California Bill\’s Travel \’n Other Stuff

Travels and occassional rantings of an old guy.

My Year in Thailand, 1966-67

Nam Suai FloodNam Suai Floodnam-suai-flood-2.jpgnam-suai-flood-2.jpgMe and a FriendI was drafted into the US Army in Jan 1966. That month, over 100,000 were drafted. I understood that to be the highest number ever in one month. I took basic training at Fort Ord, (Monterrey) CA, then to Ft Gordon, (Augusta) GA for training in the Signal Corp, specifically, a AN/TRC24 Radio Relay Operator, MOS: 31M20 (or was it 31M40?).  (MOS = Military Occupational Specialty) When I got orders to Siam, my wife and I had to get out a map and see where that was.

See some pictures at http://www.flickr.com/photos/calbillstravnstuff/sets/72057594122629485/.

For a while at Fort Gordon, I lived in a 12 man tent, which in Georgia in the middle of summer is mostly unbearable. However the build up had been so fast, most facilities were completely overtaxed. Later, my wife drove out from California and we lived in an apartment off post. Almost my entire training class went to Germany, which we had been hoping for. However, I was held back a week because I got the measles (of all things), so I was delayed finishing my MOS training. When I finally got orders to Siam, we were given two weeks to get to Oakland Army Terminal, and we enjoyed a leisurely drive across country.

I arrived in Bangkok in August 1966 and after a night or two at the Capital Hotel, rode a military bus up to Korat. A long and rough ride up the Friendship Highway, but I got to see some of what was to be my new home for a year. In Korat, I reported to the 55th Signal Company Headquarters at Camp Friendship, adjacent to Korat Royal Thai AFB, and was assigned a hootch. At Fort Gordon we lived in tents, so I considered the wooden hootches a big improvement, especially when I found out we had house girls that took care of our laundry and lizards scurrying around the ceiling and walls that ate the bugs. I had definitely moved up in life.

I really do not remember all the technical details of the AN/TRC (TRC =TeleRadio Communications) 24. It was VHF, and since it was line of sight, relays had to be located at certain distances. Relay equipment was set up in a container mounted on the back of a deuce and half ton truck.  The radio equipment was on shelves on both sides of the inside of the container, with a narrow center isle allowing access to the equipment. Our job, as trained at Ft Gordon, was to move the truck as necessary, usually in combat conditions, set up antennae (which were extremely directional), and keep the channels open.  As I recall there were 4 channels in a typical set up.  Therefore there were 8 radio sets; an “in” and “out” for each channel in each truck.

However, in Thailand, none of the relay sites were mobile. A few were in their truck type containers, but most were in small air conditioned buildings, which contained many channels.  (One site named “Peppercorn” near Udorn, was still the in the container on the truck, on jacks, under a canopy.)  Every TRC24 site I worked had become permanent. One could tell a TRC24 site by the distinctive olive drab fly swatter type antennae.                                                                                                                                                                                     

Since mobility had ceased to be a factor, our job sites were terminal locations, where the TRC 24 fed into a wider communication network of more sophisticated equipment. There were few actual relay sites. Instead of moving sites as trained, our job became one of tediously watching the equipment hum along, perform periodic maintenance and testing, replace some parts now and then, and twist a few dials when some one from somewhere called in complaining about line interference on one of the lines. This did not happen very often. Rarely, a radio set would go bad. In that event we coordinated the re-routing of radio traffic, replaced the unit and got everybody back on line. At least we never had to reset an antenna.

It was understood that we were there to support the Air Force, but we were told often not to be curious as to the nature of our business. Any questions we had about our signals were rebuffed by NCO’s and Officers alike.  We did not know to where our antennae were pointed.  We could not listen in. Very soon I got tired of asking, and just did the job.

After a few weeks in Korat, I was sent up to Udorn to a very small Army post near, but not abutting, the Air Base. I cannot remember exactly where in relation to the base we were. It seems we turned west off of Friendship Hiway just south of the city of Udorn, and passed a Thai Police or Army post. There was a large field on which soccer was frequently played.  Our post was small, with perhaps only a couple of  dozen troops. A Lieutenant was OIC, and the NCOIC was an E6. There were wooden hootches and a single mess hall for all, to which you could come and go at will, since we all had weird work schedules. Made to order breakfast cooked while you wait. (Three eggs, over easy, bacon and toast, please. You got it buddy, comin’ right up.)

