FNG (Fucking New Guy)

Written by John Holland during the Summer Writing Seminar 2021

John J. Holland Jr.

John currently resides in West Warwick, RI. He entered military service in 1967 and retired in 1994. John served in Vietnam, South Korea, Hawaii, United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Panama and various bases in the United States. His military specialties were Special Forces, Infantry, Communications/Electronics, Logistics, and Plans/Operations/Training. John Enjoys working out at the gym, reading, computers, and golf. He has three grown children with children of their own.

When I arrived in South Vietnam in May of 1969, I was assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group which was headquartered in Nha Trang, a city located in Khanh Hoa Province on the South China Sea. This lively and attractive coastal resort city then, as now, was known for its beaches, diving sites, and offshore islands. Unfortunately for me, I was not there to sightsee and didn’t really get to experience the sights and sounds of that well known vacation spot.

Choosing Nha Trang as the location for its headquarters was important to the mission of the 5th Group in that it had responsibility for various missions and operations throughout South Vietnam and needed to be strategically located to support and oversee all theaters. Nha Trang’s proximity to the massive U.S. airbase and naval base complex at Cam Ranh Bay, approximately 45 km south by roadway, was another factor in choosing the city for its headquarters location. It was in that setting, I hoped, that I would be assigned to one of the many A-Teams situated throughout the country.

The A-Team was the basic Special Forces formation consisting of a 12-man detachment assigned to a specific Area of Operations (AO). Each member of the detachment was a highly trained specialist in one of five military occupational specialties (MOS) to include; Weapons; Communications; Medical; Combat Engineer; and Operations and Intelligence. In theory, an A-Team was designed to organize and train indigenous soldiers in those same skills along with basic tactical doctrine and help them form their own self-defense military units. Your typical A-Team could train and equip up to a battalion-sized formation in an ideal situation.

Once a strategic location had been decided upon, a permanent outpost, or A-Camp, would be constructed, usually with the assistance of Army engineers or U.S. Navy Seabees. From there, operations would be carried out in and around the surrounding countryside. The A-Team members would equip and train local inhabitants to defend themselves or even carry out offensive operations such as patrolling and reconnaissance. The detachment medical personnel would be busy visiting local villages where they would set up temporary field dispensary locations and treat the sick and infirm to the extent they were able. The combat engineers would be busy assisting the local farmers with water management activities for their rice paddies and vegetable gardens and digging freshwater wells. An important element necessary to successfully gaining the trust and reliance of the local population was the creation of an atmosphere of mutual cooperation through the use of civic action projects such as those described. After nearly two years of training stateside plus Vietnamese Language School, I was looking forward to becoming part of the Special Forces community in Vietnam and putting to good use all the skills I had been taught. 

As I administratively processed into the 5th Group for further assignment in-country, I learned about an organization called SOG (Studies and Observation Group), which was vacuuming up most of the new personnel arriving in-country. SOG was a top secret intelligence-gathering organization. The organization’s mission was highly classified as to what it was doing, and where it was doing it (Laos and Cambodia). I was told that I was going to be assigned to one of three detachments located in either the Southern, Central, or Northern areas of operation. I chose the Central Detachment which was located in the Central Highlands of the country just outside the city of Kontum. My FNG thinking at the time was that it might have a slightly cooler climate because of elevation and that there might be more rainforest than jungle and swamp. I was wrong about the climate but half right about the jungle aspect. It was just as hot and humid in the Central Highlands and, as time went on, I found that the terrain, while more rainforest than jungle, had its own particular characteristics that made movement through it just as difficult and dangerous as the jungle and swamps down in the southern portions of the country. I had asked around about the three detachments and found that there were a few people that I had known at Fort Bragg who had been sent there. So, in for a penny – in for a pound – off I went to Kontum and Forward Observation Base II (FOB II), the home of Command and Control Detachment Central or CCC where I would spend the next 12 months.

