In Vietnam, the US Army rated its units monthly according to four categories of readiness.
The 404th Radio Research Detachment (Airborne), struggled to maintain coherence when rated Readiness Condition or C3 for six continuous months after departing the Bien Hoa base area in June 1967. C3 means ready for combat but with severe deficiencies. In mid-January 1968, the 404th Radio Research Detachment commander reported the detachment C4 (combat ineffective). The detachment was reported C4 for about three months in early 1968. *8
The detachment was assessed not ready for combat based on command maintenance management inspection standards and because it was barely able to perform its assigned mission of direct support communications intelligence and security to the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate), the MACV reserve force.
When a unit commander evaluates a unit C4, Army Regulations preclude that assessment being overridden by commanders at higher echelon. Higher command can fix the unit or replace it, they can relieve the unit commander, but they can’t “manipulate” the data back to C3. In addition to being evaluated C4, the 1968 Vietnam-wide enemy Tet Offensive began a few days later.
This is a report about an Army combat support unit that never quit despite its tribulations. It is also a report about one of the most decorated company size combat or combat support units to serve in Vietnam. It is a report about one of the first tactical intelligence units to deploy to Vietnam and among the last to depart from that war. It is also a report about the only private in the United States armed forces to be awarded the Legion of Merit Medal for Achievement and that while the unit was C4.
A few words about the exceptional enlisted men who were the heart and soul of the 404th Radio Research Detachment (Airborne) are appropriate. The detachment was commanded by a captain, assigned two lieutenants, one an executive officer and the other an operations officer. The detachment was authorized a sergeant first class (Detachment First Sergeant), another sergeant first class (Operations Sergeant), two staff sergeants, four sergeants, and 57 other enlisted men (total authorized strength 68, average morning report strength during this period 52). *9
ASA noncommissioned officers and most of the enlisted men enlisted for three to four year assignments required to qualify for cryptologic military occupational skills (MOS). Enlistees or “volunteers” were members of the Regular Army or RA. A few of the non-ASA soldiers assigned to the detachment, like vehicle and generator mechanics, were two year Army of the United States conscripts or AUS. It was impossible to tell the difference between volunteer and conscripted soldiers in the 404th based on performance.
In early 1968, during the period of the C4 evaluation and the Tet battle, there was not a noncommissioned officer among the approximately forty men then assigned. On a typical day about 15 men were at the detachment’s base camp wherever it might be and the remainder deployed with supported combat units. Some members of the 404th were attached to the 374th RR Company and other Radio Research units when directed by ASA and at times personnel from the 374th were attached to the 404th. It was the best attempt to plug holes. Group and individual photographs usually show 404th enlisted personnel without rank insignia or shoulder patch. That was not an attempt at covert operations but rather a reflection of the supply system and constant mobility. When available soldiers assigned to the 404th RRD (Abn) wore the Sky Soldier shoulder patch of the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
These men did all that was requested and more, disciplinary infractions were few and minor. In February 1968, the senior enlisted man, serving as Detachment First Sergeant, was a Specialist 4th Class. The detachment was eventually blessed to have SFC Doughty (spelling uncertain) assigned as Detachment First Sergeant. Doughty was not an ASA noncommissioned officer, he did not have an ASA occupational specialty. Doughty’s MOS is not recalled. What is remembered is that Doughty was an outstanding and thoroughly respected NCO. His seasoned leadership and reasonable approach was instrumental in the detachment’s recovery from C4.
The 404th Radio Research Detachment (Abn) was allocated eighteen trucks to haul its equipment, men, and supplies. Fourteen generators were also authorized (seventeen on hand). That’s a lot of maintenance for even a full strength unit when the unit worked mission shift 24 hours a day every day. The 404th was not a full strength unit. Most of the vehicles were Jeeps (1/4 ton, 4X4) and M37 (3/4 ton, 4X4) trucks; there were also two M35 (2 ½ ton 6X6) diesel engine trucks.
