The first fire support base in the Trung Lap area was named Patton.
It lay nestled right up against the village, looking north across open fields.
The village itself was built on the rising curve of ground coming up from a small
river, so the outer bunkers of Patton commanded a slight downhill advantage against
attackers. Like so many bases, it was built in haste and to conform to the
requirements of the land. The bunkers came in all shapes and sizes. They
followed no concentric lines, but rather meandered from one side of the base to the other.
Command bunkers lay scattered inside the perimeter, and there was enough room for a
battery of 155 mm self-propelled howitzers to maneuver inside the base. Perhaps the
Army felt the base was too close to the village. Or perhaps they decided we
"grunts" were slacking off and needed something to fill our idle hours.
Whatever the motive, it was decided to build a new fire support base and name it Patton
II. Army engineers designed a beautiful, symmetrical circle for the new base.
And we, the men of Alpha Company, Second Battalion, Fourteenth Infantry, were chosen to
While these high-level decisions were being made we were still lounging around at
Keene, filling a few of those idle hours with night ambush patrols and daily Eagle flights
and local RIFs (Reconnaisance In Force). Several days before the move, rumors
started flying - those Army rumors that are about as reliable as predicting tomorrow's
weather. Some said we were going in on stand-down - a two day vacation at the Cu Chi
Hilton, a rest area built near the outer perimeter of the big Division base at Cu
Chi. Others said we would soon be heading to the Ho Bo Woods to build a new fire
base - the Woods was a notorious enemy stronghold in our area. And some were certain
we were on our way to the "bridge", considered to be a month of "sham"
time. The bridge was a major highway bridge which our battalion protected, and a
tour of duty there meant sitting around all day reading and writing letters, and watching
for anything unusual floating down the river which might blow it up.
While no one guessed the right destination, the foundation of the rumors was true.
One morning, after breakfast, the word was given. "Pack up, we're moving
out. Be on the pad in fifteen minutes." We quickly gathered up our few
belongings. Our back packs, which we seldom used, came out of the small sandbag
structure behind our bunker. We threw in shaving gear, writing pads and the few odds
and ends of our daily lives. Then we picked up ammo and weapons, threw on our web
gear, and set off. I remember this departure with a tinge of sadness. My
jungle hat, a wide-brimmed olive drab cloth hat, the treasured possession of every GI,
disappeared when I lay it on top of the storage bunker to go in and pick up my other
belongings. Someone had taken it.
We usually traveled by Huey. This time, as we waited on the field beyond Keene,
we saw a lone Chinook helicopter coming into sight over the treetops. Like a huge
flying insect, it moved slowly towards us, and carefully lowered itself to the ground.
The double rotors threw up a thick cloud of dust and debris. When the motion
of the blades slowed, a big ramp door at the rear of the craft opened. The Chinook
was a cargo helicopter, and because of its long, curved shape, was affectionately called
the "flying banana". It also had another name, but I won't use it here.
We walked up the ramp into the belly of the craft. The interior was set up to
carry troops. There were folding seats along the walls and down the center.
They actually made us fasten the seat belts - we who usually rode beltless in the open
doors of fast-moving Hueys, our feet hanging over the edge! As soon as the last of
us was seated the big door groaned shut, and the Chinook lifted from the ground. I
took one last look out the window at Keene. It would be gone in another few months,
torn down because it was no longer needed. Now we were on our way to our next
home. We watched the fields pass beneath us, listening for the change in sound that
would mean we were starting to descend, eager to see where we were actually going.
We rode for about twenty minutes, and then started down. The fields below us looked
a bit different. The terrain was more uneven than Keene's. Rivers and streams
had cut shallow valleys, so the land was not as level. Soon the craft landed and we
piled out with our gear. As the Chinook left, we walked up a slight incline to the
crest of an open meadow. This was to be our new home - the future site of Patton II.
The slight rise on which we stood commanded the ground around us. To the west lay
nearly a kilometer of open rice fields, with the village of Bau Dieu beyond.
