The Vietnam War had an impact on my life even before I entered the U.S. Army as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1963. The buildup of U.S. armed forces in Vietnam began early in the 1960s. By the spring of 1961 as I was finishing my sophomore year at Washington State University, I knew that all able-bodied, young American men were eligible for being drafted into the service, and that such service would most likely involve combat in Vietnam. A small minority of young men sidestepped the opportunity to serve their country by hiding in Canada or enrolling in European universities. Others took their chances, were drafted, and eventually were assigned to units in Vietnam, many in front-line units. I decided to serve my country, but to take a route that I thought would improve my chances of getting through Vietnam alive.
The land upon which Washington State University is built was granted to it by the U.S. government in the 1800s. In return, the university agreed to several actions, one of which was to host a curriculum for the Reserve Officer's Training Corps, or ROTC. All male students who were not exempted for medical or other reasons were required to take two years of ROTC. Those who wished could apply for two more years of ROTC training after which they would be commissioned in the Army or Air Force (WSU did not have a Navy or Marine ROTC program) as second lieutenants for two years of active duty followed by several years as reserve officers. Applicants were interviewed by a Board of Officers where they were required to state their reasons for wanting to go through the "advanced" program. I told my Board that being able-bodied and with no other reason for exemption, I figured I was going to go to Vietnam, and that I would rather go as an officer than as front-line cannon fodder. I guess the Board liked my honesty because I was accepted for the two-year advanced program.
In June 1963, I graduated and received the gold bars of a 2nd lieutenant. I was also fortunate to be designated a Distinguished Military Student which gave me the option of going into the Regular Army rather than the active reserves. I took a Regular Army commission. Instead of a two-year tour on active duty followed by several years in the reserves, Regular Army officers went in for three years of active duty, two of which had to be in a combat branch. I was assigned to the Air Defense Artillery Corps for my two-year combat branch tour, after which I reverted to my basic branch which was the Chemical Corps, which I had requested because I had graduated with a degree in chemistry.
My first two years as an Air Defense Artillery officer were spent in Germany in a Nike Hercules missile battalion which had the mission of shooting down any enemy plane formations with nuclear missiles. Thank goodness we never had to use them! During my third year in Germany, I commanded a chemical laboratory which had the mission of testing chemical warfare agents that were stored in Germany for possible use against the enemy. Thank goodness we didn't have to use THOSE, either! Toward the end of that 3-year tour in Germany, I decided to make the Army a career and, knowing I would go anyway, I volunteered to go to Vietnam. Immediately after that first tour in Germany, my next stop was Fort McClellan, Alabama, home of the U.S. Army Chemical School. While there for six months, I learned all the jobs I would be required to do as a chemical officer in Vietnam.
Accompanied by my wife, Birgit, and teenage brother, Jack, I drove to Oakland, California in August, 1967, and from there, departed for Vietnam by chartered jet. I was a captain by then and as such, was the senior person on the plane. 100+ soldiers were under my watchful eye and our next stop was to be in a combat zone! You can imagine the thoughts that went through my mind. I wasn't even dressed in battle gear and I just KNEW they were going to dump me out in the middle of the jungle where I would be quickly surrounded by either tigers or Viet Cong, either of which I would consider the bad guys. Well, it wasn't THAT bad, but as the plane was approaching Cam Ranh Bay on the coast of Vietnam, we started to descend to land, and all the sudden we swooped back up into the air and the pilot said on the intercom, "It will be a while before we can land. We are in a tactical hold." I asked what he meant by that and found that it meant the air base was being shelled with artillery fire. Great! After what seemed like an eternity, we landed at a quiet airfield with no shooting.
The folks who ran the Cam Ranh Airbase realized how much the 18-hour trip from the States (we stopped in Guam to gas up) sapped a person's energy and, even though it was the middle of the day, they assigned us to a bunk in a large, open barracks. The guy in the bunk next to me was waiting to return to the states the next day. I remember wondering why he didn't seem happier. He had kind of a blank look on his face and didn't say much. A year later, I felt much the same way while still in Vietnam, and it wasn't until my feet touched American soil at McChord AFB that I managed to relax.
