155th Team 2
SWIMMING POOL. Having been such a soft touch for the PX flight, it wasn't long before I was again approached by Lieutenant Betz , a Warrant Officer, and the Air Force Weather Officer, this time just outside the Officers mess near the area that the pool would eventually be. Everyone in Ban Me Thuot, the 155 compound and the Army Advisors compound, knew that a swimming pool had been left at the city airport, Ban Me Thuot East, for over a year and maybe two. The story was that the Navy was in charge of recreation activities when the Advisors were the only military personnel in Viet Nam and they had ordered a number of these Olympic sized pools for the Advisory Groups. The Colonel in charge at Ban Me Thuot didn't think they had the space nor could they find the water for the pool, so it was left at the airport. Lieutenant Betz said that if I gave him the enough time off, he would get the swimming pool put in the ground. I took this as a slight challenge, I asked him how he planned to get the hole dug and whether we could get the water to the pool. Again, there had been prior planning, the civilian engineering group on post ( PA & E) had been approached and the head man (hereafter known as the Post Engineer Guy-PEG) had offered his services in labor and materials. There was the matter of wood for framing, cement for the sides and all the piping. I had been outflanked again and said go to it. The weather officer had also been in on this and he could operate a transit to get the elevations and layout done. Little did they know that I had worked in the summers of my high school and college years as a Life Guard and swimming pool manager. I, too, would like to see them succeed. They began immediately, and when they had the layout marked with stakes, I stepped in and asked that they stretch the pool liner out before the digging began because I had a suspicion that the pool was a special size and not as described in the handbooks. Sure enough, the liner was larger than that described in all the documents provided. Mark one up for the Old Man!! By Oct 15, the hole was dug and lots of dirt had to be moved. The installation of the pool went on with the help of a lot of people and we even got some sand bags filled with the dirt. A lot of obstacles were over come somehow. There was piping to acquire, cement to lay around the perimeter, and as luck would have it there were a number of small pin holes in the pool liner. The installation kit included patches for this purpose and installation proceeded. The pool was completed in November and on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 24th, we celebrated the grand opening with a ribbon cutting ceremony attended by many dignitaries and hot dogs and hamburgers at pool side. Meanwhile, I began formulating a number of excuses on why the 155th had taken the pool from the airport. My best shot was: "we had to protect it from the VC." No questions were ever asked. MISSIONARIES. In 1966, the Missionary organization had been in Viet Nam for 57 years. This information was related to me by a Missionary who I had met while I was in the advisory group. He and his family had been there 7 years with one year off to visit the States. They were given PX privileges by the Advisory Group and most of their purchases were canned foods and perhaps the hair spray. They also performed Church services for the advisory Group and the 155 almost every week. Their homes were typical "American Style", two stories with large yards, located on the south west approach to the city and easily recognizable from the air. In August, I was invited to a dinner, at one of their homes, given in Joe Parlas's honor upon his departure. My notes say there were four men with wives, several nurses all missionaries and a total of fifteen children. There were a couple more men in the group who were on trips somewhere. I don't remember any of the names, but the Missionaries, mentioned in the book on Special Operations in Viet Nam "SOG" written by John L. Plaster, must have been in the group. On the Thursday night before Christmas, 1966, the Missionaries presented a pageant with the Montagnard children depicting the Christmas theme and the birth of Christ. All the words were in RADE, Montagnard language to include the carols and hymns. The age of the children was 7 to 12 years and everything was done from memory. Each child received a bag of candy plus cokes and donuts. After we installed the swimming pool, the Missionaries were given a blanket invitation to come by for a swim. They took us up on the offer during the Christmas holidays when their college age children returned. The group included several young ladies and were always chaperoned by one of the mothers. In one of my conversations with the mothers, they expressed their gratitude and complemented me on the behavior of our men who acted like gentlemen on every occasion. But what would you expect from one of the 155 Team. I was invited to their homes often and was given a farewell dinner in late February, 