Author's Name: Gene Hutchins
Title: "My Story of Vietnam"
I am Gene Hutchins. A native of St. Louis, I joined the Army two weeks after my high school graduation. I was deployed to Vietnam on 8 December 1968. I stayed in Vietnam for the next two years. A tour and two six month extensions.
I served in the Army Security Agency (ASA). In Vietnam, we have a “cover name” for ASA units, Radio Research (RR). Officially, I served as a cook. Still. I did a number of roles as circumstances dictated. I had a Top Secret/Crypto security clearance, it was awarded prior to my dismissal from Basic Morse Code school at Ft. Devens, MA. I wasn’t able to copy Morse code at an acceptable speed and accuracy.
The ASA filled its ranks of support positions (clerks, mechanics, cooks, etc.) from people such as myself. We had our security clearances, but were not going to be in classified occupations because we did not master the skills for those positions.
My deployment was sort of ‘voluntary’. I had a serious row with my new mess sergeant at Vint Hill Farm Station. The row was decided to be “willful disobedience to a non commission offer’s lawful order.” The company CO cut me a break. He let me sign a request for assignment to Vietnam. He also was aware this sergeant, newly minted to the rank, was loathsome.
My first experiences were appalling. The training for deployment to Vietnam did not tell about the shock on arrival. When I disembarked the United Airlines plane, two physical events immediately affected me: the heat and the stench.
The heat shot up my khaki pants, instantly causing heat rash. The sickening smell of Vietnam was staggering, especially breathing.
I went to the 90th Replacement Bn., then was called out of formation, and picked up by 509th RR Group.
My orders to Vietnam said I was to be assigned to the 371st RR Co, First Air Cavalry.
After ten days, I had arrived at Phouc Vinh. This was on December 19, 1968. Phouc Vinh was the new base camp of the 1st Air Cavalry Division. The commanding powers had decided the war was better prosecuted by moving the Cav from the Central Highlands to the southwest part of the country.
It was nearly noon, when the C-130 landed at the airstrip. It was unnerving. As it taxed to a stop, the crew chief told us to hit the ground running, there was intermittent sniper fire. I found that running with baggage, a duffel bag and a B-4, was nearly impossible. But walking brought on some harsh call out from PMs. To move at the double time.
Later, I realized that my brand new fatigues were a tell. ‘Short timers’ wore fatigues faded by the sun. I was a ‘nug,’ a new guy. My fatigues were dark and newly issued. As in any traditional male organization, you always hazed the nug.
I signed in at the orderly room. Supply issued me a helmet, flak jacket, an M16, three loaded magazines. This was to be worn or at hand at all times.
My billet was a large troop tent. I found an empty cot with mosquito netting and no pillow. Next, I reported to the mess hall to meet my new mess sergeant and get my instructions.
He told me that I was on the sandbag detail that evening after supper, then to report to him after breakfast tomorrow morning. He never asked where I was sleeping or offered any other information. New, unseasoned and green, I did not ask for any.
I did not think to ask, ‘where should I go for cover when the shooting starts?’ I learned the hard way.
After supper, I went to the sand bag detail. About thirty men, worked at a newly constructed bunker. All of the newbies got the taxing job of shoveling the sand into the sand bags with entrenching tools. This is miserable work. Whether you bend over, or squat and kneel, it’s tiring, hot and sweaty. Besides aching throughout your body, you are covered in a patina of fine grit.
It was not quite dusk, when we were mortared. It was terrifying. I heard unusual sounds, first was of suction from a vacuum tube immediately followed a peculiar sound, like a tennis ball popping from a pipe, ‘thunk.’
All of those about me, knowing these noises, were going flat, taking cover. There were shouts of ‘INCOMING.’ They came from my far left side, repeated calls coming closer instantly followed by the explosions and concussions.
Unconsciously, I had done as those about. I had gone to ground, in the sand pile. The mortar rounds walked in from our left to right. Each successive round was impacting closer and closer to us. One explosion was so close by. The next one was lethal.
