The Morning After,
The Night Before
by: john harrison
Have you ever felt like you just don’t care anymore? I have. I felt exactly like that on February 3, 1968. That was the day after I had watched Smith die.
The last time I had eaten anything had been at least 24 hours before. That was also the last time that I drank anything except lukewarm water from a plastic canteen.
It was dawn again. I had had maybe an hour of sleep after getting back late the night before. Now, it was already dawn again. Yet another hot, clear, sunny, day near the coast of the South China Sea in beautiful, but violent, South Vietnam near Phan Thiet.
I was tired, but most of all that morning, I did not want to go over the Company CP. There were three bodies at the CP, all neatly lined up in a row, each wrapped tightly in an O-D poncho now. We had brought them in the night before, or more accurately earlier that same morning. I did not want to see them again. Not that way, I did not want to look at them. I wanted to remember them how they had been; how they had been before, not the way they were now.
So, I rubbed the sleep out of my bloodshot eyes and started to make some real Army cocoa the way my Platoon Sergeant, Jim Bunn had taught me. Take one canteen cup about three quarters full of water, put it on a homemade, little stove over a heat tab, add two packs of cocoa, four packs of powdered coffee, three packs of powdered creme and two sugars. Actually, Jim usually used at least three or sometimes even four sugars, but that made it way too sweet for me.
Before I added the first of the packets to the water, I took the white plastic spoon out of the pen slot in my fatigue shirt so I could stir them into the water that I had already started heating up in my canteen cup with the heat tab. As I did that, I looked around the perimeter for the first time that morning.
Our Company Commander that day was Tom Gaffney. His first war had been in Korea. There he had endured human wave attacks by both the North Koreans and the Chinese. You don’t forget that. So, when Tom Gaffney picked a night defensive position it always, and I mean it always, had good visibility in every direction. If you wanted visibility, you could not do better than where we were set up right then. We were arranged around the inside of a dry rice paddy, in the middle of a huge field of dry rice paddies. We had great fields of fire and good visibility in every direction. It was a true, a perfect Tom Gaffney night defensive position.
Alpha Company had the southern half of the perimeter and Bill Landgraff’s Bravo Company had the northern half. However, I had no doubt that Tom Gaffney had picked the site all by himself. It had his ideas of how to fight a war written all over it. Captain Landgraff’s company had come in late in the afternoon the day before to reinforce us, and then had stayed with us later in the night defensive position. We had trained together in the states, so we knew that they were good too, but Tom Gaffney had picked our position. In my military mind, there was no doubt of that at all.
The dinks started shooting at us right about then, just about when I had finished looking around the perimeter was when first bullets flew. It was probably some of the same guys that had followed us back from the Blue House the night before. While it was automatic fire, it was probably all just AK-47s, not real machine-guns so they had to stop now and then to reload. There were at least two of them, and probably three, firing from somewhere in a tree line several hundred yards to our north.
The guys from Bravo Company returned fire immediately. The guys from Alpha Company jumped over the rice paddy dike we were behind on the southern half of the perimeter to put it between them and the incoming bullets from the north. Alpha Company did not return fire since we would have been shooting directly over Bravo Company.
People who have never been shot at do not know what it means to be shot at, to have an excellent weapon in your hands, plenty of ammunition, but to elect not to return that fire because firing back might endanger your friends. That is real discipline. These paras were all pros. Both Bravo and Alpha companies, 3/506, 101st Airborne Division, aka, the Bastard Battalion. All of us flat knew our business of war by then.
Everybody on the south side of the perimeter had jumped over the paddy dike, all except me. I stayed inside the original perimeter beside my little tin stove that was still heating my Jim Bunn cocoa. I did lay down, and I did put my helmet on.
I figured that Bravo Company could fight this battle for me. I was done fighting for a while. I had had enough of war right then. I was tired. I was thirsty for that cocoa and I had used my last heat tablet to heat it. I was not going to let it go to waste just to sit safe on the other side of that dike and watch my Jim Bunn cocoa sit on my stove and grow cold. Being a little safer was not worth more than that cocoa was to me right then. I had thought that I didn’t care anymore, but I found I did care. I cared about that cocoa. Besides, at first most of the bullets weren’t coming that close.
