USS Hunterdon County:
I received orders to relieve a member of COMSEC Team 706A that was embarked on the USS Hunterdon County (LST-838), then located in the Gulf of Thailand near Ha Tien, the border town between South Vietnam and Cambodia.
To reach Ha Tien, I had to fly to Saigon and then wait for further transportation. I spent the night at the Lei Li Hotel where I had stayed on a previous trip through Saigon. The next day I remember waiting on the hot tarmac at Tan Son Nhat airfield with a couple of other fellows and being surprised when a CH-34 Chocktaw helicopter landed a few feet away and a flight crewman jumped out and motioned for us to get onboard. The thing looked like a beast from the Korean War era, and as I strapped myself into the jump seats inside the cargo compartment, I was a little nervous. This would be my first helo ride. After I received a shouted answer that the helo was indeed going to Ha Tien, I settled back and peered out the open door as we lifted off the runway. The view was spectacular and for the next couple of hours I alternated from praying that the helo stay way above the jungle canopy below or get lower so that we wouldn’t have so far to go when we crashed. Just west of Saigon the jungle looked one minute like a lush green carpet, and then like the surface of the moon, with the craters from artillery or bomb strikes and areas made barren by Agent Orange defoliants.
The helo made a couple of stops as we traveled southwest across the Mekong River delta. As we approached Ha Tien the helo descended and circled a small floating platform in the river below. When we landed the aircrewman announced that this was Ha Tien, so I jumped off with my seabag and walked to a small building at the edge of the barge. With a roar the helo took off and headed out into the Gulf of Thailand, as I asked the person inside the building how I was supposed to get to the Hunterdon County. The fellow replied that I should have stayed on the helo, because the next stop was the ship. I said “shit” and he said I would now get to spend the night in lovely Ha Tien and try and catch a ride out to the LST in the morning on a PBR that was scheduled for some maintenance on the ship. The rest of the small base was on the land a couple of hundred yards away. A small boat soon came and picked me up and I was then delivered to the transient hootch, a screened-in building with a couple of bunks. There was a small chow hall where I had dinner.
After eating, a fellow offered to give me the grand tour of the base. He took me into a room where a large bank of equipment was arrayed along a wall, with a fellow sitting and staring at the blinking lights. It was explained that the guy was monitoring an array of sensors that were planted in the ground at intervals up along the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, and that when something passed between the sensors it would trigger an alarm bell. The technician would then attempt to discriminate between animals or persons, and if the sensors were particularly active in one sector, he would pass that information on to units patrolling the area. I had never heard of this surveillance technique and am not sure to this day how widely it was used in Vietnam.
That night I experienced for the first time what it was like sleeping in a jungle environment. I could not believe the noise that was generated by the insects, nor could I believe the size of some of those insects. There was what looked like centipedes of some sort crawling up the outside of the screens, and those suckers were huge! Damn – like I was going to sleep with those things lurking around. I spent the night listening to the cacophony of sounds and could not wait for the dawn to arrive.
I reported to the base command center after breakfast and was told that a South Vietnamese PBR was headed out to the Hunterdon County for repairs and I was to meet the boat commander at the dock, and he would see that I got aboard. The South Vietnamese ensign smiled and returned my salute, motioned me onto the PBR and we were shortly underway. I remember seeing the ferry slip on the eastern side of the river and the small village on the west bank where a South Vietnamese PCF, or swift boat, was docked as we made our way out through the fishing nets and sampans to the open water of the Gulf of Thailand. It took no more than thirty minutes to reach the LST which was equipped with a complete boat repair shop in its bowels. There was a large boom that could hoist the PBRs out of the water and into the hold where fiberglass could be repaired, engines could be maintained, and supplies could be replenished. The deck of the vessel was also used as a helicopter landing pad for Navy Seawolf and Army Cobra gunships, and it could rearm and refuel those craft as well.
I thanked the PBR ensign for the lift and climbed the ladder to the deck of the Hunterdon County. The fellow I was relieving met me and escorted me to the berthing area where I stowed my seabag. He then took me up to the small monitoring space up in the superstructure which it turns out was the commanding officer’s “lounge” consisting of a leather covered couch and small desk upon which sat a typewriter next to a UHF/VHF radio receiver. The space was about 4 x 10 feet and would be my home for the next two weeks as I monitored the comms of the Seawolves and PBRs in the area. I received a good taste of what it was like to be part of the “brown water navy” for a few days, including the saltwater showers and the preferable “Hollywood showers” – soaping down on the deck during the monsoon rains each day.
One day during my stay, the ship pulled up anchor and sailed a few miles up the coast to rendezvous with a Navy supply vessel. Some of the crew said the CO was out of ice cream but I suspect there was more to the trip than that. Another day, all of the metal screens bordering the main deck were raised to form a contained space where for an hour each crewman was given a ration of two cans of beer. It was a nice break from the daily routine. Just a few months earlier, in May 1970, the Hunterdon County had been the first US vessel to cross the Cambodian border during President Nixon’s ordered invasion. At the height of the fighting during that period, the ship refueled and rearmed up to 40 Seawolf and Cobra helicopters a day in support of the Vietnamese troops and US advisors. Since arriving in Vietnam in 1967 the crew had executed 5,000 consecutive accident-free helicopter landings on its deck. In September 1968 the Hunterdon County was ambushed near Ben Tre and was hit by B-40 rocket fire and recoilless rifles from the shore, resulting in extensive damage. Two crewmen were killed and 25 wounded in the attack.
I departed the Hunterdon County via a Chinook CH-46, a big two engine helicopter, in late October 1970. I remember looking out the back ramp of the helo as we climbed from the flight deck of the LST and seeing the beautiful blues and greens of the Gulf of Thailand and the Vietnam coastline. It was a short 30-minute trip to Long Xuyen where the helo landed on top of a rice paddy dike that served as a landing strip. I had to wait there for a C-47 aircraft that would take me to Saigon. When I hopped off the helo and entered a small building I noticed an old friend from Rota, Spain, Dan Sprehn, sitting on a bench. He had been in-country just a couple of weeks from his duty station on Guam and was part of another COMSEC team. Dan was also waiting for the C-47 to Saigon and was scheduled to depart for Guam late the following day. We sat there in the shade of the metal building and caught up on each other’s activities since we left Spain a year earlier. Soon the C-47 landed on the dike and rolled to a stop in front of us. The door opened and we climbed the steps and strapped in for the short trip to Tan Son Nhat Airfield. Dan and I got together for a few beers that evening in Saigon and continued our reminiscences about our time together in Spain.
Featured photo: CTR2 Fred Bumgarner and CTR2 Terry McDaniel
Written by Fred Bumgarner