18 April 2009

Silent Night - Part Two

30 January 1970: Another gray day. A Chinook helicopter (also known as a “flying boxcar” or “shit-hook”) ferried our Company to Ðai Lôc and the other Company to Stinson. Even though “C” Company had been there for about a week, little defensive construction had taken place. Perhaps they’d been too busy shooting chickens.

We were all on edge. Tet was not far off now. Given the likelihood of an attack by the VC or NVA around that time, we felt pressure to get bunkers built and wire strung.

We set to work almost immediately. The Company was placed around the perimeter of the village, except for one section on the north side. This area was defended by local forces.

Aside from the ARVN, there were two other types of military units operating in the countryside: Regional Forces (RF) and Popular Forces (PF). We joined the acronyms (RF/PF) and referred to them collectively as “Rough Puffs”. The name tells you what we thought of their usefulness as a military force.

The RF/PF’s guarding part of the perimeter at Ðai Lôc were fairly typical. They often acted like they were on a group outing. Laughing and cooking, eating and sleeping – they seemed less a military unit, than a group of Boy Scouts, earning Merit Badges in woodcraft and camping. At night, they built huge fires and sat close, warming themselves, smoking cigarettes and chatting.

We, of course, were hunkered down in the darkness. If we wanted a cigarette, it was lit in a foxhole and cupped in your hands while smoking. The red glow of a cigarette is visible from quite a distance at night. The RF/PF’s did not share our concerns.

When we were assigned positions on the perimeter, I drew a new guy as my “roommate”. Charles Cue had only been in-country about two weeks and had just joined us on LZ Stinson. We set to work digging a hole for a bunker in which we could both sleep and fight. The work was slow and difficult. The earth had joined the Viet Cong in fighting us. We stopped digging when the excavation was 20 or 24 inches deep and somewhat larger than a queen-sized bed. The width was governed by some building material we’d salvaged: railroad ties.

Earlier that day, a small group of us had gone over to the old French railroad line, about ¾ of a kilometer away (a little less than half a mile). The rails had long since been scavenged, but the ties were still mostly in place. Since wood, even saturated in creosote, would not last long in the tropics, the ties were made of heavy gauge steel. The ends flared out, giving them a bit of a dog bone shape. We pulled several of them out of the ground, taking turns digging and keeping guard.

Hauling them back across the fields was the next challenge. Once we got them lifted up, they could be carried by two men. Getting them up, though, took several of us. Sweat filled our eyes, ran down our backs, soaked our olive drab tee shirts. Taking turns carrying these beasts, we were very exposed. It’s a wonder we weren’t shot. We weren’t though. Not then, anyway.

Returning finally to the Company, we dragged and heaved, and eventually got six or seven of the steel ties set across the narrow dimension of our hole. Because of their shape, there were gaps between them, which Cue and I filled with green bamboo poles. On top of this, we placed two or three layers of sandbags. The whole thing presented a very low profile, which was part of the point, of course. It was just high enough inside to sit up (with a helmet on). The hole extended towards the wire a couple of feet beyond the roof, and the rear was covered with a rain poncho. Two hard days of work, but we felt safer. In so far as you could feel safe out in the countryside, exposed to probable attack and potential death.

Late in the day, the Platoon Sergeant had come around and assigned guard shifts. Every other bunker would be on guard from dark until around midnight, after which the other bunkers would take over. We drew the first shift.

There was no moon. Neither was there rain nor wind, which was a blessing. The night was very still and the watch passed quietly.

1 February 1970: We went to sleep a little after midnight, insulated from the ground by Army-issue air mattresses. As was my habit, my feet were facing the perimeter when I went to sleep, and my helmet and weapon were always in exactly the same place. In that way, I could put my hands on them without having to think about it, and I’d already be facing outward.

Around 1 a.m. the moonless night was split apart. We awoke to explosions, flames, gunfire all around. Someone fired an RPG
[1] into the village house right behind our bunker, and it burned madly. Shadows passed over the front of the bunker, Cue was in shock, and I could hear the sound of mortars firing from a tree line several hundred meters in front of us. They were not our mortars.

VC or NVA sappers
[2] had cut the wire between our bunker and the one to the north of us. They entered the perimeter and ran about firing weapons and throwing satchel charges[3]. Noise and confusion filled the night. Death was reaching out for us.

I told Cue to watch at the back of the bunker and shoot anyone who wasn’t a GI, while I did the same at the front. There was no one to shoot at, though – at least, no one we could see. There were some concussion grenades in the bunker. I tossed two or three of them out the front in various directions.

On my stomach, I slid forward on the air mattress with my weapon, trying to fire a few rounds off. I was using an M-79 Grenade Launcher, not an ideal weapon in close conditions. Near the front opening, I raised my head a bit to see better. As I did so, I was aware of something landing on the ground eight or nine feet in front of me.

In the same instant that I saw it, without really seeing it, the hand grenade exploded. Disintegrating metal was blown into my face and neck. Recoiling from the shock of the wound and the force of the explosion, I slid backwards on the air mattress, legs angled up. Blood ran down over my face and shirt from several small wounds. The red bandanna around my neck became redder.

As I moved back in unconscious, physical reaction, a tremendous explosion slammed the roof of our bunker. It was deafening – jarring – terrifying. The force pushed me into the ground and held me there. For a brief moment, I thought my legs had been blown off. A satchel charge or mortar round had hit directly on top of us!

If Angels there be, they floated above us that night. Two chances to die, seconds apart, and we were spared. Others were not so fortunate.

Another minute or two – it could have been three or it could have been an hour - and I heard jets coming in from Chu Lai. A sweet sound, when you’re being battered by gunfire.

Our Platoon Sergeant came around, checking the bunkers. Cue came through physically unharmed. I was bleeding from lacerations to my face. The Sergeant thought I looked ok, and moved on to the next bunker. The Company medic came along shortly after that, making the rounds, assessing casualties. He looked at my face and told me I was going be dusted off
[4] - sent back to the 27th Surgical Hospital in Chu Lai. I left my weapon with Cue and stumbled around the perimeter, walking towards the sound of a heavy motor, quickly idling.

