By Jerry Eltzroth
CV&T Guest Columnist
As I explained in my previous article about my Vietnam experience, the 66th Engineers (Topo) was responsible for producing intelligence laden topographic maps and mosaics for our brethren in the field who were engaged in hard combat. Our company was made up of 4 platoons—Headquarters, Survey, Cartographic and Reproduction. After the printing presses produced the finished maps, they were moved next door to the Map Depot platoon’s warehouse for distribution. The Map Depot (547th Engineer Platoon) was actually a separate outfit but seemed like our 5th platoon, because we worked closely together and shared the same compound.
Our company was a conglomeration of officers, NCO’s (Non Commissioned Officers), who were experienced in their respective discipline and a bunch of enlisted men—mostly 18 and 19-year-old’s, like me. Our hometowns were all over the map—California, Nevada, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, just to name a few.
The quarters were assigned according to rank. The Colonel had a mobile home. The officers had separate barracks with accommodations fitting their rank. The NCO’s had their barracks with ample personal space. The enlisted men were crowded together in open barracks and usually double-bunked until some of the original company began to rotate home. Anybody who has lived in an open Army barracks knows you have very little privacy. Privacy was also non-existent when you went to the shower or the latrine. The latrine was an elongated 8 to10 hole wooden outhouse. Each hole had a trap door outside to facilitate the removal of the cut-off 55-gallon barrel where the ‘deposits’ were made. Local women were hired to drag the short barrels to a clearing, mix the contents with diesel fuel and set it afire. This procedure had a two-fold purpose–it prevented disease and kept the local people from taking the contents home to use as fertilizer for their rice paddies. Since I worked nights much of the 15 months in ‘Nam I was usually answering nature’s call at a time when the work crews were in the process of cleaning the latrine. One time the barrel was pulled out from under me as I sat there contemplating. I hollered, “Hold up Momma-San, I’m not finished yet!” Other times Momma-San would come into the latrine as I was taking care of business. I waved and would tell her, “Come on in Momma-San, it ain’t no big thing.”
As with any military outfit, beer and whiskey was readily available. The officers, NCO’s and enlisted men each had their separate clubs. Although the drinking of alcohol was to be limited to the clubs or outside if we had a company party, it sometimes spilled over into the barracks. Drinking on duty was prohibited. I consumed an occasional beer but never drank any whiskey. I may have been in our enlisted men’s club only a handful of occasions during my tour.
There were better ways to occupy my free time than to be around a bunch of drunken GI’s. Most of our guys drank in moderation but some would get ‘falling-down-passed-out’ drunk. One of my friends got so drunk on Vodka that he passed out leaning against some sandbags. I took a picture of him before I helped him get into his bunk. A Vietnamese girl band imitating the Beatles performed at our enlisted men’s club one evening. I went to see them perform. They were very good musicians but their accent was a bit off beat. It was hilarious to hear them try to sing, “I want to hold your hand!”
We seldom had any serious problems because of excessive drinking. Mostly it was limited to personnel returning to the barracks intoxicated late at night when you were trying to sleep. They would be loud and want to get in your face. Bruce Werner was asleep in his top bunk when a few drunks gathered near him. They thought it would be cute to put a cigarette to Bruce’s lips. Bruce had prided himself in the fact that a cigarette had never touched his lips. Bruce awoke and was instantly ready to whip every one of the drunks. They backed off. Every night there seemed to be a poker game in the middle of our barracks aisle way and always at the end of my bunk. You had to learn to be tolerant to survive barracks life. My tolerance ran out one night when I was very sick with the Hong Kong flu. I finally had enough of the loud drunken poker players, sat up in my bunk and screamed, “Will you guys knock it off!” They went to bed.
I witnessed one serious incident because guys were influenced by alcohol. A black guy had his bunk at the end of our barracks by the door. His name was Cook and he happened to be from my hometown—Dayton. He was a Specialist 5, had been in the Army about 10 years and was an offset pressman like me, although I never saw him operate a press. He came in after dark one night from the enlisted men’s club and sat down in the folding lounge chair in his area. Another guy came in shortly afterwards. I forget his name but he was a big, burly white man. I always thought he and Cook were friends. He approached Cook from behind as he sat in his chair. He had a bayonet in his hand and stuck it in Cook’s chest. All hell broke loose! We were ushered out of the barracks by the NCO’s. Both men were removed and we never heard anymore about them.
Drugs were not a big problem in our outfit; however, you could find them if you inquired while strolling the streets and alleyways of the local village. The guys from the West Coast and the East Coast seemed to be educated about drugs. Midwestern boys like me still thought drugs came from the pharmacy. The Army generally looked the other way if you were using marijuana as long as you did not allow it to become a problem. I never saw anyone openly smoking it, but I stayed away from people who were using it. I do know that sometimes personnel disappeared when they were caught with drugs and we would never hear what happened to them. I was never tempted to try any drugs. It always seemed stupid. There’s a bigger drug problem here in Witt Springs than we ever had in Vietnam.
We had many unique personalities in our outfit. I’ll try to describe a few of them.
