I arrived at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, on Thursday afternoon, November 30, 1967. Cam Ranh was a gigantic Air Force, Army, and Navy base. After deplaning, we boarded some buses and joined the 486,000 US military personnel already in Vietnam. We were all soldiers, so we were sent to the Army Reception and Placement center on base. Awaiting orders with me were five hundred men, most of them just out of advanced individual training (AIT) or jump school.
Most of the conversations revolved around their hopes of not being assigned to the Fourth Infantry Division or 173rd Airborne Brigade, both of which had just fought a terrible battle at Dak To in II Corps, the second most northerly of the four tactical zones that made up South Vietnam. My military occupational specialty had been heavy-weapons infantry (airborne) until I transferred to the Quartermaster Corps and became a parachute rigger.
From my previous assignment, in Germany, I had come to realize that R & P centers were just glorified concentration camps filled with a ready supply of slave labor. And since they were also generally full of confusion, I decided that if my name wasn’t called at morning formation, I would just take a walk. So on Friday, December 1, my first morning in Vietnam, when my name wasn’t called, I walked over to the R & R center on base and learned to water-ski.
The next morning, I didn’t receive orders, so I walked away for more waterskiing, swimming, and sunbathing. But after spending another day enjoying the tropical paradise and the great Air Force food, I was suddenly called back to reality with an assignment to the First Air Cavalry Division—a 20,000-man force with 450 helicopters.
In July 1965, the First Cavalry Division became the first operational division in the world designed exclusively around the helicopter—and, a month later, the first full division sent to Vietnam. In November of that year, in the Ia Drang Valley, the First Cavalry Division was also the first to engage the North Vietnamese Army in large-scale combat, and the first unit in Vietnam to earn a Presidential Unit Citation.[i]
A C-130 Hercules transported me to An Khe in the Central Highlands, where the First Cavalry Division was headquartered at Camp Radcliff, 150 miles north of Cam Ranh. I was assigned to the Fifteenth Supply and Services Battalion, Aerial Equipment and Support, more commonly known as the Fifteenth “shit-and-shingle” Battalion. The division’s vast helicopter assets could land troops much more precisely and with less exposure in the air than paratroops jumping from fixed-wing aircraft, thus making parachute riggers largely unnecessary. This meant that for the next year, I would be doing basically nothing but pull guard duty and KP and fill sandbags. On the other hand, I would have a roof over my head, three hot meals a day, a real latrine with hot showers, and an enlisted men’s club out back that never ran out of beer. Still, it didn’t sit well.
Being in Air Cav meant I would attend the air assault course. At the end of training, Capt. Michael Gooding and S.Sgt. Thomas Campbell from Company E, 52nd Infantry (LRP), the division’s long-range reconnaissance patrol unit, came looking for volunteers. In basic training and AIT, I had scored as an expert rifleman and mortarman and had already served temporary duty with Company D, Seventeenth Infantry (LRP) in Germany, so they accepted me right away. Once again, I was in the infantry.
Company E held its long-range reconnaissance patrol course on base. I loved the rigorous physical regimen, studying the enemy’s organization and tactics, the art of patrolling, firing weapons, and detonating explosives. But most of all, I loved the brotherhood of men. Though some were drafted into the Army, everyone in the LRRPs was a motivated volunteer who believed in America’s cause and wanted to get in the field and defeat the enemy.
Unconventional thinking was part of the LRRPs. If our company needed radios or other equipment, we procured them from other units. We executed midnight sorties with stealth and precision. Midnight requisitions began late at night, with students and LRRPs climbing onto a deuce-and-a-half (a truck with a two-and-a-half-ton load capacity) and driving to various areas on base where rear-echelon troops were asleep. Coming to an isolated barracks, our driver backed his truck up to a sandbag wall, where everyone quietly jumped off the rear. Without saying a word, we formed a line from the wall to our truck and passed along sandbags until our truck was full, saving us the time and drudgery of filling our own. As we drove off, one of us said, “I wonder what those idiots will say when they wake up?” “Like ‘Hey, man, where’s our wall?” said another.
My class graduated on Monday, January 8, 1968. We each were issued a soft-brimmed camouflage hat and two pairs of camouflage fatigues that only Special Forces, LRRPs, and Navy SEALs could wear. Regardless of team assignment, all the guys socialized with one another and were, for the most part, free to do as they pleased when not on patrol.
I found a home with the LRRPs, and with the war rapidly escalating, I knew that I was finally right where I belonged. In Vietnam, handguns were almost impossible to get unless you had the rank of sergeant or above. I was just a corporal, so I wrote home for my dad to send me one of the US .45-caliber 1911A1 pistols I had bought in Germany. I also bought a twenty-power spotting scope off a soldier, figuring it would be a nice supplement to our team’s seven-power 50mm binoculars.
