Imagine my surprise at being contacted by a friend last heard from over 30 years before, a friend from service in Vietnam. In mid-2001, out of the blue, Tom Riley calls me up because he has found my web page. After going through the few old addresses I have, Tom finds Roger Young who was also with us. But with only one Vietnam picture that I know of between us, the memories are rather distant.
In early 2002, my Mother decides that she wants to use the file drawer which has held my files for 35 years or so, and she packs up the contents and sends them to me. Book rate. Inside, I find a file of photographs, some from Vietnam, and a file of negatives, with other shots from Vietnam. Thus we have this page of personal moments from the Vietnam buildup.
I spent my entire 20th year in Vietnam.
I was 19 years old when I went and 21 when I got back. That was from November 1967 to December 1968.
Everyone I knew about got back alive and whole, but many did not. We would talk about that when we were there: to some extent we were all ashamed about not risking as much as those in the field. But we were Signal Corps support troops, not front line fighters. And this was the Army, and being in the Army is not about personal choice. We did get some incoming mortars occasionally, and I had a rocket pass just over my head, so there was some real risk. But, in the end, all we could do was do our jobs, and be livid about making sacrifices our competitors back home would never have to face.
Although I already had an older 35mm SLR camera, one of the first things I did when I arrived "in country" was to buy a tiny "Minolta 16" 16mm still camera at the PX and carry it in one of the many pockets we had in Vietnam fatigues. I took hundreds of pictures, including many 35mm slides, and sent them home. On post there were large metal mailboxes just like in the US, painted "US Mail" just like in the US, and that was where we all deposited our outgoing letters. So I put my pictures in addressed envelopes and dropped them in. But when I returned to "the world," I found that almost none of my photos had made the trip. Presumably my pictures were censored and discarded, since they were neither delivered nor returned.
We were young men in the U.S. Army.
Most of us were "Regular Army," almost a year into a 3-year hitch.
My class had graduated the month before from our 35-week
"Fixed Ciphony Repair" course at
My orders of 12 NOVEMBER 1967 at "HEADQUARTERS UNITED STATES ARMY PERSONNEL CENTER, OAKLAND CALIFORNIA" included seven of us 32F20's:
We went to war in the relative luxury and air-conditioned comfort of a commercial Boeing 707, but when the door opened, the tropical heat and humidity swept in and took us away.
We had landed at Bien Hoa Airbase near Saigon, and after processing-in, were bussed to the 160th Signal Group at Long Binh, near Bien Hoa, northeast of Saigon.
Alas, the 160th did not need 32F20's, so we were split up, two of us staying at Long Binh in the 44th Sig Bn. The others went to Saigon and Da Nang that I know of, and presumably other places as well. I never did get into Saigon proper, but we finally did get shipped to Nha Trang.
In Long Binh we were on casual detail for a month.
In Long Binh we lived in "hootches." These were pre-fabricated aluminum buildings with fiberglass insulation and a cement floor. I remember them as being close and loud and hot.
Beyond the end of the street, I think we see USARV
(Headquarters, US Army, Vietnam) on the top of the distant hill.
They were rumored to have air conditioned offices and real flush
In contrast, we had seats with pans underneath, which were burned
out with oil every day.
Buildup underway, need more hootches!
I presume the Army Engineers were doing this.
My notes say that at any given time one could look up
and see about 4 choppers and 2 winged aircraft in the air.
Sometimes one would see a line of 4 to 10 choppers.
At night we would hear and feel "whoomps" from B-52
strikes supposedly about 20 miles away.
Things were rather casual.
Hootches closer up. We had power. No phones.
It looks like one of those was the showers.
The street and the "yards" were all raw dirt.
Those open tube things lining the street look like bomb
Apparently they removed the ends and jammed them tight
and got a rain gutter.
I'm not sure I ever saw them work.
My hootch from the inside.
I think the splotches on the walls were splashed cement or
Sandbags don't fill themselves!
This is the back door of our hootch. New guys had to sandbag their hootch. On all four sides.
So if Charlie puts a mortar shell into your hootch, it doesn't
blow up your neighbors as well.
The writing on the back of the picture says: "'Pentagon East' or USARV and Co Area 44th Sig Bn."
Probably taken from the back yard of the hootch.
This is my friend Roger Young, aka Little John, aka Hulk.
see him later at Nha Trang.
This is my friend Tom Riley, aka Riley.
see him in Nha Trang, apparently unmoved.
This is an A-Company party on Saturday, 18 Nov 1967, my 4th day "in country." My notes say there were trailers stocked with ice, sodas and beer, and that we had charcoal broiled steaks, burgers and chicken. That sounds great to me, but my notes also say that it sounds better than it was. That was a rather common situation in the Army.
