Sappers, rockets, and stress comprised the enemy forces that Royal Hettling faced from practically “sunset to sunrise” while guarding the perimeter of Cam Ranh Bay Air Base in 1970-71 during the Vietnam War. His closest ally was Thunder, a one-hundred-pound purebred German Shepherd who walked a nightly beat with him.
An Air Force enlistee at eighteen, Hettling relates his time in-country in Ten: Five Five: Chronicles of the 483rd Security Police Squadron’s K-9 Unit (Create Space, 158 pp. $25, paper; $8.99, Kindle). “Ten-five-five” is radio code for a K-9 alert indicating the presence of a threat.
Despite its subtitle, Hettling’s book offers limited details about guard dogs beyond noting their keen eyesight and sense of smell that helped handlers distinguish real from imagined threats.
Squadron 483 protected Cam Ranh’s ammunition dump and POL storage areas from Viet Cong sappers. Firefights were frequent. A week after Hettling arrived on base, sappers blew up part of the POL area, their only big success of the year.
Most of Hettling’s fellow K-9 handlers were also on the cusp of ending their teenage years. Their stories differ from the usual Vietnam War memoirs in that the men’s war-time lives existed in distinctly different light and dark worlds. By day—except for unpredictable in-coming rocket salvos—they lived like college guys. They went to the beach, played football, and drank beer.
But nights provided lifelong frights. Isolated on the base perimeter, the dog handlers were vulnerable to sneak attacks at any time. Hettling sums up this schizophrenic atmosphere as follows: “Some nights you will never forget. It is as if they happened last night.”
War touched Hettling in several ways. The first casualty was his loss of innocence. He felt ambivalence about hating sappers and also worrying that they looked so much younger than he was. Additionally, he recognized that his hootch maid was a Viet Cong sympathizer. She confirmed that, and he tolerated it. His analyses of sapper activities provide a respectful tribute to the enemy occasionally outmaneuvering American guards.
At times, Hettling radiates a mood that reflects how a bunch of young Americans performed tasks that they would rather not have been doing while wondering how and why they had ended up in a position to do them. The men did not fight the system, however. They admired their commander, Lt. Col. Carl W. Roy, a World War II veteran. Other officers seldom appear in the book.
Cam Ranh Bay was a closed base, which meant GIs could not go into nearby My Ca village. Considering their confinement to a peninsula jutting into the South China Sea, the dog handlers maintained a positive attitude and worked well together.
Camaraderie in the squadron emerged in ways unlike anything that had ever happened to them before, Hettling says. Interdependence led to friendships in which they “felt each other’s pain, joy, and rejection” such as “the dreaded Dear John letter. The bond we established in Vietnam still exists today.”
In several ways, the book’s format reminds me of a high school yearbook disturbed by a war. Hettling presents eight pages of photographs of his comrades labeled “Then and Now.” He also devotes eight pages to wild animals that lived on or near the base.
Interspersed with photographs of facilities, equipment, and weapons, he includes accounts of combat action undertaken by his squadron and describes his own close calls. He presents declassified after-action reports that confirm the stories.
Hettling is donating all proceeds from the sale of Ten: Five Five to the Vietnam Memorial and History Center in Minneota, Minnesota. He operates the Center along with his brother Charlie who also served in the Vietnam War.