Then I bought my second machine gun: a vintage World War II US .45-caliber M3A1 “grease gun.” I paid a sergeant sixty dollars for it, figuring it would be more compact then my issued M16 rifle for excursions off base.[ii] My very first machine gun, an AK47, I had bought in Germany, from the LRRPs’ first sergeant.
As a corporal, I earned 295 dollars a month. And each month, I sent all but 95 dollars home to my mom. I planned, if I lived, to be a gunsmith and buy a Mustang convertible.
On Thursday, January 11, 1968, I was sent to our Second Platoon at Landing Zone English, just north of Bong Song, a few miles off the South China Sea. The LZ was a small forward base with a detachment of South Vietnamese paratroops. The Army of South Vietnam (ARVNs) had a reputation for being corrupt and incompetent, and I noticed that the paratroops carried grease guns, along with other World War II‑era weapons. Since I wanted an extra one to send home, I thought I’d make them an offer. I took a walk to the ARVNs’ compound, but when I saw how careless they were about leaving their weapons lying around, a new plan began to take shape. If I tried to buy a grease gun but failed to close the deal, I would only draw attention to myself. Then, if one of the weapons should later go missing, things could get awkward. Better just to steal one.
So I just walked on by. Then, after drinking a couple of beers to calm my nerves, I returned to the ARVNs’ compound late that night. As I had hoped, I found them in their tent with the sides rolled up, sleeping on the dirt floor. Seeing a number of grease guns and M1 carbines lying on a short sandbag wall surrounding the tent, I stood off to the side and watched.
After enough time had elapsed to convince me that everyone was asleep, I started crawling up to the tent, slinking from one small bush to the next. But as I got within about thirty feet, a little dog inside started barking. Since by now I was too close to run away, I froze behind a bush, thinking, Ah, shit, did I ever screw up!
But though the dog kept barking, it woke only two soldiers, who just lazily raised their heads above the sandbag wall to glance around. Apparently feeling safe because their compound was within our LZ, they ignored the dog and went back to sleep.
After a few minutes passed, the dog kept barking but still they didn’t wake up. So instead of giving up, I proceeded with my mission. Crawling the last few feet to where a grease gun lay, I reached up onto the wall and quietly lifted it off. Belly-crawling back the way I had come, I was soon far enough away to walk back to my platoon. The next morning, now the proud possessor of not one but two grease guns, I emptied a box of LRRP rations and sent one home. I did it the same way I had sent my AK47 from Germany: by disassembling the weapon, taping the parts irregularly over the receiver, and declaring it as a camera with tripod and film. With luck, no one would x-ray it.
* * *
After the North Vietnamese Army launched a major offensive against the marines along by the DMZ and at the Khe Sanh combat base, my division was ordered north to I Corps. It was a hurried affair, and my platoon arrived just south of Quang Tri City on Friday evening, January 19. We were sixteen miles south of the DMZ, in a destroyed former French army camp. We pitched our tents inside the ruined walls of buildings and named the place “LZ Betty.” In the center of our LZ, in one of the few intact buildings, Col. Donald Rattan set up First Brigade Headquarters.
Twelve days later, during the early morning hours of Wednesday, January 31, the largest battle of the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive, was launched all across South Vietnam by 84,000 enemy soldiers. In our area, five enemy battalions and a platoon of sappers attacked Quang Tri City and our LZ. To stop allied troops from intervening, three other enemy infantry battalions deployed as blocking forces, supported by a 122mm-rocket battalion and two heavy-weapons companies armed with 82mm mortars and 75mm recoilless rifles.
I had a front-row seat with members of my platoon atop a large concrete water tower outside our north perimeter. Using my twenty-power scope, I spotted for my company commander, Capt. Michael Gooding, as he picked off advancing enemy troops with an M14 selective-fire rifle equipped with a 2.5-power scope. Later in the same battle, my first shots fired in combat were from a .50-caliber M2 heavy machine gun, against ARVN soldiers in a hospital compound. For some reason, they had fired on us first, perhaps mistaking us for the enemy, or perhaps they really were the enemy, dressed in ARVN uniforms. Whatever the case, they lost.
Except in Hue, where the marines continued to battle, the Tet Offensive ended as suddenly as it began, on Friday, February 2. But vivid reminders lingered. Outside our LZ and in the city of Quang Tri were 900 bloated enemy corpses. Across South Vietnam, 32,000 people died, including 14,000 civilians, 2,100 ARVNs, and 1,000 Americans.