It struck to our right, past us. The round hit the neighboring unit’s motor pool. There were four GIs close to each other. The mortar round burst just above the ground. The shrapnel was heard striking the trucks, equipment and people.
Then it stopped. Charlie had drawn blood at that mortar pool to our side. One man was killed, two were wounded. Then I heard a man praying among us.
“Please God, Please! Just two more days, two more days. Let me live.” The tremble in his voice, and the shaking in his arms and hands were evident. This was real.
Later that night, I had showered; the coldest water ever it seemed. It was dark, but by flashlight I washed my fatigues with a large brick of GI soap. You used this to wash your body, your clothes, your mess kit, web gear, anything.
Later I was in my coy trying to figure out how to be comfortable inside mosquito netting that trapped heat.
I had been told by ‘old timers’ that you slept with your pants and socks on. Boots on preferably, or close at hand. At first I thought this is more hazing. But, I noticed that the ‘short timers’ were practicing their preaching. I did as they did.
I was tired, aching and hot. The idea of getting some rest was dashed by erupting machine gun fire. Some stray tracer rounds came through the tent area. Neon green I was told was from Charlie. Ours were red.
I sat up and grabbed my boots. Then I was pushed off the coy. “NUG!! You do not sit up in a firefight. You get down and put on your shit!!”
The time that I took to get my boots on and laced up, get my M16, flak jacket, helmet and ammo, left me as the only one in the tent. All of the others had scrambled off to battle assignments. I realized then, I did not know where I was supposed to be, or where a safe spot or bunker was. I was scared, really scared. I got my wits about me, or so I thought. Recalling, ‘When in doubt, ask the First Sergeant.’
There seemed to be a letup in the gunfire. I took off for the orderly room. My thinking was that was where the First Sergeant would be. I was completely wrong. It was locked up. No lights. No one was there.
I panicked, was trembling, was losing it. Then I heard a voice, “What the fuck are you doing?”
I focused, looked about, saw a bunker. It was the one that was sand bagged that late afternoon. I called back to the voice: “I’m Spec 4 Gene Hutchins. I just got in today. I don’t know where to go.”
“Well nug, we don’t have room here.” Just after, the voice told me to go try another bunker, a voice from that bunker said that I was not welcome there. Then the firefight started on the perimeter.
I was lying on the ground, seeing stray tracers zipping by. The first voice spoke again. He told me to crawl straight across. There was a ditch, it was below grade and would give me cover. It might be wet.
All of the training at Ft. Leonard Wood, the night field exercises at Forts Devens and Belvoir kicked in. I low crawled and finally the ground declined sharply. I slid into the ditch. Getting tangled in razor wire and soaked in foul water. The slope of this side was steep. It didn’t feel like a good firing position.
Getting untangled, I saw a gap in the spiraling wire. I worked my way there and crossed. Tearing my fatigues on the razors, I made it to the opposite side.
The firefight at the perimeter started again. Its intensity seemed so much greater. The rifle fires of both sides, our M79 grenades and the enemy’s RPGs. Add their mortars and our out-going artillery rounds.
The ringing in my ears from the din, spent cordite’s bitter odor, flashes of tracers, the “pow” of illuminating flares suspended by small parachutes, compounded a bewildering show of light, sound and smell. The “whumpf-whumpf” of choppers and their rocket fire and impacts. All of it overwhelmed and stupefied.
Then, down range, a huge flash with an unusually loud explosion. Flares showed what had been a bunker was a fog of sand and dirt. Next, furtive figures seem to come out of it and disappear.
I heard frantic scared yells but unclear words. Then a dark figure had sprung up, and another behind it. The figures, running along the wired ditch, coming at me.
