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An Army Sanitary Engineer in R&R Land, Bangkok Thailand, Vietnam War Era

This story is by Walter Hines, author of Aggies of the Pacific War: New Mexico A&M and the War With Japan

Cpt. Hines w_gibbon, Sattahip, 4-68

Cpt. Hines w_gibbon, Sattahip, 4-68

I went into the Army on a direct commission at Ft. Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas in 1967.  I received a notice and reported for a draft physical in San Antonio.  I passed the physical and received a letter saying I’d been drafted.  Concurrently, I applied for a commission with the Army knowing that there was a shortage of Sanitary Engineers.  The Army was so in need that direct commissions were being given to graduate engineers in various fields.  I had completed an MS in Civil Engineering (Sanitary Engineering option) at NMSU in 1967, and by chance had been working in San Antonio with the US Geological Survey.  Upon acceptance of my application I was commissioned as a 2nd Lt and went to Medical Service Corps training at Ft. Sam in July 1967.  Many of the new doctors and nurses entering the Army also went to initial training at Ft. Sam.  There was Lots of class work, very little drill or structured discipline, many happy hours, socializing, dancing, etc.  Except for the frightful heat (most classrooms and our barracks were not air conditioned…at best a few fans and swamp coolers here and there) it was a good time.  My cousins, LTC Jim Meadows and wife Ruth, were stationed at Ft. Sam.  I found out later Jim was quite helpful in getting my direct commission approved.

While at Ft. Sam, I received a promotion to 1st Lt. because of a new regulation giving preference to MS graduates in Sanitary Engineering (this soon led to my promotion to Captain).  It was funny in a way because there were several NMSU ROTC grads (Jim Hunter, Spencer Fields) on the post who, unlike me, had sweated out 4 years of training in college and were still 2nd Lts.  I made them salute…all in good fun of course. Upon completion of two 8-week training courses, the last in Army sanitary engineering, I received orders for Thailand with the 712th   Preventive Medicine Unit.  The 712th  had about 100 personnel, I recall – engineers, entomologists, veterinarians, medical doctors, and enlisted techs.  The mission was preventive medicine – communicable and tropical disease prevention, food and water sanitation, mosquito and vector control, etc.  The unit was headquartered in Korat adjacent to the large US Air Force base where daily bombing runs were made to Viet Nam.  Korat was about 130 miles north of Bangkok.  President Johnson came to speak one morning, necessitating our travel by bus to the air base at 2 a.m. one morning.

The 712th also had detachments at Sattahip south of Bangkok on the Gulf of Siam near the USAF B-52 base, and at Bangkok at the 5th US Army Hospital.

After arriving and a harrowing open air bus ride (the Thai’s drive on the left side of the road and play chicken when they pass) on a two-lane highway from Bangkok to Korat, I spent six weeks in Korat, living in a standard military ‘hooch’ at Camp Friendship.  Showers and sinks were a 50-yd walk, but clean and comfortable.  Toilets were 6-holer “burn out” latrines – essentially seats over individual sawed-off 55-gal barrels that were burned out every day by pulling out the barrels through a back trap door, pouring in diesel, and lighting.  It was very effective, but very smelly.

Lt. Hines, Camp Friendship, Korat, Thailand,12-67

Lt. Hines, Camp Friendship, Korat, Thailand,12-67

About every week while in our hooches, a Thai employee came by with a backpack sprayer that dispensed an oil emulsion of DDT in a thick cloud outside and inside.  It worked well, but I came out doubled over and coughing more than once.  My job at Korat was food and water sanitation, inspecting the Officer and Enlisted Clubs, taking water samples, helping the AF with sewage and industrial waste disposal and treatment.  The planes (mainly F-4’s) were cleaned and degreased with solvents and washed down.  The wastes went into a large lagoon with the domestic sewage.  This was the only treatment provided.  We received complaints from Thai natives living in the jungle downstream.  We visited with them, saw several with skin rashes from washing with the fouled water that flowed by their homes.  We made recommendations, I believe, for an aeration system at the lagoon, but doubt the AF ever followed through.

I took one inspection trip to a remote base in NE Thailand on the Laotian border. The camp was in good order for food service, water, and sanitation.  I remember going to town with the CO and others to a club run by a very beautiful and charismatic Laotian woman.  She was making big money off the GI’s and they loved her and the dance girls in her employ.  While at the camp, I met a sergeant who was essentially a doctor…very knowledgeable and with a good clinic.  The local Thais lined up every day for treatment…some had horrible tumors, rashes, and other tropical maladies. The sergeant was the only ‘doctor’ available to these poor people and they revered him.

