Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Best Hootch In Vietnam

What the drill sergeants said was that we were maggots and they were going to make us men. The truth was that the majority of us were men and they were going to try to make us maggots. It worked to a degree. I would say that about 20% of the recruits were already maggots and they got on fine and finished basic training in the full glory of maggot-hood. Another 20% weren't sure whether they were men or maggots and they finished about fifty-fifty full blown maggots and men. The other 60% were men already when they went in and they finished as men.
So it cames out 70% men 30% maggots which wouldn't seem very good from the military point of view, but they did accomplish something because all the men who finished knew at least enough about acting like a maggot to survive the fear of the maggots in charge. We finished up maggots or men in maggot camouflage.
The trick for the men throughout the rest of their military career was to maintain the maggot camouflage well enough to avoid a swarming by frightened maggots while not succumbing to the camouflage and actually becoming a maggot. It was tough row to hoe, but a very very few actually managed it for most of a lifetime. That is to say, most of the career military were full-blown maggots, but here and there the occasional man popped up. Having tried it for three years, I must say that I have the utmost respect for those few who managed to carry on for a whole 20 year career without ever actually going maggot.
I learned a lot about camouflage in basic training and the following months in Radar repair school.
1. Camouflage is easier to maintain if you can avoid being examined often. The best camouflage is not being noticed at all.
2. Never break camouflage by being obviously good at something. Maggots are expected to screw up so nobody will take too much notice of a screw up. Excelling however is something that is extremely suspect in a maggot. Heaven forbid the head maggot look too closely and discover a man. If you absolutely must do something right, make sure to do something maggoty to distract them.
3. Maggots are not good leaders. They are so ingrained to slavish following that it often does not occur to them that anyone could only sort of follow'. If you do it right, they'll just think you're a maggot screwing up.
4. Low level maggots always follow the lead of high level maggots. Elicit the approval of a high level maggot and it does not matter what the low level maggot would have thought; he will now think what the high level maggot indicates he should think.
For non-lifers this is not to hard a set of rules to follow and it can be a lot of fun, especially playing around the edges of rules 2 and 3. If, and it is a big if, IF you don't want anything except your self-esteem and you are pretty willing to disguise that.
I suppose it might be different now, what with the professional army' and all but I doubt it has changed much.
That's what makes the "Best Hootch in Nam" so amazing. Of course there were a number of circumstances that had to come together at just the right time for it to happen.
But first I had better make some explanations for those of you unfamiliar with the rather arcane terminology that grew up around the Vietnam war.
"Hootch' is any structure in which people lived. Probably a mispronunciation of Hutch' but applied to all types of residence' buildings. Many of these were, of course, little better than rabbit hutches".
"LZ" stems from 'landing zone'. It was used both for the very temporary landing area where choppers might come down to insert or extract a foot patrol and for the more permanent places that included artillery pieces, refuelling facilities, and regularly resident troops. As I was not a combat soldier' I never had any reason to be dumped at the first type of LZ. All the LZs I was ever at, except one, had names.
"In country" was a very important term. Time in country' was the big measure of status. R&R priority was assigned strictly by time 'in country'. And when your time 'in country' reached 12 months you could go home. Time 'in country' started counting the day you arrived in Saigon or wherever you came in.
A 'short timer' was not quite what you might expect. That term was used to refer to someone who only had a 'short time' to go before being sent home. There was a tendency to be kind to 'short timers' but plenty of guys still died in their last two weeks in country.
OK! Enough dictionary!
To get back to that amazing hootch.
Before we got to this particular LZ, the six of us had heard a bit about it. It was special because the jungle wall was so close to the perimeter of the LZ that we would need to put our 'send/receive' part of the radar unit up on a twenty foot tower to be able to 'see' down close enough to the horizon for our work. After all when you are looking twenty or thirty miles away, a helicopter 500 feet off the ground is not very far above the horizon.
The powers that be had arranged for us to get a 20 by 20 by 20 foot piece of railroad trestle, with a decking of 3 by 10 inch planks. The tower was so heavy that it was brought in by a Skorsky Sky Crane and even then it wasn't completely assembled. The Sky Crane had to make the twenty mile flight from where the trestle base was assembled to our LZ in 5 mile segments because they couldn't carry enough fuel for a longer run and still fly with the thing hanging underneath.
A nice flat area had been prepared near the mess tent for our tower to go. I will say that Crane set it down fairly close to where it was supposed to be. Squashed the cooks out house but missed the mess tent.
Another chopper brought in the planking and a crew to put it on. And when they were done another chopper lifted our send/receive unit up to the top.
The generator guy and I strung our cables from the unit up on the tower to the generator and the controller's unit, with all the screens and radios and by evening we were up and running.
We found out the first night that it was standing orders that from one hour before sundown on through the night everyone on the base was required to wear a flak-jacket whenever outside of a hootch. This was not because of enemy activity, though that was said to happen from time to time. It was because of the Colonel's method of clearing more land, and warding off enemy activity at the same time.
The artillery on the base normally was there to support ground troops when requested by said troops. Now this happened every night and many days, so there was a lot of artillery fire a lot of the time. But the local colonel had another use for the guns.
