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VIETNAM 1969-1971-William Nolan -Engineer
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The Two Tours of William K. Nolan, Engineer
I actually arrived in Country at Bien Hua, and began training at HQ MACV. After about a week I boarded a C-130 at Bien Hoa and went to Da Nang. Initially, I was assigned in the Engineer staff till my position came open. My job was to upgrade the Da Nang Officers Club. After purchasing some air conditioners and teak plywood, I made several places in the club very presentable. This also allowed me to become totally familar with the setup of the I Corps Advisory Team.
Finally Sargeant Storm came and led me to my billets in the old French Hotel in Hue. My job was as advisor to Major Diem the Battalion Commander of the 101st ARVN Engineer Battalion. This was the first joke. Maj. Diem was a graduate of Ohio State University. He spoke perfect English and lived in an American house. Most of his officers spoke both French, Vitnamese and English. During the next 11 months, I was more a coordinator and social secretary.
First we visited the DMZ on my familarization tour and then 24 Corps Engineer to meet and introduce Major Diem to General Latelier. This started a fine relationship between American and Vietnamese Engineers and a good series of tennis matches between the two.
The Vietnamese were to work with, Navy CBs, the 101st Airborne, and Marines. In the last half of my tour we moved to Quang Tre and the battalion built a sand cement road for 21 km from Quang Tre to the costal village of Gia Dang. This road was similar to those built in south Georgia and Florida in the early 1900s for light traffic. Two highlites of my time there were the destructionn of the ammo dump inside the Citidal at Quang Tre by a Viet Cong RPG. It was raining medal as shell parts fell from the sky. The old tin roof stopped most, but not all. We spent the night under our bunks. The other was the delivery of a big round from the Battle Ship New Jersey. It landed on our burm in the middle of the night and scared us all to death. It did provide a nice pool to bathe in the next morning.
The biggest problem was transportation. My boss in Da Nang only came north once. The mortars from North Vietnam, kept him south from then on. I would get a message to fly south over the Hai Van Pass to Da Nang for an important meeting. We all knew it was just a party, but we were expected to get either a Porter, Bever or Huey and get to home base. Then on Monday we would have to fly back. Sometimes it was hairy. Once the runway at the Hue Citidal was covered with water, except for the last 25 feet. The Porter came in and floated over the runway to the dry spot, dropped down and reversed its engine. Stopped on a dime. We climbed aboard, it backed up, until its wheels were on the grass, it wound up its engines and we were airborne in 25 feet.
Another time we were landing at Phu Bi behind a C-130 and apparently it put on it's brakes, causing the runway cover of pierced steel planking to have a big buckle. We landed and were bumped 30 to 40 feet into the air, and when we came down, every thing seemed to crunch. No one was hurt, but when we got to the hanger, the pilot said the flight was over. As we got out we could see why. The wing spars we completely broken and dangling.
Flying with Generals was not safe either. Once Major Diem and I were with General Trung, the 1st Arvn Division Commander when our Huey started to act up. Down we went. Splash in the mud along the famous 555 highway that the Viet Cong liked to use. We were immediately warned to not move as Viet Cong engineers were working a few hundred yards from us. For a few minutes, it was bad, until six gun ships showed up to provide us cover. In a little while a replacement Huey showed up with a Jolly Green Giant to lift out the broken aircraft. We made it back without a scratch.
Another time I caught a ride from Quang Tre and we hit a storm. The chopper was called a Loach, for light observation Helocopter. The wind and rain started pushing us back toward the south China Sea. We all began to fear. Finally the pilot was able to land at a place on the coast called Qua Viet. It was the last land. When I got off the chopper a Naval Officer offered us a drink. All four from the chopper proceeded to drink as much as possible.
Three other small incidents occurred during my tour. Once some artillery dummies fired an 8 inch houser over the top of my jeep as we left the Quang Tre Base. My Vietnamese driver LUIGI and I could not hear for over forty kilometers. Another night we were worried that water lilys were going to pile up and take out a bridge on the Main Supply Route. As we got to the site, it was black.Suddenly a shot went through the top of our jeep. I got out fast, ready to run. The Major went over to the side of the road and beat the hell out of a scared guard (RUFPUF). The third was day we were eating breakfust in a whore house. Best food in town. Suddenly two 101st Airborne Military Police were standing by my table. They ask if I knew what I was doing. I said, yes. They both grabbed my arms and started to pull me up, when the Major, asked if they knew who he was. They said, No, and they didn't care. The Major pointed outside to the Platoon af Vietnamese Engineers who were heavily armed, and said did they understand their prediciment. Suddenly the MP's were ready to leave and they never bothered me again, but they did come ask for help occassionally.
