Setting up the Trip
In this first page there is a column I wrote for the Clarion Ledger. There is an explanation of the organization of a combat engineer platoon, our operations area, and references to pictures to show how it was 40 years ago. By the time you finish this, you’ll know how the 9th Div moved from its base camp NE of Saigon into the Mekong Delta where it became the first U.S. permanent unit in that vast agricultural growing region where the VC got much of its food.
Combat Engineer Battalion which is part of an Infantry Division has four line
companies, a fifth company which has all the raft and bridge equipment, and a
headquarters company with all the staff. A
Combat Engineer company has four platoons—three line and one headquarters.
job of a combat engineer is to support the infantry in accomplishing its
mission. We advised senior
commanders are likely routes of attack, escape, river landings.
If the cavalry needed a bridge to cross a river with their Armored
Personnel Carriers, we built it. If
the infantry needed to assault a river bank or beach, we had the assault rafts.
If something needed to be blown up to deny the enemy access or get it out of the
way, we blew it up. We also built
playgrounds in hamlets, repaired schools, helped the hamlet next to us any way
Organization of a Combat Engineer
Line Platoon (as I remember it)
engineers we had 38 men
Squads—3 line of 10 men each, 1 headquarters of eight men
Platoon Leader, Lieutenant which I was
Sergeant Sgt E-7
squad leaders Sgt E-6
Assistant Squad Leaders Sgt. E-5
line squad was divided into two sections headed by the sergeants (squad leader
and assistant) and included a truck driver and assistant driver, carpenter and
HQ squad had the platoon leader and sergeant, radio-telephone operator, front
end loader operator, dozer operator, medic.
we organized as infantry, we had the same configuration as an infantry platoon.
In the line squads, the truck drivers and assistants became the machine
gunners and assistants (loader and ammo humper).
Besides the machine gun they carried .45 caliber pistols and the
assistant had a “thumper” M-79 grenade launcher.
The others were rifleman carrying M-16’s.
headquarters platoon truck drivers became machine gunners, the front end loader
and dozer operators became mortar men and the rest of us had M-16’s.
We all carried what we called “the basic load” of appropriate
ammunition, grenades, smoke grenades. The
RTO who was also my jeep driver became my radioman.
did everything from building outhouses in the permanent division base camp to
blowing up bunkers, trees, anything else that got in our way when out in the
15th Combat Engineer Battalion left Ft. Riley Kansas under cover of
darkness and in “secret” shortly after midnight in early October, 1966.
We flew to Oakland, CA from Kansas City, and than ship to Vietnam. We
went to Bear Cat, Vietnam where we began building the 9th Infantry
permanent base camp. The Division
came over in December of that year.
late February, 1967, my company moved out of Bear Cat, through Saigon, and down
Highway 1A to Tan An where we began building the 3rd Brigade of the 9th
Inf Div basecamp. Newly elected
Representative Mac Huddleston and I were talking one day and during our
conversation of experiences in Vietnam, we discovered that he provided my air
cover as our convoy moved south of Saigon—small world.
can Google “Bear Cat” and follow Hwy 51 to its intersection with Hwy 1A,
turn left, go through Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and continue on 1A to Tan An.
Google will pin Bear Cat, but if you look just to the south, you’ll see
an airstrip. We landed on that strip
which was dirt at the time nearly 42 years ago on our first day in country.
We moved to the base camp and started building 9th Div home.
Tan An, my platoon moved east described below to support the 2nd of
the 60th Inf BN of the 9th Inf Division and that is where
I spent most of the remainder of my tour.
you have gotten this far and are interested, go to the Google Home Site.
Click on “Maps” and then enter Tan An Vietnam.
That takes you to the Mekong Delta of Vietnam.
Tan An should be in the middle of the screen.
Just on the west side of and on the edge of town you will see what looks
to be a white tin roof. That should
be a building on the air strip, it wasn’t there 40 years ago and we built the
strip for helicopters.
there is a road that leaves the town headed north—HWY 1A.
