Tag Archives: Airborne

“Fire Mission!”

“Fire Mission!”

by john harrison

Battle is such a strange place to be. Each time is absolutely unique and two guys fighting right next to each other in a battle can still have totally differently experiences. It is a strange place and an extremely dangerous one as well. Any infantry battle is always intensely personal.

Leonard Cohen wrote the song “Hallelujah” many years ago. It took about 15 years before it got noticed, but now it is among the most covered songs ever. Even as well known as it is though, a good friend asked me the other day, “What is it about?” Like me he has heard it many times; he had even read the lyrics; but still he said he did not understand the song.

I say all this because like the song “Hallelujah”, battle itself is fundamentally an emotional experience. It is not what words in the song say. The song is actually about how you feel when you hear it. Battle is reason unbound and it cannot be fully understood or even appreciated by the rational part of our mind, but you can feel it.

Battle must be experienced in a flash. It is raw emotion. You will get that emotion in full when that first bullet cracks on its way by your skull. But battle is so much more than that first stark realization of merciless, personal, peril.

One night in the Cambodian Highlands we were climbing up a steep hill in thick jungle. It was brutal. Even so, as the point platoon, 2nd Platoon actually had it relatively easy compared to the others in Alpha Company. All we had to do was bust our way through thick jungle while climbing up a 60 to 80 degree slope.

However, as we did that we also broke what is called the surface tension of the ground underneath our boots and doing that released a lot of moisture. The ground itself was red clay, slippery red clay even before it became wet. After a while we were fighting for each upward step, and the guys behind us had to work even harder because each troop’s step made it more and more slippery for the trooper behind as the boots got heavier with each step as more and more mud attached itself to our boots.

muddy-soldier

File photo

As we pushed it, or cut it out of our way with machetes, we also used the vegetation on the mountain to pull our way up. We grabbed it. We stood on it. There was nothing else to hold on to. Soon we had stripped it of its greenery, leaving green slime on the branches. Soon even the thorns were gone, leaving a red slime as well. Then, the bark was gone too, leaving nothing to grab. Then it pulled out of the ground entirely. Then, when you put your boot down, you could actually slid down lower on the slope than where you had started.

We were all carrying probably about a hundred pounds each when you included your weapon, and the ammo strapped around you. The M-60 machine gunners, the grenadiers and the RTOs (Radio Telephone Operators) were carrying even more than that. As you slipped around on the slope that heavy pack on your back shifted as well, unbalancing you each time, and usually at precisely the wrong time.

combat-infantryman-vietnam

File Photo

Then the guy in front of you slipped and you had to stop him, and his pack from carrying both of you back down the mountain slope. People who have not done this may forget that weapons have sharp edges, and triggers, and bullets in them, and that rucksacks have metal frames, until one or the other bang into your shins driven hard by a 165 pound paratrooper still clawing at that slope to stay on that mountain, but losing.

With the sun being down and with the high elevation, it was probably about 70 degrees or so that night, but we were all sweating. Sweat gets in your eyes and it burns. It gets into the cuts on your hands and your arms, and it burns there too. Because of the mountain and your weapon, you can’t even free up one hand to drink some water and anyway it takes two hands to unscrew the top to open a canteen and that was way beyond impossible on that mountain. If you let the mountain go, you fell off the mountain.

So, the saliva in your mouth dries, and it thickens until you can’t even spit it out, and you dream of the water in your canteens. The water that you got from a ditch earlier that day. Six tablet water, brown water, but wet.

But still, you crawl up that damn mountain. You find that the more skin that you can put down on the mountain, the less you slide backwards. You find that if you jam the butt of your rifle behind the sliding boot of the rifleman in front of you fast enough, then he will stay there and will not wind up on top of you again.

You find that you like the taste of sweat. You like the salt in it too.

You can’t complain though. It is a tactical movement. No talking is allowed.

So you scream against the world in your mind. Your muscles scream against the mountain and against your pack. All of it, in your mind. Your blood would scream too, at least the blood moving in your muscles would scream if it could talk. You know that and you literally claw your way up that damn mountain.

And then we hit an elephant trail on the mountain.

“Where does an elephant go in the jungle?” the joke begins.

“Anywhere it wants.” is the answer.

In this case the elephants wanted to go up the same mountain just like we did. When elephants decide to go up a mountain, the first two or three break a trail, and the following elephants follow and step exactly into the places that the preceding elephants have stepped, creating almost stairs, a little more than elephant foot wide stairs all the way up the mountain. It was a three elephant lane highway, just for us.

According to Hal Dobie, my RTO and as a born and bred apple tree farmer from Washington State in the real world and therefore our expert on all trees, broken and cut limbs and plants of all types, the elephant trail had been made too recently to be boobytrapped or ambushed. So we could use it this time, but now we had to watch out for wild elephants too.

Then you realize that even though the steps left by the elephants are too short for your jungle boots, and the risers are way too long, that you love the wild elephants because now you can just climb the rest of the way to the top of that damn mountain standing up. No longer wallowing in the mud and the slime.

You still must pull up the man behind you and push up the man in front of you, but that is so much better that you do not even mind the incredible piles of stinking manure here and there, and there, and the puddles of elephant urine, although you do avoid them both as much as possible. But you can’t avoid all of them. There are too many.

It is a small price. The elephants had supped well that afternoon. That at least was clear from the still steaming piles of dung on that damn mountain.

Why do I say all of this, because that is what you did for 12 long hours right before the battle began. You are filthy. You are tired. You are sleepy because you spent most of the night crawling up that mountain. Then the bullets fly. That is when you must go to work, because you are infantry.

Your hands are so dirty that if your rifle ever stops firing during the battle and you have to take the bolt out to clean it, touching that bolt with your filthy hands will only make it dirtier.  You are not your standard Hollywood hero with a small smear of telegenic light brown dirt across your brow, or on your jaw. You are covered with it.

You stink. You are filthy beyond description. You are soaking wet in your own sweat, and you are so thirsty. Your uniform is torn. Your hands and forearms are bleeding from infected cuts from wait-a-minute vines too many to remember, much less count.

You are not wearing any underwear, either because you never put any on, or because the underwear you did put on has rotted away. The socks you put on a month ago, have rotted away.

Then early in the morning of the very next day, right before breakfast while you are still scraping caked dirt off of your hands with the razor sharp edge of your K-Bar fighting knife so you can eat, the Captain gets called to the radio. It is the Colonel. Breakfast is over before it began and the company immediately moves off of the top of the hill we had just worked so hard to climb. The Company must get to an LZ. Charlie Company is in trouble. The movement to the LZ is as fast as you can make your tired men move.

So you go down hill to an LZ. It is a seven ship LZ and the choppers will have an ACL (Allowable Combat Load) of six troopers each. When the crew chief approaches to tell you that, and to tell you to tell your men to roll down their sleeves before they get on the choppers because of the risk of fire, you can see him wrinkle his nose in disgust. He decides he does not want to talk to you at all. He holds up six fingers and goes back to his position as door gunner where the still rotating blades of the chopper blow your smell away.

So you fly to an LZ near Charlie Company, and when you arrive, there is another hill to climb because Charlie Company is on top of that hill, but at least it is day time. At least it is only a 40 degree or so slope on the ridge you will walk up.

Then you draw some fire from the front, up above you. They are spread out on the ridge in front. The enemy waits for you there, just like they did for Charlie Company, but now they are between you and Charlie Company. They are dug in, fields of fire cut, grenades, magazines, belts of machine gun ammo laid out and ready, waiting.

Battle is always a “Come as you are.” affair. No time to dress, or prepare, ready or not, battle starts now.

So the platoon automatically deploys on line and returns fire. The rest of the company is in back. They seek cover. The curious watch, carefully; the rest just wait. They will look when the noise stops.

This is the 2nd platoon’s fight. This ridge is only wide enough for one platoon to deploy. They will not be allowed to leave. It will be hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle, fire and movement. Currahee!

How’s your guts this morning? Feeling feisty? They have interlocking machine guns and a lot more than that just waiting for you.

However, Tom Gaffney has another idea. We will advance under cover of a rolling artillery barrage. This is World War I stuff. The idea is that the strikes of the artillery shells will be in a moving box in front of the infantry. The key for the infantry is to stay very close to the explosions, but not too close. If you do it just right, and if the artillery does it just right, you will be standing there among them when the enemy emerges from their holes in the ground after the thundering artillery barrage passes over. Then you can kill them.

Behind a large rock Tom gives me about a 60 second class on how to do it, while Bob Richardson, our artillery FO was huddled on the radio with two 105mm batteries setting up the barrage. It is a complicated order for the artillery but like all calls for artillery it starts with the phrase:

  “Fire mission.  .  .”