I could describe the many rocket attacks, the RPG over our building, The Marine who ran around necked, and our Duck emblem that was very similar to the 1st CAV patch and the crazy pilots who flew the light reconnance aircraft from our Air Field. There was also the ROK Twi Kwan Do instructor who was my roommate, and the crazy devoute Jew who was almost killed when he went to da Nang. An while at Quang Tre, I killed 21 Marine Landing Vehicles. I was told to put pallets of cement on top of the vehicles. I explained what it would do to the engines, but was told to proceed, because that was the only way to move the cement. I sent a message to my boss in Da Nang, who was ready when the Navy tried to lay the damage at my door mat. Then there was the night I laid on a flying crane to lift an Effile bridge into place. I was told by and Aussie Officer that I had to be at the site at 8 AM. We all knew the fog would not lift until about 11. The Aussie called and asked why I wasn't at the site. I asked if the crane was there. He said that was not important, and he would have me Courts Marshaled. Again I called my boss, and nothing happened. I also made friends with the Philipean radio operators who worked for Voice of America, near Phu Bai. They would come to Hue and trade San Megall Beer for whisky. The junk beer we had made this a good trade.
It was an interesting year. The armor in the Vietnamese battalion dropped a granade and it went off killing him and one of his workers. I was about 50 feet away, but behind two brick reinforced walls. Sometimes the local accidents were worse than the enemy. In Da Nang a welder set off the ammunition near where he was working, it blew an LST apart. We were in the club, I had worked on, when some of that expensive plywood was blown in to the room. No one was hurt at the club but many were hurt and killed at the harbor.
The first tour was interesting, the food was great, the people were great and the sites were unbelieveable. The return was uneventful
The 2nd tour was vastly different. Again I arrived at Bein Hoa in July , but went to the replacement depot. After two days my name was called and I was taken to the 159th Engineer Group for an interview. After meeting the XO, I was taken to the 31st Engineer Battalion to meet the CO.That evening I moved into my room and began work the next day as the Operations Officer.
This unit had three combat companies a support company and a headquarters company. Next came the unbelievable. We had two land clearing companies with 62 dozers. Two additional maintenance companies, a transportation company, a Light Equipment Company, a mine dog platoon and a mine rolling tank and a construction yard for the building of the Southeast Asia Huts for all of Vietnam. These were buildings that were prefabed and could be transported to almost any location in Vietnam. This was by far the biggest battalion that I had ever seen or heard of because it had over 1900 men.
My first week was spent organizing a combat company to go to a specific location in another zone, provide its own security and to build a steel and concrete bridge. This was not a normal combat engineer job. Soon I was making two trips a week to that site for inspection, with stops at Nui Ba Din, one of Vietnam's two real mountains where we had a radio relay. I took the two operators two cases of dynamite a week, to blow Viet Cong tunnels under their position.
The other two companies had normal combat engineer jobs, all over III Corps. The two land clearing companies usually worked on a split schedule which had one in camp doing stand down and rebuild and the other out cutting jungle. Land Clearing in it self was one of the most important jobs in Vietnam. The support units all kept the bridge, land clearers and lite equipment companies going. The biggest problem in the battalion was supply. Keeping all these operations going was easy if they were supplied.
Life at Long Binh was totally different from my first tour. At dark every thing calmed down, and we went to our club and played cards or drank. Hector De Leon from my high school was our Supply Officer. He was painting a murel in the club that depicted combat engineers in Vietnam. I would stay talking with him till late at night as he painted. As we became closer friends, he and I would slip out to Siagon to party with the Land Clearers, who had their own bar on Tu Doe Street. It was definately a different war. We occasionally built big fire bases for the 11th ACR. These required the light equipment company and one or two platoons of engineers. When completed, they were good homes for these units. They provied good cover and protection from almost any enemy attack.
The mine rolling and mine dogs were totally unbelievable. Give them a task and they would go do it. The dogs were big and out weighed most men. When one set off a mine, and was bad hurt, everyone was sad. But they did their job of saving lives.
We also had water purification teams working at our bases, but one was in the jungle. They operators provided water for any one who wanted it, US, RVN and Viet Cong. We had to rotate operators, as they teamed up with locals and went native. One requested to take his beautiful girlfriend as a bride. One look at this old creature, with no teeth, chewing beatle juice and with scraggly black and gray hair. The two sergeants with me grabbed him and pulled him on the chopper by force. On the way back to Long Bein, we dropped him off at Vung Tau, at the incountry R&R center. I told the First Sergeant there that I would be back to get him in two weeks. When I went back to pick him up, he was very appreciative. and needless to say, I did not take him back to his old post.
