Two huiâ€”helicopters pushed northward, two thousand feet above the swamp and rice paddy domain of the Mekong Deltaâ€™s Vietcong legions, their blades beating a steady rhythm against the air. One of them, the unarmed â€œslick,â€? carried Capt. Humbert â€œRockâ€? Versace, intelligence adviser with the Military Assistance and Advisory Group at Camau. The other chopper, flying slightly to their right front, was an armed helicopter, its landing skids heavy with rocket tubes and machine guns. Their destination was a small Special Forces camp twenty-six kilometers north of the provincial capital and in the center of a Vietcong-controlled zone.
Rocky was a trimly built, twenty-six-year-old West Point graduate who had volunteered for a six-month extension after completing one year as an adviser. His slightly outthrust jaw and penetrating eyes were indications of his personality, but his close-cut, black-flecked, steel-gray hair looked as if it belonged on someone much older.
He had recently been assigned as MAAG intelligence adviser in Camau and had witnessed some hard combat as the Vietnamese units his detachment was advising stood toe to toe with the best the Vietcong had to offer. The battles were typical of that period: Vietcong nighttime assaults; chance daylight encounters with an elusive enemy and the seeming impossibility of pinning him down; bloody ambushes; lack of adequate air support and artillery even though our pilots were flying the wings off of the available T-28â€™s, the frustration that went with the â€œold warâ€? before the arrival of jets, artillery support, and American Combat units. This was the war known to the American advisers, to the isolated U.S. Special Forces detachments in their efforts to combat the Vietcong in their own territory. This was Vietnam, 1963.
Small groups of huts, clustered along canal banks bordered by coconut palms and banana trees, passed below the open doors of the choppers. The countryside was deceptively peaceful. To shatter the illusion all one had to do was drop down into range of the weapons which were, no doubt, pointed skyward at that very moment, hidden by the foliage of the trees. Farmers worked thigh-deep in water, tending their rice paddies, their conical hats reflecting the sunlight. Water buffalo wallowed in the mud, oblivious to all around them. A graceful â€œspirit birdâ€? hung motionless in the sky, â€œsuspended high in a rising air thermal,â€? its lonely world undisturbed by the passing helicopters.
Ahead, now visible at the intersection of two larger canals, was Versaceâ€™s destination, Tan Phu. A streamer of green smoke billowed up from the landing zone, a small rectangular area cleared for chopper landing. At Tan Phu there was only one way in or outâ€”by chopperâ€”and it wasnâ€™t safe that way either. The terrain one kilometer away from camp for 360 degrees belonged to Charlie. It was an isolated fortress manned by an American Special Forces A-Detachment, their Vietnamese Special Forces (LLDB) counterpart team, and four companiesâ€”about 380 men on an average dayâ€”of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group. These were the Vietnamese and Cambodians from that area who had been recruited, equipped, and trained to resist the Vietcong in their home villages. It was a lonely spot for the Americans.
The armed Huey made its first pass over the camp, a cluster of brown thatched huts surrounded by a mud wall, narrow moat, and several distinct barbed wire barriers. Large machine-gun bunkers on the corners and scattered rifle positions along the wall marred the otherwise smooth rectangular layout of the campâ€™s main defense. Mortar positions within the perimeter, a watchtower, a masonry and tile dispensary, and a large concrete cube completed the major interior parts of this barrier to complete Vietcong domination of the area.
The large concrete structure was being used as an ammunition bunker now that it had been strengthened and sandbagged. It was the only survivor of a militia post that had been overrun by the VC in 1962. The last of the soldiers then manning the post had been trapped inside the building as they made a final stand. The Vietcong had jammed the muzzles of their weapons into the firing ports and riddled the inside of the building, then hurled grenades into the ports and wiped out the remaining defenders. The inside walls of the building still bore the scars of that last stand.
The choppers settled onto the sheets of perforated steel matting which prevented them from sinking over their skids in the soft muck of this delta swampland. Rocky jumped to the matting, clutching a small bag in one hand and a portable Thermofax machine under his other arm. His baseball cap was canted to one side of his head and his carbine had slipped from his shoulder to the crook of his arm.
â€œWelcome to the end of the world! I didnâ€™t expect you so soon.â€? Ducking against the powerful downdraft of the blades and holding my beret on with one hand, I greeted him. Members of the American team took his gear as I introduced him to Al Penneult, the crew-cut, bull-necked ex-football playerâ€”our detachment commander.
Rockyâ€™s grin was one of the nicest things about him and his greeting made it seem as if weâ€™d known each other for years. Actually, it had been only a few weeks since Iâ€™d met him. I had been en route to Tan Phu from Saigon after picking up funds and supplies for the camp. Rocky had been just another face in the vehicle that took us from the Catinat Hotel to Tan Son Nhut Airfield and I had said no more than â€œGood morningâ€? when I first saw him. It wasnâ€™t until we found ourselves sitting side by side on the same Caribou flight to Can Tho that we began to talk and introduced ourselves. Before we landed at Can Tho, we had gone through the whole problem of exchange of vital information that existed in our operational area and had hatched a plan to establish communication between our posts. We received permission at my B-Detachment to put in voice commo between Tan Phu and Camau. It was to be strictly for exchange of information and not used as a command net. With that guidance, we went to work and in three days had installed an AN/GRC 9 radio at Tan Phu and linked the two groups of Americans, the Special Forces and MAAG. I had spent two days at Camau, coordinating the setup and requisitioning the radio which I subsequently took back to Tan Phu to be installed. Rocky had planned to come up to Tan Phu for a visit to check out what we had and coordinate further exchanges.