Go north to Saigon on that road. Turn
Right at the first intersection. You
will cross water---we built a bridge there-- follow the road until it
“Y’s” with another road. Turn
left and go to the crossroads intersection.
Turn right at the crossroads intersection and go southeast.
You will cross a large creek, small tributary.
My platoon built a bridge there. Keep
going straight and you come to another village.
was our base camp.
the way, our bridges were either timber or what we called “Bailey” bridges
which were heavy duty structural aluminum put together like tinker toys or an
erector set. There were no bolts and
nuts…all lynch pins about eight inches long or so and three inches or so in
moved all the inhabitants from that village (not very many, but we still
displaced them to another location). We
put our tents on their hooch pads. The
short road going right to the river we used as a helicopter strip.
We also had our assault boats (http://www.johnmayo.com/preparing_river_assault.jpg)
and M4T6 raft (http://www.johnmayo.com/working1.htm)
capable of ferrying 2 APC’s up and down the river for support. The whole area
is surrounded by rice paddies, palm trees, and what we call here elephant ear
plants that were as thick as a jungle.
a left at the intersection in the village and you come to a hamlet and another
wide creek/tributary. The Viet Minh
destroyed the bridge there except for concrete pilings.
11 men rebuilt that 287 foot bridge capable of supporting APC’s in
seven daylight days and defended it during three nights of attacks.
in the village made mud models of our trucks dumping timber on top of the half
completed bridge. One of my men
cradled a pregnant woman in his arms as he lifted and walked her across of
footbridge we built before starting on the bridge.
She delivered within a half hour after reaching the midwife’s hooch on
the other side. The mid wife brought
the baby out for all of us to see shortly afterwards.
the base camp, look directly north and very slightly to the west…very
slightly. You will see the lower end
of a bend or dip in a river. You
will also see two smaller tributaries of that river. They are roughly 1 to 1.5
kilometers apart . Between them is
an area we called “The Bowling Alley”, a strip bounded by the river on the
north and huge elephant ear plants and palm trees on the south with an open area
(the bowling alley) in the middle. A
company sized base camp (100-120 men, including a squad of my engineers) was
located here bounded on the north side by the major river and on the east by the
smaller tributary. The camp was
probably no more than 300 feet wide, if that.
One night the VC came out of the west, snuck down the “alley” and
then stormed the camp, yelling and screaming they ran through the perimeter
defenses, ran through the camp, shooting up everything, and jumped into boats,
dugouts, and what have you in the eastern river.
one was killed, very light injuries, was like a bunch of drunken boys crashing a
party, doing what they could to scare the guests and leaving as fast as they
came. The incident was all over as
quick as it began.
a lot of stories some of us share with one another.
Spacey playing Bobby Darin in the movie “Beyond the Sea” delivers a line
that goes something like, “Memories are like moonbeams.
Once you catch one you can do anything you want with it.”
In “A Knight’s Tale”, Heath Ledger in his first significant role
plays a medieval peasant/knight wannabe and offers up early in the movie when he
is attempting to convince his fellow travelers they can change their lot if they
would only believe, “that a man can change his stars”.
I am taking a trip of a lifetime and one I have dreamt about since the
day I left 40 years ago last month. I
am returning to Vietnam, a place and event that has provided my share of
memories over the last four decades and changed the course of my life
Vietnam was a place where many 18-19 year olds had more responsibility,
more focus, and more sense of purpose than they would ever have the rest of
their lives. Vietnam was a place
that found men who should have been at a frat party at 20, taking charge of
squads of men older than themselves in a desperate cause for survival.
Vietnam was a place for many
of us to prove to our Dads, that we had it in us to do what they did in World
War II. Vietnam paradoxically became
a place where many of us looked at our Dads and said, “I can’t do this
anymore. There’s got to be another
Vietnam was a place of unbelievable beauty serving as the backdrop for
the struggle in the foreground between the cause for democracy and the spread of
Vietnam was a major player in the 60’s that saw the decade open with
nationwide protests supporting civil rights for Blacks and ended with nationwide
protests against the war culminating in the assassinations of the leaders of
both causes—Rev. Martin Luther King and Senator Bobby Kennedy.
