My Vietnam 2017-04-12T07:36:41+00:00

My Vietnam – 32,672,800 Seconds

American official involvement with Vietnam began in August 1950 and ended in May 1975. Broken down, 812,160,000 seconds of commitment fell between those dates. My 32,672,800 seconds began in mid-August 1968 and ended in late August 1969. In this book, I’ve written stories about how I, and the men in my battery, filled those seconds. Most of those seconds did not involve direct combat, as our primary job as a fire support base was to support units in the field with indirect fire. That was our role in the war, our part in the combat.

First, I think it will be helpful to provide a little history to the nature of this particular war. After Japan surrendered in August 1945, the British Army, under the command of Major-General Sir Douglas David Gracey, disarmed the Japanese soldiers stationed in Vietnam who then needed to be transported to Japan. Civil unrest by the Vietnamese (who later became known as the Viet Minh) stopped his efforts, as they were ambushing his soldiers, rioting and causing other havoc. His job was then changed from getting POW Japanese soldiers home to rearming them and using them, along with Nepalese soldiers, to curtail the violence — all so the country could be returned to France as a colony. Sounds crazy — right? But that confusion was the start of a maelstrom of confusion that spun faster and faster as down we went into more involvement in Vietnam.

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Five years later, in August 1950, General Francis Brink opened the first US Army headquarters, and our open involvement, 812,160,000 seconds, in Vietnam began. Two years later, Brink was found dead at his desk in the Pentagon from three self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the chest. But that is highly debatable, and, like so much about Vietnam, facts are often hard to decipher, much less find.

The seconds of my tour sixteen years later ticked slowly onward, but the confusion evident from the start did not go away. In fact, Vietnam was more confusing to me after I returned than when I began, a state of mind I have found to be true among other Vietnam vets. Please allow me to make the following disclaimers before you start reading — all the opinions expressed are mine, and the book will be posted as the chapters are written, with no specific order or long-term timeline. What you will see is a work in progress. Pictures that relate to and help explain subjects covered in the text will be included.

The subject of my book is the “other side of combat,” the day-to-day struggles — everything from constant repetitive actions and living in a hole to our versions of “laugh or cry” humor around the insanity of the life we found ourselves in. Within some, you may find observations about the war, from the frustration of not being able to give our waste products to the desperate Vietnamese living near us and the health issues we sustained due to the climate and nature of Vietnam, along with other “realities” inherent to war. To this day, I can see fly-covered Vietnamese women and children in our base camp dump, trying to immediately consume our discarded food, both on the ground and as it dropped down around them. Well over forty years later, I cannot forget watching the legs of a soldier who had just befriended me blown off in a convoy attack. Sadness, humor, compassion and frustration — a.k.a. the war in Vietnam.

I hope these stories covering day-to-day living and surviving in a fire support base will provide a different “look,” another aspect to the war. My tour does not represent the tour of duty others served and could not, as Vietnam was an evolving mess as time marched on and because the work of each soldier varied so widely. The millions of seconds each soldier lived during his or her tour are unique, and I salute, appreciate and respect their time and service.

My Vietnam – The Stories

Burning Shit

How to eliminate waste instructional.

Herein lies one of the many ironies of my tour. Our human waste was valuable to the Vietnamese, and we were burning it.

Burning our shit actually deprived local farmers of valuable fertilizer, used large amounts of gasoline and diesel fuel, served as punishment duty and fouled the Vietnamese sky with a dense, dark black smoke. In Vietnam, human waste was a staple fertilizer. Ours was much richer than that of locals and each of us out-produced even the best-fed farmer. We could have auctioned it off and made some cash for Uncle Sam or simply given it away.

In base camps, it was a paid job for the Vietnamese to do, but at fire support bases it was assigned to some poor GI who was out of favor with someone in power. When it came to burning our shit, I think you will, like me, not know whether to laugh or cry, probably both.

