John Carter Letter
47th IPSD Move to LZ Sally, July 1968

The following letter contains John Carter's recollections of the platoon move up to LZ Sally in I Corps 32 years prior. After arriving in-country the platoon spent a month at Bien Hoa Army Base in training/orientation and then relocated to Sally to begin combat operations in support of the 101st Airbrone Division's Second Brigade. Also see Notes, below.

September, 2000

Background: LZ ("Landing Zone") Sally was the headquarters for the second brigade of the 101st Airborne Division. It was located about 10 or 15 miles northwest of the city of Hue and about 15 miles south of the small city of Quang Tri. The camp was a half mile west of the main road (Route 1) that ran along the coast all the way from Saigon to the DMZ. I've been told it was named by the commanding general of the 101st in honor of one of his daughters. The next major base camp to the north near the town of Quang Tri was called LZ Nancy (it was the base camp for the 3rd Brigade, 101st). This camp was named after another of the general's daughters.

Sally was a raised plateau that had fairly good sight lines of the surrounding countryside from all directions. The camp was circular in design with a perimeter road that ran around the circumference of the circle. A 1,500 foot long landing strip ran the diameter of the circle, effectively dividing the camp into two parts. The landing strip was primarily used by helicopters, although small spotter aircraft (Piper Cub type single engine planes) also used the runway on a daily basis. We did have a larger C-130 transport land by mistake one evening. We were all taking bets the next day on whether the C-130 would be able to take off safely before it ran out of runway (as I remember it the C-130 got off safely using the entire runway; although others said it had to be dismantled and trucked out). Overall, the camp was not much larger than a half-mile from one end to the other when we arrived in 1968. (An aerial photo of Sally is on the 47th website – although it was most likely taken after the original group left – since it appears larger than I remember it).

The various units were wedged in between the runway and the perimeter wire. The perimeter was encircled by strands of barbed and razor wire and there were large sand bagged sentry bunkers (about two-stories high) every 100 yards or so along the perimeter line. (Each unit had responsibility for one of the bunkers and we had to have a three-man team stand guard on the bunker every night. We had a rotation schedule so that everyone pulled guard duty once a week or so). The 47th was located on the northeast portion of the camp looking back toward Route 1 and a small village located along the main road.

Generally, the first impression that any one would had upon seeing LZ Sally was the ever looming dust clouds that continually hung over the camp (more about that later). It was a constant losing battle to control the dust – dust clouds lingered overhead at all times – that is except during the monsoon season when it became a gigantic mud hole!

Sally was about 10 miles west of the South China Sea. This part of Vietnam is a coastal plain with generally low growing tropical vegetation and a lot of sand hills. We looked out onto this gently rolling landscape. If you looked further west from LZ Sally, you could see in the distance the mountain ranges (maybe 3,500 to 5,000 feet high) that was home to the Ho Chi Minh trail, the Ashau Valley and beyond them the Laotian border. Many days the mountain tops were obscured by the low lying clouds in the early morning hours.

My Recollections: As I think you know, the 47th spent the first month or so "in country" at Bien Hoa, a large army base and air force base located about 20 miles north of Saigon. Eventually we were ordered to move north to LZ Sally in July 1968. I think there was a sense of anticipation in the platoon that we were finally going north tinged with some trepidation since "going north" signified to us being where the action was and the closest you got in Vietnam to a "front line".

In any case, we went up in waves. An advance party went up about a week ahead of the rest to scout out a suitable site at Sally for the platoon that was large enough to handle the dogs. The advance party then set up the tents, etc. in anticipation of the rest of us coming with the dogs. As I remember it, we flew up a squad at a time to Phu Bai over an elapsed time of about a week. I think I was probably in the second wave consisting of about eight guys along with fourteen dogs for the first two squads.

One of my most memorable recollections in Vietnam occurred on that first trip up north. Our flight was scheduled for late in the afternoon – around 4 or 5 PM. The air force provided a C-130 cargo plane to fly us up to Phu Bai (both a civilian and military airport that served the city of Hue – about 5 or 10 miles south of the city). For some reason our flight was delayed. We had our equipment and the dogs on the ramp ready to load onto the plane – but we had to wait by the plane while they fixed their mechanical problem or whatever the problem was that needed to be addressed. I remember we sought refuge from the hot sun under the shadow from the plane's wing.

Eventually, the pilot came over to us and informed us that in addition to our unit, he would be transporting the body of a young Vietnamese soldier to Hue for burial. We eventually loaded the equipment and dogs on board and went to the front of the aircraft to sit down for the flight. A C-130 is a turbo prop cargo plane that was the workhorse in Vietnam. Seating was a drop-down canvas bench on either side of the plane's fuselage. When we got to the front of the plane, we found the soldiers coffin between us – so that we sat on the canvas benches looking at this coffin all the way to Phu Bai. Accompanying the body was an attractive young Vietnamese girl who was about our age – evidently the soldier's widow. Obviously this was not a good omen for our first trip up to the scene of the action! We had become the reluctant guests at a wake.