I have never done it before. I wonder if our artillery have ever done it before as I listen to Tom describe what 2nd platoon is about to do.

We move into a double assault line across the top of the ridge. As soon as the artillery starts, pounding them with fire and hot steel, we move forward. Standing up, walking right behind the explosions as they too move slowly up the ridge. I push it too close at first and one of the guys, I think it was Patterson points to some shrapnel landing behind our first line.

“Not good, L-T.” Pointing at the dust from some shrapnel strikes.

So, I slowed it down a little. According to Tom it is better to risk some shrapnel though than be standing there in the open in front of them rather than among them when the enemy comes out of their underground bunkers to fight. It is a balancing act in a place that is itself unbalanced.

It does not matter what you want to do that day, you must fight, or they will kill you. Worse, they will kill your friends, the man to your right, or the man on your left, or all three of you. So, fight you will. It is time for training to take over. To react as fast as you can. No thought now. The time for thought is past. We are among them.

Target acquisition.

Sight picture.

Fire!

Cover.

Target acquisition.

Sight picture.

Fire!

Again and again.

Stand.

18, drop magazine.

Lock one 18 round magazine, load.

Move.

Target acquisition.  .  .

Until there are no more targets.

Quiet. It is so suddenly, so perfectly, quiet.

And then finally, you realize that this battle is over, and that you are still alive, and the chorus sings but with your sound shattered ears you cannot hear it wafting across the mountain top battlefield—Hallelujah—Hallelujah—Hallelujah!

afterthebattle

File photo

 

Author’s Note

All file photos are from Google this time. But I think they fit. Leonard Cohen, author of Hallelujah, died recently but his songs still live. Look him up on You Tube. You’ll be glad you did.

If you liked “Fire Mission” you will probably also like “Cone of Violence” as well. Or, for a lighter read How To Hide Behind a Pebble.

The Day The World Was on Line, and Tom and I Got Into Another Argument

The Day The World Was on Line, and

Tom and I Got Into Another Argument

by: john harrison

It was going to be big, really big, they said. But you never really know. You learn that early on in the military. Until it actually happens, you just never know.

While I have said that I was part of the 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry (ABN), 101st Airborne Division, that does not tell the whole story of who we were. Our battalion of the 506th was actually the base unit for a much larger task force, our separate Airborne battalion, attached artillery, the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company and several other units, whose job generally was as the last reaction force for the entire II Corps in the middle of South Vietnam. First we were called, Task Force 3/506th, later the name was changed to Task Force South.

Our mission also included the protection of our base camp at LZ Betty near Phan Thiet, and of Phan Thiet city itself. Phan Thiet was both the province capitol, and the former home of Ho Chi Minh. During Tet ’68 in particular, some called Phan Thiet “target central” because of the Ho Chi Minh connection, and its central location on the map of Vietnam.

After several battles, we had first bloodily blunted and then crushed the VC/NVA attacks on and around Phan Thiet during Tet ’68. While we had  driven the attacking mainforce battalions out of the town, there were still some large and small pockets of the enemy left all over the place in and around Phan Thiet.

Some VC/NVA were probably separated from their units by the intense fighting but some were intentional stay behinds trying to cause what havoc they could as they withdrew. We needed to get rid of them all.

6802945 - TET, B Co House to House in City - Version 2

Infantry urban renewal. This is Bravo Company, 3/506th (Abn) working its way through downtown Phan Thiet during Tet ’68. This was destruction on a massive scale not seen since World War II. There is nothing worse for the Infantry than house to house fighting against a committed enemy. Unfortunately, we did a lot of it. Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO.

Lt. Col. John P. Geraci, the battalion and Task Force 3/506th commander, was intent on eliminating these enemy pockets, all of them. So, he and Major Robert Mairs, the S-3 or planning officer on his staff, came up with the idea of a huge sweep along a rail line near Phan Thiet as one part of their plan to accomplish their goal.

The raised, rail line would anchor one flank of the line. To make sure it stayed anchored Bob Mairs put a quad .50 caliber machine gun, that’s four .50 caliber Browning machine guns firing together, protected by steel, armor plates, and mounted on the back of a 2 1/2 ton truck, up on the train tracks driving backward so that the four, 50 cals had a clear field of fire.

Each of the four, M-2, HB (heavy barrel) air-cooled, machine guns had a cyclical rate of fire of 450-575 rounds per minute. So, that’s 1,800 to 2,300, .50 caliber rounds a minute tearing down range. Like all John Browning designed weapons, the M2, or “Ma Deuce” machine gun is among the most reliable in the Army’s inventory. Trees don’t stop those bullets, building walls do not deflect them. They tear their way through most anything including people. Wonderful stuff for the Infantry.

6802931a - Map of the 19 Feb (1)

Note the rail line, the black line with slashes originating at the Ca Ty River above and then running North-West. Map photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO.

Then, next to the quad .50, came Alpha Company, the base company for the entire line. The line itself consisted of A, B and C companies of the 3/506th (Abn) and interspersed between the three American rifle companies were two large Mike Force Companies of Montagnard mercenaries, one led by Australian SAS (Special Air Service) and the other by American Green Berets, plus an entire battalion of ARVN mechanized infantry with their APC tracks, many carrying .50 cals. of their own, right behind them to anchor the right flank of the line.

In the middle of the line we had our two Dusters. Dusters are essentially twin 40 mm machine guns mounted on a tank chassis. They could fire explosive rounds, a lot of explosive rounds very quickly. More great stuff for the big show.

There were Gunships and Dustoff choppers already in the air overhead and joining them even further above was a flight of F4 Phantom jets on station just waiting for that target that had to be destroyed immediately. We were locked and loaded and about as ready for anything as it was possible to be.

I called it “the world on line” and when it was set up that is exactly what it looked like.  There was a heavy, skirmish line of troops and armored vehicles that stretched as far as the eye could see.

Lt. Col. Geraci was overhead in his command and control chopper in overall charge of everything. Tom Gaffney was the ground battalion commander of the 3/506th and I was running Alpha company was the way it was set up. In fact Tom still ran the company, but I had 2nd Platoon as the base for the entire line.

Slide37That is Australian SAS on the left. The SAS always wore soft caps, never helmets. Note the Australian pack as well. Photo and caption, by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO. 

Since we had never done it before, it took a while to put the line together starting at first light, but then it began to move forward slowly. You have to be very careful in this kind of operation, the line was really long and if it bent at all, you could have friendlies firing on friendlies in a heart beat. It was part of my job to make sure that did not happen.

There was different terrain all along the line, and some parts of the line would be checking villages and hamlets as we moved along while the rest of the line might be in the middle of a huge rice paddy. So, I had to take all of that into account as I set the speed of the advance.

The line was just barely set up and moving when we drew the first fire. The Australian SAS team leader, a crusty, long service, Warrant Officer, came walking down the line through the fire to talk to me. He was short so he was standing up on the rice paddy dike as he pointed with his Australian, L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle, or as we knew it, the FN-FAL, 7.62 mm, assault rifle. His rifle was almost as big as he was.

“I say John. I think the bastards are over there. In that tree line. What do you think?” he said and pointed with his rifle.

I was sensibly laying down behind the thick rice paddy dike that he was standing on. He was actually standing right then on his tip toes on that dike to see where the fire was coming from. He pointed again with his rifle.

“Damn! That one was close. That fellow over there can shoot, don’t you think?” he said looking down at me and smiling as another bullet cracked close on its way by.

I thought for a moment about just taking my right eye ball out of its socket and holding it up to look over the dike to where he pointed. When I have told people about that, they think I am kidding. I was not kidding. If it had been possible to do and not too painful, I really think I would have done it.

There were a lot of bullets flying around. That fellow the Aussie was talking about could shoot and worse, he was getting our range. Even so, I stood up on the paddy dike next to the Aussie and looked to where he was pointing.

“I agree.” I said to him as several more bullets cracked close as they too went by.

Part of the trees he was pointing at had moved a little when we were fired at. There was no wind. The old Warrant Officer, that meant he was probably in his late 30’s early 40’s, but that made him an old man to us. Even so, he still had a really good eye.

You can tell the really close ones because you only hear the bullets when they crack behind your head. Sometimes they would buzz too as they went by. You don’t hear the ones that hit you at all.

The last two bullets had cracked way behind my head on their way by me. They were coming close, real close. It seemed that I was a better, certainly a much bigger, and therefore a much more attractive target than my little Australian friend. He was smiling again.

I reached down and my RTO Hal Dobie immediately slapped the black plastic radio hand set into my hand.

“Alpha 6, this is Alpha 2-6. Over.” I said calling the CO, Tom Gaffney, on the radio.