To start, the place where we deposited our waste was creative, but a sight I seriously doubt you would ever want to see. It would make an outhouse look like the Taj Mahal. It consisted of stacks of wood ammo boxes, filled with sand or dirt and placed at each end with a door laid flat across them. Underneath this door were parts of 55-gallon metal drums to catch what fell through the three holes cut into it. This lovely facility was located out in the open, as were we, sometimes sharing our exposure with “company” at the next hole.

What may seem even more unusual—or horrific depending on your privacy issues—was that we didn’t care if we had an audience. When you are in a combat setting, your priorities significantly change. There were way too many serious things to worry about, like being target practice for the enemy there and any other open place for one. And, even if things were relatively calm, when you live in close quarters in bunkers, privacy becomes an afterthought.

Burning shit was a constant issue, as one side effect of the pills we took made our visits very fluid and frequent if you get my drift. Our food, anti-malaria pills and native bacteria conspired together so that each man, in a fire base averaging 140-200 men, had diarrhea most days. It was a very popular place, creating a significant amount of waste. Pulling these waste-laden cans from under the “thinking platform” slopped the contents around and often onto the person pulling them. The cans to be burned would be half full of a dense liquid with floating solids and a layer of scum at the bottom. The burn location needed to be away from what we fondly called the crapper, so heat from the fire did not stop others from answering nature’s call, many of which were emergencies.

The process of burning our shit required us to use empty replacement cans, heavy rubber gloves, the aforementioned gasoline and diesel fuel, some long stir sticks and a stick wrapped with toilet paper on one end, long enough to ignite the mix from a safe distance. Too much gasoline in the combustion mix could toss the contents a good distance when ignited—never a good thing. Everything had to be present and right to excel at this job!

Anyway, before one of the cans was put under the door, some diesel fuel was added to dampen the odor, repel flies and allow the new crap to marinate in a combustible liquid. The diesel soaked into the solids and made the next burn go faster. Once ignited in the actual burn stage of the process, the mixture was stirred and more diesel added as the fire cooled; gasoline was very dangerous to add but necessary at times. The burning cans also needed to be spaced far enough apart to allow a cool space to move around while stirring. Time passed slowly, and it seemed the contents would never burn away, but hours later a dark dry residue would be all that remained. After the can cooled, the contents were dumped into a hole and covered. Everyone on that duty knew that a change of clothes and a shower were a must before being welcome around others.

Like many things in Vietnam, the two-to-four hour job of burning was weather dependent. Rain, of course, slowed the burn, while wind could whip the smoke up. But it was a no-win situation because if it were too calm, the smoke hovered over the base. Its black particles clung to anything they touched, especially the lucky GI burning it, and its odor was horrific. If it was a calm, clear day, you could look around and see this highly adhesive black smoke rising from three to eight places at one time. If there were any kind of breeze, even a light one, the smoke that didn’t attach itself to us would fill the sky.

Men not on burn detail, including enlisted or big-shot officers, seldom came close, so it was an escape in a crazy sort of way. Social stigma was written all over this detail for very sound reasons, but it actually provided a time to be alone and not be instructed (harassed) by leadership (lifers). Some men turned it into an all-day work detail.

Not all of us desired it, however, because many problems happened with this detail, and one of the worst was when the cans were filled too close to the top. This meant part of the contents needed to be poured into an empty can, and the only grip was the bottom of the can. There was no way to avoid having your face very close to this smelly treasure and any rapid movement set off tidal waves of overflow that landed—yes—right where you are thinking. And, you needed to keep the stir stick in motion to prevent it lighting on fire, or you’d end up with a shortened tool to complete the job. Being assigned this detail was not a good thing; it was a hot job in a very hot country.

Our artillery was on call 24/7 and a fire mission would bring work details to a stop, at which point the two main jobs became shooting the guns and getting fused 105mm rounds ready and in place at each howitzer. The immediate, overriding priority on any day was fire support and protection, whether it was for those in the field or ourselves. The burning cans were left on their own, along with other daily tasks—they no longer mattered.

