Tag Archives: LZ Betty

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

The Day The World Was on Line, and

Tom and I Got Into Another Argument

by: john harrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6802931a - Map of the 19 Feb (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alpha 6, this is Alpha 2-6. Over.”

“This is 6. Go ahead.” Tom replied.

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, Tom knew that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alpha 2-6, this is 6. Go ahead”.

“This is 2-6. Go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still don’t like banana trees much though.

A Way You’ll Never Be

A Way You’ll Never Be

by: john harrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hq-building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6802983 - Ammo Dump Destruction - Version 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

PhanThietMap

Map showing LZ Betty and the length of the runway.

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

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

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


Author’s Note

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

The Morning After, The Night Before

The Morning After,
The Night Before

by: john harrison

Have you ever felt like you just don’t care anymore? I have. I felt exactly like that on February 3, 1968. That was the day after I had watched Smith die.

The last time I had eaten anything had been at least 24 hours before. That was also the last time that I drank anything except lukewarm water from a plastic canteen.

It was dawn again. I had had maybe an hour of sleep after getting back late the night before. Now, it was already dawn again. Yet another hot, clear, sunny, day near the coast of the South China Sea in beautiful, but violent, South Vietnam near Phan Thiet.

I was tired, but most of all that morning, I did not want to go over the Company CP. There were three bodies at the CP, all neatly lined up in a row, each wrapped tightly in an O-D poncho now. We had brought them in the night before, or more accurately earlier that same morning. I did not want to see them again. Not that way, I did not want to look at them. I wanted to remember them how they had been; how they had been before, not the way they were now.

So, I rubbed the sleep out of my bloodshot eyes and started to make some real Army cocoa the way my Platoon Sergeant, Jim Bunn had taught me. Take one canteen cup about three quarters full of water, put it on a homemade, little stove over a heat tab, add two packs of cocoa, four packs of powdered coffee, three packs of powdered creme and two sugars. Actually, Jim usually used at least three or sometimes even four sugars, but that made it way too sweet for me.

Before I added the first of the packets to the water, I took the white plastic spoon out of the pen slot in my fatigue shirt so I could stir them into the water that I had already started heating up in my canteen cup with the heat tab. As I did that, I looked around the perimeter for the first time that morning.

Our Company Commander that day was Tom Gaffney. His first war had been in Korea. There he had endured human wave attacks by both the North Koreans and the Chinese. You don’t forget that. So, when Tom Gaffney picked a night defensive position it always, and I mean it always, had good visibility in every direction. If you wanted visibility, you could not do better than where we were set up right then. We were arranged around the inside of a dry rice paddy, in the middle of a huge field of dry rice paddies. We had great fields of fire and good visibility in every direction. It was a true, a perfect Tom Gaffney night defensive position.

Alpha Company had the southern half of the perimeter and Bill Landgraff’s Bravo Company had the northern half. However, I had no doubt that Tom Gaffney had picked the site all by himself. It had his ideas of how to fight a war written all over it. Captain Landgraff’s company had come in late in the afternoon the day before to reinforce us, and then had stayed with us later in the night defensive position. We had trained together in the states, so we knew that they were good too, but Tom Gaffney had picked our position. In my military mind, there was no doubt of that at all.

The dinks started shooting at us right about then, just about when I had finished looking around the perimeter was when first bullets flew. It was probably some of the same guys that had followed us back from the Blue House the night before. While it was automatic fire, it was probably all just AK-47s, not real machine-guns so they had to stop now and then to reload. There were at least two of them, and probably three, firing from somewhere in a tree line several hundred yards to our north.

The guys from Bravo Company returned fire immediately. The guys from Alpha Company jumped over the rice paddy dike we were behind on the southern half of the perimeter to put it between them and the incoming bullets from the north. Alpha Company did not return fire since we would have been shooting directly over Bravo Company.

People who have never been shot at do not know what it means to be shot at, to have an excellent weapon in your hands, plenty of ammunition, but to elect not to return that fire because firing back might endanger your friends. That is real discipline. These paras were all pros. Both Bravo and Alpha companies, 3/506, 101st Airborne Division, aka, the Bastard Battalion. All of us flat knew our business of war by then.