1967. ORPHANAGE. The discussion of the Missionaries brings to mind the other Civic Duties that many of the U. S. Units engaged in. I am not sure that the Missionary Group had any direct relationship to the Ban Me Thuot Orphanage but in my notes the two appear together, especially at special occasions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. There are 44 children at the Catholic Orphanage and school ranging in age from two years to 17 or 18. The Catholic School had over 1,000 students Kindergarten through High School. The school was not far from the down town airport and the 155. One of the 155 Warrant Officers was from Ohio where they make a lot of cement. He asked his hometown to donate and ship bags of cement to Ban Me Thuot for the Orphanage. I accompanied him when he took the first delivery to the orphanage. I don't recall what the cement was used for but I also took advantage of the situation and donated some of the dried milk that was in our "stash" behind the mess hall. We would never get to use all that stuff any way. The Nuns seemed to be pleased that we were showing so much attention to them and the children. AIR CRAFT MAINTENANCE. From the day I took command, aircraft availability was a continuing headache for me. Due to some cannibalizing in the past and failure to reorder the necessary parts, aircraft were grounded when they came due for scheduled maintenance. We could only put 8 to 10 slicks in the air on a daily basis and this dipped to 5 HU-1DS AND 4 HU-1BS on September 18.. My report to California was "This maintenance problem is haunting me and I have only been in command for one month and 8 days". Needless to say my reputation was suffering at Battalion but with great effort on everyone's part we could see the light at the end of the long tunnel. In one of my walks through the camp, I came up this large tent near the Corral and found that it was the repair parts storage. I asked to see the record of what was in the tent and the answer was there was none. No one knew what was there and if a part was needed they first looked inside in an attempt to find it. If it wasn't found they put in an emergency request. I told the Maintenance Officer that I wanted every last part taken out of the tent and when that was done, a card file would be set up with a card for each item. This took some time but a system had to be established if we were to ever get a handle on the parts problem. With the help of some new UH- 1D Helicopters and improved control of parts we were able to report on Oct 3 that we had 20 UH-1Ds and 8 UH-1B & Cs available for flight. During the change over from B to C models, we had a total of 35 helicopters on our rolls. On November 3rd we had an inspection by the Battalion, (called CMMI). The Deputy Battalion Commander Ltc. Smithy, soon to be Bn. CO, accompanied the team and I think he was impressed with our performance. He was even more impressed with our camp and suggested that we should set up a transient barracks for the 52nd so they could send crews down for R & R. R & R AT BAN ME THUOT. I was pleased that Ltc. Smithy thought that highly of our camp by suggesting that we plan for an R & R Program but placed that in the back of my mind for future reference. At the time, the swimming pool and the NCO club were under construction but we did have a peaceful setting, especially in the evenings. There was a program going on at Holloway where the DECCA Corporation was installing a helicopter navigation system to enable helicopter pilots to locate themselves with in 50 feet of their destination. Shortly after our discussion on R & R, the DECCA program was transferred to the 155th . Several helicopters of each of the companies were designated to come to our camp for this retrofit and the crews were able to spend two days resting at our base. There was an added benefit for the 155th in that these civilians were experts in aviation communications and I wasted no time in asking them to assist our Signal Detachment in their work. There were many hours, a lot on week ends, spent by these men enthusiastically helping our crews. I never did have the opportunity to check out the navigation system and to this day do not know if it ever proved itself in the field but was sorry that the project ended and our volunteer signal maintenance crews had to leave. VC DISAPPROVES OF THE MOVIE. The R & R program reminded me of the evening that the local VC squad let us know that they disapproved of the movie by firing off a number of rounds at the screen. There was a fair crowd at the movie including a couple of visiting crews on "R & R". At the first crack of the bullets passing through the screen and over their heads, all members of the 155th Team at the movie, and elsewhere on the base, grabbed their weapons and silently took up their positions around the perimeter. I was alerted by the sound of the machine gun at the main gate tower and went immediately to the control center bunker. By this time, there was no more incoming and the troops were released