The bridge went along well, but duty at Long Binh was hell. At least once a week we had a search of the barracks for drugs. At times I had as much as 10 Lbs of pure Haroin in my safe an 50 lbs of Marijane on top. This we had to burn, because the MP's would not take it. Many of our troops were users and were either put in jail or sent to rehab. It was so easy to obtain, that they all tried it.
One day I was called to meet the MACV Inspector General at the Land Clearing site. I was there before him and was able to answer all his questions, but he went berserk, when we told him the operators used beer while driving their dozers. He just did not want to understand. Finally, I convenced him to ride once around the cut. About a half hour ride. He said he would, but that it would not convince him. Thirty minutes later he was back and drinking a beer as he got off the dozer. His clothing was completely wet. Not from water, but from sweat. He was not half way around the cut before he ask for a drink. After two cokes the sweat was pouring out. Then he ask for a beer. He gave the land clearers authorization to drink beer on the job after he saw that none were close to being drunk. It was the only thing that they could drink and not dehydrate.
Once we were providing a base for an Infantry unit, and they would not take our advice on how to employ ground radar. Two of our equipment operators were hurt by mines, and I took a complaint to II Corps and from then on Engineers were authorized to implace the Infantrys ground radar. Our first emplacement, identified VC in a kill zone. Eleven were killed and we had no more mines.
Each month we had going home parties. All clubs in the Battalion would have great food and liquid refreshment. Sometimes it was grilled steak and lobster. Actually someone making a trip to Vung Tau would bring back a load of lobster and shrimp. The lobster tails were about 4 inches long and the shrimp were 12 to 18 inches long. All the officers would give about $25 and the executive officer and operations would choose a band with strippers to come out from Siagon. We actually had a catalog to choose from. The shows were great and helped morale.I am not sure how legal they were, but the shows were well attended. The enlisted actually used the battalion theator and classroom for their shows. Some shows were very graphic and will not be shown here, though pictures exist.
After 7 months, we began to turn in equipment and close units down. Two combat companies were closed and then all the land clearing and their supporting units. The mine dogs were given to the Vietnamese with the Mine Rolling Tank. There were many tears over the los of the dogs. Before long it was almost all gone. It was at this time that I got a letter from my wife's lawyer. I was informed that she was divorcing me. After seeing a Jag officer, I sent the lawyer a letter and invoked the Soldier and Sailor Act. They had to wait until I came home. Hector and I had finished our work and were being reasigned, but were able to take a week off, in country. I spent a week either being drunk or trying to gain the love of a tea girl, who had been a soldiers wife, until he was killed. We did get close to love, but she would not leave her mother, and her mother would not leave Vietnam. It did not make the divorce any easier, but for a while, I forgot.
After Vung Tau and Long Hai, I was assigned to the Engineer Command as a Plans Officer. I had the job to develop draw down equipment levels for all the remaining engineer assets. I learned a lot, but my heart was not in the program. We did have to find driling equipment for drilling water wells in I Corps. After we found it and drilling started, the guys kept calling back saying they could find gas, but not water. I was glad when I completed my job and was sent home.
The Operations Officer job was one of the best jobs in the Army. It was sad that it did not have the respect of Combat Command. The overall experience gained was unparalled in the Army both before and after.
I had some wild experiences in Vung Tau, Long Hai and Siagon that most soldiers and sailors did not have in Vietnam. I flew over combat daily and never felt fear for myself. The guys doing the driving were the worlds best. I would have gone back if it would have been to command a combat unit. Our Battalion had to leave a truck and a grader in the area of the Parots Beak on the Cambodian border in late 1971. Our troops were so mad. They wanted to arm and go get it, but the command would not let us. It was a paradox that troops who regulary got in trouble for drugs, could do almost any task, any hard job, and had very high morale, and would put themselves in Jeprody for equipment. Land clearers would plow jungle all day receiving wounds from schrapnel and try as hard as they could to go back to the jungle to bring their plow back to the base. One kid got three Purple Hearts in one day, and sliped from the hospital to get a ride on a chopper to return to the cut and get his dozer-plow.
The pictures have faded and come from slides which are deteriated from storage. They will be added to support both of these stories. More will be added to complete the stories.
William Kenneth Nolan, LTC USAR Retired
- Hue, South Vietnam
- July 1969