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These are some personal notes that describe some of my memories and opinions of the organizations that I served with in an Army career that spanned nearly 30 years. If you find this site by accident through a search engine you are welcome to contact me and share your thoughts. Thanks. My e-mail address is BradenClan@
gmail.com.

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169th Engineer Battalion (Construction)


Vietnam
1968-1969

My initial obligated service time was two years. The Army scheduled my first assignment at Fort Lewis so that I would have my last year in Vietnam. Bonnie and I traveled by car back across the United States as I spent 30 days leave prior to being deployed. We visited California, Las Vegas and a number of tourist spots along the way.

We visited my parents and then drove on to Virginia Beach, where Bonnie would be staying with her parents and continuing her schooling while I was overseas. Soon it was time to go. I caught a military hop from Langley Air Force Base and it got me to Nellis AFB in Las Vegas. Then I caught an inexpensive commercial flight into San Francisco and somehow got to Travis AFB.

I stayed overnight in a BOQ there. It was a two-man room. I was in bed and almost asleep when my roommate came in. He was an older looking Army captain. Didn't speak much. Asked me if I were on my way to Vietnam. When I responded yes, he said something like, "Hope you do better than the guy I'm here to meet." Then I learned he was there to escort home the remains of an officer who had died in Vietnam. Sweet dreams!

I don't remember much about the flight except that it was long. It landed at Biên Hóa Air Base and the next stop was the 90th Replacement Battalion. Almost all replacements went through there; a three day stop for processing and to receive one's in-country assignment. While there I met my cousin, Roy Braden, who was also processing in. Small world.

I was assigned to the 169th Engineer Battalion (Construction) in nearby Long Binh. Long Binh was a massive American military complex, with a PX and all the amenities. I spent my first day riding around with the battalion commander. He showed me the various ongoing projects, and he was probably sizing me up for what assignment he would give me in the unit. Ultimately I was assigned as a Constuction Platoon Leader in Company D.

The battalion area, as with other units in the Long Binh compound, was within its own, fenced enclosure with gate guards at the one entrance/exit. It consisted of a set of buildings and a motor pool (maintenance building and hardstand for vehicle and equipment parking) for each company: HHC, A, B, C, and D. There was also a battalion headquarters building. The buildings were one- and two-story wood frame structures going back to WWII facility plans. Troops lived in open bays in two-story structures. Each troop billet had a single room on each floor for a junior NCO who had the additional task of keeping the building - and the troops in it - in good shape. Senior NCOs and officers also lived in the two story wood barracks, but with partitioned individual rooms. Except for the NCO/Officer barracks, our company area was probably like many in the U.S. Look past all the sandbags protecting buildings and you would not know where you were. Oh, yes, there was a building that I think was the Officers' Club. I went there once. As it turned out, I was either eating, sleeping, in the motor pool, or on my jobsite(s); and did not have time for socializing.

A whole lot of the company cleaning tasks were done by Mama-Sans and PaPa-sans. These were fairly older Vietnamese who worked via the battalion's Civilian Personnel Office. Each morning they would gather at a certain Long Binh gate anhd be trucked to our battalion to sign in and then report to their work area. as to personal services, I was asked to give some money each month to the Company First Sergeant who would the pay the various MaMa-sans for things like washing clothes, pressing uniforms, and polishing boots. One PaPa-san I will never forget; not that old but missing an arm. he worked in the Motor Pool and was forever being called upon to help fix tire flats on heavy enginner equipment. This was a tough job for someone very strong and with two arms - but he did it well with one.

A story: I had been in the company probably less than a week and had returned to my room to get ready for dinner. My room was on the second floor and I was going down to the first floor where there was a wash up area. The barracks that I was in was right beside the company Mess Hall, and at the time I was going down the steps, I was visible to the troops lined up outside for the dinner meal. So here is this butterball Lieutenant, shirtless with none of the deep tan that the soldiers had as a result of working out in the sun, and weighing perhaps all of 145 pounds. One of the soldiers must have made a demeaning remark, and most laughed. I turned around and went back upstairs and put on my fatigue jacket, now showing my rank on the collar. Back downstairs, I went over to the Mess Hall line and pulled out about 15 soldiers in the part of the line that I thought had been laughing. I ordered them to come out of line and fall in on the company street. They did and then I gave marching orders: Forward March, Right Flank March, Left Flank March, Rear March ..., etc. Then we stopped and I said to them if any of you want to have a complaint about this then you can go with me now to the Company Commander. Otherwise fall out and fall back in on the mess line. They went back in line. In the near future I would earn their respect; until then I commanded it. In the years since this, I have wondered what would have happened had one or more taken up my offer to see the CO.

