Chapter Eleven

Being a much smaller base, security and duty sections in Nha Be were set up differently then in Da Nang. We had “port & starboard” duty, which meant you had duty one day, then no duty the next day. That applied only to standing watches; normal work shifts went on as usual. Weekends were divided. You worked half a Saturday one weekend, then all day Sunday. The next weekend you worked all day Saturday but had all of Sunday off. When you were off on a weekend day you were free to go out onto the strip just outside the gate that evening, or catch a bus (or hitchhike) into Saigon for the day. During the week, on your off duty days, you could go out to the strip in the evenings. The days you had duty, you usually had to stand a watch on the parameter and you were not allowed to leave the base.

Bill and I went exploring in Saigon the first free weekend (day) we had. Our main goal was to locate the military facilities in the city that we were allowed to use, and to find a nice restaurant where we could have a non-military meal for the first time in a long time. There were a couple “off limits” areas in town (due to VC and black market activity), but most of the city was open to us. Things went fine that first visit until I got stopped by the Navy Shore Patrol for carrying my knife. In Da Nang, we all carried knives, as mentioned earlier, and I had never given it a thought. In Saigon that was a no-no. The Shore Patrol guy seemed determined to take me into custody at first, but eventually believed my story – that we had just arrived in Saigon from Da Nang and didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. I’ve got to give Bill credit for saving my hide that time, he was a much faster and smoother talker then I was/am! Maybe it’s about time I included a photo of that notorious knife:

This is an Air Force Survival Knife (I know what you’re thinking – don’t ask), the real thing, not the cheap, gimmick loaded imitations that have been sold since then to the general public. I brought it home with me and used it as my hunting knife until I gave up deer hunting. It now holds an honored position in my closet. It is razor sharp, thanks to a local master knife sharpener who is no longer with us. One of the Korean reefer mechanics at Da Nang taught me how to throw it and I got fairly good at that, as long as my target was exactly 10 feet away.

Nha Be had a small full time security force, their personal stood watches in a couple key positions and at the main gate during the day. They also had a powerboat, which constantly patrolled the sides of the base that faced the river, dropping large concussion devices at random (they were much bigger then the concussion grenades we got to use). The idea was to kill any VC “swimmers” who might be attempting to plant explosives on any of the boats tied up at the piers. In the photo below, you can see the boat exiting to the right and the splash from the concussion device going off a ways behind it.

The river patrols were not just for looks. In the photo below you can see the remains of a ship (center, beyond all the other stuff), which had been mined by the VC a few years earlier. Its story is told on the website I referred to at the beginning of the Nha Be section.

I was originally assigned to a watch position on the village side of our base, where the view wasn’t so great, especially when the local residents came out to go potty. The things on stilts were their outhouses. The tides did the flushing – this shot was taken at low tide.

After only a few days I was moved to a station on the river (the wide branch which went off to the west). The watch station was known as Two Foxtrot (2F) and looked like this:

It was equipped with a 30 cal. machine gun (with extra ammo), a radio, a starlight scope (to see in the dark), 1 fragmentation grenade, 5 concussion grenades and a number of pop flares. There was also a .50 cal. machine gun mounted in a gun tub just to the left of this photo. That was for a full-scale attack on the base, which would result in a General Quarters alert and was to be manned by Gunners Mates (trained Navy gunners). We (2 men per watch station) also brought along our rifles. The watch rotation went like this. On the first day of the rotation, I would get the 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm watch. It was supposed to be 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm but my Chief got that changed when I started having to make two truck runs per day. On the second day of the rotation I’d get the 8:00 pm to midnight watch. The third day rotation meant the dreaded Mid-Watch; midnight to 4:00 am. The forth day of the rotation was the 4:00 am to 8:00 am watch, but that was also shortened for me because of my truck route. After that it just depended on how many people were available. If the base were shorthanded, I’d start back from the beginning. If we had extra people, I might get a “by”, meaning no watch, or a “standby”, meaning I’d have to fill in for anyone who couldn’t stand their watch.