from their alert positions. The movie was still running and our visitors were still sitting in the theater engrossed in the movie. They had not noticed that they were alone nor did they hear our troops leave their seats. Needless to say I was pleased at the quick reaction of the 155th Team and was glad that it ended as it did. FLIGHT SURGEON ACTIVITIES: August 30, 1966, The Flight Surgeon, Captain James F. Paulk, and I attended a Community Relations Meeting at the Bungalow to discuss several projects to help the city. The Flight Surgeon mentioned the project that he had been working on to improve the Charity Ward at the local hospital. He and other doctors share in treating charity patients. He presented a gift of over $600, $300 from the Battalion Chaplain and the remaining from other donations. He planned to have raffles to be held over the next several months. Sept. 1st the Surgeon had a raffle at the 155th and raised $230 for the Charity ward. On December 2, 1966, I accompanied the Flight Surgeon on his visit to his "Major Project" downtown, the Local Charity Ward of the Hospital. His interest and the raising of money for construction of a new building for the Charity Ward had paid off. On this visit, I was again brought back to the reality that people were suffering in this country. One little girl had been abandoned by her parents and a local woman had taken her to raise as her own child. This little 4 year old had polio. The Flight Surgeon had arranged for treatment in Saigon and she now had braces plus crutches. My comments home were "It is surely enough to break a person up to see this little one walking on crutches. She is smaller than our little girl, I bet. She sure likes the Doctor and follows him everywhere, with her eyes, if not her body. The woman's husband is in the charity ward for something and the wife stays there to feed him. I suppose they will be there for a long time. It makes you wonder what this life really means to these people. It is lots of suffering for sure." It was not unusual for the whole family to be at the hospital when one member was admitted for treatment. MEDICAL EMERGENCY AT ENGINEER COMPANY. Several things happened simultaneously during this period and this one needs to be treated carefully as some may think I took advantage of a serious problem to accomplish an improvement for the camp. First, I heard rumors, from the Mess Hall group, that there was a real nice refrigerator/freezer unit at the proposed Brigade area near the city airport. I had been trying to get a unit through normal channels and knew that we stood about as good a chance as a snow ball in Ban Me Thuot. To get the one from BMT East, legally, would take forever and I just put it on the long list of things that would be nice to have. Second . On 3 September a grenade incident occurred at the Engineer Company located at the airport. Some NCO'S and enlisted men were gambling for money and one private got mad when he lost. The private left the game, got a grenade and tossed it into the tent where it exploded. Eight or nine men were seriously injured. A call came into the 155 CQ and the med-evac ship was sent to bring in some of the injured. Others were brought in by vehicle. This occurred near midnight and most of the company, including myself, was in bed if not asleep. It was not unusual to hear the med-evac ship leave at all hours of the day and night and we all had to get some rest since we normally had early missions. The Flight Surgeon and his crew worked on the men all night. Some were flown to Nha Trang and others were treated locally. I mention this incident to set up the scenario for the acquisition of the refrigeration unit and to emphasize the seriousness of the whole affair. While the men were being treated, the Senior Army Advisor from downtown, a full Colonel, arrived dressed in civilian clothes. He asked the Flight Surgeon where Major Atkinson was. Captain Paulk responded that the Major was in bed and would not be awakened unless he was needed. He also said that he was busy and would appreciate it if the Colonel would get his you know what out of his way. The Colonel made a hasty retreat. This was all related to me the next day but the Colonel never mentioned the incident except to complement me for the excellent performance of the Medical staff, especially the "Doctor". I expected the Engineer Company Commander to come by in a day or two to express his appreciation but that did not occur. This caused me some concern because I had met the Captain while I was at the Advisory Group and thought sure he would want to express his appreciation for the exceptional work done by our Flight Surgeon and his men. The Captain did not show up. Later in September , I was informed that the Engineer Battalion Commander was at the Brigade area near the airport. I am still mystified as to how all this "intelligence" was gathered. Our staff seemed to know more about what was going on in the area than the "VC" but at the time I just reacted. I immediately jeeped to the