They say if you remembered the ‘60’s, you really weren’t there.
Well, I do, I was, and I would not wish them again on anyone, but I also
would not give them up, either.
The war changed my stars. Out
of St. Joe High School, Jackson in ’65, I really did not know what I wanted to
do. I had applied for college, but
enlisted in the Army before graduation. I
wanted to be an officer. After basic
and during advanced training to be a guided missile repairman, I applied for
Officer Candidate School. They must
have been taking anyone who could pull a trigger and say, “Follow me”.
A month after application, I was in, and six months after that, I was a
19 year old “officer and a gentleman”. The
first I was sure of, the latter, well, to this day I’m not so sure.
I joined my unit as a platoon leader of the First Platoon, Charlie
Company, 15th Combat Engineers, 9th Infantry Division, in
the Army of the United States of America. Thirty-eight
men, except for the platoon sergeant and squad leaders, were new to the Army.
We trained from June to September and left for Vietnam.
Twenty-seven days on the ocean and we finally reached Vietnam.
We could see the beaches from the troopship “Sultana” when we were
given the order to prepare to go over the sides.
“WHAT!?” We had not
trained for that!
But, over the sides we climbed, and fell, tripped, or rolled into
WW II landing craft, roaring away from the “Mother ship” and to the beaches,
battle gear strapped to our backs, weapons at the ready, and…
Talking about some scared straight kind of moment…God had our
attention. The LST’s hit the
beach, front went down, we unloaded the craft, band started playing, girls ran
up to us and draped us in flowers. “Welcome
That was the beginning day of the next 12 life changing months “in
country”. I would sign up for
another tour when in my 11th month I got orders to go to Aberdeen
Proving Grounds to be attached to a Signal Unit.
“What,” I thought, “do they want a combat engineer in a signal unit
for?” I traveled from our home
base in the field in the rice paddies around Ap Binh Thanh about 30 or so klicks
south of Saigon in the Mekong Delta,
through the Capital City, to about 30 more klicks northeast of the City to a
place called “Bear Cat”, the Division HQ of the 9th Infantry
Division. I found the S-1 (human
I signed up for six more months of Fun, Travel, and Adventure, the first
in my unit to do so.
My platoon supported an infantry battalion.
We rarely saw our own company commander and for many of my men and
myself, we planned river assault landings, defenses, three-seven day missions
“ in the boonies”. We blew up
bunkers, bridges, and enemy fortifications.
We built bridges, roads, schoolyards, and relationships with children
that for the older guys probably were a lot like their own.
no sense trying to explain just how all those experiences became a force for
changing stars. You had to be there. In
April, ’68 when I got orders to return home, I sat on the edge of my bunk and
began to think of a future. Vietnam
limited my choices to return to the Army after getting a degree or two more
paths. I would become a priest or
get into politics. Obviously, the
latter and the heart of a woman won out.
not know what to anticipate tomorrow as I leave from Atlanta’s airport and a
24 hour trip to Tan Son Nhut Air Base (the same one I flew out of to return
will make that trip again from Bear Cat into the Delta.
I will look for those bridges the First Platoon built.
I will look for the schoolyard in front of a two room school house in a
village of thatched huts. I will
bring pictures of children who are now 40 years older.
And, hopefully I will find a
287 foot timber bridge set on fire by the Viet Minh in the ‘50’s and
reconstructed by 11 men in 7 days, defended each night, and where we learned
that children everywhere are all alike…curious, trusting, and showoffs
for many of us is but a distant memory. For
many of us, the experience happened last night in another hour of restless
sleep. For all of us, our future was altered by a night in a mosquito infested
rice paddy, sweat-dripping jungle, mountaintop firebase, and yes, even in those
pansy a_ _ air conditioned Air Force barracks in Thailand or those flattops and
tin cans out on the ocean.
wouldn’t wish this distant memory on anyone.
But, I wouldn’t trade a single restless night. There’s probably a lot
more to write about as I prepare for this trip.
But, some things are best left unsaid and some stars unchanged.
now, I want to experience the beauty of a country as I have never thought of it