Tag Archives: military operations

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

The Day The World Was on Line, and

Tom and I Got Into Another Argument

by: john harrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6802931a - Map of the 19 Feb (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alpha 6, this is Alpha 2-6. Over.”

“This is 6. Go ahead.” Tom replied.

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, Tom knew that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alpha 2-6, this is 6. Go ahead”.

“This is 2-6. Go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still don’t like banana trees much though.

A Way You’ll Never Be

A Way You’ll Never Be

by: john harrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hq-building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6802983 - Ammo Dump Destruction - Version 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

PhanThietMap

Map showing LZ Betty and the length of the runway.

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

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

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


Author’s Note

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

How To Hide Behind a Pebble

How To Hide Behind a Pebble*

by john harrison

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

6802861 - Feb 2 Pinned Down on Levy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SONY DSC

Pebbles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

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/

Tom Gaffney

Tom Gaffney

by: john harrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TomInMountains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Currahee, Tom Gaffney.

“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. 

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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.)