Tag Archives: Band of Brothers

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.
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SFC James Albert Bunn

SFC James Albert Bunn

by john harrison

On February 2, 1968 Sergeant First Class James Albert Bunn was killed while serving in the Republic of South Viet Nam. He was my platoon sergeant, 2nd Platoon, Company A, 3rd Battalion, 506th (Airborne) Infantry Regiment (aka the “Band of Brothers”), 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. This is a rather long way of saying that he was also my friend.

I gave him the order that resulted in his death. It was Tet ’68.

We knew that we were moving to contact with the enemy that day. It was a question of where and when we hit the enemy, not if. Even as we moved there were already very loud pitched battles going on all over the place, all around us. We expected to hit a well entrenched, well prepared enemy, and we did.

We were looking for the 482nd Viet Cong Mainforce Battalion, near Phan Thiet on the coast of the South China Sea. As the lead platoon we made contact with the enemy first. Early that morning we moved up to a small house. After searching the small house I sent a fire team into the larger blue house next door to the right to clear it too.

They ran into the VC inside the house almost immediately. The last man in the fire team was shot as they ran out of the front door of that blue house. He fell on the front porch and laid there bleeding. He was hurt bad, but alive. Although not that far away, I could see that the porch would be a bitch to get to and then to get away from. I can’t tell you how frustrating that day was or of how many different ideas we tried to get our man off of that porch.

At one point I ordered Sergeant Bunn to take a squad and to see if he could get into the back of the blue house since the front of the blue house was swept by constant rifle and machine-gun fire from several directions. We were literally being shot at from 360°, rifle fire, machine-gun fire, mortars, rockets. You name it; they shot it at us, and we returned the compliment. The level of enemy fire that day was absolutely incredible.

While Bunn tried to get in the back of the house I set about using air strikes, gun ships and artillery to clear out the enemy from our front and left flanks so that I could turn the platoon right and get our man off that damn porch.

Jerry Berry in his excellent book, My Gift to You, (available on Amazon) tells Jim Bunn’s story:

PSG Bunn and Sergeant Stacy Raynor’s squad made their way around the three barbed wire fences that separated the two houses and carefully approached the back of the house. Just before reaching the back of the house PSG Bunn set up the squad in a supporting position and then moved on to the corner of the blue house on his own.

The enemy fire was intense, with heavy fire coming from all directions. With bullets striking all around him, PSG Bunn ran to the back door, threw a hand grenade inside the house and followed it up with several bursts from his M-16 rifle. While standing in that doorway PSG Bunn was shot several times. He was killed instantly.

It took a while, but we finally got our man off that porch and we brought Jim Bunn back as well. The Airborne recovers its dead.

Jim Bunn left his wife Rachel and three young daughters. His name appears on Panel 36E at the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial. He is interred in Riverside Cemetery in Oklahoma.

I think about Jim Bunn just about every day. This and Memorial Day are his days. He earned them both, full and complete on February 2, 1968.

Tet ‘68 was a long time ago. It was yesterday. I remembered him today, and everyday. Platoon Sergeant James Albert Bunn. My friend, a brave and good man. Airborne!

bunn

Tom Gaffney

Tom Gaffney

by: john harrison

On a recent Saturday morning I was to be the referee at my son’s Montgomery County Swim League swim meet. One of the principal jobs of the referee is to blow his, or her, whistle at appropriate times during the meet to move things along. This happens regularly during these meets.

I keep my whistle and my badge of office as a certified official on a lanyard by the back door of our home. When I was ready to leave on that Saturday morning, the lanyard and the badge were right there where they were supposed to be, but the whistle was missing.

It is impossible to be a referee without a whistle and it soon became clear I was not going to find mine. However, because of Tom Gaffney I knew where I had a spare whistle. It was about 45 years before when he had given me an olive drab green, plastic whistle, with a black cord attached, and I still had it. Technically I guess I stole it when I left the Army years ago.

When I was 19 or 20 years old I had been commissioned as an Infantry second lieutenant in the United States Army and Tom Gaffney was my first company commander. When Tom was a teenager, he had been drafted into the Korean War. He did so well in Korea that he was given a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant. At the end of the Korean War, the Army, as usual after a war, went through a Reduction in Force or RIF. What that meant as far as Tom Gaffney was concerned, was that, if he wanted to stay in the military, his only choice was to revert from being a commissioned officer to the rank of buck sergeant. He could still be a commissioned officer in the reserves but not in active service.

