Legacy of the Phu My Officers Club!

By Ray Sarlin
Copyright 2003: Ray Sarlin. All rights reserved. (Copy permission at bottom)

Webmaster's Introduction
The St. Gaudens Statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman (1820–1891) reads: "This is the soldier brave enough to tell - The glory-dazzled world that 'war is hell'.” War was hell, but sometimes not for the reasons most people might expect. A lot went on behind the scenes. This story ties together some of the activities during September 1969 when the 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 50th Infantry shifted from the far north of the II Corps Tactical Zone to the far south.

The distance from LZ Uplift in Binh Dinh Province to LZ Betty in Binh Thuan Province is about 240 miles as the crow flies, but no self-respecting crow would make the trip. The distance doesn't seem great by U.S. standards, but in 1969 South Vietnam, a county only about 585 miles long and 100 miles wide, it was like changing worlds.

The move involved land, air and sea movements of nearly 1,000 men and all the equipment of a mechanized infantry battalion. But this story isn't about either combat or logistics. It's about the troops and about the Vietnam War in general.

Our "old" area of operations (AO), Bong Son in the Phu My District of Binh Dinh Province, is familiar to most of the guys who served in the 1st of the 50th. The battalion worked there in 1967 and 1968 as part of the 1st Cavalry Division and later moved back there from An Khe as part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) when they took over the AO. The Bong Son Plain is a heavily populated subsistence farming area along the South China Sea (now called the "East Sea" by the Vietnamese who aren't fond of China) bounded by the Bong Son River on the north and mountains on the west and south. Highway 1 runs north to south through the western side of the valley. Because of the numbers of villages, the area had restrictive rules of engagement in 1969, despite having a long history of enemy sympathy.

The AO we were going to was mostly a Free Fire Zone once we left the coastal plain surrounding Phan Thiet. The further back we got into the mountains, however, the more conscious we had to be of the range fans of the artillery and the flying time for air support and choppers to reach us in case of emergency. Highway 1 runs through the southern part of the AO paralleling the South China Sea southwest to Saigon and north-northeast to Phan Rang, Cam Ranh Bay and Nha Trang. Phan Thiet, the provincial capital, had notoriety as the place where a young Ho Chi Minh taught private school. But enough of the travelog.

In August 1969, I was the commander of D Company of the 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry. Delta Company was the combat service support company. We provided the logistical support to the field that sustained the battalion in combat. We supplied food, water, ammunition, fuel, supply, transportation, maintenance support, medics and medical care. It was the line companies' job to move, shoot and communicate; it was our job to see that they had everything they needed to do so.

The story starts on 10 August 1969, about three weeks before we made the move south. It was another hard, slow day of patrolling the Bong Son Plain and foothills, with little to show for the battalion's nine patrols and 10 ambushes. That day the B Company Commander had received word from his counterpart in the 41st ARVN Regiment to be on the lookout for a new Viet Cong Battalion operating in the Phu My District. In the morning, B Company had blown booby traps in place. A Company took a WIA from sniper fire a few hours before finding and destroying a small tunnel complex. A short time later, a company from the 41st ARVN Regiment engaged an estimated VC squad. At 1912 hours, B Company's perimeter received 10 to 12 incoming M-79 rounds which were largely ineffective, although an RF/PF was wounded and later medivaced.

Eighteen minutes later, well away from any of the patrolling companies, another small scale action occurred that was to have consequences for our battalion long after we shifted from LZ Uplift to LZ Betty. At 1930 hours, a fire started in MACV's deluxe new bunker at the District Headquarters in Phu My, located near our battalion's tactical operations center (TOC) a few miles southwest of LZ Uplift. The bunker contained living quarters complete with showers, electricity, kitchen and toilets. It also held an armory with small arms, ammo, frag grenades, 3.75 inch rockets and other paraphernalia of war. In minutes, the fire spread out of control throughout the bunker, igniting ammunition which vigorously exploded to impede the fire fighting effort.

