Ban Me Thuot, Coryell Air Field
DEE!
(Francis “Dee” Kennedy)
by: Joe “Bozo” Urban
Pyramid,
1966-1967
© 2005

Tales from Ban Me Thuot #7: Ban Me Thuot, RVN, Home of Pyramid


Prelude: Sometimes when I sit down to write a story, there’s one already there in my mind and nothing else can get written until that story is started and finished.  So for months this story has flushed and flowed in the cluttered cavity that is my memory; trying to get out. Everything else in there is backlogged  ...  waiting -- I don’t know why that is. There’s nothing special or significant about this story. It’s just something that has to happen before anything else can break free. It’s a true story (to the best of my recollection).

DEE
(Francis “Dee” Kennedy)

Darlac, Ban Me Thuot 1966-1967

In late 1966 to late ’67, the thirty-five or so USAF personnel assigned to “Pyramid” were billeted  at the Darlac Hotel, located just a few blocks away from beautiful downtown Ban Me Thuot. A Lady named Madame Lee (affectionately known as “The Dragon Lady”) owned the Darlac. Rumor had it that Ms Lee, a shrewd, cold-businesswomen, leased the Darlac to the Air Force for a very profitable $100,000 per year. She also retained the right to operate and manage the hotel and its bar located on the third floor.

The bar served Suntory Whiskey, Bah Mii Bah Biere (Vietnamese Beer 33), and plenty of “Saigon Tea;” all served up by 12-15 lovely Vietnamese hostess-companions(?).  On some nights a local rock group made up of the town’s cowboys would play. The bar was a popular hangout for U.S. Military, American and Philippine contractors and other friendlies. No Vietnamese were allowed to enter unless they worked there or were a guest escorted by one of us.

The Darlac Hotel itself was a decaying French Villa, surrounding an open courtyard that had a few well-placed Bamboo, Eucalyptus and Banyon trees for shade. The first floor housed the rock-n-rollers, A1C’s and below with a few SSgt’s thrown in for good measure. The second floor had an open deck that looked out onto the open courtyard below. A wrought iron rail gave it some sense of boundary. It also housed the rest of Pyramid’s crew, NCO’s and Officers. Located on the second floor deck was a corrugated tin structure that looked like a sweatbox for a single prisoner. This was the projection booth for the nightly movies, shown seven nights a week. The front of the booth had a tin covered wooden flap that had to be propped open with a stick or broom handle.  Movies were projected onto a white painted plywood screen. The screen was fastened to a wall at the front of the courtyard.

The booth was usually manned by Joe Givens or “Frenchy” Bourgon. These guys had to beg, borrow or steal whatever films were available in the 15-km area and they were pretty resourceful at it, but still took a lot of abuse though. Catcalls, cuss words, and sometimes a few flying objects came their way. It’s amazing how much beer you can drink and how rowdy it gets during the 15th showing of the “Ten Commandments.” Somebody has to take the abuse for that and I think Joe and Frenchy kind of looked forward to it. I think Frenchy even wore his helmet into the booth to protect himself on a few occasions.

The security team at the Darlac was made up of SSgt Joe Rapozo, and A2C’s Doug Freeman, Robert Kremer and Francis Kennedy. They were all good guys, who took their job seriously. We were remote, in a combat zone, and very vulnerable; but we did have the Darlac and it was better than a tent.

Now Kennedy arrived sometime around October 1966.  He was about 20 years old and stood a few inches taller than me -- I’d say about 6’1” – and slim but athletic looking.  I think most of us looked that way then. Kennedy was from New York City and didn’t talk much, kind of a loner. My first impression of him was, here is a guy with a chip on his shoulder. Life had just dealt him another bad hand and sent him to the Nam.

I never had much contact with Kennedy for the first couple of weeks. Maybe just to say good morning or hi, on my way out to the site with one of the teams. He never spoke, and only looked and nodded to indicate that he acknowledged me.  Finally, one day my name came up for CQ duty (Charge of Quarters). This happened to everybody about once a month and was shared equally.

CQ duty usually started at 1800 hours and lasted till 0600 hours the next day. On CQ you were a support to the security man on duty; and his relief when he went to chow or needed a pee break. In addition you helped him at the front gate of the Darlac, screening all packages for surprises, checking all non-military guests for weapons, and making sure all military guests checked their’s at the door. You smiled at all the ladies and snarled at all the nationals going by who gave you the evil eye. You were usually packing a .38 S&W.