Low-lying dikes covered the dry ground in a broken grid. A reddish-yellow dirt road
crept in a straight line from the village right past our new front door, then east down
the incline, over a narrow river, and up the bank again into the town of Trung Lap, half
hidden in the trees and brush. To the north, a hundred yards away and across the
road, half a dozen hootches and a thin cluster of trees sat along
the crest of the hill. Barren rice fields lay beyond, out of sight, with clusters of
hootches here and there. Behind us, to the south, the open
rice fields ended abruptly against a large patch of dense forest and brush, about half a
kilometer away. The river was of the small, slow-moving, muddy type, with thick
vegetation along its banks. It twisted and meandered from somewhere north of us and
disappeared into the forested area to the southeast. The farmland surrounding us was
fertile, producing two to three crops of rice per year. But now, all of the rice
fields lay fallow, waiting for the onset of the rainy season to be planted.
We set up camp on the high ground on our side of the road. Nothing fancy, just a
pile of backpacks on the ground with a few men left to guard them. The rest of us
were allowed to go patrolling. Our platoon set off on an all-day march, out across
the fields to the village at the end of the road and back again. Other platoons went
in other directions. We all met back at the base at dinner time. Cookie had
done miracles with his portable stove and had a hot meal waiting for us. That first
night we slept in the open. Ambush patrols were sent out after dark to guard our
choice piece of real estate. We took turns guarding and sleeping.
On the second day another Chinook brought us digging tools, sandbags and rolls of
chain-link fence. We spent part of the day erecting crude sandbag walls for partial
protection. We had no time yet for bunkers. Then we started off again on
patrols. And so it went for nearly a week. Our belongings stayed out in the
open, and we slept at night on the open ground of an ambush site or within our crude camp.
An added discomfort was the onset of the monsoon rains. Every day at two or three
in the afternoon, single dark clouds appeared overhead and dropped buckets of rain on us.
Unlike the weather in much of the United States, the sky was never overcast and
rainy all day. Instead there were lots of those solitary clouds, one coming right on
the heels of another.
You could see them coming. The dark, driving rain would appear as charcoal lines
etched at a sharp angle from the base of the black cloud to the ground below. No
thunder or lightning heralded the arrival, just the clouds. The air didn't freshen
or quicken in advance of the rain, the rain just moved onward until it hit you. And
then, boom!, you were in the middle of a downpour. The rain was warm during the
afternoon, just like the air. And there was no protection from it. One minute
you were dry, and the next you were soaked to the skin. Nothing was more frustrating
than to have to just stand there and get wet! No umbrellas, no scurrying for cover,
just putting up with it. A burst might last for ten to thirty minutes. Then,
as the cloud moved away, the rain would taper off and stop, just like turning off a shower
faucet. Our uniforms were built for just such conditions
and dried quickly. But our socks stayed wet longer, and our feet soon looked like
white prunes. In the early stages of the monsoon season one cloud a day was common,
with a chance of some rain during the night. As the season advanced, rains came more
often, one cloud following another, until "dry" became a forgotten word.
Night rain storms were different from the day storms. At night the air cooled off
a bit, and a breeze might come along with the rain. The moon slipped in and out
behind thick clouds. On one of those early nights at Patton, I lay there exposed to
the elements, with no protection, no rain tarps or ponchos, and no bunkers to hide in.
The rain began about midnight and the wind picked up, driving the big drops down
upon me and chilling me to the bone. I have no accurate measurement, but the
temperature was probably no colder than seventy or seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit.
It felt more like twenty. After all, I was now used to daily temperatures in the
nineties and one-hundreds.
Sleep was impossible. I pulled my poncho liner closer, the quarter-inch
camouflaged nylon blanket we depended on for daily sun shade and nighttime warmth.
Even soaking wet it usually offered some small measure of protection against the cooler
night air. Tonight it was worthless. The driving rain cut right through the
flimsy material. Shivering almost uncontrollably, I tried turning my back to the
wind, curling up as tight as possible. But it was all to no avail.
Then, I noticed a roll of chain link fence lying nearby. In desperation, I
crawled over and moved the steel fencing to form a barrier against the rain and wind.
I crawled into a shallow depression in the ground and pulled the seventy or
eighty-pound roll against my back. The wind still came through the open chain, but
not so fiercely. A small measure of warmth returned as my soaking blanket started to
reflect body heat. After a while, the shivering stopped, and I fell asleep.
The rain and humidity were also hard on our equipment. Rust covered our rifles.
