Monday, June 14, 2010

Vietnam 1964 - Part V

My after-hours scheduled watch assignment was on the Khanh Hoi Port Security Patrol that in the first three months meant a once per week roving patrol in the port. Around Thanksgiving we began to see a lot more U. S. Army personnel, 1st Calvary and 1st Infantry advance ready teams stopping by to discuss logistics through the port, in their starched and ironed green fatigues, polished and neat - all squared away, and most were not carrying weapons. Before my year was over, I would see Army personnel straight from the battle fields in unkempt jungle camouflage uniforms, green t-shirts and flack jackets, and carrying their weapons in Saigon, even in the bars. I didn't blame them, but the difference was significant. The port began to receive a lot more army field equipment marked for specific Army Divisions, such as 2-1/2 and 5 ton trucks, armed troop carriers, tanks, jeeps, artillery, mobile office trailers, tons of c-rations and tents and a lot of lumber. The word that came down to me was that the port was becoming a more important target to the Vietcong and we needed to increase surveillance. So, junior enlisted like me went from one in seven days on watch to once every three days. Senior enlisted, E-5 and above (I was an E-3), and officers were on a different, less frequent rotation. We were to be particularly alert to any unusual activity on the Saigon River, such as sampan activity at night or swimmers that might be crossing it. I seem to remember that South Vietnamese Army guards were stationed along the river bank in the port as extra protection against any attack from across the river. But, as it turned out, we wouldn't have to worry about that until around May or June 1965. Until then, the big problem was theft. I remember hearing in my first month that the port was losing around $4 million a month to theft. I don't remember hearing that our increased patrols decreased our losses. The increase in cargo, especially c-rations and lumber that were hot items for thieves, may have had the opposite effect, increasing the losses.

So, every third day I would muster at the port armory, get my M-2 Carbine, a walkie-talkie and my assigned jeep and usually be paired up with a senior enlisted or, less frequently, the Watch Commander, an Ensign or Lieutenant Junior Grade junior officer or a Chief. I came to learn that one Ensign, only a few years older than I,  and one senior enlisted would make the night a long and miserable night if I were unlucky enough to be assigned with them. The officer, whose name I don't recall, seemed to think he needed to micromanage every little thing the patrols did, from securing the port to entering warehouses and compounds. If we met him on patrol, someone would likely say, "Oh shit. Get ready for John Wayne," which meant that we could bet on being ordered to take unnecessary risks, such as entering a compound or building in darkness without backup, playing like strike troops in the movies or moving stacks of pallets or conex boxes (predecessor of today's cargo containers) with a forklift at midnight, which, as you will see below, was a stupid idea and a duplication of work that had already been done.

The single senior enlisted that I dreaded to be assigned with was Army Spec-Five Siefert who worked with me at the Field Support Unit (FSU). He had been in the Army around twenty-five years and was a World War II vet of the Normandy invasion and in European campaigns and Korean War. His war experience had made him a personal wreck. He was an alcoholic and I don't believe he was completely sober for a single minute over the entire time I knew him, although he was better during the days than nights. He worked hard during the day. But, I remember a number of times in late evening or night when I or Seaman Harms, another FSU coworker, found him too drunk in some bar or staggering on the street to make it to his hotel and we helped him to his hotel where he either passed out or cried himself to sleep. Everyone felt sorry for him and LT Thomas sent him for evaluation a number of times hoping that he would be sent back to the U.S. for treatment or discharge, but he always returned. I think the idea of being sent to the States or being discharged from the Army terrified him. "What would I do?" he frequently asked when he was drunk. And, he was right. His behavior wouldn't have been tolerated in a regimented Army Unit in the States. 

On patrol, everyone knew the signs. Usually before dark, his hands began to tremble and he began rubbing them together. He would make an excuse to go "check something out," a warehouse or compound, and disappear around a corner. He would return a few minutes later saying "everything is okay," but his hands were not shaking anymore. Nobody was fooled. He could drink whiskey like water and everyone knew that he carried a large flask and he could empty it in one large gulp. I never knew how the night's patrol would go with him. He might doze in the seat nearly the entire night and I would have to do everything myself, or he may threaten to shoot every shadow or he may be the best, level headed partner I could ask for. It was a crap shoot. On his good days, he was better than any sailor on patrol because of his Army training and experience. He knew how to enter a dark warehouse with the least risk to us and I learned a lot from him on his good days.

