US Infantry in Vietnam - Observations of a Grunt in Vietnam; Operating in Rubber Plantations

Rubber Plantations

Here are my answers to your questions about the rubber plantations. 

There was a big rubber plantation that was adjacent to a stretch of HWY 13, that was on both sides of the HWY, and stretched all the way to the Song Be (a river). It was owned by the MICHELIN Corporation; at least that was what we were told repeatedly.

The trees had reached almost to the road (HWY 13) itself, but the Army had used Rome Jungle Plows to split, knock down, crush, uproot, and otherwise clear the rubber trees and undergrowth away from the sides of the highway for a distance of several 100 yards on either side of HWY 13, and then Engineer Zippos would flame the trees and undergrowth into ash after the Rome Jungle Plows had passed.

Rome Jungle Plows were built in Rome, Georgia, and were incredibly powerful, and useful vehicles. I do not know who the designer was but he was a very smart man. Rome Plows were one reason that the number of ambushes dropped off along highways: they physically removed the trees!

Zippos were Engineer tanks fitted with flamethrowers and bulldozer blades, M48s A-Something or other. These followed the Rome Plows, and burned the trees and undergrowth to ashes.

After this the Defoliate spraying Vehicles and aircraft made sure the raw red earth stayed raw and red. Mostly vehicles were used for this as the rubber plantation was right beside the road and MICHILIN would have screamed if their precious trees were ruined by Agent Purple, Green, Yellow, or Orange. I am assuming it was vehicles, as I never saw a working rubber plantation that looked like it had been soaked by aerial sprayers. They always looked disgustingly well taken care of.

The rest of the rubber plantation on either side of the highway was a WORKING RUBBER PLANTATION, with little people from the villages out there working every day. This meant that anyone strolling around among the rubber trees was not an automatic target, but had a legit reason to be there during the daylight hours. We could and did stop and search any Vietnamese we encountered during patrols, looking for weapons, explosives, blasting caps, firing devices, and electrical cords (common household variety, in assorted brilliant colors, commonly used by the VC as transmission lines for command detonated explosive devices), commo wire (used for the same purpose), and, civilian or military det cords.

This was more dangerous than it sounds, as sometime the VC would use these working parties as bait for an ambush!

And the VC/NVA moved through these areas with almost total impunity. The locals sure were not going to risk their asses by ratting on them! The armed gooks were only confirmed as present when the GIs ambushed them during day or night ops, or were ambushed by them, or accidentally collided with them!

In addition to the plantation workers, there were also the Vietnamese who roamed these plantations selling Coke, beer, water, and food to the workers. These natives often rode bicycles, or tricycles, carried their goods in baskets on them, coolers, etc, or on either end of a long pole (called a dummy stick, or a Popasan stick by GIs). They too had to be stopped and searched by GIs.

The tops of the rubber trees prevented or hindered aerial observation during daylight hours, and at night completely prohibited it! The canopy also hindered the use of starlight scopes, like the jungle did, maybe not as bad.

On a working plantation, there was little or no undergrowth, just thousands of skinny rubber trees, with cuts in the boles and buckets, bowls, etc, to collect the dripping latex. Some times these rubber trees were booby trapped with explosives, or used as an ambush site. Reason? GIs used the latex as a substitute for soap and water, rubbing it on and then peeling it off along with the dirt and crud. It smelled bad but it got you clean! If GIs got careless on patrol or during highway security sweeps, they might establish a pattern of using the same group of trees to clean their hands and faces before chowing down, knocking off a short time, etc. Or follow the same route while on patrol to save time/distance travelled, energy, etc. It did'nt mean nothing to the VC if the little people blew themselves up, or got blown up along with GIs by a boobytrap or ambush. Usually the local Vietnamese knew about these boobytraps and avoided them. The ambushes too.

Visibility was fairly good in the daytime, but at night it was bad. One of the problems with rubber plantations was that it all looked alike, and it was easy to get lost if you did not know the terrain. Another was the trees masked the terrain features under the canopy, so the actual terrain features could be way off from what a map showed. Another was that being in the rubber could cause your eyes to play tricks on you. Like looking at a cross-hatch pattern on cloth from a distance. It would all merge into a green/grayish background, especially late in the day. It was always shadowy in the rubber. Add this to the dark clothes worn by GIs, the Vietnamese civilians, and the VC and it was possible to walk into a shitstorm if you were not careful or to shoot the crap out of some poor souls out trying to feed their families by mistaking them for armed gooks.

Movement in the rubber was really fast and free. No waitaminute bushes, tanglefoot vines, etc, to make life miserable as they did all too often in the jungle. Also, not as many snakes, centipedes, and other critters to deal with or worry about. But, a grunt had to remain alert for boobytraps, ambushes, etc, just like in the jungle. Never take nothing for granted, never relax your guard, or you or your buddies might pay the price.

