Before going out to the field for the first time, I had only spent a few days at the Tuy Hoa Army airbase. I didn’t have a chance to check it out much while I was there. But I knew that they had at least some running water. It felt great to be able to take a shower. And even though the latrine facilities contained nothing more than crude wooden benches with holes cut in them and catch barrels underneath, it was still better than digging a hole in the jungle ground.
It didn’t take long to discover that the airbase had an EM club with lots of beer and even had pool tables. Surprisingly, they also had a gym and a library too. The base had lots of planes and choppers and all of the pilots and support personnel that go along with that part of the Army. Those guys had it pretty nice there, and now we did too. Our job was to guard and protect the base. We had barracks with bunk beds to sleep in, but we only used then during the daytime because we always pulled guard duty or ambush at night. When on guard duty, we took turns sleeping in a tall guard tower or on the ground inside a sandbag bunker. When we were out on nighttime ambush patrol, we took turns sleeping in the rice paddies located outside of the base. During the day, I often worked out at the gym, drank beer, or played cards with the guys. We usually played spades except once a month on payday when there were a lot of blackjack games going on. They paid us in the Army’s version of cash, Military Payment Certificates (MPC). I did pretty well at blackjack, and one time, I remember winning nearly a whole month’s pay. I almost always quit when I was ahead, but I also saw guys lose their entire month’s pay in one day. I would rather spend it at the PX or the club.
We weren’t back at the base very long before the First Sergeant told us that he was expecting and waiting for orders to go back out into the field, except this time we may be going to Cambodia. I didn’t know much about Cambodia other than I knew that it wasn’t a safe place and wasn’t where I wanted to be.
It was also around this time that a guy from California named Jarvis arrived at our unit. Jarvis was a congenial mild-mannered interesting looking guy. With his John Lennon style wire-rimmed glasses, my first impression of him was, “I bet he was a hippie before being drafted.” But maybe not, because unlike the few hippies that I saw back home, he was relatively muscular and looked to be fit and in good shape. And who else but Jarvis would smoke a Sherlock Holmes-style pipe? At first, I thought he was a new guy, but I soon learned that he had been away on a funeral leave back in “the world.” Jarvis was away for my entire first month in the unit as he had applied for permanent leave to remain at home due to a death in his family. Obviously, and unfortunately, that didn’t work out for him. From the time he arrived back, Jarvis and I were almost always assigned guard duty together. We spent many many nights together out there on the perimeter, usually in one of the guard towers. Soon we became the best of friends and also spent all of our days off together on the base. At night Jarvis and I would sit up and talk for hours about everything and anything, especially about all of the things that we missed from back home. Later during the night, we would take turns sleeping on the tower floor. We almost always guarded the beach area or the perimeter next to the village.
Kuhn, ready to go out on guard duty or ambush patrol. Notice the guys loading up onto the Deuce and a Half.
Every once in a while, maybe once a month, I would get daytime guard duty. That was quite different in that there was only one man per guard tower during the day. The shift was still 12 hours long, though, except there was nobody to talk to, so it was like solitary confinement in a six-foot by six-foot tower, and boring. Always in search of something to keep me entertained, I decided to do some target practicing with my M-16. On the hot sunny days, there were plenty of easy targets roaming around in the warm sand, all different sized lizard type iguanas. Out of boredom, I’d shoot some of the bigger creatures, which were up to 2 feet long with tails that extended another two feet. I ended up getting into trouble for that. One of the sergeants told me that the guys who pulled guard duty the following days were complaining about the stench. So, he said that I either had to stop shooting the iguanas or throw their carcasses over the concertina wire, away from the guard towers. Well, I wasn’t about to touch those things, so I stopped killing them.
On another boredom guard day, I watched as a Vietnamese sampan came drifting down the shoreline. I assumed it was just a civilian fishing boat, because what VC would be crazy enough to approach the guarded beach in broad daylight? But still, I wasn’t positive, and I didn’t want the boat to come anywhere near my AO. So, when they got too close for comfort, I decided to shoot my M-79 grenade launcher, aiming a grenade near them to warn them off. They seemed unfazed and kept coming closer. So, I lobbed two more high explosive (H.E.) rounds near them, but still, they seemed to ignore my warning shots. I began to wonder if the explosions in the water may be stunning or killing fish for them to gather up. But I wanted them out of my area, so I decided to see how close I could land a grenade without sinking the boat. The H.E. rounds were landing accurately, and I was confident that I could easily hit the sampan if necessary. They quickly got the message that I wasn’t playing games with them as they rapidly navigated down the coast, farther away from shore.
My M-79 Grenade Launcher on the guard tower bench overlooking the South China sea. Notice the claymore clackers behind my helmet.
Once a week or so, we were taken off of guard duty to go out on night-time ambush patrols into the rice paddies. You can set up an ambush anywhere, but it was usually alongside a road or a trail, or a rice paddy dike or even a river, anyplace where there might be enemy movement. The idea is to hide and surprise. Find a place of concealment, wait for the enemy to enter your kill zone, and then with the element of surprise, open fire with all the firepower you have, to kill them all before they have time to react. Deterrence was another goal of ambushes. The enemy knows we were out there somewhere, but not sure exactly where so that tends to deter them from moving around at night.
In our case, a squad of guys would load up onto the back of a deuce and a half truck, and we were driven to a location off base and dropped off along the side of the road, usually about an hour before nightfall. A squad is supposed to consist of 10 men, but we were lucky if we had 7 or 8 because replacements were scarce. I always found it odd that the Vietnamese on their little motorbikes would fearlessly ride up to a fully armed infantry squad resting on the side of the road and attempt to sell trinkets, or beads, or jewelry, or a can of Coca Cola, (where did they get that from?) or just about anything, while we waited for dusk before moving out. At first, it was scary being outside the wire with a small squad of guys, but once I got used to it, I didn’t mind ambushes too much, but that was only because the nights were usually uneventful.