One man was supposed to patrol the area between us and the next watch station but we all knew how foolish that was, so we didn’t – it’s harder to cut two people’s throats then one. If attacked, we were supposed to change to an emergency radio frequency and ask “Moon River” for permission to return fire. Yah, right! I always worked out an arrangement with my partner that one of us would get on the radio while the other returned fire. And returning fire had to be thought out, too – our machine gun ammo belts contained tracer rounds, which would show the bad guys right where we were.

We popped flares on a regular basis to get a better look at what was moving on the river; the starlight scopes didn’t always work too well. I also made it a habit to throw one concussion grenade per watch into the river, at a random time, just to catch any swimmers who might be sneaking in. So while I never knowingly killed any VC while I was in Viet Nam, it’s possible that I may have without ever realizing it. Anyway, that did lead to one interesting adventure. On the night in question, it was pitch black (no moon or starlight) and you couldn’t see more then a few feet in front of you. There were some old barges beached in front of us, so I’d usually walk all the way out on one and throw the grenade as far as I could, out into the river. On this night we happened to be having the lowest tide of the year but you couldn’t tell that because it was too dark. I went out on the end of the barge, threw my grenade – and instead of hearing a splash, heard the sound of the grenade landing in the mud. Panic time! I took off running back up the barge towards the beach as fast as I could in that darkness. When the grenade went off, it sounded like an atom bomb. I thought sure someone would trigger a General Quarters alert but we managed to get on the radio and explain what happened before they did that. Didn’t get into trouble, either.

Concussion grenades were all “boom” but the fragmentation grenades (frags) did just that, they blasted out killing fragments. There was no valid reason for throwing one of those into the river, so we didn’t mess with them. One night some guy was drunk or high on watch (on a different station) and did throw his, which showed up the next morning when the inventory was taken. That got him in a LOT of trouble and resulted in a ban being put on us throwing any grenades. Pretty much the same thing happened with the pop flares - new guys started getting crazy with them and before long you had to radio in and ask permission before you could pop a flare.

Standing the watches could actually be relaxing sometimes. On a quiet moonlit night, the river was beyond beautiful. But when it rained, it was miserable. Two Foxtrot had a roof but no upper sidewalls, so any wind blew the rain right through.

The Vietnamese had access to fireworks and it seemed like they were often celebrating some national or local holiday with them. One night we saw what looked like fireworks a mile or two down river, so one of the stations called in and asked what the holiday was. The reply was that it was not a holiday; the fireworks were the real things. Some of our PBR’s (Patrol Boat River) had been ambushed and had called in an air strike. What we were seeing was the trails of the tracers and rockets fired from the choppers, and the ricochets bouncing off the water and going back up. So there we were on the beautiful moonlit night, and people were dying just a few miles from us. What was worse was that we couldn’t do anything to help.

Directly behind my post, between it and our new warehouse, was a large chopper pad. It often got noisy and dusty, but watching the choppers go in and out was a nice break from the boredom of watching the dirty river water flow by.

The choppers were required to “air taxi” along the pad until they were in a take off position.

We lost one guy in a chopper accident while I was at Nha Be. He was an officer and the chopper he was riding in got a load of bad fuel – it’s engines quit just after it cleared the runway. It went down in the river, just out from the long pier. Everyone got out ok, but apparently the officer couldn’t swim very well and started struggling. When a crewman tried to help him, the officer fought the guy off. So he drowned.

While you are viewing the photo above, make note of the small pier on the left edge of the photo. I lost part of the hearing in my left ear there.

