We arrived at Tra Cu ATSB (Advanced Tactical Support Base) on a CH-47 Chinook helicopter. The pilot set the big helicopter down just outside the perimeter wire while the nervous crew waited as we hastily unloaded our gear and equipment. The pilot, in anticipation of possible hostile gun fire kept the engines and rotors at take-off RPM to help facilitate a quick get-away if needed. All he had to do is pull the collective to bug out. This was all fine and dandy except it made the already hot outside temperature unbearable in the area of the loading ramp at the rear of the Chinook. I would guess it hit 140° there. By the time we finished unloading the helicopter we were all absolutely exhausted and dehydrated.
During the unloading, the crew chief apparently didn’t think we were moving quick enough, so he started pitching the smaller items out the loading ramp. One of the items was a reel of communications (commo) wire. It bounced down the ramp and proceeded to unroll itself into a mass of tangled wire, creating an instant hazard to our team as we hand-carried the collapsed tower sections and other heavy equipment off the helicopter. Witnessing this, I stopped about 3 feet from the crew chief inside the helicopter and gave him a cold, hard stare. Probably the fact that I had the nerve to stop moving for a few seconds infuriated him even more. He didn’t touch anymore of our equipment. I hope that SOB enjoyed his nice, cement floor hooch back at the base camp later that day, not to mention the air-conditioned NCO club that evening with cheap drinks and quite likely a well known band or singing group from the states. I’d bet good money his given name was Dick.
Eventually, we managed to drag all of our equipment inside the perimeter wire and then begin the tedious task of assembling the radar tower. Set up proved to be very difficult. The mandatory guy wires seemed to interfere with everything in the narrow camp. And, if we got the tower too close to the river, the guy wire anchors would end up under water, which was absolutely unacceptable. After much discussion we finally decided on a site that the camp commander was in agreement with and we assembled the tower. We worked until about 2:00 AM getting the radar on-line. By then, fatigue was setting in and we started making mistakes, one that could’ve put the tower into the river, along with a couple of our team members. I found that one of the guy-wire jacks had an improperly mounted cable that was within a fraction of an inch of slipping off the retainer. We corrected the problem and labored on into the night.
A little earlier in the evening, one of our team members dropped a large crescent wrench while at the top of the tower. I heard it coming down, clanking off of various cross members. Not wanting to get our “bell rung,” all of us near the base of the tower ran for cover while hollering out expletives at the guys above. Tempers were getting very short.
The next morning we began tidying up our area and gear from the previous night’s chaos. I strolled over to see how the generator was doing and to check the gasoline supply. I found another big mistake. As I checked the braided fuel line to make sure it wasn’t resting on the bottom of the barrel I received a severe electrical shock. We forgot to ground the generator! I was very lucky, the shock didn’t cause any permanent damage to me and no sparks occurred that might’ve caused the half-full 55 gallon fuel drum to explode. After installing the grounding rod I found a place to sit down and think about that one for awhile.
Tra Cu camp was quite different than all of the other camps we were at. While most FSB’s were circular in shape, Tra Cu was long and narrow. Having one side of the camp bordering a river (Song Vam Co Dong River or one of it’s canals, I believe) probably had something to do with that. It was a very wet camp; mud everywhere along with the constant smell of rotting wood or lord knows what. Between the infantry, howitzer batteries and river boats, Tra Cu was a very active place. Charlie seemed quite interested in the place as well and would occasionally drop a few mortar rounds on us or probe the perimeter wire. We took 6 casualties on the worst night when a mortar round hit the make-shift mess shack, where some of the boat crews were sleeping. I’m sure you can understand why we were well motivated to return the favor.
On another memorable night, we detected some movement just north of the camp. As luck would have it, an AC-47 gunship (sometimes referred to as “Spooky”) happened to be in the area and was called in to suppress the possibility of a ground attack against our camp. Between the parachute flares and the AC-47’s incredible mini-guns, it was quite a show.
After the fireworks subsided and we began to relax a bit I noticed that my feet were feeling real uncomfortable. At about that moment a parachute flare popped out beyond the west perimeter wire and I could just make out my boots in the dim light. They were on the wrong feet! My best friend was leaning against the sandbag berm next to me so I pointed out my boot problem. It was all he could do to keep from laughing out loud. What a night.
My team spent the first couple of nights at Tra Cu sleeping outside. We positioned our cots close to the operations bunker so we at least had a little protection. Eventually, we managed to squeeze into a nearby hooch, which was used by the infantry people. The hooch was at the end of a row and was built on posts to prevent flooding. Inside, near the peak of the corrugated tin roof, hung a ratty old mail bag that enclosed a light bulb. The well-worn mail bag allowed just a trickle of light into the room, but not enough to make us a target in the darkness. Things got a bit frantic when the mortar rounds started coming in and we scrambled in the near-darkness to put on our boots, helmet and flak jacket and then dive out the doors with M-16 and ammo in hand.
It seemed like there was always something interesting going on around Tra Cu. One day I noticed that the plastic impregnated window screens in our hooch were pulsating in and out. Within a few moments I found out why. B-52 bombers were unloading their bombs near the Cambodian border, just a couple of miles away. The rising shock waves were an awesome sight; like giant domes, rapidly expanding skyward. It just went on and on and on.
We didn’t detect as many targets along the Cambodian border from Tra Cu as the people back at HQ had hoped, so two weeks later they had us air-lifted out of Tra Cu and moved to a new location a few miles to the north. I didn’t miss Tra Cu.