Vietnam Vet Recalls Battlefield Surveying Experience
It was the 1960s, and I was probably no different than the average American male, both then and now, in trying to find my path as a young adult. Reflectively, I was absorbed way too much in self, on competing to get to the top of my surveying-mapping career path, but especially on being unable to fathom what being an American really meant in the big-picture sense.
My dad had been a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot in WWII, flying 29 bombing missions over Germany, crash landing in England after being hit on the way back from one of them and being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He talked little about this. That family knowledge may have subconsciously influenced me about the very unpopular Vietnam War. At age 23, I found myself literally in the grips of two conflicts – the war itself and the very personal choice of whether I was going to remain an American or become a Canadian. Looking back now, at the age of 75, things seem pretty crystal clear; some might go so far as to call it “wisdom.”
Putting Down Roots
My parents grew up on Iowa farms, and when Dad got home from the war, he decided nearby Cedar Rapids, Iowa did not afford the career potential he needed. He moved us to southern California to receive training and open his own business doing TV and radio repair. I was nine years old and instantly missed the semi-rural life of hunting and fishing that he had exposed me to at the age of five. When I graduated from high school, as the oldest of five siblings, I had had enough of the frenzy of big city life and signed up for an associate’s degree technical forestry program in a very rural northeastern California town called Susanville, with the nearest noteworthy city of any size being Reno, Nev.
Lassen Junior College had about 185 students and was so small, it was located on the local high school grounds. The curriculum had mandatory courses like “forest mapping” and “plane surveying.” Surveying hooked me along with the allure of working outdoors.
Beginning a Mapping Career
The U.S. Geological Survey, Topo-graphic Division, Western Mapping Center headquartered in Menlo Park, Calif., was recruiting field party chiefs for their branch of field surveys to perform geodetic surveying and field mapping in the western states. They invited six of my classmates in for an interview, but not me despite my having one of the highest grade point averages of the class. I asked to be included in the interviews. We were all hired.
At the beginning, each of us was assigned a 3/4-ton truck with an insulated utility box on the back to cushion delicate instruments. The seven of us were sent to La Grande, Ore., for training on triangulation (using Wild T-2 theodolites), determining fourth order elevations for vertical control of aerial photography using planetable alidades (the day-to-day work horse), and especially how to motivationally climb a 75-foot conifer, swaying in the wind, to put a target in it to be intersected from known triangulation stations. That was the summer of 1963.
My second, third, and fourth USGS field assignments were in Chewelah, Wash., Ashton, Idaho, and Battle Mountain, Nev., performing triangulation and vertical elevations determination. On the latter project, transportation for the eight of us, with locally-hired field assistants, was mostly by contract helicopter so that we could hover above the desert floor and pick out distinct image points in look-alike sage brush patterns to swoop down on, then pinhole the location on 3D aerial photography. Once “picture points” were positively photo-identified, we would triangulate the position and elevation from known USC&GS or USGS triangulation station and/or bench mark monuments.
It became evident that this career path would require a four-year engineering degree to ascend the USGS hierarchy. So, in 1965, I returned to college for engineering. Vietnam was building fast, and I had received my very low draft number from the local Selective Service Office lottery. It was inevitable I would be drafted.
In early 1966, I enlisted in the U.S. Army, which promised me a military operation specialty (MOS) of “surveyor.” The only problem was, it was “construction surveyor.” While spending 16 months in a supply room at Fort Eustis, Va., and occasionally being assigned to construction surveying jobs on other U.S. Army forts, I simultaneously applied for Officer Candidate School and Topographic Surveying School at Fort Belvoir, Va. I was hoping this would delay any Vietnam assignment since my wife was pregnant with our first child.
I got picked for both schools and chose the Topographic Surveying School. I was the scholastic “honor graduate,” was given the new MOS of “topographic surveyor” and was promoted to Specialist E-5 after only 18 months of service. Soon afterward, I was reassigned to Fort Bragg, N.C. to a topographic surveying company. The company, along with its geodetic surveying equipment, was on its way to Germany, the whole 220 surveyor soldiers worth. Our daughter was born there in 1968.
At the time, I thought to myself that I had succeeded in avoiding Vietnam, which was turning more and more violently unpopular with my fellow Americans. Then, to my wife’s and my total shock, I was the only surveyor-soldier pulled out of that company and given orders to Vietnam.
Surveying “In Country”
The 66th Engineer Company (Topo-graphic) to which I was assigned in Long Binh, Vietnam, was one of the only two U.S. Army geodetic surveying and mapping companies in the whole of Vietnam. We had state-of-the-art equipment including tellureometers that would measure 50 miles via microwave, Wild T-2 and T-3 high-precision Swiss theodolites for achieving second and first order triangulation, trilateration, and traverse, and three-wire levels for third order differential leveling.
Besides personnel with an MOS of topographic surveyor, we had MOS geodesists and air conditioned trucks for them to perform computations of latitude, longitude and elevations based on the field observations we provided them.
Our mission was to provide precise location data for artillery strikes against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnam Army, and to greatly upgrade accuracy and content of old French maps all over southern Vietnam and especially across the massive Mekong Delta.