Typically, before Thanksgiving, some units would print up a fancy menu to be mailed home so the folks would see that the boys would be getting a real Thanksgiving meal. That was the delusion. The reality I remember is standing in line for my second Vietnam Thanksgiving watching the large Vietnam roaches play on the pans of cornbread ready to be cut and served. There was not much dinner for me that day.
Us casual detail guys put up the parachute and canvas awning.
Probably Bien Hoa.
The first shock was cultural: The streets were dirt.
Although not seen from this picture, many houses
As I recall, we did a lot of our travel in
I have to believe that guy up ahead in the army fatigues is my friend Tom Riley. We will also see him at Nha Trang.
I don't know who the guy in civies would be; it doesn't
look like Hulk.
Many "mamma-san's" came on post and into the company area.
These "house girls" would make beds, sweep out, polish shoes,
mend clothes, sew on tags and stripes and wash clothes.
Sometimes they would bring a kid along for the day.
For about the first month we did not have a technical job, and so had to do whatever the top sergeant came up with each day. One of those things was to fix up the dayroom. We put in the ceiling on 2 and 3 Dec 1967.
Normally, a dayroom is where one can go to watch TV, play pool,
or read magazines.
But in the tropics, a galvanized-steel building is hot.
I think our 15-man aluminum "hootches" were more comfortable.
I'm not sure I ever saw anybody actually using the dayroom.
Another project we did was to build a bulletin board from scratch; the "32F Bulletin Board Builders" started 4 Dec 1967, and finished 7 Dec 1967. We finally started working in the Comm Center on 18 Dec 1967.
The Comm Center in Long Binh was just a few interconnected trailers with lots of teletype machines and operators inside. It was a "torn paper-tape" relay center: Messages were received on punched paper tape and rolled up and put on a peg to be sent in priority order on the next step of their journey. The message volume was overloading the system and driving everybody crazy. The data rate was slow, and the teletype operators were typing live to the far end of the link. One link was to Saigon.
For some time we worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. And then when we got off work, we spent another couple of hours sandbagging our "hootch," until that was finished. A sign in the company area warned that we were on "alert," although it was not clear just what we could do about that.
It was on our bulletin board that I saw the announcement for the
Bob Hope show.
The Bob Hope USO show at Long Binh, Christmas day, 25 Dec 1967.
What a crowd!
Some sort of ampitheater had been made of earth. I suppose we were about a third of the way down from the top. The stage was a long way down again.
Presumably we see Raquel Welsh in white boots.
I doubt I saw her much better than you do.
Just after midnight 30 Jan 1968 we learned how to celebrate Tet.
The Comm Center was inside the post, and some Tet defensive operations occurred perhaps half a mile away. We could easily see gunships firing rockets, the resulting explosions, and red tracers from gunship machine guns. Later battle descriptions say that one enemy thrust was toward the huge ammo dump at Bien Hoa Airbase.
Those of us who were off duty were awakened and we pulled weapons (M14's) and flak jackets and sat on the sandbagged wall outside the Comm Center. Nobody knew how bad it might get. We watched the gunships, and then we watched tracers go back up toward them. I actually caught that action on 35mm color slides, which were "lost" in the mail.
Soon, our Saigon connection said there was fighting outside their facility, and the operators were needed outside for defense. So the line to Saigon was dead, which seemed seriously ominous at the time. But eventually they came back on line.
The writing on the reverse side of the picture says:
"Bien Hoa fires, from in front of Long Binh comm center bunker.
(Note barbed wire and two parallel roads
A different time of day and different view.
Even though obviously there were some serious fires, it was also
obvious that the entire town was not burning down.
So whatever the problem was, it seemed to be contained.
I don't know much about this one. Possibly it was snapped from a truck while being transported to or from some sort of work.
The writing on the other side says:
"Nha Trang mountains and Special Forces 'copters."
We arrived in Nha Trang on 8 Feb 1968, and got to live in large Army tents, with wooden inside structuring and supports.
Despite the fact that we had worked with Secret equipment for almost 9 months, the AUTODIN (AUTOmatic DIgital Network) ASC (AUTOmated Switching Center) required Top Secret clearances.
So, once again we were on permanent detail.
My orders of 14 March 1968 to "SPECIALIST FOUR, E4" at "NHA TRANG SIGNAL BATTALION (USASTRATCOM)(PROV)" include six 32F20's:
I think this is my friend Roger Young, aka Little John, aka Hulk.
From the back of the photo: "Intelligent sign." The bulletin board is thus fully identified as a bulletin board.
Our clearances finally came through on 13 Apr 1968. So we could enter the closed world of COMSEC (COMmunications SECurity). But since we were junior grades in section, we still pulled outside guard duty and detail.
One might think that a main communications center would be one
of the best possible places to find out about a war.
The messages flow inside the equipment, and I doubt I ever saw
anything more secret than supply requests.
Surely there were battle reports, but I did not see any.
Only Washington knows what is really happening.