Each night after supper and on into the night when the guns were not needed by anybody out in the field, he would have them lower to point blank range and fire straight ahead into the jungle outside the perimeter with HE shells. BOOM there goes another rubber tree plant!
It cleared more jungle and kept any enemy that wasn't suicidal well away from the camp. However, every silver lining has a cloud.
Occasional shell fragments would come flying back into camp, so if you were outside of your hootch flak-jackets and tin pots were required wear. Still might get an arm or a leg torn off but at least you probably wouldn't get your brains shoved out your nose or your heart squished past your backbone. Sleeping took a little getting used to' also. It was clear that a good solid hootch had some value here.
We started with a hole in the ground, but soon realized that if we wanted to be able to even sit up in our hootch we were going to have to dig awfully deep. So naturally we used the dirt we were digging out of the hole to build a wall around the top of the hole. Which soon started falling back in faster than we could dig it out and did we really want a mud walled hole in the ground with no roof anyway? No!
We discovered another advantage of the Colonel's profligate use of artillery. Shell boxes! The shells for 105mm howitzer came in wooden boxes about 10 inches wide, 4 feet long and 6 inches deep. This LZ had tons of them. And when we took of the tops and the bottoms we had a solidly built wooden rectangle that would lock together when set one on top of the other with each row offset along the length of the box from the one below it. Filled with dirt they would stop small arms fire and most shrapnel unless a shell exploded right next to them.
Now a real plan started to take shape We figured out how big our hootch had to be to be comfortable for 6 guys and then we laid out the first row of boxes on the ground around the hole we had already started. We filled up the first row, put the second row on top of that, filled that row and so on. As our wall got higher on the outside the hole got deeper on the inside. We had even designed an entrance way that zig-zagged so that anything that flew in the doorway outside, like shrapnel or a hand grenade would be completely contained in the 'entrance hall' and not be a threat to the main area.
I am not sure why, but as we went along we really started to take pride in the thing we were building. We were lucky that the LZ's Colonel was only a man in maggots clothing. The full maggot reaction would have been to say that we were misappropriating the ammo boxes. Regulations called for them to be burned, after all.
We finally had a hootch. It stuck about 4 feet above ground level and went three feet below giving a nice comfortable 7 foot ceiling. The only problem was that at that point it still had no ceiling. And it was way to big to be covered by any boards we could find. Every silver lining has a cloud.
The ceiling problem was solved when one of the guys scrounged some steel runway plating. It just showed up, pushed of the edge of the helipad into the mud. Nobody complained when we appropriated it. This plating was sort of 'corrugated' but the corrugations were about 1 inch rectangular grooves and ridges instead of waves like regular corrugated roofing. Also it was actually made of good steel about 3/16 of an inch thick. Its edges were a series of hooks and holes' so that each piece could be locked onto the next side by side and end to end. It was used for quick 'paving' of helipads and even runways for fixed wing aircraft. It was strong enough not to sag when supported only at the ends and each piece was long enough to reach across the short side of our hootch.
We got it up piece by piece and it fit fine. Some of the guys did not feel safe enough with just a steel plate over their heads so we put a double layer of sand bags on the roof.
First we found some plastic to spread over the plates so the rain wouldn't seep through the sand bags and then through the holes in the plating. It was obvious, as we started the sand bagging, that it was going to cause the roof to sway in the center, so before we could finish the sandbags up on the roof we had to get one of the spare 3 by 10 planks from the deck of the tower and use it and couple of ammo box posts to make a beam for the center of the ceiling.
Meanwhile some of the guys took the ammo box tops which we didn't use in the walls and fitted them in as flooring. They levelled the dirt real well and then put the tops down bottom side up so our hootch had a fine tight wood floor. They also used the bottoms to cover the dirt part of the wall so that our hootch had good solid wooden floors and walls and fine waterproof, bullet proof roof.
Then came the 'piece de'resistance'. Our generator man, Jose, discovered that if you soaked tar paper in gasoline the fuel turned a nice dark brown and when you painted this on the wood the fuel evaporated, but an nice rich brown stayed in the wood. We stained the upper half of the wall. It was a beautiful job and the gas smell only lasted about two days.
The place was totally finished in about three weeks, just before Christmas. The Colonel had asked our permission and brought some dignitaries visiting the base to see our hootch even.
I kind of suspect that he trumped up some excuse to get that steel plate in and then abandoned it so we could scrounge it for our roof. I don't know for sure but it wasn't there till we needed it and then nobody wanted it.
We caught some minor flack from a couple of sergeants, harassing us about flack vests and helmets the minute 1800 struck and stuff like that but, none of the local maggots were actually in charge of us. I was top dog for our unit, and the Colonel was an actual man so we managed to excel without much backlash at all. And the hootch was nice.
When they finally moved us out of there they actually abandoned the whole base. Blew everything up including our fine hootch. Then two weeks later they opened the LZ again and started all over.
By that time I was with a different crew at a different LZ so I didn't have to see all our work blown to bits but the new LZ was the infamous LZ Caroline, a hole that flooded completely and had to be abandoned every rainy season. There was no artillery, no ammo boxes and the ground was mess of old half rotten sand bags. Hootch building was hell. Every silver lining has a cloud.

