By Richard H. Dick James
54 years ago, July 1966. I was a Sergeant E-5 newly assigned to Camp Vinh Gia (A-422), from Camp Cai Cai (A-412), 5th Special Forces Group, both near the Cambodian border in the Mekong Delta, as the Demolition Sergeant on the team.
On 22 July I hopped on a Bell UH-1B “Huey” helicopter at the Can Tho airfield, for what would be a 2½ hour scenic tour of the Mekong Delta area to Vinh Gia. This version of the Huey carried a pilot, co-pilot, and seven troops. A door gunner crewman on each side of the Huey reduced the payload to five troops as passengers. As the engine gained power from start-up, the rotor began rotating at an increased speed, and the whine of the engine increased. When the pilot had sufficient power and rotor speed, he lifted the bird off the ground a few feet. Then the nose dipped somewhat, as the aircraft began a forward, then upward motion, as we climbed to our cruising altitude. The sliding doors on the left and right sides remained open, as those were the door gunners’ positions. I could feel the hot, humid air flowing through the Huey’s cabin, cooled only slightly, by the airflow and rotor downwash, as we flew at about 120 miles per hour.
The pilot followed the Bassac River, a western tributary of the Mekong River, north northwestward. We could view the flat, expansiveness of the Mekong Delta, with the many canals and rice paddies covering the expanse. The view was spectacular, including lush green flatlands, interspersed with endless patches of rice paddies. About twenty minutes out, to our left, looking northwestward, we saw the few mountains of the Delta, namely what was known as the Seven Mountains. They jutted up from perfectly flat land, as if someone had just chosen those sites to dump boulders and earth. In another fifteen minutes, we began descending, as we neared Chau Doc. The pilot brought us down quickly, not wanting to risk groundfire from the enemy. We landed at the site of the Special Forces B-team (B-42) at Chau Doc. There we offloaded a couple men, and a large sack of mail.
A man, and some equipment, were loaded onboard, and we went through the usual takeoff ritual of the Huey, turning south southeasterly upon reaching a safe altitude, approximately the reverse of our arrival. About twenty minutes later we were on the ground in Long Xuyen, unloading the man who had climbed onboard at Chau Doc, as well as the equipment that had been loaded there, and another sack of mail. Another man got on our Huey. About fifteen minutes after touchdown, we were lifting off again, heading back the same direction we had come from. Once again, we landed at Chau Doc, the man from Long Xuyen exiting the aircraft.
Within a couple minutes we were again lifting off. The pilot took up a course southwestward, following the Vinh Te Canal. We were much closer to the Seven Mountains on this leg and could see the imposing mountains off to our front left. The Seven Mountains was a group of mountains surrounded by flat terrain for miles on end. They almost looked surreal, but I also knew they were covered with Viet Cong.
Within minutes we were descending into a small camp, named Tinh Bien. Camp Tinh Bien was a Special Forces camp, at which Detachment A-423 was located. Another bag of mail was offloaded. The pilot wasted no time lifting us back in the air, destination just a couple miles away at a small Special Forces camp, Ba Chuc (A-429), located at the base of a small hill and one of the mountains that made up the Seven Mountains.
After offloading one of the passengers, and another bag of mail, we again wasted no time on the ground, beginning our departure within a couple minutes. The pilot departed northwestwardly, climbing quickly. He leveled out at about 1,000 feet, and headed westward, following the Vinh Te Canal. About 15 minutes into the flight, we began a descent, heading towards a small rectangular camp, which fronted on the canal.
We let down on a small helicopter pad inside the camp. I didn’t see any roads near the camp, or a landing strip. That place was in the middle of nowhere, with apparently only helicopter and boat access. It was Vinh Gia (A-422), my next assignment. When we touched down, I grabbed my duffel bag, rucksack, and rifle, and exited the aircraft. One of the team members, who greeted the chopper, retrieved the bag of mail meant for the team, taking it to the team house, and guiding me there, as well.
Vinh Gia was one of the older camps in IV Corps, having been opened as an SF camp in August 1964. I was finally reporting to Detachment A-422 at Vinh Gia, in Chau Doc Province, assigned as the team Demolition Sergeant, after too many hospital visits. I was replacing a man who had been a friend stateside, SSG Daryl K. Stannard, who had been killed by a booby-trapped grenade on the perimeter wire of Vinh Gia’s Giang Thanh outpost.
The Army officially lists Daryl as “accidental self-destruction (DNH, died non-hostile),” but with the fact that the grenade was booby-trapped, I really think he should have been listed as KIA. He had been at Giang Thanh with the team Civic Action/Psychological Operations (CA/PsyOps) Sergeant, SGT Giles, who was still at Vinh Gia when I arrived.
SGT Giles had been in the observation tower while SSG Stannard was clearing the perimeter wire. Stannard was attempting to disarm a Willy Peter (WP, aka white phosphorous) grenade that had been wrapped with rubber bands by the VC. He was trapped inside the wire when the grenade’s lever flew off, causing it to detonate. With help from the outpost CIDG, SGT Giles managed to move Stannard to the dispensary ASAP. SSG Stannard later died from his wounds, which were substantial.
This is SGT Giles’ account of the event. “I was with Daryl the day he was killed. We were both assigned to A-422 out of Vinh Gia. He and I were the only Americans stationed there with one company of Cambodian CIDG. We were at the Giang Thanh River Custom house located where the Cambodian and RVN borders at the Vinh Te Canal and the Giang Thanh River connect.
He was clearing out the perimeter wire and disarming a WP grenade that had been wrapped with rubber bands by the VC when it went off. He was inside the wire and could not get out before it went off. I had been in the observation tower and had just finished my sweep of the border when the grenade went off. We got Daryl to the infirmary as quick as we could. An air evac was called and he was airlifted to the nearest medics available. Later I had heard that he had expired from the wounds he had received.” I learned that Stannard had, in fact, replaced another Demolition Sergeant, who had been injured by an explosive, on the job. I was certainly hoping I would fare better on the job than my last two predecessors.
From my soon to come out, book #4 (SLURP SENDS! A Green Beret’s Experiences in Vietnam Book 4), of my four-book set of SLURP SENDS! Book #1 (“SLURP SENDS! On Becoming a Green Beret Book 1”) & #2 (SLURP SENDS! Experiences of an A-Team Green Beret Book 2”) are already available on Amazon, and #3 (“SLURP SENDS! Experiences of a Green Beret in Vietnam Book 3”) is also soon to come.
PHOTOS: Camp Vinh Gia (my photos/diagrams & Google map labeled by me)