Tag Archives: Battle of Tet ’68

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.

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

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

Stick

Stick

By: john harrison

A Combat Medic’s Badge is a very special, a very rare award. There is only one way to earn it, be a combat medic in a firefight. I never earned one. I had been a rifle platoon leader. While that was another position that also had a short life expectancy, combat medics and their badges are special for more than that.

I took a brand new medic to the field one day about halfway through my tour. Like platoon leaders, medics rarely spent more than about six months in the field. If they were not badly wounded or killed during that six months, they were rotated back to another job in the rear. The platoon’s previous medic had just rotated back.

It was not that much of a firefight that day, just sort of a long-range rifle/machine-gun duel across a huge rice paddy out side of Phan Thiet on the coast of the South China Sea. The new medic earned his Combat Medic’s Badge on his first day in the field. He did his job as a medic, and I did mine as a platoon leader, but partly because he was pushing me all the way.

The VC were in a copse of trees around a stream bed across several large, dry, rice paddies from where we were. Unfortunately, we were out in the open, right in the middle of all those dry rice paddies. The rice paddy dikes we were behind were good cover from their bullets, but we were not going anywhere until we could knock out their machine-guns. So, we traded bullets while I tried to work something out. 6801801 - Phan Thiet-City and Peninsuula.NE

The area on the bottom of the picture shows the dry rice paddies near Phan Thiet city shown on top of the picture. The blue is the Ca Ty River flowing into the South China Sea. If you look closely at the rice paddies you can see lots of small round white circles, most of these are bomb craters. Except for the 8 inch guns, the artillery craters are too small to see. Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO.

I was waiting for the FAC (Forward Air Controller) to show up because I never sent a man where a bomb could go first. Until that happened we were trying to keep the enemy pinned down in their position. Find ‘em, fix ‘em, get the United States Air Force to blow them up was my tactical ideal for a good firefight.

We had one guy wounded already and I was arranging a Dust Off (Medical evacuation) for him as well. However, because of the heavy enemy fire and our wide-open position in the middle of all those rice paddies, we needed the air strike from the FAC before the Dust Off chopper could safely come in. Just the usual helicopter gun ships accompanying the Dust Off would not be enough firepower. There were too many VC and they had too many machine-guns in those trees by the creek bed for us to even move on the ground, much less get a Dust Off chopper safely in and out.

I had the radio handset to my ear trying to arrange the air strike and the Dust Off when I felt someone tugging on my arm. It was my brand new medic, his first day in the field, his first casualty and he looked worried. I took the handset down from my ear.

“He won’t let me bandage him Sir.”

“What?” I said.

“He won’t let me near him.”

“What?” I said.

“He won’t let me touch him. He says he’s going to shoot me.”

“His gun’s broken.” I said.

“That’s what he says.” replied the medic.

I looked over at the wounded soldier. He was lying on his stomach behind the same rice paddy dike I was behind. His pants were pulled down to his knees, his shirt was pulled up, his naked butt was sticking up and there was a little blood, not much, bubbling out of his ass and dribbling on the ground. I already knew that he had been shot right in the asshole, right in his anus. No exterior wound that the medic could see, really hard to bandage but, a perfect bull’s eye.

I had his M-79 grenade launcher on my lap with the round stuck in the barrel that he had been leaning over, trying to clear, when he got shot. He had fired the weapon but the 40 mm, high explosive grenade, round was defective. It got stuck in the barrel when he fired.

“He’s bleeding internally Sir. We’ve got to get pressure on the wound.”

“What’s the stick for?” I asked.

He was holding a short stick in his hand. Bullets cracked, buzzed and slashed overhead constantly.

 “I was using it to apply pressure to the bandage. It’s all I could think of.”

“They’re moving Sir. Over there.” My RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) Hal Dobie said and pointed.

I blew on my whistle; pointed to Edwards, an M-60 machine-gunner, and with Ed Blanco his assistant one of the best M-60 machine-gun teams in the business. Then, all I had to do was point at his new targets and the steady, sustained fire of his M-60 machine-gun stopped that movement cold.

  “We have to stop the bleeding Sir.”

“Alpha 2-6, this is Jack Sprat. What do you have, over?” the radio handset squawked loudly from my lap.

I was “Alpha 2-6” or the Second Platoon leader of Alpha Company. “Jack Sprat” was the radio call sign of our FAC.

 “This is 2-6. We have gooks in the open. I think about a big squad or a platoon. I am popping smoke.” I pulled the pin and tossed a smoke canister in front of me on the other side of the dike.

“Jack Sprat. I identify purple smoke 2-6.”

“2-6, roger, purple smoke Jack Sprat. Do you see the tree line, 270° about 300-350 meters from my smoke, over?”

