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Life in the Mekong

54 years ago, mid-September 1966, I was a SGT E-5 Demolition Sergeant on Detachment A-422 (Camp Vinh Gia), Company D (Detachment C-4), 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), in the Mekong Delta (IV Corps) of South Vietnam. I was temporarily assigned to my most favorite outpost to hate, Giang Thanh, right on the Cambodian border, with SP5 Stephens. We were the only Americans there.


My mother complained in her most recent letter about having to turn the heat up to keep the house warm, while I was sweating profusely, 24 hours a day. And, while I was sweating, it was pouring down rain. A few days after arriving at Giang Thanh, we received a radio message that the camp at Vinh Gia was under water. In fact, the helipad (helicopter landing stand) at Vinh Gia was under two feet of water. At Giang Thanh, I was wading through foot-high water outside the team house, but inside was still high and dry. It was impossible to determine where the canal ended, and the bank began.

That was true throughout much of the Mekong Delta region. The water level was much higher than normal for this time of year, according to locals. Tinh Bien’s outpost had to be evacuated because there were no dry places to set up the machine guns for defense. Giang Thanh was one of the last locations to go under water, due to its slightly elevated nature. The monsoon season usually meant a lull in Viet Cong operations, as well as ours. The VC used that time to rest and gather strength, since allied forces were also pretty much bogged down.

Cai Cai was in even worse condition, and very vulnerable to attack, because of flooding. On the 16th, the flooding was so bad at Cai Cai that the eastern berm collapsed, and water submerged the camp. The center of camp was under twelve feet of water, which was eighteen feet higher than the pre-flood level. The water was, in fact, above the camp berm. According to an article about Cai Cai, in the October 1966 issue of The Green Beret magazine, there was a poster on the wall of the communications bunker (about five feet above the floor, and six feet underwater, reading “No position is untenable, if brave men make it so.”

The C-team had to airlift more than thirty tons of emergency supplies (including food, clothing, weapons, ammunition, and building materials) to the camp, to keep the camp operational. To house the camp’s CIDG troops, temporary hutches had to be erected on top of the camp berm, as well as on top of the permanent camp structures. Temporary quarters were also erected for the SF team, on top of the team house. The old team house rafters served as the floor for the new above-water quarters. The troops swam from place to place, when moving within the camp.

Mortars were moved to positions on top of bunkers. Supplies of ammunition, and other perishable items, were temporarily stored in floating, roofed, storage rafts, lashed to floatable empty 55-gallon drums. During fire missions, ammunition was transported to the firing positions by sampans. A temporary helipad was erected on top of the former ammo bunker roof, later to be replaced by an elevated helipad just outside the camp front gate, with an elevated walkway leading from the camp to the pad. The only available resupply was by helicopter or low-level extraction procedures (LOLEX) over the water.

Floating platforms had to be delivered to Cai Cai so ammunition and heavy weapons could remain above water. It had become a floating camp, the first in Vietnam. They didn’t dare abandon the camp, due to its strategic nature. The men of Cai Cai continued their mission, high water, or not, conducting operations, some as large as company size, using the camp’s sampans and assault boats.

Future floating camps were much more sophisticated than Cai Cai. When new “floating camps” were built, all buildings were erected one and one-half stories high, with a floor that floated, rising as the water level rose. Medical, ammunition, and crew-served weapons bunkers were erected on platforms that were reinforced, and floated. Helipads were made to float and support a loaded Huey.

Because of the Corps-wide flooding that monsoon season, studies were begun to determine an operational plan for future high-water activities and camp security. Cai Cai had undergone some major changes to make it a “floating camp,” with the addition of waterborne craft for its “Navy.” Airboats were added to the mix, as well as U.S. Navy patrol boats, operated by Navy personnel, airlifted into the camp.

Many of the IV Corps camps underwent similar changes, to increase their productiveness and security during the monsoon seasons. Because camp Vinh Gia was basically in a pacified area, and due for eventual turnover to the Vietnamese, no additional work was accomplished, or supplies received, by the camp. We plodded along with our little “navy” of sampans, motorized wooden barges, and fiberglass assault boats.

Flooded camps in IV Corps that didn’t have the motorized fiberglass engineer assault boats, were ordered some. As soon as they were received, CIDG boat operators were trained. At the same time, the CIDG were learning new tactics on-the-job. Many camps had their mortar and artillery bunkers flooded, thus losing an important part of camp defense and offensive operational support. All the 105mm howitzers had to be evacuated from the camps that were flooded.

Mortars were also heavily affected. The 4.2” mortar at Kinh Quan II had to be taken out of action until the camp was dried out. In other camps, heavy mortars were repositioned to high ground, or placed on floating platforms. Because of the instability of most floating platforms, those could only be stored on the platforms, not to be used for offensive or defensive purposes.

Most of the FOBs in flooded areas had to be evacuated. Many of those FOBs were replaced by mobile “sampan FOBs.” It was found, in many cases, that the roving mobile sampan FOBs were more effective than the previous static FOBs. Flooded airfields also caused problems with support. It took longer to receive FAC and helicopter support, because of the further distance the aircraft had to fly, from the nearest unflooded airfield.

In many camps, helipads had to be relocated to higher elevations, or floating helipads had to be erected. Because of Muc Hoa being underwater and having been a helicopter support base for many CIDG camps, special floating helipads had to be floated upriver to the base. The special helipads were required due to the extra weight of armed helicopter gunships that would use them.

The only food we could get on the local market at Giang Thanh was shrimp. We had been eating shrimp three meals a day for my entire stay in Giang Thanh. It wouldn’t have been so bad if our cook had known more ways of preparing it. Our menu was: breakfast – fried shrimp; lunch – fried shrimp; dinner – fried shrimp.

I have never learned to dislike anything so much as I learned to despise fried shrimp. It got to the point where I reduced my intake to one meal a day, having trouble even coaxing that into my mouth. I truly believe to this day that, if we would have had a supply of C-rations to choose from, I would have gladly downed a can of Ham & Lima Beans, much as I despised that meal.

On the 16th, the Tien Binh Radio Operator, Ramirez, had over-imbibed a bit. He was calling all the teams in our area, looking for friends. He and I had been in the 6th Group together, a couple years prior. He wanted to wish everyone a happy Mexican Independence Day. He and I burned up the radio net with about 15 minutes of useless jabber. It was a good change of pace from the normal boredom of Giang Thanh. Being as how the call sign for Giang Thanh was “Texas,” and we seemed to be the forgotten outpost, I signed off with my normal, “Remember the Alamo.” His response was unprintable.

From my book #4 (SLURP SENDS! A Green Beret’s Experiences in Vietnam Book 4), of my four-book set of “SLURP SENDS!” Books #1 (“SLURP SENDS! On Becoming a Green Beret Book 1”), #2 (SLURP SENDS! Experiences of an A-Team Green Beret Book 2”), #3 (“SLURP SENDS! Experiences of a Green Beret in Vietnam Book 3”), and #4 are available on Amazon, or from me.

PHOTOS: The flooding at Giang Thanh (my photos, taken by teammate SGT Mike Greene) / Special Forces SGT Conard at Camp Cai Cai (A-412) swimming to one of the camp ammunition rafts (from Stanton’s book “Special Forces at War”).

SLURP SENDS!

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