Before long all available water and fire extinguishers at Phu My were exhausted. But the fire hadn't yet had enough. A chopper arrived from the MACV compound in Qui Nhon with fire extinguishers. At LZ Uplift, Delta Company loaded fire extinguishers and troops on board two choppers and went to help. More help and extinguishers, as well as a foam machine, arrived from LZ English. At 2228, heavy equipment from D Company including two water trucks was dispatched from LZ Uplift accompanied by M113A1 APCs from Charlie Company. Tthe convoy arrived at 2250 hours. Another chopper then arrived with still more fire fighting equipment.

Had we been able to save the MACV bunker, we would have, but the fire was just too far along. Despite a massive effort, the facility proudly completed only the month before by C Company of the 19th Combat Engineer Battalion was reduced to smoke, ash and rubble, with the occasional crack of a round cooking off. It was a miracle that there were no casualties.

As an aside, there were significant casualties in the nearby Phu My Village just two nights later when the missing VC battalion arrived just after midnight firing grenades and small arms over the village at the compound. While there were no damages or casualties within the compound, the village took heavy casualties, with 10 KIA, 20 WIA, 87 houses destroyed, 2 damaged and the school 50% destroyed. War is hell. I don't wish to disparage the poor innocent civilians who lost their lives in Phu My Village. Indeed, that attack is not directly relevant to this story but I did not want to simply ignore their tragedy.

Several weeks later, the battalion stood down to prepare to shift south to Phan Thiet, although B Company stayed OPCON to the 1/503rd Airborne Infantry for a bit longer. The battalion advance party flew down to LZ Betty at 0750 hours on 27 August. Battalion elements convoyed south to Qui Nhon to board the U.S. Army Ship BDL COL John U.D. Page for the trip to Phan Thiet.

I arrived by air with elements of HHC and D Company at 1500 hours on 1 September. Another flight with elements of C Company arrived twenty minutes later. I was surprised that although the battalion's general area had been assigned, there remained a huge amount of coordination and support work required to get the area ready for occupation.

For the next few days, we worked the Army's systems like maniacs to set up a base on the undeveloped sandy strip along the lower end of the airstrip where we were assigned. It wasn't my job but in the absence of anyone else, I signed paper after paper to set up the battalion's many accounts required to draw equipment, supplies, rations, ammunition and fuel. I arranged engineer support to build latrines, mess hall and other buildings; set up communications and arranged SOIs and SSIs. If a CWO or NCO brought me something to sign, I'd check it over quickly and scrawl the same illegible signature I'd put on the signature authorizations at HQ. I don't know how many times I wrote "FOR THE COMMANDER" or signed things I shouldn't have, but I learned lessons about "making decisions" that I would put to use later in my career when acting as a Corps Commander or standing in for CINC, USARPAC.

I even got to write up my first ever 10-paragraph Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to "justify" how we were going to set up the battalion base and operate in the area of operations without harming the environment. I wish that I had kept a copy, because it was a masterpiece of understatement. I was almost crying as I described how we would protect the flora and fauna of the pristine sandy wasteland we were moving into, and how our APCs would be careful to minimize harm to trees, shrubs, birds, rice paddies and butterflies. Looking back now, I realize that I failed to mention the Zippo tracks or our mortars: however, the EIS must have worked because it never came back to haunt us.

Other personnel and gear trickled in by air the next few days when weather permitted. By the time the COL John U.D. Page arrived with the main body at 0500 hours on 6 September, our new tent city home at LZ Betty was in some semblance of order. Offloading began at 0530 hours, and the troops and tracks were met by hordes of knowledgeable soldiers to guide them to their "environmentally-friendly" new homes.

By 1200 on 6 September, our new battalion AO was declared open. A Company, C Company and the HHC Scout Platoon started patrolling.

Charlie Company received our battalion's first incoming small arms fire late that afternoon. During the next five days, there were frequent instances of long range small arms fire and 60 mm and 82 mm mortar fire, but no friendly casualties. In the meantime, quite a few VC surrendered to the battalion as Chieu Hoi's and our troops found and destroyed bunker complexes, tunnels, and booby-traps.