As an aside, for the other half of our human waste, we urinated into fiber shipping tubes (piss tubes) that came with each 105mm howitzer round, stuck in a dirt pile. We had several located around the FSB. This system was to reduce the volume of water to be burned off and keep men from urinating where they stood. At least we could say that between the two bodily functions, we did what we could to reuse and recycle!

 

 

Living in a Hole

32,672,800 seconds

I joined the Army to become an artillery officer, and I actually did go to Officer Candidate school—for a while. My job specialty training was artillery Fire Direction Control (FDC), so when I dropped out after three and a half weeks, the only position available to me was FDC. When I learned I could serve 19 months as an enlisted man versus 36 as an officer, I dropped out in a heartbeat to take 12, 960,000 seconds off my tour.

My section of A Battery 7/11 Artillery was required to live and work in a hole due to the demands of our job. Our battery operated 24/7 and FDC required light to perform our work, so we constructed bunkers to minimize light ejection during the dark hours. By nature, the bunkers we built were dark inside, so we needed artificial light 24/7, but no other part of our battery had electricity. We would take location information radioed by an observer and convert that to settings for our six 105mm howitzers to fire projectiles that landed on the geographic location (in theory) requested by the observer. Reality was not so precise, so our goal was to hit the target with round number three. The observer radioed the changes needed to move the impact zone that we then converted to gun settings that brought the shell closer to the desired spot.

New Bunker

Light leaking into the night made us an aiming point for enemy gunners, so we sealed our bunker as best we could. To keep rainwater out and light in, we used a canvas sheet and a plastic sheet  (if available) below our sandbag roof, which conspired to prevent new air entering or old air leaving. Our air was stale, humid and there was damn little we could do about it. Vietnamese reptiles, insects and mammals loved our environment,  made a home living with us humans and were not considerate of our wishes. Six to 10 men working and living in a space less than 24 feet by 16 feet produced enough moisture by breathing and sweating to make it damp every day, year round. Each man spent an average minimum time of 57, 600 seconds (16 hours) inside the bunker each day.

The upside of living and working in our hole was that we had light to read books or write letters during quiet times, making our life more varied and rich compared to all the other sections of the battery. We were also not as exposed to fire, unlike our gunners who did their jobs outside the protective bunkers..

The downside was living in the same space where we worked.  Inside the bunkers, tempers were short, fused by our confined space, the high anxiety of the emergency nature of our work, crowded social space and constant lack of sleep. Physical fights did not happen often, but verbal conflict was in the air most of the time, and we kept a close watch on each other to make sure the verbal conflict did not turn physical. Group unity would suffer after a physical confrontation, and unity was critical for us to do our job effectively. It’s not an exaggeration to say that lives depended on us. Mistakes in FDC calculations could result in the death of friendly as well as enemy persons, and when mistakes did happen, the emotional climate became stormy. “Friendly Fire” is not friendly; rather it is deadly, and we did each man’s best to avoid misplacing rounds. But when it did happen as a result of someone in FDC or the gun crews, were under the same pressure to work mistake-free, tempers blew up and could result in men being removed from that job and assigned to other work. Soldiers were dependent on us, and our accuracy was dependent on the information we received. Everything had to work, including cohabitation in our dungeon.

Our daily job of filling sandbags and adding them to our bunker was one I readily volunteered for  just to get the hell out of our bunker and enjoy outdoor air and light. Being outside added some thrill to life, as we were more susceptible to enemy snipers and mortar attacks, so not everyone in FDC wanted to trade being in more danger to work in sunlight and breathe fresh air. I did—it was worth the trade! Some hot and humid nights I slept just outside the bunker when off duty to escape the misery of the hole. Night was the time when we were most frequently mortared, so while sleeping outside added risk to my life, it provided the little bit of  “spice”  that I needed to survive my time in the hole; I eagerly sought those 28,400 seconds of hole-free living.

Chris Woelk

Plastic Sandbags

Eagle Flight 11