Tag Archives: Combat

“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.

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.

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

Dog Bites Man, Man Bites Back

Dog Bites Man, Man Bites Back

by john harrison

Two items of interest, both almost hidden in the news this morning (4/28/2016). People Magazine and other sources are reporting that Harvard has fielded the first openly transgender man to compete in NCAA Division 1 sports. The second is that a House Committee has passed legislation requiring women to register for the draft.

The law of unintended consequences is about to bite back hard. While it may well be true that it would would be strange even for an adolescent male to claim female gender identity just to peek at women in the bathroom, it goes way to far not to recognize that there are a lot of second tier male athletes that could make a lot of money, get into a lot of colleges that would otherwise be closed, if they competed in college level sports as a woman. A transgender competing as a man just opened that door.

While Bobby Riggs lost a famous tennis match against Billie Jean King years ago, nonetheless he could have made a lot of money playing as a woman on the woman’s tennis tour. Others will see this as an opportunity and act on it. All of the advances women have made in sports due to Title 9 are now at risk. Think if Caitlyn Jenner competed, probably even today.

The opening of the draft to women is the logical result of opening all combat positions in the armed services to women. While some expected that putting women in combat positions would lead to the end of the draft for everybody, the exact opposite is now moving forward in Congress.

The House Armed Services Committee approved legislation requiring women to register for the draft. In 1981 the Supreme Court ruled that since women were banned from combat positions anyway, it was not discriminatory to require only men to register for the draft. Anyone with knowledge of that case recognized that opening combat positions to women placed young women at risk of being drafted for those same positions.

It may still happen that that the draft will be abolished rather than add women to the lists. On the other hand we live in a dangerous world; we are in a shooting war in at least some sense in the Middle East already; but our armed force strength is relatively low and going lower. People think that the draft was instituted to raise large armies and in part that is true, but most of all it was created to deliver reliably the exact number of men that could be trained at any given time. It does not overstate the case to say that in the future a president may well be faced with the horrific choice of either bringing back the draft for everybody or to go nuclear on the battlefield.

The two leading presidential candidates who will deal with these important issues for all of us are Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Donald Trump. I for one am more sanguinary than sanguine about our prospects.

On Going To War

On Going To War

by: john harrison

Several of my former students at Bishop O’Connell High School have asked me about serving in the military. In particular the ones that are soon to be commissioned, but also some now already in the service want to know more about my experience with  leading men in combat who in many cases are much older than they are, and are certainly much more experienced than they are. Understandably, the ones headed to Iraq or Afghanistan are always very concerned about how they will react to combat, to battle. This is what I have told them.

I was commissioned at 20 years old. My Platoon Sergeant, Jim Bunn, was 34 at the time. Not only did he have many years of experience in the Army, he had already been to Vietnam. How then do you become the “leader” of such men?

It gets worse, while I had completed a year and a half of college. One of the men in my platoon, a Specialist 4, had two masters degrees. While that is not as likely in today’s all volunteer Army, you will still constantly have people serving under you who are smarter than you are, and who know more about what they are doing than you do. How do you deal with that and remain the leader?

What I had was years of study of military history and even more important I had Officer Candidate School or OCS. I was also very lucky in the men around me, both above me and below, and in the Army’s system of command. One of the things that you will realize very quickly as a junior officer is that in spite of ignorance in some areas, there are still many things that you know that no one else in the platoon knows no matter what their experience or age. More important, you are their platoon leader, and this makes all the difference. 

While it is the real job of a platoon sergeant to train his platoon leader without the platoon leader knowing, that does not mean he knows everything. The platoon sergeant may never have actually called in an airstrike, or artillery, or dust-off. He may know a lot about how to make C-Rations (MRE’s ancestor) palatable in the field, or how to motivate young men, but he may never have had a chance to research a subject overnight sufficient to give a good class on it the next day and about lots of other things that a platoon leader must be able to do.

There are all sorts of parts to the job of being a good platoon leader. At first there are some you will be good at and some you will suck at. However, it is still without question, the all-time, best job I have ever had, 2nd Lieutenant, Infantry, Platoon Leader.

You are expected to make mistakes, but your men, and in particular your platoon sergeant want you to be good at your job. They want to laugh at the other guy’s lieutenant, not their lieutenant. In a good platoon they will help you, they will also try to hide your mistakes from those above, and you will make a lot of mistakes. If you listen, particularly to your platoon sergeant, they will help you to act correctly, but the decisions and the responsibility for those decisions will always be yours.

