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Part 5: A Tour of Pr’Line Mountain

Written by Jeff Drake
6 · 18 · 24

Part 5: A Tour of Pr’Line Mountain

Pr’Line was unlike any military base I’d been to before. In fact, let me take you on a bit of a tour.

Our mountain site was approximately 25 clicks (kilometers) southeast of Dalat, the former French capital of South Vietnam. In 1970 the drive would take you through several small villages and towns. You could easily smell the villages before you got to them, a combination of rotten vegetables and over-ripe fruit. They truly smelled to high heaven! For a newbie, the smell was powerful.

Our site required a lot of supplies, so we would run truck convoys between Pr’Line and Dalat two or 3 times per week. It was the job of the Security Platoon to clear the road with what we called a “road recon,” before the convoy could make its run. This involved the security platoon walking the road in front of the convoy, between Pr’Line and the halfway point between Pr’Line and Dalat, a place we called, Checkpoint Charlie. From there, whoever had a pass to go to town would hop a ride on a deuce-and-a-half truck. The rest of us, including the armored personnel carrier (APC), would stay at Checkpoint Charlie until the convoy returned later in the day. The idea was that we would flush out any ambushes or snipers that might be waiting for the convoy. This worked most of the time, but not always.

The two towns of any notoriety to us were the village of Phat Chi which was located at the bottom of the road leading to our site, at the “T” in the road where highway 20 ran from Dalat down the entire mountain to Don Xuon (we pronounced this “Don Zoom”) in one direction and Dalat in the other. A number of our local maids and kitchen help came from this town. A larger town was further down the road to Dalat where other maids lived. It was called, Cau Dat.

Road Recon resting at Checkpoint Charlie
Photo courtesy of Sgt. David West

Checkpoint Charlie was nothing more than a cleared semi-flat area that looked more like a campsite situated as it was in the forest. Accompanying us on our road recons was our faithful APC, either Snoopy I or Snoopy II. The weapons we carried personally varied, with the M16 being the rifle of choice for most. We had at least one guy carrying an M-60 machine gun and a hundred rounds of ammo strapped around his chest like a bandolero. I carried the M60 and the ammo on and off for several months of road patrols before I became the driver of Snoopy I.

There were a couple of choice weapons the guys had as I remember. One was a “grease gun.” It was called that because that’s what it looked like! Technically, it was an M3A1 submachine gun, originally deemed the replacement for the Thompson submachine gun, bringing to mind thoughts of Eliot Ness, LOL! It fired 45-caliber rounds and made a really cool sound. Similar to the 45-caliber pistol, you could hardly hit anything with it, but the grease gun at least would scare someone! One sergeant, Dave, carried a sawed-off M1 carbine, which was a cool-looking weapon. When Dave left the Hill, I inherited it.

A couple of hooches, where we would sleep.

Most of us carried a couple hand grenades each, too, as well as flares and smoke grenades. We usually had at least one guy with an M-79 grenade launcher. Oh, and medical packs, too. I always carried several of those (they were small and could fit on your web gear) because they were intended for others to use on you when you got shot. None of us wore helmets. The GIs in Vietnam had moved past helmets to the stereotypical “boonie hat” sometime before I arrived. We all wore jungle boots on our feet. These regulation Army boots had steel plates embedded in the soles to prevent injury due to punji sticks[i]. A punji stick was made of bamboo, sharpened to an evil point with a knife. Charlie would dig a hole, then stick a bunch of the punji sticks into the bottom of the hole, with the points up. The tips were dipped in human shit to ensure whoever stepped into the hole would have an infected wound. They then covered up the hole to hide it. Nice. Some of us also laced one dog tag[ii] into our boots for identification. Later I carved peace signs into the heels of my boots so that if I stepped on a mine they would know whose foot it was they found. LOL! Fun times!

Returning from Dalat and/or Checkpoint Charlie, you’d see the road to Pr’Line on the right once you got to Phat Chi. Up the road a few hundred meters you’d find our guard shack and the helipad. On the way to the guard shack you’d walk right past our dump. The dump smelled better than some of the villages we walked through.

Snoopy I and Snoopy II

While our site had an entrance, it had no gate, just the guard shack. Given the lack of a gate, it had to be guarded day and night. We took turns manning the small guard shack, made out of cement, with walls at least a foot thick, probably more, with a door and a small window, good enough for shooting out of.

Across the road from the guard shack was the helipad. Helipad? Ha! It was essentially a flat piece of ground that looked grated, good enough for a chopper to land on and big enough for a Chinook[iii], if need be. Now that I think of it, we may have had the landing area covered with PSP[iv] to make it a better landing area, especially during monsoons.

We called Pr’Line “the Hill” for a reason. Pr’Line was at 5,200 feet elevation and was the second-highest mountain in South Vietnam. The highest mountain in South Vietnam was Lang Bien Mountain (LBM), our sister-site, which we could see occasionally when it wasn’t in the clouds. LOL! LBM was over 7,000 feet!