The flight to Phu Bai was about an hour and forty-five minutes long. I don't think we said very much on that flight. We all just looked at the coffin and the stoic face of this young lady and probably silently wondered if this would be a precursor of our own fate. We were not able to communicate with this young lady, just glanced at her face and sad eyes for the entire trip. After the plane took off, someone helped her light a small votive candle and a vase with burning incense sticks (customary at Buddhist funerals) and she placed them on the coffin for the remainder of the flight.

Needless to say, I think we were all relieved to land at Phu Bai. It was dusk when we arrived and we quickly got to the business of unloading the plane for our trip up to Sally. It was around 7 or 8 PM by the time we had everything unloaded and we were eager to go. However, we were informed by the powers to be that there was a curfew in effect that prohibited vehicular travel at night. We had to wait until the next morning to go up to Sally. The Army had set up an area located not far from the aircraft ramp as an overnight holding area for new replacements in transit. It was a small camp set up with open-sided tents and cots that we could spend the night. I remember it as being a hot and humid night with plenty of biting mosquitoes to make the stay all the more uncomfortable. I was having a hard time sleeping and at some point during the night I got up and walked over toward the aircraft ramp. I then noticed not too far from where we unloaded the plane the flicker of a flame. It was the votive candle on top of the Vietnamese soldier's coffin. Someone had unloaded the coffin and put it on saw horses for the night. The young widow was seated in a lawn chair next to the coffin and kept a solitary vigil for the entire night. I just looked at that scene for a few moments and then went back to the tent to try and get some sleep. The next morning when I had a chance to look again, the young lady and the coffin were gone.

(Toni – this may sound like a story but it actually occurred and is one of the most unforgettable memories I have of Vietnam).

The next morning, we were ready for the ride to LZ Sally. I can't remember if we had one of the platoon's deuce and a half's (i.e. a two and one-half ton truck) with us for the trip. I do know that we had an escort to show us the way (I think it was some members of the 42nd IPSD – the scout dog unit for the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne). In any case, we loaded the dogs and equipment on the truck (s) and headed off to Hue and then on to LZ Sally.

I was anxious to see the city of Hue. It had been the scene of heavy fighting just a few months earlier during the Tet offensive of February 1968. While at Fort Benning, I remember watching the news clips on TV of the fighting between the Marines and the North Vietnamese in the city and the battle for the Citadel – the ancient imperial capital along the riverbank. As we drove into the city, I had a sense of deja vue as I recognized many of the sites I had seen on television. The city was heavily damaged during Tet and little clean up or repair had occurred between February and July. In fact, the only way to cross the Perfume River (I think its real name was the Song Bo and it ran through the center of the city) was by a pontoon bridge that was constructed by the Army engineers. After we crossed the river, we drove right past the Citadel and continued onward toward LZ Sally.

The road north of the city on the way to LZ Sally was a fairly narrow two-lane wide dirt road. It was a bumpy and pot holed road and you couldn't do much more than 25 mph most of the way. (Eventually, the Seabee's widened and paved the road that made travel between LZ Sally, Hue, Camp Eagle and Phu Bai an easier trip). The sides of the road were lined with various small villages with huts made of scrap wood and cardboard. Other areas were open rice patties where you would see the villagers cultivating the land with water buffaloes.

I remember the day as being a crystal clear day with the sun shining brightly in a crisp blue sky. I was intrigued with the passing scenery and noticing a big gray cloud in the distance. I asked the fellow sitting next to me in the truck – what is that cloud. His response was "Welcome to LZ Sally". As we got to the little road leading up to the main entry gate – I could easily see the reason for the cloud. Sally was one huge dirt pile in the middle of nowhere. The coming and going of the Huey helicopters combined with the aviation maintenance units and their hovering choppers created one huge dust bowl.

After our initial arrival, my memory of events has dimmed over the years. I remember that the first couple of weeks were busy setting up the camp, sandbagging the tents, getting the kennel and dog training areas ready and generally getting ready for operations. I do remember the searing heat, humidity, and dust during that time. There was no shade and you could not escape the sun unless you went into a tent. The tents were not much of a refuge as the tent material held in the heat of the sun's rays.

We quickly learned that it was easier to pay the local villagers to fill the sandbags than doing it ourselves. We would drive the trucks outside the gates in the morning have the Vietnamese fill the sandbags and load them on the trucks for a dollar or two per day. We would then drive back into Sally and build sandbag walls around the tents and also around the dog's aluminum shipping crates. The crates served a dual purpose – initially a shipping crate and then as shelter for the dogs.

