My Mother’s Machine-gun

by: johneharrison

In October of 1967 my unit, the fabled 506th Airborne Infantry Regiment of World War II, Band of Brothers fame, deployed to Vietnam as part of the 101st Airborne Division. Although we did not know it then, we would be there for the bloodiest year of that conflict.

After a short orientation at Phan Rang, we were sent to the field, Search and Destroy the Army called it; but to us we were chasing Charlie as the saying went even though we rarely caught up with him at first. Since we were resupplied either every three, four or even five days in the field, and since I did not want my Mother to become accustomed to getting a letter from me on some regular basis, I purposefully wrote to her spasmodically, rather than regularly.

A few months later, I was sitting on an LZ in the field near Phan Thiet on the coast and more or less the center of Vietnam waiting for a resupply when I realized that I owed my Mother a letter. It had been two re-supplies already, over six days, since I had last written. However, I could not think of anything to say to her.

As usual, I had started the letter with the date in the upper right hand corner followed by approximately where I was in Vietnam. So, I wrote “January 25, 1968”, followed by “Phan Thiet, RVN”, but that was as far as I could get. Then, I looked down at the last page of a Stars & Stripes newspaper in my lap and it had a small article about a strike at the Colt Patent Firearms Company plant in Connecticut that made the M-60 machine-guns we used. Each platoon usually carried three of them but since one of mine was in for repair, I was in the field with only two machine-guns.

So, I started the letter, “Here I am in Vietnam short one machine-gun for my platoon and these Bozos are sitting safe at home and are out on strike while we are fighting a war. . .” That got me started and I went on with the letter talking about how quiet it was where we were, how hot the temperature was, how beautiful the South China Sea was, how safe Phan Thiet was, then some more about the missing machine-gun and so forth. Then, I sealed it; ran it to the helicopter, and thought no more about it.

When my Mother arrived home from her job at Georgetown University on February 3, 1968, she was already worried and wanted to watch the evening news.  The battles of Tet ‘68 had started and they led the news. Therefore, she was particularly happy to see a letter from me in the day’s mail. She got herself a glass of wine, turned on the television to the CBS evening news, and sat down to read my letter.

She opened my letter only moments before Walter Cronkite’s face appeared on the screen; she just had time to read the date, and location when Cronkite’s famous voice intoned his lead story:

“Today in Phan Thiet, Vietnam, there was savage fighting as the Viet Cong tried to seize the normally sleepy provincial capital. Units of the 101st Airborne Division met the enemy head on in a series of exceptionally violent battles that started early in the morning and continued all day. There were heavy casualties on both sides. . .”

My Mother sat there stunned. She read the top of my letter again; she read the name of town on the screen; she read the top of my letter again; she read the name of town on the screen. She started crying. Then, mercifully the news program broke for a commercial. The news from Vietnam actually got worse from there. She continued to cry, and sip her wine.

For those of you that do not remember, CBS’s Walter Cronkite was a god, an oracle of truth at the time, and unfortunately he was not at all upbeat about the chances of even the legendary 101st Airborne Division to hold on to the town of Phan Thiet under such a ferocious assault by a well armed, well supplied and numerically superior enemy.

It was about the only time Phan Thiet made the national news, but we made it big time that night. According to Cronkite the fighting was severe everywhere, up and down the coast of Vietnam, so there was no possibility of reinforcements for the embattled 101st Airborne Division in Phan Thiet. This dire prediction was his close off line for the extended news program.

Except getting up for more wine during commercial breaks, my Mother watched it all. Then, she sat there in her living room staring at the now blank TV screen.  She cried for a while, then she finished reading my letter and the rest of her bottle of wine, her dinner forgotten. Her son was in trouble, and he needed a machine gun. She was sure of that.

A little after midnight my Mother called her mother in Savannah, Georgia. A Depression era baby, it was a testament to her worry that my Mother did not once think of the cost of the long distance call. She had opened a new bottle of wine as well.

They talked for a while. They both cried for a while. They talked about machine-guns repeatedly but not very knowledgeably, but they knew all about war. Both had lived through World War II and the Korean War by then. Finally, around two in the morning, her mother, my grandmother said:

“Let’s call Dickie.”

It turned out that “Dickie” was Senator Richard B. Russell, Jr., the senior senator from the State of Georgia and probably the most powerful Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee ever. However, many years before he had been a young boy in my grandmother’s, then Miss Varina Bacon’s class for two years at the Seventh District Agricultural and Mechanical School in Powder Springs, Cobb County, Georgia. In addition, Senator Russell’s mother, Ina Dillard Russell, was a teacher and was my grandmother’s best friend.

That was probably why my grandmother had Senator Russell’s home phone number, which she talked an AT&T operator into making a conference call to at about 3:00 AM. The two women just cried on the phone together as they waited for the call to be put through.

With Senator Russell on the line now, the three of them discussed machine-guns, and why Lieutenant Harrison’s platoon, did not have enough of them. My grandmother wanted to know exactly what Senator “Dickie” Russell was going to do about this problem of national importance, how had he let it happen in the first place and could he also see to it that the strikers were put in jail, or better yet, shot.