My first project was a massive, reinforced concrete mostly-underground bunker for the Third Corps Tactical Operations Center (TOC) in Long Binh. This project was right in the middle of the corps headquarters so it got plenty of visibility. To do the work we had my platoon of about 35 men, and we had about 25 Vietnamese workers that our battalion hired. These were men too old for military service, and they had their own work leader who spoke a smattering of English, but mostly we communicated by signs and gestures. Because of their age they were not nearly as strong as their American counterparts, but they were steady and got their tasks done. Could not have asked for more.

The walls were 20 inches thick and the roof was four feet thick of reinforced concrete - designed to withstand a direct hit of a VC 120mm rocket. (One night after we had departed for the day, the corps headquarters was the target of a rocket attack and two Americans were killed in their barracks. Imagine: a job in a rear echelon corps headquarters that one would thought to be very safe.)

We mixed concrete by building a platform so that we could load bags of cement and boxes of sand and gravel into the top of a concrete transit truck (commonly known as a cement mixer) that had been made by putting a commercial drum on top of a five ton dump truck frame. We were in the rainy season, so there were challenges of keeping the site dry enough to work. The project had been started by another unit, but the word was that they were relieved of the job. Someone before me had fabricated massive concrete forms using corrugated metal and angle iron. They were bolted together and used over and over again, They were so heavy that it took a crane to setr them in place and to remove them, but they were far better than wood because of the massive pressure of the concrete as it was placed; and they were good for multiple uses. Ultimately the job would take nearly 2,000 cubic years of concrete and nearly six months to complete. Being in the middle of the corps headquarters area, I had plenty of supervision, especially from the headquarters commandant, a lieutenant colonel, who was much into cleanliness and neatness. He would visit me regularly to ensure I was keeping the site "tidy." Thank goodness for my NCOs, who when they saw him come visit and begin giving me his little talk about something like supplies not being in a straight pile, would quickly figure out what he was saying and have the men working on "fixes" before he had even left. Thankfully I had some very good sergeants. Note to self: an officer might command the platoon, but - if he is smart - the sergeants run it.

We worked six days a week; I was at the job site six days a week. The days we worked, the lunch meal was brought out to the site. Sometimes, often because of a concrete pour, we were late finishing. But we were back out there the next morning. The project got lots of visitors. When you are building something in the middle of the corps headquarters you can be sure that your boss will be checking on you. And his boss, and his boss's boss. In general it went well. There was a time, however, when boots for the soldiers became a problem. Concrete tends to eat up boots. There was evidently a shortage at the time because we couldn't find any replacements. I found a nearby aviation unit that needed some concrete for a project they had, something like a barbecue pit, and I traded concrete for boots. Aviators have everything.

My platoon was pulled off the project just once. We were called to run a generator and light set down to a bridge spanning the Saigon River to help light the piers so that the Vietnamese forces guarding that key structure could better defend it against VC sapper attacks. There was a taciturn Special Forces major there who was advising the local South Vietnamese bridge defenders. He was a man of few words as I recall. It was tough getting the equipment set up in the slick grass and mud of the river bank but we did it. I was glad when the light set worked. We drove back to Long Binh that night; QL1 was largely safe. Never knew what happened to that equipment.

After we completed the TOC we spent a short amount of time helping widen that part of QL1 that ran north of Long Binh. Mostly our work consisted of extending the length of the culverts running underneath the roadway so that the road could be widened. Of course culverts carry water and we could not close the road, so we were often doing our work while waist deep in water. One day I recall helping at one of our worksites so I was down in the water with everyone else. US troops working anywhere near civilization always drew a crowd and we were no exception; young boys selling soda and stealing things off your trucks if you were not alert, and older Vietnamese simply watching. We were used to it; sometimes we "bought off" the boys to keep them from stealing our stuff.

The next morning we returned to the site to finish the culvert work, and arrived to learn that there had been a skirmish that night when a Vietnamese patrol discovered VC getting ready to booby trap the culvert that we were working on. There was a firefight and three VC were killed. My Platoon Sergeant, SFC Brown, noted that one of the dead VC was one of our curious observers the previous afternoon.

Soon we were moved to a road building project on QL20, restoring a section of the road originally built by the French, but in disrepair. QL20 ran from the Vietnamese highlands city of Da Lat south to where it connected to QL1 about ten miles north of Long Binh. Da Lat is known as the Center of Agriculture and its bountiful food produce was needed in Saigon. QL 20 was economically significant because it was a highway that Vietnamese farmers used to bring their produce from the central highlands down to the Saigon area. It was politically significant because the opening of secure highway links across any section of the country helped unite dispersed villages and assisted significantly in extending governmental presence and assistance. It was militarily of importance because that would be the land route to rapidly move Vietnamese military reinforcements around in that section of country in order to respond to Vietcong and/or NVA attacks in the area.

