Down the same river valley where Hill 65 stood was Hill 52. While I was on Hill 65 with India company, I thought it was quite barren and open until I was transfered to Mike Company and went to Hill 52. As we approached it by chopper, I looked out the window and saw how starkly barren it actually was. Hill 65 had some vegetation around its perimeter, probably due to the mine field that encircled the hill. But Hill 52 had been bulldozed down the sides to give the perimeter positions better visibility. The light brown shade of the top of the hill was in sharp contrast to the valley of green where it sat. This was the base camp for Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines while I was attached to them with L/Cpl. Don Johnson as my Forward Observer (F.O.).
The hill's proximity to the Vu Gia River allowed us the luxury of frequent bathing sessions. Two squads would go to the river at one time. One squad would bath and swim as the other stood guard. Then the roles would be reversed. It was a great and enjoyable diversion from the everyday routines. I cannot remember even one instance when the bathers had come under attack. We had a few other things to break the boredom while we were here. There were a couple of horseshoe pits and nightly raids to the underground reefer to try and steal another case of beer. The mess tent provided hot chow but C-Rations were still the staple while on patrol.
Looking down the valley from Hill 52, we could see where the valley split to form a wye. At the base of the wye, some 10 kilometers away, stood a Special Forces (Green Beret) air field. From our vantage point we could see the sun reflecting off some of the buildings. But we could not see who controlled the base. Enemy activity in the area was so heavy that planes intending to land at the air field had to radio ahead to see if the Green Beret owned it or if it belonged to the VC. It changed hands on a fairly regular basis. I recall one episode where we heard the sounds of their fire fight which was taking place between our two base camps and we could watch their progress as it was marked out by the smoke of battle. There was a continuous clamour of M-16 and AK-47 fire mixed with the explosions of grenades. I had also tuned my radio to their frequency and was listening to their broadcasts. Their fire fight continued for some time and I finally called them to ask if they required any assistance. Their reply was a cool "No thanks. We're up to our asses in grenade pins but we can hold our own!"
Close to the river end of the hill was the 81mm mortar position. It consisted of two gun pits, two personnel bunkers and the FDC bunker. I shared one of the personnel bunkers with Don and four members of the mortar squad. The bunker was half underground and half built up with sandbags. We slept on wooden bunk beds that were made from used ammo box lumber. We started with eight in the bunker but Demaria had received a letter from his wife telling him that she was sending him a couple of forties of rum. When we found that out, we kicked two guys out of the bunker, tore down their bunk, and used the wood and the space to make a bar in the far left corner of the bunker. We stole some blankets and used them to line and pad the bar with. We even made a couple stools. It was a work of art. Unfortunately, the rum never arrived. It was probably confiscated by some REMF.
Because of the bareness of the top of Hill 52, the mortar squads were concerned because if the base camp ever came under attack, they would have to run across the top of the hill, with no cover, to get to the gun pits. We undertook a huge project to remedy the situation. We started to dig a waist deep trench line to connect all components of the mortar positions. From our bunker we dug a trench to the near gun pit and from there to the FDC bunker. Then it continued on to the next gun pit. From there it turned to the right and went across the top of the hill to the other personnel bunker thus making a large "L" shaped trench. A small bridge had to be built over the trench where it crossed the hill for vehicles to pass over.
It was a tremendous amount of work. Every bit of dirt dug from the hard ground was put in sandbags which were used to build a wall atop the trench to increase its protective depth. Once completed it provided a reasonable amount of safety to the mortar squad should an attack occur. The only planning that went into the construction of the trench was to connect all the components in the shortest distance. It wasn't until after the trench was finished and we were standing back, admiring our handy work, when we realised that the trench was so strategically placed that the whole top of that end of the hill could be defended from our trench. This created such a stir that Marine Corps brass would fly in from Da Nang just to marvel at and study the placement of our wonderfully positioned line of defence. We didn't have the heart to tell them that it became that way purely by coincidence.
Another interesting, and humorous event took place on Hill 52. The CO decided that the base camp needed an observation tower. So, the Sea-Bees were called in to construct one on the highest point on the hill. Well, they decided it would be best to build the tower laying down on its side, prepare the tower base and then get one of the large Chinook helicopters to lift it up and place it on the base. The tower was constructed on its side and looked like it was going to be a wonderful addition to the base camp. It would increase our visibility of the valley tremendously. The base was prepared and the Chinook was called for.
Finally came the time we had all been waiting for. The helicopter arrived and hovered over the tower as it was connected to the lift cable. Very gingerly the Chinook increased power and began to lift the tower to its upright position. The tower never did make it to the upright position. As a matter of fact, it never made it past 45 degrees. It all came back down in a shower of pieces as it fell apart while it was being lifted. In disgrace, the Sea-Bees picked up their tools and headed back to Da Nang while the tower lumber was scavenged for bunker fortifications. Hill 52 never did get its tower while I was on it.
The building of a bunker is an art in itself. Proper positioning of supporting timbers allow the bunker to withstand direct hits from small artillery rounds. When the other personnel bunker was being built we were watching the construction and giving the usual Marine opinions to the builders and we kept telling them that they needed more support for the roof. They laughed at our suggestions and continued on with their construction. Timbers were used to span the bunker walls and planks placed on the timbers to form a roof. Then sandbags were piled up on the planks to provide shelter from enemy mortar and grenade attack. When construction was finished, the builders sat back, admiring their handiwork and telling us exactly what they thought of our useless suggestions. A few hours later the planks cracked and the roof caved in under its own weight. Luckily no one was injured. During reconstruction, extra timbers were used in places it had been previously suggested. Seems like everyone likes learning the lesson the hard way.
Resupply of Hill 52 was done both by helicopter and Amtrac (an acronym of Amphibious Tractor) convoy. Amtracs were large, rectangular, armoured steel boxes about 8 feet high, 12 feet wide and 25 feet long with a front door that was a ramp for allowing troops and supplies to be put inside for transport over land or water and was propelled by tank-type tracks. Even though they stood about 12 feet high, when traversing water all but the top two feet would be submerged. They were called the "floating coffins" and were extensively used during amphibious assaults. Because of the diverse terrain encountered in Vietnam, they were a good choice for moving troops and supplies on the ground.
To the east of Hill 52, in an area between Hill 52 and 65, was a large area known as the amtrac graveyard. It was an area strewn with the burnt out carcasses of destroyed amtracs. Every time a convoy would leave Da Nang for Hill 52, it would take a different route through this area, a route that was decided upon during the trip so nobody knew of it before hand. Even with these precautions, an amtrac would usually hit a land mine on its way back and Marines would be killed or injured in the blast that would literally turn the vehicle into a flaming coffin.
Finally they decided to find out how this was happening. A patrol from Hill 65 was sent out just after the convoy passed the hill and the patrol followed the path of the amtracs. The patrol, being slower than the motorized vehicles, was a good 15 minutes behind the convoy when they went through the suspected area. What they found was astonishing. There, kneeling beside the path of the convoy, was a little old lady digging a hole where the amtracs had just passed. Beside her was a straw basket. When they came up to her and searched the basket they found a large land mine, the type that had been destroying our amtracs and killing our Marines. She was shot on the spot with no questions asked. After that, the convoys passed through that area unmolested.