The Recon Base — Part 1
But for the fact that I’d come in on an AA flight from Saigon, I’d have been greeted with suspicion as a troublesome greenhorn. Pressed fatigues and new boots fresh from Saigon didn’t cut it in the bush. But their radar was down and the VC might figure that out any time now. I did have a mustache regrowing from the luxurious but regulation stache the division officer had insisted I shave off before I went off to represent the Signal School. My room mate had insisted that the Major was not going to inspect me again so he wouldn’t know if I had shaved or not but I wasn’t taking any chances. But aside from the stache I was pretty clean cut. The denizens of the jungle outpost weren’t.
The recon site, I was told, existed to monitor and harass the Ho Chi Minh trail. I was told that it was the southernmost airfield that accommodated fixed wing aircraft. I doubted that as III Corp, which included Saigon was dotted with airfields both civilian and military. If that was true, then we weren’t in III Corp but somewhere else. A half-hour’s flight time could easily put us in II Corp to the north — or Cambodia where there were supposed to be no airfields. I voted for Cambodia.
In any case, it was toward the southern end of the trail where the truck trails became a threaded network of footpaths and bicycle trails that dispersed cargo throughout the jungle into caches and into Viet Nam. The foot paths couldn’t be seen from the air for the forest canopy. Because of the indigenous farmers working the hillside, Agent Orange was not used to denude the canopy. Part of the deal for the site being there was keeping the Montagnards happy, which was important because they helped keep the VC at bay and provided us with fresh vegetables, I was to find. This also meant, among other things, providing air freight for their crops and not unduly disrupting their lives. There was the added benefit that they hated the Chinese, the Viet Minh and essentially all Vietnamese.
President Johnson had made a deal not to expand the war into Laos and Cambodia so there could be no known military across the border. But there was constant arguing between the Cambodians and the Vietnamese about exactly where the border was. It could be seen as a line on a map but that didn’t translate well into knowing which ridge line or which banana tree belonged to Cambodia and which to Viet Nam.
One incident about this time but involving US incursions into Laos was that an unmarked Navy plane had run low on fuel and landed in Laos for refueling. The pilot, in uniform, was photographed and it created an international incident. Nixon, by my time in country felt none of Johnson’s constraints.
To both our east and west, lower down the hillsides, areas that had been subsistence crops were now given over to poppy. Further to the north, in Laos, poppy had been a mainstay for decades but in the south it was a relatively recent development.