The concept was for my company to leap forward along the road to begin work, and as troops from our battalion became available, they would also join the effort. So we were about to set up a base camp and begin road building operations with no US troops nearby and where the security would be provided by Regional and Popular Forces, commonly called Ruff Puffs.

The task was to establish a base camp, which I did on the south side of the La Nga River, somewhat across from the local village and regional forces (RUFF-PUFF) outpost. To do this, I had large timber bunkers pre-cut at our base in Long Binh and we made the trek up QL20 with an escort from the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. We really just begged our way into the escort, and the 11th ACR was none too happy when it dawned on them that they would be going two hours up and two hours back a dangerous stretch of road. On the way, for example, we passed a battleground, with military equipment strewn around the ground – a Vietnamese unit had been tricked into thinking it was responding to an attack further south but was actually lured into a massive and costly ambush.

Upon arriving at the river, we pushed up two large concentric circles of berm, the inside one for us, and the outside one for Vietnamese infantry units that would be rotated into the area for our security and for a bit of rest fror them. We constructed our bunkers, sandbagged them, put lots of wire and trip flares around the perimeter, built a mess hall and showers using Navy cubes for the latter. Each morning we forded the river with our heavy equipment and began working our way north with road repairs. Essentially we cleared trees and brush back at least a football field from the roadway. With this accomplished, VC could just not step out from the brush onto the road and demand supplies or food from the Vietnamese truckers taking theirs loads south. We also widened the shoulders, installed culverts for drainage, and prepared the road for asphalt paving. For this task we had an element from the company headquarters for mess and maintenance, two earthmoving platoons (one from another company), and a construction platoon, over 100 men.

I might note that my company commander remained in Long Binh. Guess he had things to do there. So there I was building and occupying a base camp that was fairly isolated and housed around 100 soldiers and probably a million dollars worth of construction equipment - at age 25 and with all of a year and a half in the Army. That put a lot of pressure on me, and also there was an added challenge because platoon leaders do not have all the authority that a company commander has, as in administering punishment. But with the help of my NCOs we got the job done; and we were working so hard that soldiers didn't have the time or energy to get themselves in trouble.

Being in "command" of an isolated base camp and simultaneously being in charge of the road building was, in retrospect, a whole lot of responsibility for a First Lieutenant. There was a field mess operation that prepared daily Class A (fresh) breakfast and supper meals using food brought up as part of the asphalt truck convoys. The lunch meal, for those out working on the road was C Rations, heated at the base camp and delivered out to the roadwork sites by truck, along with water and Kool-Aid. There was also a a maintenance operation that required repair parts. And a water purification unit that took used water trucked in from the La Nga River and made it potable. And there was getting gas and diesel fuel supplied. A lot of logistics and the respective NCOs did much of the work by communicating with their counterpart back at Long Binh. Back to the lunch meal of C Rations delivered out to the roadwork sites: As the Officer in Charge (OIC) of the work, I had instructed the mess truck to deliver the C Rations to all the men first and I would then pick from what was left. Invariably, what was left was the Ham and Lima Beans ration. Do a search on the Ham and Lima Beans C Ration and you will learn it was the "worst of the worst' C Ration. Also note the lima Beans Story on the Family Stories page.

One day, not too far into the project, I was out measuring a culvert running under the existing road that would have to be lengthened so we could widen the shoulders . . . just like the work we did briefly on QL1. I had my driver stop the jeep on the road and I made my way very carefully down to the culvert. Very carefully. I hadn't forgotten the VC that tried to booby trap the QL1 culvert. Very carefully. Finally reaching the culvert I completed my measurements on the south end and thought about how to get the north end measurements. I could carefully work my way back up the road and then work my way carefully down to the culvert on the north end . . . or I could go through the culvert! This was the dry season and there was only a very small amount of water going through, and the culvert was 36 inches in diameter so I could work my way through it fairly easily. I got a stick to swish the water in front of me as I crawled through - just to make sure there were no snakes or other creatures in the water, even though it was not much more than a trickle. I was about a third of the way through, intensely keeping watch of the water ahead of me, when I heard some rustling noise. I looked up to learn the inside top of the culvert was the home a hundreds of mammals of the order Chiroptera who made the culvert their daytime home. I won't say that came out of that culvert like a bat out of hell, but I did retreat about as fast as a person could. Whew! When my heart stopped beating 300 times a minute, I carefully made my way from the road to the north end of the culvert and got my measurements. My driver probably had a good story to tell his buddies that night.

