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The Water Tower at Camp Holloway

Central Highlands, Vietnam 1969-70

Nick Molinaro
First published at nmolinaropost.com
2009

2009 Nick Molinaro


The Water Tower at Camp Holloway

The Terrain
Camp Holloway was a U.S. Army base on the outskirts of Pleiku in the central
highlands of South Vietnam. It was home to the 4th Infantry Division, to which the
Army assigned me in 1969, I think in April. This was a site of strategic importance
because it intersected some significant routes toward Kontum, An Khe, and Da
Nang to the north and Saigon to the south, Cam Ranh Bay to the east and the
“Parrot’s Beak” border area to the west. It is close to the borders of Cambodia
and Laos. It’s within striking distance of the old Ho Chi Min Trail that conveyed
tons of North Vietnamese supplies and thousands of their personnel from the
north during the war. It was also a Viet Cong (V.C.) stronghold with some popular
local support. In terms of enemy encounters and engagements, it was quite
active.
As I remember it, the terrain in that part of Vietnam was hilly in a way that
somewhat brings to mind the contours of the hill country of Texas, although, had
you been suddenly transported there in 1969, you would know that you were not
in Texas and certainly not in Kansas, and Toto would not have been along with
you.
The vegetation is denser in the hills of the Central Highlands than in Texas, but it
is not jungle, as you would find it in the Mekong Delta. It is more mountain forest
the way that you would find forests at higher elevations. It is thick, facilitating
effective concealment for ambush—something I sought to avoid assiduously.

Concealment, Silt, Grit


Concealment was always a concern for me over there. I never felt that whatever
cover I had under any circumstances adequately met my needs, even in a
bunker in the center of the compound. I always thought that concealment in
California would be optimal, but I was sure that no one in authority would
consider such a proposal had I offered it.
The soil along the plains and valleys is clay, very fine silt. At times, it appears to
almost swirl up like powder when you walk in it. It permeates the air and affixes
itself to every piece of fabric on your body, every mucous membrane, and any
exposed orifice—metal or flesh. Again, back to cover, although of a different kind
in this context; very important.
Maintaining arms and equipment under those conditions was taxing. Our M-16s
and side arms were dirty not long after meticulously cleaning them. The V.C. and
NVA activity in the area included frequent probes with mortars and small arms
fire and a few partial penetrations of our perimeter by sappers. These
penetrations may have been shallow in a strictly military sense, but I viewed
them as exceedingly deep. This activity provided incentive to maintain weapons
in a high state of readiness. I was willingly compliant with directives on this issue.
In fact, I was mostly ahead of such directives.
When the water supply permitted showers, we had a brief interlude from the silt
and grit until we had to walk back to the hooch with our small green towels

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around our waists, wearing slippery rubber flip-flops that local boys and men
made from discarded jeep tires. Add the piece of bar soap in our hand, and we
made a great picture. Once back, we donned our fatigues that already smelled
like mildew and were coated with a layer of silt, even though they had been
recently washed by local Vietnamese women in a metal basin on the ground,
hung to dry on lines wrapped around shrubs or sticks, and delivered to our hooch
neatly folded.

It Rained Some
The airborne silt and the dry grit did disappear with the onset of the monsoons,
however. Of course, this converted the ground to the most impenetrable mud
imaginable and filled the six feet deep ditches on the sides of our roads within the
perimeter to over-flowing in minutes. It turned the “roads” outside the perimeter,
such as they were, into riverbeds. Neither prior to my time there, nor since, have
I experienced horizontal sheets of water like those in the central highlands during
the monsoons. It came at you so forcefully in waves that, if you faced it head on
without turning your head, you would drown standing up. Patrolling the perimeter
during an onslaught of driving horizontal rain had inherent challenges. We
sloshed ankle deep in mud that converted our jungle boots to suction cups and
filled the barrels of our M-16s with a gritty slush that rendered them unreliable to
inoperative. Moreover, if you think you cannot get cold at night in that part of
Vietnam, especially when you are wet, you are mistaken. There is a lot to miss
there.

