155th Team 1
THE 155TH TEAM, CAMP CORYELL AND BAN ME THOUT April, 1966 to March, 1967 BY ROBERT "BO" ATKINSON LTC. US ARMY RETIRED PROLOGUE The following are the remembrances of an "Old Man" who , at one time many years ago, was called "The Old Man". He had this title because he was lucky to be in the right place, at the right time. A place that has become very special because of that time, that location and of the special group of people involved. It is not my intention to "blow my horn" and I do not want to slight the military aspects of this assignment. I just want to report some history as I remember it which may or may not be totally accurate. I have thought about those days quite often, but even more so after I discovered, in the spring of 1996, that there was an organization called "VIET NAM HELICOPTER PILOTS ASSOCIATION" which I immediately joined. Now I find that there is also the 155 AHC Association which I also joined. My thoughts about this period always turn first to the happy and unusual things that occurred. I tell all who might listen that, if you had go to Viet Nam, there was no better place to be than in the 155 at Ban Me Thuot. For those of us of the right age group, a trip to Viet Nam was a given, unless you went to Canada, Russia, or to an elite college in "England". These ramblings are of those days over 30 years ago and are provided with the help of the letters sent to the "Atkinson Headquarters" back in the states which have been in storage for lo these many years. Many of these topics may not have been common knowledge to those in the company, but they may confirm suspicions of many who experienced the events. I hope that these thoughts will jog the memories of some who were there and get a response. I could be wrong on a lot of the things that happened and, if so, I hope someone will once again help out the "Old Man." Keep in mind that some of the things we did to improve the camp did not have prior formal approval of "higher authority". What could they do to me, SEND ME HOME!!! VOYAGE TO BAN ME THUOT. It's the spring of 1965, Fort Campbell, Kentucky where I am assigned to 101st Airborne Division, 101st Aviation Battalion. The Division's Mission is to form, equip and prepare for departure to Viet Nam certain Assault Helicopter Companies, one of which was A Company, 101st Aviation Battalion. I was Commander of B Company with no HU1 helicopters and to add insult to injury, Company A got 35 of my mechanics tool kits and all three of my fuel trucks plus some of my officers. Seems as though A Company could not assemble one complete tool kit and all their fuel trucks failed inspection. Coincidentally, this is the same A company that shared a trip to Viet Nam with another A Company of the 1sr Aviation Battalion from Fort Riley, Kansas. This set back for me was short lived as there were other companies forming which offered me a great opportunity to pick one company and get the honor of leading it in combat. The Battalion Commander agreed and assigned me to command one of the next companies that was to be formed ( my recollection is vague, but I believe it was the 129th AHC), where I was on record as Commander and signed the morning reports for a few days. Before long, the good old boys at the Pentagon asserted their authority and sent out the message that they were in charge and would assign the personnel to the companies and the ranking officer assigned would be the commander. So there I was watching all these officers and men arriving and departing for that faraway place, which we all could plan on visiting soon. What was in store for me? Not a company forming at Fort Campbell, but transfer orders to Fort Benning, Georgia for further assignment to Viet Nam as a Helicopter Pilot. With my wife and two children in tow, I departed for Fort Benning in October 1965. There were so many officers there that with my rank of Major, and with some seniority, I was assigned to duty as a Section Leader in the 162nd AHC, one of the companies on their way to Viet Nam. One obstacle was a flight physical- which I failed. My uncorrected vision was below the Army standards for aviators. Now I knew I was in trouble for there was also a demand for "ground pounders" and my branch is Infantry. One ray of hope was offered by the medic, request a waiver!! And that's what I did. The answer was: WAIVER APPROVED with one proviso- ALWAYS CARRY A SECOND PAIR OF GLASSES when you are the pilot. So it's now February 1966, and I am finally on my way to Viet Nam with the 174th AHC, maybe the first "Blind Helicopter Pilot" to get orders. I didn't say a word to anyone, particularly the members of my company. I found out that the ship we would leave on was to be in Oakland, California which was only a short drive from Fremont, where my wife had grown up and was now living. I suggested to the " powers that be" that we needed a "LOADING OFFICER" at the dock and they bought the idea. I have orders to report to Oakland to supervise the loading of the company property. Needless to say that made my family and me happy. My duties were simple and I got to spend the last few weeks at home plus I did not have to