It was late September 1968 and the heat and humidity were oppressive as I toiled preparing flower beds at the bachelor officer quarters in Long Binh, 90th Replacement Bat- talion. This was not what I imagined Vietnam would be like, and after a week of doing such details, I wanted out of the mud and dirt of Long Binh. I soon boarded a C-130 and headed for Cam Ranh Bay, where I joined the 174th Ammunition Renovation Detachment. The detachment was part of the 191st Ordnance Battalion, which supplied ammunition for central South Vietnam.
For a small detachment of typically only 50 men, the 174th had a lot of responsibilities. Besides the renovation line, there was a brass yard, where used brass from small arms and artillery was sent back to the States. Along the same line, there was a box yard, where ammunition boxes were gathered and sent back for reuse. The Army learned long ago that recycling pays. There was also a box shop, staffed by Vietnamese carpenters, that made new ammunition boxes. Some ammunition that was deemed unserviceable had to be repackaged and sent back to the States.
The detachment had to provide four men each night for guard duty at two bunkers. As the rapid reaction force for the battalion, we were called out first during alerts—which were usually announced by the charge of quarters running through the barracks screaming “Red alert, let’s go!” The detachment would scramble aboard trucks. It was normal to spend two or three nights a week, or more, sitting in the dark for hours, waiting for something to happen, and then get back to the company area in time for a few hours’ sleep before formation at 0630.
Besides alerts, everyone had a number of jobs, from driving trucks, to sweating at the renovation line, to working in the arms room.
The company area for the 174th consisted of two barracks and an orderly room/arms room combination. We originally had small one-story hooches, but moved over to larger quarters in late 1968. The two-story barracks were better, because there was enough room for single bunks. The area was pretty standard for Vietnam: outside toilets, shower room. A large tank painted black produced some fairly warm water. (Who would have thought we’d have been “green” so many years ago?)
Ammunition was delivered to our renovation line to be worked on, but not much actual renovation occurred. It was primarily maintenance and preservation of ammunition. If a batch of 105mm howitzer ammunition came in that was supposed to have a booster charge, the entire batch had to be checked out and the charges put in the projectiles that lacked them. Or if a number of 40mm rounds, the type used in M42 Dusters (anti-aircraft guns mounted on a tank chassis, normally used for convoy protection) were found to have loose fuzes, the entire shipment had to be inspected and then sent back. At one time, the men of the 174th inspected approximately 2.5 million rounds of minigun ammunition, when bullets were found to be seated incorrectly and in some cases crushed, potentially causing jams in the guns. The defective rounds had to be removed and the links put back together.
One of my first jobs was in the brass yard, supervising the Vietnamese as they sorted brass, which came loaded in large metal Conex shipping containers. Inside each container was a slip of paper stating that it was 100 percent free of live ammunition, signed by some unknown second lieutenant somewhere. The containers were unloaded by just opening the door and letting the contents pour out on the ground. It was always a big surprise to see what would tumble out. Along with many live rounds of small-arms ammunition, there might also be Claymore mines, hand grenades, blasting caps or an assortment of other ordnance. I remain amazed that no one was ever killed by some of this ordnance exploding.
One day a truck came into the brass yard with a load of rocket containers. A couple of these long aluminum tubes still contained the warhead. While the truck was being driven, the 50-pound warheads had somehow come out of the containers and they had been bouncing around in the back of the truck. Since the warheads were not fuzed, there was no real danger, but the poor truck driver was really frightened when he saw them. The whole crew had a good laugh at the driver’s expense.
Security was an important part of our duties. We were involved in patrolling the interior of the base, and at other times attempting to ambush any intruders. Guard duty was a perennial chore, and not a pleasant one. One night, someone in a moment of near panic screamed into the radio mike, “Can anyone out there hear me?” There were roving patrols in the storage areas, and I have always assumed it was one of those men who needed help. Vietnam at night could be a very forbidding place.
While some who served in Vietnam might call the men who served in the 174th REMFs (rear echelon mother f——s), we worked hard and did our part. If, through our work on the ammunition, we saved even one GI, then all of our hard—and unappreciated—work was worthwhile.
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.