1st MIBARS In Vietnam!


"B" Detachment 101:


Recollections of 

The MIBARS War Zone


"We'll follow the Old Man wherever he wants to go,
Long as he wants to go opposite to the foe.

We'll stay with the Old Man wherever he wants to stay,
Long as he stays away from the battle's fray.

Because we love him, we love him,
Especially when he keeps us on the ball.

And we'll tell the kiddies we answered duty's call,
With the grandest son of a soldier of them all."

--  Irving Berlin

Detachment "B's" three Commanding Officers in 1967 shown with Executive Officer at a formation on the I Corps Compound

Photo Credit: MIV

Above: "B"  Detachment's three commanding officers in 1967, including MAJ Anthony F. Matta [1929-2014], second from left, shown with Executive Officer at right.

A Word About Risk

Due to the nature of the fighting in Vietnam, which was characterized by stealth, insurgency, guerrilla warfare, and the taking and relinquishing of positions -- there was no front line in the traditional sense.  Hostile activity could and did appear in the cities as well as in the hamlets and free-fire zones of the countryside.

There were reports of random shootings of troops at military bus stops in Saigon.  In addition, insurgents regularly dropped jerry-rigged fragmentation devices made from hand grenade detonators and soda cans filled with nails and scrap metal into open trucks from roof tops along some of the narrow streets in Saigon.  In DaNang, an American soldier who volunteered to teach English to Vietnamese students was said to have been shot in the chest -- point-blank -- right in the classroom, ironically by an assailant using a U.S.-made .45 automatic.  Therefore, risk of bodily harm, while certainly not being uniform throughout the country, could still be substantial in and around the cities.

Trooper receives an award from the 1st MIBARS battalion commander in early 1967

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  "B" Detachment trooper receives an award from the 1st MIBARS Battalion Commander, LTC Eugene Kelley, Jr. [1924-2012] in late 1966.

For American soldiers, who had no life-long immunities to the local bacteria, untreated water was a health hazard.  Any consumption of local beverages was limited to drinks that were plant-processed with heat and sealed.  The use of locally-produced ice was discouraged -- it generally carried bacteria that could cause dysentery, even in alcoholic drinks.  Because human waste was used as a fertilizer in domestic agriculture, fresh locally-grown produce could be consumed only if cooked.  If eaten raw, foods required peeling and washing with treated water prior to consumption.  The taking of preventive medication was routine to ward off malaria, and the use of insect-repellant skin creams and mosquito nets over bunks was encouraged.  Olive drab spray cans of so-called "synergized pyrethrins" -- the manufacturer's lingo for bug spray -- were ubiquitous in Vietnam.  In addition, fungal diseases of the skin caused by humidity and the tropical climate were fairly common.


Poisonous snakes, tigers and others of Vietnam's "critters" were of little concern in cities like DaNang, the greatest such threat being the possibility of being hit by one of the many geckos that ran freely throughout structures in Vietnam.  These small lizards were harmless but sometimes lost their grip on the ceiling, generally right over one's bunk.  Venereal disease was present among some segments of the civilian population.  A continuing and submerged level of stress was also an issue, created by many factors, including living with the dichotomy of possible imminent attack coupled with long periods of repetitive routine activity.  While many individuals took protracted stress in stride, others coped through the cleansing effects of periodic emotional episodes, sophomoric behavior or the use of alcohol, sex, or gambling.

Secured areas such as the I Corps Compound were considered largely to be safe, although the compound was somewhat proximate to DaNang Main Airbase.  Vibrations from an ammunition dump that exploded during the Viet Cong's first rocket attack in July 1967 rattled "B" Detachment's facilities to the extent that fluorescent ceiling fixtures in the orderly and supply room shelf items were dislodged and sent crashing and bursting to the floor, giving the initial impression that the building had been hit.  The downtown areas of DaNang were off limits to military personnel on foot, but military action in the city seemed unknown prior to the Tet Offensive of January 1968.

Army of the Republic of Vietnam junior officer in 1967

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  A junior officer in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

In 1966 and 1967, so-called rear echelon soldiers, such as those assigned to "B" Detachment, could reasonably expect -- in the normal course of their duties -- to complete their tours of duty without injury.  While the possibility of an accident while living and working in an environment of explosives, weaponry and heavy equipment was always a possibility, only those who put themselves in harm's way, through deliberate action or carelessness, ran an inordinate risk of being injured or killed.

The majority of "B" Detachment personnel completed their one-year tours of duty as scheduled, with men rotating out -- and replacements rotating in -- throughout the year.  During the period covered by this site, there were no injuries associated with the aircraft operations of the Delivery Platoon or with individuals flying as photo-observers with forward air controllers under the Hand-held Camera Program.  In other functional areas, one soldier sustained a serious physical injury as the result of an accident and required immediate medical evacuation.  Another soldier received a compassionate reassignment back to CONUS due to family emergency, and two additional personnel were reassigned out of the unit due to conduct issues.


