to pull the pen. Sergeant Major Carroll came out and told me I should go a much greater distance from the building. He surmised that the “White Smoke” from the grenade would contaminate the Colonel’s office and I would pay heavily for such poor judgment. I leaned over, pulled the pen and the grenade melted the weapon with almost no smoke. The old Sergeant Major could hardly believe his eyes. That is the “only” time I ever got one over on him. God bless his soul. If you are reading this Sergeant Major, please forgive me for telling it. However, I can only keep a secret about thirty years.
About half way through my tour I went down to Saigon and picked up a new 1st Lieutenant. I immediately sensed his condescending attitude toward my mild southern accent. A few days later he went off post without a flak jacket. When he returned, I reminded him of the importance of the flak jacket. He had some wise remark which I ignored. A few weeks later he made a similar trip and came back, white faced, with a bullet hole in the window. I never saw him leave without the jacket after that.
One Sunday, a sniper took a shot at me as we came near the main highway leading to the Newport Bridge. On another day, as we crossed the Newport Bridge I saw a heavy truck’s muffler in the right hand lane. The traffic was two heavy for us to stop and move it. Behind us a Vietnamese hit it on his motorcycle and was instantly thrown off and killed by another vehicle.
On the Dong Nai river it was relatively common to find dead bodies floating along the bank. One Sunday afternoon two of our men identified what appeared to be an American body with hands tied behind it floating near shore. They pulled it out of the water and sent for me. It had obviously been in the water several days and was a horrid site. I sent for the senior medical person who came over, took a look, said he wasn’t ours and said the best thing to do was put it back in the water. It was done and that was the end of the issue.
Late one afternoon, I was returning from Saigon along the only road leading to Cat Lai. An American Indian soldier was with me along with my driver. He looked up and saw a jet fighter/bomber diving almost directly at our jeep. In seconds the jet dropped multiple 500 pound bombs no more than 600 yards from the road. Obviously an Infantry unit was in contact close by. Someone snapped a picture just as the bombs exploded. I still have it. One could not be careful enough. Tragic events seemed to happen totally at random though with much time lapse.
I took my R&R to Hawaii for five days in October
1967. My fiancée met me there and we
enjoyed paradise together. That was the
highlight of the year.
Near the time I was promoted to Captain, about 5:00 a.m. one morning Sergeant Major Carroll came to me very upset. He told me that SFC Xxxx had consumed excessive alcohol the night before, that he had been provoked into a heated exchange and that SFC Xxxx had threatened several people in one of the tents with an automatic weapon. This greatly disturbed both of us because SFC Xxxx was a top notch NCO with an absolutely clean record. He was one who continuously demonstrated good leadership, sound judgment and total loyalty to both of us. We depended upon him daily and we knew we could count upon him regardless of how severe any situation became. We concluded quickly that when Colonel Friend heard of this a battalion level Article 15 would result and SFC Xxxx would lose a strip (best case). Colonel Friend demanded and got total professionalism from the officers and NCO group. At risk of incurring the Colonel’s wrath, I decided (without the Sergeant Major’s recommendation) to issue SFC Xxxx a company level Article 15 immediately in order to preempt a more severe punishment by the Colonel. We awoke a clerk to do the typing. At 5:30 a.m. SFC Xxxx reported to my office. He readily admitted his offenses without making excuses. Therefore, I fined him the maximum and restricted him to the post for the maximum period. All of the paperwork was completed by 5:55 a.m. I kept the SFC’s Article 15 in the battalion safe until the day I was to return to the US. One of my last acts was to destroy it. In my judgment “Justice” was done and I have no regrets. Colonel Friend, if you read this, kindly forgive me for my indulgence upon your authority. Three years later, as a civilian, I ran into SFC Xxxx in a restaurant in Tampa, FL. He never mentioned the incident nor did I. I am totally confident that he finished his Army career with no further incidents. I bet he made Sergeant Major because he was of that mold.
My promotion to Captain was in January 1968 at age twenty-five. I returned home in April 1968, got married, and served in an advisory capacity in North Carolina and as a Survivor’s Assistance Officer until being discharged in December 1969. The role as a Survivor’s Assistance Officer took a heavy emotional toll upon me. I had about two cases per month in addition to normal duties. All except two were killed in action (mostly infantrymen). One became a prisoner in Cambodia and was later released. The other, a Lieutenant Colonel, was missing in action. The colonel’s wife had an alcohol problem. After she was notified he was missing she called the White House several times. Managing the case was impossible. After one of my visits the colonel’s mother committed suicide. When I left the army he was still missing. Last year, twenty-two years after his MIA report I went to his hometown. He was still missing. His wife had remarried twice.
One Sunday in 1968 after returning from Church, I was directed to go to a soldiers home far in the country and talk with his wife about a false killed in action report she had supposedly received. Upon arriving the master sergeant and I were immediately arrested by the FBI. They thought we had perpetrated the inexcusable hoax. It took half a day to get the facts straight. In the end it was discovered that the wife had had a hallucination while under medication. Each case was a true horror story. In my very first survivor’s assistance case the mother stated that the body in the casket was not her son. After a couple hours it was concluded that in fact it was. A very tough day.
It was in handling these tragic cases that I learned: A “Mother’s” love for her son is exceeded by no other human emotion. This fact has remained with me to this day. Every time I hear taps played, even today, tears well up in my eyes. I also choke up every time the National Anthem is played at a Tennessee football game.
During 1968 I seriously considered staying and making the Army my career. I had a regular commission and was in line to make Major before age thirty. While going through the decision process, I attended Airborne School at Fort Benning, GA. Just as I was making my final long term commitment the My Lai case broke in the news involving Lt. Calley’s killing over a hundred civilians. About the same time Colonel Oren Henderson was accused of throwing a Vietnamese from a helicopter into the South China Sea. After long consideration I decided to become a civilian. What troubled me most was how easy it was for a well meaning officer to find himself consumed by circumstances beyond his control and for which he is totally accountable. I felt Lt. Calley was unquestionably guilty of poor moral judgment but that Colonel Henderson was persecuted by the media. I also realized how close I had already come to exposure to such uncontrollable circumstances. That was really the deciding factor for me and it was the right decision.
In 1970, I started my civilian career as a salesman for ALCOA selling a broad range of aluminum raw materials. Among my customers were Dayron the maker of cluster bombs, Martin Marietta and several other defense contractors. In 1976, I used the GI Bill to secure an MBA from the University of Tennessee. The military experience and the MBA combined opened doors which led to high levels on three corporate ladders (Atlantic Richfield Company, Commonwealth Industries (formerly part of Martin Marietta) and General Electric). Twenty two years after leaving the Army, I became a Vice President in General Electric’s portfolio of companies serving there six years before temporarily retiring.
Life has been good to me. Before entering the military I had seldom been more than a hundred miles from my east Tennessee home. After the military, my sales and marketing assignments took me to Australia, Turkey, England, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada and Mexico. The excellent examples set by Ltc. Hoy, Major Robinson and others served me as a solid reference point for my character. If I had it to do over again, without hesitation I would follow the same course.
My wife, Carol, and I have been married thirty-three years (as of May 2001) we have two sons Jay and Chad who are prospering adults. We are all in good health living in a powerful free country. How much more could one person ask for? May God continue to bless our America.
W. Jerry Long III
Serial Number: OF 106347
Former Captain US Regular Army
11th Transportation Battalion
Cat Lai, Vietnam