Your other main duty was to keep a roster of wake up calls, which usually started around  0330 hours for the replacement team going to early chow and heading out to the site.In between tasks as CQ you had to make sure things stayed quiet and peaceful after 2200 hours, and all guests vacated the premises before curfew at 2300 hours. Maybe then you could catch a few winks in the day room if there wasn’t a late night card game going on, which was almost every other night.

And so it was, the first time I pulled CQ duty with A2C Francis Kennedy I was just coming off the day shift and arrived back at the Darlac at about 1830 hours. CQ was supposed to start at 1800 but if you were working that day, the security team made arrangements to accommodate your schedule. Kennedy was on duty and had already eaten. I told him that I was on CQ and would be out to help him after I came back from chow. He just nodded an acknowledgement. This was going to be a great experience I thought; butt tired from working 12 hours all day and now having to spend all night with Kennedy.

After chow, I relieved Kennedy for about a half-hour, giving him a chance to catch a break. I strapped on the .38 that was there for the CQ, and sat down in the guard shack. Now the guard shack was located just inside the gate at the entrance to the Darlac. It was a wooden structure that was about 6’x5’ and open on three sides. It was sandbagged all around to waist level and had a post on each corner supporting a corrugated tin roof. Inside of the shack were a couple of folding chairs, a radio, and a Thompson submachine gun that hung by its’ strap from a hook on the back wall. The security man had his M-16 propped up in one corner and I also had my M-16 leaning in an opposite corner. There was a small 60-watt light on the inside of the shack that provided minimum illumination, and two small area spotlights on the outer wall of the Darlac doorway illuminating a small circumference around the entrance to the compound.

Adjacent to the guard shack was a semi-covered driveway; long enough for two vehicles. The commander’s cab truck was always parked in the driveway inside the compound, after dark. The break room was also just a few feet away from the guard shack and driveway. The whole area was shaded by trees; eucalyptus, mango, and a few jasmine bushes; all perfumed the night air.

Normally the night temperatures in BMT were fairly comfortable, sometimes even “field jacket” cool, but this night was still, muggy, and warm. Things around the Darlac were quiet. No rock band, just the nightly movie being shown in the courtyard. A few guys were playing pool in the break room, no card game, which was unusual. Even the bar was quiet.

Kennedy and I took turns sitting in the guard shack or pacing up and down the driveway to the courtyard. We didn’t talk much, which was a little uncomfortable. About 2200 hours, the bar started to close down and the lovelies (bargirls) were leaving the compound. Kennedy and I were both there to wish them a good night. 

The “Power Change” was the next event on the schedule that night. At the Darlac, we had set up a 120-volt, 60-cycle gas generator just outside the front entrance. It was protected on three sides by sandbags. Each night the generator would be started just before the movie and would be turned off just after the movie or around 2200 hours. The electrical power in BMT was poor; 90-110 volts, about 50 cycles, sometimes less. It wasn’t reliable for running any sensitive electrical equipment. Most of the guys would wait for the generator to run before they made tapes or played music on their PACEX purchased Sony’s or Akai’s. 

Whenever the generator was being shut down, the power pro’s would let every one know that we were going back to BMT power, as a courtesy. This would give every one time to safely shut down their equipment. Since I was a power pro, I could make the changeover myself. I walked to the center of the courtyard and yelled, ”Power Change in 5 Minutes  ...  Power Change in 5 Minutes”. There were a few grunts and grumbles, the usual, request for more time. So after ten minutes I made the change and turned off the generator. Now everything was really quiet.

By midnight all the vehicles were inside the compound, the front gate entrance and driveway gate were bolted and chained shut. There were some guys still wandering in to fill out the wake up roster in the break room and only two other guys sitting at a table there, writing letters. No card game, no pool; it was quiet.

About 0130, Kennedy knew that I had worked the day shift, so in an act of kindness told me to get some rest in the break room or in the Major’s truck. He said, ”It’s quiet  ...  I’ll get you if I need anything.”  So I went over to the back of the Major’s truck, took off the .38, laid it on the back floorboard and climbed in for a few ZZZZ’s. All lights were out in the break room and in the guard shack. Only the spotlights shinning onto the street were still lit. I fell asleep.