I departed Nha Trang on a C-123 Transport Aircraft which would transport me and several other passengers to Kontum and points beyond. The airplane was old, well-used, and really noisy. The vibrations emanating from the two powerful engines on the wings were substantial and could be felt throughout the entire aircraft. As I was sitting in my seat, I could literally see tiny rivets shaking and being ejected from the skin of the plane. To my surprise, there were several Vietnamese civilians aboard who had with them a crate of chickens and a crate with a pig in it. As we approached the airfield near Kontum, the aircraft began a steep descent into the area. With no warning we slammed down onto the runway and taxied to a hanger where we would unload. I found out later that that type of landing procedure was standard when approaching many airfields in the Highlands in order to avoid ground fire from the surrounding hills. 

After our aircraft had taxied to the hanger where some of us would be getting off, the loadmaster dropped the tailgate of the plane and we stepped off. The first thing I noticed besides the heat and humidity was the smell. It was an aroma potpourri of organic waste used as fertilizer in the rice paddies, cooking fires, and vehicle exhaust. When you got away from the airfield, there were clouds of cigarette smoke everywhere because everybody smoked. This was nothing like what I had experienced before in my limited travels.

A sergeant driving an old 2 ½ ton truck was there to pick us up and take us to the FOB. I noticed that the windshield had a bullet hole in it and that there were several more in the body of the truck. Somebody asked and he nonchalantly explained that the truck had survived a roadside ambush a few weeks back. No further comment was offered. This was another sobering reminder of my new reality.  

The drive from the airfield to the FOB was my first real look at the countryside. Green and brown were the primary colors of the terrain on either side of the road. Dotting the highway were buildings of every shape and description, mainly one and two room dwellings interspersed with stalls where vendors offered everything under the sun for sale. Items such as clothing, cigarettes, soft drinks, beer, many kinds of food dishes, livestock, etc. These were people busy with commerce going about their daily lives.

Interspersed among the vehicles and Vietnamese civilians I noticed a different sort of individual. Mostly female, they were dark skinned and dressed similarly in these tight ankle length skirts of many colors. Some had young children wrapped securely to their chests while carrying huge loads of goods on their backs strapped to wooden pack frames. I saw everything from firewood to cages containing chickens and small livestock. The pack frames were piled high with goods which required these women to really lean forward in order to balance their loads. Some walked with a walking stick, or two. These were Montagnard women. This was my first glimpse into their world. 

I asked one of the other men in the truck about what I had observed. He told me that Montagnard women performed many hard labor tasks while men hunted, fished, farmed, or served with the military as soldiers in order to provide for their families. He also explained that the Montagnard culture was an old culture with customs and traditions that were centuries old and completely different from those associated with Vietnamese life. The vast majority of Montagnard tribes are concentrated in and around the Central Highlands region of Vietnam where they live in small villages throughout the region. There is no love lost between them and the ethnic Vietnamese population due to disputes centered around encroachment upon their traditional lands by the central Vietnamese government.

Upon arrival at the FOB, we unloaded from the truck and were ushered into the headquarters building where we were greeted by the First Sergeant who proceeded to tell us about the unit and what we would be doing while assigned there. There were two other FNGs with me, the others from the truck being men returning from leave, or other business. The First Sergeant spoke to us as a group, at first, and then sat down with each of us in a one-on-one setting. He was an impressive man. When he spoke, you listened without being told to. He was serving as First Sergeant while his recommendation for The Medal of Honor was being considered in Washington, D.C. (and was eventually awarded). No longer allowed to serve in the field, he was taking on the responsibility of orienting new personnel like me to the facts of life as they related to the mission of the unit. He explained in no uncertain terms that the area of operations was inside Laos and Cambodia. We would spend most of our field time in Laos because of our proximity to that country and the Ho Chi Minh Trail which ran through it. That roadway was where the enemy moved troops and equipment down from the North Vietnamese border through Laos, then through Cambodia and into South Vietnam. Our main mission was to infiltrate into areas of interest, to higher command, and observe enemy movement in and around the Trail. There were other facets to the mission of the unit but mainly, it was strategic reconnaissance. What I remember to this very day, was how he pulled no punches as he emphasized the dangerous nature of the tasks at hand. Casualty rates for the unit were above average and men being listed as Missing In Action (MIA) were not uncommon. He further explained that there had been cases where teams had been inserted into target areas and never heard from again. At the end of the lecture, his eyes boring into mine, he said that this was the time to speak up and decide if I was willing to go forward with this assignment. “We are all volunteers here,” he stated. I was taken aback for a moment. How could I say no to this man, of all people. I looked him in the eye and simply stated, “I’m ready.” He stared at me for a moment as if to judge my reply to his challenge. He grunted softly to himself and stood up. I guess I measured up because the next thing I knew I was signing the unit roster and my application for a TOP SECRET clearance which you had to have in order to be a member of this unit.