In January 1968 only two of eighteen trucks were operable and one of those drove only in forward transfer (front axle) because the rear drive shaft was missing. Five of the vehicles were lost, several others had missing engines, broken axles, wheels, drive shafts, drive belts, and broken frames. One truck was missing both its bed and cab but had an operable engine and transmission. The driver sat on a box to drive. That vehicle was used as a tow truck. There were a lot of broken wheels, inoperable brakes and punctured radiators and fuel tanks; missing gauges, and the like, were common. There wasn’t an unpatched tire in the entire lot. The S-144 equipment and operator shelters mounted on 3/4 ton trucks were gutted of all wiring, frames, and racks, then reconfigured. Transcribing positions (AN/AEQ 13) were reconfigured to communication center positions in order to take advantage of the air conditioners needed to cool the radio transmitters. The MRQZ 3 communication security monitoring positions were reconfigured to MRPV 3 manual morse intercept positions while the SMP-19 maintenance positions were gutted to their bare structure for use by analysts. This equipment may have been designed for use on a battlefield, but not for the Vietnam battlefield.
The workhorse of the detachment was the Dodge M-37, 4-wheel drive, ¾ ton truck. Generally thought to be indestructible, service with the 404th RRD (Abn) presented a new challenge for ruggedness. The M-37 served two chief purposes: to haul personnel and cargo with a canvas top and to carry the box-like S-144 communication shelters. A shelter is a metal box used as a working station by Radio Research unit operators. Shelters come in different sizes to fit in the beds of different type cargo trucks. They are similar to civilian campers placed in pickup trucks, most lack windows or ventilation hatches and entry is restricted to a single rear door. *11
The S-144 was distinguished by its T-bone shape to fit over the high wheel wells of the M-37 truck. Electronic or maintenance equipment was usually mounted on the inside driver’s wall of the shelter. Seats were provided for two soldiers to work inside. Working inside the shelter was barely tolerable in a temperate climate when the door was open. In the stifling heat and humidity of tropical Vietnam, most soldiers could tolerate no longer than an hour inside these sweat boxes.
A few shelters intended as communications centers had rudimentary air conditioners, but they were of little practical benefit. The S-144 was a design created by an acquisition system rich in engineering theory but deficient in operational experience. When the 404th RRD had the opportunity to remain in the same location for more than a few days, most of the equipment was removed from the shelters and installed on benches in wooden framed general purpose tents called WABTOCS (please see photos above).
Recovering from C4, the soldiers found their own solutions to cope with the seemingly countless relocations by the supported brigade. They used acetylene and oxygen fueled cutting torches, bolt cutters, and metal cutting saws to modify the shelters. They cut the tops off the shelters, added reinforcing bars at all four corners then reconnected the tops eighteen inches higher than the shelter’s walls to provide needed ventilation. The tops were also extended eighteen inches all around to shade the walls. It was an idea inspired by the British Land Rover designed to operate in tropical climates. Additional holes were cut in the front of the shelter to install aircraft fans. Holes were cut in the shelter walls and the excised wall sections converted to garage style doors that could be raised and lowered as weather dictated.
The detachment didn’t stay in one place long enough to connect to larger base camp generators so the unit depended on small generators for electric power. In its institutional wisdom, the ASA decided long before Vietnam to equip its tactical units mostly with 400 Hz electric power generators towed behind cargo trucks on two-wheel trailers. The ASA selected 400 Hz generators though the rest of the Army routinely used 60 Hz generators for field power. That incomprehensible legacy is attributed to the purchase of 400 Hz powered AN/GLQ-3 and TLQ-17 communication jammers and ELINT intercept equipment (none of the latter sent to Vietnam) purchased in conjunction with Navy contracts. *12 The consequence was that neither the Army Materiel Command nor supported unit generator maintenance units could provide spare parts or repair. The Navy and Air Force have good reason for using 400 Hz aircraft power, but it makes little sense for Army units. The only up side was that it allowed units like the 404th to scavenge Air Force surplus and garbage yards for spare electronic components like the aircraft fans used to cool the S-144 shelters.
A unit like the 404th was permitted by maintenance directives, the training level of its authorized but seldom assigned mechanics, and mostly its tool boxes to perform two levels of repair referred to as operator and organizational level maintenance . Regulations about six inches thick and nowhere available provided specific instructions about what could and could not be done at each of four levels of maintenance delineated by civil servants working comfortably at the Army Materiel Command headquarters somewhere near Washington, DC. Tactical units like the 404th were restricted to checking lubricant levels, changing spark plugs, repairing tires, spot painting, and making endless lists of repairs to be completed by higher level but usually unavailable mechanics of Ordnance Corps direct or general support maintenance units.
