We have another great story from our friend, Benny Carbo. He reports on some interesting events from Viet Nam.
Looking out from the side windows of the C-130 Hercules, I observed dense jungles dotted with huge bomb craters and massive stretches of non-vegetated red earth made barren by aerial spraying of Agent Orange.
Such was a typical view from the air over Vietnam’s Central Highlands. David Bird, Clayton Spafford and I were on our way to another mobility team mission to some isolated LZ (landing zone) in December 1967. All we were told in briefing back at Danang was that we were to land at a temporary mechanized Army fire base and resupply their stores of diesel fuel with several sorties offloading 55 (fifty-five) gallon drums and reloading the departing C-130’s with spent drums. While we were never told exactly how long our missions would last, most were three to five days in duration.
As mobility team members we were used to short notice, so our packs were always at the ready with a week’s change of clothes. Our mobility orders were issued out of Saigon by ALCE (Air Lift Control Element), as were all air missions for cargo aircraft. Hundreds of requests would come in daily and ALCE would sort them out and establish the highest priority requests. Before ALCE got around to some of the older mission requests, the missions would be cancelled by the requestor due to a change in plan or reevaluation of the threat status. Through the bureaucratic process of this massive undertaking an occasional SNAFU (a military acronym, meaning in cleaned up language, “situation normal, all messed up”). This is the story of one such “situation normal.”
The Hercules touched down on the short PSP (Perforated Steel Planking) runway, turned around and remained on the ground with engines at full mechanical until we offloaded our rough terrain forklift and CONEX (Container Express), a large steel military shipping container that contained rations, a tent, and sleeping bags. When we hauled a CONEX we knew we were going to a primitive site with no provisions for food and shelter. As the Hercules took off and with it our only means of communication with the outside world, we wondered why the air crew was in such a rush to take off. As we surveyed our surroundings we began to understand. There was no sign of the Army unit that was supposed to be there to greet us. To our dismay the only evidence we found of this LZ having been recently occupied was a maze of empty sand bagged enclosures, which we assumed once surrounded the artillery pieces of the Army unit we were sent to re-supply. As we continued to take in our new surroundings we found the small firebase was surrounded by jungle covered hills, a vantage from where an enemy could easily determine our position and strength or in our case, weakness.
We scouted around and found a dirt road leading from one end of the runway into the jungle. Collectively, we decided that it was better to take to the road and hopefully overtake the Army unit rather than to sit around like sitting ducks at the abandoned airfield. So, we abandoned our CONEX box and we all piled on the forklift. Armed only with our M-16s, we headed out, hoping Charlie hadn’t mined the road. After traveling about a mile, we found ourselves at the base of a hill.
The road continued up the hill to coils of Concertina wire that encircled the hill. Behind the wire there were sandbag pillboxes. Another hundred feet or so up the hill another line of wire and more pillboxes. At the top of the hill more wire, more pill boxes and some bunkers and crude looking plywood buildings. All about the hill we saw dark-skinned men of small stature dressed in what we later learned were tiger fatigues, which we did not recognize as any uniform we had seen anywhere in Vietnam.
After a few minutes of agonizing, we decided that if this were indeed the enemy, we would be receiving heavy fire by now. About this time, we observed a jeep racing down the winding road from the hilltop. About halfway down the hill, the jeep left the road to the right with the occupant falling out on the left side of the road. The jeep came to a stop on the side of the road, and the man who fell out rolled all the way down the hill until finally coming to rest at our feet. As we examined the crumpled heap, we felt instant relief when we recognized the uniform of a U.S. Army Special Forces First Sergeant. Miraculously, he did not appear to be injured from the tumble. As we rushed over to help him to his feet we understood why he fell out of his jeep and why he was feeling no pain – he was falling down drunk. We loaded him back into his jeep and David drove back up the hill while Spaff held on to the drunken sergeant. I followed with the forklift.
