The morning after money change day, Surgeon, the 126 team chief, brought the team’s truck to pick us up. The Rep Center lieutenant had called Col. Suel the evening before on the off chance that he was still in his office, which he was, waiting to call Washington after duty hours began there. The colonel had Surgeon’s off-duty number and had him pick us up first thing in the morning. Then, he had to take us back out to Bein Hoa to pick up our nearly 300 lbs. of technical manuals and training aids that hadn’t made it onto the bus the day before. Phil found his duffle among the boxes.
The truck, a 15-year old Renault 3/4-ton, belonged to the Vietnamese army, ARVN, and was one of many relics of the French Colonial occupation. It was left behind after their departure from Saigon in 1957, three years following their surrender at Dien Bien Phu. By now it was well worn like a comfortable old shoe. It had benches built into the pickup bed and a canvas-topped cage over the bed with a door in the back that latched from the inside. It was OD green with a patina of red clay thrown up by the heavy-treaded tires. There was a bullet hole dead center in the drivers windshield. There was a hole in the passenger door. The Renault coughed occasionally, suffering from dirty gasoline. Surgeon had to do a bit of talking to get the French truck with ARVN markings and Vietnamese driver through the gate at Bien Hoa. He showed them my orders; they called Col. Suel, whose phone number Surgeon had written on the order. A couple of snappy “yes sirs” over the phone and we were in. The MPs at the gate didn’t usually talk to an actual colonel. A master sergeant like Surgeon usually had enough authority to make things happen.
Master Sergeant Surgeon was a grizzled soldier in his late forties, trim, with a military crew cut, number 2 on the army barber chart, very short on the sides so you couldn’t see the grey. He had grown up in the Oklahoma Pan Handle during the dust bowl. He was mater-of-fact and gruff in manner and without the bluster of men with something to prove, few of whom lasted long in Nam. He, who had served through WWII, had earned his stripes and the respect that went with them. He was quick with a joke and was an excellent poker player we soon learned. He was two years shy of retiring with 30 years service at 3/4 pay, plus healthcare, PX privileges and a spot in an old soldiers home. When he retired he thought he would go live at the old soldiers home near the Persido in San Francisco. The weather was nice, he said, and there was lots to do in the city. He had been stationed there right after WWII. He lacked Army’s collective disdain for California, “the land of fruits and nuts,” the lifers never failed to say if they thought there were any California boys in their units. As a dust bowl Okie, he saw it more as the promised land.
We picked up our gear and Surgeon deposited us miles away just inside the perimeter of the ARVN 60th Signal Base Depot a few miles from downtown Saigon. This was the base for Advisory Team 126 and a warehouse was to be the classroom for the Saigon branch of the US Army Signal School. I wondered how carefully the ARVN had vetted the prospective students for our upcoming class. Signal School classes were no slouch. You had to be smart and work hard to make it through.
Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey was the home of what was derisively called the “candy-ass signal corp” by state-side lifers, mostly NCOs who had yet to see a tour in Nam. According to them we didn’t “soldier hard enough.” Some apparently thought that they would take the training at the Signal School and shape up us slackers. And some of them had enough rank to make life difficult for the new soldiers just out of basic training.
As an instructor, I had access to their AFQT, GT and battery test scores from which the GT score was derived. GT scores were supposed to be an analog for an IQ score but I found the AFQT scores more predictive. AFQT was a percentile based on everybody who had taken the test at the time they registered for the draft. A score of 50 meant you did better than half the guys who took the test and could walk and chew gum at the same time — but not much more. To get into the Signal School as a reenlistment bonus you needed a score of 80 but to get out of our radar section took a score of more like 90 and and it took a GT score of 120 for a new recruit to get in. Few of the lifers who’d reenlisted made it through our section and graduated; most who did had scores well into the nineties, had worked hard and had gained a new respect for the “candy ass signal corps.”