“This is 6. What the fuck are you doing standing on that dike? Go ahead.” Tom replied.

“2-6, Not my idea. We have a sniper in that tree line, about 280°, 350-400 meters. We can’t seem to shut him down. I think he is up in those trees. Go.” I said.

“6, I’ll take care of it. Get down! Arty is on the way. 6- out.” Tom said.

A minute or so later that tree line exploded with air bursts of artillery. Tom loved artillery. He used it like medics gave out Darvon pain pills after a parachute jump. He and our FO (Artillery Forward Observer) Lt. Bob Richardson were really good with it too. The sniper fire stopped with the first artillery explosions.

The artillery blasts had arrived violently and then had quit just as suddenly as they had started. When it stopped, we began moving forward again.

Not much later, I again called Gaffney on the radio.

“Alpha 6, this is Alpha 2-6. Over.”

“This is 6. Go ahead.” Tom replied.

I was struggling a little with how I was going to say this. I had just seen a little copse of banana trees in front of us and a little to the right. It was my experience that every time that I saw banana trees, I got shot at.

On the other hand telling Tom that I wanted to stop the advance of a line of about 1,800-2,200 heavily armed men just because I had seen a banana tree, or three, did not seem like a workable idea, but that was really what I wanted, and why I really wanted it. Thus, my struggle to phrase it in a way that was not completely ridiculous.

However, it was not a superstition at all. It was a cold, hard fact. Every time I saw banana trees, every single time I saw even one banana tree, we got shot at, usually with machine guns, often accompanied by a few rockets or mortar shells as well. As a result, I thought it best to be well prepared when in the presence of banana trees.

Maybe we could use some more of that wonderful American artillery as a bullet prophylactic? I thought a little more of that artillery fire would be a great idea. Of course, I always thought that artillery, or air strikes, or better yet both at the same time, were a great idea.

Unfortunately, Tom knew that.

I was absolutely not afraid of banana trees. Really, they did not scare me. I was afraid of bullets though. I looked down the line and it did not look quite as straight as it could be. I keyed my radio handset again.

“Uh, this is 2-6, the line is getting kind-a wobbly, we need to stop and straighten it up before we go much further forward or we are going to have problems. Go ahead.” I said.

“6. Keep moving 2-6. I’ll tell Mal Hombre (Lt. Col. Geraci’s call sign) your thoughts. Go.” Tom replied dryly.

“2-6, Roger 6. There is a bunch of banana trees in front of us. Go.” I said, and then stopped.

“This is 6, banana trees? Good. Do you want to pick one? Go ahead and pick one, but keep moving. Go.” Gaffney said, sarcasm dripping with every word.

“Uh, 2-6. No, but every time I see banana trees I get shot at. Go.” I blurted it out all at once and then stopped.

“What? Keep moving! 6 out!” Gaffney exploded over the radio.

Only a couple seconds or so later bullets, a lot of bullets, from lots of machine guns, fully automatic AK-47s and more than a few RPG rockets added their own steel-laced tortures to the air all along the line.

By then, the Australian SAS led Mike Force to my right was in an open rice paddy; there was no place for them to hide there. So, they all immediately charged forward right into the gunfire.

My platoon was just inside a little village, right next to the banana trees. So we dropped behind what cover we could find, and the rest of the line disappeared into smoke, dust and bullets as they also returned fire. Because I did not know where the Australian Mike Force had gone, I had one squad on the right side of my platoon hold their fire.

A minute or so later Gaffney walked up leading his little command group of his two RTO’s, the FO, Lt. Bob Richardson, his RTO, the First Sergeant, Bull Gergen, and the Company medic. I stood up when they got near me. Everybody but Gaffney, Bull Gergen and I immediately dropped to the ground when Tom stopped to talk.

“What the Hell is going on Lieutenant? Why aren’t all of your men firing?” he asked pointing to the right side of my platoon.

“I told you we needed to stop. I don’t know where the Aussies went. (Pointing to the right) They ran forward when the shooting started. That’s why. They and the rest of the line disappeared when we got to the banana trees and everything broke loose. I don’t want to shoot any of them by accident.” I said angrily. 

I did not have to say anything further. Tom had a temper, but he also always recognized a tactical situation immediately. Tom looked around.

We were standing together in the middle of a cluster of three, grass roofed, mud and wattle huts right next to the three or four banana trees. Everybody else around us was down, laying on the ground behind what ever cover there was because there were still a lot of bullets flying around, shredding the banana trees, cracking loudly as they went by, or thudding into the mud and wattle houses. Then, the VC mortars started in as well.

However, we knew that our gunships already on station overhead, would take care of the mortars. That’s what they were there for. So, although that distinctive “thump, thump, thump” sound of mortars firing is remarkably spine-chilling, we ignored them too.

Tom and I just stood there for a moment looking around. The beautiful “world on line” had completely disappeared into dense cloud of smoke, and dust, and bullets, lots of bullets. You could not see any of them. With the SAS led Mike Force somewhere in front, all of the other units were down and almost invisible in all the smoke and dust. It was a big mess, an ugly, loud, very dangerous, very big, mess.

Tom looked up as the gunships, call sign Tiger Shark, from the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company, opened up on the mortars with their rockets and mini-guns. The gunships could clearly see the arc of the mortar shells as they flew through the air. Tracing them back to origin was not difficult at all. They shut those VC mortars down almost immediately. 

“Find the Australians. Then clean this mess up Lieutenant.” Tom said. Then he and his little group walked away through the fire.

I motioned to Hall Dobie, my RTO, and we went looking for the Australians and their Mike Force. We went through the banana trees and then around some more trees looking for them. We found that they had charged forward to the next paddy dike in front of them and had stopped as soon as they had cover. That meant they were in front of us by about 40-50 meters, but except for being a little advanced, they were still in exactly their proper position to our right. The Australian SAS and their mountain tribesmen were simply incredible warriors.

I blew my whistle to get his attention, and then motioned to my friend, the Mike Force commander, to stay there. Dobie and I went back to my platoon. By the time we got there, the VC had stopped firing.

I blew a long blast on my little green whistle. Everybody got up and the Australians and their Mike Force got back on line when we caught up with them. The world was back on line. It was all beautiful again. It all literally flowed forward. Cool.

“Alpha 2-6, this is 6. Go ahead”.

“This is 2-6. Go.”

“Really good job 2-6. Now let’s keep this line moving. This is 6- out.”

I hadn’t really done anything though. The VC/NVA had just stopped shooting and then left as they normally did. If you were VC/NVA, it was always a good idea to leave before the Phantom jets could roll in with their bombs and napalm. So, they fired us up when they could and then usually pulled right out. As for the rest, everything is a lot easier to do when no one is shooting at you.

The VC/NVA were the ones that deserved Tom’s praise if anyone did. However, this time I did not argue, I just took Tom’s compliment and we moved out.

Three or four days later, during another attack, our then brand new battalion commander chewed me out over the radio because he said my line of attack was not straight enough for him. Although it was very difficult, I restrained myself that time. I did not tell him because he was so new. While I would have told Tom, or even “Mal Hombre” (Lt. Col. Geraci) that the line that he was talking about was VC, not my guys at all. However, I was not sure of this new guy yet. So I didn’t tell him.

In any event, I was already engaged in eliminating their line entirely. I was not going to straighten it out. I was working on blowing it up.

I think our new battalion commander figured that out when the artillery that I had called in through our FO, Bob Richardson, relentlessly hammered, one after the other, the VC positions that he had thought were mine.

The new battalion commander, flew away in his Huey without further comment.

I had learned early on in the Army that, as my daddy used to say, “Sometimes you’re the windshield, and sometimes you’re the bug.” I knew from hard experience that it rarely pays to argue on either day. While that didn’t always stop me from arguing, I did know it. Really, I did.

The World on Line had worked though, and it had been a really big deal. We kept it up all day, advancing, pausing, wiping out pockets of the enemy, and then advancing again and again. Getting better and better at it as we went. We had never done anything like it before, and we never did it again, but on that day, it worked, beautifully.

Geraci and Mairs had been right. We counted more dead VC/NVA and picked up more enemy weapons and equipment that day than any other day of the war.

I still don’t like banana trees much though.

A Way You’ll Never Be

A Way You’ll Never Be

by: john harrison

There are few things as boring as sitting on an ambush all day. You can’t eat. You can’t smoke. The smells of each would alert the enemy. You can just sit there. That’s all. Sometimes watching the sweat bead up and then run down my arm was the most interesting thing around. So, we would read, or we would very quietly tell each other stories. We would do almost anything, that was quiet, to make the time pass.

Even for Vietnam that day was hot. Of course, that may be what brought the story to his mind.