As I came near, the helicopter was washed by the light of burning houses and flares. It hovered a foot or so above the ground. The scene was surreal – bizarre. I jumped in just before the medevac chopper took off, and was sitting in the doorway as we floated up. Rifle shots cut the air near the chopper. One of the Viet Cong was hiding on the side of the hill, in the center of the village. He stayed there into the early morning, hiding in the brush, carefully firing off a shot from time to time, until he was killed.

We rose up, disappearing into the darkness, headed for Chu Lai.

Ðai Lôc was a burning ember in the wide night of Viet Nam.

[1] Rocket-Propelled Grenade: a deadly weapon used by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese
[2] Experts in the use of explosives
[3] An explosive charge the shape and size of a satchel
[4] Dusted off: taken by helicopter to an Army hospital

Away from the internet

Sorry about the long pause here. We were away for three weeks ... in Viet Nam and Lao. An amazing experience. My head is filled - reeling - with memories, observations, emotions. Several postings here will come from the trip, no doubt. Meanwhile (as someone just reminded me), "Silent Night - Part Two" never got put up here (due to the ever-increasing activity leading up to our departure).

In any case, "Part Two" follows this post.

Thanks for reading!

12 March 2009

"Silent Night" - Part One

Christmas Eve, 1969: Our Company was picked up at LZ Stinson and taken back to Chu Lai for stand down. We couldn’t believe our good luck – stand down for Christmas!

Two of the infantry Companies in our Battalion were in the field this night, and they would be tomorrow. No holiday cheer out there. Then as now, the Army tried to bring a little Christmas to everyone, even those sitting in the pitch black night of war. Still, it was a crappy place to spend Christmas Day.

And the war went on. “A” Company found a booby-trapped artillery round and blew it up. Artillery fire was called in on a suspected group of Viet Cong. The Division Commanding General dropped into LZ Stinson for a quick visit.

In Chu Lai we were informed that our Company was one of the units allowed to go to the Christmas Day USO show. Bob Hope was there. Bob Hope! It was a strange, almost anachronistic, experience. Sitting far at the back, drinking beers we had snuck in, the show went on under cloudy, rain-threatening skies. It was not very entertaining, but it beat celebrating Christmas out in the countryside.

For absolute entertainment value, it was hard to beat the acts booked onto the stage in our stand down area. Bands, dancers and hoochie-koo acts. Some were American, but most were Australian and Filipino, with the occasional Korean group in the mix.

The artistic quality was sometimes dubious, but they were all enthusiastic. So were we. Of course, it was more or less an open bar during stand down, whether the Army wanted it that way or not, so our enthusiasm level was pretty easy to lift up. A little skin, a little rock and roll, a couple of beers, and everyone was pretty happy. I’m not saying we were easily amused. But then, I guess I’m not saying we weren’t either.

After three days of this – hung over, steam blown off – we were ferried back out to LZ Stinson. More good luck; we were staying on the Hill for a few days.

Word was sent around by someone at Division Headquarters, prohibiting celebratory shooting at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Waste of ammunition, scares the local populace, might give the VC cover to stage an attack. None of these caveats made much of an impression on us.

As 1969 came to a close, first one firebase, then another, started filling the sky with small weapons fire. To the south of us was another mountaintop post, OP-1, which had a quad-50 machine gun.
[1] Promptly at midnight, they started firing it, loaded up with tracer rounds[2]. Whoever was at the trigger was moving it up and down, side to side, firing .50 caliber bullets in the night.

The eruption of tracers was a flowing, graceful fountain – rivers of fire and lead.

It was death – ecstasy - deafening madness.

It was incredibly beautiful.

And then it was 1970.

After ten days on Stinson, we walked north through the fields, moving in an arc towards the northwest. One of our tasks was so-called “rice interdiction”. Simply put, we looked for stashes of rice and confiscated them. We searched villages as we went along. In one place, we found 1,500 pounds of rice in clay pots, 55 gallon drums and other containers. It was all hauled off by helicopter, to be distributed to someone else, somewhere else.

Sometimes we found rice hidden in double walls of houses. Army logic deduced that hidden rice was being stored for use by the VC and NVA. The reality, I think, was a bit more complicated. From time to time, the Viet Cong came through villages, levying a tax to be paid in rice. They employed this tactic because they had little other sources of food supply. Sometimes they took the rice away with them, other times it was hidden.

The local people would also hide rice. However, they were hiding it from the Viet Cong, to ensure the village would have enough to eat. At the same time, they were hiding it from us, since we would confiscate any rice we found hidden. The peasants working in the fields, living in the villages, were caught in the middle of this circular Catch-22.

A day or two later, we moved into what we called Vinh Tuy Valley, after the village that occupied the center of it. We and the rest of the Battalion went through there frequently, since it was known as an area very friendly to the VC.

It was also what was known as a “free fire zone”. If anyone ran when you shouted “dừng lại” (“stop now”), you were free to fire on them. Guilty until proven innocent. We found several tunnels, some documents, and more rice. The tunnels were blown up, the papers sent to Chu Lai, and the rice taken away to a warehouse.

The valley itself was quite beautiful. It was shadier than most of our AO and was drained by a couple of small rivers that eventually flowed into the Sông Trà Bong (Tra Bong River). One day, we were moving through the valley and crossed a little stream on what looked like a log. As I approached the stream, I realized the log was actually a mid-to-early nineteenth century cannon barrel, set into the ground untold years ago, to serve as a convenient way of crossing the water.

How had this ended up here, in a small valley in central Viet Nam? Who had brought it here, and how long had the people of the valley trod that barrel, walking to and from their rice fields, going about their daily lives? There was no time to search for answers to these questions. We walked on. Caught on the anvil of immediate history, we were oblivious to the history that lay beneath our feet.

A day or so later, we were once again picked up by helicopters and dropped in another valley – the completely misnamed “Happy Valley”. We had been here almost a month before, on the same mission: look for VC, confiscate rice.