There were two types of elements within the unit. There was the recon team or RT, and there was the Exploitation Company. Recon teams were generally 7 or 8 man elements which would, once infiltrated, quietly conduct recon in target areas as directed. Exploitation companies, on the other hand, were large formations of men and equipment which would be infiltrated into an area to exploit, or attack, a designated target. They were anything but stealthy due to their size and mission. As luck would have it, one of the recon teams was short one man due to illness. It was decided that I would be assigned to that recon team, RT South Carolina. All the recon teams operating out of FOB II were named for states. As I awaited the arrival of my team leader I spent some time just observing what was going on in the general area. There was a mix of personnel, American and Montagnard. I was really curious about the Montagnards and what it would be like to work with them. As I stood there, several of them stopped by and stared at me but didn’t say anything. They would point and speak to each other in their own language and then move on. I guess they could easily distinguish an FNG from an experienced man. Probably the new uniform, my pale complexion, and the sweat that was running down my cheeks and dripping off my chin. They didn’t seem too impressed.

Eventually, my new team leader appeared. We shook hands and he said to follow him to the hooch where I would be living. When we got there, he pointed to a room with an empty bunk and said to drop my gear and accompany him to the supply room. Once there, I was issued sheets, blankets, a rucksack and canvas bag full of equipment plus an M-16 rifle. He helped me carry everything back to the room and told me that later on, he would explain to me just how he wanted me to organize my gear for the field. He also told me to go draw some ammunition for my rifle from the supply room before day’s end in case something happened that required having a loaded weapon handy. Silently, I wondered what that was all about.

After he left, another sergeant entered the room and introduced himself as the assistant team leader, and my roommate. He told me that the team leader had asked him to help me get settled in and oriented in, and around, the FOB. He suggested we go eat lunch and then go and meet the Montagnards comprising the rest of the team. As we ate lunch, he began explaining how the team was organized. There was the team leader, or one zero, the assistant team leader, or one one, and the one two/radio operator – me. My interest was piqued when he said that because I was not a well trained professional radio operator. I’d had classes on it at Fort Bragg but had never been solely responsible for operating in a tactical communications network. He told me that there would be plenty of time to become familiar with the equipment and procedures prior to the team’s next operation which was probably ten to twelve days down the road. 

After lunch, we walked up the road a little ways outside the perimeter fence to the helicopter landing area where the team leader was waiting with the Montagnard team members to do some training. When we arrived, he introduced the Montagnard translator (each team had one) to me and began to introduce me to the others through the translator. Each man stepped forward and shook my hand. As introductions were over, there was a moment where I had a chance to get a good look at these men with whom I would be spending the next few months in harm’s way. I was impressed with what I saw. They were, for the most part, very young men, probably late teens or early twenties. I later learned that the oldest among them had just turned 30. They were all combat veterans with a lot of recon experience. They had been a team for quite some time and worked well together. Americans would come and go, but the team remained the same. They were solid, rugged men of smaller stature as compared to most American personnel averaging perhaps between 5 feet 5 inches and 5 feet 7 inches in height and maybe 130 to 140 pounds body weight. They were deeply brown-skinned with black hair and eyes. Their complexions were those of men who spent a great deal of time outdoors. As I learned, subsequently, they were capable of carrying heavy loads and weaponry silently and without complaint. They were extremely competent with any and all of the different weapons the team would carry (depending on the mission) and moved through the tangle of the rainforest/jungle the team would encounter in target areas of operation. We were extremely fortunate to have these men working with us.