“Well,” I heard a nearby troop begin a story, “Minnesota can get cold like you would not believe, but that never stopped anything. We had an oil pan heater, and a battery heater in the pickup, so that was no problem. And my mother had bought me this huge down coat that went all the way to my knees. That coat was so warm.

“So, I took the pickup and went to Julie’s to pick her up for the Prom. She was so pretty. She had a sexy strapless dress and everything.”

“My mom had bought me a corsage. The kind you pin on. Not a wrist corsage like I had asked her to get. She was smiling when she gave it to me.”

I said: ‘But mom, but, but, I’ll have to touch her, to touch her boob mom.’ My mom said it was ‘OK’, and that even her father would not object. Besides they were out of wrist corsages, so it was this one or nothing.”

“Man I was so excited when I got to Julie’s. I took that flower box and walked up to Julie in her living room. Julie smiled as I reached in to pull her dress out a little to pin the corsage on her, but all of a sudden I had to fart. I’d had tacos and refried beans for lunch. All at once it hit me so hard .”

“Her parents were standing there. They were smiling just like my mom had said they would, and I had to fart so bad. But I held it in. And I gently pulled the top of her dress out just enough and pinned the corsage just like my mom had taught me so it wouldn’t stick her. It was the first time I ever did that.”

“And then of course they wanted to take pictures. So I had to take my big coat off and I really had to fart by then, but we stood there smiling in front of their fireplace. They had a really big fire going too.”

“Then Julie took forever putting on her coat because of the flowers. Her coat was also a big down one like mine. And I was watching her, standing there on one foot and then on the other. Her dad sort motioned to me silently, kind of like asking if I had to go, but I shook my head ‘No’. I just wanted to get out of there. Now, right now. Please. It was all I could think about.”

“We finally got outside, and I put Julie in the pickup and then I walked around the back. Her parents went back inside as soon as I put Julie in because it was so cold. You have no idea how cold it can get in Minnesota. As I was walking around the back of the truck right after they shut their front door, I let that big fart rip. Man did that feel good. I just let’er rip.”

“I got back in the truck smiling big. I was so proud of myself. Of how I’d handled it all, the flowers, touching her boob, the fart. So adult and everything. Julie had sort of slid a little over to the middle after she got in. I thought, man this is going to be so great. My first Prom, my first date really. I had been so scared when I had asked Julie. I was so surprised when she said ‘Yes.’ It was all turning out so perfect. Better even than I ever thought it could be.”

“It was just a little later, we were not even out of her driveway when I smelled that fart easing its way out of my coat. I just ignored it. But man, it stunk. It was so bad. I mean, I am a farm boy and I never smelled anything like that. And that down coat had held it all in. Saved it up, and then sent it up, really. There is not that much room inside a pickup truck, so that smell filled it up pretty quick. The fan on the heater was going full blast blowing it around.”

“I was almost gagging. I was afraid to say anything. Julie had stopped talking. It seemed like she might have even stopped breathing.”

“All of a sudden, like we did it on a signal, cold or no cold, we both reached for those window crank handles at the same time. Man, we ripped those windows down. That ice cold, stink free, air filled that truck, but I yanked the zipper down on my coat anyway. There was still more of that fart inside. Julie started laughing and then pounding my coat to get it out, I started laughing too.

It had gotten absolutely silent as he told the story. Then, everybody was laughing at it. It was way too loud for an ambush, but worth it I thought. He got a little angry.

“Hey, that was the best fucking night of my life.  .  .  And, and all of it because of that fart.” Then, he too started laughing.

Two days later we were back at LZ Betty (Landing Zone Betty) on a short stand down. We had issued two beers and two Cokes per man. It does not sound like much, but it surprises a lot of people to learn that probably about a quarter of the guys, paratroopers and elite warriors all, did not drink, and a few more generally liked a cold Coke better than beer. In any event, everybody liked Coke. So, depending on the market, on a trade you could get one, or most times two, beers for each cold Coke.

That was enough for a very relaxed mood for everybody except my new Platoon Sargent, SFC Manfred Fellmann. As a former member of the German Wehrmacht in World War II at eleven years old and a holder of the Iron Cross no less; he did not just like beer; he loved beer. So he always made his own, more extensive, arrangements.

After the beer and a barbecue, we were at the company headquarters building that evening. Tom Gaffney, the Alpha Company CO (Commanding Officer) and I were sitting in our office drinking when we heard the first of the three mortar rounds hit up the hill, near the Battalion Headquarters.

hq-building

This was the battalion headquarters building. The roof was holed in several places. The front of the building was partially blown in even though it was not facing the explosions. Although old, the building was solid concrete block and steel reinforced concrete construction but it still partially blew apart. Photo by Jerry Berry 3/506th PIO.

We had not even heard the thump when the mortars were fired, but we sure heard the little explosions when they went off. By the time we got outside we could hear Tiger Shark, our gunships, already winding up their engines on the tarmac getting ready to go mortar hunting. It was easy at night to see the flash when the mortars fired, and gunship pilots  loved hunting and killing mortar teams.

After the mortar explosions there was a fire burning up just beyond battalion headquarters that we could see the light from it in the dark sky, but the first few secondary explosions were not much. Then, a big one detonated.

Tom started yelling to set up a perimeter around the company headquarters. He was worried about VC sappers infiltrating the LZ Betty’s perimeter in the confusion. He was standing in the Orderly Room doorway, yelling, but still holding his fifth of Jack Daniels Black Label open in one hand. Then we heard the blast from the next explosion that was even bigger than the last one.

I got my platoon digging their foxholes and connecting them with 1st and 3rd platoons positions. We made a large company perimeter around our HQ building entirely inside the LZ Betty perimeter. When I finished setting the troops’ positions, I walked back along my line as they dug in.

The next explosion was simply unbelievable. There are some sounds that are so loud that you cannot hear them. You feel them instead. I immediately dropped down in a foxhole beside of one of my troops, who had also dropped down in his half dug foxhole as the sound waves shattered the night above us. After the explosions died down again, I got up and continued to walk my line. I had taken only about three steps when there was an even bigger explosion. It was like nothing I had ever heard. It was so large, so loud, so powerful, but first, it lit the entire night sky like day.

When I saw that, I dove back to my troop’s foxhole, landing on his back with a thud and digging my steel pot into his back. We actually felt the explosion’s sound as it rolled over us in violent waves of perfect noise, and then we felt it again as it rumbled though the ground underneath us. The concussion made you feel dizzy like you had been drinking.

Initially I felt really bad about hitting him so hard in his back when I had landed on him, but I needed that cover too. It turned out that I had hit him hard enough when I had landed on him that he had farted. I hadn’t heard it, but I did smell it.

Then, I realized that the troop I had just landed on was also the one who had told the story at the ambush, and I remembered that he had really emphasized the shear power of his farts. The smell seemed to be trapped down in the foxhole, just like it had been trapped in this coat. He was right. It was bad, really bad. So, I started laughing. Explosions still pounding us and all, and I was laying on top of him, trying to crawl entirely inside of my steel pot, laughing.

After the big one, there were secondary explosions going off, some quite large as well. So we stayed down and waited. Some of them were even going off in the air after they had been blown there up by another explosion, shrapnel was flying everywhere and there I was, laying on this soldier’s back, giggling about a long ago fart in Minnesota. I could not stop laughing. His farts did have real staying power I thought, and then I started giggling again.

When the explosions finally died down some, he asked if I was all right. I told him I was and I apologized for landing on him so hard. He said that was all right because he was glad to have me, or anything really, on top of him for cover, and then he started laughing too. I was glad to know that my body, being at least as useful as a couple of three or four sandbags as overhead cover for him had made up for the way I had arrived as far as he was concerned.

Then, there was another big explosion. So we both ducked back down again. When that had ended he asked:

“What were you laughing at Sir?” he was looking at me a little strangely when he asked the question. We were sitting facing each other on opposite sides of his foxhole. We were mostly reading lips in the bright moon light. Our ears were shot and we were still too dizzy from the explosions to stand up.

“That story you told about the magnificent fart.” I said and I giggled a little again thinking about it.

“Oh, that. I had thought that I was plenty scared then too, particularly when I asked Julie to go to the Prom. But back then, back then I really didn’t know nothing about what real scared could be.” he looked around, and then he began to dig again.

The explosions kept coming almost all night, some big, some little. We found out later what had happened. One of the three mortar rounds had hit the ARVN’s Binh Thuan Province Ammo dump just outside and on the other side of the hill LZ Betty was on. It had started a fire in the ammo dump and that was what set off the explosions. Some of the explosions were so huge that people had heard, watched and some had even felt them for miles around LZ Betty.

