Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Vietnam Newbie

Or is that spelled "Newby"? In any case, it was the common word to describe a replacement who had just arrived in a unit. Another common name for a replacement newly arrived was "FNG" which stood for "Fuggin' New Guy". When first arrived, the Newbie is a stranger in a unit of people who have already been together for a while. The name "Newbie" sticks to the replacement like glue; sometimes it takes old timers in the unit weeks or months before they will call you by your own name. Some of the old guys will call you Newbie for the remainder of their tours, because of the simple fact that you arrived after them and that's what they will remember about you. In other cases, you might remain a Newbie only until the next Newbie arrives to relieve you of that status.

In my own experience, I extended my original tour of 12 months for another six. I stayed in my unit long enough to see all the old timers go home; even guys who came over within a week or so of my own arrival had gone home. There were only two other men in my unit who had also extended that had more time there than I did. What happens is you build up this form of seniority in the unit, only to have it become mostly meaningless because none of the former old timers are there to appreciate it. Most of the replacements who have come along after you in the year-plus period think of you as being in a completely different category because you extended.

When I extended it was for the same job in the same unit. As I recall, when you extended you could do it for a specific unit, so if a soldier wanted to change at that time he could. An example would be to transfer from a grunt unit to one in the rear, which was often done. I was already in the rear and there wouldn't have been any advantage for me to go to another outfit. I don't recall the details, but there was a time when there was some uncertainty about my unit, so a friend of mine (who extended for longer than I did) and I stopped by an artillery outfit to see about a transfer (5th Battalion, 42nd Field Artillery, Camp William Price, RVN) and they didn't need anyone at the time. As it turned out, they closed down the 5/42 FA long before my unit, which didn't close out until a few months after I left.

We all are old enough to realize that changes occur in our lives and in our circumstances all the time, but in warfare, this constant change seems to be accellerated. The idea of warfare is to achieve victory over the other side, so situations, weapons, venues, personnel, are all changing all the time. The kind of static warfare that developed during most of the early part of WW1 was somewhat of an anomoly to this dynamic, and that's one of the things that frustrated the leaders. In that kind of static warfare, nothing is being accomplished; the goal of victory cannot be achieved with a constant status quo. That's why initiative in combat is so important. Conversely, the losing side must yield to this dynamic too, and falls back or retreats, which certainly is a form of change.

My unit of assignment was the Headquarters Detachment of the 79th Maintenance Battalion (General Support). At that time most "maintenance" units were part of the ordnance corps. In addition to our headquarters unit, we had the 632nd Heavy Equipment Maintenance (HEM) Company, which overhauled tracked and wheeled vehicles; the 147th Light Equipment Maintenance (LEM) Company (which was signal corp, not ordnance), which overhauled communications, crypto, and other electronic gear; the 567th Transportation Company (Terminal Service), a transportation corps unit, which provided most of the organic transportation for the mission of the battalion; a provisional unit called the Long Binh Collection, Classification, and Salvage (CC&S) Company, which did all the dirty work, operating wash racks, stevedoring services, and classification functions to determine serviceability of equipment. At one time, we also had the 59th Signal Company, which provided tech supply signal corps service, and at another time we had the 548th Maintenance Company (Direct Support), an ordnance corps unit that was approximately division-level echelon ordnance service. We didn't have them long; they got shipped out to provide support for Operation Lam Son 719 in early 1971 and we never saw them again. We also had a couple of provisional ordnance functions that were attached directly to our battalion headquarters. One of these was the Multiple Items Processing Point (MIPP) which was an ordnance function that received and processed small arms from departing units. The other was the Single Items Processing Point which was also an ordnance function that concentrated on inspection and classification of large items, mostly wheeled and tracked vehicles.

