Friday, April 5, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Four: Nha Bey

My friend Jack had come to Saigon from Nha Bey, a Navy Huey base 20 miles or so south of Saigon. It was his “day off”. Jack flew pretty much anything, but his prime mission at Nha Bey was to fly Huey gunships. Before he finished his tour he had flown so many missions that he had more oak leaf clusters than could be fitted on his Air Medal Ribbon. And he was only shot down three times. And he never lost a crew member.

Nha Bey was a sand spit protruding into the water somewhere near where the Saigon River became one with the Delta. The Delta was, from a military viewpoint, an anomaly. It wasn’t dry land. It wasn’t sea or even a particularly navigable inland water way. It wasn’t coastline because it was inland. It was a place from which an unknown but certainly significant number of “the enemy” conducted hostile activities and carried those hostilities into drier parts of the country. They lived there as amphibious creatures of the Delta.

In the American military nobody really wanted the Delta. But none of the services wanted to give up any turf, no matter how unpromising it might be from a career advancement viewpoint.

So the delta got divided up.

That meant that one lacked for an opportunity to take the best possible career advantage from “the only war we had”. No one wanted the Delta, but no one was willing to give it up. So everybody got it, or got pieces of it. To keep that assignment from being more of a goat rodeo than most shared turf military assignments typically were, the whole thing was coordinated by the Commander of the Rungsat Special Strike Zone. I never knew how to spell “Rungsat” and never knew if it was an acronym or an allusion to some obscure deity. I am spelling it here as I heard it pronounced at the time.

The commander of the Rungsat Special Strike Zone was a Navy Ensign who was housed at Nha Bey. Even a fairly uninformed person would probably wonder why the commander of a multi service operations area would be the most junior of officers. Jack and I wondered that also. The only answer we could figure out was (and why was it a Navy Officer) that in Navy Personnel the billet had come up, and since no one had ever heard of the Rungsat they had assigned the first name they could get: a junior officer graduating from Air Intelligence School at Lowry AFB in Denver. Lowry trained both Air Force and Navy officers to be Air Intelligence officers.

The Commander of the Rungsat Special Strike Zone was named Jim. Jim was something of an entrepreneur in the way he approached the job of Commander RSSZ, and that was good. It was good because, since no one knew what the Zone was when he got the assignment, there were no directives or standard operating procedures. If there had been directives and standard operating procedures nothing much would ever have happened. A lesser man confronted with the same set of circumstances might have gone catatonic – I would have, for example. But Jim just came in and started inventing things as he went along. He appeared to invent things on the basis of their entertainment value. By the time I got to Nha Bey the RSSZ could be described as a caliphate, albeit a military one, with Jim as the Caliph.

On the evening that I first met Jim he was in a room full of mainly Vietnamese, presumably mostly on our side, and a few American enlisted men from various branches of the military. They were all treating Jim like something of an overlord. Except for the modern electronics and lighting it could have been in a castle in 13th century France.

I was introduced and Jim briefed me (since I was a fellow Air Intelligence Officer and Lowry graduate) on the composition of his command, its mission, as he perceived it and the meaning of the various blinking multi-colored lights on the huge room-dominating map in front of which he stood.

“For example, if we got word of hostile activity here” and he pointed with his pre laser pointer era wooden pointer at one of the blinking lights, “I would call F100s out of Ton Son Nhut”. And he nodded to one of his Vietnamese vassals. The vassal had telecom contact of some kind with something because almost immediately after his speaking into a microphone the air above us was split with high speed, low flying jet aircraft. Moments later the blinking light turned red and stopped blinking. I was dazzled.

Not long after this encounter Jim was disappeared and replaced with a Navy Commander.

The sand spit upon which the Nha Bey base resided had not been a natural phenomenon. The navy had come up the river, or delta with some kind of large barge with a giant vacuum cleaner like device. With this device and a few weeks work the spit had appeared. The first thing the Navy did was build a bakery.

In my time in Vietnam one of the most interesting things I learned was the essential difference between the military services. When the Army opened a new base, such as the one at the outskirts of Ton Son Nhut, the first thing they did was bulldoze up all the grass and vegetation and kind of redistribute it evenly back around, just no longer living, or in viable condition. Then they spent as long as it took to wet the area down with giant hoses until the new camp area became a sea of mud. Then they set up their tents. The Air Force would stake out a huge area, build a landing strip so planes could bring in what was needed to do the rest of the building. As soon as the planes began to appear with the necessary building material, the first building built was a BX - a Base Exchange. The BX’s in Vietnam I realized later in life were the inspiration for Wal-Mart. The Navy on the few occasions when they built a land base first built a bakery. The Navy was obviously the most civilized of the services.

My friend Jack had come to Saigon from Nha Bey where there was a bakery.

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