Cpt. Thomas F. Gaffney - A Co. CO and S-3 Air copy

Tom was the Alpha Company commander in the states and took the rifle company he had trained there to Vietnam. He remained as company commander throughout the Tet ’68 Offensive. After that he became S-3 Air on the battalion staff.

Tom chose to stay in the Army. He remained in the Army for 20 years and was about to retire at its highest enlisted rank, Command Sergeant Major, when the Army made him an offer he did not refuse. The Army offered to reinstate his commissioned officer rank and to promote him to captain if he would agree to stay in the Army for only one more year.

The catch was that he would have to go back to Viet Nam, a place he had already been as a Green Beret A-Team member twice before. At the time such an offer was much more attractive that it sounds today. Even a relatively junior officer could expect to spend at most 6 months in the field and the rest of his 12-month tour in a relatively secure rear area. In addition, Tom was only 38 years old and this one additional year in the Army would significantly increase his monthly retirement income.

On the debit side, the war was clearly heating up in 1966, but in the prior 8 years of warfare a total of less than 6,000 Americans had been killed in action. Tom did not know, could not know, that the 12 months we would spend together “in country” would be the bloodiest of the Vietnam War and that far more than double the number that had been killed in the prior eight years would be killed during the time we were there. In fact, of the 58,000 Americans that died in 8 years of a hot war in Viet Nam, almost 1/3 died during the 12 incredibly violent months that we were “in country” together.

TomInMountains

This was taken somewhere in the Cambodian Highlands before Tet ’68 and gives you an idea of the terrain we operated in during our tour in Vietnam. That is Tom walking toward the camera.

Tom was always practical, so he accepted the Army’s offer. He has the face of a man who takes nothing for granted and he knew far better than most what he was getting himself into.

Tom had his own rules in addition to the Army’s for his platoon leaders. Some of the little rules were that: an officer should always have a pen and something to write on in case he had to write something. An officer should carry a whistle in case he needed to get someone’s attention in the middle of loud situation, like a firefight. An officer never ordered anyone to do something that he would not do himself and finally, that an officer never passed the buck. The orders were always his.

Tom also said that after the Korean War a number of officers had bragged that they had to “throw the book away” to fight that war. It was Tom’s view that these officers had never read the book, and that they had learned the art of war at the cost of the lives of their men. Tom thought that this price was too high. He insisted that an officer should know his job before he started giving orders.

Tom was never cautious about expressing his opinions. He was always demanding. However, he was also a realist and he taught that uncertainty would always be part of leadership, as would loss.

When the war he had volunteered to go back to turned ever more violently ugly, he did not complain. He just continued to do his job as well as he could, and we brought a lot of young men home alive because of that.

And so, for more than 48 years I have always carried a pad and a pen. When I needed a whistle, I knew where one was. I never hid behind my boss. If I had tough orders to give, I gave them in my name, no matter where they had originated.

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This picture was taken in 2012 before Len Liebler passed away. From right to left: Jim Schalax, 1st Plt; John Harrison 2nd Plt. & XO; Tom Gaffney CO; Len Liebler 3rd Plt; Joe Alexander Weapons & 3rd Plts. Three out of four of the lieutenants were wounded, one, Joe Alexander was shot five times; three out of four of our platoon sergeant were killed during out tour. Tom Gaffney still points the way.

You do not forget someone like Tom Gaffney, or as he sometimes liked to phrase it, “Mrs. Gaffney’s little boy Tom.” He is an original, an American original and a good one. He and three of his four platoon leaders are still alive 48 years after we first went to war. Given what we saw and what we did, that is simply incredible and a fitting testament to his leadership.

Currahee, Tom Gaffney.

A Vietnam Tale

A Vietnam Tale

by: RonFord

Part one, Training

Airborne! Blood and guts, Ranger Danger!
Airborne! kill, Kill, Ranger Danger!
Airborne! I want to be a Airborne ranger!
Airborne! Live a life of blood, guts and danger
Airborne! KILL, KILL, KILL, KILL, AIRBORNE!

Part two, War

Fear! Death, Death, Death, Blood, guts Danger
Fear! Destruction, Destruction, Blood, guts danger Airborne!
Fear! Burn Baby Burn
Fear! Kill them all, Airborne!
Fear! Let God sort them out, Airborne, Ranger, Danger, KILL!

