First Day in BMT

First Day in Ban Me Thuot From the time I got my assignment to Ban Me Thuot, whenever I told anyone where I was headed, they always responded with, “Oh, rocket city.” I spent a sleepless night in DBT in a 10th battalion barracks that had a brand new roof. Months later after being assigned to the 243rd in Dong Ba Thin, I heard this was due to a mortar that had come through killing most of the people inside. On October 1, 1970, they found a morning flight for me on a 155th slick. We flew high all the way there. Ban Me Thuot didn’t look very big from up there, in fact it didn’t look very big up close. Still suffering from jet lag, checking in and getting to the hootch is a blur. The hootch had been haphazardly divided into 2 man rooms, most with doors. It looked like the guys in the barracks just took it upon them selves to put up the walls. Larry Tabbert, my new roommate generously gave me the top bunk. That night I was to learn why. Larry took one look at my shiny new nylon flak vest and threw it down in the mud and stomped on it telling me it wasn’t a good idea to stand out in the dark. This all helped to feed my growing paranoia. Outside the hootch the first thing I noticed were pine trees around the buildings. They seemed out of place, I’d been expecting triple canopy jungle everywhere in Vietnam. Larry took me on a tour of the area. There was a PX, an outdoor theater, flush toilets and hot showers. Ever since I’d been in basic training when people found out I was an artist, I’d be put to work painting signs. I wasn’t that good, but it got me out of some crappy details. As we toured the area I noticed incredible hand painted signs all over the area. They looked professional, colorful and even had gold leaf. In the bottom corner they were signed, ‘Big Al Dunnit’. I had a sinking feeling my meager talents weren’t going to get me far here. The sign painter, Al Meadows, had been a sign painter working on hot rods back in ‘The World.’ I didn’t get any sign jobs until a couple months later when Al finally got the gun ship he’d always dreamed of. As we continued around the area I noticed something odd. There were little holes in all the buildings. I’m thinking to myself, “They must have some big wood boring bugs around here.” I noticed the signs, which had been painted on sheet metal also had these holes. I decided to ignore it. We looked in on the medics and then the pilots shack. There was a big cartoon hanging there showing a helicopter with X’s over it’s eyes (windows). The helicopter was full of holes and a pilot stood there with his holster slung like a gun slingers, blowing smoke from the muzzle of his pistol. The caption read, “They shoot horses don’t they?” The story goes that after a forced landing one of our helicopters wouldn’t power down and started winding out. The only solution the frantic pilot could come up with was to pull his 38 and shoot the engine until it died. We went to the hospital where they showed me a jar of formaldehyde with the hand of a GI inside still wearing a high school ring. They said they found it down in the village and didn’t know who it belonged to, a warning to always travel in pairs. I guess this was so maybe one guy might get away and identify the other guy’s hand. At the mess hall we had a wonderful lunch of roast beef. I soon found that almost every meal consisted of roast beef. The rumor was the mess sergeant was selling our Grade A produce downtown and replacing it with water buffalo. That might explain the sandwiches you could get downtown with American cheese and ham… After lunch I was ordered to report to the swimming pool. It was time to pay my newbie dues. There was a big pool shaped hole that they planned to line with concrete. There was a small cement mixer that mixed enough concrete to spread over 3 or 4 square feet at a time. Jeltema, another newbie I’d flown in with, pointed out that without rebar the concrete would crack. The sergeant running the mixer just said, “Shut up and get to work newbie.” We worked the rest of the afternoon in the 98 degree heat spreading concrete only covering a small amount of the shallow end. I wasn’t looking forward to finishing the job and luckily someone heard there was a new sheet metal man and raised a stink to get me working in the shop. A bunch of our helicopters were suffering from those holes made by the ‘wood boring bugs’. The next morning they found the concrete in the pool had cracked anyway. Work didn’t proceed on the pool again until one of the pilots and crew stole a huge role of chain link fence to use for reinforcement. That evening after another wonderful roast beef dinner, we returned to the hootch where the nightly party was in full swing. After a couple beers, still suffering from jet lag, I hit the sack and was out like a light. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! All Hell broke loose! I hit the floor and after every explosion would rise up to run, the next one would hit and I’d drop again. Larry, from the relative safety of the bottom bunk, below the level of the sand filled fifty gallon drums, started laughing and began calling cadence, “One, drill sergeant! Two, drill sergeant!…” Then he yelled, “Run for the bunker!” I lit out for the door, outside, there was a flash and crap started raining down. The stairs to the bunker went down half way and then made a right angle turn the rest of the way down. There was a galvanized roof over the opening held up by 4”x 4”s. Between the uprights were sand filled 50 gallon drums with a twelve inch space between them and the roof. I missed the entrance to the bunker and seeing this space, somehow dove through it and rolled down to the bottom, landing at the feet of a surprised short-timer who’d moved into the bunker for his last two weeks in-country. The mortars quit when the nighthawk took off and then the warning siren sounded. It almost always happened this way. We figured you couldn’t hit the siren button while lying on the floor. Larry came and grabbed me and said let’s get to the command bunker. I sat in there while they organized a sweep of the flight line. About then all the guys who’d grabbed M-16s and run to the perimeter opened up for a ‘Mad Minute’. It was an awesome display of firepower while it lasted. (This was a practice that was soon to end.) Sgt. St Pierre assigned me to help sweep the flight line. Larry pointed out I was a newbie and scared shitless and shouldn’t go. My eyes were probably round as saucers because the sergeant relented. I owe Larry a debt of gratitude for that. The next morning they found eleven unexploded mortars out on the flight line. I returned to the hootch. One of the guys said, "Welcome to Ban Me Thuot, newbie.” I spent the rest of the night trying to get to sleep. Pat Lunquist-'70/'71