Across the street from our warehouse was the buff-colored perimeter wall about a dozen feet high. A 10-foot section was new, red brick, next to which was a pile of rubble you could climb up on to look over the wall. On the other side was a wrecking yard filled with several acres of army trucks, maybe a hundred or so, piled one on top of another like a giant pickup sticks game tossed on a table by a giant hand. There was a damaged guard tower just left of the rubble, its tin roof mostly collapsed. This was where the Viet Cong had broken through and overrun the depot the year before during the 1968 Tet Offensive. It was spoken of in hushed tones when we asked about it. The entire Saigon area was reported in American press to be secured by the South Vietnamese forces. American television reporters assured the nation that the Viet Cong had been repulsed and driven out of the area after Tet in January of 68. Sgt. Surgeon’s stories and two rocket attacks in less than 24 hours had me thinking otherwise.
Inside the warehouse were two large, mobile radars on trailers and a trailer-mounted generator to power them. The room was otherwise empty except for our boxes and a thick coating of dust. These AN/MPQ-4 were mortar-locating radars that gave the artillery the coordinates from which rockets had been launched. Artty, as they were affectionately called, would fire on those coordinates, usually ending the mortar attack and leaving a hole in the ground where the VC attackers had been. They were very much in demand. Bien Hoa had one and Long Binh had several. They were accurate and were an effective piece of equipment, as I had just seen. They were also noisy. And the VC often stopped firing their rockets and made a run for it just on hearing the radars start up. The fact that we had two as training aids meant somebody had a good deal of pull and had used it. And when the chips were down out in the field, anybody who could fix one of these things was an instant hero.
It was from this dusty room and equally dusty machinery that we were to establish a signal school branch. “Good luck,” said Sgt. Surgeon as he looked around the room and back at us standing amid our boxes of training aids.
This was day two and we still had no permanent quarters. When we’d reported, the colonel had made a couple of phone calls and fiven Sgt. Surgeon some addresses before sending us on our way. By now it was late and Surgeon said we should stay with him. He had extra room at the Plaza Hotel. The Plaza had been commandeered by the Army as a BEQ, Batchelor Enlisted Quarters. Surgeon’s quarters, was a large, airy, corner room on the second floor, suitable for a man of his rank and seniority. It must have cost a fortune in the French IndoChina days. The bath was tiled. It had a bidet and a tub with shower and brass fixtures. The mahogany amoir held Surgeon’s uniforms. Like ours, as we soon were to find, they were starched and pressed daily and delivered every afternoon by mamasan, a solemn faced, middle-aged Vietnamese woman. Maid service cost $5 per month and was added to the hotel bill. Phil and I were subsequently assigned separate, much less palatial rooms befitting our lower rank. We were just plain tech. sergeants or specialists as the Army began calling us shortly after assigning us that rank. That was five grades above a recruit and five grades below a Sergeant Major, the top enlisted rank.
Phil and I were awakened early that third morning by Sgt. Surgeon’s coughing. A deep rattling cough that continued until he found his pack of Camels, lighted one up and took a long drag. The enlisted mess opened at six so we dressed and went up to eat. The mess was on the fourth floor, away from the dust and noise of the street. The elevator was out that day and Surgeon was short of breath on the stairs. Phil asked him if he’d been to the medics about his cough. He said he was afraid to go on sick call because he was afraid of what they might tell him. He didn’t want to be medically retired before his 30 years was up. He had a lot riding on that number 30.
Like so many soldiers he smoked Camels, unfiltered of course. Filters were frowned on but not so much because of the macho image of straights but that in combat if the enemy picked up a cigarette butt he could tell that an enemy smoked it by the brand near the filter. If you smoked straights, you lit the end with Camel or Lucky Strike inked on it so the butt would have no identifying mark. Then you rolled out the tobacco between your fingers, wadded up the paper and put it in your pocket, leaving no trace but the smell on the air. By now it was plain we were in a combat situation.