Everybody on the south side of the perimeter had jumped over the paddy dike, all except me. I stayed inside the original perimeter beside my little tin stove that was still heating my Jim Bunn cocoa. I did lay down, and I did put my helmet on.

I figured that Bravo Company could fight this battle for me. I was done fighting for a while. I had had enough of war right then. I was tired. I was thirsty for that cocoa and I had used my last heat tablet to heat it. I was not going to let it go to waste just to sit safe on the other side of that dike and watch my Jim Bunn cocoa sit on my stove and grow cold. Being a little safer was not worth more than that cocoa was to me right then. I had thought that I didn’t care anymore, but I found I did care. I cared about that cocoa. Besides, at first most of the bullets weren’t coming that close.

From the other side of the dike, I think it was Melgaard, my medic, that asked me if I was hit. I told him no, I was fine. I was just waiting there for my cocoa to heat up. No need to worry about me. I was fine, perfect.

There were little puffs of dust springing up all over the middle of the perimeter. Each one was a bullet strike. However, the VC were just pretty much spraying their weapons when they fired, not aiming them like we would have. At first, it looked like they were trying to hit the three bodies wrapped in ponchos in the center. At least that was where most of their bullets were going.

The only things left inside the perimeter were Bravo Company, spread out, but staying covered, close behind their dike on the north side as they returned fire, the three bodies wrapped up tight in ponchos laying out in the open in the center of the perimeter. And then there was me, laying down, sort of on the south side, waiting for my cocoa to finish heating.

Even with all of the return fire that Bravo Company was putting out, the VC were still firing back steadily from that tree line to the north. When the VC finished firing up the three ponchos I could see that they were now trying for me. It was getting to be, time to go.

Just for a minute though, laying there, I actually felt a little sorry for the VC or NVA or whoever it was that was shooting at us. They did not know Tom Gaffney like I did, but I knew that they would, and soon.

After they had started firing, it only took about a minute or so until my Jim Bunn cocoa was finished heating. When it was, I grabbed it and my rifle and joined my platoon on the other side of the dike. That was the safer side of the southern rice paddy dike of our perimeter. I looked up, back over the dike, carefully sipped my hot cocoa, and waited for the Tom Gaffney show to begin.

I did not have long to wait, right after I looked back over the dike, came the first artillery explosions along that tree line to the north. Tom had registered the artillery on the tree line the night before while we were gone on a night patrol to retrieve the three bodies of our friends. Tom almost always registered artillery before going to sleep. For him, it was sort of like: wait till dusk turned out most of the light, drop a few artillery smoke shells to register the guns, wait as the rest of the light turns out and then sleep well, sleep like a baby even.

Vietnam_War_Artillery

File Photo

So there were no ranging shots to acquire their target that morning; it started as airbursts, probably at least a battery six of airbursts. A battery six means that each cannon in the battery is fired as fast as possible six times. There are six cannons in a battery. Each 105 mm shell weighs almost 20 pounds and is stuffed full of cyclonite (RDX), T-N-T, or 50-50 T-N-T mixed with Amatol, with the explosive comprising about one half the weight of the shell. That means about 720 pounds of high explosives and steel shards of shrapnel were raining down on the VC, creating Hell on earth in that tree line.

Good morning Vietnam!

It started sort of like the biggest 4th of July celebration ever, but then it got even more serious as our Forward Observer, Bob Richardson, walked those artillery strikes up and down that tree line, airbursts mixed now with ground bursts. Thunderous noise, billowing smoke and red fire, schooling the VC on the awesome power and accuracy of American artillery. Bob played that tree line with artillery strikes like Ringo Starr played the drums for the Beatles—he played it hard and he played it well.

Steel rain—how do you like it now?

By the time Bob Richardson had walked the artillery up and down the tree line a couple of times, gunships arrived from the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company at LZ Betty. Tiger Shark lead was on the horn asking Tom for targeting information. They were on station, ready to come in hot when the artillery was done tearing the place up.

As I laid there, watching the fireworks show and sipping my cocoa, I thought that it was a shame that Jim Bunn couldn’t see it too. It was truly a remarkable performance by our Artillery Forward Observer, Bob Richardson. Stunningly beautiful really, as well as massively violent. Soon we would even have the rockets red glare from the two Tiger Shark gunships joining in as well.