Pr’Line Mountain site circa 1968.

Pr’Line sat above the jungle that surrounded 3 of its sides. There were two roads circling the Hill, at different elevations, with the perimeter visible below. Part of Pr’Line was sectioned off for those we called “the wire-pullers. These were the guys who were responsible for all of the communications that made Pr’Line what it was. There was kind of an upstairs-downstairs social thing that went on between the Signal folks and the Security folks. At least, that is how we felt. One side of the site contained our hooches, where we slept. All around Pr’line were our bunkers, everything else was red dirt. Everywhere. During the dry season this meant red dust got into everything, our clothes, our hair, our food. During the monsoon season it meant red mud, sticky, messy, it got into everything, too.

Below where we lived was our perimeter which extended out from our site about 75 yards or so. It stuck out because there wasn’t a blade of grass growing on it. All around the hill, it was just a ring of compacted red and black dirt. This stood out in comparison to the iridescent green jungle forest which also surrounded the site. Later I would learn that the area without greenery was due to the extensive use of Agent Orange, a defoliant favored by the Army. The same with our living area. The jungle was wild enough that it would quickly reclaim any land we humans tried to take for ourselves. Agent Orange kept the vegetation at bay. I never saw a blade of grass grow there the entire 19 months I was in Vietnam. The exposed red dirt had another use for us though, as filler for the hundreds and hundreds of sandbags we filled all the time. These were used to reinforce our bunkers and hooches. I suspect filling sandbags is the cause of a number of fellow Pr’Line veterans I have heard about who have come down with weird-ass types of cancers associated with Agent Orange.

Our bunkers were mostly simple, but very solid structures that were comprised of large wood beams and sandbags. Inside was a dirt floor and enough space for a chair or stool of some kind and a window to look out, with a mount for an M-60 machine gun. Each bunker also had one or more devices that we called, “clackers”. A clacker is what we called it, I don’t know the official name. Technically, it was the electric detonator for a Claymore mine[v]. It was attached by wire to a claymore mine located down the side of the hill, in front of the bunker, facing the jungle. A Claymore mine would explode forward, toward whatever enemy was coming up the hill towards the bunker. It would spread lethal 00 buckshot in a 60-degree arc for 50-feet, and had a 55 yard range. You didn’t want to stand behind it either, as it had a back blast of about 40 feet, as I remember. The Claymore made a sound you never forget, once you’ve heard it.

194th Security Platoon (1970), just before I arrived in country.
Photo courtesy of Sgt. David West

Some months after I arrived, we would have to cement the Claymore mines into place, as Charlie kept turning the damn things around on us. Doh! I have to tell you, that spending the night staring into the incredible blackness of the jungle, scared, not seeing or hearing a damn thing, and then finding out in the morning that a VC had crept up and turned the mine around in front of you and you never saw them! It was enough to make you piss your pants. Charlie was very good at his craft. And it also pissed you off.

As I mentioned, Pr’Line had more men on it than just us in security. A good part of the site was dedicated to the Army Signal Corp. They ran the communications equipment, towers and radar screens that peppered our site. All military communications, regardless of the branch, would have to send and receive their communications through the systems run by Signal. In the Security Platoon we called them wire-pullers, or wire-draggers, a reference to the men we would see climbing those towers and running telephone lines all over the place. Very few actually had that responsibility, but that’s what we called them. I think some of them took offense at this, but I know I never meant it as an insult. I’m not sure what there names were for us, probably nothing good. I always got along fine with the Signal guys.

We weren’t alone living on Pr’Line. There were also ARVNs (South Vietnamese regular Army). These poor bastards were in the war for the duration. They lived in shacks on the left side of the road as you entered the site. We also had Montegnards. They were ARVNs, too, but were hill tribe folks. They were badass, for the most part. No one fucked with the “Yards,” as we called them. Nice people. I liked them. They all lived in the same shacks. Some did various functions around the Hill. K-Jon was a Yard who was also known as the “shit burner.” His job was to collect the shit from the outhouses and burn it. Once in a while, he’d burn the shit on one side of the site and the wind would carry it over to where we were all standing in line at the Mess Hall, waiting for lunch. Nothing could clear that line out faster. LOL!

[i] The “punji stick” was a booby-trap. Sharpened sticks would be placed in the bottom of a hole that was covered up. The sticks were usually coated with human feces to cause infection.

[ii] An identification all soldiers wore around their necks. We were given two each. One for your boot, the other for your neck. It listed a name, serial number and blood type.

[iii] A CH-47 Chinook helicopter was a tandem rotor helicopter used for lifting and carrying large objects, like tanks, for example.

[iv] Also known as Marsten Mats, these were steel plates that were perforated and could lock together and form airplane runways.

[v] The “clacker” was the name given to the electric detonator we’d use for a claymore mine. Just a small plunger-type of device.

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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.
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