The first night in Thuong Duc was uneventful. My fighting hole was shallow with a layer of sandbags around the sides. Moonlight lit up the valley, and I managed to get a few hours of much-needed sleep.
The battery Gunny distributed C-rats, and we ate in groups, sharing heat tabs to warm the canned food. After breakfast the Gunny assigned work parties, and I got “trash pickup.” Captain Cavagnol intervened saying, “No, Sergeant Kysor is now our security NCO.” He looked at me and said, “We’ll be going to the Special Forces Camp later for security supplies.” Meanwhile the truck convoy started the return trip to Hill 65 with Top Culverhouse and Diaz’s guitar.
At 0900 Cavagnol and I were ready to head out to the Special Forces Camp. We towed a small trailer out of the compound onto Route 4 and crossed the river over a concrete bridge. Women and kids were in the river doing laundry, bathing and swimming.
Heading up the switchbacks to the SF camp was a steep grade, heavily wired with triple concertina wire. The compound was fortified and appeared impenetrable. Cavagnol was greeted by the camp Commander (an Army Captain), and we entered a sandbag stairwell leading to a central command area. The Commander asked a Sergeant to show me around the compound, and we went through their dining room and kitchen. There were three Vietnamese women cooks preparing meals, in an organized well-stocked galley. It was impressive.
We walked outside through deep trenches and climbed another stairwell to the rear of the camp. A path through the wire led to a small Montagnard village at the edge of the jungle. There was a big thatched house on stilts where women and children were actively working and preparing food.
We approached three older men standing over a smoldering fire. They were wearing loincloths and smoking what looked like thin cigars. The Sergeant and I lit cigarettes, and my stainless steel Zippo lighter caught the attention of one old man . . . he wanted to see it. I let him hold it, and he tried to make it light but didn’t know how. I showed him how it worked, and he gave me a big toothless grin. He wanted it.
The Sergeant said, “He wants to trade.” The old man opened an animal-skin purse on his waist and pulled out a red NVA rank insignia. I held it in my hand; it had a thin black braided cord attached to the insignia, with a brown “nut” attached to the other end of the cord.
The Sergeant said, “Take it, put it in your pocket and accept the deal.” I did as he said, bowed to the old man, and we backed away. We returned to join the conversation between the two officers, and the Sergeant announced, “Sarge here made a crazy trade.”
The Green Beret soldiers gathered around and inspected the insignia. One of them asked, “How much did you pay?” I answered, “A Zippo lighter.” The room exploded in laughter, and the Commander asked to hold the “souvenir.” He got up and went to a chart on the wall and held it up to a matching NVA rank saying, “A Captain with long hair, maybe a woman.” The cord was braided hair, and the nut-shaped object attached was a dried human ear. I was horrified at making this trade and now wanted no part of it.
The Commander suggested, “Take a look around and make an offer. I can use this as a prize in a contest.” The Sergeant showed me what was available, and I saw a stack of boxes marked “M18A1 Claymore Mines.” (Claymores are outward facing anti-personnel defensive weapons.) I went to the Commander and said, “Sir, I’ll take a case of Claymores.” The response was quick, “DONE” and we shook hands, sealing the deal.
The box of Claymores was stashed in the Jeep; the trailer was already loaded with rolls of concertina wire and engineer stakes. Cavagnol had acquired the basic perimeter security gear, and the Claymores would be an upgrade.
On the return trip, Cavagnol laughed at my deal-making, “You traded a $5.00 Zippo lighter for six Claymore Mines. How are you going to light your cigarettes now?” I answered, “C-rat matches, Sir.” We were happy with the newly-acquired equipment, and it would keep me busy securing our perimeter.