Stories from a Vietnam Fire Support Base

Place:  Hill 65, SW DaNang, South Vietnam

Time:  Summer of 1970

Life on a major fire support base was quite a change from life on a small hill or being in the bush.  We had a gasoline generator so we could have electricity.  We had a mess tent where you could get a warm meal of something.  The cooks did an absolutely outstanding job of disguising food.  Many times, I had no clue what I was eating, but it was warm and I did not have to use a heat tab to get it that way.  We had an old airplane fuel tank that someone had made into a shower.  I was able to put my air mattress on a cot!  Ahhh, all the luxuries of home.

One thing that I remember so well was how creative the troops were.  An enlisted Marine could do things in a manner that you just had to take a moment and reflect on what was happening.  They created an entirely new language and I had to learn it in order to communicate effectively.  I remember the time that we got a fire mission and the FO requested “ham and eggs on the ground”.  I turned to the section chief and asked “what the hell did he say?”  He calmly replied that he wanted high explosive with a quick fuse.  Oh, I said.  In another situation, one night, at “0” dark thirty in the morning, a runner from the FDC came and woke me up telling me we had a fire mission.  As I was waking up, I asked what was the target?  His reply was “ever readies in the Arizona”.  In my normal reply, I asked, “what the hell is that?”  He then said there is a “gooner” running around in the Arizona with a flashlight.  Oh, I said.  You could always count on the enlisted troops to be creative.

We had ambushes and patrols that went out daily from Hill 65.  Every group that went out had a corpsman go with them.  There is no one that Marines hold in higher regards, than a corpsman.  That person risks his life just like any Marine in a combat situation and they are an integral part of the Marine combat team.  In the field, sometimes military rules become somewhat relaxed.  You can get really close to a lot of people.  At the same time, certain things are still held important.  Well, we had an issue with some troops about the length of their hair.  The C.O. required regulation haircuts on the hill.  It was more of a hygiene issue than anything else.   Corpsmen wore a navy utility uniform and they therefore could follow navy regulations in terms of length of hair.  However, if they put on a pair of Marine jungle utilities, the C.O. said they needed to follow Marine regulations.  He felt that if the corpsman wanted look like a Marine with the clothes that he wore, he needed the proper haircut to make the package complete. 

We had one corpsman that wanted to press the issue.  He wore jungle utilities but refused to cut his hair.  I was instructed to resolve the issue.  I told the corpsman the next time he came out in jungle utilities with long hair; I would cut his hair right then and there.  He chose to see if I would really follow through—he got his hair cut on that very day by “barber Vinyard”.  He was a good sport about it.

The ARVN had captured a VC and brought him to Hill 65.  When they were walking him to the COC, and an enlisted Marine asked an ARVN officer to make the VC show how he could get through our wire.  The next thing I know is that we were having a “show & tell” with a VC, dressed only in red shorts, go through our stiffest defensive wire in the matter of a couple minutes without getting a scratch on him.  There were about 30 fully armed Marines watching him do his thing.  That was a real eye opener for all of us.

Drugs were another issue with the military in general in 1970.  It was a sign of the times.  Everyone had personal opinions about how to deal with the issue.  I chose to try and differentiate between the “user” and the “experimenter”.  As an officer, I was expected to demonstrate leadership on most all issues.  I did not want some young 18 or 19 year old Marine to have to suffer for the rest of his life, with a bad record, unless he deserved it.  I believed that many of the Marines that were using drugs were experimenting with them, many times because of peer pressure.  So, when I was faced with the issue and I had to make a decision, I would talk with the Marine to try and get a feel for whether he was experimenting with drugs or he was hooked.  If it was clear to me that he was a user, I followed the rules and guidelines based upon the UCMJ.  If I felt that he was truly sorry for what he did and he gave me his word to stop messing with drugs, I would just give him an “unpleasant assignment” that would allow him think about the commitment that he had just made with me.  I would make sure there was no entry in his service record book concerning the incident.  I want to believe that most of them appreciated what I did for them.

As Paul Harvey would say, “and now, for the rest of the story”.  A 105 howitzer fires a round that has 7 charges (little bags) of propellant.  The more propellant you use, the farther the round goes.  We always had missions that did not require all 7 bags so we would remove some of them.  They could never be reused so we had to destroy them.  We would do this whenever we accumulated enough to make a big fire.  We would also put all the confiscated drugs that we had and mix it in with the propellant.  The troops were well aware of when this was going to take place so they would come out and watch.  I would look around at the troops as the fire got started and I think I saw an occasional tear, but the most striking thing was that they always tried to stand down wind from the fire!

The last thing that I want to share is what happened the night of July 4, 1970.    It was just a typical day and nothing very exciting had occurred, yet.  Every time a patrol or ambush would go out, the Marines would take flares and smoke grenades with them.  They normally would have smoke and flares that would be different colors.  The smoke grenades were normally used for identifying a specific location during daylight and the flares were used to give some kind of signal after dark.  The flares were normally red, white and green.   For example, at night, a certain color flare might be used to let the base camp know when and where a patrol was coming back in so they would not get fired on, or a flare would be fired to put the fire support base on alert to a pending attack.  The Marines would change what color would be used for a certain signal so “Charlie” never learned the pattern and he would use flares just to confuse people.

It was about 2100 and I was in the IOD tower scoping out Indian country in hopes of finding a target.  All of a sudden, I heard a bunch of M-16 fire going off.  I figured the VC tripped a Marine ambush around Liberty Bridge.  Then all of a sudden, I saw red, white and green flares going up.  I though “holy crap” these guys have gotten into something really big!  I got on the hook to see if I could learn anything.  Almost at the same time, the same thing happened on Hill 37; Hill 55 and a couple other locations.  For a moment, I had no idea what was happening, but I was sure it was really bad.  Well, in a couple moments word came to me that some enlisted troops were just observing the 4th of July in the typical American fashion!  I was still shaking as I climbed down from the tower and went to the FDC bunker for the rest of the night.