“Roger, I have Phantoms inbound, ETA 5-6 minutes. I’ll let you know what they have on board when I find out, over.” (ETA, Estimated Time of Arrival)

“Keep an eye on their back door please. I don’t want them to leave this party, over.”

“Roger, 2-6. Jack Sprat out.”

“Sir, he’s bleeding.”

“What?”

“He’s bleeding. We need to stop the bleeding. We have to get pressure on the wound.”

He was still holding the stick and he had a bloody, OD, green, bandage in his other hand. Staying below the top of the dike, I crawled over to the troop lying on his stomach.

  “Shot in the ass.” I said to him.

He smiled and nodded. His pupils were dilated from the morphine, but he was awake, alert.

   “Well, let’s see what’s happening.”

And I leaned over and pulled his cheeks apart to look at his asshole. The medic was right. I couldn’t see anything except a small stream of blood bubbling out of his anus. But, the whole area was turning purple. Even I knew that meant he was bleeding internally.

 “Sir, Jack Sprat.” And the radio handset was shoved in my face.

“This is 2-6, over.” I said.

“This is Jack Sprat. You want it all in those trees, right? Over?”

“2-6, Trees are good and then maybe strafe the whole creek bed with 20 mike mike, over?”

“Roger that, a flight of Phantoms is almost on station, we will start with napalm, then they each have a couple of 500 lbs. slicks and then finish with the 20 mike mike. I’ll mark them with smoke first, over.”

“Roger, good to go. 2-6 out.”

The translation is that the two F-4 Phantoms, still coming up fast on afterburners, were going to drop two napalm bombs each, follow that with two 500 pound slick, or unguided, bombs each and then strafe the resulting mess with their Vulcan 20 mm cannons. The FAC was going to mark the enemy position with smoke rockets from his spotter plane as soon as the Phantom jets arrived. He would let the jet jockeys have a look at their target and then send them in. It was going to be beautiful, at least from our perspective.

 “He’s not going to jam that stick up my ass again Sir.”

“We’ve got to stop the bleeding.” I said.

“They’re moving again L-T!”

“God damn it!”

I blew my whistle again, this time to get every bodies’ attention. Just like in the Superbowl, no matter how noisy it gets, you can always hear a whistle. Unlike a radio, a whistle always worked, and never needed new batteries. I liked whistles. The Army gave me a dark green one which I had attached to my shirt.

“Fire!” I yelled and the whole platoon opened up.

“Dobie, give me that roll of electrician’s tape.” I said to my RTO Hal Dobie.

“Here, stick your butt up in the air.” I said to the trooper.

I blew my whistle again just before the Phantoms roared in, one after the other, a little above tree top level.

“Cease fire!” I yelled. “Get down. Everybody get down! Air strike coming in.”

Then, I grabbed the roll of tape from Dobie.

“Here push his cheeks together really hard. Like this. . .”

“Get the fuck away from me!” the troop yelled at the medic as he moved over to push.

“Shut up! We need to do this. No stick this time, but this will probably hurt. Get ready.”

“Jesus. I am glad I’m not in those trees.” Said Hal Dobie my RTO as the two strikes of napalm bombs flared off in the copse of trees.

One of the napalm bombs skipped and flared further down the creek bed. But three napalm bombs had really torched that little copse of trees. The Phantom jets circled for another pass.

“OK, push.”

As the medic pushed the troop’s butt cheeks together I pulled a long strip of black plastic electrician’s tape from the roll and taped his cheeks closed. We continued to do that, pulling each strip of tape as tight as we could from hip to hip, completely covering the crack of his ass with overlapping strips of black plastic tape, putting pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding inside or, at least to slow the bleeding down. The one inch wide, black plastic tape was sticking good to his skin, but, to keep it tight we made five or six passes with the tape all the way around his body as the medic held the troop’s genitals out of the way. The kid groaned a few times, but he held steady for us as we taped him up.

I heard some metal pounding on metal after the second pass, the second set of two 500 lbs. bombs going off. I looked over a couple of feet away from where I had been sitting to see my new platoon sergeant, Manfred Fellman, pounding away with his entrenching tool. He had the handle of one entrenching tool jammed down the barrel of the M-79 and he was pounding on it with another entrenching tool trying to drive the stuck shell out of the barrel.

I was actually glad to leave Sergeant Fellman with the wounded troop, the medic, and that dud 40 mm M-79 round, while I took the rest of platoon forward to clear the copse of trees after the Phantoms left. When we finished that I called in the Dust Off and then we moved on down the creek bed since we found nothing useful in what little was left of the copse of trees, no bodies, no body parts, no blood trails, no weapons, nothing except three Ho Chi Minh sandals and a brand new, folded up, plastic, VC poncho. At least one of the sandals had some blood on it though.

