Up today at 0 Dark Thirty, and check out of Koepler Compound. God! It is still dark, and it is humid already! Got back on that same rickety bus with the same VC driver, only this time I have a weapon, and there are a few other guys on with me. Not as scary as a couple of days ago when I was the only one. We rumble and bumble our way through the streets of Saigon, already crowded with life, some of it military.
We stop at the gate to Ton Son Nuit Air Base, and a bored Air Policeman looks at the driver and us, and waves us through. Soon we are at the military passenger terminal, and I wrestle my three bags and M-16 off the bus and inside. I am dripping wet already with sweat.
I nudge the bags up to a busy counter, and give the guy behind it a copy of my orders, and he sez I am good to go on Delta Flight 440, "Just wait over there until it is called, and then go through that door." I don't know how long I wait, and can't remember just how it was we got from the waiting room to the plane.
As I wait, I see a couple of GI's with a German Shepherd, trying to get him into a traveling cage. The beast is not very friendly, and lets all around know it. After some pushing and shoving, snarling, growling, and cursing - you can figure out who did what - the beast is locked in his cage.
Flight 440 is called, and we trudge out to the plane. It is an Air Force Caribou, little cousin to the C-130. Wings on top, two engines, but even smaller than a C-123. What! That snarling monster is flying on 440! The creature is loaded first, and then the passengers file on either side. My seat is two down from the wired end of the crate, and that thing looks at me the whole flight.
The air crew makes sure we are all strapped in, and we taxi to the end of the runway, where each propeller is revved up to the max, and then dropped down to await takeoff. Soon we are rolling, and then the tail drops to the ground and we are off, bound to Bac Lieu.
snarls and growls with each down draft we hit, and he is
louder than the drone of the engines. God, I hope he can't get out! We land at a place called Can Tho, and a few get off. Then it's up, and down, and we are in Soc Trang. The dog and his GI friends get off there, and I am relieved. Up we go again, and a couple of minutes later, it is down to Bac Lieu.
As we land, I look out and see a Huey, burnt, and laying on it's side at the end of the runway. The runway is narrow, and bumpy on the end. I see some coolies heating something over an open fire at the end of the runway. We stop, and a few of us get out. There is a little shack, and a GI calls the MACV people for us. A jeep comes up, and a young lieutenant calls out, "Captain St. Clair!" He identifies himself as the assistant G-1 Advisor, and gives me a ride to town.
It is flat, and we drive along side a canal on the left, and rice paddies on the right for about five klicks, and into town, and into an American compound. We report in to the G-1 Advisor, a major, who welcomes me to the Paddy Rats, Advisory Team xxx, 21st Infantry Division. He tells the lieutenant to take my gear, including the M-16, over to a hooch. He tells me I don't need the rifle while I stay here, which he sez will be probably over night. I ask where I am going, and said that the 21st Infantry Division Engineer and his combat engineer battalion are located some 60 klicks to the north, in Soc Trang.
So, I fill out some papers, and meet the G-Staff advisors. I will be working for the G-4 Advisor, a young major, which I feel is the wrong place for me to be. But, that is the way the set up is. Instead of working for the Division Commander, direct, the engineer works for the G-4. Stupid set up.
I am taken
to the Senior Advisor's office, and meet his deputy, a
lieutenant colonel. He offers me a cuppa, and I tell him I don't drink coffee, and he sends a runner to the mess hall for a cup of tea. He says the Senior Advisor is sick, has the flu, and can't get off the pot very far, but will be back in a few minutes. The Senior Advisor, a full bull, comes back, and invites us into his office. He apologizes, and sez he has some VC bug, and has to hit the john about every twenty minutes, so I'll forgive him if he gets up to run.
My tea arrives, and he sez he is glad to see another tea drinker in the outfit. Then he and the light bull start to tell me what's what.
The 21st Infantry
Division is one of the better ARVN divisions, and
during 1967, had some significant victories over the VC. We are located in Bac Lieu province, and our area of operations covers the lower six provinces. There are three regiments in the division, with one of them located in Soc Trang. Also in Soc Trang are the 21st Infantry Division Engineer Battalion, and the 21st Infantry Division Ordnance Company. I will live with the Ba Xuyen Province Advisory Team, and am replacing a Captain Xxxxx, who will be in tomorrow morning to take me back to Soc Trang.
I am told
that a Captain Mong is the battalion commander, and that I
have an NCO, SSG David Bell assigned to my advisory team. Just me and Sgt Bell! That's the team! I am expected to provide combat engineering advice to Captain Mong, and the division staff through the advisory staff. And with that, the Senior Advisor bolts from behind his desk, and dashes down the hall. The light colonel and I finish the briefing and incoming orientation.
I should accompany the battalion commander to the weekly staff meetings, and everywhere he goes. However, I must make sure that SSG Bell goes with me, because no advisor should be out on his own without another American.
By then, it is lunch time, and the light colonel takes me over to the mess hall, which is small, but adequate. There, I meet some more of the advisors. I am told there is another compound, deeper in town, where the province advisory staff is located.
After lunch, my orientation continues. [And I hope I don't bore you with too many mundane details].
The advisors are all proud of being with the only ARVN division that has no American division co-located in the AO. The US 9th Infantry is located on our northern boundary. We are the southern part of IV Corps, which has two other divisions. IV Corps Headquarters is in Bac Lieu.
Our AO is bounded on the west by the Gulf of Thailand, and to the East by the South China Sea. To the north, kinda running in a SE direction, is an arm of the Mekong River, which is our northern Boundary. We are basically on the Ca Mau Peninsula, in the southern tip of Vietnam. At the very tip, extending northward several klicks is the U-Minh Forest, deep VC territory.
Then, the G-3 advisor, a young light colonel, mentions the MATA Course, and what I learned there. I tell him I know nothing about any MATA Course, and am told that advisors are supposed to go there before coming to Vietnam. "Not me," I inform him. To this day, I don't know what I missed! But, throughout the year, advisors will talk about it.
The G-4 Advisor, my boss, takes me around the small compound. We stop at the club, the Paddy Rat Club, and then he points out several small hooches in the area. That's their quarters, and it looks very nice.
At 1500, I am taken to the division headquarters. There is a small 75 mm howitzer outside, which is identified to me as a W.W.II Japanese packed howitzer, one that can be broken down and carried by three or four soldiers! I meet the Division Commander, Major General Minh, who, in excellent English, welcomes me to the division. He gives me a cloth patch, which is the insignia of the division. It looks like the blue and white design on a Brasso can. I am to get those sewn on my right pocket.
After that, we go back to the division advisors' compound, and I am told I am on my own until the next day.
The hooch is nice, set up for two, but I am the only one in it. Dinner and the bar don't leave a lasting impression, and I hit the rack at a decent hour.
KAPOW! I come straight out of the bed! Kapow! Kapow!
KAPOW! What the hell is that, I scream at myself. Grabbing
my M-16, my steel pot, and my flack jacket, I dash to the club, where I
see one or two advisors. "What's going on," I ask? They laugh
at me, and say that it is the ARVN 105s taking pot shots out into the patties
at suspected VC. When I ask should we be in some kind of bunker,
or fox hole, they tell me that they're just firing into free fire zones,
and then they ask! "No," I say, I have never been near firing gun
positions, and I have never heard outgoing artillery! "Have a drink,"
they say. And that ends my first day in combat!