There was a small bar (beer 5 cents) and adjacent movie theater. This was shaping up to be nothing like the Army I thought I was going into. The miseries of Forts Ord and Gordon drifted further back in my mind.  My wife sent me a newspaper from the states with headlines stating that there were no American troops in Thailand. We kept that up in the mess hall for a while and got some laughs.

Our hootches were infested with termites, and when it was very quiet, you could hear them munching. In the morning, all surfaces were covered with a thin layer of sawdust. I wondered how long the buildings would last.

Our job site was a short truck ride away, known as Udorn Control, a small air conditioned building. We had two or three dozen channels, and our fly swatter relay antennae were pointed in several directions.  We were set up amongst several semi trailers in an area bristling with a wide assortment of antennae. I soon figured out that we were the low ones on the hierarchy of comm equipment technology. The stuff around us was very sophisticated. But we never saw those guys. Couldn’t go in their trailers, didn’t see them much, and when we did see them, many were in civilian clothes and only nodded at our presence. I never figured out how our equipment complimented or fit in with all this other stuff.

We worked 12 hour shifts in that little building, watching our equipment and various meters. We logged meter readings, tested, dusted, and tried to keep busy during our shifts. But late one night I remember clear as it was yesterday. I was reading a book at the desk and the phone rang. A very excited voice complained about noise on a line and virtually screaming, pleaded with me to do something quick. Jumping to my feet and finding the appropriate radio set, I pulled it out of the wall on its sliding rails, and quickly began turning the knobs controlling the signal. The voice at the other end yelled happily that I’d done it and hung up. I logged the event, and tried to settle down, but the adrenalin kept me hopping the rest of the night.                                                                                                                                     

That whole episode lasted less than 20 seconds. I have wondered for 41 years what that was all about.  I did not know the guy that called or from where he was calling. Next door, or miles away? After joining TLC (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia Brotherhood), I have read more and more about what was going on up there about that time.  I want now to believe that I contributed something that night that was very, very important to someone somewhere. But I’ll never really know for sure.

The antennae pointing north relayed to an actual pure relay site up the Friendship Hiway about 2/3 of the way to Nong Khai, on the Mekong River. The Relay was manned by an E5 Sgt and three EM’s  There was a small contingent of Thai Army there, along with their wives and camp followers. The females took care of our guys’ laundry and cooked some meals.

The relay site was powered by huge towable generators. There was an outhouse and an outdoor shower served by rainwater, and several bunkers. Those antennae pointed north could have only been going to Laos, probably Vientienne, but again, hey, don’t ask.

One day some Army brass came up to Udorn to check things out, and were to also go up to the Relay. I had been up there once on a supply run, and was selected to drive a Bird Colonel and one of his entourage in a jeep.  He never said one word to me all the way north. Not one single word. He just sat there scowling, like he didn’t want to be there. (Well, join the crowd.)

About 2/3 of the way to the Relay, there is a river called Nam Suai. It was flooded. Totally covered the road for several hundred yards. There was great activity on both sides of the river, as the Friendship Highway was heavily traveled. A thriving industry of Thai long boats were ferrying people and their goods across the flooded river. I was selected to stay with the vehicles, and the rest of the party, in their finely starched uniforms piled into several long boats along with a couple of replacement radios and assorted gear. It seemed incongruous to see several high ranking sharply dressed military personnel and some very expensive radio equipment piled into a pretty shaky looking long boat.

Soon, I was surrounded by a dozen or more kids. We had a great time. Two or three would hang on my arm at a time to great gales of laughter. I would swing them around and toss them up in the air. They weighed so little, and at 6’3” I must have seemed like a giant to them. We had a little impromptu soccer game, and they all piled in the jeep, and we rough housed and laughed a lot. I spied an ice cream vendor, and bought all the kids some ice cream. Then a jolly green giant helicopter landed, and all the kids went running off toward the dust and noise. The helicopter was from the Red Cross. I talked to the RC official a bit; they were terribly frustrated with so many refugees coming Nam Suai Floodacross the Mekong River, and now the flood.

Just then I noted the brass coming back across the flooded river, and quickly returned to my vehicles, which were thankfully all accounted for.  The colonel looked at me with disdain, and I realized that my formerly stiffly starched fatigues were now crumpled and soiled with dirt, sweat, dust, and traces of ice cream.  Saying nothing, we started driving and soon passed all those kids near the helicopter. Seeing me, laughing and yelling, they swarmed around us, reaching out to touch me and the colonel with their grubby little hands and climb in the jeep. Escaping, the colonel looked at me square on and scowling, asked if they were friends of mine. I replied with a big yes, sir.  On the way back to Udorn, I thought I saw the Colonel smile a little when we passed kids, and he actually waved once or twice.  I never saw the Colonel again.

