By Richard H Dick James
55 years ago today, 23 February 1966, I was a SGT E-5 assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group in South Vietnam. I was finally on my way to my first Special Forces A camp in Vietnam, after ten days in country.
ENROUTE TO CAI CAI Vietnam was one of the few places Special Forces A-Teams had to operate with constant changing of team members. Unlike most SF missions, in which teams trained together before the mission and completed the mission with a constant team roster, rosters in Vietnam were constantly changing as members arrived in country or returned to the U.S., or other assignment. The constant changing of team members was not a popular way of doing business, and it did somewhat negatively affect the cohesiveness and effectiveness of the teams, although it also assured that there was always a team member who was experienced in the AO (area of operations).
The normal tour in Vietnam was set at one year for the U.S. Army. Soldiers could voluntarily extend those tours, but could not be involuntarily extended (at least I never heard of it happening). On 23 February I was on my way on a U.S. Army de Havilland U-1A “Otter,” for a two-hour flight to Cai Cai, via Muc Hoa (Detachment B-41, a B-team) and Binh Thanh Thon (Detachment A-413). It was the three-times-weekly (Monday, Wednesday & Friday) mail plane, milk run, and aerial bus. In addition to mail, it brought the Stars & Stripes newspapers, supposedly assuring that we would know what was happening in the rest of Vietnam, and in the civilized world. The “Otter” was a lumbering, single-engine, propeller driven, short takeoff & landing pregnant guppy troop transport, capable of carrying nine or ten passengers. Its maximum speed was all of 160 crawling miles per hour (cruising at an even slower 121 mph), and it could carry a payload of only 3,570 pounds. It also took an entire minute to climb 1,000 feet. We were “quick” getting off the ground at Can Tho, the pilot wasting no time heading us north-northeast. We crossed the Bassac River right away, followed a little later by crossing the Mekong River. That was a Disneyland-type ride for sure, that looked and felt like something out of California Adventure Park’s (“Soaring Over California?”) ride. After a while, we began a descent, leveling off not far above a river. I guess the crew decided that being so slow made them an easy target at normal cruising altitude.
Some of the remainder of our flight to Muc Hoa was spent following the track of a river, flying below the treetops at times. I felt like I had been transported into a different world. I can’t say that it was one of my more comfortable rides, or times, in Vietnam. About an hour into my trip, ahead, off to the left I saw a large city, situated on the river. I assumed it was Muc Hoa, our first destination. We made a turn to the left. I could see that we were lining up for a straight-in approach to the airfield. We were low, and slow, as we crossed the runway thresh-hold. The pilot gently touched down. Very little braking was required, since we were already moving at a “slothful” speed. We taxied to a small building.
The pilot stopped in front of the building, leaving the propeller going, but at slow speed. The door was opened, and two men, and a couple mail sacks, got off the aircraft. Nobody boarded. Within a short time, the door was closed. The pilot added power, and we began taxiing out to the runway. There was no other air traffic at the airfield, so the pilot taxied directly onto the airstrip, pointed us down the airstrip, pushed the throttle forward, and we were rolling down the strip. After a very short takeoff roll, the pilot pulled back on the yoke, and we began climbing. Not long after takeoff, I could see nothing but marshes. What a desolate area. We climbed to an altitude that was probably out of range of small weapons. Our next destination was Binh Thanh Thon, aka BTT. It wasn’t a long flight to BTT at all. Not long before our arrival, I spotted the camp, basically surrounded by what looked like swampland. As we neared the camp, the pilot began a steep descent. He lined up for the dirt airstrip. We touched down close to the near end of the runway and taxied to where a couple men were waiting on the side of the airstrip. A crewmember opened the door, passed a bag of mail to one of them, and reclosed the door. Just like that, we were done with BTT. The pilot taxied back to the end of the runway, turned the aircraft around, and pushed the throttle in, to full power.