A U.S. Air Force C-123 Provider transport plane negotiates an unimproved section of Saigon's Tan Son Nhut Airport in 1967

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  A U.S. Air Force C-123 Provider negotiates an unpaved section of Saigon's Tan Son Nhut Airport in 1967.

A Vietnam-War Era Work Horse

"The G-20 cargo glider [designed by Chase Aircraft after World War II] evolved . . . into the Fairchild C-123 Provider.  . . . Because of its powerful engines, it showed superior ability to operate in short field landings and take offs.  It could carry 61 fully equipped troops for assault or evacuate 50 patients on litters plus six attendants.  The full-section rear ramp door made this an ideal aircraft for support of airborne operations from the 1950s into the 1970s.  . . . in the Vietnam era, it became an all purpose tactical aircraft often working with special forces.  The C-123 was the primary aircraft used in Operation Ranch Hand, the spraying of the jungle with a defoliating agent to clear vegetation to help stop enemy troop movements.  Some had two small jet engines added to their outer wings to give them improved takeoff performance from short runways.  . . . At the Khe Sanh combat base, South Vietnam, C-123s re-supplied Marines during the siege initially by landing on the runway and then by low altitude parachute drops."

GlobalSecurity.org

For the "Lifers"

Vietnam provided unique opportunities for "lifers," military slang for those soldiers wishing to make the military a career, to "get their tickets punched."  Getting one's ticket punched meant attaining -- for one's military record -- certain qualifications for advancement or retention in the military.  In Vietnam, career enhancements were available that might not have been so easy to attain outside of the war zone.  But such opportunities were not without risk.  Certainly, service in the combat zone itself was an important notation to one's 201 [Personnel] File.   But other skills or qualifications could further one's career aspirations -- such as being a qualified paratrooper and/or combat infantryman.

A Vietnamese domestic worker in 1967

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  Diminutive Vietnamese domestic worker.

First, there was the opportunity to earn jump wings.  Qualification to parachute into battle was becoming an expected skill for serious career soldiers by the time of the war in Vietnam.  In normal circumstances, becoming jump-qualified would require special orders to airborne school and the completion of a regimen of physical conditioning and instruction culminating in the successful completion of five jumps.  Not so in Vietnam, where the Special Forces conducted jump training for those sponsored by their commanding officers.   The extended process of training back home could be compressed into a week of actual jump instruction, with the required jumps being made from a helicopter.  The certification was just as valid as the stateside program.

Second, there was the opportunity to earn the coveted Combat Infantryman's Badge (CIB).  The CIB constituted the "real world" combat qualification of the professional soldier -- testimony that the holder had served in active combat on the ground as a foot soldier.   It was awarded upon the completion of  a minimum of 30 consecutive days in a ground combat unit.  With a commanding officer's approval, it was said that some rear-echelon soldiers -- who earned 30 days of leave during the standard one-year tour of duty in Vietnam -- requested temporary assignment to an infantry unit for their period of leave in order to earn this badge.  It was also said that some such hopefuls became casualties -- victims of inadequate physical conditioning, failure to hustle, lack of survival instinct, inadequate jungle smarts or just plain bad luck.

During the period covered by 1stMIBARSInVietnam!, no "B" Detachment personnel are recalled to have requested jump training or temporary assignment to an infantry unit.


Opportunities

MIBARS' unique mission did provide some opportunity to contribute to participate in the development of new procedures and techniques.

Exploring the inherent possibilities of the Hand-Held Camera Program entailed some risk.  Taking photographs of targets or specific areas of interest did require literally hanging out of the back window of a Cessna 0-1 observation aircraft at relatively low altitude, and the FAC aircraft could become a target of ground fire if the pilot was ordered to spot an air or artillery strike with the MIBARS observer on board.  Nevertheless, this risk was acceptable to many and there were more volunteers than flight opportunities.

Two Imagery Interpretation Specialists point out a target on a worksheet in one of the Imagery Interpretation Vans

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  Imagery Interpretation Specialists in one of "B" Detachment's two Imagery Interpretation vans find the target in 1967.  

While most of the photography was obtained using a commercial 35-mm camera with 50- and 200-mm lenses, the use of other equipment was explored.  This included longer telephoto lenses which could facilitate picture-taking at higher -- and safer -- altitudes but also increased the blurring of images due to the magnified effects of camera shake.

Consideration of a catadioptic lens with 26-inch equivalent focal length, said at the time to be the equivalent of a 5,000 millimeter telephoto lens, led to a call for volunteers to test the device by spending a week using it at the Marine camp at Khe Sanh, i.e., the "Rock Pile."  The idea, as put forth at the time,  was to photograph enemy movement across the demarcation line into North Vietnam.   Khe Sanh was reputed to be under attack continually, with the Marines tossing grenades randomly over the fortifications nightly to discourage infiltrators.

Although Khe Sanh was within the I Corps Tactical Zone, the device was tested by 1st MIBARS personnel sent up from  "A" Detachment  who soon determined it to be unacceptable.  "B" Detachment was not given the opportunity to evaluate it. 


Smile When You Say That, Pardner!

