Going To Vietnam, Civil Affairs, and More

VIETNAM: Personal reflections – stories to be told.
More stories from the collection.

By Joseph Hardy

At the urging of an old friend, Joseph Hardy recently wrote a collection of his Vietnam memories. As a 1st Lieutenant, his tour was split into equal halves: First as a Team Leader of a Civil Affairs team, later as a Platoon Leader of a Construction Engineer battalion in the Mekong Delta. One theme of his writing is that you didn’t have to be in the infantry to see combat.

I received my orders for Vietnam while assigned to the Post Engineer Office at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, which is on Lake Michigan, just north of Chicago. My job was ‘’Construction Inspector’’ which seemed odd to me, since I was a Business major in college, and knew almost nothing about civil engineering.

In September, 1968, I was sent to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, near Washington D.C., for the Engineer Officer Basic Course (EOBC) in Combat Engineering. That was a lot of fun. We learned how to build timber trestle bridges, pontoon rafts, basic demolitions, plus some combat basics such as “escape and evasion” in case we were captured by the enemy (a frightening prospect).

Qualifying with the M-16

At EOBC we were told that we could expect orders for Vietnam (RVN) the next year, and in May of 1969 those orders came. This included eleven days of training at Fort Riley, Kansas, for “RVN POR SCHOOL” (Republic of Vietnam, Preparation for Overseas Replacement), which was a combination of cultural schooling and weapons qualification (M-16 Rifle). Rumor had it that if you couldn’t qualify with the M-16 you could not be sent to the war zone…baloney. In prior weapons qualification I did no better than ‘’Sharpshooter’’ (scale: Marksman-Sharpshooter-Expert), but at Fort Riley I qualified as “Expert,’’ and tied for highest score with one other guy out of three hundred qualifiers. If the rumor above was true, I could have been sent immediately into combat, and gotten a Purple Heart medal, most likely awarded post-humously.

Thirty-day leave

After the training at Fort Riley I headed for Tucson, Arizona, for a thirty-day leave, stopping in Denver to visit brother Chip who was commissioned through ROTC at Arizona State University, and was serving as Adjutant of an AFEC (Armed Forces Examining Center), where he had the privilege of swearing in new draftees to the Army and Marines. The policy at that time was not to have two siblings serving in a war zone, so I left him a copy of my orders. That came in handy a short time later when his orders for RVN showed up, and they sent Chip to Korea instead.

Off to Vietnam: August 21, 1969

My thirty-day leave went too quickly, and I was off to Travis Air Force Base outside San Francisco for my flight to RVN, and beginning to feel more than a little bit of anxiety. The prospect of actually going to the war zone was very intimidating, and we tried to cover it the night before with raucous bluster in the Officer’s Club, but the tension level only increased.

Our TWA (or was it Delta Airlines?) charter flight took off from Travis the morning of August 21, 1969. We stopped to refuel in Honolulu, and again in Guam – then, in the dark of night, entered RVN airspace. I recall looking out the window at the total darkness, and seeing only an occasional flare to remind me that we really were in the war zone.

Welcome to Vietnam and Civil Affairs

We landed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base (near Saigon) at 11 p.m. A “welcoming committee” of Air Force personnel boarded, and informed us in hushed tones that we are ‘’in a war zone’’ (surprise!) We could be attacked at any time by rockets or mortars, and told us where the bunkers were located. We claimed our gear and boarded buses that had fence wire over the open windows to prevent us from being welcomed by a hand grenade.

Buses took us to the 90th Replacement Detachment, where we would await our unit assignments. In the morning I found many familiar faces of guys who had been in EOBC at Fort Belvoir with me. Most were civil engineers who were assigned a day later to engineer units, as there was a lot of road construction throughout the country. Since I was not a “real engineer,” and there was not much “combat’’ engineering, due to the non-traditional nature of the war, I was assigned to the 41st Civil Affairs Company in Nha Trang (mid-coast), and then to Team 13 in Phan Thiet in the Southeast corner of II Corps area. I came in as Team Engineer, and a few weeks later I was made Team Leader.

The Civil Affairs work was a lot like a Peace Corps assignment, as we worked with the Vietnamese people, assessing their needs. We performed “self-help” projects such as conducting health and dental clinics, and runing small construction jobs in the remote hamlets and villages. The focus of Civil Affairs was, and still is today in the Middle East, the “winning of hearts and minds” part of the war.

Pacification

The South Vietnamese government graded the rural villages depending upon how “pacified” they were, and graded them “A, B, C, D, or VC (Viet Cong).” Our job was to take our team of three to seven men to serve in the “C and D” villages. It would have been easy for the “bad guys” to kill or capture us, but we were always doing something for them, and they wanted us back.

My Civil Affairs assignment gave me a real heart for the Vietnamese people and what America was trying to do in Vietnam, which was a good thing. Unfortunately our leaders lacked the political will to finish the job. When I left Vietnam in August of 1970 the country was largely pacified, and the average age of the captured enemy soldier (Viet Cong or NVA) was twelve years of age.

Vietnam prophecy

I like to ask my more biblically literate friends this question: “What prophet said, ‘The shadows are lengthening for me, the twilight is here, my days of old have faded tone and tint…’ A typical response to my question would be, “In Isaiah or Jeremiah.” Then I tell them that the prophet actually was General Douglas MacArthur, and the prophesy was “Don’t get involved in a land war in Asia.” This was his advice to President Johnson when LBJ came to him seeking advice prior to escalation of the war.

MacArthur might have actually said: ‘’Sonny, don’t get involved…Asia.’’ On his way back to the White House LBJ was enraged, and said: “That @#&% called me ‘Sonny’! I am the President…!” Presumably, MacArthur gave similar advice to JFK, who also sought his advice on the matter…they should have taken his advice.

 

Joe HardyJoseph Hardy is retired, after a long career in money management. Living in Tucson, Arizona, he and his wife escape the summer heat in Maine.