1. Udorn is not Bangkok
2. Heading To Udorn
3. The Barracks
4. Qualifying on the M60
5. Carrying the Water
6. The Ally Can Be the Enemy
7. Cab Ride To Town
8. One Night At The Bunker
9. The FU Lizard
Udorn is not Bangkok
When I tell people that I spent a year in Thailand they can only think of Bangkok or a resort area like Pattaya. They say how wonderful it must have been to have spent so much time there. Believe me, in 1967 Udorn was no Bangkok and probably isn’t today. I try to tell people that Udorn is in northern Thailand and is actually closer to Hanoi, Viet Nam than it is to Bangkok. Additionally, it is only about 50 miles from the Laotian capital Vientiane.
Now don’t get me wrong. I would not change a thing about going to Udorn when I did. The people were wonderful, for the most part, and being there was certainly a part of my maturation. I was 22 years old when I first arrived in Udorn. I was uncertain about how I felt about my support role in a war that was only to become more unpopular the years following my discharge. The merits or demerits of the effort in Southeast Asia is a topic for another time. At the time I thought I was doing the right thing.
I spent a total of two days in Bangkok, eight days in Korat (aka Nakhon Ratchasima), and the rest of my year in Udorn Thani. I spent my first night in Thailand in a Bangkok hotel where lizards crawled all over the ceiling. I just knew one of those little suckers was going to drop down on me. I kept one eye on them till morning. Laugh if you want to, I’m a city boy.
After a couple days I checked into the army base in Korat, a central processing point for army personnel dispersing throughout Thailand at the time. It was so over-crowed there that all the barracks were full so about 40 guys, me included, were given cots in the dayroom until they were shipped out. A cot and a sheet, that’s it! Not having a mosquito net was a big deal. I was so tired from keeping an eye out for the lizards that I slept like a baby my first night on the cot in Korat. The first morning I awakened to the biggest itch I could imagine. I began to count the bites on my arms and legs and quit after I got to 50. I adamantly believed that I would be going home with malaria or some other disease carried by those little buzzing bastards.
When I got my orders to go to Udorn, the cadre told me how nice Udorn was. They even have flush toilets and cold water showers in some of the barracks. I could hardly wait to get there.
Heading To Udorn
I think the temperature was at least 95 degrees and the humidity had to be at least that the day when I was shipping out of Korat to my permanent change of station, which was Udorn. I got all my gear together in my duffle bag and was transported by a 6×6 vehicle to an airstrip nearby. All of us GI’s loaded ourselves onto this propeller driven cargo plane that was probably a C-123 or C-130. I don’t know how much room a sardine has in a can but I think we could have passed for that on a larger scale. I had on my long sleeve OD’s (olive drabs), the mandatory baseball cap style ‘lid’, combat boots, bloused trousers, and the ridiculous orange bib scarf of Stratcom. I can’t remember if I was sitting sideways or backwards but I know it wasn’t forward. We had neither flight attendants nor in-flight movies. Tray tables up and seat backs in the upright position was not a concern.
With the body heat, no air conditioning, and plain no ventilation, I thought I was going to suffocate before I got to Udorn. This flight was not a direct flight to Udorn. It made at least 5 stops before it got to Udorn dropping off GI’s at each landing. A couple places we picked up people but by the time we got to Udorn the plane was nearly empty. Each take-off and landing brought me to the brink of tossing my cookies, but with the increased room and air flow at each stop, I made it without having to make a deposit in my ‘lid’.
Getting to Udorn in the late afternoon I met Staff Sergeant Brown (quartermaster) for the first time. With hash marks up and down his arm his favorite saying was that he had more time in the chow line than I had in this man’s army. I believe he did because of those service stripes on his arm sleeves and the beer belly he so prominently displayed.
I got dinner, a bunk, bedding, and the two most important things. Those were a mosquito net and a ‘Green Bomb’. The ‘Green Bomb’ was an aerosol can of bug spray, which I am sure was 100% DDT, a long banned chemical harmful to man and wildlife.
I was in paradise for the next 335 days or so. Why not 365 days or so? More on that later. I didn’t know if I would make it back to civilization.
The US Army barracks in Udorn back in 1966 had two rows of bunks about 25 on each side. The higher level non-coms and officers had their own private rooms at one end near the entrance. Screen mesh covered all the openings of the windows but there was no glass but either wooden or sheet metal louvers to keep the rain from penetrating into the interior. There were a few wobbly ceiling fans strategically placed down the aisle between the two rows of bunks.
Each GI had a bunk with a mosquito net, a footlocker, and two upright lockers. Every personal possession was either in or around those aforementioned items. If you were lucky you had a shop light on an extension cord to put in your locker to minimize the dankness and mold from the constant high humidity of northern Thailand. Sometimes the clothes would shift inside the locker and the light would burn-up a couple pair of OD fatigues or worse the dress greens. The foot locker held all your skivvies, socks, and toiletries. I can’t prove it, but I know that some of the clothes shifting was due to some prank pulling Stratcom guys with nothing else to do.