On the brighter side, my division had captured a large number of small arms during Tet, and some of these went on display above the two doors at brigade headquarters, where Colonel Rattan slept. Since enemy weapons were hard to come by in the field, I found them enticing, especially since they were just hung there loosely by wire loops. But with officers strolling in and out of there during the day, my only chance to get at them would be at night, when no one was around except for one lone guard armed with an M16.
After a couple of nights watching various guards saunter casually around the building, showing little vigilance because they were in the middle of an LZ, I decided to act. Around midnight, I drank a beer and watched from a nearby building to time my approach. The headquarters building was rectangular, so the guard took longer to walk the long sides of the building than the ends. Waiting till he rounded the far corner, I stepped to a doorway where an AK47 was hanging. Taking a quick glance left and right, I lifted it from its loops and quietly walked away.
I kept doing these random nighttime sorties, and Colonel Rattan kept replacing the weapons. In March, Col. John Stannard took command of the brigade. He had the weapons tied with wire to secure them. So I brought a pair of wire cutters. Gripping a strand so it wouldn’t ping or, worse, let the weapon clatter to the floor and alert the guard, I silently snipped the wire.
I completed the Fifth Special Forces Recondo School in May, and in June I became a 19-year-old team leader. I completed twenty-two patrols and continued stealing weapons from brigade headquarters until I shipped home in October.
I sent a lot of “cameras” home from Vietnam. These included two US .45-caliber M3A1 submachine guns, a US .30-caliber M2 selective-fire carbine, two Chinese 7.62mm x 39mm AK47s (one with folding stock), two Russian 7.62x39 AK47s (one with folding stock), one Russian 7.62x39 AKM, two Chinese 7.62x25 PPS43 submachine guns, one Chinese 7.62x39 RPD belt-fed light machine gun, a French 9mm MAT49 submachine gun, and a Chinese 7.62x39 SKS carbine. Including the AK47 I shipped from Germany, I had fourteen firearms, all but one of them machine guns.[iii]
Every weapon, including the .45 my dad had sent me, made it home except for the SKS, which was lost or stolen in the mail. That was the only weapon that wasn’t a machine gun. But it had a special provenance: it was taken from an NVA sniper whom my team leader, Doug Parkinson, and our Montagnard front scout, Corporal Dish, killed in A Shau Valley on Sunday morning, April 21, 1968. The sniper was already wounded and had a large compress on his chest and another on his leg. He died bravely, fighting for his cause.
I still have his canteen, still partly filled with water, the attached web shoulder strap with Parkinson’s and Dish’s bullet holes in it, his belt, and a stripper clip of ten rounds of ammunition manufactured in the Soviet Union in 1960 that would have killed more Americans. I also took two North Vietnamese postage stamps. One shows an NVA soldier in battle uniform with pith helmet, vaulting over a wall with his SKS. The other shows an NVA soldier with helmet and cape, holding a PPSh-41 submachine gun, and a woman standing behind him with a slung rifle. Behind both of them are SAM missiles and antiaircraft guns. Infantrymen have a bond with the enemy that is not so very different from that with our own brothers in arms. For we are often the only ones there to witness the fallen soldier’s last living acts.
One of the weapons, a Chinese 7.62mm x 54R RP46 belt-fed medium machine gun, I didn’t have time to mail, because I was heading home the next day. So I cleaned it and gave it to my assistant team leader and buddy, Tony Griffith. I can still remember sitting on our cots in my hooch, sharing warm beers as I explained how the weapon functioned. The Beach Boys’ “California Girls” was playing on my radio. Tony was grateful for the gift, but he was concerned about an upcoming military operation and looked to me for strength. I flung him my short-brimmed flop, saying it would bestow good luck on the wearer. “Thanks, Sarge,” he said, putting it on. He looked around him, grinning as though someone had given him a fine Stetson and not a ragged, sweat-stained flop hat. Tony never sent the weapon home. He was killed in action wearing my hat.
Acquiring weapons and getting them home overcame two major obstacles. But keeping them from federal authorities would be even more challenging.
[i] See Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once … and Young: Ia Drang—the Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam (New York: Ballantine, 1992).
[ii] Adjusting for inflation, sixty dollars would be four hundred fifteen dollars today. An M3A1 is now worth twenty thousand dollars. See Robert Ankony, “The Financial Assessment of Military Small Arms,” Small Arms Review (Apr. 2000): 53‑59, item 14.
[iii] All weapons sent home from Europe and Vietnam were registered or reported to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and have since been disposed of.