Bravo and Charlie Companies, out in the field, had seen them. They had thought that LZ Betty and all of us were just gone. They could not see how anyone could live through what they had seen, and Bravo Company at least had also heard the explosions as they watched them light up that night sky. After they found out that we were all right, I don’t believe there were any American fatalities, they all said that LZ Betty blowing up had really looked spectacular. By unanimous agreement, it was the most incredible fireworks display any of them had ever seen. At that point I always replied that my eyes had been squeezed shut tight, most of that night, and that I would have much preferred to have watched it from their perspective.

The front gate of LZ Betty was near the ARVN ammo dump. It had started the night with a sand bagged watch tower set on four big telephone poles and then down below, a steel reinforced concrete bunker built by the French to protect the gate.

6802983 - Ammo Dump Destruction - Version 2

This is what was left of that steel reinforced concrete bunker built by the French. Even though it was low to the ground because it was partially dug in, it was still destroyed by the explosions. It only stood about 3 or 4 feet above the ground on the side facing the ammo dump. As you can see it was not hit by anything except repeated shock waves from the explosions, but it was still essentially blown apart. There had been a triple sandbag thick fighting position built on top of the bunker before the explosions, and two rows of sandbags stacked in front of the bunker. They were gone in the morning. Photo by Jerry Berry 3/506th (ABN) PIO.

When I walked over to the front gate the next day to look around I could see that the watch tower was gone too. It had been completely obliterated by the explosions. There was not even a trace left. I had already heard that the guards in the tower had just jumped down after the first small explosions. The tower had been about 40 feet tall. Then, they ran into the concrete bunker below.

After the first big explosion they decided that even steel reinforced concrete was not enough so they and the guards from the bunker had just started running. It was well they did because a later explosion, perhaps the next one, had wrecked the concrete bunker as well. The power of the explosions was just incredible.

phanthietgate 6801824-entrance-gate-at-lz-betty

These are before and after pictures of the front gate, and importantly the picture on the right is after the engineers had cleaned up the road and bulldozed the road and area around the gate. You can see the debris pile in the back. The gate on the left is actually the repaired gate, but that is about what it had looked like structurally before the explosions. The building in the center of the left picture is about where the French blockhouse used to be, commanding the entrance to LZ Betty. Photos by Jerry Berry 3/506th (ABN) PIO.

In a very real way the two tower guards were lucky that they were paratroopers. The landing might have killed a leg (non-Airborne), but not jumping, or being incapacitated by a hard landing, would certainly have killed them when the next explosion detonated.

PhanThietMap

Map showing LZ Betty and the length of the runway.

For just one example of their power, the explosions had blown artillery shells all the way to the other end of the air field and scattered them all along its length, including some 200+ pound 8″ howitzer shells as well as 155mm shells and lots of 105mm shells. All those artillery shells were now considered to be unstable. According to the engineers, just walking up to them could possibly send enough of a vibration through the ground so that you risked setting them off and if one went off, others would surely follow.

On the other hand the runway had to be cleared and cleared fast. The ARVN needed an emergency resupply of ammunition. The engineers went to work. They soon had enough of the runway cleared that they were landing and unloading Air Force C-123s one after the other. At first, even before they had cleared the entire runway, these planes would hit the top of the runway and then go into a full emergency stop mode. That was interesting to watch all by itself. It seemed that those planes could land and stop in little more than their own length. This went on all day. Those Air Force pilots were real pros.

We went back out to the field the day after the big explosion, our stand down cut short. In the field, I put my CP near the troop’s foxhole a few times hoping for another good story, but all he talked about was cows.


Author’s Note

No, after almost 50 years I do not remember which troop it was that told the story. I wish I did. If someone can identify who it was, I’ll put it in. To me it is almost Holden Caulfieldish of Catcher in the Rye fame.

How To Hide Behind a Pebble

How To Hide Behind a Pebble*

by john harrison

Every combat infantryman knows how to hide behind a pebble, but they also know it’s not much use to do so. It is not that you can’t conceal yourself behind one so much as it is that even though most pebbles are really hard, they still can’t stop bullets. However, because they are so hard, pebbles make excellent secondary shrapnel should an explosion go off nearby. If you are an infantryman seriously considering hiding behind a pebble, a nearby explosion is almost a certainty.

6802861 - Feb 2 Pinned Down on Levy

This is pinned down, but given the need an infantryman could get even lower to the ground. If you look closely, you can see he is in a small depression. This was taken February 2, 1968, near Phan Thiet by Jerry Berry, PIO 3/506th (ABN).

Since a pebble is too small to protect you, but is solid enough to hurt you when it is driven into your body by an explosion, a good infantryman avoids them if possible. This is just one of the little things that you learn as an infantryman that serve to keep you alive in that place called battle.

The question of hiding behind a pebble also points out the difference between what the Army called “cover” and what it called “concealment” when I was in the service. If you can find good “cover” then you are safe from enemy fire. They may know exactly where you are, in a bunker for example, but if you have good cover then you are protected from their fire.

On the other hand concealment is exactly that. The enemy cannot see you. In fact they may not even know you are there. It is their lack of knowledge of your position that protects you.

Since you can be killed just as dead by random as well as by aimed fire, most times cover is better than concealment; but there are some exceptions to this. A bunker is usually safe against the fire of an AK-47 for example, but a bunker is an absolute death trap if the enemy has a few RPG rockets. It is a much better idea in that case to simply hide.

If you can’t be seen by the enemy, then the enemy can’t find you, and better yet if they can’t find you, they probably can’t kill you. This is a simple rule that the VC, and the Viet Minh before them, used to fight armies far more powerful than they were for years. Therefore, if your cover can’t protect you, then hiding is a much better idea than staying where you are. Like most decisions, it all depends on the particular circumstances that you face.

So, if it is not useful, why then does every combat infantryman know how to hide behind a pebble? Simple, because something is always better than nothing, and if you are a combat infantrymen nothing is often all that you have in the world.

SONY DSC

Pebbles

On the other hand, when you are talking about 2,000 pound, 16 inch naval gunfire, or a 750 pound Hi-drag bombs, there is no such thing as good cover. Only concealment and a little luck in being out of the blast range will work under those extremely challenging circumstances. Battle can be brutal.

I once told a civilian that I had often crawled into my helmet to hide while in combat. The civilian for some reason, doubted my story. He may have thought that he had a good reason for that doubt. I don’t really remember. I had been drinking for a while that night before we spoke, so it is entirely possible that I was not as clear as I should have been in my description of how that could happen. However, I have no doubt that I did indeed hide deep inside my steel pot repeatedly in combat.

If you have ever heard the sound, “thump, thump, thump” then you know exactly what I am talking about. “Thump, thump, thump” is the sound that three mortar rounds make when they are fired from their tube. You hear that sound, and you wait. Just that sound concentrates and focusses the mind wonderfully.

You wait and you listen for the explosions that you know are coming. You listen carefully because, you know that if you hear the mortar rounds explode, that means you are still alive. You will never hear the one that kills you. On the other hand, hearing the one that maims you for life is probably at best small comfort.

As an American the good thing is, you will rarely hear more than three or four mortar rounds fired unless they are yours. One of the very real advantages of being born American is the amount of ammunition that we send to the battlefield, and that we have helicopter gunship pilots who think that it is great sport to track down and then fire up the firing positions of enemy mortar crews. These gunship pilots can do that because mortar shells are mostly visible in flight. So if you are up in the air over the battlefield you can see pretty quickly, where the mortar shells are coming from and then hone in on them.

The abundance of ammunition means that American artillery always loves to fire, and they have literally tons of ammunition available to do exactly that. I always found massive American artillery fire to be very helpful on the battlefield.

Having gunships overhead also means that if the enemy mortar crew is not of the shoot and quickly scoot school of mortar crews, then that gun ship overhead will flat kill them with its first pass. The latter passes serve mostly to bust up their equipment, although it is said that some gunship pilots continue to fire purely for esthetic reasons. Not being a pilot I would not know, but I have always enjoyed watching that process unfold.

Before any of that happens though, other things occur. First you hear that “thump, thump, thump” sound. Then, your sphincter muscle tightens tighter than it ever has before in your life. It continues to tighten, or contract with each thump. According to doctors during contraction of a sphincter, or circular muscle, the lumen (opening) associated with the sphincter constricts or closes. This constriction is caused by the progressive shortening of the sphincter muscle itself. If the thumps continue, that sphincter muscle continues to shorten with each thump.

Again according to doctors, voluntary sphincters like the one in the anus are controlled by the somatic nerves. That is your brain actually orders the voluntary sphincter muscles in your anus to contract, or open by a conscious command from your brain. However, I would love to see someone down range that hears that  “thump, thump, thump” sound try to order their sphincter muscle not to contract. It simply can’t be done.