After one night in Cam Ranh Bay, a much smaller plane took me, and a few of the soldiers who had been on my flight, to our final destination, which was Pleiku in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, home of the 4th Infantry Division. I reported to my unit, the 43d Chemical Detachment, and was given my battle gear. They gave me a steel pot (helmet, steel in those days, kevlar reinforced plastics these days), a bullet-proof vest, jungle fatigues, jungle boots, survival knife, and a .45 pistol!! You would have to try firing a .45 pistol someday to understand why I told them the .45 was great, but that I also wanted a REAL weapon, a rifle! When I told them how bad a shot I was with the .45, they agreed and gave me an M-16 rifle but let me keep the .45 so everyone would know I was an officer! I didn't see very many officers over there that were carrying ONLY a .45!
I remember my first night in Pleiku, which was right out in the middle of enemy territory. I nervously went to sleep, and at about 3:00 in the morning, "KAABBOOOOOMMM!!!" And several more "kabooms!" I thought for sure we were under attack, but I noticed nobody else in the "hootch," which is what we called the tin-roofed building we slept in, was getting excited, or even waking up, for that matter! Amazing, I thought! Maybe they are all shell shocked, or stone deaf! The next morning, I found that it was "outgoing" artillery I had heard. Everyone told me I would recognize "incoming" when I heard it. Sure enough, a few nights later, and several times during my year in Vietnam, I would hear a "whoooossshhhh kaWHUNK!" Then another one, and another! The first time, I looked around and saw only elbows and rear-ends headed for the bunker for cover! I was right behind them the first time, and LEADING them every time thereafter!!
So what did I do as a Chemical Corps captain in Vietnam? The Chemical Corps basically had three missions in Vietnam: plant defoliation/crop destruction; use of riot control agents and flame munitions (fougasse); and use of airborne personnel detectors. Each of these missions involved being in an aircraft, either small fixed winged airplanes like the Air Force O-1 or O-2, or Army helicopters like the relatively small UH-1 utility helicopter, called the Huey, or the larger CH-47 cargo helicopter, known as the Chinook, or, more affectionately, the Hook.
Much of Vietnam is covered by dense jungles which provide excellent concealment for a military unit, friend or foe. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army used many areas of Vietnam almost at will because the allied forces (Canada, Australia, South Korea and other countries fought along side U.S. and South Vietnamese troops as an "allied force") could not see them beneath the jungle canopy. To deprive them of this advantage, the U.S. Air Force sprayed those areas of the jungle with a "defoliant" called "Agent Orange." Agent Orange, so-called because it was shipped in 55-gallon drums painted with an orange stripe, is a plant growth regulator. By interfering with growth hormones, it causes trees to loose their leaves and eventually die. It is a cousin to 2,4-D which is used on lawns to kill dandelions. Agent Orange was sprayed on the jungle by large C-123 Air Force aircraft early in the morning while the weather is calm allowing the defoliant to filter down into the jungle canopy. Each time it was used, which was every day the weather would permit, an Army Chemical Corps officer would board a small Air Force O-1 or O-2 and fly to the area where the large planes were to spray. The Air Force plane and pilot were called forward air controllers, or FACs.
The Army officer, often me if the mission was in the 4th Divisions area of operations, would show the O-1/O-2 pilot where the starting and ending point for the defoliation area was to be, and the pilot would fire a smoke rocket into both of those areas so the pilots of the large planes could readily see where they were supposed to spray. The FAC and I would then stay in the area while the C-123 Ranchhand planes finished their spray mission. All this took the FAC approximately 30 minutes, but the small plane was loaded with 4-hours of fuel, and the pilot had other missions to perform before he could return to home base. Those 3 1/2 remaining hours were some of the worst of my life! The main mission for FAC who isnt directing a bombing run or artillery support was "headhunting" or looking for the enemy. To do that, they fly at very low altitude until they see something of interest, and then they bank the plane over on one wing pointing to the place of interest, and fly around in a tight circle. I don't know which amusement ride this is like at the fair, but it had the same effect on me that a roller coaster does. After an hour or so, I would be deathly ill! I carried a box with me on every mission so I could barf in it and not mess up the airplane! On one mission, I got so sick I told the pilot to land ANYWHERE and let me out! He did. He dropped me off at a small Special Forces base on the Cambodian Border. Snake eaters!! Crazies!! It took me three days to make it back to Pleiku!