After being in Udorn a few weeks, I was sent up to the Relay to sub for a guy who had been sent to the Base Hospital with some ailment. Those guys had been together for some time, and I didn’t get a chance to fit in. This post was remote, and in addition to keeping the radios working, we had to take care of the generators. We were supplied every three or four days from Udorn.

One day a Methodist minister and his wife came into our camp. He was doing missionary work in a nearby village. His wife had made an apple pie out of a large can of apples that the guys had given her a few days before. Man, being out there in the wilderness, lonely and not quite feeling safe, that was the best apple pie I’ve ever had.

I was only up there 4 days and then returned to Udorn, where I was informed that I was going to Korat, to join a contingent of 55th Sig Co guys going TDY (Temprary Duty) to Bangkok to set up communication facilities for President Johnson’s upcoming visit to Thailand. Well, this was pretty exciting, so off I went.

We stayed for a while at the Capital  Hotel in Bangkok, but it was 8 miles away, which took about 30 minutes at rush hour. So later, we moved to another hotel, but I can’t remember the name.  We got a little tourist time the first day, then went to work every day for about 3 weeks at Borom Phimam Mansion, where the President was to stay. It is adjacent to the complex that includes the Temple of the Emerald Budha.  Our comm equipment was to be installed across from the mansion in a little utility building.  This necessitated a daily commute from our hotel to the palace, and I got my first taste of driving in Bangkok. What a hoot that was! I learned that entering one of those infamous circles was easier when you rev’d the engine and laid on the horn of the duece and half truck. It was like a parting of the waters.

There was a lot of equipment and guys from different units in that little room. But we worked well together and helped each other, working way out of our MOS’s.  I spliced cables, wired switchboards, and installed phones in the Mansion itself. Lots of channels to site in and calibrate. We got it all done in fine fashion.  Then it was just a matter of keeping it all running. We had no incidents that I know of.

The inside of the Mansion, which tourists never saw, was incredible. Intricate teak décor. Five foot elephant tusks with hanging brass gongs. We had to take our boots and shoes off inside to keep from scuffing the floor. Unfortunately, my camera with pictures from inside the mansion was later stolen.

I never saw President Johnson or much of his party. During one night shift, we had to stay inside. Secret Service didn’t want anyone wandering around. I spent a lot of time that night chatting with mysterious guys in suits and dark glasses with strange tales of far away places. Very interesting.  Night shifts were the best. No brass around. During the day, every officer remotely connected would show up and decide to exert some authority to impress the troops and Secret Service. The President’s visit ended about Oct 28. We spent a couple of days taking things down, and then I got a three day pass for some unofficial R&R in Bangkok. Then back to Korat.

I fully expected to be sent back up to Udorn, where I had felt very comfortable with some new buddies. But, it was not to be. They shanghai’d me into the company headquarters orderly room, where I spent the rest of my tour in Thailand.  At first I thought this would be good duty, but I was wrong. I soon longed to be out on a post somewhere doing something more active. I was very bored, and frankly, perhaps not a very good garrison soldier.  My first three months in country had been filled with new and exciting experiences, but the next 8 were a bit of a letdown.

Nevertheless, in March of 1967 I was selected to drive our company commander, a Captain, on a circuit route of Northeast Thailand. Why he needed to do this I do not know. I was issued a rifle and several rounds of ammo, which I hadn’t seen since Ft Ord, loaded up the jeep and off we went.

Our first stop was Roi Et, a beautiful little town that I wish I had more time to visit. We stayed there the first night in a hotel, then off to Ubon where we gassed up and got directions to the Mukdahan Army signal site. I don’t remember much of the road to Ubon, but I do remember the road to Mukdahan. It was dirt, and every bridge over every river or creek had been bombed or burned out. We had to slow down and ford the crossings. It was dry season, so I don’t remember much water.  This made us both very nervous and we had our weapons at the ready. There were no incidents but it was slow going and we arrived late at Mukdahan in the dark.

I don’t know the geography of Phu Mu and Mukdahan. The note on my Phu Mu pictures say “near Mukdahan.”  At any rate, I remember noting the direction of the flyswatter antenna, due east into Laos, and being a good trooper, didn’t ask any questions.