Armored Vehicles could roll around freely inside of a working rubber plantation, but they too need to always be on guard to avoid boobytraps and ambush. We used to see ACAV tracks, both ours and the ARVN, inside the rubber plantations quite frequently. They were always carefully steering around those damned gazillion dollar trees instead of smashing them out of the way. Too hell with the MICHILIN Corporation!!!!!!!!!!!!

The canopy of the rubber could interfere with artillery and mortar fire supports. Airstrikes and gunships had problems too. Napalm worked! Hell, Napalm worked on everything!

Again, unless YOU KNEW where you were, fire adjustment could get scary for the same reasons as the jungle. Land Navigation, depending on the accuracy of a map, especially a map based on outdated French Army maps, was a joke. All that a grunt squad had to navigate with was a map, that might or might not be worth a damn, a compass, and the pace method of determining distance traveled. People unfamiliar with the area could and did get lost. Of all ranks!

I never fought a big battle inside of a working plantation but I was involved in several successfully blown APs inside the rubber of working plantations, and a couple of complete routs resulting in APs that went all wrong inside of working rubber. These were all US conducted APs. And at night. I was also part of a platoon that was ambushed in broad daylight while moving through the rubber of a working plantation.

So y'all will need some one with the experience of a big battle (say company size and up) to talk more about how the rubber affected airstrikes, artillery, etc, in a big battle. Or, if the damned trees were a problem for them, if they blew them flat!

In broad daylight, near HWY 13, my platoon was sweeping through the rubber in a skirmish line with two squads forward and two squads back (mine and the weapons squad were the reserve that day), winding up a Platoon Op in the rubber and heading back to the NDP for the night. I am sure we had never been through that area before, yet we were ambushed by Mainforce or Local VC (never knew which ones did it).

The LT had signaled a halt. Then he signaled a command conference up front (he was with the front line). He was using hand signals relayed up and down the skirmish lines as we only had a PRC-25 for the LT and the PLT SGT. Then, before the PLT SGT, the Weapons Squad Leader or myself could even react, he signaled for the platoon to change from skirmish line with two up, two back, to the two parallel files we used mostly in the jungle. The PLT SGT told me and the Weapons SGT to stand fast, then he went forward to find out why the LT was not using the PRC-25 and what was going on.

It was NOW that the gooks blew a small homemade claymore (about 20 / 25 pounds) on the head of the right squad, which had just reformed as a file directly in front of it by shear bad luck!

I was looking forward at the confused shuffling of formation and I saw the dirty brown cloud / orange flash of the mine; it was in a rubber tree, fairly high up. It blew flat the first 7 men in the file, the LT, his RTO, and 2 men behind the command element. Eleven (11) GIs gone down in the blink of an eye, the majority of a squad, there must have been just one or two gooks, as they did not follow up with other mines or weapons fire. They just vanished into the rubber in the confusion that followed.

What remained after we restored order, treated the wounded and put chunks of our dead into a poncho, was a fast move toward the edge of the rubber while calling for a dustoff and telling the TOC what had happened to us. The dustoff came, and took away the wounded, then a second dustoff came to take away the remainder of the wounded and the poncho full of our dead. We limped back to the NDP, with only 2 soldiers still on their feet from the squad in the killzone, the PLT SGT in command and Weapons Squad Leader as next in the chain. It was a long jumpy walk back with no other incident. We were all in a state of shock, these were our KIA and WIA in the field. It taught us a lesson we never forgot though. Vietnam Kills Without Warning. Anywhere. Anytime. Anyplace.

Overgrown rubber plantations were just as hard and bad to move through as the jungle itself. Hell it was jungle, with rubber trees added!

Our battalion CO, was always telling us, with the grim humor of the grunt, that every rubber tree we "killed" cost the USG big bucks, and made the MICHILIN CORP richer! We always laughed at this, and promised to kill no more than was necessary! Yeah, you bet!

We were also told repeatedly that the MICHILIN CORP paid bribes to the VC to be allowed to use the rubber plantations for their business. One of our patrols even ambushed a bribe collection party carrying lots of greenback USA dollars, paid by the local MICHILIN rep we assumed. We found out the VC would move through out these plantations with impunity if there were no GIs around to stop it. NVA too. ARVNS could be diverted by HQ from planned sweeps w/o any explanation. And as usual, we knew that the gooks knew where we were thanks to the intelligence provided them by the local noncombatants. This got to be so common that we started to refer to all kids on water buffalos as FOs for the gooks.

LZs for choppers were often hard to find in a working rubber plantation except at, near, or on top of the villages and the main roads. Sometime rubber trees had to be hacked/blown down to make an LZ to evacuate wounded GIs, or to insert GIs into a working rubber plantation.

Well those are some of the things I remember about rubber trees and the war. Like I have said before, things may have been different elsewhere in country.

Delta Mike 2

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1st Infantry Division TAOR (1969) 

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