LZ Sandra

by Richard Dieterle

AUGUST 2 - MID-AUGUST, 1967 — After the rigors of the An Lão Valley, a little time on an LZ would be a welcome respite. On August 2,1 we scrambled aboard a flight of Hueys, and left the hot and sandy An Lão, climbing high into the air and closing on a tall mountain with a little bald top on which rested LZ Sandra. We were there for a span of nearly two weeks. On the twelfth of this month, I wrote a letter home, summarizing what had transpired over the last few weeks.

LZ “Sandra”
12 Aug. ’67

Dear Family:

     I would have written long before this, except that I have been kept continuously occupied since we arrived at this LZ. The Battalion Commander didn’t like the looks of this small LZ, so he gave us enough detail work to keep us busy for some time.
     LZ “Sandra” is located on a high but rather small plateau. From the Machinegun Bunker one can see the An Lho Valley to the left and the Upper Bong Song Valley & the ocean to the right. The view is fantastic, very similar to the “Eagle’s Nest” in Bavaria, only there is more to see from Sandra. There’s a sheer cliff that drops about 150 meters & is heavily vegetated located in front of our bunker – thus making it about the safest place in Viet Nam. Nevertheless, [2] we throw a hand grenade every time we change guard.
     Whether we are out in the field or at an LZ, we pull guard every night. We usually end up pulling 3 hours a night in two 1½ hour shifts. We start at 9' and get up at 6'.
     Out in the field we move from one location to another from day to day – sending out patrols at night. Lately we’ve been collecting Montaignards who have been fleeing the VC. The V. C. according to the Montaignards, have been raping and murdering their women and this has caused them to abandon their ancestral homeland for a relocation site near Bong Song.
     The 2/8 Cav. ran into NVA near the An Lho Valley and one company took 24 KIA’s. They had 11 choppers shot down by recoil[l]ess rifles, & 2/8’s “Charlie Charlie” got “unhorsed” twice.
     [3] While 2/8 was practicing rapid de[s]cents, we were at the other end of the Valley collecting Montaignards. Yesterday we received 3 into our perimeter – they were waving our propaganda leaflets in the air like surrender flags. They spoke a little Vietnamese – and our interpreter [Joe Archuleta] told us that they didn’t even know their own ages, having no concept of time. They were in a pretty sorry way, generally.
     No matter where you go in this country you will find propaganda leaflets scattered about you. Each one is in Vietnamese and is illustrated, for those who do not read. I’ll try to send you some, so you can see what they look like. Also, we have planes flying overhead equipt with loudspeakers that play some of the sorriest music that can be heard, as well as giving [4] a verbal pitch for surrendering.
     Since I’ve been in Vietnam, I’ve made 11 air assaults and numerous airlifts. An air assault consists of landing on an unsecured area – an airlift is merely being flown into a secured area. If you make 24 air assaults you get one air medal – I figure on making 50 before I leave. Being a “sky-trooper” has its disadvantages though – we often have to jump out of the chopper before it lands – 5 or 6 ft off the ground. With 400 rounds of machinegun ammunition on your person, you land rather hard.
     I got your packages – 6 yesterday. It was like Christmas opening all that food from the World. I never thought of some of the stuff I got – I had a peanut butter & jam sandwich for the first time since leaving the world. The peanuts were greatly [5] appreciated and the cracker jack was most popular.

