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.