Like me and Tom Gaffney, Jim Bunn loved American artillery. We all loved gunships too. Gunship pilots are almost as crazy as Dustoff pilots, and with all that ordnance on board, they are much more fun to watch. Bunn and his two buddies, Phillip Chassion and John Smith had the best seats in the house, but the ponchos they were wrapped in blocked their view—forever.

bunn

Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO.

Author’s Note

The day before is described in my articles, The Day Smith Died  https://johneharrison.wordpress.com/2014/05/26/the-day-smith-died/ and also in Cone of Violence  https://johneharrison.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/cone-of-violence/

Sample- The Special Patient, a love story

by john harrison

The large mud and wattle house with a traditional grass roof was burning fiercely. It had been the dry season for a long time and that helped the fire. They had started the fire with a standard red railroad flare held to the grass roof around the edges and then tossed the flare on top. The small Vietnamese man was very excited. He was gesturing wildly with both arms, but it was all too late. They had found arms in his house, so his home was burning. You could feel it, and smell it as you watched it disappear.

The American soldiers had already moved on in a classic open infantry formation. They were ready to fight in any direction. The young officer in charge of the platoon, named Marty Stone, moved them around to the left around a grave yard and toward a small house next to a big blue house.

The lead squad moved carefully through the trees, brush and cover to the left of the graveyard. The graves had mounded up earth on top in serried rows not unlike a military formation Stone reflected as they warily walked by.

Stone’s platoon cautiously walked up to the smaller house to the left of the big blue house. As they approached, a young man came out of the small house dressed in black pajamas. Actually he was pulling on the pajama bottoms as he walked. He was not wearing anything except the pajama bottoms and they seemed to be too big for him. They kept sliding off his hips. He seemed nervous, but anyone in this country of military age and in good physical shape was probably nervous at the approach of soldiers from either side.

There was a lone machine-gun firing off in the distance to the West and a full scale battle going on to the South. Stone and probably all of his men immediately recognized the machine-gun as an American M-60. The noise to the South was indistinct.

Some more people came out of the small house. There was also an old woman, her lips were stained blood-red by constantly chewing beetle nut, a mild natural narcotic. She would be the grandmother.  The beetle nut, when chewed, is a mild narcotic that is used almost exclusively by older people in Vietnam. As a grandmother she was entitled.

A young woman and some kids of various ages came out of the small house next. The old red mouthed grandmother and the young woman and kids stood together almost as a group, but the thin well muscled young man stood apart. The kids seemed excited by the soldiers, by their guns, and by the casual yet definite sense of purpose they displayed.

The American soldiers were young, but they were paras and they knew their business. These paras knew that they did not have to be cruel to be effective. War was already cruel enough and in any event being cruel did not make you any better or tougher, it just took longer. The young American paras were very practical, not cruel, selectively deadly, not random at all in their killing.

“Take you fire-team and check that house.” Stone said to a sergeant standing near him. He pointed to a big blue house next to the small house that the people had just come out of. The other fire-team from the squad was already going into the small house in front.

“Then set up there, until we move out again.”

“Roger L-T.” the sergeant replied and motioned to his fire-team to move out.  So far that day it had been quiet for them, but there were battles exploding all around them. So they were being careful.

The firing to the West picked up in intensity. Now explosions and heavy small arms fire joined the M60 machine-gun.

The rest of the platoon, staying more or less in formation, set up a perimeter anchored by the two houses in front. Stone sat down with his back to a small tree and took out a pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes. He offered one to his radio operator and then lit one for himself.

The Vietnamese family was lined up against the small house near its back door. The young man was closest to the door way. Stone watched the fire team walking toward the big blue house. As he did, he leaned back against the tree and closed his eyes, just for a moment to relax.

“Jesus Christ!” Stone said as the air around him filled with bullets, shrapnel and noise.

Automatically Stone flipped over to his knees and looked over at the big blue house where the fire team had gone. All he could see there was the big blue house and dust from bullets slamming into it from many directions. He reached back and his RTO (Radio telephone Operator) slapped the black plastic radio hand set into his palm.  .  .