No Fear, We Got Tanks


Ours was a highly mechanized infantry outfit with armored personnel carriers,
helicopters, and even assault tanks. To what use we put the tanks in that area, I
never knew. We never observed them in an operational mode. I hope I don’t
offend my brother soldiers in the tank units, but I just don’t remember any tank
engagements in that patch of geography. I allow for the possibility that they were
actively engaged, and I was simply unaware.
I did see one moving outside the perimeter once. That was my only encounter
with a tank that was actually in motion. Otherwise, the tanks sat in a straight
military type line near the center of the base and gathered their coat of sticky grit.

Peace, Brother
On this occasion, as we passed in opposite directions just outside the perimeter,
the tankers and I exchanged the popular peace sign of the time. This the peace
movement had usurped from Winston Churchill’s victory sign. We had little fear
that senior officers would observe this and take it for the overt act of defiance and
commentary that it was. In truth, we did not care at all. It was an act of
camaraderie among fellow grunts as well as a taunt at authority—multi-purpose
sign language.
Another popular bit of sign language exchanged then was the “I’m so short” sign
that one of the tankers flashed me. When you only had a short time left in

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country, you could gloat by expressing it verbally, as in “I’m so short, I . . . (fill in


the blank).” As an alternative, confident in our manhood and that our signing
would not be misinterpreted, we non-verbal types relied on the gesture with the
index finger and thumb to indicate the brevity of the time remaining before
disembarking for the real world.
By their casual postures and clowning, I deduced that these guys atop the tank
did not share my level of stress and relief at being near the main entry to the
base upon my return. Why should they? I was in an open jeep; they could quickly
descend into the body of a tank with three-inch thick armor plating all around
them. I thought our respective situations ironic: I was minimally armed and drove
a highly vulnerable jeep, through exposed terrain on a mission with a purpose,
although not likely a worthy one. They were probably joy riding in a heavily
armored tank.
Such Irony, along with stress, was not hard to find during my experience there.

A Sidearm, Please, Top? Perhaps Radio Contact?


On several occasions I had to courier packets of documents and some cylindrical
metal object to the Pleiku Airbase. I drew this assignment almost routinely thanks
to our First Sergeant, whose name is long forgotten. He was in a constant
alcohol haze and seemed to forget everything around him of importance, except
my name, which he could not pronounce. However, he could shout it sufficiently
so that there could be no mistake he meant me. It got converted from Molinaro to
something like “M’nara” accompanied by an echo of phlegm and loose gravel.
In his mind remnant, there was an intrinsic, immutable connection between
“M’nara” and drives-jeep-to-airbase. Lacking clear thought, he intuited a need to
issue instructions on this mission each time he assigned it to me, as though I had
never done this before.
“M’nara, you will procure a light-duty vehicle from the motor pool and convey and
deliver this packet and this canister to the duty officer at Pleiku Airbase. You will
not open this packet and this canister under any circumstances. You will depart .
. .”
As I think about this and other instances in which this miserable bastard did what
he could to get me killed, it amazes me that I have forgotten his name. I can
summon up only a vague recollection of some of his physical characteristics, but
I cannot describe him in detail. I remember incidents, missions, and events that
he launched, but not his name and not the main features of a man who
tormented me in the extreme.
Curious that.

Match Weaponry To Mission


I had to arm myself, of course, on those occasions when I had to go out on these
missions, or more properly, useless courier runs. Curiously, I could only draw an

