We Were Soldier-SURVEYORS Once - And Young!
By former Vietnam U.S. Army Sergeant - Topographic Surveyor, Russell Anthony "Tony" Novotny, Jr. Today's college males don't have the slightest concern about, or even have to give a second thought to, the Draft. Our Armed Forces are all volunteer retrospectively, I feel the Draft made me a better person and most certainly a much better American. I am convinced our US of A's political psyche would be more unified today if all males had to serve in either the military, or a civilian service which dealt with catastrophes like Katrina, Sandy, forest fires, floods, earthquakes, etc. - I have a proposal written for National Obligatory Duty - N.O.D. that, so far, has been ignored by politicians. I was in my 3rd year of college, taking civil engineering courses. I checked with my Draft Board and my number was coming up. The need for replacement soldiers in Vietnam was rising sharply. My prior two years of college and 2 years of working for the U.S. Geological Survey, Topographic Division had zero affect on keeping me from being drafted. My U.S.G.S. background gave me experience running state-of-the-art surveying instruments of that period, long before present-day survey-quality GPS was invented. Since it was inevitable I would be drafted, I faced the personal decision of remaining an American and serving my country, or putting my tail between my legs and becoming a Canadian. I chose the former. My Iowa-farm-boy dad, Russell Sr., turned B-17 Flying Fortress pilot during WWII, flying 29 bombing missions over Germany, and being hit and crash landing in England, probably subconsciously had affected my very own personal decision. Also, the logic of knowing our nation cannot survive inevitable predation by other nations without having citizens who are willing to fight and die for its freedoms, influenced my decision-making. For the lay person, "geodic control" is comprised of precisely determined latitude-longitude coordinates of horizontal locations on the earth's surface coupled with elevations referenced to mean sea level. Since I was already a geodetic surveyor in civilian life, I enlisted for 3 years instead of being drafter for 2 years, to get more training in that field of endeavor. After basic training at Fort Benning, GA, assignment for 18 months at Fort Eustis, VA with the M.O.S. (military operation specialty) of construction surveyor, I applied for O.C.S. (officer's candidate school) and Topographic Surveying School, Fort Belvoir, VA. I was selected for both but chose the latter, was selected to be the class "acting-jack" (Sergeant), and was Honor Graduate from that School. Afterward I was promoted to E-5 (1st level of sergeant) with a new MOS of topographic surveyor, assigned to a topographic mapping company of 220 personnel at Fort Bragg, NC that was on its way to Germany. My daughter was born there in NC, and when she was 6 weeks old I was the only one in that unit pulled out and shipped to Vietnam. My wife and daughter went back home to Oregon to live without me for a year - and almost forever!
The 66th Engineering Company (Topographic), part of the 20th Engineering Brigade, base camped at Long Binh, South Vietnam, elevation 146 feet, (44 meters) above sea level, was one of the only two topographicgeodetic surveying companies in all of Vietnam. We had soldiers in the unit who were geodesists (able to compute distance/direction over the curved surface of the earth - remember, GPS did not exist then) & experienced "instrument men" like myself, who were fast and accurate taking first-order observations with theodolites, electronic distance measurers (EDM), and differential levels. Our mission was to put precise latitude-longitude horizontal positions on old French geodetic control monuments and establish new U.S. geodetic control monuments, and to determine more accurate elevations. Why? For more accurate artillery strikes against the VC (aka: “Viet Cong”, aka: “Victor Charlie" aka: merely "Charlie") and NVA (North Vietnamese Army), and for more precise mapping so that supply convoys could build and take the most efficient routes through the jungle to resupply our infantrymen. Old French topographic maps were badly outdated and not overly accurate. The area of operation for the 66th Engineering Company (Topographic) was the lowest-lying Mekong Delta region of southernmost South Vietnam. The exotically-named places we measured to/from and mapped like Binn Duong, Dong Nai, Can Tho, Tay Ninh, Binn Long, Cu Chi, Dong Tam (a provincial capital), Bien Hoa, Bear Cat., Di An, Saigon, the Michelin rubber plantation, etc. were either heavily foliaged unless defoliated by U.S. aerial drops of agent orange - to expose the enemy - or else were very wet, alternately scattered with rice paddies & jungle. The water we drank out of 5-gallon "potable water" containers back at base camp was brown & gritted with sand when you took a mouth full - later, scientific investigation concluded Long Binh and Bien Hoa had one of the highest dioxin contents in its water of any region