Echoes from the Regiment’s Service in Vietnam 1966 – 1972
Don Snedeker, 11th ACVVC Historian
3rd Qtr 2016
The Animals - Part III
On the 4th of July 1968, Fox Troop found a 12-foot long snake that had been run over by a track as they set up their NDP. Jim Griffiths was there. “Its mouth was wide open and the size of it indicated it most likely could swallow a massive amount.” Like an unsuspecting Blackhorse Trooper who might fall asleep while on guard? Jim was part of a 4-man listening post located 25 meters outside the perimeter that night, and everyone stayed wide awake just in case that constrictor’s mate came looking to get even.
Boat Person PFC John Stanley was “more afraid of snakes…than anything else.” The classes aboard the Sultan on the way to Vietnam described the many varieties of poisonous snakes found in the jungle. “I was afraid to pick up my foot once I got on land”, John recalls. And, sure enough, one of those deadly critters found him. It happened while he was driving his ACAV outside the new base camp. He wasn’t paying careful attention (driving in circles to crush the vegetation was, after all, pretty boring), so he didn’t see the rather sizable tree that he ran into. It stopped his vehicle dead in its tracks.
“I saw something come out of the tree. It came down and landed right between my legs and landed down below, and in less than a minute I knew it was a snake and while the personnel carrier was still running I came up out of [the driver’s compartment]”. John recalls that he normally had to squeeze his shoulders to get through the hatch, so he doesn’t know how he was able to rocket out of his seat and onto the top of the track. “I never even touched it. I just, whoosh, shot up out of there.” Another crewmember killed the foot-long krait, but John was scarred for life. “That was as close as I came to dying while I was over there…”
Tom Koch distinctly remembers the day in the summer of 1969 when he was on a Huey. It was while on the way back to Blackhorse Base Camp, after a short stop in an area of thick reeds, that the pilots noticed they had a passenger on board whose name was not on the flight manifest. “The pilots took turns flying”, Tom remembers. “As one took the controls, the other would lift his feet into the air! This occurred several times over several minutes. Eventually, they set the copter down on the pad at base camp and we all bailed out.” CPT Bob Phillips was the pilot that day. “‘We were making our final approach to Blackhorse when we found the snake… He suddenly appeared on top of the compass near the co-pilot’s head. We immediately recognized it as a bamboo viper, about eight inches long and very poisonous.’” When Tom asked what all the commotion up front had been about, CPT Phillips told him that a snake had apparently slithered on board while they were sitting amongst the reeds – the same reeds that Tom had slogged through to get into the chopper. Eventually they found the snake and donated it to the Blackhorse Replacement School. The sign on the viper’s tank warned the new Troopers to avoid such reptiles while on patrol – or when flying.
Oh, and the rats. From day one in Vietnam, they were virtually constant companions to the Blackhorse Troopers. Probably to her great dismay, Jack Burns closed his 16 September 1966 letter to his Nana: “We killed a rat in the tent with a bayonet today” (Jackie, boy, what were you thinking?).
Charlie Troop had a close encounter of a rat kind after conducting a road security mission on QL 13 in 1970. At the end of the day, the Troop occupied an abandoned fire base along Thunder Road, intending to overnight there before assuming a new mission in the morning. The 3rd Platoon Leader, 1LT Paul Baerman, was awakened about 2300 hours by “the distinct feeling there were others present. I felt tiny claws walking up my chest. I opened my eyes and found myself staring at the beady eyes of a rat!” By consensus, the Charlie Troopers surrendered the fire base to the rats, spending the rest of the night – with one eye open all the time – 500 meters away. But, if there were rats in the bunkers, at least that that meant there weren’t any snakes there!
But Troopers didn’t have to go to the ‘field’ to encounter such critters; there were plenty who resided inside Blackhorse Base Camp. When he first got to Long Giao in late 1968, Mark Crist heard stories from the ‘old hands’. Those veterans advised against sleeping inside the bunkers on the perimeter.