Just another day at the Infantry office for me and my new medic is the way I remember it. He did his job, and I did mine. In combat you do what you need to do. Those 40 mm grenade shells have a casualty-producing radius of 15 meters, so we were all right in the middle of that radius if the dud had gone off while Sergeant Fellman was pounding on it. However, we needed that M-79, so Sergeant Fellman had pounded the dud shell out. Then, he fired the M-79 to make sure it worked.

We needed to stop the bleeding, so we taped the trooper’s butt shut. I knew my RTO Hal Dobie had the electrician’s tape; the medic did not know that. You work together; you find a way to do what needs to be done; then you do it; rank does not matter; only results matter. That night, after we had set up an ambush position on a nearby trail the medic came over.

 “He’s going to be all right, L-T. Doc Lovy says he was lucky.” Dr. Andrew Lovy was our battalion surgeon.

“Good.” I said and stuffed some C-Ration white bread smeared with some jam in my mouth. You can’t eat hot food, even C-Rations, on an ambush. You can’t eat canned white, C-Ration bread without something on it.

“How are his balls?” I asked.

“Doc says he thinks they will be fine. The bullet went in his ass, hit his pelvis, turned and went down his right leg next to the bone. Other than his first, and probably second, dump being a bear, there shouldn’t be a problem.”

“He might have stabbed you. I don’t think he would have shot you. You never know though, he did still have his .45. I forgot about his .45. Sorry.” I said.

Most M-79 gunners carried a .45 caliber automatic pistol, the venerable John Browning designed Colt, Model 1911, for when it was too close to fire their M-79. It had been sitting right next to him with his K-Bar fighting knife and the rest of his gear. The pistol was probably loaded, cocked and locked since it is not much use to an infantryman any other way.

Now the platoon would trust him, maybe even when he had crazy ideas about the use of sticks, because he saved lives. He was a combat medic. I gave him the rest of my can of jam. I already knew he liked it. I hated that jam, but a little of it did make the white bread edible. He ate it with his index finger, right out of the can.

“Doc Lovy said the electrician’s tape was a great idea. Doc said the pressure of the tape and the blood expander I gave him probably kept him alive. Kind of hard on his pubic hair though when they pulled all that tape off.” He said.

And, we both crossed our legs.

On Staying Alive by Being Inept

By john harrison

It happened in 1968, the bloodiest year of a long, bloody war. Alpha Company had just been resupplied with ammunition after yet another firefight.  It was still Tet ’68. We were moving across a wide expanse of rice paddies dotted with small groups of mud and wattle houses with thatched roofs in the Disneyland area near Phan Thiet, RVN, aka the place where the Infantry plays. That day, Disneyland had a lesson in humility waiting for me.

2ndPltCksHouseDisneylan

It was late morning that day, but it was already brutally hot. As usual, the 2nd Platoon had the point for Alpha Company.

Just after the point left a group of huts, a hand grenade exploded behind me, and a fountain of water shot up into the sky. Someone had dropped a hand grenade down a well next to the rice paddy. It created a cooling shower if you were standing on the side where some of the water came down. You also got rid of a hand grenade.

The next thing that happened was that my RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) Hal Dobie handed me the PRC-25, radio handset and said simply:

“6”

Meaning that Alpha 6, or the Company Commander of Alpha Company, Tom Gaffney was on the horn and wanted to talk to me.

“This is 2-6. Go ahead.” I said.

Meaning this is the 2nd Platoon Leader. We had recently switched from using “Over” to using “Go ahead” and then “Go” as radio pro words probably because we thought it sounded cooler.

“This is 6, what do you have? Go.” asked Gaffney.

“2-6. Nothing. Just one of the guys getting rid of an excess hand grenade from the resupply. I’ll stop it. Go.” I replied.

But for having to answer the radio, I already would have been doing exactly that.

“No. We felt something back here in the ground when the hand grenade went off. There may be a tunnel. Check it out. Go.” Gaffney said.

“Roger. Out.”

I went back to the well, just a four foot wide hole in the ground lined with rock and looked down it. When I asked for a hand grenade I had several offers. The M-26 hand grenade that we used weighed exactly a pound each and was rarely used except in very close combat. This meant, once you were issued one, you would be carrying it for a while. We had just been resupplied and they sent out too many hand grenades so a lot of guys wanted to get shed of the extra weight.

3M-26Grenades

That little hand grenade weighed the same as half a canteen of water. As hot as it was, we needed the water; the grenades, not so much right then. Troops in the field are very practical about the weight they carry. If it is useful, it almost does not matter how much it weighs. If it is not useful, it does not matter how little it weighs.

Hand grenades are also just plain dangerous to be around. One company commander, and all of that company’s medics had been wounded a month or so before when the pin on a hand grenade, which had been badly rusted from months in the field, sheared off and the grenade exploded in the company CP (Command Post) during a medics meeting.