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M-16. It is hard to manage an M-16 properly when you have both sets of white
knuckles on a steering wheel.
Being minimally aware of negative consequences to himself if I were to be killed
on a senseless solo mission, First Sergeant had to pick someone to ride shotgun.
He picked this poor bastard randomly from his poor bastard roster. Evidently, he
didn’t need a roster to select me. “M’nara, you will procure a light-duty vehicle . .
.” had become automatic and required minimal thought and no reading whatever
through the bloodshot, rheumy eyes I can only vaguely picture now.
I always thought that proper armament on these occasions would include a side
arm, a .45, which I could have accessed more easily, in addition to my M-16.
First Sergeant would not hear of it, of course. He acted as though he would incur
some personal expense right out of his own pocket if someone issued me a
sidearm temporarily. He felt the same way about radio contact: “Negative. Not
needed.”
If the result of such frugality were to be my demise, well, that would be of little
consequence.
We would draw the permitted, sparse weaponry from an arsenal and hope that it
was sufficiently clean and functional. If not cattle-prodded into an immediate
departure by a staff sergeant telling us to “haul ass”, we would have time for a
quick inspection and cleaning and to lock in a magazine. With no means of test
firing, we could only hope the issued weapon would perform as desired if called
upon.
Donning steel pots, bandoliers, and flak vests; we would depart from the
compound in a highly vulnerable, open jeep and travel along an exposed road
that dipped into valleys along brushy foothills following a route that V.C. snipers
had to love for the cover it afforded them and the exposure it gave us. The
departure time varied somewhat and it was not a daily occurrence, so there was
some element of randomness to it. There was only one route, however, and our
pattern had to be easily discernible with minimal observation. Evidently, I alone
found this disconcerting, as I did all assignments that took me outside the
perimeter and occurred in an easily discernible pattern.
I’ll recount a couple of other instances of notable events, although I have
forgotten the names of people who should otherwise be memorable for their
significance, or eccentricity, or other factors. I may also be a bit hazy on specifics
now as well. That is what happens when one makes a commitment to leave
behind a bad experience and move on with life immediately. In addition, after all,
it has been nearly 40 years.

The Big Drug Bust


“M’nara, you will accompany these men to the maintenance building where you
will take [some poor bastard] into custody and escort him to the MP holding
facility . . .”

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The lack of logic in assigning this to me was as inescapable as it was irrelevant.


Yes, there were MPs available, trained, and equipped for this, but they were not
named, “M’nara” and they were not within earshot of First Sergeant, nor were
they under his authority. Yes, we would be escorting the poor bastard to the MP
holding facility where the several MPs on duty, who might not be overburdened
with work at the moment, were filling out the remainder of their shift.
“But were you trained in the techniques and procedures of arrest and detention,
Specialist Molinaro?” you might want to ask.
“Why, no, I was not, and, although reason would tell you that your question is
relevant, in fact, that trifle mattered not at all. However, thanks for asking.”
The detail consisted of a grizzled old thirty-year career corporal who stood,
shakily, about 5’ 4” and had the bulk of a jockey, one other poor bastard of
average height and weight, and me, M’nara, a bulging, hulking, brutish 130-
pounder. We constituted an awesome force, we three. Fortunately, the kid we
were escorting to the MP holding facility accepted the inevitable and decided not
to fuss. Well who would, faced with such a commanding body of deputized,
military law enforcement? In fact, he was cooperative, almost amiable, and we
got him there with no trouble. I think his arrest and detention had something to do
with marijuana, so perhaps he was mellow at the time. I can’t remember now.
Here again was a mismatch of resources and mission that somehow
accomplished the intended purpose. Success and survival sometimes depended
on being lucky. It seems we were often lucky; sometimes not.

Check My Water
”Molinaro,” the voice boomed.
Ah, Major [name forgotten], a literate, sober man with no phlegm or gravel in his
throat summons me thus.
“They’re telling me not to take my shower in the officers’ shower because the
water is contaminated with something green. I don’t believe them. Get a jeep and
drive down to the water tower and check it out. I want you back here in one-five
[fifteen minutes].”
“Yes, Sir.”
It was nearly midnight, almost moonless, and pitch black. How would I be able to
detect a green substance by peering down into a water tower even with a
flashlight, which I did not have anyway? Did I mention that I am colorblind? You
might be familiar with the expression: “We rule in the daylight, but Charlie (the
V.C.) owns the night.” We were not that active at night for good reason. Well, it
gets back to that adequate cover thing. Doesn’t matter.
Using prevailing military logic at the time, someone unwisely placed this water
tower near the perimeter and designed it in such a way that no cover could
possibly protect you while ascending the tower—a small, forgotten matter for the
designers, but something of consequence for the poor bastard who had to climb