I was very lucky. My first battalion commander, Col. John P. Geraci, was good enough to be recently enshrined in the Ranger Hall of Fame, my first First Sergeant, MSg Theron “Bull” Gergen was already a celebrity in the world of Rangers when I met him and was one of the first enshrined there. Cap. Thomas Gaffney was my first CO, but it was his second war. I had competence and hard won experience all around me. As I said my Platoon Sergeant, Jim Bunn had only recently returned from Vietnam when he joined the platoon. You may have to search for it, but real experience is available if you look.

However, you still need to be careful because some people seem to feel feel that they are building themselves up when they are tearing others down.  While only a moron would believe that this is true, or useful, these people exist in every service. They are the beetles of doubt. Avoid them. 

Hazing for example does not prove you are tough, it proves that you are undisciplined.  Any officer or NCO that lets himself or the men under his command be hazed should be fired, plain and simple.  If I saw it. I would relieve the officer or NCO on the spot, and so would any competent officer.  Why, because hazing has nothing to do with making people better. It has everything to do with allowing some people to feel superior by abusing their authority.  Those kinds of people should not have authority.

Multiple tours proves nothing.  Assuming they are trained, the best soldiers in history were generally pretty good the first time they fought and got better thereafter.  But, everyone has a limit, too.  If you go to war often enough, you will be killed, and over time when men recognize this, it changes them. In any event what did they do during those tours? What happened during those tours? What did they experience, besides just being there?

Even participation in a big battle prove nothing.  As far as the individual infantryman is concerned, a big battle is when they individually have to fight as hard as they can to stay alive.  A squad can undergo as much or more in a single squad action as they would in a big battle that perhaps makes the history books, or the evening news.  In any event, a squad in a big battle might be pulling the shit burning detail the whole time.  While they would know a lot about burning shit, their actual knowledge of battle would be limited. What did they do in that battle? How is it relevant now?

That said, everyone needs to be shot at the first time and they are different thereafter because then they are a veteran.  They know something about them self that others do not know about themselves. When I say shot at, I mean exactly that, not riding around in a truck when a bomb goes off, or sitting in a bunker at a base camp under attack, but out in the field in a combat infantry platoon, or tank squadron fighting an enemy that is trying to kill you, and that is pretty good at it. Then you are a real combat veteran. It is your reaction to the enemy fire that is important, not so much the fire itself. 

The stuff I have read about actions Iraq and Afghanistan, leads me to believe that very few of those who have served in these regions are actually what I would call “combat veterans”.  But, that was also true of Vietnam and every other American war.  There were less than 60,000 trigger pullers in Vietnam when there were over 550,000 troops there.  Probably about 90% of the jobs are still held by REMFs. 

We need the people in the rear, so while I have pulled their chain, I am not really deprecating them, but they are not infantry/tanker/artillery veterans no matter what their MOS.  No matter how many tours they served unless it was in a unit that actually fought the enemy they are not combat veterans. It is doing an infantryman’s job under fire, not just being under fire, that is important.

Anyone in the military who has not been in actual combat wonders how they will react when the bullets fly.  Unfortunately, there is only one way to find out.  Generally after the first jitters are over the problem is not a lack of courage, but actually an excess of bravery.  It needs to be tempered.  Green troops often take too many risks and thereby suffer too many casualties. 

One of the things I was always proud of was that while my platoon suffered a lot of casualties, they were spread over multiple actions over several months.  We did not do stupid, we killed the right people and in general did not allow them to kill us. 

In a sense combat is very much like basketball in that it is a team sport.  Anybody not working on building the team, making the team better has no place in the military.  Anybody who is putting down a fellow soldier, rather than sharing hard earned experience probably has little real experience to share and is not a real soldier however many tours they may have.

It is not how many doors did they kick down, but how many doors did they kick down that had an enemy inside with a machine gun pointed at the door. What did they do then? What did the man covering the entry do? Those are the real questions.

As far as how good is the Army of today, I do not know, but I would be very surprised if they are not better than in Vietnam and WW II if only because they are much better educated.   For example, less than half of the Marines in WW II had a high school degree now almost all do. Education does make a difference.