After the introduction process was over, the team leader told me to stand aside and watch as the team practiced exiting a helicopter on an LZ (Landing Zone) in a target area and deploying for action. The process I watched was smooth and well-oiled. It had been used countless times by these men to good effect. I watched them do it 6 or 7 times before the team leader said, “enough.” He critiqued and then let the men go back to their barracks to unwind. He told me after they had gone, that, “you could never practice enough.” “Imagine,” he said, “as you are getting off the chopper and the bushes surrounding the LZ erupt with gunfire, how do you as individuals and as a team react?” He further explained that, “the only possibility for survival in that situation is discipline and rote knowledge, that is why we practice drills such as aircraft exfiltration as often as we do.” 

As we walked back down the road to the front gate of the compound he continued to outline some of the other immediate action drills which would be practiced over and over again until each man’s reaction was automatic.  “Survival on an operation as far from home as most of them were from friendly forces,” he continued, “depended on well-written, well-rehearsed, Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) developed over time and at the expense of previous lessons learned by our team and others. It’s called experience and there can be no deviation from those dictates.” I was becoming a believer and it was only my first day on the job.       

Over the next seven days I became very familiar with the team’s SOP. We practiced everything from being ambushed to conducting an ambush. Probably the most exciting (and frightening) exercise was practicing various emergency exfiltration/extraction techniques. There isn’t always a nice open area where a helicopter can land and pick up the team so sometimes, we would have to improvise. Imagine that you are located in an area where there are no openings in the overhead tree canopy and you are being pursued by the enemy. There is no time to get to an open area or pre-planned LZ. Extraction is needed now or the consequences are dire. As the helicopter hovers over the canopy of trees, it will drop rope lines down through the foliage to the team waiting down below. Each member of the team has on a harness with a carabiner attached to metal “O” Ring located at roughly chest height. As the ropes drop down through the trees, the idea is to grab the rope and twist it into a non-slip loop and snap it into the carabiner. There would be at least four ropes if the chopper was a Huey and two, maybe three if the chopper was a CH-34. The command “online” would be given via radio and the chopper would immediately begin lifting the team members up through the trees. The process was not gentle, and injuries were frequently sustained in addition to any combat trauma already inflicted. We practiced this method of extraction often whenever a chopper was available for training. I soon found myself carrying a three-foot section of rope around with me so that I could practice the procedure for tying a non-slip loop whenever my hands were idle. There was only one way to do it properly or risk having the knot give way while in flight. There was no walking away from such a mistake. 

Other types of training revolved around conducting raids and ambushes, calling for artillery, conducting airstrikes, how to communicate properly on the radio, codes and cyphers, how to operate the cryptographic machine which was attached to the radio to provide secure communications, and lots and lots of time on the weapons range. We fired weapons from the M-16 to the LAWS Rocket launcher and everything in between. We also became very familiar with the Claymore Mine which was carried by each member of the team in the field. We trained every day on some aspect of what we might encounter in the field. It was serious business, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I knew that soon our team would be called upon to carry out an operation “over the fence” as we called it. The prospect, the enormity of that reality was foremost in my mind. Would I be up to the task? Would I perform my duties as expected? Would I be a contributing and reliable member of the team? Those questions lingered in my mind constantly. I felt like a square peg in a round hole. The team’s routines were smooth and well-practiced, but I was unsure of how I fit into the picture no matter how often we practiced. Only the real thing would be the test and provide the answers I needed. That opportunity came on day 8 when we were alerted for an operation 2 days hence. 

After receiving an operational alert, we received a briefing by the intelligence officer concerning the target area in question. We received maps, communication instructions and codes, and information regarding enemy activities in the area. The nature of the operation was to move to a specific location in the target area and observe troop movements to and from the Ho Chi Minh Trail to an area believed to be the headquarters of an NVA regiment recently observed moving down the Trail from North Vietnam. Our job was to verify that the headquarters was where they thought it was and report that information to our higher headquarters. Of major importance was the ability to approach the suspected bivouac area as quietly as possible in order to look, listen, and take pictures if possible. We would infiltrate via an LZ several kilometers from the suspected bivouac area and walk in using as much stealth as possible. It was estimated that our walk in would take two days. There would be one day on target in order to verify the intelligence, and then a two day walk out to an extraction LZ. Nobody would hear us come in or leave – that was the optimal scenario.