Disasters like that were happening so often that a new order came down from division soon after requiring that all hand grenades be carried inside a canteen cover rather than on the webbing.

I took one of the offered hand grenades; pulled the pin; let the spoon fly, and dropped it down the well as I stepped a little way back from the edge. In four point five seconds exactly, the grenade went off; a tower of water emerged from the well and then most of it splashed back down into the well.

I went over and looked down the well. Just to the left of where I was standing and about seven or eight feet down I could now see the top of a round hole in the side of the well’s wall. It was about three feet in diameter and looked a lot like a tunnel to me. I asked for another hand grenade and again received several offers. I took one, pulled the pin, popped the spoon and tried to toss it into the round hole in the side of the well but it missed the hole entirely. It bounced off and landed in the water below.

Four point five seconds later, it went bang, large water plume. Then, I walked over to the side of the well and looked down again.

This time I saw an entire circle in the side of the well and it looked even more like a tunnel entrance. I took another grenade and leaned out over the well. I wanted to stay on my feet because I wanted to be able to move back from the edge quickly. After all, a grenade was going to explode. I wanted to be no where near that. This time I was even more careful with my toss, but the grenade hit something metal sounding inside the hole, bounced out and blew up in the water in the bottom of the well just like the first three hand grenades.

Since they now knew where the water going to splash, more of my guys managed to get wet from the spray each time I dropped a hand grenade. While they maintained the perimeter around the well, some rotated in each time for the spray.

This time I lay down on the side of the top of the well to try to look into the hole. I planned to try to lean down, toss in the grenade and then just roll away from the well. I had already pulled the pin from the hand grenade.

Then, for the first time I saw the bent, grey, metal fins in the hole. I had heard the expression: “My heart stopped.” Now I experienced the feeling too. However, I would have described it as more like someone dropping a solid concrete block on my chest from about ten feet above me. I kept a death grip on that hand grenade’s spoon.

HighDragBombSchematic

Now that water plumes had washed out the entrance to the tunnel, I could see the bent back fins, clearly. I could see the fins of what looked very much like the fins on a 750 lbs., High Drag, United States Air Force, bomb. Clutching that hand grenade tightly, I rolled away from the edge of the well.

“Get back!” I yelled and kept right on rolling away from the edge of that well as fast as I could roll.

With a High Drag bomb, when the plane releases the bomb, the fins pop out. The fins do three things: they stabilize the bomb in flight; they slow the bomb down so the aircraft can get clear of the blast; and, they will only arm the bomb if the aircraft has enough time to get clear of the blast.

Since the bomb is more stable in flight because of the fins, it is more accurate. It can be dropped from the plane closer to the target because the fins delay the bomb’s strike. The pilot can drop it more confidently because it will not go off unless he has time to get away from the blast. The disadvantage is, if the pilot drops it too close, it leaves the bomb there unexploded giving the enemy a lot of free high explosive for their own improvised explosive devices.

When I was twenty or so feet away from the well I sat up and carefully put the pin back in the hand grenade. I took my time and cautiously bent the pin ends back to secure the pin in its hole.

I was really proud that my hands were not shaking—surprised me too.

Probably only my own natural ineptness as a tosser of hand grenades had saved my life and the lives of most of my men. An Air Force 750 lbs. bomb blast produces a crater of about 35 feet in width. Most of my platoon had been standing within a 35-foot wide circle around that well.

If one of the hand grenades had stayed in the tunnel; if it had rolled down, past the bent fins, closer to the explosive in the bomb; if it had set off the bomb, we would have all literally become an emulsified mess of blood, flesh and small bits of shattered bone.

They spent about a week in OCS (Officer Candidate School) showing us the many ways to set off explosives. One of the best and most often used ways to set off an explosive is called sympathetic detonation. You just set off an explosion as close to another explosive as you can, and the first explosive blowing up will set off the second one as well.

In a way, that is what a blasting cap does. You slide the cap into the explosive, or sometimes you place it beside the explosive and when the cap explodes, it also sets off the main explosive. When engineers rig multiple explosives to blow, they use sympathetic detonation to set them off, usually with Det Cord, sort of a thick rope made of high explosive.

One example of sympathetic detonation that I had seen recently was watching the engineers throw a hand grenade into a lot different explosives they had piled in a hollow tree to blow that tree out of the way to create an LZ (Landing Zone). The effect was the same as placing the blasting cap into the explosive you wanted to set off. Being in a confined space, like in that hollow tree, or in a tunnel, made it even more likely for one explosive blast to set off another nearby explosive.