One of the main pieces of equipment we relied on was the Bilby steel tower. It had an inner tower built on its own separate foundation to support the very touchy, leveled instrument, and an outer tower for the surveyor-soldier to walk on to avoid knocking off level the delicate theodolite. The towers were in 16-foot sections and reached 113-feet-tall when we were done constructing them. The towers afforded rising above the jungle vegetation canopy and a lessening of the effect of earth curvature, so that long lines of sight for geodetic angles could be observed. We would either transport these towers in 6-foot by 6-foot by 16-foot wooden boxes, strapping them to the underside of a Chinook helicopter, or haul them through narrow jungle trails and native villages with a ¾-ton truck that included a .50 caliber machine gun mounted in its bed.
A Period of Adjustment
I got to Vietnam right after the Tet Offensive with rotting enemy bodies still lying along roads. The mental shock of leaving a safe United States of America and being thrust in the middle of a war zone was quite an indescribable adjustment. For a while, one worries about being shot and killed. After about a month, I settled in to focusing on our geodetic surveying mission and not worrying so much about the danger. I always thought one or several of us would be shot building, tearing down, and moving those Bilby towers, or while taking observations on the towers at night. Amazingly, that never happened the year I was there. We were definitely “sitting ducks” for the enemy to shoot at though!
Instead, at the end of August 1968, while I was on leave in Hawaii with my wife and six-month-old daughter, we had a differential leveling crew ambushed at a Mekong Delta location called Bearcat. One of my colleague surveyor-soldiers was shot through the ankle and was sent “back to the world” as we described it. When I returned, and because I was proficient in operating surveying instruments both with the USGS and Army, I was assigned to be one of two instrument operators to go back to Bearcat and double-run a three-wire differential level line that had not been completed because of the ambush.
This time, we had a battalion of Thai infantry soldiers with us for “protection.” Or so we thought! A Viet Cong popped up out of a tunnel in a small village we had passed and hit my colleague and me with one “pop” of a M-79 grenade launcher that he had acquired (a M-79 is a nasty little U.S. weapon and few people hit with it live to tell about it). We were both literally looking through instrument scopes taking three-wire leveling observations.
My colleague was still standing in tall grass, amazed and commenting aloud about being hit in the stomach with grenade fragments (frags). I had been knocked off my feet backwards and was lying on the ground watching blood spurt from a frag wound in the lacerated femoral vein of my left groin. I yelled at my partner to get down because we were now also being shot at with small arms fire.
A “dustoff” Huey medevac chopper was flying overhead searching for another soldier that had been hit, and our staff sergeant platoon leader got in radio contact with him and called him to pick up my colleague and myself. I passed out after two of my surveyor-soldier colleagues hauled me onto a stretcher to the chopper under fire. I went through the near-death experience of the warm white light, calmness and “settling up with God” as I was losing consciousness.
I’m not sure the 66th Engineer Company (Topographic) ever got that level line completed after two ambushes. I was told the Thai infantry soldiers levelled the village from which we were ambushed. War is ruthless.
Recovering and Rebuilding
I woke up in a medevac hospital absolutely dumbfounded to still be alive, with five pints of refrigerated transfusion blood causing me to shiver in 100-degree heat and 100 percent humidity. I never met the ER doctor that put me back together. I never met the gutsy Huey pilot that came in under fire to medevac us. I was told by nurses that I came within eight minutes of bleeding to death and nearly lost my left leg. I was air lifted on a stretcher to Cam Rahn Bay, spent six weeks in a convalescent hospital, was awarded the Purple Heart and Army Commendation Medals, and was promoted to “hard stripe” sergeant as I was sent back to my unit in Long Binh to serve out my tour until February 1969.
Meanwhile, my colleague had been medevaced to Japan for exploratory stomach surgery. I have never seen him or heard from him since the ambush, but I have tried to find him. (If any reader knows the whereabouts of Marshall Mays, originally from Virginia, I would highly value learning this.) As I was about to leave Vietnam, the Army offered me a staff sergeant E-6 promotion to re-enlist, which I emphatically turned down.
“Back in the world,” I returned to work as a party chief for the USGS on numerous field projects doing mostly geodetic control surveys, often via helicopter support in very rugged terrain not readily accessible by 4x4 truck.
A bachelor of science engineering degree in surveying and photogrammetry, the only such curriculum offered in the west at that time, enticed me back to college using the G.I. Bill. I graduated from CSU Fresno, and moved into an office position at the Denver Federal Center.
Today, I use all of that experience in the federal government, the military, and now in the private sector as a licensed professional land surveyor and licensed real estate broker, marking boundaries, mapping, and selling rural and remote properties in “The Last Best Place” – Montana.
Even though I likely would never have joined the military had there been no draft, I savor my military time spent as a surveyor-soldier, which gave me vivid top-of-mind awareness of what being a committed American demands. I strongly believe we would be more unified as a nation if young people were required to serve two years in either a civilian service dealing with floods, hurricanes, wildfires and the like, or in the military.
Service becomes part of your spirit. For me, it carried over into my career and, in the 1980s, I was elected and served the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM) for five years including as president of the American Cartographic Association (ACA), one of its member organizations. In Montana and northeastern California, I’ve been a U.S. Forest Service volunteer on numerous wildfires, and have been one of the leaders in Montana Quilts of Valor, providing personalized quilts - made by male and female members alike - for wounded service members from WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.