Of course, some will say that they have known people, never themselves of course, that have reacted very differently when under mortar fire. They will say that these people, usually just acquaintances, not even friends, have experienced severe, multiple spasms rather than a single continuous, progressive contraction. Invariably these spasms would lead to unfortunate, dark brown, stains, some permanent, on their uniform trousers. However, this just proves the point that sphincter muscles are not always voluntary since no one would chose to spasm that way on purpose, or at least not on purpose when their pants are up, and their boots are bloused.

Therefore, no matter what the doctors say, sphincter muscles are not always completely voluntary, as anyone who has ever fully experienced explosive diarrhea can also attest. Sometimes even a good, otherwise reliable, sphincter muscle seems to just have a mind of its own.

It is the shortening of the sphincter muscle that allows one to fit into that helmet. As the firing continues, it continues to shorten. You can look this up in any medical textbook describing the operation of sphincter muscles. They will all say that the sphincter muscle constricts by “shortening”.

When you are short enough, you will fit entirely into your helmet. Case closed.


  • Title created by the poet RonGFord. Used with permission. The rest is all my fault; don’t blame Ron. You can read Ron’s poem the Wall here:  The Wall.

The Time America Forgot

The Time America Forgot

by: john harrison

Finally my war was over. That plane was so quiet on takeoff, but when those wheels came up, pandemonium reigned. I’ve been in firefights that weren’t as loud. Then, that 7-0-quick, freedom bird, flew us home.

Harrison resting

This was a great day. I am Infantry, but I am sitting down. My rifle and my radio are in easy reach. I am in a war zone, but no one is shooting at me. Life was good, but it was also a very unusual day for us. 

Everyone that was there has their own story of what it was like to return to America from the Vietnam War. But, the big thing is, one minute you are there, in country and then suddenly, you are home. Or, at least in California, and on the way. There was no transition, no time for decompression at all, and usually all of the people you came home with on the plane were strangers.

After my tour I came back in late 1968. I flew into San Francisco, caught a ride from the military airport to the spectacular Mark Hopkins Hotel sitting magnificently on top of a hill overlooking downtown San Francisco and the Bay beyond. That was where my Uncle John picked me up. I was standing there in front of the hotel in full dress khaki uniform, brand new ribbons pinned to my chest and all, but I had been sitting on a plane for about sixteen hours and I looked like it.

No one spit on me, but no one said, “Welcome home” until my Uncle said it, and then he hugged me. I don’t remember him ever doing that before, or since.

Pretty much everybody else had completely ignored me standing there in front of one of the finest and busiest hotels in America in my still shiny, black Corcoran jump boots, with a hard to miss, powder blue infantry cord, and then a big, bright Combat Infantry Badge over three rows of colorful ribbons pinned above silver Airborne wings. They all really stood out on those rumpled dress khakis. There was also a big, stuffed, Army OD green, overseas service, duffle bag sitting there right beside me on the curb.

However, as far as being noticed by the people of San Francisco, I could have been a tree, but I had a big smile on my face. I was really glad to see me back home in America, even if no one else seemed to notice, much less care. I was home!

According to my Uncle everything was fine until after dinner that night when I leaned back in my chair and it just kept going until I hit the floor. It might have been jet lag, but I think it was more likely related to the impressive amount of Jack Daniels, sour mash, whiskey, that I had consumed before, during and after dinner.

That was also my Uncle’s guess. He and my cousin Nancy put me to bed. It was the first time that I had slept between real sheets in about a year, but unfortunately I was way too drunk to notice.

While I had only been gone one year many things, some very important to a young man, seemed to have changed in America during that year. Now, after some bra burning that I had missed, women suddenly had nipples poking out, one on each side of their chest, and, with their girdles gone as well, they now had two round buttocks instead of just one large one. It was all quite startling for a young man fresh from a war zone.

I no longer knew what the rules were. I did not know whether I was supposed to notice these changes, or not. I wanted to act correctly, and to throughly explore both topics, but that would have to wait until I got home to Washington, D.C. First though, I felt a real need to reconnect with both my extended family, and my country.

I was back, and I needed to see them both. San Francisco was only the first stop on my return tour through America and my family that I had very carefully planned as my trip home from war.

My Uncle John was by then a Navy Captain and was the director of NCIS. I called him “Spy” because he had actually been one in Turkey right after World War II. He was working on his third war as a naval officer.

He invited me to lunch the day after I got back. I had a real hangover from all of that Jack Daniels, but I joined him at the Condor Club in North Beach. My aunt dropped me off at the door to meet him there. She was smiling, but she did not come in.

We were met at the door by a very pretty young lady about my age who was topless, and who was wearing the shortest, black leather, miniskirt I have ever seen. I got a good look at her face because I was trying very hard not to stare at her exposed breasts.  However, I did notice that she had nipples. Two of them. One on each side. I counted them carefully as I ignored them completely.

I did not know what to say:

“Nice skirt.” seemed forced, given the circumstances.

“Neat nips.” seemed flippant, and perhaps too personal as well?

So, I did not say anything. She smiled at me. She seemed truly glad to see me. While I was wearing civvies, clearly out of date style wise, as well as being rumpled from being stuffed in that  Army OD green, duffle bag, neither seemed to bother her. Nor did my very short, also very out of style, Army haircut.

She was the very first person that I met in America, other than my family, that had showed any interest in me as a person. I liked her immediately.

As we were seated at a small round table inside the club, Carol Doda descended to the stage on top of a brilliant white grand piano. You could say that she was wearing the piano since, other than a small black sequined G-string, that was all she was wearing. This was not a strip joint—they appeared stripped. Her two huge breasts were already famous as the “Twin Peaks”, or “Twin 44’s” of San Francisco, but I actually preferred the smaller ones on the young lady that had greeted us at the door.

During that long, liquid lunch with my uncle I found out that the “hair of the dog” does indeed work. Although that first drink goes down a lot more like medicine than like a proper drink would. On the other hand, the second drink and those that follow are, fine.

We were served by another young lady who I noticed immediately was also topless. Her’s split the difference between Carol Doda’s and the young lady’s at the door, and like her pert, blond pony tail, bounced a little as she moved. I liked our waitress too.

She was also dressed in an equally short black leather miniskirt. Just like the girl at the front door. That completely improbable black leather skirt was their uniform I finally figured out. It was also, all of their uniform. I thought that it was a real improvement over the Army’s shapeless uniforms that I was more used to, but I doubted that the Pentagon would ever approve such a change.

Several times as we sat there drinking quality American whiskey, in short, thick American glasses with lots of American ice, I noticed that my face actually hurt from smiling so much. Really, the muscles in my face hurt. I have never felt that before, or since. 

There were several waitresses moving around the room serving drinks mostly and as I watched them I tried to get that big smile off of my face. I tried to relax my face, but it would not relax. I was so glad to be home and it was so much fun each time to order more booze from our ever more beautiful waitress. We took a cab home, I think.

After a few days with Spy and family in San Francisco, I went to LA to see my Aunt Elizabeth. I took the train down the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It is a spectacular way to travel the West Coast. I had bought some new civilian clothes from the Presidio PX with Spy. So other than my short, obviously military, hair, I no longer looked so out of place sitting in the observation car, drinking alone, with only my  big, stuffed, duffle bag sitting on the seat beside me to keep me company.

The bartender on the train was a man. So it was not as much fun to order as it had been at the Condor Club, but I overcame that and noticed that he had a delightfully heavy hand with the whiskey. He was the only person I spoke to on the train but then, other than ordering a drink or three, we did not speak.

Then it was on to Dallas, Texas to see my father and the Texas side of the family. No “welcome homes” so far anywhere, except from family. I was still carrying that big, Army OD green, overstuffed, duffle bag whenever I travelled, but both it and I were apparently invisible to everybody we met.

In addition, other than one time, there was no interest from anybody, including family, about what had happened in Vietnam, or what I had done there, or what was still going on there. Silence ruled.

Nor were there any more topless bars. While well covered nipples were in evidence everywhere, I think air conditioning helped that, evidently topless bars were a San Francisco thing. I regretted that, but I continued to drink whenever it was offered, and it was offered regularly. So, I was still smiling.

When we visited my father’s job in Dallas we learned that the son of an associate that worked there with him had been killed in Vietnam the day before I visited. So that part of the visit was quiet. No smiling. However, other than with my family, that was the only time that even the word “Vietnam” came up from people that I met during my extended trip home.

Finally, it was on to DC and home. I was surprised when I got home a little after lunch that day to find the front door of our house was locked. In all the time that we had lived there the front door had only been locked after the last person came in at night and when we were out of town. The back door to our house had never been locked—nobody ever had a key to the old fashioned lock on that door.

