A Minnesota PBS Initiative

Good Afternoon Vietnam - My First Afternoon There

May 2017  G. Wilhelm

It was a clear sunny day in May 1968, and I was on a large commercial airplane chartered from Continental Airlines by the U.S government. I could look out the window and see a coral reef below in the ocean near the coast of South Vietnam. I had never before been outside the U.S much less seen a coral reef. I took a picture of it from the airplane window; it would be many months before I took another picture. All the other seats on the airplane were filled with military people in uniform.

I was a young civilian engineer working for Univac, the St. Paul based computer company. The plan was for Univac to have two engineers on site with the system; the second engineer was to come in two weeks. No one else from my part of Univac had previously gone to Vietnam and been available to tell me what to expect. Although it wasn't my first choice, I had agreed to go there because I had heard so much about it... pro and con... and I was curious to see it for myself.

In preparation, the company had me take many shots... for cholera, plague, yellow fever, typhoid, etc. 

Yellowish-orange immunization records.

I had spent many months training with the newly developed electronic intelligence (Elint) system, using a Univac computer to analyze Elint data in minutes rather than days or weeks, as with previous, manual systems. Elint data was collected by our reconnaissance planes flying near enemy weapon systems. They would come back from their mission with information on tapes that required analysis. After analysis we would know which enemy weapon systems were out there and exactly where they were located. The extent of my preparation was this system familiarization and the long list of immunizations. I was dressed as if I were going to my engineering job back in the U.S. wearing a blue suit, white shirt, and tie.

As I approached the door, I thought I was standing in front of a hot oven.  It was early afternoon in May, and the heat and humidity were unbearable... I really could not believe life could exist in conditions like this.

So now I was on my way to MAG 11 (Marine Air Group 11) located in DaNang, South Vietnam. The Elint system in two vans each the size of a one car garage was on its way too... in a separate cargo plane. Two large vans were needed because computer equipment was much larger then, than it is today. This had been a long journey:  a 45 minute refueling stop in Hawaii, another stop in Okinawa for hours while the airplane was repaired and test flown, but now we were almost there.

We came in at high altitude, dived toward the DaNang airport, and made what seemed like a high speed landing. As we went down the runway, I looked out the window and saw warplanes in revetments (earth or concrete to separate one airplane from another in case one was hit by an incoming rocket and exploded) flash by; many were camouflaged, and my impression was that the whole place looked very ominous.

A village with people on the dirt road, mountain rising up in the background.
Small Asian children standing on the other side of a chainlink fence.

We taxied up to a ramshackled wooden building with some wooden fenced areas out in front. In one of these fenced-in areas were troops anxiously waiting to get on our plane to go home. The pilot turned off the engines; steps were rolled up to the plane, and the flight attendants opened the doors...good afternoon Vietnam. We were instructed to deplane quickly. As I approached the door, I thought I was standing in front of a hot oven.

It was early afternoon in May, and the heat and humidity were unbearable... the place didn't smell very good either. I really could not believe life could exist in conditions like this. I think I was almost in a state of shock... this was going to be really bad.  My picture of the coral reef was the last picture I would take for months because I really didn't think I would ever want to remember anything I was seeing. 

When the passengers were all on the tarmac, an army sergeant greeted us: "Ok Army over here, Air Force over there, and Marines in this area." There I stood in my blue suit, white shirt, and tie. I decided I better go with the Marines to find MAG 11. 

We climbed into the back of a "six-by" open truck, which took us away. Although a few civilian airplanes did come into DaNang airport, it was basically a huge military base and one of the busiest airports in the world at that time. On one side of the runways were the Marines, a Navy recon group, the bomb storage area, and a refugee village, which was referred to as Dogpatch even in U.S. newspapers. On the other side was the Air Force, a CIA transportation/supply group known as Air America, and South Vietnamese military units and officials.

It was already clear to me that no matter how much I had seen on TV, movies, or read; until I was actually present to begin to see, hear, smell, and feel war, I really did not have any understanding of it.

Eventually the truck arrived at the MAG 11 living area. It was totally fenced in and enclosed with razor concertina wire.  Just inside the gate was a sign with a number indicating the current condition: 4 was no activity, 3 was on alert, 2 was attack imminent, and 1 for under attack. When I arrived the number was 4. Once inside the gate, I went to the MAG 11 headquarters building to check in. I was immediately given a steel helmet, a bullet proof (flack) jacket, and a gas mask to go with my blue suit, white shirt, and necktie.

I was then assigned a bunk in a small screened-in hut in the officer quarters area. There were four people in each hut.  No running water, but there was a communal water faucet outside for every few huts. The huts had limited electricity.  There was an open air urinal, and a screened in toilet area.  There was also one communal shower for all the officers. The enlisted men lived in an adjacent living area in the same size screened in huts; however there were more enlisted people in each hut... I think 12 instead of 4. 

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There were a few enclosed huts with air conditioning, but only for pilots, who often had to fly at night. I was given mosquito netting to set up over my bunk at night, to avoid getting malaria. The alternative was to have a window fan attached to the foot of your bunk to blow on you all night in order to keep the mosquitoes away. I had not brought a window fan with me, so I had to use the netting for awhile.

Another essential was a small box with a light bulb inside. It was necessary to put shoes and clothes inside this box at night. This prevented mold and mildew from growing on your shoes and clothes during the night. If this box was not used, green fuzz would grow during a single night. There were cockroaches... big ones. One of my new roommates joked "If you throw your boot at the cockroaches, they throw it back at you."

Later in the afternoon, I was given military fatigue's to wear in order to blend in with the Marines; because enemy snipers occasionally infiltrated Dogpatch and fired into our area. I had an equivalent military rank of major and civilian insignia to wear, but no weapon. I was instructed to take one malaria pill per week and salt tablets every day. 

When darkness came, the sky came alive with planes circling the base and dropping flares suspended from parachutes to light up areas on the periphery of the base. There were C 130 gunships circling also, and periodically they would turn their GAU gattling guns on in order to fire at potential enemy near the base. These guns were very noisy... reminding me of the sound of a high powered racing car engine during a race.

There would be a solid red line from the plane to the target on the ground caused by the tracer bullets from the gun. These sights and sounds were surreal, but by this time I was exhausted, went to sleep, and slept through the night. The next day I thought I heard thunder, but the sky was clear. One of the Marines informed me, "no that was a B52 bombing strike nearby... code named an arclight."


It was not until the middle of my third night in DaNang that I experienced my first enemy attack. The sirens went off, someone was yelling "INCOMING" over a loudspeaker system, and then loud "crack, crack, crack" sounds as the rockets came in, and exploded spraying white-hot pieces of shrapnel through the air... and through anything they hit. What had I gotten myself into? 

It was already clear to me that no matter how much I had seen on TV, movies, or read; until I was actually present to begin to see, hear, smell, and feel war, I really did not have any understanding of it.

I did not know then that I would not make it back to the USA until late 1969.

Biographical Details

Primary Location During Vietnam: Da Nang, Vietnam Vietnam location marker

Story Subject: Civilian

Story Themes: 1968, Civilian, Civilians in Vietnam, Da Nang, Dogpatch, First Impressions, Gary Wilhelm, Immunizations, Maple Grove, Terrain, Watch

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