Counter Insurgency a la USN

Copyright 2003.  Stew Harris.  All rights reserved.

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The United States Navy classified people going to Vietnam into three general categories.

There were exceptions and additions, but these categories covered most USN personnel.

The exceptions were, of course, the 'special ops' folks. Only God knows what they did.

Category 1)

Those going to do general work that was not particular to a war zone and who would not necessarily be expected to be doing true war fighting.  These would be the folks charged with keeping Danang and Chu Lai running, cargo coming ashore and getting it distributed.  Hard work, very hard work, but not war fighting.  These folks got nothing more than orders to Vietnam.  Pay grades covered the waterfront.

Category 2)

Those going on war fighting missions, but expecting to work with US crews/equipment. They would come in contact with Vietnamese, both friendly and not, but would be part of US 'in country' elements.  These folks filled most of the billets on Swift Boats, River Patrol Boats and River Assault Groups (PCFs, PBRs and RAGs). In addition to a few weeks of small boat handling, they received something called CI-3:  Counter Insurgency - 3 Weeks.  This consisted of three days of small arms training with the Marines, a week's introduction to language, culture and history of Vietnam, and a 'hurry up' three day SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) course.  Again, paygrades covered the water front but were weighted toward O-1/2 and E-3/4, usually people finishing their first tour somewhere and picking this up -- almost always on a volunteer basis.   Any days left over after the course work were, I think, given over to wondering around saying, "What am I doing here?"

Category 3)

The advisory group.  These were the people expecting to go ashore and work with the Vietnamese Navy {VNN} A little less than half the billets (100+) were ashore in Saigon and the four Corps command centers.  There were perhaps 50 "afloat" commands in the VNN that rated a USN advisor.  They split almost evenly between RAGs (a very bad tour in a USN RAG, really grim in a VNN RAG) and the small PCEs, MSCs and other assorted craft that constituted VNN's "blue water" fleet. These were very, very lonesome tours.  30 days or so without seeing another gringo, only Vietnamese food, and a generally pervasive feeling of frustration at the inability and unwillingness of the counterpart to do the job.  As far as I know, no one was ever lost in the "blue water" billets, at least not physically.  And then there were the coastal groups. I've frankly forgotten whether there were 26 or 28 of 'em.  Either way, it was a little more than 100 billets consisting of 2 officers and two senior enlisted.  Our class, CI-13 (or 13 weeks) included only O-2s and 3s (mostly O-3s) and E-6/7/8s.  The joke was that you couldn't find an O-3 in the fleet; they were all at Coronado en route to Vietnam.  It seemed that way.

CI-13 consisted of a week's introduction to the language, history and culture of the VN interlaced with 'sea stories' from instructors recently returned.  A full week of small arms training with the Marines at Pendleton (still remember sitting in a fox hole with an instructor, pulling the pin on my first grenade and having somebody yell, "Range foul!"  He and I stared at each other very carefully for the next 30 seconds.).  The biggest difference was a 10 week language course.  When I finished I could say "hello" to almost anyone in VN.  Then we got a full six day SERE course, the same one given to aircrews.  The additions included a field problem where we 'camped out' and were assaulted by instructor teams playing VC.  A buddy of mine and I ambushed the instructors and took their sandwiches, a fair accomplishment during a week when there was no food provided.  We also got an extra day in the 'prison' complex.  Whoopee.  The other part of CI-13 that was different was 60-90 minutes of PT everyday.  This is NOT the Navy way.  Having survived a summer at the tender mercies of DIs at Little Creek and Corpus, I knew what was happening to us was a good idea, but it did not change the fact that every time we rounded the far turn, I was the one in back, belching clouds of soot and carbon.  Ugh.

The scuttlebutt was that the RAG assignments were a little worrisome.  The shipboard tours might drive you crazy, but you would come home.  The junk bases were considered primitive, but most had been overtaken by the US presence (similar to Chu Lai's situation) and were not too dangerous.  And, of course, half the billets were  ashore at command centers.  The chance to be a Saigon warrior or a Danang daredevil didn't sound too bad.  So, it came to pass that we got our assignments in week two.  I was going to be the Navy PAO in Saigon.  I would be doing the Navy part of the famous "5 o'clock Follies." Hardly heroic, but I had worked my way through high school and college as a DJ and announcer.  Maybe Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley would take a shine to me and take me home with him!