airport, east of town, and introduced myself to the Battalion Commander. He was very happy to see me and said he had wanted to drop by to thank us for the actions of our Medical crew on the night of the accident. He was very sincere and in our conversation, he uttered those magic words that I wanted to hear, "MAJOR ATKINSON, IF THERE IS ANY THING THAT I CAN DO FOR YOU AND YOUR COMPANY, JUST LET ME KNOW!!! The door was open and I stepped in ,QUICKLY, with this rehearsed statement: "Colonel, what are you going to do with the refrigeration unit, the 155 could really use it." His response was a resounding. "IF YOU WANT IT, IT'S YOURS". If I am not mistaken he even had it delivered. The Mess Sergeant was surprised but immediately called our friend the "PEG"(Post Engineer Guy) and within days a cement pad was laid and the refrig/freezer was in operation. I still remember that this came about because some American GI injured and maybe killed his buddies over a card game. Nevertheless, the members of the Medical Detachment and Med-Evac deserved some recognition and the 155 really could use the large, but EMPTY refrigerator/freezer. FOOD. The Enlisted Mess Hall was a pet peeve of mine from the day I took command. It may have stemmed from my years of experience as a Company Commander but more than likely it was the result of the " Ho Chi Minh" plague that I had endured since April when I first landed in this exotic country. We had excellent civilian employees and the food was well prepared. It didn't hurt that there was 60 tons of food stuff stored on pallets, under tarps, outside the rear door of the kitchen. This pile of food stuffs had been shipped to Ban Me Thuot in anticipation of the relocation of an Infantry Brigade in the area. The deployment of a Brigade was canceled but the food was already delivered to the compound for storage. In a very short time, we all got tired of Dinty Moore Stew. One major problem for me about the Mess Hall was the insistence of the Vietnamese kitchen staff to prop the doors open with the dining room chairs, rain or shine. They would then take fly swatters to all the flies that had free entrance. I threatened the Mess Officer and Mess Sergeant, Sgt. Ohden F. Durham, with courts-martial, plus the cost of the chairs that were being destroyed by all the rain. My threat worked, but only after a short period of time for them to test "the Old Man." The Mess Sergeant enlisted the help of the company clerk and every time I left the office, a call was made by the clerk to the mess hall. I could hear doors slamming each time I headed to the Mess Hall. It wasn't long that the staff at the Mess Hall got tired of opening and closing the screen doors and I no longer heard the slamming sound when I approached. The second peeve of mine was the cleaning of pots and pans on the floor. I asked the Mess Sergeant if he wouldn't talk to the Field Maintenance Sergeant about constructing a table of metal so that the cleaning of pots could be done off the floor. It wasn't long until I was invited to see the new addition, a real nice stainless steel table or maybe aluminum from one of the choppers. I still remember the bread, cakes and pies from the night baker, an enlisted man whose name I cannot remember. He volunteered to bake since he had done that before Nam and he was good. I don't know if he was a crew chief, mechanic or door gunner and I didn't ask as long as he kept those sweets coming. I had a running battle with Battalion and Nha Trang for the delivery of food, particularly flour since that was not stocked in the "Food Pile" out back. My friend, Major Bill Callinan, BN S-4, arranged for us to get 1000 lbs. of flour from Pleiku but we had to pick it up., This was done in a big hurry as everyone was tired of saltine crackers for bread plus we all wanted some pies and cake. Another item about the Mess Hall was the addition which was completed in September and doubled the seating capacity of the dining area. RAID ON CAM RANH BAY. Sergeant Durham informed us that he was going to "REUP" and take his thirty day leave in the states. We needed someone to fill in for him and rumor had it that a cook at Battalion had fallen in disfavor. Tom Ingram vouched for the guy so when asked if we would like another cook, I said yes. The E-5 Sergeant had wondering eyes for the ladies in the Officers Mess and was reported to have made comments unbecoming or something to that effect. I figured that we would have no problem keeping an eye on things and we really did need some reinforcements in the Mess Hall. The quality of our food improved immensely when the new temporary Mess Sergeant arrived as he did have a knack for food preparation. This brings us up to date for the next test of the "Old Man". Again I was "approached"!! Names fail me again but our newly acquired E-5 fell right in with the crowd and offered me a deal that I couldn't resist. I don't know if he had heard that we were scheduled to pickup 8 new UH-IC Helicopters in Saigon or not but, in any event, I heard a most