The Idiot Who Threw the Grenade Like a Frisbee  

There were a few things that I left out of this rosy picture. I did suffer to mention that I was chucking a grenade every so often, but what I didn't mention is what happened the first night we were there. I had a little grass on me, so when I assumed guard, I decided that it was recreation time, and I lit up a joint. The "weed" in the ’Nam was extremely potent, but I was beginning to habituate to it. I had a nice high and daydreamed about The World. Then I suddenly remembered, I was suppose to throw a grenade. This was part of a practice known as "H and I," and was designed to keep the enemy from creeping up on us during the night, which they sometimes did, often turning our claymore mines in the opposite direction from where they were suppose to point so that they would blow up in our faces. Seated as I was on the top of a large bunker, itself situated at the top of a very high mountiain with steep cliffs, I had every right to feel invulnerable. There was really no point to H & I. Professional mountain climbers would have the greatest difficulty scaling these heights, so there was no reason to suppose an enemy force would be foolish enough to struggle up the side of cliffs to reach positions that were well constructed for defence even on level ground. Having recalled my pointless duty, I removed a grenade from my web gear and straightened out its safety pin, which looks exactly like that currently found on fire extinguishers. In our youth, we were surprisingly careless with hand grenades, despite the fact that they could mangle you if they did not lethally tear you to pieces. I was even more relaxed now that I was "dinky dau," as we would say in pidgin Vietnamese. I reasoned — if you could call it that — that I should toss the grenade so that it landed high up on the mountain side, just in case some fanatic had scaled the heights near enough to be a threat. I wanted it to gently roll, letting gravity do the work. So I took the grenade in hand like a frisbee, and tossed it gently backhanded so that it would roll a short distance down the side of the mountain. To my shock, I had not put enough force behind the throw, and it looked for all the world as though the grenade was going to land on the rim of sandbags at the edge of the bunker. I held my breath in terrorized suspense, as the grenade just barely dropped over the top sandbag, and landed right at the base of the bunker, rolling nowhere. BAM!! It went off like an incoming mortar round. Everyone piled out of the bunker, jolted awake by an unexpected enemy attack. Unfortunately, it was exactly as the cartoon character Pogo had once expressed it, "We have found the enemy, and he is us." Yellen was the first one out, with a rather panicked expression on his face. He yelled, "What was that?" "Oh ... heh, heh ... I guess I should have thrown that grenade out a little father." "Jesus Christ!" and with a lot of mumbling, everyone piled back into the bunker to try to get some sleep, if their heightened state of adrenaline would permit it. I had now cemented my status as a "fuck-up," and had made Yellen's "shit list." Fortunately for me, widespread discretion prevented the über-prick, Lieutenant Pape, from finding out about it. I was already on his shit list, so I didn't need to have my name moved to the top of the column with a check mark next to it.

  Richard Waller Sharing His Care Package
with Doc Don Ferguson

On the eleventh of the month, things took a positive turn for me. Every now and then, someone in the World would send us a "Care Package." These were called after a United Nations' charity organization that sent packages of foodstuffs and other useful things to people in need elsewhere in the world. They advertised frequently in those days for donations, so everybody was familiar with the term. If our people back in the States were particularly thoughtful, they would send us tasty items that were a far remove from the standard C Ration fare. You might think that someone suffering in some degree from food deprivation would naturally hoard whatever he got; but the U. S. Army is one of the most communistic organizations on the planet. There was an exquisite irony to the fact that the Army was fighting passionately against communism, while differing very little from it. We shared and shared alike, and were told that no man was any better than another, except, of course, for the enforced understanding that the nomenklatura were to be given special respect and a little more of the pie than the rest of us. So the first thing that I did when I opened up my Care Package, was to take a couple of prized items, and then distribute the rest, starting with my inner circle (my own squad), then radiating outward. Anything that you took, you would have to hump, so there was an obvious incentive not to keep too much for fear of ending up like Bogey in the Treasure of the Sierra Madre. So I distributed everything according to the communist spirit of the Army, even though being on an LZ meant that I was not likely to have to hump anything.

The LZ had a well beaten path that went the entire perimeter from bunker to bunker. We had some time off where no duties could be dreamed up to keep us busy, so I would walk around visiting other squads and just generally taking in the sights. Like all such facilities, our mountain top fortress had a helicopter pad, which functioned as a refueling depot and emergency landing site.2 LZ Sandra was large enough not only to have a landing strip, but a company of artillery, "C" Company, 1/21 Artillery.3 I was walking along on the trail in my usual mindless, carefree state, when I noticed that I was passing under the barrel of a 105 mm. howitzer. "Wow!" I thought, "that's pretty impressive when you stand underneath it." All of a sudden, without the slightest warning, BAM! My left ear started to ring. It sounded like a high pitch whistle, rather like old jet engines used to make when they were warming up on the runway. This ringing never went away, and I still hear this minute sound of Vietnam even as I am writing this. It's called "tinnitus." I hear three rings: one from a tank that fired on LZ Geronimo, one from this artillery piece, and one from passing right next to a door gunner's firing machine gun when we returned to Đại Đồng. After awhile the brain simply cuts consciousness to the noise until you happen to think about it. It is just one of those things that almost every veteran in the combat arms has, and has had to learn to live with.

