HHC, 31st Engineer Battalion (Combat), US Army, Vietnam
Our battalion of the 31st Engineers was attached to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment at Blackhorse base camp in 1968, during the Vietnam War. Base camp was about 6 miles from Xuan Loc village, which was about 30 miles east of Saigon. During our first few weeks we were busy with our regular duty as well as trying to improve our living quarters (Army tents stretched over wooden frames) which was referred to as “the hooch”. Our hooch provided a home away from home for me and my buddies James D. (“JD”) Gillis, Douglas Leo Neely, Sam J. Van Riper and Joseph P. (“Joe”) Shahum.
After duty hours we typically spent time cleaning gear and weapons, writing letters to loved ones back home and reading letters after mail call. We spent time just talking with our buddies about the day’s challenges as well as what the next day might bring and routinely drank a few or more beers. In base camp time passed slowly and we constantly sought various ways to avoid the boredom. We had some fun playing poker, talking, laughing and reliving the events of the day.
On evening before dark I noticed a couple soldiers outside, playing catch. I walked over to them and mentioned to them how smart they were to bring their gloves and a ball. They told me they got the gloves and ball from the supply section. The next day I went to supply to see what kind of equipment they had. I was surprised to find gloves, balls, catcher equipment, bases … even a home plate! They had everything you needed to play a softball game.
The next morning I excitedly mentioned what I’d found to Lt Leo Farias, the company commander and suggested that we capitalize on the find by building a softball field for the troops – it would give us something to do in the evening, help keep us in shape, great for morale and would be fun and a distraction from the war.
Lt Farias was immediately supportive, but wondered where we would find an area that could be used for the ball field. Having already checked out several potential areas, I showed him the best one I’d found and explained how it could be done. He agreed that it would be good for the morale of the men and arranged for me to present the proposal to Colonel Patterson, the Battalion Commander.
Farias jumped right on it and a short time later he informed me to report to Headquarters to talk to the commander. Colonel Patterson listened intently until I was finished and then responded, “That sounds good to me, but where can we find space for a field?” I gave him my thoughts and he asked me to show him the exact area. I pointed out the area and a few trees which we’d have to take down and showed him how we could lay out the field. He asked me if I could get enough men to volunteer their time to accomplish and I assured him that I could. He said “OK; approved! You are in charge of getting it done ASAP” and that he would arrange to have a grader at our disposal the next morning at 0700 hours to remove the trees. He finished our conversation with, “I’m looking forward to playing some softball myself, Sharp; as I’m sure the men will.” With an emphatic “Yes sir; thank you, sir!” I was quickly out of his office headed to pass the good news to the rest of the guys.
A number of men from Headquarters Company promptly volunteered to help build the ball field and work began immediately. We worked on the field as time permitted and all had fun doing it. It was only a few days later that we had finished the field, complete with a chain link back stop, wooden benches and lime to mark the foul lines. What great excitement we all shared working on this together!
Our first game began with 2 teams: Officers versus enlisted men! The game was marked by varying levels of athleticism and lots of good sportsmanship. We urged our team on and razzed our opponents, laughing and kidding all the while. That first game on our new ball field provided us a venue and sport just like we’d find if we were back home, even though we were very far from home.
That was just the beginning of our ball games. As the word spread, other teams comprised of 31st Engineer Battalion soldiers were formed and the great fun continued, long after I left my buddies to go back home. We all said it didn’t matter who won and I suppose that was true. At the end of the game both teams left the field with heads held high, still discussing the high and low points of their efforts that day.
I will always remember that softball field and the times we played ball in that very tough place during that very hard time. You learn a lot about a person during an athletic endeavor and our efforts on that field taught me much about those with whom I served, regardless of their rank or years of service. The undertaking provided substantial exercise in which all the men could take part – on an equal basis. It increased morale, built esprit and provided a positive focus for what would follow a tough day operating heavy combat engineer equipment in the hot southeast-Asian sun.
Those games on that ball field brought us all closer together. I will always remember my comrades and buddies, young as we were; but also those we did not know so well, but lived and served with us in Vietnam – the great officers, NCO’s and men we were with every day. We laughed with each other and we cried for all those who were wounded and those who died. Although far from home, we cared for all who served with us at Blackhorse base camp no matter what rank, color, or religion.
We were a Band of Brothers, eternally bonded with those who served our country in the past, those who serve now and those who will serve America in the future.