muster back at Fort Benning. The Port of Oakland is only 20 miles from Fremont. It is now March 15th and we board "THE GOOD SHIP, UPCHUCK (USS UPSHUR)" at the Port of Oakland, wave to the family as we leave the dock and sail under the famous Golden Gate Bridge. The trip was relatively calm and uneventful, until we reached Hawaii where we were allowed to debark for several hours. Some of the passengers carried things a bit too far and had to be helped up the gang plank. One was a nurse assigned to the mobile army evac hospital also on the way to Nam. In addition, several members of the helicopter companies brought contraband aboard ship, ie: bottled spirits. One of our gallant Aviators, unnamed to protect the innocent and the guilty, assisted the nurse to her quarters and was immediately arrested by the Military Police since the nurses quarters on ship were off limits to all male personnel. Woe be unto that officer, for it was rumored that he would receive a written reprimand, in lieu of court-martial and be restricted to quarters except for trips to the mess hall. This punishment was to be administered by the non rated Transportation Officer in charge (and only a Major) of all Military personnel on board ship. It is my understanding that the Transportation Officer in Charge got the message through several officers on board more senior to him that there would be a mutiny if he persisted in carrying this incident too far and that the discipline was excessive and unacceptable. As part of the compromise (neither written nor announced) agreement, it was decided that the officer would be chastised and that the men who had contraband would not be punished if they would turn in the contraband to the Officer in Charge who would secure the items until we arrived in Nam. Each person in possession of these items turned in at least one bottle and the crisis was averted. Our gallant officer was not restricted to quarters and we continued on our journey to the mysterious orient. Our contact with the outside world included listening to Radio Peking where we learned about serious American casualties, particularly to the soldiers in the 1st Cavalry Division. If they were true, we would be replacing the Division every other month. We were not getting closer to Viet Nam as we had to make two more stops, Japan and Okinawa. The destination of some of the passengers was Japan and Okinawa. Several unaccompanied ladies, one with her daughter, had boarded the ship in Hawaii for a shopping trip in Japan. One lady was going to join her husband, a naval aviator, who was on temporary duty in the Philippines. This may have been the reason for our detour to Japan but I enjoyed this stop having served three years in the 1st Cavalry Division in Northern Japan in the 50's. During our stop in Okinawa, I was able to spend a short time with one of my college Fraternity Brothers who took me shopping at the PX for an Anniversary Gift for my wife. Our wedding date is April 5th , the day we arrived in Quin Nhon harbor. On April 6, 1996, everyone disembarked at Quin Nhon except the Loading Officer and my assistant. During our voyage the final destination of the 174th had been changed from some place down south to the Quin Nhon Area. We were supposed to be one of the last units to offload, so our Company equipment was deep in he hole of the ship and could not be reached easily while we were in Quin Nhon. I sailed on to Cam Ranh Bay and watched as the equipment was off loaded on LSTS for the trip back north to Quin Nhon then my assistant and I caught a helicopter for our ride back north. Shortly after our arrival "in-country" we were informed that there was a new program for all "_NGs" called "infusion". The company would be split up and 34 pilots would be reassigned to other companies. I was assigned to the 52nd Aviation Battalion with duty at a place called Ban Me Thuot. Several other officers were also assigned to the 52nd at Pleiku and to the 155 AHC at Ban Me Thuot. I became the Aviation Advisor to the 23rd ARVN Division and Liaison Officer to the 33rd U. S. Army Advisory Group. I thought maybe someone had checked my files and found out about my waiver, but no, there was no record of a waiver being granted and I was still on flight status. I said "nothing to nobody" and took on the job of Advisor. This assignment meant that I would have to live in an old building, known as "The Bungalow", which had once been the summer retreat for some former rulers. This building was actually three buildings connected by covered walkways and was constructed completely of teak wood. President Teddy Roosevelt had visited Ban Me Thuot on a hunting trip many years prior and reportedly had stayed in "The Bungalow". It was tough but I stuck to the task and enjoyed the semi-private room with the pet lizards and huge bed!! I got my flying time in by volunteering for flights that the Advisory Group requested and the 155th was more than happy to accommodate me since it gave them some relief. Finally, on August 10, 1966, a journey that had begun at Fort Campbell in September 1965 was completed and I was now the Commander of the 155th Assault Helicopter