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up the thing. As designed and constructed with its open exposure, one would
have thought that clear logic would dictate that no one ascends the tower at
night, no one, ever.
I pictured my blood and brain residue in a mist on the wall of the tower just so
that I could attempt to confirm for some major that it is safe to take a shower. As
best I can remember it, here was my thought at the time:
“I am so screwed. I am so not going to risk my life on this crazy, fucking mission.
I am ready to go to the stockade, if necessary, but I am not going home in a body
bag for this.”

The Road Less Traveled


The logical route to the tower in a jeep would take me in a nearly straight, visible
line from my departure point where the major dispatched me on this loony
mission. Instinctively, I took a more obscured trail, which winds down a rougher
road, I think toward the metal airstrip. The serpentine route would take me behind
maintenance buildings that would block the view of the jeep. I would arrive at the
water tower between those buildings and the perimeter. Thus, it would be difficult
to determine from the major’s vantage point if I had arrived or not. I could claim
that since the ladder was mostly on the backside of the tower, it made more
sense to take the circuitous route—a weak argument, I admit, but I was ready to
go with that if challenged.
With lights out on the jeep already, as per the relevant night driving regulation, I
stopped behind the first obscuring building with the engine running, hoping the
wind would not carry the engine noise back to the major, who I hoped would not
be watching or listening anyway. I waited 12 minutes, turned the jeep around and
retraced my route back.
“Sir, I was unable to detect any green color, but visibility was difficult. I can’t
confirm its presence or absence in the water. You might not want to chance it,
Sir, at least until we can confirm it in daylight when visibility is better.”
Technically, one could make the case that I had not actually lied, or one could
argue that a literal comprehension of my statements would show them to be
factually accurate.
“Goddamnit! All right, Molinaro. That will be all.”
He didn’t get his shower; I didn’t get my brains blown out. Sorry about your bad
luck, Major. Must really suck to be you.

There’s More
I have more like this, but that’s the trouble; they are like this and I’ve already
done this and that’s probably enough of this. I’ll hold back most details of other
events and just briefly list some of them.
There is the one about the fresh pineapples that the Montagnards would sell to
us when we returned from foot patrols outside the perimeter. They whacked off

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the fibrous skin with machetes, leaving the stalks so that we could eat them like
ice-cream bars or turkey legs. Montagnards are the indigenous, nomadic tribes of
the central highlands. The women and girls did the selling. Some considered
them a primitive people, but they were market-savvy on that issue. This
exchange of pineapple and GI script occurred routinely at nearly the same spot,
which was some distance from the perimeter. They seemed to know the
approximate time we would return from these patrols and they would meet us at
that spot. This appeared to me to indicate a disturbing lack of cover and a pattern
sufficiently routine to facilitate an ambush. I was not alone in finding that
disconcerting. However, even under those circumstances, the pineapples were
irresistible at the end of a long, hot day of patrolling.

Maintaining Security
There is the one about the night I spent with a Criminal Investigation Division
operative on the trail of another poor bastard who had been smuggling a
Vietnamese girl onto the base at night, or keeping her on the base at night; I
forget which.
“M’nara, you will accompany this man. . .”.
I realized the seriousness of this security breach and, although I had no other
objection to the poor bastard’s nightly interaction with the young lady, I was
uneasy about the thought of locals inside our perimeter at night. We did not find
him or her that night. He made no appearance in his hooch, nor at any site we
thought to check. I suppose it was left to some other poor bastard to track him
down later. Or, the happy couple may still be in the area.
There is the night the friendly Cajun mechanic was crushed between two trucks
because some other poor bastard got careless at the same time our Cajun was
inattentive.
There is the one about an unusual daytime mortar attack (they usually occurred
under the cover of darkness) that caught me in no man’s land on my way to the
shower with nothing to cover me but my little green towel. I was on a slippery
catwalk in my flip-flops. When the siren sounded, I thought I could make it to my
hooch to put on trousers and grab a steel pot, but shells started landing
immediately. I lost the towel scrambling for the bunker and was stuck there
completely bare-assed for a couple of hours until the all clear. It’s an amusing
scene now, and I have laughed about it more than once, but I saw no humor in it
at the time.

