Saturday, May 7, 2011

What I Really Did In Vietnam -- Part 3

Okay, so once done with SERTS training, it is time to head up to my assigned Unit in Vietnam.
In my case, that meant Camp Eagle and A Company 5th Transportation Battalion. When the infantry types learn of this they call you a REMF. I was never really sure what the real meaning of the word was but I knew what they meant by it: Real Echelon Mother F###er.
Truth is, we had a very important job to do. And without us, many of those Grunts would not have come home at all.
Anyway, at this point I pretty much accepted my fate. I would be working on Cobra helicopters and performing maintenance on them at the 34 level which was a bit higher than flight line work.
We had one stop before arriving at Camp Eagle. We landed at Phu Bi on a drizzly cold November day. The dampness alone made you feel as though the angel of death had tapped your should and was breathing wet cold steel into your skin.
We went through some more processing there and then jumped into a 2 ½ ton truck that dropped us off at our new Units. Coming in from the south east side of Camp Eagle, the truck swung to the right and passed the Navy Sea Bee camp area and Eagle Dust Off.
The truck headed north and within minutes I could see where three large hangers were located along the east side of the road. In front of them was a football width long and wide landing zone. To the right and up along the hill were wooden buildings where the men of A Company 5th Transportation Battalion called home for the duration of their time in Nam.
For me, would be my home for the next 90 days. But I didn’t know that at the time.
Jumping out of the 2 ½ ton truck, the first thing I noticed was the red clay mud. It was everywhere. New Hampshire threw down my duffle bag.
“Good luck to you, Thomas.”
“Same. I’m sure we’ll be bumping shoulders over at the PX spending out APC funny money.”
I grabbed the handles of my duffle bag and reported to the orderly room. The First Shirt started sizing me up and told me to sit down. The Speedy Four wrung the handle of the land line, picked up the head set and told someone on the other end I had arrived.
A tall dark colored E-7 by the name of Solomon walked in about five minutes later. We shook hands. We then walked down to his office.
“Tell Sergeant Palmer I got a new mechanic for his slick team,” he said to his clerk.
“But I’m a 67Y20 Cobra mechanic. I don’t know much about slicks.”
“Son, this is Nam. I can put you anywhere I want. Right now, we don’t have any Cobras to work on and we have a lot of work on the slick side. Besides, they tell me you are exceptionally smart and you blew SP4 on your finals.”
One, being smart means I was really stupid for being an enlisted. My GT score was 105. I needed 110 to qualify for OCS. Solomon was also very smart. Palmer had the IQ of a turnip.
“I don’t like mustaches,” he said. “Why cultivate on your face what grows naturally on your ass.”
Big word for a turnip head, I thought.
Everyone looked at each other. I saw fear in Palmer’s eyes, “In coming!”
It was the first time I heard the sirens.
Two unspoken rules came into play here.
Don’t call in coming unless you know for sure those weren’t or 175’s and 8 inchers shelling outbound.
Don’t ever follow too closely behind a guy scared half out of his wits.
I think it took us all of one minute to get into the bunkers.
Palmer regained his composure.
“Your name is Edwards, right?”
“Okay, Jersey, listen up. Your scores across the board are pretty much off the chart. Most of my men are lucky to have one as high as yours. So, don’t use big words on them. And try to blend in. As soon as a Cobra comes in, I’ll let you work on it. Right now, TRY, to be a slick mechanic.”
“Do you have the TM 55-1520-210 manuals I can use to pick up on the maintenance procedures.”
“You won’t need them. Better to learn from them and gain their respect than to learn from the books.”
“Besides, You have me to fill you in.”
There’s two phases to the Aircraft mechanic school. The first is for general maintenance. The second is for maintenance on a specific type of helicopter. Troutman and I went through general maintenance together. Suddenly, Nam began feeling good.

Was issued tools and got acclimated to my surroundings. Started working on slicks.
NOVEMBER 31stTo December 5th
Got into a fight with our tool room clerk after he got a dear John letter, got drunk and tore a hole in my mosquito net and threatened to kill me. We less teeth in his mouth, he apologized two days later.
DECEMBER 7thTo December 12th
Can’t get my head wrapped around slick parts. Got confused, scared. I started calling parts by the wrong names.
DECEMBER 14thTo December 19th
Getting better at knowing what part is what. My safety wiring is starting to pass Technical Inspector Joe Freelove’s scrutiny. Starting to get a sense I don’t belong here.
DECEMBER 21thTo December 26th
More safety wire work to do.
Bob Hope Show.
Guard Duty.
Troutman of all people gets drunk and refuses to get out of my face unless I fight him. One punch and he goes down.
Next day, he smiles at me…”I didn’t know you had it in you.”
DECEMBER 28thTo January 2nd
No more slick work. Hanger is empty. It is jeep washing time.
SFC Valentine hears about my training in computers. He wants me to help them. That was a big mistake. The IBM 21 cards get jammed in the card sorting machine.
I’m on the “shit” list.
Drove the jeep to the front gate and picked up the Vietnamese assigned to burning the waste. Sent a letter to my mom complaining about how the Army trained me to be a Cobra mechanic and here I am now washing jeeps.
36 air pounding Cobras from the 4th Battalion, 77th Field Artillery conduct a flyby. It was an awesome site. It gave me chill bumps.
Connecticut runs around with a pair of split cone push/pull bearings for a Cobra in his pocket. He’s a slick mechanic and they won’t work on a slick. I ask him why and he tells me someday, someone might be looking for a pair.
Cobra comes in with a hard landing and sudden stoppage headache. Only two people are qualified to work on it were me and an E-5 by the name of Franks.
I surveyed the damage.
This was going to be a big job.
As it turned out Franks never did show up to work on this broken AH-IG Cobra.
Cobra’s tail boom is removed. Along with the rotor blade, lollypops, swash plate and scissors and sleeve assembly. I removed the parts from that tail boom including the 90 degree gear box, the 42 degree gear box, the shafts and the hangers, and the rotor control cables.
 Pulled the engine, short shaft and loosened the bolts on the transmission. Tagged and wrote up everything as I went.
I started to rebuild the Cobra from the floor up. Using hydraulic lifting drums, I raised the cobra off the ground and removed and replaced the skids.
Convinced SFC Solomon the main blades were off cord line by 5 degrees. He wanted to know how I could see that. I wound up being 7 degrees. We believed that was what caused the accident in the first place.
Congressional comes down and I’m told to find a cobra unit to work for. Apparently my mother wasn’t the only one reading my mail. 100 more gigs to sign off and I’ll be done.
I finished working the 100 gigs. The Cobra was now rebuilt. I also got confirmation that the 4th Battalion, 77th Field Artillery accepted my request for transfer.
I turn in my tools as I watch the Cobra go out the door for blade balancing, control alignment and flight testing.
This is something I will remember for the rest of my life. Five slick mechanics finished up my work.
“Sergeant Solomon wants to talk to you.” I removed myself from the corner of the hanger and walked into his office.
“Sit down,” he said.
I did.
“You know the day you walked in you had a chip on your shoulder. And I really thought you were a dud.”
He shook his head.
“Was I ever wrong, I want you to stay and work for me. Whatever you want to work on, I’ll let you work on it.”
Now, if I had known SFC Valentine was also going to B Battery, I would have said yes. But I thought the reverse was true and I wanted to start off with a clean slate.
“I’m sorry Sergeant Solomon, there’s just too much bad blood here. I’m going to be better off going over there.”
“I respect that. Anytime, however, you want to come back over here, you let me know.”

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