On 25 Apr 1968 we moved from tents to constructed barracks in Camp McDermott: "where all the morter rounds fall."
The guy in the orange T-shirt is me, obviously and aggressively off-duty. The writing on the back says: "Ritter, Schaffer and Boy-San. 19 Jun 1968, Nha Trang, Camp McDermott." I don't know who took the picture. It still exists because I used it as a bookmark and so did not mail it home.
Subsequently, I received orders as follows:
We had been pulling guard and details since we got to Vietnam as PFC E3's. When we got to Nha Trang (as E4's), we were on permanent detail because we did not have clearances (as though we could do anything about that). Then, when we did get clearances, we still had guard duty and detail because we were junior on the shift. Naturally, E5's did not pull that duty.
So when we made E5 we were ecstatic. Unfortunately, there were no E4's to do the work we used to do. Which meant that E5's had to pull duty. So even after gobbling two Army carrots, we were still pulling guard and detail. The irony of all this was lost on the command structure.
Other orders were:
Apparently, just before I left, I shot a roll of 35mm film
in the barracks, then carried that back and had it developed
in the U.S.
These are those shots:
This is looking from the back, where "we" lived, toward the front. I think the door in the distance leads out to a landing and the front stairs. Stairs were outside.
Directly behind the camera, a few bunks down, is the
That also leads to a top landing (the back porch) with stairs
to the ground.
We will be there next.
Out the back door, from the top landing, looking toward the Nha Trang mountains.
At one time I had pictures of the entire near sides of some
mountains burning from something (perhaps Napalm) in barrels rolled
out the back of C-131's.
Again out the back door, from the top landing, this time looking toward the showers.
It was wonderful to finally have enough showers. We would just wrap a towel around and walk across the grounds in flip-flops with a shaving kit.
The shower water was held in a black neoprene bladder at the top of a short water tower, which provided a heating effect for early afternoon users. Fairly soon thereafter, the water ran very cold.
Oddly, while I was there, there were no shower heads.
The water just poured out 1/2 inch pipes.
Bailey was the only
And he never let us forget it.
It seemed like Riley was always in a lounger.
I can remember having some really great
A sharp technical guy.
We had many fine talks, but technically he was far ahead.
I never saw any surfing.
But I did see some water skiing occasionally.
It was a very common to buy a small refrigerator at the PX
for about $80, put a lock on it, and stock it with sodas and
Cold sodas were sold at a profit, and the electricity was free.
I think cold sodas were 10 cents, in MPC (Military Payment
Certificates), of course.
We were paid in MPC, not US dollars.
At least I think this is Hendrickson.
But it was 30 years ago!
The AUTODIN ASC operated 24/7, typically two shifts per day, and we always had some sort of rotation so nobody was permanently on night shift. Sleeping during the day could be a problem.
Typically we had 6 days on, 3 days off, rotating to the
other shift each time.
An art photo.
Of the three of us, Tom, Roger and myself, Tom left first, getting directly out of the Army as an E6. Roger extended his tour in Vietnam for 6 months in exchange for a verbal promise that he would be up for E6. I extended my tour by a month, so I could take leave over the Christmas 1968 holidays.
Over the last few months I was there, I developed a way of troubleshooting some equipment which was not taught in school. So a plan was hatched for me to teach a little course about that, bringing 32F's to Nha Trang from all over Vietnam. It was certainly no secret when I was leaving, since that was the most important date for anyone in Vietnam. But of course the Army fiddled their time away, and ended up scheduling the class for after I would be gone.
They said: "You can't leave!", to which I replied: "The Hell I can't!" So they asked what it would take for me to stay, I said: "Make me an E6." They said: "Sure, you'll make E6." I said: "No, no, I want to be an E6 now." The goal of this, of course, was to finally escape the continuous duty rotation which had been part of my life "in country" from the beginning, and making E6 five months later was not going to do that for me. But I think what they really wanted was just another duty-pulling body, and making me E6 right then was not going to do that for them.
So I returned to the States an E5. At Travis AFB, in the wee hours of the morning, my orders were changed "due to the needs of the Army," and I was re-assigned to the 2nd Armored Division in Ft. Hood. Naturally, knowing the Army as we do, there were no 32F slots anywhere in the 2nd Armored Division. After repeatedly contacting the agency responsible for changing my orders over a period of several months, eventually I was transferred out. I ended up in Headquarters Company, 4th US Army, in Ft. Sam Houston, right in the middle of San Antonio, Texas, with less than a year to go. 32F equipment did exist there, but unfortunately was maintained exclusively by civilian workers. I got to see it once.
I often wondered whether I might not have been better off
staying in Vietnam to make E6.
As it turns out, Roger stayed for just that reason, but they
didn't give it to him anyway.
Which sort of cheered me up, in a strange way, since it meant
that I had correctly figured the situation:
You can never trust the Army.
Last updated: 2002 May 29