The DTs
There is the one about the night I had to help two medics haul a 200-pound
helicopter pilot, a Warrant Officer, to the dispensary because he had the DTs and
had just trashed a large part of the hooch in which he slept, drank, and regularly
pissed himself in a drunken stupor. Alcohol abuse was a serious, underreported
problem there in my view. I was glad not to be a part of this pilot’s crew.

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Cut The Lights! Cut The Lights!


Oh, and there is the one about another dark, dark night when I was driving First
Sergeant Miserable Bastard’s replacement to some location within the perimeter.
I had the lights on, against regulations, and the compound came under mortar
attack with rounds landing uncomfortably close to our location in the jeep. For
me, “uncomfortably close” could have been anywhere on the opposite end of the
Asian continent. When you can hear the shells on their way in and see and feel
the impact, as we did that night, it’s way too close. In attempting to turn off the
lights, I hit the engine cutoff switch, stopping the well lighted, clearly visible,
inviting looking jeep in a wide open clearing well within range of the incoming
small arms and mortar rounds. The replacement First Sergeant nearly stroked
out in panic and rage. I think that was the last time I drove a jeep over there.
Aware that jeeps, especially slow moving jeeps, made easy, inviting targets, I’m
sure that suited me fine for the remainder of my tour, which was nearly over at
that point. I had become arrogantly short by then.

All Gave Some. Some Gave All.


I may discuss these and others in detail some day; I may not—probably not.
They all have similar themes. They all involve things that could be laughable or
tragic in consequence, at least for me. A thin line separates the two. Here is the
most significant consequence: Reluctant or not, although it could easily have
gone the other way, I’m here to tell the stories, if I want to. I’ve had a life.
Like some 58,000 others, a few of the men with whom I served went home in
body bags. I can’t remember their names or their faces. Before my own
departure, I saw a greater number leave, as I did later, in good health, fully intact,
and greatly relieved to be homeward bound. I can’t remember any of their names
or faces, either. I was there for twelve months and I cannot tell you the name of a
single person with whom I served, nor can I describe their physical features. I
could not have done so thirty years ago, either. I forgot them soon after I left the
Central Highlands. I did not hear from any of the intact returnees once I returned.
I had no expectation that I would, nor any desire to do so. I certainly did not see
anyone again with whom I served, nor did I desire or seek that.
I don’t belong to any branches of the Fourth Infantry Division veterans
associations: My respects to those fine veterans who do. If I knew of a reunion of
those with whom I served, I would not attend.
No one who knows me well would consider me anti-social, hateful, or reclusive. I
enjoy the company of others quite well. But . . .
There is a common belief that you form a strong bond with and life-long
connection to someone with whom you once or repeatedly faced grave danger—
not so much in my case. I never wanted a bond; I wanted distance and I created
it. Consequently, I have no memories of real people to cause me to choke up at
the remembrance.
The VA uses a slogan, “All gave some. Some gave all.” It does not cite any real
people. It is an abstraction. Somehow, hearing it, saying it, or writing it makes my

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throat tighten up slightly. This does not happen because it puts me back to that
specific time and place in my mind. I think it is because, as an abstraction, I can
feel for those who served and for those we lost and for their families as an entire
concept. It’s a large thought in the abstract—a broad-brush stroke. I can’t avoid
dealing with my emotions when these things confront me. I have no memory
lapse to shield me. However, I can keep a necessary distance between the
specific memory of anyone I actually knew over there and me.
Curious that. Or, maybe not.

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