The next few days were fairly uneventful, until we got out of the valley and moved back through the rice fields, towards LZ Stinson. The lack of activity (read, “shooting”) in Happy Valley was replaced by a couple of days of run-ins with Viet Cong or North Vietnamese. One night we were hit with forty or fifty rounds of small arms fire, just about dusk. Thankfully, no one was injured.

The month wore on. We walked back north, crossing the path we’d walked earlier in the month, moving around into the northeast section of our AO. Although things were fairly quiet, two men were wounded during an exchange of gunfire with a small group of Viet Cong.

It was now late January, and talk was starting to circulate about Tet, the Chinese and Vietnamese New Year, which fell on February 6th that year. In 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army had launched a huge offensive all across South Viet Nam, in hopes of striking such a strong blow, it would bring the war to an end. That didn’t happen, but the fighting was bloody and protracted, and some places (such as Hue) were devastated. As a result, the American military had since been much more on edge when the Vietnamese New Year approached.

On January 23rd we were sent up to LZ Stinson, to provide security during Tet. Our delight at drawing this assignment, at this time, did not last long. Six days later, word came down that we were being pulled out of Stinson and sent to the village of Ðai Lôc. The Company that had been assigned there had created problems by shooting some of the villagers’ chickens. To us, it seemed like their bad behavior was being rewarded, and we had to take their place.

[1] Four .50 caliber machine guns: a very powerful weapon by itself, four mounted together, to fire simultaneously, was fearsome beyond description.
[2] Tracer rounds were generally every tenth round or so. They glowed in the dark – usually red – so you could see where you were shooting. However, this also tipped off the guys on the other side as to your location. Consequently, they were almost never used at night.

05 March 2009

Music and War

I thought I'd put in a little note about the titles of blog posts having to do with my time in Viet Nam forty years ago. If you are a person of a certain age, the names may ring a bell. For others (persons of an uncertain age?), herewith a brief guide to the titles so far:
  • "Momma Told Me Don't Come": I miswrote this. It's actually "Momma Told Me (Not To Come)". The song was very popular among soldiers in Viet Nam at the time I was there, for the obvious reason. The song was recorded by Three Dog Night and released on an album in March, 1970. It was written by Randy Newman.
  • "Find the Cost of Freedom": Nothing miswritten here. This song was originally released on the two-record album, "Four Way Street", by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, in 1971. This classic LP included the songs "Suite Judy Blue Eyes", "Teach Your Children", "(Four Dead in) Ohio", "Southern Man" and "Chicago", among others. Part of the lyrics: "Find the cost of freedom buried in the ground / Mother Earth will swallow you, lay your body down / Find the cost of freedom buried in the ground / Mother Earth will swallow you, lay your body down".

Others will follow. I'll add a notes of explanation as I go along.

Thanks for reading.

02 March 2009

“Find the Cost of Freedom”

5 December 1969:

LZ Stinson (also called The Hill) sat atop a small mountain, more or less in the center of our area of operations. The mountaintop had been bulldozed and stripped of any vegetation. The Battalion commander was there, al
ong with support staff, a communications facility, artillery, heavy mortars and a mess hall. All of this was protected by a ring of bunkers, which, in turn, were protected by concertina wire, mines and a lot of lights. The Battalion’s infantry companies took turn defending Stinson, just as we took turns defending Ðai Lôc.

We spent eight days pulling guard duty at night and attending to chores during the days. Our time was occupied by cleaning weapons, replacing worn equipment and, of course, filling sand bags. We also had hot food once or twice a day and saw a couple of movies. Because we were a bit less likely to get shot at on the Hill, we were able to relax a little.

When another company was brought in by helicopter, we left Stinson, walking down the east side of the mountain. Now, for the first time, I was going out into the countryside … in the field … walking around, exposed, with nothing to protect me but thin air (and a steel helmet). Sure, we’d been at Ðai Lôc, and carried out a couple of patrols in the vicinity of the village. Mostly, though, we had been in the perimeter, guarding the local citizenry (who may or may not have wanted to be guarded by us).

This was different, though. Ninety or a hundred men were walking single file down the mountain, across the fields and rice paddies. Our platoon was at the rear of the column. It was mid-afternoon of another cloud-filled day – warm and humid, undisturbed by wind. The rain that came in torrents in November had lessened some, but not by much.

When we were moving across the land like this, whether as a company or smaller units on patrol, everyone walked well apart from each other. If the person in front of you hit a booby trap, it lessened the danger to you, at least a little. If you walked into an ambush, staying farther apart made it more difficult for the Viet Cong or NVA to hit several people quickly. Twelve feet was not an unusual distance. You developed a sense for this pretty quickly. If you didn’t, somebody would let you know. On this day, coming down off Stinson, walking through open country, we were probably strung out 800 to 1,000 feet.

Rarely did we know more than a day in advance where we were headed in the coming 24-48 hours. What we knew today was that we were walking east, towards the old railroad line and then, well, we’d see. Our platoon was hardly off the shoulder of the mountain when a rapid burst of rifle fire split the hot afternoon. One of the rounds went right over my head, 30 feet in the air. Immediately, there was return fire from the front of the Company. It was a sniper. He probably just fired a burst and ducked into a tunnel … or ran like hell.

That single bullet, made in Russia or China, sent speeding above my head by some poor Vietnamese peasant, fixed me with excitement and fear. It began the defensive tightening up inside that grew and burrowed deeper over following weeks and months.

The gunfire over, a cigarette or two smoked, we started moving eastward again. Near the end of the day we set up a night defense position two or three kilometers from LZ Stinson.

Morning came. Moving east again, we headed towards the village of Trà Binh Dông. The day was quiet, threatening rain. A villager came up to us with a sick child. He looked to be about ten years old. The company medic examined him and determined that the kid was suffering from what looked like malaria. A medevac
[1] helicopter took the boy and his mother to a hospital in Quảng Ngãi city.