While I was in the same unit in Vietnam for 19 months, there was a constant undercurrent of change, and during my time the moving force in this change was the winding down of the war. My unit's mission was to receive, classify, repair and redistribute weapons, vehicles and other items of equipment from Army units that were standing down for deployment out of Vietnam or being closed out. At the time, they called this a "retrograde movement of materiel" and the mission was called the Keystone Project. I got there right after the invasion of Cambodia in May-June, 1970. That was the last major offensive that was conducted by the US, and it bought us about a year and a half of relative quiet from the other side while they rebuilt in the south. Fortunately, this was paralleled my time in country. Not too long after I left, the big Easter Offensive of 1972 started and all hell broke loose again. There was a big offensive in the north in February, 1971, but that was billed as a South Vietnamese effort (as a kind of demonstration of progress made with Nixon's "Vietnamization" of the war). Although the South Vietnamese were nominally in the lead, they were heavily supported by US units. The offensive was called "Operation Lam Son 719" and it was a dismal failure, with the North Vietnamese giving the South a severe whipping. US Army units involved in support of this operation were heavily punished, especially aviation units. When they got chased out of Laos by the North, South Vietnamese units fled to the rear so fast that the supporting US Army units on the ground that had been in what was the rear found themselves now on the "front".

Anyway, during my time in the unit we had a lot of change occur in our administrative arrangements, such as changing billets and company areas three times, winding up back in the same buildings we started out in. Of course, there's always the constant rotation of people in and out. In the latter part of my tour, they moved my office from being within the battalion headquarters, down to the company area and my whole working atmosphere was changed (mainly for the better). Also toward the end of my tour, the stand-down in Vietnam had been accellerated and we had all kinds of people added as overstrength in my unit. When a unit stood down and left Vietnam, anyone having over five months of time left in country had to stay and was reassigned to another unit within Vietnam. It just got to the point that there were all kinds of people left over (or behind) and fewer and fewer remaining units to assign them to. The Army should have used some common sense about this, and just sent them home, too. However, sometimes having people on the books in military organizations isn't about any practical duty performance but rather being able to show an enemy that strength on the books exists. When we were winding the war down in Vietnam, our government was engaged with the North Vietnamese in the Peace Talks in Paris. We didn't want to withdraw those people too soon, or we would have been giving up part of a bargaining chip, that is, troops on the ground in country.

We would also have periods of time when the installation would go from a low to a high alert condition, so we had to pitch in with guard duty during these times. It was kind of a yo-yo deal, probably designed by the enemy to keep us on our toes, a form of harassment. When we had to mount guard, all of our other duties and functions became secondary.

My military service was a very modest contribution that probably made no difference in the overall effort.

My unit, the 79th Maintenance Battalion, started out in WW2 as the 79th Ordnance Battalion organized at the Santa Anita Racetrack in California. Santa Anita was also used to consolidate Japanese internees before shipment to the interior of the country, and at one time was used to confine Italian prisoners of war.

The ordnance corps of the US Army has supervision over matters concerning small arms, ammunition, explosives, vehicles, artillery, and all sorts of other weapons. The flaming bomb is the symbol of the ordnance corps. Sometime before or during the Vietnam era, ammunition activities (units) continued to use the word "ordnance" in their titles. Units that concerned their activities with other ordnance corps items like vehicles took the names of "maintenance" for some reason, even though these activities were still ordnance corps responsibility. There never was a "maintenance corps" of the US Army.

I don't know if the name "maintenance" is still used, but I've seen all kinds of other names used for service support units, like "sustaining" and the like.

During the Iraq war era, the 79th Ordnance Battalion was re-activated and now uses the term "ordnance". The last I heard, the battalion was reconstituted as an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) outfit. The current 79th Ordnance battalion shares the same historical lineage as my unit in Vietnam, and back through Korea and WW2. For purposes of tradition, the US Army likes to use the same unit numbers repeatedly and keep them in lineage series. In actuality, whenever a unit is inactivated for a number of years and then reactivated again for the next war, it is a completely different unit with a different mission, different allowance for equipment, completely different personnel, etc. The historical lineage is basically just on paper; it's not like old British regiments, for example, that would remain in service continually for decades or even centuries, with an uninterrupted lineage and history.


  1. I was assigned to the 79th, from July '71 to April '72. I was the battalion illustrator... painted signs until the unit stood down. The 79th was under the Siagon Support Command, then the 29th General Support Group, and at the very end (my departure) the 4th Transportation Command.
    I lived in a barracks next to the HHD day room. There was a moveie therter between our building and the next... but they tore it down and revealed all that had been living there.
    Norman Paul Stromdahl

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  2. Norman, I remember you well. Since I was the detachment clerk, I knew everyone in the unit. My room was right next to the movie theater; even if I didn't go to the movie, I heard it. Recently, I've heard from Michael Kreft, I'm sure you remember him. He was with you toward the end after I went home.