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VIETNAM: MY EXPERIENCE

Philip J. Milio - Army

As described by Philip J. Milio: "Firefight at night. A brief time-exposure of a nearby attack during the 1969 Tet Offensive."<br>Courtesy of Philip J. Milio
As described by Philip J. Milio: "Firefight at night. A brief time-exposure of a nearby attack during the 1969 Tet Offensive."

Black. Eyes wide open and it is all black. Over in the corner is a dim peek of light from overhead no brighter than a firefly’s glowing amber. The walls were painted black to absorb light as it would be harmful to the work at hand.

The pungent scent of fixer seemed to overpower the air with hints of grapefruit and cleaning fluid. It mixed in the air with the acrid odor of the acid bath to send a tang of sharpness up your nostrils and comes close to getting you a bit dizzy without causing nausea or a loss of reality.

During my first shift Quinn pointed out a hatch down low. The hatch is wide enough for the platoon sergeant, who was short but probably about 190 pounds. Sarge was a round, chunky guy who, with a bit of effort, could squeeze through a small hatch. Picture one of those doors folks have for their dog or cat to slip in and out of the back door of their house.

Listen to the muffled thumping of choppers getting louder and louder then fading away. There were all sorts of sounds to learn. A fan attached to the wall had one of those cages around it so you don’t get your fingertips snipped if you touch the blades. That cage must have been bumped a number of times, judging by the constant tin, tin, tin and click, click, click as the fan blade whirled.

Thanks to that fan we could breathe easier and work through the heat of the day. The fan kept the oh-so-humid tropical air moving. It was our own sweat that cooled our bodies when working near that clickity clack fan. These are sounds that have new meanings.

Thompson had a voice like Tennessee Ernie Ford and occasionally he would treat us by singing. He was a crooner with a deep pitch and uncanny ability to carry a tune. In his southern twang, he said to learn your way around this darkroom because ... Before he could finish, the shrill sirens began to howl and scream. It began to rain earth, gravel and rocks along with a rapid succession of automatic weapons. Then an intense barrage and bursting explosions with a tremendous deep-pitched boom like a crack of thunder. There were outgoing rounds from a nearby howitzer battery challenged by the swish, screech and bam of VC rockets and mortars.

Down we went as fast as possible. I crawled toward the hatch. My short-sleeved bare forearm rubbed wet mush and slimy liquid. I yelled out: Thompson! Thompson!

The absence of light and the search for Thompson made the 4-by-6-foot foot room feel like a football field. I crawled and touched a chair, walls and then the legs of the stainless steel sink. Finally, after scouring the room like a human mop, I slithered out that hatch and down onto the earth outside. It was about 10:30 p.m. The clear night sky was filled with parachute flairs lighting the compound and the perimeter. Looking toward the bunker entrance I see an arm reach out and pop -- the sound of a small bubble of air popping in your ears when descending altitude in an airplane. Then I saw my sister Marie waving at me, saying, “Hey Phil! Philly?! Are you watching TV? You know it’s off. The screen is black.” Marie had celebrated her 16th birthday shortly after I rotated back to the states a few weeks ago. She said, “That’s not right. I’m telling Mommy” and she shouted to Mom, who was in the kitchen making dinner. “Mom, Philip is watching the TV again while it’s switched off.”

When I finally crawled safely into the bunker, peering at me in the dark cavern — surrounded by damp sandbags, insects and smells of cigarette butts, tobacco and canned ham with lima beans — was Thompson. He was with Sarge, Quinn and the other guys. Some visibly shaken, laughing, cursing the VC. I heard the words: “I guess your orientation to the darkroom was a success.” I have no idea how many thousands of times that event has replayed in my head. The wet mushy lump I bumped into was a sponge soaked with photographic developing chemicals that Thompson had dropped as he high-tailed it out the hatch.

Black. Eyes wide open and it is all black. Over in the corner is a dim peek of light from overhead no brighter than a firefly’s glowing amber. The walls were painted black to absorb light as it would be harmful to the work at hand.

I can smell the pungent scent of fixer that seemed to overpower the air with hints of … “Mom, Philip is watching the TV again while it’s switched off.”

Editor's note: When asked to elaborate on his colorful entry for Vietnam: My Experience, Philip Milio related more on his duties in Vietnam:

I served in in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, from October 1968 to October 1969. My U.S. Army unit was Detachment "A" of the 1st Military Intelligence Battalion (Air Reconnaissance Support). Our detachment's operations complex was in III Corps Headquarters of the South Vietnamese Army. The Battalion had detachments in each of the military zones of Vietnam (I, II, III and IV Corps).

I was a photographic laboratory technician. I developed film and printed photographs; the images were mostly from large format cameras used on various Army and Air Force fixed-wing reconnaissance planes as well as jets such as the U-2 spy plane. Some photos were made with hand-held cameras on rotary winged (choppers) and small single engine propeller planes.

Specialists called Image Interpreters analyzed the images. The photographs were interpreted before and after combat action to determine enemy strength and damage assessment. It was especially effective when used to confirm or deny intelligence information gathered by other intelligence sources (agents on the ground) when reliability of the original source was questionable. Another invaluable product of aerial reconnaissance is the means that it provided up-dates to map deficiencies.

In short - I would be given huge rolls of film, develop them, print them and give the results to Image Interpreters. We developed 9 inch by 18 inch film and smaller sizes all the way down to 35 mm film. There were no digital cameras in those days. Relative to today — making pictures was a slow, tedious procedure. We sometimes had lousy pictures due to clouds or a recon plane dodging enemy action and in the darkroom we would have to make photographic technical corrections and adjustments so the picture could be useful for intelligence interpretation. Subsequently, air and ground combat operations would be sent recommendations and information about the ground images such as location of enemy forces, logistical supplies, enemy base areas, sanctuaries, trails, roads, and rivers. We were under a great deal of pressure since intelligence must be timely or it the results could be disastrous.



 


 



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