The lighter side of Vietnam


by Schuyler Van Horn

My journey with the United States Army began on June 17, 1968, the day after I graduated from Hobart and William Smith colleges and I began to look forward to law school. The night before, as I left my graduation ceremony, my parents and I walked past the old library with the caption “You are the hope of the world” carved into the gate. My world came crashing down the next day when my draft notice arrived in the letterbox. Law school would wait.

My experience was no different from others. Mike Hanna, classmate and retired athletic director of Hobart and William Smith colleges, also received his draft notice the same day. I actually followed Mike to Officer Candidate School and Vietnam where we were both intelligence officers working in the Phoenix program.

I arrived in Vietnam in the summer of 1971. My duty station was An Loc, 70 miles north of Saigon, near the Cambodian border. The Iron Triangle, Parrot’s Beak, and Black Madonna Mountain were nearby. I was assigned to MACV Advisor Team 47, a small group of 32 US advisors. Our resort had a sign that said, “Welcome to Love Compound.” Next to it was a smaller sign that said, “Give up hope to anyone who enters here. It was very heartwarming as it took me back to the days of Western Civ and Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. At least someone there had a sense of humor.

An Loc was a large community of 15,000 people. Next to our compound was the headquarters of the ARVN 5th Division, about 3,000 people. We sat astride Highway 13, commonly known as Thunder Road due to frequent convoy ambushes.

It is true that there were long periods of absolute boredom punctuated by short periods of absolute terror. It’s the war. But, incredibly, during my tour, there were lighter moments. Let me tell you a few.

My boss was a hardened Major who was also a Ranger. This was his second combat tour. But he had a wonderful voice. Time and time again, we raced down Highway 13 singing “Over there” at the top of our lungs. We even nearly blew up his jeep’s engine while burying the speedometer.

Photo submitted – UH-1 in Vietnam

My Vietnamese ARVN counterpart was a 35-year-old married captain who had been in their army since he was 18. Before leaving the United States, I had taken a two-month immersion course in Vietnamese. He spoke a little English. I was his fifth US advisor. It was a normal custom in Vietnam for men to walk down the street hand in hand. He liked walking with me that way. Once, he took me to “dinner”. Main course was cooked fish – eyes, scales and entrails – all served on rice paper. He insisted that I eat the entrails because it was luck. For dessert, we shared a Cambodian duck egg. It was pretty big, and he poked a hole in the top with a parfait spoon. Inside was the duck embryo, including eyes and beak. I ate it. That night I took pills for diarrhea.

Once a month we made a trip to Tan Son Nhut, a great base in Saigon to refresh our beer supply. We took two “cannon” jeeps and a 2.5 ton truck for alcohol. The cannon jeeps were each equipped with a pivoting M60 machine gun. Although it was only a 70 mile drive, it took all day as the roads had to be cleared and there were many road checkpoints. By the time we got to Tan Son Nhut, our uniforms were almost red with sweat and laterite clay soil from the roads. In our compound, we wore name badges but rarely ranked. The bad guys were shooting at the officers. I was wearing a booney hat with shotgun shells stuck in it and a Remington 12 gauge shotgun. Usually our first stop on arrival was a dining hall. On one of my monthly trips, I happened to look across the table and, to my surprise, the guy was Lt. Doug Tripp, who I promised at Delta Chi. Small world. It was on one such trip that I walked out of the mess hall and an army major approached me about my unkempt appearance. My lack of rank and my body odor really offended him. My sin – not to greet him. Chicken stuff even in Vietnam.

On another such trip, I was driving my jeep through the base back to Love Compound. Shit if a military police jeep didn’t stop me and give me a speeding ticket. I was very angry and tore up the ticket in front of the rather posh MP. My comment to him was, “Well, what are you going to do to me – send me to Vietnam?” Around the same time, my NCO lazily pointed the M60 at the MP. The guy’s face matched his fatigues.

Christmas 1971 at An Loc was interesting. On Christmas Eve, I had witnessed a Christmas parade of military vehicles consisting of nativity scenes of the infant Jesus framed by flame-breathing dragons. As An Loc was in the middle of the French-owned Michelin rubber plantation, there was a strong Catholic presence. Most people in An Loc were Catholic while most of Vietnam was Buddhist. The parade was a curious mix of cultures and religions. On Christmas Day, there was a truce in place. Fortunately, everyone honored him. Those of us who weren’t on leave at Love Compound got wonderfully drunk. I can honestly say he was one of the best drunks I can remember. It was stupid but we were so happy to be alive.

During my tour, I acquired a dog named “Henry”. Henry was my constant companion. He loved doing VR (visual recognition) in helicopters. Several times he almost fell. In fact, he fell off the jeep a few times. Henry was quite the Lothario and I actually took him to the only army vet in the country in Tan Son Nhut for treatment. It did not improve his temper.

I was a lucky guy. Three weeks after my departure, An Loc was besieged by 30,000 NVA and VC. The siege lasted nearly 60 days and was eventually broken by massive B52 airstrikes and an ARVN attack. Because the supplies couldn’t get in, Henry ended up in someone’s cooking pot. I couldn’t afford to bring him home. I still miss the rascal.

Schuyler Van Horn is a member of the Little Falls Historical Society.


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