Three or four hours later, as we moved through some trees, a booby trap went off, killing one man and wounding three. The same medevac that had taken the sick Vietnamese boy to a hospital for treatment was now taking four American boys to a different hospital. The booby trap had been a hand grenade, hanging in a tree and set off by some sort of pressure device.

We set up a new night defense position. Around 11pm, the sky was lit by rifle fire coming out of the night, ripping into us - Viet Cong assaulting our position. We returned fire, but against whom, and where? All we could do was shoot in the direction we thought their firing had come from. This was the dark uncertainty that defined the war for us. Here, we were vulnerable, conspicuous, rarely knowing who our assailants were, or where they were.

In the morning, a patrol went out to check the area where the gunfire had come from. They found four dead Viet Cong, one who was wounded, some weapons, and a packet of documents.

According to the Battalion Daily Staff Journal
[2] for that day, the documents included “1x award to Nguyen Thao for service, 1x travel pass to Troung Toh Nha in Binh Son, several propaganda leaflets, 1x notebook with an entry containing roster of VC and the number of Americans and ARVN’s[3] killed by each man, 1x notebook of songs and propaganda.”

Songs and propaganda. To keep spirits and morale up while they waited in rain-washed mountain forests, hiding among the people, hoping to strike a blow against the Occupiers and their Vietnamese allies … for that is how they saw it. And what became of Nguyen Thao and Troung Toh Nha? Were they local men, from Quảng Ngãi, motivated to join a guerilla movement? Or had they come from up north, leaving wives or girl friends or children hundreds of kilometers away? Did they survive the American War, and go back to their families, like all of us yearned to do?

A couple of days later, December 9th, the reality of our war was made very clear. Around noon, we were suddenly fired on. Thirty or forty rounds of rifle fire and a couple of M-79
[4] grenade rounds.

One man in our company was killed. He was going home, two weeks before Christmas. It was not the way anyone wanted to go home. Not him, not me, and not Nguyen Thao, either.

In the days following, the mood in the company was cold. We could go for two weeks and not be shot at. Just walk, search a village and walk some more. Now, though, two men had been killed and three others wounded, within two days of each other. The fear that no one talked about, that we all pushed inside to keep from thinking about, to keep from confronting as we walked from village to village, wound itself a little tighter and was pushed a little deeper.

We were being marched north, toward the Sông Trà Bong. Each day, for two days, we walked and ran into Viet Cong. We fired on them, called in artillery on them, and then found nothing except small craters in the ground where the artillery shells had landed. Blasted trees, destroyed rice paddies; hot empty days, searching for phantoms.

Near the river, we joined a Company of Army Engineers – bulldozers and tanks were their weapons. Our new task was to protect these guys while they ran their bulldozers over the Vietnamese countryside, on either side of the road that paralleled the Trà Bong River. The idea seemed to be that, by scrapping the land bare for two or three hundred yards out from the road, it would be easier to protect the road and defend the villages along it. The people who lived there, alongside the Trà Bong road, would probably have preferred to keep their homes and fields, rather than sacrifice them to the greater good.

The statistics from the Daily Staff Journal dryly tell the story. 13 Dec 69: “B Co. reports clearing 28,500 square meters of land”. 14 Dec 69: “B Co. reports clearing 30,000 square meters of land.” 15 Dec 69: “B Co. reports clearing 26,000 square meters of land.” And so on, for another two days. Over 100,000 square meters of land was scraped, laid bare - almost 1.3 million square feet. Who measured this? An area the size of seven or eight city blocks was flattened. We were destroying the country, in order to save it. Except, we didn’t save it.

Christmas was less than a week away. Everyone became a lot more cautious. We found a tunnel one day, and just blew it up, without looking inside. That day and the next, we also found two American artillery rounds that had hit but not exploded. We blew both of those up, too. When the VC found unexploded ordnance like these, they were turned into very deadly booby traps, capable of killing many people at once.

Five days before Christmas, just before dark, we ran into a large group of Viet Cong or NVA. They fired and ran, and we ran after them. In the end, twelve North Vietnamese lay dead. One of our men ran into a booby trap during the pursuit, was wounded and had to be medevaced out. Fear of dying just before Christmas was swamped by adrenaline.

Later that day, we were picked up by helicopters (the Hueys that ferried troops all over Viet Nam) and taken to the head of a valley in the far south-west corner of our AO[5]. For two days we worked our way down the valley. Few people lived there. It was a route for the VC and NVA to filter down from the mountains and fade into the dozens of villages set among the hills and rice paddies of northern Quảng Ngãi Province. Our task was to keep them from doing that, at least for a little while.

The day after being dropped off, moving down the valley, we suddenly came under heavy small arms fire. We returned fire, and then gave chase. Once again, one of our men ran into a booby trap during the pursuit. While we waited for the medevac chopper to take him back to a hospital in Chu Lai, one platoon searched the area of the firefight. They found several dead Viet Cong and some weapons. Their war ended in American graves, unidentified. Their families had only unanswered questions. We moved on down the valley.

24 December 1969:

Christmas Eve. We got lucky. Our turn for stand down coincided with Christmas. We walked back up to Stinson, were picked up by choppers, and ferried back to Chu Lai.

Trucks brought us from the Chu Lai helicopter pad to our stand down area along the beach. We were back where I had first met these guys, barely two months ago. It seemed much, much longer. Two or three men – replacements – were waiting there, to join the Company. A hot shower and a cold beer sounded really good.

[1] Medical Evacuation
[2] These were summaries of the daily activities and engagements of each unit in the battalion, kept by a Staff Duty Officer. These are now publically available through the Freedom of Information act.
[3] Army of the Republic of Viet Nam: the army of the South Vietnamese government.
[4] This was a short weapon that fired a large round. The projectile exploded like a hand grenade. Like an old shotgun, you flipped a lever and opened the weapon at the rear. It could also be used like a hand-held mortar, to fire over trees or buildings.
[5] AO: Area of Operations

27 February 2009

"Momma told me don't come ... "

14 October 1969:

Sai Gon was hot and quiet. The air was tense - jarring voices and dank smells pushed and jabbed. I walked into the night, not wanting to think about what would come next.