We spent the next day getting kitted out and drawing our supplies for the operation. It was decided that, because of the extreme distance from friendly forces that this target represented, we would take seven days’ worth of rations and extra batteries for the radio and cryptographic device. Because there would be the possibility of contact with a superior enemy force, we would each take a minimum of twenty’ 20-round magazines for our rifles (400 rounds) plus two fragmentary grenades (and one white phosphorus grenade for me to destroy the cryptographic gear if we were attacked and about to be overrun). The team leader and assistant would each also carry smoke grenades to be used to mark our location as necessary. We had other pieces of equipment such as first aid kits, flare kits, signal mirrors, individual survival radios, extraction harnesses, ponchos or poncho liners, water purification tablets, and three or four canteens of water. Our jungle fatigues were sanitized (all U.S. markings removed) and nobody was allowed to carry dog tags or personal items identifiable as American if killed in action and left behind. 

On day ten of my assignment to SOG, we were airlifted from our base in Kontum to a launch site on an airfield further west outside of a city named Dak To. A famous battle between the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the NVA, in 1967, had taken place on a hill observable from our launch site. From there we would be going further west to a very remote launch site located at the A-Camp of Dak Pek. Here we would rendezvous with all of our support aircraft (Cobra attack helicopters generally) and an observer aircraft (usually a fixed wing aircraft called a FAC or Forward Air Controller) The FAC would usually proceed to the target area first and confirm that there appeared to be no enemy activity on the LZ and that the weather was good for infiltration operations. Once the “all clear” had been received for movement to the target area, we loaded up on the two helicopters and proceeded to the target. 

The flight into the target area was long and uneventful. The extreme distance from Dak Pek to the LZ only allowed our support aircraft to stay on station with us for a few minutes after our insertion because of fuel concerns. The first few moments after insertion were the most critical. The gunships orbiting above us were our insurance in the event contact with the enemy was made on or near the LZ. Once they were gone, we were on our own far from any kind of support unless we called for it in case of an emergency. It would take hours for it to get to us. 

The first half of the team exited the first aircraft to land and set up a hasty perimeter while waiting for the second ship to land with the rest of the team. It was at this point that I made my official appearance as an FNG by jumping off the chopper and falling flat on my face. Easy to do with nervous rubbery legs and a heavy pack on my back with an extra 30 pounds of communications gear inside besides my personal gear, a claymore mine, 3 grenades, 15 pounds of ammunition in pouches around my waist, 7 days rations, and 4 full canteens of water. I’m pretty sure I was the only one to fall down. Two of the Montagnards stopped to help me up and I waddled into my spot in the perimeter. Of course, when I fell, my floppy hat slid off my head and was blown into the bushes by the rotor blast of the chopper taking off. 

We waited in place for a good 30 minutes before the team leader asked for the handset to the radio and told the FAC pilot who was still in the area that we had been inserted without incident and would be proceeding to our first objective rally point on our predetermined route of march. The FAC pilot acknowledged and departed the area. We were truly on our own.

The only means of communicating with the outside world from this point on would be at scheduled times when we would set up the long antenna to the radio and establish contact with a radio relay site located on a mountain top some distance to the south of us. They would receive our traffic and send it back to the FOB in Kontum. All traffic had to be encrypted using a daily code book which I carried. The team leader would write out his status message, I would encrypt it, and then verbally whisper it into the radio handset. All communication between team members was done by either hand signal or whispering. Stealth was our friend. 