Today, Google map shows that the city has grown across the river, but in 1964 the other side of the river was all jungle and trees lined that side of the river. It also shows a lot more warehouses in the port than there were in 1964. There were more open areas in the port in 1964-65. There was no creepier place at night in Saigon than the Khanh Hoi Port. An area where a night crew might be working unloading a ship was brightly lit using the ship's lights, gasoline powered generators and tall portable and powerful lights on thirty foot towers on trailers on the dock and, of course, the headlights of forklifts and dock mules. But the rest of the port was unlit or lit by a single dim light bulb on the side of an occasional building, which only seemed to darken the shadows around the lit area. What made the port even more creepier was that we drove the darkest parts at idle speed, behind and between the warehouses, walled compounds and stacked cargo containers and pallets with our lights off as much as possible. We were looking for anything moving in the darkness. We weren't going to find anything by making a lot of noise with our lights on, and lights caused night blindness. While that made sense, it didn't make it any less spooky. Our orders were to stop at random points and times along the route and sit quietly for ten or fifteen minutes and watch and listen for unusual activity. That extended the time to drive a route to around thirty minutes.

Our routes overlapped with other patrols. I remember a number of times we would suddenly catch movement or a lit cigarette or glint of something in the shadows some distance away, pause to watch a few minutes, call in a possible sighting and get ready to go investigate only to discover that we were watching another security patrol. It took a while to calm our nerves after all alerts, whether we had alerted on our own patrols or not. Just as many times I answered radio calls that indicated a patrol had alerted on my location. Alerts usually went something like, "This is patrol #1. We have movement on the north-west corner of the lumber yard. Over." And, if I'm sitting at that location, I'd respond, "This is patrol #3. We are at the north-west corner of the lumber yard. We see no movement. Respond." After my GQ radio experience, I was always happy and a little surprised when my radio worked, that I actually heard something over it, and I hoped that Patrol 1 got the message. We also hoped that Patrol 1 didn't include John Wayne Watch Commander and, if it did, that he had enough sense not to rush our position, scaring the crap out of us or worse, before he knew what he was getting into. We flashed our headlights if we didn't hear a response quick enough to sooth our nerves. The patrol was required to confirm, for example, "This is patrol #1. Movement confirmed. We need backup. Out." If we were close by and we heard a confirmed alert or we heard "all patrols backup" we drove to the location to backup the patrol calling in the alert. 

The first thing we did before darkness was secure our areas by eliminating as many hiding places, dark shadows and trip hazards as possible. That usually meant cleaning up after the day shift by stacking any loose wooden pallets that could be both hiding places and trip hazards if we needed to run in the dark. We made sure warehouses and compound gates were locked. And we made sure all cargo containers were positioned so that the doors were not accessible by making sure they were butted up against other containers or a wall. That was the general rule for storing containers in the port's container yards; closely stacked, three or four high and doors inaccessible, whether they were empty or full. Every patrol, at one time or another, found a Vietnamese hiding in an unlatched container. They hadn't been hiding for long. The containers were usually too hot inside to hide in during the day.

Usually, we took care of the containers ourselves. We didn't trust Vietnamese laborers to secure them. If we found one unlatched or with a broken seal, we had to investigate it to make sure nobody was inside, report broken seals and move it if we could. I, as the junior guy, inspected the doors while my senior partner stood back watching, both with our weapons ready. If the doors were latched closed and could not be opened from the inside, I used a forklift to butt them against something to block entry. If the doors were not latched and could be opened from the inside, I would swing the doors open with one hand, my carbine pointed with the other and step to the side so I could see inside without standing directly in the door. Most of the time nobody was hiding in them. But, tension soared when there was. I would point my carbine in the general direction of the hideaway and shout, "Oi! Do-Mah! Dee-dee mou!" using my limited Vietnamese, which translated to "Hey! Whale Shit! Quickly!" Do-Mah is the abbreviated and more derogatory version of Do-Mammy (spelled phonetically), the only curse word in the Vietnamese language. It means everything from the lowest deposit on Earth, i.e., whale shit, to general frustration. I intended it to mean the worst. They came out slowly, usually blabbing and babbling and watching my rifle, and we forced them to the ground, spread eagle, and radioed Command to send the Vietnamese police. I don't recall hearing that a patrol shot a hideaway, but it was only because they gave up easily. On one occasion a Vietnamese had squeezed into a full container of c-rations through an eight to ten inch gap on top of the boxes and became trapped and couldn't get out. He probably intended to pass as many cases of rations as he could over the wall that night. We had to get warehouse workers to unload the container to get him out. Since nothing appeared to be missing and I gave no thought to that gap, I was latching the door when he started yelling. He's lucky he yelled. The Army may have found a skeleton by the time they needed the c-rations inside and there's no telling when that would be. He would have died the next day from the heat inside of that closed container. Word also got around that a patrol killed a Vietnamese that was hiding in a container when they didn't investigate or secure the doors before repositioning it. He attempted to escape as the container was being shoved up against another one and he was crushed between the two containers. I don't recall hearing of anyone finding a dead hideaway when a container was eventually opened, but I wouldn't doubt that it happened. It was important to follow procedures and always investigate containers.