To my delight, after the trip to the Laotian border, I received orders to go to Bangkok to take over our detachment at the 5th Army Hospital.  This was a plum assignment. I was amazed to discover that I’d be replacing Mike Elliott, a schoolmate and fellow engineering grad of NMSU.  He was living in a hotel (as many did) with his new bride, a Thai nurse named Joy who he met at the VD clinic which was supported by the US military in Bangkok (more on VD below).  Mike showed me the ropes for a few weeks and returned to the US, leaving me to lead an 8-man detachment that included a senior sergeant, Jim Bost, and young enlisted men who were trained in military sanitation.  I also had a Thai clerk typist, Narong, who spoke and wrote excellent English.

Our stated main job was inspection of Army-operated cafeterias, mess halls, surrounding camps, and water and sewage systems that served the military. These were inspected at least monthly, and more if we found problems.  Monthly reports were written and passed through the chain of command.  The cafeterias were run almost exclusively by experienced US civilian women, and they did a great job.  The troops stationed in Bangkok lived in hotels, or in some cases in houses and apartments rented from locals.  I was naïve and did not realize that several of my guys were enjoying the fruits of excellent Thai marijuana.  I never indulged or even thought about it, but there was alcohol aplenty and great food…Thai and Indian, and wonderful Kobe beef.

Bowling Team, Bangkok, '68; Hines mid., Wimberly r.

Bowling Team, Bangkok, ’68; Hines mid., Wimberly r.

I lived in a fine multi-story apartment overlooking the Siam Intercontinental Hotel and a ‘klong’… a large waterway connected with the Chao Phya River where small commercial watercraft moved back and forth with their goods. We had a swimming pool, refrigerated air, a maid who washed our clothes and cleaned every day.  My roommate was Lt. Mike Wimberley, a Texas Tech grad and football player, who ran the US Army motor pool in Bangkok.  We frequented the officer’s club (at the Chao Phya Hotel) which featured slot machines, several bars and restaurants, and on weekends, NFL football highlight films. The Stars and Stripes was popular and always available, as was an English Thai newspaper.

While our main job at 712th in Bangkok was supposed to be food and water sanitation of military facilities, we were given the additional mission of inspection of R&R hotels, Thai ice plants, and keeping VD and communicable disease records.  The R&R hotel inspections were important, because GI’s coming to Bangkok could stay free in approved hotels, but had to pay to stay elsewhere.  The hotel owners tried hard and did a reasonable job with sanitation, but invariably there were problems with water, swimming pools, and kitchen sanitation…and also with roaches, mice, and rats.

VD amongst the troops stationed in Bangkok was, regrettably, rampant.  And malaria and hepatitis were always a problem.

The VD work got me in trouble on many occasions as CO’s of the various units came by the hospital complaining that the reports were putting their boys in a bad light. VD rates often approached one for every member of a unit every two months. Such were the nighttime pleasures of Bangkok clubs and massage parlors.  Fortunately, it was my job to know them all and I frequented many…purely for professional reasons of course.  The music, often by Filipino bands who could mimic popular American music perfectly, was also a big draw at the clubs.  My knowledge of the nightlife came in very handy when my brother, Jimbo, a US Marine who was in the DMZ and at Khe Sanh in Vietnam, came to Bangkok for R&R.  I was ashamed for him to see my life of luxury vs. what he had endured (wounded twice), but I did show him a great time for 5 days.

Cpl. J. Hines, DMZ, Vietnam,3-68

Cpl. J. Hines, DMZ, Vietnam,3-68

Cpl. J. Hines is awarded a Purple Heart, 5-68

Cpl. J. Hines is awarded a Purple Heart, 5-68

Clean ice was a huge headache.  We had to approve the ice companies who could do business with the US military. The GIs loved their iced drinks in the sweltering climate, and the traditional Thai ice plants were very dirty — block ice stored in filthy sawdust.  An enterprising Chinese woman named Prawnee who was married to a well-educated Thai, saw and capitalized on the opportunity. She bought and imported dozens of large Scotsman ice-making machines and ran a chlorine-disinfection system for the source water.  She also assembled a fleet of insulated ice trucks and promised timely delivery to outlying US camps, including one on the River Kwai (at the spot of the real Bridge on the River Kwai) where the US was training a Thai division for Vietnam.