As we began our trek toward the location of the NVA bivouac area, I noticed that the terrain we were walking on was extremely hilly and thick with thorn bushes, vines, and lots of tree roots. I found myself constantly caught up in the vines which seemed to connect to every tree and bush along the way. Just when I thought I’d mastered how to walk carefully and silently through the vines, I’d find myself involved with a thorn bush. My teammates kept moving along at a good pace as if there were no impediments. More importantly, they did so silently. I, on the other hand, was too busy to be on guard like the others because I was constantly battling the undergrowth. When I wasn’t doing that, I was tripping over roots and falling down. Each time that happened, somebody had to help me up because I wasn’t used to the heavy pack on my back. To make matters worse, we began to encounter steep hilly terrain which had to be climbed despite the undergrowth and the heavy equipment. Slowly climbing up one side by pulling on the undergrowth for balance and sliding down the other side while trying to be quiet required finesse and practice, both of which I did not have in abundance. I lost count of how many times I fell down and dropped my weapon. I was sweating like a pig and had a headache like I’d never known from becoming dehydrated. At one point, the team leader called a halt and came back to me and told me that I had to tighten things up because of the noise factor. He said that with ice in both his eyes and his voice. I told him that I would do my best. I was so embarrassed. I was indeed the quintessential FNG in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was going to get people killed if I didn’t get my act together. 

We marched on for a few hours longer when the team leader called a halt and signaled that we would set up a perimeter and remain overnight (RON) in that spot for the night. I remember sitting down and leaning back against my pack. I was as exhausted at that moment as I had ever been.

I promptly fell asleep without taking off my ruck, setting up my claymore to cover my sector of the perimeter, or setting up the radio and antenna for our evening communications check in. 

The next thing I felt was a vicious kick to my boots. The team leader wanted my attention and now that I was awake, he got up into my face by grabbing my shirt and whispered, “if you don’t stop snoring and making all the unnecessary noise that you have up until this point, the Montagnards are going to kill you – and I just might let them!” I woke up real fast and looked around. They were all looking at me with angry and disgusted looks on their faces. They had had enough of the FNG! The team leader told me to get off my ass and do the things I was supposed to do as part of the team. Every man had to do his part in order to make the whole thing work properly if we were to survive this operation or any other we would be sent on. The look in his eyes as he said these things to me was enough to get me to promise myself to try harder to get my act together. I just couldn’t continue to let him and the others down the way I had that day.

It didn’t really get any easier from that point on, at least not at first. I began watching the others as they moved through the bush and did so without getting caught up in the vines and thorns like I did on the first day. There appeared to be a method which allowed for a certain amount of speed and stealth. I began to copy the other’s movements and managed not to trip over as many roots as I had that first day. When we decided to conduct our RON that second night, I performed my duties as was expected of me before even attempting to relax. When it was my turn to sleep, I wrapped my head in my poncho so as not to be heard snoring. I was determined to make up for my behavior on that first day.

The rest of the operation was uneventful. Our target turned out to be a dry hole. The enemy regiment had been there but had departed for parts unknown. We took pictures of the area, looked for anything of intelligence value and, after making our report, began our return march using a different route. Eventually we arrived at our extraction LZ and called in the helicopters to come get us. 

We never made contact with the enemy on that operation. I thought to myself “thank God,” because I would have been useless. I’d been the consummate FNG. I had been totally unprepared for the situation I found myself in and put others in unnecessary danger. I was completely embarrassed by my clumsiness. I fully expected to be shunned by the others on the team when we returned to the FOB. That, however, was not what happened.

Upon our return to home base, the Montagnards came to me as a group the next day and took me outside the FOB to their nearby village. Instead of beating me up or killing me, they asked me to drink some rice wine and smoke some horrible substance from a pipe with them. With this small ceremony they welcomed me to the fold. The interpreter told me that while I had “walked like a water buffalo” in the woods, it was also true that I had gone into Laos with them and returned and that that fact had meant something. In some circles, this was known as “breaking one’s cherry.” I was still an FNG but with one operation under my belt. They promised to teach me how to “walk in the woods” without falling all over myself. It took longer for the other two Americans to accept me. The team leader rode me hard. I worked and trained to the best of my ability to gain their trust and respect. Eventually, we were a team.

John after returning from the mission