More than one Army inspector became incensed during an inspection because the detachment’s mechanics most of whom, fortunately, were trained not by the Army but in neighborhood service stations were rebuilding truck chassis, engines, transmissions, and body parts. Another Inspector General’s report explained that the 404th RRD (Abn) was disassembling vehicles, interchanging serial numbered parts, and rebuilding entirely new end items which no longer conformed to logbook accountability. The fallacy was that the logbooks had long ago disappeared too. All this at a time when the best and newest ¾ ton and 2 ½ ton trucks in Vietnam were being driven by foreign nationals in no way working for the United States Government or the Republic of Vietnam. Instead they were stolen off the docks in Saigon, painted black, and routinely driven into the Cambodia and Laos border areas loaded with contraband. There weren’t any Inspector Generals with the slightest idea how to stop any of that. It is true that the 404th possessed several M-37 trucks with parts painted in both Army olive drab and Air Force blue. Forgive us.
Many of the detachment’s S-144 shelters and vehicles had been submerged to their rooftops in mud during the November, 1967, battles at Dak To and then awash in salt water during operations near Tuy Hoa City *13 in December, 1968, when a typhoon hit the battlefield. The condition of the power generators was just as bad. The detachment listed seventeen generators on its property book of which six were missing, nine were deadlined for parts, and only two 10-kW, the only 60 Hz generators in the bunch, were operational. The two 10 KW generators were constantly overloaded resulting in frequent breakdown. Power outage caused the 50 percent downtime of communications and intercept positions contributing to C4.
Other factors also caused downtime. As an example, the teletype equipment in the Critical Communications ASA (CRITICOM) circuit consisted of TT 76 and TT 98 components bearing one and two digit serial numbers indicating manufacture in 1948. The teletype equipment was overage and unsuitable for combat operations. A large portion of the movable parts in both the TT 76 and TT 98 had been replaced with handmade, innovated, parts fabricated by the maintenance personnel. Many of the printer keys had been adapted from typewriters salvaged from Air Force dumps. It is clear that the detachment continued to function at all is attributed directly to the outstanding enlisted men assigned to the unit and especially to the vehicle, electronic, and cryptographic maintenance men, some school trained, some not.
As a result of poor logistics only three percent of the detachment’s spare parts requisitions were being filled and those were received by US Mail mostly from Vint Hill Farms Station, Virginia, a component of the Army Security Agency’s peculiar supply system. When the supply and repair system doesn’t work you can “bootleg” and misappropriate parts and repair from other units but that method works for only a short time. By January, 1968, the 404th RRD (Abn) had run out of ways to improvise the supply and maintenance system. Here is a look at soldier living and administrative support.
When deployed on operations with the brigade’s combat units, soldiers slept wrapped in their ponchos, nothing more, there were no tents. When in base camps, all units were required to erect general purpose tents hung over WABTOC wooden frames and floors. Those structures served both as sleeping and working areas for intelligence units.
Each unit within the 173rd Airborne Brigade built its own WABTOC compound tied into the brigade’s defensive perimeter. Woven plastic or burlap sandbags were filled with soil and used to build two-foot-high walls around each WABTOC. The purpose was to protect from enemy mortar and rocket shrapnel and to contain a direct hit. Fighting bunkers made from thousands of sandbags and timbers were intended to protect from direct hits and to protect the camp’s exterior fighting perimeter. Everyday, every soldier filled 100 sandbags after completing the typical 12 to 16 hour shift. The tentage was so old that there was more area uncovered than covered by canvas. So the soldiers built individual shelters from plywood, packing crates, and scrap tarpaulin inside their medium general purpose tents to protect from the sun, wind, and rain.
Hot meals were rare. Unlike Radio Research companies, the detachment was not authorized nor did it have mess equipment, cooks, or fresh food. Detachment soldiers could beg meals from the units they supported within the 173rd or from the 173rd Headquarters Company, or infrequently when they were within walking distance of a mess facility. Most meals were C-rations or freeze dried Food Packet Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol affectionately referred to as LRRPS. You may remember among other menus chili con carne, frankfurters with beef (sort of), chicken stew, and spaghetti with meat sauce.
