Activated at Morris Field in Charlotte, N.C., on August 10, 1942, the 459th Signal Construction Battalion was com- posed of “colored troops,” to use vernacular of the time, and commanded by white officers. The unit served a year of combat in World War II and later, redesignated the 459th Signal Battalion (Combat Area), served six years in Vietnam.
On June 21, 1944, an element of the 459th landed at Utah Beach. The battalion’s work was critical to rebuilding and reestablishing communications infrastructure as it advanced with the Allied forces in war-torn Europe. The 459th contributed to the success of the Allied advance by ensuring that the forces could communicate critical combat information.
At the end of World War II, the battalion rotated back to the United States and was deactivated in December 1945. It was reactivated in April 1962 at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., as the 459th Signal Battalion (Combat Area). On October 1, 1966, soldiers of the 459th boarded USNS Upshur, bound for Vietnam.
“As we arrived at the ship late at night, we marched past Red Cross ladies passing out coffee,” recalled battalion historian Howard Bartholf. “We were ordered to simply pass them by and [march] onto the ship to begin our journey to Vietnam.”
The destiny and mission of the 459th were much clearer than my own in September 1966. My life was a quandary as I was endeavoring to re-enroll in college—any college—after being expelled in June. I enlisted in the Army in October 1966, the same month the 459th shipped out for Vietnam. Seven months later I was in Vietnam and soon joined the 459th in Nha Trang.
I spent most of my tour in Nha Trang with intermittent forays by convoy north through the steep, winding and dangerous mountain roads along the east coast, often with panoramic views of the South China Sea. My initially tranquil assignment in Nha Trang didn’t last, however.
In January 1968, General William Westmoreland ordered the establishment of the MACV forward command post in I Corps Tactical Zone, in the northern provinces, to deal with the rising Communist threats. The location chosen was Phu Bai, near Hue, and the 459th was ordered to set up communications for the new headquarters. Around January 26, Headquarters Company was hastily rounded up with barely enough time to organize its gear and rushed off to Nha Trang air base.
We boarded planes for what was then an unidentified destination and an unrevealed mission. Rumors abounded, though, and would prove accurate. After a brief stopover in Da Nang, where we became separated from our equipment, we arrived in Phu Bai on January 28 just before the start of the Tet Offensive. We went by air, but our equipment went by road. Destroyed bridges between Da Nang and Hue delayed our gear for several days, during which our only clothes were those on our backs. The monsoon season exacerbated the hardships. Even during lulls in the rain, a fine mist suspended in the air seemed to envelop everything. Nothing ever dried out. We could feel the fine grit of sand in our clothes, and we imagined what it would be like to wear fatigues fashioned from sandpaper.
In the chaos of Tet, “Work continued at a fast pace despite an around the clock enemy rocket attack on Phu Bai during the first three days of February,” wrote Maj. Gen. Thomas Matthew Rienzi in his “Vietnam Studies” monograph, Communications Electronics, 1962-1970.
There were many challenges and adventures ahead of us, but one night has remained with me ever since, more for what almost happened than what did happen. Still in damp, sand-lined clothes, two of us were ordered to stand perimeter guard. (The perimeter had previously been manned by the 3rd Marines, who moved out to Dong Ha.) We were positioned behind an M-60 machine gun, in a shallow indentation in the sand not worthy of being called a foxhole. In response to our request for instructions on how to use the M-60, the duty officer barked, “You’ll find out when you have to.”
Later that night, just after I started my turn to sleep, I was abruptly awakened by a burst of gunfire intimately close to my ear. Faster than I thought possible, I positioned my weapon to my cheek and prepared to fire. At that instant, flares exploded above us, and I heard someone call out, “Friendly, friendly, friendly.” I still hear that cry today. Luckily, there were no casualties.