The location for our platoon was just a cleared area of dusty soil, across the dirt road from an aviation company and the constant coming and going of helicopters – all day long and most of the night. We had no trees or shade (except for the tents), no water, no electric, no showers, not even an outhouse. Eventually as the year unfolded, we got most of these "luxuries".

We initially slept in tents with the sides of the tents rolled up to permit air to pass through. The floor was dirt and when it rained we had small streams of water running through the living area. (Eventually, we got wooden floors, then raised wooded platform structures that were covered by the tent material and finally tin roofs over our heads). Our beds were canvas cots with an inflatable rubber air mattress with a rayon jungle liner to protect us from the "cold" of the night. Mostly, they stuck to our constantly perspiring bodies. Each cot also had a mosquito netting. They were a mixed blessing however, since if you put them down to protect you from the annoying insects, they limited whatever evening breeze there was from cooling you. (Toni, a small footnote – this may seem as being very unpleasant living conditions for most people but it was plush compared to what the typical infantry soldier in the field was used to. They considered themselves lucky if they could find a dry piece of earth, somewhat protected from the elements and insects for the night. They really were the heroes of this war and never received the recognition that they deserved).

The dogs didn't have it any better than their masters. The only protection they had from the elements was an aluminum shipping crate. The dog's living area was a piece of ground about 10' x 10'. We drove a pipe into the ground and staked the dogs by a metal chain to the pipe. They could go into the crate to escape the sun, but again the crates retained the heat during the day. I think we initially built sandbagged enclosures next to the crates to give them some security with a piece of plywood over it so they had some shade. However, I think we abandoned that idea of trying to sandbag around the dogs as they didn't like to be confined and it didn't provide much physical protection for them. Not too long after we arrived, we got some 2'x 4's and built wooden stands to put the crates on. This served a couple of purposes, it got the dog's off the ground, raised the crate so that they might get more of a breeze and the dog's enjoyed lying under the creates in the shade during the heat of the day.

One of the vet tech's job responsibilities was assuring that an acceptable level of sanitation was maintained for the animals. This really was not much of a problem at the 47th since most of the handler's were very conscientious in policing up the area around their dog throughout the day. Normally, one of the handlers first tasks in the morning was to check the condition of their dog, clean up around the dog's kennel area, rake the ground and be sure that the dog had fresh water. Normally, the dogs were feed once a day during the early evening hours. The typical ration was a couple of pounds of dry dog food mixed with a can of dog meat and water. Many times they would throw them a Gaines burger during the day as a treat – or if they were really lucky they might get the remnants of a steak that the handler's might have cooked on the barbecue that evening. (One of the job benefits of being friendly with the veterinary corps was the ease that we could get hold of a case of sirloin steaks. Many times I would leave a wish list with the vet or his assistant in Phu Bai in the morning and a case of steaks, chicken or even at times frozen lobster tails would materialize later in the day for our evening meal)!

Typically, when the dogs were in the field, the daily ration would be Gaines burgers if we were lucky, but more likely whatever the handler was eating that particular day. I'm sure the dogs ate their share of ham and lima beans C–rations and freeze dried spaghetti in tomato sauce when they were in the field. Not particularly nutritious nor in keeping with the best veterinary practices – but that was reality of the situation. Normally, the handler didn't want to carry cans of dog food in their packs given the extra weight it added and the potential noise problem the cans could create. If we knew the dog teams would be working with an infantry company that was being resupplied that day, we would attempt to send them via the daily re-supply helicopter a couple of cases of dog food for the evenings – but generally it didn't reach them.

Another interesting aside that stayed with me all these years was a sign that welcomed you to LZ Sally. When you entered LZ Sally, the first thing you saw was a billboard sized sign that said something like " Welcome to LZ Sally - the Home of the Second Brigade, 101st Airborne Division". The sign also had the Screaming Eagles insignia, the slogan "Airborne" and the symbol of the airborne wings that every airborne qualified soldier wore. The thing that always attracted my attention was an area of the sign that had various statistics that some one had the job of changing on a periodic basis. The statistics included the number of enemy killed that year, month or week; the number of wounded NVA, prisoners captured during the period, pounds of rice captured, and the like. The statistic that annoyed me the most was a ratio of enemy soldiers killed to US casualties. Usually, it was a ridiculous number like 15 VNA killed to 1 US KIA. While I was not personally opposed to the war while "in country", I always disliked seeing our efforts being reduced to a business productivity measure. It seemed to me that the loss of a life – whether it be a NVA or a Viet Cong soldier or an American serviceman was a terrible waste –especially to that person's family. However, "the powers to be" needed to justify their existence and that sign signified to me the futility of the war.

  1. John Carter was the original platoon Veterinary Technician. He deployed with the 47th to Vietnam in May, 1968.
  2. John served under the supervision of Captain Delvin Randolph of the 175th Vet Detachment, Phu Bai.
  3. This letter was written to author Toni Gardner in September, 2000. Toni is researching a book about the men and dogs of the 47th.

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