South Vietnam, May, 1968.
Lieutenant Tink Haney of Tanner landed at Tan Son Nhut Airbase outside Saigon and deplaned. It was hot and humid. The new crop of “green seeds” were herded aboard an olive drab colored military bus and hauled to the Placement Center. It was a sobering ride. “Mesh wire had been stretched across the windows so hand grenades couldn’t be thrown inside,” he remembers. “It was a poor, nasty looking place and concentina barbed wire was everywhere. When we got off the bus, sirens sounded and we went inside a culvert and stayed about thirty minutes until the ‘all clear’ was announced.” How quickly life can change.
Only 13 hours earlier, he was stretching his legs in peaceful Honolulu and sucking up a warm ocean breeze that carried with it the sweet fragrance of flowers. Now, he was huddled inside a bomb shelter not knowing what danger awaited him. “I lay on a bunk at the Placement Center wondering where I would be going. Two days later, I heard my name and social security number called over the loud speaker and was told to report to the office.” He was assigned to the 18th Engineering Brigade, 35th Group, 19th Engineering Battalion. “When I arrived at Brigade headquarters at Cam Ranh Bay, I was told there was only one of two places I could be sent. I looked up at the map on the wall and saw that Company B was as far north as you could go. I told myself, ‘this is where I’m going,’” he grins. “I’ll kiss your hind end if that’s not where I went.”
He reported to Battalion Headquarters at Bon Song some 70 miles north of the sea port Chu Lai and was assigned to Company B and given command of 2nd Platoon. Company B was encamped at LZ Max an isolated compound located on a small hill and encircled with triple concentina wire, apron fence and claymore mines. Low jungled mountains lay to the west, otherwise it was flat terrain where peasant farmers grew rice as they had done for centuries. The muddy paddies were plowed by water buffalo and the rice seedlings were planted by hand. Recently, Viet Cong had attacked the compound. “They put satchel charges on the end of bamboo poles and catapulted them over into the compound and blew up quite a bit,” he says. The main supply route was National Highway 1 (QL1) that ran up the coast hundreds of miles. It was dirt except for a short stretch near battalion headquarters.
Haney’s platoon was charged with maintaining a 12-mile stretch of the road and keeping it free of landmines. “No military traffic could move down the road until it had been swept for mines which usually took till noon to complete.” Hoards of Vietnamese civilians anxiously awaited permission to travel the road each morning. Behind them were military vehicles. “We used hand-held metal detectors that were wore out. It was pitiful.” He shakes his head. “We found about one out of ten mines; military trucks ran over about one out of ten and civilians stepped on some.” When they had finally swept the 12-mile stretch, they moved over and let the civilians pass, some riding motor scooters and Lambrettas.
“Don’t let them come through until they are stacked up behind you,” the Company Commander told Haney. “Then you get out of the road and tell them to come on.” Says Haney, “I thought, ‘what if they run over a mine?’” That’s what happened. A guy was blown to pieces. Following the civilians were military vehicles. The metal detectors were mostly ineffective because the mines were homemade and contained no metal. “The Viet Cong chopped RDX explosives out of dud bombs and put it in sand bags and installed a pressure plate device, often made of bamboo. All of it was made from military parts they had stolen.” The Viet Cong planted mines in the dirt road at night, usually near the end of a culvert or bridge so that the explosives would get three birds with one stone, so to speak – destroy the bridge, vehicle, and passengers inside. Haney had been on the job a couple of weeks when a platoon member yelled “HERE’S A MINE!” Haney saw a string going out into a rice paddy, looked up and spotted a small Vietnamese man some 75 yards away.
“There he goes Lieutenant!” exclaimed a soldier.
“Let me get ‘im!” said another soldier.
“Nah, that just a little old farmer,” said Haney. “Don’t shoot ‘im.”
An inspection revealed that the string led to a hand grenade attached to a 155-millimeter shell. Haney pulled the string, there was an explosion and the 155 projectile whizzed through the air. The supposed farmer was likely a Viet Cong bent on killing Americans.
Later, they spotted the corpse of a Vietnamese man sprawled in the road. Afraid that it might be booby trapped, they threw a grappling hook on the end of a rope and pulled the body in for close for inspection. “He had marks on his wrists like he had been hung up and tortured,” says Haney. “He was shot in one ear and the bullet came out the other one. No one picked up the corpse that day, but it was gone next morning.” Haney speculated that the Viet Cong had killed the man and put his body in the road to spook the Americans.
Haney’s platoon was in constant danger. They worked in the open and were exposed to Viet Cong snipers and ambushes. “We got all of our stuff blown up. One Jeep was blown up and nine Vietnamese people were killed in eight months. Sometimes, when the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) Cadre was brought in to teach the local Viet Cong how to make mines, things would get bad. We were always on the alert.”
For security purposes, an APC (Armed Personnel Carrier) was attached to Haney’s platoon. It had a four-man crew and was armed with two M-60’s and one .50 caliber machine gun. “They didn’t like to run in the road for fear of hitting a mine,” says Haney. “They would get out in rice paddies and make a mess. The Vietnamese farmers were trying to make a living.” He had been a farmer himself and knew how difficult it was. “Don’t be running in people’s rice paddies,” Haney ordered. “That’s their rice. They set it out by hand.” The squad leader stood up on the back of an APC and yelled back at Haney. “Ain’t no g -d engineering officer gonna tell me what to do with my APC.”
“I called our Company Commander and told him I wouldn’t put up with them. They were sent back,” says Haney. Vietnamese civilians worked for Haney. But he never knew if they were innocent civilians or Viet Cong. “We gave them a dollar a day. They were good workers, but not always to be trusted. I caught a guy riding on the back of our truck throwing off stuff. He was a Viet Cong helper. My men went ape. I had to keep them from killing him.”
An investigation revealed that the man’s family had been threatened by the Viet Cong if he didn’t cooperate with them and steal the items. One of Haney’s men was standing on the running board of a truck talking to the driver as they proceeded down Highway 1. The left front wheel struck a mine. The soldier was blown upward into the headboard. He was medivaced and the destroyed truck was pulled into the compound. “We were walking by it one day and I smelled something awful,” says Haney. “I looked and saw that it was some of his flesh. It had rotted.”
Haney had been in Vietnam five months and had seven more to go. He wondered if his luck would continue to hold.
To Be Continued…
By: Jerry Barksdale