Upon arriving at the hilltop camp, we were greeted by six other Green Berets, and they treated us to a drink at their makeshift bar. During our discussion over drinks we learned that their captain and five other Green Berets were out with a couple hundred Montagyards, dressed in black and camouflaged tiger fatigues, scouting Highway 1 along the Vietnam, Laotian and Cambodian border for enemy troop movement from North Vietnam.
Montagyards, or Yards as we often called them, were the tribal people that populated the Central Highlands of Vietnam in II Corp. The Special Forces built a camp on this hill above their village and outfitted, armed and trained them to defend their village. In return the Montagyards would go along with the Green Berets on reconnaissance missions, such as the current one, and help defend the Special Forces camp. With half their number being out on extended patrol, these men felt shorthanded; they warmly received us and immediately indoctrinated us in camp defense procedures. We were briefed on the operation of the mortar pits, the 50 caliber machine guns’ positions and all sorts of WWII era arms which they issued to the Montagyards.
It was a real thrill to shoot the 50 cals, BARs, and the 45 caliber burp guns that I had only seen in war movies. However, the thrill was quickly replaced by reality. These guys were not doing this to entertain us. They fully intended us to help them defend the camp against attack which they advised was highly likely since the North Vietnamese scouts were sure to recognize that a large contingent of the camp defense forces were absent. At this point I began to do a risk assessment, questioning whether the adventure of volunteering for the Mobility Team missions to escape the boring routine at Danang added enough value to outweigh the potential cost. (I wish I had known Nick, my financial adviser, back then. He could have advised me.)
We contacted ALCE on the camp radio and advised them that there was no Army unit to resupply. ALCE advised us that they would arrange for a C-130 to pick us up and to stand by for an ETA. A couple of nights later we were still standing by for a ride back to Danang when at about 0200 Hours the camp alarm went off. We all went to our assigned defense positions. Mine was a mortar pit. I had a radio for receiving firing coordinates. There were colored sticks with numbers lining the inside walls of the pit. A Montagyard was with me in the pit to operate the mortar. I was to receive coordinates from the command bunker and point to the right stick and number on the stick so that the Montagyard could calibrate the mortar correctly for direction and elevation. After firing several mortar rounds and burning up several hundred rounds of 50 cal, the command bunker called for a cease fire. When everything quieted down, the command bunker advised that it was a false alarm. A water buffalo had wandered from the village into the trip wires along the perimeter of the camp. As I returned to my sleeping bag, I was very thankful that the only casualty of this fire fight was one dead water buffalo.
The next morning the patrol of Green Berets and Montagyards that had been monitoring Highway 1 returned. On that same afternoon the camp was visited by a contingency of the Montagyard village including the village chief.
They were very upset and were demanding the return of a missing goat that had been discovered tied and staked in one of the camp’s mortar pits. It appears that one of the Green Berets was planning on preparing the goat for a welcome back feast for their comrades who had been out on patrol. The captain partially restored the peace by restoring the goat to the rightful owner. The chief, however, felt that further compensation in the way of automatic weapons was in order. The captain finally settled the negotiations by giving the chief several bags of rice, some tiger fatigues and a few machetes.
With the dispute settled all was well again, and the chief invited us all to his hooch for rice wine. Their village reminded me of pictures I had seen of similar African communities. The Yards lived in thatched huts elevated about twenty feet off the ground. I assumed this was to protect them as they slept from the tigers that roamed the jungle at night. The women were all bare chested as typical of any primitive native group, and toddlers ran naked around them. The men and women all wore bone and metal necklaces and bracelets. The number of adornments each one wore indicated their social status in the tribe. We all sat in a circle with legs crossed in the chief’s hut and some women placed before us on the floor a large earthen jar with bamboo and rice leaves floating in a vile looking liquid. There was a single bamboo straw poking out of the top of the jar. The Green Berets had briefed us that the Yards were a very proud people and told us that the ritual that we were about to participate in was a show of honor for their guests.