Other plant defoliation missions, such as spraying roadsides where the enemy might hide, were done with helicopters where the Chemical Corps officer and enlisted men rode right in the "chopper" and helped operate the defoliation equipment. These flights weren't bad at all except you were flying low and slow, right down there where the enemy could take a shot at you if they wanted to and they did a few times. It was during these missions that the helicopter crew and all the operators of the spray equipment would get soaked in Agent Orange. The spray equipment was homemade, consisting of two 55-gallon drums with the bottoms cut out, and the two welded together to make a 100-gallon container. The container fit in the cargo bay of the helicopter with one end sticking out each open side door. Hoses connected the container to a spray boom that was attached to the landing skids on the bottom of the helicopter. If you have ever been in a helicopter travelling 60 miles per hour (so as not to get shot) with the doors open, and with a spray boom dumping liquid, you would realize that all the liquid doesn't go DOWN as it's supposed to! A lot of it ended up coming right into the cabin of the helicopter, and all over the people in it! They used to use the same helicopters day after day for the defoliation missions because the Agent Orange ate the paint off of the outside, and the inside! When we got back to base camp every evening, our clothes were soaked in Agent Orange. It wasn't until LONG AFTER the Vietnam War was over that they told us Agent Orange is harmful, containing a class of chemicals called dioxins that are now known to cause a number of health problems. That probably explains why I don't have any hair on top of my head!
I have to interject a humorous story about defoliation, although it didn't affect me personally. There were about five officers in the 4th Division Chemical Section, the senior being a Lieutenant Colonel, my boss. He very rarely went on a helicopter spray mission. There was one mission that came up that he figured he could handle. It involved killing the vegetation around the perimeter of Camp Enari, home of the 4th Division. The camp had a ten-mile perimeter with a manned guard tower every quarter mile or so. I guess he felt secure enough to risk a spray mission. He apparently wanted to do any especially good job because he knew the commanding general flew over that perimeter every day and would notice how well the job had been done. When the rest of us went on a mission, we had to carefully calculate how much agent should be put on the vegetation to JUST do the job. He didn't pay any attention to the estimate, choosing instead to just spray and spray until he ran out of daylight. Well, the general was a plant lover and had poinsettias planted around his command center, and around his "hootch" which was a bit fancier than ours, a 40-foot house trailer. His command center was right in the middle of Camp Enari, the safest place in camp, EXCEPT when the "attack" is from vapors of Agent Orange. Probably needless for me to say, the colonel killed EVERY ONE of the general's poinsettias!! Glad it wasn't me!!
Agent orange was also used against enemy food crops, such as bananas, breadfruit, and mangoes, growing out in the middle of nowhere. The crop most often grown by Viet Cong troops was rice, and rice is easily destroyed using another agent, Agent Blue, You guessed it! A blue band painted on the 55-gallon drum. Agent Blue is a plant desiccant, as opposed to a plant growth regulator like Agent Orange. Desiccants cause plants to dry up and die. "Roundup" is a plant desiccant used today to control grass where it isn't wanted around homes. The Viet Cong soldiers who tended the rice and other fields didn't take kindly to us killing their crops (can you imagine how your neighbor would feel if you sprayed his garden with Roundup?!!) and would quite often shoot at us. As far as I know, the helicopter I was riding in never got hit. Although I am not proud of it or bragging about it, you should know that the crop destruction missions, because we were so low to the ground, were the only missions where I actually shot at the enemy. Did I WANT to shoot at them? I remember the thought going through my head that maybe I shouldn't. Maybe I should let somebody else do it. But that thought quickly left my mind and instinct took over. They were shooting at me, and maybe if I didn't shoot back, they would disable the helicopter and we all would be lost. So I shot. One of my sergeants made the opposite decision. I had to ORDER him to shoot! He understood why when I explained my "them or us" reasoning.