It was very late and we were tired from flying so long. The rest of the night passed in fitful sleep, troubled by unclear dreams.

The next day, weak sun pushed through the clouds filling the Viet Nam sky. It quickly became hot. We were sent to an empty building, where we were sorted and divided, and assigned to various units. I was being sent to the Americal Division
[1] in I (Eye) Corps, the northern-most section of South Viet Nam. We spent the rest of that day filling sand bags, and other vital military tasks.

The following morning found me and a couple of dozen others on a C-130, flying 600 miles north to Chu Lai, Americal Division headquarters. The big prop-driven plane dropped down quickly through the low clouds and landed on an airbase surrounded by ragged buildings, fuel storage tanks, and sand. To the east, as we cut through the clouds, the South China Sea glittered. It was a clean, open counterpoint to Chu Lai.

For the next two weeks, we were at the "Americal Combat Center", where we were given additional training in fighting a war amidst rice paddies, water buffalo and Vietnamese peasants. I was lucky. As a newly-minted Sergeant, I received two weeks of training (and reprieve). Lower ranking enlisted men were only there for one week before being sent out to a combat unit.

Innocent faces look out from fading photographs.
How soon, how radically, our lives would change.

Halloween, 1969:

No trick-or-treating, no party. Four or five of us were sent to join “B” Company, 1st Battalion, 52nd Infantry[2], part of the 198th Light Infantry Brigade. The Company was out in the field, but they were returning the next day for stand down[3]. Halloween wasn’t much fun that year.

We were trucked over to the 1/52nd stand down area, where we waited for the Company to arrive. The day was cloudy and threatening rain. Monsoon season had arrived. In the late morning a couple of deuce-and-a-half trucks
[4] pulled in.

Men spilled out. Loud, dirty, laughing, unwinding as they laughed, they lined up at a nearby shack to turn in their weapons. The first thing done when a Company came in for stand down was to lock up all the guns.

Looking at these wild, filthy men, I thought, “My god, these are the people I’m going to live with for the next year!” And, “Am I going to become like them?” How little I knew.

We tried to talk to these guys, introduce ourselves, but mostly they were interested in showers and cold beer. There was certainly little interest in spending valuable time talking with some newly-arrived “shake-and-bake” sergeant like me. They went off to take a shower and we were lead away to meet with the Company commander.

The next three days were an immersion course in the realities of the war (as opposed to things we’d been told back in the States, or the Combat Center, for that matter). It was also a quick lesson in the social structure, rules and mores of an infantry company.

One thing was pretty clear: we, just arrived, brand new fatigues, shiny boots, wide-eyed wonder, we were pretty much useless. “And figure it out quickly, without getting somebody killed.” Yeah.

The rain began in earnest as stand down ended. We were sent to guard a village that was part of the so-called “Pacified Village” program. The goal was to protect the Vietnamese peasants from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army by up-rooting them from their hamlets and villages, and collecting them in one place. American and South Vietnamese forces built bunkers and strung concertina wire, turning a cobbled-together village into a fortified point. The people were given some building materials (mostly corrugated steel panels for roofing), but otherwise were left pretty much to their own devices.

The village was the ages-old foundation of life in Viet Nam. Sixty years ago, 85% of the country’s population lived in the countryside. Twenty years later, many people had moved into the cities, primarily because of the wars afflicting Viet Nam, but the country was still overwhelmingly rural. Pacification, as it was also known, was very unpopular with the Vietnamese people. As a result, it probably drove a number of people to support the Viet Cong who might not have otherwise.

The village we were sent to protect was Ðai Lôc, in Quảng Ngãi Province. Vietnamese villages were spread out, generally consisting of several hamlets. If you looked at a map, you would see Ðai Lôc (1), Ðai Lôc (2), Ðai Lôc (3); each of them three or four kilometers apart. The families living in these hamlets had been gathered up and moved to a new location, not far from Ðai Lôc (3), that was thought (by the United States Army) to be more defensible. The “new” Ðai Lôc was twenty-five kilometers south of Chu Lai and six or seven kilometers west of the highway, QL-1.

Highway One, as we knew it, was the only paved road in our part of the province. It was also the umbilical cord that tied Sai Gon to Quảng Tri Province and the DMZ
[5]. We didn’t drive to Ðai Lôc, of course. Helicopters picked us up in Chu Lai and dropped us just outside the village perimeter.

Low clouds muffled a landscape marked by leaden sheets of water. It was a sad-looking place, this improvised village. There were 80 or 90 houses, straggling around a small hill. Bamboo structures with thatched or corrugated steel roofs were set about in no apparent order. On the south slope of the hill were two structures, one larger than the other. They were built of bricks, covered in chipped white stucco, and looked like they had occupied that hill for a long time. The larger building appeared to be a pagoda or shrine. A tiled roof, turned up at the corners, was in two tiers. The smaller structure was a short distance away. It had an alcove, perhaps to leave offerings or burning incense. No one ever came to burn incense, though.

The village had been established only a month or so before we arrived. Not much had been done in the way of bunkers, wire and other defensive construction, so that was our first task. Corrugated steel culvert halves and a lot of empty sand bags were provided for the purpose.

Chickens and small children ran all around while we filled sand bags and strung wire. The smallest kids were barely clothed. All of them wanted to help, or at least beg something off us. Gum, cigarettes - almost anything had appeal. Some of these kids could just as easily steal C-Rations … or something more dangerous, like a hand grenade.

The village well was included in our perimeter, of course, and all the strung out houses. The villagers were busy, too, building enclosures for their animals (especially the water buffalo, who didn’t seem to like Americans very much), and preparing their homes for the rains. As I soon discovered, each family was also digging a bunker in the earth beneath their homes. They kept what valuables they had there. The families also slept there every night, seeking a little protection from potential danger.