Company. This was to be the most challenging and rewarding assignment for me in my 21 years in the Army. ( Incidentally, the paper work on my waiver arrived in Ban Me Thuot in September, 10 months after it had been approved at the Pentagon.) THE CAMP AT BAN ME THUOT:. The assignment as Liaison Officer and Aviation Advisor to the 33rd Advisory Group gave me a great opportunity to observe the operations and activities at the "155". The camp at this time was called Ban Me Thuot or just the 155. In retrospect, the camp had the character of it's place of origin, the mid-west, (except for the banana tree). The place was like a small, dusty, one street town. You could expect to see a stagecoach arriving at any minute or a shoot out in the 'O. K Corral". The Corral was at one end of main street and a theater at the other. In between, were the mess halls, O'club , company headquarters with banana tree, emergency operations (a steel shipping container covered by sand bags), a day room, the PX, and the Medical "hospital". The living quarters for the "ossifers" were separated from the enlisted quarters by a small Green Belt of grass and the officers out house was at the far end of that grassy area near the burm, (that ridge of dirt surrounding the camp). Except for the Enlisted mess hall, Company Headquarters, and Medical building, all the structures were tents on cement pads. When one speaks of the 155, the 155th Assault Helicopter Company or the 155th Aviation Company, they are most likely referring to the whole "TEAM". Besides the aviation elements, Stagecoaches and Falcons, the following units are included: 165th Aircraft Maintenance Detachment, 208th Signal Detachment, 8th Medical Detachment, US Air Force Weather Detachment #10, 212th Military K-9 Detachment, with its 14 sentinel dogs and handlers, 52nd Quartermaster Detachment, for petroleum and ammo, and a Security Detachment of Infantry. The group's total strength as of August 10, 1966 was approximately 350 People. There were also 30 or more Vietnamese people hired as Cooks, Cook's Helpers, waitresses and bartenders employed by the 155th to operate the two mess halls, officers, NCO and Enlisted Clubs plus maid services. In addition, there was a Civilian Repair and Utilities Section composed of U. S., Philippine and Korean personnel here to supervise over 100 Vietnamese employees who do repairs and construction projects for all U. S. units in the Ban Me Thuot area. They were an invaluable help to the 155 through out my stay and probably afterwards. FLIGHT OPERATIONS: The procedures for conducting flight operations during this period was that Company Commanders performed as mission coordinators for Company and larger size operations. This meant coordinating with the Infantry units, (normally the Infantry Battalion), planning the flight portion, and flying the command and control aircraft with the Infantry Battalion Commander or Senior Officer of the assault force. This mission coordinating duty rotated between the companies and required the 155th Company Commander to be away from the base quite often leaving very little time to look after the operation of a major military base such as the camp at Ban Me Thuot. This duty fell to those individuals who remained at camp and the principal person was the 155th Company Executive Officer with the help of the Detachment Commanders. I will forever be in their debt. Since most of the missions during this period centered around the area west of Pleiku, the flying crews and officers spent a lot of nights in the field or at Camp Holloway, Pleiku. CHANGE OF COMMAND. The change of command ceremony for the 155th seemed to always attract a lot of attention, perhaps because Ban Me Thuot was such a pleasant place to visit. August 10, 1966 was no exception with the CG 1st Aviation Brigade, General Seneff, present to pass the 155 Flag from Major Joe Parlas to Major Robert Atkinson and to present a number of awards to other members of the "TEAM". Others present were the Aviation Group CO(Colonel Marr), the Battalion CO(Ltc. Rice), the Senior Army Advisor of the 33 Advisory Group(Colonel Adamson), and several officers from the 52nd Battalion. During or just prior to the ceremony a report came in from an L-19 or OV-1 pilot that a person was spotted in a field near the Cambodian border. A UH-1D with a pair of gun ships were dispatched. The HUEY crew retrieved a NVA soldier who had contracted malaria and was unable to keep up with his unit. He had been abandoned to fend for himself. He was delivered to the ARVN Headquarters. Another event involved Major Joe Parlas, out-going Stagecoach 6, and the Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Rice. These two flew a UH-1D for 15 minutes which made a total of 1200 hours on the engine, possibly the first engine to reach that total in Viet Nam. All the Battalion Officers at the ceremony that day made a trip to the 155 PX, including Lt. Col. Rice, since the 155 PX stock offered a better choice than their PX in Camp Holloway, particularly cameras. POST EXCHANGE. Shortly after assuming command, the PX Officer, Lieutenant Betz, came to see me in my office and