John Barker was with our Reproduction platoon. His MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was Offset Process Cameraman. He photographed the artwork that was produced by our Cartographic platoon which eventually was rendered into printing plates for our map producing printing presses. John was a bit older than the 18-19 youngsters in our outfit, like me, who were the majority. He may have been 22 or 23 which usually made you middle-aged in our outfit. Sometimes you received the nickname ‘Pappy’ at that advanced age. John was always easy going and had a gift of gab, plus he loved to play poker. The members of our platoon would seldom play poker with him, since he was very skilled at it. Utilizing his gift of gab he managed to get invited to play poker with the officers once a week—usually on Friday or Saturday night. Our platoon was always pleased to see John come in late at night, inebriated, and his pockets overflowing with the officers’ money. The officers never seemed to tire of John fleecing them each week. I suppose they found him entertaining. John hated the Army. He was a 2-year draftee. He always told us that when he got out of the Army he was going to reside in San Francisco’s skid row for about 6 months, drink cheap wine, and smoke discarded cigar butts until he got his self respect back, so as to be able to re-enter civilian life.
Like John, ‘Goody’ was also an offset process cameraman. His nickname was short for Goodman. He was a Jewish boy from New York City. Goody was a descent guy, but he just had one bad flaw. He liked to get high on drugs. Usually it was marijuana because it was so easy to obtain from the local Vietnamese. I did not like being around him. One night Goody, my friend Jim Nowak, and I had guard duty together in the Suicide Tower. Normally there were only two men per bunker—one man awake at all times. The Suicide Tower required two men to be awake while one slept. The Suicide Tower was a sand bagged bunker that sat on stilts about 15-20 feet in the air. The tower was placed a good distance from our company’s perimeter so as to be able to overlook the road and bridge that crossed a railroad line—a good place for the enemy to infiltrate our compound. The reason it received the name Suicide Tower is because if we were attacked by ground forces the personnel in the tower would probably be the first to perish. When Goody, Jim and me took our position in the Suicide Tower just before dark, it became obvious that Goody was all ready high. Although we should have reported Goody’s condition, we didn’t. You just did not squeal on a fellow soldier. Goody climbed on top of the bunker, began flapping his arms and yelling, “I can fly! I know I can fly!” Jim told him, “Goody, get down, you are going to fall!” I felt no compassion for him and said, “Go ahead, and jump Goody. I want to see if you can fly!” He finally came down from his perch and lay in the bottom of the bunker, where he slept the whole night while wearing his sunglasses. He was useless for guard duty. Occasionally I would shine the beam of my flashlight in his fully dilated eyes to aggravate him. Goody would moan, “Oh God, man, don’t do that.” If we had been attacked Goody would probably have been the first one killed. I may have shot him myself. It was a long tiring night for Jim and me.
One of our favorite pastimes when on guard duty was trying to spear a rat. We could hear rats scurrying in the floor of the bunkers as we sat on our observation perch. We would throw our bayonets at their sound in hopes of hitting one. It was dangerous to use a flashlight on guard duty. I never did hit one; however, I set a rat trap behind my bunk and caught one on several occasions. The best bait was salted pumpkin seeds that I received in a care package from home.
In my estimation, Jim Sansom may have been the one of the most intelligent guys in our outfit. Jim was from California—Van Nuys I think. His MOS was the same as mine—offset pressman. Jim was a very good photographer. We had many adventures together like climbing the 103 foot survey tower one dark night so Jim could take time exposures with his camera. That was definitely against regulations. Jim and I roamed the local Vietnamese countryside looking for interesting sights. It was probably dangerous, since we were not allowed to take our weapons. Somehow Jim managed to get a transfer to the Dental Clinic located a mile or so from our compound. There he worked as a dental assistant the rest of his tour. He had the opportunity to go on medical runs to remote villages. He took some interesting pictures which he shared with me. I have no doubt that Jim became a professional at something after he left the Army.
Somehow Bill was sent to Vietnam even though he was a conscientious objector. He refused to pick up a weapon. I do not know how he ever managed to graduate from boot camp. Bill was not a coward and a very likable guy. He sincerely did not believe in killing people. They put him in charge of the Vietnamese who worked on our compound, and he seemed to do an excellent job of managing the Momma-Sans. After a few months he was transferred back to the states and I assume he was mustered out.
When guys were not performing their assigned jobs, pulling guard duty, eating or sleeping they amused themselves at the enlisted men’s club; wrote letters home; waited for mail call and care packages from home; played poker almost nightly; went to the village to visit the brothels and bars; listened to music on their transistor radios that was broadcast by the Armed Forces Radio and watched TV which was also broadcast by the military. The most popular TV show was ‘Combat’. There was an occasional USO show, Donut Dolly visit, movies and Bob Hope once a year. We loved our 60’s music, especially Rock & Roll! Rolling Stones, Supremes, Johnny Rivers, Beach Boys, Lovin’ Spoonful, Rascals—just to name a few. Peter, Paul and Mary’s ‘Leavin’ on a jet plane, Don’t know when I’ll be back again’ and the Box Tops’s ‘Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane, Ain’t got time for a fast train, Lonely days are gone, I’m a-goin’ home, My Baby just wrote me a letter!’ always got you thinking about home.
Since I worked nights most of my tour, I was off duty during the day. We night workers had a much different routine. I’ll explain in more detail in my next segment as well as share some information and pictures about the Vietnamese people.