Just before dark, we would move out into the rice paddies walking on the dikes to stay dry. We walked until we were close to the area that we were supposed to set up in, and then when it was completely dark, we would move to the left or right in the darkness until we felt comfortable that nobody knew our exact position. We would remain there quietly hidden in the dark all night long. There was no talking or making any noise at all that might give away our location, and those who smoked cigarettes, as most of us did, had to cover up with a poncho while lighting up. That was when I considered that maybe I should quit smoking. The smoke-filled poncho was terrible smelling, and I realized how stupid it was to be risking my life to light up a stinking cigarette at night. Snoring was also always a problem that I had on ambush as well as out in the boonies. The guys would keep waking me up or poke me or nudge me to roll over to stop the loud snoring. Technically on ambush, we were all supposed to stay awake all night, but we each took a one-hour shift to watch while the others slept, so that was the best night of sleep that any of us ever had.
One night on the way out to set up an ambush, just before dark, we detained a suspicious-looking civilian that looked out of place. He was a young man of our age. It was extremely unusual to see any men around a village, except for the old papa-sans. The men were all supposed to be serving in the South Vietnamese military. The Sarge seemed to know a few Vietnamese words, but I don’t think they were communicating very well. That guy looked tough. He looked hardened and looked like he didn’t belong with the rest of the villagers, but he was unarmed and had been walking along with them.
The sarge wanted to hold him till morning and then take him back to base with us. The problem with that was, if we detained him overnight, we would have to sit up all night and guard him. I couldn’t believe it when the guys started debating about whether we should just shoot him or not! We had no idea who this guy was, and they were talking about killing him so that we could get a good night’s sleep. In my mind, most of these guys were the old Vets, and I was the new guy, so I kept my mouth shut and hoped that they came to their senses. Eventually, the sarge decided that the simplest solution was to let the guy go. I didn’t agree with that decision, but who was I to challenge a sergeant? It was better than shooting him, I guess. Killing an unarmed civilian (if he was a civilian) could have been a problem. I prayed that we hadn’t let a VC walk away that night. The whole incident was bazaar, and the handling of that situation still bothers me today.
While at Tuy Hoa, things were quiet, and there was minimal action. Just like Cam Ranh Bay, the days and nights dragged on slowly as the weeks passed by slowly. We pulled guard duty night after night after night, taking turns guarding and sleeping in two-hour shifts. As time passed slowly, the boredom and homesickness set in heavily. I missed my family and friends, and especially missed Diane more and more as time went on. I thought about her all of the time, holding onto memories of all of our good times together. Wanting to go home, but that was still a long way off.
One day we were called out of the barracks into a formation of sorts. The C.O. wanted to talk to us. I thought to myself that this must be it; we were going to Cambodia soon. But the Captain quickly confirmed that the Battalion had canceled those orders. He stated that entire units were standing down now and rotating back to the world. Shortly our 22nd Infantry unit would be the only infantry division left in the whole 2nd military region (MR II). The battalion commander wants quick response teams (QRT) established and trained. If any hostile enemy activity were to take place anywhere in MR II, we would be the ones responding when called upon for help. All of the squads were to be trained and ready to go on short notice, and every squad was to have a machine gunner. The next thing I knew, Mack (my roommate now) and I were out on a firing range, brushing up on our M-60 skills. It was the first time I had fired the machine gun since AIT training, and now they wanted me to carry it as part of a QRT team. Mack wanted to be a gunner, but I wasn’t thrilled with the idea at all. The M-60 and the ammo were a lot heavier than the M-16. I didn’t understand why they picked me for that!
Me and Mack firing the M-60 Machine Gun
Soon the day came when the sergeants came running into our barracks and were yelling for us to quickly grab our gear and go straight to the chopper pads on the double. Before we even arrived, the choppers were warming up. I was carrying the M-60 and was wondering if this was a drill. They said that some other unit had been ambushed and pinned down somewhere. We were to fly in and break it up. They were going to drop us into a hot LZ! The C.O. had ordered the 3rd platoon to go first. The platoon Sgt decided that we would draw straws to choose what squad would go on the first chopper. The four squad leaders drew straws, and my squad lost. I knew that since I was carrying the 60, this meant that I would be the first one on the ground.
As we were standing around waiting for orders to load up, the blades of the chopper were rotating and ready to go. I could feel the pounding in my chest, not only from the thumping of the chopper blades but also from the adrenaline induced thumping of my heart. The C.O. was on the radio. I was scared and having a major internal conflict, struggling with a decision. Was I going to do this or not? If I refused to go, this would be the most serious of all orders to disobey, way worse than when I went AWOL. I felt sure that if I had to go first, the probability of getting shot that day was pretty high. It was one thing to instinctively react to sudden enemy contact while out in the bush when there was no time to think about it, but this was different. I was standing there, contemplating what was about to happen, and I was debating with myself about going through with it or not. My heart was pounding; the adrenalin and fear were real. Deep down, I knew I had no choice; I had to follow orders or face severe consequences. In the end, the deciding factor was this: If I were in trouble and pinned down out there somewhere, I would count on somebody to come and save my ass! The internal conflict ended. There was no more debating. I knew I had to get on that chopper and face whatever fate awaited and hope for the best.
The next thing I remember was the sound of the helicopters winding down, shutting down. The Captain put down his radio and yelled out: “The cobras got ’em; we don’t have to go.” Whew! Saying that I was relieved would be a wild understatement. I was just glad that my pants were still dry! Thank God for cobra gunships!
Cobra Gunship flying in.