Boring topic, but still a critical part of the radar system. No power, no radar. No radar, increased enemy infiltration. I learned on my very first day in the field that no one wanted to be responsible for the generators. To them, it was like being relegated to KP (Kitchen Police). Probably the only detail lower on the totem-pole was burning shit.
My section chief soon learned that I had been trained on generator repair and maintenance back in Germany. I actually enjoyed the course and really didn’t mind looking after our 2 generators. One generator powered the radar system and the other, smaller generator kept our radio batteries charged.
When I first arrived, the main radar generator was a non-standard machine, mounted on a deuce and a half trailer. The governor was inoperative, so the hand-throttle had to be carefully adjusted for the correct RPM and then locked. The throttle had to be checked and readjusted frequently throughout the night. The supply folks back at our base camp never fulfilled our repeated requests for a replacement governor. I could have easily replaced it in the field.
We got orders to move about a month later. Our new destination was not accessible by truck, so we were airlifted by helicopter. The tired old trailer-mounted generator remained behind. We were then forced to rely on the cranky little 2-stroke generator that came standard with the radar system. That little single cylinder beast was rated at 1kw. Coincidentally, the radar system drew 1kw of power. No reserve, so that little generator ran at max blast in 12+ hour shifts. In the heat.
So, we continued to beg for a better generator. We finally got the attention of our mostly absent radar officer and he, in turn, got us a new generator. But there was a catch. The supply folks had to have a reason for the exchange. In other words, our old generator had to be broken or non-serviceable. Well, we solved that problem by “accidentally” forgetting to mix oil with the gas during refueling. Next, we fired it up during the day and just let it rip. Eventually, it seized up and became one piece of metal.
During the actual exchange, Jerry let slip what we had done in front of our officer, with the supply sergeant standing nearby. Fortunately, we already had the new 3kw generator in the truck, so we just blasted off. Tough bananas, guys. What are you gonna do, send us to Vietnam?
We managed to put 2500+ hours on that new generator by the time I went home. It was 500 hours overdue for exchange itself – well beyond overhaul time. I topped off the oil every other day and changed the oil in between. Also, I removed and cleaned the sparks plugs every day, without fail. The generator was using enough oil during each 12 hour shift that the spark plugs would start to foul near the end of the 12 hour grind. It would just make it through the night.
During the one time our Commander of the 25th Infantry Division Artillery visited us (a full-bird colonel), he asked us if we needed anything. I piped up and mentioned that we sure could use a new generator. We never got it. Thanks for nothing, boss. One more reason I loved our intrepid leaders. What a screwed up war.
I did experience a little unexpected side benefit to my generator maintenance skills. While were based with the US Advisory team and ARVN infantry near Loc Giang (my last camp before going home), the Advisory team leader (a 1st Lt.) approached me and asked if I would be willing to take a look at their generator. It hadn’t run in months and no one knew how to fix it. As luck would have it, their generator had the identical engine to our radar generator. Only the generator output was different. While our generator produced 120 volts AC at 400 cycles, theirs produced 120 volts AC and 60 cycles – just like stateside power.
I got out my tool kit and started looking over the Advisory team’s generator. It didn’t take long to locate the problem. Someone had grossly mis-adjusted the dual ignition points, rendering the ignition dead. After a few adjustments, I had the generator singing away. Now that the Advisory Team’s convenience generator was working, we all got to watch their little B&W TV in the evening. Tuned into AFVN (Armed Forces Vietnam Network), we enjoyed Laugh-In several evenings a week. It was really a hoot to be able to watch TV way out in the sticks. We’d crowd into a small bunker and mostly forget about the war for 30 minutes. After the show ended, someone would turn on the single light bulb hanging from a post, only to reveal hundreds of cockroaches on the floor and coming out of the cracks in the sandbags. It was as if the strange light from the little TV attracted them. But no matter, Laugh-In was a nice break from reality.