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.


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