Back Then

F S B from the Americal Division Magazine — April 1970

Electronic copy of article provided by Leslie Hines

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11th Inf. Bde

Do not look for frills on a firebase. Every line is functional, each sandbag and wisp of wire is right where it is for a reason, and the overall impression is on of strength and security.

Strategically scattered throughout Quang Ngai Province, at the southern tip of I Corps, the forward firebases of the 11th Infantry Brigade survey some of the most topographically diverse terrain in Vietnam. Here the sandy beaches of the South China Sea gently give way to coastal lakes and soggy rice paddies, stopping abruptly in the shadow of a rugged mountain range. These mountains are an infantryman's nightmare; steep, and covered by triple-canopy jungle dense enough to obscure the summer sun.

In a tactical parlance, a "firebase" is a position serving as a base of operations for a combat mission, having the organic artillery capability to support that mission. It may be a semi-permanent position, as in the case of a battalion-size firebase, or spring-up one night and be gone the next, its mission complete.

The big guns rule there: the constant rumbling, the bone-shaking concussion, the fiery flash, and the stinging odor of consumed powder. You learn to live with the "King of Battle": mortars, howitzer, the big "8-inchers", and the giant "175s". They lull you to sleep at night and wake you at dawn.

What of the men who make this montage of sandbags, wire, and artillery a living, breathing thing? They are the heart of a firebase: sweaty palms loading the big guns, steady hands pulling the lanyards, watchful eyes that can draw a deadly bead on the enemy or moisten the unashamed with the strains of "Silent Night" on Christmas Eve.

When the monsoon mist settles just below Firebase San Juan Hill's 1,250 foot summit, the firebase looms like an island in a white sea. Located 11 miles west of Duc Pho, it is the home of the 4th Bn., 3rd Inf. "Old Guard".

The base is situated on a saddle in the heart of the Ba To mountain district, and overlooks lush jungle valleys. Says SP4 John Rumsey, "For us, San Juan Hill is more than just a headquarters - it's a fortress, a symbol of security and military might. After you've been here a while, it grows on you. You feel like it's your mountain, and you'll fight for it."

PFC Charles Smith points out the necessity for teamwork on this isolated firebase: "You find very little friction among the men here. The other guy depends on you, and you on him."

"Luxury" items such as showers, hot food and electricity - things not available to men in the field - rank highest on the list of what men like best about San Juan Hill.

To SP4 Tom Nelson, the worst aspect of life on "the hill" is the weather. "It rains more here in the mountains," he says, "and during the monsoons resupply isn't always regular.

Six miles south of Duc Pho, Co., B of the 4th Bn., 3rd Inf. occupies a small temporary firebase atop Hill 285. It was created overnight and will be vacated when the operation it supports is over.

Because of the short life-span of the temporary firebase there are no conveniences here. Mail call and a single hot meal a day are the only luxuries. Said PFC Will F. Callen, "the first day is always the worst, the place is strange and you're busy digging in and setting everything up. You sorta get used to it, but by that time you're leaving. It never seems very homy."

Firebase 4-11 stands as a tribute to the combined efforts of the 4th ARVN Regiment and the 11th Infantry Brigade. Situated in the Song Tra Khuc river basin seven miles west of Quang Ngai City, the base was established in July of last year by the 3rd Bn., 1st Inf. and the elements of the 4th ARVN Regt. At that time, the area was a major enemy infiltration route where four NVA battalions roamed at will. After weeks of bitter fighting, 4-11 had earned its right to exist.

In October, thousands of Montagnard and Vietnamese refugees streamed from the surrounding mountains seeking security at the new firebase. The 3rd Bn., 1st Inf., in cooperation with government officials, created Tu My Village to accommodate the displaced and homeless refugees. Today 5,000 former refugees have a secure home less than 500 meters from Firebase 4-11.

The men here are quite proud of their "Howard Johnson's of Vietnam" mess facility. That's exactly what the bright orange sign on the messhall proclaims. The familiar weathervane landmark sits on the colorful building's roof and a "We Give Green Stamps" sign adds even more atmosphere. The food here is worthy of the trappings. Says SFC Walter Winkles, "We give the men a choice of ten different types of omelets on our a la carte breakfast menu."

SP4 Robert Wayne Balon noted, "Time goes much slower on a firebase than it does in the field."

The art of conversation," said SP4 John Copeland, "really comes into full bloom out here. Since we don't have TV, bull sessions are a popular form of relaxation."

SGT Jeffery Yentes plays "a lot of cards" to pass the time, while SGT Eric Boyle writes a lot of letters when he's on 4-11 because "the more you write, the more mail you get."

Going still further south you find a sign saying "Welcome to Firebase Charlie Brown". Charlie Brown sits on a small peninsula jutting out into the South China Sea, 17 miles south of Duc Pho. Its residents, the men of Co. A, 4th Bn., 21st Inf., are the defenders of "Gilligan's Island", a Naval support depot near the picturesque fishing village of Sa Huhyn.

"It's quite a sight," said Charlie Brown's officer in charge, 1LT Mike W. Fling, "when the entire fishing fleet lines up in the harbor at sunrise."

In populated areas, the firebase is not only a symbol of security to local residents but also an embassy of good will. Located four miles northwest of Duc Pho, Firebase Liz, home of the 1st Bn., 20th Inf., recently put out a welcome mat for 123 Vietnamese villagers whose homes were destroyed by savage monsoon floods. the evacuees were fed, clothed and housed on the firebase until the floodwaters receded.

To the strategists, a firebase is merely one of many dots on a large plotting board, but to the men who live and work there it is a home–lonely at times, and not terribly comfortable--but home. A soldier needs "his own place" and whether it be a simple lean-to in the field or a forward firebase, he'll be proud of it, and fight for it.

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For this issue of the magazine, a copy was donated to the ADVA by Joe Walker, former Americal Magazine editor.

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