For daytime security along the road work we had a "gun truck." It was a 2⅐ ton carge truck (duece-and-a-half) that had a machine gun crew and moved from work site to work site along the road each day. Also, the local forces went out each day and deployed in the wood line nearby where our crews were working. For base camp security, in addition to the Vietnamese Army and the trip wires on flares, we had a 50 caliber machine gun with a starlight scope in a tower at the center of the camp.

The VC did not do much to impede our progress. We did turn up some mines with our heavy equipment, but our best defense was clearing back the vegetation and opening the road to more civilian traffic. Every now and then the VC would pile rocks in the road that would stop all traffic until we used a grappling hook to drag the pile off the road.

But the VC were "out there." One Sunday I was traveling North on QL20 to consult with some US Advisors in the town of Định Quán. My driver and I came upon some Ruff Puffs in a medical jeep who were wailing with sorrow. I got out of the jeep and followed them to a spot about 15 yards off the road. This location had vegetation because our crews were working their way north and had not yet done the land clearing. We came upon a pond about 20 feet in diameter, and on the other side of it were two, obviously dead, Ruff Puffs. They had been killed by a VC booby trap. The medics knew they had to retrieve the bodies but were fearful of becoming a booby trap casualty themselves. Well ... they had two military canvas stretchers and I took the forward spot on the first stretcher. Because their dead comrade's bodies were near the pond I thought wading through the pond might be safer than trying to walk around it, so we carefully moved through the water that was not quite waist deep. We recovered the remains and got them back our to the medic jeep. I did not share that story with Bonnie in my letters home to her.

  Click on any picture below to increase its size.


A Rainy Mess. Construction began during the rainy season and it was a huge challennge to continually drain rain water from the site.



Setting Forms. The TOC walls were 20" thick and constructed with lots of reinforcing steel. See the metal corregated formwork that was strong and reusable.



Working Partners.. One of my NCOs working alongside one of our Vietnamese construction workers.



Visitors. The work site had lots of visitors: my company commander (Captain Ryan), our battalion commander (Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Eineigl), the brigade commander (COL Bates Burnell)



QL20 Base Camp Aerial View. See the La Nga River that bodered a portion of our perimeter. Center is the Camp TOC and officer/NCO quarters. At around 1:00 is the Mess Hall and at around 2:30 is the maintenance area. Note the two concentric circles of berms with bunkers built into them.



QL Base Camp Ground View. This is a photograph from the ground of our Base Camp. The tallest structure you see is a sandbagged tower above our Base Camp TOC. We manned this tower at night with a crew that had a 50 caliber machine gun with a starlight scope for night vision. In the foreground you can see the bunkers in the outer perimeter that the Vietnamese troops used and behind that the inner perimeter with the larger bunkers that our American troops used.



Perimeter Security. The very outside of our Base Camp perimeter was marked by a four wire barb wire fence. Hanging on the Barbwire many places were signs that indicated that inside the wire was a minefield. Actually we placed command detonated Claymore mines set in concrete. Wires to the Claymores ran back to our bunkers. The wire fence also had a number of tripwire detonated flares that would identify forces trying to breach our perimeter. I set most of these tripwires flares myself - just to ensure they were done right.



Security Forces. Ruff-Puff regional forces provided security for our road building work. Security for the Base Camp was provided via an outer perimeter with bunkers with the understanding that Vietnamese military forces would occupy these bunkers to supply the primary security for our base camp. That is what happened. It appeared that the ARVN regular Vietnamese army forces used our base camp as an R&R site while out performing their duties in this particular sector. This worked well. The ARVN forces moved into well established camp that already had bunkers for their soldiers to live in and they had access to our purified water supply. In turn, while they were at our base camp, they did send out patrols at night to help us with our overall security.



Resupply by Air. On one or two occasions we got intelligence that enemy activity was such that travel along QL20 was unusually dangerous. This meant that we could not be re-supplied by vehicles that usually traveled to and from the base camp by riding along with the asphalt convoys. In these cases we were supplied by a Chinook helicopter with a sling load of needed supplies. This work well except for the occasions where the powerful winds created by the Chinook blades blew over some of our wooden buildings in the camp that had to be righted.



Dozer Struck by RPG. When the NVA ambushed us we lost a D-7 dozer to a rocket-propelled grenade, but not one member of the road crew was even wounded.



