The Sidewalks Of New York

 

Some of the guys used to joke about how it was safer in Vietnam than on the sidewalks of New York City.  That was supposed to be especially true in the rear, at the big bases like Cu Chi.  I'm here to say it wasn't necessarily so.  There were times when Cu Chi was every bit as dangerous as the Ho Bo Woods.

On The River - At Tay NinhNo one was truly safe in a place where people were working so hard at killing one another.  Even the non-combatants felt the pressure.  And the weapons to commit serious injury were always close at hand.  We heard from time to time how a GI, tired of the discipline, boredom, and nit-picking daily drills and details, would throw a tear gas grenade (or in extreme cases a fragmentation grenade) under the hootch of a senior sergeant or company officer.  It happened in our own company area at Cu Chi one night - someone had a grudge to settle with the sergeant-major.

Yes, when I say Cu Chi could be hazardous, I speak from experience.  I came as close to getting killed right in my own company area as I ever did out in the field.   It happened late one evening as I was walking back to my hootch after a movie at the base theater.  The night was pitch black and there were no street lights.   The road through the company area had a high crown, built to let the monsoon rains wash off the top into the four-foot trenches on either side.  Beside me on the right was a line of storage buildings and a junior officers hootch.  It was filled with lieutenants enjoying a card game.  I could hear their laughter and talk through the open screen walls, along with the occasional clink of a bottle.

As I came directly behind the building, walking quietly on the hard road surface, I heard a small, heavy metallic object hit the road just ahead of me.  I immediately recognized the sound as a fragmentation grenade.  Someone had thrown it behind the hootch to scare the officers, but now it had my name on it.

In an instant I reacted, just as I would have a month or two earlier in the field.   I threw myself to one side, aiming for the deep ditch at the side of the road.   The grenade exploded just as I slammed into the hard dirt.  It had bounced a couple of times and detonated just over the crest of the road, on the side opposite me.   I was lucky.  In another second or two I'd have taken the full force of the blast from just a few yards away.

I raised my head, and heard the sound of footsteps running off up the next street, and then a door closing.  I was a bit shaken as I got up and dusted myself off.  The next day I went back for a look.  On the bank of the road, just over my head as I had hit the ground, was a sheet metal latrine.  The sides looked as if someone had used them for target practice with a 410 shotgun.

Even the "safe" things could sometimes be dangerous.  Having been out in the field for seven months, I was always a bit on the jumpy side.  You can imagine my reaction when, one evening as I sat reading in my hootch, I suddenly heard what sounded to me like grenades exploding nearby.  The explosions came quickly, one after another, and were close enough to get concerned about. The explosions were definitely inside Cu Chi's defense perimeter, and close to our company area.

Bill Chasey (shades), 2/14th Motor Pool at Cu ChiWhile an enemy attack on a big base like Cu Chi was rare, it did sometimes happen.   Before I came to Cu Chi, the Viet Cong had staged a ground attack.  The attacking forces penetrated as far as our company area.  There they had fought a pitched battle, right where I was now living.

And it seemed to be happening again.  I dropped to the floor and reached for my 40 mm grenade launcher.  I slid a round into the big open barrel and snapped the breech shut.  Staying low, I moved to the doorway and peered around the sandbag wall protecting the building.  To one side, about three hundred yards away, the sky glowed with red and yellow hues.  As I watched, more muffled explosions sounded.  Then a burst of flame lit the entire area, and at last I could see what was happening.

The pool area across the road was on fire.  There were always dozens of drums of Chlorine stacked behind the far wall of the pool, and the monsoon rains must have leaked into some of them, heating them up.  Now, the smoldering chemicals had burst into flame, and the canisters were actually exploding!  I felt a bit foolish as I hurriedly returned the gun to its rack and ran to a phone to call for help.

Getting transferred to the rear was no guarantee we would always stay in the rear either.  No sooner had I made the transition to desk jockey than I was "volunteered" to pull night bunker duty at places like Patton II.  When our line companies guarding them got called out on ambush patrol, we were recruited to stand guard in their place.  About four o'clock in the afternoon they'd round up a couple truckloads of us clerks and send us off.  Of course, it was ninety-five percent hazard free - but that still left the other five percent.