The etiquette was that you wrote your opposite number in country to introduce yourself, estimate when you would be arriving and learn what you could about the billet.  With a year in Saigon in the offing, I began to pay less attention to sneaking around with a rifle and how you yelled "ambush" in Vietnamese and more to which hotel I should try to bunk in and what the good bars were like.

Imagine my surprise when, in week eleven or so, I received a letter from the SOB telling me he was extending!  Suddenly, I was back in the pool as a super numerary.  I finished the course and caught the flight to Saigon with the rest of my class (we had a great twelve hours in San Francisco.  One of the guys intended to become a preacher when he got back. He's the only reason we made a 0230 departure from Travis).   Upon arrival, the group began to be paired down as people peeled off for specific assignments.

I remained with the largest surviving group, the advisors.  We met with some O-6 who told us how very important the work was, how it was a hardship, but that, if we were careful, we wouldn't have a problem.  He mentioned that they had only lost one advisor in the previous year.  Some Lieutenant at Coastal Group 16.  You think the ears of a certain unassigned Lieutenant didn't begin to glow?  There was a lot of talk about how that was the most isolated billet they had.  In fact, the team had been withdrawn to Quang Ngai and did not RON (Remain Overnight) at the base.

Finally, I got an assignment. It didn't ring true but at least it wasn't the almost mythical CG-16.  I was assigned as an assistant advisor at CG-26 in Cam Rahn Bay.  It was an O-2's billet, but when I saw the joint I didn't care.  They had commandeered an old French chateau on an island in the middle of the harbor.  The main danger was being run over by the hundreds of freighters calling only once a year, they organized a tiger hunt for the base commander in a near by free fire zone.  Hmmm.

My fool's dream lasted two days.  Without bothering to ask my opinion or consulting me in any way, the Senior Naval Advisor, I Corps, had decided to reman Coastal Group 16. The Lt. Colonel who was Senior Advisor of Quang Ngai province told him -- in a formal letter -- that he could neither support nor guarantee the safety of the team if reassigned to the base.  He strongly recommended against it.  Danang decided to do it anyway.  But they were one lieutenant light.  Guess where they found him?

The next day I had orders to Danang FFT (for futher transfer) to CG-16. I knew the reputation of the joint of course.  Much of the talk in Saigon had been about the place.  The guys in CG-26 were sincere in their condolences.  When I arrived in Danang, both the petty officers from whom I drew my gear and the junior officers who briefed me on the general conditions were more than somber.

The next morning as the Huey circled to land in a light rain, the first vision was worse than I had expected.  Part of the perimeter wall had fallen down when the mud loosened it.  On the ground, the interior of the base was pure mud. There was no water, except what we captured.  No electricity.  Cooking was a one element propane stove.  The 'shitter' was a collection of fence posts cantilevered over the river with a couple of sections cut out.  This was gonna be fun.  But I met my counterpart and I liked the guy. He still had a patch on his stomach where a B-40 had killed the guy next to him.  He spoke pretty good English and excellent French. He read "Le Monde" as often as the mail came through. Turned out he was a smart, nice, and tough guy.  We got along very well indeed.

 Just to get everything started well, we had a party that night.  It was pretty low key, but we ate a very good chicken and drank some beer.  It was a little after nine and we were winding up when this freight train came tearing out of the sky and ended in a pair of loud and terrible "cracks."  A quick run for the PRC-25 ("Where the hell is that damn thing!").  In about the same length of time it took somebody back in the mountains to say "Rounds lost. Repeat." we were yelling into the phone, "We're taking 105 incoming!"  Apparently his message got there before ours did.  We took two more 105s inside the wire before they got it shut off.  Something about a 180 degree error.

Coastal Group 16. And only 359 days to go. Such a deal

Copyright 2003.  Stew Harris.  All rights reserved.
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