by Louis Galanos
I literally received my orders for Vietnam on my birthday in 1966. At the time I was working as a student instructor in the United States Army Radio Operators School at Fort Ord, California.
As a student I had graduated at the top of my class and, as was the custom, was allowed to stay at the school as an instructor instead of being sent to another unit and possibly to Vietnam. At the time I thought my instructor post was a safe ticket out of the war.
Unfortunately my tenure at the school didn’t last very long due to the fact that the United States was in the midst of a massive build up of troops in a vain attempt to save the struggling government of the Republic of South Vietnam.
After getting my orders, taking a 30 day leave, I reported to Oakland, California for the plane ride to Vietnam.
Our first stop was in Hawaii where we refueled and were not permitted to leave the terminal. Hawaii is so beautiful that if the troops were given any time to explore the area less than half would have made it back to the airport for the next phase of the trip.
Next stop was Okinawa for another refueling. When I say refueling that should include food, drink, as well as aviation gas. The men on board the Braniff Airlines charter flight consumed everything that wasn’t nailed down. The poor stewardesses literally walked across the Pacific while they delivered food and drinks to the passengers. They never got a chance to sit down except for take off and landing.
After what seemed like an eternity we landed at Ton Son Nhut Airport in Saigon. The first thing that hit you upon leaving the jet was the smell, noise and humidity. Welcome to Vietnam.
They bussed us to Camp Alpha in Saigon for just one night. Camp Alpha was being phased out and was to be replaced by the 90th Replacement Battalion at Long Binh which was still under construction but they were accepting troops despite the lack of proper facilities.
The busses for the troops were manned by Air Force enlisted men who had the entrepreneural spirit. Besides the driver there were two Air Force enlisted men who went up and down the bus aisles encouraging us to exchange our regular American dollars (“greenbacks”) for the local Vietnamese currency (Dong). They would even claim to offer a better rate of exchange than the military could offer.
Only later did I find that there was a very active “Black Market” in American dollars throughout Vietnam. Because the enemy (Viet Cong) were using dollars on the international market to buy weapons, all soldiers were forbidden to use this currency.
Instead we had to exchange our dollars for Vietnamese currency or US issued Military Payment Certificates (MPCs).
Later I was to discover that some of the career enlisted soldiers (“Lifers”) saw the conflict in Vietnam as a good way to make money. These were not the front line soldiers from World War II or Korea, but the supply sergeants and soldiers experienced in running NCO and officer clubs. With their connections some of them were making small fortunes selling contraband goods (beer, soda, cigarettes) on the Black Market.
Many of these “Lifers” volunteered to go to Vietnam in the early years of the conflict because they knew the military would not be too organized in the early years and they could take advantage of it. And so they did.
The 90th Replacement Battalion in Long Binh was our next port of call and it was a site to behold. The military literally dropped bull dozers into the country side and pushed the jungle back and in the process exposing bare earth. As you can imagine, every time it rained the place turned into a sea of mud.
We had standard issue military tents to live in while we waited for our orders to be processed. These canvas tents turned into ovens during the heat of the day and you risked heat stroke by staying in them. However, if you left the tent you risked being dragooned onto a work detail such as hauling cement or burning shit.
Yes, we burned shit. The bathrooms at Long Binh were good old fashioned “out houses” but instead of the waste being deposited into a hole in the ground it was deposited into a 50 gallon oil drum that was cut in half.
The “shit burning” detail would have to roll out the very heavy and smelly drums, douse them with diesel fuel and then burn the waste. The poor fellas who had that detail would come back to the tent at night with a very foul odor about them.
When using these latrines you always had to lift the toilet seat lid and look into the hole. Not because of a perverse curiosity of what the previous guy left in the can but to make sure there were no snakes crawling around near the lid.
We were told a story of some poor NCO who was found dead outside the door of one of the latrines with his pants down around his ankles and a snake bite on his buttocks. As a result we always looked.
Sometimes when you looked you saw things you would rather have not. One time when I lifted the lid I saw a sea of maggots near the top of one of the cans. The sea of maggots undulated like a living creature. Needless to say no one used that toilet until the can was taken out and burned.
My first night at Long Binh was interrupted by a mortar attack by the Viet Cong. Much to our surprise the loud speakers came on around 3 AM to announce an attack. Accompanying this announcement was the thump and explosions of mortar rounds hitting nearby.
We were shocked to hear the loud speakers tell us to lie on the ground and put our mattresses over our bodies. I found out later that this was standard procedure because the base didn’t have enough bomb shelters to accommodate the thousands of men within its walls.
So, there we were with our bedding over our heads listening to the mortar rounds walk their way through the base. I think that if I had had a shovel I would have dug a fox hole in ten seconds. Fortunately no one in our tent was wounded during the attack.
I spent the next several days trying to avoid the work details and regularly checking with the clerks to check on my orders. After three days at Long Binh I finally got my orders for a unit in Qui Nhon.
With my duffel bag packed I made my way to my transportation that would take me to the airport for my flight to Qui Nhon. With incredible luck I saw my brother coming up the hill toward me.
My brother Pete was already in Vietnam as a Warrant Officer pilot for the 336th Assault Helicopter Squadron out of Soc Trang.
My first day at Long Binh I called his base and left a message as to where I was. I really didn’t expect to see him.
With only a few minutes to talk we said our hellos, talked about our folks, life in Vietnam with some do’s and don’ts and after a shake of the hands I was on my way to Qui Nhon and my tour of duty. With a great deal of luck we both survived our year in Vietnam.
Three months after I arrived in Vietnam the military issued a regulation prohibiting two members of the same family from serving in Vietnam at the same time. This was a direct result of a couple of brothers being killed in action some months earlier.
I called my brother to see what he wanted to do. We both agreed that if any brother went home early he would be sent back as soon as the other brother’s tour was over with. On top of that the months he spent in Vietnam would not count. We both decided to stay and take our chances.
As it turned out this was a wise decision. We both returned home in 1967 and missed the terrible carnage of the Tet Offensive of 1968. We both lost friends during that attack and if either of us had been there we could have come home as a casualty.