“Cone of Violence”

“Cone of Violence”

 by: john harrison

One of my men, PFC John Smith*, was lying on the porch of a house next to us; he was bleeding out. There was so much blood that it was running bright red down the stairs from the porch he was laying on. I could see that blood clearly. I could look at him lying on his back, but I did not want to look at his blood, all that bright red blood. A view like that is one of the reasons that the average life span of an infantry platoon leader in combat is supposed to be measured in seconds, not minutes, seconds. It was about 8:00 AM, February 2, 1968 near Phan Thiet, Republic of Vietnam and I had hours of heavy combat ahead for me that day.

image002The caption reads: Phan Thiet: Paratroopers from Lt. Harrison’s 2nd Plt. cross the dry rice paddies, near the “Disneyland” area outside of Phan Thiet on the morning of February 2, 1968.  Up ahead the paratroopers would engage a large enemy force guarding the headquarters of the 482nd MF VC Battalion for seven straight hours. (Feb. 2, 1968)  

I had already called in air strikes. I had called in artillery. I had called in 4.2 inch heavy mortar fire. I had called in helicopter gun ships. I had called all of them in at the same time; they never taught me how to do that in Officer Candidate School, but I did it, and I called them in separately too. I made it up as I went. I wanted Smith to live, so I created Hell and decorated it all around him with high explosives, burning napalm and hot steel; I put the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) right in the middle of it, but the bastards lived through it.

Still, they shot at me. I tried to kill them. I tried everything I knew. And, then I tried them all, again, and again. I created the “pain that passes understanding”, and I gave it to the NVA without stinting.

I had called in air strikes so close to where we were that when the bombs exploded we bounced off the ground. Literally, my whole body bounced in the air with the explosions. I bounced high enough that it hurt when I landed. I was bleeding in my eyes. I tasted red blood in my mouth, particularly in the back. My ears were bleeding. By the end of the day, there was crusting brown blood on both my ear lobes and running down my neck. Blood was oozing out of my nose and down my cheeks, and I asked for more air strikes. And, then I called the air strikes even closer, because I wanted to kill those sons of bitches that were shooting at my men; keeping me from getting to Smith. I tried to kill them in so many different ways. The bastards would not die. They kept shooting. We kept shooting, and I kept calling in air strikes, gun ships and artillery. All day we fought.

I ordered my platoon sergeant, my friend, James Albert Bunn, to take a squad and see if he could get in the back door of Smith’s house. About an hour later the squad leader, Stacy Raynor, came back and told me that Bunn had thrown a hand grenade in, but had then been killed trying to follow it in the back door.

Smith, my soldier, my responsibility, was still dying 75 or so feet away from me, and I could not help him. He was still bleeding and I could not stop it. I could see his blood still running down the stairs. It was still red too. All I had to do was look out a window and I could watch Smith bleed. I could watch him die. I watched him for hours that day.


The porch where Smith lay, dying as we watched.  Those were his canteens.  That is his blood on the stairs.  This was taken the morning of the next day, February 3, 1968.

If I had given the order, 2nd Platoon, Company A, 3rd Battalion, 506th Airborne Infantry would have gotten up and attacked. I knew it and they knew it. But, then we would die too. As long as we held the house we were in, the NVA could not attack us. We were too strong, and more important, in too strong a position.

However, so were they. All of those houses were made of concrete blocks. As long as we stayed where we were I could use the Air Force and artillery to inflict damage on them, and they could do almost nothing in reply. But, if we left that house and the yard behind it, if we were out in the open attacking the other house, the one Smith was on the porch of, then their much greater numbers would begin to work for them.

Until then our far greater firepower, mostly courtesy of the United States Air Force, was working for us. If we attacked in the open, the NVA would probably kill us all, and Smith would probably die anyway. That I knew that this was true did not make it any easier not to attack. I wanted to give that order. Attacking was what we did best. But it would have been a stupid order, the kind I had trained very hard to avoid. I kept looking for another answer, an answer that would allow me to save Smith instead of watching him die.

I tried everything until I had nothing left to do. I had shot everything at the enemy that I knew how to shoot. I had been creative—I had walked artillery up from one direction, gun ships up from another, and jet bombers streaking in from yet another direction, all at the same time. I made it up. We blew those bastards up creatively. We gave them a concentrated lesson in the American, war-fighting, combined-arms, doctrine of the vigorous application of massive amounts of high explosives and the accurate, continuous, exploitation of raw firepower dominance to solve a difficult tactical dilemma. It almost worked too.

