My Trip to Vietnam

I turned 17 years old in October 1965 and there was a conflict heating up half way around the globe in Southeast Asia.  I guess I had seen too many John Wayne movies or too many episodes of Combat on TV because all I knew was I wanted in on the action. All the talk back then was about the "domino theory" of communists taking over Southeast Asia. So I left school one day and went down to the draft board and volunteered my draft (enlisted for 2-years of service).  I was sworn in on December 5th and was quickly on my way to Fort Knox Kentucky for basic training.  After completing basic I went home for a week on leave and then on to Fort Bliss Texas for AIT (Advanced Individual Training) in the MOS of 13F10, automatic weapons crewman. We were taught the nomenclature and functions of the M42A1 twin 40mm "Duster" and the M55 "Quad 50" caliber machine gun mount. These two WWII and Korean War aged weapon systems were being sent to Vietnam to support the effort there.


After AIT the whole class was sent out to Orogrande New Mexico to become part of a recently reactivated (March 1, 1966) National Guard Unit, the 1st Bn. of the 44th Artillery that was training in the desert of White Sands Missile Range.  The Unit trained and gathered forces until September 1966 when we were directed to pack up all of our equipment onto trucks that were then loaded onto flatbed train cars.  I was given the assignment of POM detail (Prepare for Overseas Movement); our duties were to do all the packing for the unit.  In September I was part of the (AP) Advanced Party whose job it was to go aboard ship two days ahead of the unit and prepare the living quarters onboard the USNS General Hugh J. Gaffey.

It was late September when the rest of the 1st /44th got to San Francisco. They boarded the ship and we were on our way to Vietnam.Most of the troops went topside as we passed Alcatraz Island and all joined in singing "God Bless America" as we passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. The voyage will take a little more than a month with a brief two-day layover in Okinawa. Since I had completed two major details (POM&AP) I felt that I had already done my part, so when I was called to be given a work detail onboard ship I just made like I didn't hear the announcement over the ships PA speakers. I took the opportunity to explore every nook and cranny on the USNS Gaffey over the month long Ocean Cruise. Early on in the voyage someone advised me to keep something on my stomach to prevent seasickness so I ate a lot of saltine crackers and I didn't get sick once.

We arrived in Vietnam in late October at the coastal city of Qui Nhon (generally pronounced Quin-yon). Outside the port, we were given our M-14 rifles, ammo and helmets. Then we tossed our duffle bags over the side of the ship onto the landing craft utility boats (LCUs) tied there. It was then our turn, up and over the side, down the cargo nets and into the LCUs. Boy were we fired up! It was like D-Day at Normandy (without the Germans and bullets of course). When we get to shore, the front of the craft slams down into the surf and we rush out into infamy. We were met not with fierce enemy resistance, but by a couple of guys wearing white shirts. They directed us to a bunch of 2 -ton trucks. We gathered up our gear, boarded the trucks and away we went. Good Morning Vietnam! The Dusters have arrived!!

Within minutes we were traveling up a paved road through the tropical landscape. Nothing like the desert sands of New Mexico where we trained. As we rounded a curve, what pops out of the Jungle but a big ol' red and yellow Shell Gas Station sign. Talk about surreal. Totally unexpected. Then again, we are on the other side of the world. After a few more twists and turns of the road we arrive at a small hamlet (Camp Hammond near Phu Cat) run by the 1st Air Cavalry, we set up camp in our pup tents and wait for our orders. There were choppers coming and going the whole time we were there. It turned out that we were originally supposed to be deployed right there in II-Corp but at the last minute we are assigned to the 3rd Marine Division. They were located in I-Corp, the uppermost part of South Vietnam, and separated from North Vietnam by the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). We pack up our gear and fly up north to the city of Da Nang. While we were waiting for our tracks (Dusters) to arrive we pitched our pup tents in the sand again. Not the white sands of New Mexico, but the sands of what was then called Red Beach. It was there that I got to see my first VC while in Da Nang, The Marines had shot him and propped him up in the back of a 2 -ton truck then paraded him around the base all day.  I still can't figure what that was all about but Marines were always a bit odd.

Our tracks finally arrived by ship and were unloaded covered with cosmoline (a preservative). We cleaned them up; test fired the twin-40mm cannons and loaded them and all our gear onto Navy LCU's for our trip in the China Sea (Gulf of Tonkin) along the coast up to Dong Ha. The day we started out the weather was pretty bad. We would go 5 feet forward and the waves would push the flat-bottomed LCU's 3 feet back. At this rate it was decided we would go back into port. After three days of trying, we finally get underway. Meanwhile Sgt. Robbins our "less than lovable" Platoon Sgt. was laid out on a pallet on the LCU's deck covered with his poncho. The whole time he was white as a ghost and sick as a dog. What a grin! We had been living off C-rations for three days now but the Navy LCU crew always got two hot meals a day. I was able to make friends with them and their cook would prepare some extra food. I would mooch a hot meal from them and go out on the deck and eat it in front of the sick sergeant, just to taunt his ass. My revelry was short lived because after the trip he never did like me much and I paid for it with extra K.P., shit burning, guard duty, slow promotions, etc.

When we got to Dong Ha there was nothing there but bare ground. We pitched our 16-man tents and started filling sand bags and stringing barbed wire. I got stuck with two short guys on barbed wire duty. With me being over 6-ft tall, I got the sledgehammer. I swear I drove in every post on the SW perimeter of the base.

Once we were squared away at the HQ area it was time to start building our perimeter track positions. Our spot was at the Route 9 Gate at Dong Ha. The Seabees came with a bulldozer and cut out a spot for our track and we started building our bunker.

The next morning a -ton truck pulls up in front of our position. Six Vietnamese get out of the back and started unloading shovels and wooden ammo crates. Come to find out our bunker was located atop a local burial ground. So for the next week or so as we filled and stacked sandbags we watched them dig up skulls, bones and loose body parts and put them into the crates.

What an interesting omen to start one's Trip To Vietnam!

- Paul Gronski

Next: Building the McNamara Line