We stayed in Ðai Lôc three and a half weeks. The days passed slowly. Rain fell ever more heavily as the days went by, filling the rice paddies, seeping into everything. In lower places, only a few dikes between fields were above water. We patrolled the surrounding area, but saw little of the VC we knew were nearby. They fired on us at night a couple of times. On patrols, we found tunnels and some booby traps, which we blew up.

We played with the village children, and gathered closely beneath shelters with their parents, trying to stay dry and warm. One evening a family in the village invited me to have dinner with them. The meal was mostly rice. On top of the rice were tiny fish that had been caught in weirs placed between rice paddies. They were crunchy, and very salty.

Toward the end of November we were moved to the Battalion firebase, LZ Stinson[6], while another Company took over defense of Ðai Lôc. The 1/52nd was responsible for a section of Quảng Ngãi Province bounded by two large rivers, 14 or 15 kilometers apart. Sông Trà Bong was on the north and Sông Trà Khúc on the south. Both flowed east into the South China Sea. An abandoned railroad line, four or five kilometers west of Highway One, was the eastern boundary. Eighteen kilometers or so west of the rail line lay mountains, some of which rose over 800 meters above the paddies and fields where we spent most of our time. Here we lived our lives, and tried to stay alive.

[1] Also known as the 23rd Infantry Division.
[2] B-1/52nd
[3] Stand Down was a three-day break from being in the field, and fighting the war. Our unit’s stand down area was alongside the beach, in Chu Lai.
[4] Two-and-a-half-ton trucks.
[5] Demilitarized Zone: the boundary between South Viet Nam and North Viet Nam.
[6] LZ: Landing Zone. This term was applied to a great many places that were not just landing places, but semi-permanent military bases. “Firebase” was interchangeable with LZ, meaning, as the name suggests, a place from which to fire (weapons, especially artillery).

08 February 2009

Rancho Pequeño

It was December and the ground was frozen the first time we saw the house. Abandoned, was how it looked. Foreclosed-upon, was what it was. The front yard was a variety of weeds, the back was undisguised dirt, and the carport had an accumulation of old newspapers, beer cans and a drift of dead leaves. Shut down, drained of heat and water, it was as forlorn as a jilted lover.

Inside, though, it was light-filled and open. Damaged and neglected, but it had a good feeling in spite of that. It contained 1,030 square feet on one level, three bedrooms (one of which was quite tiny), and one small bathroom.

We left, to think about it for a while, and returned to our 1,870 square foot, two-storey, 1908 brick house, on a huge lot in The Trendy Neighborhood. Just before Christmas, over dinner with friends, we talked about the little house. We realized we’d become intrigued by it. Our friends thought we were joking.

Sitting in the old house a few days later, it occurred to me that for some 30 years, save a couple in a 1950’s apartment building, I’d been living in structures built before World War One. My personal architectural (and décor) tastes are modern. “Comfortable Modern”, I would call it, as opposed to the hard-edged, pared down aesthetic that deploys lots of concrete, steel and stone --- and not much wood, fabric or softness.

Either mode of modernism contrasts starkly with the sort of houses and other buildings I’d been living in. Like all architecture, buildings constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries reflect well their times and the social milieu in which they were created.

Houses tend to be rather vertical (up-right, if not narrow) and have a limited amount of windows (don’t look inside). They also have a lot of single-purpose rooms (compartments) and doors in every doorway, which can be closed and locked (this one speaks for itself).

Because of this, and their formal floor plans, they tend to be rather dark. High ceilings don’t help much with this, but do create more cubic feet of air that need to be heated or moved around.

In the middle of January we returned to the 1955 ranch, in The Decidedly Untrendy Neighborhood, to have another look. It was colder this time, the ground covered in snow. While the snow camouflaged the weed-ridden ground, it made the house look more desolate. Neither foot prints through the snow nor tire tracks to the carport. It was not encouraging.

We went inside anyway. Daylight cascaded though the windows. Three weeks past the Winter Solstice, and the days were beginning to reach once more for Summer. The sky was clearing off into one of those stunning sunny days that happen here, making even 30 degrees seem warm.

It was not up to 30 degrees, however, and the house was not warm. It was dirty. Cheap, gray carpet covered the oak flooring in the living and dining areas. The place was owned by a bank in California, which had someone paint every ceiling and wall with stark white, semi-gloss paint. Not carefully. Over-spray marked the oak floor here and there. Perhaps they thought it would make the home seem brighter. It accentuated the cold.

Eventually, we decided to buy the house and sell our old home. I had thought about the new place (Rancho Pequeño) sufficiently to put down some ideas about renovation --- and how to accommodate my office. The price was good, the neighborhood reasonably middle class and the area was much quieter than The Trendy Neighborhood. The house also fit into our goal of shedding excess possessions and de-complicating our life.

In addition, it presented me with an opportunity to design and build something for us. Rather remarkably, I had never done this in the 26 years I’d had my own architectural practice. Well, once before, many years ago, but realization of that project floundered on a divorce.

The bank that owned the property, and their real estate agent, seemed thoroughly disinterested in selling it. There had been no “for sale” sign in the yard. This was a year or so before America was swamped by a foreclosure disaster. The bank, which probably stood to make little or no money on the sale, felt no sense of urgency whatsoever. Time drifted by (an offer made, a counter-offer awaited). Meanwhile, we laid plans for remaking of our lives.

Eventually, the sale went through. The first thing we did after the closing was rip out the nasty gray carpet. Meeko the Wonder Dog assisted, in her own special way.

During the long interval between offer and closing, I had designed the renovation of our new home, and an addition for my office. There was also time to research the history of the house and its designer.

A Brief Digression Regarding Cliff May

Rancho Pequeño is one of about 174 ranch style homes built on six double-length blocks and two adjacent half-blocks, in 1955 and 1956. All of the houses have board-and-batten siding and vaulted ceilings throughout. The builder, T. Mitchell Burns, was the developer of the area (Harvey Park, in southwest Denver) and was also a real estate agent.

