Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Phan Rang Airbase, 1969 - Red Alert (Revised)

I have added an additional paragraph at the end of this story.

The Juliette sector of the base was the worst area to patrol for a dog handler. There were no trees or shrubs to hide ones movements. A soldier was silhouetted by the lights of the base. Other posts had trees or hills between the flight line and the fence line, but not the Juliette sector. There were bushes on the other side of the perimeter road, but it was not enough to give the dog handler any suitable shadowing of his silhouette. This was my least favorite area to patrol and not because it was the area that the tower guard wanted to shoot me. The Juliette area had one other very bad feature. A canal ran along the perimeter just outside the fence allowing the enemy to approach the fence line virtually undetected.

Because the Juliette area was so vulnerable, trip wires were connected to small flares attached to the concertina wire in the hopes that an intruder would set off the flare and illuminate himself as he crawled through the concertina wire. We did have a few false tripping of a flare every now and then, but nothing tripped the night we got attacked in the Juliette area. Every flare had a pin in it that prevented it from being triggered by the trip wire. Apparently the local kids, who would scurry along the perimeter scavenging unopened C rations, had crawled though the wire and put pins in all the mechanisms of the flares prior to the attempted penetration of the base.

Naturally, the attempted penetration of the base occurred on the one night of the week that I was in charge of the Flight. It started off with a tower guard calling Control and saying that he saw movement in front of his tower. Control asked the dog handlers to make a sweep of the area. Just as the Security Alert Team (3 men in a jeep with an M-60 machine gun, an M-79 grenade launcher and flares) arrived at the tower, the dog handler closest to the tower called control and informed them that his dog had an alert. The Security Alert Team told the dog handler to take cover and they popped a flare. The handler had no place to hide, so he flattened himself on the ground in the tall grass. 

There were sappers attempting to crawl through the concertina wire and more coming up out of the canal. A grenade was launched in the direction of the penetration. The M-60 machine gun stopped the enemy from advancing. Several of the enemy were killed. It was unknown if any of the intruders were able to get across the perimeter road and into the cover of the bushes. Even if they had, the rapid response teams were dispatched to the bunkers which were between the fence line and the flight line. They would not reach the flight line if they had gotten beyond the perimeter road.

We did have one person wounded during the attack. It was the dog handler that took cover in the tall grass. Apparently he was not visible, because the USAF soldier that launched the M-79 grenade put it right between his ankles. Fortunately, it explodes upward and it did not strike the dog and only one small fragment struck the handler. It was not life threatening, but I do not know if he was able to have children after the shrapnel was removed from the base of his penis. His tour of duty was over and he was sent home to the states.

When the fire fight stopped, the dog handlers swept the area between the perimeter road and the fence in order to secure the area. One dog picked up an alert, and an enemy combatant jumped up out of the tall grass about 20 feet in front of the K-9 team. Flares lit up the sky and the handler shot the enemy soldier. The combatant was a sapper loaded with satchel charges and he exploded. The handler was filled with shrapnel, that is still in him to this day, but he did survive, unlike the sapper who did not. A K-9 supervisor without a dog came across the enemy hiding in the grass and the enemy soldier, while laying on the ground, stuck his AK-47 into the belly of the sergeant. The supervisor shot and killed the enemy soldier.  The K-9 supervisor is alive today because the enemy soldier's gun still had its safety on. The area between the road and the fence was finally cleared and secured.

This is a two part story if you are reading this for the first time.  Scroll through the archive if you are interested in reading Red Alert Part 2.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Life on the Air Base

Compared to the Army and Marines in the field, being in the Air Force was like belonging to a country club.  Even though the barracks was one long open room, we formed 4 man cubicles with our lockers and bunks. My three roommates and I bought a refrigerator off of someone who shipped out. We then promptly stocked it with beer and soda.  The refrigerator was never locked and beer and soda was sold on the honor system and the paper money was put into a box in the fridge.  We doubled the actual cost of beer and soda.  We sold beer for 50 cents and soda for a quarter.  This allowed us to drink as much soda and beer as we wanted to for free. The sale of beer covered the cost of our beer and soda.

Ken, who was from my home state of Massachusetts, always bought one case of Carling Black Label Beer. Everyone was forbidden to drink his beer.  What he did not understand is that no one else wanted his beer, so it worked out fine. We only had one problem, beer was rationed.  We could only buy 3 cases of beer a month.  We always ran out of beer before the month was out, so we had to find someone who was not a beer drinker and entice them into going to the base exchange (BX) with us to use his ration card to buy 3 more cases of beer.