Despite the establishment of electronic communications, some of us had to perform courier duty to the Citadel at Hue, which I presume was necessary to augment electronic communications still being constructed or occasionally disrupted. I recall one of my trips to the Citadel, which is reminiscent of a scene from the movie Full Metal Jacket. In the scene in which Joker enters an enclave where combat-weary veterans are seeking reprieve from the fighting, one of the meaner among them, affectionately called Animal, taunts and intimidates the newcomers. I remember encountering a Marine in the Citadel on whom the movie character could have been based. On that day and at that moment, I feared this U.S. Marine more than I feared the NVA and VC.
By the end of March I was into the last two weeks of my 365-day tour. The two weeks seemed like an eternity. I asked my commander whether he would sign my release orders if I could obtain a seat allocation to the States and take advantage of the seven-day early-out provision. He agreed. Getting out of Phu Bai at that time presented a separate challenge. The Phu Bai hospital was situated at the edge of the airfield, where scores of casualties were constantly ferried in. In the aftermath of Tet, flights were still assigned to far more important missions than ferrying troops to rotation centers.
What my commander didn’t know was that I had a contact in Cam Ranh Bay who assigned seat allocations for rotating troops. I contacted my friend, and he gave me an allocation number, which was all I needed—or so I thought. When I advised my commander that everything was all set to go, he sardonically pointed out that since flights were primarily assigned to mop-up and medevac operations around Phu Bai and Hue, getting a flight to Cam Ranh Bay would be next to impossible. You can be sure, though, that I was not at all daunted by the challenge.
Nonetheless, the commander kept his promise and signed my orders, and I was off to the air base faster than an RPG. Once there, I thought I would take some lastminute photos of Vietnam. With my camera scanning the frantic activity of stretchers being hurried from dust-off choppers to the Phu Bai hospital, I began clicking away. Within seconds, though, I became so overcome by the sight of the casualties lying on stretchers that I put down my camera and lent a hand as a stretcher-bearer. Soon there was a lull in the activity, and I once again picked up the camera and slowly walked to the nearest helipad, so overcome with emotion that tears gushed down my cheeks as I sobbed uncontrollably.
Hitching a ride on a helicopter would be my best bet for a flight to Da Nang, the first leg of my 10,000-mile journey home. I prepared for a long wait on the perforated-steel-plate runway, sitting with uncertainty on my duffle bag, jumping to my feet at the sound of the Hueys and, in the traditional hitchhiking manner, extending my thumb in the direction of Da Nang to the south. I remember it more vividly than yesterday. The cool damp air and thickly overcast sky made the day seem like night. The stench of burning human waste and diesel fuel mingled with decaying garbage created a cocktail of odor that has etched my scent receptors forever.
Nearly six hours had passed when a helicopter pilot heading for Da Nang offered me a ride. I climbed aboard without a second’s hesitation. Soon after takeoff, one of the crew yelled, “Sit on your flak vest, a–hole!”
I didn’t like what that implied. This combat-hardened crew, seeking an adrenaline surge, apparently planned to fly inland rather than the relatively safe route along the coast. Needless to say, I was not as eager as they. So I sat on my flak vest, wondering what the hell was going on.
Soon the gunner to my right began firing. Here I was almost at the end of my tour, and I had never been so scared before that moment. As the helicopter banked to the right, I turned my head in that direction and found myself looking directly at the ground below, watching water buffalo and rice farmers scurrying for their lives. The gunner was either a poor shot or was merely playing—more likely the latter.
How long did that journey take? I have no recollection. I do, however, remember arriving safely in Da Nang and soon catching a C-130 to Cam Ranh Bay. My tour in Vietnam lasted 359 days, 171⁄2 hours. That was nearly 40 years ago.
As in World War II, in the midst of battle, the men of the 459th Signal Battalion in Vietnam answered the call of duty, rose to the occasion and played a critical role in ensuring victory by U.S. forces. Writing about the unit’s role in the 1968 Tet Offensive, Maj. Gen. Rienzi noted: “The story of the 459th Signal Battalion, as it was provisionally organized and deployed, is unique since the deployment occurred as the Tet Offensive took place. The hastily organized battalion had to respond quickly and install and operate the vital communications needed, even though it was under fire.”
I am proud to have been part of the unit’s history.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.