2. Phan Rang and the Mobile Advisory Team
After the Tet Offensive I received orders to report for training for the Mobile Advisory Program in and near Saigon. I had a little transition time in Nha Trang before this and had a chance to get back to La Fregate for the first time since Tet. The bar was a little splintery from grenades and there were bullet holes in the stucco, but everybody was OK and it was business as usual. It was right aross the street from a major facility that was fought over for days during the Tet surprise. Some new troops just coming in had to stay quiet in their rooms and wait as this took place. We found time to get up to Nha Trang later, once driving up in a jeep that I almost rolled when we passed a wedding just below Cam Ranh and they set off firecrackers. Reflexes were quick. I think the real fatigue sets in when you start getting quick at recovering. You can't be under the table every time a door slams. At the compound in Phan Rang one night we were playing Monopoly like good capitalists when lightning (a rare event) struck the water tower. A guy could hurt himself.
In Saigon I think I lived in the Majestic Hotel or one of that group in the center of everything and had a chance to see that side of the war. Brass and Suits. Glamour. We were briefed on policy, economics and our mission; refreshed on equipment and tactics. We trained with all the weapons we might have to deal with, French, Russian, American antiques. There was an intensive language course that had us at least getting by in Vietnamese in a few weeks with the help of the best manual and phrasebook I've seen from our friends in Monterey.
I was assigned to MACV Team 39 to lead MAT II-38 at Phan Rang in Ninh Thuan Province, one of the capitals of ancient Champa that occupied the coast from China to the Mekong a thousand years ago. The Chams are still there, they just don't run things anymore. MATs were supposed to have a Captain as team leader (Senior Advisor), a 1st Lieutenant assistant team leader, a Sergeant First Class (SFC) heavy weapons specialist, a SFC light weapons specialist, and a SFC senior medic. Our reality was a 1Lt leader (me), a 1LT Assistant named Tim Cornish, one ARVN 2Lt by the name of Vinh Ty and one SFC weapons specialist named Novitsky who'd been in the Army a while and brought welcome experience. I think we did get a medic later toward the end of my tour but I can't find any pics. Lt Ty was indispensable; We were doubly fortunate to have him.
Our counterparts were the leaders of the Regional Forces who were a locally recruited ARVN force who operated within the region usually at Province level. Within this organization were Popular Forces who were recruited and operated at village level. Training was (and is) never sufficient especially as new equipment is being issued so we spent a lot of time on ranges and in tactical excercises. Training would become practice as we participated in operations in the granite mountains and their sandy valleys S and NE of Phan Rang. We were harassed with small arms and 60mm mortar fire twice, once a little tooo close but not enough for a purple heart for any of us. We did get into some great country if you like that sort of country and I do; in some of the places we came to, the twentieth century seemed irrelevant; you could see how the world had been for 10,000 years. I'm thinking particularly of a Cham town we visited with a dusty battalion of RF after a long hot day and were entertained by the important woman there who gave us duck eggs and tea and witty conversation in her living room as the troops settled in around the town. The house and the whole place was timeless, no glass, electricity, motors or plastic. Later in the dusk I had an impression I still remember that this was how the ancient world looked and that we weren't really that different in 1968. I guess it's in the details. We did actually go out and do the MAT thing once or twice and live with a unit for a time and rely on their resources; once at a triangle fort bulldozed in the sand on the coast near Son Hai due S of Phan Rang. We pitched a fly against the side of a bunker there and set up shop for the usual round of range training, map reading, infantry tactics, pep talks and patriotic orations by Lt Ty. All that was easy. It was the parties that tested the mettle of the expert among us. We were the biggest thing in town and so we had invitations from everybody. The place fished and made salt and so really great fresh food was no problem; there was a bash where I think we had a hundred people in a long building where they usually did something with nets and we all ate our fill of fresh tuna and rice from one fish that took about six guys to carry up from the beach... There would always be plenty of '33' beer with ice and speeches...and then they would bring out the scotch. And fill up tumblers and start making toasts. War is Hell.
I did not need any help from the Vietnamese, however. I remember getting a warning order in the club at maybe 0230 and meeting the unit a couple of hours later, riding trucks for an hour or so to a staging area, jumping down from the truck and going instantly to sleep and coming just as instantly awake as the unit moved out up into one of those gorgeous rockpiles they have for mountains and having a wonderful day. Training. Our mission was to cover a sweep of the valley on the other side of the ridge. The RF's were all flatlanders and had a bad time with the trail so we went up the middle of the canyon leaping from boulder to boulder (BIG boulders) with the stream out of sight below. The sweep was a cakewalk, all we had to do was watch. On the way down of course the RF had even more trouble with the trail so we are once again showing off when I land on a vine and go down chest first on this rock and bounce back up, my M16 clattering down among the rocks. The whole mountain is laughing but I'm on my feet and breathing. I get down off the rock, recover the rifle and do it some more. Training.
There was a push to open the National Railway that had been cut for the previous five years. Bridges and culverts were out and substantial trees were now growing between the rails. We accompanied the command of a battallion or more of troops securing the route while a construction train repaired the right of way S of Phan Rang to the sea at Ca Na in Binh Thuan. This was maybe three weeks and was accomplished with no opposition. The most exciting thing that happened was that as we approached the sea and were stopped for the night at a place where the terrain narrows and is not tactically promising I noticed that the troops seemed to be digging in. Feverishly. They NEVER did this. Romans they were not. I start asking questions and get laughs but can't catch the word so I go see. The word is lizards. Two foot long sand lizards that taste better than chicken and everybody knows this is where they are and there hasn't been much hunting for five years. Sometimes you have to dig a couple of feet. Soon everyone is walking around festooned with lizards and we have another great feast that night, relying in true MAT fashion on the resources of our host unit. Not long after this we reached the sea, bringing a whole battalion of troops and an armored train to bear on the VC tax collection point on the highway just where it follows the railway inland from the sea. There was little chance of surprise but I don't think they collected any taxes that day. This must have been my last assignment. The pictures on the roll go from gandy dancing to home. Not long after this I was on a plane at Tan Son Nhut in that great motley lineup of jetliners and warplanes waiting to Take Off.