During that day while we were orchestrating this lesson for the NVA somebody came up onto the Charlie-Charlie radio net. I told them to get off the net. I told them to stick what ever they were talking about up their ass, and I got really gross, and I got really angry. That was the only time that day I lost my temper. “ Charlie-Charlie” is the Command and Control radio net. It is air support; it is artillery; it is dust off; it is everything.  To a unit in contact with the enemy, it is life itself.

In combat, the unit leader in contact with the enemy controls the Charlie-Charlie net. That was me and I had absolutely no intention of letting anybody else screw-up what I was doing. If there was to be a screw-up that day—I would be that screw-up. I was determined. I was a second lieutenant. That is the lowest officer rank in the army, but I demanded all that tradition gave me.

The Charlie-Charlie net was mine. I was in contact with the enemy. I would fight my platoon. Win, lose or draw—I would fight my platoon my way that day, no one else, me. And, I did. By God, we fought that day, all day we fought from about seven in the morning to almost nine at night and then later, in the dark of night, we went back and did it again.

I never heard a word about it. It’s not often a twenty year old 2nd Lieutenant even gets to chew out a really senior officer, much less gets away with it as well.   Tom Gaffney, my company commander certainly never said a word about it to me—he had taught me the rules. He stayed off the Charlie-Charlie net that day if I was busy. He knew I probably needed it more right then. But, he too was a commander of a unit in contact with the enemy, so he had as much right to the net as I did, plus he was higher in rank. But, he was Tom, and he knew his business, and he knew mine, so he knew when to stay off the net. Now someone else did too. That was good.

The United States Air Force is my best friend. I believe that with my entire heart and soul. I love them in a way that is absolutely not understandable to those that have not been there. If they have not been in my position; that position had begun early that morning receiving heavy automatic weapons fire from 360°, and rocket and mortar fire from both the east and west, and with my knowledge and my training; they cannot understand my emotion, my reverence, when I say “Air Force.” All day my friend and I chipped away, blasted away, burned away the enemy—my friend, the United States Air Force and me, we did it.

When I told the FAC (Forward Air Controller) that the NVA were shooting at his fighter-bombers with machine guns when they came in for bomb and gun runs, he said, thank you for the information, but that he would not tell his pilots. He said it pissed them off, and that being angry made them less accurate, and that he was moving their bomb and napalm strikes in so close to me that he did not want them to be less accurate. We knew each other. We had trained together in the states before we went to Viet Nam. We drank together several times. We got drunk together once. He was my United States Air Force Forward Air Controller in Viet Nam. I told him where I wanted the bombs. He lined up the planes and delivered the goods on target.

He called what we were doing: “Danger close, U. S.” meaning to everyone according to my friend the FAC, if it was not clear enough already that, “we are dropping all of this very dangerous crap very close to the United States Army, and by the way these are the paras of the 101st Airborne Division that I trained with, and that I know personally! And, you had better know what you are doing or we are going to have a serious problem! You understand me?” His voice actually got louder with every word and he was shouting to begin with. At least that was the general idea of what I heard him say to one flight leader on his other radio before the fighter pilot began his runs.

One flight, he waved off after only one pass and he would never let them close to us with ordnance again. They were not good enough to support his paras. Others he sent in even when they only had 20 mm cannon left to use, they had already used everything else but because they were good and on that day, he knew that more than anything else, I needed good. I needed all the really good, really close, combat air support, I could get. I had a target rich environment. So he sent the good ones back again and again until they were empty. He knew I needed ordnance, lots of ordnance on target. I needed—boom on target—BOOM! The United States Air Force delivered lots of BOOM and bang, bang, bang, and quite a few whooshes, that day. “Whoosh” is what I think napalm sounds like when it flares off.

I don’t know how he did it. I don’t know what it cost him. But that day, I had flights of Phantoms, almost all United States Air Force Phantoms, but some times also US Navy Phantoms as well, F-4 Phantoms, the absolute best fighter-bomber in the world at the time.

All day there were United States Air Force F4 Phantom jets, overhead, stacked up in flights of two planes each, just waiting for a target that absolutely, positively had to be destroyed immediately. And, I had those targets, and we destroyed them one after the other. Soon we were being shot at only from 180°. Even that got better as the day wore on, but Smith’s blood still reached the third of three steps. Some strikes were close, one was literally right next-door, blow off our roof close, exciting, and some were across the large rice paddy in front of the house we were in, visually arresting.