tested (perhaps this is why I have extreme skin problems still today). The point is, however, that this was a wide, low-lying, relatively flat river delta area, with very few exceptions like Nui Bah Dinh (a low, lone mountain that we surveyed off of because it would "see" in all directions). To accomplish first- and second-order geodetic control (the most accurate possible without present-day GPS) we needed very long sides of triangles, or else courses of a dog-leg traverse, for determining highest possible accuracy of latitude-longitude coordinates, and UTM coordinates shown on military maps. Common FrenchVietnamese measurement was in "klicks" (kilometers - 1 klick = 1,000 meters = 0.62 mile). It was quite common to measure from one point between two other distant points 80 klicks away, or 50 miles. To accomplish this we sometimes had to rise above the affects of earth curvature and high, thick jungle foliage. The U.S. Army had Bilby steel towers packed tightly in wooden boxes 4-feet tall by 4-feet deep by 16-feet long. From Long Binh, we would have a Chinook helicopter hover over one of these, strap it on (one had to snap the hook straps into the helicopter's underside in a single, quick motion or else the chopper's static electricity would literally knock you off of the top of the tower box), then fly it to the point we needed to establish geodetic control on. Then a crew of 6 or so of us would take off through the jungle in a 3/4 ton truck with C-rations and water canteens, on overgrown back roads - mostly without infantry support and normally only packing M-14 rifles - to the site where surveying observations were required. Then, 16-feet at a time, we would build an inner steel tower to independently support the high-accuracy theodolite (normally we used a Wild T-3 measuring arc distances to 0.1 of a second - or one part in twelve million, nine hundred sixty thousand parts of a circle (1 part in 12,960,000 parts) for readers that understand surveying measurement) and an outer tower for the surveyor to walk around on so the theodolite was not disturbed. These Bilby towers, with a light fixed on the high point, were 113-feet tall when ready for observations to be taken. Multiple sets of angles were observed at night on lights - that the VC or NVA shot at in the dark! Or lower-precision observations were made during daylight hours; I "occupied" for 2 days a most unstable tower an ARVN soldier had been killed on with a mortar round. I had to wait for the wind to leave so all the shrapnel holes in the tower could be negated and so it was stable enough for measuring horizontal angles between two distant control stations colleagues were providing me heliotrope mirror flashes from. The waiting & thinking were heavy on my mind!
We field surveyors and base-camp geodesists (some geodesists would voluntarily leave the security of their air conditioned computations trucks at base camp to help us in the field) were always subconsciously thinking about being hit by Viet Cong rifle fire, mortar rounds, or rockets. We did not have the mental duress of building a protective perimeter at night or sleeping in the jungle on the ground like the infantrymen and artillerymen we were supporting, because we mostly had a nearby Army, Navy or Air Force (Marines were all farther north in the thick of it!) compound to bunk in. However, we were constantly thinking about what would happen if we were hit being "sitting ducks" while building these towers during the day, or surveying off of them at night. So the worry in the background was, "If I'm hit, will I fall off the tower, hit the ground, and die anyway?" At night it was always best to turn off the light when the distance stations reading angles on it radioed completion of their observations. Then one could finish up his own angle and/or EDM measurement with a flash light that was turned off more than on. A civilian elk hunting best buddy and former U.S. Army infantryman living in Manhattan, MT, Jimmy Wayne Pickett, sarcastically uses infantry lingo calling support troops REMs - rear end mother f------s! As this is written, he is fighting liver cancer from a direct hit with Agent Orange. In terms of risk, the 66th Engineering Company's military mission put each of us somewhere between the fire fights Pickett was in and the REMs who were continually housed in protected rear area, but we did not have the hour-to-hour and day-to-day battle fatigue and psychological fear that infantrymen faced. Likely this was because we were distracted by the focus our precision surveying work demanded of us. We were always motivated to get into an area quickly, build our towers and make our observations quickly, then get back to the nearest base camp quickly. Two of the old, grainy pictures shown show me shirtless. This was because humidity was 100% and temperature was typically well over 100 degrees. The mosquitoes loved us when we were near a river! And, yes, we had to take an orange pill every week to prevent malaria. My own stomach would just start to settle down from the pill toward