Hot showers were provided by connecting a flexible radiator hose from an overhead tank that held 20 gallons of water, through a 2 ½ ton truck’s radiator to a shower head hanging from a stall. The truck engine was operated to heat the water. Not eloquent or built to code, but it worked. Though not authorized, the detachment had a 500 gallon Air Force water trailer. Thank you Air Force.
(Photo to the right is of the cold water shower, water trailer to
the right side. Can’t find a photo of the hot water shower.)
In case you forgot, detachment soldiers were paid in Military Payment Certificates, called MPC, that looked like Monopoly money. US authorities hoped to thwart black marketing and hoarding by using the MPC scrip. The amounts which could be exchanged were limited, and entire series were, from time to time, exchanged without notice. After a very short time, the old series would be totally withdrawn from circulation and exchanges made only through military finance officers. MPC was used in the Post Exchange (PX) or other camp facilities, and could be exchanged for limited amounts of Vietnamese currency. MPC could also be exchanged at the point of departure for Rest and Recreation leave (R&R) or returning to the US. Military regulations prohibited possession of more than $20 US currency. It was a regulation not routinely enforced since US currency was worth at least twice as much as MPC on the local economy (black market).
During 1968 a detachment officer and enlisted man went to NhaTrang to pick up the detachment’s monthly $8,000 MPC cash payroll and then made a circuit through the Central Highlands to pay each soldier, deliver mail, and attend to other personnel actions. Just about the time the circuit was completed it was time to begin the next payroll run. ASA should have assigned a payroll officer full time.
Because the detachment was orphaned “by any reasonable interpretation, unassigned to either the 303rd or 313th RR Battalions” for about six months during late 1967 and early 1968, personnel and administration support suffered. During this period many promotions were delayed and most recommendations for awards, personnel and medical files and folders, and requests for Rest and Recuperation Leave (R&R) supervised by the assigned battalions were lost. Thanks to an understanding personnel section in the 173rd Airborne Brigade some R&R were bootlegged. Awards initiated by the 173rd Airborne Brigade, like SP4 Minnock’s Legion of Merit and SP4 Palmer’s Bronze Star medals made it through the system.
Members of the 404th injured or wounded in Vietnam were treated by any medic or doctor available in the nearest combat unit. The 404th did not have medics assigned to the unit. During early 1968, few medical treatment records were provided and those that were never made it to an individual’s medical records (some medical records folders were maintained by the 303rd RR Battalion, some by the 313th Battalion, hundreds of miles away, and many records were later lost forever in the military records system or destroyed by depot fires.) Soldiers receiving minor wounds did not apply for the Purple Heart Medal, there were no records, and no one wounded or injured in the detachment required evacuation during the period of this report.
The Army mandated an equipment allocation scheme called the Table of Organization and Equipment or TOE long before the Vietnam War. The 404th RRD (Abn)’s TOE allocated the model M-16 rifle to every soldier in the unit. It also allocated two 7.62mm, model M-60, light machineguns (LMG) and a .50 caliber, model M2, HMG mounted to one of the 2 ½ ton trucks. There were only enough M-16 rifles for about half of the unit’s personnel. About one third of the soldiers were armed with .30 caliber carbines (intended for the South Vietnamese Army) or type 56, 7.62mm PRC AK-47 assault rifles captured from the enemy by the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Paradoxically, South Vietnamese and Korean allies were equipped with the M-16 rifle and the 173rd Airborne Brigade was capturing North Vietnamese soldiers with M-16 rifles which our infantry then gave to the 404th. So the supply system did work sometimes. This situation was corrected by April, 1968.
During the Vietnam War, when an NCO was demoted or killed in combat, the NCO rank was retained by the unit and could be awarded to any soldier, even a private, who could handle the responsibility. *14 The procedure is called a blood stripe because it was originally intended to replace noncommissioned officers killed in combat. The Commanding General of the 173rd Airborne Brigade demoted a derelict first sergeant and then promoted SP4 Palmer with the blood stripe and first sergeant assignment. The colonel commanding the parent 509th Radio Research Group (RRG) (located in Saigon) objected, wanting instead to use that promotion elsewhere within the 509th RRG. But the colonel didn’t want to send a Staff Sergeant to the unit still reported C4. The Colonel called Brigadier General Leo H. Schweiter Commanding the 173rd Airborne Brigade, contesting the promotion of a detachment SP4 (Palmer) directly to Staff Sergeant (E6). The general prevailed.
