After a hectic 30 day leave (got married) we found ourselves at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, where we went through a refresher course on the AN/TPS-25 (Tipsy 25) battlefield ground surveillance radar. I hadn’t operated a Tipsy 25 since training at Ft. Sill 14 months prior, so the refresher was welcome. In addition, we received training that was specific to Vietnam which included helicopter operations and qualifications with weapons such as the M-16 rifle and M-60 machine gun. We also received some extensive indoctrination material (see helpful hints).
As the 6 weeks of intense training progressed, I could see faces taking on serious expressions. During brief rest breaks in training I would often see some of my buddies staring off into the distance, no doubt wondering what the next 12 months had in store for them. When the training ended our group was divided into thirteen 6-man teams (5 enlisted plus 1 officer). Mark, Rick and I had previously requested to be assigned to the same team, but a paper work error put Rick on another team. He ended up going to an area very close to the DMZ. Mark and I ended up on the same team and served our entire 12 month tour in Vietnam together. I was glad to have him with me. His keen wit and occasional sarcasm was much appreciated during some of our darker moments in Vietnam.
We were scheduled to leave for Vietnam on April 10, 1969, so I had 3 days to pack up and take my new wife back home to California. During the trip our car blew a head gasket, but we managed to limp into town after 2 days on the road. I immediately booked a flight back to Lawton, Oklahoma and got back to my unit at Ft. Sill just in time to convoy to Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. There, we loaded up our gear into a C-141 cargo aircraft. Our equipment included one jeep, one 3/4 ton truck, one deuce and a half truck and, of course, the radar system. Our route took us to Elmendorf AFB, Anchorage, Alaska. There, we had a crew change and refueling before heading off to Japan for another crew change and fuel. The last stop was Bien Hoa AFB, Vietnam. During the flight, we were allowed to wander around inside the cavernous cargo bay and also visit the flight deck when we needed a break from the noise. I made it a point to sit in the driver’s seat of all three vehicles during the flight. My reasoning was that I could later claim to have driven a truck at 35,000+ feet. The size of flight deck was very impressive; I counted as many as 10 people up there at times.
I’ll never forget my first impressions of Vietnam. When the cargo door swung open we were greeted by high heat and high humidity and some very strange smells. As I looked around I could see many soldiers who were obviously on their way home. Their whistles and cheers reminded me that I had a long way to go before I would be in that crowd. At this moment, 12 months seemed like an eternity.
Our very green 2nd Louie got a bit over excited as the cargo ramp opened and ordered all of us to load our weapons. The Air Force crew chief just about came unhinged while trying to explain to the good lieutenant that we were on a secure airbase and that all weapons are to remain unloaded until outside the main gate (this lieutenant was later relieved of duty for other malfunctions and was eventually assigned to some obscure job in the rear area. One of my teammates told me that the lieutenant actually crapped his pants).
Our team was sent to Cu Chi base camp in the III Corps area for initial staging. I think we were the only team out of the original 13 sent to Cu Chi. Our drive from Bien Hoa AFB to Cu Chi was quite an eye-opener. There were small fires here and there and evidence of recent fighting. And the strange smells were at times overpowering. None too soon, we drove through the Cu Chi base camp main gate and found our way to HHB (Headquarters, Headquarters Battery) of the 25th Infantry Division Artillery. We were assigned temporary billets and then prepared for 3 days of Charm School.
To make the transition to the field a little easier and safer, our team and an experienced field team were divided and formed into 2 new teams consisting of half FNG’s (fine new guys, funny new guys — you pick your euphemism) and half veterans. It worked quite well as we now could learn from the seasoned crews. Now it was time to spend the next 12 months doing what we trained for.
God help us.