Part Three, Home Coming

Airborne! Who cares
Airborne! So What
Airborne! Baby killers
Airborne! Depression
Airborne! I wasn’t there
Airborne! SUICIDE! I wasn’t there

Part four, Evaluation

Some Vietnam Veterans still suffer from the war
We are unable to close the door
Theres no conclusion I fear
We just can’t get out of here
I am filled with anger and pain
I think the war fucked up my brain.

Ron Ford
101st Airborne
VN 67-68

The Wall

The Wall

by: RonFord

I sit and cry and think of his grave,
I wonder what Andy missed today.
He gave his life a world away
In a small hamlet on that dark day.
Tet was the party old Charlie gave
That sent way too many to the grave.
Andy left the world in good company
Bunn, Chaison,and Brooks went with him that day.
The Screaming Eagles fought bravely in that dreadful war
Just like their fathers in the big war before,
Some day I will go to Washington DC
My friends are in granite I have to see.
Andy’s name on that wall will tear me apart
The tears that you see will be straight from my heart.

Ron Ford
CURRAHEE
101st Airborne
Vietnam 67-68

shame

shame

by: RonFord

2003

Blood Guts and Pain
Was it all in Vain?
Old Gory Waves
and I can See
My Buddy was Killed,
Glad it was not me.
He gave his life
and I was spared.
Yet nobody Cared
Some day,
I will be SET FREE
My buddy will be Glad To See Me
We will Hug, Laugh,
and Cry.
And all my Shame Shall,
Die.

Blog Note: Ron Ford was a member of the Second Platoon, Company A, 3rd Battalion (Abn.), 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. He was also the assistant patrol leader of the night patrol. He was probably the most junior E5 on the patrol, but he was second in command because he was the best man to bring the guys home. I am proud that he accepted my invitation to publish his poem here for the first time. I hope he continues to write.

The Infantry

The Infantry

by john harrison

Being a good infantryman is much more intellectually and physically demanding than most people realize. It is not easy to go on today’s, and even yesterday’s incredibly lethal battlefields with the reasonable expectation of coming back alive, and of accomplishing your mission. The operative word in that sentence is “reasonable.” That is all an infantryman expects, a reasonable chance, because they intend to make up any difference themselves.

While an infantryman needs training, it is not just good training that makes an infantryman. While an infantryman needs equipment, it is not just good equipment that makes an infantryman. While an infantryman needs strength, it is not just physical strength that makes an infantryman.

OK then you ask, what is it that makes an infantryman?

It is heart. It is the heart to get up when no one else will go. It is the heart to push forward, when no one else will. It is the heart to take one more step, when one more step is sorely needed. It is the heart to care more about the man lying next to you bleeding than you do about your own blood, and that is partly because you know that if he could move, if he could still move, he would have the heart, and he would have the will to move, to help you to move, forward.

It is will. It is the will to remain alert on post. It is the will to remain awake and alert for the forty-eighth hour. It is the will to exit, an armored personnel carrier, a helicopter on or close to the ground or an aircraft in flight in order to close with, and to destroy the enemy. It is the will to take a life rather than to give your own. It is the will to finish what you start, every time. The infantry does not back down. Not once. Not ever.

And, in taking infinite care with what seem like such small, such trivial, details to others. It is important that fighting knives and bayonets are always put away razor sharp, rifles clean, well oiled, magazines stacked and gear put away in the same order, the same place, every time.

That is an infantryman.

If you are assigned a dog; that dog eats before you do—every time. The same is true if you are assigned a fire team or an entire army; they eat before you do—every time because you are an infantryman.

It is easy to belittle the infantry, to mock their parades and their traditions. It is very easy, until the bullets fly, the bombs burst, the blood flows bright red, and you are so very, very, afraid. Just like it is easy to forget that every Marine considers themselves an infantryman first. Just like it is easy to forget the while the United States Army is only about 8% infantry, that nonetheless over 80% of the casualties are infantrymen.

Why then, you ask, would anyone want to be in the infantry?

Think of this; what do the Airborne, the Special Forces, the Rangers, Delta, and the United States Marines all have in common—they are all volunteers—and they are all Infantry. Oh, and do not forget, they are all also, very, very, good at what they do. They are the best. They are deployed first. They do not ever go gentle into that good night, they rage, they fight, they kill and if necessary, they come back to fight and kill again, and again, to obliterate that dark night.

They all have the Spirit of the Bayonet. They are all prepared to go on a battlefield, any battlefield, anywhere, anytime to accomplish their mission and to come home alive because they are all, Infantry.

Hail to the Infantry, Queen of battle, shatterer of lesser souls. Protector of your freedom.