Body Counts

Body Counts
by D.B. Merritt
There was a lot of controversy about 'body counts' during the Vietnam war. People just couldn't believe things like "Two hundred Viet Cong soldiers died in a battle at Song Be last night. The five Americans wounded in the fight were med-evaced to Saigon early this morning and one American fatality was reported."
"Two hundred to one?", folks said, "Damn Army! Lying again. Just what are they covering up?" and it did seem preposterous. People got pretty worked up about it sometimes. The tendency was to blame the Army for lying but I think the real problem was a fear that they weren't. After all, how scary is it to think you are fighting an enemy that can take those kind of loss ratios for literally decades and not show any sign of slowing down. I know it would have scared the hell out of me if I hadn't thought they were lying.
I expect that there was tendency to push the body counts sometimes. I'm sure the temptation to counteract the undeniable loss of 10 GI's somewhere by saying that they killed 200 of the enemy, when the actual count was uncertain but more like 75, was occasionally too much. But there was a lot more truth in those numbers than the people back home would have liked to believe.
I was not, technically speaking, a combat soldier. I was a radar repair technician. Specialist 4 when I went over and Spec 5 when I came home. Not only that but I had incredible luck. I saw bodies after but was never anywhere around when they were made dead.
We were attached to Headquarters Company and operated the air traffic control system at Phouc Vinh, which was a pretty large base and a big airstrip. The base was big enough that we could sit on top of our bunkers and watch mortars come in and blow holes in the Cobra gun ship squadron which was housed about a quarter mile away across the runway. It was 'common knowledge' that the Cong did not bombard our side of the base because there was nothing there worth hitting, and to the best of my knowledge they never did hit our side during the year I was stationed there. They did not hit anything at all but the ground most of the time. It was pretty hard for them to get good equipment close enough to a base like Phouc Vinh to do any persistent or accurate shelling. The story was that they were carrying in rockets without launchers, which were bulkier and harder to hide than the rockets themselves, and then the Cong would prop the rockets up with hand made bamboo launchers and set them off. As I said, they never hit our side of the base which was good, but also indicates that they were pretty good 'gunners' with lousy equipment. Every silver lining has a cloud.
The largest part of our unit's work took place further out in the boonies ,though. A team of 3 or 4 operators, 1 generator man and 1 radar technician would take a radar unit out to some established LZ and guide helicopters at night and in bad weather. Those were the choice assignments. Headquarters Companies had too many officers, shaves, haircuts, and worst of all guard duty. There was considerable competition among most of us to get out on one of these 'detached duty' assignments as much as possible.
My first chance to get out of headquarters came after about a month 'in country'. I was to go out to Song Be, another fairly large outpost on Sunday afternoon. However due to some annoying snafu, I couldn't get a chopper ride until Monday morning.
We got to Song Be about 10 or 11 on Monday morning in the midst of a 'Royal Hubbub'. There had been an attack during Sunday night that had gone on till nearly morning. It was a major attack to. I spent the next while getting the story from our crew.
According the scuttle butt, the first anybody knew of the attack was when a sergeant on guard duty at a bunker a little down the line from our guys had stepped outside to have a smoke. He was standing in the doorway just about to light up when he saw a Cong come down off the berm which surrounded the base and go right by him toward the artillery units in the center of the base. The sergeant shot that one, and nine others, with his 45 as they came by, one by one.
Of course the shots alerted others and when the flares light up the sky over the wire out beyond the south side of the berm, everybody watching just about died right there of shock. The field of concertina wire was alive with enemy soldiers crawling toward the camp. Then the shoot was on. Apparently quite a few of the enemy did make it into the camp and they headed right for the artillery and armored personnel carriers. One APC was destroyed, more or less, by a rocket grenade, but none of the guys sleeping in it were hurt.
It was a strange thing! Most of the enemy were carrying RPG(Rocket Propelled Grenades) which are accurate and effective at quite a range. There was really no need for them to come into the base at all. The one fired at the APC I mentioned, was fired from such close quarters that it went through one side of the APC and out the other before it exploded. Scared the billy bejesus out of the guys inside but did not hurt any of them. In fact, it seemed that very few of the grenades were used at all and there certainly a lot of them stacked up that had been removed from the dead.
Our crew woke up with all the shooting but had no idea what to do so they stayed in their bunker until some sergeant came and got them and put them out on the berm in their section. They were smart boys and quickly figured out that anything sticking far up enough over that dirt wall far enough to see what was on the other side could be seen from the other side also. So they all adopted the simple tactic of sticking their rifle over the berm, firing off a clip on full auto and then bringing it down to reload and repeating the whole process.
They got pulled off the line shortly after they got put there. They weren't sticking their rifles far enough over the wall to point them down and when the gun ship copters coming up on the enemy from behind complained that friendly fire was in danger of knocking them out of the air, the same sergeant that put them out got detailed to get them back off the line. The guys said he was a trifle disgusted with them. Anyway none of our guys were hurt at all and reports were that half a dozen guys had been wounded and one (1) killed.
I certainly did not count bodies, but I did see two deuce-and-a-half trucks loaded full to the tops of the side racks with dead VC and there were still dozens clearly visible hanging off the concertina wire out in front of the berm by our hootch. Had to be 'hundreds' dead!
I was at Song Be for around 4 to 6 weeks and not another shot fired at or from the base, though patrols around the area got into firefights regularly. I remember seeing a really exhausted platoon of grunts coming past our bunker one day. The kid at the end of the line was obviously in shock, tears streaming down his face, as he repeatedly asked the guy in front of him "Why? Why did they do that? Why?" Nobody answered and I don't think he would have known if they had.
I found out later that this particular platoon had gotten pinned down and called in Cobra gun ships for support. Somebody on one end or the other goofed the positions and the gun ships rockets ripped into our guys. Dying is stupid enough. Friendly fire maybe makes it worse?
The only other dead people I ever saw were ours. After about 8 weeks at the LZ where we built 'The Best Hootch in 'Nam", I went on R&R and was gone for two weeks. We had never taken any incoming while I was on the LZ but, when I got off the chopper coming back, there were a half dozen body bags lined up on the helipad. It seems that the very night of the day I left, and everyday for the two weeks I was gone, they had started taking incoming sometimes even in the daytime. The chopper I came in on was the first non-emergency bird that had come in in that whole time. I was there another 6 or 8 weeks before they packed the whole thing in and we never took another round. I wonder how things would have gone if I had stayed around, instead of going to Hawaii?. Well none of our team had been hurt, anyway. And the Colonel went home. On a stretcher sans legs though. Every silver lining has a cloud.