In addition to standard issue arms, a wide variety of exotic and often historical weapons could be seen in the hands of military personnel in the DaNang area.  Amid the dust, heat and rain, all of this armament sometimes gave DaNang a "border town," "Dodge City" or "anything goes" quality.

So questioned was the reliability of the newly-issued M-16 rifle that some soldiers sought alternative weapons in the black and gray markets in the combat zone.  Troopers moved about openly with WW 2-era Thompson submachine guns and M-3 Grease Guns, as well as various other vintage automatic weapons of British, German, Swiss and Belgian manufacture.   One MIBARS sergeant-major chose to carry a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun while traveling in-country.  

On Being Prepared

"I started to collect a small arsenal to supplement my M-14 [rifle], and even came up with an elderly Winchester trench gun and a few rounds of 12-gauge ammunition.  My .38 [revolver], .45 [automatic pistol], M-16 [rifle] and M-79 grenade launcher would come later."

Bob Freeman, as a lieutenant with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st MIBARS, and the 45th Military Intelligence Detachment, November 1967 -- November 1968.

Where permitted, some military officers opted to send for personal weapons from home.  The formidable Smith & Wesson Combat Magnum in caliber .357 was a favorite, although its flashy nickel-plated or satin-blue finish was probably most practical for rear areas.  Local Vietnamese leatherworkers, apparently no strangers to American Western movies, were quick to produce wild-west style, quick-draw gun belts and cartridge bandoliers out of buffalo hide to accommodate non-issue side arms and ammunition.

Traditional military edged weapons --  such as the short survival knives and the longer K-BAR trench knife, but not military issue bayonets -- were much in evidence.  Huge commercial Bowie knives were also carried, perhaps gifts from anxious dads who thought that they would help their soldier-sons hack through the jungle or survive hand-to-hand combat with the Viet Cong.  Because of reports of random and deadly street attacks on Americans in Saigon and other cities, some soldiers obtained unauthorized personal weapons while in-country to carry concealed under civilian clothing.  One officer purchased a 9-mm Belgian-made, Browning Hi-Power automatic pistol from a departing soldier and carried it throughout his  tour, passing it on to an Air Force pilot just before his departure from Viet Nam.  The pistol bore not one single serial number, perhaps having been originally introduced into the country by clandestine intelligence services.    

While no pistols or automatic weapons could be taken home as war trophies, bolt-action WW 2 Mausers and Chinese carbines were allowable, and they constituted a form of trading goods for Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) personnel seeking American surrogate purchasers for goods from the local Post Exchanges.

"B" Detachment was equipped with the standard issue M-14 which -- although heavy and long -- was supremely accurate and of proven reliability.  Officers could also draw the .45 caliber automatic pistol. 


Necessity and Invention

While the Army provided the basics of  what military personnel needed to do their jobs, both operational efficiency and personal comfort could be enhanced with goods and services not readily available through normal supply channels.   Thus, scrounging was practiced in Vietnam,  just as it had been by soldiers in all previous wars.

A U.S. Air Force deHavilland DHC-4, or C-7 Caribou transport plane, parked at Tan Son Nhut Airport

Photo Credit: MIV

 

There were many Caribou  out in Indian Country -- and also here on the flight line at Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon, parked among aircraft from the 1930s and 1940s.  The DHC-4 deHavilland  short takeoff and landing (STOL) transport plane, also known by its military designation as the C-7, was in wide use throughout Vietnam by allied military services.

 

Scrounging is a classic military skill that is honed to maximum efficiency in a combat zone, particularly by senior non-commissioned officers.  It is the art of locating items that one needs -- i.e., building materials (especially plywood and dimension lumber), steaks, beer and hard liquor, refrigerators (reefers), ice, etc.  Scrounging involves cultivating contacts with potential suppliers and traders, judicious bartering, and the stockpiling of likely trading materials for future use.  In the highest expression of the art of scrounging, tradable items may go through a succession of traders before the desired item is obtained back along the chain of barter.

Transportation was always a problem, since most units lacked sufficient vehicles to meet their needs for convenience transportation.  "B" Detachment's senior NCOs were able to scrounge (in this case, legitimately borrow) a truck from the Naval Support Command for transportation between the operations and billeting areas.  Others, however, particularly skilled mechanics, rose to the challenge of creativity in a different way.  It was rumored that some units -- faced with a shortage of vehicles -- searched salvage yards to scrounge enough parts to construct complete, working jeeps and trucks.  Given bogus markings and never entered on property books,  these phantom vehicles were used daily but moved to other locations when  property inspections were conducted by higher headquarters.  Of course, if they were subsequently stolen, there was no recourse.  Since there was no key switch in a military vehicle, a jeep or a truck was secured by a heavy chain welded to the vehicle's frame and a stout heavy-duty padlock that immobilized the steering wheel.


Commanding Officers

Mission Leads/ Delivery Platoon

Non-Commissioned Officers 

 Enlisted Command Support

Troopers I

Troopers II

Constructed Roster


Return to 1st MIBARS In Vietnam! MAIN PAGE