From the other side of the dike, I think it was Melgaard, my medic, that asked me if I was hit. I told him no, I was fine. I was just waiting there for my cocoa to heat up. No need to worry about me. I was fine, perfect.
There were little puffs of dust springing up all over the middle of the perimeter. Each one was a bullet strike. However, the VC were just pretty much spraying their weapons when they fired, not aiming them like we would have. At first, it looked like they were trying to hit the three bodies wrapped in ponchos in the center. At least that was where most of their bullets were going.
The only things left inside the perimeter were Bravo Company, spread out, but staying covered, close behind their dike on the north side as they returned fire, the three bodies wrapped up tight in ponchos laying out in the open in the center of the perimeter. And then there was me, laying down, sort of on the south side, waiting for my cocoa to finish heating.
Even with all of the return fire that Bravo Company was putting out, the VC were still firing back steadily from that tree line to the north. When the VC finished firing up the three ponchos I could see that they were now trying for me. It was getting to be, time to go.
Just for a minute though, laying there, I actually felt a little sorry for the VC or NVA or whoever it was that was shooting at us. They did not know Tom Gaffney like I did, but I knew that they would, and soon.
After they had started firing, it only took about a minute or so until my Jim Bunn cocoa was finished heating. When it was, I grabbed it and my rifle and joined my platoon on the other side of the dike. That was the safer side of the southern rice paddy dike of our perimeter. I looked up, back over the dike, carefully sipped my hot cocoa, and waited for the Tom Gaffney show to begin.
I did not have long to wait, right after I looked back over the dike, came the first artillery explosions along that tree line to the north. Tom had registered the artillery on the tree line the night before while we were gone on a night patrol to retrieve the three bodies of our friends. Tom almost always registered artillery before going to sleep. For him, it was sort of like: wait till dusk turned out most of the light, drop a few artillery smoke shells to register the guns, wait as the rest of the light turns out and then sleep well, sleep like a baby even.
So there were no ranging shots to acquire their target that morning; it started as airbursts, probably at least a battery six of airbursts. A battery six means that each cannon in the battery is fired as fast as possible six times. There are six cannons in a battery. Each 105 mm shell weighs almost 20 pounds and is stuffed full of cyclonite (RDX), T-N-T, or 50-50 T-N-T mixed with Amatol, with the explosive comprising about one half the weight of the shell. That means about 720 pounds of high explosives and steel shards of shrapnel were raining down on the VC, creating Hell on earth in that tree line.
Good morning Vietnam!
It started sort of like the biggest 4th of July celebration ever, but then it got even more serious as our Forward Observer, Bob Richardson, walked those artillery strikes up and down that tree line, airbursts mixed now with ground bursts. Thunderous noise, billowing smoke and red fire, schooling the VC on the awesome power and accuracy of American artillery. Bob played that tree line with artillery strikes like Ringo Starr played the drums for the Beatles—he played it hard and he played it well.
Steel rain—how do you like it now?
By the time Bob Richardson had walked the artillery up and down the tree line a couple of times, gunships arrived from the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company at LZ Betty. Tiger Shark lead was on the horn asking Tom for targeting information. They were on station, ready to come in hot when the artillery was done tearing the place up.
As I laid there, watching the fireworks show and sipping my cocoa, I thought that it was a shame that Jim Bunn couldn’t see it too. It was truly a remarkable performance by our Artillery Forward Observer, Bob Richardson. Stunningly beautiful really, as well as massively violent. Soon we would even have the rockets red glare from the two Tiger Shark gunships joining in as well.
Like me and Tom Gaffney, Jim Bunn loved American artillery. We all loved gunships too. Gunship pilots are almost as crazy as Dustoff pilots, and with all that ordnance on board, they are much more fun to watch. Bunn and his two buddies, Phillip Chassion and John Smith had the best seats in the house, but the ponchos they were wrapped in blocked their view—forever.
Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO.
The day before is described in my articles, The Day Smith Died https://johneharrison.wordpress.com/2014/05/26/the-day-smith-died/ and also in Cone of Violence https://johneharrison.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/cone-of-violence/