Traveling Perils

  • Traveling Perils

  • by D.B. Merritt

Humans have an immense capacity to remember the best and forget the rest. I think this is generally a good thing! For example if it were not true, second and third children would be pretty scarce. Second spouses would be a lot rarer too! And tourism for fun and relaxation would slow to a trickle!!

In 1983 my then wife Donna and I went on a 'Grand Tour' of Europe. We used four primary means of travel, flying, walking, train, and driving.

The main leg of flying portion was from Chicago to Rykavik. We had scheduled a one day stopover in Rykavik arriving at 5:30am one day and leaving at 8:30 the next day. We left Chicago on schedule at 5:30 pm on a plane designed for a comfortable capacity of 250 passengers and all 260 were on board. Now Lufthansa is a very efficient airline. They do not want their attendants to be 'deadheading' on the trip just because it is an all nighter. Therefore the meal schedule was designed to assure that each passenger was contacted politely, gently awakened if need be, every two hours with an offer of food, beverage or snack. Said snack or etc. would be delivered roughly one hour later. In this way the staff is kept busy and passengers needn't fear missing the least moment of the marvelously well orchestrated flight.

We arrived on time and only twenty four hours without sleep. There were a few things that we hadn't realized about Iceland. We knew that it was misnamed with its companion of the North Atlantic, Greenland. After all, it had winters approximately like Toronto. One thing nobody had ever mentioned to us was that it has summers like those of Tuktoyuktuk. It was coldddddd! And the airport is 30 miles from the town. By the time we could get into town it was almost 10:00am which is when the hostels kick everybody out until 7:00pm. We managed to reschedule our flight out so we would actually be able to sleep for a few hours before getting back to the airport.