Each night, before going out on ambush, we tried to coax some of it off with
lubricant, but it didn't help much. Even my toothpaste tube was rusting. My
writing pad, kept in an empty .50 caliber ammo can, was always damp, and occasionally
mildewed. We laid our possessions out each day to dry, and by the next day they were
Our only consolation during these days was that soon we would start building a new
base. Army engineers arrived one day with surveying equipment and proceeded to stake
out the initial design. Huge D-8 bulldozers (olive drab, of course) eased down from
flatbed trucks and cut a wide circular swath where the engineers had marked the interior
road. Then they pushed dirt up into eight foot high walls in a big circle, several
hundred meters across. At intervals, they left gaps for the perimeter bunkers - and
that's where we came into the picture. It was our job to fill those holes, one
sandbag at a time. At first we didn't realize the immensity of the job. For
the next month we spent all our off-hours filling and stacking sandbags.
We started the very next day. The bulldozers
opened a large sand pit on the other side of the road before they left. We began
filling the first of countless sandbags. Even the lowly sandbag has fallen prey to
new technology. These were constructed of plastic fiber woven into cloth and sewn
into bags. A black plastic tie was inserted through the weave to pull the top
shut. The old cloth bags would have rotted in the Vietnamese humidity. But
nothing lasts forever. These new plastic bags succumbed to the sun. After
several months in the open they too began to fall apart.
Our lives quickly fell into a new routine. The early-morning sun rose in the east
looking just like a sunset. A soft pastel pink would appear on the horizon, then
swell to a bright red and orange glow before fading into a dull bluish-white haze for the
rest of the day. All day long we filled and tied bags, while trucks carried them
across the road to the new bunker sites. We tired easily in the heat of the full
sun. There were no clouds thick enough to stop the glare, just the gentle haze from
one horizon to the next. Our exposed shoulders and backs took on new shades of
brown, and the sweat poured from our bodies. We drank water every half hour or so.
The water was always hot, but at least it was wet. Work for an hour, no rest
breaks, then stop for ten minutes. From dawn to dusk we kept at it. The only
relief came when we went on patrol during the day. At night, exhausted, we gathered
up our weapons and headed out to set up another ambush in the fields around the base.
There we slept on the open, hard ground, waking now and then to the sound of a
far-off firefight, or the explosion of an occasional harassment round.
Happiness those days was getting called for an Eagle flight, or even being assigned
outpost duty. Each day we set up four or five outposts to protect the men working on
the bunkers. We went out in groups of two or three. Settling back against a
tall dike, we propped our poncho-liners up with sticks to make an awning against the sun.
Before long, the inevitable Vietnamese entrepreneur, a child of ten to fourteen
years, would stop by to peddle cold sodas. Where they managed to get Pepsi, Coke and
other canned delicacies, we never knew. They carried beat-up Styrofoam coolers
containing a big block of ice. The can was rolled on the ice until it was cold, then
sold to us for fifty cents in Military Payment Certificates.
Back home we could have bought it for a quarter, and these had probably been stolen
or black marketed from our own supplies in Saigon. Still, it was a treat few could
resist. It sure beat a canteen of hot water!
Outpost duty also brought out
the "boom-boom" girls. Speaking in their pidgin English version of
rock-and-roll hip mixed with soul-brother jive, they came to peddle their bodies to lonely
GIs. And there were more than a few lonely GIs! Most of the time, in the
field, the guys were wary of their advances. One man, perhaps a bit more desperate
than the rest, pulled out his four bucks and went to it right there beside us.
Hardly a minute went by and they were done. He wasn't even breathing hard. One
week later he had his reward - a several week furlough to the field hospital in Cu
Chi. Others weren't so lucky. Shortly after Patton was completed, a truck
driving by caused one wall of the sand pit to collapse. A GI and his consort of the
moment making love in the pit were buried alive. Both were killed. And at
Keene, a GI on outpost duty was severely injured when his boom-boom girl tripped a booby
trap as they headed into the bushes for a little fun.
One ancient prostitute spent nearly an hour trying to proposition me. Her face
was lined and aged like old leather. Her limbs were thin, covered with wrinkled, dry
skin, containing just enough sinew to tie her tired bones together. As she smiled
and wiled her way into my confidence, she exposed worn rows of teeth, the original white
ivory stained dark red and brown from years of chewing betel nuts. What bothered me
most was the thought that she might be just a distraction (she was a distraction, all
right) to cover some sinister Viet Cong attack. Finally she gave up on me, and
headed down the road for the next outpost, ever hopeful that if she knocked on enough
doors she would make a sale.
