A War Story and Cautionary Tale

In an earlier Andy’s Corner post I mentioned that as part of my first teaching job I was being a high school swimming coach.  In another post I told about being drafted into to army in 1967.  What I haven’t yet mentioned is how these two parts of my life met head on in Vietnam.

Soldiers in 1967 waiting to board a chartered flight to Vietnam  (photo courtesy of the Pan American Historical Foundation)

It was on March 10,1969, that I found myself flying from Fort Lewis, Washington to Long Binh, Vietnam on a chartered flight with about 150 other military personnel. We were to be part of the peak of 549,000 troops who were on the ground in Vietnam that year.

Like most of the other military personnel on that plane I had no idea of what my assignment would be once I got there.  Needless to say, my anxiety level was pretty high.  I had graduated from OCS (Officer Candidate School) as an ordnance officer with an MOS (Military Occupation Code) of Ammunition Specialist. This meant that I very likely could be assigned to a unit dealing with objects that could blow up (big time), which clearly was not a very inviting career path. However, I knew that the the army occasionally made exceptions and assigned personnel outside of their MOS. At least that’s what I was hoping for.

Long Binh Post was a sprawling logistics facility and the largest U.S. Army base in Vietnam, with 60,000 personnel in 1969 (the year I arrived in country).

We arrived at the Long Binh airport in the evening and were directed to a large tent lined with bunks to spend the night. We were told to be ready to report the first thing in the morning for our in-country duty assignments. 

The night was agonizingly long.  The sound of machine guns rattling in the distance and the glare of parachute flares along the perimeter were unsettling to us newcomers trying desperately to sleep.  Were we about to be overrun?  Is that guy walking down the row of bunks returning from the latrine or is he a VC about to toss a grenade? I don’t think I got any sleep at all.

In the morning I slung my duffle bag over my shoulder and got in the line for my turn to be assigned to a unit. When I finally got to the personnel officer sitting at a folding table, I saluted and said “Sir, Lieutenant Deseran reporting for duty.” 

Ignoring my salute, he rummaged through the pile of folders on the table until he found mine and thumbed through it. Without looking up he said, “I see that you were a high school swimming coach. You would be a perfect match for the 184th Ordnance Battalion. They have a swimming pool and are looking for a swimming officer.” 

With that he stamped some forms and told me that I would be catching the next flight from Long Binh to Qui Nhon and from there would to be driven to the 184th Ordinance Battalion near Phu Tai.  

I couldn’t wait to write to Ann with the good news about my impending assignment. It looked like my MOS classification wasn’t going to send me to some hazardous ammunition depot out in a combat zone after all.

I was ushered onto an army cargo plane headed for Qui Nhon and upon arrival was driven by jeep on a 45 minute pot-hole-jarring ride to the 184th base camp near Phu Tai. When we finally got there I was taken to meet the executive officer, a major filling in for the commanding officer who was away on R&R.

After exchanging a few pleasantries about how my trip from Long Binh had gone, the Major told me that they didn’t have me assigned to a unit yet but that they would let me know in the morning. 

I informed him that I understood that the 184th was looking for a swimming officer.  Looking a bit bemused he told me that indeed there was a swimming pool but it had been filled in with dirt ever since he had been there and as far as he knew, there were no plans to change that. 

At that moment I realized I had been the butt of a sadistic form of military humor – and I’d fallen for it hook, line, and sinker.  I can’t remember if I was more embarrassed, disappointed, or angry – I think I must have felt all of them.

No army-issue swimming suit for me!

After getting that deflating news I was shown to the commanding officer’s quarters to spend the night (since he was away on R&R). As soon as I got settled on his bunk I began writing to Ann, explaining to her that my good fortune of becoming the swimming officer was not in the cards.  But I assured her that it looked like the 184th would be a safe assignment and she shouldn’t worry about me. 

I was half way through that letter when the first explosion of the night literally knocked me out of the bunk. It turned out that the 184th was a major ammunition depot that supplied everything from small-arms ammunition to 8 inch artillery rounds for the units operating in the Central Highlands. And not only that, it was situated in a valley surrounded by some rugged hills making it a popular target for VC attacks. So much for the “safe assignment.”

Remains of an ammo pad in the 184th depot following an attack (my own photo)

Some day I’ll fill you in about the rest of that night (and about other nights). But for now I just want to leave you with this cautionary piece of advice:

When someone tells you something that seems to be “too good to be true,”

it probably is!

2 Comments

  1. Larry Squarepants says:

    Captain Renault:
    What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

    Rick:
    My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

    Captain Renault:
    The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

    Rick:
    I was misinformed.

    Like

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