announced that we were going to lose our PX account in Saigon. According to him, this was really bad news as we would then have to deal through Nha Trang and perhaps the Battalion. We would surely not be able to keep the PX as well stocked. He wanted permission to fly to Saigon immediately to make one last "raid" and bring home lots of small items like watches, jewelry and other small things. I was at a loss to say yes because the company was going through a period of low aircraft availability and we were monitored closely by Battalion. I thought I would take the easy way out and "pass the buck" to Jim Hayes, the operations officer. I said "yes, if Jim can find you a Huey", believing that there was no way that one would be available soon. I went about my work and in 15 minutes I heard a chopper leaving the Corral. They had set me up and all they wanted was for me to say yes. I am now sure that every one else had been briefed, the chopper was ready and it was gone to Saigon for an overnight trip before I could say no. I noticed that Betz had his flight helmet with him but didn't think much about it at the time. The PX trip wasn't mentioned again and the Battalion never found out how we were able to have such a well stocked PX. The whole compound was waiting the next evening to see what was on board the ship. This restocking of the PX meant a lot for morale and I suspect everyone got a kick out of how they put one over on the Old Man. Another problem with PX delivery occurred in October. We had a large shipment of electronics delivered to the Air Force in Nha Trang for further shipment to BMT by convoy. We had not received the shipment as of Oct. 9 and upon further inquiry we found out that the shipment had ended up in Tuy Hoa and in the hands of the 101 Airborne Division. Needless to say we were disappointed and complained to the PX people to no avail. I was determined to make the PX Headquarters produce a receipt signed by our PX Officer or NCO if they tried to make us pay for the shipment. We never gave up on re-supplying the PX stock and frequently found a way to send a ship to Nha Trang PX Depot. In a review of my reports home about the PX prices disclosed the following: Advisory Group PX prices: Beefeaters Gin - $2.50 /qt., 100 proof Piper Scotch- $4.30 /qt., Christian Brothers Brandy- $1.35 /qt. and Gin for $1.00 a bottle. (I never did find out why the Advisory Group stocked hair spray in the bungalow PX, it may have been a courtesy for the Missionary Ladies). 155 PX prices: Pearl rings- begins at $9.50 for single pearl and up. $14.50 for double pearl. Necklaces-$25.00 to $40.00 , a Seiko watch with day and date, 21 jewels for $17.50 (one of which I purchased) "and there was no tax on any of this stuff". I gave up looking for a radio or tape player because I found out after moving into the 155 compound that I didn't need a radio or record player. Everyone had music, which was nice to listen to in the evenings. The radar site was near by and every time the antennae rotated our direction, the speakers would vibrate but it didn't seem to bother the speakers at the O'Club. On several occasions we did not open the PX when large groups of outsiders were visiting. We took this tack to ensure that our troops had first choice and I understand Camp Holloway wouldn't let outsiders in their PX either. We often delayed opening the PX until our flight crews returned so that they also would get a chance at our stocks. CONVOY CRISIS. This occurred on October 6th 1966.. The only way to get large items delivered was by road and only when the ARVN wanted to open the road. It seems that the 155 had supplies in Nha Trang that could only be delivered by truck and we didn't have a truck large enough to haul palettes. The supplies were critical, beer and soft drinks on palettes. I turned to the NCOs and as usual they came up with a solution. I don't know how or where the trucks came from but we were able to get our supplies delivered. Four trailers, flat beds, loaded with beer and coke were off loaded out side the small hooch which was called the "EM CLUB". I was concerned about security for the drinks but it seems that every one preferred to wait until the beer was iced down and pay 25 cents. In addition, we received numerous items such as wood and building materials needed for a number of projects on going at the time. One side bar to this delivery was the MP escorts. When I landed in the corral, I could see jeeps and trucks all over the compound. Each was loaded with grenades, weapons and who knows what else.. I directed the MP Lieutenant in charge to park all those vehicles in the motor pool where our vehicles were parked. This was done, however some MPs didn't get the word that we had dogs on patrol at night. We got a chuckle when two dedicated drivers, who had remained in the motor pool to repair a flat tire, could be heard later yelling "help, let us in". This also happened on another occasion when one of the our men missed 10 o'clock curfew and tried to sneak in the back way. One did not want to test the dogs. We had other convoys later where we were able to get more building materials for the camp.