After midnight, both my grandmother and particularly my Mother could be of a seriously violent inclination. My Mother was the one that suggested shooting the strikers.

My father had always said that United States District Court Judges, United States Senators and any truly pissed off American mother could cause more trouble than anything else in the world. Here we had two angry, very scared American mothers and a powerful but sleep deprived United States Senator. Things were sure to be interesting in the morning.

Although the majority of our training was for combat patrols in the jungle, the majority of the fighting we actually did during Tet '68 was street fighting in the cities and towns of Vietnam.

Although the majority of our training was for combat patrols in the jungle, the majority of the fighting we actually did during Tet ’68 was street fighting in the cities and towns of Vietnam.  This is what it looks like.  We were using trucks this time because the VC had shot up so many of our helicopters we were saving the ones we had left for Dust Off.  Photo by Jerry Berry.

Meanwhile, the battles in Vietnam continued. Luckily, my missing machine-gun had been repaired and returned before the start of Tet because we had been busy. Finding Charlie was no longer the problem.

JEH Under Fire

We were actually being shot at when this picture was taken.  One of my men sent it to me several years ago.  I am left middle in front of my RTO, Hal Dobie of Yakima, Washington.  That is “Bull” Gergen, a full blooded Cherokee Indian member of the Ranger Hall of Fame and our First Sergeant, coming up on the right.  It was his second war, third tour.  James Philyaw third from right.  I am standing looking over a hedgerow.  We are on our way back into Phan Thiet.

A day or so after the telephone call to Senator Russell my platoon was embroiled in some of the fiercest house to house fighting of the war in downtown Phan Thiet when my RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) Hal Dobie of Yakima, Washington, handed me the radio hand set saying there was a man that said he was a Colonel on the radio asking for “Lieutenant John Harrison” in the clear. This violated so many Army rules and regulations that he had not answered the transmission.

I truly did not know what to do. After the third time I heard him identify himself as Colonel something or other, I have forgotten his name, and again asked for Lieutenant John Harrison I just said “Yes.” rather than saying, “This is Alpha 2-6”, meaning, Alpha Company 2nd platoon leader, as I usually would have identified myself.

The Colonel then said he had a machine-gun for me and where could he put his helicopter down so he could deliver it to me. I said I was pretty busy at the moment—after all a lot of people were shooting at us.

He reminded me that he was a Colonel, that I was 2nd Lieutenant and he demanded in the most forceful manner a landing zone, immediately.

Since he was so insistent, I said that the area in front of my platoon was wide open, plenty of room to land a helicopter, but then I had to warn him that he would be under heavy fire, both machine-guns and rockets as he landed. His choice. I think the pilot talked some sense into the demanding Colonel and he decided to leave the machine-gun back at our base camp, LZ Betty.

When we finally got back to LZ Betty a couple of days later, the Company armorer was still cleaning that machine-gun. The Colonel had tried to deliver an M-60 machine gun, to an active firefight, encased in a wooden box, enveloped in thick plastic shrink wrap, and full of thick cosmoline, but with no ammunition.

It took our armorer, Carl Rattee, three days and a tub of gasoline to get the machinegun ready to fire. But when he was done, it was beautiful.

My nick name for the gun was

My nick name for the gun was “instant fire superiority”, and all but one time that was true.

Strangely, unlike every other weapon in the battalion this particular machine-gun was assigned directly to me, to Lieutenant John Harrison. It was my very own machine-gun, from my Mom. I liked it and when the Army made me give it back when I left Vietnam, I thought about calling her, but then, I thought it might make her angry.  .  .

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45 thoughts on “My Mother’s Machine-gun

    1. Michael Hennessy

      Being a life long resident of Georgia a Currahee 11-B, I can see this happening. I can even believe that my Mother and Grandmother could and would have filled the roles quite ncely.

      Reply
      1. Linda Collier

        Never under estimate the powers of angry mothers & grandmothers. Sorry you couldn’t bring your machine gun home. I’m sure it would of made a great conversation piece your first Christmas back. I can see it on your mothers mantle and the look of satisfaction in your mothers eyes every time she looked at it.

        Thank you for your service & for writing your stories for us. Linda Jo Collier. Dublin, Tx

    2. James Boss

      Being a member of the 192 Assault Helicopter company I remember those days rather well. We flew the 101st to combat LZ’s on a daily basis. I was a crew chief one a Huey in Phan Thiet. It was remarkable after all these years to read this article.

      Reply
      1. James Boss

        67-68 . I remember it well . Phan Thiet was a nasty place back then. Beautiful landscape …Remember the ammo dump exploding ?
        Welcome Home to you John.

      2. JohnEHarrison Post author

        There are somethings you cannot forget, an exploding ammo dump is one of them. It was indescribable, unbelievable, pick an adjective. What ever word you use it’s not enough, but you were there; you know that. We dug in around A Company HQ and waited for the assault that never came.

    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      And, the decision maker really wants to make it right. Senator Russell’s office checked in with me regularly after that to ensure that I had enough machine-guns. No spin. Just making sure it was fixed, and then that it stayed fixed. Thanks for the feed back Larry.