Now there were heavy locks and bolts on every door into the house. There had been riots in DC and many other cities after Dr. Martin Luther King had been murdered in Memphis while I was in Vietnam. Then, in Los Angeles Senator Bobby Kennedy had also been murdered while I was gone. So now we locked all our doors at night, and during the day as well.

One of the first things my mother did was to give me the two keys that I needed to open the front door of our home. Having a key felt so strange. Before I went to Vietnam, I had never needed, nor had a key to our home.

She also gave me back a .22 caliber rifle of mine she had taken out during the riots and loaded, but did not know how to unload. She thought you had to shoot it to unload it and she did not want to do that in the house. Even after I explained the process, she told me to take it outside to unload it.

That first night my Mother told me about a couple of friends that had died in Vietnam while I was there. One of them, a Marine named Tom Fleming, had been a very close friend. He had been killed by a mortar round. My brother said his casket was very light. They had decided not to tell me about Tom and the others until I returned.

Like several of my friends, our family dog had also died while I was in Vietnam. They did not tell me that either until I got home. I missed that dog. I had really been looking forward to seeing her again. Her name was Penny. She was a beautiful, pure bred, collie. Actually she was my little sister’s collie, but she was our dog and now she was gone too.

I was beginning to feel as though it was dangerous to ask questions about what had happened at home while I was gone. There was no good news.

Stranger still though, other than just once, and telling me about my friends’ deaths, nobody talked about Vietnam. It was on the news every night, but nobody talked about it. Other than my closest family and then only when we first met, nobody seemed to care that I had just returned from a war zone, from a still very active war zone where Americans were killing and dying everyday. But nobody seemed to care.

However, even in the family all was not entirely well about my tour in Vietnam. One time, I was asked by one relative when I first saw her:

“So, how many people did you kill?”

I guess I should have been angry, or insulted, or something, but it was the first real question about the war, about my war, and as it turned out; it was also the only question from anybody about what I had actually done while I was in Vietnam. While I was there, fighting for them. So, I answered it as honestly as I could:

“More of them than they did of me.”

But now I am not so sure that is true. With Agent Orange waiting in the shadows and killing more every year, with flashbacks and demons in the dark of night, I am not even sure sometimes that the war is over.

After I got back I made two promises to myself. I vowed, never again. Pregnant women and little children would go before I would fight for these people again. Next time, if there ever was a next time, I would only fight for myself and my family if I fought at all, and I would vote in every election. I’ve kept both promises.

Nashville Bound

Nashville Bound

by: john harrison

“I was not lying.” I said.

“But, L-T my mother had already passed.” he said.

“L-T” was and perhaps still is the almost universal nickname in the Army for a lieutenant, any lieutenant. If you have served together and you meet again after you are out of the service, you always stay the same rank you were when you last served together.

“Well, how was I to know that? Your mother loved you, probably. Maybe even a lot. So, that part was true, right?” I said.

We were sitting together at a table in a hospitality room in a hotel drinking. It was at a 3/506th Airborne’s reunion several years ago and a former Alpha Company trooper was trying to tell me that I had lied to get him and two of his friends out of jail in Nashville when we had been training with the 101st Airborne Division at Ft. Campbell, KY, before going to Vietnam. With the full benefit of my very expensive Jesuit education from Georgetown University, I was trying to explain to him why what I had admittedly said to the Sheriff that night to get him and his two buddies out of jail was not actually a lie. I thought I was doing pretty good in the argument. I was sure I would win.

“Your mother had been very sick from time to time when she was alive. So, that was true, right?” I said.

“She was dead L-T, not sick. You lied. You know you lied. Admit it.” He was smiling.

He thought for sure that he had me at last.

One of my jobs as an XO, or the executive officer of an airborne rifle company had been to take care of troopers that managed to get into trouble with the law. Besides going to nearby Hopkinsville and Clarksville for me this often involved going to Nashville. It is the closest large city to Ft. Campbell, and it had an almost unlimited number of bars filled with cold beer and good looking young women. I would visit with either the police or the Sheriff depending on who had custody of the miscreant to try to get them released without being charged.

I got the call from the Nashville Sheriff’s office almost every weekend, usually first thing on Sunday morning. If there was such a thing then, they surely would have had my number on speed dial.

Sometimes, if it was not too bad, I could handle it over the phone, but sometimes I had to go down and actually talk to the Sheriff personally. Although I would not say we were friends, we had gotten to know each other really well in a very short period of time.

The Sheriff was an old fashioned southern patriot. There really is no other way to describe him. He wanted to be talked into letting my guys go. He knew that we were a D-1 unit on our way to Vietnam as soon as we finished our training cycle at Ft. Campbell and he respected that. However, because of his job, he also needed what he considered to be a real reason to let the guy go. That was the hard part, coming up with a new, a new real reason each time. Sometimes just promising harsh Army justice was not enough.

“Officers shouldn’t lie L-T.” the trooper said

Even though it sounded a lot more like “Ossiffers” I still knew what he meant. His voice made it clear that he had started drinking much earlier that day than I had.

“Well, your mother had been sick at some point in her life, and she was worried about you. After all you were in the Army and you were on your way to Vietnam; there was a war going on there. She was probably worried about you, right?” I said.

“I already told you L-T—she was dead. She died before I even enlisted. You don’t worry much when you’re already dead.” he said.

“Well, her being dead and all might have been part of the reason the fight started. It might have been the reason you enlisted. You had lost your mom, you were sad, you were angry, that could have even been the reason you threw that fellow into the window at the bar, and then hit the other one with a chair. So, what I said might have been true, right?” I said.

“They were legs, L-T. That’s why the fight started. Joe called one of them a ‘fucking leg’ and then one of them threw a punch.” he said.

“See, when I said that they started it all. I was right. They threw the first punch. It was not your fault, you were just defending yourself, right?” I said.

“Before that, I did sort of say something to their girl friends about how they’re dating a bunch of pussies. That probably didn’t help either.” he said.

He smiled broadly at the memory. He was enjoying this. He really liked the memory of that night, of that fight.

“Well, they were legs. So, they were pussies. You both were only telling the truth about them. They had no right to be angry, and if you had just won that damn fight and then gotten out of there before the cops came I wouldn’t even have had to come get you.” I said.

“We were winning until I said to Joe: ‘Watch this shit!’ Hey, don’t you go changing the subject. You’re tricky.” he said.

Did I mention that we both had been drinking. Although I had started later than he had, we had been drinking together almost all afternoon. When he picked up his beer I looked again at the small white scar on the big knuckle on his right hand.

“Taking out that guy’s tooth didn’t leave much of a scar on your hand.” I said.

“Doc Lovey pulled it out with pair of needle nose pliers. Good thing the Sheriff didn’t see it. He never would have let me go. There you go again, don’t change the subject. I got you L-T. You lied. You did.” he said and he smiled broadly again.

I don’t know which he enjoyed more, pinning me down, or remembering that fight in a bar long ago in Nashville.

“All right what part of what I said was a lie?” I asked.

“Well, you talked all about our mothers like you knew them personally. Not just me but them other two as well. But, but you didn’t even know them other two guys. They were from Bravo Company, not ‘A’ Company. You never even seen them before much less seen their mothers. You never even talked to them before. Did you?” he said.

“Well, they had mothers too, and all mothers worry about their sons. That was the important part. You boil it down and that’s all I really said. Besides I knew by then that the Sheriff was a real sucker for mother stories.”

“But then you said that I was a great soldier.” he said.

“So?” I replied.

“And, that I had never been in any trouble before.” he said.

“O-K, I lied.”

What Goes Up, Must Come Down

What Goes Up, Must Come Down

by: john harrison

It is not true. I don’t care what they say, or who says it, the stories are just not true. This is what really happened that day.

As the XO, or executive officer, of Alpha Company, particularly before I also became a platoon leader, I missed some things, but I got to do some things too. Early on I was sent to Jumpmaster School at Ft. Campbell. After I passed Jumpmaster School, I was assigned to the rotation for qualification jumps.

Since paratroopers drew jump pay they were required to jump at least once every 90 days or they went off of jump status there was always a need for a qualification jump or two at the end of every month to allow these troopers to continue to draw their jump pay if for some reason they had missed their unit jump that quarter.

A qualification jump was always a “Hollywood” jump, which is defined as one with no equipment and no tactical exercise after the jump. After you landed you just got on a truck at the drop zone and it returned you to your unit.

Since most of the qualified jumpmasters were E-6 Staff Sergeants, or even  E-7 Platoon Sergeants and E-8 First Sergeants, they all had jobs to do. So, they were too important to spare even for such an essential, if not at all that demanding, assignment.