Prawnee had a fleet of powerboats, scuba, and water skiing equipment at Sattahip, and of course tried to curry favor with me and Lt. Ray Lee, who was with the 712th detachment there.  We went on a scuba trip the first time invited, but decided it would not be wise to continue a social relationship with Prawnee because of the jealousy and conflict of interest issues raised by other suppliers who could not get our approval.  We did try to be fair with all the suppliers, but the health of the troops was the most important issue.

Another task I had was giving sanitation briefings to military support civilians, wives and older children, and others who accompanied senior officers to Thailand.  I would go through the litany of hazards…food, water, mosquitoes, heat, etc and show a film on tropical diseases.  The CO of the 5th Hospital would typically then get up and tell them to have a good time, and not to worry, implying that Captain Hines had overdone the lecture.

I returned from Thailand in November 1968 with many fond memories.  The blinking signs and neon lights along nightclub row (similar to old Las Vegas in many ways), the massage parlors, and the hundreds of GIs on R&R, racing around with their ‘companions’ in taxi cabs, will always be in my memory.

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8 comments on “An Army Sanitary Engineer in R&R Land, Bangkok Thailand, Vietnam War Era

  1. I must have just missed you. I was in Fort Sam most of ’66. We left as the full 712 Nov 3 of 66 ; Us and 28 vehicles including the famous urdelator (water purification monster that used the diotomatious earth as a filter).
    as you said the toilets were great, the maleria pills were great, The showers down the trail were great and the food was edible. I was a draftee and came out a Spec 5.
    I guess we blazed the trail for you . I must have just missed you. got out in Oct 67.
    What a small world; I knew Lt elliott well and lovely Joy. They live in California and several years they came to New York and I and two 712ers spent a wonder ful day with them touring the city,
    Texas and Thailand were the two of the Happiest years of my life.I also had a brother in the armyat the same time as I, but he was in Karea driving ageneral around and teaching the dauguters of the president of Korean Airlines how to speak english-go figure?

    We did our duty

    Best

    John Shea

    • Mr. Shea, do you or anyone else reading this article, remember Agent Orange being stored or handled by members of the 712th Preventive Medical Unit in 1967 in Thailand.

      Several members of units in Thailand are filing claims for maladies on the Agent Orange registry, only to be denied by a lack of evidence. Any of those rememberances of AO in Thailand would be welcomed by those men, as something as simple as an email stating that US Army or USAF members did handle AO in Thailand and not just Military Policemen.
      From a former Army Combat Medic, RVN 1967-68, I am helping others on their VA claims, including Terry Plumlee, who you served with.

    • John, sorry to not reply sooner. Indeed it is a small world. I saw Mike and Joy in San Diego several years ago and we had fun reminiscing. We recalled Paul Larmour whom you may have remembered as he was one of the 712th ‘originals.’ He lives on the Michigan Upper Peninsula and had a career in fish and game, no doubt now retired. He married a very pretty Thai woman, June and brought her to Michigan. I believe they divorced after a time. Too cold for June I am sure.

  2. I was there withthe712 in Sep 70- Jun 71 first couple of weeks in korat then to BKK and the medical mission which burned in Nov 1970. Shatahip on Dec 70 to Jun 71. Korat closed and moved to Shatahip in June 1971

  3. I also moved with the 712th to Korat with the unit. I worked mainly in 712th supplies and the last part of my tour i was the driver for LT Col. Herandez. and hauling supplies to Sattihip. I left for Fort Meade maryland in oct 67. I believe I remember you (Shea). please feel free to contact me. I bunked ih hooch closest to 712th office years 66/67. I worked for Jon Jumonzille.

    Terry plumlee

  4. Quite sure there was no Agent Orange handled by the 712th either before or during my assignment, Dec. ’67 to Dec. ’68. No reason I am aware of as to why any AO was around the 712th. The defoliation program was in Vietnam and along Ho Chi Min trail…maybe some in Laos, not in Thailand.

  5. Really enjoyed your article. Service in Thailand later then you but for 5 years, 1970-1975 also in Korat, Sattahip, and 4 years in Bangkok. Thai wife. Both children born in 5th Field Hospital. Sanitation conditions were much better in the 70s from all the hard work of people who came before us. At 66 years old now still travel with my 2nd Thai wife to Thailand every year. In fact this morning we are on our way to Korat for 90 days. Thanks for the memories. It was the best 5 years of my life. I was in Personnel and Administration. Served my 20 years. Glad I did.

    • Thanks for your comments and glad you enjoyed the story. I too had a great time in Thailand and in the Army overall. Have fun with your wife in Korat…I’m sure it’s much more modern that when I was there in 1967-68.

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