Christmas Eve in War Zone D, Vietnam
Meloy, Guy S., Army
Christinas Eve 1970 was just another day and night at most of the fire bases throughout Vietnam. Fire Base Jupiter, like many fire bases, was isolated, hot, sticky, itchy, smelly, wet and muddy in monsoon seasons and with constant dust in between, totally dependent on helicopters for resupply, armed to the teeth and organized for defense in every direction. The closest U.S. unit was almost 15 kilometers to the southwest, the nearest road and the Vietnamese village of Dinh Quan were a dozen miles to the south, and the distance from our battalion rear and brigade headquarters at Bien Hoa was almost an hour's helicopter flight.
Constructed from scratch in thick triplecanopy jungle less than a month earlier by the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), Jupiter was home base for the battalion's command group, which consisted of myself, the command sergeant major, a half-dozen radio operators, and the S-2 (intelligence) and S-3 (operations and plans) staffs. It was also home for an S-I (personnel) NCO, several members from the S-4 (logistics) staff, the medical platoon and the battalion surgeon, our chaplain, the communications platoon, a Pathfinder detachment, an engineer water purification unit and a small battalion mess section. Jupiter was defended by a six-gun battery of 105 mm howitzers reinforced by a three-gun half battery of 155 mm howitzers, the 81 mm mortar and PPS-4 radar platoons from combat support company, and a tub-mounted Quad-50 provided by an air defense battalion. One of four rifle companies rotated to the fire base every fifth day to occupy a perimeter of fighting positions consisting of 4-feet-by-8-feet culvert bunkers protected by three-deep sandbags. Three concentric strands of triple concertina barbed wire and an almost continuous belt of claymore mines surrounded the perimeter. Fifty-five-gallon drums cut in half served as open-air latrines.
For the past three months, the 1st of the 12th had been operating in the northeast region of War Zone D searching for (and finding) enemy supply trails and weapons, ammunition and food caches. On one occasion, we uncovered, captured and rescued an impressed forced labor camp of emaciated civilians of all ages, from infants to grandmothers and grandfathers. There were many brief firefights, an hour or less, but only a few were serious enough to write home about, unless you were one of the infantry "grunts" being shot at. But every fight was always long enough to get your undivided attention and say a "thank you" for our supporting artillery and the courage and skill of the pilots and crews flying the aerial attack helicopters and the medevac Dustoffs.
Airmobile battalions were organized with four rifle companies that, at this stage of the war, often operated with considerable independence, sometimes many kilometers apart, but always within range of our direct support artillery. Except in those situations where we "piled on" for a heavy fight, each of the rifle companies operated in the jungle for about a 15-day period, then every fifth day one company would be airlifted back to the fire base for haircuts, cold 55-gallon barrel showers, a daily hot meal, clean clothes and an opportunity for direct sunlight to fight jungle rot. After five days of a welcome break (to the grunt), the rifle company defending the fire base would make an airmobile assault back into the jungle for its next 15-day mission, and another company would be extracted from the jungle and airlifted to the fire base for its turn to "relax" and defend for the next five days.
The best way to describe a fire base at night is that it is very, very quiet and very, very dark-no sounds or lights of any kind in any direction. Because the Viet Cong most often attacked fire bases at night, the troops were cocked, ready, alert and 100 percent business. To the uninitiated or to new replacements of any rank, coming to an isolated infantry fire base for the first time could be quite intimidating, almost eerie, and yet in an odd way, also impressive. …