Our first battle loss occurred on 8 September when a track from the 1st Platoon, Charlie Company ran over a 105mm mine, which blew a hole in its bottom, ripped off a road wheel and blew off the ramp. No one was injured, but when a man jumped off to assess the damage he sprung a trip wire rigged to another 105mm round, which fortunately was a dud. We were finding out that this new AO was serious.

Still, the next few days continued the same way, lots of aggressive patrolling. B Company began patrolling on 9 September. We were facing a stirred up enemy unwilling to engage our firepower directly. Instead, they relied on an increasing volume of sniper fire, booby-traps, unexploded 105mm artillery shells rigged as anti-tank mines, and mortar rounds.

We were getting closer to the enemy, so close that on 10 September the Scouts exchanged fire with a small party of VC who fled leaving behind burning cigarettes. We were also finding an increasing amount of discarded U.S. military equipment like M-79 rounds, LRRP and C-rations, canteens, web gear, smoke grenades, full M-16 magazines, a M18 Claymore and even an almost full carton of heat tablets.

The next day, 11 September (32 years to the day before the infamous attack on America), we took our first casualties in Binh Thuan Province. At 1310 hours the antenna from an APC of A Company's Second Platoon hit a tripwire in the trees and set off a 50 pound Chinese Claymore mine that ripped across the top of the APC. We lost two men KIA (CPL Randy Graham Cagle, 18, of Menlo, Georgia, Panel 18W - Row 070, and SGT Johnny Lee Ward, 21, of Cambridge, Idaho, Panel 18W - Row 073) and five WIA. War in our new AO had begun in earnest.

LZ Betty at Phan Thiet, our new home, was the base of IFFV's (First Field Force - Vietnam) Task Force South (TFS). TFS ran two U.S. Army combat battalions (the 2/1 Cavalry and us), artillery units, C/75th Rangers, Aviation companies, engineers and various support units. We were replacing the 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile). Most of us still sported our 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) patches, and there was no love lost between the 173rd and the 101st. As far as I could tell, the Scheming Beagles still felt that they "owned" Task Force South, and there were still elements of the Currahees (3/506th) at LZ Betty.

Compared to LZ Uplift, LZ Betty had the amenities of a large U.S. military base. It had a PSP-paved airfield, Post Exchange, Mox Nix (Machts Nichts) Charlie's, package shop, commercial laundry, NCO Club, EM Club, QM Laundry, Ice-making Plant, some permanent buildings and a beach along the South China Sea. There were reputed to be other amenities as well, including the lovely provincial capital city of Phan Thiet only a few hundred yards outside the main gate, offering GIs a strip nestled close to the LZ with many of the illicit pleasures of Bong Son or An Khe's Sin City.

You could be forgiven for thinking that our troops would have been ecstatic to be in LZ Betty instead of LZ Uplift, but only if you don't know the U.S. Army. While the base itself was long established, the sandy strip along the lower end of the airstrip where our battalion was unceremoniously dumped was suggested by some to have been the base garbage dump before we arrived. Personally, I discounted those rumors because despite the discarded equipment and vehicle parts that dotted the landscape when we first arrived, when digging all we found were sand and sandflies.

We lived in tents at first, making our own floorboards from discarded ammo crates when we could get them. Runoff control during the monsoon season was a challenge, so I tried to make my floorboards like a raft in case my tent was swept out to sea. But rain was the least of our problems.

Have I mentioned the ants? Once I tried to take a shower without realizing that the water level in the 44 gallon drum was low. I pulled the cord and was instantly covered in black ants. After that, I always made sure my towel was tightly wrapped and then climbed the tower that the water drums were on to check the water (and ant) levels before taking a shower.

We also quickly got tired of sand being a part of our skin, eyes, ears, nostrils and throats.

But the real reason that most GIs hated LZ Betty had nothing to do with how far our standard of living had slipped from LZ Uplift. After all, American soldiers have two characteristics that make them very adaptable: they are fatalistic and they are inventive. This makes most able to assume responsibility for applying small touches to make their environment suit their standards . . . or to lower their standards to suit their environment. The commonly held view is that "nothing's too good for GIs, so that's exactly what we get." The flip side is, "If it's gonna get done, I've gotta do it."