This visit had been prompted by a briefing we had given his senior adviser earlier the same day on the situation at Tan Phu. He had questioned whether or not Rocky had been up to coordinate yet and after my negative reply had decided to send the choppers for him. It hadnâ€™t been more than a couple of hours after the Colonelâ€™s departure that Rocky arrived.
Rocky, Al, and I walked through the gate into the main camp, saluting the stern-faced striker on guard as he snapped to present arms with his carbine. We passed a clothesline, sagging under the weight of dripping fatigue shirts and trousers. â€œBig Boy,â€? our Vietnamese laundryman, was attempting to dry the freshly washed uniforms before the humid rainy-season climate induced mold to form. The intervals of sunlight were short and it took no time at all for the clothes to develop a broad velvety covering of either light green or dull orange.
Pluto, the teamâ€™s canine mascot, lay in the middle of the path, luxuriating in the warmth of a patch of sunlight while one of the Vietnamese chickens pecked intently at some delicacy it had discovered on Plutoâ€™s tail. Neither seemed to disturb the other.
Inside the team hut, Rocky met the other members of the team and stowed his bag and weapon on the bunk Al indicated. The dirt floors and thatch construction of our buildings contrasted sharply with the masonry structures, cement floors, and screened windows at Camau, thus prompting Rockyâ€™s first comment: â€œWhy donâ€™t you fix this place up a little?â€? He indicated the sacks of portland cement stacked high along the wall. â€œYouâ€™ve got plenty of cement, why not put in a floor and walls?â€?
The questions caused heads to turn in his direction as the team members scrutinized the visitor who had immediately begun to criticize our hootches. I felt compelled to answer, since he was my guest and I knew no one else would reply.
â€œWe have a priority on construction, Rocky. The cement is for civil affairs projects with our Vietnamese and we canâ€™t use it to make our quarters more comfortable until we finish the sanitation and construction in the villages.â€?
Rocky nodded. Once he understood why something was done, he would accept it. That is, if he agreed with the reasoning. I had, in the short time Iâ€™d known him, noticed a dynamic, outspoken frankness. He had an eagerness and disregard for danger that would blend well with Alâ€™s similar traits, but perhaps not so well with the older team membersâ€™ outlook. It was a matter of liking Rocky a hell of a lot or disliking him intensely. He was too positive a personality to allow any other reactions and his unreserved observations could be quite abrasive.
Supper that evening was a festive occasion as our Vietnamese cooks, Hai and Sha (the grinning, bucktoothed, local con artist), outdid themselves. Barbecued pork, French fried potatoes, and green beans were steaming in serving bowls on the long tables, with French rolls and butter. Fruit cocktail topped off the meal and we were all in a relaxed mood as we sat outside the hootch, sipping coffee or beer and watching the spectacular Vietnamese sunset.
These moments of quiet were ones I think all of us will remember about Vietnam. Tan Phu was a beautiful place in the evening. The wide rice paddy, graceful coconut palms, the glorious burst of oranges and reds fanning up from the western horizon and reflecting from the masses of clouds created a feeling of harmony and peace. The village children playing and laughing along the canal banks and the birds high above, quiet and graceful, returning to their nests dispelled any thoughts of the war that began when darkness fell. The mosquitoes were the first sign that night was coming and soon after their arrival, our moments of peace ended. Darkness came and with it came the VC.
That night there was a minor probe along the outpost line across the canal. We fired a few illumination and high explosive mortar rounds. The troops on the line exchanged shots with the attackers and then it was quiet again. The team had become accustomed to these harassing attacks and paid little attention unless required to support the strikers. We slept in our fatigue trousers, with boots and loaded weapons in reach of our bunks in case something big came up. Also that night, Rocky met our mobile rattrap, a seven-and-a-half-foot python, who proved to be an affable companion to his very few friends. The strikers eyed his as a substantial meal, but refrained from tangling with him for reasons other than his belonging to the American team.
The next morning, after a breakfast of Haiâ€™s two-ton pancakes, which were a good ten inches in diameter and as think as the palm of my hand, we began to go through the intelligence gathered at Tan Phu. Captain Versace proved to be extremely efficient in extracting the pertinent facts from agentsâ€™ reports and classifying it according to the information he already had. At the same time, he was filling our intelligence sergeant and me in on information that clarified our picture.
I briefed Rocky on the enemy situation, mentioning the new reports we had been getting on a buildup of VC regional force units, hard-core types with the latest Communist-bloc equipment. The day before, the Colonel had mentioned during the briefing that there were large units moving northward from the rest areas deep in the mangrove swamps south of Camau and they had disappeared after reaching this area. All indications pointed to our old troublemaker, the VC 306th Battalion, roaming around somewhere near the fringe of the U Minh Forest. We had clobbered them in an all-night battle on 30 July. They disappeared, licking their wounds and swearing revenge. They were now back with replacements and new equipment. It was a developing picture of enemy strength increasing radically, with no obvious reason to sit idle once they massed their forces. We could expect some rough nights ahead.
Rocky met Lieutenant Tinh, the Vietnamese Special Forces detachment commander, a quiet, sleepy-eyed, young second lieutenant, who had been assigned to Tan Phu for his first command position. Then he met Sergeant Canh, the Vietnamese team sergeant, a veteran of the French conflict who had served at Tan Phu from the time it was reestablished some seven months earlier. He had been team sergeant under Major Phong, the first camp commander, as was wise in the ways of staying alive at Tan Phu. Aspirant Dai was the second in command to Lieutenant Tinh and was a pleasant young man in a position where he balanced survival against fulfilling the requirements in this tour of duty for his promotion to second lieutenant. Tan Phu was a rough place to learn how to be an officer.
Excerpted from Five Years to Freedom by James N. Rowe. Copyright © 1984 by James N. Rowe. Excerpted by permission of Presidio Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.