Van Shipe, a member of C-Company in 1965-66, recently had an article posted in his local paper, the Standard Journal, in an article published February 13, 2016 about his service:
— by Chris Brady, Standard Journal
A member of the 70th Engineer Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division, which earned the Presidential Unit Citation, Van Ship was a key cog in the unit that laid much of the groundwork for operations in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam in 1965 and 1966.
On August 23, 1965, via landing craft, Shipe and the men of the 70th Engineer Battalion pulled up to the bcach at Qui Nohn. The area had been secured by elements of the 173rd and 10lst airborne divisions.
Just days earlier, he had no idea he’d be headed to Vietnam. Shipe enlisted in October 1963, an 18-year-old from Sunbury, fresh out of high school. Basic training was at Fort Jackson, S.C. and in January he trained at Fort Belvoir, Va. , as a heavy equipment mechanic and operator.
He spent a year in Korea as a diesel mechanic, returned stateside, took leave and returned to
Fort Campbell, Ky., where he was assigned to Charlie. Company, 70th Engineer Battalion.
By August he was headed to the Philippines, where he’d learn it was then on to Vietnam. “No one talked about Vietnam,” he said. “There were a lot or things unbeknownst to the public.”
The engineers arrived and got to work immediately, pulling 12-hour days,then pulling additional security detail.
“There were 900 to 1,000 men there,” he said of his first couple of days on Vietnamese soil. “The 1st Cavalry was sending in 12,000 troops and 500 helicopters. Our job was to build an airstrip and eight miles of road around the perimeter. I was running a bulldozer in a quarry.”
Soon the men headed up Highway 19 to An Khe. The convoy was supported by helicopters overhead.
There the men could pick up Radio Hanoi through their transistor radios.
“They said we were surrounded by three battalions of Viet Cong and that the same thing that happened to the French would happen to us,” remembered Shipe. “We wondered how they knew we were there and what we were doing there.”
They were set up at the end of an old French airstrip and Shipe worked 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Snipers routinely took aim at the men working in the area.
Thousands of local South Vietnamese were hired to assist with the clearing of brush. More than a few proved curious to the men and their curiosity proved to be warranted. Shipe remembered the mammoth anthills and the occasional anteater that would emerge as a bulldozer would plow through them.
“If the bulldozer didn’t kill them the locals would,” he said. “They considered (the anteaters) a delicacy.”
He saw some of the locals look as if they were stepping off distances. Later mortar rounds would hit those areas.
“You never could trust anyone,” said Shipe. ”They later found out the leader of the group was a Viet Cong. He was turned over to the South Vietnamese.”
Finding time to sleep was tough. If you were able to lay down, you had to ensure your net was up to fend off the mosquitos as malaria was a problem. Soldiers had to check their cots and blankets for snakes as well. A cobra was killed in one of the mess halls while Shipe was there.
By Sept. 30, the unit was moved for the fourth time, to Camp Radcliff, at the base of Hong Kong Mountain, notorous for its tunnel systems constructed by the Viet Cong.
In November, the 1st Cavalry was air assaulted into the Ia Drang Valley, which would be the site of the first combat action pitting a U.S. unit against North Vietnamese Army regulars. More than 300 Americans were killed over the four-day battle in one of the bloodiest battles of the 10-year war.
Shipe remembers seeing the choppers leaving to support activity in Central Highlands.
“To see them take off, it was like geese flying south,” he said. “They flew. close together. We saw the helicopters going out and coming in. I was near one of the landing areas and saw the helicopters coming back. They were so f’ull of blood, they were washing them. out with buckets of water.”
At midnight on New Year’s Eve, Shipe recalled a fierce firefight with the Viet Cong atop the mountain, sparked in part by some 84 incidents on Christmas, when the Viet Cong were supposed to take part in a 30-hour truce.
‘The 1st Cavalry decided to let them have it on New Year’s Eve,” he remembered.
As the new year arrived, Shipe noticed he was developing blisters on his feet, though he couldn’t understand why. Others complained as well. Agent orange was used extensively in the area to defoliate the dense jungle prior to the 1st Cav’s arrival.
His tour was extended in April. Work continued on a roadway over and around Hong Kong Mountain. Guard towers were constructed at the base of the mountain to keep Viet Cong out of the area. A rubber-based airstrip, designed to allow planes to land in nearly any weather, was constructed in three days and involved the entire 70th Engineer Battalion.
Sleep was tough to come by and hot showers were few and far between. Months went by before Shipe enjoyed one in country.
On June 21, he enjoyed his 21st birthday while working on Highway 19, where the VC had blown up a bridge.
The daily grind of working in the sun took its toll on Shipe’s arms and hands as they became bruised and sore. Docs there told him he’d be fine when he returned stateside.
He finally left Saigon on Sept. 10, having served more than the year normally assigned to soldiers.
When he returned, he became the first Vietnam veteran to serve with the American Legion in Sunbury. He soon felt he wasn’t welcome by all the members and faced criticism from some of the older members
Shipe was there in 1982 when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. He remembered seeing the demonstrators, and the feelings that stirred.
Agent orange claimed the lives of both the men that trained him on the bulldozer as well as the man Shipe trained prior to his departure from Vietnam. Shipe today suffers from the effects of agent orange in his legs and feet.
Shipe remains a staunch supporter of veterans to this day as his son, Andrew, graduated from West Point and served with the 82nd Airbome Division before retiring. His grandson, Kevin, also graduated from West Point and served with an artillery unit in Afghanistan. His daughter. Cathy, went through ROTC at Syracuse and was a nurse, earning the rank of captain. as did both his son and grandson. He also had another daughter, Wendy, and three additional grandchildren.
His father, Sinary, was a medic in the 190th Field Artillery Unit that served in Europe during World War II.
Chris Brady is managing editor at the Standard Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.