Radar Tower at Tra Cu

This is one of only two known pictures of our radar tower while at Tra Cu. We set up this tower during the hours of darkness, finishing sometime around 2:00 AM. We were absolutely exhausted by that time and started making stupid mistakes, one of which could’ve caused the tower to tip over. The other mistake was forgetting to ground the generator which resulted in me receiving a heck of an electrical shock the next morning while I was checking the fuel level in the adjacent 55 gallon barrel.

KY-38 secure voice encoder/decoder

This is the secure voice encoder/decoder we used during the last 3 or 4 months I was in-country.  Since I was the only member of our team with a secret clearance and was an E-5, I had to sign for the unit. I chained it to our radar van.

We punched in new codes every night at 24:00 hours (midnight).  A week’s worth of codes were delivered to us via the duty helicopter once a week.  Either our section chief or I carried the codes on a string around our neck.  The section chief and I met in the morning and burned the previous night’s codes.  

These secure voice rigs worked so well that we could transmit any information desired such as names, our location and of course, our detected target information.  

Missing from the picture is the pistol-grip cartridge that contained the adjustable pins that set the variable code switches inside the case. As you can see, there were lots of pins and each one of those pins had a dozen or more possible settings, making for probably millions of possible combinations.  In other words, even if the enemy possessed a KY-38, it would’ve been useless to them without a current code book.

The VA

There’s been a lot of criticism directed towards the VA (Veterans Administration) over the years in regard to poor service towards very deserving veterans; particularly combat veterans. I enrolled with the VA about 3 years ago as a first step in filing a claim for my hearing problems. I must say that our local VA Clinic treated me with respect and were reasonably prompt with their services. Having said that, I am disappointed that they flat turned me down for my request of a pair of hearing aids.

I developed Tinnitus while I was in the Army and it remains to this day. I was exposed to horrendous noise, not the least of which occurred while I was in Vietnam. Small arms fire, howitzers, incoming rocket and mortar fire. As I’m sure most folks understand, exposure to loud noises have cumulative effect on hearing. You can seemingly get away with it at first, but it will eventually catch up with you. That is what happened to me. My hearing was still young enough when I separated from the Army that hearing damages seemed almost unnoticeable. But as I aged, reality set in. I now suffer from very significant high frequency losses in both ears. This was seriously affecting my quality of life.

Frustrated, I purchased my own hearing aids. I went top-of-the-line and I’m glad I did. Not only do I now enjoy the singing birds around my yard, I can even hear crickets!

But I didn’t give up with my battle with the VA. I filed a claim and the VA eventually awarded me a 10% hearing disability rating. So although the VA weaseled out of giving me a set of hearing aids, I now receive a modest benefit check each month. If I can make my hearing aids last 5 years before replacement, the sum of my VA benefit will pay for about 1/2 of the replacement costs. I’m reasonably happy with that.

The ARVN

ARVN (Army, Republic of Vietnam), our allies.

We lived among ARVN infantry soldiers at the ATSB camp near Go Dau Ha, a basic training camp near Ben Soi and later at a little camp near Loc Giang. Initially, I didn’t think one way or the other about them until we had to live with them. We quickly learned the hard way that they would steal us blind if we didn’t watch them like hawks. With our pressing duties, it was impossible for us to watch them every moment of the day and night. There were only 5 of us and over 100 of them. Other than our very small and cramped radar van, we had no place to lock up personal items, or much of anything else for that matter. They stole C-rations, gasoline, my treasured little RCA pocket radio that my dad had given me, plus my much needed poncho liner.

While based at the ATSB camp near Go Dau Ha, they repeatedly trashed the gasoline engine powered water pump for our water well. The Navy Seabees put a lot of effort into that project, yet the ARVN’s seemed to have little regard for what we were trying to do to help them. When we were based with a Green Beret adviser team near Ben Soi, the ARVN cadre stood on the toilet the Green Berets had built, resulting in mud and crap on everything. The Green Berets finally put a padlock on the door after it was obvious that the ARVN’s were untrainable. Their commanding officer, a Colonel, brazenly sold new US Government issue supplies out of a shack near the front gate to the camp.

By the time my 12 month tour ended, I had developed a pretty strong resentment towards the ARVN’s. Not only were many common thieves, their lack of motivation at times was unbelievable.

Beyond Stupid

The last camp I was based at was a small ARVN infantry camp near Loc Giang and not far from the Song Vam Co Dong River. We arrived in December, 1969 and stayed 3 months, far longer than any of our previous camps. The ARVN’s were led by a US Army Advisory Team. One day in February we received a call on our radio that a UH-1 helicopter was about 10 minutes out with a VIP on board, so be prepared to pop smoke. I got elected to drive outside our perimeter wire and wait near a suitable clear area where the helicopter could land. The pilot finally requested smoke, so I tossed out a purple smoke grenade.  The pilot confirmed purple smoke and began a circling approach. Moments later, a super shiny UH-1 sat down right in front of me.  By the markings, I could see right off that it was the 25th Infantry Division Artillery Commander. Oh joy.