I continued down the path and through my ringing ear I could hear some men in the bunker in front of me singing the well known song, "Gary Owen."

Garry Owen

A battalion of the 7th Cavalry was sharing LZ Sharon with us. I stopped and listened to a veteran recounting the traditions of that famous unit to the new guys that had just come in recently. The tune, as well as the man it honors, is Irish. It is little known that the U. S. Cavalry was, after the Civil War, about 90% Irish. The officers were survivors of the late war complemented by an odd band of foreign adventurers, out to experience both the military and the Wild West. The reader may recall that the 7th Cavalry regiment was the unit commanded by the notoriously foolhardy Gen. Armstrong Custer. It would be remiss for me not to humbly point out to the naive reader that this unit is most famous for having been completely rubbed out at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. The only survivors were a Crow Indian scout who had the good fortune to be dressed in Indian regalia, and a horse named "Comanche." My own unit, the 8th Cavalry had been made up of ’49ers from the gold rush days, who deserted in droves when they discovered that the Army was not hospitable to free and independent spirits.4 I knew nothing of this at the time, so I lamented the fact that we had no tradition to pass on, even a tradition of total annihilation.

1 "The 1st Bn, 8th Cav, operated in the Bong son Plain until May when it provided security for LZ Geronimo. The battalion assumed the entire Bong Son Plain AO on June 23 and remained there until August 2 when the command post moved to LZ Sandra to initiate operation in the An Lao Valley. The Jumping Mustangs returned to Bong Son and LZ Santana 17 days later." (No Author,) 1st Air Cavalry Division: Memoirs of the First Team, Vietnam, August 1965-December 1969 (Turner Publishing Company, Jan 1, 1995) 288a.

2 "LZ Sandra is a small helicopter refueling depot about 2 miles east of Highway 1 at the base of the Phu Cat mountain range. It was established as an emergency landing site by the Cav as it moved from An Khê to the coastal plains. It serves the Cav traffic flying from both LZ English and the port city of Qui Nhon. I have heard the older pilots talk of getting caught out in bad weather and having to logger out, meaning lay over in the aircraft, at LZ Sandra." Tom A. Johnson, To the Limit: An Air Cav Huey Pilot in Vietnam (Washington: Potomac Books, Inc., 2006) Chapter 4.

3 See the extensive list of Fire Bases and LZs collected by Bill Kindred (s. v. "FB Sandra" [14.641390 108.955681 BS803193 {6738-2}]) mainly from, Michael P. Kelley, Where We Were in Vietnam: A Comprehensive Guide to the Firebases, Military Installations and Naval Vessels of the Vietnam War, 1945-1975 ( Hellgate Press, June 1, 2002).

4 "These troops were composed chiefly of men enlisted on the Pacific Coast, and included many of the class styled "Forty-niners"; men who had passed months or years in the mines and were typical specimens of the roving order of citizens. Many of them were wild characters who enlisted in the same spirit of adventure which led them to the frontier, and who could not generally adapt themselves to the restraints of a military life. Many desertions occurred; the percentage to the end of the year 1867, being 41.8." Lt. Charles M. O’Connor (Adjutant, 8th Cav.), "The Eighth Regiment of Cavalry," in Theodore F. Rodenbough and William L. Haskin, The Army of the United States (New York: Maynard, Merrill, & Co., 1896) 268.

LZ Sandra — its position is shown on the map, LZ Sandra, LZ Mustang, and the An Lão Valley.

Bong Song — see the map, Bồng Sơn, the An Lão Valley, and Tam Quan.

An Khê — for maps, see, An Khê and Vicinity, An Khê (Camp Radcliff), Detailed.