The base Master-at-Arms, who is kind of like the sheriff for the base and was on his third tour of duty in Viet Nam, decided that a lot of people on the base had weapons but he wasn’t sure how many of them worked. So he set up this thing where a portion of the base population would go out on that pier once a month and fire a clip of ammunition through their weapons. Then the owners would have to clean them and have them inspected. It was all based on the alphabet, with the A’s through the D’s going out the first time. Not a bad idea, but he messed up a bit. First, he ended up with so many guys on that pier that we had to stand shoulder to shoulder - much too close together. Second, he forgot to provide any hearing protection for us. Bill was to my left, with his M-16, and he knew how to use that baby! When the order to fire came, he emptied his clip before I even got two shots off - probably because my M-14 jammed after 2 shots. But the real problem was the hot brass hitting me in the side of the head, the hot gunpowder burning the side of my face and the noise. When the firing stopped, I could not hear a single thing. My ears rang for at least two weeks afterwards and when, some years later, General Motors started their yearly hearing check program, the first thing they noticed was a sizable hearing loss in my left ear – much too late to claim any kind of disability, even if there was some way to prove it happened in Nha Be. Oh well. The next time we shot, there were about half as many people on the pier and we all managed to figure out some kind of hearing protection.

I drove forklifts a bit in Nha Be but usually just to load and unload my truck. I also helped steal one once, sort of. We had a fork lift truck that had broken down and we couldn’t get any parts for it. We even made a special (legal) trip into an off-limits part of Saigon to get parts but still no luck (but I got some good photos). So one Sunday my supply officer instructed me to get my truck, we were going into Saigon, to Newport. When we got there, he directed me to a part of the complex I had never been to before, where a bunch of wrecked forklifts were sitting. He pointed out a forklift and told me to load it onto my truck. I had to “borrow” a working forklift to do that. Normally anything that big and heavy would have been chained down, but he didn’t want to wait for that, he had me just band it down. As we were approaching the gate to leave, he told me NOT to offer to show paperwork unless I was forced to – and you do what your officers tell you. So when the gate guards stopped us, I just sat there and looked at him. He asked to see our paperwork. When I didn’t immediately offer him any, he said, “Oh, forget it – who would ever try to steal a forklift” and he let us through.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The first time I had to stop, the bands broke and the forklift tried to crash through the back of the cab into the seat with us. Fortunately I had loaded the forklift with the forks facing the back and not the front:

The forklift crunched the wood barrier, broke the back window of the cab, but didn’t go any farther. My brave supply officer rode the rest of the way back to Nha Be with his door open so he could jump if he needed to. As for me, he didn’t seem to care – I guess I had just joined the ranks of the “expendable”.

By the way, it may appear at times that I pick on officers. That is not the case. Each incident in this document is based on things I actually experienced. If I’m repeating something I heard, I make that clear.

One last thing before I close out this chapter. I mentioned in the Da Nang section that I drove a Trojan forklift truck in Nha Be. It happened like this – I had picked up an emergency load of explosives (concussion devices, grenades, ammunition, etc.) at Newport and transported them back to Nha Be (I didn’t know I was going to be doing that until I got to Newport). This was NOT normal - I didn’t usually haul that kind of stuff. There was a boat at the docks in Nha Be, waiting to take that stuff to Sea Float and they needed it NOW. So I hotfooted it back to Nha Be and was directed to take my load straight to the docks by the gate guards. The boat was there, I was there, but a driver to load the stuff on the boat was not to be found. Nor was whatever it was that they usually used to do that kind of loading. There was a Trojan sitting in front of the repair facility and I mentioned that I was licensed to drive one, so they told me to have at it. I got the Trojan started and began to unload my truck, then discovered why it was where it was. It had a flat front tire. The tire sidewalls were stiff enough to keep the tire looking right without a load on the forks, but when I picked something up, the front end bounced like a rubber ball - and it just kept bouncing and bouncing and bouncing…. But you do what you have to do to get the job done! I managed to get all the stuff off my truck and onto the boat at least part way, far enough that the boat guys could finish moving it to where it was supposed to be.

Sea Float was saved from the evil VC and all was well in the world. Storekeepers Rule!!! Ok, so this paragraph is exaggerated a bit, but I had to do that at least once.

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