While being an “infantryman” is easy, being a good infantryman that can go upon today’s very lethal battlefields with a reasonable expectation of both accomplishing your mission and coming back is a rather more difficult proposition. It takes brains. It takes the ability to learn and apply skills that many times you do not even know you have. It takes courage, both the courage to act and the courage not to act even though you may know down deep in you soul that all you want in the world right then is to be able to do one thing, just one thing. However, you do not do that one thing, you do what you are supposed to do instead. When you have done that, you are a combat Infantryman.   

Being really good Infantry is a learned skill.  It is not easy. It is not simple.  It is not just issuing a guy a rifle and expecting them to know what they are doing.  There are a lot of little things that make the difference between living and dying. If you do not know those little things and do not do them almost as second nature then you are not very likely to survive. It is really that simple.

Audi Murphy, the most decorated soldier in World War II was a farm boy. As was Medal of Honor winning Sgt. Alvin York from World War I. In training, the Army only spends relatively a few hours on the rifle range and shoots relatively a few rounds. In the past America was famous for fielding armies of men that could shoot and shoot well. However, that was mostly because they brought that skill with them to the service.

My brother is a former Marine and an excellent pistol shot. He says that it takes about 5,000 rounds to make a really good pistol shot. It is not likely that you will have the opportunity to shoot that much in the military. In addition, today with the demonization of guns in America very few have had any experience with guns when they enter the service. You will not be getting a platoon full of Alvin Yorks and Audi Murphys. Most of them will not be able to shoot that well at first, and some may even be afraid of the weapon that they carry. That could get them, and you killed.

If you are going to teach other men how to shoot, you need to know yourself. Volunteer for range duty every chance you get. Hang out with people that know how to shoot. It may literally save your life and the lives of men in your platoon. Go to the range. Shoot. Listen. Learn. Practice. Shoot.

The next point is a little more difficult but no less important. While it is necessary to be able to hit a target, it is even more necessary to identify that target first. Both Murphy and York were boyhood hunters. You cannot buy that experience; you cannot even train it; you must experience it and that takes time. Make the time.

Whenever I walk outside to this day, I look for good machine-gun positions, good sniper positions. I look for places I would hide, or I would hide my platoon even though I have not led a platoon in 50 years. However, if you have ever been shot at in the military you will do it too, and you will do it for the rest of your life. Strangely, my wife Sandy, who has never hunted, sees far more than I do when we walk in the woods, so it is a talent as well as a craft that can be practiced. Either way, practice it. You will be surprised at what you see, at how much better you get.

I always felt that I was extraordinarily lucky in the Army.  My battalion trained together as a unit for 6 months before we deployed.  The battalion CO, Col. Geraci, was a Marine in World War II, an Army platoon leader in in Korea, and had already served two tours in Special Forces A teams in Vietnam before he was our commander.  My company commander, Cap. Gaffney, had earned a battlefield commission in Korea, was riffed back to sergeant, made Sergeant Major in Special Forces, served in “A” Teams in Vietnam, and then came back as a Captain to take us to Vietnam. I have already mentioned our First Sergeant, Bull Gergen and my Platoon Sergeant Jim Bunn. These were all men that you could learn from.

And when we were done training, I thought we could kick anybody’s ass which is probably why I once attacked a Mainforce VC battalion with my platoon. Kicked their asses too even though we could not destroy them. Too many to kill, although we and the United States Air Force did our level best all day one day trying to kill them all.

You are not really feeling inadequate if you feel doubt about your ability to fit in to this life.  You are feeling being untested, and you will feel that way until you are shot at doing your job.  It is an essential part of the job. And, while you are correct now that you are untested, after that you will be a veteran, a combat veteran.

I think that the most important thing that I could tell you is to be prepared to improvise. We spent almost all of our time training on how to patrol, on doing ambushes and counter ambush drills, and most of all on how to fight in the jungle. However, we spent almost all of our time actually fighting, doing it in the cities during Tet ‘68. The two have little in common.

Nobody in the battalion had ever done what the Army called then, Fighting In a Built-up Area. Nobody in the battalion was an expert at it when we first did it. I actually used more ideas that I got from watching Victory At Sea and other WW II documentaries as a kid than I did from my Army training. The one thing I learned is that if it works, it is not a stupid idea. In Vietnam we used to take our helmets off, hold them up and move them around for the enemy to shoot at so we could find out where they were hiding. It worked, because unlike us, they had not watched hours of cowboy shows and war movies. If it works, do it, then do it again.

As I said, the best job I have ever had in my life was that of being a second lieutenant, infantry, platoon leader. Best job by far. In that I envy you.  Good luck.

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