Some favorite over-a-beer stories: One detachment soldier sent to the 173rd Brigade’s combat survival course at An Khe, became separated in the jungle from the training class, roamed the area for several days, reportedly captured three armed North Vietnamese Army soldiers and found his way back to the base camp at An Khe with his prisoners. (Now thought to be Tom Burkig.) It was unanimously decided by the course cadre that the 404th RRD (Abn) soldier passed the course. Our only Asian-American soldier ended up in the POW cage when jogging laps around the compound at An Khe. We bailed him out.
Take a look at the detachment’s operating conditions in proper perspective. As a consequence of the 173rd Brigade’s role as the MACV reserve force during the Tet Offensive, the detachment was constantly relocating a distance of fifty miles every five to seven days, on occasion every two to three days. The situation was further complicated when the detachment divided into six elements in order to support individual brigade task forces operating throughout the II Corps Tactical Zone and each task force was moving 50 miles or so. Detachment sections and teams could not find one another for weeks at a time. The same was true for most 173rd Airborne Brigade combat support and combat service units. But, it was that mobility that defeated the North Vietnamese in the Central Highlands during Tet.
7 - If it didn’t originate in the 404th RRD (Abn), it should have.
8 - Note: Nothing in this report is intended as criticism of the previous detachment commander. The previous commander transferred from the Air Force to the Army and the ASA a few months prior to his assignment to command the 404th. (He was previously an Air Force main frame computer organization supervisor not a cryptologic officer.) It is incomprehensible why the ASA assigned a tactically untrained and inexperienced officer to command one of its most challenged units supporting an airborne brigade in combat and a unit also absent, at that time, senior experienced non-commissioned officers.
9 - Note: There is question about the unit’s designation as an airborne unit. Some official documents refer to the unit as the 404th Radio Research Detachment or Unit and other documents refer to the unit as the 404th Radio Research Detachment (Airborne). The unit was attached at activation in Vietnam to an Airborne Brigade and while not conclusive that suggests an airborne designation. Some DA Forms 20 and 24 (Enlisted and Qualification and Service Records) and DA Form 66 (Officer Qualification Record), show unit members assigned to the 404th with an airborne designation, others do not. The original document for this report uses (Airborne) throughout when referring to the unit. The detachment guidon does not show Airborne nor should any airborne detachment’s guidon according to The Army Institute of Heraldry, Flags and Guidons. Guidons from other units that do show “airborne” were made locally in Vietnam, not by the Army. The TO&E authorized positions were designated airborne qualified and authorized hazardous duty (parachute) pay, but only about 20 percent of the troops had completed parachute qualification and received that pay. The detachment’s gate sign shows parachute wings in the logo. One of the problems contributing to the C4 readiness cited in that evaluation was “a shortage of parachute qualified NCO for assignment to the airborne unit.” It is reliably reportedly, but not absolutely confirmed, that SFC C (spelling uncertain) and two other members of the detachment participated in the operation Junction City combat parachute jump with a 173rd Airborne Brigade Task Force on February 22, 1967, in the Tay Ninh area.
10 - WABTOC is an acronym for When Authorized by the Theater of Operations Commander.
11 - Photo courtesy 402nd USASA Special Operations Detachment, 10th Special Forces Group, Lenggries, Germany, circa 1968.
12 - Some readers may insist that the TLQ 17 was first built in 1978. The AN/TLQ-17A and later (V)1 wasn’t the first TLQ 17, though it was the first one called TrafficJam. The original TLQ 17, TacJam was built by Cincinnati Electronics around 1962 and they may have gotten one to work by 1968. It was probably the first intercept radio scanner used by ASA units and that’s about all it was good for.
13 - There is some indication there was a variation in the spelling here. It appears in some documents as Tua Hoa. It will appear here as the more common Tuy Hoa - the Provincial capital.
14 - This occurred in the 404th when the previous detachment first sergeant was reduced to private for dereliction of duty – a machinegun was lost.