It had been just dumb luck that I had missed the tunnel entirely with the first hand grenade I threw at it, and that the second hand grenade had bounced off of the high drag fins that gave the bomb its accuracy and stability. I do not know if a one-pound hand grenade is enough to set off a 750 lbs. bomb, but in the right place, in the close quarters of a tunnel, it might be.

If other bombs had been dropped nearby, almost a certainty since this bomb had not exploded and the fighter pilot surely would have tried again, then the explosives in this 750 lbs. bomb could have become unstable. Then, even a firecracker exploding nearby might set it off.

When we walked on, leaving the bomb to our engineers, I tried to give the hand grenade back to its owner, but no one would admit that it was theirs and I could not remember who gave me that one. I did not want to carry that hand grenade either. I kept wondering about all the bending of the pin? It was heavy too.

Soon after that, we heard the bomb go off. Naturally, the engineers had set it off by sympathetic detonation.

I kept that grenade, but when we passed the next well, I pulled the pin and tossed it in.

Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO.

Hunting One of the World’s Smallest Deer in a War Zone

by: john harrison

If you read the history books, they will tell you that the famous North Vietnamese General Vo N. Giap scored a major tactical “surprise” with his ’68 Tet Offensive. You will also see phrases like “large scale”, “well planned” and “well coordinated”, “attacks”. And, to a limited extent, these descriptions of the ’68 Tet Offensive are correct when viewed from our side, except for the surprise part. That is just totally wrong.

However, there is another side even of the true part of the ’68 Tet Offensive story, and it began for the 2nd Platoon of Alpha Company with one of the world’s smallest deer, the Muntjac deer. Long after I left Vietnam I learned that an adult Muntjac deer stands approximately 45cm, about 18 inches, at the shoulder and have an average weight range of between 10 – 16kg, or about 22 to 35 pounds. When running, they seem to lean forward. muntjac_deer_9

                              Not the same deer, but the same look we got, even to the blur.  They are tiny and very fast.

During the summer months, May till October, a Muntjac’s coat is a red-brown color often with very pale, sometimes white hair under the chin, throat, and tail. 
 Muntjac bucks have small, un-branched antlers, which slope to the rear and end in a pointed tip. They also have long canine teeth, which look like small tusks projecting downward from the upper jaw.

All of this was true of the single Muntjac deer that we saw for just a moment on a bluff overlooking the South China Sea and located southeast of LZ Betty. The real question though is, what was the 2nd Platoon doing there, and why was it hunting deer rather than Charlie in the middle of a war zone? That is the interesting part of the story.

As had been agreed every year of the war prior this, at the end of January 1968 there would again be a Tet cease-fire. Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, is easily the most important celebration of Vietnamese culture, combining Thanksgiving, New Years Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and even some of Memorial Day all into one really big family centered, but also very religious, celebration.

Merging so many ideas, the Tet holiday has several names as well. It is called poetically, the Feast of the First Morning of the First Day and since the Vietnamese consider Tet to be the first day of spring, the festival is also often called more prosaically, simply the Spring Festival. Traditionally Tet takes place from the first day of the first month of the Vietnamese calendar until at least the third day thereafter.

Much like our Thanksgiving and Christmas, many Vietnamese prepare for Tet by cooking special holiday foods. Since it is a “Spring” festival they also celebrate by thoroughly cleaning their homes. There are many other customs practiced during Tet, such as visiting a special person’s house on the first day of the new year, ancestor worship, wishing special New Year’s greetings, giving “lucky” money to children and elderly people, or even opening a new shop.

Again, like our Thanksgiving holiday, Tet is the occasion for mass pilgrimages home and for large family reunions. During Tet, Vietnamese often travel long distances to visit their relatives, or they all agree to meet at their families’ shrines during the holiday. Once together, they try to forget about the troubles of the past year and focus on hope for a better new year. This holiday is and was universally revered in Vietnam, even in the aggressively secular, Communist North.

Tet ’68, and the Tet truce were set to start on January 30, 1968. On January 29, 1968, the C-O of Alpha company, Captain Tom Gaffney called me aside to tell me that he wanted me to take 2nd Platoon on a patrol in the morning outside the wire of LZ Betty our base camp near Phan Thiet, RVN, on the coast of the South China Sea.

However, a combat patrol on January 30, 1968 would be a clear violation of the Tet cease fire agreement.

Tom and I shared what can only be described as a strange relationship. There was never any question that he was the boss, the C-O with the final authority. However, there was also no question, that if time allowed, I could question, or suggest, or discuss, and even disagree with almost anything, and I often did. In recognition of this curious dynamic SFC John H. Gfeller, Platoon Sergeant, Weapons Platoon, (KIA, 2/19/68) had nick-named us: “god” and “god, junior” because no one else was allowed by Tom into this little club.