A series of tales worthy of a Steven King novel today…had me wondering if all those horror and Science Fiction movies I’d seen in the ‘50’s were based on actual events. ‘Things’ that oozed from the primordial slime and did go bump in the night awakening dormant primal fears. A staccato of stories shot through with terror of how garden variety pests back home had indeed become those mutated matinee monstrosities… I heard about spiders as big as dinner plates, centipedes as long as a man’s arm, gigantic cockroaches, snakes, bats, and rats, the bite of either guaranteeing only one thing, making it as far as the door before meeting the Grim Reaper face to face. Last, but not least, the hideous Sun Spider, a beast as big as a dog, red, and pulsating with poison that dripped from fangs longer than a bayonet.
Two years later, First-HOW was back in the Xuan Loc area for a short sojourn. SP4 George Krcelich remembers the night when the bunker guards “reported an unidentified flying object over the perimeter”. Not knowing what it might be (this was before the invention of drones), the OIC gave the OK to shoot it up. The guards did so enthusiastically. A search of the area after daylight confirmed a target kill – a bat with a 4-foot wingspan.
Following the Tet ’68 offensive, units of the 11th ACR were assigned as a quick reaction force for the Bien Hoa-Long Binh area. Sometimes this involved occupying a centrally-located laager in order to be able to respond quickly should the enemy attack. On other occasions, Blackhorse Troopers were told to defend critical installations and infrastructure, such as bridges over the Saigon or Dong Nai Rivers. The bridges were a target for VC frogmen who frequently attempted to bring a bridge down by attaching mines to it. Part of the countermeasures at one particular bridge site was a flock of geese who would ‘sound the alarm’ whenever anyone approached.
SGT Greg Mason, an RTO in the Third Squadron TOC, remembers: “Our troops had to periodically walk up to the geese at night to see how close they got before the geese honked. Then they had to call in the ‘Honker’ report to me for recording and forwarding”. Bob Grossman, Bengal 3 at the time, recalls that the geese were not reliable. “They did not work. The II Field Force vet was asked to check out the geese and he reported them as starving. Improved feeding did not improve their ability to sense people.”
Just as the first Blackhorse Troopers adopted pets almost as soon as they got off the boats in September 1966, the last Troopers in country carried their animal pals around with them to the end. Like ‘Charlie Chicken’, the “ugliest, scrawniest chicken” liberated by a Golf Trooper from its VC captors while in Cambodia in mid-1970. Despite missing half of its feathers and having red skin, Charlie Chicken was saved from the cooking pot by finding its way into the hearts of more than one Battle Squadron Trooper.
‘Shortshaft’ (named for the shaft connecting the turbine with the blades on an LOH) was one of those mongrel Vietnamese dogs that knew when they had a good thing going (i.e., being fed dinner rather than being dinner). He hung around the 2/11 Aviation Section for at least two years, right up until the squadron stood down and went home in early 1972. Like many of the flight crews who had adopted him, Shortshaft was born to fly. Normally, he stuck with the uneventful short admin hops, but one day he stowed away on Vince Favale’s LOH as it went out in search of the enemy. “‘No one knew he was there,’” Favale remembers. Shortshaft stayed hidden somewhere in the small helicopter until they went into action. Then, as Favale started engaging a target with his machine gun, Shortshaft spooked. “‘He scared the hell out of me… He jumped onto the M60, then over the front seat, and tumbled into the controls, throwing the chopper into a lurch.’” All three crewmen – the pilot, Favale, and Shortshaft – survived the incident, none the worse for the wear.
Just as Sergeant Beans was remembered for many years by the Blackhorse Troopers who had adopted him in the 1920s, so too was Arthur, a spider monkey adopted by Alpha Troop, First Squadron, in 1969. When Dick Moore finally worked up the courage to contact John Sorich in 2010, they struggled to find common memories. Sure, his name was familiar, but why? Then Arthur’s name popped into the conversation and “united us again”. Both Dick and John had pictures of themselves with the little monkey; Arthur opened the door, and the memories flooded through.