Another short takeoff roll, and we were in the air again, destination, my new camp at Cai Cai. There was nothing to speak of, in the way of terrain features, between BTT and Cai Cai. Again, the pilot climbed to a high altitude. I can’t say that I blamed him much, as I was told at the C-team that Cai Cai was basically in the middle of a lot of VC units and troops. We neared Cai Cai from the southeast, over a lot of flat terrain. We were at a few thousand feet altitude nearing Cai Cai. The pilot reduced throttle just before flying over the camp, and we began a quick descent. I could see what I figured was Cai Cai out the right side of our aircraft. It was a very small triangular shaped camp, with one corner bordering on a somewhat narrow river. I saw a couple men walking out to what looked like a dirt landing strip. I figured they were probably my welcoming committee, as well as tasked with getting camp Cai Cai’s mailbag. Our aircraft made a somewhat steep 180 degree turn to the right and lined up on the dirt strip. We touched down rather hard on the dirt and continued our forward roll to the end of the strip, where the aircraft came to a stop. The pilot kept the engine running, as I unloaded my duffel bag, and rucksack. The SF members who had come out to meet me shook my hand and introduced themselves, one of them grabbing the mailbag. As soon as I was off the aircraft, the door was shut, the pilot increased power, and turned the Otter hard left, realigning the aircraft down the middle of the airstrip. There was no wind to speak of, so he was able to take off the opposite direction of his landing. He proceeded to do that, apparently wanting to get out of Cai Cai as soon as he could. I later learned that all the pilots who came into Cai Cai wasted no time departing Cai Cai. Being a short field landing and takeoff aircraft, the Otter got off the ground very quickly again, climbing a few hundred feet, before heading southwestbound, to his next destination, probably camp Don Phuc.
I was escorted the short distance off the runway, and through the camp entry gate, into camp Cai Cai. I had finally arrived at my first assigned camp in Vietnam. I figured I was finally officially in the war. I was taken into the team house, near the center of the camp, where I was introduced to MSG Kerr, the detachment’s Operations Sergeant, also referred to as team sergeant and team daddy. He introduced me to CPT Donker, the team’s Commanding Officer, and 2LT Doht, the Executive Officer. MSG Kerr then took me to what was to be my personal room in the team house, followed by giving me the grand tour of camp Cai Cai, also showing me where my alert position would be, in case of an attack on the camp. Because of my secondary MOS being Heavy Weapons, my alert position was to be part of the 4.2” mortar crew. That evening the team sergeant introduced me to a gathering of team members. One of them spoke up, saying, “let’s welcome SGT James with a rendition of the Hymn,” to which the collected team sang in monotone, “Him! Him! F**k Him!” I had been officially accepted into the team, as the FNG (f**king new guy). The team assigned me the job of Demolition Specialist. That was fine by me. On paper, A-teams in Vietnam were authorized 12-14 men but, in reality, they were normally under strength. Cai Cai, one of the more active, as well as strategic, camps in IV Corps, was fortunate to have 13 men (me included) assigned to it, upon my arrival. We never dipped below full team strength during my time there. The extra thirteenth man on our team was the Assistant Intelligence Sergeant, which was not a normal position in Special Forces. Another slot on Vietnam SF teams, that was not TO&E in other SF units, was the position of Civil Affairs/Psychological Operations NCO or officer. Cai Cai was not assigned anyone in that slot. Because the assigned Assistant Intelligence Sergeant, SSG “Andy” Anderson, wasn’t due to depart Cai Cai until May, my main assignment was changed to that of team Demolition Specialist, with a secondary assignment as Assistant Intelligence Sergeant. Unlike civilian trade unions, in which helping on a job other than your own was taboo, in the Army it was expected that you help your fellow teammates. And, totally against civilian trade union rules, many times you were assigned several different positions. In the Army, we did what was needed, despite any limits defined for a particular MOS. Immediately life changed to one of constant security mode and threat of danger, 24/7.
On pegs next to my bunk, I hung my rifle and load bearing rig, with .45-caliber M1911A1 pistol in a holster attached to the belt, as well as a Thompson M1A1 .45-caliber submachinegun, also known as a Tommy gun. I had been given a choice of the Thompson or a M3A1 .45-caliber “Grease Gun” for close-in protection within camp, in case of an attack. Even though it was heavier (10 pounds, 7 ounces, compared to 8 pounds) and more unwieldy, I selected the Thompson because it was more accurate than the “Grease Gun.” The Thompson was air cooled, semi– or fully-automatic, magazine-fed, blowback operated, shoulder weapon. It fired at a rate of 600-725 rounds per minute, had a maximum range of 1,500 meters, and maximum effective range of 100 meters. From Book #3, 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 (“SLURP SENDS! A Green Beret’s Experiences In Vietnam Book 4”) are all available on Amazon, or from me.PHOTOS: U.S. Army de Havilland U-1 Otter Transport (Internet photo) / Cai Cai from the air / My “bedroom” (my photos)SLURP SENDS!