Sometimes you can tell the truth better in fiction. The link below takes you to the rest of this short story. It is only available on Amazon in Kindle. What you have read so far is the lead up to a story about an Army nurse and her “special patient”. It is a romance, because even in war there can be love. This is only a sample, just the first part of the Kindle short story “The Special Patient”. If you have enjoyed this preview and want to find out what happens next, you may read the rest at:

http://www.amazon.com/Special-Patient-story-Women-Without-ebook/dp/B0169GQYYE/ref=la_B016FSEKQ0_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1445175114&sr=1-3

“Fix Bayonets”

“Fix Bayonets”

by: john harrison

If you want a chill to run up and down your spine, think of the order: 

“Fix bayonets!” 

Let that short phrase roll around in your brain for a while. It will pick up some speed as it does. Then, remember that an M-16 rifle is all of 44.25 inches long when it has an M-7 bayonet attached to its end. Said another way, it is a little less than four feet long. 

M16W:M7Bayonet

If you do the math, and you understand the function of a bayonet, you will also understand that the immediate reason for fixing bayonets is for you to put yourself, on purpose, within less than three feet of your equally well-armed enemy. At which point the idea is for you to shove all of the M-7 bayonet’s 6.75 inches of solid carbon steel blade into the body of your enemy, preferably into his heart or some other vital, i.e., blood drenched, organ.

Do you feel the chill yet?

The M-7 bayonet is based on several earlier bayonet designs, all of which are direct descendants of the World War II, M-3 Fighting Knife. Like the M-3 Fighting Knife, the M-7 Bayonet has a spear-point blade fully sharpened on one side and with a half sharpened, 3 inch long, secondary edge on the other. It can be a wicked weapon when sharp, even more so on the end of a rifle. 

I have given that order, “Fix Bayonets!”, only once in combat. Giving that order sent a chill right down my spine then, and every time since then, when I have just thought of those two words, it is the same chill. There are some things that you cannot forget.

After being out on a long search and destroy mission Alpha Company secured an extraction LZ early one morning in the dry rice paddies near Phan Thiet on the coast of South Vietnam. However, while the rest of Alpha Company choppered out of the field later that morning, the Second Platoon stayed behind. 

We stayed behind to set up an ambush on the LZ that Alpha Company had just left. There was a stream bed on the southern border of the LZ. Like most stream beds everywhere in the world, the vegetation was much thicker there. So we literally just hid in the bushes along that stream, and waited.

We did not have long to wait. Two VC, both armed, both wearing black pajamas, tan ammo belts, and the tan, rice farmer’s, conical, palm bamboo-plated, leaf hats strolled out into the LZ minutes after the helicopters had left. Quietly, we got ready. I had prepared an M-72, LAW to fire at them as the signal for the rest of the platoon to open fire.

When they were about halfway across the LZ I fired the LAW at the rice paddy dike the two VC were walking just on the other side of. I intended for the 66 mm LAW rocket to detonate against the dike, and then the shrapnel from the rocket blast would blow through the dike and into them. 

War is a mean business.

As soon as I fired the rocket and everybody opened up, I called for gun ship support, call sign “Tiger Shark” from the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company based at LZ Betty just outside of Phan Thiet. There was some return fire, but it stopped just before the gun ships arrived. The gun ships fired up the LZ with machine guns since they did not see a target worthy of their rockets, but they did a through job with those machine-guns for us. They knew as well as we did of the VC’s seeming ability to hide under even a small leaf. So they shredded that rice paddy with bullets and then they did it again.

PhanThietMap

As soon as the gun ships were done firing we moved out from the protection of the creek bed to see what the result was of our stay behind ambush. Just on the other side of that rocket blasted paddy dike, we found a simple, white cotton, brassiere with a lot of blood on one side and some blood on the ground as well, but that was all we found. No bodies, no blood trail, but at least one somebody had been hit hard. The stay behind ambush had worked.

We looked around in expanding concentric circles to see if we could find a blood trail, but after a while we gave up. You always drop the rucksas soon as the bullets fly because they get in the way. So, we were on the way back to the stream bed to pick up our rucks, when we were suddenly fired up from another stream bed to our right. 