unbelievable statement from him which was: "Sir, if you get me to Cam Ranh Bay and back, I can get all the turkey and trimmings you will need for Thanksgiving and Christmas." Having a great desire to fill up that empty refrigerator, freezer, I took him up on his offer and went farther out on a limb than I had gone to date. I told Jim Hayes, the operations officer, to have the Flight Leader of the group heading to Saigon for the replacement aircraft to drop the Sergeant off at Cam Ranh Bay and on their way back, each aircraft would stop at Cam Ranh Bay for re-fueling. They were also not to leave Cam Ranh Bay without the Sergeant and any thing that he had rounded up. I know this sounds unbelievable, but this part of these ramblings can be verified. The whole company knew about the trip and was on pins and needles, like me, waiting for the flight to arrive. We knew that they had departed Cam Ranh but didn't know their route. It was already dark and a thin overcast had set in. Needless to say, I had some concerns because a few of the pilots were "-NGS" and this could have been their first mission as pilot. I don't think that they had copilots. Finally, in the southern sky, we could see the blinking lights of all the helicopters in trail. When they landed, the whole company was in the corral to see if the Sergeant had produced. He yelled "Get the ice cream to the freezer, now!! The turkeys can wait!!" He had come through and we could now plan for a great thanksgiving and Christmas meal. I could also relax. I again don't know if anyone at Battalion ever found out about our "Raid on Cam Ranh Bay" and after their safe return, I could have cared less! We had filled up those EMPTY reefers. NCO CLUB. It is still in September and it is again time to test "The Old Man". Who better than the Intelligence Sergeant, SSG Robert Nabors. I should have learned by this time that when I meet someone in the Company area, who just wanted to talk, that something was coming down. This time the talk turned to building a Club House for the NCOs. Now this was a BIGGIE! We had so many other things going on I had serious doubts about this project. My questions were answered swiftly. Where? At the end of the Company street near the theater. Where will the material come from? Our friend, the "Post Engineer Guy-PEG", said that there would be no problem getting materials, Who will build it? The civilian employees of our friend "PEG", since they didn't have enough work to do since the Brigade was not going to arrive. Everything had been checked out and all they wanted was my "OK". With some reservations, I said , First, show me the outline of the building with stakes. This done, I had great reservations, since there were few NCOs compared to the total number of enlisted men and this was going to be a big building. I gave approval with the proviso that the building be a joint use structure. If the NCOs wanted a separate area they could put in some partitions. I think Nabors and others made the right choice to not divide the building and construction began. For the old guys before me, the Club was constructed in the form of a Montagnard circular thatched roof home except that the main floor was at ground level and not on poles like the many villages that you undoubtedly observed form the air. The bar was in a circle around the center main pole which supported the roof. Somewhere in the construction is some home made bricks which was done out near the edge of the Corral where it butts up to the airfield. There was plenty of mud and they used some thatch also. I had a tour of the area by "PEG" during the construction phase and 30 years later I saw much the same procedure on a TV show about making sun baked bricks in the south west of the U S of A. When the club was finished, I could not believe what had been done, we had a real nice building for the troops to enjoy. On Christmas Day, 1966, we had the traditional ribbon cutting, by the Battalion Commander, at this time, Lt. Colonel Smithy. A Montagnard group presented the Club with an enormous crossbow as a symbol of the Central Highlands, hence the new name for the EM/NCO Club was the Cross Bow Inn. The Cross Bow was mounted above the Bar. Shortly after the opening of the club, my friend the Sgt. E5 from the Mess Hall came to me with another "PLAN". If I gave him permission, and a trip to Cam Ranh, he could get us a special Club account so that we could provide food for sale at the Cross Bow Inn. He would use the portable kitchen equipment to cook hot dogs and hamburgers. I again went along with the proposal with the provision that food in the club would not be available until after the normal Mess Hall hours. I remembered the number of times that our crews arrived after the Mess Hall had closed and the cold left over food that would be provided. This would give us one more morale booster. I believe the plan was a success but had to be closely watched. The income from the sale of the food had to be accounted for and the food account in Cam Ranh had to be paid.