Given that Tom was ordering what appeared to me to be a clear war crime, this was one of those times where we had a heated, an extended, heated discussion. Finally, we agreed that the 2nd Platoon would go “deer hunting” south of LZ Betty to try to get a deer for an Alpha Company, Tet barbecue later in the day. What ever we saw, we saw. Whatever happened, happened. It seemed to me that it might even be legal. PhanThietMap

We headed south from LZ Betty

In light of this, it is at least passing strange to report that the only time that I ever saw a deer during the entire time I was in Vietnam was when we were deer hunting that one morning south of LZ Betty. Mid morning walking near the bluff over the South China Sea we kicked up a Muntjac deer in the brush and it took off in front of a hail of gunfire from the entire left side of the platoon.

The Muntjac deer is a small, very fast, mobile in three directions, hard to hit, target.  It runs forward; it jinks suddenly sideways, and it leaps up and down constantly. Running between the clumps of brush and thickets of bayberry bushes along the bluff made it even harder to hit.

Made by Samsung DVC

                  Our early morning view of the South China Sea, showing the bluffs south of Phan Thiet overlooking the South China Sea. Stunning.

Right after we shot at the deer, my RTO, Hal Dobie, passed me the radio handset and said “6”, meaning that Tom Gaffney, the C-O was on the horn. Since the first thing that always happened anytime an Alpha Company platoon shot at something was that Tom would immediately call to ask what was going on, I thought that was what Tom’s call was about. Although I did wonder how he had heard our firing from LZ Betty, which was probably over a mile or so away by then.

“This is 2-6, go ahead.” I said into the radio handset. “2-6” was my call sign meaning that I was the 2nd Platoon, platoon leader.

“This is 6. There has been a change. You are hot. Go ahead.” Tom said.

“2-6. What? Go.” I said.

“I say again, you are hot. Go.” Tom replied.

I got ready to rehash all we had said before, but Tom broke in before I could even start.

“This is Alpha 6. This is an open net. I say again, you are hot. Do you copy? Go ahead.” Tom said.

I literally took it down from my ear and looked at the black plastic radio handset as though it could tell me what was going on. I understood what he was saying; Tom again wanted me to run a full tactical combat patrol in the middle of the cease-fire. We had talked about that, but something had changed. I could hear that in his voice. He was excited, but it was more than that too.

One of the many things that they do not have time to teach in OCS (Officer Candidate School) is that most of what you actually do in a combat unit is ultimately based on trust. You understand that in combat men are killed, but you trust your superior officers not to waste your life. You accept that you may be killed, but your life will not be wasted. It will mean something. You understand that at home, in the real world, you live by certain moral rules, but in a combat zone, you do what a superior tells you to do and you trust that he is right. You understand that people will shoot at you; that they will try to kill you, but you trust in your training and your buddies to bring you home. None of this, all of this, flashed through my mind.

I put the radio hand set back to my ear.

“Wilco.” I said. “Wilco” is a radio “pro-word” or radio procedure word meaning; I will comply.

Just as Tom had re-identified himself as my company commander for emphasis, I chose to use the radio pro-word reply that emphasized full compliance. However, just as I knew by his tone over the radio that something was going on, he knew by my tone that I was not happy.

“Return to base, hot. This is 6 out.” Tom said.

So, we turned around.  As we turned, I told the point man to put his M-16 on “rock and roll”, full automatic. The deer would have to wait. I doubt that it minded.

When we got back, Tom told me about the attack on LZ Betty that intelligence was sure was coming later that day, or early the next morning at the latest.  Several bases and towns had already been hit hard. He also told me that intelligence had secretly warned of the attacks even earlier. That warning had been the real reason for sending 2nd Platoon “deer hunting”.

The only thing about the ’68 Tet Offensive that was a surprise, was that a combat commander with the well earned, and seriously good reputation of General Giap would try such a mish-mash of violent, but under supported, widely separated attacks which defied almost every rule of war. However, we did not know then that General Giap had actually been opposed to the whole idea of a ’68 Tet offensive and was only in command of the ’68 Tet Offensive because the general that had planed the offensive originally had died suddenly before the offensive was launched.

So, no matter what you heard, the ’68 Tet Offensive was not a surprise, and, by the way, General Giap was right, they lost. We won that battle. It is still a mystery to me that no one in America noticed since it was a really big battle, a really big victory—for us.

Oh, and that deer, that deer got clean away. giap

General Giap

The Attack At the Bridge

35th-Tet-Anniversary-400x

The Attack At the Bridge

by john harrison

Jim Schlax was the 1st Platoon Leader of Alpha Company, 3/506th from the time Alpha Company was formed at Fort Campbell, Ky., until he was wounded in Vietnam during Tet ’68. We were both recent OCS (Officer Candidate School) graduates when we were assigned to Alpha Company. However, Jim clearly out ranked me because his OCS class was commissioned a week earlier than mine. This was a fact that he never mentioned, but one that we both knew because junior second lieutenants keep careful track of such petty, but nonetheless important things.