The Colonel was first off the helicopter, followed closely by a Command Sergeant Major (E-9, the highest NCO rank attainable). After the requisite salutes and handshakes, we loaded up in our ratty 3/4 ton truck and headed back into our camp about 150 yards away. The Colonel sat in the front seat to my right and the Sergeant Major sat on a bench seat in the truck bed. I occasionally glanced in the mirror to see how the Sergeant Major was dealing with our deluxe transportation. He appeared to be staring at the truck bed for some reason.  Then I realized what he was looking at.  There were several empty soda cans rolling around as I negotiated a few turns in the road.  It was pretty obvious that he was not pleased. In fact, his face was beet red. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. I’m sure we’re quite a contrast to his well organized and spit shined base camp routine complete with hooch maids, air conditioning, NCO Club, swimming pool, boardwalks and well scrubbed vehicles.

The two well-armed ARVN guards at the gate were in a position to see the helicopter, but still gave us a curious once-over as we passed through. I drove to the opposite side of our modest camp and pulled to a stop alongside our radar van. After salutes, the good Colonel greeted each member of our team with a big smile and handshake, along with the standard “You guys are doing a great job” line. Meanwhile, the Sergeant Major was busy in the background, chewing everyone out for some little Army regulation infraction such as muddy boots, haircuts that were a day or two past prime, dirty vehicles, etc. I guess he failed to notice the crude living conditions, not to mention that we were a long distance from their more civilized base camp.

After the Colonel finished inspecting our part of the camp, he invited me (I was the Senior Radar Operator and E-5 rank) and our section chief (an E-5 buck sergeant) to accompany him on a little reconnaissance mission. It was an invitation that could not be refused. We piled into the now-infamous 3/4 ton truck and drove back to the helicopter in the field. I could hear the turbine engine spinning up as we approached while the two door gunners eyed us suspiciously. During the short drive out the Colonel told us that we were going to inspect some of our previous nights targets, out near the border. I didn’t see much point in this exercise as the enemy was pretty good at cleaning up messes, not to mention their skill at hiding in the jungle, so there probably wouldn’t be much to see. Maybe some craters and shredded vegetation.

About 6 or 8 minutes into the flight, the pilot began a descent and then circled a target impact point at an altitude of about 50 feet. The two squeaky clean door gunners went into the hyper vigilance mode. I held my M-16 across my lap, safety off, in the semi-ready position while studying the nearby tree line out the side of the doorless helicopter. I’m feeling very uneasy about this situation. We’re low, slow and alone as we circle close to the border and Ho Chi Minh Trail. We have no backup cover orbiting high overhead. The closest friendly troops are miles away. A green enemy trainee could’ve knocked us down with an RPG or a long burst of full automatic fire from his AK-47.

After a few agonizing minutes we flew on towards the next target area.  We repeated this craziness a few more times, then finally headed back to our camp. In my mind, this entire mission was totally pointless. All it accomplished was to give two career soldiers something to brag about over drinks back at the NCO and Officer Clubs that evening. We risked our necks for nothing. Of course, we did manage to track mud onto the black, spit-shined floor of the helicopter, much to the resentment of the crew chief/door gunner. Both he and the other door gunner gave us a long dose of stink eye. As for the brass on board, I imagine they recommended themselves for some sort of medal for their few hours of bravado. We just shook our heads and hoped they would never return to our camp.

Moving again?!

We moved 12 times to 11 different locations during my 12 month tour.  The only location we were assigned to twice was near Go Dau Ha, along the Song Vam Co Dong River.  Most locations were FSB’s (Fire Support Bases) near key infiltration points from the Ho Chi Minh Trail along the Cambodian border.  We never looked forward to a move, particularly after we were issued the 84 foot radar tower. If nothing else, it was a huge amount of work.

We usually moved our equipment with our 2 trucks, but occasionally the new location was not accessible via roads due to flooding and extremely muddy roads, if there were any roads at all.  So, we were flown in on helicopters, equipment and all. Although I’ve always been interested in aviation and liked flying, I never was comfortable flying on Army helicopters. They flew relatively slow and were easy targets. They flew even slower with our sling-load radar van dangling precariously under the helicopter.  I always felt like a sitting duck.

Move orders always came from Headquarters during the night via our communications radio. Whoever was on duty at the time would write down the message with a grease pencil on the right side of the plexiglas that covered our area map. The message included where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.

The much-dreaded message came in one night while my friend Mark was on duty. Overwhelmed with the sarcasm gene, he couldn’t help but add his own remarks which included unique duties to each team member.  One night, he wrote the following assignments:

Dale: Radar van and cables.
Jerry: 3/4 ton truck and tent.
Mark: Deuce-and-a-half truck and trailer.
Don: Radar antenna and cables.
Staff (me): Generators and fuel barrels.
Patrick: Stick left thumb in mouth, right thumb up a**. Change hands every 30 seconds.
All: Radar tower, guy wires and jacks.

I guess Mark didn’t think too highly of Patrick. On the other hand, Mark kidded just about everyone. If nothing else, we badly needed the laughs.

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Our locations included: FSB Buell II; FSB Washington; FSB Crook; ATSB Tra Cu; Go Dau Ha (twice); ATSB Ben Keo; Ben Cui; Ben Soi; Tay Ninh; ARVN camp near Loc Giang (about 1/2 mile from FSB Jackson.