I on the other hand was a brand new, second lieutenant, and an XO, not even a platoon leader yet. That made me perfect for the job of qualification jump, jumpmaster. I guess it was assumed that nothing I had to do was as important as what almost any senior sergeant was doing. Probably right too.

In any event, I was assigned the first post qualification jump after Jumpmaster School. We were to take off from Campbell Army Airfield at 6:30 AM and the Drop Zone was in the far eastern portion of the Fort near Clarksville, Tennessee. Almost all of the jumpers were from Headquarters Company, 101st Airborne Division.

After drawing parachutes early that morning I went over to the tarmac at Campbell Army Airfield with a big, brand new, role of green duct tape. I walked up to the C-119, the old Flying Boxcar that was our designated jump aircraft already parked on the tarmac. The first thing a jumpmaster does at the airfield is check out the aircraft. As I recall it was flown by an Illinois, Air National Guard unit.

C-119_BoxcarC-119, By USAF – Travis Air Force Base Public Affairs., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32471809

While there is an Air Force, or Air National Guard sergeant responsible for the aircraft called the loadmaster, the paratroopers are the responsibility of the jumpmaster. The first thing you check on the aircraft as the jumpmaster is the doors of the aircraft. You do not want a sharp edge to cut a static line. That is what the roll of duct tape was for, to cover any sharp edges I found.

The rules say that you both look at and feel all of the edges that the static line might hit when a trooper exits an aircraft. However, when I looked at the frame of the door we would jump out of, it was already covered with duct tape far beyond where any static line would hit. Lots and lots of duct tape, everywhere. In fact the duct tape on the edges was at least a half an inch or more thick in most places. The same thing was true of the door frame on the other side of the aircraft too.

Probably just to be doing something, I plastered on one more strip of duct tape on each door frame. After that I went back to the troops.  I checked the troopers’ parachutes, loaded up the aircraft and then, Army style, we waited.

A few minutes later the pilot started up the engines. I have never heard louder engines in my life. The C-119 is a piston driven, prop plane of World War II vintage. I always thought it was a cool plane, both because of its nickname, the “Flying Boxcar” and its unusual double tail. I was really looking forward to jumping out of it, and the sound of those powerful engines roaring really increased my confidence.

I just knew that when the pilot released those brakes that the plane was going to leap into the sky. Then, I noticed that the plane was already moving forward, just a little. The engines were still roaring and now the plane was shaking a little too. You could even hear the airframe rattling above the noise of those engines, but you had to look real close to see the forward movement.

Although everyone else was sitting down, as the jumpmaster, I was standing up in the back of the aircraft between the open side doors. I could move around if I wanted to. After a while, I walked over to a door and looked out. We were still moving slowly, a little faster than crawling speed I guessed, but we were less than a quarter of the way down the runway. Plenty of room I thought. This was a jet runway; it was really long. I was not worried yet. Not me.

I started worrying when we were almost half way down the runway and it still looked like I could have gotten out and walked faster than the plane was moving by then. It was at that moment that I realized that the plane and its engines were probably older than I was, probably a lot older. Not a comforting thought at all. I looked at the loadmaster, he had an enormous amount of hair stuffed into his cap, a pen protector full of ball point pens in his uniform pocket and he was chewing on a toothpick. I got nothing reassuring from him.

Finally, the plane began moving faster. I was afraid to look out the door again. I was afraid my head would increase wind resistance and slow the thing down.

No, really I thought that, and then I thought:

“That’s really stupid.”

So, I looked out and immediately wished I hadn’t. Then end of the runway was coming up fast. The engines were still screaming and the plane was still shaking and rattling, but it did not seem to be moving fast enough to fly yet.

At the end of the runway the pilot just sort of blipped the plane into the air at the last minute. We were still flying low, but when the pilot retracted the wheels out of the way of the tree tops in the next field that we were flying over, I could feel that we picked up some speed. Fewer leaves blew through the open doors too.

Slowly, we climbed to about 300 feet.

When we got there I shouted:

“Get ready!”

“Stand up!”

“Hook up!”

“Stand in the door!” All in one quick sentence.

Then I told the jumpers in each door that if the plane lost any altitude at all, we were jumping, drop zone or no drop zone. I did not want to land in that thing. I had the distinct impression that both troopers standing in the door thought jumping rather than landing was a really good idea.

However, the pilot was good and the plane slowly climbed, I sat every body back down at about 500 feet and we waited. Ultimately we reached a real jumping altitude, about 1,100 feet. Later, when the Red Light came on, I ran them through a complete series of jump commands, rather than the abbreviated set I had used before.

When the light turned green, we jumped.

It was a beautiful, clear, already very hot, sunny day, a perfect jump day. I even did one of the best PLFs (Parachute Landing Fall) of my short jumping career. I was still smiling and had just finished gathering up my chute when I saw the sergeant on the ground crew running over toward me. He was pointing up. I looked up and saw the plane disappearing in the distance, probably headed back to Illinois I thought.

“No, Sir! Look! Look! Look up Sir!” the sergeant yelled again at me still running toward me.

So, I looked again, this time to where he was pointing, and then I saw him, way up in the sky. He was probably already at least at 2,000 feet; he was still headed up, and he was picking up speed heading East as well.

When you jump in the Army, you jump into a DZ. A DZ, or Drop Zone is a cleared area, usually a large cleared area, usually surrounded by trees. The DZ we had jumped into was fairly small, but then so is a C-119. I had only jumped about 12 parachutists that day so we did not need a big DZ.

The problem, as was later explained to me in excruciating detail even though I was not the one that had picked the DZ, was that when you jump, particularly early in the morning as we did, the air on the DZ is rapidly heated by the sun and rises. Colder air pours in from the surrounding forest and it is rapidly heated as well. On a large DZ this is rarely a problem, on a small one it can create quite an up draft. That was what had happened.

This problem was compounded by it being a “Hollywood jump.” That is, a jump without equipment. The chutes were designed for troops and their equipment. Adding the equipment would almost double the weight the chute was carrying. Or, put another way, not carrying the equipment cut the weight about in half.

I waved my jeep over and the sergeant and I climbed in

“Follow that paratrooper!” I said to my driver and off we went.

We tore across the DZ, then down the road trying to keep the trooper in sight. The trooper seemed for a while to have leveled off, but then he started rising again. If I had had a radio, I would have called for a chopper. Since I had no radio; I had no chopper.

“Ignore the speed limits. Drive as fast as you feel comfortable, but keep him in sight.” I told my driver.

We raced out a gate and turned left onto the highway still heading mostly East. We had to drive a lot further than the kid above had to fly to keep him in sight. He was really moving but my driver had a lot of confidence in his ability to drive that jeep. The sergeant on the other hand had a death grip on the back of my seat. His knuckles were white.

As a young second lieutenant still new to the Army I did not know then how unstable Army jeeps were, particularly at speed, but the sergeant did. Later our Recon Platoon Leader wrecked all of the recon platoon jeeps in one week, all five of them, one a day. We nicknamed him “Crash” because of it.

According to our battalion commander, Lt. Col. Geraci, “Crash,” yes Geraci called him that too, did not even have the courtesy to get hurt at least a little when he had crashed the jeeps. On the following Monday, Geraci revoked all the battalion lieutenants’ military driver’s licenses.

JohnGeraciColonelBy then, Colonel John Geraci. He is muddy because his helicopter was shot down as he attempted to save a badly wounded platoon leader. He was special. He won that Eagle patch on his right shoulder leading the 3/506th (ABN), the famous Currahees, in combat.

It was about morning rush hour time when we got to downtown Clarksville. When we were stopped by the traffic I told the driver to drive on the sidewalk, but to keep that trooper in sight because he seemed to be coming down. So we bounced up and down crossing streets, going over the curbs, yelling at people, dodging people, parked and moving cars and just stuff, but we kept the kid in sight.

Ultimately, we could see that the trooper was really coming down. He was going to land. Although he was not one of my troops, I was really proud of his training, because when he first landed on the edge of the roof of a three story building, he pushed off rather than try to land there. If he had tried to land there, even a small gust of wind could have dragged him over the edge, but his chute would almost certainly not really be open. So, pushing off was the smart thing for him to do. After all he had been through, and he still had his wits about him. I was impressed.

We saw him land on the sidewalk next to the building. After his PLF, he jumped up, collapsed his chute and waited for us to drive up. He was so excited. He thought it was all “fun.” He would not shut up on the drive back to base.

So, if you hear stories about some crazy second lieutenant standing up in a jeep waving a .45 caliber pistol around yelling at people to get out of the way while the jeep raced down a sidewalk in downtown Clarksville chasing a lost paratrooper dangling from a parachute in the middle of rush hour, that part about the pistol waving is just not true.