All day we worked on evening the odds by removing enemy from the battlefield. It had started as one American Airborne rifle platoon, mine, as the point of the spear against about a battalion of hard-core VC and Main Force NVA regulars; it was painful, nerve-wracking, close-in work and it went on, all day.

The NVA had expected us to walk into their ambush. If I had done that, and lived; Tom Gaffney, the C. O., would have killed me. No, we had maneuvered behind their ambush so they had to expose themselves in order to shoot at us. When they did that, we shot them; we killed them. It is what the Infantry at work does. When they stayed in their bunkers we blew them up, or we burned them out with napalm, and sometimes we did both just to make absolutely sure they were dead—stone dead. It is what the Air Force does for the Infantry when you ask nicely; but, there were so damn many of them.

Even so, they did not have a chance as long as we had good flying weather. Strike after strike I called in, and the Air Force delivered, on target. Or, near, near was good too. When you are playing this game with 750 lbs. high explosive bombs—coming close counts. It counted with napalm too. But not with gun runs. Those had to be on target. Even the superb twenty-millimeter canon Gatling gun on a Phantom jet fighter cannot kill what it does not hit. But for the rest, coming close counted, being on target was better, but coming close was good too.

After returning from Viet Nam I talked to friends who had been with the Big Red One (1st Infantry Division), and the 1st Air Cavalry Division and they talked of sometimes waiting for air support, sometimes for hours. I never waited. More often than not, and particularly during Tet ’68, my United States Air Force was already overhead, waiting to rain death and destruction on anyone I asked, any where, any time, all day, everyday. I am Airborne. I pull risers, and I pulled KP before OCS. Apparently I also had pull with the United States Air Force. Huah!

The Phantoms were dropping very accurate 750 pound, hi-drag, high explosive bombs mainly, sometimes they had 500 pound “slick” bombs, dropped in pairs, or napalm droppable in singles and in pairs, and all that day I remember hearing a calm voice on the radio asking me, what I wanted, where I needed it, to kill those sons of bitches that were trying to kill me and my men. Where exactly did I want violence, death and destruction delivered this time?

The NVA were shooting at us. That is how we found out where they were hiding. They would shoot at us. Helpful little bastards.

How close could we take it this time? Particularly as it ran later in that day, that was the over-riding question. However, that day I could take it very close indeed. The NVA called it “hugging the enemy.” They tried to get so close to us that we would not risk a bomb missing them and hitting us.

They did not know my United States Air Force, or me. That day I called 750 lbs. bombs in so close the pilots delivering them often were in danger of planting their fighter planes along with their bombs. “Danger close—U. S.” They could see my colored smoke that marked my platoon’s position. They knew that their bombs could skip. They knew even if it went in true, it might not hit exactly where it was aimed. The pilots could see what their 35 foot + bomb crater would encompass on the ground.

Seeing this, they elected to risk themselves and their aircraft rather than drop one on us even by accident. “Danger close—U. S.” that day meant danger for the United States Air Force and for the NVA, but not for those of us Airborne Infantry on the ground. We had friends in high places.

There would be no “friendly fire” casualties from these pilots; errors were not an option. They would fly their very expensive planes straight into the dirt first. Some of the high drag bombs they dropped for me that day did not have enough time in the air to arm before they hit. They flew them in that close. They flew them in that careful. They flew their runs in low and slow, and they were being shot at all the time.

I think they knew it even though the FAC did not tell them. Something about the constant patter of bullets on their armor plating and the bullet holes in their wings, through their self sealing fuel tanks, probably gave it away, but still they came—low, slow, steady and accurate.

And, you wonder why I love them?

Finally, it was late afternoon. I had tried everything I knew. I had bombed them beautifully, repeatedly and beautifully.

A beautiful bomb is one that destroys, completely obliterates, turns to dust and smoke a concrete block house that is about 30 feet away from where you are. A beautiful strike means that the bomb crater’s edge is still about 15-20 feet away.  Beautiful is where the bomb strike is so close, so precise that it blew the roof off of the house we were in while it destroyed the target house next door, and maybe even just a little bit of the front porch of our house, as well as that disappeared roof. Beautiful is when your nose bleeds from the concussion. When your ears bleed from the concussion. When you taste blood in your mouth from the burst capillaries in your tongue caused by the concussion; but you have none of those pesky pieces of red-hot metal in your body. Beautiful is when the pink haze you see is from the burst veins in your eyes from concussion, not from your own blood spraying on the ground in bright red arterial splendor. Beautiful is when it works.