GIs hated LZ Betty for two very simple reasons. Firstly, life there was dreadfully boring. I'm mainly speaking for myself, of course, when I say that I much preferred life in the field.

The second reason why Ichiban people hated LZ Betty was a bit more subtle; it came along after a few weeks and it had a little something to do with LZ Betty's great amenities. In fact, it had everything to do with those amenities!

The EM Club was run by the 101st, and was part of the chain of EM Clubs being run by the Khaki Mafia. When the battalion first arrived, our boys were welcomed into the club with open wallets. It made a pleasant change from LZ Uplift where we had our own club-like areas (I fondly remember painting our D Company bar to look like a Budweiser beer label). Unfortunately, the residual elements on base of the 101st and the Charlie Rangers didn't seem to be sociable; it's just lucky that weapons weren't allowed in the clubs. No one cared who started the fights, it was last in, first out. The net result was that our troops were banned from the clubs.

And then there was the Orphan's Laundry! It was co-located with the PX and had signs proclaiming it as a Pacific Army Navy Exchange System accredited facility. That was all well and good, but there were two small problems. First, they were charging ten times the going rate for cleaning a pair of jungle fatigues that we'd paid at LZ Uplift, Qui Nhon or Phu Cat Air Base.

Second, the Task Force South Commander, the supreme commander of LZ Betty, issued an order after we arrived that declared LZ Betty a Class B Military Installation. That meant that we had to wear clean, starched and pressed jungle fatigues with shined jungle boots whenever we left our compound to venture forth to the amenities area. Of course, there was only one place to get clean, starched, pressed jungle fatigues and Kiwi polish - the Orphan's Laundry!

Of course there was still a PX! Like any PX in Vietnam, you could special order pretty much anything in the system from a catalog and have it shipped home or pick it up in a few weeks or a month or so. Alternatively, you could shop and purchase what you saw in stock in exchange for MPC or a check.

By this time I had become the new Battalion S-4 (Supply Officer). I suspect that I had signed so much bogus paperwork and hand receipts getting the battalion area set up that the only way the Battalion CO could see out of the mess was to stick me in the position that all the Task Force South support units thought I had been in all along.

I had previously visited the PX a few times looking for a particular camera. I wanted a Canon FTqL 35mm because not only did it have super-optics but Vivitar had made an 85mm-205mm adjustable zoom lens for the Canon bayonet mount. Although the LZ Betty PX's shelves were always bare, I knew that the PX system carried the Canon because I'd seen one in the Qui Nhon PX before I'd been in Nam long enough to be able to afford it. I wanted to buy one before my imminent R&R in Hawaii.

I heard through the grapevine that a new shipment of cameras had hit the LZ Betty PX. (I won't mention which SFC served as my grapevine, but if you read this, "Thanks.") Soon after I just happened to have an overwhelming "official" need to be on the main part of LZ Betty in my clean, starched and pressed jungle fatigues with a new IFFV patch on my left shoulder. While I was in the vicinity, I thought, "I'll just pop into the PX."

Alas, the shelves were still bare.

"I'd like to see the new cameras that just came in," said I, sounding like I knew what I was talking about.

The clerk looked up from the comic book concealed inside his Playboy, saw the twin bars and the IFFV patch, and said something like, "Sure, sir," and walked over and held a door behind the counter open for me.

I walked through into a warehouse that must've been twice the size of the shop. Displayed in their cartons on the shelves were all types of cameras, lenses, stereo equipment, watches, and the other products that made Army PXs a perk in those days. Sure enough, I saw several Canon FTqL cameras. Feeling a bit guilty, I took a box and a wide-angle lens out to the front counter and paid, but in the back of my mind I knew that if he'd known I was from the 1/50th, he wouldn't have let me in.

I had my desired camera, but I was furious! Our Combat Infantrymen were getting royally screwed! Not only were they risking their lives in the field, but on the precious few occasions that they were in the rear they were getting screwed and ripped off at the same time!

Thinking about it still makes me mad 33 years later!

There's a lot more to this "war story" about the Exchange system and the Orphan's Laundry that maybe I'll tell some day and maybe I won't, but for now, I'll cut to the chase.

