Colin F. Jones and Thurman P. Woodfork

Reminiscences of an Aussie and a Yank

As I recall a lot did not make it back who were above ground during rocket and mortar attacks. I remember seeing a lot of prominent “lookout” posts around Bien Hoa and we often wondered how they survived rocket attacks. The only thing we did not ‘dig in’ was the ammunition bay which was always above ground in a heavily sand bagged shelter.

When we took over from the Americans at Fire Support Base Concord, the place had been obliterated by rocket and mortar attacks although it seemed the “sleeping quarters” which were so low to the ground that you had to crawl to get under, had survived ok. The MG posts on the perimeter stuck out like Dogs balls and we abandoned them replacing them with our own below ground level ‘strong points’.

The US Battery ‘B’ occupying the same hill seemed to spend most of their time ‘shooting up’ and drinking grog, and sat on their inadequate half built sandbagged walls as we ‘stood to’ at first and last light, calling us ‘bird watchers’. Not that they were the average US Unit, far from it. We fired a lot of ‘anti rocket missions’ from Concord, and due to the 4RAR patrols were not hit by any mortars or rockets fired by the enemy, of which there were estimated to be over 40,000 operating in the area along the Song Dong Neigh river…

We completely rebuilt the base, which was on top of a hill. We were part of a blocking force defending the approaches to the Bien Hoa Base, which was a massive thing covering 75 square miles of territory. We accomplished our mission in that no enemy rockets were fired at Bien Hoa from within our AO. We occupied and built another base later on (FSPB Betty) which was a hot spot also.

We had a couple of counter rocket duels, but the rockets fired at us missed mostly going over our heads. They may have been trying to knock out the Radar Tower in the middle of the base which was being used to spot enemy Mortar Base Plates.

Now, that’s curious; our ammo bunker appeared to be above ground, but that was just the opening; the actual bunker was below ground. We had five towers – one at each corner of the camp and one in the middle. The one in the middle had a.50 caliber machinegun in it; I don’t remember what was in the others. I remember the center tower armament only because of the tracers from it occasionally going over my head like fat red fireflies. If you were outside the bunker, it almost looked as though you could reach up and touch them. People find beauty in the weirdest places!

©2001 TP Woodfork: Det 7, 619th TCS 1966-67
©2001 TP Woodfork: Det 7, 619th TCS 1966-67
There’s one of the towers behind the sand bag crew, and the ammo bunker is behind and on the left of the cook’s Vietnamese assistant. I remember the rather unsettling day when one of the Green Berets took me into the bunker and showed me how much ammo we had left. I don’t remember how much was in there (not much), but it looked to me the way Mother Hubbard’s cupboard must have looked to her hungry dog. “Unsettling” is putting it mildly.

Don’t know what was going on with the Army, which normally handled such supplies, but after the Air Force flew in an emergency supply of M-16 ammo at the request of the Air Force CO; the Army came up with a full resupply.

I’ve been to Bien Hoa a couple of times. You may remember me mentioning my friend, Larry. That’s where he went after he left Trang-Sup. I really don’t remember much about the place.

By the way, Charlie always took a potshot or two at our tower and radar antenna, but never did any serious damage. They probably knew it was for aircraft, not artillery spotting. None of their planes ever made it into our vicinity, although our coverage extended hundreds of miles. When I got the equipment back to Clark after Det. 7 was deactivated, we found shrapnel inside a couple of the equipment cabinets. That probably happened after the Air Force part of the site had been all but shut down and the equipment placed outside Ops under tarps.

When my crew arrived on Trang-Sup, all we had to do was dismantle the tower (which had been erected after I left the first time) and load the equipment on the trucks. The antenna had been on a much shorter tower when I was there PCS. Site personnel had already completely dismantled everything else preparatory to leaving. You might say they were anxious to be elsewhere, as the Tet offensive had been going on for a while.

The camp came under minor attack a few times while my crew was there, with a really serious one occurring the same evening after my crew and I had retired to Tay Ninh West for transport out. Guess Charlie had planned to give us a send-off. I have no doubt they knew we were leaving. They may have thought all the Air Force troops were pulling out and fewer Americans would be in camp to help defend it. Air Force personnel far outnumbered the Green Berets in camp.

Actually, only my crew left that day, the PCS people remained in camp for a while longer. Not that my crew and I got much further than Tay Ninh for weeks. We got shot up pretty much every night while we were there waiting for transport back to the Philippines. They flew us all in together, but they would only fly us out one truck at a time about once a week, and I had six trucks.

I should mention that the Task Force Base living quarters were all above ground behind sandbag walls, only the ‘strong points’ (bunkers) were dug in and of course the ammo dump. I think we are on different wave lengths as I am talking about Fire Support Bases that we set up as temporary support positions. Unlike “permanent” bases, we did not have the locals to build our sandbag walls and send out detailed information of our positions to the enemy, we had to do it all ourselves.

One could not raise much of an argument when it was pointed out that a sandbag wall four feet thick was not nearly as protective as a wall of earth four feet six inches below the surface of the earth. Later units in Vietnam had a corrugated iron oval roof over their sleeping pits, which could also be covered with sandbags. For my liking they were it bit too prominent, but were very good and were a real time saver, when erected on that first very vulnerable night. Of course this meant extra equipment, but it was probably worth it.