Every guy had his own personal can of the ‘Green Bomb’, an aerosol arsenal of DDT for the mosquitoes. The trick was to unfurl the protective net from on top and tuck it under the mattress all the way around. Get the ‘Green Bomb’ ready, open a small area in the corner and blast away then close the corner and tuck it back in. With the bombing raid completed it’s off to the shower in the next building over wrapped in your towel covering your bare ass and flip flops flip-flopping with every step. After the shower you returned to assess the collateral damage and get into the rack as quickly as you could tucking the net back in. Quite often after a few minutes you’d hear, buzzzzzz while you coughed your head off from the fumes trapped in the net with the mosquitoes!
Qualifying on the M60
About four months after I arrived in Udorn an edict was handed down that the Stratcom tropo guys had to qualify on the M60 machine gun. Are you kidding me? I hadn’t had a rifle in my hands since basic training some 14 months ago. Even then I had never held a machine gun in my hands. I knew this was not going to be good.
In 1965 when I was going though basic training at Fort Ord in Monterey California, the main battle rifle was the M14, using a 7.62mm NATO compatible round. It replaced the M1 and was the precursor to the M16 which is still in use today.
All during basic training we were not allowed to put the M14 in full automatic mode so I never knew what is was like to fire an automatic rifle not to mention a 600 round a minute, 2800 feet per second muzzle velocity fire breathing killing machine like the M60.
On qualifying day about 8 guys were hauled out to a range near the Thai Army compound and given the instructions on how to operate the gun. All the safety precautions were first, how to load the gun, how to fire, how to change the barrel with the asbestos glove, and where the safe areas were down range to shoot. A berm or knoll about 50 meters away was the target.
I was the fourth or fifth guy to shoot. I laid in a prone position, legs spread apart, the stock up against my shoulder, two metal legs held the barrel up, and my finger on the trigger. Taking aim through one eye I squeezed the trigger and rounds were flying out of the barrel a lot faster than I thought possible. The WWII iron helmet over the plastic helmet liner I was wearing began to slide forward and in a flash was over my eyes. The proper thing to do would have been to stop firing and regain the target down range but I was fighting the helmet and not seeing what I was shooting. I don’t know how many rounds I cracked off but at least several dozen maybe more.
The sergeant had seen enough and told me I had qualified as he stood well behind me all the while I was in command of the M60. Two Thai soldiers in a Jeep sped up to where the Stratcom boys were, sliding to a halt in the dirt, yelling “My, my, my” (meaning “No, no, no” in Thai speak). They were yelling that rounds were landing on the other side of the knoll and the natives were complaining. That pretty much ended the qualifying for that day.
Carrying the Water
When I posted the photos of the little US Army compound that was located within the Thai Army Base that again was just a few klicks down the road from the Udorn Air Base, I remembered an incident that scared the heck out of me.
There was no potable water on the army compound and all the enlisted soldiers below E-5 were required to make water runs in a deuce and a half tanker truck that held at least 1000 gallons. I didn’t have my regular duty at the communications site this particular day so I was ‘volunteered’ to make the water run to town. I received about 15 minutes of training on the vehicle, how to shift, brake, fill the water tank, etc..
It is bad enough driving a vehicle with the steering wheel on the left side when you drive on the left side of the road as in Thailand, but this vehicle is huge and blind spots all over the place with the tank on back. After picking up my load I headed back to the compound alone driving this big green monster with 8000 pounds of water on board.
I got to within a couple miles of the compound and a samlar driver swerved out in front of me and I slammed on the brakes and the pedal went to the floor with no resistance and absolutely no slowing down. I turned the truck to the right as much as I thought I could without losing control, forced the transmission into second gear, and operated the emergency brake. The water shifted a lot back and forth, the engine screamed (me too!), but I was able to avoid the samlar driver and passenger and bring the vehicle to a stop some distance down the road. I drove the truck in low first gear the rest of the way using the e-brake when necessary.
That was my first and last water run.
The Ally Can Be the Enemy
One night I was working in my van (TRC-90A on stilts) when the power shut down unexpectedly. All the lights, AC, carrier & radio gear went dark. As a main radio relay station between Ubon (RK-7) and Chaing Mai (RK-9) we were expected to keep the comm lines open all the time from our station in Udorn. There was an emergency generator that didn’t come on so I blasted out the door to see if I could get it started.
Before I flung the door open I hadn’t realized that there was a Thai guard that had put a chair on the top step and was apparently taking a snooze with his carbine loaded with the safety off. The door knocked him and the chair asshole over tea kettle and about 5 rounds from the carbine whizzed by my head before I had a clue as to what was going on.