There was nothing we could do to secure the Army vehicles, parked end-to-end in rows in the open areas. All we could do was to make a mental note on how many were there and how they were parked so, when we came by later, we may be able to tell if any were missing. I don't recall hearing that any were stolen, although all that was needed was a little gasoline and a battery (my memory could be wrong, but I think the batteries were stored in a warehouse close by) to drive them away. They did not need ignition keys. (I doubted my own memory about the keys, so I sent a message to Jerry asking him what he remembered. He in turn called his friend Skip. Skip's response was, "if they had keys, we'd never get anything done. Everyone would be losing them." That confirmed my memory, too.) Those vehicles were perfect hiding places in darkness. If we had a yard full of jeeps, we parked our jeep at the end of a short row as if it belonged there and watched and listened. There were several times when we were rewarded for doing that.

But, the lumber yard topped the list, it seemed to me, of the Watch Commander's special watch items. I don't remember a time when the Watch Commander didn't ask at the start of the watch, "who has the lumber yard?" Someone would say, "we do," and they would be briefed on the lumber yard no matter how many times they had already heard it; stop by more frequent, stay quiet longer, walk to the gate and look for movement in the yard. The lumber yard compound, perhaps one-half the size of a football field with concrete walls all around, had a common wall with the outside boulevard and I seemed to remember that street-side wall having razor wire along the top of it, as well as the embedded glass that most perimeter walls had in Saigon. But, it seemed to me that lumber always turned up missing in spite of everyone's efforts. One night we discovered one method used to steal it.

On that night the lumber yard was full of banded, bundles of lumber stacked four and sometimes five high in rows. There was enough room to drive a small portable crane or forklift between every two rows. We received a call to all patrols for backup because of a loud noise in the yard, reported as sounding like one or more bundles falling, a little after midnight and we met the other patrols at the yard's gate. One man was left to guard the gate and the rest of us, with a flashlight and rifle, started walking between the rows of lumber to the other end. It was spooky. I didn't know where too shine my light first or where whoever was there, if anyone, would come from; the top of the bundles above me, the gap in the row every few bundles about the width of a man, or behind me, thinking that I'd passed him. But, I made it to the end and found out what had caused the noise. About two rows from me, I saw a man's legs, from waist down, sticking out from the middle of a pile of lumber and the top bundles had fallen into the vehicle lane. He had been crushed by the weight of the lumber. A few others were there before me and one was sick, vomiting. As I got closer, I took one look and couldn't look again. It was a gruesome sight. We also found a good sized hole in the wall to the outside street, behind brush that had grown up along the wall, that was used to steal the lumber. The Watch Commander called for help and stayed with a few other men to supervise the clean up and we went back to our patrols.

I learned a few days later that the Vietnamese was an employee of the lumber yard and he had been removing the boards from the middle of the bundle, weakening the support for the top bundles, and passing them through the hole in the wall. Apparently he was prying another board lose when the bundles above caved in on him. I recall that all of us gave a collective "No shit, Sherlock!" when we heard the story. I guess the money he was making caused his brain to malfunction and greed to take over. A week or so later, our Vietnamese warehouse foreman, Mister Lau (he even introduced himself as "Mister" Lau - he was arrogant), didn't show up for work and never returned after that. I was told that the U. S. Army Criminal Investigation Division had investigated the lumber theft and they had arrested him and a number of Vietnamese port foremen and managers who were building new homes or adding on to their current homes or were involved in selling the lumber. I also heard that Mister Lau had a pretty nice home, but I never saw it.

A few months later, perhaps in March 1965, my watch rotation was relaxed, as I recall, to once a week again, partly because the Army was taking their equipment out faster for new Army camps north of Saigon, and because more personnel were arriving and there were more of us for the watch bill. America was getting into the war in a bigger way. I was eventually taken off the watch bill entirely in late April 1965 when I was assigned to the Beer and Pop Warehouse, just a ten minute walk up the river from the FSU. That was okay with me. There was never a dull moment on patrol, even when nothing happened, and frankly I'd lost interest in the excitement in the first few weeks.


1 comment:

Dan said...

I don't know how you did it...I guess you just did. I was nervous just 'hearing' the story 45 years later...let alone 'being there'!