The houses themselves were designed by Cliff May, with his partner, Chris Choate. May lived in Southern California, where he had been designing custom and tract homes since the 1930’s. Cliff May was already well known in California through publications which featured his work and helped popularize his designs. One of the most prominent of these was Sunset Magazine, for which he designed a headquarters building.

A native Californian, he was deeply influenced by the mild climate of Southern California and the heritage of its large Mexican ranches (ranchos). He was descended, on his mother’s side, from one of these rancheros. As he stated in 1946, “A ranch house, because of its name alone, borrows friendliness, implicitly, informality, and gaiety from the men and women who, in the past, found those pleasures in ranch-house living.” (Cliff May and the California Ranch House, a research paper by Laura Gallegos; available on the cliffmayrancho.com website)

Cliff and his architectural partner, Chris Choate, designed and patented a system of prefabricating wall panels that would speed the construction process and lower costs for both builder and home owner. Panels were 80” high and 64” or 32” wide. Atop the wall panels, on each long side of the house, was placed a continuous 4” x 8” redwood beam. The 2x6 roof structure rested on a 6” x 14” wood beam that ran down the center of the house, supported by two 4x4 redwood posts in the middle of the span.

This prefabrication system was franchised to builders around the country (the “Cliff May-Chris Choate Manufacturer-Distributor System”). They were licensed to build the parts and assemble the homes, within specific territories. T. Mitchell Burns, for example, had the distributorship for all of Colorado and New Mexico, and the eastern half of Wyoming.

Cliff May Homes provided sales literature, and some national advertising as well. Eight floor plans were available. Of these, Burns built three in his Harvey Park development. These were modified for local conditions by changing French doors to singles with an adjacent fixed door panel and adding a fireplace to each floor plan. The floor plan shown below is the one for our house.

Burns created variety in the layouts by flipping or reversing floor plans, and by varying the arrangement of the house and detached carport on the sites. Some houses are closer, some farther, from the street. Some have carports in front of their houses, some are to the side, and so forth. All this manipulation yielded a streetscape that is incredibly varied compared to the usual 1950’s subdivision. Of course, additions, renovations and alterations over the years have varied the mix even more.

For more information about Cliff May, check out this website:

Back to the Rancho

We were gripped by the realization that we had just taken on two home renovation projects at once: work to prepare The Trendy Victorian for sale; and work needed to make the Rancho habitable. Little did we realize that most of the next year would be spent working on one or the other of these two projects.

Demolition and Discovery

Like all renovation projects, ours began with demolition. Following the dreadful gray carpet out the door were the kitchen cabinets (original, heavily painted over, and otherwise unremarkable). This proved to be a larger task than anticipated, because of the countertops. A previous owner had installed white ceramic tile over the original turquoise plastic laminate (Formica) countertops. They were enormously heavy.

The original ell-shaped, half wall separating the kitchen from the living and dining areas had been removed in the 1960’s (we would have taken it out anyway). The kitchen floor was next to go. It followed the layering theme of the countertops. On top were black and white vinyl tiles, laid checkerboard fashion over sheet vinyl flooring. This in turn was glued to a layer of ¼” plywood, which had been nailed into the diagonally-laid wood subflooring. As soon became evident, the nails had been driven through a final layering of vinyl asbestos tiles over more ¼” plywood. The whole mess was filthy, it was heavy and it was a constant threat to our hands and feet.

A roll-off dumpster was ordered up, lest we become hemmed in by refuse. It (and another one like it) would be needed. The roof had original, rock wool insulation (nasty stuff), but the walls had nothing. Therefore, we decided to insulate them. This required removing all the drywall from all the exterior walls. Messy, and difficult. Burns had used foil-faced fiberglass reinforced gypsum board in his Cliff May houses. This was assuredly the hardest drywall I have ever had anything to do with. It was also pale pink. Many hundreds of pounds of it went into the dumpsters.

Because of the design of the exterior wall panels, which included an x-brace within, it was impossible leave the drywall, drill holes at 16” intervals, and blow in insulation. It was also not feasible to use typical fiberglass batt insulation in the walls, once the drywall was off. Besides, fiberglass is not terribly environment-friendly. Therefore, we opted to install blown-in cellulose. Much of the insulation was recycled paper product (some of it newspaper, from the look of it). It had the advantages of being “green”, lower cost and very insulating.

We also removed and replaced a couple of interior walls. The bathroom, as noted, was tiny and called for a little more space. At the north end of the house, we removed two closets, so we could join the two bedrooms into one and create new closets.

Rancho Pequeño was commencing its transformation! The succeeding stages of this transformation will be talked about in coming posts.

Thanks for reading.

06 February 2009

The First Step

In about six weeks my life-partner and I will set forth on a trip to South-East Asia. We will be going to Lao and Viet Nam. This will be her first time in that part of the world. For me, to Viet Nam at least, it will be a return trip, after an absence of forty years.

The first time I traveled to Viet Nam was in October, 1969. We had just flown for what seemed like days across the Pacific, from Ft. Lewis, Washington, to Guam, to Viet Nam. The atmosphere on the flight was subdued, interrupted by occasional outbursts of bravado.

It was night when we arrived in Sai Gon. Hot dampness rose from the tarmac and enveloped us as the door opened and we stepped out into an unwelcome world. Some of us would leave again in 365 days. Others would leave sooner, though not in the seats.

My arrival in Viet Nam marked the beginning of my second year in the Army. 1968 had been a year of almost incomprehensible upheaval, in America and in Viet Nam. In January, the North Vietnamese Army, aided by Viet Cong guerrilla forces, launched a massive military offensive all across South Viet Nam. Many, many people died. Some cities, particularly the former imperial capital of Hue, suffered tremendous damage. The offensive was beaten back. However, as many have noted over the years, it was a political victory for North Viet Nam. Scenes of war played endlessly on television, putting the lie to military and government claims of success in Viet Nam.

This sort of visual connection with war had never happened before. Anyone with a television could see film of Americans slogging across flooded rice paddies, cutting their way through tangled jungle - fighting and dying. Previously, views of war had consisted mostly of black and white, still photographs, which froze the moment while creating some distance between the viewer and the action depicted. Television erased that distance in the late 1960’s.