After I composed myself, the guard and I had a little coming to Jesus meeting that involved more than just yelling. Never again did I just blast the door open from the inside without stopping half-way to see if someone was camped-out on the steps. If I said it didn’t scare the crap out of me I’d be lying!
The Cab Ride To Town
In mid-1966 through mid-1967 I was in the army stationed in Udorn, Thailand. The US Army had a small contingent of about 50 GI’s that was actually on a Thai army base about 3 or 4 miles down the road from the large joint US and Thai air force base in Udorn. We were apart of Stratcom that commanded a communications facility in support of the war effort in Viet Nam. When we went to work we would travel that small distance to the airbase where I was a electronic technician in a tropo-scatter radio van called a TRC-90A.
We were constantly told about the cultural peculiarities of the Thai people and how we should show respect for their way of life. We were held responsible for the deeds done by the Thai’s if they were under our hire or direction.
On this occasion, I was in a cab alone with a Thai driver headed toward town for a little R&R. The cab was a little Datsun (now Nissan) 1000, travelling much too fast for the conditions of the road between the two destinations. A motorcycle rider was zipping in and out of traffic and somehow got in front of us and slammed on his brakes when the traffic ahead suddenly slowed. We hit the bike rider and ran over the motorcycle and I believe the impact injured him badly or even worse. The bike ran off into the clong (a nasty ass water canal with unmentionable stuff in it) and the cabbie stopped the Datsun, looked at the fallen bike rider and begun to run like heck the other way. Yeah, he ran, leaving the cab there idling with the drivers side door open. I thought, oh fudge, took the clue and I too ran the five miles back to the base.
To this day I don’t know what happened to that motorcycle rider but I was not going to stay around to find out. From the preaching’s the army gave us I figured that if I hadn’t hired the cabbie he wouldn’t have been there and ultimately it would fall back on me. That was the logic used by the (in)glorious UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice).
I don’t know what the record was for the 5 mile run but I believe I set it that day.
One Night At The Bunker
The soldiers that had spent some time at a particular location made it their duty to pass on the stories, legends, and folklore of the facility, the post, or base where they happened to be stationed. Most of the stories did have at least a little bit of truth to them but all of them were embellished to make the incoming troops feel uneasy for the entertainment pleasure of the short-timers (a term for the guys nearing the end of their tour assignment or their discharge from the service).
In Thailand one of those stories was about a snake named the Banded Krait, a short but highly poisonous viper. To illustrate its so-called high toxicity it was called the “Two Stepper”, meaning after you were bitten you might take two steps and then keel over dead. Actually, they are less venomous and shier then some snakes, such as the cobra, their reputation was bolstered on purpose to satisfy the stories passed on from troop to troop.
There were sandbag bunkers at various areas all around the perimeter of the compound that were to be used if and when attacked by the so called Thai Cong. They remained mostly unused and just needed a little cleaning out from time to time due to the torrential rains during the monsoon season. Each squad had their own set of bunkers assigned to them. During one cleaning out session I spotted the “Two Stepper” and that bunker didn’t get a cleaning that day.
Well as you might guess the very next night we got roused out of our bunks about 2:00 in the morning due to a suspected raid by the Thai Cong. Everybody had to report to the quartermaster to get a rifle and helmet and report to the bunkers. All unnecessary lights were off as a defensive measure.
Well, Specialist Harrison was born at night but not that night so he also grabbed a flashlight out of his footlocker. With my helmet on and rifle in hand, I got to the bunker shining my flashlight at anything and everything until the squad leader snatched the flashlight out of my hands. The career sergeant was screaming at me and whispering at the same time that the ‘enemy’ might pick me off with one shot by just aiming at the light. I told him that the ‘enemy’ might, maybe, or could be out there but I saw a “Two Stepper” in there just the day before and I’d take my chances on the outside of the bunker. After saying something about my mother and something about stupid comm guys he left me to my devices.
It did turn out to be a false alarm that night but my commanding officer told me the next day that if I pulled a stunt like that again Specialist 4th Class (E4) Harrison would be Private First Class (E3) Harrison. I never had to call his bluff since that was the last time I had to visit the bunker at night time. Oh, by the time I left Thailand I was Specialist 5th Class (E5) Harrison, so take that Officer Napier!
The Fuck You Lizard
One of those stories that get passed along from GI to GI in Thailand is the famous Fuck You Lizard. It is actually a gecko called the Tokay. Herpetologists say their call is “Tokay” thus the name, but to a GI with too much time of their hands in a foreign land it is easy to get the translations “Fuck You”. I can attest that a many of nights while in the barracks writing a letter while sitting on my bunk the sounds from outside the louvered slats on the window the insulting lizard would be calling out. “Fuck Que, Fuck Que, Fuck Que”, well into the night the sounds would reverberate throughout the compound.
The gecko was smart also, knowing we were Americans, they spoke in English to us. How nice!