      Reply
  1. Ned Libby

    All true as I remember my mother relating it. Sad to say, she would not ask Senator Russell to send me a machine-gun. Ninth grade could have been so much better !

    Reply
  2. CJ Heck

    I’m all smiles, John. Excellent piece of writing — loved the humor, in spite of the seriousness of the situation. I wonder how many can say they got a machine gun from “Mom” … anytime you want to post one of your stories on Memoirs From Nam, please consider this an open invitation. I would feel proud and honored to post it.
    Memoirs From Nam
    http://memoirsfromnam.blogspot.com

    Reply
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  5. Aaron Brown

    As a 101st alumnus helicopter pilot in 1971 and one of the guys that fought in Tet of ’68, I really enjoyed your story. Your mother was quite a lady and I salute her actions on your behalf. I’m glad that you made it back.

    Reply
      1. Aaron Brown

        No you don’t and often those things change your entire life. I graduated from Infantry OCS, had six months as mech infantry platoon leader, and six months later went to flight school. I stayed in for 22 years.

  6. Carlos A. Velez

    BIG BERTHA

    When I got assigned to 2/506 (later of Band of Brothers fame) I received an M-16 from Wallace–the armorer. I found my way to Vandegrift (V), where my unit was at prior to moving out into the jungle–around the Rockpile and Razor Ridge. No sooner I got to my platoon’s area (at V) that a soldier came towards me, said he had a “present” for me, and that I had to give him “my” M-16 in exchange for “his” M-60–which I promptly refused to do, because “…my name is connected to the serial number on that M-16!” He called on a sergeant to “convince” me to hand it over, that it was okay, that I would not be court-martialed if that rifle was somehow damaged or lost, and that, last but not least, I could dump the machine gun on the next “cherry” to come along.

    The M-60 itself was much heavier than the M-16, the ammo was heavier–in short, I had traded x for 2.5x… and I didn’t like it one bit. Also, the machine gun went through ammo like meal through a goose. But as I got comfortable with the extra weight, I decided that I didn’t mind it as much. To not go through a lot of ammo, I carefully opened the gas port just enough to have enough blowback to compress the bolt spring, the result being that instead of sounding “rrrrrrrrrrrrr” my gun’s sound was more like “tactactactac” with a distinctive pause between reports. And, just as with Mr. Harrison, I nicknamed mine “Big Bertha” in honor of a large, railroad car-mounted, German artillery piece. I even coined a ditty: “When Big Bertha talks, nobody walks!”

    I guess that both the nickname and the ditty spread around the platoon because, early one morning we were mortared in the vicinity of Razor Ridge–and Big Bertha talked. Later on, after things came back to normal, a guy whom I didn’t know (I was so new I barely knew the people in my squad, let alone the platoon) came by and said: “We heard Big Bertha talk!” To what I replied: “And nobody walked, Baby!” I felt like a Big Shot in a Little Town… dot the “i”!

    Reply
  7. Bill Johnson

    Please allow a draftee grunt RTO from a straight-leg line company (D/1/8/4th ID, 67-68, including a little party known as Dak To) to thank you for your writing, and to compliment you on how very well you do it. You convey the intensity and the wry humor of life on the line so very well – and you do it without seeming to break a sweat. While you most likely have never taken an order from a Spec 4, you may now consider that tradition broken: You. Must. Continue. To. Write. Out.

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      Not only have I taken an order from a Spec 4, I did 20 push ups for him. An Airborne unit can be strange. Thank you so much for the feed back and the compliment. However, I do sweat blood writing some of the stories, not “My Mother’s Machine-gun though. That story is my favorite. I still know a few stories. Welcome home.

      Reply
  8. Rachel Clinkscale

    Thanks for sharing John. Those days so long ago it was hard to get information about what was really going on there. Rachel Bunn Clinkscale

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      That’s true. There are few things more surprising that reading something written describing an event in which you took part and many times not realizing it until the end because what you remembered was so different. But I learned as a lawyer that when two people describe the same event, they are telling the truth when they describe it differently. If their stories are exactly the same at least one of them is lying.

      Reply
  9. nordrof

    I knew the story from hearing you tell it but this was the first time reading it.Great story glad your mom and grandmother had are backs.

    Reply
    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      I think you can just cut and paste Al.

      “Today in Phan Thiet, Vietnam, there was savage fighting as the Viet Cong tried to seize the normally sleepy provincial capital. Units of the 101st Airborne Division met the enemy head on in a series of exceptionally violent battles that started early in the morning and continued all day. There were heavy casualties on both sides. . .”

      Reply
  10. Ron Straight

    Loved the story LT Harrison, the vigor your two ladies showed when contacting the politician at 3am conference call, made me smile from ear-to-ear! SP4 2/27th INF Wolfhounds, 25th ID, RVN 1970-71

    Reply
  11. Rachel Clinkscale

    Thanks, John. I am going to print this out and save it other things I have about Jim and the others I have known or heard of.

    Reply

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