the end of a week when I had to take another. In the picture labeled "Bear Cat, South Vietnam, September 1968", however, I am seen wearing a flak vest in high temp & humidity because we had had a fellow soldier shot up and sent back to "The World" a week or so earlier when I was in Hawaii on R&R with my wife and infant daughter. Because of the previous ambush, on this day we had 2 battalions of Thai soldiers with us for infantry support. This picture was taken about a minute or so before our being ambushed. Charlie laid the first round, an M-79 grenade launcher canister round nicely placed right between SP5 Marshall Mays, of Richmond, VA, and me. Mays had, just seconds before, removed his flak vest because of high heat and humidity. He was hit in the stomach with a frag that he would have avoided altogether had he kept the vest on; but he was still standing! I was hit in the femoral vein of the left groin an inch from the "family jewels" and the impact knocked me off my feet backwards, lying face up on the ground. Mays ran on his own power to the "dustoff" Huey chopper that accidentally showed up to medevac us after trying to find a different wounded soldier nearby, but not succeeding; Mays got behind the chopper's machine gun and started spraying the village the VC were shooting at us from. I was bleeding out quickly and could see blood spurting from my groin wound with each beat of my heart. A soldier-surveyor, Dave Zull, from Long Beach, CA, who was recording my surveying observations, was one of two in my platoon who carried me to the chopper on a stretcher while we were still being shot at. The other was Don Davis, whose hometown I do not remember. Once placed on the chopper I passed out from blood loss, saw the warm, white light of a near-death experience and settled up with God, then I was suddenly surprised to wake up in the hospital shivering from a 5-pints refrigerated-blood transfusion that saved my life. I was told later by my fellow soldiersurveyors that the Thai soldiers had killed every man, woman, child, dog, cat and chicken in the small village the VC had attacked us from and burned the village to the ground.
Mays, a draftee of 2 years conscription, ended up worse off than me, having to have exploratory stomach surgery in Japan when he had less than a month left before his discharge from the Army. I was flown north to Cam Rahn Bay in a C-130 on a stretcher, spent 6 weeks in a convalescent hospital with wounded Marine, Army, Navy, and South Korean soldiers, and then was returned to the 66th Engineer Company (Topographic) to serve out another 4 months in-country. The forty-five-year-old pictures taken by others with archaic cameras and presented here are grainy but are labeled. Unfortunately 7 months worth of pictures I took myself of the beautiful Vietnamese people and their spectacularly lush countryside, were stolen from me, along with my camera, by a fellow GI when I became a W.I.A. statistic and was medevac'd northward in-country. Against all odds, that camera with "NOVOTNY" inscribed in its frame bottom, was found by one of my U.S.G.S. field party chief colleagues on the seat of a helicopter contracted out by the U.S.G.S. - on the other side of the world from where it was stolen, a another whole story! I was never conscious to meet the astute Army surgeon that put me back together by repairing my lacerated femoral vein and 6-inch groin wound, saving my left leg and my life. I never met the Army Huey pilot that came in under fire and just barely got me back to a medevac unit in time. Such are the fortunes of war!
POSTSCRIPT: The author lives in Belgrade, MT as this is written in 2013. He: is a retired Assistant Branch Chief (3rdlevel manager) from the U.S. Geological Survey, National Mapping Division, Rocky Mountain Mapping Center, Denver, CO; is a former USGS field party chief, moving 32 times over 13 years among the states of AZ, CA, ID, MT, NV, OR, UT, & WA following numerous short-lived projects requiring helicopter-access for geodetic triangulation-trilateration; is a past national president of the American Cartographic Association, American Congress on Surveying & Mapping; is a licensed Professional Land Surveyor & a member of Montana Association of Registered Land Surveyors since 2000; is a licensed real estate broker/company owner, having taught continuing education classes on "Boundary Law, GIS & GPS" to Realtors & outdoor enthusiasts; holds a B.Sc. engineering degree in Surveying & Photogrammetry from CSUF; and he holds an A. A. degree in Technical Forestry, the mandatory course work for which initiated his surveying-mapping career in 1961.
Sergeant Novotny was awarded the Purple Heart and Army Commendation Medals for his leadership & technical expertise in dangerous combat areas scattered around the Mekong Delta Region of South Vietnam 1968-1969; he is a lifetime member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart; and his is an entry in the Hall of Honor at www.ThePurpleHeart.com. Barring further email address hacking, he can be reached at [email protected]