We landed in Luxemburg, caught a bus to the train station downtown and sussed out a campground 'nearby'. After some inquiries we located the bus that went 'near there' and for only $4.00 we got our tickets. We told the driver where we wanted to go and he agreed to tell us where to get off. He did. The major mode of transport we sampled next was good old 'shanks mare'. 'Near there' turned out to be about 2 miles over hill and dale. Remember this was a 'Grand Tour' so we had summer and WINTER clothes, camping gear, camera gear, painting supplies (Donna is an artist) and most anything else we thought we might need'. Our packs weighed at least 50 lbs each and we'd just left a typically sedentary Fort Frances lifestyle. We survived this first of many foot wearying treks and the camp ground was beautiful. No trees, but they sold beer on the premises and we stayed a week. We enjoyed it but we left as soon as we discovered that a taxi back to the train station was only $2.00 door step to door step.

Ah the EurRail Pass! Now I must say that the EurRail Pass is the best travel deal ever invented. Unlimited travel by first class rail all over western Europe and in someplace where trains are scarce (like Ireland) it works for the bus system.

The main thing that makes the EurRail Pass such a good deal is overnight trains. Need a good nights sleep? Just get to the train station about 7 or 8 pm, find a train that arrives somewhere, who cares where, about 8 or 9 in the morning and you are all set.

See the first class cabins will sleep up to 4 people in relative comfort because the 3 seats on each side of the cabin pull out toward the middle to form a super king sized, cushioned and relatively flat bed.
Of course there are a few tricks you need to know.
1: Bring your own food. If there is any available on the train it will be expensive and lousy. Bring stuff such as bread, cheese, sausage, and, of course, wine.

2: Make sure the food you have includes some of the strongest garlic sausage you are able to find. If you have unwanted company open this up and start eating. Sensible civilized folks will clear out and go crowd someone else. This works well most anywhere north of Southern France and prior to about the end of June.

3: To be prepared for the southern latitudes, later months or the really tough crowds you need your feet. If you started your trip with odor eaters in your sneakers throw them out right away. Now when the sausage will not do the trick, take your shoes off.

By August you will often find that nothing will work to clear you much space. The Irish and the French are all on the trains with you and there is simply no where much anyone can go, but by then you will be addicted to garlic sausage and there is no point in odor eaters because you can't pick your foot odor out of the general miasma anyway.
4: This is where the wine comes in. On a really crowded train oblivion is bliss. And the party on the way there can be fun too. And You can always sleep in the plaza tomorrow.

The next mode of travel we will consider is the automobile. After three months of EurRail Pass travel and lot's of "shank's mare" Donna and I bought a car. We had some advice in advance of doing this but I have developed some tips based on our experience.
1: Buy the biggest vehicle you can afford. In much of Europe the main rule of the road is "Might makes Right.
2: Try to buy a diesel. The fuel is cheaper in many places and if you get some booze that is plain too bad to drink you can at least burn it in the car."
3: In Britain they drive on the wrong side of the road. That is when the road has two sides, otherwise see tip one.
4: If you approach Brussels at night do not worry. You will probably still be approaching Brussels in the morning.
5: If you must try to drive in Paris send your pictures home first so they have something to remember you by.
6: In Greece, when trying to determine how many "traffic lanes" a road has be sure to count both 'Shoulders'.
7: In Yugoslavia headlights are signaling devices. Driving with them on is considered 'gauche' day or night.
So if you plan a big trip please remember what I have told you! Train or plane, walk or drive, the perils of travel are many. But my advice is "do it anyway". You will PROBABLY survive, and being human you will surely 'laugh about it next year."

The Army Dumbing Down?

I was looking at some other blogs and, for some reason I am not sure of, I landed at an article about the military lowering its recruitment standards. It refers to various Categories on "the military aptitude test" But doesn't say what it measures except to call what ever it measures 'military aptitude' and then proceed to talk about this 'military aptitude' as though it were equivalent to 'intelligence'. Now 'aptitude' is something quite different from 'intelligence' . A good definition is " Aptitudes are natural talents, special abilities for doing, or learning to do, certain kinds of things." I wonder if a little less 'military aptitude' in the Army might be safer for us all. I gotta figure that in the days when I served , before the end of the draft, the military aptitude was pretty low throughout the services but we seemed to do reasonably well. I sure do wonder what it takes to score a high 'military aptitude'. And it sure does make me nervous to think that the armed forces may be really stuffed with it.