We stayed the night there, departing for Nakon Phanom very early in the morning. Halfway to NKP, an F 4 or 105 flew over us about 100 feet up. We saw him for about half a second. He was well in front of us before we heard the noise, which scared the hell out of us. As he disappeared behind the trees, he was wagging his wings as if to say the road is clear, you’re fine. We felt a little better all the way into NKP.

We had a great meal at the NKP Air Force mess hall, and it reminded me of the great meals I’d had at Udorn, and the not so great meals at Korat. We pressed on and passed Sakon Nakorn, on our way to Udorn, the Mekong Relay and Nong Khai.  After a night at Udorn, we drove back to Korat.

At sometime during my year, probably about Feb 1967, one of my wife’s letters announced that the B52’s had come to Thailand. She was teaching elementary school in our home town of Merced, California. Many of her kids were from nearby Castle AFB, a SAC base. One day the kids were very sad, and asking them why, they told her their daddies had gone to a place called Thailand. (I think they went to Sattahip, but I don’t know for sure.)

The rest of the time in Korat is uneventful. Somewhere along the way we moved into new barracks, and got all up tight with parades and inspections and dress uniforms and more officers. One of our lieutenants began getting us some day trips on Saturdays. I remember a major shrine at Sara Buri and a picnic place called White Falls.  In the summer I was promoted to Sargent E5, which was not well received by the other Sargents in our Company. After all, I was a draftee and I’d only been in for a year and half. I saw their point, but I didn’t turn the stripes down.

I rotated home to the 78th Signal Battalion at Ft Lewis, Washington, near Tacoma and McChord AFB. I spent the last 4 ½ months in the Army in Battalion HQ.  The Battalion Sargent-Major was very kind to me. I think I helped his work load considerably on administrative matters.  My wife and I got in several rounds of golf at the terrific Ft Lewis Golf Course.  I was discharged at Ft Lewis in January, 1968.

A few years ago, I began searching the internet for info on my time in Thailand. I wanted to know that there was some meaning to my time there. I learned more about the “secret war” in Laos and what the Air Force and other units in NE Thailand were doing.  I found and joined the Thailand, Laos, Cambodia Brotherhood and learned more about what was going on in NE Thailand at that time. I now feel some pride in my contribution during my time in Thailand.  At least I can conjure up a happy ending to that frantic call I got in Udorn on that long dark night, and have some satisfaction that I really did make a difference during our Commander in Chief’s visit to Bangkok.

I did not volunteer for the service, but when the draft notice came, I went almost eagerly. Annalee was not so happy, and says later in life she’d wished we went to Canada. I could never have done that. I was proud to serve my country, and still am.  Vietnam was a sorry mess at the end, but I believed then, and do now, that its origins were well intentioned and deemed necessary.  I did my part, be it ever so small.

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August 11, 2007 Posted by | My Thailand Army Days | 40 Comments

In my foot steps, 40 years later!

Forty years ago, 1966-67, I spent a one year tour of duty in Thailand with the US Army Signal Corps. Duties there sent me from BangkoMe with Monk 66k to the Mekong, with most of the time spent in Korat. As you might know, I was not there as a tourist, but we did get to see some sights. My year there will hoepfully be a subject of many future blogs, with pictures, etc., as soon as I get the time to do it. I mean there’s a lot of stuff going on in my life right now, what with golf, and guitar work and cleaning out the garage and stuff like that, not to mention my real job. But I digress.
The reason for today’s entry is I just received an email with some pictures from our son. He has spent two seasons in Antarctica, and as mentioned previously, we met up with him in New Zealand recently. When we left him in Auckland, and returned to California, he departed for Australia, thence to Thailand. We have followed with great interest his travels via his web site
www.elementarypenguin.com , where you can also get caught up on his travels.
Ok, so here’s a couple of pictures. The first one is me in 1966 or 67 Son with Monk 06with a monk inside a wat (temple). I believe this was in Korat. The second is a picture of our son with his very own monk meeting, forty years later. He is in a casual conversation with two monks in Cambodia. Way to go Bill. H
e said that he had long discussions with the monks, who spoke wonderful English. I won’t say anymore, as this will probably end up with more detail on elementarypenguin, I hope. I know that my monk spoke no English, and there was very little conversation, except that he was happy to accept a few baht in order to allow me to have this picture taken.
Anyway, I thought the two pictures to be pretty neat, and wanted to share.

April 24, 2006 Posted by | Family, My Thailand Army Days | 1 Comment