I had a friend on our flight, who refused to walk to the BX to use his ration card because a walk to the BX caused one to sweat so badly that you felt like you needed to take another shower when you got back to the barracks.  No problem.  Walter was blue eyed, blond, weighed about the same as me and was about my height. Instead of walking to the BX, he gave me his ID and his ration card,  3 more cases of beer became available for the refrigerator, and as soon as I retire I will visit my friend Walter and thank him for being such a great friend during one of the most stressful times of our lives.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

No Water

One of my earlier stories was about the night a typhoon hit Phan Rang Airbase. If you recall that story, I stayed at the kennels with several other guys in order to take care of the dogs if an emergency arose. The storm did not damage the kennels, but it dumped a lot of rain.

The rain caused the canal to overflow and the water from the canal got into the wells and contaminated our drinking water. When I got back to the barracks, I could not take a shower because the water was shut off to the showers. Water was only used for flushing the toilets. The chow hall used paper plates and plastic eating utensils, only using water to clean the pots and pans that were used for cooking.

We did not know how long the water would be restricted. So, on the 14th day of having no shower, I caught the first bus to the beach instead of going to bed after a long night of sentry duty. I figured it would be better to itch from the salt of the ocean than to suffer one more day without bathing. Everyone on the base must have thought the same thing because the bus was packed. I did not get a seat and, therefore, had to stand for the whole trip. I was so tired after working all night that I fell asleep and woke up as my knees buckled. The bus was so tightly packed that I did not collapse to the floor. I stayed awake after that.

The beach was about a 15-minute ride. It was a beautiful white sand beach. I went for a swim and it felt good to rinse away 2 weeks of crude. I caught the next bus back to the base and I was able to wash the salt off of my body when I got back because the water had been turned on. After a long refreshing shower, I went to bed.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Working Nights

When I became a dog handler, I doomed myself to working nights. If you have to work nights, having a dog for a companion is a good thing. I liked nights with a bright moon because I could see a long distance, but then so could the enemy. I loved dark nights because I could not be seen, but my dog would know if something was out there in the darkness. My dogs made me feel safe at night, well Tusky and Dawn made me feel safe.  With Duke, however, I was more inclined to hide in the bushes and chew my fingernails. The only thing Duke would alert on was my C-rations.

I loved my dogs and I took good care of them. We spent hours together every night; more time than you would spend with a pet every day. We became best buddies and teaching them new tricks was fun and I had plenty of time on my hands to do that. In Vietnam, ticks were a big problem. I would groom my dog every night and pick ticks off of him. I would also check my dog for cuts because untreated cuts could get infected easily and in the tropics flies would also lay their eggs in a cut causing an even bigger problem.

Dinner at night was sometimes a challenge. Some things, like a pecan roll or crackers, do not need to be cooked. Other things, like canned spaghetti or beef with spiced sauce, needed to be cooked. Some of the guys would not cook their dinners because the flame would light them up, making them a target. I figured, if the enemy wanted to enter the base, they would avoid me if they could see me, so I always cooked my C-rations. The movie "Sniper" had not made the movies yet.

In Vietnam, the early shift got off post about 2 hours before the chow hall opened. In order to get three meals a day, one had to stay up for a couple of hours and wait for the chow hall to open. Way back in 1968 and 1969, before dinosaurs roamed the earth, there was no internet, no cable tv, no smartphones and no computers. I suppose I could have read a good book, but that might cause me to fall asleep and miss breakfast. Instead, I learned how to play tennis. We would go out to the tennis courts, turn on the lights and play for a couple of hours. Despite being far from home and in a war zone, I found time to relax and enjoy myself.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

New barracks

This is my 26th story. I have been posting one a week for a half a year. Most of my stories have been about my dogs. Some have been about leadership. But this one is about everyday life in the service.

Phan Rang Airbase Republic of Vietnam 1969.

When I arrived at Phan Rang Airbase I bunked in a two story barracks.  It was outdated and new barracks were built for us. The new barracks was one floor and one long building with the showers and latrine in the middle. A Flight had one side and B Flight had the other side. There were no windows in the building, only screened louvers running along both sides of the building just below the soffit of the roof. There was no air conditioning. Vietnam was oppressively hot and humid.

On move-in day, the troops arranged the lockers to form cubicles for four people and then set up the bunk beds. We worked quickly because we had to get settled and get some rest before going to work for the night. The paint was barely dry when the barracks was occupied. Like most construction projects, the building was completed before the landscaping was done.