When I first reported to Alpha Company, I was appointed as the Executive Officer (XO) since by then all of the platoons already had platoon leaders. While higher in position, the XO is second in command of the company; the XO’s job was less desirable for a lieutenant than that of platoon leader. Luckily for me, after another officer was relieved, Army-speak for fired, I took over the 2nd Platoon. I also continued as XO.

This curious situation, the most junior officer in the company being both second in command as XO and a fellow platoon leader produced some unusual conversations among the Alpha Company lieutenants. For example, Schlax and I might have a conversation as fellow platoon leaders of more or less equal rank, in the midst of the conversation I might act as XO for a while, therefore I was in charge of some things and might even give a couple of orders and then switch back to being just another platoon leader.

From time to time, but only for short periods, I might also act as the Commanding Officer of Alpha Company while the CO, Captain Tom Gaffney was away. Then, I would be giving the platoon leaders orders, but two of the other three Alpha Company platoon leaders, Jim Schlax and Joe Alexander, both clearly outranked me.

This is customarily very important stuff in the Army, but the question of rank never came up between us, only the job of getting Alpha Company ready for Vietnam mattered. Part of it was that the same people had trained us all and everyone recognized that had our positions been reversed, much the same orders would have been given. Still the complete lack of friction between us was extraordinary, particularly given the pressure we were all under getting Alpha Company ready for war.

My nickname for Schlax was “Nasty little Man”, not because he was actually nasty, although he was physically short. I gave him the name because he was so effective, so dangerous, as a rifle platoon leader. He earned it many times.

that is Schlax with the interpreter in the upper right.

That is Schlax with the interpreter in the upper right.

For reasons that only our CO, Tom Gaffney, could explain, the 2nd Platoon usually led any company movement in the field. Second Platoon was therefore the “point” platoon in that formation. If two platoons were up on-line, then the 2nd Platoon was the base platoon, the platoon that set the pace and the direction of march. First Platoon, Schlax’s platoon, was always the next platoon in the Alpha Company line of march, or it would be the platoon moving on line on the 2nd Platoon’s flank.

On the other hand, when Alpha Company stopped, it was the 1st and the other platoons that did almost all of the patrolling and night ambushes while the 2nd Platoon provided Company CP (Command Post) security and acted as a reaction force for the other platoons while they were operating away from the Company.

As a practical matter, what this meant was that Jim Schlax and I had to absolutely depend on each other all of the time. If the 2nd Platoon made contact, it was the 1st Platoon that would be maneuvering though the enemy fire to get us out of trouble. If the 1st Platoon made contact on a patrol or ambush, more often than not it would be the 2nd Platoon that arrived first to help. Because of experience over time in Vietnam, I came to believe that there was no trouble that the 1st Platoon, or it and the rest of Alpha Company could not get me and the 2nd Platoon out of, so I acted accordingly on point.

All of the Alpha Company platoon leaders were very aggressive, but this was not a competition among lieutenants, rather it was an expression of our shared confidence in the men of Alpha Company, and anyway, they were as aggressive as we were. Like every airborne soldier, we were all volunteers.

When there was contact with the enemy, at least until the situation stabilized a bit, Jim and I would pretty much direct each other at first depending on the tactical situation. I would tell Jim where I needed 1st Platoon, or he would do the same for me if he was the one in contact. Captain Gaffney would listen to these conversations, try to get more information about what was going on, and talk to battalion. If Captain Gaffney heard something we said that he did not like he would intervene, but usually he just asked for more information, lined up fire support and let the situation clarify before he gave orders.

Because of movies and television, people expect a flurry of orders immediately when the bullets fly. But all those orders have pretty much been codified into battle drills that each platoon has practiced until they are second nature. Therefore, the first part of any firefight is as nearly automatic as we could make it. It is really rare that any orders were given early in a firefight in a well trained platoon.

Our radio conversations during a firefight usually consisted of:

“What do you have?”

“What do you want to do?”

“What do you want me to do?”

“What do you need?”

“Do you have any casualties?”

And my personal favorite from Gaffney:

“I can get you some air support, do you need it, or will gun ships do? Artillery is on the way. Prepare to adjust fire.”

There is just nothing like an F4 Phantom jet screaming in at about 400 miles an hour, dropping very accurate 750 lbs., High Drag, bombs, or napalm, to create a positive attitude adjustment on the part of the enemy. Awesome, just total awesomeness.

People listening in on the Charlie-Charlie (Command and Control) radio frequency during a firefight often commented how mundane, even in the most extreme circumstances, these conversations sounded, except for the hard clatter of battle in the background.

