During my tour of duty in Vietnam, I spent two weeks at Nha Trang Air Base, located to the south and east of my primary duty base of Phu Cat. Air missions at Nha Trang had ceased, and I was sent there in an attempt to obtain materials and equipment that Phu Cat was short of.
It was mid 1970 and President Richard Nixon’s program of Vietnamization was in full swing. The day the program was signed, materials to support the military effort in Vietnam started drying up. In order to keep the birds flying, the men tooled up, the defense forces armed, we needed to find any materials and equipment we could, if we were to adequately fulfill our mission.
Earlier in the war, some materials had been shrewdly cached at various locations throughout Vietnam, in order to have an emergency source when needed. Well, they were now needed and plans were made to access each source and funnel the materials on hand to units in need.
Members of all branches of the U.S. military were at Nha Trang hunting for supplies and equipment. I was teamed up with an Army crew headed up by a no-nonsense captain. He was a good officer who got the job done, and scrounged up beer for us at the end of each working day. (Points scored)
Unfortunately, most of the materials at Nha Trang were scarfed up quickly and it was decided that teams would be sent out in convoys to raid the material caches that were within reasonable driving distance of the base. I was happy to be a part of the team, and along with several other airmen, the captain and his platoon size unit, plus a Marine rifle squad, we headed out early in the morning, two days after.
The ranking Air Force officer was to be a very young 2nd lieutenant, stationed at Nha Trang. He had only been in-country a month or two and was still bright eyed and bushy tailed. As the ranking Air Force enlisted man on the detail, he coordinated his plans with me. (I’m leaving out names in this story to protect the guilty) 🙂
The young lieutenant was rather gung ho. Once the mission was revealed to him, he had a bright red and black wooden sign, with the associated unit identities cobbled up. It was his intention to hang the large sign on the front of the first truck in the convoy.
Now every convoy crew from the Vietnam war will tell you that the last thing you wanted to do was draw unwanted attention. You motored along narrow, dangerous roads, through hostile villages, over treacherous bridges and mountain passes. You drove your large vehicles through all of this as subtly as a cat padding through a cemetery, because patrolling Viet Cong would happily take a bead on any convoy they had a shot at.
My effort to talk the Lt out of hanging his “red meat” advertisement on the truck was unsuccessful, but he did agree to discuss it with the Army captain who would be the ranking officer, and in charge of the detail.
On the morning of the mission the captain gave a short briefing before we headed out. When he was finished the Lt showed him his sign. The captain listened to him patiently, glancing in my direction with a furrowed brow. I stood mute, staring up into the trees, checking out the lizards and the monkeys.
“Lieutenant, that’s a fine sign, and I appreciate your enthusiasm for our mission. The bad guys around here tend to shoot at anything that stands out, so I’d appreciate it if you’d keep that under wraps. When we’re all back, we’ll hang it somewhere fitting, and have a beer or two together.” (Something along these lines was said, possibly a little more bluntly)
While snickering could be heard from the army ranks, I tried to maintain a straight face. Disappointed but agreeable to the captain’s plan, the Lt stowed the sign in the back of the first truck.
I had been out on many convoys out of Phu Cat. Of those convoys, we ran into trouble with VC twice, and the South Vietnamese militia known as the White Mice once. Going out with the amount of firepower we had on this trip, I felt unusually comfortable.
We soon headed out and motored along in a westerly direction. Though I was unfamiliar with the area around Nha Trang, the grunts knew it well. After about one hour we came around a curve banking up to a small mountain. About half way through the curve we came under small arms fire from about one third the way up. It wasn’t heavy fire, but it only takes one bullet to kill you. The convoy pulled as close to the mountain as possible to get into some cover and stopped. Everyone piled out as the captain barked some orders. Then, an Army patrol set off one way, a Marine patrol the other. The rest of us just went into the ditch, which was fully hidden, and waited.
Meanwhile the VC riflemen kept up a light, but steady barrage. We anticipated mortars, but none came down. The incoming fire picked up for a bit, and then let off suddenly. During the pause in action, one of the army grunts yelled back in our direction.
“Hey Lieutenant, show em your sign!”
That got everyone to laughing, even the lieutenant. Soon, we heard skirmishing fire up on the hill. It lasted about ten minutes, then trickled off to nothing. The grunt who had chided the lieutenant yelled out again.
“Think they just sent those VC to Buddha.”
The two patrols came back down in about thirty minutes, none were wounded or harmed, but they were agitated from the brief little fire fight. The captain gave them time to settle down before we took off again. The warehouse we were looking for proved to have been badly pilfered, and only a few items were worth taking back, which we did.
I spent another few days at Nha Trang, before embarking on a one-month trip, flying to and from various mud holes in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, loading and unloading cargo aircraft. Before I left NhaTrang, however, the captain threw us all a party. A water buffalo was dispatched, roasted, and washed down with Black Label beer. The captain formally dedicated the lieutenants sign to our mission, to the accompaniment of roaring laughter from everyone, especially the Lt. And for all I know, the lieutenant’s sign, is still hanging on the branch of a copperpod tree, where the Lt himself tossed it the next day. 🙂
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