This photo, from Earl Dribbles, Jr., is probably from Afghanistan or Iraq and is probably from an IED (Improvised Explosive device) but damage from concussion is damage from concussion. Look at the eyes, that is the thousand yard stare.

This photo, from Earl Dribbles, Jr., is probably from Afghanistan or Iraq and is probably from an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) but injury from concussion is injury from concussion. Look at the eyes, that is the thousand yard stare.

And, then you tell them to do it again. Just like that. Maybe this time, a little closer please, but do it just like that.

“Do it again, just like that.”

“One more time, please.”

“Next house please.”



It is close when napalm flares off in the front yard of the house we were in instead of inside the house next door—but it was only about 10 or 20 feet short of where I had wanted it, and it was delivered at about 400 miles an hour. The FAC would not allow me any more napalm for a while that day— he had finally realized that I had a lot more confidence in his pilots than he did. That napalm strike in my front yard had really scared him. It was hot. It was beautiful. Most of it was in the other yard where some of the bunkers were.

I was satisfied. It had been beautiful, a little warm, but really beautiful. Man that crap can burn.

And, you wonder why I loved them?

Finally, I could not think of any thing else to do. So, I took off my pack and everything else until all I had on me was my clothes, M-16 rifle, ammunition, cigarettes and water, two canteens. It would be stupid to order my platoon to attack. They would be killed for no purpose. So I couldn’t do that. But, I could go get Smith myself. I could probably do that I thought. I had to try. All day we had bombed, blasted, burned and shot the enemy. All day, and all I really wanted was to get Smith back.

It was the only thing that I could think of that I had not yet tried. Just go get him myself. I looked it over again. I had to run out the front door of the house I was in and across the front yard. In the front yard of my house there was a pile of hay and then a small tree to the right, and then a gate in the fence around the front yard a little further still. The napalm had burned off most of the grass in the yard, but the pile of hay was still there. It was probably three or four feet or so high and about five or six feet around. It would shelter me as I ran?

Of course, it hadn’t helped Schultz. He was lying beside me in the house with a sucking chest wound, periodically I would tell him to breathe, to just to shut-up and breathe.  The medic, John Melgaard told him the same thing.  I don’t know why wounded men want to talk sometimes, but some do. Schultz had been in the front yard when they shot him in the chest.

Smith was really tall, but he was a skinny kid and did not weigh much over a couple of hundred pounds. Christ he didn’t even weigh as much as Schultz had, I thought. I could pick Smith up, carry him and run back. At least that was the plan.

If I was going to go, now was the time, the house to our left that had been full of NVA was completely gone. The United States Air Force had disappeared it. The houses and bunkers across the large rice paddy in front of my house were gone too. Beautiful, well placed, craters had replaced them.

Of course, there were still an unknown number of NVA in the house that Smith was on the porch of, but I did not need to go inside that house. It was not a visit. I just wanted to get Smith off the porch.

There were still bunkers in the tree line to the right, 200 yards or so past the house that Smith was on the porch of, but not as many as before and they did not like shooting at me as much as they had at first, earlier in the day. It seems that I didn’t play fair. Every time they shot at my platoon I called my big brother, the United States Air Force. If I could identify a target, my brothers in sky blue made it go away. Beautiful is great. Fair play is over rated.

I ran out the door, across the porch, past the pile of hay, to the gate. I had forgotten about needing to open the gate. I went through the gate. I really do not remember how. Maybe I just jumped it. I don’t know. Although there were a lot flying around, no bullet hit me. That was good, and I was out of the front yard into the rice paddy. That was better than Schultz had done and Schultz was a good man. All in all, I was about forty or fifty feet closer to Smith, and I was not wounded yet. My plan was working.

I laid down behind the rice paddy dike on the other side of the gate. I had to go out the front door of our house, then through the front gate because there were three barbed wire fences between our house and the house next door that Smith was in. Unless I went out our front door, down to the gate, then down the rice paddy dike, back in another gate to the house next door, up the steps, pick up Smith and return, I would have to deal with all of that barbed wire. I did not think I could make it to Smith and back if I had to deal with the barbed wire too.

It really was a simple problem, except for the barbed wire, the machine-gun fire, rockets, mortars, rifle fire, and so forth. Going out of the gate did make it a little longer than a direct run to Smith’s porch. There was that trade-off for no barbed wire— it was longer to go to get to Smith, but that way there were gates in the wire.

