Tag Archives: South Vietnam

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.

SFC James Albert Bunn

SFC James Albert Bunn

by john harrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bunn

The 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/

A Vietnam Tale

A Vietnam Tale

by: RonFord

Part one, Training

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

Part two, War

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

Part Three, Home Coming

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

Part four, Evaluation

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

Ron Ford
101st Airborne
VN 67-68

The Wall

The Wall

by: RonFord

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

Ron Ford
CURRAHEE
101st Airborne
Vietnam 67-68