We were further advised that no matter what was offered us and no matter how disgusting it was, we should accept it with gratitude and act like we were really enjoying it. So the drill went like this: the chief with black teeth and gums would take a long pull on the straw for what seemed like forever. Each of us was to follow his lead and partake from the same straw. I quickly got over the sick feeling of using the same straw when I tasted the rice wine. It tasted like dirty fermented water and had an awful aftertaste. However, after several rounds at the straw I lost my sense of taste altogether and began to feel the buzz from the wine. When I felt that I would burst if I drank anymore the chief signaled he had had his fill which meant we had passed the test. The chief rewarded us with Montagyard bracelets; my reward, however, was that I could stop drinking the vile spirits and go off somewhere and puke my guts out.
After seven days of life with the Green Berets living at a Special Forces “A” camp, I was more than ready to go back to [the boredom of] Danang. As fate would have it, a couple of Huey UH1D Army helicopters landed on the hilltop late that morning, and who should climb out of the copter shocked us all. It was none other than Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Martha Raye, who stopped by just to say hello and offer her support.
For you youngsters, Martha Raye was a film star from the late thirties and forties and later in the sixties and seventies had numerous television roles. Martha Raye was no Raquel Welch, who I had seen along with Bob Hope and Nancy Sinatra at a USO Christmas show, but we thoroughly enjoyed her visit and we really appreciated it when she asked the brass that accompanied her if they would give us Airmen a lift into Pleiku. Once we landed in Pleiku, it was just a short hop by C-130 back to the relative civilization of Danang Air Base.
(For the record, Martha Raye spent more time visiting troops in Viet Nam than any other entertainer. She was not only a Reserve Lieutenant Colonel, but she also had earned her paratrooper wings jumping from C-130s.
Not only did she boost morale by visiting troops in forward areas, she was also a registered nurse who helped the wounded while in Viet Nam. Martha Raye invested a lot to the war in Viet Nam, including the loss of a son.)
This is not the end of the story. Some twenty-seven years later I took a job in Coppell, Texas. As the moving van crew was unloading our stuff I kept looking at the older fifties something gentleman who was helping. Something about the way he carried himself while going about his tasks seemed very familiar. I listened to him talk to the younger members of the crew about just coming back from a Washington D.C. dinner at the White House with the President of the United States. The other crew members would snicker behind his back thinking him deranged. As I watched him climb the stairs with a refrigerator strapped to his back with no help, I thought about what incredible physical shape he was in. One of the moving crew members asked him sarcastically why the president would ask him to dinner and he responded by saying he goes every year as is tradition for all living Medal of Honor recipients. It was then it hit me. He still had the build and swagger of the Green Beret First Sergeant that fell out of his jeep so many years ago at a hilltop camp in Vietnam. While he was upstairs I called the other members of the crew aside and told them I thought I recognized him and believed our paths had crossed in Vietnam.
During a rest break when the crew all gathered under a shade tree, I asked the man how many tours of duty he had served in Vietnam. He told me he had served six tours. (I had met him on his fourth tour.) I asked him what branch of the service he was in and where he had served.
He confirmed that he was a Green Beret First Sergeant and served primarily in the Central Highlands. I asked him if he remembered the airmen that had been abandoned at his camp for over a week. He not only remembered, but he also remembered us flying off in a helicopter with Martha Raye. We had a great time reminiscing about that week. I then turned to the wide eyed youngsters who had earlier made fun of the former Green Beret and gave them the following advice: “Whatever you do, don’t make him mad. One normally receives the Medal of Honor for killing lots of people.”
The sergeant later wrote down his name and the name of a book that one of his comrades wrote that made mention of the abandoned airmen. I intended to follow up with the sergeant and get a copy of the book, but unfortunately I lost the scrap of paper he had written on that day. I made contact with the moving company, but they could not help me identify or locate the sergeant. But, I never will forget him and his service to his country.
I write this story for my friend, David Bird, who was there with me at that Special Forces camp some forty-one years ago, but he doesn’t remember much about it. David was born an adventurer and will be until he stops breathing. It is understandable why he may forget some of the small details of his event filled life, or, he may just be getting a little senile.