2ndPltInRicePaddy copy

Second Platoon in an open column formation moving over a dry rice paddy outside of Phan Thiet, RVN. This was taken a month or so earlier. Notice how everybody is looking in a different direction, carrying their weapons in their hands, doing it right. These guys were real pros. Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO

In response to the automatic rifle fire from our flank, the second platoon moved into an immediate action, battle drill and came up on a line firing together, everybody facing the enemies’ fire.

I waited for a moment trying to figure out who had fire superiority, us or them. It seemed to me that we did, but then one of our M-60s unexpectedly stopped firing. I waved everybody down and ran down the firing line to see what was going on with that machine gun. They had not been shooting at us as much until that machine gun shut down, but their firing picked right up again when the machine gun went down.

I took the gun away from the gunner, opened the bolt and shook out the cartridge belt from the feed tray. The gunner poured some white LSA, a really incredible gun lubricant, all over the bolt and feed system and then replaced the cartridge belt carefully in the feed tray.

I jacked the charging handle. Then, I fired the M-60 on full cyclic for a full, hundred-round, belt of ammo. That took the M-60 about 10 seconds or less to fire. The machine gun worked fine for that, but immediately after that it jammed again when I tried firing a second belt of ammunition. 

Bang, bang, jam. Not good. The first two bangs—gets their attention—makes them angry—tells them where you are—tells them that you are a machine-gun—tells them where to fire an RPG. Not good, but nothing I could do about it right now. 

I told the gunner to clear the new jam and then wait for my signal. I ran back to the center of the firing line, blew my whistle and then gave the command:

“Fix bayonets!”

I was waiting for the machine gunner to be ready. Near me an F-N-G2 rifleman turned to his fire team leader and said:

“Bayonet? I don’t have a bayonet! Wait! What do I do? Wait!” the rifleman said.

“Don’t worry, nobody has a bayonet. Just get ready to go.” His fire team leader said. 

“Charge!” I said.

Everybody got up, shooting fast, and screaming our heads off as we ran toward those bastards that were still shooting at us. That M-60 was talking lead again, full cyclic, trigger held down, assistant gunner slapping on more hundred-round, cartridge belts on the run. He knew he couldn’t let it stop firing.

Damn their fire! We flat out charged their guns.

However, by the time we got to the stream bed they were firing from, the VC were gone. No bodies. No blood. No blood trails. No bloody clothing this time. Nothing.

Best of all though as far as I was concerned, there were no casualties for us either. A tripped ambush and a firefight in less than an hour, just another day in the boonies for the Second Platoon, Alpha Company, 3/506th (Airborne) Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. 

It turned out that of about 34 men in the Second Platoon that day, there were only 2 or 3 bayonets in the whole platoon. For almost everything, except being stuck on the end of a rifle, a real knife is much more useful than a bayonet, so few paras carried them in the field. Line doggiesare utterly ruthless about the weight that we carry. 

After we throughly checked out the stream bed, we headed back again for our rucks.

Probably in recognition of the success of the stay behind ambush, Alpha Company choppered out to the LZ several ammo boxes full of cans of Coca Cola that had been ice cold when they left Phan Thiet. I got one. Everybody got one.

I enjoyed that Coke. I smoked a Pall Mall cigarette and sat there beside the stream in the shade leaning against my ruck. I drank the Coke slowly even though it was getting warmer all the time. I tasted that Coke like I have never tasted anything before or since. It surprised me how good it was.

Only afterwards, did I realize that I had never in my life truly tasted a Coca Cola. That was one of many things that, prior to going to Vietnam, I did not know. Good to know I guess.

Then, I wondered what sent a chill down a VC’s spine? I expect there were lots of things, gun ships, F-4 Phantoms, M-60s, and probably most of all—us. We scared ’em—you betcha.


(1) “Ruck” = ruck sack or back pack, aka our house on our back.

(2) “F-N-G” = F – – – – – – New Guy.

(3) “Line Doggie”. A nickname for an infantryman on the line in Vietnam. The nickname probably relates back in some way to the famous Cheyenne Dog Soldiers of the Old West. They were ferocious fighters that fought as infantry usually. A “Line Doggie” is the opposite of a “REMF”. (“REMF” = Rear Eschelon Mother F – – – – -, that famous, all purpose “F” word again.)

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.