This story was told to me by a guy who was in the 227th Helicopters by the name of R. Thomas Jefferson. He read some of my stories, called me, told me this story, and I wrote it down.--3/17/2003

Richard Thomas Jefferson was a 19 year old PFC when he became part of the 227 Assault Helicopter Battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division. Just a kid thrown into military life and then his position was downgraded to having to go to Viet Nam, and as we all know, the guys who flew everyday, were hanging out there in harm’s way, every time they got in their birds. There are two stories I’d like to tell you about Thomas Jefferson, Jeff, as the guys in his company called him.

Early in his time in Viet Nam, he and Stanley Elliot were given the duty of burning s**t…and to keep from being vulgar, we’ll just call it "cess burning" detail from now on.

There were no sewers in Viet Nam out where we were. You went to the toilet in wooden outhouses, usually 4 holers. Whatever fell out of you, dropped into 55 gallon drums which had been cut in half. These drums needed to be pulled out daily and the contents burned.

Now, you just didn’t throw a match into the cans of cess and have the wonderful stuff inside these drums burst into flame. You had to add something combustible…and every man that had this detail had his own special way of going about it.

The most common practice was to pour 5 gallons of diesel fuel into each half drum, mix as thoroughly as you could stand to stir the stuff and not pass out or throw up, trying as hard as you could not to splash any of the contents on yourself, and usually failing. You would then make a pyramid out of the cans, three on the bottom, two the next level, and then the one top can. The stacking of the cans became an art form. Think about it, cans sloshing with diesel fuel and cess, in a fairly liquid mixture….and you get to stack them…the top can being about chest high. You soon learned to pick the least full can, for the top can. You wanted each can to have about the same amount so they would burn evenly. You sometimes had to dump some of the contents of one can into the other, to balance their levels out….and this was a singular memorable event.

Once the cans were mixed and stacked, you then added to the bottom can, on one end of the row, about quart of gasoline. Next was to take some toilet paper and roll it into a long roll making it into a fuse, put a little gas on the end of your fuse, light one end of it, and toss it into the can with the gas in it…and instantly, if you’d done everything right and all went well, you had ignition. The end can would begin to burn higher and higher, heating the cans above it, until the liquid in the upper can began to boil and the vapor ignite from the flames from the can below it, licking upward…and the second row of cans would ignite the top can. It was an art. If you did it right, you could light your fire, have the cans burn most of the day, your end product would be a little ash which you could just dump on the ground or leave in the can….and let the cans cool until the next day, for the next burner to start the process all over again. If your timing was right and late in the day if you saw someone you didn’t like enter the outhouse when your cans had just finished burning and were still hot, you could always slip a hot one under the guy inside…and claim you didn’t know he was there….but you both always knew you did.

On this particular day in sunny Viet Nam, Stanley Elliot and Thomas Jefferson, being new in the company and not being trusted to be a door gunners yet, had burning detail. Neither had been on this detail before, both had seen the stuff burning but neither had ever really been schooled on how it was done, and in morning formation after chow, were told today was their day to be on the burn detail. “Go get it burnt!”, was about all the only instructions they were given.

Being capable 19 year old soldiers, they set out to perform their duties well. They walked down to the outhouses and pulled the full ones out and replaced them with the ones burned the day before. They both knew you had to put diesel in the cans with the cess in them, so they hauled about ten gallons of diesel per can to the burn area for each can, poured ten gallons of diesel into each can, and mixed well. They stacked them the way they had found the cold ones stacked, but before they lit them to burn, not wanting to take any chances and do their job well, decided they needed more fuel to make them burn completely.

Stanley and Thomas took their fuel cans over to the POL point and filled them with JP4, which was helicopter fuel, somewhere between diesel and gasoline. They lugged the cans back to their stacked cans and proceeded to fill each to the brim with the JP4, wanting to make sure the contents burned down to just ash. With the cans now full of JP4, diesel, and cess, they procured a small amount of gasoline, made the usual 6’’ rolled up wad of toilet paper fuse, gased it, lit it, and threw it into the bottom can…and they proudly watched as it lit right off and began to burn with vigor.

In a few minutes, very few minutes, they began to see that they might have made a mistake and over-gassed the cans. The cans began to burn violently. Black smoke began to broil out of the bottom cans and the upper cans began to boil vigorously, splashing hot fuels and cess, all around their roaring pyramid. They both began to draw back, farther and farther away from the now searing flames, scorching heat, and the flaming bubbling volcano they had created.

In a few minutes, the entire stack of cans was burning in an uproar. The sound of the flames was somewhat like a locomotive in a tunnel, making a vibrating low pulsating groan, the flames leaping 20 feet into the air, the ground around the cans for thirty feet was aflame from splashing fuel. The cans were beginning to turn white hot, and were deforming, losing their shapes, sinking down upon one another, their contents of liquid fire, spilling out as they began to melt from the intense heat.

By now, the column of black smoke was close to two hundred feet high and was similar to what the Navy would use to hide the fleet in a smoke screen during battle. The black smoke was drifting in a curtain across the post, an immense thick, dark, tall, wide, and very long curtain.

Suddenly, there were fire engines descending on their location, sirens blazing, dust aflying, each dripping with Vietnamese hanging on for their lives, all with fire hats on and tennis shoes. Just as they pulled up to the area, a river of fire, flowing from the cans had reached a nearby tree, a tall dry tree, and it burst into a magnificent roman candle, with sparks flying, limbs burning off, and it’s smoke mixing with the black curtain of smoke, making the curtain now a camouflage pattern of black and white smokes….

With the fire trucks arrival, everyone in the company came running over to see what was going on. They arrived just as a small tributary of the river of fire, reached the 4 holer closest to the cans, and the 4 holer went up in burst of flames to accompany the burning tree and the great Stanley Elliot/Thomas Jefferson never ever seen before, column of smoke with the now white hot cans, mostly reduced to flat hot puddles of metal at the base of the flame.

That was the last time Thomas was ever allowed to be on burning detail…he was never allowed the honor again, banned forever. He soon was put to work as a door gunner on a slick and never lived down the day he was on burn detail and made a column of smoke so bad, they actually shut down the An Khe airport until the smoke cleared.



Originally posted on 1st Cavalry Association Guest Book
by, and included here with permission from Steve Richey.

ęSteve Richey, 2003-2009, All Rights Reserved.

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