You'll remember that when we first built Patton II we set it up on the downhill side of the dirt road, probably because there were still families living on the other side of the road on slightly higher ground.  The entire base was built on a bit of a slant.   From the thick brush of the river bank, several hundred yards downhill to the southeast, you could see right over the eight foot berm into the center of the base.

One night we were called to defend the ramparts.  We were just settling in as the sun dropped over the horizon.  All of a sudden a sharp explosion sounded from the center of the base, right behind the command buildings.  We turned to see dirt and debris flying in all directions as a rocket-propelled grenade, fired from the river bank, blew a big hole in the latrine next to the HQ building.  And by sheer chance, one of us "Cu Chi commandos" was inside at the time.  He took a load of shrapnel in the stomach and groin, and was still screaming when the Medevac flew him away.

Duc Hue Headquarters at the Sugar Mill - Oriental RiverSometimes life in the rear was just too dull.  That's when the call of adventure won out over the risk of danger, and I volunteered for night helicopter missions.   Division sent reconnaissance choppers up each night, and of course they opened fire if they found anything.  My job was to man the big starlight scope they carried, and direct the fire if we spotted anything.  Most nights we saw nothing.  But when we did, the mini-gun mounted in the passenger bay opened fire, and thousands of rounds of 7.65 mm ammo spewed into the night.  Every fifth round was a tracer.  In the dark it looked as if a solid stream of fire was descending to the earth.  When the stream reached the ground it broke into hundreds of droplets racing off in every direction.  The noise was deafening.

On a "sniffing" run one evening we registered a strong reading in the dense jungle below.  The sniffer was a device constructed to detect unusual traces of ammonia in the air, the byproduct of urine, and the sign of an enemy camp.  We circled back to double-check.  As we flew past at treetop level, we got solid confirmation of the reading - green tracer rounds rose out of the jungle right at us.   The heavy thunk of bullets piercing the Huey's metal skin warned us to get out of there fast!

One fringe benefit of volunteering for those flights was getting to see the big situation board, loaded with all of the intelligence information gathered for the region.   Looking at the big picture I could understood a little better the grand design of the things we had done in the field.  Each of those long daily hikes had been directed toward some known enemy hideaway.  And the Eagle flights had been sent to interrupt enemy movements heading from the Cambodian border straight toward Saigon.

From time to time I was also drafted as a jeep driver.  It helped break the monotony of typing reports, and it meant a day of driving through the picturesque countryside, out where people thronged the streets, and where our line companies were still engaged in a daily struggle with the enemy.  I drove as far northwest as Tay Ninh with its ornate Cao Dai temple, and to the Duc Hue Headquarters at the old Sugar Mill along the Oriental river where gunboats patrolled the wide sweep of water. Fish Nets Hang Above The River

The real excitement of driving to the field was the race to get back before they shut the big gates at Cu Chi for the night.  It was said that after seven o'clock at night they didn't open the doors for anyone.  The thought of waiting alone outside the wire all night did not appeal to me.

One night we came in just under the wire.  We were late starting back.  The captain urged me on as I pushed the pedal to the floor, slowing only for the occasional villages we came to.  Each time we neared a village we encountered crowds of people thronging the blacktop.  Slowing only slightly, I honked them aside.  As the hour approached, I went faster and faster.  The open stretches were deserted.   We came to a secured village where the ARVN fort had shut its barbed wire entrance gates, slowing us even more.  At their own leisurely pace the soldiers swung open the gates, and I raced through to the open highway beyond.

The ride became a blur of faded green trees and brown huts, a kaleidoscope of colors as blue and pink and green and white-clothed bodies swept past.  I kept one hand on the horn, warning people to leave us a path down the middle.

Finally we passed the last village before Cu Chi, and the empty road stretched clear ahead of us.  As fast as the jeep would go (there is a governor on the carburetor) we sped along.  The warm evening air was beginning to cool slightly. As Cu Chi came into sight, I honked my horn and flashed my lights to signal them we were coming in.  The road was deserted, even though my watch gave us five more minutes.  Then I was close enough to see - the gates were shut!

I slowed down, my heart sinking, wondering how we were going to get inside.  As I pulled up to the gates, I saw they were not yet locked.  A GI stepped out, M-16 in hand, gave us the once-over and pulled one door open.   With a sigh of relief I thanked him, and the captain and I drove inside to the security of the big Division base.

 

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The Sidewalks Of New York:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Motor Pool Picture Copyright 1995 Peter Riker
Last modified: March 02, 1995