58 years ago, January 1963, I was a just-promoted Private First Class E-3. I had been in Special Forces Training Group (Provisional), in Fort Bragg NC, since September, assigned to Company B, Special Forces Training Group (Provisional). I had recently begun the Demolition course, and was returning to Fort Bragg from my 2-week Christmas leave at home, in San Jose CA.On the Thursday of the day before my departure, 3 January, the evening news was all about a big battle in South Vietnam on the previous day, in which the VC had claimed a major victory. The battle was in the Ap Bac village vicinity, a Mekong Delta village, only about thirty-five miles southwest of Saigon. Apparently, an outnumbered force of enemy troops was able to annihilate a much larger Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) force. I would learn more about the battle when I returned to Fort Bragg.Early Friday morning, on 4 January, my folks drove me to San Francisco, to catch an early morning return flight to Dulles International Airport, Washington, D.C., via Denver. My return flight was also on a Boeing 707.
Returning to Ft. Bragg upon the culmination of my leave was a snap. I was able to get transportation from Dulles, to Union Station, and my train back to Fatalburg. From there, I boarder the “Vomit Comet” bus, back to Smoke Bomb Hill. I signed back into my unit late that evening, as planned.There were about 11,000 military personnel in South Vietnam at the end of the year, including 29 U.S. Army Special Forces detachments, operating under the command of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (US-MACV). It was estimated that 30,000 communist Viet Cong and civilian sympathizers were in South Vietnam fueling the insurgency at that same time.Information about the Ap Bac battle in South Vietnam was filtering into our unit. We heard that the South Vietnamese had suffered a major loss, including three American advisors killed, even though they had outnumbered the Viet Cong, four to one. In fact, the South Vietnamese troops were supported by artillery, armor, and helicopters, unlike the Viet Cong. The battle had included units of the ARVN 7th Division.
When questioned by American reporters, General Paul Harkins stated that “We’ve got them in a trap, and we’re going to spring it in half an hour.” However, no such event transpired. As reporters tend to do, they couldn’t understand why no other combat transpired.The following day, they asked the American advisor to the ARVN 7th Division, LTC John Paul Vann, what had happened. He was not hesitant, answering that the fighting had ended the day before, unsuccessfully. In fact, he was quoted as saying that “It was a miserable fu**ing performance. These people won’t listen. They make the same fu**ing mistakes over, and over again, in the same way.”The battle at Ap Bac bothered Americans, causing them to lose faith in the Vietnamese ability to fight their own battles. It was becoming more obvious that American troops were going to have to be involved in the war. It was also becoming obvious that the military under Diem was not living up to expectations.Much of the problem came from the fact that the military hierarchy was mostly populated by men loyal to President Ngo Dinh Diem, appointed by Diem. They weren’t being appointed because of their expertise. Many of the appointments were not up to the task of commanding a military unit. They were also scared. They were afraid their unit would suffer casualties. Therefore, they were reticent to take it to the enemy, preferring to remain out of the action.
Diem rated successes by casualties, especially low casualty figures for his ARVN troops.My Demolition Course continued, on Monday, 7 January, immediately after the Christmas break, with instruction about the different American explosives and their characteristics, and the most commonly used foreign explosives. We then set about learning how to use them (mostly for destructive purposes).The longest, and most difficult, training entailed learning the tactical uses of explosives, which included a lot of training in mathematical formulas and placement of charges to do maximum damage. That training caused more men to be dropped from training.An interesting specialty explosive device we learned about was the “shaped charge.” The shaped charge worked on the principle of the Monroe effect. In other words, the open cone formed on the bottom of the charge forced the explosive surge, seeking the path of least resistance, to meet in the middle of the empty cone, forming a stronger thin jet, strong enough to penetrate armor. That principle was utilized in anti-tank weapon rounds and specialized explosives.I used several 15-pound shaped charges later, in Vietnam, when digging a deep ditch. I used the shape charges to “dig” bore holes in the ground, the perfect size to lower dynamite into, to finish the cratering job. It worked perfectly.The shaped charges had to be on stands of a computed height, or the explosive jet would not do the job correctly. Those charges could be military issue or homemade. Military issue shaped charges were available in two sizes, the 15-pound M2A3 (11½ pounds of pentolite [PETN and TNT] or Composition B) and the 30-pound M3 (50/50 pentolite or Composition B with a 50/50 pentolite booster). Both charges had the correct standoff distance built in. Composition B was a high explosive with a higher relative effectiveness and sensitivity than TNT, composed of 59% RDX (cyclonite), 40% TNT, and 1% wax.Another pre-made explosive device we learned about was the Bangalore torpedo, even though most of us would never use it, except in training. Bangalore torpedoes were lengths of explosive-filled metal pipes that were connected, using a connecting sleeve, to eventually make a torpedo of desired length. Its primary use was to clear a 10- to 15-foot wide path through barbed wire entanglements, especially useful when attacking a fortified position. It could also be used to clear a path through a minefield, but the safe width of any such path was much narrower than that of the path through barbed wire.An expedient Bangalore could be fashioned utilizing pipe of an approximate inside diameter of two inches and a wall thickness of at least .025 inch (24 gage), packed with two pounds of explosives per linear foot. Bangalore torpedoes could also be used as anti-personnel devices, by planting them in the earth, vertically. The portion of the Bangalore that was above ground would spray its fragments 360°.Of course, no explosives course could be taught without stressing the importance of safety when dealing with such a dangerous subject. It was stressed that most military explosives were safe, as a rule, but that safety precautions had to be followed religiously. We were warned not to carry explosives and blasting caps in the same vehicle, or on the same person.Blasting caps had to be handled with kid gloves. We were also warned that any explosives containing nitroglycerin should be turned regularly during the storage process.
If an oily substance appeared on casings or stains appeared on packing cases, the explosive was to be considered extremely sensitive, and destroyed immediately, preferably by burning. The oily substance indicated that the nitroglycerin had separated from the remainder of the explosive charge. Nitroglycerin was very susceptible to shock of any kind.Blasting time fuse (aka safety fuse) contained black powder wrapped with several fabric and waterproofing layers and came in 50-foot rolls. The cover of the fuses I used were smooth and a very dark green, although it came in many different colors. Time fuse conveyed flame at a slow, continuous, uniform rate. The burning rate of time fuse varied, basically from about 30 seconds per foot to 45 seconds per foot, hence requiring testing prior to each use, to determine the actual burning rate of the roll being used.Outside factors (altitude, weather, storage conditions, etc.) had a lot to do with the burning speed. In addition, time fuse burned faster in an enclosed space than in the open. Time fuse burned slower at higher altitudes. Even if that same roll had been tested the day before, it had to be tested before using again. That was the only safe way to determine how much time fuse was required for a selected burn time prior to detonation of the final object in the firing train.Although time fuse could be lit using matches, it was much quicker and easier to light time fuse utilizing a fuse lighter. That was especially true if there was so much as a strong breeze, or rain. There were several types of fuse lighters, but the type that we used most often were the plastic pull type of fuse lighter.The fuse lighter was attached to the time fuse. At the time for beginning the firing train, the operator only had to pull the ring on the fuse lighter to begin the process. When using electric blasting caps, a blasting machine was used to detonate them.From my Book #1, 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”), #3 (“SLURP SENDS! Experiences of a Green Beret In Vietnam Book 3”) and #4 (“SLURP SENDS! A Green Beret’s Experiences In Vietnam Book 4”) are all available on Amazon or from me.PHOTOS: My FM 5-25 Demolitions and Explosives manual / Demolition Card (my photos)SLURP SENDS!