Dog handlers work nights. That means that the grading of the outside of the building was done during the day while I slept. The earth was a dry red clay. The monsoons were over. I am not a light sleeper and the heavy equipment grading the yard did not wake me up. But when I woke up I knew that the construction company had been grading the yard. The red dust had filtered in through the screened louvers and covered my sheets, pillow and one side of my face. When I lifted my head from the pillow, I left a white silhouette of my face on my pillow. Nothing a change of linens and a good shower could not fix.

I may be able to sleep through a lot of noise, but my olfactory nerves apparently do not rest. Or maybe it was the sound of several people yelling at the mamasans and threatening to kill them that woke me up.  But really, it was probably one of my roommates that woke me up. But, when I did wake up it became apparent what the problem was. The mamasans were cooking their lunches in the entryway between the two halves of the barracks.

I have never tried fermented fish heads. I will never try fermented fish heads. Anything that smells that bad should be thrown out, not eaten.

Each flight had two mamasans that kept the barracks clean and shined our boots. They worked while we slept. As the assistant flight chief, I collected the necessary fee from each handler in the flight and I paid the mamasans who worked on our side. They respected me and when I told them that they could no longer cook their lunches and eat them inside the barracks, they moved outside. The riot was quelled and everyone went back to bed.


Sunday, June 28, 2015


Phan Rang Airbase Republic of Viet Nam 1968 to 1969.

When my dog Duke was relieved from duty, he did not get to retire and spend his life in comfort in a nice home some place. Sentry dogs are not rehabilitated but euthanized. I loved my dog and went to his necropsy. I probably should not have done that because I nearly passed out from the odor when his stomach was cut open. That is why I never went into the medical field.

If you have read my previous posts, then you know I had to choose between several available dogs after Duke was relieved from duty. I chose a dog named Tusky. Tusky had one major problem, he was basically white with a patch of black on his back. All white german shepherds were not eligible to be sent to Viet Nam, but the black spot on Tusky's back made him eligible.

Unless you were in a helicopter, Tusky was an all white dog. What is the problem with having a white dog? You probably already answered the question, white is easily visible at night. If you were me and walking a dog along a fence line in enemy territory, what type of dog would you want? Okay, black, so that the dog is as invisible as you.

Well, Tusky and I performed well despite him being white. I wore camouflage fatigues and blended into the background at night. One night one of the tower guards told me that he could not see me, but that he could see my dog as we approached the tower.  When I was close enough for the tower guard to see me, he said that it looked like I was walking a snowball.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Bad Decision

Most of the war stories that I have shared showed my good judgment, but this one was not one of my best moments. It was January 1969, I was 22 years old, and I was on post in the Echo sector of the perimeter. I had less than 30 days left in country, therefore I was a "short timer." I even wore a short timer ribbon tied in a bow to my button loop; a ribbon that comes on a bottle of Seagram's VO Gold. When you are a short timer you start thinking about just surviving a few more days so that you can go home. Odd, but prior to the 30-day countdown, one does not really think about the possibility that the trip might be made in a pine box. Over 58,000 Americans lost their lives in this senseless war.

At guard mount, the H & I (Harassment and Irritation) fire missions were announced. H & I fire missions were missions where a heavy weapons team would fire at possible enemy infiltration routes. It was a way to train our heavy weapons teams in case they were needed in combat. On the night in question, a 50 caliber machine gun, mounted on a jeep, was going to set up to fire off base a half mile down the perimeter from my post. The 50 caliber machine gun fired tracers and exploding rounds with a .5-yard kill radius. That means that the bullet does not have to hit you; it just has to hit close to you.

Prior to the heavy weapons team setting up, Control contacted all of the posts and told us to clear our posts by withdrawing to the perimeter road. I was sitting behind the metal dump, seeming well protected and decided that I was safe. Even though I was notified to clear my post, I was comfortable and decided to stay where I was and I called in that I was clear. I was not alone. The handler on the post next to mine had stopped by for a visit. He decided to stay where we were sitting and he also called in that he was clear.

Once everyone had reported that they were clear of the line of fire, the heavy weapons team set up to fire. They were not a half a mile down the perimeter. Someone had changed the fire mission or they just set up at the wrong post. When they chambered a round, it sounded like they were directly behind us. They were actually 150 feet from the fence line where we were sitting and 100 feet to our left. It was too late for us to withdraw to the road. We could only hope that the eight-foot high pile of metal junk would be enough to protect us from the bullets.

Even though I was scared and afraid that I might not survive, I watched in amazement as red tracers and exploding rounds impacted the area just a few yards from me. Because you are reading this, you know that the metal dump saved the life of a very foolish young man. Life is full of decisions and we cannot escape the consequences of those decisions. I was fortunate to survive my poor decision and vowed to do better with my decision-making in the future.