Holy Jeep. Maybe 60+ shrapnel "wounds" to my jeep, but it was soon repaired and back on the road.



Culvert Replacement. This is from the site where the VC had blown the culverts under QL20 which backed up the creek and threatened to overflow and wash away the road. This picture was taken just before the two detroyed culvert sections were removed and replaced with new sections.


We did have one especially interesting construction challenge. QL20 crossed a small valley that had a creek flowing through it. Rather than bridge the valley or have the road go down into the valley and back up the other side, the French had built up the road with earth, which was the right solution in this case. Two 60 inch culverts had been placed under the road to carry the flow of the creek. But the VC had blown up the two culverts, blocking the water flow, which had slowly risen on the east side and would shortly reach the level of the road and wash it out. The culverts were each around 100 feet long, and replacing them would be a major effort, but not a technically difficult task . . . except that QL20 was a not only a major thoroughfare for civilian traffic bringing produce to market, but also the route that military reaction forces would use to move forces rapidly from north to south and vice versa. And there was no good solution in terms of a bypass, because the one set of bypass roads we could find were long and winding and not in good shape and very susceptible to being interdicted. So this is what we did: Have you noted that beach sand is very soft when it is dry but pretty firm when wet? That is because water does a good job of compacting sand. So we began hauling sand to the site - lots of it. Nearby we had crews assembling the two new culverts. When we had enough sand and we had the culverts built, we assembled all the necessary equipment on site early one morning. Huge earthmovers dug away the roadway. At the point the earthmovers reached the waterline on the east side, the water flowed across and actually helped carry the dirt away. At that point the area became too wet for earthmovers so cranes with buckets were then used to help carry away the earth. Shortly the earth was down to creek level, exposing the blown up culverts which were pulled out by the cranes. The new culverts were rolled into place and the cranes began placing stockpiled sand around them. Water trucks sprayed the sand as it was placed to compact it. After the culverts were covered with about two feet of sand, the cranes began covering the culverts with earth. The first layers were compacted by hand and it wasn’t long before we could bring back the earthmovers and rollers to quickly finish bringing the road back up to its original elevation. All done in about six hours! Interestingly, as the water level to the east receded, it uncovered a Vietnamese farmhouse that had been built alongside the creek, and within a few days we observed a Vietnamese family back living in that home. Sweet!

We were ambushed seriously once in March by an NVA unit, and we lost a dozer to a rocket propelled grenade. I was carrying a box of four M-72 Light Antitank Weapons with me on that day. We got to the top of a hill overlooking the ambush site and I could see the dozer burning and hear the firing. It appeared that the VC were in the wood line on the west side of the road and my driver Ford and I fired the four rockets into the wood line there. That might have broken up the attack as maybe the VC thought they were getting hit with artillery, but I don't know. I do know that they responded by walking mortar rounds over the jeep. Ford and I ran from the incoming rounds that were chasing us; and we dived into a very shallow ditch as the mortar rounds hit all around us. While the jeep had something like over 60 shrapnel holes, Ford only got one; he was lightly wounded in the side. Ford received the Army Commendation Medal with V-for-Valor device for his actions that day, along with the Purple Heart. I received the Bronze Star Medal with V-for-Valor device. None of the road crew was injured.

We did loose two men during my time with the 169th: One was Specialist Five Terry Heiser. He died in a construction accident on QL20. As I recall, a Contact (maintenance) Truck backed over him when the driver was not aware that Terry was behind the vehicle. I was in Long Binh at the time, and identified his remains when they were returned there. Sad. Terry Richard Heiser is remembered on the Vietnam Wall of Honor on Panel 25W, Line 71. Born Oct 25, 1947; died May 12, 1969. You can also leave a remembrance on his Wall of Honor web page.

Based on information I later received, it appears that QL20's route north to Da Lat opened up past the town of Định Quán. So the NVA and VC essentially lost their ability to shut down this vital national highway.

I had received a letter from the Engineer Assignments Officer wanting to know if I were willing to extend my service, at the time a two-year obligation and soon to be up. The Army would send me back to school at Purdue in return for an added service obligation. Of course an "added service obligation" was certainly another tour in Vietnam but evidently Bonnie agreed and - because of my upcoming schooling assignment - I got about a two week drop, i.e., an earlier return time, from Vietnam. This would be so that I could begin the summer term back with my Boilermakers.



Bronze Star Certificate

General Orders for the Award

Bronze Star Citation

I have written a fictional novel based on many of my Vietnam experiences. It is called QL 20.

There is also a sequel; also fictional. It is called Delta Dogs.

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