Camp Rainier, Dầu Tiếng
Camp Rainier was established in 1966 in Dầu Tiếng village in Bình Dương province. Some of the first US Army units from the 25th Infantry Division assigned to Camp Rainier originated from Fort Lewis, Washington, south of Tacoma, where views of Mt. Rainier are an everyday sight. Constructed to support American attempts to control heavy PAVN infiltrations into Tây Ninh and Bình Dương provinces from over the border in Cambodia, Camp Rainier had a key role protecting Saigon from the southern terminus of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Just 65 kilometers north of South Vietnam’s capital city, this was one of the most highly militarized sections of the RVN. Tây Ninh and Bình Dương provinces were the home of the famous Iron Triangle, a heavily contested area north of Saigon that the US Army and ARVN just couldn’t pacify. This Triangle was home to massive tunnel complexes and daily mass infiltrations of northern troops and supplies, most notably Cu Chi which was 20 kilometers south of Camp Rainier. NLF and PAVN troops launched attacks from the tunnel complex, and retreated back underground when faced with heavy counterattacks from US and ARVN forces. For years, they lived underground and in the forests of the Iron Triangle and conducted frequent operations that rendered Saigon’s outskirts highly insecure.
Many of these installations were built after the US found a heavy presence of NVA troops in and around the Michelin Rubber Plantation, which at that time, stretched to the border of Dầu Tiếng town. Camp Rainier’s location, supply depots, and airstrip enabled the US to rush reinforcements to nearby firebases and operations quickly. Launched in 1967, Operation Cedar Falls was designed to destroy large swaths of the Triangle and deny this real estate to communist forces. Five hundred troops stationed at Camp Rainier were among the vanguard units deployed during Cedar Falls.
The responsibility of pacifying Bến Súc, a town that the NLF had captured two years earlier and used as a base of operations, fell to them. The Bến Súc story is harrowing and began with a surprise landing on the town by 60 helicopters from Rainier, evacuation of residents, deployment of bulldozers, and concluded with air strikes and napalm. Camp Rainier regularly came under NLF attacks launched from the adjacent Michelin Rubber Plantation, notably during the Tet Offensive and later in February 1969, when the base was in danger of being overrun. Two battalions of PAVN broached Camp Rainier’s surrounds that night, and several soldiers breached the perimeter of the base. Rockets landed on the very airstrip that remains in Dầu Tiếng town today, and small units attacked bunkers in and around the runway.
The old airstrip of red soil and surviving chunks of tarmac from Camp Rainier crosses the town’s main road. The dimensions of the runway were more or less retained. There’s no construction here, and the backyards of homes border either side of it. An informal market of conical-hatted and colorful pajamas-wearing women squatting over tubs of live shrimp and vegetables was at the intersection with the main road. I crossed the intersection, proceeded along the runway, and encountered the ingredients for some kind of a carnival or fair.
Video below is provided by Luke Johnston at Viet Nam Heritage - Healing Through History
Rows of colorful two-seater rocket ships and bumper cars were parked on the cracked pavement and red soil, waiting to be assembled as carnival rides. Random Vietnamese stuff piled up along the sides of the airstrip - stacks of weathered lumber, concrete, rusted fences, and burned couches. The old airstrip is now mixed use public land: a place for community events like carnivals and markets, a dump, and a motorbike short cut across town.
In Dầu Tiếng town center a community park and sports center with a front lawn display of dozens of US bombs, a Willys Jeep, an M-41 tank, and a UH-1 Huey helicopter. Next to this display is the famous Camp Rainier swimming pool. It is a raised pool on the second level of the construction housing it, and it’s well-maintained and still used today. It was gated and shut when I visited, as I’d shown up before opening hours. This was unfortunate, as I was curious to see if the black mosaic of a Playboy Bunny rendered by American GIs in the late 1960s on the pool’s floor was still there. The pool was originally built around 1930 by French who were affiliated with the Michelin Rubber Plantation.
By 1967, it had been sitting idle for about twenty years in a dilapidated state. Soldiers from the US Army 12th Infantry Regiment decided to fix up the pool and deliver themselves a luxury few troops in the field had. They built ten showers under the pool, repaired structural damage, of which part was caused by a grenade blast, and gave it a new coat of paint. They installed a high dive platform, with a diving board that was constructed from a UH-1 Huey rotor. They installed a hi-fi system and painted the Playboy bunny on the floor of the pool.
At the time, this pool was written up in Army journals as the biggest morale boost since the Armed Forces Network started broadcasting the TV show Batman. It most likely got a lot of use in the late 1960s, even if it was mere meters from PAVN soldiers hiding in the rubber forests that ringed the base. I climbed around on the structure to see if there was any way I could get around the locked gate, but it wasn’t promising. I was left to imagine these soldiers cranking Tommy James and the Shondells, the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, or Buck Owens on a hot Bình Dương afternoon, swimming and drinking beer, taking a break from the war.