Rat Patrol

Sky Palace
by: Stephen Craig Gillis
© 1999

Division Aviation Group S-3 Section in Northern I Corp
Late 1968 or early 1969 (wet monsoon season)

The Sky Palace & The Rat Patrol - Ask anybody who served in Vietnam about rats and they tell you all about the size and ferociousness of the "little (?)" fury rodents. Rats were difficult at best to control and almost impossible to eradicate. One of the keys to successful rat control was keeping your area policed and trash removed. Even with the high state of police, poison and traps out, you still had some "NVA/VC" rats slip through into your area, especially during the wet monsoon periods when the low-lying areas filled with rain. Such was our little area of the Vietnam arena.
      I was a member of a division aviation group S-3 section in northern I Corps, RVN. Our section operated the group tactical operations center (TOC), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Out of the TOC, we directed and coordinated the majority of the division's aviation missions such as: Gunship escort for medevacs missions, combat assaults, routine logistics flights, "ash & trash" missions, perimeter patrols, etc. Normally, no job was too big or too small --- but the "rat patrol" was a different matter.
      In the middle of the headquarters area next to the TOC, the group commander, a Colonel, who decided to build his second "hooch," the original not being large or impressive enough (O-6's are like that!). So with the second hooch, the good colonel decided to incorporate his office, living quarters, group XO, CSM, and clerk's offices into a single long building. Of course "Rank Has Its Privileges" and the good colonel was certainly no exception. While the rest of the unit lived in tents and later on in plywood hooches with canvas roofs, had burn-out latrines, and such, the Colonel lived and worked in air conditioned insulated quarters and office complete with running water and a flush toilet. In retrospect, the Environmental Protection Agency would not have been happy with his septic system because living close by we sure as hell were not.
      Given the conditions we lived under, the Colonel's "hooch" could only be described as somewhat opulent. Some of the more printable names the troops gave it were "Super Hooch," "The Hilton," or "Sky Palace."
      By living where he did, close to the TOC, Colonel "X" felt close to the "action and pulse of his unit." The Colonel had the COMM section remote all of the TOC radios into his office so he could monitor the radio traffic and had a direct field phone "hot line" installed between his office and the TOC. At the least little sign of some radio "action" in the area, he would call over on the landline or remote phone and yell "SITREP, SITREP, GIMME A SITREP!!!" I guess after 30 years it can come out - after a few days of this, certain members of the S-3, who shall remain nameless, quickly learned to disconnect the remote units when the manure began to hit the rotary oscillator to keep the good Colonel out of our hair until we developed the situation and had enough information to accurately brief him.
      I hope the above sets the tone of the working environment under the Colonel.
      As the wet monsoon arrived, we began to have rat problems with them moving to higher ground, we being on the "high ground." One night about 0200 hours, the TOC duty officer answered the "hot line" and in trying to keep a straight face kept saying "Yes Sir, Yes Sir, Right Away Sir." When I asked what that was all about, the duty officer burst out laughing and said, "The Colonel says he heard some rats in his hooch and for one of the troops to come over and check the area."
      Since I was the only "troop" in the TOC besides the switchboard operator, I was elected. As I started to leave, the duty officer, who was laughing so hard, he almost fell out of his chair, said "Oh Sarge, he said to bring a weapon too." Since SOP called for the night crew to have their individual weapons and equipment in the TOC, this was no problem. Picking up my trusty M-16 and flashlight, out the door I went to the "Sky Palace," the "rat patrol."
      Since I did not want to be shot as "VC sapper," I knocked loudly on the Colonel's office door. No answer, so I knocked again. No answer. Making as much noise as I could I let myself into the office and was hit with the coldest blast of air I had felt since leaving CONUS. The air conditioner was set so cold, you could hang meat! When I knocked on the Colonel's quarters door, I did get an acknowledgment. The room was dark and I had no idea where the light switch was, by my flashlight beam I saw the Colonel, in his bunk with the mosquito net tucked in all around the bunk. My fear of possibly being accidentally shot was well-founded because the Colonel had his .38 pistol in hand. He said "Sergeant, I heard them in here so check the area out." So on my hands and knees, I crawled all around his quarters and then through his office, M-16 and flashlight poised to do battle with the "vicious NVA/VC rats." After a thorough search and not seeing any evidence of rodent trespassing, I reported "Apparently, the rats have departed the area, Sir." With this report, I got a 5 minute lecture of the habits and dangers of the Southeast Asia rat and was dismissed.
      When I returned to the TOC, the duty officer was still laughing and asked, "Well, what happened?" I replied that as high as the "Sky Palace" was off the ground and as cold as it was, no rat could survive there without supplemental oxygen and arctic clothing. Then in my best mock NCO command voice, I rendered a standard infantry patrol report ending with "patrol element swept the area with negative results." With this the duty officer starting writing in the Daily Staff Journal: "0200 hours - the Colonel called, reference rats in his hooch and requested "rat elimination personnel." Armed rat patrol departed TOC, swept area with negative results. Rat patrol returned TOC - no casualties." When I questioned the duty officer on the wisdom of recording that in the Daily Staff Journal, he said "It happened and now it is recorded." Later that morning when the S-3 came in and was going over the journal, I thought he was going to have a heart attack over the "rat patrol" entry. But since it was now part of the official journal, he let it ride. Thankfully, Colonel "X" never asked to see the Daily Staff Journal from that night.
      I had almost forgotten the infamous "rat patrol" staff journal entry. However, in doing some personal Vietnam research at the Federal Records Center, it all came back. There in the history records, were all the staff journals including the "rat patrol" entry. I always thought these records were destroyed, but there they were. If anything, it will only serve to prove to any interested future generations looking at the records, there were some lighter moments in Vietnam.

Stephen C. Gillis,
1969, SSG, E-6,
Retired in July 1995,
Major, Infantry, USAR

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