Aside from such diversions, work
continued steadily on the bunkers. We leveled a sand foundation and placed double
rows of bags in a ten-foot square, with one opening at the back for a door.
Reversing direction each layer, we piled and flattened the bags so they sat one atop the
other. By mid-afternoon when the rains came, we would have a bunker four or five
feet high. After thirty minutes of drenching rain, the sodden walls usually
collapsed, and we started over again. We beat the bags with shovels to force out the
water and get them to lay flat again. Once a wall stood the test of one storm, it
was likely to stand for a long time. Or so we thought. One night the monsoon
clouds came in full force, one right after another, bringing a deluge of rain. By
the dawn's early light we saw the disastrous results. We had at that time completed
nearly half of the perimeter bunker walls, and now each one lay collapsed, reduced to a
lumpy pile of dull green bags. And so we started over.
As the month dragged on, and the bunkers sprang up one by one, we began to look more
and more ragged. Sometimes we went for days without shaving. We had no showers
and no re-supply of clean clothing. The only water available was in a big four foot
water tank on wheels (a "water buffalo"), brought in every week. We filled
our canteens from its little spigot, but there wasn't enough
water for showers or baths. Our battalion emblem was a Golden Dragon. Soon we
were calling ourselves the Golden Pigs. My skin broke out in little bumps from the
heat and dirt. We tried taking baths in the rain, but the clouds came and went so
quickly there wasn't enough water to wash the soap away, and we were left feeling itchy
and scratchy for the rest of the day. One time I tried to take a bath from my
helmet. I went down to the water-tank for a capful of water, and returned to my
bunker. With infinite care I soaped up, using just the tiniest bit of water.
The open sun baked the thin lather to my skin in seconds. When I had covered my body
with a thin layer of soap, I took a rag and rinsed the soap away as best I could.
Luck was with me. Just as I finished doing a so-so job of rinsing, the rain came,
and I was actually clean for the first time in weeks. It felt great. But I
tried not to think about it when two hours later I was just as sweaty and dirty as I had
Eventually the steel roof supports arrived, and we covered the open bunkers.
Thick, clear-plastic sheeting waterproofed the top. Several layers of
sandbags completed the roof, and the bunkers were ready for use. Once covered, we
had no more trouble with the rain. We were safe and secure inside, and dry at last.
With its solid wall of dirt and the new bunkers, the base was considered safe enough
for others. And in they came. Engineers paved the perimeter road with gravel
to make it all-weather. Headquarters units and communications units arrived to tie
us in to the bigger world in Cu Chi. And a drilling rig came in for several days to
drill a proper well. What luxury! We soaked under the spray of portable
showers for as long as we could. The fire base was getting to be habitable. Of
course, all those newcomers needed homes, and so bunker building proceeded apace. We
started on a second, inner ring of bunkers for support personnel. In all, we built
three rings of bunkers. Twenty-four bunkers made up the outer perimeter. Fifty
or sixty more were built within the circle of the gravel road. And when the base was
finally complete, the six 155 mm. self-propelled howitzers from Patton I, with their big
six-inch guns, moved in to the very center of the circle.
Two large rings of triple-layered concertina wire enclosed the fortress. The open
ground between the circles was covered with a tight horizontal grid of barbed wire, tied
one foot off the ground on wooden pegs driven into the dirt. Flare grenades were
fastened inside the concertina rolls, with trip wires attached in case Charlie tried to
crawl through. Tin cans with pebbles inside (less expensive and just as effective)
were tied to the wire. Any movement caused the cans to rattle, and warned the guards
To complete the layout, a heliport was constructed just across the road from the base.
Now we could properly greet distinguished visitors. In fact, about a month or
so later, then vice-president Spiro Agnew dropped from the sky on an inspection tour to
see the latest design concepts in action at Patton II. From the air, Patton was
beautiful to behold, with its concentric circles and neat, tidy green squares.
Everything had its place. The side facing the road had two large gates, with larger
bunkers on both sides of the entrance. Rows of concertina opened in widening funnels
from the gates to the road, inviting passersby to stop and visit. There were several
utility, or servant's entrances at the back, where we left to go on our daily helibornes
from the fields to the south.
It took almost a month of effort to complete Patton II. We filled thousands of
sandbags, and spent hundreds of hours stacking them up. Perhaps we could have
finished sooner if they hadn't kept calling us away to go chasing after Charlie. But
that's why they brought us here in the first place.