Tapping, Tapping, somebody’s tapping on my shoulder. I wake, see the hand; startled, I look up, over my head. All I see are two eyes, they’re white, huge, wide-open – BIG! “Wake up, Wake up”: it’s Kennedy’s voice and eyes. “I heard something -- get up quick.” I felt as if someone had forced my fingers into a light socket. Zap! awake! reaching for the .38 and holster, exiting the truck cab. I moved to the front right side of the truck, farthest away from the front gate. I was fumbling to strap on the holster and at the same time reaching for my M-16 that Kennedy was blindly trying to hand me. He was at the right rear tire location of the truck, focussed on the front gate, his M-16 in his left hand. I took the M-16, flicked the safety to semi-automatic; there already was a round in the chamber, wasn’t there? I think so. Kennedy is still, I’m still; we listen.

Adrenaline is a funny thing, when it flows, every one of your senses peak. I can smell the newness of the tires mixed with the fragrant jasmine bushes. I hear only dogs barking in the distance. No movement. I look to Kennedy; he’s still focussed on the front gate. He looks back toward me: I motion silently to him, What? Nothing? He leans towards me and barely whispers, “I heard something, people moving”; “something is going down.” Nothing is happening; it’s quiet. The adrenaline has faded: I only hear dogs, far off.

My shirt is soaked with sweat from sleeping in the truck. I can feel a trickle of sweat run down my neck. Suddenly, BANG!; we both duck. Something, a rock? a satchel charge? a grenade?, has landed on top of the tin guard shack roof. It rolled off. Instinctively, I cower by the truck, making sure that no part of my body is exposed. I look; Kennedy is doing the same.

Thousands of things are going through my mind. Everyone is asleep. We are the only two guys awake. What do we do? Pucker, Pucker  ...  5 seconds, Pucker … 10 seconds; waiting for the big bang. How much is going to come flying this way and then what?  ...  Scared…15 seconds,  20 seconds,  30 seconds  ...  Starting to uncover and uncoil now. Was it a dud?

Photo: Francis (Dee) Kennedy, at the Darlac front gate, Ban Me Thuot 1966-1967.Photo: Francis “Dee” Kennedy, at the Darlac front gate, Ban Me Thuot ‘66-‘67

Kennedy starts out around the rear of the truck; I move SLOWLY around the front. He has a flashlight shinning toward the front gate and the guard shack. He stops. I see him move forward, completely exposed. He stoops to pick something up, and then turns and I can barely make out his smile. I hear him laugh, more like a stifled chuckle. He holds up a MANGO! It fell out of the tree above the guard shack. “It was only a mango”, he laughs, “It’s okay”. I put the safety back on the 16 and check my shorts. All OK.

This event opened up a whole new channel of communication between Kennedy and me. We spent the rest of the night talking about everything from sports, to girls, the Air Force, our future plans  ...  everything. We just escaped being blown up by a MANGO.

In the days and months that pass, Kennedy and I became friends. We could talk and I got a little more than just a nod of the head in acknowledgement, when I left for the site, and he was on duty. In fact, I gave him the nickname,”Dee.” This from the little kids that would pass by and call out to him, “KEN—EH—DEE”,  KEN—EH—DEE”, whenever he was on duty. Sometimes “Dee” would give them candy or gum; other times he would just look at them and say “di di mau” (“move away” or in American slang “get out of here”). They saw his nametag and thought he was a relative of John F. Kennedy: “KEN—EH--DEE,   KEN—EH--DEE”.

Aftermath:

I’ve located several guys from BMT but I never have located Dee. To be honest I thought his name was Francis but that could have been his middle name. His first name could have been Jerome, Ulysses or Earl. Oh, I guess I forgot to tell you earlier when I described him, “Dee” was black, an African-American  ...  me? White-honky. We were friends; boys becoming men. Looking back, I can tell you this, “Dee” was a better man than I was then or ever will be.

I hope life after Pyramid has treated Dee fairly and kind.

NOTE #1:  After speaking to my friend Ed Ginner, I think similar mango incidents happened to several guys at the Darlac. Major Stefanko ordered the Mango tree cut back after one incident where several guys went diving for cover. The tree was infested with spiders and lots of those red ants. I know because those ants bit me many times while on that detail.

NOTE #2:  Beer 33, I’ve seen the Vietnamese/American version of this spelled many ways, among them : Bah Mii Bah, Ba Mi Ba, Ba Me Ba and Ba Moui Ba.  So take your pick. I’m sure there are more versions of the spelling. Ba = 3,  Moui = 10

Later,

Joe [not-so] “Bozo” Urban,
Pyramid 66-67