A Vietnam Retrospective
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The occasional mortar barrage kept everybody somewhat loose, but it didn't mean you were
gonna flee your place in the chow line. Or the fact that there was a sniper who liked to
kick up dust around the shitters as you purged the daily malaria pill. I don't think anyone
knew for sure if it was a VC or just a disgruntled EM (enlisted man) who had a bone to pick
with certain officers…
The malaria pills came in two forms: A little white one daily with breakfast or, if you
forgot... the big pink one that had to be ingested weekly. It induced almost immediate
Hershey squirts. The fact that we were getting shot at out in the AO (and/or while taking
a crap) had a habit of working on some guy's nerves.
Duc Pho could be referred to by three different names: LZ Bronco for the artillery; Duc
Pho for the ville; and Montezuma for the hill that the installation/airfield lay at the base
of. Word-of-mouth history had it that the hill (Montezuma) had been mined by every occupying
force that had taken up residence: the Japanese during WWII, the French, the VC, the U.S. Marines,
and the U.S. Army (Below: An aerial photo of Duc Pho)
A road had been cleared to the top, which had a MARS station and any number of communication
personnel. The warning was issued to make sure you stayed on the designated trail, or he who
wandered would very likely circle the drain. Old timers, in the coarse of a card game, would
relate how they'd be startled at night by a horrific explosion, followed by the pelting of
debris and body parts on the tin roof's of the hootches or "O club." I absolutely believed
all the horror stories about the place, to include: "Don't ever go into the ville. They
found one guy hanging from a tree. He'd been skinned and his *&%# were stuffed in his mouth!"
Or, you could be infected with a not-so rare strain of "black Asian V.D." where they send
you to this remote island to die and you'll be listed as MIA forever! Any time I was asked,
"Hey Mister Thompson, I got a jeep. You want to go into the ville for a little culture?"
I'd either take off running or just faint, right there, on the spot. All in all, Duc Pho
was probably most notable in southern I Corp for the Korean-run "Steam and Cream."
It was sometime in September 1970 that Bob Gentry physically separated me from my reliable
(yet inferior) Kodak Instamatic camera. He picked it up, gave me the film from it, and threw
the camera in the trash. He then assisted me in ordering a Pentex "Spotmatic" SLR (Single Lens
Reflex) camera. He had two of them. He'd gotten them in the Bahamas for next to nothing. He
had taken some of the most incredible pictures I'd ever seen there, which, according to his dad,
his mom still has locked up "cause she still can't bare to look at them." One of the first
pictures I took with mine was a post "floor show" group shot. It was of Bob Chipley, Steve
Grooms, Mike Phillips, Bob Gentry and Guy Martin in the Misfit's, shortly before I broke the
flash (The photo is below).
It was bad enough to be in Vietnam, but the new-guy stigma made it all the more
difficult to bare. I can remember wishing time to go by quickly, not in order to leave, but
just so people would get off your case. The fact was, I was one--an FNG--and seemed I'd stay
one for a long, long time. (Webbie's note, a "civilized" definition of FNG might be Fumbling
But, like any life style adjustment, the long hot hours turned into long hot days. The weeks
began to pile up right along side of all those incredible experiences. Learning the AO (Area
of Operations) became like playing in your own backyard: LZ Bronco with the sound of the big
guns shooting out, or worse, the VC's mortars coming in… The Korean "steam and cream" for a
haircut and massage on a rare day off… O.D. Lake… reporting Twin Tits inbound… or advising
Duc Pho tower you were a single ship, southbound, "feet wet" for P.O.L.
As the months began to go by, the old guys went home, or were wounded, or worse, were killed.
As a unit, we seemed to grow older together, if not closer, as big tragedies or smaller
tragedies occurred. When we arrived, the unit was just beginning to recover from the loss
of a whole Shark crew that had the hydraulic "hard over" along Highway One in May 1970.
WO Henke had been a "super senior" (holdover) to our class in Texas. Henke along with
WO Fred Sheffield and two crewmembers were instantly gone. Jarvis "Sugar Bear" Gambrell
had been given the assignment to go to Chu Lai to make the identifications at Graves
On the same day, a Dolphin aircraft flown by WO Charles Uhlich and Rich Wondra was hit by an
RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) in the cargo bay, while down in an LZ. It killed most of
the troops on board and the gunner. Rich Wondra described the horror. He would tell me
later that he would never recover as a pilot, due to that experience. Pilots such as CW2
John "Beetle" Bailey told me of his sense of loss when Captain John "Gibby" Gibbons had been
killed on February 12, 1970. John Bailey was another pilot whose experiences would play
heavily on the rest of his life. Death had touched them all and changed them forever.
Above: Left- WO1 Charlie Uhlich. Right- CW2 John "Beetle" Bailey
There was WO Harry Ward who got leg-shot on July 2, with Jack Dotterer, and went
I didn't know him very well, but when I first arrived he was very helpful to me in getting
settled. There was the senior Shark crewchief and gunner, Harrison Bell and Fred Vandiver,
who were killed on July 6 along with Len Mizer (Lt. Brandt survived) when their aircraft
crashed and rolled down a hill, south of Hill 411. On July 8 another of my classmates, Jim
Dunnavant, and the rest of his 176 AHC Musket crew were killed in a crash, shortly after
take off, west of Tam Ky. ------------------------
During the first week in June 1970, aircraft commander WO Chuck Strumpke had given me an
up-close-and-personal education on "How To" and "How Not to" do approaches and departures
from remote and not-so-remote pinnacle LZ's in Vietnam. When he first gave me the controls
nearing a hilltop unit for resupply, I did all the standard rate of approach and dissent
I'd been taught.
Well, about a five hundred meters out, he grabs the controls and drops the bottom (collective)
out and we fall like a rock. He yanks it left and then back to the right until the giant
flare near the bottom and a perfect cushion. I thought we were doing some kind of a controlled
He glares in my direction and states: "You got to forget about all that stateside, standard rate bullshit here! Out here in these jungles, and in these villes, you have a whole lot of ninety pound, political zealots with high powered, automatic weapons that would like nothing more than to blow your shit away! Your job is to survive, and to do that, you must make that little zealot's job a whole lot more difficult!"
I got it!
End of Part 3 of 20 Parts.
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