I saw you smile.

The Day I Set Vietnam On Fire

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This entry was posted on 5/29/2012 4:40 PM and is filed under My Military Daze.

I didn't go to Vietnam until late in the war.  Oh, that's right, it wasn't a war, it was a conflict.  The military didn't have jurisdiction over accompanying civilians because it wasn't a war.  I'll say this, it was a hell of a conflict.

I almost went to Vietnam in 1965.  I was assigned to III Corps and Fort Hood, Texas.  A secret message came down to Fort Hood directing that a corps headquarters be constituted and sent to Vietnam.  I had just stepped forward to go Regular Army so I figured I was a lock to go.  As it turned out, I was on orders to go to the Language School in Monterey, California.  That secret message directed Fort Hood not to take anybody who was on orders for a school.  So my JAG friends left without me.  The Corps SJA, Colonel Joe Sullivan, was part of the corps headquarters arriving in Vietnam.  As Colonel Sullivan got off the plane, he was advised that they had not requested a JAG full colonel.  That's the Army we know and love.  After wandering around for 60 days without a job, Colonel Sullivan convinced the powers that be that he was a fifth wheel at the headquarters and was shipped back to Fort Hood.

I ended up going to the language school (studying German) and then having a three-year assignment in Germany; and, also, spending a year at Northwestern University before I was shipped to Vietnam.  I know it doesn't sound like the Army we know and love to actually have someone study German and then be assigned to Germany.  The Army we know and love made up for it by sending me to Northwestern to get a Masters Degree in criminal law and then, never giving me another criminal law assignment.

I finally arrived in Vietnam in July 1970.  I spent my birthday at the 90th Replacement Battalion.  Their singular goal was to make life so miserable for new arrivals that they would jump at the chance to join their new units.  They were very good at their job.  They had a detachment that cut wood all night long using ban saws.  What seemed strange to me is that the saws were silent during the daytime.  By the end of three days, I was delighted to climb on a chopper and join the 1st Cav SJA Office at Phouc Vihn. 

I think Phuoc Vihn was about 40 to 50 miles north of Saigon.  We called our outer permitter the "Green Line."  It was three and a half miles long.  Inside the wire was the provincial capitol, a large air field and the Cav headquarters.  Sometime prior to my arrival, Viet Cong snuck onto our base and did some damage.  We remedied this by leveling everything outside the wire for a quarter of a mile and erecting ball park lights all along the Green Line (pointing out).  No more sneak attacks.

The VC had no problem finding us and would fire a rocket or a few mortars or RPGs at us each night.  We eventually caught the sneaky group and took out our vengeance.   The JAG Office and our quarters (hooches) were not in danger.  We were located quite a distance from the air field, headquarters and provincial capitol.  In fact, we were located down close to the Green Line, surrounded by defoliated rubber trees.  Periodically, during a storm, a rubber tree would fall over.  But, they weren't very big and no one was hurt.

About six or seven months into my tour, we were instructed to do a "Spring Cleaning" around our area.  Being the Deputy SJA, I was tagged to run the clean up.  I had about 12 captains and about 15 enlisted men.  But, the area we had covered about five acres.  Our office, the courtroom and our hooches were in pretty good shape, but we had a large wooded area that was a complete mess.  We had been instructed to clean out undergrowth.  In the wooded area, the undergrowth was everywhere.

Then it came to me.  We could burn the wooded area and be done in no time.  I walked around it to make sure the fire would not spread.  Between the roads and fields, we seemed to have natural boundaries to retain the fire.  I checked the wind to ensure it would burn in the direction we planned.  I was really proud of my idea.

We started three or four fires on one edge and the fire took off.  It burned much more rapidly than I thought.  The next thing I remember is it appeared the fire was totally out of control.  And the noise.  The roar of the fire was deafening.  I could see branches on fire flying higher and higher, taking on a life of their own.  I was scared to death.  I saw my military career slipping through my fingers.  I had been a prosecutor and a defense counsel in trials.  Now, I feared I would be an accused.  I would be charged with unmitigated stupidity!

After what seemed like hours, but was probably thirty minutes, things started to settle down.  The deafening roar was gone.  I began regular breathing again.  The self-generated crises had passed.  To this day, I have always wondered why no one outside of our JAG office reacted to the fire.  We didn't see the fire marshal or an MP or a concerned operations guy.  No one.

By the evening, everything had returned to normal, whatever that means in Vietnam.  And, I guess I missed my 15 minutes of fame.

Written by PJ Rice at www.ricequips.com


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