Again training kicked in. Unconsciously I had gotten in firing position, part sitting and kneeling. I sighted my M16 on the runners. I fired off two rounds, followed by another two, a pause then two more. I rolled over, out of the ditch. Now I was prone. Then an enormous silent lightning bolt lit up the view, simultaneously there was a deafening sound.
A loud deep bass sound like a chain saw, a stream of red light flew over me, moving up to the perimeter. I lost control and wet myself.
A Huey gunship hovered above, focused its light on me. I rolled over, showed my face, and had a terrible thought. ‘What if they think I’m a VC?’ The light shut off. The chopper went over me.
A minute or so later I heard vehicles behind me. A deuce-and-a-half and a three-quarter ton were behind me and troops had unloaded from the deuce. The smaller truck had two M60 machine guns mounted in its bed.
There were four grunts, weapons at the ready, approaching me. They were calling out something that my ringing ears could not process. The read beam, from a flashlight focused on me.
I took my finger off the trigger, my left hand holding the M16 by the fore stock. I identified myself “I’m Spec 4 Gene Hutchins, this is my first day in country. I got lost.”
The senior man, a staff sergeant and a grunt approached me. “What’s your hometown?”
“St. Louis, Missouri.”
The grunt then asked, “So how about the Cubs, they beat Detroit in the series.” This is just like the WWII movies.
I said, “The Cubs?? They never go to the Series. It was the Cardinals and Detroit. And Detroit won it.”
“Show me your ID card,” said the sergeant. After showing it in the red light, he said I was legit. Since I was lost and now found, he said I would stick with his platoon until dawn.
I joined the skirmish line. As I moved to join it, nobody wanted the ‘nug’ next to them. “Move on down.” Finally I came to the very far end.
The infantryman there asked my name. “Hutchins.” He gave me my instructions. I was the farthest down, the last man on the line. “Don’t get in front of me, I can shoot you. Don’t get behind me. You could shoot me. Stay off my shoulder, ten or so yards. No further. Got it Nug?”
The order came to move out. Then as one line we started a slow but steady pace advancing. We stepped on rough ground. It seemed every couple of yards, I would nearly trip on something. I learned later, I was stepping on stumps of rubber trees. Phouc Vinh was a Michelin rubber plantation.
We slowed, then halted. The platoon was reinforcing a bunker line. There was signal to get low, duck waddle up to the bunker line.
My knees and thighs, sore from the earlier detail, were burning. Then, we finally came to a stop. My ‘buddy’ and I were just at the bunker line, but on the outside of it, when it happened.
Charlie must have had extra sensory perception. Just as we halted, Charlie barraged us with grenades. They exploded at one time, how many I don’t know. Diving for cover, Charlie started assaulting the bunker line. We returned fire immediately. I shot off the remaining rounds of my magazine. And reloaded, and fired again, this time on full automatic. It lasted just a few minutes, but seemed like an eternity.
The firefight ended. We remained there, prone position until dawn. When all clear was given the platoon regrouped. The sergeant told me that when we got up to the ditch, I was to report to my First Sergeant.
At the ditch, I saw the First Sergeant. Seeing me he waved me over to him. The CO was with him. I was thinking I am going to get my ass reamed.
“So what happened with you?” was the CO’s question.
I told them the whole story, form the moments in the tent, all the way to when I was released from my ad hoc platoon. The CO and First Sergeant firmly made it known, I was lucky.
I was missed on the headcount report. And I was reported as such, all the way to 509th headquarters in Saigon. But my unexpected engagement with Charlie at the ditch line was good. The Huey that spotlighted me, had not expected my firing at the assault. The pilots reported my location.
“You lost your cherry last night. You killed at least three. And you didn’t get killed yourself.”
Later, at the tent, I found out that my ‘bunker’ was about ten feet from my cot. There was a place that had been dug out about 12 feet long, six feet wide and four feet deep. It was surrounded by steel barrels filled with sand. That evening heavy, thick planks had been put across the barrels to make a roof. A sandbag detail covered the roof.