In March, 1968, Lyndon Johnson went on national television to state that he would not seek, nor would he accept, his party’s nomination for a second presidential term. This set in motion an unanticipated political rush among other Democrats who believed they could lead the country through difficult times. And the times became more difficult.

As American efforts in Viet Nam unraveled, the civil rights movement at home gained momentum. On April 4th, the most prominent leader of that movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. American cities were devoured by rage and flames, as many Black Americans responded viscerally to Dr. King’s violent death. At my college in northern Texas, black students – with whom we had little contact - drifted across the campus in angry knots.

Two months later, in Los Angeles, Robert F. Kennedy won the California Democratic Primary for the presidency. He was shot dead that evening, just after his victory celebration, and new violence rose up.

The summer of 1968 came to a close in Chicago, as the Democratic Party met for their national convention. It stands (and I hope it continues to stand for a very long time) as the most contentious, divisive and bloodiest of American political conventions. As the whole world watched, Chicago cops beat anti-war protesters senseless while the Democratic Party imploded inside the convention hall. No one could be blamed for wondering if America was falling apart. I did.

The American dreams we had been taught growing up in the years after World War Two – freedom, justice, equality – were jaundiced and shattered. Cynical real politik collided with idealism. We really did believe those dreams! But, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, with the birth of a civil rights movement in the South and growing involvement in a far-off war, for obscure reasons (domino theory?), many people realized that our dreams, our self-image as Americans, were no longer accurate - and perhaps never had been. And people reacted to this realization in many different ways.

Within this tattered skein I was experiencing rising depression and sinking college grades. My life seemed without purpose or direction. And there was another layer to it. I was also idealistic and patriotic (and still am…in altered form). Despite all that had happened in the preceding nine or ten months, I felt Viet Nam was my generation’s war, just as my parents’ generation had to fight World War Two. Who was I, then - white child of privilege and college opportunity - to avoid this war when so many others had little or no choice in the matter?

That October, I left college and joined the United States Army. I was 21, and I wanted to change my life. In this, I was wildly successful – though in ways I could not foresee that Autumn. The first immediate success was in getting me out of Dallas. I was shipped off to Ft. Bliss, Texas, outside El Paso. An ill-named place, Ft. Bliss. There I had a number of first-time experiences: integration; regimentation; pre-dawn runs; verbal abuse; pneumonia.

The pneumonia was a result of the Drill Sergeants’ insistence on leaving windows open and the air conditioning system running, even though it was 35 – 40 degrees outside. By the 5th week of Basic Training I was very sick. By the 6th week, I was hospitalized. Mildly criminal behavior, of the “that which does not kill you makes you strong” school. No charges were filed, of course, but it did keep me from participating in the “final exam” of Basic Training: an obstacle course with a bit of live fire over your head to make sure you got the point.

No big surprise, I was graduated from Basic Training anyway. It ended just before Christmas, 1968. I went home with completely red eyes from all the coughing I had been doing. The red eyes and my new uniform gave me a rather forbidding appearance. Photographs from that Christmas show me wearing dark sunglasses, regardless of the time of day or night. In one photo, taken Christmas Day at my aunt and uncle’s farm, I am in uniform (with the dark sunglasses) and wearing a black armband. I told everyone it was in memory of those who had already died in the war.

Such a new soldier and already disenchanted.

After Christmas I reported to Ft. Ord, California, near Monterey. During the following eight weeks, I was filled with the distilled wisdom of an Army fighting an anti-guerrilla war in South-East Asia, amidst a culture almost completely unlike ours (save their humanity, which, far from being discussed, was simply denigrated).

We fired a lot of different weapons, marched through woods and over sand dunes, got filthy, wet and cold, ate mediocre food, and generally became at least a little familiar with how we would be living during our year in Viet Nam. Except for death, amputation, or emotional distress. Those things were not discussed.

Yet, they are among those things that people have a sense of, a kind of understanding without really knowing. The kind of things people don’t like to talk about very much. People are especially loath to talk about them when they are caught in an inescapable situation, confronting the almost daily possibility of death.

Emotional distress was probably the least understood of these. But that’s a story for another time.

Towards the end of my infantry training, in March, 1969, I had the opportunity to apply for Non-Commissioned Officer School (NCOS). I had no particular leadership aspirations. However, going through the NCOS program would delay my going to Viet Nam by several months.

Amidst the general social disarray, Richard Nixon had been elected President the previous November. So-called “Vietnamization” (turning the mess over to our South Vietnamese allies) was accelerated and Nixon had actually begun to withdraw some military units from South Viet Nam.

I leapt at the chance and was accepted. Nixon had a “secret plan” to end the war, and everyone hoped he would bring it to an early end.

What followed were several months at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and Ft. Polk, Louisiana. It was all really just an expanded version of infantry training, with some leadership classes added in. “Follow Me” was their motto. Not that anyone really wanted to follow anyone else to Viet Nam in 1969.

Nixon’s secret plan remained a secret and the last American troops did not leave Viet Nam until March, 1973. Instead, for me and a few thousand others, the war was just beginning. And, on the night of October 14th, 1969, in the dark heat of Sai Gon, it did begin.

October, 1969: An opinion poll indicates 71 percent of Americans approve of President Nixon’s Viet Nam policy.

October 15, 1969: The “Moratorium” peace demonstration is held in Washington and several U.S. cities. Demonstration organizers had received praises from North Vietnam's Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, who stated in a letter to them "...may your fall offensive succeed splendidly," marking the first time Hanoi publicly acknowledged the American anti-war movement. Dong's comments infuriate American conservatives including Vice President Spiro Agnew who lambastes the protesters as Communist "dupes" composed of "an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals."

Over the next few weeks I will write of my experiences in Viet Nam forty years ago, as well as other topics that interest me. In March and April I will be writing about my turas through Viet Nam and Lao.

Thanks for reading.