In the days before being sent to Vietnam we were all kind of frightened and worried because although we hadn’t seen much in the way of film footage or video or actually film back in those days, we didn’t see much of that or if we did we probably didn’t pay too much attention to it but I have to tell you we were frightened because a lot of us were 18, 19 some were 20. I was considered the young guy in all the places I went. There I was, 18 years old and we were invincible at 18 years old you, pretty much you know feel like I’m king of the hill but when you look at the other side those are real bullets. In combat training in California where we were using blanks, in Vietnam they were real bullets and your chances of getting struck by one of those was probably pretty high, so though we I guess we didn’t talk about it too much. We were really just bent on learning our trades or what we had to do in our rate. We would worry about the war once we get over there.
Going to Vietnam was different for many groups, the Seabees went over earlier in the war as a battalion or as a group, I was assigned to CBMU 301, a maintenance unit so it wasn’t the MCB (Mobile Construction Battalion) which was a construction group that normally traveled as a group. CBMU 301 was a maintenance unit also did construction too but because Seabees aren’t limited to just okay you’re only screwing light bulbs , no you do everything and you better know how to do it too.
I got my orders to fly to Vietnam and they were I think there were three of us that were together so we didn’t go over as a large group. I think there were maybe 25 of us in the school, so some of the guys may have gone off to Gulfport or to Rhode Island or somewhere, but three of us were going to get on a bus to Norton Air Force base. We were joined by a whole bunch of other people there that we’re going, Army and Marines. We were all there all gathered together and we were flying commercial so we weren’t flying on a C-130 or a cargo plane, we were flying commercial, United Airlines with really cute stewardesses.
I think a couple guys that decided to go AWOL (Absent without leave) never got on the plane and went to Canada. Of course if you know, back then if you were going to Canada that’s where you’re staying, you weren’t going to be pardoned and able to come back. It wouldn’t be till later that they were pardoned and able to return to the United States.
When we got on the plane, it was very somber because you know if we’re going to Vietnam for God’s sake we might be returning as a casualty or wounded. We stopped in Anchorage; we weren’t allowed off the plane we’re just there for refueling. We then stopped somewhere in Japan, Osaka I think, there we were allowed off the plane to a certain secure area of the airport and that’s where I bought my first 35-millimeter camera. It was a Asahi Pentax Spotmatic camera. All of the images here from Vietnam were shot with that camera. I still have the camera, I think it cost me maybe thirty or forty dollars. So I also purchased a bunch of 35-millimeter slide film and we got back on the plane. I don’t remember but there may have been a stopover point somewhere, but when we landed in Da Nang it was a hot afternoon and when they opened that open that door, just like in the Good Morning Vietnam movie, the heat, and humidity and the stench the stench was overwhelming. It just so happens we find out later it’s just it was just rice paddies, but it to us we had never smelled that before and it was our first memory of coming to Vietnam.
Now we are here in the war and it dawned on us we’re in Vietnam for God’s sake you know they’re shooting, people are shooting and it’s not pretend. The time in Da Nang was short lived, we visited China beach for some refreshments but then we realized Da Nang isn’t the safest place in the world but it’s certainly a lot safer than where we were going to be going. You could get cheeseburgers at China Beach and you know all sorts of things. Da Nang had rocket attacks and there were firefights on the mountains, but pretty much for us in transit, we felt that we were really okay.
We kind of lived it up for two days until we got on a C-130 and they said okay, you’re going up to DongHa. Of course we didn’t know where that was, we looked at a map and we go “holy crap” this is like as far north as you can go in south Vietnam before you get into a north Vietnam. So we figured this is not going to be a good place and evidently it was not a good place for the Seabees because they eventually would move their base south to Quang Tri, because DongHa was in very easy reach of rockets from north Vietnam.
So we were flying into DongHa and the pilot told us the plane is not going to stop, it’s going to land but it’s going to keep rolling and the rear gate is going to open up. You are to roll out and roll into the bunkers on the side of the runway because the airport is under attack and we’re thinking “ so why are we landing can’t we just go back to Danang?
We ran off and they rolled our sea bags off and stuff and the plane turned around and took off. There we were, in the bunkers for oh I don’t know how long it probably felt like an eternity, but it probably was only like 20 or 30 minutes and then the shelling stopped.
This was shortly after the ammo base at DongHa was hit with a rocket attack and the whole ammo base literally blew up. We were assigned to a little tiny hooch. A hooch is basically a plywood structure with screens to keep the bugs out. Underneath each hooch were two trenches and next to each one of the bunk areas there was a plywood trap door so when we had incoming we would open up the trap door and jump down into the trench.
In the summertime it was hot and it was dry and it was full of rats, in the monsoon season or the winter, it was cold water and full of snakes but the other choice was you know get killed so we put up snakes and the rats.
DongHa base was it seemed always under attack, they had a little theater there called the red barn and they would show movies but they also had a couple USO shows that came up. Nothing really big, most of them were Philippine bands and they were trying their best to do American songs.
After about a month they transferred me down to the unit in Quang Tri and my job was to build a generating system for the MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit. The surgical hospital was running on just small generators and very unreliable. I constructed a three generating system so one generator was always on line, one was on standby, and one was being serviced. We had to change the oil and filters and all that stuff.
So we managed to build a stable power supply for the hospital I got to know a lot of the doctors so I got to experience what you saw in MASH TV show. Seeing the casualties coming in and then talking to the doctors and nurses, it was tough.
The maintenance unit did not have a mess hall, we were just a maintenance units so we took care of generators and things, you know all things electrical but across the way and it was oh well maybe 500 yards away, was the mobile construction battalion which had a mess hall. A really good mess hall with good food, though the little specks inside the cake those were flies and you just don’t worry about them, you just ate them. The way you gross out the new guys was you’d sit and pick those out and eat them, of course they were gnats or something you know but they were probably a little bit of protein in there. Walking to the area to get to the mess wall for our food and in the middle of the path there was a pagoda/shrine.