Having tried fruitlessly to address these problems for the benefit of our troops, I approached our Battalion CO and Sergeant Major with a contingency plan which they approved. The plan had a number of elements, but basically it was a self-help plan for our battalion to look out for ourselves.

We built our own EM club on the south side of the mess hall. A short-timer Mess Sergeant who was surplus to requirements became the Club NCOIC. We initially used two ten-man GP tents in an L-shape with a plywood bar on one end. A lockable CONEX miraculously appeared to serve as a store room. A pallet of beer, a pallet of soda and some potato chips and munchies were purchased as the initial stock.

When the first consignment was sold, the mysterious sources of funds used to buy it were paid back and the profit from the initial stock was used as the operating capital for the club from that point onwards. A SP4 who had been a Certified Public Accountant in real life became our bookkeeper and my co-auditor; I also kept a full set of books. Future profit was plowed back into ventures that benefited the troops - things like expanding the club, paying for bands that the troops put together to play at the club (e.g., on rock night, soul night, country night, etc.), building our camp stage and theater, special items for the messhall, and later paying scale without kickbacks for USO shows to "unofficially" add a performance or two on their busy schedules for our troops.

How successful was it? Well, the club made so much money that it was dangerous! People thought it would be a good idea to use some of the proceeds to provide cases of Cokes and stuff to the troops in the field when operating with their M113A1s. The club provided heaps of cases of free soft drinks to the field until finally the word came back to stop burying them in soda pop. I guess that a little bit of Coca Cola goes a long way, but a lot gets old quickly - especially warm. Go figure!

So how does this relate to the Phu My MACV compound fire of 10 August 1969?

As you've no doubt gathered, our club operation wasn't quite 100% consistent with Army Regulations. The very real facts that (1) the official club system was corrupt (two generals lost a star each, a Distinguished Service Medal each, and their careers over the Khaki Mafia scandal; and a number of sergeants including the very first ever Sergeant Major of the Army found themselves in court) and (2) it was totally non-responsive to our combat infantry troops didn't matter. Of course, those facts could have been offered as extenuating and mitigating circumstances in a court-martial.

To minimize legal exposure, all paperwork had been consistent with the AR (Army Regulation) relating to the control of non-appropriated funds, funds arising from Exchange System profits that units are allocated to benefit the troops (usually enough to buy magazines for day rooms or fund an occasional company party). We could therefore track each expenditure made with the initial profits and thereafter. Unfortunately, this left one outstanding question; where did the initial money come from in the first place?

The question was critical. I had commanded a company during an Annual General Inspection in Germany before arriving in Vietnam, and knew that not being able to account for even one cent over or under was an automatic failure for the whole company in an AGI. Just one cent... and here we were dealing with thousands of dollars in MPC by that time, even though the club was selling pretty much everything at around wholesale cost!

Have you ever known a senior NCO to lack an answer for any military quandary? After a bit of thought when his eyes rolled inward, Top seemed to recall that our battalion club at LZ Betty owed its very existence to a fortuitous cash injection from "a defunct Phu My Officers' Club" that had apparently been located in the unfortunate MACV bunker destroyed by fire during an enemy action on 10 August 1969. Top even recalled who the custodian was, who alas was no longer in the Army. After a few quick initial entries in both sets of books, the "facts" were perhaps still enough to get me hung, but at least no longer by the balls.

One night a few months later before I went back to the field as the CO of Charlie Company, I held a small ceremony to commemorate the Phu My Officers' Club. Standing over a flaming 44 gallon drum near my former shower, I slowly burned two sets of books. I had earlier closed down (but not dismantled) our battalion club and presented the gross proceeds from the defunct Phu My Officers' Club in a large envelope to the Battalion Executive Officer for whatever purpose the battalion cared to use them.

I went to the field the next morning without a shower but with a clean record and a clear conscience.

R.I.P. Phu My Officers' Club.

Copyright 2003, Ray Sarlin.

Permission is hereby granted to copy this story to print or
on web pages at no charge provided the line below is included:
Reprinted from the 1st Bn (Mech) 50th Infantry website http://www.ichiban1.org/
( web sites should make the url a link or may also just link to this page )