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Heaven and Earth--Training

Due to the huge sweep of time covered by this story, we were presented with one of our biggest training challenges. I was able to take only the Executive Officer with me to Thailand but we were able to raise some part-time assistance from Bill Schroeder, a former Army combat helicopter pilot in Vietnam who came overseas on his own dime to give us a hand. We were also fortunate that the Stunt Coordinator was our friend and former Force Recon Marine Phil Neilson who pitched in and supported us during training.

When we reached Bangkok, we immediately made contacts in both the Vietnamese and European émigré communities. We needed to select Vietnamese to portray both Viet Cong and Army of South Vietnam (ARVN) troops. We also needed to select and train a unit of Americans or Europeans who could be used as French Foreign Legionnaires for early sequences and later as U.S. GIs and/or Marines for subsequent scenes in the script. It was daunting but we set to work advising the Costume Designer regarding proper uniforms and the Prop Master regarding period weapons and equipment.

The big challenge was making each period look right from the French uniforms, equipment and weapons of the mid 1950's through the American build-up in the 1960's and finally to the end of the war in the 1970's. Oliver Stone relied on us to make the right calls and get the job done on time and on budget.

We designed a two-week curriculum conducted in dense central Thailand jungle that was designed to take both training units - Vietnamese and European/American - through phases. We spent days at a time teaching French weapons and tactics and then shifted to American. The Vietnamese were a bit easier as their tactics did not change much but their weapons were a hodgepodge of American, Chinese and French pistols, grenade launchers, rifles and sub-machineguns that kept us working hard on maintenance in the mud and damp of the jungle. The Viet Cong unit also included female guerilla fighters and did not expect what they eventually went through during field training. Regardless, we charged ahead and gave no slack to any of the people we were training.

We got some good help through the offices of the Royal Thai Army Command with whom we established cordial relations. They were valuable when we began to train on and maneuver US 105mm howitzers and M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers in support of scenes depicting the American build-up in the mid 1960's. This was one of the first instances in which we were required to train in two or three different languages. There have been many since. It was all accomplished using a combination of English, French and what the XO and I remembered of conversational Vietnamese. Fortunately, we were able to find translators in most instances but that always slows down the process and you are never sure what's being lost in translation.