It was always our policy that on the first night to have everyone below ground with at least one layer of overhead protection (sandbags). Work never ceased during our occupation, developing defensive structures. At the Battle of Coral, (102 Bty) they were caught with inadequate protection, although because they had dug their ‘personal pits’ lives were saved because they were able to get below ground when the rockets hit the guns, and the first wave of enemy ran into the position. The CP was always dug in by the first night.

In comparison, in Malaysia, where the enemy had air power, even the guns were dug in, and camouflaged, whereas in Vietnam they were above ground and surrounded by a dirt bund and sandbag walls.

After all, getting ‘dropped off’ in the middle of nowhere surrounded by jungle and enemy meant that everything had to be started from scratch. I recall our mutual friend Subs, in his attempt at belittlement saying that we were safe behind barbed wire and the defensive structures provided by a Fire Support Base.

A Fire Support (Patrol) Base began with the clearing of a patch of jungle, where Helicopters could deliver our field guns and equipment. There is no protection other than an infantry Company securing the area while the guns are set up, and defensive targets are recorded. Every man was required to dig a sleeping pit and cover it with a layer of sandbags before dark (regardless of when we arrived) The Command Post was dug in and communications established. An ammunition bay had to be built for every gun, and three defensive ‘strong Points’ (bunkers) dug in with overhead protection. The ammunition bays held maybe 200 rounds of HE, and had to be within easy access of the gun, in fact only a couple of metres behind each one. As the rounds were fired, a rover delivered more to the guns in boxes that we also had to break open and, in hot times deliver straight to the breaches. The main ammo dump was near the helipad away from the gun positions.

This was followed up with wire, bunds and flares, over time, everything getting bigger and better according to how long we were there. We were there sometimes for only a few days, at other places for several weeks. The only Base we occupied that was already established was Concord.

When we moved on, everything had to be destroyed, the trenches and pits filled in; nothing was ever left that the enemy might use. Then it would all begin again, then again…. Etc; the life of a Field Gunner was one of never ending hard labor. But it paid off because we were not there to die, but to survive.

©2001 TP Woodfork: Det 7, 619th TCS 1966-67
©2001 TP Woodfork: Det 7, 619th TCS 1966-67
Letting the Vietnamese build the bunkers didn’t make much difference, Col; as you noted, the defensive positions were generally quite visible. Besides, Trang-Sup was actually a Vietnamese installation and was under the command of a Vietnamese captain. In truth, I hardly noticed him in the year I was there and probably would not have recognized him had I run into him somewhere a month after I left Vietnam. I’d have been scratching my head, trying to remember where I’d seen him before.

The Green Berets pretty much ran things with his tacit approval. You might say he was mostly conspicuous by his absence, as far as we were concerned, particularly the Air Force people, since no Vietnamese were ever allowed in our working areas. Well, I imagine the Vietnamese CO could have gone pretty much where he pleased. It apparently pleased him to leave us Zoomies to our own devices.

Trang-Sup was also a CIDG training camp and was, therefore, full of Vietnamese trainees night and day. Charlie probably even knew exactly where each American slept and what each individual’s job was, not to mention our full names and hometown addresses. I got the cheering news from an SF guy one day that they estimated about 60% of their Vietnamese trainees were probably VC. Nothing like being trained by your enemy. The Special Forces guys said that they preferred the Cambodian troops. They trained them, also. Of course, I must be mistaken on that point, since we were not supposed to go into Cambodia. I could not possibly have seen Cambodian troops training on Trang-Sup. Hearty Har Har.

The barracks was kept locked from the inside at night because Charlie had slipped in one night and knifed some of our people while they slept. The Sergeant of the Guard, who sat on the screened Team House porch from 10PM to 7AM, also had a key to the door. Fortunately, I was still in the States at the time of the stabbings, blissfully unaware of the hazards of daily life on Trang-Sup.

Yes, our Task Force base (Nui Dat) did not allow “any” Vietnamese people inside the parameter, although they worked nearby filling sandbags. Despite this they still seemed to know where every bunker was located, particularly early in the war before our patrols shut out most of their mortar attacks.

I noticed when looking at some photos of the 102 Bty position at ‘Coral’ that the land clearing teams had left a tall single tree almost in the middle of the Fire Base position; also a gravel road ran right through the position. These sorts of things were perfect sighters for the NVNR and Viet Cong, the tree would have allowed them to pinpoint where to land their artillery, and roads provided excellent guidelines for linear targets; not that they used them in this case, but who knows.

Yes those Special Forces Bases were very interesting, and because of where they were situated, it would have been impossible to hide them from the enemy. I have always been very interested in defensive structures, and the US Special Forces bases were quite unique in shape and in the mixed content of the individuals.

I did make a more detailed study, once upon a time, of the Thanh Tri camp occupied by the A-414 5th US Special Forces group in the Kien Phong Province, military region IV, said to be 3km from the Cambodian border. It was apparently converted to an ARVN Ranger Base in 1970. Camp Ben Het, was another one, which was under constant attack in 1969, in fact they fought a tank battle with M48 tanks against the enemy 10 PT –76 Tanks. With the support of other elements the US won the battle, but it must have been a bit hectic.

I never actually visited a Special Forces Camp, but I have read a great deal about them. Your comments concerning Trang–Sup have always been of great interest to me.