For example, one day during Tet ’68 Alpha Company was moving through the outskirts of Phan Thiet, RVN. We received heavy fire from an old, colonial French, steel-reinforced, concrete blockhouse next to a bridge. Since we had been told that the ARVN had all been pulled back to Phan Thiet, 2nd Platoon attacked immediately, and violently.

When we got to the river, across from the blockhouse I called Schlax on the radio and asked him to cross the river on the left while 2nd Platoon pinned the garrison down with fire. For some reason, he could not hear my radio transmission. So, the next thing I heard was Gaffney, I am not sure if he used the radio or not, yelling at 1st Platoon to attack left. Even so, it was not an “order” so much as: “Go Left! Go Left!” The attack part was understood.

The 1st Platoon immediately maneuvered left, forced a river crossing under heavy fire, and then attacked the blockhouse from another direction, all while the 2nd Platoon poured fire on the blockhouse. The 2nd Platoon laid down a particularly heavy base of suppressive fire, including all three M60 machine guns firing at full cyclic, 650 rounds per minute per gun, the entire time that the 1st Platoon was in the river. While all that was happening, the 1st Platoon made a picture perfect, contested river crossing under heavy fire. Then, with the continued fire support of 2nd Platoon but still under heavy fire from the blockhouse, the 1st Platoon maneuvered to an assault position close to the blockhouse, and close to the 2nd Platoon’s fire.

M-60Picture fixed

If you are exceptionally observant, or you humped the “pig”, you will have noticed the empty brass 7.62mm shell casing flying to the right of gunner’s shoulder.  This was taken under fire. Cool picture by Jerry Berry, PIO 3/506th.

It was this complex, and very difficult infantry maneuver, under heavy fire from the enemy, and using, but never masking our supporting fire, that forced the blockhouse to surrender. During the whole attack, Schlax and I had been completely unable to communicate.

We made this two platoon, attack based entirely on relying on each other’s training to know what to do, to know when to do it, and to execute. Otherwise, somebody, perhaps several somebodies, would die. Combat is not a game played with OD Nerf balls.

I really think our radios reacted more to enemy fire than we did. The number of times that the Army’s PRC-25 (Personal Radio Communicator #25) was working fine until the bullets started flying and then stopped working, was astonishing. We never figured it out, but Hal Dobie, my first RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) and then Ed Brady, my second RTO, almost habitually unfolded and attached the long antenna as soon as the first bullet cracked on its way by.

While both my RTO’s recognized that the long antenna was sort of a big “Shoot Me First” sign over their heads, we really needed to be able to communicate. So, up it went.

In spite of all the bullets and other ordnance flying around, I do not think we suffered a single casualty from the attack at the bridge. The South Vietnamese Popular Force (“PF”) platoon in the blockhouse was not so lucky even though they were in solid French designed fighting positions protected by steel reinforced concrete.

They told our interpreter, named Bong, that they were firing at VC who were attacking the blockhouse from another direction and they were very sorry that they had also fired at us by accident. I think they were sorry, particularly the wounded ones, but I was angry by then, being shot at always made me angry. Although I was not very sympathetic, we did treat and medevac their casualties.

Looking back on it now, I think the PF platoon, equivalent to our National Guard but not nearly as well-trained or equipped, were just terrified at being left out there all alone during the most violent battle of the war. They could literally see, feel and hear, the Tet Offensive exploding all around them. So, they were shooting at anything that moved. It was their bad luck that they shot at us.

What I remember most about that day was watching the 1st Platoon perfectly execute a difficult, a very complex, infantry maneuver, under heavy fire without once having ever trained to do anything like it. It was simply remarkable. Not only was it something we had never practiced; I think the only time I had only ever even seen it was watching old news reel footage of Allied attacks across the Rhine, or some other river in Germany from World War II on TV when I was a kid. However, I am not sure to this day that Schlax had even seen it done before he, and his rifle platoon, did it.

The 1st Platoon first had to actually maneuver under the 2nd Platoons’ fire as they crossed the river and then out to the side of our fire right up next to where our bullets were landing in order to get to their assault position. Schlax and his men accomplished all of this fluidly, moving under and then right around our gunfire as though they did it every day even though we could not communicate.

That remarkable display of courage in action and the 1st Platoon’s absolute trust in the 2nd Platoon’s fire discipline is what has remained with me for almost fifty years.

FourPltldrs

From right 1st Platoon Leader Jim Schlax, 2nd Platoon Leader John Harrison, 3rd Platoon Leader Len Liebler, Weapons Platoon Leader Joe Alexander. Taken on the Mall.

 

6801801 - Phan Thiet-City and Peninsuula.NE

The Ca Ty River near Phan Thiet.