So, I got down and low crawled with the paddy dike on my right. It was pretty straightforward. The dike was almost as high as my helmet and I would be behind it from one gate to the other. Most of the NVA, and all of the NVA that were the closest to me, were on the other side of that dike. The dike looked like it could stop bullets. Until I got to the gate in front of Smith’s house the dike would protect me. Then, run up to the porch; grab him and run back. That was my whole plan.

The first surprise was when the paddy dike made a sharp right angle turn. I hadn’t been able to see the turn from my house because of the pile of hay and the tree. But, looking at it, I would only be exposed for about five feet, then it turned back to the left again. So, I just made that turn right with it. I hugged that dike. It is surprising how flexible the human body can be when it has a really good reason.

I wrapped tight around that turn low crawling, and I must have been a little more than halfway around the turn, when the machine-gun opened fire on me. He had me right in his sights and because of that turn I had no protection at all. He was in a second floor window above Smith. My guys could not even see him. They shot at him of course, but their bullets thudded on a concrete wall.

Unfortunately, there was nothing at all between that machine-gun and me except my fatigue shirt. All of the others who had been shooting at me from the tree line beyond Smith’s house hadn’t worried me much, for them I was a small target beside or even a little behind the dike and my guys could and were shooting at them. They didn’t worry me—but that machine-gun worried me plenty. I was right in the middle of his beaten zone, the cone of violence. Not good. Not beautiful at all.

A machine-gun is very different from a rifle. If a machine-gun operated the same as a rifle, the bullets would all go in pretty much the same hole. While you would be sure that your target was dead, it would only be the one dead target and that is not useful with so many bullets going out the barrel. So a machine-gun is designed to produce what is called a “cone of violence.” The cone of violence is most apparent between 500 and 1000 yards. This is the optimum range for a machine-gun like the one that was shooting at me. There will be a large oval made by the machine-gun bullets as they strike the ground, and within that oval, called the beaten zone, bullets will strike; again and again, bullets will strike.

I was in that cone of violence. I was right in the middle of that oval, the beaten zone, where all the bullets strike. All around me, I could feel bullets striking. Bullets tugged at my clothes, my equipment. At my waist, and lower, I could feel something warm, and wet. A bullet struck my rifle and my left hand was suddenly numb, and then it hurt, a lot. I could feel something striking between my legs. The warm, wet feeling was spreading, lower. Not a good sign at all.

I laid there. He shot at me. I laid there. He kept shooting at me. I did not move; not even a twitch. It seemed to go on for a long time.

When he stopped shooting, I went backwards. Up till then I did not know that you could low crawl backwards, and low crawl tight around a corner backwards—but you can. At least I can. Apparently you do not need training to do it, only motivation. I did not stop low crawling backward until I was back to the pile of hay. But that is a guess because I really do not remember anymore than what I have told you between making the turn around the dike, laying in the machinegun’s cone of violence, and then returning to the pile of hay inside the gate.

I laid back against the pile of hay. I remember that. It was soft, comfortable. I remember the sun above; it was hot that day. I remember the exquisite powder blue of the cloudless tropical sky, but not much about how I got back to the pile of hay. That little fact escaped me then, and now.

The flash suppressor and other less essential parts had been shot off of my rifle. I would need a new rifle. One of my two canteens had bullet holes in it, and it was empty. I would need a new canteen. I took a long lukewarm drink from my other canteen and lit a cigarette, an unfiltered Pall Mall.

Dying from cancer did not worry me. As a rifle platoon leader I knew there was no way I was going to live long enough to catch cancer. I took my helmet off, set it beside me and took a deep drag on the cigarette, feeling the raw smoke filling my lungs. There were bullet holes in my pants, my shirt, my rifle, one canteen and canteen cover, but not one in me that I could see. The warm water from one canteen had run down my left side and between my legs but that was it.

However, I had already been wounded often enough by then to know that many times in combat you are so hyped that you do not realize that you have been wounded; so I looked for blood, or piss or something else the body leaks when it has holes. Bullets going through always make a body leak something. I looked for holes and blood, and for smoke coming out in places it should not. I waited for the pain, but physical pain never came. He had missed me. Wow, did he have a bad day!

As I lay on the side of the pile of hay, Michael Trant called out to me to tell me that Smith was not moving any more. I said: “OK.” And, I took another drag on that wonderful cigarette. Just for that moment, I withdrew from the war. Just for that moment, I went away.   I was just smoking a cigarette, looking at that wonderful blue sky. I was not at war with anyone. But, I was still very angry.

