I asked for supplies with no luck, because the Marine Corps doesn’t rate or get building materials or paint OR ANYTHING because they are a landing force. I looked around, asked around-nothing. I started in anyway to try and make something. My sign supplier back in Kansas for lettering paint and brushes was Sherwin Williams, so I wrote them a brief letter with an itemized list, and mailed it off.
I found an old rotten board and painted it with red lacquer paint thinned with brake fluid (if you don’t believe me try it) which I had found down at the motor pool. When the brushes and paint supplies arrived, I got to work and painted the sign. It came out perfect! Even I was impressed. No one had seen it yet. I went scavenging around some more and found old 4×4 posts, painted them white, and on my own put this display up at the entrance to Whiskey Battery. The new high-tech look of 1969. There was nothing like it anywhere in Vietnam. When colonels and generals came to inspect us, it was the first thing they saw coming up the hill from the landing zone, and they’d never seen that level of professionalism on any Marine Corps sign. They just had to have it.
Four of them came to me with offers to come to their area and make more of these beautiful signs. They just wanted me to be in charge of aesthetics and to make things more presentable. So I took the best offer which was having my own house all to myself and only taking orders from one person, Colonel Reid. My job was strictly to do art, displays and make the area more aesthetic. This, my new home, was Hill 55; we just called it Battalion as I recall.
Again there were rice patties and jungles all around us, the big guns were still firing with the same frequency, there was guard duty and patrols of which I was still a part of.
I got to work. For example the Enlisted Men’s Club was a pitiful shack (whereas the Officer’s Club was pretty posh) so I did up an architectural rendering in color for improvements. I needed supplies so the colonel set it up so that I could take a big, five-ton truck into DaNang anytime I needed stuff. He and I both had an idea where the big supply yards were.
Turns out, the Army, Navy and Air Force had vast lumber and supply yards that would have put Home Depot to shame, like half a mile long. So, the first time I muscled my way in through the guard gates I showed them my drawing of the EM Club, played on sympathy and that got me 100 sheets of half-inch plywood, for free. I continued to go back for more and more stuff, but at one point they refused and said, “Hey, this is dicey for us and we could get in trouble, and it takes coordination”. They also inferred that I might be selling it on the black market. I had to find out what they wanted.
A case of Seagram’s Crown Royal got me enough tile to complete the big floor of the EM Club. The Air Force yard guys wanted a case of C-Rations in exchange for 6 doors, hinges, doorknobs and a hundred sheets of plywood. An AK-47 got me a lot of different supplies, more Plexiglass for signs, lots of lumber plus another 100 sheets of plywood.
I had a working party of 15 to 20 Vietnamese that I taught how to lay tile and install plywood and doors. Like I knew how or just faked it, but they did real well. They truly became my best friends there and they counted on me to help them too. They showed up at my house every morning. We finished the EM club. Outside my hooch (house) I had to install a fence around what now amounted to my own lumber yard packed full of supplies.
Inadvertently, I became very popular in this compound of about 350 soldiers. The reason is this: about 20 soldiers are assigned to each hooch. Pretty tight quarters. Soldiers and officers alike wanted a piece or two of plywood to put between them and the next guy’s space. It gave them more privacy, a place to tape up pictures, hot calendars and letters from home. This space was their HOME for a year. Guess who had all the plywood.
While I was making signs and being loaned out to other areas for signage and doing portraits of generals and colonels, two more projects took my attention. One, there was a leader of a humanitarian group who came to me. They were creating an orphanage for displaced Vietnamese children in that area right outside the compound and needed building supplies for it, so that almost cleaned me out and it was back to the Navy yard to replenish.
You may wonder where I got all the cash and goods to trade with. The answer is, many bribes and dangerous black market activities. For example, I had caught the mess sergeant and the PX director red-handed with a jeep full of about sixteen cases of cigarettes. Highly illegal. Think brig and dishonorable discharge. It was about 1 AM when I walked out of the shadows and right up to them. Boy, were they shaken up! I observed them closely, commented on the jeep full of cigarettes and then just asked if from time to time would they mind helping me with a few things? They were very scared and completely thrilled to give me anything I wanted from there on out. But I never did any of it for personal gain.
The last thing I helped create was a communications bunker. Except for sandbags, I supplied everything else from 12×12 beams to beautiful murals, to decorative wood and finally, a dedication plaque to Colonel Reid, and I helped get it all built.
Then I took the Freedom Bird home, landed in America, and the excitement began to build as I walked down the ramp to the tarmac and with great sentiment fell down on the ground and kissed it.” – George Collins