Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Oakland Army Base - Gateway to the Vietnam War

One of the way-stations in my Army life was Oakland Army Base, the main entry portal to Vietnam.

During the early phases of the Vietnam war, US Army forces typically were deployed to Vietnam as whole units. Men who had trained together deployed at the same time and served there in the same unit. These troop movements originated in different locations throughout the US, and some of them deployed through Oakland Army Base. Many of these early deployments were by ship, but some were by air.

Later in the war, most of the original units remained in place and were filled out with replacement troops from the US as needed. These replacements were sent through Fort Lewis, Washington, and Oakland Army Base for a time, with Oakland being the main replacement personnel center. Toward the end of the war, replacements moved only through Oakland.

In my own experience, I went to Vietnam twice. The first time I went as a newby replacement, a very lonely experience. My orders assigned me to the US Army Overseas Replacement Station, Oakland, California with a reporting date of 7 July 1970. I was there in a sea of other replacements, most of whom didn't know each other. The infantry war was winding down, but the support war was still going strong. Lots of the replacements were 13A10 "junior cannon cockers" going over for duty in the artillery. Barracks life in a transient station is chaotic at best and zoo-like at its worst. The transient billets were equipped with bunks only; no lockers. About the only way to secure your gear was to tie it to a bunk rail and hope it would be there when you got back. Every day, there were two or three formations in the large parking lot out behind the long row of concrete barracks buildings. At these formations, they would read names off of a list. Those names that were read off were manifested on a flight. At that time, those so manifested would get their gear and be marched away to a holding area pending shipment to Travis Air Force Base to get on a flight to Vietnam.

If your name wasn't read for the latest flight manifest, cadre would comb through the remaining transient personnel looking for people to put on various details around the base. It didn't take me long to determine that the back of the formation was the best place to be, since the cadre took their victims from the front ranks. Those not chosen for some chickens**t detail were dismissed and could melt away and do whatever they wanted to until the next formation time.

It was in one of these formations that I met a replacement who was carrying around a clipboard. I asked him what that was for, and he told me he used it as a prop to avoid work details. If he was selected in ranks for a detail, he would tell the cadre member that he was already on a detail for "post engineers." After the formations were over, he would wander around post with his clipboard. If anyone stopped him and asked him what he was doing, he would flash the clipboard and tell them he was checking for broken windows (or burned-out light bulbs) for post engineers. It seemed to be working for him.

Once a replacement was manifested on a flight, they were isolated in a warehouse that was used as a holding area. Once in this building, no one was allowed to leave until the buses arrived from Travis AFB. This was a huge warehouse, filled with bunks stacked three deep for as far as you could see.

There were certain practical and psychological limitations that were in practice at Oakland Army Base for dealing with transient personnel. After reporting in for oversea movement, replacment personnel were restricted to base. Apparently, it was felt that some people might disappear at this late stage in their deployment to Vietnam in a kind of last minute change of heart or mind. No photography was permitted in the replacement center. My guess about this is that they used the old story about matters concerning troop movements being secret, when in fact what they were concerned about was the negative impact on morale that might occur if such photos got out. There was also the problem with media getting ahold of such pictures during those turbulent times when military involvement in Vietnam was controversial.

The second time I went to Vietnam, I had extended my tour for six months beyond the initial year. In exchange for doing this, the army gave me a free 30 day leave plus travel time to and from my choice of leave site. I left Vietnam on an army charter flight and we landed at McChord AFB, Washington. Those men who were being separated from the army went to the adjacent Fort Lewis for processing and those of us going on leave or on a PCS movement to another station took buses to SeaTac Airport.

After my leave was over, it was time to go back to Vietnam. I don't recall why I did this, but I reported back to Oakland Army Base for return to Vietnam. I had been issued a TR (Travel Request) in Vietnam for my return trip. I could've used the TR to go to any air force base and get transportation back to Vietnam. Instead, I went to Oakland and went through the manifesting process there. Maybe I forgot that I had the TR. In any case, I repeated the experience at Oakland that I had gone through a little over a year previously. I really knew the ropes this time. By going through Oakland, I used up a couple of my remaining days in the army but when I got back to my unit in Vietnam, nobody said anything about the amount of travel time I had taken.

My last experience at Oakland Army Base was quite the opposite of the first two. The third time, I was getting out of the army and going home. After the long flight back from Vietnam, we landed at Travis AFB and were bused to Oakland for a 20 hour administrative session out-processing from the army. I was relieved from active duty and separated from the service on 12 February 1972.

When we first arrived back at Oakland for separation, they deposited us in front of an entrance with an elaborate sign over it that said "Welcome Home." Inside, we entered a mess hall that was open 24 hours a day and served a steak dinner. Since I was sick from food poisoning I got just before leaving Vietnam, I couldn't much enjoy this part of it.

The returnee area was quarantined from the area containing the replacements waiting to go to Vietnam. By this time, however, business had gotten slow since the war was winding down.

Most of the out-processing consisted of paperwork, but we were given (cursory) physical examinations. One of the things we did was go into a quartermaster warehouse and get issued a new AG-344 Class A Army Green uniform for going home. Part of this was getting our combat patch sewed on our right sleeve. When I went into the room where the patches were displayed on the wall, I pointed to the USARV patch, and the warehouseman said, "Sold out. Pick another." Just like that, my service in Vietnam changed command. Well, I looked on the board and noticed that the II Field Force patch was the same shape and colors, so I went home with that on my sleeve.

Through this very portal quite a few men passed that never came back alive. Once started off on such a journey, no one knows how it's going to turn out. It's kinda depressing, but for those who didn't make it back, this was the last they saw of their homeland

Check out the posts below for vintage and contemporary pictures of Oakland Army Base.

3 comments:

  1. My brother and I reported to OORC in March 1967, started the process and they stopped us both. Stating your brothers we can't send both of you one has to go somewhere else. So, big brother said he go first, I somewhat concurred with the decision. On the 3rd day he was gone. I got stuck with guarding a slick sleeve who had went AWOL. I was given a .45 auto w/ammo and had to go everywhere with him. I chose to go to Europe as that is where my ancestors came from. I could have stated stateside, or gone to Panama, Korea, Philippines. It took a week to get orders out. I figured why not travel that is what the service is all about anyway. By the time big brother came back unscathed, I was to short to go. I mustered out in Germany in 1968.

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  2. Stationed Oakland Army Base 1970/1971

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  3. Stationed Oakland Army Base 1970/1971

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