It was right at dusk, after this vicious daylong battle when I returned to the Company headquarters that Captain Tom Gaffney had set up next to a hedgerow about a mile and a half away from the two houses I had been fighting in all day.

My friend and Platoon Sergeant James Bunn had been killed earlier that day trying to get in the back of Smith’s house, as had several others, along with Smith. We had also suffered a lot of wounded, including Schultz and me. I sat down and began to tell Tom what had happened, when I reached the part where I had tried to low-crawl, using the rice paddy dike as partial cover, to the porch where Smith was lying, bleeding and dying; and had been driven back by machine gun fire my RTO (Radio Telephone Operator), Hal Dobie, who had seen it from the house, said:

“He did sir. He was right in the middle of the fucken beaten zone. There were bullets hitting all over him. I thought he was dea. .   .”

But, Tom interrupted him, and very quietly, almost gently said to Hal—

“Let the lieutenant make his report. He has a right to make his own report.”

Few people ever saw the gentle side of Tom Gaffney—but he had one.  At the end of my report, I told Tom that as soon as we were set up for the night, I was going back for the men that we had left behind when we were ordered to withdraw. I did not ask. I did not suggest. I told him what I was going to do.

Those that know Tom might have expected him to be angry at this brashness by one holding the lowest officer rank in the entire United States Army. However, Tom’s reply was – “I’ll ask the other two platoons for volunteers. Take as many as you need with you.”

Those were A Company men out there, and Tom wanted them all back just as much as I did. One of us had to go back for them, and since two of the three were my men it should be me that brought them back. Tom would not order me to do it, nor even suggest it to me, but he had taught me. And, it needed doing, we both knew it.

So, I went back again for Smith later that night. I had a new rifle, it had just a little of someone else’s blood on it but it worked, a new canteen and some help. Sergeant Ron Ford was the assistant patrol leader. Later, when I tried to put him and the others in for a decoration after the day long battle, followed by the night patrol back to that battlefield, the brass in the rear said we had already used up our allotment of decorations for the month and to try again another time.

Right, all used up on the second day of the month.

Before the night patrol left, Company A had holed up for the night in a defensive position with Bravo company from the 3rd Battalion, and some of them also volunteered to go on that night patrol as well. I bet some of the Air Force guys would have gone too, but they had done enough that day. Now it was time for the Infantry to go to work, to do what we did better than anybody; night work, in close, always bloody. In a very real way I was looking forward to it. Beautiful is fine, but I was ready to close with, and destroy the enemy.

We had to fight our way into that fucking house. Again they mortared us and they rocketed us; and they just kept shooting at us on the way getting into the house and all the way back. But it was dark, and the Infantry can use the dark. We can work in the dark. We were back in a target rich environment again; but we owned the dark.

There were only a few more than a dozen men in the patrol, all 101st Airborne Division paras—the best in the world. They were all I needed and we went where 300, two Airborne rifle companies, could not go in daylight. We went in; we found our men, all of our men; we took them back; we brought them home. Nobody stopped us. Nobody.

We brought Smith and Bunn and one other home that night. I walked second going, and point coming back because everyone else was helping carry a body on the way back.  We had to fight our way through snipers and mortar fire most of the way back, and part of the way there.  We only put them down to fight.

I was back in the war. I knew the rules of combat but I also knew that sometimes, for some things, only luck will work, nothing else. For example, nothing is supposed to be able to survive in a machine-gun’s cone of violence—nothing. I knew that. It is one of the most reliable rules of combat. If you have a target in the beaten zone, even a six to twelve round burst will kill him—every time.

The Army had taught me that rule but it also said that a good machine gunner always does it twice, two bursts to be certain. Now, I had seen the first rule fail. Personally, I thought it really good timing for the Army to be wrong. It seems that I am now living proof that even an overly long first burst will not always make up for the total lack of a second burst from a machinegun. Or, it was luck.   My guess is; it was just not my day to die.

That was how my February 2nd, 1968 was. How was yours? My friends, Platoon Sergeant James Albert Bunn, and PFC John Smith, spent an infantry soldier’s day at work—their last. Specialist George Schultz died a month later. The doctors had re-inflated Schultz’s collapsed lung and fixed the damage the AK-47 bullet had caused when it tore through his chest, but he caught an infection in the hospital in Japan, and it killed him.   Smith was nineteen, Schultz was eighteen and Jim Bunn was thirty-two. They were my friends, and my responsibility. I think about them every day, but I will not see them again in this world. Airborne!

* Smith is not his real name.  All of the rest of the names are real.

†Photos by Jerry Berry.


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