Riot Control Agents
A riot control agent (RCA) is a chemical that causes a person to sneeze, cough, cry, itch, and in general, just feel TERRIBLE! But after you make it through the attack, you live (although you may not think you will!). The allied forces used riot control agents against the Viet Cong guerillas, but not very often against North Vietnamese troops because they carried protective masks that were effective against the agents. We had RCA munitions we could throw by hand (grenades), fire from launchers out to a few hundred yards, and drop from aircraft. The objective in using the riot control agents was to get the enemy to come out of their bunkers and tunnels where they would be easier to capture. Almost always, it was infantry troops that were doing the capturing, not the Chemical Corps people who used the RCA munitions.
One of the munitions we had in Vietnam was filled with small sub-munitions about the size of a D-cell flashlight battery. Each munition had 256 of these small sub-munitions. When dropped from a helicopter, each one would cover an area the size of a football field with a thick cloud of agent. The munition was so popular with the fighting troops on the ground that we couldn't get enough of them to fill all requests. Being a bright young guy, I invented a munition made from RCA grenades (grenades weren't in great demand because you had to be within throwing distance from the enemy to use them, and soldiers don't like to get THAT close to the enemy if not necessary!). I filled wooden boxes with grenades, each of which had the "pin" pulled and the handle held in place by it's packing container. I rigged the box so it would fall apart just above the ground when dropped from the right altitude in a helicopter. The grenades would then spill out, fall out of their packing containers, and start burning. Each of these munitions, which I called a BFOG, pronounced "Beefhog" for "Box Full of Grenades," would also cover a football-sized area. I received an Army Commendation Medal for inventing that munition, and we had a hard time making enough of them to keep up with demand.
Airborne Personnel Detector
General Electric under contract to the Army had developed a machine that could detect ammonia and smoke in the air. You say, "Big deal! I can smell ammonia, and I can smell smoke. Why do we need a machine?" Well, the airborne personnel detector, or APD, or as we nicknamed it, "Snoopy," could detect both ammonia and smoke in much smaller concentrations that the human nose could. There is only one animal in the jungle of Vietnam whose liquid waste emitted ammonia, and that was the chimpanzee. Lots of things emit smoke, friendly villages miles away, for example. But when you were in a helicopter flying at treetop level, miles away from any friendlies, and you detect ammonia AND smoke, most liked there was an enemy unit under the jungle canopy below you. When you found such places, you verified it, and then called in artillery or, if the circumstances were right, a long range reconnaissance patrol (LRRP) would be sent in to check out the area. One of the most important aspects of the "Snoopy" missions was to fly fast, again so as not to get shot down, and low. The air scoop for the APD was right under the pilot's feet sticking through a plastic bubble window that the pilot uses to know exactly how high he is off the ground when landing. Almost every mission, after we landed back at base camp, we would find leaves in that air scoop! Now THAT is flying low! I told you how I hated flying with the Air Force FACs because I got so sick and couldn't return right away to base camp. The "Snoopy" missions were even worse. You HAD to wear your seat belt, because going UP the hills (the central highlands of Vietnam are very hilly) you would be pressed down into your seat because of G-forces, but going DOWN the other side, you would actually float! We had to make sure everything was tied down in the cargo bay because it would "float" away if not secured. You are probably already thinking "Boy! I bet he REALLY got sick on that mission!" And you are right! Even the pilots and regular crew got sick on "Snoopy" missions! I used to carry an empty Coke box with me to barf in. I had one guy in my unit who for some reason never got sick. He must have been born on a roller coaster. So I used him quite often for such missions, much to his liking. Pete was a full-blooded American Indian with a wild side.